North Bend Film Fest 2022: The Civil Dead

A quirky horror-adjacent piece that hides a real darkness behind its quirks.

Synopsis: A misanthropic, struggling photographer just wants to watch TV and eat candy while his wife is out of town, but when a desperate old pal resurfaces, his plans are thwarted, with spooky consequences.

Clay (Clay Tatum – also writing and directing) is in a slump. His photography work is not going well, the pressure is on him to help pay the bills and his wife Whitney (Whitney Weir) is growing frustrated with his lack of action. While out attempting to take photographs he meets old friend Whit (Whitmer Thomas, also co-writing) who appears to have a rather more serious problem of his own. As the pair reconnect, Whit’s escalating demands and neediness further challenge Clay’s frame of mind.

With a pace frequently as laid back as its protagonist, The Civil Dead is rather sedate, trading jump scares for a steady build of discomfort and study of connection. This is definitely in the realms of ‘horror with a small h’, in that it adopts the idea of a supernatural being and certainly some dark themes but is not particularly interested in scaring its audience. At times, this translates to the film’s surface quirks and offbeat humour as twee. However, as it progresses, the steady lean into moments of outright absurdity in some sections begins to unmoor it. Later still, the film delivers a powerful gut punch that genuinely elicited a gasp from me on first viewing. These carefully crafted moments of shock delivered without any boost in the soundtrack or jolting camera movements are really where this film sets itself apart.

The film’s limited locations and focus on characters puts a great deal of pressure on the two main performers to deliver. Thankfully they do, allowing Clay and Whit’s uneasy rapport to ebb and flow. The strength of this likely stems from them also writing the script, allowing them to play the roles in exactly the way they imagine. Clay’s downbeat nature clashes with Whit’s excitement at being seen. The pair do well to create a world in which the supernatural experience is one of mundanity, with a sustained reliance on the humans they have left behind to validate and entertain them. Clay’s reluctance to do anything with his life other than getting a questionable haircut becomes a central point of tension. The pair continuously bounce off one another, cementing this as the kind of ‘hangout horror’ where the lack of more traditional supernatural motifs are replaced by human emotion. The cringe humour at times won’t be for everyone and neither will the stillness of much of the film. If you are looking for loud, jangling horror, you won’t find it here. Similarly, if you find it difficult to connect with the characters, you may well struggle here.

What you will find, however, is two writers who are incredibly skilled at weaving multiple callbacks and layers into their film which adds so much to it. As the relationship builds, so do these layers, giving it a greater depth. That clever pulling together of all threads really does lend it a power that sneaks up on you. That this often uses daytime locations or a cosy cabin as a setting to lull the viewer to relax and spend time with the characters heightens the drama when tensions begin to stir again. It is very clear throughout that every detail has been carefully considered, but it never feels like it is obviously drawing your attention to it. On the first watch, it can feel like almost nothing is happening, with the hard work taking place in the background. For those fully immersed in the rest of the story, the result is effective.

An excellently written character study that presents a different view of a ghost story.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Civil Dead screened as part of North Bend Film Festival 2022.

Horror Shorts at North Bend Film Fest 2022

The North Bend Film Fest 2022 hosted numerous horror shorts, all with different styles and approaches that really sum up the current creativity in short filmmaking within the genre.

Darker (Donkerster)

Darker is a hugely atmospheric and eerie piece. Based around a young girl called Rhena whose father disappears after telling her the legend of Atlas, this has the feel of a dark fairytale. That sense of something magical but also sinister is really captured here. Adriana Bakker’s performance as Rhena fits perfectly for the overall tone. The whole construction of this is excellent, from the central concept to the handling of imagery.

They See You

They See You is a short that both works well within its runtime while also showing the potential for a wider, longer story to be told. Starting with a panicked phone call from Dina to her sister Robin drawing her to a remote location, this creates an instant tension. As the reasons for Dina’s call begin to surface the fractured relationship between the sisters becomes clearer. Despite a stripped-back nature of this it really delivers on some great effects and a strong narrative that grips all the way through.

