Salem Horror Festival 2023: Guys at Parties Like It

The legacy of college hazing and rape culture is the focus of this frequently acid-tongued horror.

Synopsis: As part of a brutal hazing ritual, a young frat pledge leads a wasted girl upstairs to swipe his v-card, only to discover getting lucky isn’t so easy.

Guys at Parties Like It starts with an unusual encounter in which Brad (Anthony Notarile) reveals his specific kink to Trixie (Jacqueline O’Kelly). From the outset, sex and aggression are intrinsically linked – an astute commentary on the attitude of sex as conquest pushed by toxic spaces and institutions, especially that of the fraternity. Frats have often hit headlines for the damage done to women and also the men who want to become part of the exclusive, legacy-laden clubs so it stands to reason that horror would seek to explore this further.

Mary (Monica Garcia Bradley) finds herself ostracised at a frat party, at odds with Trixie and the ins and outs of her sex life are under scrutiny. Considered a ‘sure thing’, Brad takes her to his room, increasingly desperate to meet the terms of his pledge and avoid having to participate in a storied ritual. The house becomes a battleground as the two clash.

The quote ‘Delta sees all’ looms large over the film, with the sense that characters are either firmly under the thrall of or utterly trapped by the rigid, cruel system that has been allowed to run unchallenged for decades. A police officer who appears during the events of the film specifically asks about the ritual, chillingly confirming that this is widely known and those who partake find themselves in positions of power.

Monica Garcia Bradley is an absolute force of nature, providing Mary with vulnerability, strength and an overall watch-ability that offers an anchor even in the film’s most challenging moments. Her presence is so completely captivating that even in dialogue-free scenes she steals the show, brilliantly selling an arresting final sequence.

Guys at Parties Like It wields a sharp tongue, dropping references to real sexual assault cases (Brock Turner is, understandably, name-checked) and irreverent dialogue throughout. In some ways, the brutality of language echoes reality with that dark humour becoming a coping mechanism for horrifying behaviour. It would be easy to point to films like Assassination Nation with frank discussions and blunt social commentary as a driving force. There are times, however, when the film wants to indulge in sex comedy tropes and dialogue. Those films also arguably contribute to damaging attitudes about sex and so it makes sense that the film would seek to echo them, but at times, it feels like too much of a contrast to the darker material.

The editing is sufficiently energetic and melds perfectly with a vibrant soundtrack. The film makes the most of largely limited locations, turning the fraternity house into a neon-soaked house of horrors in places. By gradually building a geography of the house, it furthers our identification with Mary in her attempts to escape. The effects are decent too, matching the escalating levels of horror.

An unevenness of mood does somewhat let this down, but a truly great central performance and the commentary it contains make it more than worth a watch.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out 5 stars

Guys at Parties Like It screened as part of Salem Horror Festival 2023.

Salem Horror Festival 2023: Bury the Bride

A bachelorette party goes very wrong in this flawed but diverting horror.

Synopsis: Bride to be June’s bachelorette getaway turns deadly when her blood thirsty fiance and his friends show up to crash the party.

It would be fair to say that June’s (Scout Taylor-Compton) friends and her sister Sadie (Krsy Fox – also taking on writing and editing duties) do not see the appeal of her new fiance, David (Dylan Rourke). In fact, they are downright confused and more than a little hostile about her choice of partner, yet decide to put that aside to go to her bachelorette party. Soon, their evening is interrupted by David and soon, the situation becomes alarmingly clear.

Bury the Bride struggles with pacing, offering a blast of violence in the film’s opening and then slowing considerably to sit with the characters. This is successful to some degree, allowing the relationships between the group to bed in with lively conversations about favourite Spice Girls (complete with some Sporty Spice derision which, not going to lie, nearly lost me right out of the gate – surely she’s the best one?!). Still, it introduces an ebb and flow of tension and friendship that punctuates the film and everyone is delivering fun performances. There are knowing nods to horror conventions, including lines like ‘the hot one never dies first’.

It is a shame, then, that the knowledge of tropes doesn’t translate into boosting this into something more unique. There is some welcome play with the central mythology, which is appreciated and keeps it from being too by the numbers. However, there is a sense that the film believes it conceals the direction it is headed in more than it actually does, dropping too many hints too early on. Although, your mileage may vary on this and you may experience the film’s reveal very differently.

