Final Girls Berlin Film Festival: Body Horror

Fear of the body, what it can do to you and what it can become is, understandably, a major preoccupation in horror. The Body Horror shorts block explores those fears in a selection of films that take that fear to extremes.

In The Flesh

Tracey has spent enough time masturbating with the assistance of her bath tap that she has started to take notes. Those notes are seen early on, reflecting how much of her time and other life, including work, is being taken up by her hobby. One plumbing disaster later and Tracey is forced to confront the reality behind her odd situation. Many reviews have made comparisons to the leaking fluid from Titane, which is understandable in some ways, although In The Flesh is a more individualistic tale, with Tracey’s state of mind at the centre. Her anxiety spiral, demonstrated by cuts to increasingly unhinged Google search results keeps us with her throughout the runtime, an effect that allows the rest of the film to stretch into other areas and fully bring this story together. The physical and emotional are interlinked in a way perfectly expressed by the film’s take on body horror, resulting in a pretty powerful message.

Violet Daze

Violet and Daisy’s long-time friendship is established early on within Violet Daze and the tension from their changing friendship resulting from a move is central. Daisy is keen to point out that they aren’t 8 years old anymore, but Violet is set on reaffirming their friendship, no matter the cost. This is such a skilful short in that it telegraphs its direction from the outset, yet manages to retain the tension, embracing the inevitability as another layer of horror. Director Marisa Martin drip-feeds the viewer, each moment laden with meaning and increasing dread. Bonnie Ferguson as Violet and Emma Horn as Daisy both portray their roles excellently, crucial when so much rests on their interactions.

Shlop

One of the block’s shortest films is Shlop, coming in at just over two minutes long. If body horror is about finding fear and revulsion in the body, this certainly taps into that, offering ultra close-ups full of movement and squelching. Deliberately difficult to pin down, this denies narrative in favour of feeling and the drive to evoke discomfort.

First Blood

A first period is a stepping stone in many coming-of-age horrors and First Blood functions as a particularly good example. Rather than feeling revulsion or unhappiness at her first period, Mia (Lauryn Sa) instead greets it with a muted, yet prepared response. That initial flatness soon wears off, however, as she finds herself increasingly curious about the process. Mixing music video aesthetics with provocative visuals that Lauryn Sa fully commits to this exploration of awakening female hunger really leaves an impression.

Swallow

On a purely personal level, this film was probably the most difficult for me to watch, such is the effectiveness of what it serves up. After a tense dinner, a self-absorbed actress is invited by another woman to a mysterious club to discuss the secrets of her continued success. The sumptuous visuals draw you in before switching to ever more skin-crawlingly effective imagery. However, it is the dark playfulness of the short that keeps you engaged, toying with punchlines and upping the suspense all the way through.

Love is a Fire

Intimacy issues and a particularly vicious yeast infection present an obstacle for the couple at the centre of Love is a Fire. The couple are presented as struggling with their physical relationship, pitching Olivia’s (Celina Bernstein) desperate attempt to connect against Andrew’s (Kenny Yates) reluctance. In many films exploring the dynamic of a struggling couple, female desire is often sidelined, so it is refreshing to see it front and centre here, even when deriving horror from it. This would perhaps benefit from being slightly longer to more fully explore the couple, although both performers do well to sell their relationship in a short space of time, a little more about them would assist. However, it is the memorable effects that you’ll likely take away with you – like it or not…

Legs

Pregnancy is pretty high on the list of body horror explorations, and for good reason. It is still one of the statistically most dangerous things for a person to do, even with good medical care, so what better phenomenon to mine than that? Joy and her husband are attempting to have a baby and the process is wearing. When Joy accidentally swallows a spider, she thinks there may be another way to be a mother. By mostly adopting the bright colours and peppy soundtrack of something much lighter, Legs gradually dials up the horror until a conclusion that is genuinely unsettling.

The Body Horror shorts block screened as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2023. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2023: Female Pacts

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival always curates a particularly exciting short film lineup and this year is no different. The Female Pacts block explores the nature and power of women connected to one another, whether in the same space and time or across generations.

All Girls

All Girls is an early contender for the best line of the festival, which I can’t share without spoiling it, but I really urge everyone to check out this short. Fiercely driven leader Heather (Dolores Carbonari) takes her group of friends on a practice run of a hiking challenge intended to secure the best possible University application brag. However, after much bickering, the group end up lost and without equipment, putting the entire trip, and their lives in jeopardy. The strength here is in the cast, working to bounce snappy dialogue around in the open air. The interplay between them, especially in Heather’s most excitable moments is easy to engage with. The outdoor photography is very effective in isolating the girls within a difficult environment with director Anastasia Bruce-Jones able to switch from that vastness to the quieter, inner thoughts of the girls with sophistication.

