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FrightFest 2020 Reviews

There is no better way to prepare for the unofficial horror season of October than a good genre film festival like FrightFest. As the world remains impacted by the on-going pandemic, FrightFest, like other film festivals, adapted to the times to provide a seamless virtual film festival. Although some of the magic of being in the screen together, having a shared experience as you cheer alone to a Powerbomb Murder was diminished, Twitter stepped up to ensure the welcoming community feeling was never lost. Another positive too was at least the price of Maltesers were a little less bank breaking.

Over the course of five days, festivalgoers had a choice of 25 films and two short film showcases. Sticking as if there were actual screens, you had to do a more casual dash to go link-to-link for film-for-film. Below are the 13 films caught at this year’s festival.

I Am Lisa 2020 Poster

I Am Lisa

I Am Lisa follows a woman after being beaten by a small-town sheriff and the town’s bullies, Lisa is left for dead that night. Unfortunately for them, instead she returns from the woods with werewolf abilities.

Where I Am Lisa shines is in the fun way it takes its mythology. It contains some great original sentiments – particularly around werewolf lore – which can lead down interesting paths. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a feeling of amateurism. Some of these are budgetary and forgivable like Mike Flanagan’s Absentia, however, the biggest offenders aren’t.

Scenes open to justify their existence rather than move the story along. An example of this is as Lisa stalks a victim, a man – who you will never see again – comes in and apologises to the soon-to-be victim that they are working late. They offer some food as penance which is swiftly denied and that’s that. There is no story motivated reason for this part of the scene and these are the amateur mistakes that are real detractions. They add up and really pull the audience out of it – sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously.

The base ideas are there and there is a great twist on werewolf mythology, but there is also a lack of creativity in their pursuit. It feels the film starts asking interesting questions with its ‘what if?’s then doesn’t fulfil them because it ends at exploration at the preposition.

Intriguing ideas start with a ‘what if?’ but they also don’t end there.

★★

Triggered 2020 Still

Triggered

Nine friends wake up with suicide bombs and literal ticking clocks strapped to their chests and have to find out who, why and, more importantly, how to survive.

Triggered’s simple but immediately thrilling concept works and is a great hook into the story quickly. Setting the story in the woods at night allows the director, Alistair Orr, to revel in hyper-stylisation – even on a limited budget. Shots decorated with the LED glow of their nightmare and just a full moon to light the way add to the atmosphere, showing real promise.

The main issue is the feature uses exploitation as an excuse crutch, leaning on it to justify making characters terrible people. Characters decisions don’t reflect who they are because they aren’t anyone specific. The fun, sparky dialogue is handed out to share which shows how interchangeable they all are. Although it can be seen as having to drop their projected identities, revealing the real hatred that simmers beneath these once schooltime friends, there is not enough of them before the death vests to contrast. Survival instincts kicking should trigger who the characters really are but it seems the film’s message would be that we’re all the same in these moments and that’s not enough. It leaves them all a little unremarkable – especially the leads.

Triggered is paced well, peppered with quippy one-liners and decorates the night well but the entire time watching it, you can’t help think that there’s a better film to be made.

★★

The Columnist Still

The Columnist

What a universal concept, eh? Dark twisted fantasies of serving internet trolls’ justice in horror black-comedy about a – you guessed it – columnist who is sick of reading the hateful comments about her online. Deciding enough is enough, after tracking down one troll, Femke Boot (played fantastically by Katja Gerber) starts to unravel, finding vengeance the perfect writing muse.

The concept – no matter how universal – is a tricky subject matter to pull off. Just look at Britain’s horrible attempt in 2012 in May I Kill U?; the title alone an apt deterrent. Its concept is difficult to pull off as the subject matter isn’t really that funny. Trolling is a real modern issue. The internet, from all its power in anonymity, can breed some serious contempt and now with immediate access you can verbalise your toxic bile with little-to-no-repercussions in most cases. Even more worrying is when without the anonymity, just the safety of virtual distance, these comments are becoming more prevalent, more hateful and more worrying. How can anyone who is bombarded with such vitriol not snap? Or at the very least take it to heart?

