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
Master is released on Amazon Prime Video on March 18th.
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
Demigod is available to rent or own on digital HD from Bulldog Film Distribution on 21 February 2022
Gluttony is another of the Seven Deadly Sins that the 7th edition of Final Girls has built a shorts block around. For a genre like horror that often seeks to explore excesses, the sin of gluttony often comes to the fore. These films are about far more than just taking more than your share.
I am always in awe of stop-motion animation and Ghoul Log is yet another example of the incredible craft. The texture is amazing here, offering close-ups of detail and a scratching soundtrack that really ups the level of discomfort. The sheer artistry and creation of atmosphere here is incredible.
Three Ways To Dine Well
This great visual essay places a focus on eating in horror films, especially where women are concerned, based on a Virginia Woolf speech. Split into three sections and using well-selected clips to illustrate each point, this is a fascinating journey through the act of eating in horror. In addition, the decision to focus on films made by women but expanding that from the expected writer/director role as a filmmaker showcases just how many women have always worked within horror at every level of production. Visual essays can be tricky to get the balance of clips vs narration right, but this is a wonderful example of the form.
A girl’s weekend away turns sour when the arrival of the least-favourite member of the group turns about to be the least of their worries. The fractured friend group encounter a strange bottle in their holiday rental home and things escalate considerably from there. While some elements feel a little rough around the edges, this is a fun take that leans into its chaos with some excellent effects.
Binge and Purgatory
This sub-5 minute short comes with a content warning for eating disorders and yes, this angry film could not be accused of sensitive handling. A row over a birthday cake between two women boils over into something far more sinister. The palpable rage and DIY aesthetic in this make it perfect for its short run time. Anything longer would lose some of the punchy power it has. Not one for everyone, but certainly leaves an impression.
Misophonia is the name given to intense feelings around noises, mainly that of chewing, so it makes sense that the phenomenon would be explored in a horror setting. It would be no surprise to state that the sound design here is incredible, with the chewing, smacking and slurping woven throughout the film. It would perhaps be understandable that the focus on the audio would somehow detract from the attention paid elsewhere, but this is a film that crafts the visuals to be just as important and impactful as the source of the sound is revealed throughout the runtime.
Such Small Hands
Children are terrifying at the best of times, but Such Small Hands takes this to incredibly uncomfortable lengths. The girls at an orphanage find themselves partaking in a game that seeks to balance the power between them. The invention of the game in which one girl has to be ‘the doll’ creates a pressure cooker environment, punctuated by haunting visuals that linger. This feels like the quieter, more overtly sinister cousin to She-Pack from a few years ago, exploring what that group mentality can do.
The Gluttony shorts block played as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. More information on the festival is available from their webpage.
Kate Dolan’s powerful examination of a household in turmoil provides heaps of atmosphere.
Synopsis: In a North Dublin housing estate Char’s mother goes missing. When she returns Char is determined to uncover the truth of her disappearance and unearth the dark secrets of her family.
Horror that examines three generations of women trying to exist in the same space is having something of a moment in horror. Notably, Relic and A Banquet both adopt a similar structure in exploring how family trauma trickles through grandmothers, mothers and daughters. You Are Not My Mother shares further similarities with Relic, involving reappearances that are arguably more mysterious than the initial disappearance. Despite sharing an overarching theme, all three of these films retain their own strong sense of identity and confident directorial voices.
The film kicks off with an arrestingly dark and impactful scene that acts as a great tone-setter for what is to follow. After this, we first see Char’s (Hazel Doupe) home life as a sad one, a space full of whispers and disorder. Struggling to get to school on time, her ailing grandmother (Ingrid Craigie) is unable to take her, telling her to ask her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken) instead. It is clear from the outset that there are severe tensions at work. Angela and Char’s drive to the school is a fraught one, ending in an argument which feels like familiar territory for the pair. After Angela disappears, there is almost an acceptance from everyone but when she returns just as suddenly as she has left, her behaviour is even more concerning.
Carolyn Bracken delivers an electric performance, by turns sullen and even near-catatonic to sudden bursts of frenetic energy. Those energetic bursts make for some of the film’s most memorable moments with Bracken entirely embodying both states. Hazel Doupe is also fantastic in her role, embodying the nervous energy that comes from living with such unpredictable circumstances. The scenes where the pair are together have a heavy sadness to them, especially in moments where the possibility of a ‘normal’ relationship between them feels within reach. The troubled history of the family looms large over every interaction
Kate Dolan uses overt horror imagery sparingly at first, offering glimpses without pay-off for some of the runtime. This tendency to hold back does however, mean that those pay-offs are incredibly impactful and fully commit to the imagery it has so carefully teased. Without the need to fill the film with unnecessary jolts or false scares, what emerges is an incredible control over the film’s oppressive atmosphere. In amongst the horror and mythology, the more real-world fears also pack a punch, presenting the area that Char finds herself in as one of constant threat, with little comfort to be found either at home or school. Refreshingly, when these scares appear they are fully-formed and incorporated into the more down-to-earth scenes.
