BFI London Film Festival 2021: Bull

Bull is an impressive and assured British horror-thriller that makes the most of every well-tuned element.

Synopsis: Bull mysteriously returns home after a 10 year absence to seek revenge on those who double crossed him all those years ago.

If you are looking to make a gritty British revenge film based around the mechanics of a shady family, the choice of a lead role is obvious. Neil Maskell is just so good at that deadpan humour-laced hardman character, able to switch on and off the intensity to excellent effect. Bull is no exception and he is on top form as the titular character, given the punchy one-liners that raise a smile as much as the explosions of rage make you sit back a little further in your seat. It is hard to imagine the line ‘spin it like you’re trying to kill us’ delivered by anyone else as effectively but this is a film that knows its strength lies in that mode of delivery and has the confidence in the material. Glimpses of underlying sensitivity reserved mainly for his son, Aidan (Henri Charles) allows the pace of the film to slow occasionally without disrupting too much flow.

The supporting cast is great too, with David Hayman, in particular, dripping with menace as Norm, the patriarch of the family Bull has fallen foul of. There is a constant unease throughout with flashbacks providing context as the narrative progresses. Director-writer Paul Andrew Williams keeps everything balanced on a knife-edge and the whole film carries the air of a slow-burning fuse. You are never quite comfortable within scenes, unsure if an encounter will result in violence or another uneasy, temporary truce. The focus on Bull and Norm for the most part does mean you are left with other supporting characters that are perhaps lacking in much unique development (especially the female characters), but everyone is ultimately delivering exactly what they need to.

The violence, when it occurs is brutal and unflinching but still carries those flashes of pitch-black humour. The plot beats move from relatively dialogue-heavy, even domestically-focused (although steeped in tension and bad feeling) to explosive moments, keeping the film functioning as confrontationally as possible. You can see traces of Williams’ previous works like The Cottage where more comic violence is the focal point, as well as his more gentle television work like A Confession, permitting a few more contemplative pauses. Above all, Bull is assured in its direction, refusing to answer questions for much of the runtime, preferring to pepper in flashbacks to bring focus to current relationships and situations. Some will undoubtedly find some of the later handling a tad clumsy, but it still revels enough in its confidence that it is difficult to not be swept along with it.

Using the funfair location for some of the action, including using the attractions as integral parts of the narrative feels inspired, even if some of these elements may well lose people. A scene set on a waltzer ride is notable for its technical proficiency as well as an example of the film enjoying stretching outside of its expected genre trappings. That experimentation with form is something that sets this apart, again destabilising what you believe you are watching as it progresses. The neon lights in contrast to the other more grey, everyday locations lend the location a sense of otherworldliness and two worlds conflicting with one another.

On the surface, Bull is the kind of thriller we have all seen before, but there is a dark playfulness at work here that makes it stand out above them, resulting in a conclusion that stands to split audience opinion, but makes the film all the more memorable for it.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Bull played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021 and will be released in UK cinemas by Signature Entertainment on November 5th.

Nightstream 2021

Nightstream returned for another online union of the Boston Underground Film Festival, Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, North Bend Film Festival and The Overlook Film Festival.

With so many films watched recently due to online festival coverage, Nightstream represented a chance, like its 2020 event, to indulge in some horror events that move beyond the films itself and engage more creatives in discussion about their careers and processes. Some films I had managed to see before the event itself so I have outlined those reviews below, followed by a write-up of a few events I managed to see this year:

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched
Alien On Stage
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes
Hellbender
The Greenhouse

A Celebration of Chucky with Don Mancini and Peaches Christ

The Child’s Play franchise has gone from strength to strength, most recently making the move to television with a new SyFy series. Creator Don Mancini joined Peaches Christ for a discussion of the series and the way it has evolved. Kicking off with a performance from Peaches, it is clear from the outset what the Chucky films mean to audiences, particularly queer audiences. From Bride of Chucky (which Mancini relates as a deliberate choice to add glamour) and definitely Seed of Chucky, that queer sensibility has brought itself front and centre. Throughout the talk, the importance of the new Chucky television show featuring a 14-year-old boy who knows he is gay was repeated – an open representation that could strike a chord with many young viewers questioning their sexuality. Don Mancini also called attention to how the franchise is able to continually reinvent itself, with Curse a skew back towards outright horror to prove Chucky still has the ability to scare. Coupled with some fun anecdotes about Chucky’s popularity across the world, some clips from the new series to whet the appetite and some stories from the Hannibal writers room, this made for an excellent, uplifting chat between two people with a huge amount of affection for horror.