The Columnist, guided by its deft hands in direction, manages to make the most of it by soaking the film in irony while providing plentiful reality to keep making its point. Confronting those who comment in ever-changing ways and the people in their different environments, still tumbling down the abuse path.

For all the triumph and praise you can give it in the ways it handles the subject matter it also becomes its pitfalls. A collectible subplot leaves much to be desired; especially in its discovery scene. The confrontations that do occur sometimes feel a little simplistic and some could be more daring or have more intriguing conversations than do occur. Other issues arise more likely from budget restrictions – and perhaps rating concerns – than anything else, where it could add an extra layer to its satirical revenge comedy.

It works as a funny satire of modern society’s desensitization to abuse with horror elements thrown in. There is room for more and further exploration of some of the characters around Femke, but the ending scene is likely one of the year’s best – definitely in terms of satisfaction, at the very least. The Columnist is a recommendation for all those wanting to indulge a little in the idea that justice is real and wears a flawless white suit.

★★★

Playhouse 2020 Still

Playhouse

There is always room for a good manor chiller thriller. A horror writer obsesses over the creation of his new theatre show set in a haunted Scottish castle, moving into it to live it so he can write it. Divorced Jack (Travis, not Torrance) looking for inspiration drags along his unaware daughter, Bee, for the gothic ride.

The idea has been seen before but there are plenty of avenues that haven’t been explored. Unfortunately, they remain unexplored.  The lore is slowly revealed in lifeless ways that never really capture imagination or even your attention. It never really clicks, whether it’s investigating, scaring or bantering, it feels like nothing is landing.

It feels unfair to criticise films with their lack of budget for some amateur mistakes, however, these are plentiful here and such deterrents need to be addressed to be neutralised. There is such ambiguity to a scene that you would be forgiven for thinking the actor had walked off set. The editing cuts awkwardly and we linger on scenes for too long as we watch teenagers attempt their ‘shifting about’ shtick. The colouring flattens the image even more so.

Where there is real magic to Playhouse is in its location. The most impressive parts of the film when it splashes on showing the scenery or the way shadows collect in the architecture of this great house. When the film shows the surroundings, the inevitable and unedifying greyness that is British weather, it invokes a sense of horror in a way that can only be captured by growing up in this place. Directors (Fionn and Toby Watts) really show that here with their debut; that they have seen this all in so many ways and enlightening us on their perspective of their world, portrayed through the horror lens.

There is more to be made here and there is a lot of affection from its creation, but for all of that and good grace you can give it, it never delights, entertains or scares. It’s all a bit unfulfilling. What’s most worrying about this film is that Jack and his daughter seem to be the same age in some sort of miracle that’s more intriguing than anything the film presents. Playhouse is caught between being a horror and being meta and, in the end, never becomes either. With the horror play that Jack is writing is apparently coming to life, but the film is dead on arrival.

Blind 2020 Still 2

Blind

To say alarm bells didn’t ring when the team behind the film in their introduction announced from its conception as a dream to wrapped on production was a total of three months would be a lie. Art can be like lightning in a bottle requiring a quick catch, but more often than not the lack of mediation works in detriment to its story, focusing only to service cool ideas or images in the mind. That’s where Blind comes in.

As an actress, bedazzled with her own appearance, is now still adapting to life without sight after a mishap during her laser eye surgery. Faye (Sarah French) is struggling to put her life back together with a little help from her friends, mother and mute personal trainer, Luke. When a masked stranger shows up, who knows what’s going to happen?

Well, the answer is nothing much really. To loop back to this entire production being speedrun like one of those Ocarina of Time competitions, cool images are obvious and do offer some stylistic insight into director Marcel Walz, but because the story is so threadbare we linger on them for far too long to remain interesting. Watching a character dance to music shouldn’t feel so hollow and superficial, but it does. It looks great, in the moment, but that’s all there is to satisfy. Is that the damning indictment it’s going for on the superficiality of Hollywood, society, life? Is it anything more than a cool shot? No, it’s not because at this point if you’re thinking this you’ve spent more time ruminating on the material than the creators.

