Frightfest (2019) day 2: Harpoons pierce the skin

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Day 2! Social media is buzzing with good thoughts on last night’s triple threat, and it looks like there are some prime cuts of horror in-store today. A quick shower and breakfast, then I head to the cinema eager to see them. Shuffling around central London, with matching red lanyards and themed t-shirts, the amassing FrightFesters probably look like a cult. Which brings me to the first movie…

Directed by Abdelhamid Bouchnak

Have you got a favourite Tunisian horror? I do now. Not that this is a recommendation per se since Dachra is the first I’ve ever seen. It follows three journalism students (as per US movies, it’s the hot-head, the joker and a more serious female) looking into the case of a woman suspected of witchcraft who has spent two decades freaking out the asylum she’s in. She’s so eerie that the manager even denies her existence. Fortunately, it only takes is a few bribes and they get to speak with her, setting in motion in a treasure hunt that brings them to the off the map village of Dachra: an archaic, patriarchal countryside compound with goats, odd rituals and a seemingly never-ending supply of meat. Where the jovial leader is only too happy to have them stay the night. If you’ve seen a movie about cults before, be in The Wicker Man or Midsommar, then a lot of this will be familiar. I’d go as far as saying the only thing I found surprising at all was how accessible it is. The formula goes naive explorers become outsiders to an outsider community and find out the group they initially thought were quite sinister are quite sinister. The audience then leaves more afraid of rural folks than when they went in. Such fidelity to a template is disappointing since the premise offers a unique opportunity for viewers to learn about cool aspects of Tunisian folklore through the characters’ quest. Instead of seeing an old story in new clothes.

Maybe the main achievement of Dachra is setting a moody tone early on that never really lets off. The sets and costumes are first-rate, and the unnerving soundtrack helps. Heck, the atmosphere is so immersive it was only slightly spoilt by the heavy nose-breather sat beside me. The handheld shooting style also lets us get up close and personal with the gore, and helps us empathise with crudely drawn characters as we share their worries of what’s around the corner or just out of sight. It isn’t found footage, but does something similar. Like an over the shoulder third person in a video game. For the most part, the framing keeps it interesting, even when the slow story beats don’t. Nonetheless, aside from a fairly questionable twist, there’s not much in act 3 trained audiences won’t guess very early on in act 2. This could be less of a problem if it wasn’t so darn slow, building little momentum before the final fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, with a lack of set-pieces, or direct attempts to scare the audience, the long wait for a violent payoff feels like delaying the inevitable. Then when it does come, it’s uncharacteristically rushed. Hey, maybe there’s a second surprise to it after all.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Directed by Travis Stevens

A lot of wrestlers have done movies. A while back there were Hogan and Piper, plus The Rock’s done numerous blockbusters, Batista is part of the world’s leading franchise, Kane did the two See No Evils, Hornswoggle played the Leprechaun and Steve Austin was once considered hot shit. Oh, and Triple H did the iffy Blade Trinity. Now we can add CM Punk (Phil Brooks) to the list of grapplers that have gone from the squared circle to the silver screen. Mr Punk is also, by some distance, the best actor out of the lot of them. Here he plays Don – a manipulative, former player, sleazebag whose fragile masculinity has made him want to go about renovating the new house for him, his wife and the kid that’s due soon despite having neither the skills nor experience to do it. His new home also has a habit of falling apart around him (in a fairly tried and tested visual metaphor for a bad marriage). There’s that phrase “if these walls can talk”. That’s nothing though: these ones also rot, bleed and drip cum. It’s a very gunky, grimy aesthetic that’ll make you want a shower after. The gore’s impressive too, with moments of body horror even Cronenberg would be proud of: genuinely shocking. There’s also a greater variety of bodily fluids here than I’ve seen in anything else this year. Fortunately, there’s also a lot of substance to the performances and writing too.

