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.

Favourite Short Films 2021

Short films are often seen as somehow lesser than their feature-length counterparts, but festivals continue to allow them to shine, either paired with thematically similar features or within their own blocks. More than a stepping stone to perceived ‘bigger’ things, the best shorts are those that tell their story perfectly within a more brief time period and often on far lower budgets. As the pandemic has resulted in a varied release schedule for many films, there may be some films here that are technically 2020 but are included here due to their appearance on the circuit in 2021. If you want to check out my picks from 2020 you can do so here.

Before the list kicks off, an honourable mention to Mountain Lodge, directed by Jordan Wong. A collage of internet media set to a text-to-speech narration of a viral Tumblr post about an infamous Yankee Candle offering. It would be difficult to put it on the list because it is so closely related to the original post, but the selection of clips ensured it was one of the films I laughed most at this year when it screened at SoHo Horror Festival.

20. Mashed Potato Face
Every now and then you watch a short that leaves you speechless. The first, but by no means last entry on this list from the SoHo Horror Festival Shockdown Saturdays series, Mashed Potato Face is definitely one of them. If someone turned up the nightmare quota on the creations from The Mighty Boosh until they broke the dial, they might get close to what Mashed Potato Face is. The kind of film where you’re not really sure you should be laughing quite as much as you are.

19. Man or Tree
Sometimes, all a short really needs is a simple idea executed well and Man or Tree certainly fits the bill on that front. Possibly the shortest runtime of any short on this list, this focuses on a man who wakes up believing he has been turned into a tree…or is it the other way around? A fun voiceover and sense of chaos make this a fun time. Played at Celluloid Screams and Abertoir Horror Festival.

18. The Mill Creek Strangler
The Mill Creek Strangler played as part of SoHo Horror Festival’s physical festival this year. Amber Pratt stars in writer/director Aaron Egbert Allsop’s short as a woman obsessed with a local serial killer who finds herself in his orbit. Light-heartedly tackling the (usually) white, female preoccupation with true crime media, this two-hander is simple, yet entertaining.

17. Wererock
Another one from SoHo’s Shockdown Saturdays, Wererock is a film as howlingly silly as it is delightful. Stylised poor dubbing and dubious effects combine with a genuinely funny idea that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

16. Guts
Chris McInroy’s Guts played at Celluloid Screams ahead of Ultrasound, starting the day with an overtly comic burst before the more serious, mind-bending themes to follow. Guts revolves around a man who suffers from an unfortunate condition: his guts are outside of his body, ruining his day, the day of his colleagues and numerous shirts. Gleefully splattery and despite its one-joke nature more than delivers on laughs.

15. Seen It
Seen It is a charming short, based on the folklore stories of writer Suresh Eriyat’s father. Watched as part of Fantasia Film Festival in their Things That Go Bump In The East block, Seen It‘s interesting animation style and the way it balances warm conversation with descriptions of otherworldly happenings makes it a genuinely wonderful watch. Happily, you can now see the film on YouTube.

14. Kalley’s Last Review
As part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival’s Cyber Horror shorts block, Kalley’s Last Review manages its tone expertly. Director Julia Bailey Johnson also stars as the titular Kalley – an aspiring vlogger with designs on being a beauty influencer. As the film progresses, the initial comic skewering of Kalley as a somewhat vacuous, desperate figure evolves into something far darker and more upsetting, managing to pack a real punch by the time the credits roll.

13. The Expected
Impressive and haunting stop-motion animation The Expected builds its horror during a period of grief, confining its characters in a state of torment within their home. Dialogue-free, every ounce of pain is poured into the surroundings and an increasingly nightmarish scenario. I saw this one as part of the North Bend Film Festival in the Cinema Vista block but it also played at Celluloid Screams.

12. The Lovers
The Ultrasound block at Celluloid Screams not only brought Guts but The Lovers. An almost muted progression gives way to an impressive punchline that arguably isn’t the most surprising development, but one that is pulled off well, given the limited means.

