Glasgow Film Festival 2023: Mister Organ

A documentary as laser-focused as its subject, drawing on themes of obsession and fear.

Synopsis: Journalist David Farrier (Tickled) is drawn into a game of cat and mouse with a mysterious individual. Delving deeper he unearths a trail of court cases, royal bloodlines and ruined lives, in this true story of psychological warfare.

David Farrier is no stranger to the weirder side of the world, whether in the notorious documentary Tickled or in various Dark Tourist adventures. As a result, you have to know that Mister Organ is about more than just a routine car clamping dispute. From a neighbourhood dispute about an antiques shop clamping cars a mysterious and sinister figure emerges – that of the titular Mister Organ. In Farrier’s own words, the nuances make this “exactly my kind of weird mess”.

The documentary is, ultimately, frustrating. Seemingly endless phone calls from Michael paint him as a tenacious, threatening, but primarily tedious figure – someone who has honed skills specifically to intimidate and bully. It is also frustrating if you are looking for answers as to how he arrived at this point. Farrier is clearly rattled by his behaviour and while this is understandable, it does feel like this somewhat stalls the investigative aspect of the documentary. Other talking heads appear, as well as Michael himself, but there is never a sense of insight into him. Part of this is down to a “hot and cold” filming process, in which Michael is sometimes on board and other times detached and evasive.

This does mean there is relatively little attention paid to the style of the documentary, playing out with very little stylistic flair. That isn’t strictly an issue for the subject matter but it can occasionally feel dry with nothing to divert the eye. At times, you are felt with the impression that this could serve better as a deep-dive podcast. One visual moment that does leave an impression, however, is of a housing area late in the film that does serve the film’s messaging as it almost shifts into a different space in an attempt to find some closure.

Outside of Organ’s repeated harassment campaigns and the human debris left in his wake, the documentary feels like it has a second layer that goes much deeper than just Michael. Using his situation as a lens for what planting a seed of fear can do and the documentary itself feeling like it taps the brakes, that sense of fear dominating the situation is palpable. Every dispute raised feels so small at the outset but as the story unfolds, the true impact of that relentless harassment becomes ever clearer. This is the real strength of the documentary and is worth the time it takes to arrive at that point.

A good documentary needs to capture the mood of its subject matter and in this sense, Mister Organ succeeds, building the trivial and almost humourous into something all-encompassing and genuinely unsettling.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Mister Organ will screen at the Glasgow Film Festival on March 7th and 8th. You can find out more about the screenings at the Glasgow Film Festival webpage.

Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie

An often moving ode to community, creativity and of course, zombie movies.

Synopsis: Sam and Mattie, two badass best friends with Down syndrome, rally the entire town of Providence RI to help them storyboard, script, produce, cast, and star in their own dream movie: ‘Spring Break Zombie Massacre.’

I’d argue a film title like Spring Break Zombie Massacre will have something of limited audience appeal – it calls to mind the kind of low-budget, CGI-reliant horror that can be fun for the runtime, but rarely delivers too much in the way of lasting impact. The story behind Spring Break Zombie Massacre is far more interesting and presents a documentary that is full of heart, although not without challenges.

Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie follows two friends with Down Syndrome, who decide they want to make a zombie movie. With the help of Sam’s brother Jesse and a selection of his friends and the wider community, they set to work making their vision come to life. The project is governed by two rules: 1. everyone is to have fun and 2. Mattie and Sam are in charge. These two driving principles are felt throughout the film, even when the pair are confronted with constructive criticism and realities of budget that they admirably take in their stride.

The main stumbling block, for me, comes in how much time the documentary dedicates to showing the film as a final product. At the 50 minute mark, the film’s premiere segues into showing the film itself, which is a nice touch in terms of showing the excitement of that occasion but does leave you feeling slightly short changed in documentary terms. While showcasing some of the content of the film makes sense, it does feel at times like it overbalances the documentary side in the latter half. The interruptions to the clips to provide further context are welcome, adding depth to what is presented on screen. There are no pretensions about the quality of the film, with a summary that ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ feeling very fitting. So much of the joy in this film is seeing wish-fulfilment in action and the drive that everyone has to support that. Just shortening the film clips in favour of more behind the scenes content would be preferable.

Sam and Mattie are such magnetic presences that watching them get to live out their dreams, meeting film writers, effects artists and other personal heroes is really where the appeal of the documentary lies. Matt’s interaction with his local librarian makes for an adorable moment and further highlights the ways that those kind of resources and the people within them become so important to communities. The writing process featured leads to some funny, if somewhat heated exchanges, as some of Sam and Mattie’s ideas are occasionally lost in translation. That the best thing you can give to someone is your time and energy feels incredibly poignant and the film conceals an unspoken tension until the timing is perfect. There is a definite balance here between happy and sad tears, but that is makes you feel throughout is to be commended.

Overall, Sam and Mattie Make A Zombie Movie is a sweet, funny and often moving portrait of the collaborative film-making process, the importance of community and the power of making dreams happen.

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars

You can rent or buy Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie on iTunes

Favourite Feature Films of 2020

For last year’s favourites I chose 25 films as I’m terrible at choosing favourites and thanks to a variety of festivals had seen so many that a top 10 felt too narrow to celebrate all the films I wanted to. Despite the circumstances of 2020, particularly on cinema releases and physical festivals, there have still been a huge number of films worth celebrating. Plus, with all of the things we’ve all been denied this year for our safety and the safety of others, why not celebrate a few more. So instead of a top 10, here’s another top 25 of my favourites for 2020. Due to the way festival releases work, there’ll be some films on my 2019 list that were on wider release this year so any glaring omissions could be down to that. Other glaring omissions will be either a matter of personal taste or a genuine memory failure – I’ve yet to stop tutting at myself for forgetting Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale last year. Where I’ve previously reviewed a film, the title will link to my review.

