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FrightFest 2019 Review: Daniel Isn’t Real

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Daniel Isn’t Real follows a troubled student called Luke (Miles Robbins) who looks to his childhood imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) for support when his family life starts to hit the rocks.

Director Adam Egypt Mortimer has said that this is the film he wanted to make before 2015’s Some Kind of Hate and used his debut to help get Daniel Isn’t Real off the ground. In short, it was worth the wait. Daniel Isn’t Real is a strikingly creative piece of film-making and one that will linger long after the credits roll.

The film begins with Luke as a child, innocently playing games with Daniel and talking to him as a means of escaping his reality. It becomes clear that Daniel has been conjured out of Luke’s sadness and isolation. His mother suffers from mental health problems and his father seems to be at his wit’s end about what to do. Daniel becomes a welcome distraction for Luke, someone he can use to take his mind off what’s happening around him. However, when Daniel forces Luke to do something dark and dangerous, his mum decides it’s time to lock Daniel away for good.

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As the film progresses and time moves ahead to when Luke is a teenager, it is soon questioned whether Daniel is simply an innocent imaginary friend or something else entirely. Daniel becomes the devil on Luke’s shoulder, egging him to do think he’d usually not have the confidence to do; talking to smart and confident girls like Sasha Lane’s Cassie, for example.

Lane continues to solidify herself as a strong, young actor after her breakout performance in American Honey. She brings a complex character to Daniel Isn’t Real and is far more than a romantic interest. She represents an alternative way of life for young people, showing that choosing to live creatively and independently can be just as fulfilling as following an educational route. She becomes the devil on Luke’s should that he should be listening to; encouraging him to live more freely,  but without the danger associated with his invisible friend.

Much of the film’s intensity is thanks to the cast’s performances. As Daniel, Schwarzenegger is brilliant. He perfectly treads the line between charm and chilling, portraying a character that is easy to admire, but nonetheless terrifying. He is Luke’s dark side (May the force be with you! I wonder if that’s a purposeful joke in Daniel Isn’t Real…) and although, their opposing personalities seem a tad cliché and reminiscent of Tobey Maguire’s character change in Spider-Man 3, it can’t be denied that Schwarzenegger was born to play a role like this.

Daniel Isn't Real1Robbins is also excellently cast as the tortured Luke and he really gets the chance to get his teeth into this script. As Luke begins to question his own sanity, wondering if he has similar cerebral problems like his mum, it’s easy to empathise with his character. He figuratively and literally begins to fight his own demons as he realises that Daniel’s intentions are far more sinister than he could ever have imagined.

Like the films Hellraiser and Baskin, Daniel Isn’t Real is awash with a gorgeous, scary visuals and sharp editing that’ll give you nightmares on their own. While Daniel further infects Luke’s mind, increasingly more nightmarish visuals haunt the screen; Mortimer creates a world that wears its darkness brightly and isn’t afraid to go the extra mile to ensure his audience leave the film on-edge. The film is awash with dark imagery that may have come straight from hell itself and it is used to reinforce just how terrifying Daniel’s hold on Luke is.

Daniel Isn’t Real is an excellent achievement in horror-drama, using the fantastic to heighten a very real and grounded commentary on mental health and schizophrenia. It’s a haunting film, both thematically and visually, succeeding as an intelligent work of art, but also as a pure and simple horror film.

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Arrow FrightFest 2019 Review: Spiral

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In Spiral, Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), his partner Aaron (Ari Cohen) and daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) move to the suburbs for a change of pace and a chance to escape the pressures of city living. However, their hope for a peaceful life is soon interrupted when Malik notices strange looks from his neighbours and a worrying, late-night celebration ends in death.

Most obviously, Spiral explores the fear and worry that can come with being in a same-sex relationship. It’s 2019 and to be gay, a lesbian, bi or trans-gender can still come with backlash and judgement – usually from people who will be entirely unaffected by anyone who falls into that category, but that’s a discussion for another day.

In a similar to vein to Jordan Peele‘s social-commentary horror Get Out, one of Spiral‘s strength is in its mystery; what are the townspeople doing? Do they hate gay people? Or is it something else entirely? In the film’s clever climactic sequence all these questions are answered and the eventuality is as shocking as you’d expect.

