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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

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

Grimmfest 2021: Night Drive

An absorbing watch that relies on tight scripting and the interplay between its core performers.

Synopsis: A ride share driver’s life is turned upside down after an unexpected series of misfortunes.

Seeing a film set at Christmas time and starring both AJ Bowen and Scott Poythress definitely attracted my attention, calling to mind the casting and setup for the excellent I Trapped The Devil. Night Drive is a very different film, although does share some of the same sensibilities, putting a lot on the performers to carry the story, but also complicates things by the narrative involving a car journey, isolating the characters and forcing them to bridge the generational (and later, moral) gap as they journey.

Russell (AJ Bowen) is a ride-share driver whose expensive car hints at his previous experience as an app developer. Unfortunately, a decision to sell too early meant that his buyout was minimal, setting in motion a chain of events that has cost him his marriage and previous lifestyle. He settles into the drudgery of his new role until his pattern is interrupted by Charlotte (Sophie Dalah) a troubled woman who quickly throws his night into chaos.

Night Drive feels like a careful blend of genre elements, fusing together the kind of ‘hangout horror’ that keeps locations minimal and dialogue punchy, but doesn’t stray away from darkly comic elements and lashings of gore where necessary. To say any more about the direction this takes would head too far into spoiler territory, but there is something that offers a dramatic departure that is very well handled while still under some clear budget restrictions. Bowen and Dalah feel almost effortless in their roles, shifting from an unusual, concerned relationship into a more spiky negotiation.

Meghan Leon takes on co-directing and writing here, sharing directing duties with Brad Baruh, both contributing to a film that will keep the viewer guessing all the while. Cleverly peppered phrases and actions will reward multiple viewings, threading everything so while some will find the film’s trajectory surprising, it does all manage to hang together convincingly. There are moments where it feels like the film treads water somewhat, as if it is almost too worried about pulling the trigger on its more left-field moves. Once it overcomes that hesitation, it heads back on track with renewed energy, but that lull is noticeable.

An appealing, darkly comic thriller with two first-rate performances make this a drive worth settling in for.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Night Drive plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: King Knight

A completely charming film about misfits and the search for belonging.

Synopsis: The High Priest of a modern-day coven finds his life thrown into turmoil and ventures out on a journey of self-discovery.

The past year or so has been difficult on everyone, cut off from support networks and sources of community, the threat of illness and financial issues looming large. So, it could be said we’re all ready for something a little lighter. However, if you told me that the film that would make me smile the most this year (well, maybe second next to Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar) would come from the usually acerbic writer-director Richard Bates Jr. I’d have been very surprised.

Matthew Gray Gubler plays Thorn, currently living what amounts to a dream life with partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan). The pair, rock-solid in their relationship have taken their position at the head of a coven, becoming a source of comfort and guidance to the other members. However, as email invitations to a high school reunion arrive, Thorn’s past returns to haunt him.

For those who have followed Richard Bates Jr.’s career to this point, this rather touching exploration of someone finding a space for themselves in the world will feel like a dramatic departure. Although this lacks some of the bite of something like Tone Deaf, that’s not to say it is completely toothless, taking aim at some practices that while earnest, feel ridiculous, like Thorn’s role in the competitive birdbath industry. The deadpan sensibility cuts through some of the sweetness, meaning things aren’t entirely saccharine and most importantly, the film is frequently laugh out loud funny.

While there is no denying that this is primarily Gubler’s film and he delivers a suitably hilarious performance that draws on both verbal and physical comedy, it is the ensemble casting that adds that extra spark. Sarafyan is excellent as Willow, supportive, yet realistic about Thorn’s limitations and fiercely loyal even when the life they have built together is called into question. Johnny Pemberton as Desmond, one of the coven members is a smaller role, but one that he adds a lot of empathy and humour too. In fact, no one feels particularly lost in the shuffle and I imagine everyone will have a favourite to cling to.

