Frightfest (2019) day 5: A good witch is not hard to find

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The final day is upon us: after four days with 19 films, we come to the final five. As is normal by this point, I’m knackered, and some of the movies I’ve seen have started bleeding into one another or fading from memory: what even happened in Crawl? I don’t know if this year has necessarily been my best FrightFest, though it’s certainly been great. Across the first four days, I’ve seen three films I wouldn’t hesitate to give five stars and five give more I’d gladly give four (and I’m usually a tough crowd). Several of the ones scoring lower also deserve full marks for innovation and are evidence of exciting fresh blood. I truly reckon we’re living through the best era the genre has ever had, and FrightFest is right at the epicentre.

THE BLACK STRING
Directed by Brian Hanson

If the Stiffmeister being a killer wasn’t weird enough, here’s Malcolm in the Middle/ Agent Cody Banks getting an STD from a call-girl. This childhood ruining moment sets off a chain of events that sees his character, Jonathan, going off the grid for days. To try and expose a cabal of witches who are taking over his body with some malevolent black magic which manifests in a string growing inside him. If you think this sounds far-fetched, you’re not alone. Parents and health professions don’t believe him, and thanks to a carefully balanced script, neither will half the audience. The Black String is not a film with easy answers, and the more it unravels, the less sure of anything viewers will be. Not that this harms the movie much. Director, Hanson, knows that by the end it doesn’t matter whether he’s cursed or cracking up. I may have a take on it, but what’s important is he fully believes it – since this is a perspective piece. And neither interpretation changes how harrowing the later sections, that deal with mental illness themes head-on, get.

A lot of this rests on Jonathan as a lead, since he’s our eyes and ears. Fortunately, he’s a decent protagonist, and relatable to a lot of horror fans: shy, arty and nerdy enough to have a Time Cop poster on his wall. Yesterday I was commenting on the genre’s tendency to offer a platform to communities that often have one. In The Black String, it’s low spirited, unmotivated workers waiting for their life to happen. He’s doing 60 hour weeks in a “lifestyle convenience boutique” aka liqueur store. Muniz excels in this role, fully managing the shift from an endearing loser nobody notices to an erratic maniac everyone would rather ignore. Telling such a personal story, and doing so ambiguously, necessitates that there can’t/ won’t be many set pieces. People may be deterred when it doesn’t go for a big third act finish. To an extent I was disappointed, given the presence of horror elements before then had been light. Still, the relatively few gore sequences look stunning, with some squirm-inducing imagery. For instance, watching Jonathan do a tug of war with the titular cord coming out of his arm. There are other supernatural elements of which I’m less fond. Real or not, Jonathan figuring out what happened by talking to a local spiritualist, and reading a book with familiar illustrations, seems lazy. And a little convenient. Come to think about it; maybe it is all in his head! But then what about… I could do this for a while yet, so let’s move on.

Rating: ★★★½☆

THE WRETCHED
Directed by Brett Pierce & Drew T. Pierce

Those looking to see a less uncertain tale of witchcraft may prefer The Wretched: a dark fairy-tale all about killer tree-spirits and black magic. In it, we follow Ben – a young man who is going to spend Summer working on a marina with his estranged father. It isn’t a vacation though – he’s been acting out since the divorce and broken his arm in the process. Not that it’ll be boring for him either, given the drama of meeting dad’s new partner, the possibility of him getting a girlfriend of his own and scrapping with the jocks. Then there’s the matter of the hipster couple, and their kid, renting the house next door. After watching it Rear Window style, he concludes something evil has gotten under the mother’s skin and that it seems to be preying on local children. It’s a well-paced, adventure horror that’s not dissimilar in tone to something like Fright Night, albeit less flamboyant and with more moments of sustained threat.

