Day three. At the start it feels like there’s so much left, then at the end it’s almost over. I wake from a short sleep then head downstairs for breakfast then skim a paper, to see what the hell I missed in the world. Festivals can be all-consuming, with plenty things to do and people to see, and this year’s been no exception. Still, despite the occasional stress and strain, I wouldn’t have it any other way either: horror’s more than a passion – it’s a way of life. Sadly, today’s line-up doesn’t look as good as tomorrow’s, or even Monday’s. Though I’m excited about both Upgrade and What You Need to Survive. But there’s a few others to get through first…
Directed by Bernhard Pucher
Just what I needed the morning after a late night: a rave film. Attentive readers may recall me saying, on the first day, there’s one movie I wasn’t keen on. Well this is it. I tried to book myself in for any of the other discovery showings, even pondered not going at all. But then it wouldn’t be Fright Fest without a dud. To be fair, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I figured it’d be from the unappealing summary, though it’s still the lowlight – albeit, for different reasons than I’d have thought. As with how The Ranger sought to explore the underground punk scene, by way of a backwoods slasher, Ravers uses a zombie template to address the illegal dance subculture. An off-the-radar night of debauchery, drink and drugs is planned in a former energy drink factory, which was closed after a worker lost his shit from sipping a contaminated bottle. As bad luck would have it, that wasn’t the only one. And it’s only a matter of time before thirsty clubbers need to start hydrating with the cases left lying around. It’s night of the living red bull.
To be fair, I don’t think I’m target audience for this film, being neither a user nor a raver, and not liking either horror comedies or drug humour. Nonetheless, the boring pills banter, seen-them-before supporting characters and dull soundtrack were what I thought they’d be. Other parts surprised me though, with the premise played unexpectedly straight for large stretches, and with way less slapstick than I’d have guessed (aside from a drug-dealer, whose too derpy to convincingly take on the role of antagonist later). Unlike The Ranger, the heroes are thankfully not the cool kids, with fish out of water Becky being a decent entry-point for the audience. There’s also some cringy makeup effects (in a good way), plus a neat twist on the undead subgenre, where the infected stop going after people if they get what they want. Some big laughs are had watching their many needs (mostly more drugs) getting attended to. Think of them as being less violent for the sake of it, and more being pure id.
Unfortunately, this clever concept works against the tension later, with little opportunity for escalation. Moreover, the smatterings of bad ravers among the dancing ones means the hoard never feels like a proper hoard. That is until the plot demands the members groan through the motions. Accordingly, there’s little sense of urgency, even in the closing act, when the uniqueness of the plot gives way to what’s essentially a subpar undead film. Maybe this was inevitable, given closing scenes would demand higher stakes than the set up naturally provides. But what could have been a real cool idea for a short just doesn’t work when stretched to feature length. Still, despite this I sincerely believe there’s an audience who’ll love it – as many in my cinema did. I could just be a stick in the mud.
Directed by Paul Hyett
Another day, another nun horror film. Only this one is classier, and less shlocky than Bousman’s outing. Focusing on the same formula of hubris, religious fanaticism and small-scale paranoia that worked so well for The Witch, this religious horror, set in a 17th century England, has a feeling of deja vu about it. This time our innocent to be corrupted is Persephone, a young farm girl given a death sentence when she’s suspected of being a heretic. Luckily, or unluckily depending how you see it, she’s given a reprieve when Reverend Mother (the fabulous Claire Higgins) offers her sanctuary at her convent. There she meets other women who have been “saved”, and starts to unearth a deep, dark (and highly predictable) secret. Visions, possession and a fight for Persephone’s very soul follow in a movie that focuses on the usual dark recesses of the folk tradition.
Heretiks does a commendable job of creating ye olde England on a budget, making for a stormy, oppressive backdrop to this metaphorical fight. Granted, some of the special effects are a bit naff, with an overreliance on dated looking digital manipulations from the first big scare. Though the actual sets, props and costumes are all commendable. There’s a real authenticity to its aesthetic, making for a rich atmosphere that recalls some of the Christopher Lee classics. The older cast, in particular Higgins, help to sell it via powerful performances, dripping with judgemental spite and conviction. But unfortunately they’re not able to make the stodgy material engaging. Structurally, the film is ok, with a reasonable pace and an ending that, whilst feeling streamlined, unites the sum of its parts. Story-wise, I was less impressed, with the plot either being rushed forward, or stopped in its tracks, by soap-opera levels of eavesdropping and intrusions. Thus the film soon becomes formulaic, with similar actions, speeches and problems getting played out in what’s got to be the smallest priory in the country. It also doesn’t help that Persephone an emotionally disengaging protagonist, not afforded the psychological depth to make her unique or interesting enough for people to invest in her spiritual journey. To be fair, some of these complaints are partially alleviated by the feel, with the sillier sequences being entertaining Hammer hokum. Yet the entirely po-faced, heightened tone makes me wonder how much the tripe factor was intended. Despite being the third clergy film of 2018, I doubt The Nun has much to worry about with this one.
THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY
Directed by Aislinn Clarke
Though it may with this one… It’s found footage time! Seeing nun movies is becoming a bit of a *tee-hee* habit! Yes, its the second of my religious double-bill for the day (making for the third nun film of the fest for me). This time we leave 17th century England for 1960s Ireland, where the Vatican have sent a pair of priests to look in to what may prove to be divine: a statue of Mary that seems to weep blood. Our dynamic duo are Fathers Riley (an aging sceptic, who has learned from experiences miracles never happen) and Thornton (new to the game, and more willing to run with it). They’re sent to investigate this phenomenon at a Magdaline laundry i.e. an asylum where fallen women go. And are soon faced with the chilling sounds of children playing in the corridors, a conspiracy of silence and rumours of a young girl locked up in the basement. Is this really a house of God?
The first thing you notice about this movie is how great it looks. The location scout has more than earned their salary, with the unnerving maze of corridors and tunnels being a wonderful setting. By shooting on 16mm, for the most part, Clarke and colleagues have created a realistic aesthetic to capture it. Likewise, the monotrack sound, that switches to surround when there are spectres near, is a faithful replication of the times (even if the use of music in a found footage narrative is a pet peeve of mine). These scare moments are relatively restrained, with austere use of effects and more a focus on mood than jolts – not that it’s necessarily above a cheap, ghost-train jump-scare or ten. When we start to find out more, learning about the convents many mysteries, the initially steady escalation is by far the most successful realisation of malevolence I’ve watched these past two days (as a reminder, this is nun film number three so that still means something). But its biggest asset is in the terrific performance, with Lalor Roddy being particularly impressive as the worn-out, older of the two priests. That he’s on paper the leader, but also the more vulnerable one, makes their partnership interesting. It allows for a pathos, and emotional truth to it, that I wasn’t anticipating, as Clarke skillfully weaves meaning into the metaphorical battle of wits.
Naturally, being found footage, it all has to lead to the obligatory sequence in the dark, where the camera stumbles, jolts and blurs to avoid showing too much. Like many other examples before, this is the movie’s weakest segment where its individuality is forfeited for a cliche-heavy closer that feels so much longer than it really is. What makes this dragged out set-piece so disappointing is earlier the film had commendably avoided many of the near-compulsory exorcist clichés: turning heads, body-contorting and kids swearing. It was therefore disappointing to see it go so headlong into found footage ones. The blinking light from the bulb is a useful addition, giving winks of suspense every few seconds. Ultimately you’ll have seen it all before though, from the ‘I’m sorry’ monologue to the now standard camera drops and people being hauled backwards into the darkness. Is a shame, as it had so much going for it before. Still, it’s worth spreading the message.
WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE
Directed by Colin Minihan
The movie I want to say the most about but can write the least on. That’s because the premise doesn’t reveal itself for a while, and for such a point to work, you’re better knowing nothing (you’d maybe even do well to skip to the star-rating a move the hell on to read about Upgrade). But to stick to the press release, on a trip away to the woods for their wedding anniversary, Jules and Jackie find themselves in a merciless fight for their lives against an unexpected adversary. That’s all the plot you’re getting – it’s easy to share too much, as a lot of the film’s success hinges on an event at the end of act one, when a shocking act of violence changes the stakes entirely. What’s impressive is how in leading to it Minihan constructs such a sense of dread and anticipation, despite opening scenes being more a touching romantic drama about a slightly uncomfortable couple. The house itself is spectacular, though while you’d love to hang out in it, you know it’d be even better for an intense chase scene with someone stalking the halls. It’s made scary as horror iconography peeks in, like a gun above the fire, and ominous musical cues ironically undercut the beauty. Consequently, things seem nice but a little off-kilter early on. Then there’s a knock at the door.
