London Goring: Frightfest 2023
By David and Tara Court
The August Bank Holiday can only mean one thing: hordes of ravenous horror fans descending on Leicester Square for the horror movie festival Frightfest, now in its 24th year. An eclectic mix of local and international films all fitting broadly under the heading of ‘horror’, it’s five days of full-length and short movies, many of them choosing to host their international or worldwide premiere at this prestigious event – and who can blame any filmmakers for wanting their film shown in the best possible way on the huge IMAX screen at the Leicester Square Cineworld? Frightfest has been voted one of the 25coolest film festivals in the world by Moviemaker.com, and who am I to disagree?
It’s the third year in a row for Tara Court and myself, and the third such write-up for the equally prestigious horror website Ginger Nuts of Horror (with links here for 2021 and 2022). It’s a great showcase for the horror you’ll be seeing over the next year or so, so allow us to take the plunge (and often, the fall) in separating the wheat from the chaff. Like last year, we were holed up in the nearby Zedwell hotel – effectively an expensive windowless pod, but very convenient to just fall out of your room into Leicester Square.
There have been several changes this year: Genre legends Arrow Video are no longer the primary sponsor, with that role now going to tech and entertainment company Pigeon Shrine. Secondly, the venue used to share screening duties with the lovely Prince Charles cinema round the corner, but now everything was confined to just the single venue, with the other screens of Cineworld labelled as Discovery Screens 1, 2, and 3 for the showing of smaller movies.
As per usual, my wife Tara and I weren’t always together but often separated to watch different films across all of the screens. I’ll do the bulk of the reviews, but let Tara loose in reviewing the films that only she saw.
This year’s festivities kicked off with “Suitable Flesh” on a muggy Thursday of the 24th of August, introduced by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson.
(Photo: Heather Graham as Dr. Derby and Barbara Crampton as Dr. Upton, “Suitable Flesh”)
I’ll be honest and say that after the two previous years, my expectations for the opening film are rock bottom. Our first Frightfest in 2021 was opened by the execrable “Demonic” by the usually reliable Neil Blomkamp and last year’s was the forgettable “Lair” by Neil Marshall. “Suitable Flesh” differed in that it wasn’t made by a Neil – instead, it was by Joe Lynch of “Wrong Turn” fame – but it was only slightly better than those two risible efforts.
Best described as Lovecraft meets “Freaky Friday,” “Suitable Flesh” stars Heather Graham and genre stalwart and supreme scream queen Barbara Crampton. Based on a HP Lovecraft tale, it’s a saga of psychologists getting way too involved with their patients, eldritch rituals, and body swapping. Despite the extremely strong cast with two excellent leads, it comes across more as schlocky Joe Eszterhas soft porn than horror, featuring more grinding and slow-humping than you can shake a hat at – and proving that even Heather Graham faking an orgasm can grow dull.
It livens up in the closing act, featuring some convincing gore – and a death involving a car reversing camera that deserves a place in horror annals – but it’s not enough to save this film from mundanity. A final twist acts as anything but, the previous scene making it pretty clear this was how the film was going to end. A special mention must go to the soundtrack, which gives the whole movie an air of made-for-television and cheap American soap opera – think “Days of Our Lives” with added Cthulhu.
The cast are giving their all, but it all just feels little underbaked. It’s marketed as a tribute to Stuart Gordon (“Re-Animator,” “From Beyond”), but doesn’t hold an eldritch carving marked candle to his Lovecraftian-inspired works. The genre switch from the source material of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” is inspired, but not quite enough to elevate this to anything above average.
Crampton is the best thing in this movie, giving the mediocrity at least a sense of gravitas. She couldn’t attend the opening due to the actors’ strike, and it was probably for the best; saved her a wasted journey.
Last year’s festival ended with “Fall,” not a biopic of Mancunian legend Mark E. Smith (and there’ll be more about Mancunian legends later), but a rollercoaster of a movie involving two friends and their ill-advised climbing escapades. Not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but a fun way to spend an hour and a half and a legitimate excuse to watch something on the mighty IMAX screens.
Following two estranged sisters both recovering from a family trauma that’s never fully explained, this feel does for deep sea diving what “Fall” did for vertiginousness. Tara can’t do underwater films; “The Little Mermaid” is about all she can stomach – so chickened out of this one. I nearly did the same – as a claustrophobe, I winced when it looked like this film would be about cave diving – but thankfully, it was not to be.
It’s a remake of the 2020 Norwegian film “Breaking Surface” (which, in all honesty, seems like way too short a window to do a remake in) and follows the moist misadventures of the pair after one of them becomes trapped after an underwater rockslide.
The thirty metres between the stricken sister and the surface seem infinitesimal as their oxygen supplies dwindle, as the untrapped (younger and more inexperienced) sister will have to tap into every ounce of resourcefulness if her sibling will survive.
It’s a by-the-numbers plot but is no less effective for it, boasting some dazzling underwater photography (which, frankly, deserves an IMAX screen to do it justice) and genuine moments of tension. These are the kind of films where characters make decisions that tempt you to stand up and yell at the screen – sometimes seemingly deserving of their fate, but I’m pleased to say “The Dive” isn’t guilty of that. The split-second (or sometimes desperate) decisions seemed logical and in-character throughout, and there’s a genuine riveting sense of desperation to proceedings. You’ll wonder how one girl can suffer quite so much bad luck (she must have smashed a lot of mirrors) but as this is the kind of element that drives such a film, it’s forgivable.
A film where you’ll find yourself holding your breath as much as any of the characters, it’s an entertaining and often beautiful film. Just be sure to decompress afterwards.
Hi! It’s the more ginger, slightly less beardy of the Courts here. This is one of Tara’s reviews so buckle up!