There’s a neat idea at this film’s centre, which I don’t want to give away here. Except to say that once we learn what’s happening, it’s creative and extremely cool. Although, and I’m keeping it vague here, the small set of characters means there isn’t much time for us to see it in action. I appreciate filmmakers are slaves to a budget, and the small-scale may be for these reasons. But unfortunately, as much as I dug the finished product I don’t think it quite does the concept justice, nor explores its implications as fully as I’d have liked. Still, the small-scale works for the characterisation, and we get to know a handful of them really well. John-Paul Howard finds the line between nice kid and brat, walking it with a precision numerous leads never find. It’s no failing on his part that he’s arguably out shown by Piper Curda, who gives friend/ love interest Mallory enough quirks and a cute charm to light up the screen any time she’s on. Howard and her enjoy easy chemistry that never feels forced and made me really care what happens to them. It’s not often I care about the romantic lives of the characters in horror flicks late alone actively ship them. Then there’s the hag who is as nasty as they are nice. The effects for her bits are really good, with some moments of fingers in-front of the eys gore. On this, I’d like to give a special mention to the folly team who bring these scenes to life with excruciating sounds. Bones crunch, things splat and audiences will wince. It adds a lot to the wicked fun and should solidify this as a staple for future teenage sleepovers.

Rating: ★★★★☆

THE PERISHED
Directed by PADDY MURPHY

The film that FrightFest built. Paddy Murphy got the drive to make his second feature from a late-night conversation, outside the after-party, with Joe Lynch. He also brought on Paul McEvoy to be a consultant. As such, having his premiere here must be the horror nerd equivalent of playing for his favourite team. Murphy, if you couldn’t tell from his name, is an Irish lad who’s chosen to base a horror film around an issue that’s split his nation: abortion. It tells the story of a Sarah, a young woman who has recently got pregnant with a guy who unknowingly dumps her. Shortly after she’s thrown out, by her religious zealot mother for bringing “shame” on the family, and goes to England to do the procedure in secret. It’s a sombre look at something very real and an admirably brave topic for horror to take on. Afterwards, she travels to a friend’s house in the country, to take some time out. However, unbeknownst to her, the house is built on a mass grave of unwanted babies who sense her presence and want a mother. In a sense, the decision to make a film with this concept is a microcosm for the wider debate: if the threat is the spirit of an unborn baby that places moral judgement on the mother since it’s got something akin to a soul.

Murphy wisely sidesteps the question of when life begins by having the spirits act as a stand-in for stigma. He wants rural Ireland to face up to its history, so uses the location to draw a continuity between Sarah’s experiences and women from years, decades and centuries before. In this respect, The Perished isn’t pro-life or pro-choice but pro-empathy. Which makes it stand out from the few horrors I’ve seen that deal with this issue – like the incredibly bad taste Sewage Baby, and that trashy John Carpenter episode of Masters of Horror. Given this subject matter, Murphy has also thankfully not gone for a ghost train narrative. Instead, it’s a slow burn, with a handful of horror scenes that show up in bursts – like contractions leading to the messy finale. At their best, they’re like something from Clive Barker, and at their worst, they’re over before they start. I expect this is due to the shoestring budget, which is also betrayed by visual and auditory issues: you want to pump the money into the most important parts. Constraints like these won’t matter to a lot of people, and it isn’t fair to compare its presentation to studio films in which the catering costs the same amount as this production. Still, it makes for an inconsistent and occasionally frustrating pace.

On a related point, when a horror can’t rely on big moments the character work does the heavier lifting. Which is the main place The Perished loses points for me. Sarah’s mother aside, who really is a horrific creation in all the right ways, the named characters are too nice. It’s to Murphy’s credit that he includes characters on different sides of the debate, and with different distance from it. But everyone speaks so earnestly, directly and at length that it lacks the pressure and conflict which could have boosted its forward momentum in the absence of set-pieces. The core characters’ understanding of their faults, and when they’re acting irrationally, doesn’t help and at points, it curbed the narrative when it could have been escalating the tension. Perhaps ironically, given how much I’m labouring this point (pun intended) I wanted them to cut to the chase more. Maybe Murphy was ensuring the film was about resolution over taking sides. Though I wonder if he did so at the expense of its drama.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

RABID
Directed by Jen & Sylvia Soska

Remake time: The Soska sisters do over Cronenberg’s semi-cult-classic body horror Rabid for the modern age. It’s not a shot-by-shot remake, boasting a way more sex-positive tone and a protagonist who has far more personal agency instead of being a lightning rod for tragedy. At the movie’s centre is a more modern interpretation of Rose: a young woman, with aspirations of being a lead fashion designer. However, her chances of getting ahead in the most superficial of industries are cut short by an injury that leaves her disfigured and doctors having to sew her mouth shut. Further cosmetic solutions will be costly. Fortunately, an experimental plastic surgeon named (sigh) Dr William Burroughs is at hand, offering to fix her for free if she signs up to try one of his cutting edge stem-cell treatments. However, there are some side effects, including heightened sex drive and a taste for human flesh. What’s worse is they also seem to be contagious. Cue a vampire-werewolf hybrid that’s been dressed up in something new and shinier.