During a Beltane celebration in which the traditional bonfire has been downgraded due to a previous injury, the women of the coven say of the men in their lives, ‘if only their brains were as big as their hearts’. This, in many ways could be the calling card of the entire film – this is a film that is unashamed in the amount of fun it is having, has disregarded almost any attempts at being overtly smart or probing, but provides the viewer with a great time and numerous opportunities for the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from a film with such a nice central message.

Stylistically, there’s plenty going on here, with slow-motion music video-style sequences bridging the gap between scenes and allowing the cast to have fun with that – it also provides an opportunity for them to enrich their characters, even in small ways, while keeping the pacing buoyant.

As unexpected as a cosy film from the names involved may be King Knight functions as a lovely surprise and a much-needed touch of funny, heartfelt silliness.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

King Knight plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: Faceless

A few too many moving parts make this identity thriller a little muddled.

Synopsis: A disoriented and frightened man awakens in a hospital room to discover he’s the recipient of a full face transplant. Plagued by weird flashbacks, no memory and no visitors, he is unprepared when they release him from the hospital. When a mysterious red- haired woman, Sophie, befriends him, life gets even weirder. Suddenly a hooded man stalks him, his friends abandon him, and strangers give him odd looks. Distraught he goes out drinking only to end up in an altercation with a man – who has no face! Now he must investigate what has happened and who is stalking him before it’s too late…

Kicking off at a dog fighting event (following in similar footsteps to director Marcel Sarmiento’s ABC’s of Death segment D is for Dogfight) where George (Brendan Sexton III) ends up mauled after a run in with some people he has been trying to avoid, Faceless sets itself out early on as something that isn’t concerned with answering every question you might have about it, allowing the central mystery to stew.

The concept is a relatively simple one – after his attack, George awakes with severe memory loss at the Klein Institute, an advanced medical facility that has almost perfected the science of facial transplants. I say almost, there are side effects, including memory loss, tissue rejection and of course, the existential terror of waking up with someone else’s face. His discharge from the hospital feels premature and it isn’t long before he experiences even stranger fall out as a literally faceless assailant assaults him. With aftercare not exactly high on the agenda for the institute, it’s up to George to put together the pieces himself.

Throughout, screeching sonic flashbacks try to cast light on George’s predicament, including a vivid memory he seems to have of a woman he has never met. When he finally meets Sophie (Alex Essoe), their connection raises even more questions. This is much the way Faceless is constructed, constantly weaving more mystery before it fully unfolds another. This works to some extent, keeping things murky for as long as possible while dialling up the action. However, there is a sense that this teasing out takes too long and adds in too many moving parts to head into a satisfying conclusion. In addition, it feels like an attempt to unpick everything arrives late into the runtime, resulting in a lot of expositional scenes that would usually be handled early on so the introduction of so much late on does throw it off balance.

The prosthetics work is great here, which assists in the overall effect – George has to work on solving his mysteries all while his new face struggles to bed in, often drooping at one side. The other effects support this, offering a sense of impact in violent scenes in addition to the intricacy of the surgical scenes. The performances are solid, especially given the work with prosthetics and the need to sell the story often on very little outward information.

A little more cohesion would help it greatly and it feels sometimes like the film is struggling against its own weight – still, it’s a novel idea with a decently sketched conspiracy throughout.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

Faceless plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: Night At The Eagle Inn

A thoroughly likeable film about two siblings seeking to find out more about their past.

Synopsis: Fraternal twins spend a hellish night at the remote inn their father disappeared from the night they were born.

There is something to be said for films that have the conviction to be as long as it takes to tell their stories – in some cases, that will mean three-hour-long sagas and for others, like Eagle Inn, what the film sets out to do is done and dusted in around an hour and 10 minutes. This keeps everything sharp, trimming any unnecessary sections and maintaining the focus on the central sibling relationship and providing the scares. Like director and writer pair Erik and Carson Bloomquist’s previous outing, Ten Minutes to Midnight, there is a focus on using established horror tropes to create something more interesting.