Blood Rites

Another British offering and another slice of darkness with a side of wry humour – this time based on a short story about 3 girls with an unusual appetite finding themselves in the English countryside. The comic beats between the three main performers are so well-pitched with Mirren Mack, Ella-Rae Smith and Ellis George all delivering distinct characters in a short runtime. The film has fun with its humour and a particularly notable nod to the high-school corridor power walk but also delivers on the horror stakes with their unique condition and personalities creating issues for them.

Sabbath

From the slow creep over a cliffside, Sabbath is a film keen to indulge in tension as a group of women stand accused of witchcraft. The events of the film take place in broad daylight, with the brightness furthering the discomfort as a religious figure loudly decries the women and their ‘crimes’. The film could be forgiven for surviving on the intensity of the dialogue alone, but director Alexandra Mignien gradually dials up to something far more explosive and, ultimately, satisfying.

Souterraines (Rooted)

A far more mellow (to some degree), but no less effective offering is Souterraines, a story of a woman in search of the secrets of her family that she feels immensely burdened by, yet drawn to. When she meets another young woman at the home, the pair begin to unpick their feelings, fears and suspicions of what is happening around them. The dialogue is poetic, laden with metaphor, supported by the dimly lit house providing an intimacy up until a bracing conclusion.

Huella

Daniela works at a call centre, dealing with the mundanity of customer calls with good grace despite the recent loss of her grandmother. As her mourning continues, her dancing background comes to the fore in a flow of interconnected, dream (or nightmare) sequences. The flow of this is really something special with seamless editing and movement providing a high-energy experience along with some memorably jarring moments.

No Man’s Land

The most overtly comic short of the block comes in the form of No Man’s Land, featuring a cult led by a man who may, or may not be, involved in one of the most infamous documentaries put on screen. Despite the well-pitched jokes, this also has a serious thread about those who preach faux-empowerment as a form of control. References to ‘finding your awesome’ sit at odds with the increasingly restrictive behaviour as the day of ascension approaches. The cast are effective here in selling the insecurities of the group and the arrival in this space without much need for background. Effective and entertaining.

The Female Pacts shorts block screened as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2023. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2023: Raquel 1,1

A teenager takes on a dangerous mission in Mariana Bastos’ bitingly clever drama.

Synopsis: Raquel is a teenager who moves with her father to a small town, in search of a new life. During her first days there she believes she is given an important and controversial mission related to the Bible.

When Raquel (Valentina Herszage) moves to a small town, her immediate acceptance into a local religious circle appears to be a blessing, showing her warmth and companionship under unfamiliar circumstances. However, as the group’s central belief of submission and subservience of women comes to the fore, she begins to question the use of the Bible in rationalising, condoning and even mandating control over women. Those questions soon lead to a movement that threatens her place within her new community as she decides to reclaim the words for herself.

Religious horror is a mainstay of the genre, with the core idea of good vs evil obviously underpinning many films, but more interesting are the works that present women undertaking personal missions linked to a higher religious power. Films like Saint Maud and A Banquet both feature women burdened and spurred on by cosmic enlightenment, but do so in a way that calls into question their mental health and places a tremendous personal cost on them. Within Raquel 1,1, there is rather more sobriety, aided by the film’s more muted qualities. That lower key doesn’t, however, prevent the film from engaging in otherworldly moments, but its attempts to echo religious imagery are more organic than any special-effects-driven take.

Raquel is not on a direct mission to save one person, nor is she rendered under a kind of fevered possession seen in those films mentioned above, but something far more grounded. Her need to exorcise the damaging passages about women from the Bible is rooted in her past, but also in the behaviour she sees in the young women and men around her – her drive is in preventing those words being used to justify that ill treatment. This is truly a story about reclaiming and critique as Raquel’s own faith is not influenced by her non-religious father – she seeks to claim it for herself rather than abolish entirely.

Bastos’ film is economic with its imagery, instead placing an emphasis on voiceover or text in exploring Raquel’s past. Her reasons for challenging the words within the Bible are revealed slowly, each time increasing in their harrowing details. At each stage we see Raquel experience those memories and thanks to a committed and engaging performance from Valentina Herszage, this becomes more powerful than providing the visuals ever could be. Her experience hangs over the film like a spectre with long, slow shots of the cave in which she has her revelation treated as a traditional horror space before switching to the aural reveals. The film becomes overwhelming in its sobriety, taking time to pause at other moral panics (most notably the Satanic Panic) in which people become targeted for being at odds with the current system.