A Conversation With CREEPSHOW Showrunner Greg Nicotero and Writer Mattie Do

Confession time: I’ve yet to see any of the Shudder Creepshow episodes – not through any kind of avoidance, just an abundance of other content I keep getting to first. However, if you have Mattie Do on a panel, I’ll watch – you can still check out an excellent Q+A following a screening of The Long Walk here. Do is truly one of the most exciting voices working in horror today and her panel appearances are always lively and engaging. Greg Nicotero brings a wealth of experience in horror effects, props and of course, as a producer on both Creepshow and The Walking Dead. The main topic of discussion was around Do’s final episode segment Drug Traffic, which tackles themes of authority, borders and anti-Asian sentiment. The conversation also turned to the supernatural being at the heart of Lao culture, with festivals dedicated to honouring the dead and bringing the fantastic into everyday life. Finishing up on some discussions of her next projects and the future for Creepshow this was a thoroughly engaging chat, curated well by Clark Collis.

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies Presents The Back Rooms: An Exploration Of The Creepypastas Phenomenon

Creepypastas have long been part of internet lore, becoming collaborative works of storytelling and art making that take on a life way beyond their first appearance. Introduced by genre favourite Graham Skipper, Simon Laperrière led a tour into the phenomenon, using The Backrooms as a gateway. Offering liminal spaces in which it is said to be possible to ‘unclip from reality’ The Backrooms works well as an example of the expansive nature of the creepypasta form. Complete with intricate, textured guides to different rooms, they function as vivid online participatory culture, moving from urban legends into something more creative. Laperrière also gave an interesting overview of how the Slenderman movie failed to capture the spirit and intrigue of creepypasta (no argument here).

The Future of Film Is Female Presented by Daily Dead

Returning for 2021, The Future of Film is Female brought together a great panel of female filmmakers, academics and film festival programmers, moderated by Caryn Coleman to discuss the future of horror as it relates to female and non-binary work. Featuring A.K. Espada, Samantha Aldana, Kate Robertson, Ashlee Blackwell and Lisa Dreyer, this was a lively conversation that managed to focus not only on women behind the camera, but also those writing about the subject and those putting films in front of audiences or teaching film students. There was lots of insight into what ‘radical empathy’ meant to the panel in their work and consumption of horror films. Perhaps most interesting was a discussion of curating horror for University students where a tolerance for horror was an unknown and appreciation of the genre could not be assumed. All the projects mentioned all suggest great things to come, supporting the idea that the future of horror is female.

You can read more about Nightstream at the webpage, including a rundown of the Audience Awards.

BFI Flare 2021: The Greenhouse

Small scale sci-fi that mostly plays to its strengths in this emotional, delayed coming-of-age story.

Synopsis: Grieving the death of her mother Lillian, Beth Tweedy-Bell wakes one night to find a portal to the past in the forest surrounding her family home. Swept away by visions of her idyllic upbringing with her three siblings and two loving Mums, Beth becomes mesmerized by the past, unable to see the dangers that lie ahead.

Beth Tweedy-Bell (Jane Watt) is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton). Along with Beth, Lillian has left behind her wife Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin) and their other adoptive children, Drew (Shiv Palekar), Doonie (Kirsty Marillier) and Raf (Joel Horwood). Beth, having stayed behind to help take care of Lillian is more deeply involved in her grief, with those feelings enhanced by her staying at the home while her siblings have continued to make their own lives. One day, she finds a greenhouse and finds that walking through it allows her to revisit her past.

The film begins with a buoyant dinner scene, introducing the family’s mostly good-natured grilling about relationships and togetherness. This scene is a family we only see in this moment, as later scenes reveal the boundaries and rising tensions between them. Each character is given their own (sometimes relatively small) concerns and while this helps to make it feel a little more fleshed out, the stories can’t be given enough time to fully flourish. For example, a topic like Doonie’s widely mocked television show is made prominent enough to represent part of the narrative for her, but there is little background to it, so ends up feeling slightly more hollow than it needs to be. They do function well in terms of showing the fracturing nature of the family and Beth’s more static life.