Baby Fever

A candy-coated period piece with a real punch, especially concerning women’s bodily autonomy. The attention paid to the 1972 details and styling gives this a fun presentation. Throughout, the balance is perfectly pitched between a fun horror film with plenty of nods to other films from the period it reflects without becoming too referential and a potent social message, which is incredibly difficult to pull off. Helena Berens’ performance as Donna, a student who finds herself undergoing an unusual pregnancy underpins it all, offering sympathy for her predicament while retaining a sparky, spiky personality. There is a justified anger at the heart of the film that lends it a great energy.

Black Dragon (Rồng đen)

As with Baby Fever, Black Dragon is a short that uses genre conventions to address history and the current implications of that history. Starting with a frenetic Vietnam war-time sequence, the film really delves into the claustrophobic paranoia as a group of soldiers take a young girl hostage. There is an almost overbearing sense of dread throughout the film as the situation progresses. An incredibly sobering post-script at the film’s end offers further weight to the scenes before, really allowing it to linger in the viewer’s mind.

Death in a Box

As far as short film titles go, this may well be the winner. Even better, the sci-fi/horror concept that accompanies that title is captivating, managing to draw out its true nature, keeping the viewer guessing until a conclusion that becomes visually arresting and deeply scary. The visuals throughout are excellent, with the floating box a simple, yet compelling idea for it to rest on. Ava (Sloan Mannino) and Samara’s (BreeAna Miyuki Eisel) early interactions feel convincing and well-realised.


Walking home alone at night as a woman is rarely fun, Adrienne’s (Anita Abdinezhad) experience is even worse. Abandoned by her controlling boyfriend about the work party they have just attended, a scooter provides a quicker way of navigating the night. When she stops for food she notices a woman may be being held captive in a van and has to act quickly before harm is done. Interestingly, despite probing the fears of being a woman alone at night, this takes a wholly different direction that while being less serious, still delivers an engaging narrative with memorable moments.

Find out more about the North Bend Film Fest.

Soho Horror Film Festival First Wave

The Soho Horror Film Festival returns this November and the first teases are here.

Throughout the pandemic, Soho Horror Film Festival has shown a dedication to accessible, affordable horror events with a focus on curating a community around excellent films, boasting a host of UK premieres and a focus on queer cinema in their lineups. This looks set to continue with their first wave announcements for both their in-person and online event.

The in-person event returns to the Whirled Cinema in Brixton from 11th-13th November. The first announcement for that part of the festival is the International Premiere of Daniel Montgomery’s heartbreak haunter THE JESSICA CABIN. This LGBTQ+ focused horror comedy is sure to win hearts at the festival. A so-far unnamed film also promises a first for the festival, offering a screening that will be accessible to all ages, offering younger viewers their first chance to see a horror film in a festival setting.

While other festivals may have moved away from online options, Soho is offering a second festival the week after the in-person event. The first film announced is the UK Premiere of Elias Manar’s harrowing found-footage shocker WHAT IS BURIED MUST REMAIN. The festival has a great track record with found-footage offerings with past screenings and this film, made in collaboration with the Lighthouse Peace Initiative promises to be deeply affecting. The Lighthouse Peace Initiative is an organisation giving young Syrian refugees an education and a safe environment to express repressed emotions through art

On these films festival director Mitch Harrod shared “We could not be more proud as a festival to present such essential pieces of film as this; ones that bolster our ethos in the power, catharsis and community that horror filmmaking and films can create. Both THE JESSICA CABIN and WHAT IS BURIED MUST REMAIN are perfect examples and champions of this very philosophy; but these are just 2 of over 25 incredible and diverse films that we will be presenting as part of our hybrid festival this year. Your nightmares are due a system update, and we’ve got you covered this November”

The full line-up of films will be revealed on Tuesday the 1st of October and more information, as well as contact details, submissions, ticketing, and volunteer opportunities can be found at Limited early bird festival passes are on sale now.

