Fantastic Fest 2022: Satanic Hispanics

A collaborative effort, awarded the Best Directors in the Fantastic Fest Horror Features category brings plenty of variety to this solid anthology.

Synopsis: A police raid uncovers a mysterious man chained up in a locked room. This mysterious man, who only refers to himself as the Traveler, leads us through four stories.

The Traveler (Efren Ramirez) is taken into police questioning following the gruesome discovery of a warehouse in which numerous people have been killed. As the lone survivor, he is of particular interest in finding out what has happened, but as the questioning progresses he seems to reveal more questions than answers.

Anthology films have to achieve a balance between their stories – too much comedy and each segment starts to feel similar, too much outright horror and the overall feel is too heavy. Satanic Hispanics, while leaning somewhat towards the more comic side just about gets this right. The wraparound set in the police station offers plenty of moments for the film to poke fun at itself as increasingly puzzled Detective Gibbons (Sonya Eddy) and Arden (Greg Grunberg) try to keep pace with his fantastic stories. The easy chemistry between the trio allows the film to rest between segments, building up to a visually impressive, music video-like finale.

Director Demian Rugna immediately delivers on the scare factor with a story about a man named Gustavo (Demián Salomón) who has seemingly found a way to make contact with the afterlife. However, as with many otherworldly discoveries, this has implications that he is soon forced to confront. This has a few well-pitched scares, coupled with a genuinely engaging concept, making it the perfect introduction.

Immediately switching tones, we head into the proudly silly El Vampiro, in which a mix-up over timings sends the titular vampire (a strong comedic showing for Hemky Madera) into a panicked rush for home. After the weight of the first entry, this provides a much-needed reset. This section is one of two that I would really appreciate seeing with a crowd (the other being the Hammer of Zanzibar) as the construction and escalation of the comic elements feel specifically designed for a late-night festival audience.

That isn’t to say that Satanic Hispanic forgets to provide horror, however, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s segment provides an emphasis on ritual and pain. While there is plenty of horror action elsewhere, this is the section that leans into a sense of brutality, seeking to make the most of the physicality. Close-ups enhance the sense of suffering throughout, making it one of the film’s most tactile entries. The placement allows for an ebb and flow of tone, offering the darker entries a lighter counterpart.

Impressive in its ease of atmosphere and keeping the number of stories manageable, Satanic Hispanics stands to be a real festival crowd pleaser.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Satanic Hispanics screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.

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.

Scooter

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 www.sohohorrorfest.com. Limited early bird festival passes are on sale now.

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.

facebook.com/northbendfest

instagram.com/northbendfest

twitter.com/northbendfest

The Blood of the Dinosaurs

Joe Badon’s mixed-media approach delivers on an unsettling and pleasingly unquantifiable critique.

Synopsis: Uncle Bobbo teaches children where oil comes from.

If you have been lucky enough to see Joe Badon’s Sister Tempest you will already have a good idea of what to expect from Dinosaurs. The shorter format still allows for movement between different styles, from the nightmarish children’s TV show to puppetry and more conventional (although only just) live-action sequences.

Bookended by director and star discussions of the film’s meaning, this is a short that manages to pack a huge amount of content into a less than 20-minute run time. While some of the imagery and staging are, undoubtedly, unusual and lean heavily into a surreal tone there is a very clear and frequently angry message at the centre. The meta surroundings all contribute to a unique experience.

The collage effect of the film works to layer it, with stop-motion clashing with live-action and archive footage. The design of Uncle Bobbo’s public access show seeks to evoke the same kind of cuddly feelings of something like Mr Rogers (indeed, the most evocative quote applied to the film is “like an episode of Mister Rogers from hell”), but showing the seams around it like crew standing by add to an unnerving effect. This transformation of an otherwise cuddly, holiday-focused space into an almost liminal one is a real strong point.

Delays in sound and plenty of pregnant pauses further that sense of the film being both divorced from reality while also being deeply embedded within its socio-ecological messaging. The near-seamless move from a single camera setup for the show to roaming, more frenetic sequences shows a level of control that indicates that each element has a purpose. This is far from a collection of random sequences but a carefully plotted and effective short.

The Blood of the Dinosaurs is, perhaps it goes without saying, likely to divide audiences, but it does further Badon’s role as an exciting and innovative filmmaker worthy of attention.

Following an international premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, The Blood of the Dinosaurs will be making the following festival appearances:
Oscar-qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival (Los Angeles, CA August 11th – 20th), MOTEL/X Lisbon International Horror Film Festival (Portugal, September 6th-12th) & Sydney Underground Film Festival (Australia, September 8th-11th)

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Ghosts of the Ozarks

A film that almost feels sprawling but can’t overcome some challenging pacing.

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Arkansas, a young doctor is mysteriously summoned to a remote town in the Ozarks only to discover that the utopian paradise is filled with secrets and surrounded by a menacing, supernatural presence.

Ghosts of the Ozarks should be praised for its control of tone and the way it sets and more importantly, sustains mood. The film creates a living, breathing space for the viewer to occupy, embedding them amongst the town’s population and adapting to the strange geography.

Another strength is in the immensely likeable Thomas Hobson as James ‘Doc’ McCune, a young man brought to the town by a letter from his uncle. Offering a place of sanctuary (much needed in the aftermath of the Civil War), first impressions are of a functioning, comfortable community, but soon strange happenings begin to show cracks in that perfect image. The cast is good all-around, bringing in genre favourites like Angela Bettis and David Arquette to flesh out characters.