11. The Wheel
This is one of two shorts on the list that have genuinely terrified me. Played at SoHo Horror Festival’s physical event this ultra-creepy and jolting tale of a mysterious Ferris wheel model managed to quickly get under my skin.

10. Sundown Town
Sundown Town played at both SoHo Horror Festival and Salem Horror Festival. Kicking off with the dreamy soundtrack of Get Away by Surfclub, a gay couple’s break turns sour when they stop in a mysterious town. Fusing very real fears with supernatural elements, this features some heart stopping moments and imagery that really drives home the film’s central concerns.

9. The Moogai
The thing I’ve always loved about horror is how the genre can become a place for telling a wide range of stories and feature voices we perhaps wouldn’t normally hear. The Moogai finds horror based in Aboriginal belief and spirits but also connects on a level that transcends that and moves into wider fears on parenthood. Scary and beautifully shot.

8. Dana
Dana made me glad I hadn’t posted my favourite films of the year before attending Fractured Visions. The rape-revenge sub genre is a contentious one, with varying interpretations about how representation of rape takes place and how it may be claimed or rejected by viewers, especially those who are survivors. Dana follows the titular woman who finds herself frustrated by a recent law change that means sex offenders are being released from prison. You can kind of guess where things head from here but the film does it with such skill and occasional shots of dark humour that it stands out.

7. Fragile.com
Another entry from Final Girls Berlin’s Cyber Horror shorts block, Fragile.com is a disturbingly crafted study of internet exploitation and the turning of emotions into a commodity. Carly Stewart’s excellent performance as Mara, a girl targeted by an older man and introduced to a community where emotional performativity is a currency, grounds it, although there is never a respite from how deeply uncomfortable it is.

6. Ad Lib
Played first at SoHo Horror and later as part of Abertoir Horror Festival’s virtual edition, Ad Lib is a stylish and powerful take on domestic violence and the lack of power that comes with being silenced. Joseph Catté handles the material with sensitivity by dialling up the metaphor, but is still able to present an impactful and more often than not, upsetting portrayal of abuse.

5. The Three Men You Meet at Night
Beck Kitsis’ short is probably one of the most “real-world” terrifying films on this list. The Three Men You Meet at Night is concerned with the everyday dangers that women face. The film expertly ratchets up and unravels the tension repeatedly, creating a punchline that stays with you. Thanks to ALTER you can now watch the film on YouTube.

4. The Fourth Wall

Kelsey Bollig’s ultra-stylish The Fourth Wall takes a visit to a troubled theatre performance where the constant unprofessionalism of her colleagues is beginning to weigh on Chloé (Lizzie Brocheré). A pulsating soundtrack that feels like it reverbs through the film’s strange corridors adds texture, while ramping up to something grisly and also throwing in some great lines about the world of theatre on the way. First seen as part of Final Girls Berlin’s Revenge Horror shorts block and later as part of SoHo Horror Festival.

3. Skinner 1929

The spookiest offering on this list, Skinner 1929 (seen as part of North Bend Film Festival’s Ethereal Fantasies shorts block) concerns an online livestream whose hosts are looking into mysterious film reels that relate to one of their family history. The audio commentary over the older imagery creates an uncanny disconnect between the old and new media forms – something that becomes all the more uncomfortable and deeply creepy as it progresses. Definitely one that found footage fans will love.

2. You’re Dead Hélène

One of the longer entries on this list at around 25 minutes, You’re Dead Hélène, justifies its extended runtime by managing to tackle a wealth of material throughout. Incorporating scares as well as incredibly beautiful, moving moments this really has it all in its story of a relationship breakdown like no other. As a result, it is hardly surprising to see that it is to be made into a feature by the same director, although possibly more surprising that Sam Raimi is producing. As of the time of publishing the film is still on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination in the Live Action shorts category.

1. Synonymous With

From the moment I saw Synonymous With as part of SoHo Horror Festival I was almost certain I’d seen my favourite short film of the year and while the standard of shorts has been exceptionally high and varied, nothing hit me quite like this did. I’ve written some more detailed thoughts on the film you can read here. This gorgeous, delicate love letter to the Other and those drawn to it has stayed with me, with its DIY quality allowing the sentiment to take centre stage. The film has been available to watch online for free here.