On the subject of honourable mentions, I’ll throw in Eurovision, The Stylist, Relic, The Dark and The Wicked, The Lodge, Come True and the incredibly difficult to watch but important Welcome to Chechnya.

25. Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro

The first of the documentaries on my list, Nail in the Coffin followed the evolving life of wrestler Vampiro as he negotiated injury, parenting and his work in front of and behind the camera. An incredibly human documentary, both thoughtful and thoroughly engaging.

24. Small Axe: Mangrove

There may be debate around if the five films that make up Small Axe should be considered in the running for television or film lists. To be honest, I’m less concerned with any of that and more concerned with the overall quality of film-making from Steve McQueen. Mangrove hit hardest for me with its sense of urgent, breathlessness in the fight against unfair persecution.

23. The Invisible Man

Genuinely one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had while watching a film and I watched at home (having missed the cinema screenings prior to the first lockdown), so I can’t imagine the panic I’d have felt in a cinema. Elizabeth Moss excels and Leigh Whannell’s use of negative space is unmatched.

22. Disappearance at Clifton Hill

A film that embraces the dark side of magicians, ramps up the unreliable narrator tension and invites a host of strange characters and settings to create an absorbing thriller that unfoots the viewer as often as it puts them back on track.

21. Host

Horror films have always picked up on the status quo, societal concerns and have also embraced technology as a medium for providing further scares. Lockdown Brit-horror Host ticks all the boxes, situating its naturalistic characters on a Zoom séance that allows them to play with filters to excellent effect. All this contributes to a film that I jumped at regularly and had a very fun time with.

20. Feels Good, Man

At first glance a documentary about Pepe the Frog hardly sounds like the most engaging topic, but the journey that Matt Furie’s creation has taken is truly a modern cautionary tale about artists losing control of their creation. An alarming snapshot of the worst side of the internet and how that bleeds into very real movements, you’ll be struck by Furie’s gentle nature and how unthinkable that so much meaning can be drawn from one frog.

19. Benny Loves You

A definite hit at FrightFest’s October online edition, Benny Loves You is a completely joyful, lovingly crafted story about giving up childish things and the chaos that follows when they refuse to go quietly. I only hope that we get a full screening of this one day as it would be even more joyful to watch along with an appreciative crowd.

18. The Swerve

Placing The Swerve next to Benny Loves You seems absurd, given how totally tonally opposed they are, but this speaks to the variety of films that can be included under the horror banner. The Swerve includes a heart-breaking, shattering performance from Azura Skye as a put-upon mother who begins to crack under the sheer weight of being so underappreciated. An absolute gut-punch.

17. Kriya

A rattling critique of traditional gender roles set against a subversion of death rituals, Kriya stands apart with an incredible soundscape and feels genuinely subversive in the best kind of way.

16. His House

Launching on Netflix on Halloween, it feels like His House has been somewhat forgotten, which is a shame because as a study of trauma and guilt it is exceptional. Director Remi Weekes punctuates the challenges of two refugees arriving in the UK with flair, including dreamlike and startling sequences that pack a punch.

15. La Llorona

La Llorona, like His House perfectly utilises horror as a metaphor for social injustice, focusing on the trial and aftermath of a dictator accused of genocide. The film expertly crafts traditional scares but the scariest thing of all is the rest of the family coming to terms with the sins of their patriarch.

14. Parasite

I could hardly believe that Parasite was released this year when I looked back, but this dark comic class drama was definitely deserving of all the hype it received. Even more wonderful was watching Bong Joon-Ho thoroughly enjoy his time at award ceremonies as the film was continuously celebrated.

13. Rose: A Love Story

So many of 2020’s films seemed to focus on isolation and frosty relationship drama Rose was a particularly well realised take. Rose’s curious medical condition, her husband’s need to protect her and the toll it takes on their relationship makes for a slow-burn, melancholic horror that draws you in at every moment.

12. The Other Lamb

Frequently uncomfortable but totally mesmerising, The Other Lamb‘s study of a woman on a path of self discovery in spite of her position in a cult with an intense male leader. Raffey Cassidy and Michael Huisman both turn in superb performances that constantly feel on the cusp of something explosive. Stunning.

11. The Long Walk

Meditative, beautiful with an eye for small details this time-travel, serial killer film is immensely moving and packs a punch without needing to telegraph or over-explain anything. An excellent performance by a very young Por Silatsa is a particular highlight.

10. Swallow

Stylish, retro domesticity gives way to something far more empowering in Swallow, featuring a powerhouse performance from Haley Bennett as a woman who starts to swallow dangerous objects as a means of taking back control of her life. An incredibly brave film that follows through on the convictions it lays out.

9. Death Drop Gorgeous

This slasher gem set in the world of drag has plenty of sharp objects, but none as sharp as the barbs the performers throw at one another. Throwing in hagsploitation and a truly killer segment full of style this is definitely one to watch.

8. Make Up

Caravan park chills abound in this film of queer awakenings as Ruth (Molly Windsor) goes in search of the owner of a mysterious red hair in her boyfriend’s bedroom. I have never experienced a film that so expertly recreates the experience of realising you may not be straight and director Claire Oakley deftly weaves an intimate search for identity.

7. She Dies Tomorrow

While a film about a pandemic spread by anxiety may not sound like ideal viewing in an actual pandemic, Amy Seimetz’s exploration of coming to terms with death has a darkly comic streak and an incredible, standout performance from Jane Adams that makes it feel poignant for those who have suffered with anxiety and the various other emotions it sparks.

6. Synchronic (Director’s Cut)

Look, I’d have Synchronic on my list every year if I could, especially as it was number one on last year’s list, but it definitely isn’t cheating as Glasgow’s FrightFest event brought a new, director’s cut of the film to my very weepy eyes. The new cut improves upon the original version without losing any of the heart or impact of the initial one. The film is finally released in the UK by Signature Entertainment early in 2021.