The flashbacks that Beth visits are balanced between rosy nostalgia and painful memories. When the film returns to the opening dinner scene there is something breathtakingly emotional about watching Beth crouch near Lillian – a truly beautiful moment of her studying her facial expressions and listening intently. This is science fiction on a relatively small-scale and the design of these flashbacks is key to this. Scenes play out with Beth standing as an observer and as is the case in many science-fiction films, interaction with the past is to be avoided. This further enhances the sense of sadness involved in the memories – they are re-experienced but can’t be completely relived. The moments where the film seeks to expand that scale are not quite as well observed and some of the internal logic did not quite work for me, even after some reflection. Still, The Greenhouse for the most part knows that its success lies in the interpersonal relationships and exploration of loss, rather than trying to make its world too large. There is a voyeurism to some of the past scenes, but director Thomas Wilson-White turns this into a more comfortable intimacy, rather than an intrusion.

Jane Watt plays Beth with great sensitivity in a quiet performance that does everything to portray how deeply Beth takes on every comment or event. She processes everything intensely and this need to over analyse keeps her static far more than any tie to family or the house. Despite the film’s championing of multiple gay (or bi in Drew’s case) identities, Beth is unable to embrace her own sexuality, largely due to what she has seen Ruth and Lillian go through as her mothers. Even though there are characters you would like to know more about, the performances are good to carry this through so you still feel some connection to them. The thread that runs through the film, of Beth becoming lost to her past rather than moving forward is an effective one. Ruth’s arc as the grieving widow is also under explored, meaning a later development lacks the impact it should. The moment also lacks some clarity, again dulling the impact while you pause to figure out the implications.

As a genre piece, it hits its mark well, burying hints as the narrative progresses and although any more horrifying elements are relatively gentle, there are still jolting moments and a well-earned sense of atmosphere. This is not a horror film, as such, although there are moments where the film seeks to enhance that sense of fear and uncertainty that work well. The effects, although sparingly applied are good quality and suit the scale, neither underplaying the strangeness, nor throwing itself into an entirely different world and overplaying its genre hand.

While some of the science-fiction elements are muted and perhaps not as well rounded as they could be, The Greenhouse is a moving and sensitive exploration of grief, family and embracing your own identity.

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars

The Greenhouse plays as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Film Festival. More details and ticket information are available here.

Salem Horror Festival: Displaced

With a refreshing take on a well-trodden narrative, Displaced mostly plays to its strengths.

Synopsis: A young black man in Brooklyn must prove his new white neighbors are emissaries from the Satanic cult they both survived as children.

Displaced is an occult horror that foregrounds concerns about gentrification and how it displaces Black Americans from their homes and areas of social and cultural value. Further than this, it includes moments of how protagonist Nathan (Philip Jayoni) is treated differently by police for the colour of his skin and other threats. While this is a lot to include on its own, the film also manages to weave a complex narrative about family, fate and duty that really makes it stand out.

Nathan is a social worker, struggling with the cruelty he sees in every day life and still processing a traumatic childhood. He maintains a close relationship to his grandmother Loretta (Hope Harley) who is a landlord for their Brooklyn-based building. The latest tenants represent a further blow to his psyche as his paranoia, sparked by a shocking sleepwalking incident drives him to increasingly desperate measures, becoming convinced that they are part of the Temple of the Jackal cult he escaped from.

First off, Displaced is very much a micro budget effort and this is something that mostly comes through in terms of the effects. Happily, director Josh Atkinson mostly sidesteps this with well-timed cutaways to maximise the impact without showing too much so there are only one or two instances where you can see the limitations. A couple of performances are a little stilted, although, honestly, this kind of suits the characters, so could even be intentional. Importantly, leading actor Philip Jayoni is excellent, producing a sympathetic and occasionally imposing performance that keeps everything on track. The film has a strange way of handling exposition, managing to include a genuinely surprising and inventive way to deliver it, but also falling back on a very lengthy, almost static sequence of explanation. Thankfully, Mia Y. Anderson as Camilla Clay has the acting chops to pull this off, but there are a few moments where you feel it could have been handled with the same impact of the earlier scenes.