With so many high quality shorts, this list has been almost impossible to narrow down to a reasonable number for an end of year list. The vast range of topics, storytelling and craft make this such an exciting time for watching short films and giving them the same time and attention as features.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: The House of Snails

A writer’s inspiration takes a sinister (and sometimes confounding) turn in The House of Snails.

Synopsis: Writer Antonio Prieto decides to spend the summer in the mountains outside Malaga, where he hopes to find peace and quiet and inspiration for his next novel. Here he meets Berta, a woman he feels instantly attracted to, and quickly finds himself drawn into the lives of the locals, who he soon realises are hiding many sinister secrets. As he investigates, and writes, he finds himself confronted by a terrifying local legend, and the gradual realisation that, sometimes, reality is much stranger than fiction…

It is often difficult to write about films like The House of Snails, simply because it sets out to uproot and disjoint itself (and, by extension, the audience) repeatedly throughout its runtime. This is perhaps no surprise as this is an adaptation of a novel about a writer so the layers of reference and desire to fold in on itself are already running fairly deeply. Director Macarena Astorga takes on Sandra García Nieto’s novel with enthusiasm, swiftly layering different ideas and recognisable horror trappings that disrupt one another as the film progresses.

Antonio Prieto (Javier Rey) finds himself in the town of Quintanar while seeking inspiration for his new book. Quintanar is seemingly surrounded by wolves, keeping everyone within, seemingly subject to a long-standing curse that results in numerous strange beliefs and rituals.

The nature of The House of Snails is in that it is constantly seeking to add more layers and to some viewers, this may feel too scattered and overloaded. However, it is difficult to argue with the approach when the film is able to play off all these moments successfully. The beautiful location allows Antonio to wander into different areas, each with its own distinct look and feel. In some sections, you are in folk horror territory, focused on the things that people do to feel safe or explain things that are unexplainable. At other times, you are in supernatural creature territory, with both threads finding common ground in the film’s weaving of legend.

The Vimero legend that underpins both these elements comes to represent something altogether more powerful by the film’s conclusion. While young children like Rosita (Luna Fulgencio) regard the Vimero as a very real threat, the more sceptical Padre (Carlos Alcántara) details the kind of taboos the legend could be a cover and explanation for. Again, this frequent switching of viewpoint and refusal to commit to a straight line may alienate some viewers, but there is something immediately compelling about the strange town and its strange ways that keeps everything moving. The myth-building that takes place and the questioning of how legends start to impact reality is a real strength of the film.

To some degree, the film gives itself too much to do and so some elements do unfortunately feel underdeveloped and so lack a necessary punch. Antonio’s love interest Berta (Paz Vega) for example, feels like a character with more to offer than what she receives. Despite all the performances being excellent, it is only Javier Rey who truly gets to stretch and deliver, simply because his character is given the most to do. In keeping with its playfulness with horror and narrative elements, the film gives the impression that everything is being delivered with a wry smile. Even the film’s bleakest moments have a throughline of dark humour or a nod to the audience. To do this, without undercutting the seriousness of one of the film’s prevailing messages shows the skill with which this has been developed.

A compelling study of myth-making, taboo and uncovered secrets, set in a location that feels as uncanny as the townspeople within it, The House of Snails is one to watch.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

The House of Snails plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 11th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: Dark Cloud

Dark Cloud is a slick, tech-focused sci-fi with a few tricks up its sleeve.

Synopsis: Following the aftermath of a horrific accident, a woman is voluntarily subjected to artificial intelligence for rehabilitation.

In horror (and taking that wider, sci-fi too) we are all well conditioned to know that certain concepts will result in disaster. Arguably the concept that has been represented as going wrong far more than ever going right is that of the ‘smart home’. It is a particularly well-worn narrative in which our reliance on technology and that we permit it into almost every element of our lives becomes dangerous, with the elements designed to help us becoming threatening and all-consuming. Dark Cloud raises the stakes in this regard, by having the smart home as a site for a rehabilitation process.

