FrightFest (2022) day 2: Final exit to the night sky

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Day 2 of FrightFest, and what a collection it looks like. We got some road movies, a Giallo, a pandemic horror, and a French language remake of a modern classic. So let’s stop wasting time on the blurb and get stuck in, shall we?

NEXT EXIT
Directed by Mali Elfman

A road trip to Heaven. This was maybe the movie I was looking forward to the most, and a relatively gentle start to the day. Next Exit is the feature debut of writer/director Mali Elfman. It’s a speculative sci-fi in which a widespread acceptance of ghosts, and a scientist in San Francisco discovering she can track people they die, has birthed a pain-free suicide technique. If there’s life after death, there’s no reason to worry about it. All she needs are some human lab rats to try it out. Enter Rose and Teddy, a pair of New Yorkers, with very different personalities and reasons for wanting to go ahead with it. Is it worse to have lost everything or never had it in the first place? After meeting at a car rental place and fumbling the paperwork, they share a ride to reach their appointments. What begins as friction eventually leads to friendship.

Road movies need lots of nice locations and some likable leads. After all, they need to get a lot of mileage from people talking in a vehicle. Next Exit achieves this. Firstly, the backdrop is an America of the open road – small towns, dive bars, and cheap motels. There are numerous shots of the scenery and vast skies. I was also really impressed by the world-building too – how the public responds to the trials. We have increased suicide and homicide, plus lots of road signs and moments of fiery debate – it’s something everyone has a take on. Then we have the characters. Rahul Kohli is fast becoming one of the most reliable actors in the UK. His performance here is no exception, with him conveying a mixture of cynical English cheeky chappy and kicked sheepdog. Katie Parker is also excellent, taking on probably the more demanding role of the two – since she less immediately fun and more resistant to forming a connection with her fellow traveller. However, she plays her part with empathy and nuance, making her someone who is difficult to know but easy to love when you do.

Both characters’ regrets get explored in a layered script that shows each actor their range. They get rewarding dialogues, monologues (look out for a bit about baseball), and powerful family moments. And while at the beginning it maybe overplays its odd couple dynamic, finding gulfs where there are gaps, what forms between them is very organic. Being a road movie, we meet a good cross-section of society, including a smoking priest, a traumatised cop, and a hippy chick intent on seeing stardust in the desert. On the one hand, these encounters give it an episodic, almost vignette feel. However, each adds to part of a bigger picture about what makes life living or why people may want to give up on it. There are some minor wrong turns – a detour, where one character has to hide critical information from the other, is dismissed as quickly as it was introduced. However, these are minor hiccups against one of the year’s most moving and quietly profound films. The finale is fitting and perfectly judged. And while it won’t necessarily surprise you, since the themes and the story are so interwoven, success is a journey, not a destination. Excellent start to the day, and perhaps my best so far.

Rating: ★★★★★

THE HARBINGER
Directed by Andy Mitton

Remember how shit lockdown was? For those who didn’t have the time of our lives baking banana bread and doing pub quizzes, here’s a horror film to remind us. Andy Mitton, who you may remember for The Witch In The Window, returns to FrightFest with this film that offers a fresh take on the haunted house subgenre. Monique leaves her warm family bubble to help a friend, Mavis, who has been having horrific nightmares – and a considerably worse time with social distancing. However, she soon realises her dreams are contagious. And they came from somewhere worse than wet markets (or a lab if you’re that way inclined). Night and day become blurred it all seems to revolve around a creepy kid and a mystery man who was in Mavis’ room – though she can’t remember who he was for the life of her.

Every year there’s at least one movie I go in not expecting to like but end up digging – this year, it was this one. Mitton has created a misleadingly simple film that’s far more accessible than his last one, but for my money, also better. Where The Witch In The Window was a slow burner, there’s a momentum about The Harbinger from the start that rarely lets off. The scare scenes have a punch to them – with a few incredibly timed jump moments (one will have you leaping from the seat). I liked the plague doctor baddy who shows up uninvited into their dreams where they should feel safe. Nightmares are neat for horror writers because they allow them to let their imaginations run wild and come up with things that bend natural laws. However, as Wes Craven discovered 30 years ago, they need to have stakes otherwise, there’s no tension. Thankfully the plot mechanics are pretty good – the thought of sleeping characters suffering for days at a time, where only minutes passed, is creepy and adds consequences.

In the second half, we also get a cool idea about how the monster spreads itself that’s done much better here than the other recent film I can think of that included it. A very imaginative take on urban legends. And while there’s a slightly corny enchanted object plot point, I liked where it later went with it. These are not the only places where the writing works. Save for an awkward bit, where an already implied backing story is explained in unnecessary detail, the dialogue is naturalistic – as are the performances. The scenes of Monique and her family, which are a reminder of how important it is to have a good support network in one’s life. We almost don’t want her to leave the nest. The other characters are also enjoyable: Mavis and Monique seem like friends, and the demonologist they find on Reddit sells the premise. And while it eventually resembles its influences too much, forfeiting some of its individuality, it’s nonetheless a brilliant bit of covid horror.