You Are Not My Mother is a darkly magical tale, with plenty of impactful scares, underpinned by incredible performances that make this a must-see.
4.5 out of 5 stars
You Are Not My Mother played the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. More information on the festival is available from their webpage. It also plays as part of Glasgow FrightFest 2022.
Final Girls Berlin Film Festival has always included LGBTQ+ voices throughout their line-ups, but the queer horror block allows for a collection of shorts that centre queer voices, characters and creatives within one section to showcase the variety of talent available.
Gay Teen Werewolf
Utilising the traditional aesthetic of teen movies with added grunge and even a little riot girl flavour, Gay Teen Werewolf presents an alternate reality, of sorts, in which supernatural creatures are a noted part of the school. Adding a darker level to those visuals we are all used to allows the film to indulge in anxiety-ridden dream imagery that supports a story of becoming and self-discovery. The world-building in this is strong, to the point that you can easily see how that world could be expanded and the story deepened.
This black and white lensed film follows a nun besieged by lustful thoughts for her fellow nuns and the alarming physical ways this manifests thanks to an ongoing itch. Despite the black and white, the physical manifestation retains a shock value, thanks to some vivid effects. A dramatic progression that really leaves an impression.
I like to consider myself as someone with a pretty strong stomach, but there is something about the construction about this film that had me looking at some of it through my fingers. A squelchy, bodily-fluid-heavy, eerie ritual that extends throughout the runtime that has a sense of texture that truly escapes the screen.
New Flesh For The Old Ceremony
New Flesh is a disquieting fable centred on grief. Focusing on two women who live an isolated life together and the event that changes that connection this unfolds in near-silence in its later sections, explaining things through carefully chosen shots rather than clunky exposition. Hyper-focused on its ritual elements, this quietly compelling film offers a jarring difference between the dimly lit cabin and the bleaching light outside, presented as an intrusion into their space.
SundownTown made it onto my list of favourite short films of 2021, after seeing it at both Salem and SoHo Horror Film Festivals. A couple are on a getaway when they are involved in an altercation with police, due to the unwelcoming atmosphere in the town. Centring a gay couple of different races, both the gay and Black experiences of being involved in this situation are heightened by invoking the images too often seen in the news. What unfolds here has an emotional, but almost magical quality as the horror elements make themselves known. Beautifully shot with a powerful message.
Fed up with the men she is associating with a trans sculptor receives a welcome surprise when her latest creation comes to life with more to offer. MonsterDykë is a very DIY affair, but the creature effects are well-rendered, nonetheless. This is a film that comments on the way that transwomen are often fetishised, rather than appreciated for who they are by transforming their own desire into something unusual and otherworldly in a piece that is both interesting as well as quietly empowering.
For more information on Final Girls Berlin Film Festival including their ongoing Patreon content, please check out their webpage.
Here Before delivers on an emotional level due to a reliably great performance from Andrea Riseborough.
Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is a women who is dealing with the fallout from a pronounced loss in the form of her daughter Josie. When a family move in next door with their daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan), their connection is instant, with Laura wanting to be around her and Megan spending increasing amounts of time at her new neighbour’s house. As Megan begins to act out at school, the relationship is called into question.
It is the performances that secure the film’s quiet power, with a meditation on grief, but more explicitly on yearning for a past that cannot be reclaimed. It is exactly the kind of role that Andrea Riseborough excels at, holding the weight of the world on her shoulders in every scene. Though she carries the emotional weight, there is also enough emotional softness and even fragility to her performance that lends her interactions with Megan a gentle quality. While many of Megan’s strange behaviours are relayed in dialogue about her when she is called upon she delivers a convincing, confident performance.
Lewis McAskie offers a strong supporting performance as Laura and Brendan’s (Jonjo O’Neill) son Tadhg. Initially quietly hostile about the relationship between his mother and the neighbour’s daughter, that hostility soon bubbles to the surface in a combination of frustration and worry for her state of mind. The entire film rests on nervous energy and the potential of something to erupt at any moment.