Orphan: First Kill

A wildly entertaining prequel befitting the return of Esther to the big screen.

Synopsis: After orchestrating a brilliant escape from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Esther travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.

Crafting a prequel to 2009’s Orphan presents a daunting task. So much of the original film’s tension and perhaps more importantly, discomfort, rests on the perception of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) being a child and how at odds her behaviour is as a result. Any prequel has a challenge in building to what is, essentially, a foregone conclusion so trying to surprise the viewer becomes difficult. Impressively, First Kill builds upon the campier, trashier elements of the original managing to wring further tension from the narrative.

Part of this is down to impressive pacing, with an opening 15-minutes that manages to introduce a reminder of Esther’s unique condition while also swiftly kicking off some action. As Esther tries to find her footing in the wealthy Albright family the pace is kept buoyant by a steady stream of knowing dialogue and set pieces that are, at least for me, exactly what you want from this kind of story. The initial presentation of the Albright family, made up of Tricia (Julia Stiles), Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) highlights their wealth and status in Connecticut. This is by no means an incisive tearing down of the American class system, but the representation of that kind of family is an element the film has a lot of fun with.

A couple of the technical and CGI elements are a little unconvincing. The multiple methods used to de-age Fuhrman are jarring at times, particularly where the child stand-ins are most obvious in wide shots. This was relatively easy for me to overlook with the amount of fun to be had elsewhere. However, I can imagine that if the film hasn’t won you over by that point that those elements may become more distracting. First Kill is not only an echo of Orphan, genuinely presenting a take on the character that feels engaging.

For the most part, performance-wise, the film belongs once again to Isabelle Fuhrman, returning to the part after a long absence, but seemingly slipping into it with ease. Her take is different here, largely led by no longer having to conceal the depths of her character and so she is able to swap between the child-like presentation and more overt horror character more swiftly than in the original. Elsewhere, Julia Stiles brings buckets of charisma to her role, juggling the role of adoring mother while also becoming ever more skeptical of Esther’s unusual behaviour. The performances, particularly in the latter part of the film are a true highlight as the film really comes into its own.

Orphan: First Kill is not without flaws, but the overall impression is one of a fun horror that builds on a compelling character in a way destined to be a crowd-pleaser – trashy in the best possible way.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Signature Entertainment presents Orphan: First Kill exclusively in Cinemas from 19th August

North Bend Film Fest 2022: Next Exit

A beautiful exploration of accountability, belief and connection.

Synopsis: The world changes in a flash when a scientist shockingly claims she’s able to track consciousness after death hence proving the existence of an afterlife. Rose and Teddy, two deeply tormented strangers on their way to join this new study, cross paths and reluctantly agree to travel together cross-country. The journey to voluntarily end their lives proves not to be such an easy exit plan as they’re haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghosts of their pasts.

It is a well-worn fact that I will cry at a film at least once at every film festival I attend. Next Exit is a deeply emotional journey, taken with flawed but immensely charming characters and immense control over the material that could easily slip into something mawkish in the wrong hands. As a feature debut for director and writer Mali Elfman it suggests a promising future with a confident use of genre elements to tell a touching story. As a sufferer of depression, the condition can often make you feel like a passenger in your own life, so the use of a literal journey within the film perfectly echoes not only that personal experience but also unpacking of the film’s themes of accountability and taking control.

Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) are two people who are dissatisfied with their lives. Estranged from family and friends, they both seem to have found an answer to their dissatisfaction with life in the need for Dr. Stevensen’s (Karen Gillan) call for volunteers to assist in further study. A travel mix-up results in the pair sharing a car to the facility. Throughout the journey, the pair begin to unpick their differences and similarities in approaches to life (and death).

As the synopsis suggests, this is not a film that is going all out to scare, placing the focus on the relationship between the characters as they progress on their journey, both with one another and the others they encounter. Whether speaking to strangers or revisiting figures from their pasts, those conversations are woven into both characters’ individual reckonings as well as the way they relate to one another.

