I never can say goodbye – another year and another Fright Fest comes to an end. So far the line-up’s been solid, with a lot of brilliant movies, showing horror is still alive and well. Really, it’s been a great long weekend and one I’m very grateful for the opportunity to cover again. Yet there’s been a notable absence of five stars. Still, looking over the guide I got a good feeling about today.
Directed by Brandon Christensen
Take a spoonful of Sinister, a dose of Paranormal Activity, some Babadook and a hell of a load of Insidious then you’ll come up with Still/Born – a Blumhouse-lite movie about a kid devouring demon scaring the heck out of a young mother, Mary (Christie Burke). At first, she thinks the disturbances are a manifestation of past trauma, coming from the loss of her last baby. Initially, this possibility elevates the movie above the many similar films, with some clear justification on both sides. Whilst it may be grand to liken it to something like The Turn of the Screw, the perspective nature of the storytelling is an asset along with the acknowledgement of post-partum depression as a possibility. At first. As the ante increases and the supernatural elements become more pronounced, this possibility becomes a red herring. Moreover, after simply isn’t well integrated into a movie with very little ambiguity, replaced by lots of genre tropes.
All the things you expect are here: big jolts as the strings sound, one partner believing their offspring is haunted while the other doesn’t and a characterless force that needs to build up strength across the first two acts. It’s all very standard up to and including the bargain bin Babadook which shows up towards the end. Although to be fair, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad film. Christensen knows what’s he doing, and even if it’s workman-like he’s, if nothing else, reliable. Moreover, even though they’re cheap some of the jump scenes work and, as per other so-so supernatural movies of recent years like Oculus, the final third has a kick to it sorely absent from the run-up. Throughout, Burke is much better than the material demands – putting in one of the best performances of the festival. In her wide-eyed fear/ insanity, she goes way beyond what we would reasonably expect in a film of this calibre. Similarly, although his role doesn’t offer him much, Jesse Moss does a decent job as loving husband Jack.
In short, the technical elements are here for a decent 90 minutes, and if you enjoy Blumhouse style movies this one is inoffensive. But if you’re even slightly well versed it’s maybe got all the thrills of seeing old photo albums.
Directed by Ry Nishimura
Last year I was speaking to executive producer, Darren Lynn Bousman, who said things were going well with this show. From the rough premise, I’d never have predicted just how well! Based on the first two episodes, of this black comedy/ horror hybrid, it seems to offer a fresh and frightening doze of speculative science fiction.
Set in Japan, the six-part show follows a group of schoolgirls whose lives are changed by the arrival of an odd new transfer student, Togawa Maki (Sakura Miyawaki), with a dark past. At first, they dislike her, even finding her scary but then, after what seems to be a freak accident, Aoi (Anna Iriyama) takes a shine to her.
Horror is tough to do on the small screen, with commercial breaks and competition forcing an often unnatural forward momentum. But Crow’s Blood gripped me from its opening moments that delve deep into the limitations of technology and if human nature is tooth and claw. Without giving anything big away, as it’s well worth watching, there’s a cool mix of character development and action. The pilot sows plenty of seeds to be later picked up, some of which are picked up in the second, and features some strong set pieces. There’s plenty of gore, with young characters having their limbs broken or bent out of shape, and the pacing is exemplary television. There’s also the kind of misdirection that lets you know you’re going to be in safe hands, no matter how unconventional the storytelling. I’ll definitely be trying to see the rest of this asap.
BETTER WATCH OUT
Directed Chris Peckover
My new stand out for the year – and also the one I want to say the least about. Better Watch Out starts simply as a festive and wholesome home invasion movie. On a snowy night, late teens Ashley (Oivia Dejonxx, from The Visit) is babysitting the smitten fifteen-year-old Luke (Levi Miller), with regular visits of the kid next door Garrett (Ed Oxenbould, also from The Visit). This section of the film is genuinely hilarious and endearing with some painfully familiar young love. Then a break goes through the window. Really, I was surprised to find myself on the edge of my seat for much of the first section, yet it’s a brilliant example of how to create suspense. The atmosphere is thick, the all-important geography of the house well established, and it’s also enjoyable to see the pint-sized heroes being resourceful. Yet after around twenty minutes or so of this, I was wondering how well the story could maintain the energy.
I need not have worried. A surprisingly early reveal sees the film effortlessly switch subgenre halfway through, and take in a very different direction. Sometimes this kind of change can be awkward, for a recent example see The Vault. Though with the seeds planted earlier, in Better Watch Out it’s an organic process. And while some character arcs don’t quite hold together as things escalate, the places it takes the leads are spot on. The villain, once they are introduced, is as threatening as can be. This comes about from a winning combo of a layered script and a stunning performance that, even in the coldest moments, never loses sight of their humanity. Our victims are also more than just victims, making the battle of wits thrilling right until the closing moments. Dark material handled well, with a very unnerving quality about it. Some parts had me gasp. For a studio movie, that’s pretty darn rare. Consider this an excellent gift from Universal.