The cast is small, with the plot forcing actors into unexpected emotional territories. Come the end, both Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen has delivered their A-game. The script itself is well-written, with naturalistic dialogue and just enough of a backing story to work, whilst preserving the mystery. What isn’t said is maybe more important though – their arcs aren’t just emotional, but physical and grueling. Sure, at some points, their performances get repetitive as their roles in the story are reaffirmed – Anderson, in particular, relies on the same deadpan. However, for the most part they do exquisitely with tough material. It’s tough in that some of the outlandish, less plausible, scenarios could look ridiculous in the wrong hands. There’s also a mean strand of dark humour running through it that makes for a hilarious dinner sequence along with some great reveals – both find the tone while retaining the gravity of the situation. Which, given the overly long running time, is a hell of an achievement.
Like with Return of the King I loved the ending – but not the several that followed. As it is for the characters, What Keeps You Alive becomes an endurance test for the audience alike in act three, with the survivalist narrative taken literally. There’s a wonderful fight sequence, that’s not even shown onscreen, that I took for a finale – only to have another couple show up immediately after. In fairness, I was never bored of it, with Minihan’s sixth sense for tension making it feel like a logical next rather than simply more. Though as per a bad romance, sometimes you’ve got to know when the best is over. Speaking of romance, it’s interesting this was never planned as an LGBT movie, with one of the key roles switched mere weeks before production. I won’t say which, but had a man taken on the part I don’t know that it’d have worked so well, seeming more mean-spirited and tropey, nor felt so suspenseful. Maybe, given issues with representation elsewhere, it’s not entirely progressive – but then just because a character’s gay it doesn’t mean they have to stand in for their entire sexual orientation – particularly when they’re this well written. Great movie, and contender for one of the best of the fest. Which brings me to the next film.
Directed by Leigh Whannell
Until now, he’s been the quieter half of Team Saw/ Insidious. But the Leigh Whannel written/ directed, and Blumhouse produced, Upgrade may change that. It has a bit of something for everyone. Ostensibly a speculative action/ science-fiction hybrid, it envisions a future where humankind is dependent on technology for everything from taking them places to doing their shopping lists. One man who doesn’t like this is Grey, a technophobe still living in the age of manual labour and classic cars. But then irony can be cruel, and following a tragic cyber attack, that takes the life of his wife, he’s left a quadriplegic. Fortunately, they got a chip for that nowadays. Thanks to the experimental STEM, he’s able to walk and lift again. But he’s also learnt a few others things too, including developing super speed, knowledge and a host of other mental/ physical feats which may help on the quest to avenge his partner. But before he can throw his new arms in the air and say ‘I was wrong’, there’s some side-effects. Namely, it talks to him, like Siri’s evil twin, and can even take put him on auto pilot. Which is great, and he’s not much of a fighter otherwise…
So it’s basically Robocop meets Death Wish, with gun-fu fight scenes from John Wick, and a unique form of body horror. If sounds ambitious, said like that, but Whannel makes it look easy. Having learnt to direct on the small-scale Insidious 3, it’s amazing how comfortable he is with a large canvas. Though the budget’s evidently not huge, every last dollar is onscreen with the sort of world building veterans would envy and some really complex choreography (leading man Logan Marshall-Green is outstandingly robotic for these bits). Some great gore too, that caused the cinema to burst into applause as well as the kind of mass ‘oooo’ that only follows the craziest kills. His pacing is exemplary too – as per movies like Blade Runner, and the first Terminator, there are smart themes at work, though they come secondary to the enjoyment factor.
Sometimes, particularly towards the end, it strolls too far into being a transparent cautionary tale, with very on the nose dialogue, though this is in inherent to the ‘our world with one difference’ subgenre. Think of it as a really kick-ass episode of Black Mirror, only less self-serious. The bad guys aren’t really matched per se, since Grey has allthe latest gear, but with some smart plot engineering, he’s often left against the ropes in a literal future tense. And though you’ll see some of the big story beats before they happen, including a very predictable finale (that’s enhanced a bit by a slightly less predictable coda) you’ll not necessarily have seen them done so well. The most inventive, fun, action since Fury Road. Despite – I say that as someone who normally doesn’t enjoy this kind of film. I loved it, and I suspect you will too.
After the movie there was a brief Q&A from Whannel, who shocked us all when he said he did it for just 9 million bucks. I head back around midnight – there’s another showing, aptly named Fright Fest, though I’m too wiped. Besides, going by the premise, and the following morning’s tweets, I didn’t miss much. Three days down, and I think the best is yet to come.