FrightFest (2023) day 1: Suitable Flesh, Punch and Cheat

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The dark heart of cinema beats again: it’s FrightFest time! Our four horsemen (Alan Jones, Greg Day, Paul McEvoy, and Ian Rattray) have again brought us the best genre movies. This weekend, fans get 70 films to pick from across four screens. There are 25 world, 23 International / European, and 12 UK premieres, with 14 countries represented, spanning five continents. And as usual, it’s my absolute pleasure to fly down to The Big Smoke to represent HorrorCultFilms. Follow this blog and my other reviews to see the finest cuts the fest has to offer. We start with…

Directed by Joe Lynch

Lately, there’s been a long Twitter discourse about whether or not sex scenes are necessary in cinema. I’d love to see what the complainers make of horny horror Suitable Flesh. Drawing first blood is long-time friend of the festival, Joe Lynch, who returns with this European premiere. Drawing on the works of Stuart Gordon, who intended to make it, and HP Lovecraft’s story The Thing On The Doorstep, it’s an erotic body swap horror about taboo and therapy. In it, a successful psychiatrist, Elizabeth Derby, played by Heather Graham, finds herself in a padded room. Someone has been murdered, and all the fingers pointed at her. Speaking with a doctor /friend, Daniela Upton, knowingly played by Barbara Crampton, she recounts the gory, kinky, and downright peculiar story of what happened. All I’ll say is it involves a young patient with what appears to be a clear case of multiple personality disorder, to whom she feels an intense attraction. After a late encounter, during which he enters her in more ways than one, we learn this is a possibly ancient entity that can hop from body to body.

Despite a strong cast, the movie stalls in the first half under the weight of often repetitive scenes built around samey (if intersting) conversations, and I was surprised by how long it took to find its voice. There are clear foundations laid for what’s to follow, but it watches like Lynch is holding back. Yet the occasionally frustrating groundwork pays off immensely in the batshit second half. The blood flies, the body horror increases and the leads clearly have fun with the material. In short, it’s a gleeful, disorienting romp that doesn’t let off. Crampton absolutely kills it, showing why she’s such an icon. However, Heather Graham was the standout for me, and the bits where she channels the villain are a hoot – making me wish I’d see her in more these days. It’s more of a loving homage than a parody, though, and is played straight for most of its running time. Sure, Lynch knows the audience will laugh when the saxophones blow during the many sex scenes or the heavy use of the same transitions. Still, I liked that it trusts us to know what it’s doing, and I’d go as far as saying it has less overt humour than Reanimator. There are some bits of drama: Elizabeth’s commitment to her patients interfering with her marriage and the gaslighty fear of being sane in an insane place. But Suitable Flesh is at its best when it embraces its premise’s madness and subverts its small cast’s dynamics. Perhaps the chaos could have come earlier – though to be fair, there’s an excellent kill in the opening act – but when it does, I was hooked. Maybe my favourite Joe Lynch work to date.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed Andy Edwards

It’s slasher time! Punch Andy Edwards is back with another comedy horror grounded in British culture. Punch takes our quintessential seaside villain and reimagines him as a prowler stalking his coastal town (can’t get more British than that) and whacking teenagers to death with a big wooden club. Frankie is in his sights: an art student who has returned to help her poorly but abusive mum and wants one more nice night out before returning to uni. As her evening goes on, and her BFF Holly tries to convince her to stay, Frankie only finds more reasons never to return. It’s hard to say what makes for a good slasher killer. It isn’t just about the mask, the mannerisms, the motivation, and the brutality of their kills – there’s an extra something hard to pinpoint. And while he won’t be discussed with Freddy and Jason decades from now, Punch is a solid creation for the most part. The urban legend aspect, used to highlight how the older generation keeps their youngsters in line, ties him to the past: patriarchy, sadism, and moralising, aka “toxic masculinity in the flesh.” He’s darkly comical, physically imposing, ruthless, and more interesting as we learn more about what he stands for. Yet the film is more grounded in the language of a class-conscious drama than the classic formula and, as such, there’s a divide between the fun and tragic elements sometimes clumsily bridged.

