Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2022

The 7th edition of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival returns with a huge line-up of features, shorts and events. To find out more about the full line-up, please head to the webpage.

Features

The features line-up includes festival favourites like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Knocking and Hellbender (links to reviews below), along with a screening of 1996 film Kissed. In addition, the line-up also boasts films like You Are Not My Mother, Here Before and Good Madam (Mlungu Wam) all offering intriguing premises about motherhood, care and loss.

Shorts

The shorts programming for Final Girls Berlin Film Festival is always incredible and for the last two years numerous films I have seen as part of this festival have ended up in my favourite short films of the year. This year looks to be following in the tradition of screening a wide variety of rich, textured films that foreground the experience and talents of women and non-binary filmmakers. Incorporating some blocks based on some of the seven deadly sins as well as returning themes like Social Ills, there is sure to be something for everyone.

Events

The festival always includes some excellent events, featuring wonderful horror academics, talks and other media. 2022 is no exception, including a book launch for Bloody Women, talks on Black and Queer horror, an examination on the use of the ugly in horror and even a fanzine workshop.

For more information please check out the webpage and get your tickets soon!

Last Radio Call

Last Radio Call is a mixed bag with elements that don’t always gel.

Synopsis: On June 30th, 2018, Officer David Serling went missing inside an undisclosed abandoned hospital. Using his recovered body cam footage, his wife attempts to piece together what happened to him on that horrible night.

The recent Found Footage Phenomenon documentary went some way to articulate the strengths of found footage in its ability to exploit the immediacy of technology and the zeitgeist. Last Radio Call, as a result, is at its best when exploring the conspiracy elements, drawn from the body-cam technology we’ve all become accustomed to seeing on the news, but falters as it strays further from it.

Sarah Serling is a woman on a mission: find out what happened to her husband David, following his disappearance. To do so, she enlists the help of a documentary team and sets to work uncovering the truth. This framing sets up a mockumentary-style format for the film which is effective in the early stages, at least. The initial body-cam footage spanning the hallways of the hospital does call to mind the aesthetic of films like Grave Encounters. These sequences are pretty effective for the most part and while the film occasionally can’t resist the temptation to go for the easy, loud jolts it is pretty much what you expect from this kind of thing.

As clips begin to leak online, Sarah is drawn further into the mystery. The additions of other audio and visual material work well to build upon the initial disappearance footage while keeping within that mockumentary setting. Unfortunately, there comes a time when this additional material begins to take over, featuring an extended sequence intended to segue into a new section and add depth that starts to make the film’s lean 1 hour and 15 minute run time drag a little. That direction feels a little unconvincing, although does result in the film getting to indulge in some striking imagery.

Last Radio Call also suffers from the same issue as many found footage films and that is the point at which cameras should be off. The film skirts around this well, for the most part, even nodding at it explicitly in a moment that caused a laugh for me as it reflects something we’ve all yelled at the screen in our time. However, the erratic construction of the documentary section is a struggle to stay engaged with, often interrupted by an on-screen caption to notify us that Sarah has fallen out of contact. That break from the overall purpose does call into question why the filmmakers are continuing without the personal attachment driving it.

It is a shame that the film can’t sustain the palpable paranoia of the first section and although the move to add more to it is commendable, it complicates without deepening either the scare factor or the connection to the characters.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Last Radio Call is out now on digital/VOD and on the Terror Films Channel.

Menopause

An interesting idea gives way to a muted and misdirected satire.

Synopsis: A solar eclipse turns the women of a New Jersey Town into enraged, psychopaths.

The opening, frenzied sequence of a woman dramatically stabbing a man, lets Menopause set a tone for itself that matches the film’s description, but also one that it struggles to sustain. The cut from this into a throaty, breathy cover of The House of the Rising Sun probably better illustrates the kind of film to follow. Despite the initial exploitation look and feel, Menopause relies far more on dialogue, arguably to its detriment, resulting in a film that feels like it is straining to be bigger, but can’t quite get there.

The explosive first scene gives way to far more explanation and setup than would usually be expected of this kind of film. In a way, that is admirable, allowing characters to emerge and allow their plights to become more meaningful to the audience. Unfortunately, many characters are overwritten and given to quoting swathes of ‘did you know’ factoids that outstay their welcome. Although this is a satire, the broad characters and this unnatural style of speaking blocks a connection to the characters and definitely has an impact on some performances. Certainly, some elements feel reductive beyond the realms of satire.

At first, the addition of numerous characters feels superfluous but as everything unfolds this does give it a sense of scale as the effects of the eclipse begin to take hold. It also allows the film to explore the variety of reactions to those effects. Eschewing the practice of having everyone overcome by the effect and losing their existing feelings as some would, Menopause instead retains elements from the character build. It is, after all, far more interesting to consider the impact on a happy couple than one at odds so it is buoying to see this feature.

Ultimately, a few of the film’s flaws come from its limitations and while effects are not everything, some of the violence here lacks impact in order to work around the available effects. This is no surprise for a low-budget production and certainly there is a lot of creativity behind creating these, but it does somewhat dull the overall impact. Still, independent productions like this one are sure to develop and expand into evermore polished efforts with great ideas as a promising starting point.

Arguably a film that will land better with those not expecting an all-out action-packed gorefest, Menopause has an interesting idea at its heart.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

Menopause will be released by BayView Entertainment.

