Grimmfest Easter 2022: The Cellar

A strong, spooky idea that can’t quite make the leap to feature-length.

Synopsis: Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.

Writer-director Brendan Muldowney returns to the idea behind his excellent short film The Ten Steps to expand the story, to limited success. Viewers of the original (and brilliantly executed) short will be familiar with the concept – some busy parents head out to a work dinner, leaving their children at home. When the lights go out their teenage daughter has to go into the cellar to fix the issue, guided over the phone to walk the ten steps. The short packs a powerfully creepy punch, so a continuation of that idea may make sense, although the feature-length production highlights that the short’s power lies in both its brevity and lack of explanation.

Focused around the Woods family, The Cellar‘s opening moments play out in much the same way as the short, with sullen teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) at odds with her parents, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) as well as younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) as they move into their new, suspiciously cheap house. On the first night of the move, Brian and Keira are at a meeting, leaving Ellie to look after Steven. Creepy goings-on in the house ensue and soon Ellie is having to make the scary trip into the cellar, resulting in a disappearance that Keira has to take exceptional measures to resolve.

While Muldowney very clearly has a great sense of what makes something scary and a good grasp on how to bring that to the screen this cannot overcome the fact that this is an 80 minute film built around an idea that makes for a very strong short film punchline. Outside of that punchline, the film is forced into recreating the usual ‘haunted house’ tropes. Internet symbolism research and expositional historians make appearances almost like clockwork. The addition of a mathematically-focused expert does add something not seen as often, but the delivery is just as undynamic and stalls momentum. The Woods parents’ social media company meeting is full of vague references to previous campaigns and ‘going viral’ but fails to establish sufficiently high stakes for them leaving the children alone in a new, unknown house.

The use of light and shadow is very impressive, providing some standout moments of tension and horror. Even as the film often lurches into scenes you have seen previously, they are, undoubtedly well-realised. However, as the film needs to expand further toward its conclusion there is some straining at the seams as the images can’t quite live up to the film’s ambitions, resulting in the mood and atmosphere from all those well-earned scares sadly escaping at the conclusion. This leads to the film ending on a whimper, rather than the bang of the original short.

Elisha Cuthbert’s performance provides the main focus here, solidly selling the concept of a worried, yet determined mother trying to come to terms with her loss and the desire to keep searching into an entirely unknown world. The film affords a few starring segments for Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady’s Steven, under threat from the house perhaps more than anyone. Eoin Macken is just as solid, although he appears more sparingly, allowing Cuthbert to take centre stage as the driving force. This does lead to the family feeling rather more fractured as the film moves on, fitting, given the strain placed upon them.

Some pleasing horror moments and the undeniable shudder that the film’s borrowed set piece brings can’t quite elevate this to the heights of the short it is based on.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Cellar plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 4pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets. The Cellar will also begin streaming on Shudder from April 15th.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Kratt

This review of Kratt is a guest post from Keri of Warped Perspective. You can check out more of her excellent work by visiting the Warped Perspective webpage.

A gentle kind of mayhem reigns in Kratt (2020), a film blending traditional Estonian folklore with a generation gap comedy. Its brand of humour varies from oblique to very direct and, shall we say, universal, but you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. It would be a lie to say all of this makes complete sense, but in any case, it is charming more often than it’s not.

After a brief piece of historical contextualisation – we see way back in 1895 a disgruntled Count, his ruined manor house and an impish figure demanding ‘work’ – we’re brought back up to date, meeting our key characters. Two screen-obsessed kids, Mia (Nora Merivoo) and younger brother Kevin (Harri Merivoo) are being left out in the sticks with Grandma (Mari Lill) whilst their parents head off on a retreat; their phones are being confiscated, too. The expected protestations take place and both children struggle with the new rules, but they take more of an interest in Grandma when she tells them a certain bedtime story.