The story is simple and should follow a structure we’re all too familiar with in slashers and it sort of does, substituting traditional slasher scenes for a music video here and there, but it also elongates sequences to make sure that it hits that 90-minute runtime. Instead of squeezing the tension from its story, none of it is felt, it plays as a filler.

There’s a monologue in Blind that will haunt you. It plays sincerely, but the idea that someone could talk for so long uninterrupted about their personal revelations with no interaction is not a likeable character. If they are that self-indulgent, how could they ever be?

Blind has one of the creepiest masks of recent slashers but it’s all wasted on a hasty production that never really improved on the script to make it all it could be. Apparently, when you can’t think of an ending, you just don’t make one and hope for a sequel – with Walz mentioning his long-term goal of making this a trilogy. Let’s hope he learns from his mistakes because there is plenty of visual flair and potential – that mask, honestly – but none of that cover up the lack of story and extended shots of LA won’t change that.

(Side note: they also misspell Michael St Michaels name in the credits and a waste of The Greasy Strangler for one scene, one line and then that level of disrespect and undue care of attention is a summation of the feature you’re about to watch.)

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Don’t Click

Another debut feature at FrightFest, G-Hey Kim’s film investigates the fraught brutality of male sexuality, obsession with pornography and problems of instantaneous accessibility of horrifying content. In our reality, a click could lead us to some sincere emotional scarring – or in Don’t Click’s case, your housemate’s.

Josh (Valter Skarsgård) comes home from a date with his girlfriend one night to a missing roommate and a laptop left open on torture porn. Unfortunately for him, it’s not the horror subgenre kind, it’s the dark web and Josh is then, as quick as a cut can be, transported to a windowless, doorless room where they have to face their demons.

The anger that emanates from the feature is clear. Frat guys’ self-absolution of their disturbing, misogynistic practices is an infuriating topic to deal with, with this a pretty slap-in-the-face metaphor to wake up from them by forcing two people to live up to it and justify themselves. The issue is, if you are only focusing on two main characters, sewing their mouth shut at the beginning of the film already stops you from having conflicts and stops both characters live up to their actions. Instead, it focuses mostly on Josh and the deconstruction of the passive man and how they will ignore some their friends’ red flags to avoid conflict or to disturb their dynamic. An important topic but one that requires more nuance to be effective. The ending seeks justification of its own supernatural element and is very misguided, diminishing the work before it.

For the horror fans looking for gore, this will definitely satiate. There are gruesome set pieces in between the story, scarring and scaring with effective, horrific imagery. This is where the visual style shines with a fresh perspective on films in the Saw vein. The idea that we are in the dark web being illustrated by the characters moving at 20 frames per second instead of 24 is a bold choice, but ultimately a bad one as it is nauseating (especially for epileptics, like myself, so a warning regarding that).

Don’t Click has the right message in its morality tale, but it is laid on thick and puts its message above the story and the characters’ stories. The message would become stronger if better woven into the material rather than being the material. It does have an important thing to say, it just needed a better way to express it.

★ ★

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Skull: The Mask

Wanted to watch a priest and a demon have a swordfight? What about watching someone get powerbombed to death? Then this might be the gem for you. Skull: The Mask opened the day with some of the maddest sequences you can expect from a Brazilian giallo-inspired exploitation flick inspired by Halloween, CSI, Indiana Jones and WWE (their words). When it’s balls-to-the-walls, it’s spectacular; when it flicks to its noir love, it’s lost.

