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.

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

Camping Trip

A host of interesting stylistic choices can’t sell this muddled horror.

Synopsis: In the summer of 2020, two couples decide to go on a COVID era camping trip after months of being in lockdown. The freedom of nature and the company of their best friends offer the group a rare sense of normality, but though secluded, they’re not alone. Nearby, during a botched drop off, two goons decide to go rogue; inadvertently, implicating the campers. What started as a fun-filled vacation quickly turns into a test of loyalty and survival. Suddenly the pandemic is the least of their worries.

Ace (Alex Gravenstein), Coco (Hannah Forest Briand), Enzo (Leonardo Fuica) and Polly (Caitlin Cameron) are two couples, heading into the wilderness for a much-needed catch-up after they have been separated by the pandemic. As ever, in the horror genre, their trip does not go as planned, throwing them into a dire situation.

Camping Trip will immediately split viewers, depending on the individual capacity for mentions of Covid (including the now very unnatural sounding use of Covid-19 which outside of medical briefings has largely disappeared from conversational use). Each reference that the script makes feels clumsy, so focused on positioning itself within a time and place that it almost forgets to weave it into normal conversation. The virus is a recurring theme and driving force within the film, taking on various functions as the film progresses. Whereas some pandemic films use the situation as a means to explore loneliness or the need for connection, this keeps returning to a far more literal take.

The film itself was shot in 2020 with strict health and safety measures in place, so it is likely that the use of this language and the preoccupation with it is largely due to the proximity to the initial wave. It does present the risk of filmmaking so reliant on a specific time, however, as it ages rather quickly. Other productions tend to offer little in terms of actually naming the pandemic, or avoid it entirely, so this complete focus does jar somewhat.

There is a relatively simple story throughout the film, although this is clouded by lengthy sequences (almost always featuring time-lapse photography) that linger, rather than add to either plot or tone. It has the effect of making it feel much longer than it is for the story to be told. Character decisions and motivations do not hold up to any scrutiny, resulting in times when the film is almost directionless. The slower opening that takes time to introduce the characters and their dynamics is solid and it is a shame this isn’t felt more keenly throughout.

The third act, in particular, feels like a vast departure from the rest and unfortunately ends up leaning into some tired tropes, including the threat of sexual violence as shorthand for villainy. That sense of it being ‘thrown in’ for that effect quickly sours. That last act, however, does feature some of the film’s more interesting choices, opting for a revolving camera to punctuate its sudden burst of action. In doing so, directors Demian and Leonardo Fuica manage to make the most of their effects in addition to adding a sense of chaos to proceedings. With numerous scenes feeling somewhat static, the use of this device does assist in adding drama.

Overall, Camping Trip is perhaps best viewed as an example of the kind of filmmaking that comes from restrictions. Despite the flaws, it exists as a display of how filmmakers can react to world events and capture those moments.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

Camping Trip will be available on Digital Download from 16th August and available to pre-order here.

North Bend Film Fest 2022

The North Bend Film Fest returns for 2022 from August 4th – 7th, bringing independent shorts and features that highlight both established and emerging creatives.

I was lucky enough to cover last year’s festival and am thrilled to be doing so again. You’ll be able to see reviews from the festival soon. You can find these posts by searching North Bend. Many of the short films made it into my favourite short films of 2021 with a huge variety of genre and genre-adjacent material available, from the impactful stop-motion The Expected to deeply scary podcast horror Skinner 1929.

The horror shorts advertised for this year include Baby Fever, Black Dragon, Bug Bites, Darker, Death in a Box, Scooter and They See You. Featuring some truly evocative imagery, these films represent a wealth of short film talent and celebrate the art form.

2021’s event brought fast-paced action in the form of Tailgate and a more introspective, quirky look at relationships between sisters in Superior. This year’s event is no different, offering several Centerpiece screenings, including Rahul Kohli-starring Next Exit and tense horror Swallowed. In addition, Next Exit Mali Elfman director will be awarded the Dulac Vanguard Filmmaker Award as recognition for her feature debut.

From opening film I Love My Dad to closing film Please Baby Please, plus an anniversary screening of Bubba Ho-Tep, North Bend truly has something for everyone. You can check out the Film Guide to attend if you are in North Bend and stay tuned to their social media channels for news and events.