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Writers Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sand Red) and John Poliquin (Bitten) do well to use Get Out as an inspiration without entirely copying its intentions. There is possibly one moment that subtly mimics the running man moment in Peele’s effort – and it’s very effective, because of Get Out – but otherwise, Spiral has its own identity and wears it loud and proudly.

Spiral‘s themes are depressingly timely and its exploration is one of heart-breaking realism, but that only cements the film as necessary viewing. As important as Get Out, Spiral is a horror film of the times we’re currently living in and is all the more terrifying for its grounding in a harsh reality. It’s a more emotional and sadder story that edges towards the drama genre as its feet stand firmly in horror. It never steps into comedy like Get Out did, so what we have here has a similar message and drive, but is a different beast entirely. It is one that is wholly serious and sadly, very scary.

In videos watched by Malik – who works from home as a ghost writer – to “disrupt the nuclear family” can come with consequences. This idea is placed at the base of the film, neatly inserted and repeated to give us an understanding of Malik’s lessening grasp on reality and quickening descent into a place of dangerous paranoia. Spiral satirises statements and beliefs such as this, confidently showcasing a family that is strong despite deviating from these supposed societal norms.

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During an early scene in the film we learn that Malik’s teenage boyfriend was the victim of a hate-crime; brutally beaten while the pair shared an intimate moment. It was after this that Malik’s fear was born, furthering our understanding for his eventual drastic action. It’s heart-breaking to see Malik succumb to his fear and thanks to a powerful performance from Bowyer-Chapman, it is easy to empathise and understand the pain he’s going through.

The only quibbles I have with Spiral are minor. It’s perhaps a little too long, with a few moments in the middle that could have done with a bit of a trim. However, as the majority of it is so gripping, it is easy to forgive and easy to understand why a film like this is not just an 80-minute by-the-numbers scarefest.

Thanks to a strong central performance from Bowyer-Chapman and a great cast in general, Spiral manages to pack an emotional punch and it’s certainly one that you’ll not forget for a long time after receiving.

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Arrow FrightFest 2019 Review: Bliss

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In director Joe Begos’ (The Mind’s Eye) astounding Bliss, a struggling artist called Dezzy (Dora Madison) resorts to taking a highly-addictive, hallucinatory drug called Bliss (a tasty blend of cocaine and DMT) to help get her creative juices flowing. What ensues is a mind-bending and visceral experience; one where the line between reality and fantasy is as hazy as Dezzy’s memories of the night before.

Bliss is what you’d get if Gaspar Noe and Abel Ferrara co-directed a drug-fuelled vampire movie with Kathryn Bigelow over-seeing the whole shoot. It’s what The Addiction would have been if Lili Taylor‘s character had taken a shit-ton of hallucinogens before biting into her victims or if the drugs in Climax turned everyone into blood-thirsty creatures of the night. It’s a real treat.

Hiding behind the Bliss façade of trippy visuals and a nightmarish soundscape is a vampire movie through-and-through. The film tricks you into believing you’re going to see a certain of film, before it shifts 180 degrees and takes you on a completely different journey. Sure, Dezzy takes a ton of drugs, gets addicted and craves the creative high she experienced that first night, but it soon becomes clear that her thirst is not for drugs at all.

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It all begins when Dezzy bumps into Courtney (Tru Collins) and her partner Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield) who exhume coolness with their dark sunglasses and don’t-give-a-fuck, life-is-for-living attitudes a la Near Dark. They tease Dezzy with a life of excess, encouraging her to stay out late and leave her normal life for tomorrow. It’s one of Bliss‘ most risque scenes as the trio embark on a night of drink, drugs and sex against a backdrop flooded with bright and brazen, flashing lights. Get used to this because Bliss is FILLED with visuals that’ll leave your eyes sore and your brain thumping.

