A selection of short films in reaction to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
Synopsis: Expands the importance of bodily autonomy and addresses the issues of a democracy that does not protect the needs of the majority of the population.
The overturning of Roe vs. Wade in June this year felt like a blow to everyone who may find themselves with an unwanted, dangerous or unviable pregnancy. Limiting crucial access to often life-saving healthcare for a significant part of the population felt like a cruel blow, even for those outside the USA. Give Me An A! is a selection of critiques of that decision and the thoughts around it, bringing sci-fi, horror, comedy and satire in a collective reaction.
Following a dedication to ‘our mothers, our grandmothers and all those upon whose shoulders we stand today’ A! introduces a changing room of teenagers. The group engage in talk about proper tampon use and other subjects like the fetishisation of their uniforms before launching into a routine about bodily autonomy. Already, there is a cohesion between those women who have gone before and those having to ready themselves to fight again, creating a powerful statement about the current situation.
The shorts that make up the film range from the emotionally disturbing The Voiceless, the satire of DTF and even the faux-infomercial stylings of Plan C, to name but a few. Boasting an impressive list of creatives and performers each segment possesses its own clear identity and a different handling of the material. This careful placement and movement through different tones sustain the film’s energy, allowing an ebb and flow of lighter and more distressing takes.
Whether the segments are skewering the relative apathy of men in the face of bodily autonomy (DTF and the Love-Island-style gameshow Crucible Island), seeking to explore the very real impact on young girls (the slick transitions and emotional weight of Sweetie) or taking a more body-horror-related angle (The Voiceless and Medi-Evil) the throughline in them all is, understandably, rage. Even the cutaways back to the cheerleaders, staring into the camera as they announce the next film are all imbued with a sense of anger that hangs over the whole project.
As with any anthology, viewers will find more to like about some sections than others. However, with clear tackling of such a pressing concern each offering feels relevant and more importantly, potent.
4 out of 5 stars
Give Me An A! screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.
The cult of Benson and Moorhead deepens with their latest feature which manages to explore fascinating phenomena through a rather more intimate, restricted setting.
Synopsis: When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realize documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives. An ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole, their friendship frays as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city and each other.
Across their previous work, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have established a knack for bringing engaging characters to the screen, foregrounding those relationships as an anchor for their explorations of sci-fi concepts. Something In The Dirt continues that preoccupation with intense male friendships while also adding a detailed, sinister, and, at times, playful, exploration of conspiracy thinking.
A meeting between divorcé John (Aaron Moorhead) and drifting barman Levi (Justin Benson) soon transforms into a folie à deux relationship of mutual manipulation and a desperate search for meaning after the discovery of strange phenomena in Levi’s new apartment. Moorhead and Benson are no strangers to acting opposite one another, allowing them to centre that chemistry, bringing a likeability to both characters even when playing with evolving audience perceptions of them. While films like Resolution, The Endless and Synchronic all focus on long-term relationships and the baggage that comes with them, Something In The Dirt finds tension in the new, unpredictable partnership they find themselves in.
The production design is excellent, bringing to life the apartment where the pair spend the bulk of their time. Much is made of the escalating heat within the space, with the walls seeming to sweat and buckle under it. There is an initial simplicity to the phenomena that aids the development too – too much too soon and the believability of the scenario is lost so the initial visual hook proves essential for providing that first spark. This attention to detail delivers further when the pair venture outside in search of further clues with symbols, shapes, and even references to their previous work (most specifically The Endless) appearing. The entire design places the viewer in the same space as Levi and John, challenging them to find the same clues (or even different ones) to the two men. Despite being a pandemic project, there is very little mention of those circumstances, with Levi and John isolated not by any outside restrictions but by their own directions in life. Both are defined, to some degree, by their loss of connection to those around them.