The mask of Anhangá, a Pre-Columbian God, carries some supernatural powers with it that was even sought by the Axis in 1944. The Skull, with all its power, searches for a worthy wearer to take control over. Just as quickly as it is found, it’s lost again… until it turns up in modern day Sao Paulo. Teenagers being teenagers dice with destiny by not thinking carefully enough about the demonic ritual they are performing, making the mask spider-dance its way across unworthy wearers’ faces until it finds a professional wrestler (Rurik Jr.) to begin its rampage across the city.

That is exactly where the film shines, in this batshit world of exploitation. On a microbudget, it still causes absolute chaos and you see the gore, the viscera, the inventive beatings. Where it stumbles is when it takes the story away from this, focusing on its noir love that doesn’t quite fit into this flick. Although we have a hard-grizzled typical noir detective in Beatriz Obdias (Natallia Rodrigues), heavy-drinker and disillusioned chasing down the killer. The moment where it dips its toe in the procedural water, it sinks. Although you can tell the film comes from a place of love and passion of all it celebrates within it, it doesn’t quite transfer that across as we the follow detective. A too dull a thread as we wait for the bead of the Skull’s carnage.

There’s a lot to love in here. Its insanity is only matched by its creativity in creating them and then showing it to you with a minor budget. Style is a part of its grindhouse-esque presentation. That swordfight? It takes place in front of a stained-glass window. Silhouettes squaring off with beautiful colours behind them.

There may not be a real message in Skull: The Mask, but there is a real massacre. That’s the sort of film it is. A splatter fest made of love from all the films that came before it, keeping it stylish, gory, horrific and hilarious. It’s best when it indulges itself and the procedural element is too dull and, ultimately, superfluous to the story of the carnage. Two trains running in parallel that never really collide. At least, when it is fun it’s being RKO’d to death fun.

★ ★ ★

Two Heads Creek Poster

Two Heads Creek

After the Brexit referendum further amps up the racism in their non-descript small town that could be anywhere in the nation, two Polish siblings get sick of it and head to Australia to find their mum. As much as a hellscape Britain is, nothing can prepare you for the backwater town of incestuous cannibals that love karaoke.

Subtlety is not here and Two Heads Creek is not too dissimilar to The Columnist and Don’t Click in their approach to being catharsis pieces for their themes and audiences. The issue is by aiming to be a catharsis piece for a distinct audience group – let’s say 48.2% for some reason – means that it will struggle to win over other audiences. Although it is bombastic and hilarious at times, slipping into a full third act of viscera and comedic carnage, perhaps wearing its intentions so blatantly early on would be off-putting to the people where the message could open their perspectives.

Another issue is that it is very clear early on where the film is going, but it keeps heading in the direction like it is taking unwitting passengers. It is like the film feels it’s taking you on this surprise holiday and it’s hinting heavily to the point you know it now; you’ve even drove passed the sign pretty early into the trip. There are lulls in the second act which could provide greater insight into characters – main and supporting. If a little more had been given to the surrounding mad-as-hatters townsfolk, there could be more to say rather than populated with comedic characters to cut to.

Two Heads Creek is a fun flick and relevant with its biting satire (if heavy-handed) of global widespread xenophobia, packaged in a neat horror-comedy. Although the film is not very ground-breaking outside of one Baz Luhrmann-esque sequence, the laughs and splatter will keep you entertained. A good time film; not a game-changer film. It does enough to not be wasteful, much like the mentalists who populate the town.

★ ★ ★

Hall 2020 Still

Hall

When looking through synopses of the FrightFest films, none felt as eerily prescient as Hall; a slow-burn horror about a debilitating virus spreading through a hotel. As the hall lines with victims of the disease, pregnant runaway Naomi and Val, a mother trapped in a toxic marriage, must find a way to make it out alive. With such a good hook and production design, this may be the biggest disappointment of the festival due to its squandered potential.

As it opens on a victim crawling up the hall, it illustrates from the get-go its intention on pacing. This is a slow-burn horror with mounting tension being its main goal than abject horror. The unknown quantities of the virus being its most terrifying subject matter for the crawl to the end of the hallway. Hall shines with its camerawork and the way it maximises its budget for atmosphere.

