Motherly

The limits of motherly love are tested in this taut thriller that struggles to leave a lasting impact.

Kate (Lora Burke) and her daughter Beth live alone in an isolated farmhouse in the woods, but when Kate slowly begins to suspect that something sinister is happening, her motherly instincts are put to the test.

With shooting unfinished in March 2020 due to Canadian lockdown measures to combat Covid-19, despite the best collaborative efforts of the cast and crew, Motherly has, like many productions recently, endured a long, drawn-out struggle from production to having the film in front of audiences. In the case of Motherly, the restrictions and hasty initial shooting process bonded cast and crew in a way that feels visible in the final product. There is a sense of cohesion here, with all performances on the same page and a steady hand in creating moments of threat.

In some ways, it is this measured, even flow that highlights some of the film’s flaws, with the film layering on elements that are treated as revelatory, but are readable from the earliest moments. That ability to read the plot does make it very difficult to wring a great deal of tension out of proceedings, relying increasingly on poor decision making and character trait switching to drive the narrative. The action feels restrained, with a desire to ratchet things up that it never quite takes to that upper level.

The film has a great grasp on its location, repeatedly returning to sweep the house as events are revisited and reconceptualised. Early on, when Beth (Tessa Kozma) nonchalantly comments that the house is haunted, it is an early indicator of the underlying tensions the film wishes to explore. Within the house, simple household spills and everyday activities take on a sinister edge with the remoteness of the house sealing them off from the wider world. At a lean 80 minutes, the film has exactly the right amount of story for its runtime and while some developments feel predictable, this at least means there are threads to be pulled early on, rather than using the move of films desperate to invoke a twist by suddenly conjuring unseen elements in the closing minutes.

The strength lies in the time given over to the characters, allowing the performers to flesh them out and really situate themselves within the pain of all the characters. Lora Burke (Lifechanger, For The Sake Of Vicious) is in typically great form but the shining moments of the performance are those sections in which the film threatens to come off the rails a little more and turns the volume up. Burke and Kozma make for an excellent paring, with their mother and daughter duo at odds from the outset, constantly butting heads and locked in a cycle of miscommunication that leaves both alienated. Kozma is excellent as Beth, bringing a spiky quality to her interactions with Burke. As the film progresses and she is given more to do, she ably manages to sustain that early promise.

As a take on the home invasion thriller with a focus on relationships, Motherly will undoubtedly tick some boxes. Those yearning for something with a little more energy may be left wanting but it is, nonetheless, a diverting and reasonably entertaining watch with some great performances.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Motherly is available in the USA On Demand and Digital November 16, 2021 through The Horror Collective.

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.

Salem Horror Festival 2021: What Happens Next Will Scare You

A tour through the weirder side of the internet that makes the most of its concept and resources.

Synopsis: Working late on their Halloween feed, a motley crew of internet journalists share their top thirteen scariest viral videos, but when an early entry curses our snarky hipsters, they must distinguish fact from fiction before a tidal wave of terrifying supernatural activity leads to real-life murders.

The last film with a clickbait title I watched was 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (I believe the film has now been renamed for brevity’s sake as I’m pretty sure it also had a further extension of the title into Number One Will Surprise You or something similar) so What Happens Next Will Scare You had plenty to live up to in those terms. What we get over the course of a relatively short runtime is a mostly effective skewering of internet tropes and the scares promised too.

What Happens Next Will Scare You deserves a great deal of praise for the way it handles the movement through different internet aesthetics to showcase the viral videos. Constructing the perfect mean girl vlog, grainy VHS recordings and dimly lit dashcam footage to name but a few means all the videos feel distinctly different and as a result, allow the film to have more fun with the format. This follows an opening sequence consisting of a collage featuring links and clickbait headlines that escalate in their strangeness. It evokes that feeling of stumbling into an internet rabbit hole, sent to stranger and stranger videos. While it does occasionally take the easy way out (there is a screamer gag here early on, for those who struggle with that kind of thing), it does so to further its observations of online culture.

Within that online culture, it looks at the creation of new content, but also positions the internet as a space for found artefacts – previously forgotten videos and curiosities that when divorced from their wider context tend to take on even more sinister qualities. While this is a film primarily focused on trying to have fun with its scares, its treatment of online culture and related media gives it a little extra weight.

