Master

An impressive and harrowing portrayal of two Black women struggling within the confines of a prestigious school with a dark secret.

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.

Gail (Regina Hall) has been promoted to Master of Ancaster College – a prestigious University that has long struggled with diversity. Her appointment is one that the school is keen to publicise, as is the tenure track of Liv (Amber Gray). That the pair have experienced success is held as an example of the school’s changing attitudes. However, when Jasmine (Zoe Renee) joins the school she immediately faces microaggressions and overt discrimination. This, coupled with a story about a haunting at the school, threatens Jasmine’s peace of mind.

The most impressive element of Mariama Diallo’s film (her feature debut, no less) is that it uses Jasmine’s sleepwalking condition as a way to destabilise every moment, seamlessly integrating reality and dream-like sequences. The cumulative effect is disarming, throwing the viewer into that space with the characters. Seemingly normal situations transform into sinister set pieces within the blink of an eye, benign interactions become probing interrogations or other acts of aggression, reflecting the experiences of the women navigating this often unwelcoming space. The flow between states is as absorbing as it is confronting, trading on quieter, creepier moments as opposed to sudden jolts. Nightmarish visions emerge bathed in red light, signifying the shift after it has occurred.

The set design is to be commended, with the school and particularly the Master’s house all embedded with a sense of history and threat. Dusty paintings and archaic elements of the house all carry considerable weight as Gail explores her new surroundings. Even in the more modern areas of the school, the weight of expectation surrounds the characters, providing reminders that they are in a minority. Intrusions from the institution’s glossy, diverse advertising campaign cut through to maximum effect, the bright photography in stark contrast to the unwelcoming rooms and tense gatherings the rest of the film shows. Carefully straddling the line between the supernatural and genuine headline-grabbing news stories, the command over the material is seriously impressive.

White characters compare the women to existing popular and accomplished Black notable names, from Barack Obama to Beyonce, showing their lack of diversity – their only references distant and exceptional, rather than people they directly know and value. That they engage in co-opting elements of Black culture while dismissing the women’s lived experience is a recurring feature throughout the film. In one of the film’s most alarming sequences, primarily white students gather to aggressively chant along, disturbingly relishing the moment to repeat the song’s use of the n-word. There is a sadistic glee in their repetition, as they indulge in the damaging taboo and it is clear to see why Jasmine finds herself driven from the room by it.

As much as the design excels, Master also functions as a fascinating character study, spanning three women at different life stages. Each performer thoroughly sells their role. Regina Hall so perfectly inhabits a woman battling with her new role and the history it comes with, by turns confident and frustrated as she finds herself embroiled in the kind of academic gate-keeping that holds so many at arms-length. Zoe Renee brings a fragility to Jasmine, but she also has such a compelling spark that carries her through the film. While Liv is a more peripheral character, for the most part, Amber Gray’s interactions with both Hall and Renee add a certain depth as competing interests and world views collide.

This is magnetic, poised film-making with a keen eye for both social commentary and horror imagery that lingers beyond the credits. This is a film that treats its performers with reverence, resulting in a truly engaging experience.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Master is released on Amazon Prime Video on March 18th.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Murina

A coming-of-age story contained within a sun-bleached thriller.

Synopsis: A teenage girl decides to replace her controlling father with his wealthy foreign friend during a weekend trip to the Adriatic Sea.

Named for the eels that Julija (Gracija Filipovic) and her father Ante (Leon Lucev) hunt together to sell as delicacies, Murina is a directorial debut that is as tightly controlled as the protagonist at the outset of the film. Julija is central for much of the runtime and both the way she is looked at and the way she observes the looks between others is a dominant narrative force. The swimsuit she wears for much of the film has a practical purpose, but also displays her to the men around her father, creating discomfort and furthering his desire to hide her away. This enhanced control coincides with a visit from Javier (Cliff Curtis), her father’s wealthy friend and prompts Julija to consider a life with him, given his clear fondness for her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic).