Los Angeles also plays a crucial role in the film in terms of how it can be demonised or romanticised as ‘LA Magic’. Levi’s video of a coyote wandering near the apartment operates as a moment of quiet beauty and danger simultaneously. Recent conspiracy thriller The Scary of Sixty-First used New York to the same effect, making the city an integral part of the mood and tone of the film in their contrasts between festive advertising and buildings adorned with gargoyles. The relative anonymity of a big city makes the connection between two people who appear to share the same vision a rather more seductive one and that sense of being lost to the conspiracy as an escape from an otherwise disappointing reality is one that is impossible to ignore. However you choose to interpret the film’s reality of ‘what actually happened’ that thread remains. From the outset, the seemingly constant noisy hum, heat and movement of LA is foregrounded with wildfires, earthquakes and low-flying planes all a quietly accepted part of life.
In terms of the references to their other work, it feels important to note that previous knowledge is not essential and elements like a photograph, film poster, or beer advertisement will strike a chord with fans without disrupting the experience for unfamiliar viewers. More rewarding for fans of their previous work is that this feels like a culmination of the pair’s aesthetic and thematic interests. The addition of ‘meta’ elements like the documentary footage wraparound, clips of their own home movies and dramatically elevated reconstructions make Something In The Dirt a film constantly on the move and constantly challenging the viewer to keep up with the thought processes of the central duo. The performances are excellent, with Benson’s rather more sensitive portrayal of Levi pitched against Moorhead’s more intense John to frequently disquieting effect. The talking heads in the documentary portions are convincing too, perfectly adopting the accepted tone of the documentary being pulled together.
Matryoshka dolls that feature as part of a wind chime outside the apartment appear at distinct moments throughout the film as it explores its layers. This is rarely a linear film, especially with the segues to different formats but it somehow finds cohesion in this scattering. Like John and Levi, the viewer becomes free to start imprinting their own meanings and conclusions onto the film, taking up only the threads that resonate.
An entirely magnetic and absorbing work that invites and rewards repeat viewings, Something In The Dirt is a film content to go at its own pace and truly indulges in the strangeness and human nature it wishes to explore.
5 out of 5 stars
Lightbulb Film Distribution release Something in the Dirt in select cinemas on November 4th. Find the list of cinemas here.
A tumultuous coming-of-age tale that indulges the darkness under the surface of a ‘perfect town’.
Synopsis: A group of 8th graders who confront the meaningless of life and leave behind the innocence of childhood.
There are two distinct worlds established at the outset of Nothing – the outward-facing, rule-observant idealistic one, full of parents who want their children to be guided in the right direction and the one beneath that image, of children left alone to fill their time, resulting in the group starting to explore their own directions and meanings in life.
Writer-director Trine Piil Christensen, adapting from Janne Teller’s novel situates herself firmly in the world occupied by the children, keenly aware of the adult’s indiscretions and relative lack of interest. The film’s inciting incident in which school boy Pierre Anthon (Harald Kaiser Hermann) has an outburst at school, declaring everything meaningless, before retreating to the safety of a nearby tree and refusing to come back down is an unusual one, seemingly purposely chosen to showcase the ineffectual parenting surrounding them. The rest of the children begin to mount a campaign to show him what they find meaningful, but Pierre Anthon’s existential crisis soon sets in motion an epidemic of nihilistic thinking amongst the group.
Much of the early parts of the film rely heavily on a voiceover from Agnes (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) who calmly intones about tragedies yet to unfold. At times, this feels like too much of a shortcut, with much of what we know about the characters delivered through that voiceover, rather than in more organic ways. This does occasionally feel clumsy, introducing snippets of exposition just before dramatic events without allowing the viewer to understand entirely. However, given that this film is largely concerned with the troubles of meaning (or lack of meaning) this does function on another level, prompting the audience to view each incident through both Agnes’ meaning and what plays out in front of them.
The sedate pacing too, imbues the film with the same impression the audience is given of the children’s lives. These are children with lots of time to spend together and they struggle to fill that time. Even those who are given parental figures with more status or involvement, like Frederik (Frederic Linde-Fleron), the head teacher’s son, are only viewed fleetingly, based on the ideas the group have about them. This, again, is assisted by the voiceover but the need for it to do quite so much of the heavy lifting in building that world sometimes bristles. This, along with a swerve into an odd direction during the third act that is not quite given the time it requires, hints at a sense that this would perhaps sit more comfortably in a much longer, episodic format.