11pm

This British short film makes the most of what it has to an overall disquieting effect.

Synopsis: 11PM is the average time when adults go to sleep. It is also the time, according to missing persons data, that most disappearances occur.

Starting with preamble text that sets out 11pm as a time that most adults go to sleep and also the time at which most disappearances take place, there is an immediate sense of dread created in 11pm. This is furthered by the film using a countdown device across its just under 30-minute run time – as the clock creeps closer to 11pm the film holds its cards close to its chest in terms of where it is going.

To some extent, this withholding of information goes on for slightly too long, with all the characters and settings feeling ever more disparate and disconnected as it progresses. At times, this feels drawn out and a tad directionless. That sense of fragmentation does contribute to the themes of isolation throughout the piece, which are not exactly subtle. One character narrates the plot of Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life to two other characters in an example of how unsubtle this gets at times. That said, giving the discussion this kind of anchor does contribute to some very naturalistic performances.

The use of black and white is very effective, even more so when scenes are lit largely only by available light. A man stood alone illuminated only by the glare of his mobile phone, for example, is the kind of image that the film really succeeds in creating that tone. The stillness of a street is disrupted by a sudden camera swing, only to settle again on the emptiness of the next street. All this builds tension up to a satisfying if slightly more abrupt conclusion. The use of different types of cameras, from those surveying a garden to a vlog, all contribute to the idea that we have never appeared on camera more, yet some things remain unexplained and unseen.

With a great handle on how to craft a scare, even with limited means, 11pm makes for a short, spooky film.

11pm is available to view on YouTube.

Favourite Feature Films of 2021

This post continues with my wrap up of 2021 in the films, TV and short films I’ve enjoyed most this year. Due to the pandemic, there is a chance that some of these films will be dated in 2020 (or even earlier) as release strategies have been impacted. Some of this is because they have only arrived on platforms I have access to this year and others I’ve been lucky enough to see at festivals that do not yet have a wider release. You can check out last year’s list for any that might have ended up there due to the same conditions. Any films that have full reviews on the blog will be linked in the title. Obviously, the list leans heavily into the horror genre thanks to the variety of genre festivals I’ve been lucky enough to experience. While this list is narrowed down to 30 titles, there’s almost just as many deserving of honorary mentions, including Arboretum, Skyman, King Knight, Coming Home in the Dark and many more.

30. Freaky
It is a shame that this was released in the UK when the cinema landscape was still so uncertain because I can only imagine the fun to be had in a packed cinema for this. Adapting the Freaky Friday concept into a comedy-slasher is an excellent idea anyway, but it is in the brilliant cast led by Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton and sharp writing from Christopher Landon and Michael Kennedy that really allows it to soar.

29. Name Above Title
Something of a curiosity, but I couldn’t resist adding this to the list. Without dialogue, Name Above Title tells a tale of a serial killer who captures the attention of Lisbon on the basis of a viral video. Exploring themes of idolatry, worship and the pace with which striking images can take on a life far beyond the initial incident, this compelling film stands out in its visual flair and often darkly comic touches.

28. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
This domestic drama with a touch of vampirism had been on my radar since it played at Celluloid Screams in 2020. Released this year in the UK by Lightbulb Films, the film follows a family in turmoil as they struggle with the incredibly unusual medical complaint their younger brother suffers with. An incredibly gloomy but often moving film that allows the characters to take centre stage while also providing an unflinching representation of the ugly truth.

27. Broadcast Signal Intrusion
I was very glad to have seen this twice this year, both at Celluloid Screams and later at Abertoir Horror Festival both because it is very good, but as a chilly conspiracy thriller, it pretty much demands at least a second look and is, at times, deliberately obstructive. Harry Shum Jr. plays James, a man who falls into a gnawing obsession with broadcast signal intrusions that coincide with missing women, including the disappearance of his wife. The ‘intrusions’, designed by special effects artist Dan Martin are genuinely unsettling, but more than that, what the film has to say about conspiracies will stay with you far beyond the credits.

26. I Blame Society
Gillian Wallace Horvat’s spiky satire on independent filmmaking uses the mockumentary format to great effect. Horvat critiques the system’s desire for ‘likeable female characters’ with her character deciding to plan and document actual murders for her film. There are so many one-liners in this that still pop into my head and cause a laugh from time to time with her dry observations and cringe comedy adding just enough absurdity without obscuring her wider criticisms.

25. Hellbender
A female coming-of-age tale with a real bite from the ridiculously talented Adams Family, Hellbender has a wealth of rich, disturbing imagery supporting its story of an isolated mother and daughter. So many films would not take the direction that this one does, delving fully into the horror of generational difference and the nature of family. Special mention goes to the soundtrack (also the product of the family’s talent).

24. The Beta Test
The second Hollywood satire on this list after I Blame Society, Jim Cummings’ The Beta Test presents a similarly monstrous character in Jordan, an agent who accepts a mysterious invitation and finds himself under threat from his indiscretions. Cummings’ uniquely manic performance underpins the whole film, tackling bravado and toxic masculinity that extends far beyond the Hollywood system.

