FrightFest (2023) day 3: Transmissions of bricks, cobwebs and giant tentacles

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Saturday at FrightFest is when a lot of the biggest and best films screen – and this year looked like no exception. Cobweb is maybe the single largest movie to screen here in 2023, though part of the fun is the little gems you’d never otherwise hear about. Returning Leicester Square I was excited to see it among others. First of all…

Directed by Mark Vesely

It’s The Guilty meets Pontypool. I’ve said numerous times before how much I love small-scale horror – movies with few actors or locations, where it’s all about mood and character. So I was ready to love Monolith, which has just one of each for 99% of its running time. In it, a disgraced journalist, who didn’t correctly check her sources, tries to relaunch her career with a ‘clickbait’ podcast about the paranormal. Her first episode doesn’t look up much – having been a high-flyer, she can’t get herself to care about a mysterious brick that seemed to cause a child to scratch the furniture. She falls into old ways, using misleading editing to make it more sensationalist. Yet the more she deep-dives into the brick and its uncertain origins, the more convinced she becomes that it’s evidence of an alien conspiracy. Soon, a package arrives at her door, and she becomes the story. It’s a twisty little sci-fi thriller that keeps building upon its already exciting premise with yet another layer of intrigue.

Doing a one-person film is a tough ask. Though other actors appear as voices on the phone and interviewees, Lily Sullivan (who you may recognise from Evil Dead Rises) needs to command our attention from the start. Plaudits to her – she is outstanding and fully embodies the journey from apathy to obsession. It’s a tour de force for an already promising actor. Our nameless protagonist is a fascinating lead, fuelled by a mixture of curiosity, ego, and obligation. She’s never allowed to forget that it was her fault that her career tanked, yet we see so many admirable qualities in her, too. Watching her realise the podcast can be a good outlet for her, as she generates huge numbers, and that there really is something bigger going on is rewarding. Still, I wish what was going on was as good as the build-up. I don’t want to say too much, but the fun of watching a mystery is seeing all the different pieces come together. However, Monolith is a more personal puzzle, and while I was reasonably satisfied with where the story went, it left too much open for my money. Several strands ceased to matter, and the threat we’re left with was far less complex than what came before. Nonetheless, this is a damn good debut and a brilliant start to the day.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed by Samuel Bodin

This year’s Barbarian. I’d been looking forward to it a lot – having heard great things from across the pond and being a big fan of Anthony Starr (aka Homelander). It’s a dark fairy-tale riff on The Telltale Heart in which a young boy, Peter, is tormented by the tap, tap, tapping from his bedroom wall and a little voice begging him for help. His disciplinarian parents think it’s all his imagination, but his teacher wonders if it’s something they’re doing to him. But the truth seems to be something stranger. The basic idea of a kid not being able to trust their parents is a scary starting point, and Bodin builds from this foundation terrifically. I don’t want to say too much about where it goes – the nature of the threat changes as it goes on, but the plot takes some unexpected turns and weaves together several threads into a wonderful whole. Suffice to say Cobweb is a sad, unnerving piece that combines growing pains, childhood fear, and fucked up family secrets. It also achieves a level of intensity I haven’t seen at the cinema in a while.

Aesthetically, it’s very Halloweeny – a warm autumnal pallet with pumpkin patches and a decrepit gothic house that recalls early Burton. All the time, the piano score goes like a macabre nursery rhyme. It’s not a world we’d recognise as our own – everything is just a bit too unhinged for that – it’s a heightened Roald Dahl reality that it mostly sells. We get our first big scare scene about fifteen minutes in, and from there, Cobweb rarely stops for breath. Lizzy Caplan and Anthony Starr are excellent at playing awful, erratic parents, creating a real sense that things are about to kick off any second. Helplessness is a powerful emotion for horror filmmakers, and Cobweb establishes that through their complete unwillingness to listen or assist. The more conventional threats are also well done, with some brilliantly timed jumps and one of the scariest dream sequences I’ve watched in years. If there’s a key issue, it’s that director Bodin’s focus on pace means that a couple of subplots involving school bullies and his teacher do not get the necessary attention to make them function as more than plot devices. They still receive payoffs and are integral to the last act, but the rapid escalation of their wanting to destroy the house and her needing to help imply a few deleted scenes. The final threat is also a bit too generic, even if I loved a riff on a well-known bedtime classic. Excellent stuff.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Directed by Konstantinos Koutsoliotas

