Day 2 is here, with more exciting horrors on offer. Compared to the August event, it looks like the FrightFest guys have the online format down to a T, and it’s pleasantly surprising to watch all the Q&A sessions and extended intros fans have come to love. Please note that most attendees will have only seen a couple of films, though the team behind Dangerous To Know sent me a screener in advance.
Directed by Dmitriy Tomapolskiy
Every year FrightFest brings fans genre films from around the world. Stranger is a puzzling little sci-fi mystery from Ukraine, that I’d almost certainly never have watched otherwise. And I’m ruddy glad I did. Inspector Gluhovsky is a stone-faced super sleuth, with an unrivalled ability to use her little grey cells to solve the oddest crimes. So, when six synchronised swimmers go missing mid-performance, at a water therapy clinic, she’s on it. Unfortunately, she comes up with nothing: her first-ever unsolved case. Still, second time’s the charm, and five years later she dives back into it when there’s a very similar disappearance. This time, a woman has evaporated from a bathtub that was in a windowless room – right next door to a sewage purifying treatment facility. How are both of these cases connected, and how does a doll with real hair tie into them both?
The adjective Lynchian gets tossed around a lot, tending to be used interchangeably with surreal or (wet)dream-like. In that respect, Stranger is rather Lynchian. From the getgo, there’s an uncanny quality about it. The interactions tend to be very formal, with characters having brief interchanges about outer space, nuclear physics or what sneezes at different times of the day mean. Oh, and water. Lots and lots of water. Under which secrets are buried, and characters glide majestically. There are some very striking images in this film, such as a team of people in yellow coats who carry others away, faces that show up on the heads of swimmers and ladies in portraits, plus static bursts that send characters forward then back. And a hypnotic scene that riffed on (appropriately) The Shape of Water. Throughout, Tomapolskiy shows a wonderful sense of location, conjuring up a hub where the normal rules of time and don’t apply and adds several layers to his riddle.
Don’t expect a clear solution though. Much like its subject matter, this isn’t a movie you can necessarily get a grip on – it’s fluid and abstract. Just let it wash over you. I’ll leave it to smarter people than myself to give a more meaningful analysis, and what all the literary allusions mean (Pratchett on the poster). As while I got a lot from it I’m not sure I quite followed the events of the third act. And this is the main reason it isn’t really Lynchian – it lacks the emotional logic behind his most artisitically successful films. It’s very much on purpose, with the more fantastical elements being undermined by Inspector Gluhovsky’s blasé attitude. This isn’t to say there aren’t emotional scenes, as, despite her matter of fact approach, and Stranger’s often tricky storytelling, Tomapolskiy finds a beautiful moment of vulnerability towards the end. So it may move you despite itself. If there’s a heart to the story, then its Zezulia: a supposedly missing person who is distraught that his absence has not been reported yet. If this is Tomapolskiy’s way of saying he hopes people notice him, I don’t reckon he’s got much to worry about.
Directed by Chris Smith
Chris Smith has a hell of a varied CV, having done (among other things) a monster movie (Creep), a period piece (Black Death), a mind-bender (Triangle) and, of course, a Danny Dyer comedy (Severence). Oh, and a flick about Santa. So, in short, you never know what you’ll get with him. As such, I was delighted to see FrightFest hosting his latest: a pre-WW2 film about a haunted house in England. The devout Reverend Linus and his new wife Marianne, a “fallen woman”, and her daughter Adelaide move into a large manor with an even bigger secret. Shortly after moving in, Marianne has frightful visions of something lurking within the walls but tells herself she may just imagining things. However, after the vengeful spirits of the house start to haunt Adelaide, they are forced to turn to a famous occultist to save her.
