Covid-enforced delays and a temporary shift to streaming do little to dampen the (evil) spirits at the UK’s biggest annual midnight movie showcase… It’s been a tough year for the FrightFest crew. Having managed to squeeze in a vintage Glasgow edition in the first week of March – just as the Covid catastrophe was properly shaping up – the traditional August Bank Holiday weekender was truncated and shifted online, with screenings going out live to an audience spread across the British Isles.
Words: Sam Law
The hope was that the normally fleeting October event could become the 2020 flagship, a week out from Halloween.
Unfortunately, the ever-changing government regulations – and a concern for public safety – meant that a blood-and-guts get-together simply wasn’t workable. Immense credit is due, then, for still delivering a five-day/44-film showcase (not counting the shorts) to brighten horror fans’ moods just as the long nights are drawing in.
We open with the world premiere of Held (4/5), which appears at first glance to be a straightforward tech-thriller from Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, creators of The Gallows franchise. Following a couple in the near future, on their ninth-anniversary getaway to a fully-automated holiday home that traps them inside, there are initially shades of everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien to Upgrade and this year’s Invisible Man at play. As revelations are unpacked, however, the tonal shifts towards more kitchen-sink oppressiveness and bloodthirsty satire feel surprising and thrillingly relevant. By contrast, Courtney Paige’s The Sinners (2/5) feels bloated and confused. Set in a small town where ‘there’s no battle between church and state because the church has already won’ and tracking a group of seven teenage girls nicknamed after the deadly sins, occult overtones and a slasher mystery get mashed into the Heathers-indebted pastiche whose storytelling is never nearly as slick as its admittedly-impressive cinematography.
The multiple simultaneous shows are underway by Thursday night and our first selection, Andy Collier and Toor Mian’s Sacrifice (3/5) – on world premiere – is a strange blend of stark Scandinavian spectacle and mind-bending Lovecraftian intrigue. Tracing the return of New York-based ex-pat Isaac and his pregnant wife to the remote Norwegian village of his birth following the death of his mother, it doesn’t take long to spiral into long-robed cult shenanigans, murderous marital tension and talk of a blood-debt owed to the creature that lives deep in the fjord. An exercise in creeping dread that keeps you in its cold grip throughout.
Director Chris Smith has a long history with FrightFest.Having previously premiered Creep (2004), Severance, Black Death, Triangle and Detour as part of the long-weekender, his return comes with some fanfare. And, although pre-World War II ghost story The Banishing (2.5/5) is his lowest-budget offering to date, necessity has obviously bred invention. Telling the tale of a minister’s family in the 1930s falling victim to the darkness of Essex’s Borley Rectory – AKA “The Most Haunted In Britain” – we’re drawn in by an interesting base concept (conflating the looming ecclesiastical and fascist presences in early-20th Century Europe) as well as strong performances from Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan and Sean Harris – on fine form as spivvy, flame-haired psychic investigator Harry Price. Preferring psychological tension and dense, humourless atmospherics, however, it lacks the visceral glee of Smith’s earlier works.
Friday gets underway with Don’t Look Back (2.5/5), the directorial debut from Jeffery Reddick, the writer responsible for the Final Destination franchise. Fixated on karma and its consequences, the film follows the (doomed) fates of a group of bystanders who failed to intervene in an assault-turned-murder. “This story isn’t new…” ruminates the priest at one victim’s funeral. He’s not wrong, as Reddick adheres too close to the Final Destination formula, while never matching that series’ spectacularly gory deaths. Following the recent trend set by Bone Tomahawk, The Burrowers and The Wind, The Pale Door (2/5) is another entry into the burgeoning horror-western subgenre that could be summed-up as “Cowboys vs. Witches”. Unfortunately, it’s never quite as fun as that elevator pitch suggests. Not to worry, though, as Game Of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and the seventh Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy have a blast in The Owners (4/5). An inverted home-invasion horror in the mould of Don’t Breathe – with a dollop of the deranged, darkly funny OAP-horror of M. Night Syamalan’s The Visit – it’s a righteously wrathful nugget with the courage of its bloody convictions.
Stuck in the same slot (but viewed separately), Concrete Plans (4.5/5)is far more of a tense, Coens-esque pot-boiler than an outright horror, but it packs real sledgehammer heft. Exploring the dynamics between a group of builders holed-up to renovate a farmhouse in the remote Welsh countryside, the toff who’s struggling to finance the job, and his distractingly attractive fiancée (The Punisher’s Amber Rose), it’s a fascinating dissection of modern (toxic) masculinity and xenophobia that delivers real tension and tragedy in its inevitably violent spiral. Following that, Neil Marshall’s Witchfinder flick The Reckoning (3/5) feels a little stock. Having honed his epic historical craft with Centurion and numerous epic Game Of Thrones episodes, Marshall undeniably knows how to put a film like this together – and feels extra-motivated by the Studio-meddled failure of his Hellboy –while favourite collaborator Sean Pertwee relishes his role as a sadistic inquisitor. However, although lead actress Charlotte Kirk has the classic looks to pull off her role, she feels like an incongruously modern screen presence with whom it’s difficult to empathise, and the story simply doesn’t deliver any real surprise.