Some performances occasionally feel flat but this is more a consequence of not spending that much time with the characters themselves, meaning performers have less time to make a mark, as opposed to having to react to the videos in fairly quick succession. Crowding the space with so many performers when factoring in those featured in the videos does make it difficult to connect on a deeper level, but that is a small complaint when the star is the treatment of the internet and the ability to cram in as many different kinds of scares as possible.

Overall, this is a film that manages to echo the culture it seeks to represent, despite limited means (and sometimes these limits are a little too visible) and has plenty of fun and jolts along the way.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

For more information on the Salem Horror Festival please see their webpage.

Synonymous With

An achingly beautiful love letter to the ‘other’.

Synopsis: A student’s increasingly intimate line of questioning causes his interview with a local horror host to take a vulnerable turn.

Told through a mixture of photo collage, archive clips and interview segments, Synonymous With is built on the conversations between largely unseen interviewer Jackson Weil (Thom Hilton) and former public access television host Syn (Remy Germinario). As the first Halloween without Syn’s TVKTV13 show Synister Synema with Myster Synonymous looms, a local film student looks to uncover more about the man behind the persona.

At only 12 minutes long, Synonymous With contains a wealth of emotive material, wearing its fondness for horror on its sleeve as well as delving into why those in the LGBTQ+ community and others who find themselves outside of the ‘norm’ discover solace in horror. Early in the film, Syn draws attention to the idea that popular people didn’t ‘need’ his public access channel, but those who found it were able to be ‘unknown, together’ in one of the film’s most touching sentiments. That sense of being an outsider, especially in a queer context and finding some kind of communal experience is one the film handles with particular skill and empathy.

Collaged photos deliver a definite sense of space, drawing on that wonderful small town Halloween feel of crunchy leaves, chilly weather and quirky decorations. The camera initially feels static, situating Syn as small, dwarfed by his persona, the world and the horror posters surrounding him. The increasing fluidity of the camera starts to allow him more space in which he is the central figure and focus of the attention. This stylistic shift assists in the building of their rapport but with a largely unspoken tension bubbling. Germinario makes for a charming screen presence, wearing vulnerability, quiet anger and a range of other emotions as the interviews progress. As the pair continue to converse, that uncomfortable early, almost parasocial intimacy begins to unwind. Their relationship is delicately built, readdressing boundaries and reframing roles in a way that is difficult not to be swept along with.

The crafting of the Synister Synema segments is excellent, with a playful camp at its centre in both the props, staging and Syn’s commentary. There is an authenticity in that low budget presentation of people being left to create for themselves and others like them, rather than trying to approach the mainstream. As much as this functions as an ode to the horror genre and its hosts, there is also a deeply held affection for the spaces that allow them to be unpolished and ungoverned, even if it is that very quality that means they may disappear without trace. That liminality of not knowing who (if anyone) is watching and if it is important to them is a deeply affecting idea.

I don’t mind saying that I have cried every single time I have watched this quiet, delicate film. The disarming vulnerability and striking beauty of finding light in darkness is a truly romantic one: a meditation on the power of being seen.

You can now watch Synonymous With on Vimeo.

Grimmfest: We’re All Going To The World’s Fair

Jane Schoenbrun’s portrait of a life lived online is an occasionally challenging watch that will hold some at arm’s length.

Synopsis: “I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair. I want to go to the World’s Fair.” Say it three times into your computer camera. Prick your finger, draw some blood and smear it on the screen. Now press play on the video. They say that once you’ve seen it, the changes begin… In a small town, a shy and isolated teenage girl becomes immersed in an online role-playing game.

The internet and more specifically social media has never been more present in our lives, allowing connection across vast spaces and time zones. Many films seek to imbed this sensation of being online into the very fabric of the narrative, resulting in ‘screen life’ efforts that spin off from found footage films in many ways. Turning a laptop screen into a storytelling device presents obstacles, which World’s Fair alternates between embracing these restrictions and removing itself from them entirely. The result is an immersive, disquieting experience that truly echoes the ebb and flow of being online, indulging in the kind of myth building that comes from only showing glimpses of the truth.