Gracija Filipovic carries much of the film on her shoulders, navigating a character who is naive but also given to fantasies about improving her life, even if that is achieved through sinister means. Her anger for her father comes in the outright anger and darkly rendered underwater fantasies that hint at an altogether more dangerous outlook. Meanwhile, she saves verbal barbs for her mother, angry at the control Ante has over the way they dress and live their lives. There is also a reckoning with becoming a woman, recognising that her mother is the object of Javier’s affection that could be used as leverage, a realisation that prompts her to say, “If I had your power, I would use it”. The relationship between the pair is subject to negotiation as Julija refuses to follow her lead.

First-time feature director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic uses the beautiful location to her advantage, injecting proceedings with an almost magical touch that fuses Julija with her surroundings. When she is in the water, she is at her most free and confident, allowing the film to weave in a fable related to coming-of-age in a way that feels both satisfactory in narrative terms as well as providing memorable visuals. The shift from a sticky, tense atmosphere when Ante is around to the rather more tranquil sensuality when Javier takes centre stage is deftly handled.

Underwater scenes become a space for uncovering desires and removal from reality which the film indulges in long sequences. The film creates the idea that Julija is at her most uncomfortable on land and it is in these sequences, especially a notably tense party scene that she appears as a fish out of water, not content to follow her parent’s lifestyles or adhere to the occasion. Filipovic is excellent, never less than captivating as she inhabits Julija’s questioning and refusal to stay quiet.

Some may find the film’s pace too slow and too content to allow its characters to bake in the surroundings. Sequences that turn up the tempo considerably are few and far between, but even so, there is a palpable tension throughout that maintains that interest. The pace of the film reflects the pace of Julija’s life, prone to periods of stillness set against short outbursts of frustration.

An excellent central performance and composed, unhurried handling make Murina a film to get lost in.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Murina screened as the Closing Gala of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Murina is released in cinemas nationwide on 8 April, with Q&A screenings with the director this weekend, details at  https://www.modernfilms.com/murina

FrightFest Glasgow 2022: Mandrake

A fevered folk-horror with plenty of attention on ritual and lore.

Synopsis: A probation officer, Cathy Madden, is tasked with rehabilitating a notorious killer named ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw back into society following a two-decade sentence.

One of the ways in which Irish horror stands out, for me, is in its mix of current social issues and fully realised folkloric elements. Mandrake, like You Are Not My Mother is a film constantly straddling the line between everyday life and the otherworldly. When Cathy (Deirdre Mullins) is tasked with the case of ‘Bloody’ Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty) it seems a far cry from her usual work. The violence of Mary’s crime and the rumours surrounding it all contribute to a vast sense of unease that permeates every part of the film. Both Mullins and Crotty inhabit their roles with a believability that sustains even the film’s most unmoored elements.

Mandrake excels by virtue of commitment to the ritual elements and boldness in the intersection between the banal and the fantastic. The effects and droning soundtrack contribute to the atmosphere, allowing the film to tip back and forth between concrete reality and something more ancient and magical. Cathy’s work as a probation officer places her on the frontline of modern Ireland’s issues, striking up relationships and connections with those who feel removed from society due to their criminality and circumstances. These connections stand apart from her troubled failed relationship with police officer Jason (Paul Kennedy). That they are responsible for vastly different stages of the process, with hers a focus on rehabilitation, a key difference that seems part of the reason for their issues. Working together to care for their young son still connects them, as does living in the same area.

Cathy appears uniquely placed to deal with Mary Laidlaw, having accepted the job without seemingly placing too much emphasis on the gory (and impossible) details of her original crime. Considering the retelling of the circumstances to be little more than rumour, the film treats the discovery of burns on Mary’s legs as an important confirmation of both what she has been through and what she may be. The impact of swirling rumour and mob mentality trickles throughout, with Cathy forced to negotiate her belief and understanding at every turn. Her openness, as compared to the superstition of the worker originally assigned to Mary’s case buries her in layers of risk, placing her in the league of other well-meaning but out of depth folk horror protagonists. I

Mandrake is unafraid to indulge in horror imagery, bringing fevered ritual and symbolism to the forefront as the narrative progresses. Director Lynn Davison carefully turns up the temperature and allows things to escalate into outright weirdness, leaning on mythology for stability. The film’s initial coldness, brought from the damp mud of its intriguing opening turns to a sweaty, panicked and all-round heightened affair. That dedication to providing that horror spectacle is much appreciated when other films seem uncertain of allowing those uncanny elements to take centre stage.

