The Exception (Undtagelsen)

A film that can’t quite decide if it is interested in the interpersonal relationships or the entire concept of evil makes for a woolly exploration of both in this female-led thriller.

Synopsis: Four women work together at a small NGO in Copenhagen that specialises in genocide. When two of them receive death threats, they suspect a Serbian war criminal; but then they start suspecting and turning against each other.

Focusing a story on four women engaged in study on genocide is a bold move as the subject is so uncomfortable to comprehend that it threatens to make everything else feel small and significant in contrast. Nevertheless, the characters being knowledgeable about how atrocities occur enhances the sense that they should also be sensitive to the damage they can do on a personal level. Excerpts from Iben’s (Danica Curcic) book on evil punctuates the narrative at various points, bringing horrific photography and the reality of what can happen when it is decided that a certain kind of person is to blame for the problems of others.

Iben’s work on human cruelty is furthered by her own status as a hostage survivor. Her incredible story of achieving freedom from an unthinkable situation cements her not only as an expert on the theory she discusses, but as having direct experience. This makes the moment where she and her friend Malene (Amanda Collin) receive a threatening email all the more affecting. Before the threats, there is already tension in the office. Malene and Iben’s friendship outside of work means they sit across from one another, working more intimately. Despite their closeness, they have some time for Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen) but Anne-Lise (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is repeatedly excluded. In some cases, she contributes to her own problems, complaining of a draft in her office, which Malene rectifies by closing the door on her. Further civil but icy attempts at conflict resolution do nothing to improve the relationships and soon Anne-Lise is under suspicion for something far more sinister.

Close enough to two hours long (including credits), there doesn’t feel like there is quite enough to support the run time. A key plot point about people having the ability to repress evil acts fails to lead anywhere particularly interesting, despite the concept being leaned on throughout. The characters fall into the trap of having one trait or circumstance that comes to entirely define them, so while you do end up invested, there’s relatively little depth. The performances are good, which makes these character types all the more frustrating as you feel the actresses could take this further with much more nuance and complication. The film is at its best when exploring the rather more mundane disagreements between the women and it feels a shame that there are times when this is abandoned for the far-fetched and impersonal side.

There are moments where the film works incredibly well, especially in its portrayal of traumatic secrets and lives hidden from day-to-day view. Figures from the past sit in rooms in close proximity to the women – physical reminders of the confines they find themselves in. Trauma, inappropriate relationships, loneliness and rage all bubble to the surface in a palpable and frequently powerful way. These unflattering truths refuse to be shelved and act as a catalyst for the desire to unearth the worst in everyone else.

Positing that there is no single personality type capable of evil, The Exception invites us to judge each woman in turn and pick at their weaknesses, drives and potential for wrongdoing. Often eclipsed by the undercurrent of the gravely serious subject matter the women are immersed in, some elements are left to feel trivial and you can’t help but feel a little dissatisfied by the close of the film. The Exception feels solid, but lacks the dramatic punch it sorely needs.

3 out of 5 stars

The Exception will released across all major UK Digital Platforms on 22nd January including iTunes, AppleTV, Sky Store, Google Play, Amazon, Virgin, Curzon Home Cinema & Chili (& BT on rental only from 1st Feb)

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2021 – Trailer and Lineup

Taking place on February 4th – 7th, Final Girls Berlin Film Festival will go online for the 6th edition, with a further physical event planned for Halloween weekend. Feature films will be geo-locked to Germany unless otherwise stated. Events are available internationally.

FEATURES
FELLWECHSELZEIT (TIME OF MOULTING) — Berlin premiere
Dir. Sabrina Mertens, Germany, 2020

LOS QUE VUELVEN (THE RETURNED) — Berlin premiere
Dir. Laura Casabé, Argentina, 2019

BUIO (DARKNESS) — German premiere
Dir. Emanuela Rosi, Italy, 2019

THE STYLIST— German premiere
Dir. Jill Gevargizian, USA, 2020

12 HOUR SHIFT — German premiere
Dir.Brea Grant, USA, 2020
See my review here.

SHORT FILM BLOCKS
I. IT’S COMING FROM INSIDE THE SCREEN: CYBER HORROR *(available to International and Canadian audiences)
II. AN EYE FOR AN EYE
III. BUSTING A GUT – COMEDY HORROR * (available to International audiences)
IV. YOUNG BLOOD * (available to International and Canadian audiences)
V. CABIN FEVER – ISOLATION HORROR * (available to International and Canadian audiences)

EVENTS
WRITING YOUR FIRST HORROR SCREENPLAY

The Miskatonic Institute & Final Girls Berlin Film Festival co-present: GHOULS TO THE FRONT: RETHINKING WOMEN’S HORROR FILMMAKING

IF ROSEMARY COULD RUN: WOULD YOU KNOW IF YOU WERE IN A CULT?

GIRLS GONE WILD: AUTONOMY, SEXUALITY, AND RESISTANCE IN REPRESENTATIONS OF YOUNG WOMEN IN HORROR FILMS

The Gaylords of Darkness podcast present: THE NECRONOMOLOGUE

I Spit on Your Podcast present: SATANIC FEMINISM: EMBRACING THE DARKNESS

HER HUNGER: THE LESBIAN VAMPIRE AND QUEER IMMORTALITY, SUICIDALITY, AND CODEPENDENCY

For more information go to finalgirlsberlin.com and watch the festival trailer below:

2021 February Final Girls Berlin Film Festival Trailer from Final Girls Berlin on Vimeo.

Favourite Short Films of 2020

This year I’ve had an opportunity to see more shorts than ever before, mainly thanks to being lucky enough to cover the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival and the line-ups of festivals like SoHo Horror Film Festival and Fractured Visions programming shorts ahead of their features. As a result, for the first time I feel like I can write about my favourite shorts of the year. There are 15 in total, with an honourable mention for Fatale Collective: Bleed. Technically as a collection of short films in one block it doesn’t strictly qualify as a short, but all the entries are very strong. Happily, you can watch the film on YouTube and see for yourself. Onto the list!

15. Live Forever

I was able to see this charming musical number twice in 2020 and I can’t see that further repeated viewings would stop it from raising a smile. A short (4 minutes long) and sweet tribute to those who don’t make it to the end credits of a horror film.

14. Smiles (Sonrisas)

Taking the anxieties of meeting a partner’s parents to the extreme, Smiles uses humour to further the sense of the uncanny that heads to a nightmarish conclusion. A worthy winner of audience favourite short film at the Abertoir Horror Festival.

13. Buffalo and Trout

While good short films certainly stand on their own, they can also make for very good adverts or proof of concepts for features. Buffalo and Trout throws you into a difficult and harrowing experience but does it in a way that makes you want to spend more time with the characters. The creation of a dissociative drug state is a visually interesting way to push the action forward and the chemistry between the lead actresses is undeniable.

12. Bakemono

You can read a more in-depth review of Bakemono here. Featuring a great, endearing performance by Claudia Fabella, this story of a family ritual, a hungry demon and a rebellious daughter works so well as a lighter film in tone without compromising on scares.

11. The Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre

That writer/director Ilja Rautsi manages to weave a takedown of the desire of some men to overexplain everything to women and pay homage to the deeply effective aesthetics of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre into a cohesive piece is to be celebrated. The punchlines are what you’d expect, but they work and the gore doesn’t hold back.

