FrightFest has a new sponsor and is now the Pigeon Shrine FrightFest.
It has to be said that Pigeon Shrine isn’t the most inspiring name – ‘the Pigeon Shrine FrightFest’ sounded suspiciously like a bargain basement version of the original, and my fears seemed to be confirmed by an announcement on the website suggesting that the festival was ‘going to be a little different from previous years’.
The main difference, it turned out, was that all the festival passes sold out on the first day – not so much a symptom of increased popularity as of decreased space: the decision to confine the festival to the Cineworld Leicester Square, instead of using the nearby Prince Charles Cinema, meant that the main films were only being shown in one screen as opposed to the usual two.
I was also struck by the programme’s opening words about FrightFest being ‘a powerful tool of democracy, activism, diversity, inclusivity and social awareness’. Which may seem a little high-minded for a festival that features, as punters are elsewhere advised, ‘gore, blood, suicide’, ‘psychological intimidation’, ‘child endangerment’, ‘maiming’ and ‘racial stereotyping’ (to name just a few). But then horror has always thrived on contradiction.
It may well be the most inclusive genre of all, in fact, since it likes to include all the things everybody else wants to leave out (see above). What is included may not be pretty, but in horror even demonisation counts as inclusion.
Although inclusivity does seem a perverse thing to offer when you have less space.
Trim Season is the first film I’ve seen that features a (non-binary transgender) character (Dusty, played by Bex Taylor-Klaus) who is routinely referred to as ‘they’, Which created a certain amount of confusion (in me, at any rate) when this character disappeared. ‘They’ve gone!’, someone shouted. Wait, how many people have gone?
None of the other characters betray a similar confusion – well, they live in California, so no doubt it is all second nature to them.
Dusty is one of a group of people (all the others young women) hoping to make a quick buck trimming buds on a marijuana farm on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, under the watchful eye of proprietor Mona (Jane Badler), whose first appearance on the stairs of her mansion brings to mind Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Dracula.
As does Badler’s strikingly mannered performance and her provision of red wine to her guests – Mona, unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, does drink it, however; what she doesn’t do is smoke any kind of weed other than a blend especially tailored for her.
Indeed, so exclusive is it to her that when the group’s most enthusiastic stoner (Ally Ionnides) helps herself to some later, she dies with blood and smoke pouring out of her mouth and eyes, which is the first concrete indication that something is very wrong here.
It seems that Mona has a mystical connection with her crop that gives her power over everyone in the vicinity – an allusion to her Carpathian heritage brings Dracula to mind again, though here we have butterflies instead of bats and the music of ‘the children of the night’ comes from mountain lions rather than wolves.
The trimmers are stuck – no phone signal of course, and guards patrol the woods. Dusty’s attempt to flee is soon foiled and they are ‘walked back’ to Mona by Mona herself, who uses her powers to infiltrate Dusty’s body.
I tend to find films where characters are psychically compelled to act against their own best interests (stab themselves, hit themselves on the head, and so on) a bit ridiculous, and that is sometimes the case here, although in Dusty’s case there’s a particularly cruel turn of the screw involved in having their body (which they were already at odds with) turned against them.
Note: being ‘included’ in horror doesn’t necessarily mean you’re spared.
Similarly, Emma (Bethlehem Million) has a tendency to let herself, through inaction, take the blame for other people’s wrongdoings, which lends an additional emotional resonance to Mona’s appropriation of her body. Perhaps it is a reaction against this that seems to allow her, at the end, to inherit Mona’s powers when Mona is finally overcome – not entirely a happy ending since by this stage most of the other characters, including Emma’s close friend Julia (Alex Essoe), are dead.
Ariel Vida’s film is a little messy, but it’s well-acted and unusual and Vida’s background in production design ensures that its setting is atmospherically evoked.
WHAT YOU WISH FOR
What You Wish For isn’t messy at all, except in the sense of what it depicts. But that mess is quickly cleaned up, by professionals.
Chef Ryan (Nick Stahl), trying to escape some unpleasant people he owes money to, travels to Colombia, where he visits his old friend Jack. Also a chef, he has what seems to be a cushy job, where he is sent by an agency to various exotic locations to help give super-rich diners ‘extraordinary experiences’.
