Fantastic Fest 2021: The Exorcism of God

Jarring tonal shifts and an inability to truly dive deep on its central concept leave this feeling like a missed opportunity.

Synopsis: The story of “The Exorcism of God” follows father “Peter Williams”, an American exorcist who, being possessed by a demon he was trying to expel, ends up committing the most terrible sacrilege. Eighteen years later, the consequences of his sin will come back to haunt him, unleashing the greatest battle against the evil within.

Alejandro Hidalgo’s debut feature The House at the End of Time arrived in 2013 – a smart, supernatural horror with a sci-fi edge that hinted at a sharp horror-focused mind. The Exorcism of God marks his second feature and again, marks the director as someone keen to play with genre conventions and ideas, although to less success. It is clear that the point of the film is satirical, which does allow it some reprieve, but it still doesn’t work as an entire unit for the most part.

Will Beinbrink plays Peter Williams, who we meet in 2003 enduring a particularly difficult exorcism. Falling prey to a demon who seeks to corrupt him during the ritual, he is left shaken and desperate to redeem himself. In the present, his transgressions are never far from the surface, threatening to upend his now-stellar reputation.

Much of the problem with The Exorcism of God is in its tone. It is, by some turns immensely po-faced, serious and consumed with its own sense of morality, while on another, wishing to indulge in noisy, CGI-heavy effects to throw scares. Those two clashing desires make the material that should hit harder difficult to take seriously and while there are some hints at self-awareness in the performances, the overall package attempts to play both sides, but succeeds fully in neither. Even though this is satire, there is little to cling to – it makes its most obvious points quickly then has to spend much of the time re-treading the same points. The film doesn’t come with a trigger warning although most can hazard a guess at the priest’s central sin and this is not exactly dealt with in the most enlightened terms, with demonic sexuality pushed to the forefront.

Exorcism films are over saturated, meaning any new forays into telling those stories need to have something new to offer. The Exorcism of God does, in this regard explore something that has become apparent in the evolution of exorcism films that have strayed further into critiques of institutions, rather than viewing the Church as a remedy to all ills. This is a cheap plug for some of my previous writing that you can find here. In its foregrounding of a fallen priest as its core concept, The Exorcism of God has the potential to explore this in more depth, but can’t follow through on this, remaining on the surface for the most part. Beinbrink is solid in the lead role, having to command much of the runtime but it is difficult to connect to a character when the film doesn’t quite probe his state of mind enough. It also fails to interrogate his actions in any way approaching an acceptable level.

Stained nightdresses, contact lenses, throaty voices and contortions abound, particularly in the latter sections. There are a few images that work well and overcome the slightly cartoonish, easily parodied representations. The addition of so much overt sexuality is a bit of a surprise too, with possessed women taking on the characteristics of brides of Dracula, as opposed to the more conventional presentation. This definitely edges into the distasteful with little pay-off. This high energy and occasional dips into almost soap-opera style plotlines make for a strange mixture that may not land for everyone.

An energetic, imprecise take on the possession movie that provided you aren’t looking for anything profound and embrace its alternating schlocky and earnest tone you might well find something in.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

The Exorcism of God screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: Barbarians

A compelling study of male ego in a minimalist setting that grips from start to finish.

Synopsis: A dinner party in a country house that sees four friends come together for a birthday celebration. But as the night progresses secrets emerge and unsettling events begin to unfold around them.

Every now and then, a film appears that I adore watching but ultimately dread trying to review. This is certainly the case with Barbarians because it is one of those films that is likely best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible for the full effect to land.

The dinner party given a horror edge is one that follows a relatively simple formula, taking characters at odds and cocooning them together for an extended period of time. That this high pressure environment has given us gems like The Invitation means Barbarians sets itself some high expectations early on. Thankfully, the sharp scripting, dedicated performances and the attempts to shake the format to some degree makes Barbarians an absorbing watch.

Kicking off with a glossy advertisement starring Lucas (Tom Cullen), Barbarians quickly brings the viewer into the lavish, insulated surroundings of the characters. However, within those first few minutes has thrown its first disarming curve ball. It is this smooth surface occasionally showing glimpses of ugly horror that underpins the entire film, unseating the viewer in a way that continues with the escalations that the film has to offer. Despite providing an intense experience, writer/director Charles Dorfman weaves in plenty of dark, often awkward humour, making the conversations flow more naturally. The house that contains the film’s events is suitably showy, again placing a surface sheen with an underlying ugliness and threat.