5. You Cannot Kill David Arquette

A heart-warming, exhilarating documentary about David Arquette that speaks to his amazing resilience, incredible spirit while being almost woundingly open about his failings. An ultimately joyful film that celebrates those who work hard, have a good heart and wear their feelings on their sleeves that will ultimately result in an equal amount of laughs, awe and tears.

4. Lucky

One of few films I was grateful to see at home, rather than in a public cinema because this one really made me sob. Natasha Kermani’s piercing satire of how women negotiate day-to-day life felt like a rallying cry to anyone who has ever sat and wondered why they have to justify any of their choices. Packed with power, style and horror woman of the year Brea Grant, this was an excellent way to cap off the October edition of FrightFest.

3. Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg’s hypnotic exploration of autonomy, free will and surveillance contains a sex scene that I’ve been totally unable to remove from my mind since. The mental and physical metamorphosis undertaken in this film is totally incredible. Yes, the violence is blistering, but I keep returning to think about Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough’s performances more than that aspect. Sophisticated, stylised and confident.

2. 12 Hour Shift

Funny and sardonic, born of 1990’s urban legends, shot with some of the best fluid camera work and even managing to pack in a breath-taking musical number. Chloe Farnworth, Angela Bettis and Nikea Gamby-Turner all turn in accomplished performances that push forward this dark farce into increasingly fun, but no less heartfelt territory. Brea Grant’s writing and directorial talents really shine.

  1. Saint Maud

Yes, perhaps no surprise that a film I managed to see in the cinema takes the top spot. An incredible study of decline into mental illness with a religious edge. Morfydd Clark is totally stunning, delicate but unhinged. As a debut feature, Rose Glass has come out swinging and I cannot wait to see what is in store for her next.

Salem Horror Festival: The Witches of Hollywood

Sophie Peyrard’s documentary, although relatively brief, explores the changing representation of the witch on screen, backed by thoughtful contributors and a wealth of archive clips.

The all-female cast of contributors within the documentary are knowledgeable, crossing the boundary between witchcraft scholarship and media critique which gives a far more nuanced view of how films and television borrow from history and older texts in creating their versions of witches. The input from Dianca London, Peg Aloi, Heather Greene, Kristen Sollee and Pam Grossman, all of immersed in writing about witchcraft is detailed. The viewpoints do not always exactly align, with some drawing different conclusions than others. Despite the academic nature of those involved, the discussion is well-pitched, neither dumbed-down or too specialist.

As the documentary runs for less than an hour, it does feel like there is room to cover much more. The placement of witch representation within a wider social, political and cultural space feels both urgent and relevant. However, between the numerous clips provided to chart those changes the documentary does appear to end rather abruptly. This is understandable in some sense as it leaves the viewer with more pressing ‘real-world’ concerns but the contributors and content are so good that you want to spend a little more time in their company.

The charting of the witch in media is thorough and engaging, finding the best clips to illustrate their points. Arguably the most interesting point in the evolution comes from the post-World War Two context, in which women were required to surrender from the jobs they’d taken during the war effort and return to previous domestic roles. More importantly, there is a short section on the diversity of the witch, namechecking The Craft and American Horror Story and looking forward to future representations from those whose stories have yet to be told.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Witches of Hollywood is available to watch through the Salem Horror Festival.

Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro

Nail in the Coffin is a candid and close look at Ian Hodgkinson (and occasionally his alter ego Vampiro) as he reflects on his incredible life, his current adjustments and his future.

Synopsis: Semi-retired professional wrestler Ian Hodgkinson reveals the harsh realities behind the glamour of being in the world of wrestling as the infamous ‘Vampiro’. A Lucha Libre legend, Hodgkinson tells the astonishing story about his meteoric rise to fame in the 90’s and how it almost killed him. Yet none of that was as back-breaking as his current life-working behind-the-scenes as the Director of Talent for Lucha Libre AAA in Mexico City and Lucha Underground in Los Angeles, while simultaneously raising his teenage daughter Dasha in remote Northern Canada as a single parent.

Wrestling typically has ‘lifers’ and the damage that the business seems to inflict on them (and the behaviours undertaken to absorb that damage) means those lives can be somewhat protracted, while other performers engage in repeat ‘retirements’ that are only ever a call out away from coming to an end. The thread of the business being both addictive and leading to addiction is pulled throughout this film. The first time we meet Ian in the documentary, he is excitedly shouting instructions at a monitor while the wrestling action takes place. His intensity is immediately obvious as he directs the action, guiding cameras and performers to get the right result. But, he soon leaves for a position in front of the camera, as chants of Vampiro build. Immediately, it is easy to see how the lure of that level of support and interest from a crowd would be hard to resist. The film quickly slips into an exploration of his exhausting schedule, including a regular commute to Mexico from Canada and catering to his teenage daughter who he clearly adores.

His life story, even before becoming Vampiro is fascinating, including a stint working with a pre-scandal Milli Vanilli. Vampiro is born of Hodgkinson’s interest in horror and punk-rock. Despite being Canadian, it was the lure of lucha libre in Mexico that drew him to want to wrestle. Going against the tradition of wearing a mask, Vampiro’s heavy make-up, inspired by horror and punk-rock, stood out and his good looks made him popular with female fans leading to success and rivalries. It is explained that while athletic, he wasn’t able to do as many holds as others but made up for this with energy and charisma. Archive footage of him in these early days in frequently bloody, violent encounters and the ceremony involved in his ring persona is well-selected, including some incredible footage of other lucha libre performers and interviews for greater context.

It feels cliche to say that you don’t need to be a wrestling fan to enjoy this documentary, but the focus always returns to Ian’s inner thoughts and more importantly, his relationship with daughter Dasha. The openness and honesty in their interactions with one another and directly to the viewer really give an insight into their relationship. The early introduction to lucha libre as a colourful and unusual place gives enough context for the rest of the film. So too, does the decision to focus on Ian’s life attempting to leave Vampiro behind and retire entirely from in-ring action. The switch to working more in a production capacity offers a look that is rarely seen. Ian works as a director, choreographer and marketer of the wrestling events.