The setup is an excellent one, delivered simply and effectively via video footage of a young boy sitting to play a game with his deceased father. That search for connection to an afterlife and an ability to reconnect with those who have passed is an understandably seductive concept. However, the film posits that such a discovery would also unearth panic and a crisis of faith amongst the wider population. Much of this discussion is background noise within the film, with Dr Stevensen appearing via brief talk show clips to discuss the findings and debate around ‘the right to die’. Taking the journey with two people who have already made up their minds about their decision allows the film to focus on their characters and their humanity, rather than more broad ethical concerns.

Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli are excellent as co-leads and their chemistry is undoubtedly a highlight. Parker is captivating as a woman so outwardly furious at herself and the world around her but is also able to capture the fragility underneath. A particular scene is utterly heartbreaking for the way she is able to shift between these states in a way that perfectly illustrates how she has lived her life. The impact on others of her self-destructive cycles is evident and the pain is palpable. From a starting point of wise-cracking and excellent comic timing from Kohli, Teddy too evolves into showcasing his own troubles in ways that tug at the heartstrings. Each revelation feels messy and more importantly, human.

While Next Exit does involve some creepy imagery and well-staged moments that capture a sense of dread, this is not the focal point of the film. If you are looking for scares and a traditional ‘ghost story’ you won’t find it here. In fact, it is arguably the scene that leans most into genre elements that worked the least for me. For all the subtlety the rest of the film possesses a sudden, more literal take does somewhat jar.

Next Exit is one of those uniquely touching films that handles an immensely sensitive subject with care, insight and empathy.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Next Exit played as part of the North Bend Film Fest 2022.

Camping Trip

A host of interesting stylistic choices can’t sell this muddled horror.

Synopsis: In the summer of 2020, two couples decide to go on a COVID era camping trip after months of being in lockdown. The freedom of nature and the company of their best friends offer the group a rare sense of normality, but though secluded, they’re not alone. Nearby, during a botched drop off, two goons decide to go rogue; inadvertently, implicating the campers. What started as a fun-filled vacation quickly turns into a test of loyalty and survival. Suddenly the pandemic is the least of their worries.

Ace (Alex Gravenstein), Coco (Hannah Forest Briand), Enzo (Leonardo Fuica) and Polly (Caitlin Cameron) are two couples, heading into the wilderness for a much-needed catch-up after they have been separated by the pandemic. As ever, in the horror genre, their trip does not go as planned, throwing them into a dire situation.

Camping Trip will immediately split viewers, depending on the individual capacity for mentions of Covid (including the now very unnatural sounding use of Covid-19 which outside of medical briefings has largely disappeared from conversational use). Each reference that the script makes feels clumsy, so focused on positioning itself within a time and place that it almost forgets to weave it into normal conversation. The virus is a recurring theme and driving force within the film, taking on various functions as the film progresses. Whereas some pandemic films use the situation as a means to explore loneliness or the need for connection, this keeps returning to a far more literal take.

The film itself was shot in 2020 with strict health and safety measures in place, so it is likely that the use of this language and the preoccupation with it is largely due to the proximity to the initial wave. It does present the risk of filmmaking so reliant on a specific time, however, as it ages rather quickly. Other productions tend to offer little in terms of actually naming the pandemic, or avoid it entirely, so this complete focus does jar somewhat.

There is a relatively simple story throughout the film, although this is clouded by lengthy sequences (almost always featuring time-lapse photography) that linger, rather than add to either plot or tone. It has the effect of making it feel much longer than it is for the story to be told. Character decisions and motivations do not hold up to any scrutiny, resulting in times when the film is almost directionless. The slower opening that takes time to introduce the characters and their dynamics is solid and it is a shame this isn’t felt more keenly throughout.

The third act, in particular, feels like a vast departure from the rest and unfortunately ends up leaning into some tired tropes, including the threat of sexual violence as shorthand for villainy. That sense of it being ‘thrown in’ for that effect quickly sours. That last act, however, does feature some of the film’s more interesting choices, opting for a revolving camera to punctuate its sudden burst of action. In doing so, directors Demian and Leonardo Fuica manage to make the most of their effects in addition to adding a sense of chaos to proceedings. With numerous scenes feeling somewhat static, the use of this device does assist in adding drama.

