Day four, and I wake with fond memories of Dark Place – the first to really wow me this year. Still, I’m optimistic about today. Clapboard Jungle looks fascinating, Hall looks menacing, and Two Heads Creek is the top choice for at least one of the FrightFest four – so should be a darn good day. Before any of that happens though, I leave my living room for Latin America. As usual, the festival continues to share international films, reminding us that no matter where we are the world, everyone loves a good scare. Oh, and while I wouldn’t normally comment on shorts, the film Day 14 – which showed before Aquaslash – was just phenomenal. A minimalist family project shot during the lockdown, with a few cameos genre fans will lap up, it’s powerful, thoughtful above all hopeful. If/ when you can, give yourself 20 minutes to watch it.
SKULL: THE MASK
Directed by Armando Fonseca & Kapel Furman
Kicking off the afternoon is this vicious, supernatural slasher from Brazil. We start in 1944, where a team of Nazis find a South American artefact, the Mask of Anhangá, which they believe has mystic powers. However, as Nazi science tends to do in films, it backfires and results in the first of many massacres. 70 years later, its unearthed again, showing up in contemporary Sao Paolo, where several factions fight to get hold of it. But the mask, and its wearer who becomes the executioner of Tahawatinsupay, isn’t going down without a fight. Beatriz Obdias, who is working a case about abducted kids, gets called in to solve the series of brutal crimes, and slaughter sprees, that it leaves behind. It’s a wild, crazy ride that takes from different areas of South American mythology, and a range of genres, to make a messy whole. It’s the collaborative work of two minds, one who seems intent on doing a hardboiled thriller and the other who wants to make a Brazilian take on The Burning, and it shows.
So, on paper, this unconventional cocktail of grindhouse, psychedelia, a street-level detective flick – served up by Jason Voorhees – shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. But Skull: The Mask is better than the sum of its parts. The generic police procedural sections are the least rewarding, and I’d even say, at times, they border on boring. The characters aren’t well developed enough to justify how long we spend on them (though plaudits to our traumatised cop being a woman for a change) and there’s little momentum to the needlessly convoluted plot. But, realistically, it’s the big kills people are going to be watching this for – and they’ve chosen well. There are rivers of the red stuff here, along with some of the nastiest practical effects of the year as the masked killer uses a combo of blunt instruments, brute-force and wrestling moves to open his victims up.
I’ve never seen a slasher do a powerbomb, chokeslam, or stunner before – now I think they should be in all of their repertoires. FrightFesters have been known to applaud particularly gory deaths, and I’d wager that if this were to show on the big screen, then the crowd would go crazy for it. One scene in particular, where the bloody killer shows up in a club to commit murder on the dancefloor, is among the best from the fest thus far. It’s also distinctly Brazilian, turning the shanty towns and local legends into a fundamental part of the plot. Like I alluded to above, it’s the kind of thing I’d only come across at FrightFest, which does a lot to champion international horror, and an enjoyable way to start Day 4.
Directed by Justin McConnell
Regular FrightFesters, or fans of the contemporary indie scene, may recognise director McConnell as the brains behind the dark body-swapping romance, Lifechanger. That film was semi-successful, but if you think that’s him sorted for life you couldn’t be more wrong. Among other things, Clapboard Jungle addresses the struggle to get this movie out there and asks how the hell anyone in the industry keeps their sanity. It’s a very personal documentary, shot over five years, about exploring the struggles of financing films, attracting the right talent, working with practical effects and selling the finished product to turn over a profit. With a star-studded lineup, including George Romero, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Schrader, Dick Miller, Mick Garris, Tom Holland and Lloyd Kaufman, it’s a passionate piece that at once celebrates and decries the industry that brings us all together.