Mandrake uses its rural location, paranoid environment and lashings of folk horror to bring its story and characters to life.

4 out of 5 stars

Mandrake screened courtesy of Blue Finch Film Releasing as part of FrightFest Glasgow 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Silent Land

An unsubtle but confident satirical thriller on privileged disconnection.

Synopsis: A perfect couple rents a holiday home on a sunny Italian island. The reality does not live up to their expectations when they find out that the pool in the house is broken. Ignorant of the fact that the island faces water shortage, they ask for someone to fix it. The constant presence of a stranger invades the couple’s idea of safety and starts a chain of events, which makes them act instinctively and irrationally, heading to the darkest place in their relationship.

Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) are looking to enjoy a holiday together, remaining mostly secluded in an expensive villa home. Their ideas of remaining isolated are scuppered, however, when they demand to have their pool fixed. During the maintenance, an accident occurs that throws their holiday and relationship into flux in a deliberately told study of privileged apathy.

Agnieszka Woszczynska’s debut feature may be one of the most confident and tightly controlled debuts for some time. Long, static shots focus on the beauty of pastel-coloured surroundings while building an oppressive atmosphere. The camera moves slowly from these static bases, often panning to find characters in new moments of stillness. These moments come to reflect the film’s wider messaging about inaction with long pauses allowing the film’s decisions to rest heavily on those within and outside the frame.

Dymecki and Zulewska handle the material well, especially given how disconnected they have to be for much of the run time. The couple, although close, feel distant throughout, with even their intimacy and passion for one another becoming presented as detached and shrouded in darkness. Their increasingly terse interactions and particularly the unfurling of Adam’s confidence requires a lot from them, that they deliver convincingly, even when the situation leans into the more surreal side of satire. Language barriers create further tension as they are drawn into a process that neither entirely understand.

The political commentary on display is far from subtle and at times, this is to its detriment. The class divide is on stark display, as is the concept of entitlement. A recurring dog that encounters both the pool repair man and the couple at various points is the film’s most successful visual motif, reflecting the differences between them and the evolution of characters. The couple refer to the event that has thrown their holiday into chaos as an ‘uncomfortable situation’, seeking to play down its importance and impact.

Woszczynkska’s technical choices support the film’s power. With so many scenes involving the central pair remaining static, the brief sections where the pair attend a restaurant or town offer an element of vibrant respite from the coldness elsewhere. The warm colours and movement in a scene from the village highlight the difference between their increasingly closed off experience, punctuated by evolving paranoisa and self-questioning. Moments of jovial conversation are overlapped by the hum of a car engine, denying that connection. While all this builds tension and provides food for thought, the final scene offers perhaps the film’s most effective scene, arresting in its simplicity.

Agnieszka Woszczynska displays a tight control over her characters, bringing a sprawling, beautiful location into something sinister. The unrushed pace of this may not be for everyone, but its thematic power emanates from every scene.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Silent Land screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Nitram

This striking true crime portrait, although understandably controversial, manages to find insight without sensationalism.

Synopsis: Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.

That the synopsis reads that this is an attempt to understand is notable. This is a film that, for the most part, has no real answers as to why it happened. The reality behind these cases is that unlike in narrative films, these atrocities lack one easily definable inciting event, but are an accumulation of multiple life events and individual psychology. Reflecting the often fractured nature of these extreme criminal acts, the film concerns itself less with why and more to how, resulting in some of the film’s most powerful moments.

