Grimmfest 2021: Night Drive

An absorbing watch that relies on tight scripting and the interplay between its core performers.

Synopsis: A ride share driver’s life is turned upside down after an unexpected series of misfortunes.

Seeing a film set at Christmas time and starring both AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress definitely attracted my attention, calling to mind the casting and setup for the excellent I Trapped The Devil. Night Drive is a very different film, although does share some of the same sensibilities, putting a lot on the performers to carry the story, but also complicates things by the narrative involving a car journey, isolating the characters and forcing them to bridge the generational (and later, moral) gap as they journey.

Russell (AJ Bowen) is a ride-share driver whose expensive car hints at his previous experience as an app developer. Unfortunately, a decision to sell too early meant that his buyout was minimal, setting in motion a chain of events that has cost him his marriage and previous lifestyle. He settles into the drudgery of his new role until his pattern is interrupted by Charlotte (Sophie Dalah) a troubled woman who quickly throws his night into chaos.

Night Drive feels like a careful blend of genre elements, fusing together the kind of ‘hangout horror’ that keeps locations minimal and dialogue punchy, but doesn’t stray away from darkly comic elements and lashings of gore where necessary. To say any more about the direction this takes would head too far into spoiler territory, but there is something that offers a dramatic departure that is very well handled while still under some clear budget restrictions. Bowen and Dalah feel almost effortless in their roles, shifting from an unusual, concerned relationship into a more spiky negotiation.

Meghan Leon takes on co-directing and writing here, sharing directing duties with Brad Baruh, both contributing to a film that will keep the viewer guessing all the while. Cleverly peppered phrases and actions will reward multiple viewings, threading everything so while some will find the film’s trajectory surprising, it does all manage to hang together convincingly. There are moments where it feels like the film treads water somewhat, as if it is almost too worried about pulling the trigger on its more left-field moves. Once it overcomes that hesitation, it heads back on track with renewed energy, but that lull is noticeable.

An appealing, darkly comic thriller with two first-rate performances make this a drive worth settling in for.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Night Drive plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: Forgiveness

An esoteric satire offering that can’t differentiate between its themes, resulting in a directionless tour of a hellish hospital.

Synopsis: Three women mysteriously wake up in a hospital and discover that one of them is deaf, one is mute and the other one is blind; together they will have to figure out why they are there and how to get out.

I’m not entirely sure that without the above synopsis I would have realised that the three victims in this were meant to have awoken with different afflictions. Forgiveness, though divided into chapters to explore each girl’s experience is largely dialogue-free, meaning that them being deaf or mute hardly seems to matter much in the grand scheme of things. Further to this, it means you’re presented with a film that is, at least on some level painting a damning portrait of misogyny and the cyclical impact of patriarchal abuse but that ensures none of its central female characters are given a voice at all. The result is an experience of watching them stumble into a variety of ever more hellish situations with no real concept of who they are which hardly adds up to a fulfilling viewing experience.

This is frustrating for obvious reasons, but also because the film itself is technically proficient and there are a few sparks of ideas that hint at something more purposeful, or at least something with a more distinct identity. A sequence set around a dance displays director Alex Kahuam’s eye for creating surreal and arguably beautiful moments within a horror context. Situating the bulk of the film within the hospital allows for the switching up of lighting to produce different effects and builds dread as to what awaits the women in each section.

The construction of the nightmarish set pieces are well achieved, although some will find elements distasteful. This brings me to another issue with the film – there’s relatively little palatable going on within the film, but it never quite reaches the unpleasantness of so-called extreme cinema, leaving it in purgatory – too nasty for mainstream viewers, not challenging enough for those testing their boundaries. This, coupled with a message that is writ large across the film ends up feeling hollow as a result.

Lengthy pauses and transitions make the short runtime feel much longer, especially as there are no real characterisations to cling to. Extended periods of walking from room to room results in a drawn-out pace that fails to add any tension or meaning. The choice to present the majority of the film without dialogue is admirable, placing all the focus on the construction of the visuals, but with so little else to connect with, it is a hard sell. The runtime isn’t particularly long, but those pauses and the near-endless abuse of the main characters lengthen it considerably.