Disorientating sequences with dissonant sound and images give the film a lift from an otherwise beige, domestic space. These dreams are further stylised by elements presenting as out of sync, echoing Laura’s increasingly fragmented mental state. Chirpy songs combine with swirling visuals before cutting to an abrupt silence. The soundtrack plucks at its most sinister moments although this is a film that operates a high level of restraint. Conversations are also cut or silenced in the middle of responses, leaving hopes of clarity tantalisingly close, yet drawing out any resolution for as long as possible.
Here Before is a disarmingly quiet film that does suffer from taking on a story that only has a few directions to head in. It does well to straddle those directions for much of the runtime, resulting in a conclusion that comes too late to impact the viewer quite as much as it should. This is the kind of film that lingers in the mind for a while afterwards, taking up space to consider the pay-off even days after viewing.
A film that is rightly more interested in exploring the way that grief impacts those left behind than providing too much sensationalism Here Before is a solid film that expands beyond its runtime.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Here Before played the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. More information on the festival is available from their webpage.
Here Before is released in UK cinemas on February 18th
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
Lexi is now available to rent from Vimeo On Demand with more platforms to follow.
This post continues with my wrap up of 2021 in the films, TV and short films I’ve enjoyed most this year. Due to the pandemic, there is a chance that some of these films will be dated in 2020 (or even earlier) as release strategies have been impacted. Some of this is because they have only arrived on platforms I have access to this year and others I’ve been lucky enough to see at festivals that do not yet have a wider release. You can check out last year’s list for any that might have ended up there due to the same conditions. Any films that have full reviews on the blog will be linked in the title. Obviously, the list leans heavily into the horror genre thanks to the variety of genre festivals I’ve been lucky enough to experience. While this list is narrowed down to 30 titles, there’s almost just as many deserving of honorary mentions, including Arboretum, Skyman, King Knight, Coming Home in the Dark and many more.
30. Freaky It is a shame that this was released in the UK when the cinema landscape was still so uncertain because I can only imagine the fun to be had in a packed cinema for this. Adapting the Freaky Friday concept into a comedy-slasher is an excellent idea anyway, but it is in the brilliant cast led by Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton and sharp writing from Christopher Landon and Michael Kennedy that really allows it to soar.
29. Name Above Title Something of a curiosity, but I couldn’t resist adding this to the list. Without dialogue, Name Above Title tells a tale of a serial killer who captures the attention of Lisbon on the basis of a viral video. Exploring themes of idolatry, worship and the pace with which striking images can take on a life far beyond the initial incident, this compelling film stands out in its visual flair and often darkly comic touches.
28. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To This domestic drama with a touch of vampirism had been on my radar since it played at Celluloid Screams in 2020. Released this year in the UK by Lightbulb Films, the film follows a family in turmoil as they struggle with the incredibly unusual medical complaint their younger brother suffers with. An incredibly gloomy but often moving film that allows the characters to take centre stage while also providing an unflinching representation of the ugly truth.
27. Broadcast Signal Intrusion I was very glad to have seen this twice this year, both at Celluloid Screams and later at Abertoir Horror Festival both because it is very good, but as a chilly conspiracy thriller, it pretty much demands at least a second look and is, at times, deliberately obstructive. Harry Shum Jr. plays James, a man who falls into a gnawing obsession with broadcast signal intrusions that coincide with missing women, including the disappearance of his wife. The ‘intrusions’, designed by special effects artist Dan Martin are genuinely unsettling, but more than that, what the film has to say about conspiracies will stay with you far beyond the credits.
26. I Blame Society Gillian Wallace Horvat’s spiky satire on independent filmmaking uses the mockumentary format to great effect. Horvat critiques the system’s desire for ‘likeable female characters’ with her character deciding to plan and document actual murders for her film. There are so many one-liners in this that still pop into my head and cause a laugh from time to time with her dry observations and cringe comedy adding just enough absurdity without obscuring her wider criticisms.
25. Hellbender A female coming-of-age tale with a real bite from the ridiculously talented Adams Family, Hellbender has a wealth of rich, disturbing imagery supporting its story of an isolated mother and daughter. So many films would not take the direction that this one does, delving fully into the horror of generational difference and the nature of family. Special mention goes to the soundtrack (also the product of the family’s talent).
24. The Beta Test The second Hollywood satire on this list after I Blame Society, Jim Cummings’ The Beta Test presents a similarly monstrous character in Jordan, an agent who accepts a mysterious invitation and finds himself under threat from his indiscretions. Cummings’ uniquely manic performance underpins the whole film, tackling bravado and toxic masculinity that extends far beyond the Hollywood system.
