FrightFest (2023) day 2: The weird monsters live inside

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Welcome to Day 2 of my FrightFest diaries. Last night was a strong mix of body-swapping mayhem and pier pressure – and today looks similarly varied. Just a little note – these are written very quickly after the films, often with little time to the next, so please excuse their roughness and the numerous typos I won’t pick up on. But with the memory sieve, I won’t wait until next week to cover such films as…

IT LIVES INSIDE
Directed by Bishal Dutta

A feature debut that looks at the horrors of growing up and fitting in. Indian-American Samidha (who prefers Sam) struggles to balance commitments to her family and culture with the usual aspects of teenage life: boys and looking cool. These tensions come to a head when an altercation with former bestie Tamira, also Hindu, results in a broken jar that Tamira believes holds an ancient threat. As the evil force starts to target her friends and family, Samidha must face her personal demons to put it to rest, all the time learning about the lore her mum unsuccessfully tried to instil in her. It’s great to see a horror built upon Hindu mythology and aspects of the immigrant experience. For example, the rituals surrounding a puja are core plot points, and her parents’ attitudes towards cultural conservatism vs. assimilation are treated like parts of an ongoing discussion. And even though it’s obvious what direction the film will go in and the lessons Sam will ultimately learn, her coming of age gets interwoven with the action excellently.

This point about predictability is a recurring gripe for me, unfortunately. Despite the fresh angle, it’s very tropey, and much of the iconography is shared with other modern horror films such as Z or Friend Request. We get scary handwritten books saying things like ‘don’t let it out,’ outsider characters wearing long, dark clothes, and floating light eyeballs appearing in cell phone reflections and cupboards. Establishing a level of threat and dramatic stakes in a teen horror can be tricky – this is a PG-13 in America. And It Lives Inside rarely finds a level of intensity, opting more to the Blumhouse school of temporary jolts. Nonetheless, a few unexpectedly aggressive scare scenes really worked for me – they aren’t graphic, but have an undeniable energy about them. The demon itself is also superbly designed, and though it spends most of its time in the shadows, when we finally see it in all its glory, it’s the stuff of nightmares. The characters are good, if roughly sketched, and the cast often makes stilted dialogue sound natural – we understand the metaphors without subtext becoming text. Hence By the end, I was invested Sam’s safety and hope to see Megan Suri do more in the future. Oh, and watch out for the best reaction to a vegan buffet ever committed to screen. It is an enjoyable, if light, start to the day.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS
Directed by John Adams, Zelda Adams, and Toby Poser

Roll up, roll up – the team behind The Deeper You Dig and Hellbender are back with a wonderfully shot period horror about Carnie carnage, set in Depression-era America. Composed of John Adams, Toby Poser, and their daughter, Zelda, the family of filmmakers take on the role of diabolical sideshow entertainers. Horror is often at its best when dealing with characters on the fringes, and they are no exceptions. Financially destitute in a broken society, they take to the road and leave a line of corpses in their path to supplement their income. However, a fellow performer, Mr Tibbs, who can get off and regrow his fingertips, may have the secret to improving their fortunes and achieving immortality. It only needs them to do a deal with the devil. Along the way, we get some insight into how they ended up like this; the trauma of war, the stigma of class snobbery, and a violent upbringing. Yet The Adams family is unapologetic and unsentimental about their characters, willing to push audience identification. Make no mistake – this is a hard film to recommend casually. It’s a bleak, albeit pretty, watch that only gets darker as it goes on.

Where The Devil Roams may function more as a vibe than a concrete piece of storytelling. Aesthetically, the moral decay of the characters is matched by their rotting limbs and the picture slowly being drained of all colour. Accompanying this disintegration is a soundtrack that goes between distorted bass-heavy stoner rock and moments of delicate beauty – when the otherwise mute Eve sings her heart out. If there’s any redemption here, it’s the carnival folks’ close-knit nature and the trio’s apparent love for each other. The circuit is an inherently exciting backdrop, populated by intriguing weirdos – some have hearts of gold, but most are not so nice. Their dialogue has a pleasing musicality, combining world-weary harshness with poetic flourishes. If the film’s got a big flaw, it’s that much of the second half leaves this environment for a more listless narrative. The result is a repetitive but pretty series of murders and vignettes where the family has run-ins with the selfish rich people still occupying the large houses. Some of the class elements are interesting, particularly how mother Maggie responds to their ostentatiousness – framing it as class warfare. As the family further immerses themselves in dark magic, some of the ritualisation is also really eerie. Still, I sighed in relief when the more focussed third act began, building to a gruesome finale with a kick.

Rating: ★★★★☆

THE WEIRD KIDZ
Directed by Zach Passero

Here’s one I’d been looking forward to – a hand-drawn passion project that took eight years for its creator to write, develop, and animate. And from it’s prologue, which watches like Scooby Doo meets Friday the 13th, I knew I’d been right to do so. The traditional style may look simple, and some movements are distractingly janky, but it’s charming and evokes its 80s setting. The Weird Kidz is a nostalgic trip to small-town America where Dug, Mel, and Fatt, three 12-year-old boys, navigate adolescence. However, after Dug’s big brother, Wyatt, takes them on a camping trip to Jerusalem National Park with his girlfriend Mary, growing pains give way to something more sinister. The Night Child is a local legend: a gross ancient monster that feeds on tourists after dark. It’s a classic campfire set-up that provides an atmospheric backdrop to an often moving coming-of-age flick – even if later revelations work against this intimate set-up.

