FrightFest Day 2 kicked off with From A House On Willow Street, which got things started with a jolt of devilish, if slapshot, energy. A gang of crooks kidnap a young woman from the titular house and hold her to ransom, trusting that her wealthy diamond-dealing parents will pay up. However, this girl’s got some serious secrets, and that house they took her isn’t exactly a nice family home…
The latest film from director Alastair Orr (Indigenous, Expiration) begins as a tense crime thriller, with our four desperate crooks in dire need of one big last payday, but it quickly shifts gears and heads straight into horror territory. Carlyn Burchell’s apparent victim Katherine tries to warn them that they’ve made a huge mistake, and they certainly have. Ghosts, ghouls and demonic possession are on the way, making for an entertaining and action-packed blast of genre fun. The gory effects are impressive, Burchell is excellent as the tied-up girl with a secret, and there’s a solid lead turn from You’re Next’s final girl Sharni Vinson. Things do go off the rails somewhat in the final 20 minutes as the dialogue and performances get a bit wobbly (lots of “Fuck! No! You son of a bitch! Fuck!”) but this is a nifty and enjoyable B-movie with some good tricks up its sleeve.
Walter Lima Jr’s Through The Shadows gave us a South American spin on Henry James’ classic The Turn Of The Screw, as a kindly tutor is sent to the estate of a coffee plantation owner to look after his two children. Young Elisa (Mel Maia) is friendly if a little eerily precocious, but when Antonio (Xande Valois) returns after being expelled from school, Laura begins to question if these children are really who they seem to be…
The Brazilian setting and Lima Jr’s restrained direction suits this tale very nicely, helping the well-known story to feel fresh. Virginia Cavendish is very good as the sheltered tutor beginning to crack under the strain of her suspicions, and the two child actors are very well cast, finding that fine balance between “clever and strong-willed” and “deeply sinister.” Although it doesn’t really do anything new with the story beyond the relocation and the appearances of the spectres do leave a lot to be desired (they’re never remotely scary or eerie), this is a handsomely made and very enjoyable take on a classic.
Luciano Onetti’s giallo Francesca was much more energetic and far less restrained, but it should be plenty of fun for fans of the genre. The director works hard to create a properly authentic giallo: the cinematography is grainy, the soundtrack is excellent, and the clueless detective quaffs J&B whisky. The cops are investigating a series of brutal murders that seem to be linked to the disappearance of a young girl from 15 years ago. The killer references The Divine Comedy, wears leather gloves, and, of course, menaces the victims with creepy dolls.
This feels a lot like a “fans only” experience; you don’t like giallo movies, it’s hard to imagine you’ll get too much out of this as it’s much more of an homage than a parody. Even at 80 minutes it does start to drag a little, but there’s some entertaining nastiness, it’s full of classic genre staples that should get a smile, and it moves at such a brisk pace that it’s pretty easy to get along with, even if it isn’t particularly memorable.
We went from giallo detective work to underwater disaster with Ben Parker’s feature debut The Chamber. Force Majeure’s Johannes Kuhnke plays Matts, a Swedish submarine pilot who’s commandeered by a small US military team on a top secret mission in North Korean waters. His suspicions turn out to be well-founded when a “for the greater good” decision leaves them stranded, upside down, without power and with water flooding in…
Parker gets to work on building the tension early and makes excellent use of his confined setting. The film is genuinely claustrophobic, even if the characters fit a little too neatly into predictable stereotypes (yes, that outspoken thug is going to be a problem). However, while the characters seem familiar, the acting is solid (Charlotte Salt is particularly good as no-bullshit team leader Red), and although their behaviour seems to be driven more by the need for conflict than by any kind of sense, it’s easy to be put on edge when the stakes are so high and the room to breathe is so limited. The dialogue clunks occasionally, but the script also allows the characters some gallows humour and moments of naturalism that help enormously, and there’s a great score from The Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield. So while there are some quibbles, it’s pretty gripping stuff.