23. Bloodthirsty
Amelia Moses reunites with Lauren Beatty following last year’s Bleed With Me for further paranoid interactions in snowy settings. Bloodthirsty follows Beatty’s character, Grey, a singer who is invited to record with a reclusive, infamous producer in a remote location. Grey is struggling with an identity crisis that goes far beyond her career and into concerns about a dark, underlying hunger. Grey’s songs filter throughout the film, with the film’s title track being an absolute stand out while Moses continues to show her flair for tense relationship drama with a splash of genre features.

22. She Will
At the start of this list, I wasn’t sure that it had any dominant themes, but as it progresses it is impossible to ignore the way that these films are reckoning with the creative process, but also identity, particularly when it comes to the role of women. Charlotte Colbert’s She Will, is along the same lines, this time positioning an older woman, Veronica (played by Alice Krige), as the figure examining her past in film. Heading to a remote Scottish retreat to recover from illness while a former creative partner receives an honour, Veronica is beset by visions from the surrounding forest. Colbert’s debut feature is a little rough around the edges but easily forgivable due to its refreshing take on trauma.

21. Black Bear
Aubrey Plaza’s arresting performance as Allison underpins this often slippery creative satire as her frequently unpenetrable poker face is put to great use in the shifting relationship drama and fourth-wall-breaking the film indulges in. Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott produce excellent supporting performances alongside her, with the trio able to change pace whenever the film demands it. That the script is largely based on dreams had by the director Lawrence Michael Levine is clear from the outset – there is a sense of unreality to the film that the performances manage to ground and give real weight to, resulting in some of the most uncomfortable scenes committed to the screen this year.

20. Bull
If you were putting together a violent British thriller with at least one foot in the horror genre and needed a likeable, yet threatening protagonist, you’d undoubtedly want Neil Maskell for the role. Bull feels like a film built entirely around Maskell’s strengths and is all the better for it. There is something so immensely satisfying about watching a film that is so confident in its every beat and Bull absolutely fits that description.

19. A Little More Flesh 2
SoHo Horror Festival’s virtual offerings have been a highlight of both 2020 and this year, often featuring films you may not see anywhere else and providing an eclectic mix of comedies, genuinely terrifying films, soulful drama and Sam Ashurst’s A Little More Flesh and its sequel. While the first film is excellent, it is the second, in its expansion of ‘meta’ elements, grounding in reality and above all, an incredible, fearless performance from Harley Dee (also a writer on the film) that has stayed with me the most. I’m not sure if the effect of this would be the same in a cinema as it felt almost illicit watching from home on a device, creating the effect of watching something you shouldn’t be seeing. Chilling.

18. Offseason
Mickey Keating’s Offseason features a moment within its first few minutes that is about as jarring as many entire films, thanks to a dedicated and unnerving performance from Melora Walters. Jocelin Donahue takes the lead role as Marie, a woman called to an island after her mother, Ava’s (Walters) grave is damaged. Upon arrival on the island, it soon seems that all is not well and she is running out of time to leave. Plenty of excellent cameo appearances and a strong command of the kind of scares it aims for make for a genuinely chilling viewing experience. Some won’t appreciate the oft-campy Southern Gothic elements, but for those who are drawn in, the rewards are plentiful.

17. Psycho Goreman
There are few films I can return to as much as I have this one and still laugh as much (if not more) as the first time I saw it. Steven Kostanski’s bold comedy about a young girl who finds herself able to control a monster to do her bidding is filled with fascinating creatures, incredible jokes (find me one person who has seen this and cannot quote some of the best lines back to you – you won’t) and a genuinely brilliant lead character in the polarising Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna). Mimi’s buoyant and brash attitude definitely meant some didn’t connect with it, but for me, having an obnoxious young female protagonist unafraid to take up space made it a delight.

16. The Scary of Sixty-First
Best described as Lena Dunham’s Girls mixed with a 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller, The Scary of Sixty-First is the definition of a hard sell, even before you take into account director Dasha Nekrasova’s deliberately provocative media persona and frequently offensive stunts. The film concerns two women who find themselves moving into an apartment previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein (yes, you already know to prepare for content warnings on this) and are thrown into a world of conspiracy. Despite the surface-level shock value, the film does have interesting things to say about Royal/power fetishism and how a delve into conspiracy theories is often a distraction from rather more pressing, but trickier to handle issues. This would make for a near-perfect double bill with Broadcast Signal Intrusion, both seeking to capture something about the zeitgeist using conspiracy as a throughline in very different ways.

15. The Righteous
Sometimes, with the amount on offer at festivals, you can end up missing out on a gem. This was the case for me with The Righteous, a film that I had been aware of during Fantasia Festival, but did not see until Fractured Visions in December. Mark O’Brien writes, directs and stars in this minimalist film with very big ideas that drip-feeds its true scale throughout the run time. Keeping things simple and effective makes this a really striking experience. Kate Corbett as Doris deserves special mention for a smaller role that brings serious emotional weight.

14. A Banquet
Originally, I felt that A Banquet was not for me, albeit that was surprising, given that it has the female-focused, real-world issue vs. supernatural influence content that I usually really appreciate. I would put my initially muted reaction down to the fact that I first watched it at a midnight screening. A Banquet definitely isn’t that kind of film – its meditative quality demands tuning into its subtleties and allowing the film to grow around you. Betsey (Jessica Alexander) is struck by an unusual affliction, refusing to eat. Much like The Righteous, this is one that grows in scale, using the characters to build a foundation for something far scarier, building an overwhelming sense of dread.