Overall, Camping Trip is perhaps best viewed as an example of the kind of filmmaking that comes from restrictions. Despite the flaws, it exists as a display of how filmmakers can react to world events and capture those moments.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

Camping Trip will be available on Digital Download from 16th August and available to pre-order here.

North Bend Film Fest 2022: Swallowed

A tense, harrowing and deeply character-driven study that plays out like a nightmare.

Synopsis: Follows two best friends on their final night together, with a nightmare of drugs, bugs, and horrific intimacy.

Friends Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) are enjoying one last night together before Benjamin leaves to start his porn career in Los Angeles. In an attempt to secure some last-minute funding Dom agrees to a one-off drug deal that he hopes will set Benjamin on the right course in his new life. However, when the terms of the deal are revealed it soon transpires that the pair are at far more risk than they ever imagined.

Despite the tension that Swallowed maintains throughout, whether that comes from the ticking clock of the drug cargo or the behaviour of characters, it still retains a deeply emotional thread, never allowing you to separate the characters from their situation. The narrative calls for graphic content at times, but this doesn’t feel gratuitous, even without shying away from intimate details. What is shown is arguably not as powerful as the descriptions given in dialogue, delivering on details and effects that would be almost impossible to show, yet add so much to the horror.

This is an openly queer story, with the central relationship evolving throughout the film in a way that feels organic and earned. Both Koch and Colon have an immense charm that carries those interactions smoothly, anchoring their care for one another. An encounter in a public bathroom in which a slur is levelled at them prompts one of the film’s most open reckonings with their experiences. Benjamin’s idealised view of a totally accepting LA in which he is free from prejudice is ruptured by Dom’s reply that “guys like that live everywhere”. That Benjamin’s escape may not be the escape he is seeking is understandably placed under the microscope by his ordeal and it is through the course of the film that his ability to face up to ugly realities is repeatedly challenged.

With the leads producing two excellent performances it would be easy for the supporting cast to be overshadowed. However, Jena Malone is pitch perfect as Alice with her ability to switch between hyper-focused and intense while also allowing slips of humanity. Mark Patton bursts into the film as Rich, leaving a mark almost instantly. The extremes of his performance are genuinely difficult to watch at times, with rage seemingly constantly at risk of boiling over. The ebb and flow of intensity never gives way entirely, leaving the whole film with a deep sense of unease that holds the viewer in its grip.

Outside of this, that connection to the characters continues to pay off and it is to the film’s credit that it is able to keep the unpleasantness as well as providing distinctly beautiful, affecting moments. As a result, the pacing is near-perfect, never allowing a moment to relax while still providing space for the characters and scenario to take on wider meaning and explore those themes. Writer-director Carter Smith has precise control at all times and that results in the narrative becoming all the more impactful.

Swallowed is a powerful and uneasy film with an incredible energy that does not let up throughout the run time.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Swallowed played as part of the North Bend Film Fest 2022.

North Bend Film Fest 2022

The North Bend Film Fest returns for 2022 from August 4th – 7th, bringing independent shorts and features that highlight both established and emerging creatives.

I was lucky enough to cover last year’s festival and am thrilled to be doing so again. You’ll be able to see reviews from the festival soon. You can find these posts by searching North Bend. Many of the short films made it into my favourite short films of 2021 with a huge variety of genre and genre-adjacent material available, from the impactful stop-motion The Expected to deeply scary podcast horror Skinner 1929.

The horror shorts advertised for this year include Baby Fever, Black Dragon, Bug Bites, Darker, Death in a Box, Scooter and They See You. Featuring some truly evocative imagery, these films represent a wealth of short film talent and celebrate the art form.