Casey (Anna Cobb) lives a solitary existence and one that revolves around her device and an online world that removes her from her place at home. Becoming involved with an online game that appears to hold the key to a fascinating transformation, Casey indulges in the challenge, but there is something more sinister under the surface.

The film’s flirtation with screen life storytelling produces something far more ethereal, with the physical and digital worlds constantly intersecting and overlapping with one another. The first time we meet Casey, she is taking part in the challenge – a muted but intricately detailed sequence of events that involves watching a video. However, that ritual soon spills into reality as she has to contribute blood, traversing the gap between digital and physical, new and old forms.

As I approach my mid-thirties, I’m keenly aware that the effect of this film on me may not be as potent as it will be for younger viewers, more attuned to the consumption of online media and the forms it presents. A sequence in which Casey attempts to settle herself to sleep using an ASMR video plays out across a projector becomes a portrayal of a craving for distant intimacy. Using the video as a source of comfort and as a coping mechanism draws Casey out of her room, but into a different, secluded space.

Anna Cobb occupies a huge amount of the screen time and it is to her credit that she delivers such a demanding performance when Casey herself can be such a slippery character. She is sensitive, yet petulant at times, vulnerable but forthright and Cobb manages to portray all of these nuances incredibly well. Her command of the screen is something that is sure to draw in those who may feel alienated by the very online, somewhat obscure direction the film takes at times. Her interactions with JLB (Michael J Rogers) as he implores her to ‘keep making videos so I know you’re still OK’ add a sinister thread, but also highlight how malleable and fleeting internet interactions can be – a deleted account and someone is entirely erased.

As Casey’s journey to the World’s Fair continues, the film manages to expertly evoke the near-constant stream of content that the internet has to offer, lacing sections with menace and a concern about what is about to be witnessed. This is a film that so infrequently turns up the volume or makes anything fully flesh, such is its careful ambiguity, that when it does, it hits far stronger. Schoenbrun allows things to play out almost in real-time, refusing to be rushed or play by the usual rules. As the tension builds, she is content to allow it to play out, constantly denying the viewer an ‘out’ or full understanding.

While some will ultimately feel too alienated from this to really appreciate it, the moments of ritual, emphasis on communication and well-articulated uncanny moments, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair feels like a very special film.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: The Beta Test

Toxic masculinity goes to Hollywood in this polished, biting satire.

Synopsis: A married Hollywood agent receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter and becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data.

Partly a very niche exploration of a rich, distant world and partly a study of the need for once-powerful men to consult their own misdeeds in order to survive heightened scrutiny, The Beta Test is an engaging film that juggles serious topics with elements of humour to keep things moving.

Jim Cummings excels here, painting central character Jordan Hines as unbearably cocksure with underlying desperation and anxiety. It is a big performance, but one that fits entirely in the environment it takes place. As Hines struggles with the consequences of his actions, that openly confident and open veneer, constantly underscored by an intensely positive chorus of “we love that” or “we’re excited”. PJ (co-writer and director PJ McCabe) is given a slightly more redeemable position, but is still given to some of the same dramatics as Jordan, giving their scenes together a propulsive energy. It is to Cummings’ credits that the performance just grows and grows, presenting Jordan as a character whose own carefully crafted persona begins to strangle him.

Jordan’s perception of the world around him forms a major part of the early section of the film. As wedding plans are discussed, he imagines himself as the prey of women around him, an initial sign of his commitment crisis that expands into an unravelling that is compelling to watch even if you find yourself hating him. His perception that after years of being a consumer, he’s now to be consumed is the starting thread for much to follow. His wife-to-be Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) is hung up on details, often blissfully unaware that Jordan is often not listening to her. The skill of Cummings’ performance is in that it delights in the disintegration of Jordan and a life built on cannibalising, chewing up and spitting out others in pursuit of his ideal life – there’s no sympathy, yet at no point do you want to turn away.