Mr Punk utterly commands the screen. His character may be a square-jawed a-hole, impervious to introspection and obviously built like a brick shithouse. Yet with his clumsy and splattered slapstick inducing attempts at home improvement, his stubborn pride and his charming first impressions, he’s actually quite likeable. At the start, I’d even say relatable: the everyman you hope very man isn’t like. Not that the script is shy about showing his bad bits. However, I’m not entirely convinced by how these traits are integrated into the wider message. In transpires, early on, the place he’s fixing up is a former brothel. The haunted “whorehouse” idea is thus used to explore a continuity between Don’s misogyny and the historic exploitation of women. The problem with this premise is it sometimes seems director Stevens hasn’t decided which narrative about sex workers he’s committing to: are they victims or temptresses? How the legacy of these women’s suffering is embodied is problematic for reasons I don’t want to go into here. Suffice to say the way it handles the themes of sexual temptation/ perversion on a character level is commendable. But as a malevolent threat, much like Don’s new place, it doesn’t quite hold together.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed by Jennifer Reeder

I’ve known for a while this is Paul McEvoy’s pick for best of the fest, so going in it had my attention. It’s not tough to see why either – it’s a sublime if an occasionally unsatisfying piece of arthouse meets genre. Knives and Skin is about small-town America coming to terms with the sudden disappearance of a local teenager, Carolyn Harper. Along with trying to find where she is, the locals struggle with secrets of their own: dreams, infidelities and sexual orientations. In particular, the narrative focuses upon the lives of three girls, and how they deal with those around them. Hearts are broken and tears are shed: at its core is a myriad of social pressures, and reasons it sucks to be a teen. Best years of your life? No chance. Yet amongst all this angst are moments of tenderness and joy, in which some people still come together or find comfort and meaning in each other’s arms. People don’t always reveal their best selves during times of crisis, and the non-judgemental storytelling acknowledges this. It’s the kind of small-town slice of life that maybe lends itself better to a miniseries, though as a feature is a mesmerising sketch of shared grief and community. Even if, arguably, the relationships are more interesting than the characters in them.

In quirky movies like this, maybe the most common problem is when oddities get in the way of us connecting to the cast. For the most part the script successfully navigates the space between frank, every-day musings and dream-like whimsy, to give a magic realism that’s grounded emotionally. It can towards being too goofy, but the heightened reality usually serves as a way of accentuating that character’s mental state. There’s a lot of beauty to it, with a special mention for the bits when the cast does coral renditions of eighties pop, and at times the movie feels like a celluloid fantasy. However, at points the movie also lacks a unique identity of its own, owing more than a bit to Lynch and Frost. I suppose that given the girl washed up on the shore premise, parallels to Twin Peaks were inevitable. I’d even go as far as saying Reeder embraces them. Though with the ethereal score and how it uses colour filters Knives and Skin occasionally veers too far into tribute. Like a way more sophisticated Riverdale. Something else that may frustrate people looking for a more conventional mystery is the lack of resolution: like real life, there aren’t always easy answers. But in closing the character arcs, and offering a glimmer of hope to a challenging story of teenage rage, hopelessness and malaise it’s a brilliant piece of cinema. Paul, if you’re reading this, you’ve chosen well.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed by Lucky McKee

It’s been years since I watched a Lucky McKee film – which is a shame since May and The Woman were among my top picks of the new millennium. They offered affectionate, challenging stories about interesting, outsider characters. And while I wasn’t big on All Cheerleaders Die, which screened here in 2013, I was glad to see his latest included this year. As usual, he focuses on rounded, female characters: if someone were douchey enough to come up with a reverse Bechdel test, McKee would fail every time. In this case, it’s the trio of try-hard single mother Chloe (who’s having a secret affair with the neighbour), her awkward teen daughter Nicole and her sister – cool/ immature aunt Sadie. Sadie’s recently come back into the lives of the other two, after an unexplained disappearance, in search of a new start. And to cause havoc by stirring every pot going.

