If FrightFest is the movie festival version of the punk kid, that sits in the corner, then FrightFest Glasgow is that kid’s even punkier little brother. Now in its fifteenth year, the Scottish leg continues to offer fans a second helping of premium horror, going to the fringes of the genre. This year our Four Horsemen, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day, bring films from four continents, including one world, two European and seven UK premieres. So it was with delight I took the early morning train to the Dear Green Place and checked into the sort of B&B Norma Bates wouldn’t be seen dead in. As per usual there was also an opening night double bill, consisting of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest mind-bender Synchronic, and Graham Hughes’ mockumentary Death of a Vlogger. But, also as per usual, work called. So instead, the first film of my Glasgow FrightFest experience is…
THE CLEANSING HOUR
Director: Damien LeVeck
First blood falls to this surprisingly innovative twist on that most tropey of subgenres: the possession flick. In a set-up not dissimilar to The Last Exorcism, we join best friends Max and Drew – two frauds who run a big but not huge streaming show dedicated to their “exorcisms”. Of course, they’re more smoke and mirrors than Satan and malevolence and is a hoax they supplement with a line of hooky “Vatican Blessed” cloths and holy water. Though their ruse takes a (360-degree head)turn for the worse when an unexpected event means Drew’s fiancé Lane has to play the part of the possessed. Initially, she’s nervous. Then she seems to really get into her role. With the camera’s running, and an actual demon in their midst, the not so dynamic duo have their many sins exposed in-front of a global audience.
There’s a lot to like about The Cleansing Hour, with likeable performances (Alix Angelis, as Lane, is the stand out), and practical effects good enough to make hardened fans want to projectile vomit. Some ideas are great too, even if there are maybe too many of them by half. For instance, seeing their audience’s reactions which helps a lot with the world-building and gives a good glimpse into online culture. It also manages to walk the line between comedy and horror fairly well, never failing to sell the gravity of its situation even during the sillier scenes. Yet I don’t think the script quite delivers on its neat concept. The idea of a demon forcing the makers to do on-air confessions is solid, though the confessions themselves aren’t especially interesting. Especially as much of it seems to build up to whether or not Max will confess to being a charlatan, which doesn’t work since the audience should have already forgiven him for that. Then the other revelations are too melodramatic to put viewers in an interesting moral position. All the time, I was waiting for something darker that never came. Still, it’s mostly redeemed by a spirited ending, that also partly excuses a pretty lousy deus ex machina. We’re off to a fine, if not outstanding, start.
IN THE QUARRY
Directors: Bernardo & Rafael Antonaccio.
Quarry parties may be a bit nineties, and likely give you mental images of kids taking E and dancing to The Chemical Brothers ‘til the setting sun comes back. In contrast, this little ditty from Uruguay is in line with the modern horror scene. It’s at once a bottle-episode style thriller, and a smart meditation on gender-based violence, masculinity turned monstrous and big-swinging-dick bravado. In short, In The Quarry is a small-scale horror for the #MeToo era. Alicia just wants to introduce her new boyfriend Bruno to her best buds (both boys), so she decides to throw them a swimming a barbeque shindig at an abandoned site by her hometown. However, this testosterone-heavy hangout turns dark when Bruno and long-term pal Martin get sexually jealous of each other and the things they’ve either done or might have done with Alicia.
For almost the entire thing we’re in one location with just the four of them. For the most part, the directors escalate the conflict with precision, as longing glances turn to entitlement, and resentments simmer in the hot sun. The feminist themes, along with the city vs small town differences, are well integrated into the storytelling and make an effective pressure-cooker atmosphere. What we’re seeing is essentially a microcosm version of a societal dialogue about status, gender expectations and competition. But don’t expect something as sensationalist as the likes of Revenge. Here, what little violence we see feels very real, one money shot aside, but the threat it’ll get worse is always there. At its best, its timely, tense and terrifically acted. However, as often happens in horror, the demands of the genre weigh-in and the last act partially undermines the more subtle approach of the first two. In particular, one character’s transition is far too much far too quickly, as they go from a person with a clear context into a stock baddy. There’s also one baffling writing choice that, whilst doing nothing to legitimise what happens, goes some way towards validating the toxic mindset the movie is otherwise critiquing. Confused, but nevertheless courageous.
Director: Neasa Hardiman.
If In The Quarry felt contemporary, it’s got nothing on Sea Fever: a virulent horror that seems perfectly timed for a weekend everyone’s worrying about Coronavirus. It’s another flick about a handful of people in isolation, though this time the characters are marooned at sea. The slightly snobby marine biology student Siobhan is doing a research excursion with a West Irish trawler crew: a superstitious lot who don’t take well to her being a red-head. Her hair colour is the least of their worries though, once they hit a mysterious creature, with elongated jelly limbs, which starts chowing down on their hull. Although once they get it off their troubles are only just beginning, and it stays with them – getting under their skin ’til it causes them to die or explode (yes, there’s smatterings of gore here).