Director Justin Kurzel is no stranger to tackling Australian true crime stories in unflinching detail. For Nitram he is reunited with Snowtown writer Sean Grant with the pair ready to probe the circumstances around another Australian tragedy. Nitram is controversial by the very existence of the film, given that the shooter the film is based on has very strict restrictions on the kind of media he is allowed to consume due to his own preoccupation with his actions. It is a relief, then, that the film avoids too much detail on the event, focusing instead on how it was able to unfold. The focus on domestic spaces as unsafe, pressured areas in which everyone falls into damaging patterns is retained from that early work, even if it does not depict the violence as explicitly.

The early sections of the film are challenging, owing to a reliance on getting into the same headspace as Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones on typically fine, terrifying form). His erratic behaviour is punctuated by moments of reckless impulse that undermine any attempts at human connection. That initial energy impacts the film negatively, as it tries to keep pace with his various outbursts. A perhaps unlikely friendship with older, eccentric loner Helen (Essie Davis) signals the point at which the film begins to slow from some of those excesses. Nitram’s mother (Judy Davis) delivers an incredible near-monologue about a challenging experience she experienced when her son was younger. It is a chilling story that sucks the air out of the room and exploits the tension between her role as a parent and acknowledging her son as a dangerous person. It is easy to see the echoes of films like We Need To Talk About Kevin in the lack of connection they share. His relationship with his father (Anthony LaPaglia) is similarly tumultuous, seemingly compounded by his own mental health struggles. There is a discomfort every time they meet as a group, the film constantly on the edge of outburst, yet always leaving something unsaid.

The less concerned the film is with echoing Nitram’s experience and personality, the more successful it is in exploring the situation. Caleb Landry Jones’ performance maintains the intensity and makes everything external, keeping nothing under wraps. By the film’s conclusion, the focus moves away from him, starting to look beyond him and into society. That he finds some comfort in Helen who is similarly detached from society feels, at times, like half-hearted finger pointing, rightly not positing that teasing has caused the issue. Indeed, from the very first scene in which children in hospital are quizzed about their burns and playing with fireworks. One child is remorseful, having learned about the dangers. The second, meanwhile is confident that they will do it again, positing that the central character’s pathology is as much a risk to himself as others and indicates something innate in Nitram that makes him predisposed to the behaviour.

The film is at its most convincing when it settles into something more sober, away from the outbursts and tension. The horror is heart-haltingly potent as the film reaches a state of calm. A late scene is punishingly effective, bringing the weight of the situation home without the need for anything graphic. Throughout the film, hazy shooting in high light to reflect the shine from the sea posits the area as idyllic and completely unprepared for violence and ill-equiped for those who don’t find comfort and stability in such a place.

A stirring portrait of a disaster in the making that depicts rather than disects, Nitram reflects the conceptually messy true crime genre while taking a step back from sensationalising, to great effect.

4 out of 5 stars

Nitram played as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Ashgrove

A thoughtful and enveloping domestic drama that successfully balances the central relationship and sci-fi concept.

Synopsis: Set in the not-so-distant future, Dr. Jennifer Ashgrove – one of the world’s top scientists – is battling to find a cure to a crisis that affects the world’s water supply. As the weight of the world takes its toll, she retreats to the countryside with her husband in a bid to clear her mind. But their relationship is strained, and they soon realise that their ability to save their marriage will literally determine the fate of humankind itself.

The opening moments of Ashgrove set out a rather grim scenario the characters find themselves in. The water supply is slowly poisoning the population due to a vaccine-resistant pandemic event. Jennifer Ashgrove (Amanda Brugel) is one of the scientists tasked with finding a cure, but the pressure of her job, the challenge of carefully portioning and monitoring water intake plus her increasingly fraught marriage to Jason (Jonas Chernick) results in her eureka moment being disrupted by a sudden blackout and resultant memory loss. Advised to recuperate, she and Jason head to the countryside but both the pandemic and their relationship woes prove difficult to put behind them.

The continuous risk assessments that characters undertake in measuring water allowances, while obviously very different to the events of the last few years, may still be too close to everyday anxieties for some, but this is not a film concerned with escapism, instead turning a global concern into an incredibly personal, individual one. The film does well to communicate the situation and impact on the characters. Marked water bottles for allowances and an app for testing toxicity have become routine, but the overriding threat of how too much or too little water impacts on health casts a weight over proceedings, making Jennifer’s recovery all the more vital.

