The last day of the first-ever digital FrightFest is upon us. I spend my morning catching the last of the Short Film Showcases, also included. They’ve been a decent bunch, with the highlight being Jeff Drives You, by Aidan Brezonick: a funny and sweet film about automation and a very unconventional romance story. Anyway, today I’ll cover four features – punters catch three – with the last looking like one of the festival’s finest. But that’s a few hours away – first, its time for an annual non-horror.
Directed by James Mark
As New Mutants flops the world over, FrightFesters log on to see the latest from stunt coordinator turned director, James Mark – who has crafted something thematically similar, but way less bloated. Enhanced follows Anna, a young woman who is part of a group of superhumans and is being hunted down by a shadowy government organisation. But when a new threat emerges, an even more powerful being named David whose intent on world domination, she has to consider her allegiance to the enhanced or the rest of humanity. It’s a fairly run of the mill story, told on a much smaller scale than you may expect. Action sci-fi films don’t have to be huge, and I can think of at least one I dug that almost all took place in a single house. However, in the absence of big battles and explosions, then the storytelling has to come first.
Enhanced follows the Terminator structure, by telling its tale over a short period, that consists mostly of action and chase sequences, and developing its plot on the move. Not that it comes close to the world-building or creativity of Cameron’s classic. On balance I still enjoyed it, in the same sort of way I’d appreciate a SyFy channel production. It’s well-paced fun with some spirited, if incredibly obvious, choreography that looks like something you’d see in a Karate class (“when they put a hand here, move your elbow there” etc.). There’s also enough game to the scenes between Anna and George, the agent who is after her, to keep it interesting. Their initially reluctant partnership doesn’t do anything you won’t have seen before, but it still provides emotional stakes, even when there isn’t much danger. This omission brings me to Enhanced’s number one weakness.
Good heroes need good villains, but as a baddy, David isn’t particularly interesting – a being of pure energy, absorbing even more from those he kills – like a vampire. He speaks with straight-faced hyperbole, and while I like that he’s not physically imposing, he’s also not characterised enough to be intimidating. Like a monotonous cousin of Skylar, back when everyone still watched Heroes. They don’t all need the Shakespearian-lite tragedy of Thanos, but this guy’s a black hole where there should be a baddy. I didn’t buy him as being much harder than Anna, and I especially don’t believe him as a threat to the world. It all leads to a finale that’s more like Glass than Endgame – albeit without anything as awkward as the puddle part. All in all, a decent start to the day, and I’m glad it keeps the lineage of quieter superhero flicks alive. But while you can go great things without a budget, you can’t do them with an underdone script.
AV The Hunt
Directed by Emre Akay
A Turkish horror flick all about toxic masculinity, survival and revenge. After being caught post-coitus, with her quickly deceased partner, Ayse is hunted down by, among other people, her husband and her brother. Both want to kill her for the sake of the family honour. She evades them, fleeing the city for the country on the way to Istanbul. However, after a run-in with the law, they catch up, forcing her to flee to the forest for cover. Where it soon becomes apparent the only way she can live is stooping to their level. In other words, the hunted must become the hunter.
Like Revenge, from a couple of years back, AV The Hunt uses an exploitation narrative in order to convey a highly feminist message. The long shots of the wilderness seem to draw an ironic parallel between patriarchy and the natural order. Men and women have delineated roles and, in this context, it’s up to the guys to get back to nature and hunt. But more than this motif, they remind us how stuck she is. There may be many places to hide, but there isn’t anything approaching civilisation for miles: Ayse’s on her own. Not that we see much evidence anyone would help in the cities either. The film takes aim at structural inequalities and the corrupting influence of machismo. The people pursuing her aren’t all men yet, and when Ayse faces off against a sixteen-year-old boy, we can see that, in different ways, both are victims of the same norms. She isn’t just running and hiding from them – but from a whole society rigged against her.
Some of the action scenes are heart-stoppingly tense, with Ayse never seeming more than a false step away from a bullet in the back of her head. Akay uses the silence to build tension, and one cave sequence, in particular, is gripping. It’s a horrific situation to be in, and one that forces her to evolve into a kick-ass action heroine: a journey Billur Melis Koç is skilled enough to convey physically. It never gets glamorous though – the violence stays visceral but isn’t fun. Nor should it be either. The script could do more to develop the familial relationships we see, to give the family angle more impact. Still, it shows us a grim world where people try to kill those they’d otherwise claim to love for stepping out of line, and the kindness of strangers is non-existent. For Ayse, and many other women in her position, unfortunately, the only thing she can do is keep running.
Directed by Tyler Savage
A film that’ll make you think twice about using your Uber app. Blinders follows Andy: a tutor to disinterested kids, who recently sold his drums then moved from Austin to LA, with his dog named Juicebox, to get over a girl. Once there he meets a new one called Sam: a location scout who finds just the right venues for festivals. On the way back to her place, where he stays the night, they get a ride for hire from Roger – a nice guy with “something a little off about him”. His is a face Andy will see again and again after he bumps into him in a pub shortly after. They start on good terms, but Roger doesn’t seem to like Andy spending time with Sam over of him. And he really, really doesn’t like when people ghost him.