(Photo: “Lore” Cast and Crew)
Everyone loves a good old anthology film, don’t they? If you’re lucky, they end up like the 1945 masterpiece “Dead of Night”. This is not that. Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the film. The wrap around is the story of a group of four friends who go camping with a mysterious guide who asks them each to tell the scariest story they ever heard. They do so, but to what cost?
There are four stories in this anthology, the first two, Shadows and The Hidden Woman seem longer than the second two, the pacing seems a little off to me.
In Shadows, we experience something that we’ve seen a few times before. Daniel (Andrew Lee Potts) is on the run from some gangsters and hides away in a warehouse, but this is a warehouse with a difference, or is it?
The Hidden Woman is effectively a haunted house tale about a mother and son who move into a new home where untoward things start happening.
Cross Your Heart is the standout for this reviewer. It follows a couple who are going to try swinging for the first time. The man (Rufus Hound) seems more eager than his wife (Katie Sheridan). Things don’t go quite to plan, and we watch as the events take a twisted turn.
In The Keychain Man, we follow three friends who are off to a midnight screening in the cinema. However, one of the cinema employees gets fired for a misdemeanour and, well, things don’t go so well.
Overall, well-acted with some interesting stories, some things which seem rehashed from other cinema but done effectively.
(Photo: April Clark as Clara Miller, “Cheat”)
If you were to believe your horror films, pretty much every single town (and seasonal event) has its own urban legend or myth. The afterlife must be jam-packed with restless spirits with a very clear and distinct set of operating instructions: i.e., you can only pick on teenagers in this particular troubled wood, you can only execute girls who are the third sister of three, etc. “Cheat” adds a new vengeful ghast to an already crowded pantheon through the pen and lens of writer-director pair Kevin Ignatius and Nick Psinakis.
It’s an original modus operandi at least – the ghost of a local girl who will kill anybody who cheats on their partner – and starts well. Art student Maeve moves from the city to a small college town in Pennsylvania on a scholarship and finds herself falling for the husband who owns the house she’s staying at. Corin Clay is excellent in the role; likeable and somebody unversed in the town’s troubled past, a role that excuses some of the exposition ladled upon her in scene after scene. The romance between Maeve and her host never fully convinces – and seems to happen a little too quickly in order to get the film going – but is just about believable enough.
It’s when it does get going that it begins to fall apart a little. It features a succession of characters who seem insistent on doing stuff absolutely at random, so any logic or drama is stripped down to the bare minimum. Plot revelations and heartfelt character admissions seem to be thrown into the mix at random, and the final act seems little more than a rehash of the far more effective “It Follows”. However, whereas the ending of that film could be left to interpretation, there’s no danger of that here. That said, I found the final twist effective.
It’s by no stretch a bad film and I can’t blame the makers for their ambition – that said, it was a little workmanlike for me, with next to no scares, and little build up to some of the seemingly-shocking plot points nigh-on remove any tension that it sometimes effectively builds up, with your patience ultimately unrewarded. It also doesn’t help that it feels so sanitized – gore has been stripped out completely, which ruins a potential shot towards the end, and you wonder what the point is apart from being a delivery mechanism for a few mediocre jump scares. Why watch an “It Follows” you’ve ordered from Wish when you can just watch the original?
Tara again, fresh from a Greggs vegan sausage roll and a cuppa, here’s another review from yours truly.
It Lives Inside
Bright and early Friday morning saw this horror film fan in a screening of It Lives Inside, directed and co-written by Bishal Dutta. I tried to not read a lot about what I was going into, and I’m glad didn’t. Sam (Megan Suri) is an Indian American teenager who is struggling with her cultural identity, seemingly ditching her Indian heritage to concentrate more on being an All-American Girl. Sam’s mother is what Sam refers to as a typical Desi housewife, cooking and cleaning. Sam queries why the family came to America if her mother was content to just do that.
In trying to disconnect from her heritage, she ditches her former best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). Tamira has become withdrawn, looking like she hasn’t slept in weeks. She also carries with her a mysterious jar. When Tamira tries to talk with Sam about the contents of the jar, with her all-American friends looking on, Sam smashes the jar out of Tamira’s hands and insults her. Sam really shouldn’t have done that.
It Lives Inside explores themes of being a teenager from a different cultural background to your peers and trying to fit in, cultural identity and Hindi mythology.
Megan Suri and Mohana Krishnan are both excellently cast in this film that debuted at South by Southwest Film Festival 2023. I don’t want to give too much away but if teen angst, mythological demons, and amazing looking Indian food are your bag, this is for you. Honestly, Sam’s mum is forever cooking, and I was salivating at the screen.
It feels cruel to make digs at a movie when the filmmakers seem like lovely people and have made the effort to actually travel overseas to promote it, seeing their work presented on as big a screen as it will ever appear on at the IMAX. “Creeping Death” follows a group of friends on Halloween Night, as a prank by one of their number sees a long-standing arrangement between those in the know and malicious Halloween Spirits cut short, and havoc, predictably, ensues.
It’s not without its moments – there are some poignant scenes involving lead character Tim and his terminally ill mother – and it does a wonderful job at building up the atmosphere nicely, but there are one too many flaws to make this stand out from the morass of generic horror movies that haunt the hidden menus of streaming services.
The biggest problem is the editing – there are some great effects in this movie, but the camera seems embarrassed to linger on them for enough time to appreciate any of them. This becomes increasingly annoying when so much of the film takes place at night – there are great swathes of the film where you simply cannot see what’s going on. This, coupled with some muddy audio work, make great chunks of the film incomprehensible.
And the group of friends? You wouldn’t want to know any of them. They’re either obnoxious or willing to sacrifice one another at the drop of a hat. Motives and characterisation seem to be subject to dice rolls, and you’ll be glad to see most of them bumped off, albeit blurrily and abruptly. Fair play to one of the girls (P.J.) for out-acting everybody else off screen, although not a fragment of scenery remains un-nibbled by her.