The decision to shoot the film in chronological order, while likely challenging, benefits the film greatly. Brugel has a writing credit, alongside Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde, indicating that this is a project where collaboration is at the forefront. This benefit is felt in how natural and assured the performances are. It also adds an overall sense of cohesion, with each performer matching the other’s energy and heading in the same direction. Each development is carefully built upon the last, skillfully drip-feeding details as it moves along.

Chernick and Brugel work well together, able to manage both the tense moments of the relationship, while also providing much-needed moments of levity where fond feelings surface. A scene featuring an impromptu song establishes what they once saw in one another, amidst all the tension. Finding those moments of rediscovery while also not undermining the conflict and gravity speaks to the easy chemistry they share. When friends Elliot (Shawn Doyle) and Sammy (Natalie Brown) arrive later, their after-dinner games begin to unpick at painful rifts. So often, it is easy to view these characters as additions purely to say something more about the central couple, but the relationships feel fully-formed, adding considerably to the tension.

While the film’s intimacy with characters and the closed-off setting drive much of the narrative, the film does occasionally over-explain itself. Each carefully woven element comes to portray further meaning in a way that satisfies, but at times, lacks confidence. The messaging is clearly articulated, so attempts to further explain stall the pace a little, especially as this becomes quite dialogue-heavy. This is easily recovered, however, with the central story continuing on the basis of our relationship to these characters. That Jennifer’s dedication to her work has come at a considerable personal cost is never far from the surface. It is this tension that threatens to break through the film’s otherwise mellow, measured exterior.

While this is likely best described as a relationship drama viewed through a dystopian near-future lens, those dystopic elements have a real strength. Themes of autonomy, personal sacrifice and professional dedication all surface throughout the film with a sinister undertone that becomes more overt as the film progresses. The idea is unique and best experienced as the gradual unfurling of the film, so this is definitely one best watched without too much prior knowledge of these developments.

Ashgrove is a well-constructed story of a marriage in crisis and the immense personal cost endured by those called upon to assist during crises.

4 out of 5 stars

Ashgrove screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

The Midnight Swim

Sarah Adina Smith’s excellent stripped-back cosmic horror from 2014 gets a new lease of life thanks to a Vinegar Syndrome release.

Synopsis: Spirit Lake is unusually deep. No diver has ever managed to find the bottom, though many have tried. When Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a deep-water dive, her three daughters travel home to settle her affairs. They find themselves unable to let go of their mother and become drawn into the mysteries of the lake.

The Midnight Swim is one of those films that despite sounding exactly like the kind of film I would be instantly drawn to, I’d actually not heard of. This carefully controlled and deeply emotional film is one that deserves far more attention. Excellent performances and a unique story make this a fascinating horror with an ability to portray vast ideas with a sensitive, personal quality.

Focused primarily on three sisters who find themselves reconnecting around the disappearance of their mother, The Midnight Swim presents potent tension as their life experiences and collective grief surface in frequently uncomfortable ways. Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) is starting her own family, burdened by her difficult relationship with her mother. Isa (Aleksa Palladino) is staking a claim on the property to turn it into an artistic hub, while June (Lindsay Burdge) creates distance by documenting everything with a camera. Each performer gives their all to the role, ably balancing the quiet notes while and allowing the steady creep of repressed emotions to land with considerable impact.

June’s camera gives everything a sense of, at times, uncomfortable intimacy. The film plays with the conceit of the constantly running camera, switching from tense conversations observed too closely to seemingly capturing the impossible. This deeply embeds the action within the house and surrounding area and while the film does understandably stray into the surrounding water, much of the development takes place in dinner table conversations.

