FrightFest (2022) day 5: Clowns, heights and Hitler’s body

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A shorter day today – not least because I can’t mention one of the films until later in the year (I emphasise that this is not a comment on its quality, but something that often happens with premiers). However, I could do with an earlier one after several late nights. So, following a much-needed coffee, thanks for all the Prets London, I head into my first for the day – a long-awaited sequel.

Directed by Damien Leone

Art attack! The second most iconic clown of modern horror is back for a ridiculously extra 140 minutes of ultra-violent fun (hence my buddy Neil calling it Terrifier 2.5). Look, there is no reason for a slasher film to be this long. It’s a bit like when JK Rowling’s mediocre detective books weigh in at over a thousand pages – it’s got to be first-rate to justify the length. Fortunately, this one does, and what’s more, there’s minimal downtime. After being resurrected, for whatever reason, Art returns to the little town of Miles County – a place where everyone has modern tech but looks like they’re in the 80s. He targets a bereaved family. He focuses on teenage Sienna and her younger, serial killer obsessed brother Jonathan – with whom he seems to have a psychic connection. Luckily, before his untimely demise, their DnD fanatic dad made an enchanted sword that can be used against evil clowns and…

Ok, so the plot mechanics are flimsy. For example, our baddy still has no apparent motivation and attempts to personalise the conflict are vague to the point of self-parody. But then the reason people watch these movies isn’t the intricate plotting – it’s because they want to see a slasher. And they won’t be disappointed. Every kill is an eyeball popping, arm breaking, penis chopping, hair-tearing work of Art. The special effects department have set a new benchmark for onscreen violence and then some, mutilating victims and then rubbing salt on their many wounds. Hell, as a horror veteran, I still squirmed in my seat – alongside every other reviewer. The victims are also unusually likeable – the extended running time lets us get to know them, so none feel like stock characters. For example, their “bitch” mum could easily have been written as a lower-level protagonist. Here, she’s a struggling single parent at the end of her tether trying to protect her kids. Speaking of kids, the young cast nail their roles, giving us people to support. Sienna’s journey may be predictable, though the film handles her and her brother’s grief surprisingly tenderly considering its subgenre. Their relationship is also touching, with the cast members conveying a clear fondness for each other despite sibling squabbles.

The Demon Girl also deserves a special mention. While the rules of who can and can’t see her go unexplained, she’s an excellent addition to the universe, boasting the same dark playfulness and makeup of her possible father, Art, only with bigger, bulging eyes. She’d be cute if she weren’t so darn scary. Art himself gets plenty of time to clown around, and there are some brilliant character moments for him here. Stand-out sequences include an extended riff in a costume shop and an unexpected but glorious song sequence. David Howard Thornton is terrific in these bits! He’s an accomplished mime in his own right, and you never know what he will do next. The joy he takes in his casual cruelty also tests audience complicity – admit it, you’re enjoying it. I haven’t seen the first movie since it came out, though I don’t think it made much of an impression. Now, I view Art as a bloody icon. A sequel that approves on the original in every way. Oh, and stick around for the credits!

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed by Ben Parker

War is hell. It’s Christmas in 1991: Queen is topping the charts, the USSR has just fallen, and the elderly Anna has had her house broken into by a Nazi. After quickly turning the tables on him, she’s about to call the cops when he says he knows who she is, and he wants to hear her secrets. What follows is her story. Set in the closing days of WW2, this new thriller from Ben Parker (submarine horror The Chamber) follows a small band of Russian soldiers. They have been tasked with trafficking some unusual cargo: they have the discovered remains of Hitler and want to take them back to Moscow. En route, the unit is attacked by German ‘Wehrwolf’ partisans and picked off one by one. Intelligence officer Brana (now Anna) must lead her comrades in a last stand to ensure the corpse doesn’t fall into the hands of those who would see it buried, to hide the truth forever.

If nothing else, this film looks great. The uniforms and sets are designed immaculately, and Parker creates a rich atmosphere where we believe anyone may be lurking in the trees. Unfortunately, when you get beneath the immersive sets and fine period details, this is an often-boring film that lacks its own identity and does little to challenge the audience. Troops are either too good or too bad to be interesting, with Brana being a little too pure. There are interesting attempts to explore the gender dynamics between her and her male colleagues, though this is superficial and again leans on archetypical characters. There is also little interrogation of Russian war crimes during this era – it’s rare to see them portrayed so heroically. And then we come to the distracting accents. I get that having people speak English in a Russian accent comes with its own problems, but what we get instead are a bizarre assortment of authentic regional voices (especially among the Germans) and ones that wouldn’t seem out of place in Death of Stalin. It undermines the realism the movie is otherwise committed to.