Alexys Gabrielle plays Chloe Temple, a young woman struggling to recover from an accident. As part of her recovery, she undertakes a new method being pushed by Aquarius Inc – a company specialising in a new kind of assisted living, which involves being housed in a state-of-the-art home, with virtual assistant AIDA (voiced by Emily Atack) able to cater to her needs.

Dark Cloud adds a layer to the usual smart home premise. Chloe is not in the house through the pursuit of wealth, status or technology, but is taking part in the project in an attempt to regain confidence, independence and improve her memory – all issues the accident has left her with. Her sister Lucy (Anna Stranz) is concerned about her living alone and so the experiment seems to present a compromise between the pair. As an early adopter of the technology, Chloe is told to think of herself as a pioneer, rather than a test subject. The focus on the porousness and power of memory that is often effectively represented throughout is engaging.

The secluded house makes for an excellent location and while the visuals are very much what you would expect from a sci-fi (lots of sleek surfaces, bright white areas and intrusive lighting) they are rendered well by the first-time feature director Jay Ness. Alexys Gabrielle is solid as Chloe, often left to only play against the disembodied voice of AIDA which can so easily lead to a disconnected performance that is thankfully avoided here. Emily Atack’s vocal performance is good too, bringing warmth to their interactions. That the house provides companionship as well as more functional reminders feeds further into Chloe’s rebuilding of her life.

The biggest issue with Dark Cloud is that it follows very set narrative points that will feel overly familiar. While these moments are often striking, there is still a sense that you feel like you know what is about to happen just before it does. Although this is an obvious comparison to make of any one-off sci-fi property, there is more than a hint of Black Mirror here, especially in the film’s ability to weave the protagonist’s human feelings into the more outlandish tech developments and horror leanings. It is this layering that gives the film that extra spark but doesn’t quite make it to new heights.

Dark Cloud is an engaging sci-fi that succeeds in its desire to probe human emotion and needs like companionship in an otherwise well-trodden narrative path.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Dark Cloud plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 10th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.

The Glass Man

A cleverly filmed, tense drama with an exploration of masculinity in crisis that hits hard.

Synopsis: The chilling story of a middle class man whose desperate weathering of the current economic crisis ends with the arrival one night of a debt collector with an offer that surely cannot be turned down.

I first remember hearing about The Glass Man in 2011, when it played FrightFest. Since that screening, I’ve not been able to find the film at all, so to hear it was receiving a release was excellent news. Although, can a film you’ve waited 9 years to see really live up to your expectations? Happily, yes!

Martin Pyrite (Andy Nyman) and his wife Julie (Neve Campbell) have built a comfortable, even luxurious life, thanks to Martin’s City work. Julie works as part of a charity, but Martin has taken the reins when it comes to providing for their lifestyles. Their home is beautiful, with several stories and Julie’s prime concern is ensuring that her husband doesn’t eat too much sugar. However, their idyllic life is threatened by the loss of Martin’s job – a distressing event he has hidden from Julie. While debt spirals, Martin continues leaving the house each day, never letting on about his predicament until mysterious debt collector Pecco (James Cosmo) arrives, offering him a way to fix things.

Writer-director Cristian Solimeno creates an incredible atmosphere and there’s a fantastic sense of movement throughout the entire film. The camera frequently encroaches on character space, moving through walls, windows and doors in a way that feels genuinely uncomfortable. An early conversation between Martin and Julie takes place across different levels of a large spiral staircase, forming the perfect visual representation of their comfortable home lives, but also their distance from one another. The narrative progresses with clever and economical storytelling that gradually dials up the weirdness for an immersive but progressively breathless experience. A beautiful score from Oli Newman underlines the tension and is used skilfully to afford dialogue-heavy scenes the most impact. The presence negative bank balances peppered throughout is genuinely anxiety-inducing, with the spectre of financial ruin taking a clear toll on Martin every time he sees it.