The monster designs are impressive (although a shot indicates that Halloween spirits are bizarrely clad in anomalously modern boots), although it would have been nice to have seen them properly. Stick with Metallica’s “Creeping Death” – it’s only six minutes and thirty-six seconds of your time, and you can make out what is going on. I only have admiration for director, writer, and actor Matt Sampere and kudos to him for delivering this – he’s a talent I’ll watch, but I’d just like to properly hear and see what he’s done next time.
Short Film Showcase #1
The three short film showcases from 2022’s FrightFest were among my highlights of the entire festival, so I was looking forward to the same again. They’re a great indicator of the future talent to watch out for, and there’s something to be said for the skill and talent required to be able to tell a decent story in a short amount of time with a laughably small budget.
But first, a personal admission. From previous festivals and watching short horrors on the (mostly recommended) YouTube channel “Alter,” I have a particular bugbear for certain types of short. If your plotline solely revolves around thinly fleshed-out characters in remote locations briefly glimpsing something that leaps at the camera in the final shot, I don’t care for you. The problem is that so many horror shorts are exactly this – that said, it’s uplifting to see that from all the film showcases, there was only one such culprit.
Amongst a very impressive bunch of movies (bar the aforementioned one) the highlights from this first of three short film showcases were as follows.
The Critic – in which a film reporter discovers there’s a cost to his critique, and has given me a little pause for thought in giving some of the films from this festival low scores. There’s a lovely double-bluff at the end which both confused and amused the audience, and fair play for an admirable gag-to-scare ratio.
Cafe Cicatriz – which I thought I was going to hate, with the initial moments making it appear like a pretentious black and white arthouse attempt that was just going to confuse me. Fair play to it for being anything but, but playing with that exact theme. Impressive prosthetic work too, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers.
Tiny Thing – this one was a lot of fun. It all kicks off when one half of a couple tells the other that they love them, but the statement isn’t reciprocated, and when a fly ends up stuck in the ear of one of them, the day can only get more awkward. Some truly wince-making moments made this one a delicious slice of uneasy comedic horror.
Safe – an incredibly powerful film with a never-more-appropriate message given the short runtime of ten minutes. When a father forgets to put his gun back into the safe after trying to secure his house from an attempted burglary, it can only end in tragedy. Without veering into spoiler territory, you could have cut the tension in that small room with a knife with the closing scene, and it was one of the most sobering and nerve-wracking moments of the entire festival.
Kickstart my Heart – On the surface an interesting tale about a girl involved in an accident trying to (literally) fight her way through her subconscious and back to consciousness, but given an extra level of poignancy with the closing credits mirroring some real-life events – reminding us that the best of horror is inspired by the actual. Some fun choreography, and it’d be interesting to see that expanded to something of greater length.
Quality control was exceedingly high this year, and the films went down very well with the packed Discovery screening. Seemed odd to confine this first showcase to a small screen while the other two were in larger venues, but I imagine there was a method to the madness.
Just popping in here to say, hi, Tara again. Please enjoy my review.
Alas, it’s not the Depeche biopic we all want to see (though I’m sure that’s coming), but a film that even into about an hour in, my friend Brian and I couldn’t ever predict where it was going. A young woman, Jess (Hayley Erin) is on the run, covered in blood, being chased by suits with guns. She’s attempting to cross the Canadian border. We don’t know why but what we do find out is that Elsa (Sonya Walger) has been assigned to capture her.
Jess hides out along the way and befriends a lot of people who never once question her past but do ask why she’s running.
Elsa has just been diagnosed with ALS but is keeping it from her colleagues. Due to this, she’s constantly just behind wherever Jess is. (An aside, ALS is explored briefly and has an appearance by Lisa Cross, an actor who actually has ALS, as Laura, a woman who is trying to explain what it’s like living with ALS to the newly diagnosed Elsa).
The emotion shown by both Erin and Walger’s performances is breath-taking. The cat and mouse nature of the film keeps you on the edge of your seat. An intriguing drama that switches into a clever horror film, via a sort of cliche but used differently so it feels like a fresh approach.
What You Wish For
I’ll admit to being a little reticent about this one; despite the premise initially grabbing me when I was picking up tickets for Discovery screenings (in a bout of nightmarish first-come, first-served booking with available films vanishing in front of my eyes), as the time approached, this was one I was considering bailing on. Sitting in a two-thirds empty screen as the screening time approached made me wonder if others had had the same idea.
Nick Stohl (barely recognisable from his starring as John Connor in the better-than-you-remembered “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) plays Ryan, a chef with gambling problems. Fleeing the country and unseen debtors – only seen as threatening text messages – he goes to stay with his friend, Jack. Jack is an agency chef, travelling the world to organise extravagant and expensive dinners for wealthy clientele and seems to have it all. His employers pay him a fortune, house him in fancy accommodations, and treat him like a rock star. Ryan wants in on this deal that seems too good to be true (it’s not much of a spoiler in a horror film to assume that it is) and finds a most unexpected way to achieve just that.
For a film that seemed more thriller-like from the first act, it’s a slow opening. With a theme that at first felt a little clunky and heavy-handed, as we observe the sharp contrast between Jack’s world and the deprived and poverty-stricken environs that surround him, but it’s in the second act that the plot really kicks in. The ‘careful what you wish for’ implied in the title could not be any more apparent, with Jack finding himself embroiled in a world that is utterly believable, yet horrifically compelling. It’s an absolute gem of a movie; don’t let the generic title and poster put you off what is a thoroughly gripping (and incredibly well performed) piece of horror satire.
Faceless After Dark
Jenna Kanell (who you might recognise as Tara from “Terrifier”) plays Bowie Davidson, a genre actress who decides, after an unfortunate encounter with an overly enthused fan, to take the fight to the online community. Ignoring the heavy-handedness of the character’s name (I wonder if Duncan Jones is aware of it?) and the fact that revenge flicks are ten-a-penny, this was a movie that genuinely impressed.
