Salem Horror Festival 2021: What Happens Next Will Scare You

A tour through the weirder side of the internet that makes the most of its concept and resources.

Synopsis: Working late on their Halloween feed, a motley crew of internet journalists share their top thirteen scariest viral videos, but when an early entry curses our snarky hipsters, they must distinguish fact from fiction before a tidal wave of terrifying supernatural activity leads to real-life murders.

The last film with a clickbait title I watched was 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Bigfoot (I believe the film has now been renamed for brevity’s sake as I’m pretty sure it also had a further extension of the title into Number One Will Surprise You or something similar) so What Happens Next Will Scare You had plenty to live up to in those terms. What we get over the course of a relatively short runtime is a mostly effective skewering of internet tropes and the scares promised too.

What Happens Next Will Scare You deserves a great deal of praise for the way it handles the movement through different internet aesthetics to showcase the viral videos. Constructing the perfect mean girl vlog, grainy VHS recordings and dimly lit dashcam footage to name but a few means all the videos feel distinctly different and as a result, allow the film to have more fun with the format. This follows an opening sequence consisting of a collage featuring links and clickbait headlines that escalate in their strangeness. It evokes that feeling of stumbling into an internet rabbit hole, sent to stranger and stranger videos. While it does occasionally take the easy way out (there is a screamer gag here early on, for those who struggle with that kind of thing), it does so to further its observations of online culture.

Within that online culture, it looks at the creation of new content, but also positions the internet as a space for found artefacts – previously forgotten videos and curiosities that when divorced from their wider context tend to take on even more sinister qualities. While this is a film primarily focused on trying to have fun with its scares, its treatment of online culture and related media gives it a little extra weight.

Some performances occasionally feel flat but this is more a consequence of not spending that much time with the characters themselves, meaning performers have less time to make a mark, as opposed to having to react to the videos in fairly quick succession. Crowding the space with so many performers when factoring in those featured in the videos does make it difficult to connect on a deeper level, but that is a small complaint when the star is the treatment of the internet and the ability to cram in as many different kinds of scares as possible.

Overall, this is a film that manages to echo the culture it seeks to represent, despite limited means (and sometimes these limits are a little too visible) and has plenty of fun and jolts along the way.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

For more information on the Salem Horror Festival please see their webpage.

Fantastic Fest 2021: V/H/S/94

A break from the format for several years and a more timely period setting finds a more comfortable space for the franchise’s return.

– V/H/S/94 – Photo Credit: Shudder

Synopsis: A police S.W.A.T. team investigates about a mysterious VHS tape and discovers a sinister cult that has pre-recorded material which uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy.

I’ve always found the V/H/S series to be a bit of a mixed bag, something which impacts numerous anthology-style productions. Depending on your tastes, you’ll either find invention or be completely turned off by a format that restricts film makers while also needing to make an immediate impact. Add to this the fact that the previous films have all felt very ‘boy’s club’ there is perhaps no surprise that the entries have variable reviews. A particular highlight in the series, for me, was Safe Haven from V/H/S/2 so that Timo Tjahjanto was returning for this entry added to the interest in it. More than that, though, was the inclusion of the series’ first female directors, Jennifer Reader and Chloe Okuno.

Jennifer Reader gets the film’s introduction with Holy Hell, introducing the police S.W.A.T team discovering the VHS tapes at a cult compound with an unsettling, if unfocused tour of the house. These discoveries provide the lead-ins to the other films and while it is difficult to see too much of Reader’s stamp, the segments are competent enough and serve their purpose. Okuno’s segment Storm Drain is far and away my favourite of the film, with a balance of observational humour that leans into the time period alongside some of the weirder scares that the film has to offer. Anna Hopkins plays Holly Marciano, an ambitious local news reporter whose desire to unveil the truth behind the ‘Rat Man’ leads her to an exploration of the tunnels under the city. That mix of frights and fun is something I’ve always found absent for much of V/H/S but is very welcome. There is a bonus here for fans of Astron-6 that delights in being able to properly situate itself within the 90s rather than the present-day trappings of the earlier films.