She describes how to build a ‘kratt’ – a creature assembled out of whatever household parts you can muster, which will obey its makers in return for a few drops of blood and a soul. This story links the family back to the historical mayhem we’ve already seen; when Mia and Kevin hear about the mystery of a grimoire which contains the specific instructions for how to make this mythical creature, they know they have something to do which is more interesting than content creation (although they do wish they could use Google Translate to help). It’s hopefully not a spoiler to discuss the fact that yes, they find the grimoire, and no, things don’t go quite to plan.

Meanwhile, there’s a concurrent plot line which takes in local politics, environmental concerns and conservation issues: people in the local area have been mobilising to try and protect a supposedly sacred grove of trees which has been selected for timber. The logger, whose livelihood depends on getting this job done, complains to the local governor, who espies an opportunity to shore up his own career by getting involved with the whole situation. His involvement does, by the by, bring him into contact with the kratt, leading to some of the film’s most overtly funny scenes.

For the most part however, Kratt is a fairly gentle family comedy, very eccentric and not a little meandering. It could probably stand to lose ten or fifteen minutes of runtime, and in some respects, it gets a little muddled – though this could be as a result of being a total outsider to the folklore. In some respects, Kratt has similarities to a lot of the coming-of-age, Stand By Me -style films, with kids working together, getting up to mischief and into peril, but Kratt is far more whimsical than the best-known of these overall. The kind of humour (and the addition of some gory scenes) creates quite a jarring change come the last half an hour or so, too, which may feel like too much of a lurch for some.

The real star of this film, and the character who really holds things together, is Grandma, as played by Mari Lilli. Not only does she capture the exasperation of the older generation when faced with children versed in social media and not a lot else, but her horror-comic turn later in the film is very funny and very memorable; the fact that she plays it completely straight is all to the better. On the other side of the coin, the governor’s shift from cool, calm and collected to a total shambles is bittersweet, giving the film some of its most obvious, or at least universal jokes.

Kratt is ambitious, perhaps a little too much so, and as such its run time is crammed with lots of different plot elements to keep track of, but as a strange, offbeat occult horror comedy, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. You certainly won’t see anything quite like it, and if it’s any indicator of the Estonian sense of humour then it’s fascinating on those terms alone.

Kratt screens as part of Fantasia Festival. The film is available on demand. Ticket information is available on the webpage.

Son

A finely tuned atmosphere struggles to overcome thin characterisation and subdued pacing.

Synopsis: When a young boy contracts a mysterious illness, his mother must decide how far she will go to protect him from terrifying forces in her past.

Laura (Andi Matichak) and her son David (Luke David Blumm) appear to have an idyllic relationship with both parties doting on one another in a happy domestic setting. However, one night Laura opens David’s door to find his bed surrounded by a crowd of sinister people. This understandably fractures their comfortable lives and Laura’s paranoia about the group and a mysterious condition that David has developed only furthers this. As doctors find themselves at a loss and tell her to prepare for the worst, Laura is forced to take drastic action.

The pacing of this is perhaps best described as unrushed. While films that allow their scenes breathing space often feel more rewarding, some scenes here show their hand too early and this diffuses much of the tension. One notable scene, featuring a static camera is probably one of the few that utilises this slower burn ethos to really dial up the dread effectively. The slower pace and tendency to punctuate this with very short bursts of action leave the film feeling uneven and there is the sense that there is a shorter, more impactful film within it. Those lurches in action are accompanied by impressive effects and stylistic choices that inject energy into proceedings. The moments that work in Son *really* work, which makes the parts that don’t feel more frustrating.

Compounding these issues are the fact that the film really only concerns itself with the relationship between Laura and David, reducing almost everyone else to thinly written, near-bit parts intended to fulfil a functional role as opposed to any flair or complexity. Emile Hirsch features sparingly as Paul, a detective who is clearly far too linked to Laura from the outset but this conflict is not given very much time or energy by other characters or the plotting. The pursuit of Laura feels directionless at times and while the film undoubtedly finds creepy details wherever it can the time spent away from the central mother and son feels clumsy in its exposition. Scenes that should feel like disruptive, rug-pull moments come over far more flatly due to this lack of connection.

