Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

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

Shapeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

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

The Razing

An exercise in confined filmmaking that yields mixed results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

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

The Retaliators

Morality and metal music underpins this revenge horror.

Synopsis: An upstanding pastor uncovers a dark and twisted underworld as he searches for answers surrounding his daughter’s brutal murder.

Pastor Bishop (Michael Lombardi – also co-directing) is having something of an identity crisis. His church sermons are popular, drawing crowds due to his preaching of life lessons and including musical performances. He turns his easygoing nature and reluctance to challenge aggression around him into teachable moments for his followers but increasingly his daughters are questioning him, challenging him on his risk-aversion. In an attempt to loosen the reins on oldest daughter Sarah (Katie Kelly) he allows her to borrow the car to attend a Christmas party, setting in place a sequence of events that sees the teenager brutally murdered. Reeling from the loss, Bishop is drawn further into the murky side of the area, confronting violence, drugs and the seductive power of revenge.

On the surface (especially from the excellent poster art) it would be easy to assume that The Retaliators will offer an all-out, pulpy revenge film but the end result is actually more complex. The timeline moves around, offering an opening scene that returns with greater meaning and relevance much later in the narrative. These time shifts are furthered by a shift to different characters and a dedication to world-building. The move away from Bishop’s pristine, brightly-lit domestic space to the gloomy underground spaces really sets out well the darkness hiding just under the surface. Despite the focus on energetic, metal music throughout, this is a far more moody film than initial appearances suggest.

This creation of mood does take time, however, and there is an imbalance in how the film unravels. Placing some scenes out of sequence and spinning them off into different character concerns leaves the film with a dip in which nothing appears to connect for almost too long. Despite the satisfaction gained when everything does click into place, this does occasionally make it feel directionless. It does allow you to gain a greater understanding of the characters, with Bishop’s reckoning with his morality called into question by Jed (Marc Menchaca) a detective fighting his own demons. The time afforded to their positions is well-earned, while some of the underground scenes distract from that for a little too long.

Dynamic camera work comes into effect for later action scenes and the gore on offer is well-realised. Violence is given an impact, for the most part, allowing the time and space for the viewer to feel the hits as they land. As the film progresses into gorier territory that fades somewhat, allowing a little more inventiveness and even fun with its set pieces. With such a long time afforded to build the texture and detail of the area and characters this almost feels like a different kind of film, bringing a lot of energy late on. This is a film that wants to pursue both the lure of violence and the morality of revenge, both elements that do not always sit comfortably together.

Musical performers being involved in films can often seem like gimmick casting but The Retaliators weaves its cast well. If you are familiar with performers like Jacoby Shaddix, Spencer Charnas and Ivan Moody then you’ll recognise them and there is fun to be had in that recognition, but it isn’t essential. The soundtrack is obviously influenced by this, but it never feels like stunt or gimmick casting. Shaddix in particular holds his own as the deeply disturbed Quinn Brady.

If you like a decent helping of blood and angst in your Christmas horror films, you’ll find much to like here. Moody and pulpy by turns, The Retaliators makes for an uneven yet enjoyable ride.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Retaliators will be in Cinemas worldwide from 14th September. Tickets are on sale now at https://www.retaliatorsmovie.com

Guiltea

Guiltea is a short film based around a sentient, killer teapot.

Charity shops are places you can find a real bargain, but in Guiltea, the owners of a secondhand teapot are placed in peril by the pot’s high standards and sinister ways. The teapot, named Terrence Tealeaf has very strict ideas about the kind of person he wishes to spend the rest of his existence with and will go to any length to find them.

Guiltea is well-constructed and feels a little like a sequence of skits that would be found over a number of episodes in a sketch comedy. The first segment introduces the idea which allows the filmmakers to toy with the format as it progresses, at times playing to expectations and at others, subverting them. The result is a swiftly-moving and entertaining piece of work.

The DIY-style effects are in keeping with the overall look and feel of the film, with the simple design of the teapot allowing an anchor for the rest of the action to revolve around it. This simplicity allows the voiceover from Professor Elemental to take centre stage, delivering witty monologues about his situation and surroundings.

This is a quirky and well-realised idea that will appeal to fans of British horror comedies.

Guiltea was released on YouTube on September 3rd. You can watch the short here.

North Bend Film Fest 2022: The Civil Dead

A quirky horror-adjacent piece that hides a real darkness behind its quirks.

