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.

Soho Horror Film Festival 2022 Announcements

Following the initial announcements, the full lineup for both the in-person and online festival editions have been revealed, promising more of the eclectic indie genre cinema the festival has been bringing to lucky patrons for years.

The in-person festival kicks off on November 11th at the Whirled Cinema in Brixton, London with the virtual edition taking place a week later. Boasting a huge 30 features and more than 50 short films programmed with them, the festival is a real celebration of both forms.

The physical festival opening film, Nyla Innuksuk’s SLASH/BACK sees an alien invasion face off against underestimated teenagers. Other highlights include MEGALOMANIAC, described as being in the same sphere as films of the New French Extremity which is obviously a massive selling point for me. Jarring but enjoyable HYPOCHONDRIAC receives a further preview following an excellent reception from its FrightFest screening.

The virtual festival kicks off on 18th November, allowing festival attendees a little time to recover before serving up a further collection of horrific treats. Describing anything as The Wicker Man meets Bridesmaids will always peak my interests, so STAG is certainly one to watch. Previously announced found footage film WHAT IS BURIED MUST REMAIN joins the likes of ABYSSAL SPIDER, ensuring there really is something for everyone.

Tickets for both events are now available (and selling fast) from the Soho Horror Film Festival webpage where you can also read more about this incredible lineup.

Fantastic Fest 2022: Satanic Hispanics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Fantastic Fest 2022: The Offering

High energy frights, religion and family ties make for an overly familiar horror outing, albeit one with a pleasingly mean streak.

Synopsis: A family struggling with loss finds themselves at the mercy of an ancient demon trying to destroy them from the inside.

Arthur (Nick Blood) is returning to his roots, bringing along his wife Claire (Emily Wiseman) for what will be a tense reunion. While his father Saul (Allan Corduner) does seem to want to welcome him back, a more chilly reception awaits him from Heimish (Paul Kaye). Familial differences are not the only issue, however, as a body brought to the funeral home proves to be anything but routine.

The opening scene of The Offering functions as a decent showcase for what is to come, introducing a scene of religious-leaning horror, based around a demon known as ‘the taker of children’. With that unpleasant groundwork laid, the film switches to Arthur and Emily, starting to foreground Arthur’s departure from his community and the tension that brings to both of them. That they are visiting a funeral home soon sets expectations for creepy goings-on that the film is keen to progress.

Placing the action in a Jewish community presents an opportunity for the film to explore some often-underexplored customs and beliefs but this is arguably one of the film’s weaknesses. Throughout, you want more of that identity, more of those elements that could help it stand out. Aside from a few moments of ritual that are both compelling as well as important set ups for later events, this feels far too divorced from it, resulting in a film that feels too similar to many other horror films. This is not aided by some uninspiring CGI and a colour scheme that fails to differentiate it from other genre pieces.

Where the film works well is in the way it mostly confines characters to the funeral home, building up the pressure but also a kind of geography of the house that translates to the viewer, adding to the anticipation of the next scare. The Offering does possess some great kinetic energy with the funeral home doors slamming and swinging to avoid things feeling static in the same surroundings. Elsewhere an otherwise well-worn scare involving a camera finds a partial swerve that satisfies. However, much of this became standard jump scare fare with sudden bursts of volume drawing attention over anything more unique.

Those with more of an appetite for this kind of horror will likely rate this much higher and it should certainly find an audience looking for a late-night creep-fest.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

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

Fantastic Fest 2022: Tropic

Edouard Salier’s vision of brothers coming to terms with a life-changing event is striking, absorbing work.

Synopsis: Year 2041, France, two trained astronaut twins go through a lot when one of them is contaminated with a mysterious residue from space.

Tristan (Louis Peres) and Lazaro (Pablo Cobo) are twin brothers, deep in training for a desperate colonisation mission named the Eternity mission. With their physical and mental condition of primary importance, both of their lives are thrown into chaos when Tristan is injured during a late-night swim.

The genre elements of Tropic are fairly light-touch, for the most part, allowing the film to focus on the characters rather than the specifically ‘sci-fi’ trappings. Much of the early part of the film is given over to getting to know the brothers and witnessing their training. That context and foregrounding of their relationship set the tone for what follows. That said, those elements are well realised, with Tristan’s condition managing to convey a sense of the otherworldly alongside very human pain. The inciting incident is handled brilliantly, giving a sense of scale without feeling out of place for an otherwise entirely grounded film.

Setting the action only around 20 years in the future frees the film from needing to add too much in the way of on-screen technology or effects. Rolling news channels may be discussing space in a way that feels futuristic but they still look very much like today’s offerings. This is a film that is more concerned with exploring the casualties of relentless progress and the cost of that to everyone. The Eternity mission is given vital importance in the film’s world, thanks to ecological concerns on Earth reaching a dangerous peak. The solution to colonise another planet, requiring immense efforts and damage is one that the film allows to hang over its characters for the duration.

Salier provides a contrast between the intensity of the brother’s training and their more relaxed home life. The switch from the stark surroundings of the training facility and the sun streaming through the windows of their home perfectly shows the strange situation the young men find themselves in. The pair playfully joking with their mother about her dating prospects feel worlds apart from the stoic men we see during their training. An intimate, hand-held camera enhances the closeness to the characters and is allowed to become almost dizzying when the action calls for it. Brief, tranquil chapter cards appear over scenes of nature, offering pause from the film’s emotional and physical movement.

For the most part, this rests on the performances. Peres’ Tristan is sidelined to some degree by the nature of what has happened to him but still delivers a solid performance with deeply affecting moments. As Lazarou, Cobo takes up a lot of the film’s space – it is his reckoning with the world he finds his brother in, with its cruelty and pushing progress above all else. It is a magnetic performance, full of moments of hypocrisy, tenderness and rage. Marta Nieto completes the family with a performance that grapples with keeping her commitments to both her sons. While the central family takes up much of the time, a strong supporting cast provides the links to the other trainees as well as a group that Tristan finds a kinship with.

A stunning, light-touch genre effort with haunting, human moments.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tropic 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.

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

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

Shapeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

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

The Razing

An exercise in confined filmmaking that yields mixed results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

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