While the film toys with moments of magical realism, it uses them sparingly and powerfully, often without thorough explanation or exploration. That is likely to frustrate some who might long for clearer answers about her revelation, although the film’s technical choices make it clear that is not the film it wants to be. The bulk of the film’s power lies in the words spoken, whether recited from the Bible or recounted from the past – this is a film with something to say about the treatment of women within modern society based on ancient texts and affords them the volume to say it.

Overall, Raquel 1,1 is a bold film, refusing to take an easy (and lazy) critique of religion and instead molding a powerful critique of how texts can allow all genders to justify poor treatment of others and how those who seek to upend those systems can be vilified. Bastos’ restraint in writing and direction allow the performances and messaging to shine.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Raquel 1:1 screened as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2023. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2023

Running from Feburary 1st to 5th, The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival returns for the 8th edition, bringing their longest ever line-up of female and non-binary-focused features and shorts. You can view the whole program and get full passes here (individual and online tickets to follow).

The features lineup boasts a selection of firm festival favourites in Sissy, Watcher, Hatching and Huesera, all featuring excellent central performances by young women confronting their surroundings and in some cases, their own natures. There are plenty of new films with German premieres of Polaris and Nightmare and a Berlin premiere of Raquel 1:1, but also a chance to rediscover the lesser-known Australian film Celia.

That variety continues across 10 absolutely stacked short film blocks with intriguing block titles promising a range of films tackling important, all-too-relevant social horrors in addition to the otherworldly scares we all love to indulge in. Including films like Kelsey Bollig’s incredible Kickstart My Heart and Izzy Lee’s deranged Meat Friend there’s sure to be something for everyone. The block titles are outlined below.
FEMALE PACTS, BODY HORROR, MENACING PRESENCES, CLOSE TO HOME, CREATURES, BODILY AUTONOMY, QUEER HORROR, MIDNIGHT, YOUNG ‘N DEADLY, and HIGH TENSION.

Many of the shorts will be available via Vimeo On Demand throughout the festival and there is an online ticket option for those wanting to watch who can’t be there in person.

As ever, the festival is providing a platform to excellent speakers and some truly unique events, including a Tarot workshop, witchy choreography study and a zombie self defense session. In the talks, Mexican sexuality, hagsploitation and rape-revenge are all under the microscope in what are sure to be fascinating and insightful discussions.

For more information about the festival please go to the Final Girls Berlin webpage. You can also keep up with the festival on social media on Twitter (@finalgirlsfest), Instagram (@finalgirlsfilmfest), Facebook (Final Girls Berlin). For exclusives and updates you can also sign up to their Patreon.

Favourite Films of 2022

It feels like every year I have a more difficult time trying to narrow my favourite films of the year to a reasonable number. I’m lucky to see a vast number of horror films, so as you might expect, they dominate this list. With so many movies in production, it often feels like some are left underappreciated and even not picked up for big enough releases that they find their audiences. The time between festival screenings and wider releases also makes it difficult to truly narrow down what is a 2022 film. Some on my list were at festivals in 2021 and others may not be widely available until 2023 in some locations. To keep things relatively simple – if I saw it in 2022, it has been included. In addition, some of these films I’ve already reviewed and as I’ve looked over the titles from this year, even some of the films I’ve given higher star ratings to haven’t stayed in my mind as I thought they would so the list may have some surprises.

Before the list and to ensure I mention as many films for people to check out as possible, there are a few honourable mentions. The crowd-pleasing found-footage Deadstream which found a pleasingly aggravating screen presence in Shawn Ruddy (played to perfection by co-writer and director Joseph Winter). Tense drug-trafficking horror Swallowed and lot-lizard slasher Candy Land both pushed boundaries and buttons in their physicality. Pandemic project Lexi showcased indie horror’s ability to create compelling narratives even when isolated. The intense and dreamlike New Religion took the study of grief in a new, somewhat slippery but completely absorbing direction.

Huesera: The Bone Woman managed to deftly handle bodily autonomy and produce at least one scare that I felt rattle an entire audience at Celluloid Screams. Master brought a hypnotic quality to a story of two black women struggling with their experiences at a prestigious University. True-crime biopic Nitram managed to be both deeply unsettling, but respectful of the tragedy it is based on. The film on every horror fan’s lips this year was the dread-filled study of politeness gone too far, Speak No Evil. Although I wanted a sharper offering, Bodies Bodies Bodies proved a fun watch, with Lee Pace, Rachel Sennott and Pete Davidson delivering some excellent one-liners. Lastly, Piggy should see Laura Galán’s star continue to rise after her incredible performance in a murky morality tale about a bullied teenager reckoning with a shocking event in her community.