Opening with a wry look at the convention circuit, it’s a fascinating insight into the life of actors far removed from the A-List – and the kind of fans who often frequent or haunt these kinds of venues. It’s when Bowie’s partner goes away for a film shoot and she’s left to her own devices when her life begins to slowly unravel.
Kanell is a charismatic lead and is never anything less than utterly convincing. The script was co-written by her and Todd Jacobs, and one wonders how many of her own experiences with fandom and conventions have filtered into this witty and acerbic script – although I hope that Jenna never feels the need to take it quite as far as her character. The internet is a cesspit, as we all know, and there’s more than just a little gleeful element of wish fulfilment to see internet trolls meet a grisly end.
Striking visuals are coupled with an equally effective soundtrack, and Davidson makes for a memorable (and quite believable) agent of wrath. A closing pre-credit coda, which adds an additional final twist of the knife, is the chefs kiss on this fascinating and entertaining entry into the female-led revenge genre.
Short Film Showcase #2
There was a good turnout for this, with a great many of the crew present – and who can blame them, given the opportunity to watch your short film shown on such a massive screen? This one was the strongest of the three showcases, I think – despite the quality of all of them, this one had the most hits for me.
Actor Johnny Vivash (more on him later) blew me away with last year’s “The Microscope” (as yet unreleased, or I’d link to it!) and he was in danger of taking over this particular showcase, appearing in two of the films – and again, one of my favourite short films from the festival. There were some absolute blinders on display, and again, it was amazing to see the dramatic variety of styles and themes across just a nearly two-hour period. Credit to everyone concerned – and some remarkably close contenders that didn’t quite make it – but my top five were:
The Lure – starring the aforementioned Vivash (who also appeared in the excellent Fuse from this same showcase), this was a delightfully brief opener. It’s a concept that reminded me of an early 2000AD Future shock, but it was wonderful to see it given form. Johnny plays a fisherman who finds himself distracted by a fly, and I’ll say no more than that – other than that it’s a textbook example of how brevity can work so well.
Dead Skin – the tale of a young girl and a worsening skin condition, this is a ghoulish little piece of Northern body horror, with a gasp-inducing final shot. This has the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seat, and I’m proud to count myself amongst them. Deliciously gory, with some superb practical effect work.
Red Lake – One of the most beautiful shorts of the weekend, it tells the tale of two estranged sisters meeting to scatter their father’s ashes on an Irish lake associated with some ancient folklore. Moody and atmospheric with a wonderful set of actors, this one was a delight – and the closing shot will stick with me for a long, long time. “Show don’t tell” is the motto – and damn, did they get that right.
Knock, Knock (Knock) – With the laughs starting from the title alone, this one was a riot. Featuring a none-too-subtle demonic door manifesting in somebody’s lounge, it’s packed with moments of hilarity and some wonderful rug pulls. Comedy horror with an excellent laugh quotient, and well worth paying attention to the closing credits.
Chev Gustav – Very few animated pieces this year, but the ones on display were all excellent. Chef Gustav pips the others to the post with a violent Tex Avery-style struggle between a chef and a hungry feline interloper. Itchy and Scratchy meets Morph, it’s bloody, brutal, and utterly, utterly charming.
Bonjour, its Tara, interspersing David’s reviews with my moments of genius, or not!
Lily Sullivan, fresh from her stint in “Evil Dead Rise”, stars as The Interviewer in this fascinating story about a disgraced journalist who has been sued for defamation trying to get back in favour by starting a podcast (everyone in the world has one of those nowadays, huh?) about weird occurrences called Beyond Belief.
She receives an email from Anonymous containing a name (Floramae) and a telephone number. She contacts Floramae who informs her about an artefact that she used to be in possession of and seems otherworldly and so The Interviewer decides to investigate further. What occurs is a genuinely intriguing series of events culminating with a pretty weirdly satisfying end.
A star turn by Sullivan, the only person we actually see on screen throughout the production, and reminiscent of Tom Hardy in the film Locke, she acts against voices on the telephone calls and can certainly hold a film together.
GUESS WHO. Yep, it’s Tara. Just adding another review. Pls enjoy.
It was a treat to see this just before it gets its release later on in September, although it had already been released in the US in July. As the film is set around Halloween, it seems they missed a huge marketing trick by not releasing it in October but it’s out now and it’s a fun ride.
Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (the always entertaining Anthony Starr) have young son called Peter (young British actor Woody Norman). Peter seems to be a bullied boy at school but also a gifted one. He also hears noises in his room at night, tapping on the wall and scratching. His parents snap him out of it. His parents remind me of bad parents in a few horror films such as Parents, but there appears to be one overarching influence here.
Teachers try to intervene, but his parents keep very much to themselves.
With the knocks, scratches and bangs growing ever louder, Peter cannot ignore them anymore. I won’t say what happens but I kinda cheered in the cinema. It’s a tremendous thrill with genuinely shocking bits.
I sacrificed “Cobweb” on the big screen for this, realising that it will be possible to see that film anywhere on the big screen, but independent horror films need our support, and films such as “Spookt” will be far more difficult to be able to catch afterwards.
I wish I’d watched “Cobweb.”
Rachel is a sceptic, making an online career out of debunking the supernatural. Attempting to uncover the secrets of Greenville, Pennsylvania, she’s forced to reluctantly team up with supernatural investigator Claire when it turns out that the urban legends surrounding the area may be anything but.
Taking full advantage of the beautiful local scenery and architecture, it’s an ideal location for a supernatural horror (and not the only appearance of Pennsylvania in this Frightfest review, with it seemingly jammed to the gills with eldritch beasties). Rachel is a likeable lead, and Claire (cruelly nicknamed “Claire-voyant” by her new sceptical buddy) equally so, and the town is populated by a suitably entertaining and odd bunch of misfits and inverted-comma “characters”.