This is, perhaps obviously, given the subject matter, an incredibly dark film, especially with so many younger performers involved. These dark moments are handled with an appropriate sense of dread and while many of the scenarios could easily stray into the exploitative (and may well overstep that line for some), there is an impressive amount of restraint employed, holding back so the moments that are fully revealed to the audience hit all the harder. The escalating trades the children begin to make in their search for meaning grow steadily darker and the young cast are all excellent at conveying their sways from innocence, to sadistic behaviour, all with a sense of insecurity at the heart of it. Maya Louise Skipper Gonzales is a standout as Sofie, taking a role that could easily become cliche and making it compelling.
While Speak No Evilmay be the Danish horror that has everyone talking this year, Nothing also offers that very European darkness and unsettling themes that linger beyond the credits.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Nothing screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.
Following the initial announcements, the full lineup for both the in-person and online festival editions have been revealed, promising more of the eclectic indie genre cinema the festival has been bringing to lucky patrons for years.
The in-person festival kicks off on November 11th at the Whirled Cinema in Brixton, London with the virtual edition taking place a week later. Boasting a huge 30 features and more than 50 short films programmed with them, the festival is a real celebration of both forms.
The physical festival opening film, NylaInnuksuk’s SLASH/BACK sees an alien invasion face off against underestimated teenagers. Other highlights include MEGALOMANIAC, described as being in the same sphere as films of the New French Extremity which is obviously a massive selling point for me. Jarring but enjoyable HYPOCHONDRIAC receives a further preview following an excellent reception from its FrightFest screening.
The virtual festival kicks off on 18th November, allowing festival attendees a little time to recover before serving up a further collection of horrific treats. Describing anything as The Wicker Man meets Bridesmaids will always peak my interests, so STAG is certainly one to watch. Previously announced found footage film WHAT IS BURIED MUST REMAIN joins the likes of ABYSSAL SPIDER, ensuring there really is something for everyone.
A collaborative effort, awarded the Best Directors in the Fantastic Fest Horror Features category brings plenty of variety to this solid anthology.
Synopsis: A police raid uncovers a mysterious man chained up in a locked room. This mysterious man, who only refers to himself as the Traveler, leads us through four stories.
The Traveler (Efren Ramirez) is taken into police questioning following the gruesome discovery of a warehouse in which numerous people have been killed. As the lone survivor, he is of particular interest in finding out what has happened, but as the questioning progresses he seems to reveal more questions than answers.
Anthology films have to achieve a balance between their stories – too much comedy and each segment starts to feel similar, too much outright horror and the overall feel is too heavy. Satanic Hispanics, while leaning somewhat towards the more comic side just about gets this right. The wraparound set in the police station offers plenty of moments for the film to poke fun at itself as increasingly puzzled Detective Gibbons (Sonya Eddy) and Arden (Greg Grunberg) try to keep pace with his fantastic stories. The easy chemistry between the trio allows the film to rest between segments, building up to a visually impressive, music video-like finale.
Director Demian Rugna immediately delivers on the scare factor with a story about a man named Gustavo (Demián Salomón) who has seemingly found a way to make contact with the afterlife. However, as with many otherworldly discoveries, this has implications that he is soon forced to confront. This has a few well-pitched scares, coupled with a genuinely engaging concept, making it the perfect introduction.
Immediately switching tones, we head into the proudly silly El Vampiro, in which a mix-up over timings sends the titular vampire (a strong comedic showing for Hemky Madera) into a panicked rush for home. After the weight of the first entry, this provides a much-needed reset. This section is one of two that I would really appreciate seeing with a crowd (the other being the Hammer of Zanzibar) as the construction and escalation of the comic elements feel specifically designed for a late-night festival audience.
That isn’t to say that Satanic Hispanic forgets to provide horror, however, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s segment provides an emphasis on ritual and pain. While there is plenty of horror action elsewhere, this is the section that leans into a sense of brutality, seeking to make the most of the physicality. Close-ups enhance the sense of suffering throughout, making it one of the film’s most tactile entries. The placement allows for an ebb and flow of tone, offering the darker entries a lighter counterpart.