With all those covered (because yes, I’m cheating by including a pretty large number of mentions), on with the list! At the end of each section, you’ll find a link to JustWatch so you can see how to watch it. These will be UK by default but you can switch to your location on the site. If I have reviewed a film, you’ll be able to click the title and be taken to that review in a new window.

25. X

From the first glimpse of Mia Goth’s blue eyeshadow X‘s visual stamp was clear. The resulting film is fascinating and made even more interesting by surprise prequel, Pearl being released almost immediately afterwards (although not for UK viewers until March 2023) and sequel MaXXXine already in the works. Mia Goth is obviously doing outstanding work in the dual roles of Maxine and Pearl, but the supporting cast of Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson and Owen Campbell round out the group of would-be porn crew members incredibly well. Some have argued that the presentation of Pearl and age in general within the film falls into some older, even damaging tropes. However, I’d argue that there’s more nuance involved and many people’s perceptions of what the film may actually be saying has perhaps been tainted by the kind of nervous laughter mainstream audiences sometimes produce in the face of nudity and sexuality.
X on JustWatch

24. You Are Not My Mother

Sometimes one scene can be enough to really let a film embed itself into your memory. You Are Not My Mother has one of those scenes in which Char’s (Hazel Doupe) mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) instigates a dance that soon turns into one of the year’s most intense sequences. The rest of the film is just as powerful, taking underutilized mythology and placing it in modern Ireland in the centre of a struggling family unit.
You Are Not My Mother on JustWatch

23. Crimes of the Future

Almost a Greatest Hits of Cronenberg’s dominant concerns over the decades of his career but one that also finds humour and humanity among the darkness. By leaning into the absurdity of the concept of an ‘Inner Beauty Pageant’ the film is perfectly placed to extend its commentary to the wider ecological situation. Kristen Stewart’s twitchy performance is a real highlight but as usual, Cronenberg’s world and body-building is second-to-none.
Crimes of the Future on JustWatch

22. Torn Hearts

Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift is a firm favourite of mine so I was really excited to hear about Torn Hearts. I watched it earlier in the year and loved it – strong performances and a darkly comic streak punctuate what becomes a really potent comment on the way media treats female artists. Seeing the film again at FrightFest with a full audience really brought out the fun of it with each line drawing the perfect response. Such a great girls night in movie!
Torn Hearts on JustWatch

21. Halloween Ends

Following the outright disappointment of Halloween Kills I went into this with low expectations. Obviously, I was always going to see the final (although we already know it is unlikely to be the actual final because of the way these things work) and was basically expecting an almost paint-by-numbers Michael vs Laurie final showdown. Which, to be totally honest, I’d have probably enjoyed. However, that explosive opening and the entire shift in direction made this one of my most enjoyable cinema experiences. I can totally understand that the big swings would not work for other people but any film that has Jamie Lee Curtis uttering the line, ‘show grief your tits’, to her granddaughter who has *clearly* developed a bit of a kink for violence over the course of the series is absolutely fine with me. Each line of wild dialogue, borderline terrible editing and even a Real Housewives meme made it something to remember.
Halloween Ends on JustWatch

20. Orphan: First Kill

In keeping with returns to franchises and taking them in fun directions, Orphan: First Kill had to make this list. Isabelle Fuhrman has always clearly had a fondness for her role as Esther, but returning to a role that requires her to play a child in a prequel to a film she made 13 years ago seemed like it had the potential to fail. A host of technical and practical effects worked like magic, but the real strength of this is in Fuhrman and Julia Stiles’ performances, bouncing off one another excellently. This is wildly entertaining, campy horror that feels like a suitable companion to the original.
Orphan: First Kill on JustWatch

19. Next Exit

Regular readers will know that I really do love the potential for horror (and horror-adjacent genre works) to explore huge emotional depth and that I also enjoy a bloody good cry. Next Exit delivers on both counts, presenting a story in which a scientific advancement has seemingly proven the existence of life after death, upending the way the many feel about their mortality. Cue Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) heading on a last road trip to be part of a study. Their easy chemistry makes this a film to fall in love with, even though it also explores some dark material. If your seat mate at a film festival needs to ask you and your friend if you’re alright at the end of the film, you know it has done the job!
Next Exit on JustWatch

18. The Banshees of Inisherin

This brilliant, achingly sad but incredibly funny drama has such a specific kind of charm. Kerry Condon is a highlight for me, but honestly, there isn’t a weak link in the whole cast who perform their roles seemingly effortlessly in the face of such precise writing. So many excellent one-liners mean the true sadness of it kind of creeps up on you, offering a greater impact.
The Banshees of Inisherin on JustWatch