Fox and Taylor-Compton do much of the film’s emotional heavy lifting as the sisters at the heart of the film. Fox has a strong, stoic quality that meets Taylor-Compton’s softer manner as the lost June. Lyndsi LaRose does excellent work with Carmen, who could easily fall too far into stereotype if not for some considered writing and strong performance. The ensemble is rounded out by solid performances from Rachel Brunner and Katie Ryan.

Bury the Bride is in no rush and punctuates this with an elongated dance scene that cleverly marks the close of the film’s focus on building the characters and setting the scene into a greater intensity. Everything escalates, from the soundtrack to performances as the film unfolds. However, that tendency to overextend scenes does have an impact on the film, frequently falling into the trap of telegraphing the next move.

The groundwork in building tension and character relationships are strengths, as is an excellent final scene that does have an impact. However, it is difficult to escape the feeling that there is a shorter, sharper, more satisfying film to be found.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Bury the Bride screened as part of Salem Horror Festival 2023.

All You Can Eat Short Film

A fun display of effects sets the stage for a future feature film.

Synopsis: A young waitress stumbles upon a dark and sinister cabal operating behind the scenes of the fast food diner where she works. She now has the proof she needs to bring this secret to light, but unseen evil forces are unleashed in a bloodthirsty attempt to stop her.

Short films are a specific art form, allowing for the exploration of stories that perhaps don’t suit a longer runtime, but also providing a space for filmmakers to start a creative journey, testing concepts and skills to progress into a feature-length film. All You Can Eat is one of the latter, using 13 minutes that do not quite feel like the start of a feature, but one that acts as a succinct introduction in any case.

Nola (Verity Hayes) is a waitress who is starting to notice more sinister goings-on than the usual idiosyncrasies of her coworkers. When trying to warn a coworker, the secrets are seemingly unleashed on them, kickstarting a fight for survival.

All You Can Eat is clearly a film that takes its styling seriously. From the poster art and lobby card graphics, it is obvious that this is a film that wants to embody that nostalgic B-movie vibe. It maintains this even throughout its restaurant menu-style credits and that level of attention to detail is impressive.

Obviously, much of the focus here is on advertising the progressively gooey special effects and that focus pays off. The design is excellent and better yet, is accompanied by a few perfectly pitched jump scares. An incredibly difficult thing to get right, that it manages it in a short space of time is worthy of praise. Verity Hayes is excellent and focusing on her character’s commentary lends the film a spirited energy.

It is, however, difficult to fully ignore that you are watching a snippet of a feature and that narrative structure does feel lacking. It feels less satisfying than it would without the full context. Despite this, the snippet does introduce numerous concepts that the feature will no doubt expand upon, including a mix of old and new technology with high-energy sequences that promise much more to come.

You can watch All You Can Eat now at the Flying Eyeball webpage.

Mind Leech

A sparky low-budget throwback that will really cling to the right audience.

Synopsis: A very persuasive leech is wreaking havoc in rural Provinstate, 1998. On a mission to expand its horizons, our influential invertebrate enlists the help of the local townsfolk. The Police are soon on the tail of our pesky parasite.

Mind Leech is a film comfortable in its own skin, content to pack fun special effects into a relatively short space of time without feeling the need to add unnecessary padding. It does, perhaps, take a beat too long in the introductory scene, but from there, rattles along at a solid pace.

In taking on a simple, maybe overly familiar idea, the film can instead focus on the fun it has to offer with much of this coming from the effects. Understandably so, given co-director and writer Chris Cheeseman’s experience on films like Jigsaw. Co-director Paul Krysinski also has a wealth of effects experience, which shows in handling the material. Not a single gooey snippet is missed and what self-respecting horror fan doesn’t enjoy the timeless combination of blood and snow?

Steff Ivory Conover makes for a hugely likeable presence as Deputy ‘TJ’ Johnson. In a film at just around the hour mark, you need performers with an immediate impact and she delivers that. With relatively little exposition and a fast pace, that charisma allows for an instant connection.

The film makes the most of its small-town setting, allowing the action to wander while retaining that sense of being somewhat contained. The small-scale setting interacts with the themes set around small-town life, adding meaning to what would otherwise be a purely practical decision that the filmmakers would have to attempt to hide. Keeping the narrative at a manageable scale is commendable and really works in its favour.

This is a low-budget production and at times, it shows. It is also unlikely to present any surprises for frequent horror viewers. Some of this is undoubtedly on purpose, seeking to echo retro monster movies, although it would be nice to have something more surprising to set it apart. This is, however, a very early step for the creators in a directing and writing capacity that gets the basics right, so that is likely to be built upon.