It is clear that there is meaning within the film, but unfortunately that meaning can’t overcome the presentation and pacing issues that make it a slow, frustrating and ultimately alienating watch.

1.5 out of 5 stars

1.5 out of 5 stars

Forgiveness plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: King Knight

A completely charming film about misfits and the search for belonging.

Synopsis: The High Priest of a modern-day coven finds his life thrown into turmoil and ventures out on a journey of self-discovery.

The past year or so has been difficult on everyone, cut off from support networks and sources of community, the threat of illness and financial issues looming large. So, it could be said we’re all ready for something a little lighter. However, if you told me that the film that would make me smile the most this year (well, maybe second next to Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar) would come from the usually acerbic writer-director Richard Bates Jr. I’d have been very surprised.

Matthew Gray Gubler plays Thorn, currently living what amounts to a dream life with partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan). The pair, rock-solid in their relationship have taken their position at the head of a coven, becoming a source of comfort and guidance to the other members. However, as email invitations to a high school reunion arrive, Thorn’s past returns to haunt him.

For those who have followed Richard Bates Jr.’s career to this point, this rather touching exploration of someone finding a space for themselves in the world will feel like a dramatic departure. Although this lacks some of the bite of something like Tone Deaf, that’s not to say it is completely toothless, taking aim at some practices that while earnest, feel ridiculous, like Thorn’s role in the competitive birdbath industry. The deadpan sensibility cuts through some of the sweetness, meaning things aren’t entirely saccharine and most importantly, the film is frequently laugh out loud funny.

While there is no denying that this is primarily Gubler’s film and he delivers a suitably hilarious performance that draws on both verbal and physical comedy, it is the ensemble casting that adds that extra spark. Sarafyan is excellent as Willow, supportive, yet realistic about Thorn’s limitations and fiercely loyal even when the life they have built together is called into question. Johnny Pemberton as Desmond, one of the coven members is a smaller role, but one that he adds a lot of empathy and humour too. In fact, no one feels particularly lost in the shuffle and I imagine everyone will have a favourite to cling to.

During a Beltane celebration in which the traditional bonfire has been downgraded due to a previous injury, the women of the coven say of the men in their lives, ‘if only their brains were as big as their hearts’. This, in many ways could be the calling card of the entire film – this is a film that is unashamed in the amount of fun it is having, has disregarded almost any attempts at being overtly smart or probing, but provides the viewer with a great time and numerous opportunities for the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from a film with such a nice central message.

Stylistically, there’s plenty going on here, with slow-motion music video-style sequences bridging the gap between scenes and allowing the cast to have fun with that – it also provides an opportunity for them to enrich their characters, even in small ways, while keeping the pacing buoyant.

As unexpected as a cosy film from the names involved may be King Knight functions as a lovely surprise and a much-needed touch of funny, heartfelt silliness.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

King Knight plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: Faceless

A few too many moving parts make this identity thriller a little muddled.

Synopsis: A disoriented and frightened man awakens in a hospital room to discover he’s the recipient of a full face transplant. Plagued by weird flashbacks, no memory and no visitors, he is unprepared when they release him from the hospital. When a mysterious red- haired woman, Sophie, befriends him, life gets even weirder. Suddenly a hooded man stalks him, his friends abandon him, and strangers give him odd looks. Distraught he goes out drinking only to end up in an altercation with a man – who has no face! Now he must investigate what has happened and who is stalking him before it’s too lateā€¦

Kicking off at a dog fighting event (following in similar footsteps to director Marcel Sarmiento’s ABC’s of Death segment D is for Dogfight) where George (Brendan Sexton III) ends up mauled after a run in with some people he has been trying to avoid, Faceless sets itself out early on as something that isn’t concerned with answering every question you might have about it, allowing the central mystery to stew.