With those relatively minor critiques aside, there is still a great deal to commend Displacement for. Much of the imagery employed has a great impact, thanks to keeping many elements as simple as possible – as from the poster, the use of lights in eyes is very effective in creating a sense of otherness where necessary. There is a brilliant eye for more subtle creepy details but an ASMR video turning into a direct address provides a real high point. There is a skilful and gradual build of pressure and the layering of messages developing into an incredibly powerful conclusion. The exploration of trauma, guilt and the fragility of memory is nuanced and foregrounded in a contemporary, ever-changing social context. The film cleverly utilises minimal locations that you quickly become familiar with, meaning even the smallest changes have an impact. Shaquanna Williams has an excellent turn as Nathan’s forthright, but caring love interest, Jasmine.

Displaced is a great example of what can be achieved with a great idea and a dedicated collaborative effort within independent horror.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Displaced screened as part of the Salem Horror Festival.

NYAFF 2020: Soul (Roh)

Soul is an atmospheric, taut exercise in tension, using an isolated setting and minimal cast to great effect in this Malaysian horror.

Synopsis: A brother and sister find a strange girl wandering aimlessly in the woods and bring her home to their mother. That was their first mistake. After spending the night she delivers an ominous prophecy: Their family will all soon die. Terrible things start happening and other sinister strangers show up, looking to seal their fates.

Soul (also known as Roh) has one of the most confrontational openings I’ve seen for some time in a horror film and very much acts as a mission statement for what is to follow. A young girl (Putri Qaseh) stands in front of burning homes before finding the outline of a recently buried body and repeatedly stabbing it with a knife. This initial jolt creates a discomfort that flows through the entire film, holding its cards close to its chest as it ramps up the tension and atmosphere.

After the opening scene, we join Mak (Farah Ahmad) and her children Along (Mhia Farhana) and Angah (Harith Haziq). The trio live alone in the jungle, with the nearest village across a river. Along and her brother Angah display different reactions to finding a deer hanging by a tree – Angah celebrating that it could feed them for a week and Along, more squeamish and concerned by picking up something that the jungle has already claimed. Indeed, Mak warns about taking things from the jungle but this doesn’t apply to a young girl they find and take in. At first, the new arrival seems entirely harmless and even vulnerable, but a jarring early morning horrific event and a grisly prediction turns the situation on its head.

It is cliche to say that a setting becomes another character in a film, but this really is true of Soul. The stunning photography makes the most of the unique setting, using primarily static shots that look up to open skies and across other terrain. That stillness is used to create incredibly effective shots in which a central figure in the frame is tracked by movement in the background. There is a tight control over the staging and what the film chooses to show at each moment is perfectly executed. The increasingly disturbing visions are given ample time to unfold and develop, meaning that you increasingly cannot trust what you see. It is a feeling that the film fosters, using mesh curtains and low lighting (often light from flames) to trick the eye. While there are a few loud scare chords, this is mostly a film where the scares are in the carefully coordinated details.

The cast are incredible, especially considering that three of them are child actors given challenging, dark material to work with. They are all so impressive it is difficult to single any out, but their performances show a real maturity and elegance. Mhia Farhana’s Along gradually turns up the volume to a performance with quiet intensity. June Lojong’s performance as Tok, a nearby healer who offers assistance to the family is wonderful, including a lengthy monologue that would so easily lose impact with a lesser actor but her level of gravitas is perfect and leads to a deeply layered and engrossing scene.

With echoes of the steadily building tension and isolation of The Witch, Soul is impactful, daring and dripping in atmosphere.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

SOUL (ROH) plays the New York Asian Film Festival from September 2 – 12. Check the NYAF page for more information.

Fantasia 2020 Picks

Fantasia Festival has gone online for the 2020 edition (August 20th to September 2nd and geolocked to Canada) but there is definitely no cutting back on the line up. Two waves of titles have already been announced, with the full schedule due on August 6th. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to cover this festival and will be bringing as many reviews as I’m able to. Until then, here are a few of my picks from the first two waves of announcements which will likely be updated again after the final schedule is up.

THE CURSE OF AUDREY EARNSHAW

Also known as The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw, my main excitement for this one comes from the brilliant Catherine Walker in the cast as Agatha Earnshaw . Her performance in A Dark Song was incredible and I can’t wait to see more of her work. Starring Jessica Reynolds as the titular Audrey, The Curse concerns a mother and daughter accused of witchcraft by their rural community. With comparisons to Hereditary, I’m already on board.