The camera is as high as the characters as it weaves in and out of crazed-scenes drenched in blood to the sound of screams of pleasure and pain. It’s a traumatising descent into a hell that is beautifully captured, but there’s nothing here that will leave you desiring the life that Dezzy now has to live with. Her painting may be getting painted – despite her never remembering actually picking up a paintbrush during her nights of unadulterated bliss – but what is being exposed on the canvas is dark in itself, teasing a climax that is going to be more painful than pleasurable.

Bliss is a heavenly mind-fuck. A visceral, hypnotising exploration of the pain that comes with creativity and the lack of it. What Joe Begos has delivered is a semi-autobiographical (…I hope) piece that delves into his own creative struggles, leaving me thankful that he had these conflicts. Without them, we’d not have had this intoxicating, mesmerising and unforgettable slice of psychedelic cinema and that’d be a downer.

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Arrow FrightFest 2019 Review: Crawl

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When I first saw the trailer for Crawl I thought it looked like a good time. I’m always keen for more creature features and Alexandre Aja is a more than competent horror filmmaker with a few excellent flicks under his belt. However, I did not expect the scope, heart or heart-racing intensity that would come with it. Crawl is a 5-star film, welcome to my TED talk.

When a father and daughter are trapped during a hurricane, the pair must, not only battle the terrifying elements, but a bunch of alligators that swim into their home during a flash flood. Crawl explores a home invasion of the worst kind as its killers are hungry for blood and bloody quick. You can’t reason with an alligator, they don’t give a shit. All you can do is run, swim or crawl your way to safety and hope to keep all your limbs intact.

Crawl is a blast and a relentless one at that, so strap yourself in because you’re in for a roller-coaster of a ride. Aside from about 15 minutes of set-up, introducing us to Kaya Scodelario’s Haley and her rocky relationship with her father (Barry Pepper), Crawl kicks into fifth gear and doesn’t let up until the film’s final seconds. It’s 90 minutes of non-stop action, drama and nail-biting tension that I wholly wasn’t ready for, but was ecstatic to be experiencing. With Alexandre Aja at the helm, you know, the director of High TENSION, you’d think I’d have been more mentally prepared. But I wasn’t.

The film is fast-paced and furious, excellently combining genres of horror, action and heart-felt drama in one fell swoop. Haley and her father’s troubled relationship feels real and never melodramatic, intricately woven into the film’s structure to raise the stakes, but also to give us characters that we want to root for. Along with their dog Sugar – who is, admittedly, my star of the entire film, despite almost giving me multiple heart attacks – we care for them and want them to survive.

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The scope and use of space is Crawl’s greatest feat. You’ll probably have the impression that the film is going to be small and claustrophobic and, for the most part, you’d be correct. The basement is already an eerie place associated with horror, but with the addition of rising water levels, a raging hurricane outside and the final terror cherry on the cake: murderous alligators, it makes for treacherous viewing.

The location may be mostly small, but Crawl branches out into something bigger and it’s extremely impressive to watch as our characters fight to survive in the most insane circumstances. Their hopes are relentlessly dashed and, all the while, poor Sugar helplessly barks and whines. To describe Crawl as anxiety-inducing is an understatement, because I’m pretty sure I held my breath for a solid 20 minutes.

Crawl is filled with jump scares and moments that are scrupulously frightening, but a surprising amount of heart that’ll only increase the stakes. It’s such good fun in the most twisted way, and I can’t wait to watch it again. Honestly, it’s a perfect creature feature and is more Alien, than Alligator, so dive in and enjoy the monstrous mayhem.

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Arrow FrightFest 2019 Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) cements his place as one of the finest horror directors of the moment with his thrilling, fun and rather creepy adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Based on the books from the ‘80s and ‘90s, a group of teens discover a book of horror tales in a supposedly haunted house. They’ve been written by the long-since deceased Sarah Bellows, whose life and death are shrouded in mystery and myth. Whatever happened, it’s clear that something dark went down when she died. When her terrifying stories start to come alive the teens must band together to piece the petrifying puzzle together, hopefully preventing the fictional nightmares from becoming even more real.

