Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro

Nail in the Coffin is a candid and close look at Ian Hodgkinson (and occasionally his alter ego Vampiro) as he reflects on his incredible life, his current adjustments and his future.

Synopsis: Semi-retired professional wrestler Ian Hodgkinson reveals the harsh realities behind the glamour of being in the world of wrestling as the infamous ‘Vampiro’. A Lucha Libre legend, Hodgkinson tells the astonishing story about his meteoric rise to fame in the 90’s and how it almost killed him. Yet none of that was as back-breaking as his current life-working behind-the-scenes as the Director of Talent for Lucha Libre AAA in Mexico City and Lucha Underground in Los Angeles, while simultaneously raising his teenage daughter Dasha in remote Northern Canada as a single parent.

Wrestling typically has ‘lifers’ and the damage that the business seems to inflict on them (and the behaviours undertaken to absorb that damage) means those lives can be somewhat protracted, while other performers engage in repeat ‘retirements’ that are only ever a call out away from coming to an end. The thread of the business being both addictive and leading to addiction is pulled throughout this film. The first time we meet Ian in the documentary, he is excitedly shouting instructions at a monitor while the wrestling action takes place. His intensity is immediately obvious as he directs the action, guiding cameras and performers to get the right result. But, he soon leaves for a position in front of the camera, as chants of Vampiro build. Immediately, it is easy to see how the lure of that level of support and interest from a crowd would be hard to resist. The film quickly slips into an exploration of his exhausting schedule, including a regular commute to Mexico from Canada and catering to his teenage daughter who he clearly adores.

His life story, even before becoming Vampiro is fascinating, including a stint working with a pre-scandal Milli Vanilli. Vampiro is born of Hodgkinson’s interest in horror and punk-rock. Despite being Canadian, it was the lure of lucha libre in Mexico that drew him to want to wrestle. Going against the tradition of wearing a mask, Vampiro’s heavy make-up, inspired by horror and punk-rock, stood out and his good looks made him popular with female fans leading to success and rivalries. It is explained that while athletic, he wasn’t able to do as many holds as others but made up for this with energy and charisma. Archive footage of him in these early days in frequently bloody, violent encounters and the ceremony involved in his ring persona is well-selected, including some incredible footage of other lucha libre performers and interviews for greater context.

It feels cliche to say that you don’t need to be a wrestling fan to enjoy this documentary, but the focus always returns to Ian’s inner thoughts and more importantly, his relationship with daughter Dasha. The openness and honesty in their interactions with one another and directly to the viewer really give an insight into their relationship. The early introduction to lucha libre as a colourful and unusual place gives enough context for the rest of the film. So too, does the decision to focus on Ian’s life attempting to leave Vampiro behind and retire entirely from in-ring action. The switch to working more in a production capacity offers a look that is rarely seen. Ian works as a director, choreographer and marketer of the wrestling events.

The film is imbued with a sense of brutal honesty. From Ian’s doctor making it clear that he “has to fucking stop”, to Ian’s assessment of being involved in wrestling being a constant balancing of – paraphrasing – alcohol, drugs, stupid people and ego. At one event, a large fight breaks out, forcing Ian to rush to separate performers – one of whom he candidly identifies as someone who scuppered part of his more highly-paid career. The scenes are always in contrast to those where he struggles to walk and are all the more challenging to watch as you know there is always a chance he’ll open himself up to further physical damage by more performances. Director Michael Paszt allows these scenes to play out without judgement, but also without cutting away from the harsh reality. Older footage of Ian with a younger Dasha is touching, creating a fully-formed portrait that it is impossible not to be moved by.

An enthralling story about one man’s incredible dedication to a business that has not always been kind to him and his further adoration of his daughter and wanting to create the best life possible for her. Despite numerous personal and professional setbacks, his drive to make it all work is impressive and frequently sad, especially as the physical toll of his career becomes clear. By the end of the film, you’ll feel like you have an understanding of him, but also want to reach out and tell him he’s doing a wonderful job. Stay with this one right through the credits too.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro is available from Indemand | Comcast | Spectrum | Charter | Dish | Sling TV | Vubiquity| iTunes | Google Play | Vudu | Xbox | YouTube | Amazon | Fandango Now | DirecTV | Breaker | Alamo On Demand.