Tension is neatly built with several plotlines unfolding about a variety of spooky shenanigans associated with the town – the legend of a deadly deceased doctor, a weirdly reoccurring faceless doll, and the obligatory local witch. Where it falls apart is when the action should really be kicking in, with random moments thrown into the mix at the expense of logic and plot.
A crawlspace holding long lost secrets is found by the two girls within moments, making me doubt the efficacy of the local police department. A throwaway mention of historical orgies hinting at the dark history of the town is never mentioned again and feels dramatically out of place in a film that, up until then, felt it was aiming more at the kind of kid-friendly horror that populated the eighties: “Little Monsters,” “Spookies,” “Monster Squad,” et al. That said, it’s a shame it doesn’t make more of the eighties vibe as indicated from the excellent film poster.
Eric Roberts stars as the bad guy of the piece in a role that feels phoned in; apart from a few glimpses of him, he’s there in voice only.
The various disparate plotlines all diverge at the film’s climax, but with the effect of adding water to oil – they simply don’t work together, and it’s just too much. You’ll emerge unsatisfied and wondering what you just watched.
A disclaimer here: for the purposes of transparency, it’s worth pointing out that lead actor Johnny Vivash is a friend. This would put me in an awkward position should “Isaac” have been poor – or even mediocre – but I’m relieved to say it’s neither of those two things, a view I’m not alone in given the rapturous applause it received when the closing credits rolled.
Writer-director Tariq Sayed introduced the film, the tale of a married couple – Nicholas and Sarah Reeves – who, having lost their daughter to a genetic disorder inherited from Nicholas – decide to take a most unusual route to solve their childlessness. Set in a future so near as to be completely recognisable, they seek the help of a Bio-engineering corporation offering childless couples the chance to be part of an experimental program.
This corporation are omnipresent throughout the world, mostly shown on the food packaging that fills the Reeves’ fridge, lab-grown meat substitutes which function as a reminder of the actual origins of their new son, the titular Isaac.
It’s a piece that had particular resonance with me, given mine and my wife’s own struggles and heartbreak with trying to conceive. It’s no spoiler to say that the supposed dream of a new child and its hopes to mend the hearts of two hurting individuals ends up as anything but, and it’s the relationship between Nicholas and his new son that drives the narrative. The plot is prescient and whip-smart, and there’s a very bold directorial choice made from the outset which works far stronger than I suspected it would.
It’s a powerful piece confined to an individual location, a farmhouse surrounded by a dying orchard, a metaphor for the corruption taking place not only within Isaac but to his damaged fathers fractured sanity. Like last Frightfest’s superlative “Next Exit,” it’s a horror tale about horrific and troubling concepts, not reliant on cheap gore or scares. There’s an effectively creepy and disturbing dream/fantasy scene which will satisfy the gore hounds, but it’s not that moment that you’ll take away – but the tour-de-force performance of Vivash ably supported by an excellent cast, and the denouement which is at once heartbreaking, meaningful, and a vicious stabbing “fuck you” at the corporations that seek to control us like cattle.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
The Glenarma Tapes
It’s safe to say that it’s been a long time since there’s been a half-decent found footage film. Despite some gems back from when it still seemed like an original idea – the superlative and ground-breaking “The Blair Witch Project,” “[REC]” and “The Bay” to mention but a few – there hasn’t been a decent recent take since the pandemic-inspired “Host.” It was therefore with some trepidation that I sat down for this, the second of three screenings in the impressive surrounds of Discovery Screen 1. Overall it became an unofficial Ireland trilogy, from Dublin born Johnny Vivash in “Isaac” through to “Haunted Ulster Live,” the closing film for the night.
“The Glenarma Tapes” proffers itself as footage found after the Glenarma Woods had burned down with only one survivor fighting for their life. The film itself follows four media students, but the premise for their nocturnal woodland visits isn’t anything as worthy as the usual McGuffin of a documentary but simply to catch two of their fellow lecturers having an affair (or, as they more crudely put it, catch them having a ride).
Horror movies rely on you caring enough about the characters to be concerned as to their welfare, and found footage takes that requirement a step further – you’ll be spending an hour and a half in awfully close proximity to these people, so if they’re unlikable it can make that experience a pained one.
Thankfully, “The Glenarma Tapes” delivers in spades. The primary four cast members are likeable and, more importantly, believable. The casting is nothing short of remarkable, and the friendship and verbal sparring between these pals are utterly convincing. There’s just enough back story for the two male leads – troubled Gordy and enthusiastic Jimmy – and the two female friends who tag along for the ride, Eleanor and Clare, and suitable and sarcastic foils for the two lads.
Despite some red herrings, it deviates away from the standard (and frankly overused) haunted woods trope into a far more interesting and socially satirical direction, and it genuinely breathes new life into the genre. It was one of the highlights of an extraordinarily strong Saturday and wins kudos for a brilliant Trainspotting inspired shot alone. Deviating away from the standard found footage abrupt ending helps it too, with a proper, touching and satisfying resolution. It’s not perfect – some of the night scenes get very confusing in telling who’s who – especially given the associated panic and rapid quickfire editing of scenes – but I was gripped throughout.
Released, like the preceding “Isaac,” as part of Frightfest’s new blood program – an attempt to get films onto the big screen that wouldn’t ordinarily get such large releases or audiences – it’s a testament to cast and crew, being one of the strongest found footage films of recent years.
Haunted Ulster Live
Starring the sadly recently deceased Michael Parkinson, “Ghostwatch” was a one-off BBC live show following the investigations into a haunted family house. Written by Steven Volk, it was broadcast as an actual television program – and not a cleverly scripted drama – and had the country in an uproar, thus passing into the annals of broadcast history alongside Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio show and the BBC Spaghetti tree hoax of 1957.
Even when you know it’s fake, it’s still effective, seeing everyday TV personalities like Craig Charles, Sarah Green and Mike Smith teased and spooked by the now-legendary fictional spectre Mister Pipes.