Synopsis: A misanthropic, struggling photographer just wants to watch TV and eat candy while his wife is out of town, but when a desperate old pal resurfaces, his plans are thwarted, with spooky consequences.

Clay (Clay Tatum – also writing and directing) is in a slump. His photography work is not going well, the pressure is on him to help pay the bills and his wife Whitney (Whitney Weir) is growing frustrated with his lack of action. While out attempting to take photographs he meets old friend Whit (Whitmer Thomas, also co-writing) who appears to have a rather more serious problem of his own. As the pair reconnect, Whit’s escalating demands and neediness further challenge Clay’s frame of mind.

With a pace frequently as laid back as its protagonist, The Civil Dead is rather sedate, trading jump scares for a steady build of discomfort and study of connection. This is definitely in the realms of ‘horror with a small h’, in that it adopts the idea of a supernatural being and certainly some dark themes but is not particularly interested in scaring its audience. At times, this translates to the film’s surface quirks and offbeat humour as twee. However, as it progresses, the steady lean into moments of outright absurdity in some sections begins to unmoor it. Later still, the film delivers a powerful gut punch that genuinely elicited a gasp from me on first viewing. These carefully crafted moments of shock delivered without any boost in the soundtrack or jolting camera movements are really where this film sets itself apart.

The film’s limited locations and focus on characters puts a great deal of pressure on the two main performers to deliver. Thankfully they do, allowing Clay and Whit’s uneasy rapport to ebb and flow. The strength of this likely stems from them also writing the script, allowing them to play the roles in exactly the way they imagine. Clay’s downbeat nature clashes with Whit’s excitement at being seen. The pair do well to create a world in which the supernatural experience is one of mundanity, with a sustained reliance on the humans they have left behind to validate and entertain them. Clay’s reluctance to do anything with his life other than getting a questionable haircut becomes a central point of tension. The pair continuously bounce off one another, cementing this as the kind of ‘hangout horror’ where the lack of more traditional supernatural motifs are replaced by human emotion. The cringe humour at times won’t be for everyone and neither will the stillness of much of the film. If you are looking for loud, jangling horror, you won’t find it here. Similarly, if you find it difficult to connect with the characters, you may well struggle here.

What you will find, however, is two writers who are incredibly skilled at weaving multiple callbacks and layers into their film which adds so much to it. As the relationship builds, so do these layers, giving it a greater depth. That clever pulling together of all threads really does lend it a power that sneaks up on you. That this often uses daytime locations or a cosy cabin as a setting to lull the viewer to relax and spend time with the characters heightens the drama when tensions begin to stir again. It is very clear throughout that every detail has been carefully considered, but it never feels like it is obviously drawing your attention to it. On the first watch, it can feel like almost nothing is happening, with the hard work taking place in the background. For those fully immersed in the rest of the story, the result is effective.

An excellently written character study that presents a different view of a ghost story.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Civil Dead screened as part of North Bend Film Festival 2022.

Horror Shorts at North Bend Film Fest 2022

The North Bend Film Fest 2022 hosted numerous horror shorts, all with different styles and approaches that really sum up the current creativity in short filmmaking within the genre.

Darker (Donkerster)

Darker is a hugely atmospheric and eerie piece. Based around a young girl called Rhena whose father disappears after telling her the legend of Atlas, this has the feel of a dark fairytale. That sense of something magical but also sinister is really captured here. Adriana Bakker’s performance as Rhena fits perfectly for the overall tone. The whole construction of this is excellent, from the central concept to the handling of imagery.

They See You

They See You is a short that both works well within its runtime while also showing the potential for a wider, longer story to be told. Starting with a panicked phone call from Dina to her sister Robin drawing her to a remote location, this creates an instant tension. As the reasons for Dina’s call begin to surface the fractured relationship between the sisters becomes clearer. Despite a stripped-back nature of this it really delivers on some great effects and a strong narrative that grips all the way through.

Baby Fever

A candy-coated period piece with a real punch, especially concerning women’s bodily autonomy. The attention paid to the 1972 details and styling gives this a fun presentation. Throughout, the balance is perfectly pitched between a fun horror film with plenty of nods to other films from the period it reflects without becoming too referential and a potent social message, which is incredibly difficult to pull off. Helena Berens’ performance as Donna, a student who finds herself undergoing an unusual pregnancy underpins it all, offering sympathy for her predicament while retaining a sparky, spiky personality. There is a justified anger at the heart of the film that lends it a great energy.