The location of course, becomes a big part of this and references to men trying to operate in their world ‘post-Harvey’, is one of the central crises. The sense that the time for unpunished transgressions is a thing of the past and everyone within the business has skeletons in their closet about their treatment of other people (especially women) that may be unearthed at any time is palpable. That specific location and set of circumstances does make this a very specific satire which may well lose some viewers, although the observations on wider male behaviour and entitlement work even outside that context.

Arguably what works better is the delve that the film does into the world of algorithm and how the need to categorise and market every piece of social media content becomes an undeniable digital footprint that places even our most secret desires into the hands of large companies. The idea of ‘scrapable data’ extends beyond the Hollywood-specific setting and into something that extends outside of that world, feeling more universal and pressing. That Jordan and PJ find themselves dinosaurs in both the world of Hollywood agency and ill-equipped to face the new digital world is a particularly interesting aspect.

Perhaps fittingly, in toying with the conventions of the Hollywood satire and even erotic thriller, The Beta Test occasionally makes itself difficult to quantify. The opening scene, featuring an act of violence in opulent surroundings feels like the film at its most serious, lacking the winking and nudging that follows once we are introduced to Jordan. There is a cruelty to this scene – male violence at its most overt and terrifying, which the film uses to segue into the attitudes that make that kind of event all too plausible.

A magnetic, frequently unhinged performance from Cummings underpins this sharp satire, skewering the kind of damaging masculinity and the businesses that reward the domineering, boundary-pushing behaviour that the most toxic types promote.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

The Beta Test plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Fantastic Fest 2021: V/H/S/94

A break from the format for several years and a more timely period setting finds a more comfortable space for the franchise’s return.

– V/H/S/94 – Photo Credit: Shudder

Synopsis: A police S.W.A.T. team investigates about a mysterious VHS tape and discovers a sinister cult that has pre-recorded material which uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy.

I’ve always found the V/H/S series to be a bit of a mixed bag, something which impacts numerous anthology-style productions. Depending on your tastes, you’ll either find invention or be completely turned off by a format that restricts film makers while also needing to make an immediate impact. Add to this the fact that the previous films have all felt very ‘boy’s club’ there is perhaps no surprise that the entries have variable reviews. A particular highlight in the series, for me, was Safe Haven from V/H/S/2 so that Timo Tjahjanto was returning for this entry added to the interest in it. More than that, though, was the inclusion of the series’ first female directors, Jennifer Reader and Chloe Okuno.

Jennifer Reader gets the film’s introduction with Holy Hell, introducing the police S.W.A.T team discovering the VHS tapes at a cult compound with an unsettling, if unfocused tour of the house. These discoveries provide the lead-ins to the other films and while it is difficult to see too much of Reader’s stamp, the segments are competent enough and serve their purpose. Okuno’s segment Storm Drain is far and away my favourite of the film, with a balance of observational humour that leans into the time period alongside some of the weirder scares that the film has to offer. Anna Hopkins plays Holly Marciano, an ambitious local news reporter whose desire to unveil the truth behind the ‘Rat Man’ leads her to an exploration of the tunnels under the city. That mix of frights and fun is something I’ve always found absent for much of V/H/S but is very welcome. There is a bonus here for fans of Astron-6 that delights in being able to properly situate itself within the 90s rather than the present-day trappings of the earlier films.

The Empty Wake follows director Simon Barrett’s usual flair for mixing subgenres, setting up a spooky scenario in which an under-attended wake begins to play on the woman assigned to keep watch. The Empty Wake is definitely not one for those who tire easily of motion sickness inducing camera work as much of this segment switches between the static cameras to the fluid camera, swung around doorways and corners with a pace that will likely annoy more than terrify. The result is a mixed bag that struggles to pay off its moments of well-earned tension with a satisfactory conclusion.

Timo Tjahjanto takes the reins for the most dynamic and action-packed entry of the film, The Subject. Tjahjanto is adept at getting his idea over in a short space of time and then allowing the action to speak for itself and this is no different. This segment sets up and delivers on call backs in an effective way, contributing some of the film’s best visuals and visceral impact. This is also the one that turns the furthest away from V/H/S as the medium, presenting something that looks much cleaner and more crisp than the other sections. This crispness better allows for the bloodshed to receive further attention, but in its handling of the fusing of people and machines manages to capture another interesting, dynamic way of capturing first-person focused scenes.