KRIYA

Promising hallucinatory imagery and subversive rituals, Indian film Kriya has potential to be an impactful experience as a young DJ (Noble Luke) is approached by Sitara (Navjot Randhawa), a beautiful woman who needs his help to fulfil her duties to her father. Rituals offer an exciting opportunity to unleash fantastic imagery onto the screen and I’m excited to see what unfolds.

COME TRUE

The exploration of nightmares and the kind of imagery that can provide is undoubtedly one of my favourite things in the horror genre. Come True features Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) entering a University sleep study to try and gain control over her nightmares. With big names like Vincenzo Natali involved in producing and whispers of ‘elevated genre’ (I know, I know) being thrown around, we could be hearing a lot about this one.

SPECIAL ACTORS

After the huge success of One Cut of the Dead Shin’ichirô Ueda’s next film was always going to be one to watch. Focused on a young actor who faints at the first sign of stress who joins an agency for stand-ins at important events. Soon he is called to infiltrate a cult and things spiral from there. Hopefully, Ueda brings the same playful tone and meta production of One Cut to this new story.

LUCKY

The first Brea Grant-involved entry on this list, I feel like I’ve been waiting to see Lucky for years. With Grant taking on writing and acting duties and Natasha Kermani directing, this female-focused film about a woman who takes matters into her own hands when she is stalked is one of my most anticipated films. Early publicity shots featuring Grant, a lot of blood and a roll of packaging tape hint at a suitably grisly affair.

12 HOUR SHIFT

Another of my eagerly anticipated films is 12 Hour Shift. Brea Grant takes on writing and directing duties in a story of organ-harvesting at a hospital. Starring indie-genre favourite Angela Bettis, accompanied by performers like David Arquette and Mick Foley this dark comedy is definitely one to take to heart, before it takes yours.

A MERMAID IN PARIS

Based on a book written by director and writer Mathias Malzieu, A Mermaid in Paris is one of my softer picks. The imagery looks rich and certainly fantastic around a central romance between a man and a mermaid. To be honest, a mermaid-based musical needs attention, even if it doesn’t appear to be one of the darker entries to the festival.

DETENTION

Films adapted from video games are a mixed bag, but this Taiwanese film set in 1962 surrounding the limits placed on free speech and banned books sounds like a fascinating exploration of a regime that enforces restrictions. A feature debut for director John Hsu, this feels like an important film.

THE COLUMNIST

A dark comedy, The Columnist features a columnist (Katja Herbers), who is bombarded with death threats and other unpleasant messages through social media. Finally, having hit her limit, she starts to move from behind the keyboard to face her tormentors. Another film with early publicity shots featuring the protagonist covered in (presumably) someone else’s blood, that has caught my attention.

These are just a handful of the fantastic lineup being offered by Fantasia this year. Check out their website for more information: https://fantasiafestival.com/en/festival-2020

Horror at Boston Underground Film Festival

Please note that the Boston Underground Film Festival has been postponed due to the Covid19 outbreak. It still feels right to have these film picks and I wish every film-maker the absolute best for their eventual premiere with appreciative audiences. Stay tuned to the BUFF website for more information.

This year’s Boston Underground Film Festival is set to run from March 25th to 29th and promises a range of interesting and genre-challenging cinema. I’ve been through the line-up to root out my top picks but you can see the entire schedule for yourself here.

Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

My first pick is for the incredibly-titled Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway. Centred around a 2035 world where everything is controlled by a super-computer, this looks like perfect midnight movie material. While not exactly horror, it mixes numerous curiosities that genre fans are likely to appreciate. Possibly not the most high-budget offering but certainly seems like it will get people talking.

You can watch the trailer here.

Saint Maud

Happily I can recommend this one having already caught it at Glasgow FrightFest recently (full write-up of the event here). Director Rose Glass and lead actress Morfydd Clark make a dream team in this religious, semi-comic but incredibly dark drama. Truly living up to all the hype thrown at it, this was an absolute standout and I have no doubt that it will blow the audience away at its Boston premiere too.

You can see the trailer here (although I’d recommend going into this as cold as possible).

Holy Trinity

A first feature is a daunting experience for most creatives, but spare a thought for Molly Hewitt making their directing, writing and performing feature debut all in one. The trailer is packed with vibrant imagery, reflective of a story in which a dominatrix discovers an ability to talk to the dead after huffing a drug. The look and concept of the film is really impressive so I’m intrigued to see how it all unfolds.