Thanks to Ovredal’s attraction to atmospheric scares over studio-favourited jumps, the scary stories are brought to life in a vivid and spooky fashion. It’s Goosebumps amped up to 100, where we have a nostalgia trip that’s a thrill, but the terror here is certainly not always family-friendly. As seen in his painfully tense The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Ovredal perfects a use of petrifying slow-pace to build up the tension. Silence dominates to let the audience’s imagination run riot: When will the scare happen? Now? Now..? Oh shit, it’s now. A bedroom scene especially makes for anxious viewing, so look out for that one.

A couple of scenes will stick with you after the credits roll; I, for one, think scarecrows are terrifying, so there’s a segment here that’s particularly nightmare-inducing. Also, when was the last horror feature about scarecrows? We need more of those, please. If you hate hospitals, cornfields, weird smiling ladies or being chased by old men who lose their heads, then something here will certainly get you sweating. The scares are creative and fun; the film plays out like a haunted house of horrors. You’ll be glad to reach the end, but the journey was mostly heart-racing and entertaining.

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Producer Guillermo del Toro’s keen hand for horror aesthetics can be felt across Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, where the on-screen frights within friendship are complimented by gorgeous, haunting visuals. The house itself is draped in cobwebs and shadowy corners, wonderfully reminiscent of gothic horror tales; Dracula could have easily made himself at home here.

There are some un-welcome/welcome (delete as you see appropriate) comedic dips in the horror that are understandably inserted. Come on, it’d get too dark if it was as relentless as I’d have made it. (Muahaha!). Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur’s Auggie and Chuck offer some of the best comedic relief with witty one-liners, but Zoe Margaret Colletti’s Stella Nicholls is the film’s most important character. She’s the star of the show; an intelligent, horror fan who stands on her own two feet. She’s no damsel in distress and another character example of how horror is the perfect genre for strong women.

The pace weakens in the middle and I did find myself wondering how long could possibly be left – the runtime edges unnecessarily close to the 2-hour mark – but, the stories themselves and the scares that surround them are a treat, even when everything around them starts to feel tiresome. Scary Stories… would have benefited from tighter editing and a loss of around 20-minutes, to prevent those more humdrum moments.

All in all, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is great fun for all ages, which is a rarity and should be appreciated. If you’re not fed-up of riding the nostalgia train with films like It and Netflix’s Stranger Things, then you’re sure to have fun with this ’80s homage to spooky stories and the monsters within them.

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FrightFest 2018 Review – Upgrade

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Upgrade PosterGrey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) has to adapt to an exciting and terrifying new way of life when he is fused with a computer chip called Stem. The chip is planted in his brain and in one simple command it can control the entirety of Grey’s body, giving him the strength and power to do almost anything he wants.

From director Leigh Whannel, Upgrade is what you get when you let one of the creators of Saw and Death Sentence combine the two to create a dazzling fusion of futuristic, violent revenge. It’s equally as sophisticated as it is gloriously gory, showcasing a visual display that seems impossible on its measly $5 million budget. You’ll feel every punch and love every second, eager to see Grey put a grisly end to those who have wronged him. From its to its hypnotic and pulsing soundtrack to its unbelievable moments of exquisitely choreographed combat, Upgrade is an action-horror treat that you’ll want to watch immediately after you’ve seen it.

Grey is a self-proclaimed hater of technology, criticising self-driven cars and expressing a hatred of intelligent computers. Thus, he is the perfect man to be fused with the smallest, smartest computer of them all. He becomes a symbol for the clash of humanity and technology, where only one can win. The film is a warning for society’s future and what could happen if technology gets out of control. Sure, the potential of being a badass ninja (sort of) is the ultimate cool and almost worth the fall of life as we know it, but in Upgrade there is an important and familiar, underlying reminder that creating something bigger than yourself and playing god, will have dangerous repercussions.

Upgrade oozes a contagious confidence as it grips you by the throat, straps you in and takes you for a ride that you’ll never want to get off of. There are plenty of surprises and even if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll be pleased to learn that there’s a lot more to this story than the marketing suggests. What ensues is a complete blast, a perfect combination of sci-fi horror and well-timed humour. The first scenes where Grey realises his new abilities are bone-crunching for his victims and a joy for us. Marshall-Green brilliantly and hilariously conveys a man who is confused and terrified, shocked and excited about his new life and the possibilities it has opened up.