The film is imbued with a sense of brutal honesty. From Ian’s doctor making it clear that he “has to fucking stop”, to Ian’s assessment of being involved in wrestling being a constant balancing of – paraphrasing – alcohol, drugs, stupid people and ego. At one event, a large fight breaks out, forcing Ian to rush to separate performers – one of whom he candidly identifies as someone who scuppered part of his more highly-paid career. The scenes are always in contrast to those where he struggles to walk and are all the more challenging to watch as you know there is always a chance he’ll open himself up to further physical damage by more performances. Director Michael Paszt allows these scenes to play out without judgement, but also without cutting away from the harsh reality. Older footage of Ian with a younger Dasha is touching, creating a fully-formed portrait that it is impossible not to be moved by.

An enthralling story about one man’s incredible dedication to a business that has not always been kind to him and his further adoration of his daughter and wanting to create the best life possible for her. Despite numerous personal and professional setbacks, his drive to make it all work is impressive and frequently sad, especially as the physical toll of his career becomes clear. By the end of the film, you’ll feel like you have an understanding of him, but also want to reach out and tell him he’s doing a wonderful job. Stay with this one right through the credits too.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Nail in the Coffin: The Fall and Rise of Vampiro is available from Indemand | Comcast | Spectrum | Charter | Dish | Sling TV | Vubiquity| iTunes | Google Play | Vudu | Xbox | YouTube | Amazon | Fandango Now | DirecTV | Breaker | Alamo On Demand.

A blu-ray release is available through Epic Pictures.

Fantasia 2020: You Cannot Kill David Arquette

You Cannot Kill David Arquette is a stirring and touching documentary with a magnetic central figure trying to re-inhabit an often strange world.

Synopsis: Actor David Arquette attempts a rocky return to the sport that stalled his promising Hollywood career.

In late 2018 footage appeared online of David Arquette bleeding heavily from his neck during a wrestling match with death match performer Nick Gage, sparking a certain amount of buzz and also numerous questions about how Arquette had come to be performing in this medium. The move from someone perhaps most famous for the Scream franchise appearing in scenes that could have been taken from a horror movie was compelling and confusing in equal measure. This documentary looks at the events before and after that to chart Arquette’s reckoning with his own history, troubles and future.

Both a study and celebration of its central figure, You Cannot Kill David Arquette doesn’t shy away from some incredibly difficult truths and uncomfortable sequences. The first uncomfortable truth comes from where David Arquette perhaps could have been in his film career. Originally slated for super stardom, Arquette has become more of a cult figure. Some of this appears to be by his own design, with an interest in cult, puppetry, wrestling and other non-standard pursuits over prestige projects. This, by no means is a criticism and what the documentary does is allow Arquette to take centre stage and indulge these passions in a way that is so infectious that you can’t help but root for him entirely. By not shying away from his troubles you’re given a far bigger picture of his motivations and challenges, supported by a cast of family and friends including his wife Christina, ex-wife Courtney Cox, their daughter Coco and his friend Jerry who want the best for him. On the subject of Jerry, the story of how they met is yet another indication of what kind of person David is underneath all of the more colourful stories.

Professional wrestling is an odd world. Simultaneously seeking validation that the medium is an art form in its own right and fiercely protective about allowing the ‘wrong’ people in. It also suffers from the same issues as any other entertainment industry, as revealed by the recent #speakingout movement in which a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude runs rampant and the line between stage personalities and real people is consistently blurred. In 2000, when his film Ready to Rumble inspired a promotional storyline in which he won the World Heavyweight Championship in now-defunct promotion WCW, Arquette became a symbol of what was wrong with the business attempting to gain favour with Hollywood and serving to undermine the hard work of performers by inviting non-trained people in search of wider headlines and attention. The title win was regarded as one of the (many) death knells of WCW makng Arquette unpopular in wrestling, while his flirtation with the wrestling business lost him credibility in Hollywood circles. Rejected by both worlds, but with an enthusiasm for both, it is easy to see how that stall in momentum would be frustrating and allow troubles to surface.

The documentary features his troubles, including alcoholism and ongoing struggles with mental and physical health issues, but what is clear is the support network and love he has around him. This is perhaps unsurprising considering how endearing enthusiastic David is about the things and people he is passionate about. The film strikes several emotional chords where his family is concerned where they worry about the state of his health and the danger involved in him taking up performances. Their negotiations between being protective and supportive are incredibly touching to watch as are his interactions with them.

Mixing heartfelt and more ridiculous moments, the film functions as a journey through different kinds of wrestling as David tries to find himself. An early appearance at a backyard wrestling show with no attendees sees him throw himself into a hostile situation with gusto. In fact, his repeated politeness to people who are still so angry about him daring to have an interest in wrestling shows what a strong character he is. Also notable is that as he moves to bigger, glossier operations, the more the performers are open about the collaborative elements and the aggressive insistence on ‘paying your dues’ and suffering for your art falls away. In a scene that feels like a turning point, wrestler RJ City skewers the idea that wrestlers should care about championships. A sequence in which they work out their match together, intercut with the final product perfectly shows the ability of wrestling to tell a compelling story with the gatekeeping finally shelved as David’s work ethic and commitment begins to shine.

There are, of course, comic moments that the documentary fully embraces. David stating he no longer wants to be seen as a joke is undermined by a cut to him vaping, while wearing a cape, on horseback. Despite this, it doesn’t serve to undermine him, but further showcase his unapologetic enthusiasm. Similarly the documentary captures the frenetic energy of wrestling, cutting quickly between fans and the action to display that communal experience and direct engagement. The result is an energetically paced film with plenty of memorable imagery. It picks contributors with lots to offer, be that fans with misplaced anger, helpful but dubious trainers and family members and friends who clearly adore him. The Gage match footage previously seen in short, reasonably grainy internet footage is presented here and the clarity makes it all the more frightening, showing the level of danger involved. As the credits roll, it is very difficult to not be moved by what has been rediscovered.

