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‘Keep On Rollin’, says a T-shirt on a little girl outside the Prince Charles Cinema, which I at first imagined was a reference to Jean Rollin, French director of sex vampire films and subject of the documentary Orchestrator of Storms, showing at Frightfest.

The image of a surfer riding the waves underneath it suggested otherwise, however – that this was an exhortation not to give up surfing, or something even more generic about just not giving up.

But perhaps it has had an effect on me since I have managed not to give up on posting my review of August’s Frightfest, even though it’s nearly Christmas. Of course, it isn’t like anyone was anxiously awaiting this. Nevertheless.

DAUGHTER

Director Corey Deshon introduced his film by apologising for the pandemic, which – he suggested – it may have anticipated, or caused.

Not that the pandemic is a particular focus of Daughter, and might almost exist only in the mind of its villain, if we can use such a crude term. I think I last saw Caspar Van Dien as a fresh-faced recruit in Starship Troopers, so it’s a bit of a surprise to find him playing (very convincingly) a grizzled religious patriarch, desperate to protect his ‘family’ from the ‘diseased’ world outside their remote home.

So enthusiastic is he about the family unit that it almost doesn’t matter who plays the individual members – the female ones anyway – as long as they observe the proprieties.

So while father and son (Ian Alexander) are permanent fixtures, the role of daughter seems to have a particularly high turnover, the latest candidate being Vivien Ngô, who finds herself chained up and forced to read the Bible until she acquires the right attitude, or just loses the will to resist.

Having got to the point of at least showing willing, she is permitted to bond with her highly-strung new ‘brother’, and is soon plotting with him to create a ‘play’ which, we can’t help feeling, may offend Father’s sensibilities. Meanwhile, Mother (Elise Dinh) shows signs of being a potential ally, though it’s hard to tell under Father’s oppressive regime, which allows few opportunities for chat, idle or otherwise.

The film, atmospherically photographed by Hana Kitasei in long takes, becomes a slow, claustrophobic build-up to the performance of the explosive ‘play’, at which point there is a tonal swerve into something like camp – subsequently the film unravels rather too quickly, seemingly because they ran out of time.

In spite of which this is an involvingly sinister offering that captivates the audience as effectively as Van Dien’s character captures new family members – that is, not perfectly, but well enough to make a distinct impression.

A WOUNDED FAWN

Travis Stevens’ follow-up to Girl On The Third Floor pushes that film’s interest in ‘toxic masculinity’ a good deal further. It’s the story of Meredith (Sarah Lind) who is taking a punt on a new man – Bruce (Josh Ruben) – after some discouraging dating experiences.

However, as we know from the opening scenes, Bruce (not his real name) is a crazed killer in thrall to an imaginary (?) big red owl, and so unlikely to prove a ‘keeper’. Except in the sense that, in one form or another, he might keep her.

When Meredith makes the cardinal error of accepting Bruce’s invitation to stay at his isolated cabin in the woods, it doesn’t take long for his psychotic tendencies to make themselves felt, and the stage would seem to be set for a scenario in which Meredith is fated to spend the rest of the film evading her would-be killer.

Except no – Meredith appears to succumb to Bruce’s favourite killing device (a glove with claws) early on.

However, there have been intimations of a different kind of menace – a snake thrown at the window, a naked woman appearing outside – threats which haven’t been generated by Bruce and which have made us question his dominance of the situation; this trend is confirmed when Meredith revives for long enough to hit Bruce on the head with a very expensive statue of the Furies (or Erinyes, as they are called here).

This kicks off a phantasmagoria which may be taking place entirely in the (damaged) brain of our anti-hero, but which definitely features the Furies, their parts taken by three of his victims, including Meredith herself.

It is Bruce who becomes the victim then, in a cat-and-mouse game which keeps coming up with novel ways to torment its protagonist until the film ends with him writhing in torment, repeatedly stabbing himself in the neck while Meredith-as-Fury looks coldly on, and the credits roll.

The scene goes on and on, pushing against the boundaries of audience expectations – quite a few audience members walk out, as if in disgust, but then some people are conditioned to walk out at the first sign of a closing credit; and most likely they are simply ducking the Q&A.