23. Bloodthirsty Amelia Moses reunites with Lauren Beatty following last year’s Bleed With Me for further paranoid interactions in snowy settings. Bloodthirsty follows Beatty’s character, Grey, a singer who is invited to record with a reclusive, infamous producer in a remote location. Grey is struggling with an identity crisis that goes far beyond her career and into concerns about a dark, underlying hunger. Grey’s songs filter throughout the film, with the film’s title track being an absolute stand out while Moses continues to show her flair for tense relationship drama with a splash of genre features.
22. She Will At the start of this list, I wasn’t sure that it had any dominant themes, but as it progresses it is impossible to ignore the way that these films are reckoning with the creative process, but also identity, particularly when it comes to the role of women. Charlotte Colbert’s She Will, is along the same lines, this time positioning an older woman, Veronica (played by Alice Krige), as the figure examining her past in film. Heading to a remote Scottish retreat to recover from illness while a former creative partner receives an honour, Veronica is beset by visions from the surrounding forest. Colbert’s debut feature is a little rough around the edges but easily forgivable due to its refreshing take on trauma.
21. Black Bear Aubrey Plaza’s arresting performance as Allison underpins this often slippery creative satire as her frequently unpenetrable poker face is put to great use in the shifting relationship drama and fourth-wall-breaking the film indulges in. Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott produce excellent supporting performances alongside her, with the trio able to change pace whenever the film demands it. That the script is largely based on dreams had by the director Lawrence Michael Levine is clear from the outset – there is a sense of unreality to the film that the performances manage to ground and give real weight to, resulting in some of the most uncomfortable scenes committed to the screen this year.
20. Bull If you were putting together a violent British thriller with at least one foot in the horror genre and needed a likeable, yet threatening protagonist, you’d undoubtedly want Neil Maskell for the role. Bull feels like a film built entirely around Maskell’s strengths and is all the better for it. There is something so immensely satisfying about watching a film that is so confident in its every beat and Bull absolutely fits that description.
19. A Little More Flesh 2 SoHo Horror Festival’s virtual offerings have been a highlight of both 2020 and this year, often featuring films you may not see anywhere else and providing an eclectic mix of comedies, genuinely terrifying films, soulful drama and Sam Ashurst’s A Little More Flesh and its sequel. While the first film is excellent, it is the second, in its expansion of ‘meta’ elements, grounding in reality and above all, an incredible, fearless performance from Harley Dee (also a writer on the film) that has stayed with me the most. I’m not sure if the effect of this would be the same in a cinema as it felt almost illicit watching from home on a device, creating the effect of watching something you shouldn’t be seeing. Chilling.
18. Offseason Mickey Keating’s Offseason features a moment within its first few minutes that is about as jarring as many entire films, thanks to a dedicated and unnerving performance from Melora Walters. Jocelin Donahue takes the lead role as Marie, a woman called to an island after her mother, Ava’s (Walters) grave is damaged. Upon arrival on the island, it soon seems that all is not well and she is running out of time to leave. Plenty of excellent cameo appearances and a strong command of the kind of scares it aims for make for a genuinely chilling viewing experience. Some won’t appreciate the oft-campy Southern Gothic elements, but for those who are drawn in, the rewards are plentiful.
17. Psycho Goreman There are few films I can return to as much as I have this one and still laugh as much (if not more) as the first time I saw it. Steven Kostanski’s bold comedy about a young girl who finds herself able to control a monster to do her bidding is filled with fascinating creatures, incredible jokes (find me one person who has seen this and cannot quote some of the best lines back to you – you won’t) and a genuinely brilliant lead character in the polarising Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna). Mimi’s buoyant and brash attitude definitely meant some didn’t connect with it, but for me, having an obnoxious young female protagonist unafraid to take up space made it a delight.
16. The Scary of Sixty-First Best described as Lena Dunham’s Girls mixed with a 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller, The Scary of Sixty-First is the definition of a hard sell, even before you take into account director Dasha Nekrasova’s deliberately provocative media persona and frequently offensive stunts. The film concerns two women who find themselves moving into an apartment previously owned by Jeffrey Epstein (yes, you already know to prepare for content warnings on this) and are thrown into a world of conspiracy. Despite the surface-level shock value, the film does have interesting things to say about Royal/power fetishism and how a delve into conspiracy theories is often a distraction from rather more pressing, but trickier to handle issues. This would make for a near-perfect double bill with Broadcast Signal Intrusion, both seeking to capture something about the zeitgeist using conspiracy as a throughline in very different ways.