Each kid is, in their own way, alone – having been failed by the adults around them. Especially Dug and Wyatt, aka “the lost cause club,” who have been neglected by their parents in favour of their sister. Their coming together to support each other is the movie’s heart, and it’s rewarding to see them go from a love-hate relationship to mutual respect. At times, the frantic pace means the other character dynamics are done a disservice in favour of getting to the next giant bug bit. Still, amidst the horror and sexploits, their existential angst is taken seriously. In contrast, the humour is suitably juvenile: pubes, pissing, numerous penis references, and an unwelcome threesome. Still, the reflective tone gives it warmth and even innocence. On that point, Mary is perhaps a bit under characterised, for the first two acts being a fantasy older girl to usher horny teens towards maturity. Still, I liked that as it went on, Mel and Fatt came to see her as more. As it goes on, and the hallucinogenic monster juices flow, the animation gets weirder, and the set pieces more elaborate. It adds up to a rushed but epic climax I found fun to watch but thought detracted from the characters’ vulnerability. Still, a touching epilogue won me back.

Rating: ★★★½☆

HOW TO KILL MONSTERS
Directed by Stewart Sparke

Jamie is having a rubbish Halloween. She’s the sole survivor of a bloody massacre at a cabin in the woods, i.e., a final girl, and has just been arrested under suspicion of causing it. She says her friends tried to sacrifice her and summoned an evil spirit that tore them to pieces – as one of her interrogators remarks, hardly an original premise. But that’s only the beginning, and before too long, a curious forensic researcher fiddles about with an enchanted blade that plunges the police station into a new dimension – it looks like she wasn’t lying. To survive the night, Jamie must team up with cops and criminals to get hold of this blade and send these creatures back from where they came. A spiritual successor to Book of Monsters that takes place in the same goofy universe with the same cast, it’s basically a movie to be watched with pizza and alcohol. Exactly the sort of thing Jamie would rather have been doing.

The gags come thick and fast with a generous joke-per-minute ratio. Granted, many of them didn’t land for me – being quite broad and repetitive – but when they do, they laugh out loud. I was especially fond of the hen party from Hell. There’s also a meta layer to it, with characters ridiculing the film’s story and a brilliant bit involving early end credits. The monsters are also fantastic – creative entities that go from cake to critters and Cthulhu. Still, perhaps the focus on finding the funny means that there isn’t much in the way of threat – after all, it can be tricky to deliver on both fronts. Characters previously depicted as hapless become willing action heroes without much in the way of an arc, and what should be huge events are met without emotional consequence. I get that this is to keep proceedings light, but it comes at the expense of the tension. Particularly towards the end when what should be a fraught battle for survival plays out as slapstick and sitcommy. Still, everyone’s so darn likeable that it’s hard to be too bothered – the main cast has worked together, and it shows. The growth of some of them by the end, particularly the geeky Ruth, who goes from the butt of the joke to badass, was also really pleasing. Sparke is on to something good here and has the right people around him – long may the monster continue.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

DOCTOR JEKYLL
Directed by Joe Stephenson

Hammer time! This is a modern take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella. Rob, an ex-convict, takes up a position caring for the enigmatic Nina Jekyll in a massive old mansion on the edge of town. They seem to get on okay despite a series of blunders at the beginning, and with a new job, he hopes to see his sick daughter again. Unfortunately, Jekyll’s evil alter ego, Rachel Hyde, has other plans for him. It’s a familiar story, which means that the audience is, to borrow Hyde’s mantra, always two steps ahead of the action. It’s a fun set-up, but it means Rob spends most of the movie piecing together what viewers with even a rudimentary knowledge of fiction will know. It’s the Bruce Banner problem – he’s fine, but we’re waiting to see him Hulk, and, in the same way, we’re waiting on her to Hyde. Admittedly, it has a few twists I wasn’t expecting, though for the first three quarters, audiences may find themselves impatiently waiting for Rob to catch up. This is unfortunate, as with a bit of a trim in the second act (and the version we saw was unfinished, so this may yet happen), there’s an accomplished Gothic horror-comedy here.

It’s so much more humorous than I was expecting – something that director Stephenson said wasn’t the original direction. Thankfully it never comes at the expense of human drama and can even add to it. For example, the baby-faced Scott Chambers can a loveable comedic underdog and a young father struggling under unthinkable circumstances. The bits where he is out of his depth do a lot to endear viewers to the character and make them invested in a movie that the co-star will inevitably dominate. Yes, I consider it no slight to Chambers to say I suspect Eddie Izzard will be the main draw here – and she doesn’t disappoint at all. The battle of wits between her personas is fascinating to watch, even if Hyde’s plan is unexpectedly silly for a character who is defined by their intellect, and she inhabits both brilliantly. Few actors can so easily command your attention when eating some Crunchy Nut Cornflakes – she’s among them. The supporting cast is good, but I was not convinced by how their story, involving Rob’s ex wanting to steal from his new boss, is tied to the main plot. It seems like two diffuse parts of the movie struggling to come together. If only there was a metaphor for that…

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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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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