Interesting to think that this is pretty much how Romola Garai wanted to end Amulet, before deciding against it – Stevens’ protagonist is more obviously culpable than Garai’s but the unblinking fixity of the camera’s gaze here is less cathartic than discomfiting: we can’t quite empathize but we can’t exactly rejoice either.

Perhaps we are being asked a question: men may be ‘toxic’ but what, given that, is to be done with them? Bruce, hounded by the Furies, tries to excuse his behaviour as something that is in him but not of him but everything we have seen previously suggests that it is central to his identity.

Well, we don’t go to horror films looking for answers. The problem with the film is that once we are inside Bruce’s nightmare it loses the tension that the more boringly generic film we were expecting might actually have delivered.

Allusions to classical drama don’t help to establish any kind of alternative structure and so we float aimlessly from one grotesquerie to another. Which is not without its interest, but I did wonder if Stevens might profitably have spent more time studying the classics – it’s slightly worrying that in the Q&A he couldn’t remember where he got the title of his film from.

Not that I know anything about Euripedes, so it’s just as well I didn’t have to anwer any questions myself.

TINY CINEMA

This anthology film comes ‘from the creators of Butt Boy‘, which to my shame I have not seen, though it topped John Waters’ top ten in 2020. Not that the ‘Pope of Trash’ is infallible, but he comes close.

Not sure if this is precisely a ‘follow-up’ from director (writer, actor etc.) Tyler Cornack so much as an interim project – there has already been a web series with the same name, so this is an elaboration on that I suppose, six stories that operate on the border between the comedic and the disturbing, like an American take on Chris Morris’ Blue Jam maybe, but not so woozy, more upfront – more American.

In the first Austin Lewis plays a man whose failure to comprehend a simple joke sends him spiralling into psychosis. The joke is the phrase: ‘That’s what she said’. ‘Who’s she?’ he asks himself, and soon enough he’s a paranoid maniac. Unfamiliar with the phrase myself – not having seen the US version of The Office – I could sympathize. Though sympathy was not really required – this isn’t a case history.

The English equivalent of the phrase is: ‘As the bishop said to the actress’, and, amusing as this episode is, it would have been interesting to see what the creators of Butt Boy would have made of that.

In the second story, Edna (Olivia Herman) falls in love with a dead man. Her friends are less than supportive of her life choice and not thrilled at sharing a restaurant table with a corpse.

Bringing her beau back to life (never mind how) doesn’t help matters either, since he proves to be insufferably pretentious and Edna soon dumps him – literally. The John Collier short story Sleeping Beauty (filmed in 1973 as Some Call It Loving) provided a more elegant, if no doubt misogynistic, take on similar material, but this will do for our enlightened-yet-debased age.

In the third story a group of men stage armed robberies, not to get money but to create an ambience that is conducive to their friend, who has complicated arousal issues, getting a hard-on – and more. Oddly life-affirming.

Then we have the director turning up as a delivery driver encountering an old scientist (Kevin Michael Moran) claiming to be his future self and that in order to avert a world-threatening catastrophe they need to ‘share DNA’.

This will not, it transpires, be under laboratory conditions with the proper equipment but will more closely resemble anal sex – will, in fact, be pretty much indistinguishable from that. Let the world perish or fuck your future self up the arse? It’s a moral dilemma that might have given William Shatner’s Captain Kirk pause, back in the day.

Motherfucker is slighter, a brief vignette about gangsters whose title nearly says it all. And the final segment (Daddy’s Home) continues the parental theme, featuring a woman whose daddy issues are so extreme that the men she dates literally turn into a version of her father, after she gets them to snort his ashes.

Paul Ford, addressing the camera, makes for a genial host and the stories are entertaining without being wholly satisfying – it’s a series of sketches really, so no surprise if it’s a little, well, sketchy. You are left wanting more, even after it ends, which is probably a good thing. And this is Frightfest, so there is more.