You Cannot Kill David Arquette is an emotional, heartfelt documentary that places a warm spotlight on David Arquette and his genuine, almost child-like wonder for experiences and people. Impossible to get through without both sad and happy tears, it will leave you with an entirely new appreciation for David Arquette.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

You Cannot Kill David Arquette shows as part of Fantasia 2020 on August 24th.

Fantasia 2020: Feels Good, Man

Playful, but sobering, Feels Good, Man explores the journey of Pepe the Frog from Boy’s Club cartoon character, to alt-right hate symbol, and some of the way back again as his creator reckons with the power of the internet.

Synopsis: Artist Matt Furie, creator of the controversial comic character Pepe the Frog, begins an uphill battle to reclaim his iconic cartoon image from those who turned it into a symbol of hate.

Feels Good, Man is to be commended for being able to probe dark ideas and movements without becoming lost in it. Part of this is by centering Pepe creator Matt Furie at the outset. This allows us to return to Matt whenever a lift is required as the film delves into the depths of offensive 4chan meme-making, white-nationalism and spree violence. Juxtaposing all that material with scenes of Furie helping his young daughter to brush her teeth or riding a bike with her as a passenger do much to highlight the strange way that his creation has been adopted, such is the contrast between Furie’s nature and the anger of the community that has claimed his creation.

The film begins with the origins of Pepe, a cartoon character created as part of Boy’s Club – a collection of slacker characters that were reflective of Furie’s post-college experience with some psychedelic elements thrown in. After a panel in which Pepe is revealed to urinate with his trousers all the way down because it “feels good, man” takes on a new life on bodybuilding forums and slowly migrates to other areas of the internet, Furie details it being sometimes amusing, but without any concern. In fact, so much of Feels Good, Man revolves around Furie’s admission that the mass sharing and adoption of Pepe was fun…until it wasn’t.

Dale Beran, one of the film’s best talking heads offers context for the change in the tone of Pepe’s use, describing the service as a “Darwinian competition for attention”. 4chan’s anonymous meme-sharing led to a space in which Pepe was co-opted as a kind of symbol for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). This fits Pepe’s origin as a part of slacker-culture, but that inertia became more aggressive and ultimately toxic, especially as so-called “normies” also started to use Pepe. That cultural migration and expansion leads to Pepe being used in more and more offensive ways, so that no one outside of the boards will be willing to lay claim to him.

The film offers a space to 4chan poster “Mills”, a man who takes a rebellious-teen-style pride in the untidiness of his basement living space and makes videos in which he wears an RIP Elliot Rodgers t-shirt clearly designed to be as distasteful as possible. Mills’ details the isolation he felt from general society and the abuse 4chan members willingly inflict upon one another, seemingly owning, internalising and eventually, weaponising all of it. It makes for difficult viewing, partly because Mills is seemingly caught in a system that rewards his offensiveness but adds nothing to self-esteem – a clip where he kicks a paper bag around his room to display that he “doesn’t give a fuck” feels sad – a performative rebellion that means nothing. However, it soon veers from sad to potentially dangerous. As the film explores, using a cartoon frog to express potentially dangerous ideas is ridiculous, allowing meme creators to be both provocative and have the ‘out’ of it being a joke. The evolution of “Smug Pepe” furthers this, with subtle changes to the original design changing the emphasis entirely. The idea that you can never be quite sure if their “jokes” and provocations could lead to further violence is deeply uncomfortable, as is that there is clearly a joy taken in making people feel uncomfortable.

Furie’s frustrations are understandable and the toll of having his most popular creation taken away from him and mutated into something so hateful is immediately visible. A scene where analysts show him how many times the image has been changed and shared has real weight, as does their questioning about if Furie has any guilt. There is a small current running through the film that an early copyright claim by him might have limited the popularity, but now that is has been claimed it is almost impossible to reclaim. He also shows some other work, The Night Riders, also featuring a frog character with a focus on community and friendship, with fairytale-style art. The sincerity of that work and message in direct contrast to the work of 4chan posters enhances the sense of unfairness that a creator has totally lost control of his work and is having it used to promote hate. The impact of Pepe being added to the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbol database is a driving force for Furie to try and end this chapter, however unlikely that may be.

Interspersed with both beautiful animation and more shocking images and videos of the ways that Pepe has been appropriated, the film almost echoes the feeling of scrolling online, switching from news footage, YouTube videos, GIFs and more populating the screen. A few elements didn’t quite work for me – an occultist discussing meme-magic in the context of the 2016 election feels a little out-of-step with the other content. A later snippet concerning Rare Pepe crypto-currency enhances the idea that people are further exploiting a creation for their own gain, but feels like new information too late on when the main drive of the documentary is established. Despite these small flaws, Feels Good, Man is interesting, disturbing and insightful.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Feels Good, Man is available On Demand as part of the Fantasia 2020 Digital Edition.

Favourite Films of 2019

2019 has been a brilliant year, particularly for horror films and as I’ve been lucky to attend numerous festivals this year I feel like I’ve seen more than ever. This list of 25 films is reflective of both the number of films I saw that were of high quality. There is a combination of films that aren’t fully released until 2020 and some that won hearts on the festival circuit in 2019. If I’ve already reviewed a title or otherwise written about it, I’ve included a link. Without any further ado, here are my top 25 films from 2019.

Actually, before the list, I do have to give an honourable mention to The Drone.  A keen sense of absurdity made the Frightfest screening a ridiculous amount of fun. Highly quotable and I still find myself chuckling about it.

25. Piercing

Some might find this one a bit inaccessible, but the intriguing central concept and sense of style within the film won me over. A superb two-hander from Mia Wasikowska and Christopher Abbott too. Progressively nightmarish unease.

24. The Dark Red

I have already reviewed this one here. Featuring at least one scare that made my jaw drop, this was one of my favourites of the Frightfest Presents slate. The chemistry of the cast works incredibly well and includes surprises. I still have my promotional pill bottle for the film on my desk.