Twins Sarah (Amelia Dudley) and Spencer (Taylor Turner) head to the Eagle Inn to further investigate the strange circumstances around their birth. Having lost both their parents, the pair have a somewhat morbid interest in their origins, taking to recording a podcast. Soon, strange happenings at the Inn start to feel too close for comfort for the pair.

Amelia Dudley and Taylor Turner are really the heart of this, presenting the close, but sparky relationship between the pair convincingly. Their close bond, formed from the early tragedy in their life has given them elements of gallows humour but this never tips over into anything nihilistic nor unlikeable. As the film progresses, their interactions with Dean (Beau Minniear, delivering a gleefully entertaining performance) sew a little friction between them, but the threat throughout is definitely focused upon the Inn.

The titular Eagle Inn is described within the film as having a kind of ‘nondescript gloom’ – a sense of something very wrong running through it. Indeed, the film itself utilises J-Horror scares as well as more conventional ‘hotel horror’ and other ghost story tropes, blending them together. The result is perhaps not wholly original and it is possible to read some of the narrative direction in advance of its arrival, but a fun take on them that contributes plenty in the way of scares, structure and uncanny imagery.

From an explosive opening, all the way through to the conclusion, Eagle Inn feels like something that succeeds due to its restrictions, rather than in spite of them. It is clear that there is not a huge budget so everything is designed to wring the maximum effect out of what is available, leaning on the charming performances and skill of the film-makers to draw the viewer in. The shorter length will put some in mind of episodes of series like The Twilight Zone, ably building and concluding an entire world within just over an hour.

A short, sharp, sweet and occasionally campy take on the haunted hotel film that delivers likeable performances and a clear confidence with the material at hand.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Night At The Eagle Inn plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: Alone With You

A tightly wound claustrophobic chiller that stumbles in the third act.

Synopsis: As a young woman painstakingly prepares a romantic homecoming for her girlfriend, their apartment begins to feel more like a tomb when voices, shadows, and hallucinations reveal a truth she has been unwilling to face.

Emily Bennett (also co-writing and co-directing alongside Justin Brooks) plays Charlie, a young woman eagerly awaiting the return of her girlfriend Simone (Emma Myles). As the night wears on, with no sign of Simone, the apartment takes on an increasingly sinister turn.

Setting up Charlie as solitary in the apartment for much of the runtime really allows for that sense of isolation to settle in, resulting in a stifling, uncomfortable atmosphere. Intrusions in the form of phone calls or video chats with her mother (Barbara Crampton in a small role, but nonetheless one that she gives her all) or friend Thea (Dora Madison of Bliss) are the only events that prevent her from being completely alone. That those conversations soon turn tense, focused on the difficult relationship between Charlie and Simone drives her further into damaging introspection.

Early on, the limited location of the apartment becomes far more than a sign of budget constraints – every corner of the apartment is traversed, from portraits on the wall, to a room of photographer Simone’s mannequins, covered in cloth, every single detail is expanded upon, feeling like a lived-in space. That the film allows you to attune so keenly to the surroundings of the flat then allows it to play with rather more subtle scares. The smallest of shifts grabs your attention, even when the film doesn’t linger to draw attention to it. The stolen glimpses and carefully staged movements are some of the better examples of haunting imagery I’ve seen in some time. On the subject of time, the treatment of it here is skilful, distorting time with simple but effective methods.

With all this careful construction within the apartment, it is a shame that the film elects to go a different direction and while that lends it more originality, it does feel like a misstep. Without spoiling the film, it is at its best within the confines of the house and as it strays from that grounding, evolving and becoming more unhinged it does lose a degree of the gripping psychodrama that has previously played out. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me the strength of the film lies in allowing Bennett’s beautifully layered performance to unfold within the walls.

A film with such a keen sense of building atmosphere in a small, tightly scripted story that comes off the hinges by the conclusion, but still leaves a deeply scary impression.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Alone With You plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.

Grimmfest 2021: The Beta Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

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