13. When I Consume You
I love a horror film that can bring scares and feelings, so When I Consume You really worked for me. The film succeeds because of its limitations, rather than in spite of them, with an excellent cast. Early scenes with Libby Ewing and Evan Dumouchel as siblings Daphne and Wilson instantly set up a convincing relationship that underpins all other events. The writing is thoughtful with more than a few lines that have me welling up even considering them in isolation. The scares and mythology are equally as well-plotted, resulting in a film that lingers.

12. No Man of God
Yes, there have been many (too many) films about Ted Bundy. Crucially, they usually try too hard to mythologise him and end up, in some ways, glorifying him instead. No Man of God revolves around a great performance from Luke Kirby that highlights the entirely superficial charm (and regular breaks in it) of Bundy defies this. The film never leaves you in any doubt about how it feels about Bundy’s crimes but also takes aim at the circus and media attention around the death penalty. Elijah Wood may not seem the obvious casting choice for an FBI agent, but he and Kirby manage to build an uneasy rapport, allowing Amber Sealey to craft one of the year’s most electric confrontation sequences around the pair.

11. Lamb
Sometimes seeing a trailer for a film can set out some unrealistic expectations, resulting in disappointment. Almost the exact opposite is true of Lamb, a film that the trailer sells as far more bizarre than it actually is. A beautiful and achingly sad fairy tale that just so happens to revolve around a child that is part-human and part-lamb. A special mention must go to the animal cast of this, from the sheep on the farm to an almost constantly concerned cat. The main three actors are wonderful too, bringing gravitas and genuine feeling despite the slightly ridiculous premise.

10. Candyman
Candyman was another film I initially felt rather muted on and for me, much of the third act still doesn’t quite measure up, but the sheer sophistication of the early scares and the film’s ability to weave in the original while also bringing its own nuances means I’ve kept thinking about moments from it. So often in more mainstream horror releases, there is a tendency to turn up the volume on every scare, so the careful crafting and attention to detail in mirrors, down corridors and at a distance from the action gave this a refreshingly different feel. More than worth the wait after its initial delay.

9. Threshold
I cannot help but love these independent ‘hangout horrors’. Bring in the suggestion of a cult and something supernatural at work and you’ve basically ticked a fair few of my boxes straight away. That Joey Millin and Madison West produce two compelling performances as siblings learning to be around one another under extreme circumstances marks this as one of the best examples of indie horror. Shot on iPhone Threshold shows that even the most everyday resources can support the creation of engaging, inventive horror.

8. Violation
“Everyone’s medium shitty” is one of the quotes that has most stuck with me from Violation, summing up its desire to present itself in shades of grey. A brutal, unflinching and absolutely devastating take on the rape-revenge subgenre that takes its act of revenge as a starting point, rather than a thrilling conclusion. Madeleine Sims-Fewer is incredible as Miriam, a woman whose reaction to transgressions against her are messy, complex and thoroughly uncomfortable.

7. Slumber Party Massacre
Slumber Party Massacre is unique in the horror genre as the only horror franchise (so far) to have every entry helmed by a woman. That tradition continues with Danishka Esterhazy’s updated imagining of the slasher involving a denim-clad man who kills using a power drill. Slumber Party Massacre boasts a brilliant ensemble cast, making the central group of girls incredibly likeable. Often turning expectations on their head, the film hits every gag it needs to, paying reference to the original while also updating it. A huge amount of fun to watch with an audience and like Black Christmas (2019) it is the kind of film I wish I had when I was a teenager.

6. The Feast
I have spent a frankly ridiculous amount of time this year trying to get to see The Feast so I’m glad to report that it was definitely worth the wait when it opened the Abertoir Horror Festival in November. Welsh-language films are few and far between with an emphasis on providing Welsh and English versions of the same content. The Feast is noteworthy for having the conviction to only present itself in Welsh. Director Lee Haven Jones borrows from trademarks of Asian and European horror, yet presents a core of undeniable Welshness within it. Body and eco-horror meet for a dinner party in a Grand Designs-style nightmare house.

5. Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar

If there is one film I’ve played more than any other this year it would be Barb and Star. Anytime I have felt like I’ve needed a lift, I’ve turned to this delightfully silly comedy starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo as the titular pair. Wiig and Mumolo’s chemistry and killer jokes make for a charming and bright world filled with laugh-out-loud moments.

4. Censor

Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher’s Censor hinges on a breathtaking performance from Niamh Algar as Edith, a quiet and reserved film censor struggling with her own past. What I like most about this is the way it reflects the time period of the video nasties. With the period being such an inspirational time for many creatives it is easy to forget how the moral panic made victims of ordinary people in a crusade against films that are now mostly freely available. With this in the background, Edith’s personal trauma around her sister Nina’s disappearance moves under the microscope – a trauma that is divorced from her work, but that she can’t help but see through the lens of a horror film. Mixing media and bringing in a host of British horror and comedy actors, Censor is a striking debut.

3. Promising Young Woman

The second film on this list, after Censor, to feature a near-invisible character named Nina who has a profound impact on those left behind, Promising Young Woman seeks to explore the impact of loss and the lengths that someone may go to in order to feel that justice is done. Like Violation, Promising Young Woman takes a different direction than expected within the rape-revenge genre, setting up Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as being on a one-woman crusade to expose potential predators. The impact of this film on the first watch for me was so powerful that I actually ended up being sick, so anything that has that kind of effect leaves a mark. Its candy-coated aesthetic may make it look lightweight, but it shares a deep cynicism for the way victims of sexual assault are treated.