10. Snowflakes

My full review of Faye Jackson’s Snowflakes can be found in the Social Ills shorts block from Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. Featuring excellent, profoundly upsetting (initial) performances from Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Cherrelle Skeete this snapshot of the cruelty of detention centres and the failings against the Windrush generation gives way to something far more satisfying.

9. Unusual Attachment

While horror has always dealt with themes of isolation and fears about technology, the stay at home orders earlier this year led many film-makers to embrace innovative ways of working. Unusual Attachment is a great example of a film that is small in scale still managing to feel like a big deal by the time everything unfolds.

8. Labrys

Seen as part of Final Girls Berlin in the Queer Horror block and also at SoHo Horror Festival’s Pride Edition, BJ Colangelo’s film about a first date where the couple learn so much more about one another than they expected is sweet and speaks to the ethos and ingenuity of DIY, indie film-making.

7. Rape Card

Seen as part of the Final Girls Berlin #MeToo shorts block, Rape Card packs a punch. Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s Violation is one of my most anticipated films to see because of the way she handles an immensely difficult topic here with gravitas and impact. An incredibly downbeat, social justice-minded sci-fi vision that commands attention.

6. No Thank You

A comic short that may well be the most relatable view of behaviour during the apocalypse that I’ve ever seen. Montana (Nina Concepción) is a self-described ‘comfy-girl’ who rejects Riley’s (MeLissa Gavarrette) more hands-on plans for dealing with the end of the world. Turning swiftly into a more rational conversation about the likelihood of making it through a catastrophic event, this simple short relies on performer chemistry and plenty of great one-liners and observations.

5. Lone Wolf

Another short from the Queer Horror block from the Final Girls Berlin Festival, Lone Wolf is an adorable tale of a girl who starts to feel self-conscious at a pool party. Her concerns about her differences and embarrassment about her body force her to hide herself away as the film uses the trappings of a werewolf film to explore notions of identity and self-discovery.

4. Children of Satan

Watched at the Final Girls Berlin Festival as part of their True Crime shorts block. As the still shows, this is a stunning film with a dark edge. Again, the focus here is on perceived difference, this time bolstered and emboldened by faith. The cast is made up almost entirely of young actors who take on some incredibly dark material in a mature and impactful way.

3. Meta

Like Lone Wolf, Meta uses the tropes related to werewolf transformation to investigate concerns about the body. Jordan Gonzalez’s Artie is attending his prom when he gets his period. A nerve-wracking time follows in which the film hints at the cruelty of horror film proms. An emotional film with a great deal of heart.

2. Don’t Text Back

You can read my full review of Don’t Text Back here. A witty, dialogue-heavy short concerned with a woman who finds an unpleasant side effect from a necklace every time she refuses to answer a text. Kelly (Danielle Lapointe) seeks help from Jaren (Nancy Webb). With jabs at new age mysticism, the chemistry between the leads and some excellent jokes carries this. A great soundtrack brings the whole thing together.

  1. Tingle Monsters

Alexandra Serio’s Tingle Monsters, first reviewed here uses the concept of the ASMR personality to explore wider concerns about online abuse and real-world violence against women. The fact that ASMR is one of those trends that seems to have attracted more criticism than other methods of streaming makes this a perfect format to play with the ideas. You can also read my interview with writer, director and star Alexandra Serio here.

Favourite TV of 2020

With instructions to stay at home for safety, it seems only right that we’d gravitate towards the television for comfort, entertainment and news. With more streaming services making binge-watching easy to do and appealing to fill the time, there have been some great shows. You can check out last year’s here. Here are my 15 favourite TV shows of the year.

Honorable mentions: Out of Her Mind from Sara Pascoe, a drama/comedy that leant a little too heavily on the lecture format but impressed with fourth-wall breaking about the nature of TV writing and attempts to kick back against cliche. Also, Killing Eve, even though it has lost some of the first and second season shine, for me, season three of the show retained that spark thanks to the chemistry between Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh as we followed the continued flirtation of Villanelle and Eve. Filming for season four has understandably been delayed and honestly, the last moments of the third season operate just as well as a finale to the entire series as they do a move forward, but I’m excited to see what’s to come for the pair.

15. I Hate Suzie

It feels strange to put I Hate Suzie on the list of my favourite TV of the year when I do have some problems with it – mainly the fairly narrow focus, expected when the material concerns a reasonably well-off white actress and a few lengthy spiralling sequences punctuated with drug-taking. However, the show did feel like it had a good handle on skewering those issues and weaving less conventional ways of telling the story into this like monologues and musical numbers. Billie Piper is excellent as titular Suzie, frequently unlikeable but often sympathetic. The exploration of the impact of media spin and crafting the ‘correct response’ at all times and the impact that has on individuals is well observed. The stand out episode for me was episode 4, “Shame” in which Suzie struggles to centre herself in her own sexual fantasies, often interrupted by critical comments from friend and agent Naomi (Leila Farzad). That women are so often defined by their relationships to men took on another level of meaning, considering Piper being regularly name-checked as a possible cause of a certain ex-husbands online behaviour.

14. Doctor Who

The New Year’s Day episode of Doctor Who succeeded in pulling off a rather amazing reveal. When so much is known ahead of time for so many shows, hiding the reveal of a new Master was an incredible achievement and Sacha Dhawan’s relishing of the role made it all the more impactful and fun to watch. The rest of the cast continued their strong start and I’ll be sad to see Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole bow out.

13. The Salisbury Poisonings

Taking a real-life, tragic event and placing it into the confines of a three-part drama is always a risk. There’s a risk that over-sensationalising forgets about the victims and the people watching someone’s idea of what happened. The Salisbury Poisonings dealt with the situation with empathy and I’d point to MyAnna Buring’s performance as one of the most humanising portrayals of victim Dawn Sturgess. The involvement of families in the writing of the series meant it felt like a study of people attempting their best in the face of the unthinkable. An early scene that documents the transfer of the substance felt both harrowing and apt for a year in which methods of transmission were on everyone’s mind.

12. Evil

One of the more tonally uneven shows, but the frankly weird places Evil was prepared to go made it impossible to switch off. Katja Herbers stars as Dr. Kristen Bouchard, a woman who finds herself taking on duties in possible possession/unexplainable cases, while also trying to raise young daughters, curtail her mother’s questionable taste in men and avoid encroaching demonic forces. Herbers is brilliant in her role, strong, assured and playing it entirely straight. A nightmare scene where David Acosta (Mike Colter) sees demons pile into his hospital room, only for one to stop to sanitise their hands made me laugh more than I’d care to admit. In contrast, the show isn’t afraid to go to some incredibly dark places and handles it well.

11. Inside No 9

Every new series of Inside No 9 is a joy. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton continue to find excellent ways of telling their stories, playing with form and introducing characters that are as well-developed within the 30 minute episode as some shows manage across multiple seasons. The fifth season brought the extraordinary kitchen-sink inspired Love’s Great Adventure and the delightfully surprising Death Be Not Proud. With a sixth and seventh series on the way it remains must-see TV.