Black Dragon (Rồng đen)

As with Baby Fever, Black Dragon is a short that uses genre conventions to address history and the current implications of that history. Starting with a frenetic Vietnam war-time sequence, the film really delves into the claustrophobic paranoia as a group of soldiers take a young girl hostage. There is an almost overbearing sense of dread throughout the film as the situation progresses. An incredibly sobering post-script at the film’s end offers further weight to the scenes before, really allowing it to linger in the viewer’s mind.

Death in a Box

As far as short film titles go, this may well be the winner. Even better, the sci-fi/horror concept that accompanies that title is captivating, managing to draw out its true nature, keeping the viewer guessing until a conclusion that becomes visually arresting and deeply scary. The visuals throughout are excellent, with the floating box a simple, yet compelling idea for it to rest on. Ava (Sloan Mannino) and Samara’s (BreeAna Miyuki Eisel) early interactions feel convincing and well-realised.

Scooter

Walking home alone at night as a woman is rarely fun, Adrienne’s (Anita Abdinezhad) experience is even worse. Abandoned by her controlling boyfriend about the work party they have just attended, a scooter provides a quicker way of navigating the night. When she stops for food she notices a woman may be being held captive in a van and has to act quickly before harm is done. Interestingly, despite probing the fears of being a woman alone at night, this takes a wholly different direction that while being less serious, still delivers an engaging narrative with memorable moments.

Find out more about the North Bend Film Fest.

Soho Horror Film Festival First Wave

The Soho Horror Film Festival returns this November and the first teases are here.

Throughout the pandemic, Soho Horror Film Festival has shown a dedication to accessible, affordable horror events with a focus on curating a community around excellent films, boasting a host of UK premieres and a focus on queer cinema in their lineups. This looks set to continue with their first wave announcements for both their in-person and online event.

The in-person event returns to the Whirled Cinema in Brixton from 11th-13th November. The first announcement for that part of the festival is the International Premiere of Daniel Montgomery’s heartbreak haunter THE JESSICA CABIN. This LGBTQ+ focused horror comedy is sure to win hearts at the festival. A so-far unnamed film also promises a first for the festival, offering a screening that will be accessible to all ages, offering younger viewers their first chance to see a horror film in a festival setting.

While other festivals may have moved away from online options, Soho is offering a second festival the week after the in-person event. The first film announced is the UK Premiere of Elias Manar’s harrowing found-footage shocker WHAT IS BURIED MUST REMAIN. The festival has a great track record with found-footage offerings with past screenings and this film, made in collaboration with the Lighthouse Peace Initiative promises to be deeply affecting. The Lighthouse Peace Initiative is an organisation giving young Syrian refugees an education and a safe environment to express repressed emotions through art

On these films festival director Mitch Harrod shared “We could not be more proud as a festival to present such essential pieces of film as this; ones that bolster our ethos in the power, catharsis and community that horror filmmaking and films can create. Both THE JESSICA CABIN and WHAT IS BURIED MUST REMAIN are perfect examples and champions of this very philosophy; but these are just 2 of over 25 incredible and diverse films that we will be presenting as part of our hybrid festival this year. Your nightmares are due a system update, and we’ve got you covered this November”

The full line-up of films will be revealed on Tuesday the 1st of October and more information, as well as contact details, submissions, ticketing, and volunteer opportunities can be found at www.sohohorrorfest.com. Limited early bird festival passes are on sale now.

Orphan: First Kill

A wildly entertaining prequel befitting the return of Esther to the big screen.

Synopsis: After orchestrating a brilliant escape from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Esther travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.

Crafting a prequel to 2009’s Orphan presents a daunting task. So much of the original film’s tension and perhaps more importantly, discomfort, rests on the perception of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) being a child and how at odds her behaviour is as a result. Any prequel has a challenge in building to what is, essentially, a foregone conclusion so trying to surprise the viewer becomes difficult. Impressively, First Kill builds upon the campier, trashier elements of the original managing to wring further tension from the narrative.

Part of this is down to impressive pacing, with an opening 15-minutes that manages to introduce a reminder of Esther’s unique condition while also swiftly kicking off some action. As Esther tries to find her footing in the wealthy Albright family the pace is kept buoyant by a steady stream of knowing dialogue and set pieces that are, at least for me, exactly what you want from this kind of story. The initial presentation of the Albright family, made up of Tricia (Julia Stiles), Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) highlights their wealth and status in Connecticut. This is by no means an incisive tearing down of the American class system, but the representation of that kind of family is an element the film has a lot of fun with.