17. Hatching

Sometimes a film still does more to sum up what I love about a film than if I wrote 10,000 words. Hatching‘s middle-class setting with a quest for perfection and pressure it places on young gymnast Tinja (Siiri Solalinna). After she finds a mysterious egg in the woods near her home, she decides to take it home and look after it. There is a perfect kind of weirdness to this, the grisliness clashing with the beautiful surroundings. Unlike many, this ends at an absolutely ideal, if abrupt moment that furthers the overall mood of the film.
Hatching on JustWatch

16. Nope

Even though this is probably my least favourite of Jordan Peele’s output so far there is no denying that Nope made for an incredible cinematic experience. Using the medium of the Hollywood spectacle to make comments on the nature of exploitation and the desire to witness incredibly traumatic moments to turn them into commodities is such a bold, inventive move. The film uses its cast to their full potential, allowing an incredible Steven Yeun monologue the space to truly hit home, utilising the infectious energy of Keke Palmer and placing Daniel Kaluuya centre stage of the imagery he truly deserves.
Nope on JustWatch

15. Sissy

It would be easy for Sissy to get lost in the shuffle of other ‘influencer’ horror entries, but this film really does stand out over them. The poking fun at the culture around toxic wellness is excellently pitched and laces neatly with the core story about reconnecting with a friendship likely best left in the past. The design of this is really striking and a core cast headed by the brilliant Aisha Dee as Cecilia bring everything to frequently uncomfortable life. I’ve said this before, but any horror movie that manages a Kath and Kim reference is always going to go down well with me.
Sissy on JustWatch

14. Breathing Happy

Being emotionally devastating is not a guaranteed way to get on my list of favourite films, but it does help. Shane Brady’s Christmas Carol-like tale of addiction, sobriety and the way we think about our pasts is powerful and immersive but also retains a kind of feverish weirdness and offbeat humour that keeps you engaged. Far from being an all-out misery fest, Breathing Happy‘s characters are drawn with a sense of resilience. All this, however, did not stop me from absolutely sobbing several times throughout this film on the two occasions I’ve seen it. A powerful indie film selected by the Soho Horror Film Festival that will hopefully pick up many fans on a wider release.
Breathing Happy does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing

13. Honeycomb

Keeping it indie for the lucky 13th entry. Avalon Fast’s Honeycomb is such an achievement and even though the style won’t appeal to everyone, the film is as much an ode to making films with friends and the closeness that collaboration brings. The narrative itself surrounds a group of young girls who head off to make their own society with their own rules that soon sours. It would be too easy (and largely inaccurate) to compare to a DIY Yellowjackets, although that this kind of narrative is so compelling is a good sign that ensemble female casts with flawed characters is here to stay, which can only be a good thing.
Honeycomb does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing

12. Scream

Legacy sequels are tricky, as already covered in the Halloween Ends entry on this list, but the Radio Silence team really held the weight of taking on the first new Scream entry for 10 years *and* the first with no involvement from beloved creator Wes Craven. That they were able to tempt back performers to bring those characters to life (and death) once again and provided numerous loving homages to the first four entries is nothing short of incredible. As well as providing a hit of nostalgia, the introduction of new characters means we’ve got far more to look forward to in 2023’s Scream 6.
Scream on JustWatch

11. The Bob’s Burgers Movie

I don’t think I’ve watched any film as much as this one this year. Big-screen outings for TV series are always a risk but this managed to upscale both the visuals and narrative elements. Funny, great songs and immensely quotable dialogue make this just so easy to throw on no matter what else is happening in your day.
The Bob’s Burger’s Movie on JustWatch

10. Megalomaniac

A deeply disconcerting soundscape and beautiful photography of the decaying space that the central sibling pair inhabit make this a film to be drawn into, even when the content is not for everyone. This has the spirit of some New French Extremity films without ever really tipping into that level of transgression. That doesn’t make it an easy watch, however, with Eline Schumacher’s performance as Martha never anything other than uncomfortable.
Megalomaniac does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing

9. The Jessica Cabin

Another emotional entry from Soho Horror Film Festival in the queer-focused, rather more gentle horror The Jessica Cabin. The cast chemistry is excellent and clever writing makes the most of limited settings and effects to create an emotive take on remembrance, eternity and longing. It is so refreshing to see a film that is so upfront about its queer content without needing to be a story about queer pain. Yes, there are undercurrents, but there’s something so beautiful about just witnessing these characters as they are. Writer and director Daniel Montgomery wrote this in a cabin while listening to Taylor Swift’s folklore, which after you see the film, you’ll agree should become a more standard practice.
The Jessica Cabin does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing.