23. Kindred Spirits

Deliciously sinister and very soapy – this Lucky McKee thriller boasts a knockout (quite literally) performance from Caitlin Stasey. Honestly, there isn’t a weak link, but I strongly believe that Stasey gives one of the most wonderfully unhinged performances of the year and deserves more plaudits for it.

22. Harpoon

Full review here. The sharp dialogue and swift cutaways made this a joy to watch. Films that spend so much time in one location need to be able to carry it off and thankfully, this more than manages. It is no surprise that Arrow Video picked this one up very quickly for distribution.

21. Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson

My full review is here. Part film history, part true-crime documentary, this lovingly crafted film introduced me to the world of a film-maker I knew nothing about previously, including his unfortunate demise.

20. Darlin’

Full review here. Taking on a sequel to The Woman was never going to be an easy task and so Pollyanna McIntosh made the best possible decision to make her film a departure from Lucky McKee’s. Shifting the focus to Darlin’ as a teenager makes this an interesting entry into The Woman-related canon with heartfelt supporting performances and biting critique of imperfect institutions.

19. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

Possibly the most horrific film on this list, Fyre (the Netflix documentary, rather than the Hulu one), chronicles the many failings of Fyre Festival. The festival promised its wealthy patrons, including Instagram influencers a music festival set in paradise. What followed was very different. A damning exposure of entitlement, lying and an unforgettable memetic moment with the most dedicated employee in history.

18. The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos has fast become a must-see film-maker with his frequently stilted dialogue and unusual characters hitting high notes for me. The thing that struck me most about this film is how much fun the cast appear to have had during production. Olivia Colman deservedly took the Oscar for her tremendous work as Queen Anne in frequently unflattering, but deeply powerful scenes.  

17. Sator

Throughout my review (here) I spoke a lot about the incredible DIY efforts employed for this film. While you might not know from the finished product the amount of effort that went into it, the passion behind the project is undeniable. A truly singular vision heavy on atmosphere.

16. Knives and Skin

This proved somewhat divisive at Frightfest this year and while it is genre-adjacent, rather than full horror, this dreamy, off-kilter drama about a missing teenager had me totally in the palm of its hand. Powerfully haunting musical numbers showcase the pain of teenagers trying to navigate the world set alongside adults still struggling with relationships and wider life.

15. Rabid

Rabid (reviewed here) was a welcome return for the Soska Sisters to the realm of body-horror. Remaking a David Cronenberg film is no small feat but this take set in the cutthroat world of fashion brought a ton of wince-worthy effects and incredible style. Laura Vandervoort is excellent, expressive even when the grisly makeup obscures much of her face. As an aside, the eye-catching, bright yellow poster is excellent.

14. One Cut of The Dead

I was incredibly late to watch One Cut of the Dead and during the first 30 minutes, I truly wondered what all the fuss was about. Past that point, I had the most gigantic smile on my face that was impossible to wipe off. Clever, funny and an absolute triumph of low-budget film-making, I don’t think I’ve felt happier in a cinema for some time.

13. Hail Satan?

I was incredibly glad to see this land on Netflix in early December. The film continues the feel of its early trailer – slightly whimsical, more than willing to poke fun at the sillier aspects, but with a very valid point to make. Despite the weighty subject matter, this was a thoroughly enjoyable documentary.

12. Black Christmas

This film inspired me to look back at the other 2 versions and you can read that here, although do be warned that the article contains spoilers for all three films. Departing from both predecessors, but throwing in more than a few nods to the original material, this fresh, teen-aimed version greatly impressed me. If I had a film like this when I was 14, it would have been played on repeat until the disc wore out. 

11. I Trapped The Devil

This creepy and tense Christmas horror is incredibly impressive with Scott Poythress’ oft-erratic performance creating an almost unbearable sense of tension. I reviewed it here. 

10. Lords of Chaos

After watching a lot of horror over many years it takes a lot to shake me, so Lords of Chaos holds the dubious honour of being the first film in some time to genuinely make me uncomfortable. The mix of violence along with the irreverent biopic elements of the formation (and fall-out) of the metal band Mayhem uses Jonas Akerlund’s music video flair to create a punchy and disturbing portrait of men trying to out-shock one another, resulting in their undoing. While the film takes liberties with the ‘real’ story, I still have the most questions about how Rory Culkin looks like that on a diet that seems to consist exclusively of Coca-Cola and kebabs.

9. The Perfection

This pleasingly barmy tale of two competing classical musicians who end up in a romance is perhaps too obvious to surprise with its twists. However, the chemistry between Alison Williams and Logan Browning, along with its strangeness and ability to do something different sustains it. The style and ambition of the film can’t be denied. Includes an impressive cover of ‘Petals’ over the end credits too.

8. Midsommar

I have to admit that of Ari Aster’s feature output, Hereditary is still my personal favourite, but that’s not to say that Midsommar isn’t an absolute triumph. I reviewed it here. Later in the year, I watched the Director’s Cut, which highlights more of Christian’s behaviour and Dani’s unravelling but I think the themes are more than strong enough in the theatrical cut. Florence Pugh is mesmerising. The opening scene is almost unbearably painful and the use of blinding sunlight in the duration of the film makes the film feel very different to many others.

7. Come To Daddy

I’ve been lucky enough to see this multiple times and have found something new to appreciate each time. Michael Smiley is possibly my favourite performance of the year as villain Jethro, but Elijah Wood’s Norval Greenwood is also a forerunner for great characters in this year’s films. Fiercely funny with plenty of turns in the story, Come To Daddy has fast become one of my favourite films to watch with an audience. My full review is here.

6. After Midnight

This film stays in the tradition of navel-gazing, metaphor heavy entries into the horror genre until it dramatically departs. I wasn’t expecting to love this one as much as I did and I can’t reveal exactly what it is that makes me love it so much, but hopefully upon its wider release in February people will love this as much as I do. An absolute must-see with a big audience, this is a hugely satisfying film.