The Empty Wake follows director Simon Barrett’s usual flair for mixing subgenres, setting up a spooky scenario in which an under-attended wake begins to play on the woman assigned to keep watch. The Empty Wake is definitely not one for those who tire easily of motion sickness inducing camera work as much of this segment switches between the static cameras to the fluid camera, swung around doorways and corners with a pace that will likely annoy more than terrify. The result is a mixed bag that struggles to pay off its moments of well-earned tension with a satisfactory conclusion.

Timo Tjahjanto takes the reins for the most dynamic and action-packed entry of the film, The Subject. Tjahjanto is adept at getting his idea over in a short space of time and then allowing the action to speak for itself and this is no different. This segment sets up and delivers on call backs in an effective way, contributing some of the film’s best visuals and visceral impact. This is also the one that turns the furthest away from V/H/S as the medium, presenting something that looks much cleaner and more crisp than the other sections. This crispness better allows for the bloodshed to receive further attention, but in its handling of the fusing of people and machines manages to capture another interesting, dynamic way of capturing first-person focused scenes.

At the other extreme comes Terror from director Ryan Prows. This is the film’s grimiest entry, both in terms of the degradation of the visuals and the subject matter. The segment follows a white terror group who have found a unique weapon to assist them in their preparations to attack the government. The group are depicted as bumbling but vicious, making this likely the most difficult segment to derive any enjoyment from, but it is constructed in a way that exploits that sense of discomfort and ugliness to good effect. The ultimate wraparound feels a little deflating, given the variety of segments featured, although it could be said that that same variety somewhat limits how they can be linked.

V/H/S/94 proves that there is still room for the format to grow and evolve, providing interesting, if imperfect stories that fuse medium, nostalgia and recurring fears. As with any anthology, everyone will likely have their favourites and the ones that fail to impact and this certainly feels like Okuno and Tjahjanto will be the standout names.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

V/H/S/94 screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information. It arrives on Shudder platforms on October 6th.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2021: Young Blood

Much horror draws on the technique of using young eyes to show a different side to the world and the genre regularly deals in coming-0f-age tales that alter the protagonist completely. The wealth of young talent on display in this block is incredible, with bold performances across a range of supernatural or all-too-real horror. All films are available to watch on February 6th from 5pm until 7pm CET. You can see more about the shorts and buy tickets from the Young Blood webpage. These shorts are not geo-locked and can be enjoyed internationally.

The Rougarou

Directed by Lorraine Caffery

The Rougarou features Gerty (Victoria Dellamea), a young girl who is forced to confront an ugly truth when her gang member father Vin (Jacob Tolano) is released from prison. Their distance from one another is enhanced by their repeated needs to question one another on favourite foods, animals and other trivial content that serves to show how superficial their relationship is due to Vin’s lifestyle. The film views the aftermath of violence through Gerty’s eyes, with the acts blamed on the titular Rougarou. All the dialogue feels deeply meaningful, especially sections where Gerty’s love of unicorns seemingly hints at something more than surface beauty. The camera places us alongside Gerty as she starts to explore her surroundings, finding awe in the smallest places to great effect.

She-Pack

Directed by Fanny Oveson

A small moment of defiance sparks increasingly transgressive chaos in this film of a young girl’s birthday pool party gone awry as the group test their power and push boundaries. Starting with the small act of taking “too much” cake and escalating to drink-related testing of one another’s nerves that genuinely made me feel a little unwell, before spilling out into the wider pool area this is a film that gradually turns up the volume. A scene of the girls screaming an insult directed at them, turning it into a rallying cry and badge of honour, is provocative but empowering, pushing back against the expectation for the girls to be meek and quiet.