A simple idea, well-executed that will no doubt scratch an itch for those wanting a creature-feature with fun effects and a swift runtime.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Mind Leech is available to view at the MindLeech webpage.

Raging Grace

A film battling between two different threads results in a mixed, but bold experience.

Synopsis: An undocumented Filipina immigrant lands a job as a care-worker for a terminal old man, securing a better life for her and her daughter. But a dark discovery threatens to destroy everything she’s strived for and holds dear.

The first half of Raging Grace operates as a ghost story, both in the camera’s exploration of every nook and cranny of the old house Joy (Max Eigenmann) finds herself in and the experience of Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla), who is moved into the house in secret. As an immigrant, Joy faces discrimination and instability, taking jobs that she is unable to fully rely on so when she is offered work with accommodation she jumps at the chance. However, the home’s inhabitants, Katherine (Leanne Best) and terminally ill Mr Garrett (David Hayman) seem to be hiding dark secrets.

That early setup is dripping in atmosphere, swapping from the fast-paced, choppy edited scenes of Joy hard at work during the day to the long, slow creeps through the creaky dark house at night. Yes, the familiar moments of silence into loud stings are present, but it still feels genuinely spooky, coupled with the constant threat of Grace’s discovery.

A later shift in the film ups the energy and, unfortunately, loses some of that hard-won atmosphere. The further away the film drifts from Joy and Grace as the focus, the less cohesive it feels and the more divorced from the layers of exploitation laid out early on. There are several references to Rudyard Kipling, ranging from poetry quotes peppered throughout the film to props like a bottle of Rudyard’s Shampoo visible in the bathroom. Kipling’s endorsement of imperialism, especially at the cost of Filipino people is particularly relevant to the film’s themes, presented playfully at times, deservedly in contrast to the weightier way it treats Joy’s life.

Raging Grace introduces an interesting visual voice in director-writer Paris Zarcilla, showing an ability to capture sinister high-energy melodrama and tense sequences in addition to brighter, movement-rich scenes. Although the contrast of them within the same film may be too much at times, there is a serious level of technical skill on display.

Some of the elements may not quite gel, but Raging Grace still functions as an interesting tale of inequality in modern Britain, sustained by allegiance to a damaging legacy over humanity with great performances to sell it.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Raging Grace screened as part of SXSW 2023.


A successful expansion of a short film that makes the most of cast chemistry and special effects work.

Synopsis: A young fashion designer’s life spirals as her darkest inner thoughts manifest into something gruesome- that won’t stop growing.

Anna Zlokovic’s original short film (reviewed as part of my Final Girls Berlin Film Festival coverage and available on YouTube) featured Rachel Sennott as a fashion student struggling to impress her difficult tutor and with a rather more literal manifestation of her critical inner voice. The feature version takes that intriguing concept as a jumping-off point for a deeper, wider story.

Swapping out Sennott’s nervous student for Hadley Robinson’s Hannah, a young woman battling to find her voice, the feature seeks to explore the origins and wider implications of anxiety and self-doubt. A domineering, sneering fashion lecturer rejects her work, despite it being drawn from her authentic experience. Her family relationships offer stuffy dinners and repeated criticisms. As the weight of everything presses on her, she soon finds a pain in her side that hints at a much more serious problem. While this explores similar ground to the short, there is much more to be explored within the feature.

Hannah’s anxiety is expressed through body horror – namely the titular appendage, but also in smaller moments with close-ups of anxiety behaviours like skin picking adding an extra layer to her discomfort within her own skin. These moments are effective at building the overall character as well as introducing elements that will likely draw winces. Despite excellent effects, this does feel like it struggles at times to marry the horror and comic elements, having to more obviously switch between the modes to make the narrative work. The darkness that Hannah’s character is required to explore, including her increasing isolation from her friend and boyfriend, is not a completely easy fit for too much comedy early on.

At around the one-hour mark, the film takes a departure from the heavier tone exploring Hannah’s internal life, instead moving to a larger narrative that allows Robinson to have a little more fun with her performance. Joined by Claudia (Emily Hampshire), a woman suffering from the same affliction, the pair’s easy chemistry carries proceedings for a while. Although there are times when this falls into the trap of laboured exposition that lighter reprieve does lend the film a greater balance, making it more enjoyable. This contrasting section held the most appeal to me because of the performances and the sense that the film feels most comfortable in the more overtly comic, or at least elevated (not that kind of elevated horror – elevated as in bringing more excessive elements) space.