A blu-ray release is available through Epic Pictures.

Spiral

Spiral is a rousing and emotive exploration of past trauma and ongoing prejudice.

Synopsis: A same-sex couple move to a small town so they can enjoy a better quality of life and raise their 16 year-old daughter with the best social values. But nothing is as it seems in their picturesque neighbourhood. And when Malik sees the folks next door throwing a very strange party, something very shocking has got to give.

Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) are a couple, who make the decision to move out of Chicago to a town, along with their daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). Aaron’s successful finances have been able to buy them an impressive house in a seemingly nice area where they can create a life for themselves. An early conversation between them and Kayla draws out the differences between the pair. Malik is younger and has lived more of his life as an openly gay man than Aaron, allowing him to relate to Kayla on more of her level. Aaron still appears on some level to be finding himself and due to his past serious heterosexual relationship is still able to ‘pass’ on some level without drawing too much attention.

Shortly after their arrival, the town starts to feel like an uneasy place, but Aaron soon finds some comfort with neighbours Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) and his wife Tiffany (Chandra West). While Aaron settles, Malik’s growing unease strains their relationship. As a freelance writer, Malik is not bringing in very much money, but his insecurities lead him to spend out on an expensive security system, driving a further wedge between them. As Malik’s grasp of what is real and what isn’t begins to suffer, there’s a sense that the men’s differences are threatening to overcome their similarities. Aaron’s experience has shielded him from the kind of treatment experienced by Malik and their comfort levels reflect this. As a result, Aaron feels slightly sidelined, but Cohen is great as the more reserved, but still likeable half of the couple. Laporte’s performance as Kayla is great too – she feels like a real teenager with her mix of cringing at her parents, occasionally bratty behaviour, but also a sensitive and caring girl who is prepared to defend her family at any cost.

Trauma (and almost certainly PTSD in Malik’s case) is keenly observed here with the first frames of the film introducing an event filled with menace. The fact that the totality of this event is revealed in fragments throughout the film furthers the sense of how traumatic it is. Car headlights act as intrusions on scenes and the soft snowfall gives these scenes a sense of dreamy detachment, despite the obvious horror. The film perfectly balances the supernatural scares with the real-world concerns and Bowyer-Chapman is incredible at illustrating the very real fear that comes from seeing slurs daubed on walls and other non-violent, but targeted events. Early on, following some mild embarrassment on Kayla’s part upon seeing Aaron in drag, Malik impresses upon her how important it is to live life out loud. This makes a later interaction between the pair all the more hard-hitting. For anyone who has ever felt the need to closet themselves for safety, it is a profoundly upsetting moment, sold entirely by Bowyer-Chapman’s quietly devastating performance.

By placing the action in 1995 it allows for the action to take place at a time when legislation for LGBT rights was being discussed and some discriminatory laws were overturned. However, it is also a volatile period where visibility of gay men could result in their deaths. The case of Scott Bernard Amedure, who was shot by a friend after revealing a crush on a TV show that very year shows how gay Americans were still very much at risk for living their lives openly. Later in the 90’s Matthew Shepard would be subject to a brutal assault that claimed his life. This idea that violence is never too far from the gay experience is a haunting one, all too sadly still present in today’s LGBT experiences. Spiral seeks to contextualise that violence and make pressing points about modern society and the continuing fear of the ‘other’. Colin Minihan and John Poliquin’s script feels vibrant, poignant and never over-written despite the depth of the content.

With the very real issues at the heart of Spiral, it is important to note how cleverly director Kurtis David Harder dials up the strangeness. There are elements of the supernatural and some incredibly striking horror imagery at work but these are introduced carefully. This subtle escalation means the viewer questions what is happening as much as the characters within the film, which is very effective. By the time the film moves to bigger scares, the reaction feels well-earned, even if a few definitely fall into the trap of loud noises for the sake of it.

