Speak No Evil

A clash of cultures and values makes for bleak viewing in this impactful film.

Synopsis: A Danish family visits a Dutch family they met on a holiday. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unraveling as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of unpleasantness.

During my first watch of Speak No Evil, I realised I’d stopped taking notes about halfway through, instead becoming absorbed in the incredible discomfort that the film offers up. This is the kind of horror that you want nothing more than to look away from, yet the compelling treatment of the two opposing views held me in a vice-like grip from start to finish. Speak No Evil functions exactly like the metaphor of a frog in gradually boiling water, seemingly unaware that the temperature is rising to harmful levels. Initially, there is a cringe factor, drawn from their clashing values and while the film hints from the very beginning at something far more sinister, it does excellent (and torturous) work in drawing that out until the very end.

When Bjørn (Morten Burian) and wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) on holiday, they assume they won’t meet them again, initially writing off offers to visit as nothing more than politeness. However, Patrick and Karin are keen to have them visit and eventually a letter prompts Bjørn and Louise, along with daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) to leave Denmark and go stay with them. As the weekend progresses, so do the clashes between their ways of life, causing issues between all concerned.

Fear of ‘the other’ in horror is nothing new, whether that other comes in human or more overtly monstrous form. Speak No Evil finds its monsters in a domestic space and is all the more horrific for it. Disagreements about food, public displays of affection and raising children are all dialled up to squirm-inducingly uncomfortable levels. Sections of Speak No Evil feel ripped from scaremongering tabloid pages – approaching satirical levels of ‘stranger danger’ that the film pays off in its most distressing scenes. This isn’t to say that director Christian Tafdrup is taking a conservative viewpoint, however – the film feels closer to lampooning those views in its taking events to the extreme than it does comfortably sitting within them.

Boredom and restraint loom like a spectre over the film, with Bjørn viewing their new acquaintances as more exciting than a life he’s fallen into a rut with. His intrigue about them and a clear dissatisfaction with his own life drive him perhaps even more than the politeness that the film otherwise seizes upon. The dry civility with which they live their lives leaves him open to the more expressive, louder inclinations of their hosts. Louise is more under the microscope of the hosts, especially as she is more vocal in her opposition to them. A particularly nervy scene sees Patrick challenge her on her vegetarianism by drawing her on her hypocrisy of eating fish yet refusing meat. We are invited to view the Danish couple as complacent in their middle-class status, paying lip service to environmental concerns but prioritising their own comfort.

Meanwhile, the Dutch couple, despite their initially friendly hospitality is characterised by emotional outbursts. Patrick’s confrontational nature is terrifying, whether it comes in the form of shouting or quieter tearing down. The casting is excellent here, as are the decisions made around the use of language. Some elements are not subtitled, offering a way for both couples to confer without letting the other side in on details. A dramatic score is in place from the very start – it unnerves even when the action feels static and supposedly safe, consistently placing the viewer on edge. This sense that brutality may be around the corner never lifts. In horror, a jump scare or act of violence operates as a release of energy – here that release is denied, culminating in a conclusion that is represented in coldly hollow terms.

Gripping and uncomfortable throughout, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil may be the meanest film of the year.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Speak No Evil is now streaming on Shudder.

Who Invited Them

Social mobility comes with a hefty cost in Duncan Birmingham’s sharp thriller.

Synopsis: Adam and Margo’s housewarming party is a success. One couple linger after the other guests, revealing themselves to be wealthy neighbors. As one night cap leads to another, Adam and Margo suspect their new friends are duplicitous strangers.

That houses retain the memories and events from what has happened within them is pretty common ground in horror films, usually in the form of a haunting. Who Invited Them finds a space between a haunting and a home invasion, with the home and the people in them taking on an uncomfortable edge. Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) are settling into their new home – a home they have previously thought out of their reach. “A house is only as good as the people who fill it,” is offered by way of a toast – with an underlying, sinister indication that those who do not belong can sour it. Whether this statement applies to Adam and Margo, or their unwanted visitors is a concept that the film probes repeatedly.

