Four days down, and as per every other year that I’ve attended, FrightFest 20 has been a success. I’d go as far as saying, in terms of sheer consistency, it’s been among the best I’ve been to. And with today’s line-up looking like it’s got a common theme of people being marginalised by their community, it could be a good reminder of how powerful horror can be. Outsiders have been been a part of horror history since its inception, and these movies are often a great vehicle to represent the experiences of the disenfranchised. This is most notable in the opener…
Directed by Kurtis David Harder
We begin with a trip back in time to the 90s and the leafy suburb of Rusty Creek. Billed as an LGBT answer to Get Out, Spiral plays up the white-picket-fence paranoia for a film about how discrimination isn’t a thing of the past. And why those who act like it is because they don’t see it personally, or don’t want to, are a big part of the problem. As per Peele’s debut, the emphasis is also on the insidious microaggressions of overcompensating, well to do, liberals as well as openly prejudiced conservatives. Aaron and Malik are an interracial gay couple who decide to ditch the big city, with Aaron’s daughter Kayla, for the quiet life in a place people don’t even lock their doors. The oppressive underbelly of a superficially beautiful row of perfect model houses is a common juxtaposition. Even so, its well realised. From an early stage, it’s clear the community has some dark secrets to hide, and not everyone is as nice as they first seem.
Or at least it becomes clear to Malik. Much of Spiral is made up with the usual scenario where one part of a couple knows something’s amiss and the other thinks they’re crazy and so on (only this time there’s the added complication of Malik withholding valuable information without much of a motive). Hence after enjoyable opening scenes, where Aaron is cringe dad to Malik’s cool “loud and proud” dad, most of their shared screen-time plays out in ways you’ve seen a million times. Throw in the usual recurring cult iconography, and an out of place ghost in a machine and you can probably guess most of the second and third acts including the feeble twist. With would be fine if it was well done, but ironically for a film mostly concerned fear, it’s not scary enough to use such an established structure. It does paranoia well but is otherwise too plodding and predictable. This is despite Harden: Malik’s downward spiral is well visualised, and his growing erraticness is well contrasted by the mild-mannered neighbourhood. However, hang in there because the reward is worth it.
The conclusion is rock-solid, with an ending I found more satisfying than the steps taken to reach it: a frustrating journey to an excellent destination. It may be a moment where subtext becomes text, but it’s thus far been the most moving thing I’ve seen all festival. It’s a vital, timely example of what horror can be. Spiral will most likely be remembered for the frank way it deals with both internalised and external homophobia: people don’t change, they just get better at hiding what they think. We’re a tribal species, and long as there are humans there’s going to be stigma and divisions. Though with reason and love, is this something humanity can overcome? It’s a loud call for compassion, begging us to be better and to move on from baser instincts. The only silver lining at all is as long as there is stigma there’s going to be horror.
EAT BRAINS LOVE
Directed by Rodman Flender
It wouldn’t be FrightFest with at least one zom-com. Eat Brain Love is based on a YA road novel, and makes for an appealing, life-affirming film about the undead. This time being a zombie is reimagined to be like catching the werewolf curse, with the infected still functioning normally until the hunger overwhelms them: a reinvention that lends itself well to a tale about horny teens. It’s a coming of age/ age of cumming style comedy, loaded with low-brow humour but a lot of heart. We follow the sexpolits of two teens who contract the virus in its new STD form: Jake, and his long-time crush Amanda, who get the Herpes of the undead from two other people. One day they both simultaneously flip in the canteen and end up on the run together. It does not mean love at first bite as they chow down on their classmates though. After all, he’s a slacker dweeb and she’s the head cheerleader – so a bit out of his league. Thanks to unwritten schools rules, they’re the kind of kids that can only hang out when everyone else is dead or after them. On the run from the Necrotic Control Division and their teen psychic Cass (at least it beats jury duty), they go in search of a cure, more food and an answer to who (if anyone) deserves to die.