Spiral makes for a difficult, emotional but important watch. Not afraid to confront societal differences and tackle a downbeat message, there are moments of hope and how important it is to retain that hope and drive movements to make things better.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Spiral premieres on Shudder on 17th September

NYAFF: Victim(s)

Technical skill and sensitive handling shine in this grim tale of shifting perceptions and secret lives of school teenagers.

Synopsis from IMDB: When both the victim’s mother and the murderer’s mother find out about the unknown sides of their sons, they have some tough decisions to make in this “We Media Era.” What we see may be the facts, but not necessarily the truth.

Victim(s) begins with a tragedy intruding on the mundane life of Gu (Remon Lim). Picking up the rubbish around her drunken partner she suddenly becomes aware that her son Gang Zi (Kahoe Hon) is not home. Gang Zi is a victim in a stabbing, in which he and two other boys are attacked. He is the only fatality and the other two boys are in hospital. The attacker is identified as Chen (Xianjun Fu) – a boy of an immigrant single mother who is a CEO of a video game company. Immediately his act is read as one of privileged violence: a boy who committed a crime because he could buy his freedom.

The film’s director Layla Zhuqing Ji perfectly captures the high energy and rapid spread of (mis)information in the aftermath of such an event. A scene in which the class discuss the attack via manic app exchanges, briefly interrupted by a pause to address a teacher who has put his shirt on inside out perfectly shows the way that people are able to go from spreading rumours about a horrible event to trivial matters in the blink of an eye. With the classmates seemingly consumed by the grisly details but easily able to shift out of it, it soon becomes clear that not all is right at the school. It is perhaps no surprise that the director chose to film in Malaysia, rather than China to avoid censorship. Her film tackles a multitude of taboos, including internalised homophobia, sexual assault and the evergreen issue of school bullying. Despite the sensationalised premise, the film handles many of these issues sensitively, not glorifying them, but allowing the space for their traumatic nature to impact the audience.

Victim(s) is by no means an easy watch and Zhuqing Li refuses to spoon-feed her audience in binary terms of good and evil. Critical of systems like class and how they influence people, there are layers to every character. Remon Lim is excellent as Gu, forced to reckon with an unknown side to her son following his death and grapple with losing her memories of him to her new discoveries. A short scene where she observes the other injured boys reunited with parents in the hospital is profoundly sad. Lim’s performance is subtle, allowing her discoveries and feelings to play out delicately across her face, rather than in large gestures. Lu Huang also impressive as Mei, Chen’s mother who is immediately made a target for media intrusion and angry backlash. Her immaculate appearance at the outset of the film is gradually stripped away as those around her whisper about her past and inability to parent. The film emphasises how willing society is to turn on the mothers as a reason for their children’s behaviours. Flashbacks detail their troubled encounters with men and it is the absence of father figures that align the opposing experiences of the teenagers.

The film’s teenagers are mostly played by older actors, perhaps a good thing considering the darkness of some of the events. Kahoe Hon as Gang Zi is able to exude a sense of fun and care in scenes with his mother, but equally is able to flip to unpleasant intensity when necessary. From the maturity of his performance it is difficult to believe that this is Xianjun Fu’s first film appearance. Chen is frequently vulnerable, but also has an antagonistic streak, with Fu often taking on the physical appearance of someone held together with thin thread. Wilson Hsu deserves plaudits for her role as Qianmo, a girl transferred to the school after being forced to leave her previous one. Quiet and studious, she’s immediately a target for bullies. What is key within the film is while much of the focus is on how the behaviour of the male students is aggressive and damaging, the female students are not innocent and partaking in their own bullying behaviours.

The use of flashbacks could be considered cliche, but here they work well to show the mother’s views of their sons as well as the interactions away from them and how the situation has escalated to the point of violence. Further than this, a scene set in the present with Gu, sat devastated in the bath seamlessly becomes a poignant flashback with a level of technical and emotional sophistication that adds to the device. The film cleverly utilises the language of cinema, rather than throwing in exposition in dialogue with things never said out loud confirmed through soft-focus close-ups. The violence of the attack is approached without glorification and moments following any bursts of unpleasantness (of which there are numerous) are punctuated by slow-motion sequences, allowing the viewer to process. The technical choices, including an incredible scene set in Chen’s prison cell all enhance the study of morality undertaken, bringing in almost magical elements. All this leads to an emotional and surprisingly simple but devastatingly effective finale.