10. Quiz

Another example of those real events being put into drama format that worked well, although the events of this one are more contested. The popularity of the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire sparking an underground network of quizzers to help one another get onto the show culminating in ‘the cough’ is far-fetched and Quiz leans into this, even throwing a musical number into proceedings. Whether it changes your mind on if the Ingram’s cheated or not, who can forget Michael Sheen’s eerily accurate Chris Tarrant?

9. The Sister

Few things draw me to a television series as fast as ‘from the creator of Luther‘ and ‘starring Russell Tovey’, so I was all-in for this quasi-supernatural thriller about the death of a young woman and a long-held secret. An interesting accent choice by Bertie Carvel doesn’t take away from a genuine sense of unease throughout and Tovey’s ability to dial up the intensity serves it well. So often in series that employ flashback scenes it is easy to get slightly lost, but this was carefully crafted, tense TV from beginning to end.

8. Staged

Following their chemistry in Good Omens it makes perfect sense that Michael Sheen and David Tennant would reunite for further shows. This lockdown-set, video-call based comedy featured Sheen and Tennant playing versions of themselves as they try to take rehearsals for their play online. Title card gags, excellent cameos and plenty of one-liners follow, capturing digs at ego and the trials of lockdown dealing with family and work. Keeping episodes at around 15 minutes meant it didn’t play into the video call fatigue many were (and still are) suffering for too long. A second series starts Monday and I’m excited to see more of the concept.

7. Ghosts

The group, affectionately coined the Six Idiots are perhaps most well-known for the Horrible Histories series, although their work on Yonderland and Bill also deserves more attention. Playing into their love of period costume and the very silly, Ghosts manages to deliver pathos and laugh out loud comedy with a host of already beloved characters. The second season expanded on the past of the ghosts within the house, but such is the depth created, there still feels like so much more to learn about them. Every time I feel like I’ve picked a favourite the focus shifts and I feel a certain warmth towards them all….OK, Jim Howick’s Pat is my favourite, but when everyone is given such great opportunity to shine it ends up being difficult to not love them all.

6. What We Do In The Shadows

Another off-beat comedy celebrating a second season that more than meets expectations, What We Do In The Shadows continues to be consistently hilarious. Colin’s Promotion may be one of my favourites of the season, although there’s no denying what a highlight On The Run was. Like Ghosts, What We Do In The Shadows affords all central characters equal time to shine, so while you may have a favourite, there’s no weak link. The season one reveal of Guillermo’s illustrious family history is followed up on wonderfully with Harvey Guillén’s performance being a real stand out.

5. The Twilight Zone

In any anthology series, there’s a sense of highs and lows as some episodes won’t please everyone. However, there’s enough of a hit rate to make Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone worth your time. In the second season, the show built upon doing interesting things with the format and bringing in numerous talented directors and writers. Meet in the Middle, Ovation, 8, A Small Town and Try, Try all worked with the latter featuring a genuinely disarming performance from Topher Grace.

4. Des

ITV know their way around a drama based on notorious British criminals and Des was another success. Based on the crimes of Dennis Nilsen, Des picks up as his crimes are discovered, so avoids too much gratuitous detail. David Tennant inhabits the role with an uncanny similarity in looks, but more importantly, attitude, with his take on the serial killer bringing in his contrary, haughty manner of speaking that frequently confounded the police investigating the case. The moment where Nilsen calmly reveals how many bodies there may be is haunting and the drama critiques the way police of the time treated young gay men that allowed Nilsen to prey on victims for far longer. Daniel Mays does great work as the detective in charge of the case and Jason Watkins is his usual brilliant self as Nilsen’s biographer.

3. The Third Day

Dennis Kelly’s Utopia received the US remake treatment this year, but it was another of his UK/US co-productions that caught my eye. The Third Day borrowed from folk-horror but the 7-part format, with one section being an entire 12 hour livestream of an island festival allowed those tropes to be drawn out further. Hazy close-ups, an obsessive eye for detail and a daring performance from Jude Law made this TV to get utterly lost in. Autumn, the 12-hour long livestream featured one of the most genuinely cathartic moments I’ve seen this year as an actual festival with actual people played out in real time. A highlight of daring, textured TV.

2. I May Destroy You

I was a relative latecomer to Michaela Coel’s bold examination of trauma and consent but the hype was definitely worthwhile. The stand out episode for me is the finale, Ego Death, in which Coel’s play with expectations around how narratives like these are usually resolved reaches a cathartic peak. Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu provide immensely strong supporting performances as Arabella’s friends Terry and Kwame respectively. Each character is given an arc and as hard to watch as some of the content is, it’s difficult to pull yourself away. Addictive, brave TV.

  1. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark

Having read the book of the same name by Michelle McNamara, I felt I knew what I was in for with the documentary, but the framing of it as a study of Michelle as much as her work on trying to uncover the identity of the Golden State Killer was even more moving than I imagined. Testimony from victim families and survivors is harrowing, but never tips into anything too gratuitous. Seeing the survivors gather after his arrest is a sobering reminder of how many people were impacted and what a mark it has left on their lives. Using insights from those who knew her, including texts between Michelle and her loved ones it feels like a loving, but concerned portrait of her dedication to finding answers. Hearing Michelle’s Letter to an Old Man read out and knowing that it matched so much about how the killer was actually caught is a deeply emotional touch that makes you both grateful for everything she and those who helped her did and a sad reminder that she was unable to see it happen.

Favourite Feature Films of 2020

For last year’s favourites I chose 25 films as I’m terrible at choosing favourites and thanks to a variety of festivals had seen so many that a top 10 felt too narrow to celebrate all the films I wanted to. Despite the circumstances of 2020, particularly on cinema releases and physical festivals, there have still been a huge number of films worth celebrating. Plus, with all of the things we’ve all been denied this year for our safety and the safety of others, why not celebrate a few more. So instead of a top 10, here’s another top 25 of my favourites for 2020. Due to the way festival releases work, there’ll be some films on my 2019 list that were on wider release this year so any glaring omissions could be down to that. Other glaring omissions will be either a matter of personal taste or a genuine memory failure – I’ve yet to stop tutting at myself for forgetting Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale last year. Where I’ve previously reviewed a film, the title will link to my review.

On the subject of honourable mentions, I’ll throw in Eurovision, The Stylist, Relic, The Dark and The Wicked, The Lodge, Come True and the incredibly difficult to watch but important Welcome to Chechnya.

25. Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro

The first of the documentaries on my list, Nail in the Coffin followed the evolving life of wrestler Vampiro as he negotiated injury, parenting and his work in front of and behind the camera. An incredibly human documentary, both thoughtful and thoroughly engaging.

24. Small Axe: Mangrove

There may be debate around if the five films that make up Small Axe should be considered in the running for television or film lists. To be honest, I’m less concerned with any of that and more concerned with the overall quality of film-making from Steve McQueen. Mangrove hit hardest for me with its sense of urgent, breathlessness in the fight against unfair persecution.

23. The Invisible Man

Genuinely one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had while watching a film and I watched at home (having missed the cinema screenings prior to the first lockdown), so I can’t imagine the panic I’d have felt in a cinema. Elizabeth Moss excels and Leigh Whannell’s use of negative space is unmatched.

22. Disappearance at Clifton Hill

A film that embraces the dark side of magicians, ramps up the unreliable narrator tension and invites a host of strange characters and settings to create an absorbing thriller that unfoots the viewer as often as it puts them back on track.