That this isn’t all it is cracked up to be is definitively impressed upon Ryan (and us) when the latter wakes up one morning to find that his friend has hanged himself.
The desperate Ryan then resolves to adopt Jack’s identity, hoping that the agency won’t realise, and when its representatives – icy hostess Imogene (Tamsin Topolski), and her more clubbable colleague Maurice (Juan Carlos Messier) – arrive, they seem to be fooled.
However, as it becomes clear just what is involved in the extraordinary culinary experiences ‘Jack’ will be offering and the nature of the ‘local produce’ he will have to prepare, our hero realises that he has leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Most horror afficionados will have recognised the situation by now as a variation on the Stanley Ellin short story The Speciality Of The House (which became a memorable Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode with Robert Morley).
When the police get involved, another AHP-adapted story – Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter – comes to mind, but in spite of such precedents director Nicolas Tomnay serves this up fresh.
WYWF is rivetingly tense, well-constructed, and not without the frisson of black humour often found in this subgenre – as in Imogene’s defence of the agency, which reinvests in the communities it preys on, and only kills 75 people a year; which compares well with other organisations, we are told.
We might wonder why super-efficient Imogene doesn’t realise her chef is an impostor but I think the implication is that she already knows and is trusting (rightly, as far as we can tell) that he will become a model employee in the end. Nothing, it is strongly suggested, escapes the agency.
Imogene doesn’t make any claims for the agency’s record on ‘inclusivity’, but she might have done – isn’t cannibalism (especially in the context of global capitalism) an ultimate form of inclusivity?
Certainly, a happy retirement seems an unlikely prospect for ‘Jack’, as the last chef to try and leave the agency ended up as an ‘ingredient’.
The final film in my Frightfest experience (somewhat truncated, partly due to the aforementioned space issues) was this curiosity from writer-director Onur Tukel, who, playing a character called Ronnie, stresses at one point the positive value of ‘oversharing’.
As a director, he seems to have taken his own advice, as we end by seeing quite a lot of him in a late scene where Ronnie tries to get his old college friend (with whom he once had a sexual experience) to have anal sex with him in front of his wife, just to prove that he is one straight white man who is still open to new experiences.
It might be that this essentially comedic scene works as a necessary counterweight to the film’s central conceit: the titular character is a hulking, gimp-masked serial killer (James ‘Bull’ Smith) who anally rapes straight white men to death. If you’re a straight white man, watch your back, is the cheeky tagline on the poster.
It’s less a horror film than an essentially good-natured provocation. Though the horror is played straight, and is reasonably graphic, the film doesn’t seem entirely engaged with it, and the killer is more of a concept than a character: his outrages are there to stir up a frenzy of often amusing speculation among the cast’s assemblage of podcasters, office workers and stand-up comedians.
One podcaster declares that the victims are only getting their just desserts for years of oppressing black people, then later pronounces with just as much conviction that the killings were fabricated in order to generate sympathy for straight white men.
The film aims to tease a liberal culture that has become po-faced and didactic and its greatest strength is perhaps that you never know how seriously to take it.
While a subplot about a black father’s difficulty in accepting his son’s boyfriend is played sympathetically, elsewhere the tone is more clearly satirical – one of Poundcake’s victims-to-be, after enduring obnoxious comments from his (black) cab driver, discovers that the cab firm’s ratings app won’t let him give the man less than five stars, because anything else would be racist.
It’s a good joke that might almost have come from the (alt) right, but Turkel doesn’t seem to be nursing a secret agenda – he’s primarily a mischief-maker. If he doesn’t include any right-wing commentators in his satire that’s because it would have been ‘too obvious’.
Though you could fault him for lack of inclusivity there; neither is Turkel fully committed to including even his own villain, who (rather than being unmasked, or given a back story, or even a spectacular death scene) is finally just reduced to non-existence by a communal expression of goodwill and a soppy song, in an ending that is both sarcastic and at the same time goofily optimistic. Though even then, a woman (Eva Dorrepal) who felt that the killer had the right idea continues to rant against male oppression.
Well, there’s no pleasing everyone, though it might just be possible to offend everyone. Poundcake isn’t trying to do that, and its undoubted charm probably means that it will avoid being ‘cancelled’. At the same time it’s all too frivolous to be a ‘real’ horror film, but who needs a real horror film as long as we’re having fun?