A study of damaging masculine bravado, enhanced by technical skill and the use of film to tell the story in a unique way, Victim(s) deserves attention as a brave and thoughtful examination of the error of pointing fingers rather than aiming to understand.

Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars

Victim(s) played as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

What’s Coming For You Book Review

Synopsis: In these ten unsettling tales—the debut collection from Joshua Rex—cities and houses become predators, mothers macabre curators, dormant antique coats and colonial legends revivified dangers. A psychometress resurrects a rapacious fiend, and a psychologist counsels an eerily familiar patient. A man returning home to bury his father is forced to exhume a horrid secret, and a bullied adolescent’s game-winning shot is not only a team victory but a bloody and visceral personal triumph.

One of the strongest aspects of What’s Coming For You is the thematic link between all the stories. Rather than that link creating a series of stories that feel overly similar, the theme flows throughout while bringing in a selection of scenarios, characters and styles that add a sense of variety. Horror has always been a space for morality tales and the unravelling of consequences. Within the collection, buildings, spaces and objects are given a transformative quality with the ability to unearth hidden secrets. People are led by unseen but powerful forces to confront past tragedies and seemingly inanimate objects seek to find a renewed power with new owners.

Breakout Season, with its gradual evolution into dramatic body horror, The Unfinished Room‘s deeply affecting story and The Reveal‘s meditation on masculine rage and the resulting guilt were standouts for me. The Voice Below, as the collection’s longest entry hints at an ability to weave a more detailed, drawn out story without losing momentum. The protagonist, Martha is compelling and so the story that begins to unfold around her is tinged with sadness but layered as more characters begin to influence the story. It is something you could easily see being expanded into a full-length novel.

The idea of vengeful supernatural forces run throughout the stories but, as with many good horror tales, the basis is in human actions and reactions. Multiple stories put the reader in the position of the wrongdoer, the wronged and final story In Situ even directly confronts the reader. In Situ feels like the shortest, but its direct address places the reader at the centre of the story for greater impact.

Excellently curated, this is a collection of stories that has emotional weight but doesn’t hold back in terms of the more visceral, gory and scary elements that make for gripping horror stories.

What’s Coming For You is now available to buy from Amazon. For more information on the author visit JoshuaRex.com

NYAFF 2020: Soul (Roh)

Soul is an atmospheric, taut exercise in tension, using an isolated setting and minimal cast to great effect in this Malaysian horror.

Synopsis: A brother and sister find a strange girl wandering aimlessly in the woods and bring her home to their mother. That was their first mistake. After spending the night she delivers an ominous prophecy: Their family will all soon die. Terrible things start happening and other sinister strangers show up, looking to seal their fates.

Soul (also known as Roh) has one of the most confrontational openings I’ve seen for some time in a horror film and very much acts as a mission statement for what is to follow. A young girl (Putri Qaseh) stands in front of burning homes before finding the outline of a recently buried body and repeatedly stabbing it with a knife. This initial jolt creates a discomfort that flows through the entire film, holding its cards close to its chest as it ramps up the tension and atmosphere.

After the opening scene, we join Mak (Farah Ahmad) and her children Along (Mhia Farhana) and Angah (Harith Haziq). The trio live alone in the jungle, with the nearest village across a river. Along and her brother Angah display different reactions to finding a deer hanging by a tree – Angah celebrating that it could feed them for a week and Along, more squeamish and concerned by picking up something that the jungle has already claimed. Indeed, Mak warns about taking things from the jungle but this doesn’t apply to a young girl they find and take in. At first, the new arrival seems entirely harmless and even vulnerable, but a jarring early morning horrific event and a grisly prediction turns the situation on its head.