The Little Demon

Directed by Carol Van Hemelrjick

The Little Demon examines the rising tensions in the house where two parents (Sean Van Lee and Giles Cooper) have become petrified of their daughter (Kaedi Atkins). While she’s outwardly happy with them, despite not being allowed to watch horror films, at night she scratches their door and appears to have a second voice that expresses them harm and a growing appetite that causes further concern. Despite being excellent at drawing on this tension and sense of threat, The Little Demon is also an incredibly sweet tale of a family trying to adapt to the needs of one another.

The Curse

Directed by Ellie Stewart

One of the shortest run times, but The Curse still has a fully developed, fun and excellently styled idea. While it is difficult to say too much about this without spoiling it (although the title should go some way to letting you know what you’re in for here), there’s a comic attention to detail here that deserves celebration.

Bakemono

Directed by Sumire Takamatsu

I’ve been lucky enough to see this delightful short previously as part of the LAAPFF horror shorts block. An act of rebellion from Ayumi (Claudia Fabella) during a hallowed tradition extends an invitation to an unwelcome entity. The effects showing the presence are excellent and keep the tone light enough without losing the sense that it is a horror film.

Fish Whiskers

Directed by Roney

The first thing to highlight about Fish Whiskers is how brilliant each of the young performers is. Introducing us to Agnes (Juliet Di Gioacchino), Grace (Rebecca Chan) and Hannah (Holly Macintyre) as they discuss Agnes’ sporting prowess there’s a sense of sparky confidence that ebbs throughout the film. Grace has a moment of excellent comic timing but it’s Macintyre that has the most difficult role, adding a considerable sense of sadness and later intensity. There’s an excellent building of mood and tone that strikes a very different chord than the opening positivity.

Check out the full line-up for Final Girls Berlin Festival 2021 at their program page.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2021: An Eye for an Eye – Revenge Horror

Horror is one of the strongest genres for harnessing the acts that inspire revenge and the act of taking revenge itself. This block of films runs through many reactions to revenge, from the cathartic to the empty disappointment of unserved justice. All films are available to watch on February 5th from 10pm until midnight CET. You can see more about the shorts and buy tickets from the Revenge Horror webpage.

There Will Be Monsters

Directed by Carlota Pereda

There Will Be Monsters operates as a smart and hard-hitting story with meta elements. Introducing an initially incredibly unpleasant encounter involving a group of men who stop to harass an intoxicated and vulnerable woman on a bench there is a palpable sense of danger. Of course, it wouldn’t be in the revenge category if her initial vulnerability wasn’t turned on its head, which the film manages in economic fashion without ever fully revealing what she is. The final moments are quietly foreboding and sadly relevant, offering comment on the escapism that horror fiction provides from real horror.

Girls’ Night out of Body

Directed by Hillary & Courtney Andujar

A neon skull lollipop looks to spell disaster for the three friends who have taken it from a shop, despite it not being for sale. The set design in this is wonderful, with the motel they stop at full of retro, tacky furnishings that lend the film a lurid and otherworldly sense of style. In another example of this block’s layered storytelling, the revenge being taken for the theft is taken in another direction that ups the style factor even further with a great soundtrack and impressive effects.

La Caza / The Hunt

Directed by Amy Fajardo

La Caza departs from the focus of younger women taking revenge and takes the viewpoint of Alba (Teresa del Olmo). Alba is worn down by her daughter’s marriage to Arturo (Sergio Reques) and given the way he speaks to her, it is understandable. The film deals in the starkness and remote nature of the surroundings, making the trio feel all the more trapped together. Teresa del Olmo’s performance is incredible in its sense of hardly restrained bitterness and that tension manifests physically in every movement. The elements of repetition also assist in creating a stifling atmosphere.

Rong

Directed by Indira Iman

This hyper-stylised and slickly edited short about a woman attempting to walk home alone hits all the right notes for revenge horror. Introductory shorts of men looking at a woman are drenched in silent threats and the escalation of that threat is played in suitably sinister fashion. Skilful in both its use of studied closeups as well as making the most of its secluded location with dramatic lighting it is visually striking even as it explores the deeply unpalatable. Clever in its use of repeated dialogue and with an dark sense of magic in its movement, Rong leaves an impact.