THE TERROR OF HALLOW’S EVE
Directed by Todd Tucker
Recently I was reviewing the limp Wish Upon, and opened by saying there was yet to be a really good movie about a supernatural entity that grants wishes: a cinematic equivalent to the monkey paw. Now a couple of months later my request has been granted.
Following his debut, the family shocker Monster Mutt, special effects guru Todd Tucker (The Passion of the Christ and Pirates of the Caribbean) is back with another slice of old school horror. Set in the early 80s, and being semi-autobiographical, this is a movie about escapism, bullying and revenge. Here we follow young Timothy (don’t call him Timmy), a 15-year-old, played by Caleb Thomas, who’s more into making monsters than war. That is until a run in with some bullies, on his way back from the supermarket. Bruised and beaten, he wishes out loud for revenge. Enter an evil spirit called The Trickster (think a very fucked up Dobby), and this Halloween some kids are going to get the fright of their lives.
There’s so much to like here – excellent pacing, a snappy script and solid performances. But the start of the show is Tucker’s well-honed skills as a stylist. Here he gives us the perfect Hallow’s Eve atmosphere, with really effective sets and some brilliant creature designs that tastefully blend animatronix and effects. Previously I’ve moaned about movies using synth soundtracks for the sake of it, often forfeiting their individuality in doing so. But in this, the music brilliantly captures the era. But then, when you’ve got some of it coming from John Carpenter that’s got to be expected. This is so much more than a nostalgia trip though, with a real charm about it and a creepiness that’ll make it essential October viewing. Get your hands on it and make an annual thing out of it. Far more treat than trick.
Directed by Tyler MacIntyre
I’m sorry Better Watch Out, but this is the best of the fest – and up there with Raw as my pick for the year. For the second year running the fab four have knocked the ball out the park with the finale (last year it was Train to Busan), going out on a celebration of horror fandom.
Despite being best known for playing superheroes, Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp perfectly inhabit narcissistic high school students Sadie Cunningham and McKayla Hooper– see what they did with the surnames? Bratty, bitchy and glued to their phones, they maybe sound like teenage tropes. Yet they’re also hardcore killers, who have a fascination with real-life tragedies and true crime – talking about it on their online show/ blog/ social media account Tragedy Girls – and keep a Jasoneque murderer locked up. Think Hatchet meets Heathers, with a laugh out loud gag per minute, and some ‘final destination shit’ in the kills, as the girls try to get noticed.
Yesterday I was citing a limitation with Mayhem was in the film’s seemingly unquestioning attitude towards its own world view and the virtue of its protagonist. MacIntyre evades this sort by juxtaposing the seriousness of their actions with their relatively pathetic desire for internet fame. They are the product of a broken, vain world, obsessed with social standing, and not the antidote to it. Early on there’s a bit where Sadie says she worries nothing she does matters, and it’s hard hitting. Not because it excuses the deadly duo’s actions but because it’s relatable. It’s this need for a legacy and validation that likely informs filmmakers, actors and even, I’d expect, internet writers: not being lost in silence.
The script uses this as the basis for a quest narrative that never glorifies the violence but dares you not to partly hope they succeed. That their end goal seems to result in their own arrests or death, for fifteen seconds in infamy, means you don’t want to see them fail (a hilarious recurring joke plays with this by having their ingenuity mistaken for accidents – a reverse Tucker and Dale). Not since Chris Morris introduced us with a band of slapstick suicide bombers, in four lions, have I found myself so eagerly wanting despicable people to succeed.
Besides, the two girls go some way towards redeeming each other in this depiction of friendship at its most extreme. Although the movie never loses sight of them both being dreadful people and regularly reminds us, they are brilliant together! Fun performances and gleefully wicked. There’s even enough vulnerability in the performances that it’s painful to see tensions arise between them in the second half. Previously Tyler MacIntyre showed himself to be a unique voice in horror, with the fun and freaky Frankenstein pastiche Patchwork. In Tragedy Girls, he proves this wasn’t a one-off, with a distinct approach to slashers and high school comedies alike.
With that, the lights go on and it’s time to say goodbyes then head home for the early rise: work calls. Taking the tube back, I reflect on the festival I’ve just left and mulled over what Todd Tucker said to me earlier about horror fans. With affection, he suggested they tend to be introverted and that films are a way he can bond with them directly by showing he has the same worries and concerns. In a sense, this year many of the movies have played with the notion of the outsider and acceptance – as the genre often does. Whilst most of us in the audience will, I hope, have good social networks and plenty friends, it’s not always easy to find people with the same enthusiasm for things that go bump in the night and who share in this slightly outlandish passion. Consequently, it makes me smile to think of the outlet, and community, offered by Fright Fest along with the many sites/ groups that help fans connect. For me, Horror Cult Films is all about that too, as I hope it is for you reading this. And if you’ve made it this far I guess all there is to do is thank you for spending the last five days with me, and say that I can’t wait to do this again next year.
Only 360 days to go!
Coming soon: the films ranked plus interviews with Todd Tucker on The Terror Of Hallow’s Eve and the team behind Double Date.
Sti//Born and Better Watch Out will be streaming on Shudder from early 2018