It’s night in an Athenian port. A loan guitar player sits on a balcony, looking out to sea and singing a song of world-changing events to come. It’s an evocative opening that sets the scene for what’s to follow: a melancholic creature feature rich with atmosphere. Yes, this is a surprisingly slow burn, and we’re well into the second half before we see anything. First, Koutsoliotas grounds the film in the lives of his inhabitants – who gather nightly at the local tavern to sing slow existential songs. It’s a sizeable ensemble including a group of musicians, a sailor searching for his father, a waitress, a bodybuilder, their grandmother, and some local criminals. And the relaxed, slice-of-life narrative means each feels fleshed out, along with the wider community. Against this backdrop, we get a series of harbingers: vivid dreams, trances, and mini earthquakes. The bodies show up, their skin removed, and a tentacle creature finally appears. It’s, at times, a challenging film that demands attention from its audience before rewarding them with the premise that’ll have gotten them through the door. Still, for over an hour, I loved visiting places like the dimly lit tavern, listening to the band, and hanging with the locals. Most of whom are friendly people, too, rather than the usual horror ensemble of asshole victims in waiting.

The character-first approach makes the second half, when they come together to fight the monsters, more rewarding. There’s a prophetic, otherworldly quality to much of the presentation and dialogue, immersing viewers in a reality where fantastical things can happen. Still, I think the marriage between the surreal and the silly is inelegantly handled, and towards the end, it goes between the two unconvincingly. I can buy all the Lovecraftian monsters – they’re fine – but not the slapstick antics that make up a fight scene with them. Obvious budgetary problems also limit how much the characters can engage personally with the creatures, and, for the most part, the biggest ones remain in the background until the anticlimactic finale. There are also some attempts at more overt humour, especially towards the end, though most of them didn’t land for me. One character was too broad, and other gags detracted from the tensions the first two acts built up. As the last 30 minutes found new ways to up the ante and deliver a series of kills, I missed my little trip to Greece.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Directed by Michael J Hurst

A high-concept film, if ever there was one: the world’s first-ever channel-skipping horror. Transmission is maybe the sort of thing that’s best watched around 2 am when you’re in that border between being awake and asleep. The movie begins with a person jumping between scary things on different channels that it turns out are all parts of the same spooky story. I don’t want to say any more on the premise except the narrative is a bit more linear than you’d think from the blurb, and the range of channels being hopped makes for a lot of fun. Among other things, we get a cheap space opera about Hell ala Event Horizon, a sleazy, sex comedy, the news, children’s puppets, and a documentary about an occultist film director, Frank Roth, who disappeared while failing to finish his masterpiece. Some of the strands are less engaging than others – and I found some of the actual story beats unsatisfying – mainly those in the found footage style segments. While the ropier content can be justified as a parody, it still means we have to watch a lot of it. Still, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and these different jigsaw pieces eventually come together in a tight, unpredictable finale. Some presentation issues aside, mainly in the news channel that shatters the realism a little, Hurst and Co. are stylistic chameleons able to recreate a range of styles with great attention to detail. Heck, the movie within a movie, Transmission, could be a cult classic from yesteryear – same with the raunchy comedy that’s so cringy and over the top it’s hard not to love it. And while the meta humour is annoyingly smug and full of itself, with multiple characters finding different ways of expressing how genius the film is, this is forgivable for what it pulls off. It’s a bold, experimental collage of influences that mostly hangs together. I was also delighted to see Vernon Wells back on screen – who kills it as Frank. It was an enjoyable end to the night – glad I stayed up to watch it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I also saw…


THE MOORE: An atmospheric, location-driven horror about recovering from loss. A technical achievement with great acting and characters, though it could lose ten minutes from the mid-section.

THE GLENARMA TAPES: A clever character-driven found footage with a good cast and in a brilliant setting. Even if you’re bored of found footage movies that take place in the woods, there’s a lot to admire here.

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About david.s.smith 459 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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