You can see the trailer here.

It Cuts Deep

It Cuts Deep promises a mix of dark comedy, relationship drama and slasher tropes. While the format of a couple at a difficult stage in their relationship heading on a holiday that isolates them and enhances their other problems, the addition of a possible serial killer does make this more interesting. It Cuts Deep continues the theme of films in the lineup deliberately fusing genre elements to create something that stands out.

It Comes

Focusing on a couple and their young child It Comes packs its trailer with a series of interesting images that indicate some very effective scares. The idea of a monster deliberately targeting a young child is always going to be frightening. With a run-time of over two hours It Comes has plenty of time to undertake the kind of slow-burn tension that I favour over short, snappy jump-scares.

The trailer is available here.

The Deeper You Dig

The chill-inducing trailer for The Deeper You Dig mixes tarot mysticism with a search for revenge in the case of a missing girl. Using horror to explore concepts like grief, revenge and guilt is popular because it just works so well. The Deeper You Dig has eerie imagery in spades and has me incredibly interested.

The trailer is available here.

Lucky

Fresh off her appearance in the fantastic After Midnight, Brea Grant takes the lead role and writing duties in Natasha Kermani’s film about a woman struggling with a stalker who has to take matters into her own hands. Grant is such a likeable screen presence that I can’t wait to see what this one has to offer.

These are just a few of the films on offer that have caught my eye. Do check out the full schedule here, including numerous short films arranged around select themes, a 30th Anniversary screening of The Witches, a Secret Screening and much, much more.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival: Queer Horror Shorts Block

This post is part of a larger series of reviews focused on films showing at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. You can see more about the festival on their website. Not all shorts have been available for review outside of the festival environment so the website listings may include more films than are included in this post.

Horror has always had a relationship with queerness, however it is debatable how healthy that relationship has been. With Shudder looking to follow the immensely successful Horror Noire (exploring black horror) with a currently untitled queer horror documentary it seems like it is time for more LGBT voices to make the horror genre a home. The films in this block are a mixture of overt LGBT themes and/or films made by LGBT creatives.

Skin

Directed by Audrey Rosenberg, USA, 2019

Skin is a beautiful film that uses fairytale-like tropes to tell a story about self-discovery and acceptance. The arrival of a period hastens an already developing dysphoria for Charlie (Rhys Fehrenbacher). Coupled with bullying at school the difficult feelings drive Charlie to an increasingly androgynous appearance and increasing attempts to escape, separating them from their family. During one bathtime, Charlie is witness to another world, that may just hold what they have always wanted. I would hate to spoil this for anyone as it truly is delivered wonderfully, with an empathetic performance from Fehrenbacher, that I don’t think my words could do it justice. The horror comes from the uncanny nature of what is found, rather than the finding being scary in itself. The film features an incredibly emotional conversation between Charlie and their mother that indicates a level of hope for the future.

Tea Parties Are For Babies

Directed by Teja LoBreglio, USA, 2019, International Premiere

Tea Parties Are For Babies uses a burgeoning relationship between two women to create an Alice in Wonderland-style tale with a difference. Freshman Emily is watching a couple take part in some enthusiastic PDA in a park when she is approached by Bunny – a beautiful woman who knew her from school. Bunny wants to draw Emily out of her shell and offers to take her to a night club. The film employs flashing, disorientating lights and close-up shots to emphasise the intimate nature of the club and their escalating relationship. Motifs like butterflies feature as symbols of potential rebirth and acceptance into a new world in addition to flashbacks of a young girl’s tea party. The resultant finale feels a little out-of-nowhere but is well-handled enough that it works. As a story about leaving a previous life behind in favour of something more darkly seductive, it is undoubtedly successful.

Labrys

Directed by BJ Colangelo, USA, 2019, European Premiere

Labrys uses a symbol rich in meaning for lesbian communities to create a film about powerfully claiming an identity and making a new start. Leenie (Venchise Glenn) and Jill (Madison Woods) are on their first date when they are rudely interrupted by a man (referred to within the film as Captain Cheesefries due to him repeatedly offering his cheese fries to them, even after they have declined). The ensuing row causes them to leave the bar and there is a heartfelt conversation between the two, Leenie, who is only recently out, recounts that she feels that meeting Jill has been like someone has taken pages from her diary and made them into a person. The two have excellent chemistry that gives the film a lot of heart. Later, a more serious encounter with the man from the bar turns into something incredibly unexpected. Backed up with some great looking effects the surprise is carried off well – I won’t reveal any more so I can’t spoil the surprise. This is an engaging tale with plenty of character.