Scout

Directed by Kodie Bedford

While none of the films in this section make for particularly comfortable viewing, Scout is arguably the most difficult. Scout (Katherine Beckett) is kidnapped from her flat and finds herself held captive in a trafficking ring. There, she is involved in tense companionship with Jodie (Shakira Clanton) and Andy (Tamala Shelton) as the trio come to terms with their situation. The contrast between their living conditions and the club they are brought to operates as a powerful visual for the difference in power relations between the groups. Those power relations are played with throughout, in the differing reactions among the women, some forming intense attachments with captors while Jodie’s anger at the way missing women are treated depending on their race strikes a chord. Building a truly ominous tone and not shying away from the grimness of the situation, Scout is an effective, empathic film.

The Fourth Wall

Directed by Kelsey Bollig

From the opening moments, featuring a woman’s voice directing and altering the opening credits, The Fourth Wall presents itself as a film about subjectivity, perfectionism and taking control. Lizzie Brocheré’s Chloé is aggrieved by her co-stars, with their sexual relationships and lack of ability to speak French disrupting her own sense of performance. Chloé’s frustration translates into self-destructive rage that the film draws you further into with a near-constant low-level thrum on the soundtrack as she moves through neon-lit corridors. Brocheré’s magnetic presence, the flowing backstage camera work and darkly comic edge all combine to create something really special.

Check out the full line-up for Final Girls Berlin Festival 2021 at their program page.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2021: Cabin Fever – Isolation Horror

Isolation has been a prominent and let’s face it, valid concern for some time. Humans are social animals and strange things can happen when loneliness takes hold. The shorts in this block all serve to look at the horror that loneliness and isolation can create. All films are available to watch on February 5th from 4 until 6pm CET. You can see more about the shorts and buy tickets from the Isolation Horror webpage. These shorts are not geo-locked and can be watched internationally.

Nyt Kun Olet Minun (Now That You’re Mine)

Directed by Petra Lumioksa

One of the longer shorts in the block, at almost 40 minutes long, Now That You’re Mine is a deliberately plotted tale of increasing anxieties and mistrust as Aava returns home with her partner Heidi to a frosty reception from her sister. The run time works in its favour – there’s too much the film wants to do to be less than 20 minutes but it doesn’t fall into the habit of adding padding to push up the run time either. To some degree the film plays its hand too early, numbing the sense of surprise involved in numerous reveals, but the changing hostilities between the women are still enough to sustain it. Aava’s growing sense of threat is punctuated by startling dream sequences The isolated location that the two sisters know better than Heidi adds a further sense of risk and alienation. One of the more memorable stylistic moments of the film sees Aava listening to an old CD and as the CD skips, so do the images she is recalling, making for a visual take on the fluidity and unreliability of memories that forms the backbone of the tension.

Lose it

Directed by AJ Taylor & Maximilian Clark

Lose It expertly uses music to tell a tale of seclusion, introducing the rich sounds as a soundtrack to the woman’s solo dinner that create an absorbing atmosphere. As she realises her keys are missing and she is trapped, that music is abruptly taken away, leaving a considerable void in the film that draws a sharp intake of breath. A powerful, punchy portrayal of how isolation can take everything from someone.

A Dinner Party

Directed by Michèle Kaye

Squirreled away in the aftermath of an apocalyptic incident, Ruby (Alyssa Capriotti) is holding a dinner party. Her unusual guests react overenthusiastically to her offerings and their attempts to replicate the normality of a dinner party in such a bleak situation soon take a turn for the grotesque. The design of this is excellent, with plenty of attention to detail in costuming and unpleasant details. Striking a balance between its moments of deadpan, near-comic dialogue and the intensifying feeling of dread, this is a film about responsibility and desperation.