Impressive in its ease of atmosphere and keeping the number of stories manageable, Satanic Hispanics stands to be a real festival crowd pleaser.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Satanic Hispanics screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.
High energy frights, religion and family ties make for an overly familiar horror outing, albeit one with a pleasingly mean streak.
Synopsis: A family struggling with loss finds themselves at the mercy of an ancient demon trying to destroy them from the inside.
Arthur (Nick Blood) is returning to his roots, bringing along his wife Claire (Emily Wiseman) for what will be a tense reunion. While his father Saul (Allan Corduner) does seem to want to welcome him back, a more chilly reception awaits him from Heimish (Paul Kaye). Familial differences are not the only issue, however, as a body brought to the funeral home proves to be anything but routine.
The opening scene of The Offering functions as a decent showcase for what is to come, introducing a scene of religious-leaning horror, based around a demon known as ‘the taker of children’. With that unpleasant groundwork laid, the film switches to Arthur and Emily, starting to foreground Arthur’s departure from his community and the tension that brings to both of them. That they are visiting a funeral home soon sets expectations for creepy goings-on that the film is keen to progress.
Placing the action in a Jewish community presents an opportunity for the film to explore some often-underexplored customs and beliefs but this is arguably one of the film’s weaknesses. Throughout, you want more of that identity, more of those elements that could help it stand out. Aside from a few moments of ritual that are both compelling as well as important set ups for later events, this feels far too divorced from it, resulting in a film that feels too similar to many other horror films. This is not aided by some uninspiring CGI and a colour scheme that fails to differentiate it from other genre pieces.
Where the film works well is in the way it mostly confines characters to the funeral home, building up the pressure but also a kind of geography of the house that translates to the viewer, adding to the anticipation of the next scare. The Offering does possess some great kinetic energy with the funeral home doors slamming and swinging to avoid things feeling static in the same surroundings. Elsewhere an otherwise well-worn scare involving a camera finds a partial swerve that satisfies. However, much of this became standard jump scare fare with sudden bursts of volume drawing attention over anything more unique.
Those with more of an appetite for this kind of horror will likely rate this much higher and it should certainly find an audience looking for a late-night creep-fest.
2.5 out of 5 stars
The Offering screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.
Edouard Salier’s vision of brothers coming to terms with a life-changing event is striking, absorbing work.
Synopsis: Year 2041, France, two trained astronaut twins go through a lot when one of them is contaminated with a mysterious residue from space.
Tristan (Louis Peres) and Lazaro (Pablo Cobo) are twin brothers, deep in training for a desperate colonisation mission named the Eternity mission. With their physical and mental condition of primary importance, both of their lives are thrown into chaos when Tristan is injured during a late-night swim.
The genre elements of Tropic are fairly light-touch, for the most part, allowing the film to focus on the characters rather than the specifically ‘sci-fi’ trappings. Much of the early part of the film is given over to getting to know the brothers and witnessing their training. That context and foregrounding of their relationship set the tone for what follows. That said, those elements are well realised, with Tristan’s condition managing to convey a sense of the otherworldly alongside very human pain. The inciting incident is handled brilliantly, giving a sense of scale without feeling out of place for an otherwise entirely grounded film.
Setting the action only around 20 years in the future frees the film from needing to add too much in the way of on-screen technology or effects. Rolling news channels may be discussing space in a way that feels futuristic but they still look very much like today’s offerings. This is a film that is more concerned with exploring the casualties of relentless progress and the cost of that to everyone. The Eternity mission is given vital importance in the film’s world, thanks to ecological concerns on Earth reaching a dangerous peak. The solution to colonise another planet, requiring immense efforts and damage is one that the film allows to hang over its characters for the duration.
Salier provides a contrast between the intensity of the brother’s training and their more relaxed home life. The switch from the stark surroundings of the training facility and the sun streaming through the windows of their home perfectly shows the strange situation the young men find themselves in. The pair playfully joking with their mother about her dating prospects feel worlds apart from the stoic men we see during their training. An intimate, hand-held camera enhances the closeness to the characters and is allowed to become almost dizzying when the action calls for it. Brief, tranquil chapter cards appear over scenes of nature, offering pause from the film’s emotional and physical movement.