It is cliche to say that a setting becomes another character in a film, but this really is true of Soul. The stunning photography makes the most of the unique setting, using primarily static shots that look up to open skies and across other terrain. That stillness is used to create incredibly effective shots in which a central figure in the frame is tracked by movement in the background. There is a tight control over the staging and what the film chooses to show at each moment is perfectly executed. The increasingly disturbing visions are given ample time to unfold and develop, meaning that you increasingly cannot trust what you see. It is a feeling that the film fosters, using mesh curtains and low lighting (often light from flames) to trick the eye. While there are a few loud scare chords, this is mostly a film where the scares are in the carefully coordinated details.

The cast are incredible, especially considering that three of them are child actors given challenging, dark material to work with. They are all so impressive it is difficult to single any out, but their performances show a real maturity and elegance. Mhia Farhana’s Along gradually turns up the volume to a performance with quiet intensity. June Lojong’s performance as Tok, a nearby healer who offers assistance to the family is wonderful, including a lengthy monologue that would so easily lose impact with a lesser actor but her level of gravitas is perfect and leads to a deeply layered and engrossing scene.

With echoes of the steadily building tension and isolation of The Witch, Soul is impactful, daring and dripping in atmosphere.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

SOUL (ROH) plays the New York Asian Film Festival from September 2 – 12. Check the NYAF page for more information.

FrightFest 2020: The Swerve

Heavy-hitting with a devastating performance from Azura Skye, The Swerve is a painful, visceral watch that plays on your mind well after its close.

Synopsis: In writer/director Dean Kapsalis’ stunning feature debut, a shimmering American take on Michael Haneke-style torment, a woman battles depression, rodents, guilt and more in a superbly acted slow burner certain to leave a haunting impression. Holly is a wife, mother, teacher, and daughter whose psychosis starts to crumble after she’s part of a deadly car accident. But did that actually happen or not? Just one of many things on her disintegrating mind, along with her difficult two sons, her very distant husband, a student in class who shows inappropriate interest and her ‘perfect’ sister who returns to the fold.

Some will question a film like The Swerve being programmed at a genre festival like FrightFest, given that much of its content suits the pace and style of an arthouse drama more than a horror genre piece. Despite that, the gradual sense of events about to turn tragic and moments of horror made this one of the most visceral and frequently difficult to watch films at the festival.

Holly’s (Azura Skye) position as a wife and mother is a profoundly joyless one. Her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is distant, often working late and her two sons have found themselves in their pre-teen and teen years honing a kind of obnoxiousness towards their mother that feels overwhelming and mostly unchecked. Holly’s life as an emotional punching bag for those around her is further complicated by her struggles with mental illness. Much of the film is based on Holly’s perception of what is happening around her, sometimes with flimsy evidence. She may be seeing things and perceiving events differently or just taking them to heart more than others, but each one is another small, deliberate chip at her mental state. Despite her job as a teacher, there’s a sense that she has little control of her own life and path.

A scene in which Holly confronts her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) about a previous incident with a pie is startling, mainly because it is one of the only times that Holly is given a louder voice and it speaks to Holly’s ongoing humiliation and that every single word and action is felt as another wound. Skye is fantastic in the role, with her rigid body movements and increasingly fragile features emphasising her position as a woman on the edge. While she is mistreated, she also turns that mistreatment on others, including Paul ( Zach Rand), a lovelorn student who takes an interest in her. Their scenes feel incredibly uncomfortable as both exude a kind of vulnerability that comes from a lack of agency. As her mental stability suffers, the film feels like a leaking tap, dripping small event after small event until it is almost unbearable and as viewers, we wait for the flood.

Director and writer Dean Kapsalis has done well to create this character study with all the ugly moments of a mental illness without it feeling exploitative. Skye’s face is intimately studied by the camera, taking in every strained detail. Skye’s total commitment to the role is obvious with her totally transforming as the film progresses. The film is not interested in definitive answers, offering numerous events without conclusion or confirmation and leaving them largely open to interpretation. For the most part, we see what Holly sees and the film is skilful in terms of when it chooses to alter that perspective to question her experiences. Every scene feels weighted, whether that be with sadness, longing or anger and the emotions radiate through the veneer of the respectable life that Holly has from the outside.

