Frightfest 2019 Part One – Home Discomforts

Set in my ways as I am I prefer to buy my Frightfest tickets in person, at whatever passes for a ‘box office’ nowadays. Over the years this has become more and more difficult and now entails leaving it to the very last moment.

This time around I thought my resistance to the 21st century would prove my undoing, having been assured by a young woman standing in the foyer of the Cineworld Leicester Square that my seemingly simple wish to buy tickets, with cash, for films showing (some of them) in that very cinema could not be accommodated. Everything was practically sold out anyway… the festival was so much bigger this year… you needed a pass…

I was not convinced, but it was very busy and it seemed simpler to walk off and stomp around London in a sulk as I came to terms with the idea that I wouldn’t be going to Frightfest after all, not unless I suddenly became a lot less bloody-minded about the internet anyway. But gradually I found myself, almost without willing it, heading back to the Cineworld where, so I imagined, I might buttonhole (Frightfest founder) Alan Jones and claim that I am the writer of a long-running blog which reviews Frightfest every year (‘My readers will be very disappointed!’)

(I was vaguely startled to realise as I considered this prospect that it is in fact true – apart from the bit about ‘readers’ anyway).

In the end it wasn’t necessary to create a scene. With films now underway, the place had cleared out, making it quite apparent that there was a ‘box office’ after all– or at least a table with a guy sitting at a laptop next to a printer which slowly, one by one, ground out A4 sheets of paper confirming one’s purchases. The woman who had denied any knowledge of such an antiquated operation was all but leaning against this table. But, as Leslie Halliwell used to say, oh well.

ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS

In this Argentinian three-hander, based on a play by co-director Macarena Garcia Lenzi, a woman, Magdalena (Agustina Cerviño), goes to visit her half-brother Jesus and half-sister Maria José after the death of their father but finds leaving – after a ‘fall’ downstairs leaves her confined to her father’s deathbed – tricky.

Maria José (Valeria Giorcelli) and Jesus (Pablo Sigal) have been together for a long time, you see – forever, in fact – and don’t like to have their routine disrupted, which Magdelana’s insistence that they sell the house will certainly do. Thus Magdalena, normally a dancer living in Spain, is stuck, not only physically, due to her injuries, but within a family dynamic she thought she had escaped long ago – Cerviño ably conveys her struggle to resist sinking back into the dismal swamp of the past, a past well evoked by the grisly décor.

Initially it seems that Jesus is in thrall to his mentally-unstable sister – and her Wizard Of Oz fixation – but later it comes to seem that Jesus is pulling the strings, allowing Magdalena to try to turn her against him – but Maria José’s childlike unpredictability makes this no easy task.

Though we never leave the house the directors (Martin Blousson – present – being the other one) keep this visually interesting – it helps that Jesus is making films of his own, featuring his sister and her hamster, films which might just qualify as outsider art and which certainly add some colour and amusement. We aren’t quite in the territory of camp with this film – in spite of the Wizard of Oz references, and the resemblance to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? – but there is certainly fun to be had.

Perhaps the grotesquerie is a little overdone towards the end, when a fourth sibling – a dead baby in a jar – is introduced but overall this is an effective demonstration of the fact that, for creeping dread and general unpleasantness, there’s no place like home.

THE WIND

As well as being a prison sealing you in with the nightmare, home in horror may also be the opposite – too flimsy to keep it out. This is the case in The Wind, which begins with two cowboys loitering outside a log cabin until a woman emerges to hand a small bloody bundle wrapped in cloth to one of them, eliciting an offscreen cry of anguish.

Anguish is the keynote here – the woman, Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard) has cut the dead baby out of her neighbour’s corpse after she (apparently) shot herself, but has also lost a baby herself and, though outwardly ‘strong’ – as she needs to be to withstand an isolated existence (with her husband) on the prairie – is beginning to succumb to the neighbour’s belief in a mysterious ‘thing’ haunting the landscape.

Teresa Sutherland’s script deftly sketches in the underlying tensions between the four main characters, while juggling reasonably well with three timelines, and Emma Tammi’s direction and Gerard’s performance keep this slowly-building film rooted in Lizzy’s trauma. If there’s any disappointment it lies in the fact that – as in The Babadook – the supernatural (non-)presence is too sketchily drawn to generate much ambiguity around whether it exists outside of Lizzy’s mind. There’s an effective scene where ‘it’ appears to possess or imitate a priest, but on the whole we aren’t surprised to discover that Lizzy is a lot more unstable than she initially seemed.

Then again, the last shot of Lizzy utterly alone on the prairie eloquently suggests that there might be something far worse than a ‘thing’ – and that’s nothing.

GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR

In the third aspect of the home in horror, the home – instead of (only) a prison or an inadequate shelter – is itself the horror: is riddled with evil as with woodworm. In this case ‘home-making’ presents a particular challenge, one perhaps best taken up by an ex-WWE wrestler – or then again perhaps not.

Showing, like The Wind, in the downstairs screen of the Prince Charles, Girl On The Third Floor is the directorial debut of Travis Stevens, or Travis Perkins as I keep wanting to call him, such is the emphasis on DIY here.

In what comes over as a slightly more comic book version of last year’s The Witch In The Window, Don (aforementioned wrestler Phil Brooks, aka C M Punk), married with a child on the way, starts doing up what is to become his family’s new home, a former brothel where bodily fluids ooze from the plug sockets and from which neither the staff nor the clientele, though dead, have quite departed.

After he proves unable to resist the charms of a young girl (Sarah Brooks) loitering in his garden strange things – usually prefigured by an eerie marble rolling across the wooden floors – start to happen, resulting in Don’s pet dog bumping about in the tumble-dryer and his friend and workmate Travis (Milo Stone) incorporated into one of the walls. It’s messy, which is as it should be I suppose, and Brooks is engaging.

There is a sort of ‘message’ about ‘toxic masculinity’ (Don is warned at by a local at the start that the house is ‘bad news for straight men’) though the half-jokey ending – a less benign version of TWITW‘s – in which Don returns from the grave to watch over his family from within the house’s walls, leaves us thinking (as Big Black’s Bad Penny plays over the end credits) that this ‘issue’ isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Indeed, how can men change? We get a glimpse of how very difficult this might be in the scene where Don, promising his wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) exactly that, proves his willingness to do so by ripping his own skin off – to reveal the girl he slept with inside him, laughing. This does not seem to be particularly helpful. Even the nearest thing the film has to a ‘moral authority’, a female pastor from a neighbouring church (Karen Woditsch), is a bit creepy.

It may be her advice that persuades Liz to move into the haunted ex-brothel in which her husband died, an improbable move it has to be said. The pastor maintains that a really good person should be immune to its influence – though it is notable that she never crosses the threshold herself.

One can hope (and even pray) for the best, but with Don and God knows what else still lurking around, there doesn’t seem much chance of a positive outcome – though maybe some scope for a sequel, a sequel which, should it ever materialise, I might even consider watching.

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