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.

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.

Fantastic Fest 2021: The Exorcism of God

Jarring tonal shifts and an inability to truly dive deep on its central concept leave this feeling like a missed opportunity.

Synopsis: The story of “The Exorcism of God” follows father “Peter Williams”, an American exorcist who, being possessed by a demon he was trying to expel, ends up committing the most terrible sacrilege. Eighteen years later, the consequences of his sin will come back to haunt him, unleashing the greatest battle against the evil within.

Alejandro Hidalgo’s debut feature The House at the End of Time arrived in 2013 – a smart, supernatural horror with a sci-fi edge that hinted at a sharp horror-focused mind. The Exorcism of God marks his second feature and again, marks the director as someone keen to play with genre conventions and ideas, although to less success. It is clear that the point of the film is satirical, which does allow it some reprieve, but it still doesn’t work as an entire unit for the most part.

Will Beinbrink plays Peter Williams, who we meet in 2003 enduring a particularly difficult exorcism. Falling prey to a demon who seeks to corrupt him during the ritual, he is left shaken and desperate to redeem himself. In the present, his transgressions are never far from the surface, threatening to upend his now-stellar reputation.

Much of the problem with The Exorcism of God is in its tone. It is, by some turns immensely po-faced, serious and consumed with its own sense of morality, while on another, wishing to indulge in noisy, CGI-heavy effects to throw scares. Those two clashing desires make the material that should hit harder difficult to take seriously and while there are some hints at self-awareness in the performances, the overall package attempts to play both sides, but succeeds fully in neither. Even though this is satire, there is little to cling to – it makes its most obvious points quickly then has to spend much of the time re-treading the same points. The film doesn’t come with a trigger warning although most can hazard a guess at the priest’s central sin and this is not exactly dealt with in the most enlightened terms, with demonic sexuality pushed to the forefront.

Exorcism films are over saturated, meaning any new forays into telling those stories need to have something new to offer. The Exorcism of God does, in this regard explore something that has become apparent in the evolution of exorcism films that have strayed further into critiques of institutions, rather than viewing the Church as a remedy to all ills. This is a cheap plug for some of my previous writing that you can find here. In its foregrounding of a fallen priest as its core concept, The Exorcism of God has the potential to explore this in more depth, but can’t follow through on this, remaining on the surface for the most part. Beinbrink is solid in the lead role, having to command much of the runtime but it is difficult to connect to a character when the film doesn’t quite probe his state of mind enough. It also fails to interrogate his actions in any way approaching an acceptable level.

Stained nightdresses, contact lenses, throaty voices and contortions abound, particularly in the latter sections. There are a few images that work well and overcome the slightly cartoonish, easily parodied representations. The addition of so much overt sexuality is a bit of a surprise too, with possessed women taking on the characteristics of brides of Dracula, as opposed to the more conventional presentation. This definitely edges into the distasteful with little pay-off. This high energy and occasional dips into almost soap-opera style plotlines make for a strange mixture that may not land for everyone.

An energetic, imprecise take on the possession movie that provided you aren’t looking for anything profound and embrace its alternating schlocky and earnest tone you might well find something in.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

The Exorcism of God screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: Barbarians

A compelling study of male ego in a minimalist setting that grips from start to finish.

Synopsis: A dinner party in a country house that sees four friends come together for a birthday celebration. But as the night progresses secrets emerge and unsettling events begin to unfold around them.

Every now and then, a film appears that I adore watching but ultimately dread trying to review. This is certainly the case with Barbarians because it is one of those films that is likely best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible for the full effect to land.

The dinner party given a horror edge is one that follows a relatively simple formula, taking characters at odds and cocooning them together for an extended period of time. That this high pressure environment has given us gems like The Invitation means Barbarians sets itself some high expectations early on. Thankfully, the sharp scripting, dedicated performances and the attempts to shake the format to some degree makes Barbarians an absorbing watch.

Kicking off with a glossy advertisement starring Lucas (Tom Cullen), Barbarians quickly brings the viewer into the lavish, insulated surroundings of the characters. However, within those first few minutes has thrown its first disarming curve ball. It is this smooth surface occasionally showing glimpses of ugly horror that underpins the entire film, unseating the viewer in a way that continues with the escalations that the film has to offer. Despite providing an intense experience, writer/director Charles Dorfman weaves in plenty of dark, often awkward humour, making the conversations flow more naturally. The house that contains the film’s events is suitably showy, again placing a surface sheen with an underlying ugliness and threat.

Rattling through contentious dinner party conversation allows all the performers to really live in their characters for an extended period. It is through those quick movements through subjects like politics that widen the gap between the characters. In the interests of keeping this spoiler-free, perhaps the best way I can describe the film is as a spiralling masculine melodrama in which unspoken tensions gradually find a voice. Separated by stings featuring striking typography, this is a film that consistently intrudes upon itself, disrupts its own flow and is all the better for this, resulting in an engaging and often surprising experience. Some may find the more drastic tone changes a little difficult to keep up with at first, but there are rewards to be found in letting it wash over you.

Tom Cullen is excellent as Lucas – spilling over with bravado and a near-constant social media presence. Cullen is fiercely impressive, conveying changes within Lucas through the use of his signature ‘hey guys, what’s up?’ on social media channels that changes in tone as the film progresses. That sense of both his audacious, go-getting masculinity and social media persona both being performances hiding something more sinister is woven throughout. In contrast, Iwan Rheon’s Adam is more restrained, but seemingly haunted by his reluctance to act in the same way as Lucas. An early confrontation with a poorly fox sums up his reluctance to act, a thread that continues in his struggle to complete his first feature. Rheon equips Adam with a nervous energy that threatens to unfurl throughout the narrative. The male characters are the focus here, but that doesn’t mean that their partners are underwritten, standing out as capable and well-realised by comparison.