21. Host

Horror films have always picked up on the status quo, societal concerns and have also embraced technology as a medium for providing further scares. Lockdown Brit-horror Host ticks all the boxes, situating its naturalistic characters on a Zoom séance that allows them to play with filters to excellent effect. All this contributes to a film that I jumped at regularly and had a very fun time with.

20. Feels Good, Man

At first glance a documentary about Pepe the Frog hardly sounds like the most engaging topic, but the journey that Matt Furie’s creation has taken is truly a modern cautionary tale about artists losing control of their creation. An alarming snapshot of the worst side of the internet and how that bleeds into very real movements, you’ll be struck by Furie’s gentle nature and how unthinkable that so much meaning can be drawn from one frog.

19. Benny Loves You

A definite hit at FrightFest’s October online edition, Benny Loves You is a completely joyful, lovingly crafted story about giving up childish things and the chaos that follows when they refuse to go quietly. I only hope that we get a full screening of this one day as it would be even more joyful to watch along with an appreciative crowd.

18. The Swerve

Placing The Swerve next to Benny Loves You seems absurd, given how totally tonally opposed they are, but this speaks to the variety of films that can be included under the horror banner. The Swerve includes a heart-breaking, shattering performance from Azura Skye as a put-upon mother who begins to crack under the sheer weight of being so underappreciated. An absolute gut-punch.

17. Kriya

A rattling critique of traditional gender roles set against a subversion of death rituals, Kriya stands apart with an incredible soundscape and feels genuinely subversive in the best kind of way.

16. His House

Launching on Netflix on Halloween, it feels like His House has been somewhat forgotten, which is a shame because as a study of trauma and guilt it is exceptional. Director Remi Weekes punctuates the challenges of two refugees arriving in the UK with flair, including dreamlike and startling sequences that pack a punch.

15. La Llorona

La Llorona, like His House perfectly utilises horror as a metaphor for social injustice, focusing on the trial and aftermath of a dictator accused of genocide. The film expertly crafts traditional scares but the scariest thing of all is the rest of the family coming to terms with the sins of their patriarch.

14. Parasite

I could hardly believe that Parasite was released this year when I looked back, but this dark comic class drama was definitely deserving of all the hype it received. Even more wonderful was watching Bong Joon-Ho thoroughly enjoy his time at award ceremonies as the film was continuously celebrated.

13. Rose: A Love Story

So many of 2020’s films seemed to focus on isolation and frosty relationship drama Rose was a particularly well realised take. Rose’s curious medical condition, her husband’s need to protect her and the toll it takes on their relationship makes for a slow-burn, melancholic horror that draws you in at every moment.

12. The Other Lamb

Frequently uncomfortable but totally mesmerising, The Other Lamb‘s study of a woman on a path of self discovery in spite of her position in a cult with an intense male leader. Raffey Cassidy and Michael Huisman both turn in superb performances that constantly feel on the cusp of something explosive. Stunning.

11. The Long Walk

Meditative, beautiful with an eye for small details this time-travel, serial killer film is immensely moving and packs a punch without needing to telegraph or over-explain anything. An excellent performance by a very young Por Silatsa is a particular highlight.

10. Swallow

Stylish, retro domesticity gives way to something far more empowering in Swallow, featuring a powerhouse performance from Haley Bennett as a woman who starts to swallow dangerous objects as a means of taking back control of her life. An incredibly brave film that follows through on the convictions it lays out.

9. Death Drop Gorgeous

This slasher gem set in the world of drag has plenty of sharp objects, but none as sharp as the barbs the performers throw at one another. Throwing in hagsploitation and a truly killer segment full of style this is definitely one to watch.

8. Make Up

Caravan park chills abound in this film of queer awakenings as Ruth (Molly Windsor) goes in search of the owner of a mysterious red hair in her boyfriend’s bedroom. I have never experienced a film that so expertly recreates the experience of realising you may not be straight and director Claire Oakley deftly weaves an intimate search for identity.

7. She Dies Tomorrow

While a film about a pandemic spread by anxiety may not sound like ideal viewing in an actual pandemic, Amy Seimetz’s exploration of coming to terms with death has a darkly comic streak and an incredible, standout performance from Jane Adams that makes it feel poignant for those who have suffered with anxiety and the various other emotions it sparks.

6. Synchronic (Director’s Cut)

Look, I’d have Synchronic on my list every year if I could, especially as it was number one on last year’s list, but it definitely isn’t cheating as Glasgow’s FrightFest event brought a new, director’s cut of the film to my very weepy eyes. The new cut improves upon the original version without losing any of the heart or impact of the initial one. The film is finally released in the UK by Signature Entertainment early in 2021.

5. You Cannot Kill David Arquette

A heart-warming, exhilarating documentary about David Arquette that speaks to his amazing resilience, incredible spirit while being almost woundingly open about his failings. An ultimately joyful film that celebrates those who work hard, have a good heart and wear their feelings on their sleeves that will ultimately result in an equal amount of laughs, awe and tears.

4. Lucky

One of few films I was grateful to see at home, rather than in a public cinema because this one really made me sob. Natasha Kermani’s piercing satire of how women negotiate day-to-day life felt like a rallying cry to anyone who has ever sat and wondered why they have to justify any of their choices. Packed with power, style and horror woman of the year Brea Grant, this was an excellent way to cap off the October edition of FrightFest.

3. Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg’s hypnotic exploration of autonomy, free will and surveillance contains a sex scene that I’ve been totally unable to remove from my mind since. The mental and physical metamorphosis undertaken in this film is totally incredible. Yes, the violence is blistering, but I keep returning to think about Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough’s performances more than that aspect. Sophisticated, stylised and confident.

2. 12 Hour Shift

Funny and sardonic, born of 1990’s urban legends, shot with some of the best fluid camera work and even managing to pack in a breath-taking musical number. Chloe Farnworth, Angela Bettis and Nikea Gamby-Turner all turn in accomplished performances that push forward this dark farce into increasingly fun, but no less heartfelt territory. Brea Grant’s writing and directorial talents really shine.

  1. Saint Maud

Yes, perhaps no surprise that a film I managed to see in the cinema takes the top spot. An incredible study of decline into mental illness with a religious edge. Morfydd Clark is totally stunning, delicate but unhinged. As a debut feature, Rose Glass has come out swinging and I cannot wait to see what is in store for her next.

SoHoHo Horror Film Festival 2020 Roundup

The SoHo Horror film festival was one of the first festivals to take a line-up online. Despite the usual annual festival taking place in November, the first online SoHome edition arrived in May. A second, Pride edition followed to celebrate LGBTQ+ horror – you can read my roundup of that festival here. UK government restrictions scuppered plans for the November festival, despite the safety measures being taken making the event as safe as possible, so another online festival was arranged instead. Finally, the SoHoHo Horror Festival was arranged for just before Christmas, complete with a Winter-tinged line-up and extra thoughtful events for attendees like a Secret Santa gift exchange, live Strong Language and Violent Scenes podcast watch-along plus a virtual quiz. Incredibly, all of the festivals have been run on a donate-what-you-can basis, rather than a set ticket cost, making it one of the most accessible festivals, especially in light of furlough and job losses caused by the pandemic. For more information on SoHo Horror Festival please check out their webpage. As in other posts, if I’ve not seen something, you won’t see it here.