While they come across well as people, I’ve never been a Twisted Sisters fan. I found their previous work (particularly American Mary) to be style over substance, so wasn’t enthused about them redoing a lesser Cronenberg. I was wrong though. In offering a canvas to continue their fixations with body modifications and transcendence, Rabid is their strongest outing and an example of how “reimagining” isn’t just a word for distributors. Right at the beginning, a character asks “why do we keep remaking old trends? Are we adding something new?” In this case, I’d say definitely. The horror elements are spot-on, with anarchic, high adrenaline gore sequences. There’s great energy to this film, that makes the violent bits visceral. It’s isn’t all about disgusting people though: the candid way they show Rose’s skinless jaw after the injuries is confrontational, challenging the audience not to look at her with her boss’ eyes. However, I was less keen when it went further into sci-fi territory, and the initially promising part of Dr Burroughs becomes another mad scientist with a bullshit plan that raises too many questions. I’d have found this less of an issue if Rose’s other relationships in the film were better written, but they were mostly functional – just enough to service the story. There’s also a disconnect between Sarah’s story and the outbreak going in the background, with the urgency of the latter going mostly ignored by the former. I appreciate this may be the point though – further evidence of the fashion world being insular and self-absorbed.

Rating: ★★★½☆

A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND
Directed by Abner Pastoll

Having the tough job of rounding off the festival this year, thus deciding what mood people home in, is this revenge flick by the director Road Games. Sarah Bolger stars, funnily enough, as Sarah: a grieving widow, and mother of two, whose life is changed by two pieces of violence. The first is the murder of her husband, for which she wants some answers the police can’t give her. I won’t give away the second here, but it’s not exactly unexpected and gets done in graphic detail. Before then, it watches like a kitchen sink drama with a crime flick going on in the background as Sarah struggles to make ends meet. Before a late-night call from a small-time drug dealer on the run, named Tito, pulls her into an underbelly she doesn’t want to be a part of. The dynamic between Sarah and Tito is immediately compelling, with his rough around the edges language and forceful outbursts initially scaring her as much as the audience.

It’d be too far to call when it goes on to become a friendship, but the switch when they soften towards each other gets handled delicately. Tito fancies Sarah, and she realises he may be able to help her find out what happened to her husband. The performances are both brilliant, and both find the complexities in their characters. I concur with Alan Jones in saying in an ideal world Bolger would be considered for every award going. She’s wholly believable as a demoralised mum trying to do best for her kids and only gets better when events mean she becomes more empowered. Whereas Andrew Simpson makes Tito the best kind of psycho: one but may snap at any moment, so we can never fully relax in their presence. I wish the secondary cast had such good material to work with, but as it switches gears to become more of a gangster flick both the writing and direction loses its sophistication: devolving into something still very good but more cartoony. Perhaps the film’s low point is trying to bridge acts 2 and 3: an awkward writing dance that requires a couple of huge coincidence for Sarah’s story to reach a satisfying conclusion. I appreciate this is a work of fiction, yet the world Pastoll’s story occupies is enough like our own for things not to happen because the narrative needs them to happen. By showing his guiding hand, Pastoll cheapens the journey we’ve been on and makes the (admittedly well crafted) ending feel unearned. Unlike the end of this last paragraph, which I’ve been looking forward to all day.

Rating: ★★★★☆

And that’s it for another year! FrightFest’s five day birthday is officially over. Congratulations to our four horsemen, once again, on making it to twenty bloody years. It’s a hell of an achievement, and I hope to see them for plenty more. In saying that, during the run-up to this event Ian said they don’t see themselves having another twenty years of organizing it. Which makes sense: as fresh-faced as they look, three of them are in their sixties and may eventually want to enjoy retirement. Though here’s hoping the festival goes on when that fateful day comes. It’s a remarkable thing, this gift they’ve given fans and filmmakers alike that allows them to find their people and celebrate what they love. It’s something I hope to keep attending myself, even if this site were to cease tomorrow, and something I hope stays a permanent fixture in the UK horror calendar. Until next time guys, and thanks anyone still reading for making it this far.

david.s.smith
About david.s.smith 281 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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