Fat Henry

Directed by England Simpson

One of the lower budget films within the block, Fat Henry uses its handheld, intimate camera to disquieting effect in this desperately tragic tale. Likely a side effect of Simpson taking on directorial and lead performer duties, central character Jada is repeatedly seen walking into frame, a quirk that lends the film a sense of something or someone consistently watching and following her. Jada is plagued by her loneliness and there is a sense that her drug use and self-harm are both a coping strategy as well as something that keeps her from her daughter. When she sees an advertisement for a role in Fat Henry, she’s led into an increasingly nightmarish scenario with a bleak punchline.

Stucco

Directed by Janina Gavankar

Stucco is a film I’ve been able to see previously at Fractured Visions Festival and the effect of it definitely doesn’t dull with repeat viewings. A woman creates a whole in the wall of her home and has a rather surprising reaction to it. In an early scene, we see how J (Janina Gavankar) is confined to her house and how this fear of the outside leads her to probe the unknown space within the wall. The effects are excellent and the piling on of atmosphere and strangeness enhances some of the more dreamlike elements.

Check out the full line-up for Final Girls Berlin Festival 2021 at their program page.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2021: It’s Coming From Inside the Screen! – Cyber Horror

The Cyber Horror strand of short films at this year’s Final Girls Festival feels like a nod to the increased time we’ve all spent in front of our devices and online as part of the pandemic. In terms of working, being social and entertaining ourselves, the good and troubling aspects of the internet have arguably never been in sharper focus. This collection of shorts explores these themes of online identity, exploitation and connection. All films are available to watch on February 4th from 6 until 8pm CET. You can see more about the shorts and buy tickets from the Cyber Horror webpage.

Spyglass

a women sits at a laptop
Directed by Javi Prada

Challenges on social media are not new – whether they be good-natured awareness raising for charity, celebrating a song or skill, they’re everywhere. Spyglass takes this to a darker spot, with the pink lighting and unicorn photographs in the background contrasting heavily with the rising anger of Sara (Paula Muñoz). Intending to test the speed of an ambulance to an emergency, she tells her followers that they are about to watch her drink hydrochloric acid. The style of this short works in its favour, with comments from the stream repeatedly confronting the viewer. Muñoz’ development from outward anger and reckless point-proving to a more restrained, bitterly furious when she feels she isn’t’ receiving the appropriate reaction is genuinely chilling. Prada’s direction teases the act of witnessing something awful throughout but the restraint employed when that shock arrives has an even greater impact. A film that at first feels like it treads familiar ‘anything for followers’ ground, has a real sting and something far more harsh to say about courting attention online.

Don’t Text Back

Directed by Kaye Adelaide and Mariel Sharp

I have been lucky enough to have seen Don’t Text Back a few times throughout 2020 but it is a film that due to its sparky dialogue and chemistry between lead performers that never fails to raise a smile. Turning its critique on toxic relationships and portraying the magnetic pull to keep engaging with damaging apps into a physically and emotionally punishing behaviour without ever losing its sense of comedy, this is an excellent short. I’ve linked to my full review from the Summer for greater depth.

Fragile.com

Directed by Alison-Eve Hammersley

Alison-Eve Hammersley has created a deeply affecting portrayal of manipulation and an exploration of how anything can become a commodity online: even emotional pain. Mara (a delicate and well-rounded performance from Carly Stewart) is struggling to connect with the men around her and despite feeling a connection on stage with one boy, she is subject to rejection – something furthered by showy “prom-posals” going on around her. Her fortunes appear to change when she meets Duco (Colin Woodell) who sees the beauty in her crying. What unfolds is a methodical and often detached, but stylish deconstruction of groomers and their methods, taking on themes of dissociation and online performativity as it progresses through some excellent sequences that highlight Mara’s duality. The way that some fragile.com subscribers react to the emotional distress on display is chilling, as are the signs that Mara’s identity and psyche are under threat. In all, this is effective, nightmarish horror with roots in all-too-real dynamics.