Each of SoHo’s features are paired with a thematically similar short that definitely assists in getting you into the right frame of mind for the upcoming feature. The first short Lower World was a proof of concept for a feature, using retro sci-fi trappings to have a more contemporary conversation about anxiety. I can definitely see how this could become an excellent feature as the idea develops. Gremlins: Recall was up next – a Gremlins fan film to get us all in the mood for Gremlins: A Puppet Story. I’d not really put too much stock into fan films previously, but the standard of this was very high and kept so much of the spirit of Gremlins that it hit all the right notes. Gremlins: A Puppet Story was a lovely, gentle film for a horror festival, in which special effects artist on the film Chris Walas takes a kind of guided tour of creating the puppets for the films. Detailing some of the challenges and triumphs, this was a wonderful and often emotional journey through the craft.

In the next slot I was only able to catch short film Naughty, a wicked tale of a man dressed as Santa up to no good who meets his match in a very unexpected way. Next up was the secret film slot, preceded by the short Landgraves. Landgraves follows a journalist assigned to interview a metal band after their release from prison. What follows is an incredibly tense tale about the nature of myth-making, male intimidation and violence. The reveal of The Oak Room as the secret film made perfect sense and the two match perfectly as wintery tales bolstered by their sense of isolation and exploration of story telling. My last slot for the first day was Santa Jaws, a film sweeter than its title portrays, about a boy who brings a Christmas-themed super shark to life and then desperately needs to stop it from killing all those he loves. Again, the pairing of the shorts around this worked very well with cute, but deadly claymation The Predator Holiday Special and ultra-silly and ultra-gory La Ultima Navidad Del Universo providing an energetic intro to the lighter tone of Santa Jaws.

Day two began with possibly one of my favourite shorts of the year, in No Thank You, presenting the most realistic (for me at least) version of an apocalyptic scenario I’ve seen in some time. This proved to be an excellent starter to Witness Infection – a reasonably light-hearted zombie film where the undead interrupt a disagreement between rival mob families. Plenty of laughs and some outstanding moments of gore made for an excellent introduction to day two of the festival. This was followed by one of my most anticipated events – a traditionally Christmassy reading of Ghost Stories, offering the perfect opportunity to get comfortable and spooky. The line-up of guests were excellent and this was such a lovely thing to enjoy with an alcohol-spiked drinking fudge.

Following this was a preview of Snow Falls, a forthcoming cabin-in-the-woods film which offered a glimpse at some scenes of body horror and paranoia that looks like it could become a winter favourite. In addition, Fear Of The Woods was shown – a high-gloss, visually impressive chiller about a search in the snow for what may be attacking a town. An absolutely blistering jump scare that nearly took me out of my seat bodes well for a feature-length version of this. Maintaining the snowy cabin theme, Winterskin was up next. Incredibly impressive effects and curious characters make this a wild, campy time that I’m reluctant to say too much about so as not to spoil the effect for others. The penultimate slot featured short film The Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre which excellently skewered the necessity of some men to explain everything to women, along with a ‘not all men’ punchline that really works. Aside from the central message, the gore is great and the design of the cabin is thoughtful, evoking the feel of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Staying in the realm of gross-out humour, Thirst, an Icelandic horror about a gay vampire teaming up with a lonely woman against a cult uses a tongue-in-cheek tone and heaps of very specific acts of violence to create a gleefully off-kilter film. You’ll never look at a hot dog in the same way again… The closing gala was Deathcember, a collection of short films in advent calendar format bringing together numerous creatives. As with collections before it like The ABCs of Death, Deathcember is a mixed bag. With a run time of over two and a half hours some entries would benefit from trimming, but as an ambitious project this is something to celebrate even if everything is not to your taste. My standouts were All Sales Fatal, Joy To The Girls, Getting Away From It All, Five Deaths in Blood Red and Milk and Cookies.

Overall, this pre-Christmas entry summed up everything about SoHo Horror Festival, community-based, thoughtful, more than a little queer and a celebration of the variety the horror genre has to offer.

Fractured Visions 2020 Festival Roundup

Despite being held reasonably close to where I live, the stars have never aligned enough to allow me to attend Fractured Visions Film Festival, despite always being impressed by the line-ups. With the festival moving online for 2020, this allowed me to take part for the first time and happily, with the festival scheduling in regular Zoom chats between films, was able to meet a few regulars and catch up with known faces too. For more information on the festival please check out their webpage. You can also check out https://www.fracvis.co.uk/ to keep up to date with the distribution company. As with the other write-ups, if something isn’t referenced, I didn’t manage to catch it, so can’t comment.

Each feature film played with a short film, which is a feature I always enjoy as part of film festivals. Short films often don’t get the attention they deserve so placing them alongside a feature allows for more eyes on them and it is always interesting to see thematically similar ideas play out in different forms. First up was Sleep Tight, a short with an excellent command of building tension, a heartfelt relationship between a father and son, with a darkly comic punchline. This was the perfect lead-in to *deep breath* 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (Number 1 Will Blow Your Mind). At first a tremendously well-observed skewering of Vice-style jaded hipster content creation that despite some late second act drag manages to stay engaging and fun. It is unsurprising that this ended up the festival favourite. Next was Swipe – an effective short that combined the perils of online dating that managed to convey the sense of being followed to an uncomfortable degree. The second feature was Let It Snow. Throughout virtual festivals, there have been some films that would benefit from a cinema screening and Let It Snow definitely falls into this category. Despite a few interesting moments, the narrative of this wasn’t really for me, but the spectacle of ultra-bright snowscapes would have been far more absorbing on the big screen.

The third screening was the pairing of Ghost in the Gun and Luz: The Flower of Evil. I’d been lucky enough to see Luz previously and you can read the full review here. Ghost in the Gun made for a fitting companion to Luz, with incredible use of colour and a fevered tone dominating both. The last two screenings also featured films I had already seen and reviewed – Detention and Homewrecker, so I was able to focus on the shorts paired with them. Desecrated was an atmospheric film set in a morgue which has some of the heaviest ‘please don’t put your face on that’ moments I’ve ever witnessed. Last up for day one was Waffle, a quirky short about a waffle company heiress struggling with loneliness. Like its slot bedfellow Homewrecker, Waffle straddles the line between silly and sinister to great effect.

Day two kicked off with eventual winning short of the festival, Bad Hair. This body horror has a real sense of texture in both visual and audio terms that makes every happening all the more unpleasant. Would love to see this with a crowd for the reaction to some of those wince-worthy set pieces. This was followed by Victim of Love – a neon-soaked, drug-fuelled noir about a man seeking answers about his fiancée’s disappearance. The presentation of anxieties about male violence are intriguing here, but it plays its hand slightly too early to be effective and those tired of the disappeared/dead woman as driving narrative force will not find anything to change their mind here. The last film of the festival that I’d seen previously was spooky sleepover Let’s Scare Julie and as I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on this in the FrightFest roundup, I won’t repeat them here. This was paired with short film Stucco, a story about agoraphobia made skin-crawlingly literal with wonderful, unnerving effects.