Those who have taken even a surface look at the Satanic Panic will find many threads to pull here, but perhaps the most potent is the book Michelle Remembers. Memories (especially those impacted by trauma) are a particularly vital part of Son, from David’s inability to remember the people in his room to Laura’s muddled past. The narrative is at its strongest when indulging in these introspective elements and the idea that reality can be painful to confront. A highlight in this sense is Blaine Maye who appears as Jimmy in a short but impactful sequence as a tragic figure from Laura’s past.

Writer and director Ivan Kavanagh brings the scare factor that fans of his earlier work The Canal will undoubtedly recognise and connect with, but a lack of fully fleshed supporting characters leaves this one feeling rather more shallow.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Son is now available on Shudder US, CA, UK and ANZ.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

While not strictly part of the franchise, Spiral faces the same challenges and reaps the same rewards as the films that set the stage for it.

Synopsis: Working in the shadow of his father, an esteemed police veteran (Samuel L. Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.

It is only fair that I start this review with full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of the Saw franchise. The first film left me cold enough that I never really felt the need to pursue the others. However, recent Twitter threads about some of the more unusual stylistic flair employed in later instalments (particularly IV) prompted me to visit some of the entries so I do have some context for how the series works. Director of Saw IV, Darren Lynn Bousman returns to helm Spiral, along with Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger. The blend of familiarity and divergence from it makes Spiral a curiosity that I believe time may be kinder to than some immediate reviews.

Chris Rock (a long-time Saw fan also credited as executive producer and story writer on the project) plays Detective Zeke Banks. We soon learn that Zeke is in conflict with his department due to his lack of tolerance for suspected corruption. Perhaps contrary to this, Zeke also fulfils numerous ‘maverick cop’ tropes that allow Rock to inject some comic lines and zest into his performance rather than playing things too straight. As no one else is keen to work with him, promising rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella) is assigned to investigate a series of events that could be linked to the infamous Jigaw murders. Rock makes for a compelling leading man, obviously ably handling the quick-fire dialogue that punctuates his relationship with his father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson – also on decent form here), but also manages the weightier dramatic pieces. Minghella’s performance as Schenk is credible, given that the ‘excellent rookie’ and ‘grizzled veteran’ pairing presents restrictions. Their chemistry works to sustain interest in this uneasy partnership, where it could easily otherwise be lost.

Much of the problem with Saw, in my experience, was the focus on pulling the rug from under the viewer and how difficult that is to balance – don’t seed enough through the plot and you can be accused of introducing too much new information late on, but seed too much and you risk giving the game away too early and becoming too predictable. The plot developments here rely heavily (much like the rest of the series) on a willing suspension of disbelief, but that the film operates as almost two distinct films within one may alienate audiences. If you’re on board with the film for its procedural elements, police tensions and patriarchal relationship drama then some of the sillier elements here might not be for you. As an aside, there was a moment within this that I have a feeling I was not meant to laugh at, but that struck me as such a ludicrous detail I couldn’t help it. That is not intended as criticism, as it did not detract from my enjoyment of it in any case. Similarly, if you are looking for a hyper focus on traps and gore, you might not find what you need here as the film is content to introduce an unpleasant set piece and then abruptly cut away to return later. Your mileage may vary on whether this functions as successful teasing or ultimately frustrating – I’m in the first camp, especially as when it needs to indulge in gore, it commits.