Solimeno finds the perfect leading man in Nyman, embodying Martin with the spirit of a man so ill at ease that it ebbs through every movement and decision he makes. An encounter with a flower salesman in which a discussion about his expensive suit culminates in his admission that he’s the “wrong shape for off the peg”, perfectly illustrates everything about Martin: a man both defined by wealth and made uncomfortable by it. Andy Nyman is absolutely wonderful in the role, every movement and facial expression calculated to build the most solid picture of a man on the edge. Still, there’s a softness and vulnerability to the performance that elevates it into something really special. Elsewhere, James Cosmo imbues Pecco with an incredible sense of threat, punctuated by hoarse yelling that Nyman’s Martin is seemingly wounded by. Neve Campbell is given less to do overall, but bounces off Nyman well and lends Julie a sense of intensity in the scenes that call for it.

Solimeno himself takes a role as Toby Huxley – an actor that Martin went to school with. His trajectory into stardom is one that affords him status and fame, but this fame is also fraught with tension and anxiety. Notably, his film role featured in news footage is one of a Prime Minister being told by a love interest that he needs to save the country. This masculine yearning for power and stability permeates the narrative and there is an overall fantasy for male sacrifice as noble and necessary. The economic crisis in the backdrop has ruptured the sense of financial stability and traditional masculine roles that the characters have settled into. The insistence by characters that wives are to be looked after and the clinging to a traditional dynamic is something that causes them more pain than comfort, yet there’s a desperation to hold onto it which makes for some achingly sad moments.

An excellently-woven, powerful critique of male expectations in the wake of financial crisis, The Glass Man was definitely worth the wait.

5 out of 5 stars

The Glass Man will be available on December 7th via the following UK platforms: Sky Store, Apple/iTunes, Google Play Youtube & Amazon

FrightFest 2020: The Swerve

Heavy-hitting with a devastating performance from Azura Skye, The Swerve is a painful, visceral watch that plays on your mind well after its close.

Synopsis: In writer/director Dean Kapsalis’ stunning feature debut, a shimmering American take on Michael Haneke-style torment, a woman battles depression, rodents, guilt and more in a superbly acted slow burner certain to leave a haunting impression. Holly is a wife, mother, teacher, and daughter whose psychosis starts to crumble after she’s part of a deadly car accident. But did that actually happen or not? Just one of many things on her disintegrating mind, along with her difficult two sons, her very distant husband, a student in class who shows inappropriate interest and her ‘perfect’ sister who returns to the fold.

Some will question a film like The Swerve being programmed at a genre festival like FrightFest, given that much of its content suits the pace and style of an arthouse drama more than a horror genre piece. Despite that, the gradual sense of events about to turn tragic and moments of horror made this one of the most visceral and frequently difficult to watch films at the festival.

Holly’s (Azura Skye) position as a wife and mother is a profoundly joyless one. Her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is distant, often working late and her two sons have found themselves in their pre-teen and teen years honing a kind of obnoxiousness towards their mother that feels overwhelming and mostly unchecked. Holly’s life as an emotional punching bag for those around her is further complicated by her struggles with mental illness. Much of the film is based on Holly’s perception of what is happening around her, sometimes with flimsy evidence. She may be seeing things and perceiving events differently or just taking them to heart more than others, but each one is another small, deliberate chip at her mental state. Despite her job as a teacher, there’s a sense that she has little control of her own life and path.

A scene in which Holly confronts her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) about a previous incident with a pie is startling, mainly because it is one of the only times that Holly is given a louder voice and it speaks to Holly’s ongoing humiliation and that every single word and action is felt as another wound. Skye is fantastic in the role, with her rigid body movements and increasingly fragile features emphasising her position as a woman on the edge. While she is mistreated, she also turns that mistreatment on others, including Paul ( Zach Rand), a lovelorn student who takes an interest in her. Their scenes feel incredibly uncomfortable as both exude a kind of vulnerability that comes from a lack of agency. As her mental stability suffers, the film feels like a leaking tap, dripping small event after small event until it is almost unbearable and as viewers, we wait for the flood.