When reviewing The Lair, I mentioned that Neil Marshall seemed torn between mutual urges to make a tense thriller and a grindhouse flick. Here the tension is between a sober film about war and a more generic action flick – with the latter overwhelming the storytelling. Dialogue is functional, characters are broad, and we don’t get any satisfying journeys or emotional payoff. Still, there are some gripping moments. The intro scene, which frames what we see as a story within a story, is intriguing, and one of the stand-off sequences in the second half is excellently staged. I also liked the admittedly brief flirtations with the supernatural. It’s a shame, as the desperate attempts of the German army to hide Hitler’s death is a really strong premise – particularly in the days where there’s a wider public conversation surrounding fake news. In that respect, I think it focuses on all the wrong parts. Gunfights can be good, but we’ve seen lots of them before. Whereas if we got the tale Anna says we will then it could have been ace.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Directed by Keishi Kondo

It’s off to Japan for a movie that’s surreal and intimate. New Religion is about a call girl, Miyabi, who recently lost her daughter. It’s a tragedy she can’t move on from, much to the sorrow of her new boyfriend, who wants them to move out of the apartment where it happened. Then, after a colleague appears to have a breakdown and kill a stranger, she receives an unconventional offer: a strange customer who wants to give her money to photograph bits of her body. She soon realises that every time she allows her body to be photographed, that organ can sense her daughter. And slowly, he’s building up to her eyes.

It’s a good premise, and the mystery behind it – how a few images of her spine can eventually threaten society – is captivating. I found the solutions unsatisfying and the bold climax frustrating, yet with its ethereal atmosphere, New Religion mostly sells its dream logic (special mention to the sound design). There is some arresting imagery and compelling moments of tension, though the laws that govern his world remain vague, and I was unconvinced by its weak escalation. Just as it seems we’re going to move up a notch, Kondo seems to hold back – something I suspect was done for budgetary rather than artistic reasons. It doesn’t need to be an elaborate blockbuster by any means – many movies have achieved this balance of being minimalist with epic implications. But here we have a third act that addresses the themes well but slightly falls apart as a series of story beats. That being written, while I think the film could benefit from going bigger to explore the catastrophic implications of its plot, some of its smaller scenes are among the most rewarding.

Perhaps New Religion’s most successful strand is in its depiction of grief. With the threat hanging around on the periphery for the first half, what will stick with you is the sadness permeating every scene. Miyabi’s guilt is expertly woven through the script, and the love stories, between mother and daughter and two partners trying to work through something emotionally complicated, give it dramatic stakes. At points, I was moved – particularly during a nightclub sequence that recalls how Miyabi and her partner met. Moments like this provide depth to their relationship woes – which peak in a conversation about watering flowers. If they could find a more successful blend between this melancholic drama and the apocalyptic, they could be one to watch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Directed by Scott Mann

We finish off with a high-concept horror. After the death of her husband in an accident while scaling a cliff-side, avid rock climber Becky has withdrawn from the world and her favourite hobby. To help her recover from her past trauma, best friend Hunter suggests, to her understandable objection, that they reach the top of an abandoned 2000-feet high radio tower to scatter his ashes. Just like The Descent but far above ground and buzzards instead of monsters. What could possibly go wrong? When sections of the mast’s rickety ladder break off, they are stranded at the top. Lucky that neither has vertigo.

With FrightFest taking place on some of the most enormous screens in the country, this is an ideal closer. As a technical achievement, it’s phenomenal – there are breathtaking landscapes, anxiety inducing views and it all looks so damn real. The effects are blended in seamlessly, and there’s a constant sense of peril. Co-writer/director Scott Mann lets the two of them have it, escalating their situation to the point of sadism. Similarly, he does an admirable job of giving audiences hope that this plan may work – then throwing a curveball. There is some exemplary foreshadowing employed too. And once you get passed the sheer stupidity of the premise and how unlikely and insensitive Hunter’s suggestion is (seriously, she’s a contender for the worst onscreen friend ever), it’s an immersive scenario. However, we only have two characters, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say neither dies in the first half. Since there’s a lot of standing/sitting with nowhere to go, their relationship must do a lot of heavy lifting in place of a natural source of tension.

Unfortunately, this character drama is where the film falls. For the most part, it’s a bad combo of being both predictable and emotionally shallow. What could be a major revelation is signposted early on to all but the naivest viewers and any conflict we get is quickly resolved– it’s got to be, considering the gravity of their situation. To be fair, both leads over-perform with the material. Especially Virginia Gardner, who makes for an annoyingly believable vlogger. She has to provide much of the movie’s energy since Becky’s trajectory is going from an emotional ravine to finding a reason to live. On that, the themes are also inelegantly integrated with the plot: the life is short mantra is like something from an office poster, and the metaphor about rising again is heavy-handed. Still, I can’t deny the sheer power of the film’s best bits, and the riddle of if/how they can get down kept me entertained. A decent film, but a fantastic end to FrightFest.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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About david.s.smith 450 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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