Upgrade is one of the best films of the year and it would be criminal to miss it. It’s stylish as hell and an example of a film that can wear its inspirations on its sleeve and still succeed as an excellent addition to an overflowing genre.

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FrightFest 2018 Review: Await Further Instructions

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A family awaken on Christmas morning to see that they’re trapped in their home. Mysterious black shutters have appeared on the doors and windows overnight, leaving them forced to confront a host of issues that paint them as less than perfect.

Await Further Instructions is an imperfect exploration of a family’s ignorance and blind following of orders. In many ways it’s as smart as it wants you to believe as it further provides a timely comment on society’s reliance on the media and the problems that arise when we forget to question what we hear on the radio, read on the internet or see on TV. However, questions like these have been raised before and Await Further Instruction‘s message may be a positive one, but it’s not something we haven’t heard before.

The nicely-named Milgram family live on the also nicely-named Stanford Street. These are neat – if a little obvious – touches that invite the audience to work out what’s going on. Await Further Instructions does try very hard to be smart and meaningful and even if it doesn’t entirely hit the mark, it stills earns some praise. It’s a confident endeavour from director Johnny Kevorkin and impressive visual flourishes make it exciting to ponder what he could do with a bigger budget and a better cast of actors.

A Christmas Day horror film setting is always a favourite of mine, so it was a shame to see this film not take advantage of the festive potential it had at its finger tips. Despite some sci-fi-friendly bright lighting choices, I wondered why the film chose to be set at Christmas at all; except to have an excuse for the entire family to be together. The more the film progresses, the more the day of the year becomes irrelevant. Without a monster in the midst of things or a slasher killer to wreak a bloody havoc, there becomes no way for the story to use the most wonderful day of the year in a way that is either fun or scary.

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The first half of the film sets up the family as, mainly, a bunch of idiots. The father and grandfather are racist, the son and his girlfriend are also a bit racist, BUT the other son is dating a girl of Indian descent. Played by Neerja Naik, Annji is the only person in the family who has any sense and she’s not white, get it? She’s smart and she’s a doctor, but she’s shunned because a terrorist attack is being broadcast on TV. I bet you can tell where this is all going. It’s a positive message, an education in promoting equality and an attempt at dismissing an arrogance that is undeniably still present, but it’s as subtle as a brick.

I became more invested the longer the story went on, forgiving the film’s slow start and obvious messages when the television started to tell them what to do. Not LITERALLY, but messages like “the food is contaminated, throw it all away” and “wash yourselves with bleach” start popping up from the supposed “government”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go full David Cronenberg, but by the end, it becomes even clearer that he was an influence on this smart little indie flick.

Await Further Instructions is a worthwhile, if not completely unique sci-fi-horror. It’s let down by a slow pace and over-meandering story, but the final act is a good one and we can never have too many films that want to teach us societal lessons. Can we?

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FrightFest 2018 Review: Boar

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When fences are knocked down, people go missing and mutilated bodies are found, a small town in the Australian outback begins to believe the rumours are true: a huge boar is on a murderous killing spree.

Boar is a fun, but flawed, monster movie that works entirely as a re-telling of 1984’s Razorback. It’s without the latter film’s more bizarre characters – the Razorback tone feels very Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 – but the story is criminally similar. Both are set in Australia, both have characters searching for missing people and both focus on a giant killer pig.

The best thing about Boar is the cast. John Jarratt and Roger Ward are brilliantly funny as a couple of old drunks who try to be heroes. These golden oldies are hilarious and Boar‘s comedic edge is welcome. There are sure to be more than a few snappy one-liners that’ll give you a giggle, which is better than nothing, because Boar won’t be scaring you out of your skin. In fact, scrap the other characters, because I could have happily watched 90 minutes of just Jarratt and Ward vs. the Boar.

