A mysterious fugue enveloped Frightfest last year – it’s like it didn’t really happen. But suddenly here I am again in the Empire Leicester Square, and – after a few ‘missing’ years – Dave is even back, and sitting next to me. It all feels suspiciously ‘normal’. There aren’t even that many masks. Have we gone back in time?
Funny I should say that. In Night Drive A.J. Bowen plays Russell, who picks up pert young Australian Charlotte (Sophie Dalah) as a fare on a ride-share app, only for her to enmesh him in some dodgy activities which ultimately prove to revolve around (SPOILER ALERT) a time machine, which she has happened upon and been using for kicks, having her fun and then ‘rewinding’ to start all over again.
The barbed, flirtatious banter between the two sets up expectations of romance, but in the event her irredeemable sociopathy makes this unthinkable, and things end very differently. Co-directors Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon’s film is well-played, tightly scripted, and as to whether all the time travel stuff adds up or not I wasn’t sure but was inclined to take a leaf out of the pragmatic Charlotte’s book – who cares when you’re having fun? Though for Dave the leap into SF territory was too much.
He was more engaged by Hotel Poseidon, a Belgian film in which a man called Dave (Tom Vermeir) inhabits – and nominally runs – the eponymous hotel, which is, however, closed, and crumbling around him. People – including various exploitative, or overbearingly ‘helpful’, friends and family members – appear, but may well be phantoms haunting Dave’s mind: they certainly tend to the grotesque.
A crisis is precipitated when an actual(?) guest arrives, and causes Dave to realise, rather belatedly, that his Aunt Lucy, who he was supposed to be looking after, has died – the real crisis being that it was only her living presence that (for some reason associated with insurance) guaranteed the hotel’s financial survival. Now he can’t even afford a funeral, though at one point he pathetically suggests to the undertaker that he might just about afford to cremate ‘part of her’.
In the end it is decided that her death should not be made public and her body is disposed of more ‘discreetly’ (e.g., her hand goes in the blender). Meanwhile a re-opening party, including a ‘live autopsy’, is arranged and through it Dave wanders, anguished and passive, rather resembling one of Swedish director Roy Thomas Andersson’s moribund characters.
The whole thing is brilliantly choreographed by director Stef Lernus, and for all of his character’s inertia Vermeir’s central performance draws us into his trauma, creating an involving, if necessarily obscure, evocation of depression that eventually leaves us back where we started, more or less – though so full of questions that an immediate second viewing seems essential, even if it threatens to strand us in the same cycle of despair that has overtaken the hero.
THE PARKER SESSIONS
This is a low budget, black and white offering in which a woman struggling with night terrors (Rachell Sean) visits the latest in a long line of therapists (Danny James), and finally manages to effect an ingenious ‘cure’ by (SPOILER ALERT) blackmailing him into paying a house call and (unwittingly) impersonating the terrifying male presence of her nightmares. In this way she is able to confront her terror, and overcome it – by killing her therapist.
That he has been abusing his patients (which has enabled the blackmail) gives this a sense of justice done, confirmed by the roll call of celebrity abusers such as Jeffrey Epstein and Kevin Spacey that appears on the end credits.
To my mind writer-director Stephen King Simmons tries too hard, continually distracting us with flashbacks, dream sequences, irrelevant funfair scenes and odd stylistic quirks (like blotting out the heroine’s surname, when it is spoken, with a funny noise). It isn’t the usual advice but ‘Tell, don’t show’ comes to mind here – had it made more of the central dialogue between patient and therapist this might have generated more tension.
That said, Dave – who hadn’t been pleased at getting up early for this – loved it.
It was ‘Show, don’t tell’ that came to mind here. Alan Moore has been vocal about the liberties taken with his work by filmmakers, and not without reason, yet this film, directed by close collaborator Mitch Jenkins, makes you wonder if he can have his way too often.
In this extension of /elaboration upon the three short films formerly assembled as Show Pieces (2014) hired killer Tom Burke arrives in Northampton on the trail of one of the characters from the earlier film, only to discover that his quarry is already dead. The London gangster (Christopher Fairbank) who hired him, however, is more interested in the cross that should have been around the man’s neck, but isn’t.
The search for this object has Burke encountering a vampire hospital porter, a gangster voodoo queen and two boy detectives operating out of a shed, one of whom provides his own film noir narration.
There are clearly many stories in this city, and you might be forgiven for thinking they could turn out to be more interesting than Burke’s. Allusions to a video game called Escapism supposedly responsible for a spate of teenage suicides are among the more intriguing distractions sitting in the background, helping to create a world but diverting attention away from the central narrative.