At the other extreme comes Terror from director Ryan Prows. This is the film’s grimiest entry, both in terms of the degradation of the visuals and the subject matter. The segment follows a white terror group who have found a unique weapon to assist them in their preparations to attack the government. The group are depicted as bumbling but vicious, making this likely the most difficult segment to derive any enjoyment from, but it is constructed in a way that exploits that sense of discomfort and ugliness to good effect. The ultimate wraparound feels a little deflating, given the variety of segments featured, although it could be said that that same variety somewhat limits how they can be linked.

V/H/S/94 proves that there is still room for the format to grow and evolve, providing interesting, if imperfect stories that fuse medium, nostalgia and recurring fears. As with any anthology, everyone will likely have their favourites and the ones that fail to impact and this certainly feels like Okuno and Tjahjanto will be the standout names.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

V/H/S/94 screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information. It arrives on Shudder platforms on October 6th.

Coming Home In The Dark

A nerve-shredding ordeal focused on revenge and inaction that lingers in the mind.

Synopsis: A school teacher is forced to confront a brutal act from his past when a pair of ruthless drifters takes him and his family on a nightmare road-trip.

Coming Home In The Dark is a curious film in that it feels blisteringly brutal, yet is not at all gratuitous or prolonged in terms of the violence. The majority of its horror comes in the form of monologues and stories that tumble out, with the focus being on the difficulty of confronting those horrific realities. Silence is used to devastating effect throughout the runtime and the entire film feels ‘unsafe’ due to its restraint alongside the sustained dread and the sense that the characters are doomed whether out in the open or in confined spaces.

Erik Thomson plays Hoaggie, a school teacher taking a holiday with his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) and their children. Soon their holiday is disrupted by Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) who appear to know a dark secret from Hoaggie’s past that has implications for everyone.

Gillies is excellent as the hugely intimidating Mandrake – initially chillingly affable but seemingly never far from enacting violence without much of a change to his demeanour. It is Luafutu who becomes the highlight, however, given that his character Tubs is the quieter of the two, meaning he has to convey much more in facial expressions and physical performance. This growing and changing Tubs is one of the film’s most memorable aspects and Luafutu handles this evolution incredibly sensitively. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, however, all reliably delivering on the film’s most impactful moments of dialogue, but more importantly in the tense silences that punctuate so much of their car journey.

That this can tip into the ‘cat and mouse chase’ thriller at times, while remaining slow and steady in others may make it difficult for some to engage. This is not an action-packed thrill ride but a genuinely uncomfortable study of simmering rage and the ways that alters someone’s world outlook. At one stage a character remarks that abuse and inaction are not the same but ‘live on the same street, a powerful reminder of the way that so much abuse has been ignored or covered up. The strength lies in the complexity of the characters presented and the eerily plausible way that many events play out.

The film is careful to leave just enough to the imagination, allowing for harrowing stories to slip out, but with time the details are fuzzy. This allows for the moral ambiguity of all characters to hang in the air for much of the runtime – the horror of all their circumstances given time to sink in for the viewer. Those pauses entrap the viewer in the car with the characters, both allowing some time to take a breath from the intensity but also time for processing and introspection.

An almost overwhelmingly tense experience that sensitively and effectively probes the long-term effects of trauma and tackles the oft-romanticised concept of revenge.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Coming Home In The Dark is available in the USA on VOD and select theatres on October 1st. A UK release date has yet to be announced.

Superhost

A fleetingly entertaining view of the consequences of a life lived online.

Osric Chau as Teddy, Sara Canning as Claire-Superhost_Photo Credit: Shudder

Synopsis: With their follower count dwindling, travel vloggers Teddy and Claire pivot to creating viral content around their most recent “superhost,” Rebecca, who wants more from the duo than a great review.

Sometimes, all you need from a horror film is a diverting enough story, some fun performances and a decent helping of gore. Superhost can provide all of these things, but I have to admit the film’s events did not stay with me for long afterwards.

Teddy (Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Canning) are travel vloggers. Under the banner Superhost, the pair review the places they stay in, and more importantly, the characters that play host to them. Their focus on views and engagement over people’s feelings has already landed them in hot water with one person, but things are about to get much worse.