Strongman Nathan Jones returns to the horror scene after playing the antagonist in 2014’s Charlie’s Farm (there’s a neat reminder of that performance in Boar, for those who’ve seen it). He plays the role of Uncle Bernie (not Bern!), a monster of a man who, surely, must be the only match for the huge boar. Standing at a mighty 6 ft 11 himself, he’s brought in to show how huge the beast is, because even he struggles in hand-to-trotter combat. That is a great moment, though. Bill Moseley also shines as always, playing the only American in a town of Aussies.

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If you’ve criticised films in the past for not giving you a good look at the monster, then you’ll be impressed here, because director Chris Sun ensures we get to see plenty of the big pig. Rightly so, because he’s hugely impressive. The film can’t be faulted for it’s great effects – or its humour – but, there’s definitely a spark missing that prevents it from being something relentlessly entertaining.

Maybe it’s because a big pig isn’t particularly scary or the annoying, predictably shaky camera-work that accompanies the killing, but it’s definitely hard to feel any genuine fear or threat from this huge beast. The kills are expectedly messy and gore-hounds will enjoy the mutilated bodies and icky blood effects, but Boar hangs around for a very long time and after 96 minutes you’ll just want it all to end.

Boar is the perfect midnight movie experience; it’s an easy watch and you’ll not have to think too hard. The cast is spot-on and the moments of wit are the film’s strongest aspect. It’s a shame it couldn’t deliver the horror thrills and spills, but Boar is worth a watch for its concept alone. I mean, how many killer pig films do we get these days?

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FrightFest 2018 Review: Incident in a Ghostland

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Incident in a Ghostland3Incident in a Ghostland is quite something. As it comes from Pascal Laugier, the director behind 2012’s hard-hitting Martyrs, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that it is a brutal, terrifyingly relentless take on the home invasion subgenre. But it’s more than that, it’s a horrifying look at what happens after witnessing a tragedy and the demons that linger long after.

The film begins when a mother and her two daughters Beth and Vera, move to a new home they’ve inherited. Terror strikes when their home is invaded, leaving the three with scars that will take a long time to heal. Cut to years later and Beth, now a renowned horror author, receives a strange phone call from Vera that leads her to re-visit the home that she left so long ago. What greets her is madness beyond belief, forcing Beth and Vera to confront the demons they hope to leave behind.

There is so much to delve into here, I’m finding it difficult to put into words. Occasionally a film will come along that will shock you into silence, that will hit you full-on in the chest and force you to watch something unpleasant, upsetting and unforgettable. Martyrs was one of those films and this is another one.

Incident in a Ghostland adopts many of the ideas that were present in Martyrs, bringing its audience another difficult to watch story of abuse and psychological terror. Again, the victims of the story are a couple of girls – begging the question of why Laugier possibly hates women so much – played heroically by the young Emilia Jones and Taylor Hickson. As actresses, they are pushed to their limits to bring Laugier’s vision to life, and it is their brave performances that drive this horrific story. You’ll feel every beating and every moment of physical, mental torture that these girls do. You’ll want to cover your ears to shield yourself from the screaming and cover your eyes to stop the brutality, but at the same time, you can’t look away.

How far can this go? How much time is left? Surely, it can’t get any worse? The questions you asked yourself when you watched Martyrs will rear their ugly heads once again, just like the girls’ memories of that fateful night return to haunt them again and again. It’s worrying to see Laugier’s shown preoccupation with the abuse of young females and, understandably, many will see this film as wholly problematic. However, this is not just a glorification of violence or a gratuitous display of assaulted women, but instead, a complex exploration of psychological repression and the important part a mother plays in protecting her children; even if what she does is not always right.

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Laugier’s story is a complex one; below the extreme physical violence and visceral horror there is an emotional focus on mental health and madness. When Beth returns to her sister, she sees that she relives the night of the home invasion over and over again. She believes that she’s still there, causing herself harm as she’s beaten by an unknown force, immediately reminiscent of those early scenes in Martyrs where Lucie is tortured by a demonic manifestation of her own traumatic memories. This film has a multitude of layers, adding to the intensity of the on-screen violence with genuinely heart-wrenching scenes that will have you on the brink of tears.