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twitter.com/northbendfest

Quiet Hours

A spirited short that pays homage to teen Summer slashers with energy and heart.

Synopsis: A group of friends just want to have a fun night, but someone knows what they did last summer.

The legacy of the 90s/early 2000s teen slasher and numerous franchise opportunities is writ large across the horror genre. It is no surprise then that their ‘whodunnit’ format has continued to inspire new horror filmmakers. Quiet Hours feels indebted to the genre and despite limited means manages to effectively evoke many of the elements that appeal to those fans.

Named for the ‘quiet hours’ of a holiday rental that the friends attend, the film focuses on a dangerous secret between a small friendship group after a night of fun turns into something far more sinister.

From the film’s opening inciting incident that debt to that era of slasher is evident, mixing the kind of upbeat, peppy soundtrack with location-establishing drone shots as the friends return to the house. Given the budgetary constraints, the film does an excellent job at investing in the unique, confined situation, skilfully utilising montage sequences to add a sense of scale and passage of time within the sub-30 minute run time.

The length of the work does hinder some elements, mainly around the development of characters. The need for more of a connection to and understanding of them would likely add more emotional weight to proceedings. The need to capture the history and connection of characters does end up requiring a considerable amount of exposition that does slow the pace. Still, it manages to hit many appropriate dramatic notes and well-tuned horror moments to hint at a lot of promise.

Managing specific references that will land with and entertain fans of the genre while also representing its own brand of queer-lensed, DIY aesthetic horror, Quiet Hours will be making festival appearances from August 2022. The first screenings have been announced:

8/21 – 1 pm @ The Guild Cinema – Albuquerque, NM

8/26-27 – 6 & 8 pm @ Cinemaestudios – El Paso, TX

8/28 – 5 pm @ The Fountain Theatre – Mesilla, NM

Playdurizm

Heady, stylish surface visuals hide a sinister secret in this arresting work.

Synopsis: When a teenager finds himself caught in a glitchy-glitzy reality with his onscreen male idol, he does all he can to be possessed by this man and ignore the violent clues of how he got there.

I was lucky enough to first see Playdurizm when it was screened as part of SoHo Horror Film Festival’s Pride edition in 2021. Playdurizm is emblematic of the kind of content of the festival, bringing attention to daring, sometimes experimental films that demand attention. Director (also co-writer and star) Gem Deger has crafted a neon-soaked, pop-art world with pulpy action film influences and a self-contained psychological thriller. If that sounds like a lot, then that makes it an accurate reflection of the film itself. Despite these seemingly disparate elements, as a final product, Playdurizm feels like a cohesive unit.

Demir (Gem Deger) awakes in an unknown location with no memory of how he arrived there or who the people he is around are. Andrew (Austin Chunn) and Drew (Issy Stewart) are an unconventional couple whose impulses around drugs, sex and taboo are instantly brought to the fore. As Demir tries to piece together how he came to be in the house with them he begins to explore his own identity and past as a host of unusual characters engage with him in this otherworldly space..

Aside from the film’s meticulous design and arty non-sequiturs, the real charm is in the performances. Even in a smaller role, Issy Stewart as Drew delivers her barbed one-liners with relish, really selling the campy, melodramatic quality, but finding a heart within that. Chunn too excels as Andrew, needing to balance the excesses of his character, an alternate reality in which he is a movie star in addition to his more sober interactions with Demir. It is, however, Deger’s film, with his at first perhaps oddly pitched performance transforming into an incredibly powerful one. His ability to portray an aching vulnerability in melodramatic lines like, ‘I feel like a manufacturing defect every time I look at you’, perfectly captures Demir as someone in flux or a state of becoming.

A side plot involving an external threat to Demir and Andrew’s burgeoning relationship is home to the film’s few slight missteps, drawing the action and focus away from them. While it does, undoubtedly, have a pay-off, these moments sag the pace to some degree. Alongside the frequently irreverent dialogue and segues into outright strangeness lies a reflexive film with a keen connection to other media, including film and art. For all the exuberant design it is the darker moments where the film’s true power lies. As the film begins to fold in on itself it makes its references to the likes of Videodrome more explicit, evoking the connections between porous media, film escapism and physical transformation.