5. Us

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out proved to be stunning, further displaying a combination of a sense of humour and seriously impressive visuals. Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, among others, take on dual roles to great effect. Featuring some stunning sequences and very clearly proud to be a horror film, Us suggests more great things to come from Peele.

4. The Girl on the Third Floor

I reviewed this here, after my first viewing. I’ve since seen it a second time and found the central themes to be even bolder. Featuring a debut feature performance from Phil Brooks (CM Punk), this feminist haunted house tale uses some incredible special effects to make the haunting feel incredibly vibrant and frequently queasy. You’ll never look at marbles the same way again.

3. Death of a Vlogger

I love it when a film comes along in a subgenre as saturated and often-weak as found-footage and surpasses all expectations. My full review of Death of a Vlogger can be found here. This is one where the simple, but effective scares have stayed with me and the overall concept has become even more impressive the more I’ve thought about it. This is independent horror film-making at its most inventive, vibrant and perhaps most importantly, bloody creepy.

2. Spiral

It says a lot about the strength of this film that even though it nearly ruined my entire day I still love it. Playing one of the early slots at Frightfest, the film’s focus on prejudice makes it a tough, but necessary watch. I absolutely cannot wait for more people to see this. Featuring supernatural elements and an unexpectedly graphic moment that took me entirely by surprise, it is still the central message that makes this film so deeply appealing. Jeffrey Bowyer-Champman’s powerful performance provoked more than a few tears.

1. Synchronic

It was love at first sight for me with the latest film by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Its place at number 1 on this list will be no surprise to anyone who has listened to me recommend this film since October. Benson and Moorhead have created a powerful anti-nostalgia film with incredibly effective sci-fi elements that complement rather than complicate the narrative. Beautifully human and a powerful endorsement for living life no other film could have taken the top spot. Review here.

Please share your favourites with me, here or on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  

Abertoir Horror Festival 2019 Round Up

This post is part of a longer series on the festivals I’ve attended this year – you can find links to the others below:

FrightfestBFI London Film FestivalCelluloid Screams

Abertoir Horror Festival takes place in Aberystwyth, Wales and honestly deserves far more attention than it currently has. It isn’t a big festival but the incredible events they have pulled together include off-site themed screenings and parties with incredible attention to detail that is so impressive. Combining old and new films along with talks and performances Abertoir really does have something to offer everyone.

This year I was unable to attend a few things so I can’t discuss the things I didn’t take part in. The full schedule is available here if you are curious about what else went on. The first film of the festival was Come To Daddy, which obviously, I’ve already reviewed here. The film is so much fun to watch with an audience and the Abertoir crowd definitely seemed to appreciate it. Following this was the UK premiere of Lake Michigan Monster – a quirky and occasionally very silly monster movie which uses an incredibly small budget to garner some big laughs which made it perfect midnight movie material.

Day two kicked off with a talk on werewolf films by regular festival contributor Gavin Baddeley, based partially on his research for his book FrightFest Guide to Werewolf Movies. Stay tuned to the blog for updates as this title should be reviewed here soon. The talk was a tour of some lesser known and not as successful werewolf films with some theory behind it that werewolf films often represent the fear we have of people (and even whole societies) transforming into something fearful. This was followed by the UK premiere of 8 – a South African drama which uses some unique folklore to explore the nature and emotional weight of guilt. There are some seriously impressive sequences in 8 which gives particularly the later stages of the film a really epic feel.

Next up was the first round of the short film competition and while there were some interesting ideas on display and the film-making was obviously of a very high technical standard, none of them really blew me away. Unfortunately I missed part two of the short film competition so can’t say if the second batch had anything which would have worked for me. After the short films it was time for an on-stage talk from Norman J Warren. Tristan Thompson took on interviewing duties and through his knowledge was able to support Norman J Warren in detailing his career and creative choices. Warren is not a film-maker I’m familiar with but this interview made me appreciate his journey in film. The interview was followed up by a screening of Warren’s Inseminoid, which, while dated, was suitably entertaining and also meant that composer John Scott joined Warren for a post-screening Q&A about both their work together and their wider friendships.

One of Abertoir’s communal events is the pub quiz, full of tricky questions (especially the music round) but is always enjoyable, even if I’m not particularly any good at it. The final film of the night was Why Don’t You Just Die! which I’d missed at both Frightfest and Celluloid Screams so was determined to stick around for after hearing how many people had thoroughly enjoyed it. I ended up not liking it as much as I expected to. The early fight scenes within the flat are incredible and I think I wanted more of that. Obviously, sustaining that energy for an entire film would be exhausting so the balance of the film leaving the flat is necessary, but held things up a little for my tastes.

My first film of the Thursday (very late start – I’d forgotten how tiring the Abertoir schedule can be) was Sator. You can find my review of the film here. The post screening Q&A was fascinating with the director (among his many jobs on the film) explaining how incredibly personal the film was and this made the film all the more impressive. After the serious nature of Sator it was refreshing to see The Satanic Rites of Robin Ince, a live show based around comedian Robin Ince’s frenetic appreciation for all things horror, featuring readings from his favourite books, clips from public information films and other genre interests. This was great fun, with lots of energy. This led into Vivarium – a film which I knew relatively little about but was pleasantly surprised by this off-kilter sci-fi about a seemingly perfect home which soon turns sour. Beautifully shot with pastel shades undercutting the sinister nature of the situation and featuring a tense and complimentary dual central performance from Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg this was a real delight. The last film of the evening was First Love – the latest film from Takashi Miike. Thankfully far less indulgent than Yakuza Apocalypse but with enough comic moments alongside the action First Love is far more accessible than some of his previous work.