As already mentioned, the editing here can be disruptive and lends the film a very different rhythm to that of the other franchise entries. Moody shots of the cityscape set the tone, but this being Bousman, there are numerous opportunities for flair that soon make an appearance. Dramatic close ups, complete with vigorous camera shaking make the dramatic plot points feel internalised. As a series, the films lend themselves to turning outwards and while the close-up undoubtedly plays a vital role in reactions to traps and injury elsewhere, there’s a distinctly different tone to the use of it here. Some may find the pacing and play with chronology a little slow as the plot and relationships develop, but there is no doubt that the film does dial up the volume and provide the outlandish spectacle that rewards that extra patience.

Whether we can expect further entries from The Book of Saw is unclear, although it does present an opportunity for a world in which the spectre of the Jigsaw murders hangs over characters and institutions that could lead to a more diverse set of stories and more experimental takes on what would occur within that world. Spiral offers a strange mid-zone in terms of a film that doesn’t quite sit within its original franchise, but also couldn’t exist without it. An entertaining, if flawed outing.

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars

Spiral is out now in cinemas.

Lake Mungo

The terrifying and heartbreaking sleeper hit gets the loving treatment it deserves in the latest Second Sight release.

Synopsis: Strange things start happening after a girl is found drowned in a lake.

The hype that surrounds a film like Lake Mungo can be a hindrance, as often as it can boost the appeal. The fact that the film has not had a wider distribution for some time (at least in the UK) seems a further threat to its reception, with limited access meaning the film takes on an almost mythical status as an incredible scary example of ‘found footage’ done right. The Second Sight set has been my first exposure to the film and for me, it undoubtedly lives up to the hype and even surpasses it as an utterly compelling presentation of grief, secrecy and spirits.

As this was a first watch for me, I wrote this review before exploring the special features, so as not to be influenced further, although a very quick passage on those extras are included later in this post. While I’d heard a great deal about the scares involved in Lake Mungo, I was underprepared for how deeply moving and melancholic the film is, as well as how much DNA it shares with Twin Peaks (far beyond the surname of the central young girl and small town secrets). The naturalism of the faux-documentary format and the dream-like, wandering camera fall into harmony, one enhancing the other as the story unfolds.

Horror and technology often go hand-in-hand with the genre seeking to exploit the implications and reach of new devices and while today we are able to see fantastic films like Threshold, filmed entirely on iPhones, Lake Mungo is dealing with far less advanced methods, utilised to full, disquieting effect. The filming of a key sequence on a mobile phone feels radical to watch today, with the blurred, pixelated footage used to haunting effect. Director Joel Anderson carefully leads the audience to examine often low-resolution images and footage repeatedly, with a different focus each time, constantly unfolding ever more sad and haunting details. It is a masterclass in slow-burn, lingering horror.

Those seeking an explosive, jump-scare laden shocker should look elsewhere as the deliberate pacing, rug pulls plus meditation on grief, secrets, inevitability and even the nature of time itself take centre stage. The mood of the film is sombre, as it should be for such an intimate look at a family in the grip of grief. The cast are excellent and the authenticity of their performances makes the film all the more impactful. That this was reportedly achieved through improvisation (albeit with detailed guidance and set prompts from Anderson) is so impressive. The performances contribute greatly to the overall potency of the documentary styling, allowing the other material to indulge in the creepier, time-lapse photography that adds so much to the atmosphere and construction of liminal spaces.

The extras make the film even more impressive and while director Anderson is notably absent, enough of the cast and crew, plus a host of appreciative film-making and academic figures are present to make this feel like a celebration of the film, its influences, the filmmaking process and the film’s long journey from underappreciated (especially in Australia) to a must-see ghost story and example of the power horror has in exploring difficult themes. While some extras come with a disclaimer about their quality (an issue entirely understandable given the majority of this has been put together under pandemic conditions), the content easily shines beyond any technical limitations.

A film as deeply sad as it is horrifying, supported by a wealth of thoughtfully curated extra material makes this set a must-have in any modern horror collection.

5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars

Second Sight release Lake Mungo on a Limited Edition Blu-ray on June 7th. Visit Second Sight for pre-order information.