The film starts with references to Francis Bacon quotations that ‘we are meat, we are potential carcasses’ and that connection to (and more importantly, separation from) physical reality bleeds through the entire film. While the film undoubtedly heads in a thunderously dark direction, it comes to a conclusion that finds beauty and healing outside of that darkness. That Playdurizm is able to conjure both the high-energy, schlocky style with the deeply moving makes it an utterly unique production.

Fiercely original, even when homaging some of the horror genre’s biggest hitters, Playdurizm stands out as a unique, affecting experience that deserves to be seen.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Playdurizm is currently available for rent and purchase on Amazon Prime Video, GooglePlay, Youtube Movies, iTunes (Apple TV), Vudu (Fandango) and Kino Now (Kino Lorber’s VOD platform), plus on Blu-ray and DVD in the USA. It is also available in Canada on Google Play, Youtube Movies and iTunes (Apple TV).

Master

An impressive and harrowing portrayal of two Black women struggling within the confines of a prestigious school with a dark secret.

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.

Gail (Regina Hall) has been promoted to Master of Ancaster College – a prestigious University that has long struggled with diversity. Her appointment is one that the school is keen to publicise, as is the tenure track of Liv (Amber Gray). That the pair have experienced success is held as an example of the school’s changing attitudes. However, when Jasmine (Zoe Renee) joins the school she immediately faces microaggressions and overt discrimination. This, coupled with a story about a haunting at the school, threatens Jasmine’s peace of mind.

The most impressive element of Mariama Diallo’s film (her feature debut, no less) is that it uses Jasmine’s sleepwalking condition as a way to destabilise every moment, seamlessly integrating reality and dream-like sequences. The cumulative effect is disarming, throwing the viewer into that space with the characters. Seemingly normal situations transform into sinister set pieces within the blink of an eye, benign interactions become probing interrogations or other acts of aggression, reflecting the experiences of the women navigating this often unwelcoming space. The flow between states is as absorbing as it is confronting, trading on quieter, creepier moments as opposed to sudden jolts. Nightmarish visions emerge bathed in red light, signifying the shift after it has occurred.

The set design is to be commended, with the school and particularly the Master’s house all embedded with a sense of history and threat. Dusty paintings and archaic elements of the house all carry considerable weight as Gail explores her new surroundings. Even in the more modern areas of the school, the weight of expectation surrounds the characters, providing reminders that they are in a minority. Intrusions from the institution’s glossy, diverse advertising campaign cut through to maximum effect, the bright photography in stark contrast to the unwelcoming rooms and tense gatherings the rest of the film shows. Carefully straddling the line between the supernatural and genuine headline-grabbing news stories, the command over the material is seriously impressive.

White characters compare the women to existing popular and accomplished Black notable names, from Barack Obama to Beyonce, showing their lack of diversity – their only references distant and exceptional, rather than people they directly know and value. That they engage in co-opting elements of Black culture while dismissing the women’s lived experience is a recurring feature throughout the film. In one of the film’s most alarming sequences, primarily white students gather to aggressively chant along, disturbingly relishing the moment to repeat the song’s use of the n-word. There is a sadistic glee in their repetition, as they indulge in the damaging taboo and it is clear to see why Jasmine finds herself driven from the room by it.

As much as the design excels, Master also functions as a fascinating character study, spanning three women at different life stages. Each performer thoroughly sells their role. Regina Hall so perfectly inhabits a woman battling with her new role and the history it comes with, by turns confident and frustrated as she finds herself embroiled in the kind of academic gate-keeping that holds so many at arms-length. Zoe Renee brings a fragility to Jasmine, but she also has such a compelling spark that carries her through the film. While Liv is a more peripheral character, for the most part, Amber Gray’s interactions with both Hall and Renee add a certain depth as competing interests and world views collide.

This is magnetic, poised film-making with a keen eye for both social commentary and horror imagery that lingers beyond the credits. This is a film that treats its performers with reverence, resulting in a truly engaging experience.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Master is released on Amazon Prime Video on March 18th.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Murina

A coming-of-age story contained within a sun-bleached thriller.

Synopsis: A teenage girl decides to replace her controlling father with his wealthy foreign friend during a weekend trip to the Adriatic Sea.