Rattling through contentious dinner party conversation allows all the performers to really live in their characters for an extended period. It is through those quick movements through subjects like politics that widen the gap between the characters. In the interests of keeping this spoiler-free, perhaps the best way I can describe the film is as a spiralling masculine melodrama in which unspoken tensions gradually find a voice. Separated by stings featuring striking typography, this is a film that consistently intrudes upon itself, disrupts its own flow and is all the better for this, resulting in an engaging and often surprising experience. Some may find the more drastic tone changes a little difficult to keep up with at first, but there are rewards to be found in letting it wash over you.

Tom Cullen is excellent as Lucas – spilling over with bravado and a near-constant social media presence. Cullen is fiercely impressive, conveying changes within Lucas through the use of his signature ‘hey guys, what’s up?’ on social media channels that changes in tone as the film progresses. That sense of both his audacious, go-getting masculinity and social media persona both being performances hiding something more sinister is woven throughout. In contrast, Iwan Rheon’s Adam is more restrained, but seemingly haunted by his reluctance to act in the same way as Lucas. An early confrontation with a poorly fox sums up his reluctance to act, a thread that continues in his struggle to complete his first feature. Rheon equips Adam with a nervous energy that threatens to unfurl throughout the narrative. The male characters are the focus here, but that doesn’t mean that their partners are underwritten, standing out as capable and well-realised by comparison.

For those who love their films about masculinity in crisis, Barbarians is absolutely the film for you, with Tom Cullen and Iwan Rheon providing stirring performances at its centre.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Barbarians screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: V/H/S/94

A break from the format for several years and a more timely period setting finds a more comfortable space for the franchise’s return.

– V/H/S/94 – Photo Credit: Shudder

Synopsis: A police S.W.A.T. team investigates about a mysterious VHS tape and discovers a sinister cult that has pre-recorded material which uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy.

I’ve always found the V/H/S series to be a bit of a mixed bag, something which impacts numerous anthology-style productions. Depending on your tastes, you’ll either find invention or be completely turned off by a format that restricts film makers while also needing to make an immediate impact. Add to this the fact that the previous films have all felt very ‘boy’s club’ there is perhaps no surprise that the entries have variable reviews. A particular highlight in the series, for me, was Safe Haven from V/H/S/2 so that Timo Tjahjanto was returning for this entry added to the interest in it. More than that, though, was the inclusion of the series’ first female directors, Jennifer Reader and Chloe Okuno.

Jennifer Reader gets the film’s introduction with Holy Hell, introducing the police S.W.A.T team discovering the VHS tapes at a cult compound with an unsettling, if unfocused tour of the house. These discoveries provide the lead-ins to the other films and while it is difficult to see too much of Reader’s stamp, the segments are competent enough and serve their purpose. Okuno’s segment Storm Drain is far and away my favourite of the film, with a balance of observational humour that leans into the time period alongside some of the weirder scares that the film has to offer. Anna Hopkins plays Holly Marciano, an ambitious local news reporter whose desire to unveil the truth behind the ‘Rat Man’ leads her to an exploration of the tunnels under the city. That mix of frights and fun is something I’ve always found absent for much of V/H/S but is very welcome. There is a bonus here for fans of Astron-6 that delights in being able to properly situate itself within the 90s rather than the present-day trappings of the earlier films.

The Empty Wake follows director Simon Barrett’s usual flair for mixing subgenres, setting up a spooky scenario in which an under-attended wake begins to play on the woman assigned to keep watch. The Empty Wake is definitely not one for those who tire easily of motion sickness inducing camera work as much of this segment switches between the static cameras to the fluid camera, swung around doorways and corners with a pace that will likely annoy more than terrify. The result is a mixed bag that struggles to pay off its moments of well-earned tension with a satisfactory conclusion.

Timo Tjahjanto takes the reins for the most dynamic and action-packed entry of the film, The Subject. Tjahjanto is adept at getting his idea over in a short space of time and then allowing the action to speak for itself and this is no different. This segment sets up and delivers on call backs in an effective way, contributing some of the film’s best visuals and visceral impact. This is also the one that turns the furthest away from V/H/S as the medium, presenting something that looks much cleaner and more crisp than the other sections. This crispness better allows for the bloodshed to receive further attention, but in its handling of the fusing of people and machines manages to capture another interesting, dynamic way of capturing first-person focused scenes.