Swipe Up, Vivian!

Directed by Hannah Welever

Set in a version of the future (that doesn’t feel too different to our current situation) where people are confined to their homes, Swipe Up, Vivian! takes the block in a rather more hopeful direction than some of the other entries. Astrology enthusiast and agoraphobe Vivian (Emily Marso) is largely content with her life of solitude, despite her sister’s concerns. This is until a moment where she accidentally begins to choke and realises that there would be no one there to save her. That anxiety prompts her to sign in to Bliss, the film’s hologram-based take on Tinder. After matching with Katrina (Mary Williamson), Vivian is forced to confront numerous breaches of privacy and even worse, opening up to another human, despite a case of chronic overthinking. The tentative chemistry between Marso and Williamson works well as the story develops into the difference a connection can make to someone.

Kalley’s Last Review

Directed by Julia Bailey Johnson

Heartbreakingly earnest and hopeful beauty vlogger Kalley (director Julia Bailey Johnson) has been given the opportunity to review an at-home chemical peel. Taking on all the qualities of YouTube beauty videos, Kalley is initially a bubbly personality keen to improve her following and this sense of desperation to please permeates everything about her. Showing almost boundless positivity even when the peel begins to have unwanted effects and indulging in self-blame (maybe her skin is too sensitive) her nature makes this all the more difficult to watch. Switching effortlessly from reasonably light critique of desperation to be popular and fitting a ‘type’ online, to something far darker that hits far harder, Kalley’s Last Review is the kind of film to really stay with you.

Check out the full line-up for Final Girls Berlin Festival 2021 at their program page.

The Queen of Black Magic

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.

poster of woman holding skull

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.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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.

Luz: The Flower of Evil

Stunning visuals make the brutality stand out even further in this exploration of patriarchal control, belief and emotional discovery.

Synopsis: Far into the mountains, in a community led by a preacher named El Señor, a new child who is supposed to be the new messiah, is brought, and with him destruction and redemption. Soon, everything will change. Not only for the town, but on the preacher’s home as his 3 daughters start to wonder the real origins of God itself, the nature of love, pleasure and inner freedom.

Luz will draw comparisons with other films, drawing on beats from The Witch and covering somewhat similar subject matter to The Other Lamb in terms of a female-focused sense of self-discovery within the confines of a strict way of life. However, there’s such dedication to a striking visual style and a tendency to dial up the brutality that it feels like something different.

A brief note on that brutality: there is sexual violence against women and the scene itself is extended a little further than it needs to be, but mostly avoids being too gratuitous, rightly turning it into an important moment of horror and discovery for Zion (Sharon Guzman), one of the daughters. Of course, there’s rarely a palatable way to showcase that kind of violence, but it does at least serve a purpose. Similarly, a later scene where daughter Uma (Yuri Vargas) falls ill is brutal, impactful and incredibly melodramatic, although possibly suffers for showing too much where the effects don’t quite work in its favour.

Laila (Andrea Esquivel), Uma (Yuri Vargas) and Zion (Sharon Guzman) live under the rule of El Señor (Conrado Osorio) as part of a cult, separated from wider society. Laila is a young woman who discovers a tape featuring classical music, but music is viewed as a gateway to the devil in Señor’s belief system so the tape player is confiscated. This small act of rebellion, along with other transgressions from her sisters seek to destabilise their lives, especially when Señor appears with a young boy he claims to be the Messiah they have been waiting for.

The cast are excellent, each given their own carefully crafted threads that evolve over time. Uma’s growing sexual tension with Adán (Jim Muñoz) explores the difference in how men and women come to terms with their sexuality within the cult. Less overtly sexual, although definitely coded in terms of a sensual awakening, Laila’s escape into a world made more alive by music and Zion’s desire to consume pages of religious texts centre the young women as having a need to explore. Laila’s arc in particular explores power dynamics – the revelation that her tape player can record her voice gives her the autonomous power to create, something that has been denied for much of her life. Honestly, I feel like I could write an entire essay on the shifting power and deeper meanings of this, such is the layered nature of the film. The cast are excellent, without exception and it is these performances that allow both the emotive scenes and stranger occurrences to flourish.