By the end, Incident in a Ghostland becomes our house of horrors, one we’re glad we survived and one we”d not like to revisit. It’s a harsh watch and not for the faint-hearted, a film that’s difficult to watch, but important for its portrayal of post-traumatic stress and the inner demons that wreak havoc even when the terror is supposedly over.

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FrightFest 2018 Review: Summer of ’84

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Summer of 84 4In the tradition of Stephen King tales like Stand By Me and It, and modern endeavours such as Netflix’s much-loved Stranger Things, Summer of ’84 is a story of childhood drama that is interwoven with tropes of horror and mystery.

Summer of ’84 follows a group of young teenage boys during their summer break; they talk about sex and girls, they make fun of each other and, of course, there’s the classic riding the bike around town. Like a typical murder-mystery or whodunit, the film drives into quiet horror territory when the boys think their neighbour is a serial killer. The binoculars come out, the curtains start to twitch and the kids make it their mission to prove that hiding behind Mr Mackey’s (Rich Sommer) guise of normality is a stone-cold killer. Oh, did I mention that he’s a police officer?

The film follows a familiar route and, honestly, I was nervous. As a HUGE fan of Francois Simard, Anouk Whissel and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s super retro horror-actioner Turbo Kid, I was worried that they’d peaked in 2015. Turbo Kid managed to ace its desire to blend a fun ‘80s-throwback with elements of humour and gory action, plus a hearty dose of emotion. It was brilliant and to match that, Summer of ‘84 would have to do something special.

Nonetheless, Summer of ’84 did do something special. It successfully jumps from trope to trope, hitting all those familiar beats I was getting ready to tear it down for, before abandoning everything. This film has one hell of an epic shift in tone and it made me want to stand up and applaud. Aside from a shoe-horned in romantic sub-plot, which purely felt like a desperate attempt at getting a female character in there, you should expect the unexpected. Beneath those expectations there is a dark and unpredictable beast waiting to rear its head.

Summer of ’84 goes full on Rear Window as the boys – lead by the conspiracy-obsessed Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) –memorise Mr Mackey’s entire schedule in the hope of finding the proof they need to show they’re not imagining things. The young ensemble cast here could give those Stranger Things kids a run for their money. They’re 10x dirtier and 10x funnier, with laugh-out-loud, crude jokes that are certainly NSFW. Judah Lewis as “Eats” has some of the film’s best gags as he torments his pal Woody (Caleb Emery) with jokes about his mum. The jokes aren’t clever or smart, but when they landed they were excellent.

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As the audience, we’re on their side and we want them to be right, but it’s difficult to shake that niggling feeling that the adults are right. He’s a good guy, he’s been their neighbour for years and he’s a police officer. Or is it the perfect disguise? Despite the feeling of predictability that drapes over this story like a fog, there is still a tiny part of us that wants to believe.

Within this back-and-forth story and subtle cat-and-mouse chase, there is plenty of ‘80s nostalgia for those that wish to relive their childhoods. From the kids’ clothes and hairstyles, to their film and TV chats to their obsession with Boudoir magazine and the synthy soundtrack that weaves in and out to further remind us of the ’84 setting, it’s filled with obvious, but appropriate drops of reminiscence.

Summer of ’84 proves that this trio of directors are masters of what they do: crafting a film with a mask of predictability that reveals itself to be something else entirely. This is another entertaining and loud-out-loud retro horror, that may not be as bloody, but is certainly a dark and compelling rollercoaster ride.

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FrightFest 2018 Review: The Ranger

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THE-RANGEr-finalIn The Ranger, Jenn Wexler – the producer of films like Darling and Most Beautiful Island – makes an explosive feature directorial debut. Following in the footsteps of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room and pinching plenty from ‘80s exploitation, The Ranger follows a group of young punks on the run from the police as they resort to hiding in a long-abandoned cabin in the woods (yes!).

The Ranger is not an example of flawless film-making and not everything works here. However, it’s a ton of fun, features some incredible moments of dialogue and has an ending to –  literally – die for. It’s a blast, if not something entirely standout.