The Queen of Black Magic

This slick reimagining of the 1981 film trades in unpleasant scares and even more unpleasant revelations to create an atmospheric and pleasingly nasty slice of horror.

poster of woman holding skull

Synopsis: Families were terrorized at the orphanage. Someone wants them dead, apparently with black magic that is very deadly. She has a grudge and she was also born because of the sins of the orphans who formed her into the Queen of Black Magic.

The initial premise of The Queen of Black Magic is a relatively simple one: Hanif (Ario Bayu) is returning to the orphanage where he grew up for the sad task of saying a final farewell to Pak Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the man who effectively raised him. Returning with his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and children Dina (Zara JKT48), Sandi (Ari Irham) and Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), the trip is also an opportunity to reconnect with people from his past. However, the sad reunion is further disrupted by strange happenings.

I did initially have some concerns about the number of characters featured within the film, but thankfully these were unfounded. Yes, there’s a tendency for some to feature only to up the body count or showcase a particular effect, but there’s enough depth elsewhere to overlook that and enjoy those moments for what they are. Indeed, there are a few moments where CGI creepy crawlies are not that convincing but this is supported by either fleeting glimpses or by careful work to ensure that the idea of what is happening is well solidified so you only need to see a small amount to get the full effect.

Further to that point, this is a film that really takes pleasure in putting the devil in the details. Some moments that feel otherwise played out are given a fresh energy by the addition of one or two adjustments that, when highlighted, considerably ramp up the body horror and scare factor. Even non-horror touches like a reference to the number 81 (the year of the original film) mark this as a film both concerned with paying reference to its predecessor while adding new touches.

Despite the focus on smaller, uncomfortable physical details, The Queen of Black Magic isn’t just about the gore – in fact, it is the gradual unpeeling of what is happening and more importantly, why, that leaves the longer lasting impact. Themes of regret, guilt and ignorance find a place within the discussion, but there is a nod towards the social importance of myth-making and providing palatable explanations for unpalatable truths. Evolving gradually through flashbacks, this feels like rich storytelling punctuated with gory set pieces and the early, near-chamber piece feel when the group is first gathered adds a huge amount in terms of tension without ever becoming overwhelmed by character numbers or ideas.

Deep, rich storytelling with an emphasis on myth-making, this is hard-hitting and squirm-inducing film-making that delivers on scares and images that will stick with you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen of Black Magic hits Shudder on January 28th. You can also watch the Indonesian Horror panel from Nightstream festival here, or read my recap here.

Salem Horror Festival: Death Drop Gorgeous

Death Drop Gorgeous is a stylish slasher, with plenty of barbed one-liners and an exploration of the changing face of drag artistry that will both entertain and give pause.

Synopsis: A dejected bartender and an aging drag queen try to survive the eccentric and hostile nightlife of a corrupt city, as a masked maniac slaughters young gay men and drains them of blood.

Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) has returned to Providence after a bad breakup. Struggling to find his feet again, he moves in with his friend Brian (Christopher Dalpe) and starts to look for a job to start rebuilding his life. Taking on the quiet Tuesday shift at a bar, he soon finds out that the rivalry between the club’s drag queens is escalating into dangerous territory.

In the last few years, drag has gone mainstream and to some extent, by being mainstream it has become a little more safe and this has both advantages and disadvantages. Shows like The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula have tried to sustain the sense of counter-culture, as opposed to the more glossy Ru Paul offerings. Death Drop Gorgeous‘ characters are still underground performers, with veterans like Gloria Hole (Michael McAdam) struggling to find their place in the current market. Even younger performers like Janet Fitness (Matthew Pidge) and Audrey Heartburn (Paul Bohn) are struggling to keep their acts in slots that garner the most tips.