From the opening moments, Luz leans into its incredible cinematography and highly-saturated grading. The use of colour in this film is to be commended for lending it an off-kilter quality – you’re both struck by the beauty of the scenery, but also off-guard because the colours are so intense and almost otherworldly. This manipulation of surroundings continues with night skies given a vibrant, blue starred sky, feeding into the feeling of this as a dark fairy tale. A rapid-cut sequence late in proceedings acts as an excellent, frantic jolt, feeling well-placed among the slower moments. Writer and director Juan Diego Escobar Alzate has an assured control over every scene, such is the meticulous design and gradual development.

Intensely critical of control via religion, Luz does excellent work in drip-feeding more context into the lives of the family. While a little long in places, this truly is slow-burn horror done well, where plot developments not only present scares, but retrospectively turn earlier scenes into greater horror. The nature of some of the dialogue and especially the delivery of some voiceovers does tip into purple prose. In some ways, this fits due to the nature of Señor’s preaching, but it can be difficult to stay immersed in it at times.

Overall, Luz is an excellent work of highly-stylised melodrama that offers a critique of religion as control and an exploration of what it means to leave the confines of control. A dark, affecting fairy tale with incredible style.

4 out of 5 stars

Luz: Flower of Evil arrives on Shudder on December 21st. It also plays as part of the online edition of Fractured Visions in association with Chapter Arts. You can find tickets here.

The Strangers

Second Sight Film’s Blu-ray box set release includes numerous new interviews, two cuts and new essays on The Strangers – a film that has lost none of its scare factor.

Synopsis: A young couple staying in an isolated vacation home are terrorized by three unknown assailants.

The Strangers is an absolute masterclass in tension that wrenches absolutely every bit of turmoil from its chilling but simple premise. It had been some time since I’d watched it and so remember the extended sequences of torment focused on Liv Tyler’s character Kristen but had previously failed to grasp how powerful the largely unspoken tension between the couple is at the outset. The fact that it has no bearing on the rest of the plot is effective as it sets up that early feeling of discomfort with such ease.

Although it was released later than films like Ils and Funny Games, The Strangers stands in its own right as a blueprint for home invasion films with Bryan Bertino steering the film into nihilistic, ordeal territory with a keen sense of style and tone-building. His work on recent production The Dark and The Wicked shares so much with The Strangers so it is easy to see him as a creator with a clear vision and recurring motifs. Quality sound is vital for something like The Strangers, given its reliance on short bursts of explosive action. The Blu-ray transfer is of high quality for the impactful soundscape and imagery, allowing all those shots where one of the Strangers emerges from the shadows all the more effective.

Liv Tyler’s performance is brilliant – heavy both emotionally and physically. Her dedication to the performance adds considerably to the brutality of the home invasion. Too delicate a performance would undermine the cruelty of the film. Scott Speedman as James is also great in his role, at the outset his pain at seemingly being unable to make his relationship work is palpable and there’s a continuing sadness he manages to maintain in his character throughout. Without the sympathy for them, the film would lose so much of its power, so their contributions are vital.

The extra material on the disc is of a great standard, comprised of insightful interviews with Bryan Bertino, Liv Tyler, Laura Margolis and editor Kevin Greutert. The content is thorough in terms of the film from both a craft and performance standpoint but also allows the subjects to expand into exploring their other work. There’s a depth in the interviews, but the flexibility makes it feel all the more relaxed. The rationale for cuts, changes and how these were influenced by both cast and crew is well laid out, intercut with relevant clips from the film.

An excellent release for a deeply impactful film, this box set is an excellent addition to any collection.