The main problem with this punks vs maniac park ranger effort is the characters. Unlike the aforementioned Green Room, the punk kids are an annoying bunch. Their characterisation feels exaggerated into the stratosphere rather than credible, so you’re not going to want these kids to live. #TeamParkRanger. Of course, they’re supposed to ooze anarchy and embody an attitude that says “f- the police!”, “screw you society!” and “rules are for fools” (?), but, that sure doesn’t make it easy to spend time with them. Like the slashers of yesteryear, the fun is in watching them die and feeling very little empathy.

Leading lady Chloe Levine’s (The Transfiguration) Chelsea is described as the “tourist” of the bunch. She’s quietly coming to turns with returning to the cabin, a place she used to frequent in the summer with her uncle. She tells her punk rocker friends that he was mauled by a wolf and later found ripped to shreds. Punks being punks, that doesn’t scare them. They howl and scream, inviting the idea of terror to come knocking. Alas, it does.

Terror comes knocking in the form of The Ranger, a maniac protector of nature who will do anything to preserve the sanctity of his national park. Played masterfully by Jeremy Holm, he is 6ft of pure, subtle menace. His character is the perfect blend of Jason Voorhees and Anton Chigurgh; a killer with a thirst for blood and absolutely no remorse. He has some great one-liners, obsessively reciting the rules from the Park Ranger handbook. Who knew such a thing existed?

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A standout moment comes when Mr Park Ranger challenges one of the kids to rip a bear trap off of his own foot in 10 seconds. It’s one of the film’s grisliest moments, before its bloodbath of a finale. It may not pack too much of a punch during its 77-minutes, but The Ranger is still an entertaining ’80s-throwback slasher and went it gets going, it really gets going.

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FrightFest 2018 Review: The Cleaning Lady

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Poster-TheCleaningLadyIn director Jon Knautz‘s The Cleaning Lady the lonely Alice (Alexis Kendra) befriends Shelly (Rachel Alig), a woman scarred by burns. The two develop a friendship where they are both equally saving the other from very different types of pain.

At first I was worried that this film’s story would be too predictable; the scarred lady will get too close to the pretty blonde, developing an obsessive relationship that leaves one of them dead. I was only partly correct. Instead of falling down an entirely expected rabbit hole, The Cleaning Lady only toys with the idea. There is a lack of surprise in the story which is a little disappointing, but learning about Shelly’s back-story in neat exposition does offer a few moments of intrigue.

Both the leading ladies are complex and interesting, mainly steering away from cliches associated with female characters. Sure, it’s a little under-whelming to see a woman sick with love and another hindered with supposed imperfections – women do care about more than just their romantic relationships and their beauty, you know? – but perhaps this film’s grounding in horror can be transferred to more than just its jump scares. There is a certain horror in the sadness of these women that perhaps urges us to remember that, as women (and men, of course), we can find happiness outside of these stereotypical preconceptions of joy.

The similarities and differences between Alice and Shelly feel a little cliché – they’re both broken, scarred and tormented – but, Kendra and Alig’s performances feel real. The friendship becomes touching, the conversations between the two feel sweet and credible, which is enough to generate the desired empathy from us, the audience. There are times where it feels shallow, but there is certainly a worthy sentiment below the superficiality.

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Of course, these moments of friendship only feel like warning signs, because this is a horror film, so the happiness can only last so long.

The Cleaning Lady has one heck of a nauseating opening scene, so it’s a shame when you realise that nothing in the main body of the film can live up to this immediately icky beginning. Except maybe when you realise where it’s going… OK, I’ve said to much. It does feel like much of the film is spent waiting for something to happen and, even though it’s a meagre 90 minutes long, there are times when it feels a lot longer.

The film feels like a horror fairytale, where a twinkling soundtrack works well against the foreboding visuals to enhance a clash between the dark and the light, good and evil. There are no scenes of real terror – although, Shelly’s childhood is filled with a generous helping of its own, twisted horror – but, The Cleaning Lady‘s own obsession with jealousy, envy, abuse, toxic attachments and the idea of being saved, do offer an element of thematic horror.

The Cleaning Lady is a decent, almost all-women-led semi-slasher – which is quite the mouthful, but you get what I mean. It’s creepy and strange, led by a couple of great actresses, so add it to your never-ending watch lists.

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