For those who love their films about masculinity in crisis, Barbarians is absolutely the film for you, with Tom Cullen and Iwan Rheon providing stirring performances at its centre.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Barbarians screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: Homebound

A striking handling of tone and menace makes this familiar subgenre feel decidedly unfamiliar.

Synopsis: Holly’s excited to finally meet fiancé Richard’s three children for the first time at a birthday celebration for his youngest in the English countryside. Holly is nervous to make a good impression, however when they arrive circumstances are far from ideal.

As a feature debut for director/writer Sebastian Godwin, Homebound is an incredibly interesting piece of work. From the outset, discordant notes underscore our focal couple Holly (Aisling Loftus) and Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill) as they drive to the house, but delivers no punchline in the form of a jump scare or other relief. Instead, this early sense of something being ‘off’ sustains the entire film, casting glances at every character alternatively. The effect is especially unnerving and frequently uncomfortable.

The premise itself is well-worn, with Holly desperate to make a good impression on Richard’s children, while she makes several, not entirely happy discoveries about him. Richard is almost impossibly permissive, allowing Lucia (Hattie Gotobed) and Ralph (Lukas Rolfe) to drink alcohol, partake in some farm-to-table service and indulges in numerous PDAs with Holly that she is clearly uncomfortable with. On the other hand, he is given to sudden bursts of discipline and a need for structure. Tim Goodman-Hill does well to straddle Richard’s extremes, fearsome enough that his anger feels like a threat but normal enough that his behaviour can be written off as the effects of stress and pressure. Aisling Loftus is excellent as Holly, who occasionally has little to do other than express wide-eyed wonder and quiet embarrassment at Richard and his family. The younger actors make for great additions, with Raffiella Chapman’s Anna pitched as a more solitary figure, outside the close communication between Lucia and Ralph.

Keeping the cast minimal and confined to one setting allows the film to toy with the viewer’s perception of events. Despite the film’s relatively short runtime, there is plenty of time dedicated to creating the atmosphere and existing in the same space as the characters. The camera finds itself close, often too close to them, able to catch even the smallest look that might alter the meaning or intent. That time spent in the house also means there is a strong sense of space created, with the feeling that you are learning the layout of the house as the film progresses.

With the careful effort and care put into establishing the tone of Homebound it would be a shame to delve too much into the plot and moving parts. This is minimalistic, for the most part, but its success lies in its ability to merge the benign and sinister, constantly building and reflecting on itself to create a layered, disturbing portrait of the family. Ultimately, this tone layering does create a dilemma for the film as it progresses, making it difficult to produce a truly satisfying conclusion. Still, the journey is worth taking, with plenty of uncomfortable moments and a sense of menace that holds strong throughout.

A stripped back, disturbing and intimate portrait of a family in flux that handles its material with a disquieting playfulness – I can’t remember the last time I saw something that presented such a strange vibe so well.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Homebound screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: She Will

While not every moment hits the mark in this operatic horror, the sections where all the components gel make this a formidable feature debut for Charlotte Colbert.

Synopsis: After a double mastectomy, actress Veronica Ghent travels to a remote place in Scotland in order to recuperate. However, the land around the retreat radiates with a dark power that will ultimately help liberate her from a traumatic past.

Our first introduction to actress Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) is a difficult one, at best. She is somewhat prickly towards her nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt) and despite the immense pain she finds herself in, still insists on wearing her prosthetics, even when warned that it is too soon. Krige plays her as stern, but quickly that exterior gives way to a physical and emotional vulnerability. Krige and Eberhardt’s chemistry allows the relationship to flourish into something deeper than nurse and patient, becoming sisterly and even motherly at turns. Eberhardt ably matches Krige’s gravitas, but allows Desi to bring a softer side out of the rather more spiky Veronica.

There are times within She Will that the visuals dominate, resulting in the kind of absorbing, dreamy horror that adds a potent atmosphere. However, this focus on the visual and a tendency towards more theatrical performances in some segments does mean the dialogue does occasionally become a little clunky and that will undoubtedly alienate some. A few of the quirkier happenings feel somewhat forced, not adding much to either the tone or plot, which is a shame when all the other themes converge in a way that lends the film its power. The surreal imagery, when threaded through the narrative works far better than the throwaway, off-kilter elements.

She Will, like its central figure, is at its best when fully realised and in control. Colbert’s roaming character not only enters rooms with characters, but invades their space. Initially these choices feel odd, but as the rest of the film leans into its flowing imagery, this becomes far more cohesive, satisfactory and injects further energy. The film balances the way that the woods appear sinister as well as beautiful – a force that is not fully understood, but not necessarily harmful. At one point there is a reference to the wind sounding like whispers, a suggestion that the earth itself is offering solace and power.

The film’s treatment of trauma is stand out. While a growing number of films tackling the fall out from trauma have tended to take a more nihilistic tone in terms of the potential for recovery, She Will, as its title suggests places the agency with Veronica and her potential for growth. While these more confronting portrayals are necessary and powerful, it is somewhat refreshing to see a film in which a woman who is on the path to being consumed by her trauma uses it to turn the tables and become a consumer, wrestling back a level of control over her life and body. Like many films this year, this is coupled with a desire to reconnect with the earth and uses the location as an agent for that self-discovery. The imagery is beautiful, even when it also threatens, switching between the two modes in a way that becomes a flow, rather than a clash.

The confidence in creating a film that so fully realises itself and central characters in a debut suggests excellent work to come from Charlotte Colbert. Stay through the credits for a charming cover of The Killing Moon too.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

She Will screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.