8. Tropic

Tropic is another of those films that utilises genre elements quite sparingly but to unnerving effect and to enhance the rather more grounded message they are trying to convey. I’ve heard so little about this film since it was shown at Fantastic Fest that it feels like the most beautiful secret that I’m keen to share with people. This tale of two brothers caught up in a relentless march for progress due to greed and damage is utterly compelling.
Tropic does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing.

7. The Harbinger

I cannot overstate how utterly terrifying I found The Harbinger. Director Andy Mitton’s absolute mastery of offbeat jump scares that deliver on pure terror has long been proven but this nightmarish pandemic vision feels like it significantly raises the stakes. Among the horror is an emotional thread about memory and dealing with crises. It is also the first pandemic horror I can recall that places a focus on the desire to protect people throughout it, the measures taken to contain it and the ultimate horror of failing at that. If Andy Mitton wants to lead any future attempt at The Nightmare on Elm Street he’d be a perfect fit, although I’m just as content to see him craft his uniquely brilliant original ideas too.
The Harbinger does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing but will be released in the UK on January 23rd by Signature Entertainment and FrightFest Presents.

6. Bones and All

A very late addition to this list, but one that quickly made an impression. Bones and All is a beautifully shot story in which the central romance that is made such a feature of in advertising becomes secondary to a world in which other (and easily read as queer) people find themselves negotiating their space in a world that views their differences as horrific. The horror cuts through normality and initially pleasant conversations turn dark as Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) navigate their way through their identities. Mark Rylance’s turn as Sully is breathtaking, again initially benign but soon unearthing a series of transgressions. I initially questioned the 2+-hour run time but it unfolds at exactly the right pace to tell this story.
Bones and All on JustWatch

5. Men

I can’t help but feel much of the reception to this film rests on both the title seemingly promising some an all-encompassing thesis on male toxicity that the film could never deliver and also the perception that this is from a male creator and therefore cannot (and more worryingly, should not) tackle this material. What Alex Garland has done is centre Harper (a brilliantly stoic Jessie Buckley) as a woman recovering and reckoning with the way the world has treated her. Her retreat from her modern home space into the rural one, full of the weight of tradition and isolation is brilliantly absorbing and delivers on such memorable folk-horror imagery that it has hardly left my mind since first-watch.
Men on JustWatch

4. Hypchondriac

An utterly charming performance from Zach Villa as Will, a young man battling his own demons after his mentally ill mother begins to communicate with him. It isn’t often that you get a disclaimer ahead of a film that it is ‘based on a real breakdown’ but that is exactly what you have here. Director and writer Addison Heimann delivers the kind of jumps and jolts you’d expect from any mainstream horror while also providing a deeply moving emotional core, centred around identity, agency and human perseverance. A truly impressive achievement and I don’t think there’s been a single other character this year I’ve fallen in love with as quickly as Will.
Hypochondriac does not have a JustWatch entry at the time of writing.

3. A Wounded Fawn

Despite absolutely loving this I’ve found it difficult to write anything concrete about it that really explores that love (maybe something to do in 2023?). Travis Steven’s previous work has explored the threat of male violence and the female desperation to claw back against restrictive images in both The Girl on the Third Floor and Jakob’s Wife. In A Wounded Fawn he finds perhaps the least conventional narrative so far with a shift into the operatic and stylistically confrontational story of a serial killer bringing his latest would-be victim to a cabin. Wherever you think this is going from the opening, sumptuously-shot scenes, you’re probably wrong. Utilising a host of visual and aural techniques with absolutely incredible performances from both Josh Ruben and Sarah Lind, this is such an audacious piece of work that demands attention.
A Wounded Fawn on JustWatch

2. The Leech

If you have been in my company at any point this year following the screening of The Leech at FrightFest in August, odds are, I’ve brought it up. The horny Christmas movie with a seethingly angry social and cultural critique at heart that I didn’t know I needed. Eric Pennycoff’s Sadistic Intentions proves an excellent starting point for this mostly three-person masterclass in discomfort and shifting allegiances. As highlighted in my Ghouls review, each performer finds an easy space in which to anchor the film’s more decadent and transgressive excesses.
The Leech on JustWatch

1. Something in the Dirt

I think I could probably watch this every single week and still find new things to love (and go mildly insane trying to crack clues) about it. The way that Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have managed to create something that is both intimate and expansive is just further evidence of the magic that these creatives bring to their films. Full of references to their previous work, but not essential to know to follow, this truly walks a line of rewarding older fans while also welcoming new ones. The film allows us only a slippery grasp of what *actually* happens, allowing the viewer’s imagination to run as wild as John and Levi’s. A beautiful film, full of their trademark sparky dialogue and sci-fi-infused philosophy.
Something in the Dirt on JustWatch

Let me know your favourites of 2022 and be sure to look out for these releases in the New Year.