Some will call it a slow-burn and while that is accurate, sometimes slow burns can outstay their welcome. The Swerve is deliberate in filling its screen time with acts that become more tense and agonising the longer they are on screen. The editing is occasionally jagged, swinging in and out of Holly’s nightmares and inner thoughts. The stillness of the camera in some scenes allows the viewer to be fully absorbed in what is happening, lending it a claustrophobic quality. The film telegraphs fairly early on where it is headed, but this doesn’t detract from the power it has to punch the viewer in the gut when it arrives. A soaring score adds to the spell-binding nature of the film, making you feel absorbed into Holly’s painful existence.

The Swerve is a steadily paced descent into tragedy, unflinching in its mission to portray a woman slipping through the cracks unseen by society or those close to her. Azura Skye delivers a devastating performance that should be celebrated. The film is magnetic, making its visceral moments all the more effective. One to check out, but maybe with something more cheerful lined up to watch afterwards.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Swerve was shown as part of FrightFest’s 2020 Digital Edition. Follow The Swerve Twitter for more information.

FrightFest 2020: 12 Hour Shift

12 Hour Shift is an impressive, dark farce that hangs on cast charisma and interesting directorial choices.

Synopsis: It’s 1999 and over the course of one night at an Arkansas hospital, a junkie nurse, her scheming cousin and a group of black market organ-trading criminals get caught up in a heist gone wrong.

Illegal organ trading in a hospital may not sound like the basis for many laughs, but the acid-tongued dialogue of the hospital staff and the gradual escalation of chaos and farce involved manages to take the viewer on a journey. Brea Grant’s writing is sharp and the direction has a dynamic quality with plenty of energy and movement. The narrative need for a variety of characters to flow in and out of the film is handled with flair and confidence.

It should be no surprise to any indie horror fan that Angela Bettis is brilliant, with a knack for playing the permanently exhausted and sarcastic Mandy with a sense of empathy, without shying away from her darker side. Chloe Farnworth clearly relishes her role as the erratic, excitable Regina and is a joy to watch, even when things take a darker turn. The cast is rounded out by further excellent performances, especially the other nurses, with Nikea Gamby-Turner as Karen particularly deserving of praise. Her performance is relatively small, but she manages to convey everything you need to know about her character with the smallest of touches. Tom DeTrinis has a fun turn as a hypochondriac patient trying to gain a room in the hospital that offers some great interaction with the other characters.

Despite the clear-cut dark comedy, the film still manages to offer moments of deeply-felt emotion and pathos. In exploring the outset of the American opiate crisis as well as the treatment of healthcare workers the film’s chaotic action finds a grounding in something very real. The hospital and its inhabitants find itself at the centre of something much bigger – television news reports indicate that police have largely been taken away for Y2K preparations, there are discussions of criminal punishment and the way that characters stuck in these cycles end up making increasingly desperate decisions to stay afloat. To manage this sense of spiralling with genuinely funny moments is something very special.

There is a huge amount of dynamic movement in the film. Characters walk, strut, storm and even dance up and down the sickly-coloured hospital corridors in a way that feels instantly engaging. That energy is bolstered by near-operatic soundtrack moments that at first feel out of place, but soon come to add considerably to the escalating situation. Though it doesn’t unfold quite as real-time, the smooth transitions even when upping the ante and introducing more characters and ever more strange happenings lend it a sense of developing as you watch. It does this without resorting to static exposition, keeping everything constantly moving.

Ultimately, 12 Hour Shift is a cool, confident film that utilises offbeat humour and stylistic choices that come together with some wonderfully charismatic performances and a clear sense of vision. Brea Grant and her collaborators have created something very special that deserves attention.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

12 Hour Shift will be released by FrightFest Presents – stay tuned to their website and socials for further news.

Fantasia 2020: The Dark and The Wicked

The Dark and The Wicked is a scary and relentless film that puts its characters and the audience through the emotional ringer.