For the most part, this rests on the performances. Peres’ Tristan is sidelined to some degree by the nature of what has happened to him but still delivers a solid performance with deeply affecting moments. As Lazarou, Cobo takes up a lot of the film’s space – it is his reckoning with the world he finds his brother in, with its cruelty and pushing progress above all else. It is a magnetic performance, full of moments of hypocrisy, tenderness and rage. Marta Nieto completes the family with a performance that grapples with keeping her commitments to both her sons. While the central family takes up much of the time, a strong supporting cast provides the links to the other trainees as well as a group that Tristan finds a kinship with.
A stunning, light-touch genre effort with haunting, human moments.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Tropic screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2022. Find out more about the festival at their webpage.
A clash of cultures and values makes for bleak viewing in this impactful film.
Synopsis: A Danish family visits a Dutch family they met on a holiday. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unraveling as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of unpleasantness.
During my first watch of Speak No Evil, I realised I’d stopped taking notes about halfway through, instead becoming absorbed in the incredible discomfort that the film offers up. This is the kind of horror that you want nothing more than to look away from, yet the compelling treatment of the two opposing views held me in a vice-like grip from start to finish. Speak No Evil functions exactly like the metaphor of a frog in gradually boiling water, seemingly unaware that the temperature is rising to harmful levels. Initially, there is a cringe factor, drawn from their clashing values and while the film hints from the very beginning at something far more sinister, it does excellent (and torturous) work in drawing that out until the very end.
When Bjørn (Morten Burian) and wife Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) meet Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) on holiday, they assume they won’t meet them again, initially writing off offers to visit as nothing more than politeness. However, Patrick and Karin are keen to have them visit and eventually a letter prompts Bjørn and Louise, along with daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) to leave Denmark and go stay with them. As the weekend progresses, so do the clashes between their ways of life, causing issues between all concerned.
Fear of ‘the other’ in horror is nothing new, whether that other comes in human or more overtly monstrous form. Speak No Evil finds its monsters in a domestic space and is all the more horrific for it. Disagreements about food, public displays of affection and raising children are all dialled up to squirm-inducingly uncomfortable levels. Sections of Speak No Evil feel ripped from scaremongering tabloid pages – approaching satirical levels of ‘stranger danger’ that the film pays off in its most distressing scenes. This isn’t to say that director Christian Tafdrup is taking a conservative viewpoint, however – the film feels closer to lampooning those views in its taking events to the extreme than it does comfortably sitting within them.
Boredom and restraint loom like a spectre over the film, with Bjørn viewing their new acquaintances as more exciting than a life he’s fallen into a rut with. His intrigue about them and a clear dissatisfaction with his own life drive him perhaps even more than the politeness that the film otherwise seizes upon. The dry civility with which they live their lives leaves him open to the more expressive, louder inclinations of their hosts. Louise is more under the microscope of the hosts, especially as she is more vocal in her opposition to them. A particularly nervy scene sees Patrick challenge her on her vegetarianism by drawing her on her hypocrisy of eating fish yet refusing meat. We are invited to view the Danish couple as complacent in their middle-class status, paying lip service to environmental concerns but prioritising their own comfort.
Meanwhile, the Dutch couple, despite their initially friendly hospitality is characterised by emotional outbursts. Patrick’s confrontational nature is terrifying, whether it comes in the form of shouting or quieter tearing down. The casting is excellent here, as are the decisions made around the use of language. Some elements are not subtitled, offering a way for both couples to confer without letting the other side in on details. A dramatic score is in place from the very start – it unnerves even when the action feels static and supposedly safe, consistently placing the viewer on edge. This sense that brutality may be around the corner never lifts. In horror, a jump scare or act of violence operates as a release of energy – here that release is denied, culminating in a conclusion that is represented in coldly hollow terms.
Gripping and uncomfortable throughout, Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil may be the meanest film of the year.
Social mobility comes with a hefty cost in Duncan Birmingham’s sharp thriller.
Synopsis: Adam and Margo’s housewarming party is a success. One couple linger after the other guests, revealing themselves to be wealthy neighbors. As one night cap leads to another, Adam and Margo suspect their new friends are duplicitous strangers.