Fantastic Fest 2022: Give Me An A!

A selection of short films in reaction to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

Synopsis: Expands the importance of bodily autonomy and addresses the issues of a democracy that does not protect the needs of the majority of the population.

The overturning of Roe vs. Wade in June this year felt like a blow to everyone who may find themselves with an unwanted, dangerous or unviable pregnancy. Limiting crucial access to often life-saving healthcare for a significant part of the population felt like a cruel blow, even for those outside the USA. Give Me An A! is a selection of critiques of that decision and the thoughts around it, bringing sci-fi, horror, comedy and satire in a collective reaction.

Following a dedication to ‘our mothers, our grandmothers and all those upon whose shoulders we stand today’ A! introduces a changing room of teenagers. The group engage in talk about proper tampon use and other subjects like the fetishisation of their uniforms before launching into a routine about bodily autonomy. Already, there is a cohesion between those women who have gone before and those having to ready themselves to fight again, creating a powerful statement about the current situation.

The shorts that make up the film range from the emotionally disturbing The Voiceless, the satire of DTF and even the faux-infomercial stylings of Plan C, to name but a few. Boasting an impressive list of creatives and performers each segment possesses its own clear identity and a different handling of the material. This careful placement and movement through different tones sustain the film’s energy, allowing an ebb and flow of lighter and more distressing takes.

Whether the segments are skewering the relative apathy of men in the face of bodily autonomy (DTF and the Love-Island-style gameshow Crucible Island), seeking to explore the very real impact on young girls (the slick transitions and emotional weight of Sweetie) or taking a more body-horror-related angle (The Voiceless and Medi-Evil) the throughline in them all is, understandably, rage. Even the cutaways back to the cheerleaders, staring into the camera as they announce the next film are all imbued with a sense of anger that hangs over the whole project.

As with any anthology, viewers will find more to like about some sections than others. However, with clear tackling of such a pressing concern each offering feels relevant and more importantly, potent.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Give Me An A! screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.

Something In The Dirt

The cult of Benson and Moorhead deepens with their latest feature which manages to explore fascinating phenomena through a rather more intimate, restricted setting.

Synopsis: When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realize documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives. An ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole, their friendship frays as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city and each other.

Across their previous work, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have established a knack for bringing engaging characters to the screen, foregrounding those relationships as an anchor for their explorations of sci-fi concepts. Something In The Dirt continues that preoccupation with intense male friendships while also adding a detailed, sinister, and, at times, playful, exploration of conspiracy thinking.

A meeting between divorcé John (Aaron Moorhead) and drifting barman Levi (Justin Benson) soon transforms into a folie à deux relationship of mutual manipulation and a desperate search for meaning after the discovery of strange phenomena in Levi’s new apartment. Moorhead and Benson are no strangers to acting opposite one another, allowing them to centre that chemistry, bringing a likeability to both characters even when playing with evolving audience perceptions of them. While films like Resolution, The Endless and Synchronic all focus on long-term relationships and the baggage that comes with them, Something In The Dirt finds tension in the new, unpredictable partnership they find themselves in.

The production design is excellent, bringing to life the apartment where the pair spend the bulk of their time. Much is made of the escalating heat within the space, with the walls seeming to sweat and buckle under it. There is an initial simplicity to the phenomena that aids the development too – too much too soon and the believability of the scenario is lost so the initial visual hook proves essential for providing that first spark. This attention to detail delivers further when the pair venture outside in search of further clues with symbols, shapes, and even references to their previous work (most specifically The Endless) appearing. The entire design places the viewer in the same space as Levi and John, challenging them to find the same clues (or even different ones) to the two men. Despite being a pandemic project, there is very little mention of those circumstances, with Levi and John isolated not by any outside restrictions but by their own directions in life. Both are defined, to some degree, by their loss of connection to those around them.

Los Angeles also plays a crucial role in the film in terms of how it can be demonised or romanticised as ‘LA Magic’. Levi’s video of a coyote wandering near the apartment operates as a moment of quiet beauty and danger simultaneously. Recent conspiracy thriller The Scary of Sixty-First used New York to the same effect, making the city an integral part of the mood and tone of the film in their contrasts between festive advertising and buildings adorned with gargoyles. The relative anonymity of a big city makes the connection between two people who appear to share the same vision a rather more seductive one and that sense of being lost to the conspiracy as an escape from an otherwise disappointing reality is one that is impossible to ignore. However you choose to interpret the film’s reality of ‘what actually happened’ that thread remains. From the outset, the seemingly constant noisy hum, heat and movement of LA is foregrounded with wildfires, earthquakes and low-flying planes all a quietly accepted part of life.

