Day 4 is upon us, and it’s full of exciting films to pick from. Fortunately, the PR teams were very good to me this year, and I got around some of the clashes. To save you reading 3000 words here, I’ve broken it up. Blood Harvest, Redwood Massacre Annihilation, Hosts and Let’s Scare Julie are covered here. Though my two picks for the day and the festival thus far are covered elsewhere. That’s Relic and Alien on Stage.
Directed by Thomas Robert Lee
My third period film of the festival, though despite its subject matter Blood Harvest, aka The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, is the most recent, taking place in 1973 – note this is the same year as Roe vs Wade. It’s a folksy horror that doubles up as a coming of age flick. Audrey and her mother Agatha are occultists, living low-key on the outskirts of a Protestant community. Nobody knows Audrey exists, with her birth kept secret since it happened alongside an incident the locals dubbed ‘the eclipse’: when famines began. However, one day a local mourner catches sight of her. And as the village suffers from evermore tragedies, and dark omens show up such as crop failure, it’s not long before attention turns to the two of them. Mainly because, through it all, Agatha remains prosperous. As the misplaced anger/ hostility builds, Audrey’s powers also seem to be increasing.
Unlike its most obvious point of comparison, Eggers’ The Witch, Blood Harvest doesn’t attempt ambiguity. We know early on that there’s something supernatural about Audrey, and we know her mum is right to want to protect her from the town (and vice versa). We also know that Agatha is part of a secret coven that meets in a barn to practice rituals and cast spells. This decision isn’t a bad thing per se and makes for more streamlined storytelling. The problem is that the characters aren’t memorable enough to command attention: neither mother, daughter or those in their sphere who torment them are. As per both The Reckoning and The Banishing, the script tends to treat them more as a means of tackling modern social concerns than living, breathing beings in their own right. Making for an often didactic 90 minutes, that treats their moralistic community as a microcosm for an America that needed to change. They just don’t have enough psychological depth, despite the cast’s efforts. On that point, Jessica Reynolds still excels as Audrey, giving her a wave of quiet anger that simmers up through the film. Still, her trajectory and the significance audiences are supposed to place on it are predictable.
A big part of this is that we know the ‘let’s hide Andrey’ plot can only go one way – and after a rushed first act it, spends the bulk of its meandering time having characters figure out what we already know. When the third act finally happens, it’s also underwhelming, with what should be a final confrontation taking the form of a muted stand of. To be fair, religious horrors are rarely my thing – they tend to be quite samey, with characters repeatedly declaring their faith being made to look dogmatic or hypocritical. And as per their close cousin, exorcism flicks, it’s hard not to compare new entries to the handful of outstanding ones that set the template. In that respect, I think a lot of people will get more from this one than I did. Technically, it’s an achievement – with fantastic sets and spectacular cinematography. The score also fights to give a sense of dread that I don’t think the pacing lives up to. A good watch, though by no means bewitching.
BLOOD HARVEST on Digital HD 16th November
REDWOOD MASSACRE: ANNIHILATION
Directed by David Ryan Keith
North East Scotland’s answer to Jason is back for more. Burlap, taking his name from the sack on his head, is a big nasty bastard who doesn’t take well to strangers. If you haven’t seen the first, no worries – David Ryan Keith is more than happy to lend you a hand. Twenty years ago, the owner of Redwood Farm went mad and killed his family then himself. Since then, the tragedy has become an urban legend, meaning Redwood is the sort of place people go for dares and morbid curiosity. Or, in this case, because a true crime fanatic Max convinces them. He tracks down a group of bereaved family members to join them and prove, once and for all, that the masked maniac is real. Not that his intentions are sincere – when he’s not practically jacking off over the killer, he’s ploughing corpses. And, after luring his party to an underground base, he aims to have plenty more to choose from.
I wasn’t huge on the original Redwood Massacre. Yet something was rewarding about seeing an unashamed, gleeful slasher in the modern age. This sequel does that again, and then some – improving on its predecessor in every way. The story is more substantial, the setting is better, and the kills are more impressive. There’s also cult star power, with scream-queen Danielle Harris coming across the pond for the shoot. She adds a lot to the film and, along with Jon Campling and Gary Kasper, gave me somebody I cared about. Credit to Keith for a slow-burn first act that spends time developing their relationships – I’m glad they’re not the usual slasher lot. Damien Puckler is also ace as Max, though I think making him so sketchy from the start was a mistake. Were this a punchier 80 minutes film, instead of a near two hours, it may not be such an issue, though the overkill of dramatic irony means we’re well into the third act as the bulk of the ensemble plods through the second. His character is also well developed enough that it’s a shame we don’t have a mid-movie twist to enjoy when he switches sides.
Burlap is there too, though it’s frustrating seeing him become a henchman in his own movie. He does dispatch some people, with some suitably grizzly kills, though the body is surprisingly small. Not that this should be a shock, since the small cast spends most of it in the middle of nowhere. The setting partly makes up for it, supplying much of the tension. The underground facility is full of dank hallways and nasty secrets – including a dick in a jar (specifically, a human one), and many other mangled body parts. Keith gets a lot from it. Still, the prolonged running time means the sense of danger has to build and build – and for me, it wasn’t quite there. Set-pieces, like a pair of hand to hand scraps, detract from the atmosphere. Oh, and call me an old-fashioned elitist, but guns have no place in a slasher – especially not big ones! I don’t care what we’ve seen the baddy do. It’s tough to intimidate people if they’re carrying a big fuck off weapon – Michael himself couldn’t manage – and it makes the audience stand-in characters seem less vulnerable. Regardless, there are some cool ideas in here – an underexplored meta angle was my favourite. It also builds steadily to a genuinely shocking climax, that suggests an exciting way forward for the franchise – that may even take it out of Aberdeenshire. If this gets made, it’ll join Brewdog and Annie Lennox as our premier export.