The thing gathers momentum towards the end, wherein the gangster turns up to seize the cross and is trounced by the slingshot-wielding Burke, thereafter to be led into the parallel Northampton of Show Pieces, with its working men’s club of the dead, presided over by Moore himself as one member of an ancient comedy double-act.
Moore’s character seems to be manipulating events, so he has clearly written his tendency to control-freakery into the text. We are all too aware of the text, however, and the fact that it is well-written text doesn’t necessarily help, and possibly makes things worse – a speech comparing the hero to a black hole is very striking, but I found myself admiring the writing rather than connecting it to Burke’s character, who isn’t really interesting enough to warrant it.
Which isn’t to say that this isn’t an inventive and likeable film – it’s just that the script might have been a bit more lived-in, if you know what I mean. Perhaps you can have too much Moore – Dave certainly did.
In this Argentinian film from director Alejandro Cohen Arazi, Maximiliano (Demián Salomón), having survived a childhood in a remote orphanage and escaped to a new life in the city, is drawn back to his old home by the death of the patriarch they all called ‘Dad’.
On arrival he discovers that, rather than burying the deceased, the other orphans have left Dad’s body at the dinner table where he choked to death – this is seemingly one aspect of a ritual in which Maximiliano is expected to take part, just as (so it transpires) he used to back in the day, when Dad introduced his boys to all kinds of Satanic shenanigans, up to and including human sacrifice (of female virgins, unimaginatively enough). Will our hero abandon his city ways and career and revert to type?
Yes, is the short answer, and a short answer might have been more effective. A chess game that becomes overly competitive provides what might be the tensest scene here, but it could have come from a straight drama about toxic masculinity. The ‘horror’ aspects seem either hackneyed or overly obscure, and are never successfully integrated into the whole.
Dave, not in so many words, concurs.
BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION
In director Jacob Gentry’s feature debut (an expansion from his short film) Harry Shum Jnr. plays James, still reeling from the disappearance of his partner and now becoming obsessed with some unexplained and disturbing images interrupting regular TV programming, images which he interprets in a way that will ‘explain’ his partner’s fate.
The viewer, wishing for a plot, is naturally inclined to go along with him – at the same time we have to recognise that he may well be deluded, and therein lies the tension, which is skillfully manipulated in a film that has some of the chilly allure of Videodrome. For some reason I can’t think of much to say about this, but I seem to remember liking it; and it’s not just me, Dave did too. So there.
DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES
This is a German film set in an old castle that starts off like a pastiche of 60’s/70’s Gothic horror films – a warring couple visiting the place succumb to the ghostly influence of their surroundings as they play increasingly lurid power games with each other, culminating in a scene where she rips off his penis.
This, however, is the point where it is revealed that we are on the set of a film, and notionally in the 60’s, or 70’s. Although even then it isn’t that simple, as the cast and crew are also ghosts haunting the castle, having previously perished in a fire while filming there (an old newspaper clipping alluding to this incident turns up in the ‘film within the film’).
Director Kevin Kopacka handles the Gothic goings-on in the first section wonderfully well, but once the ‘reveal’ is made it all falls a tiny bit flat. We are left with a relatively banal account of interactions between the cast and crew, notably the director’s love affair with the lead actress and his girlfriend’s dismay at this betrayal.
At the same time, we should remember that everyone here is dead, so there isn’t a straightforward opposition between film and ‘reality’, even if that’s how it feels sometimes. If the Gothic excesses of the first part had been allowed to bleed in to the story of the actors and crew a little more this might have kept things more interesting.
Or perhaps if the drama had simply had more spark and style. Kopacka claims Fassbinder as an influence and the director here, with his socialist ideals and love of power games, could be a rather crude version of RWF – although I doubt if he would ever have made a film that ended with a prosthetic penis being ripped off.
If you evoke Fassbinder, as with any demon, you need to come to some sort of accommodation with him, and this doesn’t, quite. Nevertheless it packs a lot into its 72 minutes and its ambition is admirable. In spite of my reservations I rather liked it, though not so much as:
THE LAST THING MARY SAW
The director, Eduardo Vitaletti, introduced this (onscreen) as being about the difficulties of expressing a non-standard sexuality in a stifling atmosphere of religious repression, which made it sound a bit more routine than it is.