Synopsis: On a secluded farm in a nondescript rural town, a man is slowly dying. His family gathers to mourn, and soon a darkness grows, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that something evil is taking over the family.

Louise (Marin Ireland) and her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return to their family farm as it becomes ever more clear that their ailing father is about to pass away. Upon their return, the impending loss of their father is coupled with something more sinister that begins to plague them, their family and everything around them. The farm setting feels deliberately isolating but the force of the real fear at the heart of the film is that this could happen anywhere and to anyone.

Much like his work in The Strangers, director Bryan Bertino has a keen sense of the randomness that makes things scary. Ordinary people doing ordinary things are turned into unsettling set pieces and the story throws the viewer into the path of unstoppable, undeniable threat. The film swiftly abandons any notion of a safety net and entirely embraces overtly supernatural proceedings. Sinister strings on the soundtrack create an ongoing discordance and the entire soundscape of the film simply never allows you to relax. There are also moments of the soundscape that sound reversed, adding to the idea that something is not right at all.

There are numerous, loud, jump scares, but each one does feel justified and earned by the incredible way the film plays with perceptions of space that makes you second-guess where your next scare is coming from. The nature of the manipulations does lend itself to a few too many fake outs but when things actually happen, they do so with an unflinching level of detail. The ultra-slick editing both conceals and reveals at opportune moments and really is artful in creating disturbing moments. The farm setting allows for isolation and also the sense that death is part of that life, but no less devastating.

Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. both convince as siblings unravelling against the pressure of preparing to lose a parent. Among the committed horror trappings is a rather more delicate story about how universal the feeling of loss is and the toll that long-term caring can take on a person. Very early on there is a feeling of high-melodrama that fits with the discomfort of Ari Aster’s Hereditary and while the two aren’t directly comparable, certainly the totality of grief is on display. Xander Berkeley has an electric appearance as possibly the least comforting priest ever committed to screen. In fact, the entire cast are excellent, with Lynn Andrews deserving a mention for her turn as a dedicated nurse.

Sometimes, what you want from a horror film is for it to shake you, give your bones a good rattle and really go for something deeply unpleasant and profoundly scary. The Dark and The Wicked is one of those films.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Dark and The Wicked plays as part of Fantasia 2020.

Fantasia 2020: A Mermaid in Paris

Unapologetically syrupy and beautifully photographed, A Mermaid in Paris is a quirky love story with something deeper at the heart.

Synopsis: A man rescues a mermaid in Paris and slowly falls in love with her.

Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a singer who, along with the group The Barberettes performs in the club owned by his father. The Flowerburger has a long history as a site of resistance where people, termed The Surprisers. created a safe space for artistic expression and performance in the shadow of fascism. One night, while leaving Gaspard sees an injured mermaid (Marilyn Lima) and decides to try and take her to a hospital. After a sequence of errors, he instead decides to take her home, but her presence has already raised alarm .

Any time a film sets up the conceit that romance will blossom between two characters due to their proximity to one another after one is removed from everything they know, it makes me a little nervous. Happily, A Mermaid in Paris side-steps the more troubling aspects of those kind of stories. The love story that unfolds feels very organic, despite one of them being a mermaid. This is in part to Gaspard already inhabiting an almost other-worldly space where colourful and quirky objects are hoarded. The film is at least on some level a story about the magic and romance of objects and the stories they hold as much as a human/mermaid love story. A side-plot about revenge, grief and the future you thought you might have

Stunning set decoration and a dedication to detail in objects like a pop-up book make this a very easy film to be drawn into. It is, however, incredibly twee in places and if you have any kind of reservations about that kind of feel, it would probably be best avoided. The fact that Gaspard adopts a tuktuk as his primary mode of transportation (swapped from roller skates) early on tells you that the film is deliberately making very quirky choices. If you aren’t swept up in the design and world-building I can imagine this would be a source of annoyance for some. A sequence in which an entire room is turned into a stage show has echoes of something like The Bunny and The Bull, where the artifice adds to the meaning rather than being a stylistic choice alone. Similarly, a brilliant underwater sequence set in an aquarium has a real sense of magic.