Directed by Adam Leader & Richard Oakes
A sci-fi spin on The Strangers, Hosts is the first of two Xmas themed horrors at this year’s fest. Not that you’d necessarily want to get the family together to see it. As per Thursday’s Dangerous To Know, and yesterday’s The Owners, it’s easy to say too much so I’ll stick to the official synopsis. It’s Christmas Eve, so to spread some cheer a family invite the young and in love couple next door over for a meal with them. Little do they know that their dinner guests aren’t feeling themselves. Following a romantic night together, their bodies have been taken over by an evil entity intent on spreading itself. What begins as an intimate domestic drama soon escalates into a furious fight for survival that may even have far-reaching global consequences.
There are two key sequences I think Hosts is going to be known for in horror circles. Without specifics, the first of these is a moment of extraordinary violence, with the perfect setup and an unforgettable execution. It’s the moment the film announces itself – proudly boasting that it’s not there to fuck around. By now, I’ve been regularly watching horror for decades, and it caught me off guard – I almost wanted to laugh after. The second is a sustained moment of tension, revolving around a terrible decision, which is entirely driven by the characters in it. I don’t mean to suggest the movie is a two-scene wonder, as the suspense is held right until the enchanting final seconds. Instead, I want to show that Hosts is a film with a hell of a lot of range. As with how a Christmas dinner brings together a range of disparate ingredients, and works because of how well they accompany each other, Hosts is a festive feast for genre fans. The directorial duo knows the genre inside out, offering us a slab of shlock, with sides of alien invasion, possession and home invasion, all slathered with thick suspense. With Christmas dinner, a lot of its success comes down to who you spend the time with. What’s turkey with trimmings if you have to sit beside people you hate in a state of mutual resentment? Hosts (the double-meaning took me too long to get) will guarantee you good company.
All parts are well written, and I appreciated that it took the time to explore the family dynamics and the relationships between everyone at the table. Nobody in it is perfect, and the family’s dysfunction is there for all to see. A bit where the mother keeps getting cut-off, as she tells them about something difficult, is both frustrating and human. However, each part is written or played with love, and I came to like the characters so much that I didn’t want to see them suffer. The entity itself gets kept intentionally vague, which I think is to the film’s detriment. Both Neal Ward and Samantha Loxley are excellent performers, though it is hard to create unique villains when we’re kept at arm’s length from what motivates them. There’s a vague moment that fills in some blanks that, unfortunately, has more than a passing resemblance to the movie Us (to my knowledge the script for Host was ready before that came out). I don’t want it all spelt out like it was in Peele’s film. But we spend enough time with these forces that I’d like them to be more characterised. Especially since new Jack and Lucy replace two people that I warmed to. Misgivings aside, this is a gift to fans everywhere. I hope it spreads all over the world.
LET’S SCARE JULIE
Directed by Jud Cremata
Continuous takes/ single shot horrors are nothing new. Since Hitchcock made Rope, there have been a few other attempts – most notably Silent House, and its remake. Let’s Scare Julie is the latest attempt – a semi-improvised story about four girls doing a prank that goes wrong. Emma is our main one: a shy teenager who recently lost her dad. Now living with her cousin Taylor, she struggles to bond with her and her boisterous friends. Peer pressure can be a powerful thing though, and with some promoting she gets caught up in trying to scare Julie – who just moved into the supposedly haunted house across the street. The plan seems simple enough: put on some Purge style masks, and scare the poop out of her. But like yesterday’s The Owners (a very different type of horror), breaking into someone’s home uninvited is never a good idea.
While there are odd cuts here and there, once the camera starts it never stops. There are obvious limitations to the format – like characters spending way longer talking about scary things than us seeing them. As such, a lot of it comes down to mood and anticipation. There are some inspired moments: Taylor giving the reclusive neighbour’s backing story reminds me of many a sleepover when we’d stay up exchanging urban legends. As she peeks through the blinds, telling others about the bad things that happened in Julie’s house. The moment the camera pans behind them, and we first see the building is shiver-up-the-spine stuff. It becomes even more foreboding at the end of act one when Emma stays behind to put her sister to bed, and the others sneak in. A storm yells outside, and when she looks, only one of the girls is coming back. Bits like this are the film at its best – when it’s all about suggestion.
I was less impressed with acts two and three when it moves up a gear. The escalation isn’t well handled, with several elements I thought would be important getting dropped and the introduction of a new character feeling like pointless padding. What’s more frustrating is a lot is introduced late on without having the necessary build-up that’s done so well elsewhere. Yeah, the tight-angle shots, that follow Emma like a stalker, keep it immersive. However, it can only do so much when the plot doesn’t hang together. It stays very watchable, though, for me, the second act slump meant Cremata was unable to achieve the urgency needed when going into the third. Semi-frequent musical cues are also inappropriate, detracting from the organic feel the filmmakers seem to have put a lot of effort into cultivating. Still, I applaud the closing moments. A good film that, with more attention to the pacing and storytelling, could have been great. Worth watching on good headphones, with all the lights turned off.
LET’S SCARE JULIE on Digital HD 21st December