“Haunted Ulster: Live” posits the question: what if Irish television had attempted the same experiment in 1998, six years later? Shot in a record six days, “Haunted Ulster: Live” is a terrific little horror. The central cast (led by Mark Claney as Gerry Burns and Aimee Richardson as Michelle, respectively a TV stalwart whose best days are behind him and a children’s TV presenter who knows she’s so much better than the material she is in) are excellent, and there’s a genuine nineties vibe to the whole affair.
Any drama such as this can fall apart rapidly with one weak link among the cast, but I’m delighted to say there’s no danger of that here. Despite some genuine belly laughs, it’s played utterly straight-faced and is far more effective for it. If you’re familiar with “Ghostwatch” (and if you’re not, rectify that), you’ll recognise a great many of the same plot beats, but it’s infinitely more homage than rip-off.
It’s not perfect – there’s a final reveal involving temporal malarkey that didn’t really land with me – but it’s well worth a watch. Given the incredible time constraints put on the filmmakers and the guerilla filmmaking this must have required, I’m genuinely intrigued to see what the cast and crew can come up with given a more relaxed shoot.
It’s your girl Tara, just popping by with another review.
This film looked so promising; a horror film based on channel hopping. And, to some extent it was, and I get where it was coming from, but I can’t help but feel disappointed in this. The channels hop between a few channels, and maybe it was me wanting more from it, but it didn’t click with me.
There were inserts of xxx channels and an Elvira a like but at the end of the day, I don’t feel that I can rate it fairly because maybe, on a rewatch, I’ll love it. Just from the first viewing, not for me.
(Photo: Jack Stewart as Luca and Mia Jenkins as Amy, “Piper”)
The Pied Piper of Hamelin legend is such a powerful – and popular one – I’m surprised it hasn’t been milked more by horror writers (by way of a short plug, I’m guilty of the same in my short story “At the River’s Brink”). This Liz Hurley starring horror (directed by the same director as the excellent “Mute Witness,” Anthony Waller) sees her and her daughter Amy moving to the German town for a teaching post, and they find themselves caught up in the local legends that turn out to be more than mere fairy stories.
An effective opening bodes well (killing a kid in the first minute – always a bold move) but the plot soon descends into identikit horror staples, featuring the customary creepy old man, spooky nocturnal shenanigans and – as you’d expect – copious rats. Humorous moments strike an odd chord – you’re never completely sure whether they’re accidental or intentional (although, that said, a line about spring-loaded squirting things nearly brought the house down and must have been intentional).
Throw some local Romani into the mix, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a decent folk horror – but this turns out to be anything but. There’s also an uncomfortable undertone of one of the local boys – an inexplicably broad Scottish-accented chap named Luca who only seems to appear on horseback and in soft focus, looking like he’s arrived from a Timotei advert – seducing Amy, who seems uncomfortably young for him. Doubly so, considering what transpires later.
There’s an interesting myth behind it – all relating to innocents inheriting their guilt from their parents – but it’s never fully explored, and a countdown motif featuring bleeding fingers is shot with little to no dramatic impact. It’s also remarkably tame, but there’s one memorable scene in which a greedy ne’er-do-well meets his fate at the tiny teeth of burrowing rodents. There are some memorable moments in the closing scenes – transfixed children marching in the streets – but it never feels anything more than workmanlike, the sort of horror you’ll happily watch but will forget moments afterwards.
There’s a neat gag in the closing credits, but the good will from that is reduced by an ending marred by some obvious sequel bait. It’s interesting to see Liz Hurley doing genre work, and she’s reliably excellent, but it’s a poor vehicle for her talents.
[REC] Terror Without Pause
I’ll admit that some of the documentaries I’ve seen at Frightfest in previous years have been amongst my overall highlights – “The Brilliant Terror,” “Cult of VHS” and “Living with Chucky” spring to mind, each excellent in their own regard. With that, I went into this with high hopes – “[REC]” is one of my very favourite movies, but I know little of the backstory of it.
It’s easy to forget how much of a phenomenon it was, making an enormous impact on Spanish horror cinema. It still stands out up today as a fine piece of horror cinema, and I can still remember the genuine terror I felt when viewing that memorable climax for the first time.
There are some very entertaining things to take away from this, especially some insights into how one goes about directing actors for such an unusual role. That said though, I found the latter half of the documentary – concerned with the aftermath of the release, the subsequent impact of pop culture, and how it was viewed by the rest of the world – far more entertaining than the details regarding the machinations of how the film was made.
It does an annoying trick though – lots of mentions about how they started filming the audience reactions to the first jump scare with the fireman falling to his death – but they don’t actually show any of the footage they’ve been gleefully regaling us with tales of. I was hoping they were leaving them for the closing credits, but no such luck. However, it thankfully skirts around the considerably weaker sequels, and the pointless American remake barely gets a mention. Entertaining, but a little long and a tendency for countless shots of talking heads discussing moments you’d rather see. Enthusiastic fans talking with love about a subject is something very dear to my heart though, and it’s worth a watch. Overall, this is a detailed and heartfelt love letter to an excellent movie, and clearly a great deal of effort and research went into its making.
Mancunian Man: The Legend of Cliff Twemlow
Director Jake West is no stranger to either horror or Frightfest, a virtual part of the fixtures and fittings there – you’ll recall him from “Razor Blade Smile,” “Doghouse” and his excellent Video Nasties documentary. He’s here again this year – not with a horror, but a touching and fascinating documentary about an unsung hero of exploitation cinema, Manchester born Cliff Twemlow.
You’ll be forgiven for never having heard of him, he and his merry band of regular conspirators having made way more films than actually ever saw the light of day – but after this documentary, you’ll be eager to know more. You may know his name from 1983’s “G.B.H.”, a violent gangland drama made to capitalise on the then-groundbreaking introduction of VHS cassettes, allowing movies to be filmed and released on a shoestring budget.