One of the film’s central concepts is a folklore tale based around a fatal compulsion to be reunited with other family members. This story is never far from the minds of the sisters as they struggle with the painful lack of closure from the circumstances of their mother’s disappearance. While the film places a lot of emphasis on dialogue between the trio, it also manages to add stranger elements, whether that is the moody and eerie waterside events or a dance number that showcases one of the film’s moments of cohesion between the sisters. Sarah Adina Smith’s assured but sensitive direction creates a film that veers from suffocating to joyful while weaving a far bigger story that transcends the family.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Midnight Swim is now available on digital in North America (Alamo on Demand, Altavod, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu), in the UK (Amazon, iTunes), Ireland (iTunes) and Australia and New Zealand (iTunes). A collectors edition BluRay is available from Vinegar Syndrome.

Demigod

Pacing issues and an abundance of exposition dampen an otherwise solid attempt at a folk horror story.

Synopsis: Upon the death of her grandfather, a woman and her husband return to her birthplace in Germany’s Black Forest, only to find a terrifying secret awaits them.

Demigod veers between carefully working around its limitations and introducing extended scenes that put these flaws under greater focus. In some sections, the presentation of brutality is impactful, with good effects to back it up. On the other hand, long expositional scenes draw less successful elements like costuming into focus, undermining some of the world-building and overall tension. That this instinct is present in some sections but not others makes this a slightly frustrating watch as it feels like there is potential for more.

After an intriguing opening sequence that sets out the folk-supernatural leanings, we are introduced to our main characters, Robin (Rachel Nichols) and her husband Leo (Yohance Myles) who are returning to a place she lived as a child. As they head to her grandfather’s home, the threats of her past and the forest soon emerge.

It is clear that Demigod is not made for a great deal of money. As already mentioned, there are some impressive effects on show during some scenes that genuinely deliver the impact and action. It is in these moments that you feel the film is pushing to the very boundary of its budget, which is to be celebrated. However, the film does end up fairly repetitive, with multiple scene transitions made through someone coming round after being knocked out as a way to move on action.

Following the initial sequence, there are around 30 minutes of scene-setting. While this time would be well spent developing those characters, this is delivered mainly through long instances of dialogue. Throughout the film, the need to explain everything rather than show it via other means results in long sequences of dialogue. Character monologues drag the film to a halt at times, having to constantly reset its own momentum. The different languages of the characters also means that there are perfectly-placed pauses for one character to translate for the others, further drawing out the scene and creating unnatural performances to some degree.

When the film needs to up the ante in terms of the supernatural elements, it does so, even if its costuming and effects leave a little to be desired at times. A few musical cues feel ill-fitting, although in at least one sequence this provides an extra jolt, furthering the disruption felt by the characters and contributes to the overall chaos of the scene, so sometimes the decision to not stay entirely within the expected sound works well. There are some strong instincts at work for certain points of the film, but there is a lack of consistency.

Many will find Demigod an ambitious, if flawed entry into the folk horror subgenre with some interesting ideas, that even if are not entirely successful, certainly hint at a desire to do something different.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

Demigod is available to rent or own on digital HD from Bulldog Film Distribution on 21 February 2022

Honeycomb

The performance styles and very DIY construction of Honeycomb won’t be for everyone, but it is an incredible achievement and ode to communal indie film-making.

Synopsis: Five small-town girls abandon their mundane lives and move into an abandoned cabin. Growing increasingly isolated, their world becomes filled with imagined rituals and rules but the events of one summer night threaten to abruptly end their age of innocence forever.

Those who go into Honeycomb looking for an action-packed, film version of Yellowjackets may well be disappointed, although there are definite similarities between both works as they explore the ability for young women to enact cruelties on one another in moments of crisis. Honeycomb is more of a mood piece and has, as you may expect from a truly independent film, far fewer resources. However, there is a truly magnetic quality to it and will leave you thinking about it far beyond the time the credits roll.

The first thing to say is that the deadpan performance style employed in this film won’t be for everyone. In fact, in the first few minutes, I admit I feared the worst. Happily, as the girls head into their new commune and the film hits its stride, this becomes less of an issue and even a suitable choice as the disinterest of the teenagers plays in directly to the increasingly dangerous situation they find themselves in. At 21, director Avalon Fast is better able to capture the way her young characters speak to one another and interact, infusing everything with a droll sensibility and wry sense of humour that makes the chilling moments all the more impactful.