2. In The Earth

A new Ben Wheatley horror was always going to be high on my list. There is something in the way Wheatley handles horror that just connects with me on a very deep level. Pandemic project In The Earth is experimental in terms of both its production context and its use of sound and visuals. Comparisons to the hallucinogenic sequences of A Field In England are obvious, but there is something more base and immersive at work here. Set in the later waves of an unspecified outbreak, scientist Martin (Joel Fry) heads off in search of collaboration with a former colleague, but all is not as it seems in the woods. It helps that this was one of the first films I saw back in a cinema setting as its near-sensory overload throws you into a genuine nightmare.

  1. Titane

With all that said, Julia Ducournau’s Titane is the standout, number one film of the year for me. Her long-awaited follow-up to Raw is almost impossible to briefly describe and as it has yet to hit cinemas I’ll not offer spoilers here as it really is best experienced with as little knowledge beforehand as possible. What I will say is that this is a film that is more than its wildest, wince-worthy moments, exploring masculinity, femininity and everything else along that scale while also providing some of the most deeply affecting and moving moments of any film this year. It will make you laugh, jolt you out of your seat and if you’re anything like me, make you cry too – an absolute triumph for a filmmaker fully in control.

Favourite Short Films 2021

Short films are often seen as somehow lesser than their feature-length counterparts, but festivals continue to allow them to shine, either paired with thematically similar features or within their own blocks. More than a stepping stone to perceived ‘bigger’ things, the best shorts are those that tell their story perfectly within a more brief time period and often on far lower budgets. As the pandemic has resulted in a varied release schedule for many films, there may be some films here that are technically 2020 but are included here due to their appearance on the circuit in 2021. If you want to check out my picks from 2020 you can do so here.

Before the list kicks off, an honourable mention to Mountain Lodge, directed by Jordan Wong. A collage of internet media set to a text-to-speech narration of a viral Tumblr post about an infamous Yankee Candle offering. It would be difficult to put it on the list because it is so closely related to the original post, but the selection of clips ensured it was one of the films I laughed most at this year when it screened at SoHo Horror Festival.

20. Mashed Potato Face
Every now and then you watch a short that leaves you speechless. The first, but by no means last entry on this list from the SoHo Horror Festival Shockdown Saturdays series, Mashed Potato Face is definitely one of them. If someone turned up the nightmare quota on the creations from The Mighty Boosh until they broke the dial, they might get close to what Mashed Potato Face is. The kind of film where you’re not really sure you should be laughing quite as much as you are.

19. Man or Tree
Sometimes, all a short really needs is a simple idea executed well and Man or Tree certainly fits the bill on that front. Possibly the shortest runtime of any short on this list, this focuses on a man who wakes up believing he has been turned into a tree…or is it the other way around? A fun voiceover and sense of chaos make this a fun time. Played at Celluloid Screams and Abertoir Horror Festival.

18. The Mill Creek Strangler
The Mill Creek Strangler played as part of SoHo Horror Festival’s physical festival this year. Amber Pratt stars in writer/director Aaron Egbert Allsop’s short as a woman obsessed with a local serial killer who finds herself in his orbit. Light-heartedly tackling the (usually) white, female preoccupation with true crime media, this two-hander is simple, yet entertaining.

17. Wererock
Another one from SoHo’s Shockdown Saturdays, Wererock is a film as howlingly silly as it is delightful. Stylised poor dubbing and dubious effects combine with a genuinely funny idea that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

16. Guts
Chris McInroy’s Guts played at Celluloid Screams ahead of Ultrasound, starting the day with an overtly comic burst before the more serious, mind-bending themes to follow. Guts revolves around a man who suffers from an unfortunate condition: his guts are outside of his body, ruining his day, the day of his colleagues and numerous shirts. Gleefully splattery and despite its one-joke nature more than delivers on laughs.

15. Seen It
Seen It is a charming short, based on the folklore stories of writer Suresh Eriyat’s father. Watched as part of Fantasia Film Festival in their Things That Go Bump In The East block, Seen It‘s interesting animation style and the way it balances warm conversation with descriptions of otherworldly happenings makes it a genuinely wonderful watch. Happily, you can now see the film on YouTube.

14. Kalley’s Last Review
As part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival’s Cyber Horror shorts block, Kalley’s Last Review manages its tone expertly. Director Julia Bailey Johnson also stars as the titular Kalley – an aspiring vlogger with designs on being a beauty influencer. As the film progresses, the initial comic skewering of Kalley as a somewhat vacuous, desperate figure evolves into something far darker and more upsetting, managing to pack a real punch by the time the credits roll.

13. The Expected
Impressive and haunting stop-motion animation The Expected builds its horror during a period of grief, confining its characters in a state of torment within their home. Dialogue-free, every ounce of pain is poured into the surroundings and an increasingly nightmarish scenario. I saw this one as part of the North Bend Film Festival in the Cinema Vista block but it also played at Celluloid Screams.

12. The Lovers
The Ultrasound block at Celluloid Screams not only brought Guts but The Lovers. An almost muted progression gives way to an impressive punchline that arguably isn’t the most surprising development, but one that is pulled off well, given the limited means.