(As a related aside, I’m a huge fan of library and production music – insert plug here – and was gobsmacked to learn that some of the tracks of that I love by Peter Reno were in fact composed by Twemlow under a pseudonym – it’s from this lucrative career where he made much of his money).
A proper polymath, Twemlow was a musician, actor, writer, doorman, and bodybuilder. Over his short but incredible film career, he’d enlist the help of friends to make straight-to-video movies – with the tightest (or most non-existent) of budgets. The film charts his life, and the trials and tribulations of guerilla filmmaking. At times feeling like a masterclass of what can go wrong making movies, it’s a moving and poignant look at a slice of British exploitation cinema that few knew existed.
A great many of his co-stars and co-workers were there, and – despite what must have been the obvious frustrations of collaborating with a man eager to start projects but reluctant to finish any – he was spoken of with incredible warmth and love, and the film is a wonderful testament to an absolutely mesmerising individual. West’s love for the subject matter is apparent, and it’s utterly endearing – an absolutely wonderful film that even with a running time of two hours barely scratches the surface and raw ambition of Cliff and could have happily been double that length.
Oh, hello! Didn’t expect to see you all here. It’s Tara once again with another review. Enjoy or don’t, choice is yours.
I Am Monsters!
Based on the one man play that he did back in 2019, Nicholas Vince has taken his show and added a few more aspects to make it a wondrous thing. Starting on the underbite he had as a child that inspired his Chatterer character in Hellraiser, Nicholas takes us through his life, hiding in the closet, being friends with Clive Barker and so appearing in many of his films such as Nightbreed. Living through the Thatcher era and fighting section 28, to accepting who he is, who he loves and the love for all the things that make him a monster, not just the ones on screen.
I met him later in the day and mentioned that we’re all monsters during our lives and he admitted that that was what he wanted his film to reflect to its audience. As a play transferred to screen, it works tremendously well, not least because it’s a one man show, but the depth and heart of it is forever shining through and I thank Nicholas for sharing his story with us.
My Mothers Eyes
There’s a reasonable movie in here somewhere, with an interesting premise about an unhealthy yet symbiotic relationship between a mother and her daughter and a remotely controlled contact lens allowing the blind to see, but it’s very well hidden.
It starts promisingly, and looks – and sounds – stunning. A parental relationship already strained by events we don’t learn of until later in the movie is damaged further when they’re involved in an accident which blinds one and cripples the other. Including elements of Black Mirror style technology and virtual reality it could have been so much more, and – as I said – there’s the heart of a really decent idea in here, and there were directions I was hoping this was going in – but didn’t.
It’s difficult to elaborate on my problems with this movie without venturing into spoiler territory – and your mileage may well vary, as it even did amongst our party – but you’ll grow very bored of hearing the same dialogue repeated twice, and the plotline descends into complete surreal daftness.
Some of that dialogue is so clunky – or just so utterly bizarre and out of place – that a chap several seats to the right of me couldn’t hold his laughter in, and was becoming as hysterical as the action occurring onscreen. By the last scene, it had lost me completely: I hadn’t a clue what was going on. Overall, lovely to look at and listen to – difficult to watch.
This is one I was originally going to skip because the premise didn’t inspire – it looked on the surface like a “Scream”-inspired whodunnit generic slasher, but I’m so glad I did. It may have lacked the elegance and beauty of “My Mother’s Eyes” which preceded it, but it turned out to be an absolute tonic. “Her Mother’s Eyes” was, in a lazy metaphor that I’m not ashamed of, an undersized plate of food that was visually appealing but ultimately unsatisfying – when sometimes all you really, really want is well cooked Steak and chips.
Part political satire, part Slasher, “Founders Day” does everything right. Populated by just the right amount of likeable – or memorable – characters, it follows the events of a series of murders in a small town just before the Founder’s Day Celebrations, with echoes of the oblivious Mayor of Amity in “Jaws.” The killer – dressed in a devilish red mask armed with a spiked gavel (which is a horror first) – seems to strike randomly and without mercy, with a penchant for leaving quotations at the scene of the crime.
A film like this is only as good as its cast, and “Founder’s Day” more than succeeds on that score. Special mention has to go to the Chief of Police who not only has some of the best lines (including one that caused rapturous applause amongst the audience) but somehow manages to channel both Kojak and Columbo. I’ll admit to being concerned later in the film wondering where it was all going – it could have all come crashing down with a dodgy or ill-thought reveal – but I needn’t have worried.
Overall, a Slasher film I’d love to see become a franchise, and that’s something I never thought I’d find myself saying. Funny, thought-provoking, and with some effective and original kills – what more could you want? To revisit my laboured food metaphor, this steak is definitely well done.
Rating: 7.0 / 10
With a shunt and a push, I’m back. It’s Tara with another review.
The Dark Side of Society
We’ve all seen Society, yes? The mad film about the elites feeding off the less well to do, directed by Brian Yuzna with those eye-popping effects by Screaming Mad George? What if I were to tell you it was based on a true story?
This documentary, narrated by the late, great, and sorely missed Julian Sands, tells the story of Woody Keith who authored the story of Society and it’s partially true. He has since changed his name to Zeph E Daniel and is on the run. This documentary explores Keith’s childhood where he mentions that certain scenes from Society were based on real life (obviously not the shunting).
Here’s the thing, I believe that Keith was abused in childhood and as abuse survivor myself, it’s hard to admit that to anyone, let alone make a documentary about it. Keith mentions being hospitalised and drugged up and dying for twenty minutes following a drugs overdose. It struck me as quite conspiracy theorist though. I absolutely believe that Keith was abused, it’s just the insinuations that are made that don’t appear to ring quite true. I went into this expecting more than a tin foil hat affair but that’s how it appeared to me.