At the other extreme comes Terror from director Ryan Prows. This is the film’s grimiest entry, both in terms of the degradation of the visuals and the subject matter. The segment follows a white terror group who have found a unique weapon to assist them in their preparations to attack the government. The group are depicted as bumbling but vicious, making this likely the most difficult segment to derive any enjoyment from, but it is constructed in a way that exploits that sense of discomfort and ugliness to good effect. The ultimate wraparound feels a little deflating, given the variety of segments featured, although it could be said that that same variety somewhat limits how they can be linked.

V/H/S/94 proves that there is still room for the format to grow and evolve, providing interesting, if imperfect stories that fuse medium, nostalgia and recurring fears. As with any anthology, everyone will likely have their favourites and the ones that fail to impact and this certainly feels like Okuno and Tjahjanto will be the standout names.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

V/H/S/94 screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information. It arrives on Shudder platforms on October 6th.

Seance

An attempt at switching up the supernatural subgenre provides some scares but mostly suffers from an identity crisis.

Synopsis: Camille, a young woman who arrives at the Fairfield Academy following one of the student’s untimely and violent death.

Centred around a prestigious academy with a dark secret, Seance sees mysterious Camille (Suki Waterhouse) arrive in the aftermath of a tragic event. Almost immediately she is thrown on a collision course with the girls who were present during the death of a student and soon finds herself experiencing strange events. Forming an uneasy alliance with the group, they set about unearthing the secrets of the academy.

The cast are competent, although the Dawson-style casting may well take some out of it. This is one of the curiosities of Seance, in that it feels pitched at those (likely older people) who will pick up on the tradition of casting much older actors in teen roles and the well-worn horror tropes being toyed with here, but the rest of the action doesn’t feel adult enough to truly thrill that audience. The result is a parody that doesn’t have enough to skewer the tropes, meaning it often feels like a scrapbook of scares that have worked in other films. This isn’t to say they aren’t effective, however, and there are moments that work well, even if they aren’t all that inspiring.

The film is far more interesting when it allows itself off the leash a little more, although this too, devolves into absurdity at times as the threads need to converge. Refreshingly, some of the choreographed sequences feel unpolished, lending a sense of impact that is too often lost when altercations look too smooth. The film has a tendency to over-explain itself at times, causing the pace to lag.

Like the cast, the technical elements here are solid, but this does, in some ways lead to a lack of unique flair that would elevate the piece. Simon Barrett’s work as a writer in the likes of You’re Next relies upon the tweaking of audience expectations and that is also the case within Seance. Impressively, numerous scares escape a loud scare chord, instead relying on the genuine scare factor. An impressive dance set piece is a standout moment, displaying his knack for creating vibrantly staged scenes, so it is a shame that this stamp isn’t felt more throughout the runtime.

In the moments where it acts as a throwback to late 90s/early 00s video store horror, Seance succeeds – it just can’t sustain itself on that solid ground for the film’s duration.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Seance arrives on Shudder on September 29th.

Coming Home In The Dark

A nerve-shredding ordeal focused on revenge and inaction that lingers in the mind.

Synopsis: A school teacher is forced to confront a brutal act from his past when a pair of ruthless drifters takes him and his family on a nightmare road-trip.

Coming Home In The Dark is a curious film in that it feels blisteringly brutal, yet is not at all gratuitous or prolonged in terms of the violence. The majority of its horror comes in the form of monologues and stories that tumble out, with the focus being on the difficulty of confronting those horrific realities. Silence is used to devastating effect throughout the runtime and the entire film feels ‘unsafe’ due to its restraint alongside the sustained dread and the sense that the characters are doomed whether out in the open or in confined spaces.

Erik Thomson plays Hoaggie, a school teacher taking a holiday with his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) and their children. Soon their holiday is disrupted by Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) who appear to know a dark secret from Hoaggie’s past that has implications for everyone.

Gillies is excellent as the hugely intimidating Mandrake – initially chillingly affable but seemingly never far from enacting violence without much of a change to his demeanour. It is Luafutu who becomes the highlight, however, given that his character Tubs is the quieter of the two, meaning he has to convey much more in facial expressions and physical performance. This growing and changing Tubs is one of the film’s most memorable aspects and Luafutu handles this evolution incredibly sensitively. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, however, all reliably delivering on the film’s most impactful moments of dialogue, but more importantly in the tense silences that punctuate so much of their car journey.