While Appendage is too familiar in places and occasionally overwrites its otherwise refreshingly honest yet still positive messaging, it would be an ideal Friday night film, with enough energetic sequences, engaging performances and an overall technical flair to hold attention.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Appendage screened as part of SXSW 2023.

Trim Season

Strong visuals and a cohesive ensemble cast provide Trim Season with some real highs.

Synopsis: A group of young people go to a remote marijuana farm where they hope to make quick cash. But, they discover the location’s dark secrets and now must try to escape the mountain on which they are trapped.

When we are first introduced to Emma (Bethlehem Million) she is facing another setback in her life. Her cracked mobile phone and car windshield are all indications that she is struggling with finances. More of her problem, however, is her overall lack of control and ability to speak out for what she really wants and believes. Taking comfort in Jules (Alex Essoe) on a night out, the pair are introduced to friend-of-a-friend James (Marc Senter) who offers them a quick way to make money on a marijuana farm. As they travel to the farm, they are introduced to others taking the opportunity, but the farm appears to be home to a dark secret.

Trim Season utilises its ensemble cast to great effect, grouping the characters as all in a similar situation – desperate for money and also, to some extent, struggling with their identity. Early in the film, it is established that the job is potentially dangerous, taking place in a near-lawless space with few opportunities to access help if required. The fact that the group is, for the most part female (with one non-binary character) is intentional on part of the farmers, with the belief that women are perceived as less trouble and easier to control through fear. This makes the development of the characters all the more satisfying as those perceptions are challenged. Dusty (Bex Taylor-Klaus) even as a non-binary character suffers from being perceived in gendered terms in one of the film’s most refreshingly representative scenes.

Director Ariel Vida’s production design experience really shines with the initial soft-focus of the establishing scenes giving way to a more vibrant descent into hellish behaviour and visuals. Initial scenes contain a softness which is soon lost, with the surrounding forest taking on a more threatening aura as the film develops. While some may struggle with the slower pace at the outset the film grows considerably in intensity and truly delivers on gorier set pieces in later acts. A perfectly designed scene ruptures all of the scene setting, plunging the viewer into outright horror in a way that feels genuinely unsettling. From that point on, it feels like no one is safe, punctuated by increasingly discombobulated edits and a drastic increase in pace. Jane Badler offers a captivating performance as farm owner Mona, who straddles sophistication and strictness, prone to harsh treatment delivered in matter-of-fact ways.

Arguably more impressive than the film’s striking visuals is how everything is tied to the wider themes and that character-building. This is a film that cares about its characters and that is felt throughout. Emma’s lack of control over her life is echoed throughout the film and it is to Bethlehem Million’s credit that she makes this work so naturally. Emma is not weak or naive, so her struggle to fully vocalise her needs and wants in order to take control feels more nuanced. Ally Ioannides delivers an excellent performance as outspoken stoner Harriet, whose bold nature contrasts with Emma’s, the pair clashing while also attempting to find common ground.

Wrestling complex themes around control and gendered perception into a genuinely disturbing film that delivers on the horror elements, Trim Season is beautifully realised and confident film making.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Trim Season screened as part of the 2023 Overlook Film Festival.

Late Night With The Devil

David Dastmalchian’s smooth talk show host comes undone in this retro-styled horror.

Synopsis: A live television broadcast in 1977 goes horribly wrong, unloosing evil into the nation’s living rooms.

Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) is poised for superstardom, having secured a name for himself as a knowledgeable and affable talk-show host. The late night show status he craves seems within his reach as his current show Night Owls looks to make an impact on Halloween night. With guests assembled and trusty sidekick Gus (Rhys Auteri) at his side, everything looks set for a memorable evening, but soon events take a sinister turn.

Directing and writing team Cameron and Colin Cairnes drop the viewer straight into the unrest and paranoia of 1970s America, including the Satanic Panic (a popular topic at SXSW this year with the documentary Satan Wants You also screening). That early background sets the scene for Jack Delroy’s ascension, explained through collage and voiceover in the film’s introduction. Offering clips of his evolving career and personal life, by the time we get to the night of the broadcast, we already feel like we know Jack, which helps in keeping an early buoyant pace.

David Dastmalchian is utterly perfect here, crafting an image of the host who has seen and most importantly, can handle it all. That smooth surface and easy rapport appears to come so easily that the little cracks he allows to appear in the showman veneer all the more impressive. For a film with some very big, fun and graphic moments, it is the smaller looks and actions from Jack that have left the largest impression.