I know there’s been a tonne of these films, and most are so-so. But I got a lot from Eat Brains Love. It’s a good underdog story with well-rounded characters – even if they’re tweeny fixtures. Jake and Amanda are a joy to hang out with and undergo reasonable character journeys. Even if it sticks to the trope of her as a prize to be won by an immature guy, it’s delightful to watch them get closer. Cass, a “cute Ripley chick” down to her green jumpsuit, is an inspired inclusion, and her complicating the things by falling for Jake makes for an enjoyable love triangle. Unfortunately, this narrow focus, which I suspect was partially done for budget reasons, comes at the expense of tension and the film never quite reaches a crescendo. It’s exciting but not thrilling. The angle of a secret branch of the government trying to cover up the disease helps it immensely though. A split narrative is handy for interrogating the NCD’s goals to turn zombies into mindless Pavlovian pets. It also allows the film to ask heavy questions about how we should treat people with sick impulses, such as sex offenders. When taken on top of all the killing, this means the move goes to dark places. It never really feels it though, with the nastiness getting countered by the sweet romance (or romances) at its core, and the fluffy pop-video feel. It’s good-natured, if very gory, fun that I hope finds its audience. And since the book has a sequel, aptly entitled Undead With Benefits, maybe there’ll be second servings. Future events will always need one.
DANIEL ISN’T REAL
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
Last time I watched a Mortimer film was FrightFest a few years ago, when Some Kind of Hate played, and I wasn’t a fan at all. He’s clearly talented, and I don’t doubt his intentions were good, and the purpose was to explore how abuse can be cyclical. Even so, I found the use of self-harm as a weapon, and its sexualised depictions, problematic. I appreciate I may be too picky: it’s not uncommon for modern supernatural horror to appropriate medical symptoms/ behaviours to frame them as supernatural (Ari Aster’s career is arguably built on this convention). To this day though, with the possible exception of Lights Out’s ending, I’ve never seen it done so uncomfortably. As such, I was apprehensive about another movie by the same director that dealt with similarly sensitive material. This time around its coping with trauma. As a boy, Luke needs an escape from the world so conjures up Daniel: an imaginary friend he seeks solace in. Seems normal enough, and maybe even a good thing, until one day an increasingly needy Daniel makes him try to kill his own mother with a cocktail of prescription drugs. In response, Daniel gets metaphorically locked away in a toy castle, never to be let out again. Years later, Luke is a freshman in college and having trouble coping with the many pressures on campus and at home. After a seizure-inducing trip to a nightclub, he goes into counselling where he’s encouraged to connect with his old coping strategies again, leading to a reunion. It’s great at first when Daniel helps him get girls, like a metaphysical Hitch, though soon takes a very nasty turn as he learns more about the nature of his not-really-there buddy. Think a darker Drop Dead Fred. Still, at least he’s not real, right? Means he can’t hurt anyone…
I dug a lot about this one. I’d go as far as saying I liked it as much as I disliked Some Kind of Hate. The concept of the dark half is something horror’s handled for years. Whether it’s The Wolfman, Norman Bates or The Babadook, the idea there’s a bad bit inside each of us is a scary one. And though Daniel Isn’t Real doesn’t break new grounds, it handles these themes with both raw punk-rock energy and tact. Against the backdrop of his bro flatmate, and disintegrating mother, the titular character’s an initially alluring presence for Luke and audience alike. The credit for this has to go to Patrick Schwarzenegger, who is devilishly charming despite is barely concealed predatory masculinity and threat. Sure it’s horror so we know it’s not going to go wrong, but the balancing act before it does is carefully achieved. And while I’d maybe have liked to see a steeper escalation in the second act to justify the melodrama of the third, the pacing is otherwise spot on. Perhaps to serve the running time, the secondary characters are written more broadly. Luke’s mum isn’t characterised outside her illness, and the two women he connects with are underwritten ideas rather than people. Still, I was dead impressed with where it went in the third act when it upped the world-building and began to resemble a whole different subgenre I shan’t reveal here. Suffice to say it’s something I wasn’t expecting and all the better for it: arresting, shattering and quietly epic. It’s even made me want to rewatch Mortimer’s last film. I hate to say this, but maybe I was wrong.