The real heart of the film is in the characters – both in terms of the way they are written and the performances. Dwayne is sweet, but also not prepared to be spoken poorly to and Wayne Gonsalves ensures that his confidence and even sparky nature shines. Brian is incredibly endearing and it is genuinely hard to watch when his enthusiasm makes him a target for harsh comments and it is a credit to Christopher Dalpe that he’s able to balance Brian’s chirpy nature while still making those rejections wounding. There honestly isn’t a bad performance among the cast, although the constantly shouting Tony (Brandon Perras) is worth highlighting. The antics of Tragedi (Complete Destruction), a melancholic drag artist often found carrying out chores in the bar has to be one of my favourite inclusions.

While there are, undoubtedly, some budget constraints at work here, the effects are sufficiently gooey and have that old-school slasher feel. One particular segment late in the film is dazzling, with excellent editing and utilises a mix of brutal violence, neon lighting and oddly beautiful, striking imagery. Both embracing the slasher vibe while also pausing to critique some of the more ridiculous elements, it appears as a warm homage. The influence of hagsploitation hangs over the film – characters are shot in close up, taking in every detail, especially where there are occasions for the performers to really let loose with more manic set pieces.

In the film’s more serious moments, there is discussion of a number of elements impacting on the gay community. A potential hook-up for Brian ends up rejecting him because he is too ‘femme’ (and in the same breath lets Wayne know that he isn’t his type either). The exchange is stinging, a reminder that racism and other discrimination still exists within the LGBT community. Indeed, the whole film centres on at least some level around the fear of aging and being forgotten. While it does so in energetic and frequently strange ways, there are still poignant aspects to be found here.

Overall, Death Drop Gorgeous has some limitations, but these are so easily overlooked by the kitschy charm and dedicated performances that it never loses steam or tests patience. This is a ton of fun with flashes of edge that make it entrancing.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Death Drop Gorgeous is currently streaming as part of the Salem Horror Festival virtual edition.

FrightFest 2020: The Swerve

Heavy-hitting with a devastating performance from Azura Skye, The Swerve is a painful, visceral watch that plays on your mind well after its close.

Synopsis: In writer/director Dean Kapsalis’ stunning feature debut, a shimmering American take on Michael Haneke-style torment, a woman battles depression, rodents, guilt and more in a superbly acted slow burner certain to leave a haunting impression. Holly is a wife, mother, teacher, and daughter whose psychosis starts to crumble after she’s part of a deadly car accident. But did that actually happen or not? Just one of many things on her disintegrating mind, along with her difficult two sons, her very distant husband, a student in class who shows inappropriate interest and her ‘perfect’ sister who returns to the fold.

Some will question a film like The Swerve being programmed at a genre festival like FrightFest, given that much of its content suits the pace and style of an arthouse drama more than a horror genre piece. Despite that, the gradual sense of events about to turn tragic and moments of horror made this one of the most visceral and frequently difficult to watch films at the festival.

Holly’s (Azura Skye) position as a wife and mother is a profoundly joyless one. Her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is distant, often working late and her two sons have found themselves in their pre-teen and teen years honing a kind of obnoxiousness towards their mother that feels overwhelming and mostly unchecked. Holly’s life as an emotional punching bag for those around her is further complicated by her struggles with mental illness. Much of the film is based on Holly’s perception of what is happening around her, sometimes with flimsy evidence. She may be seeing things and perceiving events differently or just taking them to heart more than others, but each one is another small, deliberate chip at her mental state. Despite her job as a teacher, there’s a sense that she has little control of her own life and path.

A scene in which Holly confronts her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) about a previous incident with a pie is startling, mainly because it is one of the only times that Holly is given a louder voice and it speaks to Holly’s ongoing humiliation and that every single word and action is felt as another wound. Skye is fantastic in the role, with her rigid body movements and increasingly fragile features emphasising her position as a woman on the edge. While she is mistreated, she also turns that mistreatment on others, including Paul ( Zach Rand), a lovelorn student who takes an interest in her. Their scenes feel incredibly uncomfortable as both exude a kind of vulnerability that comes from a lack of agency. As her mental stability suffers, the film feels like a leaking tap, dripping small event after small event until it is almost unbearable and as viewers, we wait for the flood.