Blood Orange

Directed by Aliya Haq, USA, 2018, German Premiere

Blood Orange uses a heavily stylised, vibrant colour scheme to create a fashionable juice bar that becomes a world of its own in this interesting short that builds to an excellent reveal. Angela (Shara McGlinn) works at Vitals – a juice bar dealing in faddy juices, especially the Blood Orange. Angela has designs on leaving her small town to move on to greater success, but her friend Em is concerned by this. As Angela increasingly ignores her surroundings in favour of her potential future, she is placed in danger. The reveal is cleverly unwound with the aid of some excellent effects that give this a real feeling of uncanny horror. Superbly confident in its design and the way it unravels throughout director Aliya Haq has a highly skilled eye for creating a space and story that is both engaging and striking.

Destruction Makes The World Burn Brighter

Directed by Kalen Artinian, Produced by Claire Allore, Brendon Whelton, Alexandria Benoit, Canada, 2019

Destruction Makes The World Burn Brighter is a punchy short that takes the ‘what would you do for your partner’ question to extremes. The film takes place in a dystopian environment where food is scarce, likely due to damage caused by industry. Repeated shots of towers pumping out thick smoke cement the idea that there is something wrong with the atmosphere. It is clear that Destruction has been made on a relatively small budget and this is a good example of successful stripped-back storytelling. The muted colours and views of industrial skyline add to the overall mood of the film. Eve (Alexandra Benoit – also a co-writer on the project) is seen caring for her girlfriend Jane (Keeya King) in their flat. With little to no dialogue, King and Benoit have good physical chemistry, essential in a short of this length to add emotional weight. On a trip out of the flat, Eve is unable to obtain any other food and so returns to take drastic action. While the majority of this action takes place off-screen, the effects that are seen are of good quality. There are hints at a wider story that could be built upon but also functions perfectly as a snapshot of love and desperation.

Lone Wolf

Directed by January Jones, Australia, 2019, European Premiere

Sam is a 15-year-old girl attending a sleepover, trying to ignore her growing feelings for her friend Willow, cruel taunts from mean-girl Blair and battling against changes within her body. The four actresses involved are very natural in terms of their delivery – it feels like teenagers talking to one another, rather than an adult’s perceptions of how teenagers speak. Sam’s arrival at Willow’s house quickly turns sour when she finds that Willow and Blair are at the poolside. Sam’s self-consciousness about her body makes this an uncomfortable experience, made worse by Blair’s repeated sniping. Sam’s issues escalate throughout the evening before reaching a surprising conclusion. The film takes a relatively simple concept and turns it into a metaphor for feeling different and isolated, delivering some quirky effects to further the message. After the frankly adorable punchline to this film, I could not wipe the grin from my face.

The shorts within this block use horror as a perfect way to express feelings of difference (and the fear/uncertainty of that difference) with an emphasis on the need to find and embrace identity. Many of these shorts also enhance the importance of finding acceptance and love within that identity. While the tone of delivery and stylistic choices differ hugely, these are exciting shorts from exciting voices.

Final Girls Berlin Festival

The Final Girls Berlin Festival has announced the line-up for its 5th edition and it looks very impressive. Including shorts, features and talks, the festival “showcases horror cinema that’s directed, written, or produced by women and non-binary filmmakers”. Taking place at the City Kino Wedding art house cinema in Berlin from February 6th to the 9th, the festival promises a great mix of exciting new releases in addition to revisiting older titles.

The festival kicks off with a programme of shorts under the theme Bad Romance. Films from Poland, China, Malaysia, Canada, UK and the USA indulge in the exploration of sex, fetishes and the consequences of secrets in relationship.

The first feature is Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, a film chronicling a graduate’s interactions with the three women involved in the Manson Family murders. Harron’s handling of difficult subject matter in American Psycho makes me feel pretty confident that she’ll cover this in an interesting way.

The second feature is The Father’s Shadow, a Brazilian film that follows a grieving young girl turning to magic while her depressed father struggles to stay in work. Horror and magic often make very suitable bedfellows so I’m very keen to see how this works.