Named for the eels that Julija (Gracija Filipovic) and her father Ante (Leon Lucev) hunt together to sell as delicacies, Murina is a directorial debut that is as tightly controlled as the protagonist at the outset of the film. Julija is central for much of the runtime and both the way she is looked at and the way she observes the looks between others is a dominant narrative force. The swimsuit she wears for much of the film has a practical purpose, but also displays her to the men around her father, creating discomfort and furthering his desire to hide her away. This enhanced control coincides with a visit from Javier (Cliff Curtis), her father’s wealthy friend and prompts Julija to consider a life with him, given his clear fondness for her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic).

Gracija Filipovic carries much of the film on her shoulders, navigating a character who is naive but also given to fantasies about improving her life, even if that is achieved through sinister means. Her anger for her father comes in the outright anger and darkly rendered underwater fantasies that hint at an altogether more dangerous outlook. Meanwhile, she saves verbal barbs for her mother, angry at the control Ante has over the way they dress and live their lives. There is also a reckoning with becoming a woman, recognising that her mother is the object of Javier’s affection that could be used as leverage, a realisation that prompts her to say, “If I had your power, I would use it”. The relationship between the pair is subject to negotiation as Julija refuses to follow her lead.

First-time feature director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic uses the beautiful location to her advantage, injecting proceedings with an almost magical touch that fuses Julija with her surroundings. When she is in the water, she is at her most free and confident, allowing the film to weave in a fable related to coming-of-age in a way that feels both satisfactory in narrative terms as well as providing memorable visuals. The shift from a sticky, tense atmosphere when Ante is around to the rather more tranquil sensuality when Javier takes centre stage is deftly handled.

Underwater scenes become a space for uncovering desires and removal from reality which the film indulges in long sequences. The film creates the idea that Julija is at her most uncomfortable on land and it is in these sequences, especially a notably tense party scene that she appears as a fish out of water, not content to follow her parent’s lifestyles or adhere to the occasion. Filipovic is excellent, never less than captivating as she inhabits Julija’s questioning and refusal to stay quiet.

Some may find the film’s pace too slow and too content to allow its characters to bake in the surroundings. Sequences that turn up the tempo considerably are few and far between, but even so, there is a palpable tension throughout that maintains that interest. The pace of the film reflects the pace of Julija’s life, prone to periods of stillness set against short outbursts of frustration.

An excellent central performance and composed, unhurried handling make Murina a film to get lost in.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Murina screened as the Closing Gala of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Murina is released in cinemas nationwide on 8 April, with Q&A screenings with the director this weekend, details at  https://www.modernfilms.com/murina

Demigod

Pacing issues and an abundance of exposition dampen an otherwise solid attempt at a folk horror story.

Synopsis: Upon the death of her grandfather, a woman and her husband return to her birthplace in Germany’s Black Forest, only to find a terrifying secret awaits them.

Demigod veers between carefully working around its limitations and introducing extended scenes that put these flaws under greater focus. In some sections, the presentation of brutality is impactful, with good effects to back it up. On the other hand, long expositional scenes draw less successful elements like costuming into focus, undermining some of the world-building and overall tension. That this instinct is present in some sections but not others makes this a slightly frustrating watch as it feels like there is potential for more.

After an intriguing opening sequence that sets out the folk-supernatural leanings, we are introduced to our main characters, Robin (Rachel Nichols) and her husband Leo (Yohance Myles) who are returning to a place she lived as a child. As they head to her grandfather’s home, the threats of her past and the forest soon emerge.

It is clear that Demigod is not made for a great deal of money. As already mentioned, there are some impressive effects on show during some scenes that genuinely deliver the impact and action. It is in these moments that you feel the film is pushing to the very boundary of its budget, which is to be celebrated. However, the film does end up fairly repetitive, with multiple scene transitions made through someone coming round after being knocked out as a way to move on action.

Following the initial sequence, there are around 30 minutes of scene-setting. While this time would be well spent developing those characters, this is delivered mainly through long instances of dialogue. Throughout the film, the need to explain everything rather than show it via other means results in long sequences of dialogue. Character monologues drag the film to a halt at times, having to constantly reset its own momentum. The different languages of the characters also means that there are perfectly-placed pauses for one character to translate for the others, further drawing out the scene and creating unnatural performances to some degree.