Blinders will seem a familiar concept – a bro version of Fatal Attraction or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. There’s a lot of the old domestic horror template to it, and I expect viewers will figure out a lot of the beats long before Andy does. You got the usual grievances, the stalker showing up when he isn’t wanted, hacking his computer etc. Yet what I wasn’t expecting, and what gives Blinders a unique voice, is how funny it becomes in the second half. There’s a lot of good comedy, including several giant laughs and a brilliant explanation for why he can’t just go to the cops. The leads actors are all decent too. Vincent Van Horn makes his breakdown believable, and we feel his frustration as he tries to be friendly. Michael Lee Joplin is very watchable when he’s a menace rather than a murderer. Still, the standout is probably Christine Ko, who previously impressed me in Extracurricular Activities. She puts a lot of personality into what could easily be the least interesting of the major parts and fills each scene with energy. Something all three have in common is they elevate the often unsatisfying material which they are given.
For instance, Roger’s seemingly earnest need for a friend rapidly transitions into outright hostility, meaning we lose what sympathy we could potentially have had for him. In some ways, this is a good thing, since it means there’s less waiting for the inevitable bit Andy finds out he’s been behind his various misfortunes. Still, if he’s just a dick, there’s also less personal stakes between the characters, since his motivation becomes less relatable. Typically stalkers in these flicks come from a fucked up place of love. It’s a decision that could work if the second half’s escalation can deliver the drama, but it falls short – being neither intense nor exaggerated enough to be memorable. Savage is an accomplished director, even if his night scenes strongly imply a city-light fetish. However, I think he’s more at home with the mumblecore/ slice of life stuff than he is horror. One home invasion sequence aside, which doesn’t involve Andy, there’s few scenes of genuine tension. I even include the last act, during which a few unexpected turns fall flat. It’s good that there are attempts to explore modern themes – our reliance on technology and the ease of lying online. However, the motif of using the web to expose or embarrass Andy isn’t cruel enough to make its point in a way you haven’t seen before. Not a bad ride by any means, but could be smoother.
Directed by Dean Kapsalis
A super slow-burn feature debut to finish the fest. The Swerve is a haunting character study about a woman named Holly: a teacher whose mental health starts to crumble following a deadly car accident she’s involved with. Only she’s not entirely sure it happened. On top of this lot, she’s got an emotionally unavailable, and possibly unfaithful husband, two tricky kids, a besotted young student who fantasises about fucking her and a sister she has deep-rooted resentments for. It’s enough to drive a person mad. With an ever-deepening depression and not enough sleep, Holly may be a danger to herself or those around her.
Like other recent indie horrors, much of the tension from The Swerve comes from the inability of the lead character, and by extension, the audience, to tell what is and isn’t real. Holly is an unreliable narrator, though she isn’t one who lies – instead she spends much of her life in a state of disorientation. She’s also sympathetic, and someone we immediately worry will take us to dark places until the tension gets too much. With a CV of mostly TV and bit parts, though I’ve seen her in other things I had no idea just how good Azura Skye is. Here she’s utterly compelling as someone who should be happy, in a quiet suburban life, yet hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a patient film, that takes time to immerse us in her humdrum routine, and makes us feel every time people undermine her. We see a weariness in every line on her face, and bag under her eye: quiet desperation embodied.
If Skye is a revelation, equally so is Dean Kapsalis. For a first-timer, the way he paces her decline and develops the many things life throws at her shows a restraint most veterans would envy. As a visual artist, he uses stillness, and wide-open spaces, excellently to convey Holly’s loneliness. And as a writer, he’s able to deal with difficult subjects brilliantly. For instance, as it develops, it should go without saying her friendship with the horny pupil Paul is inappropriate. Yet in its context its entirely believable, and we get why the bond they form is something a woman who so badly wants to be wanted would pursue. Wrong, unquestionably, though sad. This same sentiment also applies to much of the third act too, which eventually, and inevitably, builds to something violent. Fittingly, it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.
Yet it’s weird for this to close the festival as I’m not sure it counts as horror. And I don’t mean this in the snobby “elevated” kind of way when people want to distance Get Out and Hereditary from the genre they’re part of. It’s just, unlike the movies it most resembles, there’s no scary secondary narrative to act as a parallel for Holly’s deterioration – we don’t see a Babadook. There’s also no physical metaphor beyond the mouse that keeps her up and the all American apple pies she keeps baking. If anything, it more resembles a female-fronted Joker (wait for the internet reaction if they market it that way) that you’d more comfortably call a dark drama. Or perhaps I’m underestimating how broad the horror label is nowadays. Not that this necessarily matters, since its still ruddy good – and certainly more horrific than the likes of Enhanced this morning. I guess it’s my way to say that you shouldn’t go in expecting it to be an arty shocker in the A24 fashion. Still, nor should you miss it either.
So concludes FrightFest for another year. I’d like to close on the normal thanks to the guys (Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day), and the rest of the FrightFest team, for putting this on. It’s been a technical achievement and a gift to fans the nation over. Lockdown won’t have been easy for folks, and this sort of thing helps. I’d also like to extend my gratitude to the sponsors, along with every filmmaker and fan who sat in front of their laptop or telly. And finally to HorrorCultFilms, as always, for granting me the privilege of representing us.