Director and writer Brandon Christensen is clearly having a great deal of fun here, playing with the nature of the threats toward the couple, complete with rug-pulls of varying success. The script is punchy, with little wasted motion and sets out what it intends to do at the outset. Due to that playful swerving, nothing feels like a huge surprise, but the cast are fully engaged in their roles. From films like Z there is a sense that Christensen knows the beats he needs to hit and does so ably, if lacking in a little personal stylistic flair.

Sara Canning as self-serving Claire works well, especially when playing against Osric Chau’s Teddy as he comes to terms with there being more to life than engagement analytics. Gracie Gillam arguably has the most to work with as ‘superhost’ Rebecca, in a performance that veers from excitable intensity to altogether darker behaviour. Barbara Crampton has a fun cameo as Vera, a women previously scorned by the couple. The small-scale of the cast means the performances are given space to grow as the attention is focused on them.

There is not much new to be found in the critiques of online behaviour and obsession here. We know that vapid influencer culture exists and can have a detrimental effect on the vloggers as well as their subjects. We also know that the greater intimacy of hosting people in homes, rather than the more communal experience of a hotel makes it personal to the owners of the space. These themes surface throughout the film and while there is relatively little depth to them, it provides enough grounding to hang the more energetic, horror-focused material on.

Competent and driven by fun performances, Superhost may not be your most memorable stay, but does enough to provide some escapism.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Superhost arrives on Shudder (North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) on September 2.

Demonic

A muddled tech-possession story that never really takes off.

Synopsis: A young woman unleashes terrifying demons when supernatural forces at the root of a decades-old rift between mother and daughter are ruthlessly revealed.

The mix of technology, punishment and clinical horror is a well-founded one. The idea of technology pushed to the edge of limitations and the very human cost of it is something that horror is well placed to explore, especially when dealing with the fall out from trauma and repressed memories. So, the concept of Demonic that looks to marry this with a supernatural edge sounds unique and interesting. It is a shame then, that this take doesn’t succeed on almost anything it sets out to do.

Carly (Carly Pope) is terrified of her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) – perhaps understandably considering Angela was the perpetrator of a seemingly unprompted mass killing. When a medical corporation offers the opportunity for her to communicate subconsciously with her, she sees an opportunity for closure.

The core issue with Demonic is that it seems to have no concept of where to add scares, or indeed what it considers scary. It utilises the excellent contortions of Troy James during one section (this alone added half a star, for context) but there is no pay-off or wider reasoning to it, seemingly thrown in entirely for effect. This is the case for almost every moment that seeks to scare, leading to the feeling that it has all been borrowed from other films and collaged. This does feel like a film built around the idea of the simulated space as its ‘new’ contribution and everything else is secondary. The simulation is interesting enough, with glitches and sense of ‘off-ness’ working in its favour, but as a gimmick it only serves to grab your attention once so repetitions are less effective and the film world outside offers little to support it.

Further to this, there is a strange amount of spoon feeding, as if Blomkamp doesn’t trust his audience to follow what is happening at all. A clearly framed flashback is further punctuated by an unnecessary year on screen. The film plods through the motions, misinterpreting the idea of clinical distance and alienation for dullness. The performances are fine across the board, but everything feels so surface level that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere they can take it.

Due to the uncertainty the entire film conducts itself with, it is borderline impossible to truly engage in the story it is telling. That sense of a director continually pulling back, holding the audience and material at arms-length feels uniquely unsatisfying, especially where there is such a tradition of brilliantly invasive sci-fi horror that gets under the skin. Worse yet, despite some unintentionally ridiculous, unnatural dialogue that may prompt a laugh there’s very little to sustain interest.

Ultimately, Demonic doesn’t work, either as a sci-fi concept or as a horror. Far too straight faced for the far-fetched concept it seeks to explore and lacking entirely in a personal stamp, which is a shame considering Blomkamp’s District 9 achievement.

1.5 out of 5 stars

1.5 out of 5 stars

Demonic opened FrightFest 2021. It is now available on premium digital with a Blu-ray & DVD release on 25th October via Signature Entertainment.