In terms of the references to their other work, it feels important to note that previous knowledge is not essential and elements like a photograph, film poster, or beer advertisement will strike a chord with fans without disrupting the experience for unfamiliar viewers. More rewarding for fans of their previous work is that this feels like a culmination of the pair’s aesthetic and thematic interests. The addition of ‘meta’ elements like the documentary footage wraparound, clips of their own home movies and dramatically elevated reconstructions make Something In The Dirt a film constantly on the move and constantly challenging the viewer to keep up with the thought processes of the central duo. The performances are excellent, with Benson’s rather more sensitive portrayal of Levi pitched against Moorhead’s more intense John to frequently disquieting effect. The talking heads in the documentary portions are convincing too, perfectly adopting the accepted tone of the documentary being pulled together.

Matryoshka dolls that feature as part of a wind chime outside the apartment appear at distinct moments throughout the film as it explores its layers. This is rarely a linear film, especially with the segues to different formats but it somehow finds cohesion in this scattering. Like John and Levi, the viewer becomes free to start imprinting their own meanings and conclusions onto the film, taking up only the threads that resonate.

An entirely magnetic and absorbing work that invites and rewards repeat viewings, Something In The Dirt is a film content to go at its own pace and truly indulges in the strangeness and human nature it wishes to explore.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Lightbulb Film Distribution release Something in the Dirt in select cinemas on November 4th. Find the list of cinemas here.

Fantastic Fest 2022: Nothing (Intet)

A tumultuous coming-of-age tale that indulges the darkness under the surface of a ‘perfect town’.

Synopsis: A group of 8th graders who confront the meaningless of life and leave behind the innocence of childhood.

There are two distinct worlds established at the outset of Nothing – the outward-facing, rule-observant idealistic one, full of parents who want their children to be guided in the right direction and the one beneath that image, of children left alone to fill their time, resulting in the group starting to explore their own directions and meanings in life.

Writer-director Trine Piil Christensen, adapting from Janne Teller’s novel situates herself firmly in the world occupied by the children, keenly aware of the adult’s indiscretions and relative lack of interest. The film’s inciting incident in which school boy Pierre Anthon (Harald Kaiser Hermann) has an outburst at school, declaring everything meaningless, before retreating to the safety of a nearby tree and refusing to come back down is an unusual one, seemingly purposely chosen to showcase the ineffectual parenting surrounding them. The rest of the children begin to mount a campaign to show him what they find meaningful, but Pierre Anthon’s existential crisis soon sets in motion an epidemic of nihilistic thinking amongst the group.

Much of the early parts of the film rely heavily on a voiceover from Agnes (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) who calmly intones about tragedies yet to unfold. At times, this feels like too much of a shortcut, with much of what we know about the characters delivered through that voiceover, rather than in more organic ways. This does occasionally feel clumsy, introducing snippets of exposition just before dramatic events without allowing the viewer to understand entirely. However, given that this film is largely concerned with the troubles of meaning (or lack of meaning) this does function on another level, prompting the audience to view each incident through both Agnes’ meaning and what plays out in front of them.

The sedate pacing too, imbues the film with the same impression the audience is given of the children’s lives. These are children with lots of time to spend together and they struggle to fill that time. Even those who are given parental figures with more status or involvement, like Frederik (Frederic Linde-Fleron), the head teacher’s son, are only viewed fleetingly, based on the ideas the group have about them. This, again, is assisted by the voiceover but the need for it to do quite so much of the heavy lifting in building that world sometimes bristles. This, along with a swerve into an odd direction during the third act that is not quite given the time it requires, hints at a sense that this would perhaps sit more comfortably in a much longer, episodic format.

This is, perhaps obviously, given the subject matter, an incredibly dark film, especially with so many younger performers involved. These dark moments are handled with an appropriate sense of dread and while many of the scenarios could easily stray into the exploitative (and may well overstep that line for some), there is an impressive amount of restraint employed, holding back so the moments that are fully revealed to the audience hit all the harder. The escalating trades the children begin to make in their search for meaning grow steadily darker and the young cast are all excellent at conveying their sways from innocence, to sadistic behaviour, all with a sense of insecurity at the heart of it. Maya Louise Skipper Gonzales is a standout as Sofie, taking a role that could easily become cliche and making it compelling.

While Speak No Evil may be the Danish horror that has everyone talking this year, Nothing also offers that very European darkness and unsettling themes that linger beyond the credits.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Nothing screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.

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.