To McConnel’s credit, he in no way sets out to make himself look like The Man. He’s honest, and repeatedly leaves in candid footage of himself making mistakes or having setbacks. Not that it ever gets too grim since the presentation is lively, and the voiceover’s sardonic. This period in his life has been an educational one for him. It will be for viewers too when he and his talking heads discuss the horrible financial side of things. It isn’t only about talent but also being able to stand out in a saturated market, attract star power to help do that and, crucially, being able to promote. The parts that take place in the movie markets at festivals were all new to me – filmmakers lined up, at booths, desperately trying to sell their visions. It may seem daunting, but there’s excellent advice for people looking to get started – including lessons on story structure, the importance of networking and getting the right people on board. It’s sad seeing McConnell wrapping his own Blu-rays, and endlessly hitting the road after so many knockbacks. In that respect, the fact this movie even exists is an inspiration, and the growth we see in him as both a filmmaker and a person is rewarding. As we go from his confined office to premieres the world over, his is an uplifting journey.
Of course, for every story like his, there will be numerous ones that don’t work out – where people lose years of their lives in pursuit of their dreams. Clapboard Jungle doesn’t shy away from that or pretend luck hasn’t played its part, with a dispiriting section that looks at diversity in filmmaking. McConnell may have setbacks, but it speaks volumes that despite his experience he’s part of the demographic most likely to be able to do all this – even if it takes him ages. Speaking of which, about halfway through, in footage shot years ago, the Sky Sharks team feature as they try to get funding for that film. I now feel somewhat humbled by being at the world premiere. Because, as McConnell says, even if I hated it that can’t take away from their achievement of making it. He also made me question how I conduct myself as a critic, reminding me always to be constructive rather than cruel – because every film represents a huge part of someone’s life. Things can and will get one star, but we should never forget all the names in the credits – something I’ll put to the test tonight with Aquaslash.
TWO HEADS CREEK
Directed by Jesse O’Brien
Our second visit to the land of Oz this year. If any of you have had enough of Brexit, then Norman can relate. He’s a timid Polish butcher, in the midst of a sausage crisis, who is ridiculed daily by the locals: racist rhymes, threats and even dog turds on the doorstep. So he doesn’t need too much persuasion to go down under when his drama queen sister Annabelle (who is the face of a laxatives campaign) wants them to travel in search of their biological mother. Sadly, small towns are always the same in horror – creepy, myopic and, in this case, possibly cannibalistic. Welcome to Two Heads Creek. A place where you don’t need to look far below the surface to see a dark underbelly, and everyone seems to love the meat.
The start is a bit rushed, with ambiguities about the siblings’ parentage not being mined for their dramatic potential – this works against the quest as a whole. There’s also the sort of awkward pipeline dialogue nobody would ever say in real life – Norman and Annabelle reminding each other of their shared history. Still, there are beautiful lines, such as Annabelle telling Norman he “can’t butch”, and the leads’ chemistry is immediately apparent. They’re an odd couple, he an introvert and she as outspoken as can be, but crucially their bond seems genuine – even sweet. It isn’t enough to maintain the pace for the second act though, during which the shallow conspiracy and heavy foreshadowing mean audiences will be half an hour ahead of the heroes. Fortunately, act three is full-on Ozsploitation, with enough body bits, dick-cutting and head-lobbing to make a butcher blush. It’s almost all played for comic-effect and gross-out gags, rather than horror, but they’re effective.
A range of culture clashes underlies this film, that’s akin to Hot Fuzz meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are Norman and the prejudiced Brits he lives near, Norman and other Poles, and both parts of his duel-citizenship with Australia. There is also some amusing commentary about his new home’s colonial history, first world problems and structural racism. If this all sounds lofty, it’s not – for the most part, Two Heads Creek is good, dirty fun and the brow is more about how bad the local beer tastes/ how odd the food is than anything sophisticated. It doesn’t all land, with the movie never quite seeming to decide how wacky it is. Although the joke per minute ratio stays high throughout, and the quirky side characters are interesting – even if I thought there were one too many main antagonists. A lean, mean, cut of horror.
Directed by Francesco Giannini
In an example of either bad or brilliant timing, Franceso Giannini’s newest film is a pandemic horror, in which an airborne virus has taken out thousands of people. Though where this may usually conjure up images of people fighting on the streets for resources, Hall is an intimate horror taking place in the corridors of a dull, but comfortable, hotel – it even has a pool! Whilst we know from the opening scene that its inhabitants are anything but safe, they have other things on their mind for the first act. Naomi is pregnant and recently run away from a controlling relationship with a “bad” partner. Whereas Val, who is there with her husband and daughter, is still in an awful relationship with her abuser.