Back in the discovery screen, and mumblecore ghost story Another Evil was a low-key delight. Togetherness’ Steve Zissis plays Dan, a successful artist who is naturally shocked and upset to discover that his holiday home is haunted. He’s told by his wife’s spiritual healer that they’ll just have to peacefully co-exist with the spirits, but Dan decides to hire Os (Mark Proksch), a much more vindictive exorcist who’s obviously got an axe to grind with the supernatural. He’s also really quite lonely.
After a very funny opening 10 minutes, Another Evil soon settles into an increasingly awkward and beautifully played two-hander between Dan and Os. Dan clearly has fun hanging out with this strange individual, fascinated by his knick-knacks and stories, enjoying the strange intensity, not to mention all the drinking and late night cheeseburgers. However, as the days pass and it becomes increasingly clear that Os is developing an attachment that Dan’s not really ready to reciprocate, the tension starts to ramp up and it all starts to get quite serious. Writer-director Carson D Mell punctuates the subdued atmosphere with semi-regular appearances from the very real and genuinely creepy spirits, and this is a very funny, very sharp and very well-acted genre hybrid that we’d highly recommend. We loved it.
Patrick Rea’s Enclosure is similarly upfront about its supernatural threat, as married campers Dana (Fiona Dourif) and Charles (Kevin Ryan) suddenly find themselves under attack in the middle of the woods by a savage creature. When the lone survivor of another group (Jake Busey) arrives, things get even more dangerous…
Helped by a strong screenplay and good performances from his cast (another very good turn from Fiona Dourif), Rea makes his budgetary limitations work for him. Once the threat makes itself known, the action is mostly confined to the inside of the tent as the three characters try to figure out what this creature is and what it wants. The tension is kept at a high level, which is fairly easy when Jake Busey’s playing an unpredictable creep, and although the final act may divide audiences as Rea brings the supernatural into daylight and right into view, it builds organically from the folklore that Rea and his co-writer Michelle Davidson have created and it adds another layer to the tense character interaction we’ve been watching. We had a couple of issues towards the end but this is an entertaining chiller with real tension, good performances and proper creatures that feels a bit like a lost X-Files episode, in a good way.
Less impressive was Mercy, the latest effort from Chris Sparling, the writer of Buried and writer-director of The Atticus Institute. It gets off to a good, mean-spirited start, as two sets of two step-brothers arrive at their mother’s bedside as she dies slowly and painfully. Her husband George (Dan Ziskie) and his two sons Ronnie (Michael Godere) and TJ (Michael Donovan) are holding out for a better inheritence, that will cut Brad (James Wolk) and Travis (Tom Lipinski), her two boys from her previous marriage, out entirely. Everyone is waiting for a better deal before they do anything, despite her doctor’s pleas to help her ease her suffering. But when home invaders show up, the question is: who are they and what are they after?
The opening twenty minutes or so, which play out like a tense family drama, are actually rather good. There are decent performances (Wolk, best known as Mad Men’s gloriously unreadable Bob Benson, is good as the oldest and seemingly most responsible sibling), and the obvious resentment between, well, everyone works nicely. However, once the lights go out and people want to get it, it heads south fairly quickly. It’s slow going, and a narrative conceit used roughly two thirds of the way through only serves to make things slower. It also lets its twist slip so early that any impact is lost. This is a disappointment.
Documentarian Julian T Pinder and Estranged director Adam Levins team up for Population Zero, a po-faced mockumentary about a 2009 incident in which a man killed three young men with no provocation, only to be set free when it turned out that the area of the national park in which the crime was a strange legal grey zone. As Pinder tries to get closer to the truth, he realises that the crime may not have been lacking in motive after all…
Population Zero’s presence at a horror festival means that we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in this story about a man investigating a weird legal loophole, and there’s a genuine air of tension as the story progresses into the second half. It’s a difficult film to talk about without giving anything away, but this is an intelligent and well-made tale that starts by appealing to our true-crime loving, Making a Murderer-binge-watching natures before confronting us with a different kind of everyday horror that is a more terrifying prospect every day. We’re not entirely sure that it all works, but it’s quite compelling.