15. The Righteous Sometimes, with the amount on offer at festivals, you can end up missing out on a gem. This was the case for me with The Righteous, a film that I had been aware of during Fantasia Festival, but did not see until Fractured Visions in December. Mark O’Brien writes, directs and stars in this minimalist film with very big ideas that drip-feeds its true scale throughout the run time. Keeping things simple and effective makes this a really striking experience. Kate Corbett as Doris deserves special mention for a smaller role that brings serious emotional weight.
14. A Banquet Originally, I felt that A Banquet was not for me, albeit that was surprising, given that it has the female-focused, real-world issue vs. supernatural influence content that I usually really appreciate. I would put my initially muted reaction down to the fact that I first watched it at a midnight screening. A Banquet definitely isn’t that kind of film – its meditative quality demands tuning into its subtleties and allowing the film to grow around you. Betsey (Jessica Alexander) is struck by an unusual affliction, refusing to eat. Much like The Righteous, this is one that grows in scale, using the characters to build a foundation for something far scarier, building an overwhelming sense of dread.
13. When I Consume You I love a horror film that can bring scares and feelings, so When I Consume You really worked for me. The film succeeds because of its limitations, rather than in spite of them, with an excellent cast. Early scenes with Libby Ewing and Evan Dumouchel as siblings Daphne and Wilson instantly set up a convincing relationship that underpins all other events. The writing is thoughtful with more than a few lines that have me welling up even considering them in isolation. The scares and mythology are equally as well-plotted, resulting in a film that lingers.
12. No Man of God Yes, there have been many (too many) films about Ted Bundy. Crucially, they usually try too hard to mythologise him and end up, in some ways, glorifying him instead. No Man of God revolves around a great performance from Luke Kirby that highlights the entirely superficial charm (and regular breaks in it) of Bundy defies this. The film never leaves you in any doubt about how it feels about Bundy’s crimes but also takes aim at the circus and media attention around the death penalty. Elijah Wood may not seem the obvious casting choice for an FBI agent, but he and Kirby manage to build an uneasy rapport, allowing Amber Sealey to craft one of the year’s most electric confrontation sequences around the pair.
11. Lamb Sometimes seeing a trailer for a film can set out some unrealistic expectations, resulting in disappointment. Almost the exact opposite is true of Lamb, a film that the trailer sells as far more bizarre than it actually is. A beautiful and achingly sad fairy tale that just so happens to revolve around a child that is part-human and part-lamb. A special mention must go to the animal cast of this, from the sheep on the farm to an almost constantly concerned cat. The main three actors are wonderful too, bringing gravitas and genuine feeling despite the slightly ridiculous premise.
10. Candyman Candyman was another film I initially felt rather muted on and for me, much of the third act still doesn’t quite measure up, but the sheer sophistication of the early scares and the film’s ability to weave in the original while also bringing its own nuances means I’ve kept thinking about moments from it. So often in more mainstream horror releases, there is a tendency to turn up the volume on every scare, so the careful crafting and attention to detail in mirrors, down corridors and at a distance from the action gave this a refreshingly different feel. More than worth the wait after its initial delay.
9. Threshold I cannot help but love these independent ‘hangout horrors’. Bring in the suggestion of a cult and something supernatural at work and you’ve basically ticked a fair few of my boxes straight away. That Joey Millin and Madison West produce two compelling performances as siblings learning to be around one another under extreme circumstances marks this as one of the best examples of indie horror. Shot on iPhone Threshold shows that even the most everyday resources can support the creation of engaging, inventive horror.
8. Violation “Everyone’s medium shitty” is one of the quotes that has most stuck with me from Violation, summing up its desire to present itself in shades of grey. A brutal, unflinching and absolutely devastating take on the rape-revenge subgenre that takes its act of revenge as a starting point, rather than a thrilling conclusion. Madeleine Sims-Fewer is incredible as Miriam, a woman whose reaction to transgressions against her are messy, complex and thoroughly uncomfortable.
7. Slumber Party Massacre Slumber Party Massacre is unique in the horror genre as the only horror franchise (so far) to have every entry helmed by a woman. That tradition continues with Danishka Esterhazy’s updated imagining of the slasher involving a denim-clad man who kills using a power drill. Slumber Party Massacre boasts a brilliant ensemble cast, making the central group of girls incredibly likeable. Often turning expectations on their head, the film hits every gag it needs to, paying reference to the original while also updating it. A huge amount of fun to watch with an audience and like Black Christmas (2019) it is the kind of film I wish I had when I was a teenager.
