FrightFest Halloween (2020) Day 1: Held by some sinners

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It’s time for a home-invasion sequel. After situations dictated that they cancel their annual Halloween night, the FrightFest team have put together something extraordinary: a second online event that spans not just one, but five days of dread-inducing horror. The dark heart of cinema beats again, with over forty genre entries from four continents. All of which can be seen from the comfort of one’s own sofa – way cheaper than splashing out on flights and a hotel, with far less chance of catching Covid. So to begin, a huge thanks again to our four horsemen, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray, Alan Jones and Greg Day – who have worked tirelessly to bring us such offerings as:

HELD
Directed by Chris Lofing & Travis Cluff

First blood goes to this contained mishmash of domestic horror, torture and reverse home invasion, from the guys behind The Gallows. Emma and Henry tied the knot nine years ago, and since then their marriage has lost its spark. To rekindle the flames, they decide to stay in a luxury rental smart house. It’s a safe, secure space they can spend quality time together. However, after an encounter with what seems to be a night-time intruder, who nicks all their staff and brews them a cuppa, they find themselves unable to leave. Then comes The Voice: an unseen spectator that know them inside out. And forces them to act like a happy husband and wife from the 1950s: man holds the door open, wife makes the dinner then some uncomfortable missionary sex. All at the threat of death. Can they come together and find a way out of this domestic hell? Or will this omniscient observer make death do them part?

On face value, this looked like a re-tread of The Honeymoon Phase. But where that went down a sci-fi route, Held keeps the story small – developing a claustrophobic intensity. Credit to writer Jill Awbrey, who also stars as Emma. She’s put together a script that’s equally successfully in telling its literal story, of them being stuck, and its story within the story. The scenario is novel enough, but what’s rewarding is how it forces Emma and Henry’s bond with each other under the microscope. I’d have liked the sources of tension to have been fresher as, for the most part, their transgressions are much what you’d expect. Regardless, the cast/ crew do a fantastic job depicting a relationship that exists mostly out of habit. Their backing story isn’t spelt out too much, which is good, leaving just enough there for viewers to work with. A scene where Henry ponders his less than enthusiastic anniversary as he takes a call from his ecstatic son who has just gotten engaged is a standout. It convincingly adds up to an image of the sort couple who use their phones the whole time they’re together at a restaurant, in silence – bringing me to the sound. It’s a shame I didn’t see this on the big screen, as the design and score are simply superb. Expertly layered, with visceral foley effects and some delicate piano.

Admittedly, the movie outstays its welcome towards the end, though it’s not without first throwing in a ruddy brilliant plot development. Heck, I just about applauded. I don’t want to spoil it, and I’d urge you to avoid any of the sorts of reviews that hone in on a film’s themes as they may well do so. But when we find out who is behind things, and why, it’s among my favourite reveals of the year. It’s also foreshadowed effectively throughout, with plenty of clues that I think will make it a movie you can watch again, or the sort of one you’ll enjoy sharing with others. Not to sound too backhanded, but this is by far the best film I’ve seen from Chris and Travis. They’re still young, and this shows me they’re well worth watching. Could they be a match made in Hell? Here’s hoping.

Rating: ★★★★☆

THE SINNERS
Directed by Courtney Paige

The teenage years are a complicated time for people: their bodies start to change, and they find out things about themselves that they never knew before. For the seven high school girls in The Sinners, each of whom embodies a different sin, it’s that they have a penchant for the occult. It begins with fun games in the attic: a little taking the lord’s name in vain here, and a quirky masked ritual there. However, when one of them confesses their wrongdoings to the local pastor, who is queen-bee Grace’s dad, things take a dark turn. Shortly afterwards, someone appears to be picking the gang off, one by one. And when the bodies start to stack up, the people in their uber-religious town may not be much help. It’s a cool concept, and some of the scenes/ characters are absolutely inspired. Though it’s not entirely done justice by a plodding first act and scrappy third.

The sins concept is a useful way of quickly differentiating the large cast, though it also means each girl is delineated by a single trait. A lengthy voiceover at the beginning from Aubrey, the closet to an innocent, in which she holds viewers’ hands through a protracted rundown of who represents which vice doesn’t help. On that point, I’d go as far as saying there’s no need for the voiceover since it serves no function beyond the sort of awkward exposition that could be achieved more organically. The framing also creates a split narrative, where a focus on Grace would be better since she’s the more interesting, and complicated, character. She’s insecure, and mean – but damn does she have style. She’s our way into the movie’s central themes, and I like the direct way The Sinners deals with issues like self-discovery and sexuality through her. As well as a genuinely hard to watch which scene isn’t afraid to make her a bully.

At its best, The Sinners watches like Heathers meets The Craft: teens struggling to be themselves against a black comedy/ horror backdrop. At its worst, it watches like the moody melodrama of Riverdale. A problem which isn’t helped by the airy, slow-motion aesthetic reminiscent of flicks like Cruel intentions or Donnie Dark – now both old enough to vote. Structurally it’s messy too, with characters introduced and ditched at a moment’s notice – making me wonder if there’s a load of deleted scenes. If so, I can understand the need for cuts, since the first act drags. Unexpectedly, it’s the mid-section where The Sinner shines, escalating a sense of threat with a cat and mouse element. The dynamics between the girls are also far more enjoyable when there are fewer of them, and we explore the most important relationships. Writer/ director Paige develops the adult characters too, exposing them as hypocrites. There’s also a darkly funny bit of bullying between the black leather jacket cops, from the big city, and the local khaki cops. Still, it’s spoilt by an inexplicably obvious twist towards the end, that I think anyone paying even ten percent attention will get. Since its ostensibly a mystery, this is a real problem as there’s no paying off, making the last 90 minutes feel like time wasted. What’s worse is other crucial plot points are introduced far too late, making for a solution that’s unsatisfying for two reasons. But then this is Paige’s first feature film and shows clear potential. There’s enough there to make me think she’ll do good things after she matures as a filmmaker.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Day one down, and it was a characteristically enjoyable start – with a thankfully short walk to bed afterwards. Plenty of Halloween treats coming up before Sunday, and this did a solid job whetting my appetite. See you tomorrow!

About david.s.smith 357 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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