2Night proved a jumpy affair that I don’t tend to enjoy, but there was also a sense of the uncanny within it that did draw me in. I felt similarly about Atakan, a film that on the surface, should be entirely my thing: tunnels? check. state-conspiracy elements? check. However, I found Atakan didn’t quite hit the right notes for me, falling victim to more shaking camera work rather than more skilful ways of handling the scares. However, as with many film festivals, if one slot doesn’t work for you, there will definitely be something that does fairly soon. This was certainly the case with the next slot of Buffalo and Trout and Breeder. Buffalo and Trout features a close-knit relationship between two drug addicts tasked with stealing from a white supremacist’s house. Brooke Coleman and Carlye Tamaren have brilliant chemistry that allows you to believe in their relationship instantly. The presentation of a drug-induced disassociation worked incredibly well and it is an idea I could see easily adapted to a feature. The penultimate film, Breeder was introduced in terms of the New French Extremity, which definitely had my attention, being a huge fan of films like Martyrs. Breeder‘s idea of a cagey organisation specialising in anti-aging technology hiding something more sinister underneath is a seductive one. While it lacks the rug-pull effect of something like Martyrs, there are very favourable comparisons to be made to impactful vegan short film The Herd. In some ways, Breeder would benefit from being a shorter film, as there are numerous lulls in action that slow everything down and that lull means that even some of the more transgressive moments lose some of their bite, but there is still plenty to like here. The final feature of the weekend was Ten Minutes to Midnight, which I won’t go into too much as I’ve outlined some thoughts as part of the Grimmfest post. However, I found that watching Ten Minutes a second time, knowing more about the film allowed me to appreciate many more small details and the overall impact of the sombre, close to confessional scenes hit much harder.

Attending the Fractured Visions Festival online gave me a whole new appreciation for having such an excellently curated festival so close to home and I’m very much looking forward to being able to attend in person, as soon as things are safe to.

Abertoir Festival 2020 Roundup

The Abertoir Horror Festival takes place in Aberystwyth, usually in November of each year, with the Aberystwyth Arts Centre as its home. Obviously, the virus made this impossible so the festival was taken online. The main thing about Abertoir has always been the intimacy of the event, aided by a small location and a dedicated festival staff who are always concerned with the comfort and experience of attendees. The online experience for Abertoir felt reflective of the physical festival, with open Zoom rooms allowing for people to pop into the ‘bar’ to chat between films and their usual talks and contributors included in the programming. The festival also sent out goody bags before the event, containing a printed booklet, sweets to enjoy during the Bad Film Club event and other treats that you’d usually have from attending. This definitely made you feel more like you were going to an event and enhanced the communal aspect that the festival has. For more information on Abertoir, please check out their webpage.

Everything kicked off on October 28th with a pub quiz, which served as a great introduction to the festival and as it was not placed within the festival itself, allowed for the overruns that the quiz is well-known for. The 29th was the first day of films, opening with the excellent and emotive Relic. This was followed by a talk by Gavin Baddley – a fixture of Abertoir, this time discussing decadence. A timely talk, given the theory that decadence follows periods of deprivation to give everyone something to look forward to in 2021. Next up in the films was Blood Harvest, a film I’d previously reviewed under previous title The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, after it was changed from The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw, which I still feel makes for the better title. Perfectly placed as the late night film was The Reckoning, a frequently ridiculous and bawdy take on the witchfinder genre. A tacked on message at the end about the cruelty of the period lacks weight because it follows so much excess within the film but that’s a reasonably small complaint in what operates as a fun enough late night film with a moment involving a horse and cart that made me cheer.

The second day brought two talks that were made available on demand for the duration of the festival in the form of festival director Gaz Bailey’s ‘Director’s Cut’ of a talk performed at an earlier event on the history of 42nd Street and Tristan Thompson’s A to Z of TV Horror. Informative with plenty of wonderful photographs, clips and insight, these were excellent talks to be able to revisit throughout the weekend and demonstrate the strength of having such passionate, knowledgeable people tackle their specialist subjects. Next up was Three Skeleton Key, a radio play starring Vincent Price that serves as a further reminder of the dangers of allowing men to entertain themselves in lighthouses. Charmingly illustrated, this was an excellent way to pay tribute to Abertoir’s patron saint. Following this were three films I’d seen previously, in the form of 12 Hour Shift, Detention and Kriya. All three films really show the usual variety that can be expected from the festival and I was thrilled to see Kriya shown as I feel this is probably one of the films that deserved more highlighting than it has thus far.

October 30th kicked off with a documentary The Witch of King’s Cross, focused on the life and art of Rosaleen Norton. Combining interpretive dance and a wealth of well-informed talking heads, this was another typically Abertoir film selection, offering a celebration of a lesser-known, counter-culture figure that you emerge from genuinely feeling like you’ve learned something new and have a new rabbit hole to explore. The film’s use of dance really enhances Norton’s grasp of art and occult imagery that works so well. This was followed by excellent, snowy psychological film Bleed With Me, which wears its slow burn with pride. A usual fixture of the festival is the short film competition and for me, the eventual winner of the competition Smiles was my favourite. The totally charming Live Forever would have been my runner up. That the festival still managed to provide an opportunity to vote on a selection of great shorts is really wonderful. The next event was the first classic film screening with Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? and I’ll admit to not having a huge amount of knowledge about Italian horror, particularly the Giallo film. The soundtrack of this film has really stayed with me (for better or for worse) and felt like another film I may not have sought out independently, but am glad to have seen. An Abertoir regular event was to follow in the form of Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club. Rather than an entirely live commentary, a pre-recorded one was used over the chosen film to eliminate too many technical difficulties. As the Bad Film Club encourages viewer participation a chat box remained open to allow everyone to vent their frustration at Bait, a shark attack film set in a supermarket. As always, Nicko and Joe do an excellent job in making these films more palatable and enjoyable.

Having a horror festival take place over Halloween is ideal as it means I didn’t have to agonise over my Halloween viewing choices and was more than happy to let the Abertoir team curate for me. Kicking off with the World Premiere of Tales of the Uncanny, a documentary/countdown about the best horror anthology films. Filled with a variety of talking heads offering their opinions and anecdotes, this gem manages to serve as both an excellent introduction and history of the format as well as a more in-depth study of them that will suit both newcomers and more seasoned fans. It is this careful balance across experience levels that likely led to it being crowned the audience favourite of the festival. The second film was another rewatch for me, but Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is such a wonderful, exhaustive interview with Friedkin that I feel like I could watch it again and again and still come away with some new, brilliant detail. Alexandre O. Philippe’s visual essays on films like Alien and Psycho are on another level to many documentary presentations and he manages to maintain this style, driven by Friedkin’s energy and multiplicity of cultural reference points. Historia de lo Oculto served as the first narrative feature of the day. A Spanish-language film about a group of researchers seeking to unveil a government conspiracy that felt very much a film of two halves where one half is ultimately superior. The sections of the film that take place on the show (60 Minutes to Midnight) within the film are incredibly effective, with the on-screen countdown enhancing the tension considerably. The behind-the-scenes elements tend to slow the pace and detract from that tension – there’s nothing quite as urgent as a ticking clock, after all. The film itself is effective and definitely uses its monochrome look to add to the effect, rather than just as style without substance. Next up was a talk on horror in video games. As I’m not a gamer I can’t comment on the depth of the talk, but I definitely felt like I came away knowing more than I did going in and I also had a lot of fun listening along. The last feature film of the day was Anything For Jackson, a ‘reverse exorcism’ film that focuses of the grief of two grandparents. The film takes an interesting concept and sets about exploring this maddening grief with sensitivity, but somehow manages to interject genuinely jolting moments of horror and even absurd sections of humour to create something that feels very fresh, engaging and scary. Last up was a comedy set from Robin Ince, following an excellent performance at last year’s festival. Ince’s frenetic rattling through Guy N Smith books, poetry about jam and almost anything else you could think of seemed even more fitting coming from an attic room where it felt like almost any curio was at his disposal. As with the other talks, there is a joy in watching someone talk about something they are incredibly passionate about.