READY OR NOT
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
Now for something more mainstream. Ready or Not is the second feature from duo Radio Silence: a timely tale of the have and have nots, presented as a tense thriller. It’s a vast step-up from Due Date, and probably my favourite big release horror of the year so far. Grace and Alex are getting married at the estate of his “moderately fucked up” family. They’re the 1% embodied: the kinds of people who have servants’ corridors in their manner-house and say things like “I can’t fly commercial – it’s the worst”. Having made their money through a family business, manufacturing board games, it’s only fitting new members have to take part in a game. Or be hunted as game. Grace is asked to pick a card and ends up with the only bad: hide and seek. Only in this version of the game the hunters are armed (with centuries-old weapons) and need to maim her by midnight to kill her in a ritual. Otherwise, according to their superstitions, everyone else dies a horrible death. Nobody’s happy, but those are the rules. As the old saying goes, the rich really are different…
Since the action involves one person on the run from a small family, you’d think it’d struggle to retain tension since we’d assume she can’t die before the last act (and I’m absolutely not saying she does or doesn’t). And sure enough, Grace is protected by some plot armour. Still, the movie does a laudable job maintaining its forward momentum and keeps upping the ante with a series of suspenseful set-pieces. The body count and kills are also unexpectedly impressive, with the directors constantly finding creative or funny ways to off people. On that, it’s hard to overstate how good the comedy in this movie is. The cast has exceptional comic timing, and are always able to provide laughter in the dark. Much of the violence has a sloppy, slapstick quality about it, emphasising that most of the baddies are incompetent oafs: they don’t want to kill her any more than she wants to be killed. It almost makes them loveable. Their many quirks also mean everyone’s got something to work with.
As you can likely guess from the synopsis, this is also a satire. Ready or Not is less overtly political than other recent state-of-the-nation movies, such as Get Out or The Purge. However, it’s hard to ignore the message of a film where the entitled upper classes acquire and keep ahold of their wealth by birthright and exploiting the less well off – like Grace is implied to be. Speaking of her, Samara Weaving is at the top of her game – conveying both the situation’s life or death urgency and acknowledging its absurdity. She’s impressed me before, in both Mayhem and The Babysitter. Ready or Not is further proof she’s an awesome screen presence and a top scream queen. I expect this will be her breakout movie. It’s got the potential to be huge since it’s, weirdly, being distributed by the 1% themselves at the House of Mouse (which now owns Fox Searchlight). Thankfully I doubt they’ll need to offer any sacrifice for it to be a success. Oh, and the closing line, shot and song choice is perfect.
Directed by Henry Jacobson
I finish the night with this fairly understated serial killer thriller featuring the sidekick from American pie. Fortunately, the first character Seann William Scott kills off is Stiffler – his performance doesn’t have a hint of his old happy-go-lucky sex pest persona. So there’s good evidence of his range here. Unfortunately though, he plays Evan as numerous other onscreen serial killers: rigid, still and monotone with hints of dramatic irony. Think Dexter, with the campness dialled down (this name will come up again in a moment). He’s a social worker in a high school, where he deals mostly with kids who have problems at home. Evan can understand – he has both daddy problems and problems with being a daddy. Then one day he decides to go after these deadbeat fathers, for the sake of the family values he holds so dear.
Bloodline is by no means a bad film: it’s pacey, funny and shocking. But it is an unimaginative one, with a premise borrowed straight from a huge show: can a public servant by day and serial killer by night weigh up their love of murder and their love for their family? Down to the costume choices, this is very like Dexter. Only while Dexter was on a constant quest to understand the root of his unconventional hobby, and to stop being a blank slate, Evan is denied such introspection. As per the title, this film is more about nature than nurture so his story is about coming to terms with being a blank slate. In that respect, the character study angle has a narrow scope. Add a controlling mother, who probably took parenting tips from Norma Bates, and Bloodline’s plotting as generic as its name. The main thing makes it stand out is the giallo aesthetic with the colour-scheme, editing and score coming straight from the modern revivals of this subgenre. It sounds and sounds great. Not that presentation flair is enough to make me recommend it. Some of the meandering plotlines help, with a pretty decent twist or two. As do the well-balanced scenes of violence, which do gore without making it too glamorous or fun. Plus, and this is a big plus, at least it doesn’t do anything too lame like end on him going to live as a lumberjack.
Today was definitely better than Saturday, and a reinforced how exciting a time this is for terror. Hitting the road back to the hotel, I’m still thinking about Ready or Not. It’s unfortunate there’s only one day left, though you can have too much of a good thing. Truth be told I’m struggling to remember anything about Mary or Scary Stories. Moreover, with some of the stuff I was looking forward to the most being on, it should be a good one.