It’s sad the sort of nineties white fence horror this emulates (such as Fatal Attraction or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) has been downgraded to cheap Lifetime movies. It’s to McKee’s credit that he makes them credible again in a way fluff like Netflix’s Secret Obsession couldn’t, by really tapping into the character dynamics. These are well handled throughout, with every possible pairing being complex and interesting enough make you want to see more of it. This attention means there’s enough of a dramatic foundation to just about sell the zanier elements of the third act – which hinges on way too many absurd coincidences. Caitlin Stasey is the stand out as Sadie: a middle finger to the manic pixie dream girl tropes she initially embodies. Playing this character archetype as psychosis is an ace move. It’s easy to see why Nicole would first want to be like her, and why some viewers may fall for her freewheeling-spirit trap. But before too long we see her this persona is just that – a persona. Just like the needy child act she goes into without warning. As is her being both a daughter and younger sister to Chloe and a big sister and aunt to Nicole – these are roles she dances between, only sometimes tripping. Is it manipulation and gaslighting, or does she really not have a stable sense of self? It’s never answered directly, but Stasey is great no matter what she part she’s playing Sadie playing. Sasha Frolova has less to work with as Nicole, ticking a number of tortured teen boxes like jumping on her bed face-first to cry into a pillow and annoying her mum with heavy music. For such a subversive movie, it’s frustrating despite Frolova’s best efforts. Still, her difficult relationship with Thora Birch (who again shows she deserves a bigger career) gives the film its dramatic core, as Chloe struggles to be the favourite. In the absence of a ticking clock, it’s this very personal battle with Sadie that provides the movie’s main source of tension.  And it’s more than enough for me. Small scale, shocking and sad. So glad to have you back in my life Lucky!

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed by Rob Grant

As the characters remind us, it’s really a spear gun – but let’s not split hairs. Harpoon is an absolutely hilarious, and gleefully gory, dark comedy by Rob Grant – and an early contender for the best of the fest. It’s a mean-spirited, messy and character-driven tale about three awful people trapped at sea together. Maybe the worst of them, Richard, is a paranoid and violent alpha male trustafarian with serious anger issues. Therefore, quite why his girlfriend Sasha and best friend Jonah decide to buy him a spear gun for his birthday is anyone’s guess. Following a misunderstanding, that sees Richard pummel Jonah because he thought he and Sasha were having an affair, the three go to test it out on the waters (on a boat aptly named Naughty Buoy). What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as they find themselves stuck in the ocean and the truth about their love triangle comes out. It gets out of hand. So out of hand that they even make a truce not to kill each other. But then promises are sometimes made to be broken…

What’s most impressive about Harpoon is that the film is as tense as it is funny. For the first ten minutes, I wasn’t sold (even if I was laughing like a drain). I figured it was going to be too broad and exaggerated to work as a feature. But once they’re stranded it eases into a thriller. More often than not, horror-comedies function more like the latter than the former – which isn’t a problem as long as the gags are good. It’s rare you find something like Harpoon which stays laugh a minute stuff, yet pitches its darker material with enough gravity and peril you give a shit. One prolonged sequence involving a drinking game is especially intense, despite a great conversation about sexual prowess. Likewise, a later bit where they make a group decision skilfully escalates the tension whilst having one of the funniest moments in the movie. Rob Grant does a near-flawless job presenting difficult material. And while he never dresses up the badness in his characters, he gives them enough psychological depth and nuance that we care what happens to them despite who they are. Only misstep is a reveal about one of them that could have had more impact if it came five minutes later, but this is a very minor thing. The performances are great too, with each testing audience identification/ sympathies and the leads bounce well off each other. Richard and “nice guy” sad sack Jonah are the chad and virgin memes in flesh, but each has depths that are disarming. Sasha is probably the closest we have to a voice of the audience, but still shares many of their vices. They’re three people you wouldn’t want to hang out with, but a blast to spend an hour and twenty minutes on a boat with.

Rating: ★★★★★

On that note, I head back to the hotel to write this feature up. There’s still another movie showing, with the main screen getting a Danny Trejo action extravaganza with pig hybrids and talking butt cheeks. It sounds like good midnight fun, but I got a big day ahead.

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About david.s.smith 455 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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