Not content to have the scares stop at the end of October, Abertoir’s final day took us all into November in style. Kicking off with a Jess Franco double bill that included She Killed in Ecstasy, packing in questionable style in terms of clothes and decor, seduction and murder as well as Stephen Thrower’s documentary In The Land of Franco. While I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge of Franco films, the documentary worked as an informative and visually impressive tour of Franco’s locations and again, showed that there are few things that work as well as allowing someone passionate and informed to take the reins. In a complete change of direction came The Returned, Laura Casabé’s brutal, unflinching look at colonial violence. Beautifully photographed without losing any of its edge, this is an immersive and often nightmarish film. With the relentlessness of The Returned likely weighing heavily, scheduling Silent Shorts with Paul Shallcross was an excellent move, allowing everyone to recover. Paul Shallcross always presents these silent short films with a well-researched enthusiasm and sitting to listen to his compositions for the films is one of the most cosy, endearing film festival traditions. Next up was an audience with Roger Corman, being interviewed by Victoria Price. That such a chat felt so intimate, despite the circumstances is an absolute testament to the way that festivals can make people feel comfortable, included and safe. Corman was engaging, bringing his wealth of experience to a chat I could have happily stayed listening to for much longer. The final film of a festival is always bittersweet, given that it is usually a highly anticipated film (certainly true of Come True), but also that it signals the end of the experience that everyone has been sharing. Still, Come True, with its dreamy soundtrack and incredible, distant, yet engaging dream sequences made for a fitting end to the festival. A follow-up Q&A session with writer/director Anthony Scott Burns was an insightful, carefully considered discussion on film-making, including some fascinating readings of the film.

Overall, Abertoir continued to offer a high quality festival that retained the sense of community it has become known for. I can only hope I’ll still be able to get a ticket next year with all the interest the virtual festival has sparked.

FrightFest October 2020 Round Up

This is the second of my end of year virtual festival round up posts dedicated to the festivals that have made an incredible effort to move their content online this year in response to the loss of physical festivals and the ability to gather safely. The post covers FrightFest’s second digital event of the year after it became apparent that their planned physical festival could not go ahead as planned. For more information on FrightFest events, please check out https://www.frightfest.co.uk/. As in the Grimmfest post, if there are any gaps in the films here as presented on the schedule, it likely means I’ve missed them so can’t comment.

First up was Held, a study of a couple whose troubled marriage is further tested when they are imprisoned in a vacation home and taken over by a shady Voice that begins to enforce traditional gendered roles on the pair. Clearly riffing on things like The Stepford Wives and nods towards Get Out, the concept is a good one, but some moments felt slightly too telegraphed to have the desired impact. The technical elements were of a high standard and I feel a little like I’d have appreciated them further in a cinema environment. Next up was The Sinners (renamed from The Color Rose), a stylish teen thriller about the coming of age of teenagers referring to themselves as The Sins. This one was an interesting one, with early scenes feeling like it would be a front-running favourite of mine for the festival, however, it struggles to sustain itself in any significant way and the third act suffers most for this, which is a shame given the strong start and the introduction of an interesting concept.

October 22nd kicked off for me with Stranger, a stylish but almost entirely incomprehensible film about a missing synchronised swimming team that soon becomes something else entirely. Honestly, I don’t think it is just the time passed that means I can’t recall a lot of it as I remember being almost entirely confused by it at the time. Still, I’d far prefer to sit through a film that tries something different, rather than one that follows familiar ground with no flair, so this was a welcome, if not entirely favourable watch. Following this was the more straightforward, The Banishing – a ghost story with a keen sense of history that it uses to make a more urgent point. Jessica Brown Findlay gives a great performance as Marianne, a woman whose marriage to a reverend is based on convenience and duty than any real connection. Her search for history within the house starts to unearth hidden crimes and the scare factor is considerably raised by some excellently crafted jumps and play with time and space. The following day I was only able to watch Babysitter Must Die and found it to be an energetic and charming, comic-book tinged effort.

The first film I chose for the Saturday was Heckle. Any one who has read this blog for a while will know that I always try to find the good elements in something I’m reviewing, by way of balance. However, Heckle makes that very difficult for me. The idea of a heckler that turns to something more sinister is not a new idea, but certainly placing it in a slasher context felt worth seeing. Unfortunately, the film’s tone is too unbalanced, messy and overlong without a sympathetic protagonist to bind it all together. The production values are also an issue, rendering some scenes too dark to see the detail. Still, there was a decent enough soundtrack and meant that the day could only get better. Happily For The Sake of Vicious offered something entirely different, again using limited locations but an incredible attention to detail in small-space fight choreography. The early dialogue-based section of the film deals in incredibly uncomfortable material and certainly the violence on display, as quick-fire and grisly as it is, retains that sense of unpleasantness and high stakes. The next film offered a very different tone with a take on the dangerous toy subgenre in Benny Loves You. Clearly a labour of love, Benny Loves You is an absolute triumph – the design of the titular Benny is excellent, the comedy is pitch perfect and it manages to fit in moments of genuine emotion too. There are still small moments from this film that pop into my head every now and then that always make me laugh. This would have been an excellent screening with a crowd and I really hope there’ll be a rerun of this when cinemas are a viable option again. Last up was Let’s Scare Julie, advertised as a no-cut film, which while technically not true (minimal, certainly), doesn’t diminish the impact of the film’s scarier moments. The young cast are excellent and the appearance of adlibbing means the girls speak to one another like young girls actually do, which does a lot to enhance this spooky sleepover outing.

The final day began with The Funeral Home, an Argentinian horror that feels like a slightly more subtle answer to big budget jump scare films like the Insidious franchise, although much is clearly borrowed from them. Numerous effective scares work well, but it is a moment late on that doesn’t deal in horror at all that really stopped me in my tracks. Again displaying the variety of horror on offer, my next watch was Slaxx, possibly most notable for being ‘the killer jeans movie’. This was preceded by Little Willy, a short that deals with the perils of horror film notoriety by basing its action at a horror convention, with the cameos that allows for. Slaxx works to strike a difficult balance between its comedic sensibilities and the larger message it seeks to portray, both leaning into the ridiculous nature of killer jeans and the very real risks at the centre of fast fashion practices and ethical concerns. Last up for me was Lucky, the latest film from Natasha Kermani and starring Brea Grant, who is having an absolutely exceptional year. A pitch-black satire on the nature of being a woman, apologising for taking up space and the decisions taken to keep safe, I’ll admit that there’s a section of this film that hit me so hard I was sobbing. This is probably an advantage of virtual festival in that I didn’t end up making a spectacle of myself in public, but I do love when a film hits absolutely the right notes for you. I was so glad to end the weekend on this film as it is just such a strong, confident film.