6. The Feast I have spent a frankly ridiculous amount of time this year trying to get to see The Feast so I’m glad to report that it was definitely worth the wait when it opened the Abertoir Horror Festival in November. Welsh-language films are few and far between with an emphasis on providing Welsh and English versions of the same content. The Feast is noteworthy for having the conviction to only present itself in Welsh. Director Lee Haven Jones borrows from trademarks of Asian and European horror, yet presents a core of undeniable Welshness within it. Body and eco-horror meet for a dinner party in a Grand Designs-style nightmare house.
5. Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
If there is one film I’ve played more than any other this year it would be Barb and Star. Anytime I have felt like I’ve needed a lift, I’ve turned to this delightfully silly comedy starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo as the titular pair. Wiig and Mumolo’s chemistry and killer jokes make for a charming and bright world filled with laugh-out-loud moments.
Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher’s Censor hinges on a breathtaking performance from Niamh Algar as Edith, a quiet and reserved film censor struggling with her own past. What I like most about this is the way it reflects the time period of the video nasties. With the period being such an inspirational time for many creatives it is easy to forget how the moral panic made victims of ordinary people in a crusade against films that are now mostly freely available. With this in the background, Edith’s personal trauma around her sister Nina’s disappearance moves under the microscope – a trauma that is divorced from her work, but that she can’t help but see through the lens of a horror film. Mixing media and bringing in a host of British horror and comedy actors, Censor is a striking debut.
3. Promising Young Woman
The second film on this list, after Censor, to feature a near-invisible character named Nina who has a profound impact on those left behind, Promising Young Woman seeks to explore the impact of loss and the lengths that someone may go to in order to feel that justice is done. Like Violation, Promising Young Woman takes a different direction than expected within the rape-revenge genre, setting up Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as being on a one-woman crusade to expose potential predators. The impact of this film on the first watch for me was so powerful that I actually ended up being sick, so anything that has that kind of effect leaves a mark. Its candy-coated aesthetic may make it look lightweight, but it shares a deep cynicism for the way victims of sexual assault are treated.
A new Ben Wheatley horror was always going to be high on my list. There is something in the way Wheatley handles horror that just connects with me on a very deep level. Pandemic project In The Earth is experimental in terms of both its production context and its use of sound and visuals. Comparisons to the hallucinogenic sequences of A Field In England are obvious, but there is something more base and immersive at work here. Set in the later waves of an unspecified outbreak, scientist Martin (Joel Fry) heads off in search of collaboration with a former colleague, but all is not as it seems in the woods. It helps that this was one of the first films I saw back in a cinema setting as its near-sensory overload throws you into a genuine nightmare.
With all that said, Julia Ducournau’s Titane is the standout, number one film of the year for me. Her long-awaited follow-up to Raw is almost impossible to briefly describe and as it has yet to hit cinemas I’ll not offer spoilers here as it really is best experienced with as little knowledge beforehand as possible. What I will say is that this is a film that is more than its wildest, wince-worthy moments, exploring masculinity, femininity and everything else along that scale while also providing some of the most deeply affecting and moving moments of any film this year. It will make you laugh, jolt you out of your seat and if you’re anything like me, make you cry too – an absolute triumph for a filmmaker fully in control.
This slick reimagining of the 1981 film trades in unpleasant scares and even more unpleasant revelations to create an atmospheric and pleasingly nasty slice of horror.
Synopsis: Families were terrorized at the orphanage. Someone wants them dead, apparently with black magic that is very deadly. She has a grudge and she was also born because of the sins of the orphans who formed her into the Queen of Black Magic.
The initial premise of The Queen of Black Magic is a relatively simple one: Hanif (Ario Bayu) is returning to the orphanage where he grew up for the sad task of saying a final farewell to Pak Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the man who effectively raised him. Returning with his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and children Dina (Zara JKT48), Sandi (Ari Irham) and Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), the trip is also an opportunity to reconnect with people from his past. However, the sad reunion is further disrupted by strange happenings.
I did initially have some concerns about the number of characters featured within the film, but thankfully these were unfounded. Yes, there’s a tendency for some to feature only to up the body count or showcase a particular effect, but there’s enough depth elsewhere to overlook that and enjoy those moments for what they are. Indeed, there are a few moments where CGI creepy crawlies are not that convincing but this is supported by either fleeting glimpses or by careful work to ensure that the idea of what is happening is well solidified so you only need to see a small amount to get the full effect.
