Glasgow Fright Fest Day 2: A freak, a witch and a mermaid

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After a late night of watching The Twilight Zone I wake to the sounds of rain on the glass. I’m in Paisley (about 20 minutes from Glasgow) and keen to see some more slices of contemporary horror. Posting my review for last night, I think again about the variety on offer: a dystopian thriller, a supernatural mystery, an outstanding 30’s-style horror-comedy and whatever the heck Black Circle was. Today looks to be similarly diverse, with Freaks and The Witch: Part 1 both looking ace and heralding from opposite ends of the planet. So it’s with a rushed breakfast and happy thoughts I enter the Glasgow Film Theatre. Today we kick off with…

THE RUSALKA
Directed by Perry Blackshear

It’s love at first sight for mute Tom, who falls in love with a mysterious woman who goes night-swimming in a lake by his holiday cabin. But before they can swim off into the sunset, he’s got to come to terms with her secrets. Namely that she’s a mermaid with a compulsion to drown people, including her ex-husband and the husband of Tom’s neighbour, Al. As the film’s monster mimics a beautiful woman, this monster movie disguises itself as something else entirely. For the most part, it’s a slow-paced, almost tranquil, movie with a dreamy dark fairy-tale mood you can get easily swept away in. Parts of it are almost lyrical, with a delicacy to the visuals that are effectively juxtaposed well with sudden bursts of graphic violence.

There’s also a weighty sadness at its core that elevates it beyond being merely a tender viewing experience. Yet in the third act, most of the emotional punches fail to land. Maybe it’s because I was more invested in Tom seeing justice than I was in the love story, or it was the sparse script reducing Tom’s attraction to a merely physical infatuation. But the doomed romance angle never made the transition from being unfortunate to tragic – given the moral leap required for Tom to back his water-demon in the face of what he, and the audience, know she has done. It actually leaves a bad taste in the mouth, with Tom’s desire for vengeance warping his character to the point of a villain. Had this change been handled with tact, it may have been a meaningful comment on the cycle of violence. Though in its current form it adds up to a finale that’s powerful despite dubious character motivations. It’s also refreshing to see a film about characters from typically marginalised communities where their identities are incidental.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

AUTOMATA
Directed by Lawrie Brewster

So the director of Owl Man, maybe one of my least favourite low-budget horrors of recent years, is back with the supernatural quasi-incest horror Automata. Needless to say if it’d been later I’d have considered a beer break. I’m glad I went though, as it made for one of the most memorable cinema experiences I’ve had in a while: an achievement I put down to how uncomfortable the flick was rather than how well it was put together. Not that one can necessarily separate the two – I suspect Brewster wanted that reaction. From his appearance afterwards it was clear he knew the piece would be provocative, and it was endearing how unseriously he took himself as an artist. Certainly less so than the pomposity of Owl Man would have made me guess.

The film’s built upon reasonable lore gradually uncovered by historian Brendon Cole – an antique expert visiting a remote Scottish mansion, with his step-daughter, to authenticate a 300-year-old clockwork doll. On arrival, supernatural things start to happen, with the doll seeming to get in his head and leading him to act in increasingly unhinged ways. Predictably, there was much squirming and nervous laughter in the aisles during the father/ step-daughter flirtation then revulsion during the more explicit bits. This wasn’t helped by the acting, which is effective enough for the scare scenes but far too wooden for the more out-there material. Victoria Lucie, as Rose, delivers the stand out performance despite having little to work with. It isn’t clear how old she’s meant to be – young enough she goes to sleep beside her step-dad when scared – though from her raging hormones we can assume she’s late teens. This brings us to the same problem Amityville 2 had: whilst Brendon has the clear excuse of being possessed, it isn’t clear if she’s just thirsting for her step-dad. It’d seem so from the opening though, that I initially took to be all in my head but still implies she’s interested. This ambiguity to her motivation and the embarrassingly blunt sexual dialogue make it hard to invest in either of the character arcs. These aspects also go some way towards undermining the subtext that seems to draw a parallel between the motionless “Inferno Princess” and the subjugation of women today.