The strength the film has in the creation of that texture and tone is also part of its central issue and that is the lack of narrative momentum. It feels like each movement forward is met by a lull that slows the pace once again. It would be more understandable if these lulls contributed to further character development, but they seem mostly concerned with that breathing space and fleshing out the village rather than those within it.

This does impact the pace considerably and as the film nears its ending there is a sudden rush of activity to get to a finale. This introduces a flatness to that finale as it fails to feel like an entirely satisfying pay-off. In many ways, with its dedication to world-building and creating that space, Ozarks would perhaps benefit more from being in an episodic format that would be better able to balance the need for the amount of time it wants to inhabit the town. It is impressive to see that level of detail and scale within a smaller film.

While not entirely successful, Ghosts of the Ozarks marries a strong grasp of tone, a few creative scares and a well-rounded cast to support itself.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Ghosts of the Ozarks screened as part of Grimmfest’s Easter 2022 edition. It is available in the UK now through Signature Entertainment.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Ego

An identity crisis underpins this claustrophobic, lockdown tale.

Synopsis: Feeling increasingly isolated during the COVID-19 lockdown, 19-year-old Paloma goes on a same-sex online dating network in search of romance… Only to discover what she at first believes is a case of identity theft. But further investigation suggests that she really does have a doppelganger. One with hostile intentions towards her.

The pandemic represented a change in everyone’s lives and the mental impact of that on people is unlikely to be completely known for some time. The isolation and unprecedented nature of daily government briefings and a step back from any kind of normality represented challenges for everyone, but especially for those who found themselves suddenly confined to a home in which they felt they could not be their true selves. This is certainly the case for Ego‘s Paloma (María Pedraza) – a closeted teenager dealing with grieving for her father and an increasingly strained relationship with her mother.

Zoom therapy sessions offer little in the way of stability or filling time for Paloma, who turns to phone calls and the internet, including a dating site to occupy herself. On the site, she soon encounters a young woman who is all too familiar. When appealing to the site to deal with what she originally believes to be a catfish has no effect she is drawn into a personal and at times, psychosexual conflict with her double.

Ego is a film that places restrictions upon itself by the action taking place during a strict lockdown. Confining Paloma to the apartment restricts the visual language of the film to some degree, forcing director Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas to make use of the close-quarters without becoming repetitive. This is successful to a degree, introducing plenty of mirrors and screens to alter perceptions. Far from offering a window to the outside world, the screens box Paloma in further, drawing her into a near-liminal space as the threat increases.

Recurring use of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (as a song played on the radio, a phone’s ringtone and a cover over the credits) furthers the sense of Paloma’s world being small and repetitive. The film is at its best when it leans into these tricks that make it feel more constrained and the impact is certainly felt when more people are brought into the space and it attempts to expand the world and its scares. Here the repetition becomes an issue, resulting in an over-reliance on sudden loud noises over the more carefully constructed, personal story. As this leads to a sobering and mostly effective conclusion, the elements don’t quite gel with the film trying to balance itself between sober reflection on mental health and jumpy horror.

A film about an identity crisis that itself, suffers from an identity crisis, but one that is engrossing enough for its run time and does have some interesting, standout moments to recommend it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Ego played as part of Grimmfest Easter 2022.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: A Pure Place

Surface political allegory meets interpersonal tension in this textured story.

Synopsis: A tale of dirt, soap, and magic set in a cult on a remote Greek island.

Irina (Greta Bohacek) and her younger brother Paul (Claude Heinrich) are members of a cult led by Fust (Sam Louwyck). Fust leads with a mythology and ethos that intersects with daily life, aided by rumours of his own otherworldliness. The cult is divided into two distinct areas. The upper area is a wealthy, pristine space, funded by a lower area engaged in making soap, raising pigs and being deprived of light and cleanliness. When Irina is handpicked by Fust to move to the upper level, Paul is left to come to terms with life without her.

The locating of the central cult on a Greek island with strange, often offputting rituals designed to discuss societal and cultural issues will obviously call to mind the label of Greek Weird Wave. A Pure Place lacks some of that characteristic bluntness, instead devoting time to the grounding of the cult’s mythology and the interpersonal relations. A few standout moments of oddness stick in the memory, but A Pure Place has to balance those with the sibling relationship at its heart. This does mean that it is more possible to overlook the obvious central allegory which lacks any kind of subtlety and invest in their connection.

The casual cruelty of the upper levels and the obsession with the story pushed by Fust dominates. The performances suit the heightened world they inhabit and while this is not a place for much nuance, there is a delicateness to the portrayals that prevent them from becoming only caricatures of the concepts they are required to embody. Still, it is difficult to assess if the film has anything particularly new to say, or even if it has to. The clear disparities in wealth are secondary to the more insidious white supremacy thread that runs throughout it with an emphasis on supposed purity that operates only on the suppression and abuse of others.

The attention to detail on the way the cult operates and the depth with which their mythology is imbedded into every action and the surroundings. The production design is well-observed with the decadence coming to further the obviously sinister ideological implications of Fust’s teachings. The messaging, although surface-level for the most part, is troubling in that in our current times we still need a reminder of how damaging that kind of belief is. The seduction of the vulnerable into the cult under the belief of a better life is captured in simple, but no less effective terms.

The impressive visuals make this an absorbing watch, although some of the strangness may hold some viewers at arms-length. It is a shame that the storytelling and impact cannot keep pace with the way the film looks.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out 5 stars

A Pure Place played as part of Grimmfest Easter. For more information on Grimmfest please see their webpage.