That this can tip into the ‘cat and mouse chase’ thriller at times, while remaining slow and steady in others may make it difficult for some to engage. This is not an action-packed thrill ride but a genuinely uncomfortable study of simmering rage and the ways that alters someone’s world outlook. At one stage a character remarks that abuse and inaction are not the same but ‘live on the same street, a powerful reminder of the way that so much abuse has been ignored or covered up. The strength lies in the complexity of the characters presented and the eerily plausible way that many events play out.

The film is careful to leave just enough to the imagination, allowing for harrowing stories to slip out, but with time the details are fuzzy. This allows for the moral ambiguity of all characters to hang in the air for much of the runtime – the horror of all their circumstances given time to sink in for the viewer. Those pauses entrap the viewer in the car with the characters, both allowing some time to take a breath from the intensity but also time for processing and introspection.

An almost overwhelmingly tense experience that sensitively and effectively probes the long-term effects of trauma and tackles the oft-romanticised concept of revenge.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Coming Home In The Dark is available in the USA on VOD and select theatres on October 1st. A UK release date has yet to be announced.

Fantastic Fest 2021: Homebound

A striking handling of tone and menace makes this familiar subgenre feel decidedly unfamiliar.

Synopsis: Holly’s excited to finally meet fiancĂ© Richard’s three children for the first time at a birthday celebration for his youngest in the English countryside. Holly is nervous to make a good impression, however when they arrive circumstances are far from ideal.

As a feature debut for director/writer Sebastian Godwin, Homebound is an incredibly interesting piece of work. From the outset, discordant notes underscore our focal couple Holly (Aisling Loftus) and Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill) as they drive to the house, but delivers no punchline in the form of a jump scare or other relief. Instead, this early sense of something being ‘off’ sustains the entire film, casting glances at every character alternatively. The effect is especially unnerving and frequently uncomfortable.

The premise itself is well-worn, with Holly desperate to make a good impression on Richard’s children, while she makes several, not entirely happy discoveries about him. Richard is almost impossibly permissive, allowing Lucia (Hattie Gotobed) and Ralph (Lukas Rolfe) to drink alcohol, partake in some farm-to-table service and indulges in numerous PDAs with Holly that she is clearly uncomfortable with. On the other hand, he is given to sudden bursts of discipline and a need for structure. Tim Goodman-Hill does well to straddle Richard’s extremes, fearsome enough that his anger feels like a threat but normal enough that his behaviour can be written off as the effects of stress and pressure. Aisling Loftus is excellent as Holly, who occasionally has little to do other than express wide-eyed wonder and quiet embarrassment at Richard and his family. The younger actors make for great additions, with Raffiella Chapman’s Anna pitched as a more solitary figure, outside the close communication between Lucia and Ralph.

Keeping the cast minimal and confined to one setting allows the film to toy with the viewer’s perception of events. Despite the film’s relatively short runtime, there is plenty of time dedicated to creating the atmosphere and existing in the same space as the characters. The camera finds itself close, often too close to them, able to catch even the smallest look that might alter the meaning or intent. That time spent in the house also means there is a strong sense of space created, with the feeling that you are learning the layout of the house as the film progresses.

With the careful effort and care put into establishing the tone of Homebound it would be a shame to delve too much into the plot and moving parts. This is minimalistic, for the most part, but its success lies in its ability to merge the benign and sinister, constantly building and reflecting on itself to create a layered, disturbing portrait of the family. Ultimately, this tone layering does create a dilemma for the film as it progresses, making it difficult to produce a truly satisfying conclusion. Still, the journey is worth taking, with plenty of uncomfortable moments and a sense of menace that holds strong throughout.

A stripped back, disturbing and intimate portrait of a family in flux that handles its material with a disquieting playfulness – I can’t remember the last time I saw something that presented such a strange vibe so well.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Homebound screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: She Will

While not every moment hits the mark in this operatic horror, the sections where all the components gel make this a formidable feature debut for Charlotte Colbert.

Synopsis: After a double mastectomy, actress Veronica Ghent travels to a remote place in Scotland in order to recuperate. However, the land around the retreat radiates with a dark power that will ultimately help liberate her from a traumatic past.

Our first introduction to actress Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) is a difficult one, at best. She is somewhat prickly towards her nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) and despite the immense pain she finds herself in, still insists on wearing her prosthetics, even when warned that it is too soon. Krige plays her as stern, but quickly that exterior gives way to a physical and emotional vulnerability. Krige and Eberhardt’s chemistry allows the relationship to flourish into something deeper than nurse and patient, becoming sisterly and even motherly at turns. Eberhardt ably matches Krige’s gravitas, but allows Desi to bring a softer side out of the rather more spiky Veronica.