A sociopath gets a dose of some unwelcome medicine in Chris Schuerman’s Lost Solace. Spence (Andrew Jenkins) spends his life tricking wealthy women into falling for him before robbing them blind, but a chance encounter with some experimental ecstasy starts to give him something he’s never had before: feelings. Suddenly his stay with the young, innocent Azaria (Melissa Roxburgh) and her unstable brother Jory (Charlie Kerr) gets very complicated…
A morality tale about someone with no morals, Lost Solace is a well-acted and well-written piece of sci-fi. Schuerman takes his time developing the character of Spence, showing us how he spends his time both on and off the job, practicing emotions in the mirror and becoming the perfect boyfriend. Jenkins is excellent, making the character’s hugely reluctant journey to becoming a human being plausible and very watchable. The script is slightly less impressive when it comes to plotting, particularly when it comes to Azaria and Jory’s monstrous father (Michael Kopsa) and his desperate hunt for revenge, but the character development is otherwise strong and the exploration of the idea that we all use masks for survival is explored in a way that’s interesting without ever being laid on too thick. Intelligent and eventually moving without becoming saccharine, Lost Solace is worth keeping an eye out for.
Next up was They Call Me Jeeg Robot, the Italian box-office sensation from director Gabriele Mainetti. Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) lives alone, eating pudding, watching porn and committing the occasional petty crime. After a chance encounter with some toxic waste, he gains super strength, but can he be convinced to use his powers for good?
This superhero movie has an enjoyable blend of grimy, down-to earth weirdness and some fun effects moments, and after a summer of gloomy supers, it’s quite fun to see heroism thrust upon a genuine misanthrope whose first thought is to rip an ATM from the wall to buy more pudding and porn. Santamaria gives a solid leading turn, and there’s also an entertaining performance from Luca Marinelli as live-wire criminal/ex-reality show star The Gypsy, a wannabe crime lord who’s in way over his head but can’t stop digging a deeper hole for himself.
However, there is a real problem in the character of Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), a mentally ill young woman who is convinced that Enzo is the superhero from her favourite animated series and becomes his love interest. There are some efforts made to show the seriousness of her condition, but there’s also some genuinely problematic treatment of her, not to mention one trope that comic book fans will be familiar with. It’s a shame as it does give a nasty shade to an otherwise entertaining twist on the superhero movie.
Dominic Monaghan breaks type to great effect in Carles Torrens’ Pet, playing Seth, a socially awkward animal shelter employee with a dangerous obsession. He’s fixated on Holly (Ksenia Solo), a popular girl who was a couple of years below him in school and now works as a waitress. After some social media stalking, some practicing chat-up lines in the mirror and some badly staged and badly-executed impromptu meetings, Holly ends up in a cage in the shelter’s basement. But will Seth stay in control?
The basic plot description (guy keeps girl in cage like the animals he works with) may not inspire a huge amount of confidence, but Torrens and writer Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four, The Lazarus Effect) aren’t interested in going the torture porn route. Pet is much more interested in being a twist-fileld, contained thriller with the power dynamic constantly shifting between its two leads. Specifics would be full of spoilers, but it’s fair to say that both Seth and Holly have a lot more going on than you’d think at first glance, and so does the film. Some of the rug pulls are more convincing than others, but both Monaghan and Solo sink their teeth into their roles, and they’re a lot of fun to watch. It’s not without its problems but this is a sharp and nicely twisted tale that is very consciously more complex than it looks.
Speaking of twisted, Argentinian puzzler Benavidez’s Case takes great delight in throwing its lead character into a psychological (and physical) labyrinth. The titular artist (Guillermo Pfening) arrives at the home of his therapist Dr Corrales (Jorge Marrale) in the middle of the night, declaring that he’s finally left his girlfriend. The good doctor puts him up for the night, but he has his reasons. He believes that he can unlock Benavidez’s potential as an artist, but he’s not going to be gentle about it…
Presented as a puzzle box movie, it’s actually pretty clear where Laura Casabe’s beautifully made film is going, but the journey is certainly an entertaining one. Anchored by a good central performance by Pfening, who gets to play the rapidly unravelling artist at various stages of psychological health. While Casabe has some fun pushing around at the edges of reality (we’re willing to believe some of the tablet tech may exist, but we’re not convinced about the room of infinite suitcases), she’s obviously more interested in our protagonist’s devastating inferiority complex (brought about by his inability to live up to his brilliant father and his promising girlfriend), and the savage cynicism of the world of modern art. It’s the latter that really gets skewered in the unpleasant finale, which may prove to be divisive, but will certainly provoke a reaction.