The concept is a relatively simple one – after his attack, George awakes with severe memory loss at the Klein Institute, an advanced medical facility that has almost perfected the science of facial transplants. I say almost, there are side effects, including memory loss, tissue rejection and of course, the existential terror of waking up with someone else’s face. His discharge from the hospital feels premature and it isn’t long before he experiences even stranger fall out as a literally faceless assailant assaults him. With aftercare not exactly high on the agenda for the institute, it’s up to George to put together the pieces himself.

Throughout, screeching sonic flashbacks try to cast light on George’s predicament, including a vivid memory he seems to have of a woman he has never met. When he finally meets Sophie (Alex Essoe), their connection raises even more questions. This is much the way Faceless is constructed, constantly weaving more mystery before it fully unfolds another. This works to some extent, keeping things murky for as long as possible while dialling up the action. However, there is a sense that this teasing out takes too long and adds in too many moving parts to head into a satisfying conclusion. In addition, it feels like an attempt to unpick everything arrives late into the runtime, resulting in a lot of expositional scenes that would usually be handled early on so the introduction of so much late on does throw it off balance.

The prosthetics work is great here, which assists in the overall effect – George has to work on solving his mysteries all while his new face struggles to bed in, often drooping at one side. The other effects support this, offering a sense of impact in violent scenes in addition to the intricacy of the surgical scenes. The performances are solid, especially given the work with prosthetics and the need to sell the story often on very little outward information.

A little more cohesion would help it greatly and it feels sometimes like the film is struggling against its own weight – still, it’s a novel idea with a decently sketched conspiracy throughout.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

Faceless plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: Night At The Eagle Inn

A thoroughly likeable film about two siblings seeking to find out more about their past.

Synopsis: Fraternal twins spend a hellish night at the remote inn their father disappeared from the night they were born.

There is something to be said for films that have the conviction to be as long as it takes to tell their stories – in some cases, that will mean three-hour-long sagas and for others, like Eagle Inn, what the film sets out to do is done and dusted in around an hour and 10 minutes. This keeps everything sharp, trimming any unnecessary sections and maintaining the focus on the central sibling relationship and providing the scares. Like director and writer pair Erik and Carson Bloomquist’s previous outing, Ten Minutes to Midnight, there is a focus on using established horror tropes to create something more interesting.

Twins Sarah (Amelia Dudley) and Spencer (Taylor Turner) head to the Eagle Inn to further investigate the strange circumstances around their birth. Having lost both their parents, the pair have a somewhat morbid interest in their origins, taking to recording a podcast. Soon, strange happenings at the Inn start to feel too close for comfort for the pair.

Amelia Dudley and Taylor Turner are really the heart of this, presenting the close, but sparky relationship between the pair convincingly. Their close bond, formed from the early tragedy in their life has given them elements of gallows humour but this never tips over into anything nihilistic nor unlikeable. As the film progresses, their interactions with Dean (Beau Minniear, delivering a gleefully entertaining performance) sew a little friction between them, but the threat throughout is definitely focused upon the Inn.

The titular Eagle Inn is described within the film as having a kind of ‘nondescript gloom’ – a sense of something very wrong running through it. Indeed, the film itself utilises J-Horror scares as well as more conventional ‘hotel horror’ and other ghost story tropes, blending them together. The result is perhaps not wholly original and it is possible to read some of the narrative direction in advance of its arrival, but a fun take on them that contributes plenty in the way of scares, structure and uncanny imagery.

From an explosive opening, all the way through to the conclusion, Eagle Inn feels like something that succeeds due to its restrictions, rather than in spite of them. It is clear that there is not a huge budget so everything is designed to wring the maximum effect out of what is available, leaning on the charming performances and skill of the film-makers to draw the viewer in. The shorter length will put some in mind of episodes of series like The Twilight Zone, ably building and concluding an entire world within just over an hour.

A short, sharp, sweet and occasionally campy take on the haunted hotel film that delivers likeable performances and a clear confidence with the material at hand.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Night At The Eagle Inn plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.