A bit where Punch comes across two drunk girls who don’t take him seriously is an accomplished bit of laughter in the dark, though his beating a gay couple to death gives tonal whiplash. Kills are rarely graphic, but they’re vicious as hell. Moreover, because we empathise with the victims (or at least some of them), it all feels far more violent and meanspirited than American counterparts. Still, there’s a powerful coming of age here, and I liked how it deals with the alienation and disappointment of its teens in a declining Brexit Britain. Edwards takes their anxieties seriously and the scenes between Frankie and her friends are tinged with a nostalgic sadness as they look at the diminishing options ahead of them: “this place, it gets a hold on you, drags you down.” Plaudits to the young cast who make their parts immediately distinguishable and have an easy chemistry. Admittedly, Edwards’ approach to the community is sometimes heavy-handed. In particular, the threat of modernity is embodied by broad stereotypes that feel out of place with the reality he’s created. Dialogue in the early scenes also has that exposition-heavy quality where everyone speaks in convoluted ways about things they know so the audience is up to speed. Maybe the most blatant exchange is between Frankie and her mum – both actors sell the scene’s emotions, but it feels more like a series of dramatic beats than an actual exchange. This is far less of an issue as it goes on, though, as the relationships are fleshed out and the genre elements set in. A prolonged chase, which dominates the second half, struggles to create momentum. Watching Frankie slowly jog from one location to the next, with Punch periodically showing up to taunt, I was tempted to write the film off. But I applaud Edwards for winning me back with a smart and subversive final act which ties everything together and offers plenty of scope for sequels.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Directed by Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius

Finishing the first night is this supernatural chiller about an urban legend in the small, sleepy college town of Silvercreek. Around 300 years ago, a farmer’s daughter, Clara Miller, was killed by her father after she tried to stop his infidelity. Now, from beyond the grave, she violently kills anyone who cheats on their partner. Bad luck for Maeve, a keen art student staying with a host family who rolls in the hay with the husband, Charlie. Her boyfriend may be in the slammer, and his wife’s been in a mental health facility since their daughter committed suicide, but Clara sees all. Cue a series of weird events: ghostly figures in the garden, birds hurtling themselves against the door, and blood showing up where it shouldn’t. The scares aren’t especially fresh, and iconography resembles that of other films, but plaudits to the directorial team for their timing and escalating the horror well. From the opening synth soundtrack to the knowing use of several classic genre conventions, Cheat wants to be good old-fashioned fun. And in its best moments, this is precisely what it is.

Yet the filmmakers take their time developing both Maeve and Charlie, so their decision makes sense. Granted, it could do much more with the aftermath – particularly when Charlie takes a backseat for the second act, but it adds dramatic weight to the story. Unfortunately, the slower approach means we’re almost halfway through before Maeve and Charlie do the deed – a wait made to feel even longer by clear telegraphing. Still, the cast is strong – notably Corin Clay, who sells Maeve’s guilt, frustrations, and fear. She’s a gifted performer, and this is a good showcase. Silvercreek also feels like a character in its own right. Its sizeable, historic houses give a sense of safety contrasted with the paranoia from long Steadicam shots. However, the scant cast means that the leads rarely seem in danger – particularly because only 20 minutes separate the inciting event and their fight back. The decision to kill a minor character off-screen also didn’t work for me. I get that it was probably done so as not to risk trivialising suicide, but as an audience, we have to be trained to fear Clara. Speaking of our baddy, I wanted to like her more than I did, but she doesn’t have the uniqueness needed to be a memorable ghost nowadays. To an extent, she’s an antihero – clearly wronged and killing for moral reasons (albeit twisted ones). But she’s still too generic a focal point with an unremarkable aesthetic. We also barely get any time to know her. The late introduction of an aging relative and a McGuffin depersonalise the conflict too, leading to one of the most anticlimactic confrontations in recent memory. It’s got a good epilogue, though – even if it is reminiscent of another film down to its shot composition. Still, an enjoyable movie, albeit one that’ll likely stay a one-night stand.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

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About david.s.smith 449 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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