The construction is a lot of fun, departing from the early montage style to provide a view of the show and behind the scenes. Use of split-screen and switches to black and white cleverly weave the viewer between the two modes with those shifts allowing the overall film to play with tone. This is not a gag-a-minute show but the moments that do indulge in horror really commit. There are, at times, returns to a slower pace but this is a film unafraid to become deliciously unmoored for more heady sequences.

The supporting cast are excellent too, made up of various figures that would have been on the talk show circuit during the 1970s. Christou (Fayssal Bazzi) plays a medium, working with both Jack and the audience to introduce the supernatural concepts into the audience. This gives way to the James Randi-style skeptic Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss) who maintains a strict manner, talking down the spooky happenings. Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and Lily (Ingrid Torelli) appear to bridge that gap between the supernatural and study. Torelli, in particular, is able to capture important small moments that all add to the overall disruptions of the talk-show as it progresses.

Late Night with the Devil feels like it should become essential Halloween viewing with a capable mix of fun, frights and play with the format that delivers a pleasingly spooky package.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Late Night With The Devil played as part of SXSW 2023.

The Beasts (As Bestas)

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s immersive slow-burn drama excels.

Synopsis: A middle-aged French couple moves to a local village, seeking closeness with nature where their presence inflames two locals to the point of outright hostility and shocking violence.

With a runtime of over two hours, it would be easy for The Beasts to lose momentum, but the pauses in the conflict offer much-needed respite for the viewer, who becomes trapped in the escalating tensions between the characters. Sorogoyen’s tendency to overextend scenes perfectly primes the audience for violence but holds back on the release it would provide. The strength of The Beasts is in denying the moments that would bring some kind of resolution, never allowing that intensity to fully dissipate.

When Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs) Denis move to a small village, their aim is for a quieter life, growing and selling vegetables at the market. However, their relocation attracts negative attention from two local men who are determined to unseat their new, peaceful life.

The encounters between Antoine and his aggressors Xan (Luis Zahera) and Lorenzo (Diego Anido) build so gradually and so skillfully that the full effect almost doesn’t register. A heart-in-mouth encounter in a car feels like the first time that threat is almost fully realised, an escalation in behaviour on both sides and perhaps most importantly, Olga’s realisation of how bad their situation is.

Slow crawls through the landscape highlight the rustic nature of their surroundings, contrasting with some of the Denis’ ideas and political aims. The open space becomes just as oppressive as the more enclosed spaces that place the men in close proximity to one another. Even though the final third of the film takes a different direction, the use of space is so clever and thoughtful, contributing to the stresses placed on the characters.

Of course, all the considered use of space and drawn out tension would not work without the cast meeting that intensity. Denis Ménochet is excellent as Antoine, possessing an imposing physicality that, like the film itself, is restrained. Zahera and Anido’s performances deliver on the necessary aggression, while also capturing the more quiet bitterness behind it. Marina Foïs stands out as the film progresses, shifting as her awareness of the situation changes and leaves a lasting impression as the credits roll.

A considered film about male rage and competing interests with an incredible ability to switch tones while sustaining that carefully built tension.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Beasts is available to watch on Curzon at Home.

Sideworld: Damnation Village

The latest Sideworld documentary continues to offer ghostly tours from the comfort of your own home.

Synopsis: Director George Popov explores the dark and disturbing secrets behind three of England’s most haunted villages.

Pluckley in Kent, Prestbury in Cheltenham and Eyam in the Peak District make up the haunted locations in Rubicon Films’ latest journey into England’s spooky history.

The strength of the Sideworld series of documentaries is that they cover a lot of ground within a short space of time. Damnation Village follows that thread, with a film that veers from playful poltergeists to the crushingly relevant story regarding a village that bears the brunt of an infection. That mix of light and dark allows the viewer to settle at the outset, becoming more absorbed as the stories head in a more macabre direction.

Damnation Village views villages as contained spaces of collective grief, held in buildings, landscapes and the people that inhabit them. A reference to The Stone Tape furthers this connection of those spaces as storing traumatic events and repeating them. It is perhaps a shame that there is a focus on just English towns as the rest of the UK has much to offer in terms of strange stories (although this may well be the next step in the film’s journey).

A combination of the reliable voiceover from Popov and recreations of eyewitness accounts prevents the documentary from becoming static, as does a revolving series of scenes from the villages and more abstract illustrations. Where it does pause, however, is far more important, allowing the gravity of one story to fully weigh upon the viewer.

If you are familiar with this series of films, you’ll find another enjoyable documentary here and if you aren’t, the run time of just over an hour makes it the perfect introduction to them.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Sideworld: Damnation Village is now available to rent on Amazon Prime.