A line of dark humour runs throughout the film, whether that’s in stark cuts to horrific scenes as characters correct themselves on story details or the interplay between the four characters flips from good-natured to increasingly confrontational. The entire cast is excellent, with Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld) initially presented as affable and enthusiastic. Their enthusiasm remains even as their behaviour takes a darker turn, offering quips and asides that add to how watchable the film is, balancing dark ideas with genuinely funny moments.

Adam and Margo are pitched as characters so open to flattery that it places them at risk. Adam’s desire to fully embrace his position in the new house is tied to his ideas of self-esteem. His assertion that they ‘deserve’ this new home and the status it brings dominates his other behaviours and causes him to ignore the discomfort of both Margo and their son Dylan (Kalo Moss). Handwaving their concerns as a case of ‘new house jitters’, his aspirations further an already visible distance between the family. This makes Margo all the more open to the flattery that Sasha offers about her ‘previous life’ as a performer in a band. Due to a lack of communication and different ideas, the pair become increasingly prone to manipulation.

Coming in at around 80 minutes, this is an excellent example of a film finding the ideal time in which to tell the story. With the action largely set in one location, it would be easy to try and overstuff outside elements, but the charisma of the cast is enough to support the relatively simple story. Some will find the direction it heads in to be unsurprising, but the journey is satisfying nonetheless.

Strong performances elevate this thriller in which dark secrets lie beneath a veneer of showy surroundings.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Who Invited Them is available to watch on Shudder.

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

The Rubicon Films team tackle the mysteries of the deep in this documentary.

Synopsis: Director George Popov presents a voyage exploring terrifying ghostly tales of the sea and monstrous horrors from the deep.

Producing two documentaries within a year is not to be sniffed at, especially ones as rounded as both Sideworld outings. I’ve previously reviewed the Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England on the blog and thankfully, Terrors of the Sea follows in the footsteps of that production in terms of its construction and focus on smaller, easy-to-follow myths, legends and supposed encounters.

The sea is, to put it simply, terrifying. Vast and with so many elements still unknowable (or at least incredibly difficult to research) it represents many things beyond human comprehension. As the documentary itself states, the sea has often been framed as a ‘dwelling for ancient and cosmic evil’. It is no surprise then, that myths, legends and stories come to fill in the gaps of understanding, but often spark more questions than answers.

Like the haunted forests counterpart, Terrors of the Sea breaks its hauntings into sections, focusing on ghostly vessels, sea monsters, tragic sailors and mermaids. There are passing references to perhaps more well-known stories that segue into smaller tales that are given specific focus. In most, the human side of these stories is focused on: love affairs gone wrong, indifference to those in need of help and a human tendency toward violence in the face of the unknown. This again, helps in the balance for sceptical viewers, with the stories able to be understood as genuine sightings or cautionary tales developed to warn us of our own destructive tendencies.

In dealing with the more otherworldly elements the film leans into illustrations and ponders other explanations. The on-screen text draws focus, where necessary, to multiple sightings, connecting the myths to glimpses of personal experiences. Illustrations are used to highlight these stories, all supported by the calm, reflective narration of George Popov. There is less emphasis on eyewitness sightings described via voiceover but where they do appear they so much to provide a spooky atmosphere.

At just over an hour long, Terrors of the Sea arrives as another example of Rubicon Films’ short but perfectly formed illustrated documentaries.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea is now available on Prime Video.

Shapeless

Arresting, methodical body horror with a focus on the internal experience of its protagonist.

It feels necessary to add a warning for both this review and the film to allow those who would prefer to avoid details. Shapeless is a film that confronts the horrors and impact of an eating disorder. Help and resources are available from Beat in the UK for anyone who may be struggling.

Synopsis: Ivy, a struggling singer in New Orleans trapped in the hidden underworld of her eating disorder, must face her addiction – or risk becoming a monster.

Ivy (Kelly Murtagh – also responsible for the story alongside writer Bryce Parsons-Twesten) is a singer struggling to find herself as she deals with the effects of an eating disorder. As the condition chips away at her confidence, talent and relationships, the film becomes more internal, more preoccupied with the inner workings of her mind and how that translates to her body.