2021’s event brought fast-paced action in the form of Tailgate and a more introspective, quirky look at relationships between sisters in Superior. This year’s event is no different, offering several Centerpiece screenings, including Rahul Kohli-starring Next Exit and tense horror Swallowed. In addition, Next Exit Mali Elfman director will be awarded the Dulac Vanguard Filmmaker Award as recognition for her feature debut.

From opening film I Love My Dad to closing film Please Baby Please, plus an anniversary screening of Bubba Ho-Tep, North Bend truly has something for everyone. You can check out the Film Guide to attend if you are in North Bend and stay tuned to their social media channels for news and events.

What Josiah Saw

A gloomy horror focused on dark family secrets.

What Josiah Saw poster

Synopsis: A family with buried secrets reunite at a farmhouse after two decades to pay for their past sins.

The Graham family is troubled, to put it lightly. Tommy (Scott Haze) lives at the now neglected farmhouse with his father Josiah (Robert Patrick). His twin siblings, Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner) are estranged, both battling their own demons. When the land is to be sold, the family must reunite to confront their history.

What Josiah Saw is split into clearly defined sections that focus first on Tommy, Eli and Mary separately to begin with before bringing all threads together for the final act. This is a strength of the film, allowing you to understand each of the characters before seeing them interact. This effect is furthered by each segment having different tones, looks and feels to drive home how fractured they are while also adding to the control the house appears to have over them. It is the kind of story you could easily see expanded to a series of episodes and would perhaps sit more comfortably within that format with an ability to dig into those characters further. This is not to say that the characters aren’t clear within the film, as they are, but there is the sense that the writing could peel back further layers.

With a two-hour runtime, Josiah is a slow-burning narrative. This, along with the grim subject matter that permeates the film will make it a difficult sell for some. The overwhelming influence of troubling patriarchal figure Josiah (played to perfection by Robert Patrick) looms large over the film with his unpredictable, aggressive drunk immediately setting up a distinct discomfort. The horror here, while it is keen to prod at belief systems and the afterlife, is mainly situated in the haunting situations the characters find themselves in. Moments of jolting horror work incredibly well, bursting through whenever the emotion seems to swell beyond concrete reality.

What Josiah Saw is incredibly matter-of-fact in the presentation of its flawed characters, often allowing their sins to be vocalised by those around them. The characters are never allowed to forget where they have come from or the things they have done. Eli is ostracised and isolated due to his crimes and that isolation forces him into ever more dangerous situations. His thread seems the longest here, featuring a sequence at a Romani community (note: there are several uses of slurs within this that illustrate the kind of background Eli and his cohorts are from). This section does feel prolonged, seemingly introduced to showcase that this call to right a wrong is not only based in Josiah’s religious belief but an overall calling. Tommy is isolated too by his difficulties and proximity to Josiah, whose unusual behaviours keep others at bay.

The theme of reckoning hangs over the film and indeed, the righting of wrongs is a central driving force for characters. It is notable that Miriam, their long-departed mother, is repeatedly viewed in sainted terms by the family and those outside it. This makes Mary’s thread the more interesting one, for me at least, so it is a shame that only a relatively small amount of surface discussion is given over to her own reckoning with motherhood and being a wife. Outside of her loudly soundtracked, dark workouts, a slow, ominous zoom on a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ sign that heralds a triggering moment for Mary is just one of the ways the film captures her discomfort in cosy domesticity. Kelli Garner’s performance is so good that you want to see more of her narrative than is provided.

There is something to be said for horror that truly leans into its bleakness. Comparisons to the likes of The Dark and The Wicked and even The Righteous are understandable given their focus on uncovering secrets and the darkness within generations. What Josiah Saw stands as perhaps a more mellow, grounded take on those themes, although keeps those stabs of horror strings for its most dramatic moments to truly unnerve. The final act does deliver on all the slower discomfort it has built, landing several gut punches that are all the more jolting for the

What Josiah Saw is a confronting work with some balancing issues in terms of the weight given to character stories.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

What Josiah Saw streams on Shudder from August 4th. Available on Shudder U.S., Shudder CA, Shudder UKI, and Shudder ANZ.