In fact, it’s a very textured and convincing evocation of the past, in this case 1843, where a family in Southold, New York are dealing with the ‘unnatural’ attraction between their daughter Mary (Stefanie Scott) and a servant girl Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman) in the only way they know how – by making the lovers pray while kneeling on (uncooked) rice, a new one on me but apparently very painful (you see what I mean by ‘textured’).
The lovers fight back with poison, with the monstrously strict grandmother (Judith Roberts) expiring first, followed eventually by the rest of the family, though the appearance of a mysterious stranger (Rory Culkin) complicates everything; and Granny, aside from being a devout Christian, is also a witch, and not prepared to take her murder lying down.
It’s unusual to see strict Christianity and witchcraft presented as anything other than complete opposites, but the film is intricately-constructed and atmospheric enough to convince us that this is a simplistic view of things: the ‘real’ past, were we able to access it, would not conform to our tidy expectations.
Perhaps the dinner table poisoning is overly lingered-upon: mostly, however, this is subtle and sly and deserves much of the praise that is showered upon Robert Eggers’ (disappointing) historical horrors.
Dave was confused and impressed, in roughly equal measure, by both these films, and wholeheartedly dismissive of:
SWEETIE, YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT
Although Yernar Nurgaliev’s film is technically well assembled and reasonably likeable, I tend to concur. I suppose Kazakhstan is entitled to its own Tarantino (or Guy Ritchie) but this story of three beta males falling foul of gangsters and a disfigured psychopath while on a fishing trip is mildly amusing at best, although there is surely a market for its old-school misogyny, something which I imagine (no doubt incorrectly) has been edited out of most Western cinema by now.
In fairness this does sort of get around the ‘issue’ by making it all about the hero’s fear of domesticity and, specifically, becoming a father. Thus he escapes his nagging heavily-pregnant wife to go off on a laddish lark, but soon finds that things could be a lot worse when he is forced at knifepoint into another marriage, this time to the grotesque daughter of a store owner, though he escapes any long term responsibilities when she is unceremoniously blasted away with a shotgun.
This and his other violent and farcical adventures are enough to make him appreciate the comforts of home and hearth, so all’s well that ends well I suppose.
Much better is Mickey Keating’s latest offering (he has made other films but I am willing to accept Alan Jones’ introductory comments to the effect that, unlike this one, they aren’t worth seeing: it saves time).
This is the visually striking and eerie story of Marie (Jocelin Donahue) visiting an island off the coast of Florida to investigate the vandalism of her mother’s grave and finding herself cut off from the mainland in a misty timeless realm presided over by a mysterious demonic creature who feeds off the population yet (mostly) keeps them at least half-alive.
Like Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes, though more linear, this seems intriguingly adrift in time, echoing Carnival of Souls plus various 70’s horrors, and also – since Marie’s mother was a Hollywood actress – reaching back to the 1940’s. It even gets away with that old chestnut, the scene where the protagonists walk into a bar which suddenly goes quiet as everyone turns to stare at them.
Dave is also pleased, less so with the irritating people next to him, who keep talking.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND
Offseason would have made for a satisfying end to our experience of Frightfest 2021, except we couldn’t ignore this – the unexpected collision of two careers, those of cult Japanese auteur Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage. Apparently Cage is a fan.
In practice, unfortunately, the collaboration tends to dissipate the energies of both parties (or so I assume, not having seen anything by Sono before).
It does, however, shift us into the future, after numerous films in which characters seemed unable to escape the past; not a rosy future though, and even here the inhabitants of the titular Ghostland are trying to resist the march of time (in case you didn’t get the point, some are actively trying to restrain the hands of a big clock.)
It’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which bank robber Cage is zipped into a leather suit rigged up with explosives (including a couple placed over each testicle) and sent to the Ghostland to rescue the adopted daughter (Sofia Boutella) of ‘The Governor’ (Bill Moseley), a Colonel Sanders-ish manifestation of American imperialism.
On arrival Cage turns out, not too surprisingly, to be the hero they were all waiting for and leads them in a revolt against the Governor – and time starts up again.
In the end, this comes across more like a misfiring attempt at a mainstream offering with a few eccentric details rather than anything truly unhinged, and it sadly does not bear out Cage’s quote on the poster (‘The wildest movie I’ve ever made.’)
I lingered for a long Zoom Q&A between Alan Jones and Sono which was made even more painfully drawn-out by the fact that everything had to be translated by a third party (Dave left in disgust). Not much was gleaned but at least I was not left wanting more, as this was the end of Frightfest for us this year, though it went on for another two days. But you have to stop somewhere.