There are times within She Will that the visuals dominate, resulting in the kind of absorbing, dreamy horror that adds a potent atmosphere. However, this focus on the visual and a tendency towards more theatrical performances in some segments does mean the dialogue does occasionally become a little clunky and that will undoubtedly alienate some. A few of the quirkier happenings feel somewhat forced, not adding much to either the tone or plot, which is a shame when all the other themes converge in a way that lends the film its power. The surreal imagery, when threaded through the narrative works far better than the throwaway, off-kilter elements.

She Will, like its central figure, is at its best when fully realised and in control. Colbert’s roaming character not only enters rooms with characters, but invades their space. Initially these choices feel odd, but as the rest of the film leans into its flowing imagery, this becomes far more cohesive, satisfactory and injects further energy. The film balances the way that the woods appear sinister as well as beautiful – a force that is not fully understood, but not necessarily harmful. At one point there is a reference to the wind sounding like whispers, a suggestion that the earth itself is offering solace and power.

The film’s treatment of trauma is stand out. While a growing number of films tackling the fall out from trauma have tended to take a more nihilistic tone in terms of the potential for recovery, She Will, as its title suggests places the agency with Veronica and her potential for growth. While these more confronting portrayals are necessary and powerful, it is somewhat refreshing to see a film in which a woman who is on the path to being consumed by her trauma uses it to turn the tables and become a consumer, wrestling back a level of control over her life and body. Like many films this year, this is coupled with a desire to reconnect with the earth and uses the location as an agent for that self-discovery. The imagery is beautiful, even when it also threatens, switching between the two modes in a way that becomes a flow, rather than a clash.

The confidence in creating a film that so fully realises itself and central characters in a debut suggests excellent work to come from Charlotte Colbert. Stay through the credits for a charming cover of The Killing Moon too.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

She Will screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Salem Horror Festival 2021

The Salem Horror Festival returns throughout October with a host of special events, physical screenings of features and shorts, plus a virtual line-up. I’m thrilled to be covering the festival remotely this year, so stay tuned for more coverage coming up soon. Before that, you can read about a few titles that I’m looking forward to, or titles I’ve already seen and can recommend.

Sundown Town
This powerful short covers a great deal of ground within a short space of time, perfectly capturing the long-lasting effects of generational trauma. You can watch this at the physical or virtual festival.

What Happens Next Will Scare You
Showing at the physical festival, this film focused on viral videos and the truth (or lies) behind them has a lot to live up to due to its clickbait-style title but promises a really intriguing concept that I’m keen to see unfold.

SO VAM
Alice Maio Mackay’s work on the short Tooth 4 Tooth marked her as one to watch with a sense of style that demands attention. Incredibly, SO VAM was shot in only seven days so I’m excited to see this vampire film. For more about Alice, you can check out Wren Crain’s filmmaker spotlight for Ghouls Magazine.

Two Witches
The idea of matriarchal curses and how they pass on is one I find myself drawn to again and again, so I’m absolutely sold by the concept of Two Witches. The ultra-jumpy trailer promises high energy scares.

Sam and Mattie Make A Zombie Movie
This is the first title in the list that I’ve already seen and it is really a wonderful offering – you can read my review here. Part-documentary and part-film showcase, Sam and Mattie (supported by friends and family) set about making their own low-budget but definitely not low-expectations zombie movie.

6:45
Who doesn’t love a spooky time-loop movie? 6:45 sees a couple take a holiday together to a location with a tragic past and soon find themselves waking at the titular time every day to face their own violent deaths. I love to see how these stories are constructed so this is an absolute must-see for me.

In addition to films, Salem Horror Fest is also dedicated to nurturing emerging film-makers. This year, they have partnered with The George A. Romero Foundation to provide the George A. Romero Film Fellowship, which will award three film-makers with dedicated mentoring schemes to support their next project. Salem has already been the launchpad for films like Threshold and Death Drop Gorgeous that have gone on to receive wider distribution so it is exciting to hear that this support will continue and bring more exciting projects forward.

Please check out Salem Horror Fest’s webpage for more information and tickets.

Fantastic Fest 2021: The Found Footage Phenomenon

A dip into the world of ‘found footage’ horror and the wider impact on the genre.

Synopsis: The Found Footage Phenomenon is an independent documentary charting the origins of the found footage sub-genre, tracking it through to the technique’s current form and asks what the future is.