That houses retain the memories and events from what has happened within them is pretty common ground in horror films, usually in the form of a haunting. Who Invited Them finds a space between a haunting and a home invasion, with the home and the people in them taking on an uncomfortable edge. Adam (Ryan Hansen) and Margo (Melissa Tang) are settling into their new home – a home they have previously thought out of their reach. “A house is only as good as the people who fill it,” is offered by way of a toast – with an underlying, sinister indication that those who do not belong can sour it. Whether this statement applies to Adam and Margo, or their unwanted visitors is a concept that the film probes repeatedly.
A line of dark humour runs throughout the film, whether that’s in stark cuts to horrific scenes as characters correct themselves on story details or the interplay between the four characters flips from good-natured to increasingly confrontational. The entire cast is excellent, with Tom (Timothy Granaderos) and Sasha (Perry Mattfeld) initially presented as affable and enthusiastic. Their enthusiasm remains even as their behaviour takes a darker turn, offering quips and asides that add to how watchable the film is, balancing dark ideas with genuinely funny moments.
Adam and Margo are pitched as characters so open to flattery that it places them at risk. Adam’s desire to fully embrace his position in the new house is tied to his ideas of self-esteem. His assertion that they ‘deserve’ this new home and the status it brings dominates his other behaviours and causes him to ignore the discomfort of both Margo and their son Dylan (Kalo Moss). Handwaving their concerns as a case of ‘new house jitters’, his aspirations further an already visible distance between the family. This makes Margo all the more open to the flattery that Sasha offers about her ‘previous life’ as a performer in a band. Due to a lack of communication and different ideas, the pair become increasingly prone to manipulation.
Coming in at around 80 minutes, this is an excellent example of a film finding the ideal time in which to tell the story. With the action largely set in one location, it would be easy to try and overstuff outside elements, but the charisma of the cast is enough to support the relatively simple story. Some will find the direction it heads in to be unsurprising, but the journey is satisfying nonetheless.
Strong performances elevate this thriller in which dark secrets lie beneath a veneer of showy surroundings.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Who Invited Them is available to watch on Shudder.
The Rubicon Films team tackle the mysteries of the deep in this documentary.
Synopsis: Director George Popov presents a voyage exploring terrifying ghostly tales of the sea and monstrous horrors from the deep.
Producing two documentaries within a year is not to be sniffed at, especially ones as rounded as both Sideworld outings. I’ve previously reviewed the Sideworld: Haunted Forests of England on the blog and thankfully, Terrors of the Sea follows in the footsteps of that production in terms of its construction and focus on smaller, easy-to-follow myths, legends and supposed encounters.
The sea is, to put it simply, terrifying. Vast and with so many elements still unknowable (or at least incredibly difficult to research) it represents many things beyond human comprehension. As the documentary itself states, the sea has often been framed as a ‘dwelling for ancient and cosmic evil’. It is no surprise then, that myths, legends and stories come to fill in the gaps of understanding, but often spark more questions than answers.
Like the haunted forests counterpart, Terrors of the Sea breaks its hauntings into sections, focusing on ghostly vessels, sea monsters, tragic sailors and mermaids. There are passing references to perhaps more well-known stories that segue into smaller tales that are given specific focus. In most, the human side of these stories is focused on: love affairs gone wrong, indifference to those in need of help and a human tendency toward violence in the face of the unknown. This again, helps in the balance for sceptical viewers, with the stories able to be understood as genuine sightings or cautionary tales developed to warn us of our own destructive tendencies.
In dealing with the more otherworldly elements the film leans into illustrations and ponders other explanations. The on-screen text draws focus, where necessary, to multiple sightings, connecting the myths to glimpses of personal experiences. Illustrations are used to highlight these stories, all supported by the calm, reflective narration of George Popov. There is less emphasis on eyewitness sightings described via voiceover but where they do appear they so much to provide a spooky atmosphere.
At just over an hour long, Terrors of the Sea arrives as another example of Rubicon Films’ short but perfectly formed illustrated documentaries.
4 out of 5 stars
Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea is now available on Prime Video.