Elsewhere, the movie is also very much a slave to its budget, with the ambition behind some of Brewster’s more elaborate set-pieces being punctured by visibly low production values – especially towards the end. Nevertheless, he is able to create a good ethereal ambience during some of the night scenes, and I suspect with more money behind him he could do a competent dreamy movie. For long-term fans, the signature pieces from Owl Man are back in abundance – melodramatic gothic sensibilities, exposition-heavy dialogue and lots of dancing. For me, this gave it the same problematic pacing. To be fair, there’s maybe a bit more substance this time around though, with the title ironically referring to both the doll and the protagonists as pieces in a game worked out long ago. But then when it amounts to a fairly goofy chase, with a laughably hammy threat, it doesn’t add much to the experience. Yet maybe because of its boldness, and the audience reactions, I just couldn’t get myself to hate it. Brewster has himself a niche, and while I can’t say I’ll be looking forward to what he does next I also doubt I’ll be bored by it.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

FINALE
Directed by Soren Juul Petersen

She was one day from retirement… Or at least leaving. Agnes is working her last shift at a Danish petrol station in the arse-end of nowhere, with a new life in Germany awaiting her. And with Denmark having made the Euro finals it’s deader than usual. Unfortunately, they may be players in a far less popular game, that’s far more deadly. It begins innocent enough, with a pump seeming to cross the carpark, and some odd customers. But it gets darker when fellow-worker Belinda asks Agnes about the person tied up in the backseat. Throughout, the action is interspersed with a future plot where the girls are being tortured by someone dressed as a Ringmaster in a macabre circus of horrors broadcast online. Narrative tricks like this can be tough to do properly, and though it gives the first half an air of inevitability it also exposes the film’s biggest weakness: that the torture parts are simply not very interesting.

It’s annoying, as I was totally on-board for the garage scenes that cover the over-the-counter culture aspects of working a menial job as Clerks (or last year’s Open 24 Hours), as well as being genuinely quite creepy. I was genuinely thrilled for much of the stalk and slash. But the torture bits were the opposite: rife with clichéd iconography (that is not hinted at in the better half) and money shots you’ll have seen better elsewhere. I could have overlooked its so-so nature were it not also full of didactic social comment and a shallow deconstruction. Finale is the sort of horror film that seems to place itself above the genre, in commenting on the assumed bloodlust of its audience. Among other tropes, the cinema is explicitly likened to the Coliseum and the string of viewer comments at the side during the webcam parts remind us of our complicity. Yet as per The Purge series, this bad faith argument is undermined by a flat script that feels confined to the trappings of its targets. It’s neither smart or subversive (like Funny Games), nor over the top (The Human Centipede 2) enough to be able to make this point well. And it feels about a decade out of date.

Rating: ★★★½☆

THE WITCH: PART 1 – THE SUBVERSION
Directed by Hoon-Jung Park

If movies have taught us anything about secret government experiments to give kids superpowers, it’s that they always come back to bite them in the ass when people find out. This one’s no exception. Runaway Koo Ja-yoon tries to help her adoptive family financially by going on a TV talent show, but in doing so outs herself as a witch. Her former captor, Dr. Baek, who has spent years looking for her for years just so happens to be watching and send the goods round to retrieve her.

Although this synopsis may sound like one for an urgent chase narrative, the film is quite light – with the first two acts meandering by at slow pace. People missing the violent opener could be forgiven for thinking they were just seeing a supernatural coming of age movie. Not that this is a problem since the character work is exceptional. Ja-yoon and her friend are brilliantly realised, with a lot of chemistry and charm to all of their scenes together. Coupled with the snappy dialogue, with extremely well-judged humour, their relationship gives the film its beating heart. This is about a teenager reluctantly accepting their destiny a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer and makes for an endearing underdog tale before becoming an X-Men beater.

There are horror elements laced through the story, so I can see why it was selected for the festival. But as it goes on it becomes more of a superhero origin story – leading to some of the coolest martial arts this side of The Raid. The warrior teens run up walls, leap over each other and engage in the kind of fast-paced weapon play that’d make John Wick retire. It’s incredible and whets the appetite for what will come next. There’s also a series of unexpected twists, all of which work, resulting in an unpredictable movie that shifts the moment you think you’ve got a hold on it. Of course, this is only the first part of something larger – though the ending ought to leave audiences in anticipation.