11. The Wheel
This is one of two shorts on the list that have genuinely terrified me. Played at SoHo Horror Festival’s physical event this ultra-creepy and jolting tale of a mysterious Ferris wheel model managed to quickly get under my skin.

10. Sundown Town
Sundown Town played at both SoHo Horror Festival and Salem Horror Festival. Kicking off with the dreamy soundtrack of Get Away by Surfclub, a gay couple’s break turns sour when they stop in a mysterious town. Fusing very real fears with supernatural elements, this features some heart stopping moments and imagery that really drives home the film’s central concerns.

9. The Moogai
The thing I’ve always loved about horror is how the genre can become a place for telling a wide range of stories and feature voices we perhaps wouldn’t normally hear. The Moogai finds horror based in Aboriginal belief and spirits but also connects on a level that transcends that and moves into wider fears on parenthood. Scary and beautifully shot.

8. Dana
Dana made me glad I hadn’t posted my favourite films of the year before attending Fractured Visions. The rape-revenge sub genre is a contentious one, with varying interpretations about how representation of rape takes place and how it may be claimed or rejected by viewers, especially those who are survivors. Dana follows the titular woman who finds herself frustrated by a recent law change that means sex offenders are being released from prison. You can kind of guess where things head from here but the film does it with such skill and occasional shots of dark humour that it stands out.

7. Fragile.com
Another entry from Final Girls Berlin’s Cyber Horror shorts block, Fragile.com is a disturbingly crafted study of internet exploitation and the turning of emotions into a commodity. Carly Stewart’s excellent performance as Mara, a girl targeted by an older man and introduced to a community where emotional performativity is a currency, grounds it, although there is never a respite from how deeply uncomfortable it is.

6. Ad Lib
Played first at SoHo Horror and later as part of Abertoir Horror Festival’s virtual edition, Ad Lib is a stylish and powerful take on domestic violence and the lack of power that comes with being silenced. Joseph Catté handles the material with sensitivity by dialling up the metaphor, but is still able to present an impactful and more often than not, upsetting portrayal of abuse.

5. The Three Men You Meet at Night
Beck Kitsis’ short is probably one of the most “real-world” terrifying films on this list. The Three Men You Meet at Night is concerned with the everyday dangers that women face. The film expertly ratchets up and unravels the tension repeatedly, creating a punchline that stays with you. Thanks to ALTER you can now watch the film on YouTube.

4. The Fourth Wall

Kelsey Bollig’s ultra-stylish The Fourth Wall takes a visit to a troubled theatre performance where the constant unprofessionalism of her colleagues is beginning to weigh on Chloé (Lizzie Brocheré). A pulsating soundtrack that feels like it reverbs through the film’s strange corridors adds texture, while ramping up to something grisly and also throwing in some great lines about the world of theatre on the way. First seen as part of Final Girls Berlin’s Revenge Horror shorts block and later as part of SoHo Horror Festival.

3. Skinner 1929

The spookiest offering on this list, Skinner 1929 (seen as part of North Bend Film Festival’s Ethereal Fantasies shorts block) concerns an online livestream whose hosts are looking into mysterious film reels that relate to one of their family history. The audio commentary over the older imagery creates an uncanny disconnect between the old and new media forms – something that becomes all the more uncomfortable and deeply creepy as it progresses. Definitely one that found footage fans will love.

2. You’re Dead Hélène

One of the longer entries on this list at around 25 minutes, You’re Dead Hélène, justifies its extended runtime by managing to tackle a wealth of material throughout. Incorporating scares as well as incredibly beautiful, moving moments this really has it all in its story of a relationship breakdown like no other. As a result, it is hardly surprising to see that it is to be made into a feature by the same director, although possibly more surprising that Sam Raimi is producing. As of the time of publishing the film is still on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination in the Live Action shorts category.

1. Synonymous With

From the moment I saw Synonymous With as part of SoHo Horror Festival I was almost certain I’d seen my favourite short film of the year and while the standard of shorts has been exceptionally high and varied, nothing hit me quite like this did. I’ve written some more detailed thoughts on the film you can read here. This gorgeous, delicate love letter to the Other and those drawn to it has stayed with me, with its DIY quality allowing the sentiment to take centre stage. The film has been available to watch online for free here.

With so many high quality shorts, this list has been almost impossible to narrow down to a reasonable number for an end of year list. The vast range of topics, storytelling and craft make this such an exciting time for watching short films and giving them the same time and attention as features.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: The House of Snails

A writer’s inspiration takes a sinister (and sometimes confounding) turn in The House of Snails.

Synopsis: Writer Antonio Prieto decides to spend the summer in the mountains outside Malaga, where he hopes to find peace and quiet and inspiration for his next novel. Here he meets Berta, a woman he feels instantly attracted to, and quickly finds himself drawn into the lives of the locals, who he soon realises are hiding many sinister secrets. As he investigates, and writes, he finds himself confronted by a terrifying local legend, and the gradual realisation that, sometimes, reality is much stranger than fiction…

It is often difficult to write about films like The House of Snails, simply because it sets out to uproot and disjoint itself (and, by extension, the audience) repeatedly throughout its runtime. This is perhaps no surprise as this is an adaptation of a novel about a writer so the layers of reference and desire to fold in on itself are already running fairly deeply. Director Macarena Astorga takes on Sandra García Nieto’s novel with enthusiasm, swiftly layering different ideas and recognisable horror trappings that disrupt one another as the film progresses.

