This the end, beautiful friends. The closing night of FrightFest Halloween, and the last of 13 dedicated days the guys have given us – across three different festivals. 2020 has been a hell of a year, and we at HorrorCultFilms send much love and regards to our fab four: Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Alan Jones and Greg Day. Putting on a film festival must be hard work at the best of times, never mind when there’s a global pandemic on. These are difficult days for all of us, but there’s something so special about fans the UK over tuning in at once to watch horror together. It really is a socially distanced community, and thanks again for making it all happen. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see such pictures as…
Directed by Jill Gevargizian
Like dentists, hairdressers are people we put our trust in – since they get up close and personal with instruments that could kill us in seconds. Like Sweeney Todd before her, Claire can be vicious with some scissors, though she doesn’t want to bake her victims. Instead, she wants to be them – removing their scalps and wearing them like wigs. It’s apt since she spends all day hearing about their lives in intimate detail. Her customers open up to her precisely because they don’t have a clue who she is, and they usually think that as soon they close the door she’s out of her lives. However, Claire becomes conflicted about her habit when one of her favourite clients, Olivia, asks to have her hair done for her wedding. As she does so, they strike up a bond that sees Claire enter her personal life too, resulting in complications and a deadly obsession.
Najarra Townsend is excellent at playing the withdrawn Claire: a bundle of nerves, family trauma and repressed sexuality. It’s an achievement that her, and Gevargizian, can make their killer so sympathetic. However, I don’t think they quite bridge the gap between awkward introvert Claire and the reluctant killer. It’s a perspective piece, for the most part, though I think it’d have benefitted from further exploring what she gets from her wigs. If there was ever a film crying out for flights of fantasy, it’s this one. As Claire says, ‘everyone wants what they can’t have’. Hence I reckon emphasising this angle, like in the remake of Maniac (which it shares elements with), could have made her outbursts more understandable. I expect Gevargizian wants to keep us at an emotional distance – that not even the audience gets past her barriers – and fair enough. Personally, I think it’s the movie’s most cutting edge idea but also its least developed. The mid-section watches like a retread of those domestic stalker flicks from the 90s: Single White Female etc. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s only towards the end that the wigs aspect takes on a life of its own.
None of this is to imply The Stylist is a bad film, because it’s not. There are huge moments of suspense done on a small scale, and the escalation is exemplary. Much of the success comes down to the evolving friendship between Claire and Olivia. And some of the film’s most rewarding sections are the initially awkward interactions during which Oliva brings her out of her shell – crossing the line from client to friend. While the gory finale is one I think people will see ultimately coming, it’s also so well judged that won’t matter – maybe the best ending from any film of the festival. The script is also true to life, with naturalistic exchanges that defy the sometimes soap opera material – like Olivia’s second thoughts. The writers clearly care about making their characters true to life. However, I’d have loved to see it going further into make-believe. Or not – I could be complaining the other way if it had. After all, as Claire comes to learn, the grass is always greener on the other side.
Directed by Elza Kephart
A premise that suggests the film can go either way. Buyer beware: Slaxx is a horror-comedy about a pair of jeans that go on a killing spree. Canadian Cotton Clothiers are preparing for Monday Madness – a huge sale. Top among their range are Super Shaper designer jeans – thermally activated denim that adapts to fit any ass. It’s supposedly the latest in organic, GMO-free, fair-trade, ethically sourced tops and bottoms. Unfortunately, at its actual source, one pair gets accidentally soaked in the blood of sweatshop workers. So just before their big launch happens, when social media influencer Peyton Jules turns up to try them on, the jeans take on a life of their own. It falls on the idealistic, young salesclerk Libby, and her more jaded colleague Shruti, to stop it going on a rampage.
If this all sounds bad taste, I assure you it’s not. Slaxx hones in on soulless, corporate retailers along with the exploitation behind their supply line. The store itself looks very true to life: obnoxiously bright colours called things like ‘peach’ and ‘pumpkin’, posters that say stuff like BE|LONG and staff who call themselves “family”. At time’s it’s too broad, though it’s hard not to smile at lines like “last month was three seasons ago” and the hollow mantra “make a better tomorrow today”. It helps that our way into the company, Libby (played by Romane Denis), is such a likeable presence. She’s earnest, eager and can’t believe her luck to be there. It’s endearing to see her carefully hang up every last garment, and her enthusiasm stands in stark contrast to CCC’s bullshit. People over product indeed – the manager is more than happy to cover-up deaths as they happen.
The thing is that the joke gets told in the opening twenty minutes, and from there it feels like a prolonged short. It isn’t easy to think up ways jeans can kill people, nevermind making a whole film around them. And while Kephart has come up with some creative kills, they’re neither varied nor spectacular enough to warrant the time we have to spend with such an unlikeable supporting cast (Shruti aside, who is an excellent foil for Libby). Heck, some of them happen off-screen. I also don’t think there’s enough substance for a feature. There are brave attempts to add pathos, and I applaud the intent of one scene in particular. However, where the best satires work their message into the mayhem, this one slows down when it switches focus halfway through. It also requires one character to make a giant leap that isn’t grounded enough in what came before. I get it – this is a film about killer jeans, so character drama comes second. But what they do needs to be at least believable in that movie’s universe. Still, the ending is magnificent and pushed me to add an extra half star: a haunting, brave middle-finger to the fashion industry. Horror is at its best when it champions voices we don’t typically hear. And that was perhaps the best finale of FrightFest this year. No disrespect to The Stylist, which I just wrote that about, but it was so last season.