Further to that point, this is a film that really takes pleasure in putting the devil in the details. Some moments that feel otherwise played out are given a fresh energy by the addition of one or two adjustments that, when highlighted, considerably ramp up the body horror and scare factor. Even non-horror touches like a reference to the number 81 (the year of the original film) mark this as a film both concerned with paying reference to its predecessor while adding new touches.
Despite the focus on smaller, uncomfortable physical details, The Queen of Black Magic isn’t just about the gore – in fact, it is the gradual unpeeling of what is happening and more importantly, why, that leaves the longer lasting impact. Themes of regret, guilt and ignorance find a place within the discussion, but there is a nod towards the social importance of myth-making and providing palatable explanations for unpalatable truths. Evolving gradually through flashbacks, this feels like rich storytelling punctuated with gory set pieces and the early, near-chamber piece feel when the group is first gathered adds a huge amount in terms of tension without ever becoming overwhelmed by character numbers or ideas.
Deep, rich storytelling with an emphasis on myth-making, this is hard-hitting and squirm-inducing film-making that delivers on scares and images that will stick with you.
The Queen of Black Magic hits Shudder on January 28th. You can also watch the Indonesian Horror panel from Nightstream festival here, or read my recap here.
For last year’s favourites I chose 25 films as I’m terrible at choosing favourites and thanks to a variety of festivals had seen so many that a top 10 felt too narrow to celebrate all the films I wanted to. Despite the circumstances of 2020, particularly on cinema releases and physical festivals, there have still been a huge number of films worth celebrating. Plus, with all of the things we’ve all been denied this year for our safety and the safety of others, why not celebrate a few more. So instead of a top 10, here’s another top 25 of my favourites for 2020. Due to the way festival releases work, there’ll be some films on my 2019 list that were on wider release this year so any glaring omissions could be down to that. Other glaring omissions will be either a matter of personal taste or a genuine memory failure – I’ve yet to stop tutting at myself for forgetting Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale last year. Where I’ve previously reviewed a film, the title will link to my review.
On the subject of honourable mentions, I’ll throw in Eurovision, The Stylist, Relic, The Dark and The Wicked, The Lodge, Come True and the incredibly difficult to watch but important Welcome to Chechnya.
The first of the documentaries on my list, Nail in the Coffin followed the evolving life of wrestler Vampiro as he negotiated injury, parenting and his work in front of and behind the camera. An incredibly human documentary, both thoughtful and thoroughly engaging.
24. Small Axe: Mangrove
There may be debate around if the five films that make up Small Axe should be considered in the running for television or film lists. To be honest, I’m less concerned with any of that and more concerned with the overall quality of film-making from Steve McQueen. Mangrove hit hardest for me with its sense of urgent, breathlessness in the fight against unfair persecution.
23. The Invisible Man
Genuinely one of the most stressful experiences I’ve had while watching a film and I watched at home (having missed the cinema screenings prior to the first lockdown), so I can’t imagine the panic I’d have felt in a cinema. Elizabeth Moss excels and Leigh Whannell’s use of negative space is unmatched.
A film that embraces the dark side of magicians, ramps up the unreliable narrator tension and invites a host of strange characters and settings to create an absorbing thriller that unfoots the viewer as often as it puts them back on track.
Horror films have always picked up on the status quo, societal concerns and have also embraced technology as a medium for providing further scares. Lockdown Brit-horror Hostticks all the boxes, situating its naturalistic characters on a Zoom séance that allows them to play with filters to excellent effect. All this contributes to a film that I jumped at regularly and had a very fun time with.
At first glance a documentary about Pepe the Frog hardly sounds like the most engaging topic, but the journey that Matt Furie’s creation has taken is truly a modern cautionary tale about artists losing control of their creation. An alarming snapshot of the worst side of the internet and how that bleeds into very real movements, you’ll be struck by Furie’s gentle nature and how unthinkable that so much meaning can be drawn from one frog.
19. Benny Loves You
A definite hit at FrightFest’s October online edition, Benny Loves You is a completely joyful, lovingly crafted story about giving up childish things and the chaos that follows when they refuse to go quietly. I only hope that we get a full screening of this one day as it would be even more joyful to watch along with an appreciative crowd.
Placing The Swerve next to Benny Loves You seems absurd, given how totally tonally opposed they are, but this speaks to the variety of films that can be included under the horror banner. The Swerve includes a heart-breaking, shattering performance from Azura Skye as a put-upon mother who begins to crack under the sheer weight of being so underappreciated. An absolute gut-punch.
A rattling critique of traditional gender roles set against a subversion of death rituals, Kriya stands apart with an incredible soundscape and feels genuinely subversive in the best kind of way.