A couple of the technical and CGI elements are a little unconvincing. The multiple methods used to de-age Fuhrman are jarring at times, particularly where the child stand-ins are most obvious in wide shots. This was relatively easy for me to overlook with the amount of fun to be had elsewhere. However, I can imagine that if the film hasn’t won you over by that point that those elements may become more distracting. First Kill is not only an echo of Orphan, genuinely presenting a take on the character that feels engaging.

For the most part, performance-wise, the film belongs once again to Isabelle Fuhrman, returning to the part after a long absence, but seemingly slipping into it with ease. Her take is different here, largely led by no longer having to conceal the depths of her character and so she is able to swap between the child-like presentation and more overt horror character more swiftly than in the original. Elsewhere, Julia Stiles brings buckets of charisma to her role, juggling the role of adoring mother while also becoming ever more skeptical of Esther’s unusual behaviour. The performances, particularly in the latter part of the film are a true highlight as the film really comes into its own.

Orphan: First Kill is not without flaws, but the overall impression is one of a fun horror that builds on a compelling character in a way destined to be a crowd-pleaser – trashy in the best possible way.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Signature Entertainment presents Orphan: First Kill exclusively in Cinemas from 19th August

North Bend Film Fest 2022: Next Exit

A beautiful exploration of accountability, belief and connection.

Synopsis: The world changes in a flash when a scientist shockingly claims she’s able to track consciousness after death hence proving the existence of an afterlife. Rose and Teddy, two deeply tormented strangers on their way to join this new study, cross paths and reluctantly agree to travel together cross-country. The journey to voluntarily end their lives proves not to be such an easy exit plan as they’re haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghosts of their pasts.

It is a well-worn fact that I will cry at a film at least once at every film festival I attend. Next Exit is a deeply emotional journey, taken with flawed but immensely charming characters and immense control over the material that could easily slip into something mawkish in the wrong hands. As a feature debut for director and writer Mali Elfman it suggests a promising future with a confident use of genre elements to tell a touching story. As a sufferer of depression, the condition can often make you feel like a passenger in your own life, so the use of a literal journey within the film perfectly echoes not only that personal experience but also unpacking of the film’s themes of accountability and taking control.

Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) are two people who are dissatisfied with their lives. Estranged from family and friends, they both seem to have found an answer to their dissatisfaction with life in the need for Dr. Stevensen’s (Karen Gillan) call for volunteers to assist in further study. A travel mix-up results in the pair sharing a car to the facility. Throughout the journey, the pair begin to unpick their differences and similarities in approaches to life (and death).

As the synopsis suggests, this is not a film that is going all out to scare, placing the focus on the relationship between the characters as they progress on their journey, both with one another and the others they encounter. Whether speaking to strangers or revisiting figures from their pasts, those conversations are woven into both characters’ individual reckonings as well as the way they relate to one another.

The setup is an excellent one, delivered simply and effectively via video footage of a young boy sitting to play a game with his deceased father. That search for connection to an afterlife and an ability to reconnect with those who have passed is an understandably seductive concept. However, the film posits that such a discovery would also unearth panic and a crisis of faith amongst the wider population. Much of this discussion is background noise within the film, with Dr Stevensen appearing via brief talk show clips to discuss the findings and debate around ‘the right to die’. Taking the journey with two people who have already made up their minds about their decision allows the film to focus on their characters and their humanity, rather than more broad ethical concerns.

Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli are excellent as co-leads and their chemistry is undoubtedly a highlight. Parker is captivating as a woman so outwardly furious at herself and the world around her but is also able to capture the fragility underneath. A particular scene is utterly heartbreaking for the way she is able to shift between these states in a way that perfectly illustrates how she has lived her life. The impact on others of her self-destructive cycles is evident and the pain is palpable. From a starting point of wise-cracking and excellent comic timing from Kohli, Teddy too evolves into showcasing his own troubles in ways that tug at the heartstrings. Each revelation feels messy and more importantly, human.

While Next Exit does involve some creepy imagery and well-staged moments that capture a sense of dread, this is not the focal point of the film. If you are looking for scares and a traditional ‘ghost story’ you won’t find it here. In fact, it is arguably the scene that leans most into genre elements that worked the least for me. For all the subtlety the rest of the film possesses a sudden, more literal take does somewhat jar.

Next Exit is one of those uniquely touching films that handles an immensely sensitive subject with care, insight and empathy.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Next Exit played as part of the North Bend Film Fest 2022.