From the opening shots, it’s clear Hardiman knows how to use space well. Her underwater shots are beautiful and, with the ariel ones, capture the ocean’s vastness. The boat itself is an atmosphere-rich set, which makes for a claustrophobic location and not a place you’d want to be stuck. Great performances anchor the graveness of the circumstances, and the small cast gets into their roles well: something that is no doubt helped by writer/ director Hardiman’s decent ear for dialogue. The whole isn’t as strong as the sum of its parts though and, also as per In The Quarry, I was on-board before it began treading water in the third act. There was still a sense of suspense, and even some interesting moral dilemmas to resolve. However, Sea Fever’s pacing suffered the longer it went on, and it never quite achieved urgency. Maybe it’s because it’s not doing much you haven’t seen before, with scenes very consciously recalling the movie’s influences: Alien and The Thing. Even so, it never quite seems to reach the level of intensity you’d think is inherent to the premise. Hence as much as I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t call it my catch of the day. Not that I’d chuck it back either.
A GHOST WAITS
Director: Adam Stovall.
It’s time for a sweet, horror-comedy – also almost all set in a single location. From the synopsis available, this was the film I was looking forward to the least, which is saying something since tomorrow has one about a guy with an enchanted arse. It’s good to be wrong. To paraphrase Avril Lavigne, he was a house renovator, and she was a ghost (spectral agent!) haunting the house. Can I make it any more obvious? If Jack and Muriel’s inter-spectral relationship isn’t complicated enough, since they can’t go bang in the night, wait ’til the administrators get involved. It turns out her fancying him more than frightening him is a problem for the spiritual bureaucracy. Who sends in their latest recruit, Rosie, to noise things up.
In terms of presentation, it’s no thrills. Shot in black and white it’s mostly long, mid-distance shots in sparse locations. For some, I suspect this will be a problem, though I reckon it adds an intimacy to the presentation, along with the character interactions. As per other romantic movies, the main thing this has going it is both of the lead parts, and the actors who play them, are utterly charming. MacLeod Andrews, as our way in, is as strong a performer as ever and makes Jack immediately relatable. I enjoyed seeing him and Muriel get to know each other, and there’s a lot of warmth plus good humour to their interactions. That being written, I would have liked there to be more as they’re the film’s biggest assets and it’s almost halfway through before Muriel even says ‘hi’. It’s funny to see her MO beforehand play on found footage tropes. However, an 80-minute movie shouldn’t drag, and this one does at points. The pacing also means the second half goes too fast, and the jump from him explaining Johnny Cash to them making life (and death) changing decisions is rushed. Consequently, I think it fails to sell a significant action in the final act that, in the absence of greater context, feels unearned and even a little bad taste. Not that I think this was intentional. Writer/ director Adam Stovall was in attendance, and from his intro and afterword, I don’t doubt his heart is in the right place. It sounds like he’s had a hell of a journey as a person, and I look forward to seeing where he goes next as a filmmaker.
THE MORTUARY COLLECTION
Director: Ryan Spindell.
FrightFest saved the best ‘til last today. Given how spooky they can be, and the unavoidable connotations of life and death, a funeral home makes for an excellent location for a horror story. In this, it’s our gateway to four different strange and nasty deaths. These EC comics-inspired tales cover the goings-on of one from the 1950s to the 80s. Across them a housewife finds a supernatural presence in her bathroom, a frat boy gets a taste of his own fraternising medicine, a husband struggles with putting his dying wife out her misery, and a homicidal maniac picks off babysitters. All are held together by Clancy Brown, who clearly has fun playing mortician Montgomery Dark as he curates the tales to us and Sam, a teenager looking for work with him. Having not seen Brown do horror, outside his hilarious turn in Pet Sematary 2, I was delighted to see him turn to the dark side again.
The Mortuary Collection is the best kind of anthology flick in that there’s not a weak entry among them. The first has by far the shortest running-time, which may lead to some viewers thinking it’s a lesser entry (as Dark says, it’s just a warm-up). Though it still has a satisfying playfulness, and efficient world-building, about it that a lot of directors can’t manage in a feature. Sam’s commentary on it afterwards is also a hoot. For me, the stand out is the third, which does the tough task of selling the emotional weight of euthanasia while being bloody entertaining. However, any of them are worth your time and, including the wrap-around, all have cool money shots and twists (even if you’ll likely see the fourth one coming). They also work as a movement, rather than just being stand-alone films, building on each other’s themes to a fitting climax. There’s a lot of cross-over in their aesthetic, as Spindell shows he’s adept at handling four completely different types of scares in a voice that’s always his own. Very gory, very funny and very good. Since the opening words come from Dark saying that the world is made of stories, rather than atoms, I don’t consider it a spoiler to say it leaves open the possibility of more. I know I’d be keen. Hopefully, these deaths are not the end.
And on that, it’s back down the dark streets of Glasgow to my temporary home. It’s been a good day, though with Saint Maud and VFW up tomorrow I got a feeling the weekend will get even better.