Friday morning brought the part film history, part true crime documentary Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which I reviewed here so won’t go into too far in this section, but it is an incredibly interesting documentary, mixing the strange with the tragic. The following event was an effects masterclass with Gary Sherman. This was fascinating in terms of seeing how practical effects were used on Poltergeist 3, mainly using mirrors and duplicate sets to create the film’s illusions. I could honestly have listened to Sherman all day as he explained the long planning process and the way that every detail was covered. Importantly, he spoke about the necessity to have safe stunts and how the large budget allowed for him to take the time to set up these effects that would not be available to those on a lower budget.

I chose to skip the off-site screening of Prince of Darkness but saw photographs from the event and the idea of showing the film in a fully dressed church is really incredible and even gained the Twitter approval of John Carpenter himself. My next event was the secret screening, which, happily for me ended up being Synchronic and this viewing really cemented it as my favourite film of the year. The last film I stayed for was Diner, an absolutely stunning mix of fierce choreography and beautiful art, with just enough humour and strangeness to make it really stand out.

My first screening for Saturday was Achoura, featuring a Q&A with director Talal Selhami. One of the many things that Abertoir does so well is filling their line up with a variety of films featuring different cultural folklore and ideas. As with 8, Achoura introduces these ideas to an unfamiliar audience but both are skilled in presenting all the necessary information and most importantly, interesting characters to follow. I was somewhat surprised by how much I enjoyed Achoura as I often fail to connect with more fairy tale based stories and the story definitely owes a heavy debt to Stephen King’s IT (which I’m also not the biggest fan of), but this manages it in a way that feels fresh and the beautiful locations definitely assist in that enjoyment. The second documentary of the festival was Fulci For Fake. While I’ve seen some Fulci films I’m far from well-versed in them and they wouldn’t be my go-to for favourite films and so I was looking forward to this documentary to see if it would make me reappraise his work. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it did that for me, but it is a compelling piece of work about the man himself, how his films are now being looked at through new lenses and his family life. The framing of the documentary as an actor undertaking a role as Fulci interviewing collaborators and friends is an innovative way to approach the material and the result is a documentary that feels warm, but one that doesn’t shy away from some of the negative elements of his personality. This feels far more well rounded than some documentaries which like to soften their subject. My last film of the day was Death Line, followed by a Q&A with Gary Sherman. The film features a show-stealing performance by Donald Pleasence but the highlight for me was definitely the interview afterwards.

The final day of the festival started for me with a talk on the fact in science fiction. A lecturer in physics from Aberystwyth University delivered a talk on some incredibly big concepts involving the potential for time travel, extraterrestrial life and a whole host of other ideas that make you feel fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The next film was the third and final documentary of the festival: The Magnificent Obsession of Michael Reeves. Despite having seen and appreciated Witchfinder General as a deeply unpleasant and effective horror, I had very little other knowledge of Reeves as a director or person. The documentary aimed to clear up misconceptions, especially those around his relationship with Vincent Price. As a portrait of the man himself, I’m still not sure that I have a full picture of him, but it has given me an even greater appreciation for his skill as a film-maker. The final screening of Abertoir 2019 for me came in the form of Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club who bring some serious laughs with some seriously bad films. This year’s offering was 2000’s Spiders and it felt like the perfect way for me to end my time at the festival.

Of course, Abertoir delivered far more than what I’ve detailed here. You can read about them sending a specially filmed introduction of Alien into the edges of space (!) here. The programming team are incredibly welcoming, dedicated and enthusiastic about everything they show at the festival and this really shows. You can stay up to date with Abertoir here.

BFI London Film Festival 2019 Round Up

This post is part of a longer series on the festivals I’ve attended this year – you can find links to the others below:

FrightfestCelluloid ScreamsAbertoir Horror Festival

This entry will be a good bit shorter than the other entries on festivals as I was only able to take in four films over the course of one weekend and I have already reviewed three of those titles. My interest in the BFI London Film Festival is mostly confined to the cult strand, perhaps obvious considering my pursuit of horror and those films with horror elements. Besides that, the festival is actually a really nice way to see a number of films in a number of different cinemas in London with the opportunity to see director Q&As too.

The first film I saw was The Antenna, which I reviewed here. As a first feature, it is undoubtedly very impressive but suffers with pacing issues but it is interesting to see a horror film told from a different perspective that looks at important political, social and cultural elements.

The second film I caught was Wounds, which is now available to watch on Netflix. Very heavy on mood and tone, this doesn’t work entirely and will inevitably leave some people incredibly frustrated. I reviewed it here. The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Babak Anvari who explained a great deal about the genesis of the project and how it came together.

Next up was Leap of Faith, an Alexander O. Philippe documentary which focuses entirely on the film-maker interviewing William Friedkin about The Exorcist. While other Exorcist documentaries like Mark Kermode’s excellent Fear of God make use of the input from a variety of collaborators, Leap of Faith primarily uses Friedkin himself as the lens. This allows him to speak about the entire process of The Exorcist, from artistic choices, casting and even writing the film as being driven by himself above all others. The documentary features what has now become Philippe’s trademark in-depth examination and video essay style. Friedkin makes for a highly entertaining interview subject and even as a big fan of The Exorcist and the texts around it, I still learned something new.

The following day I managed to go along to a talk about the current state of and growing interest in cult (and particularly horror) cinema. This was fascinating, with both the panel and the audience able to take part in an engaging discussion around ‘elevated’ horror, what works, what doesn’t work and if we are currently in a golden age of horror. The ability to speak to other genre fans in such an informal atmosphere was both enjoyable and informative.

My final film of the festival was the latest Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead film Synchronic. If you follow me on Twitter you will have heard me raving about this for some time and you can find more in my review here. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with both directors who were able to discuss their choices within the film and also discuss some of their previous work. I can’t think of a better way to finish a festival than with such a smart film, so full of humanity.

I hope to be able to attend at least a few screenings at the same event next year. The festival can sometimes be a good indicator of the kind of horror films that will break onto the wider genre festival scene later in the year. I’m only disappointed that I was unable to see The Lodge, but I’m looking forward to it’s 2020 release.