Found footage horror does truly feel like a phenomenon, with perhaps no other subgenre being quite as divisive or capable of continually reinventing itself in the face of evolving technology and societal concerns at a pace that speaks directly to the current zeitgeist. There are, of course, unique challenges that present themselves and this documentary itself occasionally struggles under the wealth of material to cover.

One way in which it sidesteps the issue of being unable to probe all the entries into the particular genre is through careful text and interviewee selection, selecting a smaller number of ‘big’ names for their talking heads to discuss the landmarks like Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. This allows lesser-known titles to take centre stage, with increased access to the creatives behind them. Insight from the likes of Eduardo Sanchez (terming the style of Blair Witch as POV cinema) and others about the techniques involved in creating the films, including the dreaded reliance on long-takes, makes for an engaging dive.

Utilising Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Shellie McMurdo as academic anchors among the creatives works well, allowing them to elaborate on the theories behind why the films are so popular. There is also a touch on the historical origins of the genre, including that the Dracula novel itself may be the first. The relationship between the real, hyper-real and fake are all discussed throughout, along with probing the enduring appeal to viewers.

Like other recent horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, The Found Footage Phenomenon echoes in its construction the feel of the films it seeks to cover, offering clips of the subgenres most effective moments to illustrate the form. There is, to some degree, a teasing of what is about to be seen, especially as the documentary covers the early ‘Mondo’ films where the lines between if an event is staged or archive footage and later heads into the idea of the use of found footage in ‘extreme’ horror. That sense of accidentally stumbling into witnessing something terrible is a major part of the appeal within found footage and the documentary itself cleverly exploits this.

There is a sense that this could be in multiple parts and still have ground to cover and the selection may feel lacking to some, but refreshingly, this means space is made for those lesser-known or lesser-appreciated films that are worth adding to your watchlist to further explore the form’s abilities. That the form itself is still disputed in terms of what is and isn’t a found footage does occasionally mean there are some titles featured that could be argued don’t quite fit, but happily the film allows for multiple interpretations while still connecting to the wider themes.

The blend of discussion around cultural and social context, coupled with the technical and creative insights from directors and writers makes for fascinating viewing, even if there is plenty left to explore by the end.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

The Found Footage Phenomenon screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021 on 23rd September. See the schedule for more information.

Sacrilege

Pacing issues frequently overwhelm this take on folk horror.

Synopsis: Four lifelong friends head to a remote lodge for a weekend of fun. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly descends into a fight for their lives when a local Pagan cult offer them up to their Goddess as a sacrifice for the Solstice.

We find ourselves in folk horror territory, with our core four heading off into the remote unknown to let off some steam after a series of unfortunate events. Kayla (Tamaryn Payne) is not only battling with ongoing trauma after a serious attack, but also ex-girlfriend Trish (Emily Wyatt) is back on the scene. Friends Blake (Sian Abrahams) and Stacey (Naomi Willow) are set on protecting Kayla, while also hoping to get her back out of her comfort zone with a trip to the countryside.

Sacrilege is a curious film, in that it feels so deeply indebted to other horror, allowing it to play with some conventions, but in other ways uses this knowledge to do nothing more than wink at the audience. Possibly the most obvious moment of this is in the form of a letter, branded Carpenter and Craven solicitors, despite the fact that this bears no resemblance to any of those director’s works. Further to this, it suffers throughout with obviously ominous musical cues and increasingly relies on exceptionally bad decision making and short-term memory to make it function.

It does utilise some horror knowledge to decent effect. Folk horror often relies on the fear of people, their beliefs and practices, so Sacrilege‘s decision to subvert that to some degree is a welcome one, even if the marrying of those elements isn’t an entirely happy union that strains a little too much. The opening photography across the green landscape, accompanied by excellent music is a great tone setter. There is a balanced, even slow movement through proceedings that suddenly finds itself upended by an abrupt moment that showcases the film’s understanding of conventional horror beats and how to exploit that. Sometimes this pacing works against it, heading to a conclusion that feels rushed in contrast to the rest of the film.

The central cast are likeable and manage their performances well, even when given a lot of exposition to get over in a short time. The tropes they fall into are reasonably obvious from the get-go but allow for some interesting and occasionally heartfelt moments. There is a sense throughout that this is a film trying to do something different on limited resources, so it is difficult to judge it too harshly.

A piece that suffers from a little too much telegraphing and a bit of an identity crisis, Sacrilege is a capable if unremarkable slice of British, folk-tinged horror.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

Sacrilege will be available on digital download from 27th September and can be pre-ordered on iTunes here and Apple TV here.