Once again, Smith shows that he can stage a good scare. Granted, he borrows iconography that’s been used to death – reflections which don’t move, dolls with no eyes, childhood games being corrupted. But they’re still effectively delivered blows, and one of them is as good a jump that I’ve seen this year. Still, there’s unfortunately not many of them and it felt like the film took a long time to really get going. It’s late in the second act that I think we really see Smith’s unique voice emerge – when there’s more of a focus on events being cyclical, and Marianne’s story becomes that of women through the ages. Their voices echo down the corridors of both her home and the chequered history of the institution her husband represents. It’s the misogyny that has happened before and will do time and time again. Yet while the themes are interesting, they’re nothing new to horror and his fidelity to exploring them is at the expense of the suspense. The film suffers a lot in a rushed, and uncharacteristically simple, third act in which a clumsy climax prioritises thematic resolution at the expense of the movie’s tension.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about it. Performances are strong all around. I was particularly impressed with John Heffernan who didn’t play the pious Linus as a villain, despite him embodying all the values the film critiques – instead, finding his humanity. The setting is beautiful, the cinematography is stunning and there’s subtle attention to detail. While there’s not always something spooky happening, there’s a malevolence established early on that never fully leaves – even if it never reaches the crescendo I know the director is capable of. I was also impressed with how he evokes the tensions of the period into the script. For example, Linus and Marianne differing attitudes towards the best means of combating fascism: she says non-resistance makes the nation implicit while he argues war is inherently wrong – and two wrongs can’t make a right. How this conflict is worked into the character journeys, along with the evil in the house, was terrific. Making the unsatisfying way the film integrates the plot with the patriarchal elements even more glaring.
DANGEROUS TO KNOW
Directed by David Simpson
When it comes to reviewing movies, bloggers or critics alike often have to make tricky judgements about best how to describe the story. Say too little, and potentially people who’d enjoy it don’t bother seeing it. Say too much, and you ruin the fun for everyone. And while there’s no From Dusk Till Dawn moment, where the film switches genre, there are enough twists and turns in Dangerous To Know that catch folk off guard (even if I thought the main one was too obvious). So, this time I’ll go by the official synopsis only: a troubled young woman, Bridget, recovers from a suicide attempt in a secluded cabin. But when a series of unexplained and terrifying incidents occur, she realises someone-or something-has a far darker future planned for her. Word is that director David Simpson was interested in the Zeigarnik effect, a psychological mechanism that resets your attention span by giving you a new mystery for your mind to puzzle over each time an existing one is resolved. Meaning viewers can expect the unexpected.
That being written, I don’t think he entirely stuck to this ethos. While there is ingenuity, the second half of the movie becomes a sustained battle of wits with lots of back and forth – with unfortunately far more telling than showing. At three hours long, Dangerous to Know is an endurance test. Presumably, it’s intentional. After all, a treatise on human cruelty should never be a breeze, and it’s good to get to know the mindset of the people doing bad things to each other. I was surprised at how fast the first half flew by – something that I think comes from Simpson developing the relationships between his reasonably small cast of characters. None are necessarily the nicest people, and there’s enough to all of them that you want to learn more – even if someone I warmed to early on becomes too passive by the end. The director also has a knack for using the dynamic scenery to emphasise Bridget’s isolation, and thus her vulnerability, which helps immensely when staging scenes of horror. One in the first half is the edge-of-the-sofa stuff, and at times the gradual building of tension is so impressive you’ll struggle to believe it’s a debut. There are also some great moments where we realise that we, as much as the characters, are being manipulated.
Still, I don’t think there’s enough substance to sustain viewers’ interest the whole way through the second half, and at its worst Dangerous To Know watches like a lot of words being used to say very little. The intimate approach to storytelling is interesting, but discussions surrounding motives become repetitive fast. Character dynamics are initially intriguing, and become so again by the end, though there isn’t enough attempt to redress or shake them up in the mid-section. Exposition scenes also have some clunky dialogue, with characters every so often spelling out their intentions and who they are – in case viewers may need reminding. Perhaps the worst offender is a sick man who, without prompt, speaks almost entirely about his illness. It doesn’t help that at times the acting isn’t up to the demands of the role, and what the cast say is frustratingly hard to hear because of a poorly mixed soundtrack. The movie is also over-scored, with faux Reznor bubbling beneath almost every single – sometimes less is more. However, I should emphasise I saw a workprint edition, so this may be different on the big day. Shortcomings aside, by the end, I felt like I’d been on a quietly epic journey with the people in this film. The destination won’t please everyone, though I found it satisfying. But the odd bumps aside I reckon you’ll enjoy the ride.