When the film needs to up the ante in terms of the supernatural elements, it does so, even if its costuming and effects leave a little to be desired at times. A few musical cues feel ill-fitting, although in at least one sequence this provides an extra jolt, furthering the disruption felt by the characters and contributes to the overall chaos of the scene, so sometimes the decision to not stay entirely within the expected sound works well. There are some strong instincts at work for certain points of the film, but there is a lack of consistency.

Many will find Demigod an ambitious, if flawed entry into the folk horror subgenre with some interesting ideas, that even if are not entirely successful, certainly hint at a desire to do something different.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

Demigod is available to rent or own on digital HD from Bulldog Film Distribution on 21 February 2022

Lexi

Lexi: An American Vanishing is an effectively unsettling mockumentary horror with plenty to say about a life lived online.

Synopsis: A mockumentary horror feature that explores the mysterious disappearance of a motivational influencer.

It feels difficult to describe Lexi as a found-footage film, even though there are certainly elements of that here, but this is more in keeping with the kind of docu-horror as presented in films like Death of a Vlogger, situating the scares within a wraparound documentary format that focuses on the impact of social media on an individual. While some parts of Lexi don’t always land, the centring of an influencer Laughing Lexi (Victoria Vertuga) allows the story to explore some all-too-real horrors about being a woman online.

Lexi feels like a very timely piece, presented as a true crime documentary (some sections feel like an excellent mimic of the likes of Dateline, for example) piecing together the last known elements before her disappearance. In its switches between talking-head ‘experts’, Lexi’s vlogs, surveillance footage from static cameras and even an opening body-worn camera scene it put me in mind immediately of Neflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door in terms of the often invasive, near-real-time access provided. Lexi, as a fictional take is able to poke a little more at that framing device and the desire to present titilating, shocking material under the guise of concern. This is not so much a parody of that media type, but does serve to show how the entertainment elements are often ramped up.

Part of this poking comes from the experts that offer their opinions to the documentarian. Camille (Maya Zapata) is a rival influencer with doubts over Lexi’s disappearance and an insight into the world of influencers. Zapata plays the role with relish, mostly as an ultra-competitive Mean Girl-type, but with a softness where the tone calls for it that furthers the film’s overall aim at what consequences social media may have. Elsewhere, Thomas Hobson impresses as Nate, an author who has written books on the case, delivering his theories with a side of deadpan humour that sneaks in now and then to remind you that you are watching a narrative feature and break some tension. Susan Louise O’Connor stars as Elera, another author who has perhaps more outlandish, otherworldly theories to offer. O’Connor presents an initial lightness but is able to switch to a firmer tone as her insistence that something supernatural is to fault grows.

Lastly, Victoria Vertuga (also co-writing with Eric Williford and directing) plays the titular Lexi excellently, striking a performance that has to be split between her ‘real’ life, her blogs and then through the course of the film. Lexi and her channel Laughing Lexi have been designed to evoke that bubbly influencer quality of bubblegum graphics and life advice that quickly steers into outright ridiculousness. Peppering her videos with lines like, ‘as soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul’, there is an almost affectionate skewering of the kind of content that young women may gather followings for online. It is key, though, that Lexi, even if she may come out with strange quotes and saccharine advice, is harmless. The wider harm comes from the external world, from trolling, exploitation, the desire to ‘hate-watch’ and people’s seemingly unstoppable appetite for tragedy.

From a horror standpoint, the film delivers on some brilliantly unnerving set pieces but it is the cumulative effect and growing unease that gives it strength. Lexi may frustrate some in its steadfast adherence to the rules of the format it borrows from in terms of providing ‘answers’. The horror within Lexi is the discomfort of watching someone with the foreknowledge that something terrible has likely happened to them. The film’s drip-feed approach may also leave some cold, but there is enough momentum and colour provided to keep things moving. Further than that, that an entire industry, featuring books like That Ain’t Lexi and Lexi’s Last Laugh have sprung up around a missing woman feels all the more uncomfortable for how much the film allows you to be in the same space as her and experience the events. The dry humour in some sections is perfectly balanced by the distressing ones. The film itself is a pandemic project, made with very few resources so the lack of polish in some areas is completely understandable, even adding to the effect to some extent.

A timely exploration of the female star image online, set against pandemic paranoia. If so much has been done as a Plan B in the wake of the pandemic to stay occupied, it is very exciting to think about what this team could achieve with a wider scope.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Lexi is now available to rent from Vimeo On Demand with more platforms to follow.