Director and writer Dean Kapsalis has done well to create this character study with all the ugly moments of a mental illness without it feeling exploitative. Skye’s face is intimately studied by the camera, taking in every strained detail. Skye’s total commitment to the role is obvious with her totally transforming as the film progresses. The film is not interested in definitive answers, offering numerous events without conclusion or confirmation and leaving them largely open to interpretation. For the most part, we see what Holly sees and the film is skilful in terms of when it chooses to alter that perspective to question her experiences. Every scene feels weighted, whether that be with sadness, longing or anger and the emotions radiate through the veneer of the respectable life that Holly has from the outside.

Some will call it a slow-burn and while that is accurate, sometimes slow burns can outstay their welcome. The Swerve is deliberate in filling its screen time with acts that become more tense and agonising the longer they are on screen. The editing is occasionally jagged, swinging in and out of Holly’s nightmares and inner thoughts. The stillness of the camera in some scenes allows the viewer to be fully absorbed in what is happening, lending it a claustrophobic quality. The film telegraphs fairly early on where it is headed, but this doesn’t detract from the power it has to punch the viewer in the gut when it arrives. A soaring score adds to the spell-binding nature of the film, making you feel absorbed into Holly’s painful existence.

The Swerve is a steadily paced descent into tragedy, unflinching in its mission to portray a woman slipping through the cracks unseen by society or those close to her. Azura Skye delivers a devastating performance that should be celebrated. The film is magnetic, making its visceral moments all the more effective. One to check out, but maybe with something more cheerful lined up to watch afterwards.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Swerve was shown as part of FrightFest’s 2020 Digital Edition. Follow The Swerve Twitter for more information.

Union Bridge

Union Bridge is a slow-burn that unfortunately can’t quite find it’s pay-off but works incredibly well as a meditation on location and time.

Synopsis: After burning out in the city, Will Shipe is summoned back home where he uncovers dark truths about his family and the town he grew up in.

Union Bridge is horror with a small ‘h’. That isn’t a criticism, just that rather than going into too much horror territory it uses the trappings of horror (like musical cues) in a way to enhance the eerieness of the situation. It never quite lets loose with something more evocative or disruptive meaning that despite a few moments where the weird factor is turned up, it never quite moves up the gears enough, occasionally leaving it to feel flat. 

As a story of a man returning to find out the secrets of his and his ancestor’s pasts, I’m not sure that it manages to be wholly successful. The central concern of Nick (a good performance by Alex Breaux) becoming obsessed with digging in the area never quite reaches a peak within the expected time. Add to this the fact that protagonist Will Shipe (Scott Friend) is a quieter, less action-focused man and you have a film with relatively little momentum. This lack of momentum is furthered by scenes being elongated. Sometimes this is successful, allowing the viewer to soak in the weight of a situation, but can occasionally feel like drawing out the runtime and celebrating the photography without other purposes. 

Of course, it is possible to read the film differently, as I found myself doing throughout the runtime. Instead of focusing on Will’s journey and particular situation with the vague comings and goings that it represents, it is possible to view Union Bridge as a film with wider thoughts about history and secrets buried in the land. Countless untold histories have yet to be unearthed with discoveries made much later. Still, what we think we know about the past informs our present and allows us to plan for our futures. Union Bridge‘s central family is just a way to talk about this much bigger, meatier but also much more esoteric idea.

The location is used to great effect here and overwhelms the characters within it. Postcard-perfect landscapes and cleanly-painted storefronts are beautifully photographed but the landscapes always retain a sense of being uncontrollable and insurmountable by humans. Nick’s compulsion to dig for secrets is hinted at being supernaturally driven, and there are moments where this idea of a psychic link between human and land is more palpable. The Civil War flashbacks, adding little to Will’s own story, can be seen as a further reminder of the cyclical violence and greed present across history and that humans are somewhat doomed to follow the same patterns and make the same mistakes.

Slightly tricky to review this, as while there are some very striking and fascinating themes, the central narrative and characters don’t work quite well enough even though the performances are undoubtedly good. However, the mood of the film is perfectly-pitched and despite some of those drawn-out scenes I never found myself looking at the clock. The photography is beautiful and the film works on a thematic level for me, even if the central story doesn’t quite grip.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Union Bridge is available from Breaking Glass Pictures.