That is where what is good in Hall really ends. It feels Hall was born of just a feeling, a mood, a tone it wanted. The synopsis and logline say more than the film does in its brief 85-minute runtime. We flash to the future which evaporates all tension as we know a main sequence that the film peppers in throughout of an arduous, laborious crawl down the corridor. One that begins to labour its audience more than the protagonist.

Both lead actors, Carolina Bartczak and Yumiko Shaku, do what they can but with little characterisation that coincides with its lack of story so they cannot shine. What can you do when the film deals with an X-Files style man-in-a-hat subplot that opens and ends in the same breath. There is even cause for cynicism as a post-credit fake-newscast feels like 10 minutes (don’t quote me on this) of its runtime, as if just to qualify itself as a feature and not a short film. An unwelcome exposition dump for its own sake; is it an epilogue, prologue, justification? It is at the very least a huge mistake.

Director Francesco Giannini clearly can shoot a film and they can capture one of the harder parts of it. They are a director to watch because with a script in good condition, they could really make a standout feature film. Hall is sadly a major misfire. For all its good in capturing its mood, it forgot to frame it around a story.

★ ★

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A Ghost Waits

Independent horror-romcom A Ghost Waits is a feature debut by director Adam Stovall and written alongside his leading man, MacLeod Andrews. Jack (Andrews) is a cleaner who goes into a house with revolving tenants to do his job. When the ghost finally appears to him and attempts to drive him out like the others, he is only more insistent on staying and their clashes turn meditative, complicating their relationship further.

A neat and simple premise with plenty to play around with ends up stumbling a lot. Although it can be quite charming, the uneven pacing causes severe structural issues. It asks for too much good faith in its consumption because that is how it was made, but it needs to be built better to get away with that. The blocks are uneven, as we go from quick cuts, to thirty-minute conversations making it feel a little everywhere.

Clearly budget was more than just restrictive which may be the reason that it is monochromatic. Nothing else is gained by the choice other than perhaps it emphasises that it is hiding more than a flew blemishes underneath. Perhaps there is an artistic intention behind it, but it does not come across. Digital black and white is always such a risk as it is and with A Ghost Waits, it points more towards its amateurism when it should be shying away from it.

A film created from an affectionate place, clearly wearing its heart on its sleeve but it indulges itself in its own romanticism with disconcerting message that alone everyone is destined for depression and that relationships – primarily romantic – are the driving force for continuing. It feels a little high school, in that sense. It’s best earlier on when it shows a disaffected Jack and building him up – one-sided friend phonecalls, his boredom and growing apathy – yet it veers further off course as it loses its structure. A Ghost Waits is well-intentioned and quirky – it’s already found its audience of fans, which is great – but it feels poorly crafted and left this one cold.

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Enhanced

Breaking up the horror selection available at the festival, FrightFest nabbed Enhanced as a familiar sci-fi flick about a group of mutants who are outcast and hunted by a sinister government organisation. Between running and trying to stop a mutant from becoming all-powerful, lead Alanna Bale – a rarely named mutant – must decide her allegiances. Although it’s aiming for an X-Men­ vibe, it feels more like The One or War; that standard 2000s sci-fi actioners vibe.

If you think Enhanced sounds a little generic, you would be forgiven because it walks its way down the story to prove you right. We know the story and it doesn’t dare to deviate nor even cover it up with any real theme. Sci-fi themes should be weaved into the story, not skipped entirely. Missing commentary is replaced with quips or attempts at dramatising, where it could be saying something about the persistent, well-funded government organisation or even an allegorical representation of systemic issues. There’s just… nothing.

Enhanced does show the talent to craft, choreograph and capture fight scenes doing so with passion. Action sequences are where it is at its most creative and shows exciting promise for director James Mark (and actor brother, Chris Mark, as the mutant vying for power). With a decorated past in stunt coordination in most sci-films studio pictures of the 2010s, there is potential in James Mark to direct some creative actioners in the future and one to earmark for the future.