Director and writer Dean Kapsalis has done well to create this character study with all the ugly moments of a mental illness without it feeling exploitative. Skye’s face is intimately studied by the camera, taking in every strained detail. Skye’s total commitment to the role is obvious with her totally transforming as the film progresses. The film is not interested in definitive answers, offering numerous events without conclusion or confirmation and leaving them largely open to interpretation. For the most part, we see what Holly sees and the film is skilful in terms of when it chooses to alter that perspective to question her experiences. Every scene feels weighted, whether that be with sadness, longing or anger and the emotions radiate through the veneer of the respectable life that Holly has from the outside.

Some will call it a slow-burn and while that is accurate, sometimes slow burns can outstay their welcome. The Swerve is deliberate in filling its screen time with acts that become more tense and agonising the longer they are on screen. The editing is occasionally jagged, swinging in and out of Holly’s nightmares and inner thoughts. The stillness of the camera in some scenes allows the viewer to be fully absorbed in what is happening, lending it a claustrophobic quality. The film telegraphs fairly early on where it is headed, but this doesn’t detract from the power it has to punch the viewer in the gut when it arrives. A soaring score adds to the spell-binding nature of the film, making you feel absorbed into Holly’s painful existence.

The Swerve is a steadily paced descent into tragedy, unflinching in its mission to portray a woman slipping through the cracks unseen by society or those close to her. Azura Skye delivers a devastating performance that should be celebrated. The film is magnetic, making its visceral moments all the more effective. One to check out, but maybe with something more cheerful lined up to watch afterwards.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Swerve was shown as part of FrightFest’s 2020 Digital Edition. Follow The Swerve Twitter for more information.

Z

Z is a brilliantly crafted film that manages some incredibly heavy themes without compromising on super scary energy in this superb tale of an imaginary friend wreaking havoc on a family.

Synopsis: A family find themselves terrorized by their eight-year-old son’s imaginary friend.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I jump at *everything*. As a result, I’m perhaps overly sensitive to films that use a lot of loud noises to frighten. Happily, Z delivers numerous excellent jump scares that do utilise some sudden, sharp noises, but combine this with some genuinely frightening imagery creating one of the scariest films I’ve seen in some time. Adding to the scares are some deep themes of the cycle of trauma within families, regression and the danger of secrets.

Keegan Connor Tracy is outstanding as wife and mother Elizabeth Parsons who is troubled by her son Joshua’s (Jett Klyne) sudden lack of invites to play dates and parties. It transpires that Joshua’s behaviour has taken a terrible turn and other parents no longer want him around their children. While husband Kevin (Sean Rogerson) is aware of problems, he has hidden it from Elizabeth. The change in Joshua’s behaviour seems to coincide with his growing closeness to his imaginary friend, Z. Initially, their connection seems like a normal childhood fantasy but this soon escalates into Z having specific requirements for food and games. 

Tracy’s performance deservedly takes centre stage as the film progresses and she ably handles the shift that this requires, both physically and verbally becoming utterly captivating in the process. Klyne delivers all that is required of him in the creepy child stakes and Rogerson plays the typical husband who believes his wife is overreacting well, even if there isn’t much new ground to tread here. A cameo from Stephen McHattie as possibly the least comforting child psychologist on earth and Sara Canning as Elizabeth’s responsibility-avoidant sister Jenna round out a solid supporting cast.

Z, for the most part, is a film of gradual escalations but this is punctuated by numerous chilling and startling moments. These moments are unrestrained and even in the quieter moments, the family home becomes fraught with tension. A few early moments make it clear that no one is safe and it is an excellent way of putting the audience on edge. Director Brandon Christensen has a keen eye for making the most out of unnerving reveals which pays off immeasurably throughout the film. Christensen co-writes with Colin Minihan and if you have seen Minihan’s recent Spiral, there is a familiar feel here. Underneath the surface shocks, there is a deeper exploration of trauma and the way that it creates cycles of pain across generations.