16. His House
Launching on Netflix on Halloween, it feels like His House has been somewhat forgotten, which is a shame because as a study of trauma and guilt it is exceptional. Director Remi Weekes punctuates the challenges of two refugees arriving in the UK with flair, including dreamlike and startling sequences that pack a punch.
15. La Llorona
La Llorona, like His House perfectly utilises horror as a metaphor for social injustice, focusing on the trial and aftermath of a dictator accused of genocide. The film expertly crafts traditional scares but the scariest thing of all is the rest of the family coming to terms with the sins of their patriarch.
I could hardly believe that Parasite was released this year when I looked back, but this dark comic class drama was definitely deserving of all the hype it received. Even more wonderful was watching Bong Joon-Ho thoroughly enjoy his time at award ceremonies as the film was continuously celebrated.
So many of 2020’s films seemed to focus on isolation and frosty relationship drama Rose was a particularly well realised take. Rose’s curious medical condition, her husband’s need to protect her and the toll it takes on their relationship makes for a slow-burn, melancholic horror that draws you in at every moment.
Frequently uncomfortable but totally mesmerising, The Other Lamb‘s study of a woman on a path of self discovery in spite of her position in a cult with an intense male leader. Raffey Cassidy and Michael Huisman both turn in superb performances that constantly feel on the cusp of something explosive. Stunning.
Meditative, beautiful with an eye for small details this time-travel, serial killer film is immensely moving and packs a punch without needing to telegraph or over-explain anything. An excellent performance by a very young Por Silatsa is a particular highlight.
Stylish, retro domesticity gives way to something far more empowering in Swallow, featuring a powerhouse performance from Haley Bennett as a woman who starts to swallow dangerous objects as a means of taking back control of her life. An incredibly brave film that follows through on the convictions it lays out.
This slasher gem set in the world of drag has plenty of sharp objects, but none as sharp as the barbs the performers throw at one another. Throwing in hagsploitation and a truly killer segment full of style this is definitely one to watch.
Caravan park chills abound in this film of queer awakenings as Ruth (Molly Windsor) goes in search of the owner of a mysterious red hair in her boyfriend’s bedroom. I have never experienced a film that so expertly recreates the experience of realising you may not be straight and director Claire Oakley deftly weaves an intimate search for identity.
While a film about a pandemic spread by anxiety may not sound like ideal viewing in an actual pandemic, Amy Seimetz’s exploration of coming to terms with death has a darkly comic streak and an incredible, standout performance from Jane Adams that makes it feel poignant for those who have suffered with anxiety and the various other emotions it sparks.
Look, I’d have Synchronic on my list every year if I could, especially as it was number one on last year’s list, but it definitely isn’t cheating as Glasgow’s FrightFest event brought a new, director’s cut of the film to my very weepy eyes. The new cut improves upon the original version without losing any of the heart or impact of the initial one. The film is finally released in the UK by Signature Entertainment early in 2021.
A heart-warming, exhilarating documentary about David Arquette that speaks to his amazing resilience, incredible spirit while being almost woundingly open about his failings. An ultimately joyful film that celebrates those who work hard, have a good heart and wear their feelings on their sleeves that will ultimately result in an equal amount of laughs, awe and tears.
One of few films I was grateful to see at home, rather than in a public cinema because this one really made me sob. Natasha Kermani’s piercing satire of how women negotiate day-to-day life felt like a rallying cry to anyone who has ever sat and wondered why they have to justify any of their choices. Packed with power, style and horror woman of the year Brea Grant, this was an excellent way to cap off the October edition of FrightFest.
Brandon Cronenberg’s hypnotic exploration of autonomy, free will and surveillance contains a sex scene that I’ve been totally unable to remove from my mind since. The mental and physical metamorphosis undertaken in this film is totally incredible. Yes, the violence is blistering, but I keep returning to think about Christopher Abbott and Andrea Riseborough’s performances more than that aspect. Sophisticated, stylised and confident.
Funny and sardonic, born of 1990’s urban legends, shot with some of the best fluid camera work and even managing to pack in a breath-taking musical number. Chloe Farnworth, Angela Bettis and Nikea Gamby-Turner all turn in accomplished performances that push forward this dark farce into increasingly fun, but no less heartfelt territory. Brea Grant’s writing and directorial talents really shine.
Yes, perhaps no surprise that a film I managed to see in the cinema takes the top spot. An incredible study of decline into mental illness with a religious edge. Morfydd Clark is totally stunning, delicate but unhinged. As a debut feature, Rose Glass has come out swinging and I cannot wait to see what is in store for her next.