THE ONES YOU DIDN’T BURN

Brother and sister Nathan (Nathan Wallace) and Mirra (Jenna Sanders) return to their father’s farm after his death. He is a recovering addict and she is the responsible but uptight one, at least until she falls under the spell of sisters Alice (writer/director Elise Finnerty) and Scarlett (Estelle Girard Parks),who have been helping their father run the farm, and starts loosening up.

Meanwhile Nathan, suspicious of the women and increasingly concerned by the possibility that his sister might not agree to sell the place as planned – and thus deny him his inheritance – begins to fall back into bad habits after encountering an old friend, Greg (Samuel Dunning) who has remained an unreconstructed party animal.

Nightmares about a woman emerging from the sea fuel Nathan’s paranoia about the farm workers, who appear to be descended from the land’s original owners, dispossessed of their property after being accused of witchcraft by Nathan and Mirra’s ancestors. Soon he’s beginning to wonder about the part they might have played in his father’s death.

More reliant on atmosphere and good performances than overt horrors, the film is less than explicit about its supernatural elements, but the nicely-shot (by Brett Phillips) landscape evokes an atmosphere of mystery even in full sunlight, suggesting a literal reading of the supernatural as an intensification of the natural, as embodied in the female characters.

In that sense it’s fashionably feminist, but also grounded and absorbing, even it it simmers rather than burns.

HYPOCHONDRIAC

Although I always expect young directors to cite something old and obscure as an inspiration, the film that keeps being mentioned at Frightfest – Elise Finnerty alludes to it – is Donnie Darko. One look at the wolfish creature who haunts the protagonist in this Addison Heiman’s debut, and you know that it has exerted its influence here too: the creature is the spitting image of DD’s rabbit companion.

There are no other obvious similarities – this film is an adaptation of its director’s own nervous breakdown, which makes it sound less fun than it is. Heimann’s stand-in for himself is Will (Zach Villa) a San Franciscan potter at the start of what he hopes will be a long-term relationship with boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye). He seems supremely self-assured until his bipolar mother, who he has been passing off as deceased, starts sending him packages and messages, bringing back memories of his traumatic childhood wherein, at one point, she tried to strangle him.

This plunges him into a nightmare of odd physical symptoms (arm paralysis), strange behaviour and sometimes gory hallucinations involving the aforementioned creature.

That this ‘passes’ as a horror film rather than a case history is largely down to this ‘monster’, echoing both the werewolf myth and the notion of a Bad Self – home video shown early on of the young Will in a wolf costume suggests that this is a (violent? angry?) part of himself that he has lost contact with – a part which, so a scene at the end suggests, he is slowly becoming reconciled to.

Mostly it works, thanks to a great central performance and a certain exuberance in the telling – indistinguishable (as is to be expected) from that displayed by the director himself in his charismatic appearances before and after this showing.

CANDY LAND

John Swab’s film, set in 1996, threatens to evokes a world of sleaze but proves to be more ‘nuanced’ – its truck stop sex workers are an amiable bunch (too amiable to be true? Well how would I know?). They make up a community, and even the local sherrif (William Baldwin), who is somewhat obsessed with Levi (Owen Campbell), the only male sex worker here, is happy to cover up the latter’s killing of a violent trick.

The group are happy to take in Remy (Olivia Luccardi), thrown out of the religious cult that has been unsuccessfully trying to convert these sinners, but, although welcomed into the fold, she still has to pay her way.

They make it easier on her by ensuring that her first trick is an elderly priest (Mark Wand, channelling John Waters) who, in the film’s high point, slips out his false teeth to pleasure her under the bedcovers, only to be rewarded by having his neck broken between her legs and his body shoved under the bed.

The film never quite recovers the same level of perversity, and later becomes rather mechanical as Remy’s murder spree expands to take in most of the cast, who she stabs for what she feels are sound scriptural reasons. Although creating these mostly likeable characters and then dispensing with them might qualify as the biggest perversity of all, and in that respect admirable.

And the film still has one surprise up its sleeve as the end credits roll: I certainly hadn’t expected at this point to hear Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. I’ll take this as a wry comment on Remy’s belief in the afterlife, rather than an indication that there’s going to be a sequel.