I loved the location a lot, with the relatively anonymous hotel rooms making for a claustrophobic setting – particularly with a virus outside and a violent man inside. The focus on domestic violence is an interesting angle for the film, linking the struggles of these women from different backgrounds (and many others around the world) to the virus. Like the pathogens, the threat lingers and wears victims down. So while the women only briefly cross paths, building an immediate rapport, their lives are intertwined. And as each of them walks through the growing lines of sick people, we wonder how many of them are there for similar reasons. We do not find out much about the other guests, as the world-building is economical. However, particularly with Val, Giannini does a great job creating a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Moments inviting us to read into what’s going on below the surface between her and Branden are disturbing. As are the bits of him undermining her in front of their daughter.
The less every-day horror elements were more mixed. As the main hall gets increasingly lined with bodies and the sounds of people spluttering to death, it makes for a bleak atmosphere – just right for an infection flick. However, it never quite transitions into the carnage you’d anticipate from the premise. There’s a promising, but an underdeveloped, idea about the virus affecting everyone differently – ala Bird Box. It’s a concept that allows Giannini to include some poignant scenes and a couple of decent scares, but at just 80 minutes the relatively slow build-up makes it feel like an afterthought. On a related point, though there’s tension between the family members, the emotional resolution is less dramatic than I thought it would be, as the story crawls rather than runs. It’s worth mentioning the version I saw came from an advanced screener for which the audio still needed to be finished. Among other things, this meant the foley work still had to be done, and the music was not ready – with previews carrying a temporary soundtrack. Thus the creepy scenes may be better in the final version, but I doubt the pacing will be.
Directed by Renaud Gauthier
I’ve seen slasher flicks take place in many places – from the woods to the mountains, to university campuses, mines and even spaceships. But I’ve never seen one in a waterpark. Which is bizarre, given how well it lends itself to one – in theory. Water running red, scantily clad kids college kids and, of course, flumes. Growing up in Edinburgh, we used to exchange urban myths about people putting blades in the ones at the Commonwealth Pool, aka The Commie. So I was thrilled when I heard about an old school ’80s style one screening this year. It’s a simple premise: some horny high school students (they’re obviously older) celebrate their recent graduation by getting wet. However, amid the ribald romping revels, a black-gloved murderer – from every Giallo – tinkers with the water slides and sabotages the swimming pools. It’s a promising premise poorly done.
Like the films it’s based on, Aquaslash is about hormones as much as horror. The characters’ romantic lives take centre stage, with a lot of the film’s running time feeling like its treading water with their drugs and sexploits. This focus would be fine, were the gang more likeable – but in playing to slasher types, without acknowledging the sincerity at their core, they lack the depth and relatability that the best slashers still give their casts. Far from bawdy sexcoms, they tended to have an innocence about them – and even a heart. They were stories about insecure underdogs because, guess what, that’s who they audience were. It wasn’t the getting laid, but its pursuit that mattered. Not so much in Aquaslash, which watches like softcore porn.
If the sex comes too quickly, the kills are the opposite. When they finally arrive, more than three-quarters of the way through the mere 70 minutes running time, the slashing’s underwhelming. Too much happens offscreen, and the entrails look more like watermelon chunks than body parts – even if the dummies are decent. There’s only a single set-piece, involving a race, that’s more a midway sequence than the culmination of all that’s come before. Too little too late, and despite its brief form it even becomes repetitive. There’s a mystery angle to prop it up, but with a posse this obnoxious I don’t think the solution will matter to many watching. Shallow and directionless. Or, to put it in a way these characters would understand, all foreplay with no climax.
Four days down for the first-ever FrightFest digital edition. All the way through, the social media banter has been top-notch, and it says something about FrightFest that there’s still a real community despite us all being distant. I don’t want this to be the new normal per se, but it’s worked so much better than I’d have reasonably thought an online fest could. And, once again, I’m glad not to have the long walk back to a pricey city centre hotel.