Antonio Prieto (Javier Rey) finds himself in the town of Quintanar while seeking inspiration for his new book. Quintanar is seemingly surrounded by wolves, keeping everyone within, seemingly subject to a long-standing curse that results in numerous strange beliefs and rituals.

The nature of The House of Snails is in that it is constantly seeking to add more layers and to some viewers, this may feel too scattered and overloaded. However, it is difficult to argue with the approach when the film is able to play off all these moments successfully. The beautiful location allows Antonio to wander into different areas, each with its own distinct look and feel. In some sections, you are in folk horror territory, focused on the things that people do to feel safe or explain things that are unexplainable. At other times, you are in supernatural creature territory, with both threads finding common ground in the film’s weaving of legend.

The Vimero legend that underpins both these elements comes to represent something altogether more powerful by the film’s conclusion. While young children like Rosita (Luna Fulgencio) regard the Vimero as a very real threat, the more sceptical Padre (Carlos Alcántara) details the kind of taboos the legend could be a cover and explanation for. Again, this frequent switching of viewpoint and refusal to commit to a straight line may alienate some viewers, but there is something immediately compelling about the strange town and its strange ways that keeps everything moving. The myth-building that takes place and the questioning of how legends start to impact reality is a real strength of the film.

To some degree, the film gives itself too much to do and so some elements do unfortunately feel underdeveloped and so lack a necessary punch. Antonio’s love interest Berta (Paz Vega) for example, feels like a character with more to offer than what she receives. Despite all the performances being excellent, it is only Javier Rey who truly gets to stretch and deliver, simply because his character is given the most to do. In keeping with its playfulness with horror and narrative elements, the film gives the impression that everything is being delivered with a wry smile. Even the film’s bleakest moments have a throughline of dark humour or a nod to the audience. To do this, without undercutting the seriousness of one of the film’s prevailing messages shows the skill with which this has been developed.

A compelling study of myth-making, taboo and uncovered secrets, set in a location that feels as uncanny as the townspeople within it, The House of Snails is one to watch.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

The House of Snails plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 11th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: Dark Cloud

Dark Cloud is a slick, tech-focused sci-fi with a few tricks up its sleeve.

Synopsis: Following the aftermath of a horrific accident, a woman is voluntarily subjected to artificial intelligence for rehabilitation.

In horror (and taking that wider, sci-fi too) we are all well conditioned to know that certain concepts will result in disaster. Arguably the concept that has been represented as going wrong far more than ever going right is that of the ‘smart home’. It is a particularly well-worn narrative in which our reliance on technology and that we permit it into almost every element of our lives becomes dangerous, with the elements designed to help us becoming threatening and all-consuming. Dark Cloud raises the stakes in this regard, by having the smart home as a site for a rehabilitation process.

Alexys Gabrielle plays Chloe Temple, a young woman struggling to recover from an accident. As part of her recovery, she undertakes a new method being pushed by Aquarius Inc – a company specialising in a new kind of assisted living, which involves being housed in a state-of-the-art home, with virtual assistant AIDA (voiced by Emily Atack) able to cater to her needs.

Dark Cloud adds a layer to the usual smart home premise. Chloe is not in the house through the pursuit of wealth, status or technology, but is taking part in the project in an attempt to regain confidence, independence and improve her memory – all issues the accident has left her with. Her sister Lucy (Anna Stranz) is concerned about her living alone and so the experiment seems to present a compromise between the pair. As an early adopter of the technology, Chloe is told to think of herself as a pioneer, rather than a test subject. The focus on the porousness and power of memory that is often effectively represented throughout is engaging.

The secluded house makes for an excellent location and while the visuals are very much what you would expect from a sci-fi (lots of sleek surfaces, bright white areas and intrusive lighting) they are rendered well by the first-time feature director Jay Ness. Alexys Gabrielle is solid as Chloe, often left to only play against the disembodied voice of AIDA which can so easily lead to a disconnected performance that is thankfully avoided here. Emily Atack’s vocal performance is good too, bringing warmth to their interactions. That the house provides companionship as well as more functional reminders feeds further into Chloe’s rebuilding of her life.

The biggest issue with Dark Cloud is that it follows very set narrative points that will feel overly familiar. While these moments are often striking, there is still a sense that you feel like you know what is about to happen just before it does. Although this is an obvious comparison to make of any one-off sci-fi property, there is more than a hint of Black Mirror here, especially in the film’s ability to weave the protagonist’s human feelings into the more outlandish tech developments and horror leanings. It is this layering that gives the film that extra spark but doesn’t quite make it to new heights.

Dark Cloud is an engaging sci-fi that succeeds in its desire to probe human emotion and needs like companionship in an otherwise well-trodden narrative path.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Dark Cloud plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 10th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: Black Friday!

Great casting choices and the time afforded to a focus on those characters pays off in this comic retail satire.

Synopsis: A group of toy store employees must protect each other from a horde of parasite infected shoppers.

The concept of Black Friday still feels like a relatively new development in the UK and although the first few instances seemed to bring videos of people scrapping in ASDA at midnight over televisions, it feels like the phenomenon never really reached the heights of the American origins. Given the events often resemble chaotic horror scenes, it is unsurprising that Black Friday uses the occasion as a jumping-off point.