Z manages to include superb scares and emotional energy within a relatively short runtime. This is exactly the kind of film I’d love to see more of with its combination of thoughtful construction and startling frights.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Z is available on Shudder from today (7th May)

The Wretched

The Wretched is an impressive and fresh take on a relatively underused horror creature that builds on a solid foundation with a few special touches that make it a fascinating genre piece.

Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.

Ben (John-Paul Howard) is a teenager struggling with his emotions in the aftermath of his parent’s divorce. His struggle to adapt as he spends time at his father’s lakeside residence takes on wider importance when he starts to believe that his next-door neighbour has been replaced by a creature who intends to harm those who cross her. The central idea of the Witch within the film is that she feeds off the forgotten – a theme which resonates with Ben in his sadness and displacement within his own family. Howard is excellent in the role, balancing moments of teenage angst against more thoughtful turns. Piper Curda also deserves a mention as Mallory – new friend and possible love interest for Ben who is drawn into the situation alongside him in a breezy performance with enough emotional weight added when necessary.

The Wretched is very polished in its presentation, making the most of the light and activity around the lake and the peace of manicured gardens. In contrast, the woodland location is beautiful in its presentation, almost a character in itself – all gnarled branches and extended roots providing the perfect dark environment for hidden dangers. Scenes that take place in underground tunnels are fittingly claustrophobic and uncomfortable, upping the scare factor considerably. I possibly have to admit to some personal bias here due to my fondness (and terror) for underground and tunnel scenes but this is effective and unnerving.

The creature design works incredibly well and so much of the imagery is drawn from nature – the shape of antlers, tree roots and leaves all build together, offering the marriage of the natural and supernatural. Everything feels cohesive. The scares are suitably scary, employing a mix of louder, “jumps” but also some slower, quieter and altogether more unnerving moments. Twin directing and writing pair Brett and Drew Pierce use this to steady the pace of the film, allowing moments of tension the space to breathe while not allowing anything to pause for too long.

Perhaps most impressive about The Wretched is that it is a film with its own internal rules and logic which is steadfastly adhered to. So often in less-skilled films, narrative elements are picked up and disregarded to wrongfoot the viewer and deliver a “twist”. The Wretched, by solidly following its own rules manages to craft a cohesive and occasionally surprising narrative. This confidence in the central story is felt throughout.

Overall, The Wretched delivers in terms of performances, style, surprises and scares: everything you want from a horror film. Check it out as soon as you can.

Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Wretched will be available in the USA from May 1st on the platforms outlined below but if you are lucky enough to live in Sacramento or Glendale, AZ you can experience it at a drive-in. Please see IFC Films for more information.

Digital Platforms: iTunes/Apple, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation, Xbox

Cable Platforms: Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum (Charter, Time Warner, Brighthouse), Verizon Fios, Altice (Optimum), Cox, DirecTV, AT&T, Bend Broadband, Buckeye, Guadalupe Valley, Hotwire Communications, Metrocast, Suddenlink, WOW Internet Cable, RCN, Midcontinent Communications

30/04 Update – More Drive In Screenings Announced

King Drive-In // Russellville, AL
West Wind Glendale Drive-In // Glendale, AZ
West Wind Sacramento Drive-In // Sacramento, CAMission Tiki Drive In // Montclair, CAOcala Drive-In // Ocala, FL
Starlight Drive-In Theatre // Atlanta, GA
Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre // Henderson, NC
Highway 21 Drive-In // Beaufort, SC
Stardust Drive-In Theatre // Watertown, TN
Tascosa Drive-In Theater // Amarillo, TX
Galaxy Drive-In Theatre // Ennis, TX
Hollywood Cinema // Martinsville, VA