I’m a relative newcomer to the FrightFest experience, having attended my first event in 2019 and the Glasgow event earlier this year in March. Bringing such a big, celebrated event to an online format is not easy, so that the organisers were able to do this twice, after the disappointment of not being able to run physical events is a real achievement. I look forward to the time when the whole experience can unfold in person again.

Grimmfest 2020 Festival Round-Up

The inability to run physical film festivals this year has no doubt been a blow for festival organisers, venues and film-makers, who lost the main way to show their films to an audience. In response, numerous festivals took their line-ups online instead as a much-needed return to the normality of sitting in the dark for several days, consuming as much horror as possible. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few of these so coverage will be coming in throughout the rest of the year. Due to the setup of watching from home, it isn’t always possible to see every film, so if you notice something on the schedule that isn’t covered here, it’ll be that I was unable to watch and therefore, can’t pass comment on it.

This time, it is the Grimmfest 2020 edition, running from 7th – 11th October. You can check out the schedule here. Grimmfest have also run a Halloween edition (reviews for Spare Parts, Homewrecker and Beast Mode from that event), a recent Christmas edition and will run an Easter event in 2021 that you can check out here. In contrast to some Eventive festivals, the Grimmfest selections were available to watch at any time throughout the weekend, rather than on a limited schedule.

Purchasing the full pass allowed you access to some exclusive passholder content, available from the first, through the last day of the festival. Out of these I managed to watch The Altruist and Hungry Joe, both shorts that definitely should be watched outside the confines of any meal times. The Altruist portrayed a nightmarish vision of co-dependency with some incredible effects work that packed a visual and aural punch. Similarly, Hungry Joe tackled control between parents and children, packing in several small, grisly details that furthered the horror. Lastly, I caught Patrick Is Outside, a very different film to the others I’ve mentioned, moving from effects and visceral horror to the oddness of family rituals that uses its normality and matter-of-fact nature to gradually dial up the creep factor. Having access to these throughout the festival was a welcome addition. The only other film I was able to catch on the first night was the fantastic 12 Hour Shift, which I’ve already reviewed here and was a total joy to see again.

The second day offered three features, the first of which was The Special. A very adult Twlight Zone-style tale that took aim at toxic masculinity while also exploring the destructive and damaging nature of addiction. The two themes collide, each pushing the other a little further each time to create a grim, if astute portrait of a man becoming completely reliant upon gratification at the expense of all else. Next up was Unearth – an eco-horror that explored the concerns around fracking, the capitalisation of big business on small town families and the balance between humans and nature. Unfortunately, Unearth takes a little while to hit its stride, becoming perhaps too concerned with interpersonal relations early on and never quite feels like it moves out of first gear. Next up was They Reach, a retro-styled teen horror on the cusp of the 1980s and definitely invoking that desire for nostalgia. The young cast do good work here and there’s plenty of charm.

October 9th brought a screening of The Oak Room. Cody Calahan’s minimal locations and relatively simple setups allow for a layered story about the nature of storytelling. Excellently crafted, with a standout performance by RJ Mitte, The Oak Room delivers a chilly tale of interwoven male relationships that manages to remain incredibly engaging, despite the relative simplicity of the concept. The Female Icons horror panel offered multiple perspectives from women in horror, including performers like Caroline Williams, Kelli Maroney and Pollyanna McIntosh sharing their experiences of working in the industry. With the depth of roles in horror for women, these chats work excellently for checking in on how experiences are (or aren’t) changing and the work still to be done, in addition to celebrating horror itself. Next up was a personal highlight for me, with Grimmfest bringing Lance Henriksen in as part of the Q&A for The Unhealer. While his role in the film is more or less a cameo appearance, having the opportunity to hear him speak was a great deal of fun. The film itself was fun, well-paced with some excellent and brutal effects, focused on a bullied teenager who develops the power to inflict damage on his tormentors. With a second and third film in development, this looks to be an interesting potential franchise. Last up for the day was An Ideal Host – a quirky, funny Australian sci-fi/horror comedy about a dinner party gone very wrong. Through virtual screenings, there have been some films I’d really like to watch with an audience and this definitely fits the bill with some well-observed comedy and interesting effects.

October 10th started with frosty identity sci-fi I Am Ren that packed a punch, given its short run time of 75 minutes. The use of technology to explore identity and consequences, allowing for a detached viewing of horrific events worked incredibly well. Very much like Black Mirror in terms of tone, production and content I Am Ren offered a great entry into the canon of films exploring the intersection of technology and identity. Ultra-dark Rent-A-Pal followed on with the downbeat tone in its exploration of a lonely man who finds a connection with a video friendship service. A deeply unsettling and emotive view of male loneliness and how that isolation can open a gateway to toxic cultures and characters. The incel feels like a modern creation, but Rent-A-Pal‘s decision to have the film take place in the 1990s allows for an analog version of the same methods used to draw in unhappy young men now. Brian Landis Folkins excels as the David and Wil Wheaton provides an excellently sinister turn as the videotape companion. The next film Monstrous offered a more female-driven story in a film advertised as a Big-Foot movie, but that very quickly becomes something else entirely. This switch has clearly been a point of division for some and if you are seeking a creature feature, this won’t be for you, but I found the direction it takes to be a refreshing one, especially with it involving LGBT characters too. Following this was an evening with Mick Garris as he was receiving the Grimmfest Lifetime Achievement award. As with the earlier female icons panel, this offered a great insight into the business of film-making. Last up was It Cuts Deep, a relationship drama with an emphasis on cutting, acerbic humour. Keeping the cast relatively slow allows the film to expand on the tensions between them and raise the stakes.

Unfortunately, I did miss out on some of the events for the final day, but had previously managed to see Fried Barry (click for review). I did manage to watch both Ten Minutes to Midnight and Revenge Ride. Midnight is an example of a highly creative film that is not afraid to take risks and is all the better for it. Starring Caroline Williams as Amy, a woman soon to be replaced at her radio station job, this stylish offering explores the fear of aging, the sacrifices made for success using an isolated setting and a keen dialling up of strange elements. While the inciting incident is seemingly Amy being bitten by a bat, there is far more to this film than that suggests with so much thought given to style and construction. Last up, Revenge Ride offered a female-centric take on the biker film. Despite a formidable performance from Pollyanna McIntosh as the aggressive leader Trigga and a sympathetic performance from Serinda Swan this feels to outstretch even its short run time (73 mins). The ideas about sisterhood, self-protection and insular community are a little too shallow and some extended scenes of violence tend to feel a little repetitive bur it is interesting to see a film take on uncomfortable subject matter.

All of the films on display showcase the sheer variety of horror available and even if not everything is entirely to your taste, there’s still a feeling that there are numerous film-makers trying different, innovative things within the genre to a high standard. The efforts of the Grimmfest team in bringing the films, plus Q&As and other events to people’s homes at such a difficult time for many is greatly appreciated and I look forward to hopefully going to the physical festival at some point too.

Please check out https://grimmfest.com/ for more information on Grimmfest and future events.