This is a film deeply invested in mood and tone, creating spaces that alternate between oppressive reds and sickly greens that surround the protagonist. Director Samantha Aldana blurs Ivy repeatedly, capturing half her face in mirrors which all contributes to Ivy’s distance from her life and also speaks to her fracturing identity. All fit the idea of Ivy’s battle with herself. In the darker tones, we find Ivy’s struggles come to the fore as she regards her body with intense scrutiny before collapsing once more into destructive behaviours. Initially, lighter, daytime scenes are a reprieve but as the film progresses, even these are snatched from her (and the audience), with a scene at a wedding becoming an affecting display of the toll it takes both personally and professionally.

Murtagh’s own experiences as a singer and in dealing with an eating disorder ground everything. She fully embodies Ivy’s delicate mental space, with the way she feels and her perceptions coming to alter how she moves, reluctant to take up space while becoming desperate to be heard. While the film doesn’t shy away from the ugly realities of her situation, this is a film full of empathy for Ivy. The camera is not a casual observer here, but becomes Ivy’s companion, allowing us to watch her study herself. We are never invited to judge Ivy, but to be present in her moments of pain, intruding on the private spaces where her issues are at their most apparent.

This is not a full-scale, gory set pieces body horror, finding a more ambient, character-based horror. Complaints about pacing and lack of concrete action would be understandable but this establishes itself very early on as a character study. Those looking for explosive moments will not find them here. The film initially borrows the smooth soundtrack of Ivy’s surroundings, quietly turning up the discordant sounds to match the distorted visuals. Everything becomes a haunting progression.

Shapeless is a powerful and at times, a difficult-to-watch character study that highlights the ability of horror to discuss the most difficult subjects in a way that foregrounds the individual.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Shapeless will be available to Own or Rent from 19th September

The Razing

An exercise in confined filmmaking that yields mixed results.

Synopsis: A group of estranged friends gather for a night of tradition which takes a deadly turn after old secrets and wounds resurface.

The Razing is a curious film in that for the most part it confines its characters to one room while also trying to build a wider world around it. It is often a compelling device for horror, the increasing tension and claustrophobia driving characters to increasingly desperate acts. The Razing leans into this tradition, trapping warring characters in a lavish space, removing them from the escalating concerns of the outside world.

The clever thing that The Razing does is introduce characters who are so clearly in crisis and cannot stand to be around one another from the outset, with the sniping starting almost immediately. These scenarios always lead you to wonder, as a viewer, how any of these people are friends or why they are still in contact, but the film sets out that these are a group mainly connected by a dark past, attending out of obligation rather than genuine desire to be around one another. Remaining within the confines of the room The Razing manages to blend the current day with their pasts, offering context and development. This is achieved by having two separate timelines operating within the space, one of the present and one of the past, in which characters’ younger selves walk seamlessly into the same space, taking the viewer across timelines in mere moments.

Early on, an overwhelming soundtrack holds the viewer at arm’s length, with booming music overpowering dialogue at times. With an already fractured group and tense conversation, this never quite lets you find a connection to the characters. This does, in some ways, add to the overall effect, only allowing you to find out the secrets between them as the group fractures. The setting too, is excellent, with the rich surroundings providing a clashing backdrop for the excesses and conflict taking place. The details of the acts taking place outside of the room are horrific,

Where the film struggles, for me, is using a near-constantly roaming camera. In some sections, like a move around the room to signify a timeline shift, this is an elegant way of moving between threads, as is the use of split-screen early on, visualising their conflict in an intriguing way. However, as the film progresses the camera is scarcely still, constantly exploring the space, even moving when characters are delivering monologues. The overall effect is a kind of queasy feeling normally reserved for found-footage films. A little more stability would go a long way in providing more connection with the characters and an ability to focus on performances, too. To some degree, you can understand the desire to offset the dialogue-heavy scenes and add some dynamic movement, but several sections are in need of moments of stillness to allow the horror to truly sink in.

While The Razing fully understands and portrays the horror of other people, some technical choices are likely to leave some overwhelmed and distant.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

The Razing is distributed by Gravitas Ventures and will be released on September 27th, 2022 to TVOD and DVD and on SVOD and AVOD 90 days after.

The Retaliators

Morality and metal music underpins this revenge horror.