Rating: ★★★★☆

FREAKS
Directed by Zach Lipovsky & Adam B. Stein

When I was younger my dad did some weird, but ultimately harmless things. It would not be unusual to come by him standing in the kitchen, eating pea pods by the bag. But he never asked me to assume a fake identity if we were split up, or show me around a panic-room to hide in if he never came home. So in that respect, my childhood was nothing like that of seven-year-old Chloe, who is staying hidden from the “bad” people with her father in a run-down temporary home. Nobody ever comes by aside from her friend across the road and a mysterious man in an ice cream van. Obviously, other kids don’t have to go through this, so she sets about finding out what’ her dad’s so frightened of happening. And who the hell the scary woman in her bedroom is.

This is the film I liked the most but is also the one I can say the least about. It takes its time building up some mysteries then, with a well-timed curveball, does something completely unexpected to answer them all. To say any more would be wrong, and I can only hope when the team make the trailer they respect this, but it switches both genre and tone effortlessly. Despite being mostly confined to a single location, it also has some of the strongest, most organic world building I’ve seen in ages along with tense action to boot. Lexy Kolker is also an absolute revelation as Chloe, being immediately likeable from the start and commanding our sympathies throughout. This helps during the more challenging, and morally ambiguous bits, where the film becomes a sombre meditation on very contemporaneous issues. Highly recommended viewing, and the final of the festival for me. I’d be surprised if it’s not among my favourites for the year. The ending also leaves it open for a sequel, if not a franchise – I know I’d be keen to see either. Lipovsky and Stein have created a universe rife with possibilities. I’d love to explore it some more.

Rating: ★★★★★

THE HOARD
Directed by Jess Thomas Cook & Matt Wiele

Doing the tough job of finishing the festival is the mix of Hoarders meets Ghost Watch. Extremely Haunted Hoarders is a pilot reality show with a very specific agenda: finding people in spooky houses that can’t throw anything out. With a motley crew including a professional organiser (who does not spark joy), a psychologist and two ghost-hunters they go to meet a hoarder of mythic proportions. And they don’t just own one dilapidated property, filled to the brim with old tat and spectres, but four! If this won’t get it syndication, then what will?

This is more a comedy with horror elements than horror with gags – the jokes come thick and fast, with amusing parody. But once you get past the premise, which is maybe the funniest part, it gets more broad with constant swearing in the place of punchlines (which shatter the authenticity of the presentation) and some fairly unfunny toilet humour. It eventually teases out some semblance of a plot, with the horror element introduced late, but it isn’t developed enough to give the third act much of a catharsis. This could be excused if the arcs were more substantial, but they’re minimal. Each of the team is flexible to a fault without much consistency aside from them all being awful people. They’re over the top, watching more like a group of wacky sidekicks in need of more rounded leads than an ensemble. What makes it worse is the film outstays its welcome by at least ten minutes, and would benefit from a more plot focused approach to compensate for the weaknesses in its characters. It’s a pain in the ass, as the makers are clearly able to emulate the aesthetic of a reality show – and had some of them worked on Hoarders I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised. Still, I never quite switched off during it. The actors all gave better than the scripts deserved and the premise was novel enough to be entertaining. There’s also some pathos, even if it would have been good to see the hoarding characterised as a failure to let go of the past. Still, I doubt I’ll be hanging on to it much. Not my least favourite film of the festival, that’d probably still be Black Circle, though on the schedule it was a bit of a *tee-hee* waste of space.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

So I come to the end of my Glasgow Fright Fest diary. As per usual, a brilliant weekend, and I commend the fab four – Paul, Alan, Ian and Greg – for putting it on. It’s been a good selection of films and, though they weren’t covered here, some outstanding shorts. As a snapshot of where the horror genre is now, it’s very encouraging – with brave, and very out-there, voices making quality flicks the world over. Should 2019 be another knockout I’d say this last decade has been perhaps the best we’ve ever had. Thank you for continuing to experience it with Horror Cult Films. And to the Fright Fest crowd, I’ll see you in August.

For day 1 of this diary, see here.

david.s.smith
About david.s.smith 253 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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