Rating: ★★★★☆

A WOUNDED FAWN
Directed by Travis Stevens

Back in 2012, FrightFest co-curator Alan Jones introduced the trashterpiece Tulpa by announcing ‘this is Giallo!’ He could have said the same here and been right. Save for the mobile phones, which advance the plot but barely feature, this looks, sounds, and feels like the Italian movies of the 70s. Stunning cinematography, grainy 16mm film, and a rich colour palette. Fans of this type of horror are going to love it. It’s the latest from Travis Stevens, who you may know from the decent Jakob’s Wife and the excellent The Girl On The Third Floor. It’s about Meredith: a lonely museum curator putting herself back out there for what we can assume is the first time in a while. Unfortunately, Bruce, who she sees and agrees to a romantic getaway with, is a serial killer. Still, at least his cabin is swoon-worthy – so not all bad.

The first half leans heavily on dramatic irony, with Bruce showing more red flags than the USSR – hell, he sticks red wine in the fridge. Usually this kind of thing would irritate me, but the mood does a lot of the heavy lifting. It’s a rich atmosphere where we just wait for something to go wrong. As hints of the supernatural build, and his behaviour becomes ever more erratic, the tension escalates. The second part is more experimental and in some ways, more rewarding – if slightly too long. It watches like a fever dream of body horror, ancient Greek motifs that hint at how long the problems of male misbehaviour have existed and phallic imagery (which leads to the only wrong-looking sequence). The cinematography is perfect, and the props team seems to be loving every minute. Stevens has already shown himself to be a skilled visual storyteller, but this one takes it to the next level.

The characters are richly written, too, with Bruce showing some hidden depths as it goes on. He’s a blend of patriarchal psychosexual drives competing for control. I wasn’t expecting how much Stevens puts us in his head, and it’s not a nice place. Things like the red owl that appears to follow him make for psychedelic horror and invite us to question how responsible he truly is – is he mentally ill or pushed by force unbeknownst to him and us? From his opening scenes, in a fierce bidding war, Josh Ruben nails his obsessiveness, but also the clear conflict in his head. Sarah Lind is also superb as Meredith – a character who gets more agency as it continues: Hell hath no fury. As per Bruce, the imagery attached to her means that she also becomes almost allegorical – both a victim and an avenger of masculine gaze and entitlement. Be sure to stay for the weirdest end credits I’ve seen in ages too. A gory horror take on a Family Guy gag.

Rating: ★★★★☆

NIGHT SKY
Directed by Jacob Gentry

More of the great outdoors. This time it’s a trek across the American southwest with a ne’er do well petty thief, named Oren, trying to escape his mysterious past. With him are a celestial vagabond trying to rediscover her’s – they have taken the form of a beautiful woman named Annie. And a ruthless killer who is following them. Night Sky is Jacob Gentry’s follow-up to the excellent Broadcast Signal Intrusion. It’s a lowkey sci-fi thriller that doubles up as a tender buddy movie of two strangers learning to get along with each other and break down some of their emotional walls. From the beginning, where Annie gives a blunt order for help, comedy moments come quite organically from the characters’ competing perspectives. There’s a real sweetness to how these outsiders butt heads and then eventually share their secrets.

Like Next Exit, it juxtaposes the loneliness of the open road with the warmth of two weirdos finding a connection with each other. And while the audience knows Annie is an alien long before Oren, it isn’t frustrating to watch him gradually piece it together. His doing so coincides with an excellent scene where she lets her guard down a little while indulging in a human pastime. The hunter is perhaps the weakest link, watching like a series of ideas instead of a fully realised character – working against the tension. The pace will put some people off, with it taking a while to get where it’s going – and while I was fine with this, I actually lost interest as the threat grew. Still, I was invested enough in the leads not to let him put me off. The scenery is at times awe-inspiring, as well as capturing the characters, teehee, alienation. Its resolution works, too, doing something spectacular but emotionally grounded. And while it perhaps cuts slightly too early, raising a couple of questions that make me wonder about a key character’s motivations, it’s a fine intersection of the intimate and the cosmic.

Rating: ★★★½☆

FINAL CUT
Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

I remember FrightFest 2018 well. The Ranger was the opener, Climax was the closer, and everyone kept whispering about this small Japanese movie, One Cut Of The Dead. It was the unofficial film of the festival and got an extra screening by popular demand. Final Cut is a remake of it, so it’s only right it gets its UK premiere here. From the director of The Artist, it tells much the same story as before – one I’m not going to explain beyond saying it’s a heartwarming celebration of cinema with a real can-do spirit. And that it involves a film crew trying to make a movie about zombies and then getting attacked by real zombies.

Final Cut is one of those movies that shouldn’t exist, yet where it deviates from the original is acknowledging itself as a foreign language remake. There’s some meta humour to be had about this, with the crew riffing on cultural differences and even tasteless comments about Pearl Harbour. There are also a lot of jokes about low-budget horror, including forced social commentary and cheap special effects. All I ask is that if you see it, and you definitely should watch this or its source material, please stick around for at least half an hour. First you’ll be wondering what all the fuss is about – are people only pretending to love this one ironically? Then, by the end, you’ll be weeping with joy and thinking about how to convince other people to do the same without giving the game away. It defies star ratings, in as much as it’s a near shot-by-shot take on something else – but nothing is lost here. Maybe it’s a bit soulless, and we don’t need Two Cuts of the Dead, but since we do, you won’t go wrong with either.

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About david.s.smith 451 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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