Synopsis: An upstanding pastor uncovers a dark and twisted underworld as he searches for answers surrounding his daughter’s brutal murder.

Pastor Bishop (Michael Lombardi – also co-directing) is having something of an identity crisis. His church sermons are popular, drawing crowds due to his preaching of life lessons and including musical performances. He turns his easygoing nature and reluctance to challenge aggression around him into teachable moments for his followers but increasingly his daughters are questioning him, challenging him on his risk-aversion. In an attempt to loosen the reins on oldest daughter Sarah (Katie Kelly) he allows her to borrow the car to attend a Christmas party, setting in place a sequence of events that sees the teenager brutally murdered. Reeling from the loss, Bishop is drawn further into the murky side of the area, confronting violence, drugs and the seductive power of revenge.

On the surface (especially from the excellent poster art) it would be easy to assume that The Retaliators will offer an all-out, pulpy revenge film but the end result is actually more complex. The timeline moves around, offering an opening scene that returns with greater meaning and relevance much later in the narrative. These time shifts are furthered by a shift to different characters and a dedication to world-building. The move away from Bishop’s pristine, brightly-lit domestic space to the gloomy underground spaces really sets out well the darkness hiding just under the surface. Despite the focus on energetic, metal music throughout, this is a far more moody film than initial appearances suggest.

This creation of mood does take time, however, and there is an imbalance in how the film unravels. Placing some scenes out of sequence and spinning them off into different character concerns leaves the film with a dip in which nothing appears to connect for almost too long. Despite the satisfaction gained when everything does click into place, this does occasionally make it feel directionless. It does allow you to gain a greater understanding of the characters, with Bishop’s reckoning with his morality called into question by Jed (Marc Menchaca) a detective fighting his own demons. The time afforded to their positions is well-earned, while some of the underground scenes distract from that for a little too long.

Dynamic camera work comes into effect for later action scenes and the gore on offer is well-realised. Violence is given an impact, for the most part, allowing the time and space for the viewer to feel the hits as they land. As the film progresses into gorier territory that fades somewhat, allowing a little more inventiveness and even fun with its set pieces. With such a long time afforded to build the texture and detail of the area and characters this almost feels like a different kind of film, bringing a lot of energy late on. This is a film that wants to pursue both the lure of violence and the morality of revenge, both elements that do not always sit comfortably together.

Musical performers being involved in films can often seem like gimmick casting but The Retaliators weaves its cast well. If you are familiar with performers like Jacoby Shaddix, Spencer Charnas and Ivan Moody then you’ll recognise them and there is fun to be had in that recognition, but it isn’t essential. The soundtrack is obviously influenced by this, but it never feels like stunt or gimmick casting. Shaddix in particular holds his own as the deeply disturbed Quinn Brady.

If you like a decent helping of blood and angst in your Christmas horror films, you’ll find much to like here. Moody and pulpy by turns, The Retaliators makes for an uneven yet enjoyable ride.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Retaliators will be in Cinemas worldwide from 14th September. Tickets are on sale now at https://www.retaliatorsmovie.com

Guiltea

Guiltea is a short film based around a sentient, killer teapot.

Charity shops are places you can find a real bargain, but in Guiltea, the owners of a secondhand teapot are placed in peril by the pot’s high standards and sinister ways. The teapot, named Terrence Tealeaf has very strict ideas about the kind of person he wishes to spend the rest of his existence with and will go to any length to find them.

Guiltea is well-constructed and feels a little like a sequence of skits that would be found over a number of episodes in a sketch comedy. The first segment introduces the idea which allows the filmmakers to toy with the format as it progresses, at times playing to expectations and at others, subverting them. The result is a swiftly-moving and entertaining piece of work.

The DIY-style effects are in keeping with the overall look and feel of the film, with the simple design of the teapot allowing an anchor for the rest of the action to revolve around it. This simplicity allows the voiceover from Professor Elemental to take centre stage, delivering witty monologues about his situation and surroundings.

This is a quirky and well-realised idea that will appeal to fans of British horror comedies.

Guiltea was released on YouTube on September 3rd. You can watch the short here.

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.

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.

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