Saturday’s opener Heckle (1.5/5)promisesa blend of stand-up laughs and slasher thrills featuring 80s legend Steve Guttenberg. In honesty, it delivers sparsely on all three. There are a few interesting twists in the tale of a London stand-up getting to grips with his past, but the execution is so cheap you can’t help but feel short changed. Cyst (3.5/5), on the other hand, delivers all the gloop it promises. A silly, schlocky splatter movie in the most literal sense, about a growth with a mind of its own, featuring The Room’s Greg Sestero and Troll 2’s George Hardy, this is pure so-bad-it’s-good FrightFest fodder.
Somehow things get even better with a festival highlight out of left-field in Karl Holt’s Benny Loves You (5/5). Part Child’s Play, part Fatal Attraction, part Ted, part Tickle Me Elmo, its tale of a mid-level creative in a Toy Company whose childhood plaything responds poorly to being thrown away, coming to life and laying waste to anyone or anything to whom his old owner shows affection. It’s a years-in-the-making labour of love that sees Holt writing, directing and starring, and its carried off with the perfect blend of slapstick, knowing pitch-black humour and understated sweetness. Plus, in the titular Benny, we might just have a new horror icon on our hands.
There seems to be a chainsaw buzz around Aberdeen-shot slasher sequel Redwood Massacre: Annihilation (2/5)in the enviable early-evening slot. It’s telling, though, that quite a few folk on the online festival chat don’t seem to realise that this is a sequel to director David Ryan Keith’s UK made/America set 2014 slasher The Redwood Massacre. Although Annihilation is better than the original in terms of both concept and execution, its cliches and lack of real invention doom it to similar forgetability. On the other hand, Let’s Scare Julie (3/5)has ideas well above its station. A true one-shot completed in a genuine single take in the style of 2015 German heist masterpiece Victoria, Jud Cremata’s movie follows a gang of young female suburbanites playing tricks on a next door neighbour, but then spirals tangentially into spooky, demonic territory. Its improvised dialogue and ambitious set-up impress, but the narrative doesn’t hang quite right on its necessarily skeletal structure.
Sunday morning is hardly the ideal time to sit down for a film as deep and dark as The Stylist (4.5/5), but there’s no question it’s strangely beguiling insidiousness blows away any hangover. When writer-director Jill Gevargizian introduced her hairstylist serial-killer Claire (a character who scalps her clients/victims to wear their hair in a gruesome effort to gain an insight into their lives), it was a compellingly creepy idea with obvious echoes of William Lustig’s 1980 video nasty classic Maniac and its 2012 Elijah Wood-starring remake. Extending the idea to feature-length, and adding a likeable valued customer’s wedding as the backdrop allows Gevargizian and her leading lady Najarra Townsend to unlock deeper dimensions to Claire’s lonely character, making her feel as tragic as she is terrifying. The gut-wrenching final sting might just be FrightFest 2020’s most effective individual moment.
A movie about a murderously possessed pair of jeans, Slaxx (3.5/5)seems like it should be the late-afternoon palette-cleanser. Indeed, for most of its first two acts that seems to be the case, with a cast of unlikeable fashionistas and influencers meeting their deserved ends in inventively gruesome ways. As director Elza Kephart steers us towards the conclusion, however, it’s clear that Slaxx has something genuinely interesting and affecting to say about the dangers of fast fashion and the injustice of sweatshop labour in the developing world. A powerful satire.
Unfortunately, The Nights Before Christmas (1.5/5)closes proceedings with a faintly festive spree-killer-thriller that boasts a few nicely old-school touches but ultimately feels like a bargain-bin knock-off of Rob Zombie’s already divisive output. Before we get there, though, Honeydew (3.5/5)is a far more substantial, sickening cut with absolutely none of the sweetness its title suggests. Seeing The Owners’ nightmarish OAPs and raising them, we follow a horticulturalist and her boyfriend (played by Steven Spielberg’s son Sawyer) into the American backwoods, searching for answers about a psychosis-inducing fungus, but finding a grandmotherly old-lady called Karen and her oddball son Gunni instead. By turns nightmarishly hallucinogenic and trippily macabre, it is a relentless descent into darkness that is hard to truly enjoy but impossible not to admire. By the time Lena Dunham turns up in an outrageously grotesque cameo towards the end, chances are you’ll be too numb to notice.
It’s a finale that will stick with us – for better or worse – until the next FrightFest rolls around. Here’s hoping that one sees us come together in the flesh and blood…