Canadian horror The Unravelling may have its slasher movie mask on but it’s a guilt trip tale in disguise. Michael (Zack Gold) may have told his fiancée that he’s kicked his drug habit, but that’s not the only thing he’s lying about. When he’s kidnapped by his buddies for an impromptu bachelor party in the woods, he’s immediately worried about withdrawal, but that’s nothing compared to the killer that’s hunting them…
Again, it’s difficult to talk about Thomas Jakobsen’s debut without spoiling the surprise, but, to be honest, the surprise is one of the film’s big problems. The screenplay by Jakobsen and Justin S Monroe doesn’t really give the cast much of an opportunity to stand out, although there’s some good cinematography by Milton Santiago, as a horror it’s never more than competent. It’s a first film that makes good use of its stunning location, but the final act is a real let-down for those who were waiting for a great final gut punch.
Gut punches are not in short supply in Daniel de la Varga’s frantic, manic White Coffin. The Vanishing-esque set-up has Virginia (Julieta Cardinali) driving away from her partner with her young daughter Rebeca in the back. When Rebeca goes missing while they’re at a service station, Virginia is plunged into a breakneck hunt for her daughter and a white coffin…
There’s no fat on White Coffin, with a 75-minute running time and a lot of madness to get through. Those in the market for a missing person thriller should be aware that this also contains Satanic cults, people being cut in half by circular saws and an awful lot of car chases. Genre veteran writer-directors Adrián García Bogliano (Here Comes The Devil, Scherzo Diabolico) and his brother Ramiro (Penumbra, Cold Sweat) obviously had a lot of fun throwing all these ingredients together in their script, and although it doesn’t always work, which makes director Daniel de la Vega’s job of holding it all together pretty much impossible, it does make for a giddily unpredictable and highly entertaining ride. Just don’t expect it to make much sense…
We’d also use “fantastically unpredictable and highly entertaining” to describe writer-director Isaac Ezban’s deeply weird and really quite wonderful The Similars. This Twilight Zone-esque tale is set in a bus station on a rain-drenched night in 1968, as a group of employees and travellers are stranded. But this is no ordinary rain…When people’s faces start changing to mirror that of frantic father-to-be Ulises, paranoia runs rampant.
With an opening narration setting the scene and letting us know that, no matter what the characters think, this is no ordinary night, a single location and a strong element of political commentary, Ezban is clearly influenced by the work of Rod Serling and this is no bad thing. There’s even a deeply creepy child a la-TTZ episode ‘It’s A Good Life,’ who may or may not have something to do with what’s going on. The filmmaker is obviously enjoying himself with his references to sci-fi classics and there are a couple of surprising toe-curling gore moments, but there’s also a real intelligence to it, some beautifully stylised cinematography from Isi Safarti, and a powerful sincerity to its warnings about conformity and mob hysteria. This is definitely worth hunting down.
The final late film was Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy, which we had already seen and loved at FrightFest Glasgow. You can read what we thought here, but, in brief: You need to see this excellent heavy metal gothic fairytale. We absolutely loved it and it confirms that it has been far, far too long since Byrne gave us The Loved Ones. Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait so long for his next one.
And that’s it for Day 2! Join us tomorrow for reviews of Abattoir, The Master Cleanse, Sadako Vs Kayako, Beyond The Gates, Blood Feast, The Unkindness Of Ravens and more!
Horror Channel FrightFest is currently running at Vue Shepherd’s Bush 25-29 August. Longer reviews of these films will run online at SciFiNow.