Fearing that they need freedom from their current lives, a group of girls abandon their responsibilities and family ties, heading off to a cabin found by Willow (Sophie Bawks-Smith). Upon arrival at the cabin, they struggle to find a balance between their yearning for independence, freedom from conformity and the seeming need for rules to maintain the easy-going lifestyle all are seeking. What starts as a group uniformity soon fractures as their imagined utopia encounters many challenges.

At only around 70 minutes long, the film’s simple idea pays off, allowing the film to spend time exploring the evolving relationships between the girls. It does, at times perhaps spend too long on party scenes, but even this works within the context of exploring the ebb and flow of the girls’ ideas about how to perfect their commune. This is certainly on the edges of horror, with genuinely uncomfortable moments, underscored by an unsettling soundtrack. Early in the film, the girls are seen in a car, the camera above their head, enveloping them in high trees. As the girls stand up the camera bounces above their heads again, a visual metaphor for their attempts to escape what they feel are restrictive lives.

A video diary is introduced during some of the film, a concept that is played with throughout. During some sequences, the boundary between the video diary and the camera that captures other events is deliberately, cleverly blurred, adding to the increasingly delirious tone. The girls switch easily from benign conversation to acts of cruelty and back again in a way that at first causes laughs, but later results in genuine chills. The concept of ‘suitable revenge’ becomes one of the group’s central rules to live by, allowing each act to be met with a proportionate act of revenge. How proportionate these acts are is quickly called into question as the tensions escalate. Many of the suitable revenge acts take place off-screen, or at least in darkness, only for their effects to become all too apparent in the bleaching sunlight of the day.

The credits shed further light on the project, featuring numerous outtakes of the cast and crew’s outtakes and time spent together on the film. The film itself is dedicated to the friends who have made everything possible, which is both a wonderful sentiment and also the kind of chemistry we have to thank for many independent projects that start as conversations between friends and blossom into full-scale productions with unique voices.

A magnetic and engaging watch that hints at a wealth of future talent, Honeycomb makes for a fascinating exploration of the desire to escape and what that escape may mean.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Honeycomb played as part of the Slamdance Film Festival.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2022: Menacing Presences Shorts Block

Horror allows for multiple expressions of horror, from jump scares and overt monsters to the more subtle, even implied horrors lurking beneath the surface. The focus on metaphor and scares that can be wrought from social issues or personal threats all dominate these films, showcasing how menace can become an overwhelming entity.

Inheritance

Inheritance focuses on a family dealing with an inherited deed on a cabin. As the deed passes to the younger siblings, the pride they feel about the ownership is marred by the presence of sinister figures watching them. While the figures remain static, their anger is clear and adds a deeply sinister quality to the film. This largely quiet film really allows you to soak up all the atmosphere as the racial tension and the awakening of it within Nora (Victoria A. Villier). The cabin setting and a unique solution, highlighting synergy between nature and technology make this a compelling watch.

Housekreeping

Housekreeping utilises multiple misdirections in its 6 minute runtime, revolving around a woman cleaning a hotel during the off season. The isolated situation and repeated intrusions from a co-worker ramps up the expectations for what is about to happen. The result is a heart-stoppingly creepy squence that makes the most of holding back the reveal until the very end.

Sudden Light

I have already reviewed Sudden Light as part of the Cinema Vista shorts from the North Bend Film Festival. This short slowly unfolds the nature of its central metaphor with excellent techniques.

Cloud

Last up is Cloud, focused on the appearance of a mysterious and possibly radioactive cloud. Eugenie (Cypriane Gardin) escapes her troubled home life to travel with Capucine (Solène Rigot) and her ailing mother (Catherine Salée). What follows is an impressively rendered story of self-discovery that balances these quiet moments with an incredible sense of scale and gravitas.

The Menacing Presences shorts block played at part of Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. You can find out more about the festival on their webpage.