The Strangers Limited Edition is available from Second Sight Films – currently priced at £22.99.

Special Features

Includes Theatrical Cut and Extended Cut
Because You Were Home: a new interview with Director Bryan Bertino
Cutting Moments: a new interview with Editor Kevin Greutert
The Fighter: a new interview with Actor Liv Tyler
The Pin-Up Girl: a new interview with Actor Laura Margolis
The Element of Terror: interviews with cast and crew
Strangers at the Door: interviews with Director Bryan Bertino and cast
Deleted Scenes
English SDH subtitles for the hearing impaired
Limited Edition Contents

Limited Edition Box Set of only 3,000
Rigid slipcase with new artwork
Soft cover book with new essays by Anton Bitel and Mary Beth McAndrews plus stills and behind-the-scenes images
Poster with new artwork

Fantasia 2020: Kriya

Kriya is an atmospheric, frequently provocative film about the role of gender within Hindu culture.

Synopsis: A young DJ, enticed into a beautiful stranger’s home, is terrified to find himself unable to flee from the death rituals he must perform on the bound and shackled corpse of her father.

Driven by director and writer Sidharth Srinivasan’s discomfort with Hindu and wider Indian culture’s emphasis of men as priority, with male offspring favoured and women expected to take a secondary role, often to their detriment. This discomfort is writ large across the film that displays a ritual that feels intimate, important and intimidating.

Neel (Noble Luke) is a DJ who meets Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) at a club. Their passionate connection is disrupted by Sitara’s sudden change of heart. Her father is dying and soon she convinces Neel to go with her to her home where a vigil has begun at her father’s bedside. What follows is a nightmarish descent in which family loyalties are questioned and sacred rituals are reversed in an increasingly transgressive and disquieting work.

The viewer is placed in the same situation as Neel – thrown into a deeply personal situation with no knowledge of the characters involved. That sense of intrusion, of being somewhere you shouldn’t be is so keenly felt throughout the film. As the reaction to him grows hostile, he repeatedly attempts to leave, but is convinced to stay by Sitara, who uses a mix of her sexuality and that she may be in danger to appeal to Neel’s masculine desires and need to protect. As her father has no male offspring, she is to take on the role of chief mourner and her duties weigh heavily on her, as does her devotion to her father. Both Navjot Randhawa and Noble Luke have great chemistry and this makes even the most uncomfortable reactions between the two really effective.

Filmed in 10 days after almost 10 years of Srinivasan’s initial ideas, Kriya turns the house into a pressure cooker. As rituals evolve, Sitara’s sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj) warns Neel that Sitara, despite her modern appearance is fiercely traditional, but as all the members of the family appear determined to manipulate him, it is increasingly obvious that Neel is alone and vulnerable. Furthermore, he begins to experience disturbing visions and a sense of being called by a figure covered in blood walking closer to him. The tense performances really hold this together and there is a palpable sense that violence or some other disruption is ready to burst at any time.

Complementing the film’s impressive and chilling visuals, Jim Williams’ score brings a similar energy to that of his work on Kill List. Sudden, solitary beats in the soundtrack snap the viewer out of the hypnotic lull that the lush photography and quieter moments provide, repeatedly unseating and adding considerably to the tension. Silence is wielded as a weapon, as are whispers and private conversations.

The rites are shot in close up, with a devoted attention to detail and beautifully realised photography but their perfection and the way they are meticulously carried out lends them a detached and often surreal quality. They are by turns incredibly respectful, laden with care and grief but also almost too still and distant. The strong emphasis on tradition and legacy provides the perfect setting for the story to steadily unravel, exploring the cyclical ways in which tradition can keep people restrained and controlled.

Kriya works both as a chilling horror film and as cultural critique that feels challenging and unsettling. A smart, methodical film with an intensely claustrophobic feel and dedicated performances to match.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Kriya plays Fantasia 2020 on August 26th and 29th.