Chris (Ryan Lee) leaves a frosty family Thanksgiving dinner to get to his retail job at We Love Toys. He is nervy and has an issue with germs (although everything he reacts to is understandable, especially given recent events) and finds himself struggling to overcome his quirks. In contrast, Ken (Devon Sawa) is far more relaxed, taking the extra work to cash in his bonus for his kids. A potential relationship with colleague Marnie (Ivana Baquero) is also providing an incentive, but soon the shoppers take on an even more sinister edge as the store falls victim to a parasite infection.

With a concept that relies so heavily on the idea of hordes attacking, Black Friday is somewhat sedate in this regard. There is a sense that there are limited means when it comes to creating the big set pieces (some VFX work lacks a little too, although fulfils its function well enough) but what it handles well is introducing these elements in stages. This allows for the development of design, allowing the infected to disappear for a while, emerging with progressed features that provide extra jolts of energy.

Pushing the overall chaos outside the building allows for the focus to narrow onto the characters and this is where Black Friday excels, thanks to its very capable cast. Within the ensemble everyone is given at least one moment to shine and each one steps up. It is impossible not to single out Stephen Peck as Brian – an employee whose dedication to the job and love of power as one of the film’s most engaging performances. It is in the sections where everything slows and the cast are given the time to bounce off one another that the film really finds its footing. Bruce Campbell clearly relishes playing against type and while the film can’t initially resist introducing him via the Chin, he’s given room to embody weasly manager Jonathan Wexler to great effect.

Despite the ensemble, it does feel like co-leads Devon Sawa and Ryan Lee are given the most to do, in terms of action and evolving as characters. Ken’s initial coolness begins to give way and Sawa’s gift for physical comedy in a horror setting is gradually dialled up. The pair work well together with their very different personalities adding a spark to proceedings. While the chaos of the wider situation is sidelined there is still plenty of forward momentum, including background gags that hint at the persistent threat. Recurring jokes offer a space to fall back on during lulls, but are given wider meaning too, including the year’s ‘it’ toy Dour Dennis (voiced by Seth Green) making several appearances to some solid laughs.

Black Friday is a fun, festive offering that hides some of its shortcomings in the wrapping of a charming cast.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Black Friday plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 10th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: See For Me

A tense, well-paced thriller that makes the most of an interesting central character.

Synopsis: Sophie, a young blind woman, house-sitting at a secluded mansion, finds herself in danger from a gang of thieves seeking a hidden safe. Her only means of defence: a phone app called “See for Me”, which connects her to a volunteer across the country who helps her by “seeing” on her behalf. Sophie is linked up with Kelly, a military veteran who spends her days playing first-person shooters.

While festival favourite Midnight has (rightfully) received acclaim for its cat-and-mouse thrills, the fact that the film concerns the experiences of two deaf women without using deaf performers has sat at least a little uncomfortably. See For Me centres its blind protagonist Sophie and the character is played by visually impaired performer Skyler Davenport. Refreshingly, Sophie as a character is presented in layers, openly frustrated by the way people treat her, but equally open to exploiting that for her own gain while also working through inner turmoil.

Sophie’s desire to house-sit for wealthy clients is largely motivated by a need to make ends meet now that a promising skiing career has been cut short. The clients tip well, mostly out of sympathy, Sophie decides, for her condition, and their homes present opportunities to take extras like expensive bottles of wine to resell without fear of reprisal. These extras take their toll on the friendship between Cam (Keaton Kaplan) and Sophie, with Cam refusing to continue helping, leaving Sophie further isolated in the latest mansion. Davenport is excellent as Sophie, allowing the character to maintain strength and even abrasiveness in the face of adversity. This is far more preferable to the simplistic representation of disabled characters as purely sympathetic victims and lifts the film considerably.

The idea of being in an unfamiliar, secluded house while under attack is a scary concept for anyone, but when a visual impairment is involved, the stakes are raised considerably. Despite Sophie’s reluctance to try an app called See For Me, an incident that sees her locked out of the house forces her to relent, bringing her into the company of Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy). The chemistry between the pair is instantaneous, with Kelly quickly understanding Sophie’s need to feel capable and in control. Conversely, while a segment is given over to establishing Kelly’s past and reasons for assisting, there is relatively little depth or development to be had as the film progresses. Much of the focus is understandably trained on Sophie’s experience in the house as the thieves enter, with the need to navigate not only an unknown house but the motivations of unknown, potentially desperate criminals.

The action within the house is set apart from your usual home invasion thriller by Sophie’s unique condition – not her disability, but her personality. Sophie is resourceful and morally grey enough to negotiate with the men invading the property, using their perceptions against them. The segments involving the app do take on a video-game, first-person style shooting which certainly lends it a dynamic feel. Other than this, the actual movements around the house will feel familiar to many, although the elements hang together well. The pacing is excellent, practically zipping along and while at one point I was yearning for a slightly darker progression (you’ll likely know it when it comes) this is certainly an entertaining watch. When this played at the recent Abertoir Horror Festival, it stood out as one of the films with the most mainstream appeal – a technically proficient and absorbing take on an often densely-populated subgenre.

A home invasion thriller that foregrounds a layered protagonist with enough visual and storytelling flair to stay engaging throughout – See For Me is definitely worth checking out.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

See For Me plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 11th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.