Directed by Damian McCarthy
A lot of horror films are about memory, using it to explore where our sense of self comes from and often building a mystery around its blanks. Maybe people are motivated not to remember, or perhaps it’s a tragedy that they can’t. Either way, it puts viewers in a fascinating position since our way into the story is unreliable. In this case, it’s Isaac: a drifter, suffering from partial memory loss and in dire financial straits. As such, he’s willing to take an odd job from his landlord, Barrett, of providing care for his niece Olga who has returned to her remote childhood home. Sounds simple enough, though she lives alone on an island with no way of leaving. And, here’s the caveat of the title – to avoid panicking her, he’ll need to don a harness. It’s an old, medieval style, contraption that’s attached to the basement floor. It’ll give him freedom of movement around most of the house, but doesn’t extend to her room – where she spends most of her time in a near-catatonic state. What ensues is an unconventional game of cat and mouse, during which Isaac realises Olga may not be the only disturbed person in the house.
In some ways, Caveat is this year’s Possum, having similar themes to Holness’ vision. It’s also got an equally grim aesthetic and shares its minimalist approach to dialogue. Much of the storytelling comes from suggestion, rather than anything overt. It’s a fascinating scenario, with lots of creepy potential, and McCarthy knows how to create an atmosphere of pure disorienting dread. The soundtrack, sets and slow-burn pace all reflect the judgement of someone whose an old hand: you’ll struggle to believe this is a debut. He escalates the tension superbly, and there are effective scares throughout – mostly low-key ones, involving items from the house itself. As a horror experience, it’s among the best, most tense of this festival. Paintings, gaps in the wall and a creepy toy rabbit all have their moment. However, at points, I think it’s a little too minimalist. After scant scene-setting, we’re tossed into the deep end and left to solve an admirably layered mystery.
The trouble is that the characters in it, and it’s mostly just Issac and Olga, don’t speak to each other much. Instead, they go further into their own heads, and we’re left with questions about the fate of someone we know almost nothing about, whose significance to those we do isn’t clear. On the one hand, this approach to storytelling gives viewers a lot to work with, and I bet people putting in the time will get more from it. On the other, it makes them hard to connect with emotionally – something I don’t say to dismiss the obvious talent of McCarthy and his cast. While I found the film immersive, I was not curious about its outcome. I felt uncomfortable, I felt scared, and I felt tense. So I appreciated it a lot. But I didn’t care about where it went. I could well be missing something, and judging by other people’s comments on Twitter I am. Though the tricky part of festivals is you have to watch something, then move on. Speaking of which, one more to go…
THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Directed by Paul Tanter
You better watch out. Rounding off FrightFest is this serial killer flick, to usher us from Autumn into Winter. It’s the run-up to the big day, and unhinged asylum-escapees Nicholas and Michelle, who go by Mr and Mrs Claus, commit a revenge-fueled rampage. We know from the start, in which they set a room of people on fire, that they’re not the characters your parents told about. Hot on their tale is FBI Special Agent Natalie Parker. Can she stop them before they get to the bottom of their naughty list?
Something I didn’t know until I booked this film is it’s a sequel to a little scene indy slasher called Once Upon a Time at Christmas. Not that this is a hard one to follow, since we get the bullet-point version in some preamble and the story is essentially the two murders slaying their way across town. The kills are gory, with decent make-up and visceral energy. I reckon there’s more than enough blood, and chopped off body bits, here to satisfy gorehounds. Granted, none of them are going to win awards for creativity – though a bit of misdirection after a break-in is pretty cool. But on the plus side, the victims are at least suitably unlikeable. Though where it works as a slasher, The Nights Before Christmas is less convincing as a procedural. These chunks often feel like padding, detracting from the b-movie fun, and lack an identity of their own. The interrogation bits watch like Silence of the Lambs, with a far less sophisticated game going on beneath the surface, and the team are as generic as they come. And it may sound petty, but it also takes a ridiculously long time for the Feds to decide Mr and Mrs Claus may be using a physical list to pick out their victims.
Heck, almost every procedural scene for the first two-thirds Parker suggests they may be killing with a list and her partner nods along then they both forget about it. As if their targets carving ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ into victims’ heads, and Michelle explicitly talking about a list, don’t give it away. It makes me wonder if there were reshoots that never ended up on the cutting-room floor. Either that or the writers should have asked Santa for a good editor. Still, where I will applaud them is in how the film goes into Nicholas and Michelle’s backing story, showing how they were mistreated at the institution. It’s not enough to make you want them to win, though. And while it’s a good idea, Nicholas repeatedly saying how bad his time there was detracts from the big, dumb slasher fun. I’m happy they have a rationale for what they do – these things are essential. Though for these sorts of films, sometimes less is more. I want to see a guy cut another man’s dick off, or I want to hear him talk about how horrible violence is – but not want both. Michelle also watches like a complete rip-off of Harley Quinn, from her mannerisms down to her hair. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of it. Seasons beatings are always welcome. Even if, for this festival, it’ll be at the lower end of my list.