A deftly made picture but due to its generic and simple story, it is unremarkable. Competently made does not make entertaining. It will be on the Syfy Channel in no time.

★ ★

Blinders 2020 Still

Blinders

Tyler Savage’s latest film finds its fear in the implicit trust we place on people in an unsettling, tense horror-thriller with a few tricks up its sleeve. Blinders follows Andy (Vincent Van Horn) who has recently made the plunge to move to LA from Texas after a bad break-up. His potential romance with Sam (Christine Ko) is then put in jeopardy when an unstable ride-share driver finds as many ways as possible to interfere with his life.

Blinders is a tight thriller at its best when it is more a character study and changes character allegiances. Andy isn’t as simple as a good guy and it’s not as clear-cut as being tortured by a bad guy either. Andy is, however, a real guy generally more distant from society than they should be. They aren’t unempathetic, but they aren’t empathetic. They aren’t unkind, but they aren’t kind. They are the complexity of mood-controlled personalities. When it studies its characters and adds as many layers as it does for Andy and Roger (Michael Lee Joplin), it neglects to do so for Sam, making her one-dimensional until the end. Although this could be a deft criticism of Andy’s perspective, it needs to work harder to achieve that as a successful reflection rather than feeling like a jolt of belated energy.

Stalker pictures often rely on their imagery and it shines here. Tyler Savage has a great eye with this film the visual highlight of the festival; there are even beautiful transitions reminiscent of the paranoid pictures of the ‘70s. It adds atmosphere while charming you and finds sleek ways to integrate the screen time imagery that is pervasive with modern technology.

Blinders could have done with refining the script to give more depth to Sam, but otherwise it’s a lovely looking thriller with a few twists and turns to remain entertaining, ignoring one awkward rug pull. The film plays on how scared we should be that the price of technology and instant interconnectivity is the resignation of privacy and the many ways it can be weaponised. Especially in a world that is further distancing itself from people – Ryde-drivers are services, not people underneath. Tyler Savage is a name to look out for.

★ ★ ★

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The Swerve

To say the festival ended on a high would be accurate yet misleading for the existential nightmare and tragedy this film so devastatingly crafts. The Swerve should be a star-making role for Azura Skye who explores the depths and pain of her character that sees the worst in herself through a manipulated perspective.

Holly (Azura Skye) has a seemingly perfect life for the generic punch card of being married with children and in a comfortable position when an accident starts to unravel her world and her sanity. Ostensibly not a horror per se, it paints a chilling picture on the power of microaggressions and that a to-do list tick box for life goals doesn’t lead to happiness. Holly’s world paints a tragic picture of long-term mental health struggles exacerbated by family and their need to remind you of your own past. Trauma never heals, the scab is always picked, even infused into dinner conversations where painful memories or not just resurrected but relayed as hilarity, showing that families and friends use others’ suffering for edification, as a comfort to their own self-image in the face of meek ineffectiveness.

Director Dean Kapsalis’s debut captures pain and illustrates the ripple of broken relationships across the cast. Azura Skye is superb but so are Ashley Bell and Zach Rand. Ashley Bell plays the projecting sister with a recognisable self-awareness that illustrates their inner dissatisfaction while fusing it with that seeming, easy-breezy confidence associated with it. Zach Rand’s Paul is the only one outside of the corrosive circle of her family dynamic that sees who Holly is. Unable to help but willing to give whatever to do so.

The Swerve is a haunting study of family, lingering trauma and the disturbing impact broken social dynamics cause. A stark slow burn representation of our influence on others told with remarkable confidence from a first-time director. Drama which is restrained like its lead and resolute in its bleakness. A powerful, harrowing, uncomfortable gut-punch picture.

★ ★ ★ ★

Ashley Norris

The author Ashley Norris

[Associate Editor] I'm a film lover, film writer, film graduate who spent many sleepless nights chaining films until the sun came up, making me love all things film and pursuing a career in the industry. Follow @ashleyrhys on Twitter for more ramblings.