The February 7th lineup starts with the talk Horror Comes Home. The talk will be presented by Amanda Reyes and explore the representation of women in television movies from 1964-1999. This is followed by a second block of shorts entitled Social Ills. The block contains a number of films tackling issues of racism, socialism and oppression. I’ve been lucky enough to see the high-quality Reformed previously and if the other films are of this standard this block is likely to be very impressive, if difficult to watch. From the lineup Tingle Monsters about an ASMR blogging live stream has really caught my attention.

An industry talk with Rue Morgue executive editor Andrea Subissati follows the shorts and the donation-based event looks like a fantastic opportunity for writers to learn from someone with success in horror journalism. Next up is the German premiere of The Deeper You Dig, a story of three characters whose lives collide in mysterious ways. The last shorts block of the day Graveyard Shift promises a collection of the stranger side of horror, featuring zombies, vampires and even one girl’s journey through her own gut. For those keen to extend their day, a party at GR_UND promises experimental films, drag performances and DJs, which sounds like an excellent way to spend a night.

Valeria Villegas Lindval starts proceedings on Saturday 8th February with a talk about The Bad Mother in Mexican Horror. A doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg, Valeria’s talk looks to track the representation of La Llorona from early cinema to modern genre takes. Andrea Subissati returns for another talk – this time on the use of martyrdom in horror, which you have to know by now is exactly my kind of thing. As God Is My Witness looks to be an informed exploration of a much-misunderstood concept.

Saturday’s first feature is an anthology film bringing together eleven female directors from across Australia. Dark Whispers uses the central device of a book to reveal each woman’s chapter. With #MeToo dominating so many discussions of women in film, it stands to reason that female film-makers would be exploring this in their work. The #MeToo shorts block features a number of films dealing with power, sexual assault and the legal system that so often fails victims.

Perhaps as a chance to recover from dark subject matter the program also includes a horror trivia event hosted by drag performer Vanessa Júpiter. The fact that the talks and events like this are free (donation-based) really allow them to be accessible for all, which feels so important. Shorts program 5 revolves around Queer Horror, including stories of self-discovery and becoming. The True Crime strand plays on the popularity of the genre among women but also looks at female killers, including a short called Watching Karla Homolka that looks at the infamous killer’s ongoing legacy, even after release. Following this is a film I am very interested in, having heard mostly positive feedback from its screening at the Frightfest Halloween event. Swallow, following a pregnant woman who develops a compulsion to swallow dangerous objects feels exactly like the kind of thing I’ll enjoy. The final showing of the day is a screening of Slumber Party Massacre, a film subjected to reappraisal as being far more feminist than the title expresses. It screens with I Was A Teenage Serial Killer, which invokes the spirit of punk, DIY film-making.

The final day begins with an event I’m not sure I’ve seen at any other festival. How Did She Do That? invites Pretty Deadly Self Defense to show clips, break them down and detail some of the moves involved in famous arse-kicking horror scenes. I can’t imagine anything quite as fun as this on a Sunday morning! After the adrenaline wears off, attendees will be treated to another talk from Orla Smith exploring Outer Threats and Inner Demons: The Changing Face of the ‘Female Monster’. Using films like Julia Ducournau’s Raw, Smith explores the changing role of women as their own antagonists.

The penultimate shorts block Blood Ties looks at the role that women play in their families, from tormented little sisters, curious daughters and terrified mothers. The final shorts block Folk Tales portrays rituals, strange creatures and myths. Folk horror is often one of my favourite sub genres and the variety of stories within the block offer a wide range of stories to engage with.

The final talk is a panel involving visiting filmmakers to the event. While these have yet to be announced, it is always interesting to hear directly from filmmakers about the challenges and joys of working within the industry. The last three events are all feature films, starting with Tito, a Canadian film about a recluse who finds his restricted, terrifying life changed by an intruder who offers protection. Next up is Rock Paper Scissors which features three siblings engaging in a number of twisted games. I’m intrigued by this one, having missed it at Frightfest last year. The final film of the festival is the wonderful Hail Satan? a film that perfectly balances its off-kilter characters with very serious messages. I honestly can’t think of a better way to close the festival.

Tickets for the entire festival are priced at €68 (approx £58) and are available from this link. You can see more about the program on the Final Girls website – https://www.finalgirlsberlin.com/

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.