The two leads have great chemistry, and Lima makes the most of a role that limits her movement and occasionally speech as mermaid Lula. Rossy de Palma as Gaspard’s nosy neighbour Rossy is excellent fun and her performance fits incredibly well as the louder, more extroverted person who comes forward to say everything that has remained unsaid. Her charisma really elevates a role that could so easily just become exposition. Romane Bohringer is given a darker role within the context of the drama and manages to bring significant gravitas without losing the overall energy of something essentially light-hearted. The film does explore trauma and the differing responses to it, from Gaspard’s complete shut down to any affection to Milena’s drive for revenge.

Full of pastel colours and eye-catching design, it is A Mermaid in Paris‘ deeper concerns that leave the largest impression. An underground club that protects art and the history of people and objects with the hope of changing the world feels like a far more romantic ideal than any love story could hope to.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A Mermaid in Paris plays as part of Fantasia 2020 and August 27th and 30th.

Fantasia 2020: Kriya

Kriya is an atmospheric, frequently provocative film about the role of gender within Hindu culture.

Synopsis: A young DJ, enticed into a beautiful stranger’s home, is terrified to find himself unable to flee from the death rituals he must perform on the bound and shackled corpse of her father.

Driven by director and writer Sidharth Srinivasan’s discomfort with Hindu and wider Indian culture’s emphasis of men as priority, with male offspring favoured and women expected to take a secondary role, often to their detriment. This discomfort is writ large across the film that displays a ritual that feels intimate, important and intimidating.

Neel (Noble Luke) is a DJ who meets Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) at a club. Their passionate connection is disrupted by Sitara’s sudden change of heart. Her father is dying and soon she convinces Neel to go with her to her home where a vigil has begun at her father’s bedside. What follows is a nightmarish descent in which family loyalties are questioned and sacred rituals are reversed in an increasingly transgressive and disquieting work.

The viewer is placed in the same situation as Neel – thrown into a deeply personal situation with no knowledge of the characters involved. That sense of intrusion, of being somewhere you shouldn’t be is so keenly felt throughout the film. As the reaction to him grows hostile, he repeatedly attempts to leave, but is convinced to stay by Sitara, who uses a mix of her sexuality and that she may be in danger to appeal to Neel’s masculine desires and need to protect. As her father has no male offspring, she is to take on the role of chief mourner and her duties weigh heavily on her, as does her devotion to her father. Both Navjot Randhawa and Noble Luke have great chemistry and this makes even the most uncomfortable reactions between the two really effective.

Filmed in 10 days after almost 10 years of Srinivasan’s initial ideas, Kriya turns the house into a pressure cooker. As rituals evolve, Sitara’s sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj) warns Neel that Sitara, despite her modern appearance is fiercely traditional, but as all the members of the family appear determined to manipulate him, it is increasingly obvious that Neel is alone and vulnerable. Furthermore, he begins to experience disturbing visions and a sense of being called by a figure covered in blood walking closer to him. The tense performances really hold this together and there is a palpable sense that violence or some other disruption is ready to burst at any time.

Complementing the film’s impressive and chilling visuals, Jim Williams’ score brings a similar energy to that of his work on Kill List. Sudden, solitary beats in the soundtrack snap the viewer out of the hypnotic lull that the lush photography and quieter moments provide, repeatedly unseating and adding considerably to the tension. Silence is wielded as a weapon, as are whispers and private conversations.

The rites are shot in close up, with a devoted attention to detail and beautifully realised photography but their perfection and the way they are meticulously carried out lends them a detached and often surreal quality. They are by turns incredibly respectful, laden with care and grief but also almost too still and distant. The strong emphasis on tradition and legacy provides the perfect setting for the story to steadily unravel, exploring the cyclical ways in which tradition can keep people restrained and controlled.

Kriya works both as a chilling horror film and as cultural critique that feels challenging and unsettling. A smart, methodical film with an intensely claustrophobic feel and dedicated performances to match.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Kriya plays Fantasia 2020 on August 26th and 29th.