Short Film Showcase #3
Sadly, the last of the three showcases, so it’ll be back to “Alter” on YouTube to get my short horror film fix. I had visions of this being poorly attended because Mark Kermode and a new cut of “The Exorcist” were on the main screen, but I needn’t have worried – turns out that the love for horror shorts is pretty widespread, and the screening was pretty full. Again, a lot of directors and producers were in attendance – and from the strength of the works of these years, I’ll be paying attention to a lot of peoples careers to see what they do next.
Again, a top-notch eclectic selection but only five can make the cut, so without further ado:
Hack – starring Luke Rollason (from the tremendously funny superhero comedy “Extraordinary”) this concise (and incredibly bloody) four-minute short tells of Dinner Party Faux Pas and definitely puts the hack into lifehack. Vicious, demented – and inspired.
Murder – This cleverly titled little mean-spirited little short tells of a man whose sleep is interrupted by the tapping beak of a bird desperately seeking help. Like “Hack,” it doesn’t outstay its welcome – and it’s all the better for it. Some excellent cinematography and a very distinctive look make this memorable and one you should seek out.
Pablo, Honey! – Proof that poltergeists are capable of possession too – well, dispossession, at any rate. A humorous little tale of the seemingly doomed relationship between a woman and her spectral lover, it’s a tale that will definitely put the willies up you. This got some of the biggest and most deserved laughs of the festival so far, and that ending? I may have seen it coming, but it was no less effective for it.
Leech – This was an absolute gem of a short, dripping in atmosphere. There are no cheap tricks in here to get the scares – just a palpable sense of unease, and it’s as unnerved as I’ve been for the entirety of this Frightfest. It’s got one of the tensest “don’t go in there!” moments you’ll see on the screen for a long time, and strong performances push this one over the finishing line. You’ll just feel like you need to have a long shower afterwards, but not before our final film – or you’ll just end up having to shower twice.
Nosepicker – the woman at the screening next to me hated every single moment of this, barely able to look up at the screen. It’s something I can fully sympathise with, because this is one of the ickiest shorts of the whole lot. With a title like that you know what you’re getting, and there’s something physically repulsive about the loving and lingering shots of nasal mucus. I was grossed out throughout, and that’s what this festival is partially about, surely? I’ve seen many a bogeyman on film before, but never one quite so literal as the discharge-developed homunculus on show here, and this film’s snot for the faint-hearted. I’ll get my coat.
The Sacrifice Game
Frightfest Audiences in 2021 emerged from that final screening shell-shocked and open-mouthed, still reeling from Taiwanese Horror “The Sadness”. Those same audiences emerged from 2022’s “Fall” looking nauseous, having been virtually stranded atop a 2000 feet tall tower thanks to the wonders of IMAX.
Midnight of the evening of Bank Holiday Monday saw our party emerging a little nonplussed and disappointed. “The Sacrifice Game” is the latest movie from Jenn Wexler following her “The Ranger,” a film that was shown on the opening night of Frightfest in 2018 – and, despite being far from a bad movie, felt like an oddly underwhelming way to close the festival.
It certainly sets its stall from the outset, beginning with a grisly murder in the opening minutes. As a gang trespass into and brutally dispose of the two innocent occupants of a house, it echoes with strong vibes of the vicious violence and cruelty of Krug’s despicable gang from “Last House on the Left,” or the Firefly family of “The Devils Rejects.”
There’s a lovely convincing 1970’s vibe to the whole thing – again, reminiscent of “Last House” – and as an effective character introduction, it’s hard to top. The gang are travelling in search of something, and we’re also introduced to a school closed for the Christmas holidays with two young students and their teacher resigned to staying there for the break.
It will of course come of no surprise to know that their paths will invariably cross.
The first few acts are extraordinarily strong as the gang make their way across the country, brutalising all they come across in search of their goal. Despite their shared barbarism, the gang are all interesting distinct characters and there’s a profound sense of mystery and intrigue behind their intended aims.
With no spoilers, when the paths of the students and the gang do cross, it’s a masterclass of menace and tension. You genuinely do get the impression that none of the characters are safe, and the gang have more than proven themselves at killing anybody with little regard. The casting of the gang is nigh-on perfect, but special mention must go here to Mena Massoud as Jude, the (apparent) leader of the gang – he’s a truly menacing figure, all controlled anger and simmering rage. He cuts a terrifying figure on screen, and convinces throughout.
My issues with the movie are when we learn of the gangs objectives – it’s a novel take, but the film becomes distinctly less interesting after that. It’s like the pressure and atmosphere has been building up nicely to a crescendo, but it’s ultimately unsustainable and the film almost peters out. This is one where your mileage will definitely vary – all the right ingredients are there; it looks and sounds beautiful with some amazing performances, but it personally left me a little cold. I so wanted this one to be good and it was, to a point. It’s a perfectly adequate movie, but it didn’t blow me away like I wanted it to – and like I thought it would, given the incredibly strong start.
Compared to the rollercoaster rides of the previous two years, it felt like an odd choice to end on.
Rating: 6.5 / 10
So, another excellent Frightfest draws to a close. Some strong films this year which are well worth your time, and some brilliant shorts to keep your eye out for. The after party at the Phoenix Arts Club was traditionally raucous and boozy, and it’s going to be hard to wait another year until the next – and, as it’s the festival’s 25th anniversary in 2024, I imagine it’s going to be incredibly special. A great deal of respect to Paul, Ian, Alan, Greg, and everybody else involved in keeping this huge undertaking going including new sponsors Pigeon Shrine – hearty applause to all the volunteers and everybody else who makes this horror highlight possible. See you there in 2024, and a big shout out to our Frightfest buddies of Gary (whose reviews you should totally check out on Twitter X at @BuckTheorem) and Sarah and the new members of the cult Tom and Brian.
All of the films at Frightfest are preceded by trailers, and in previous years – with Arrow Videos being the sponsor – there would be a lot of varied adverts for Arrow Video films. The new sponsors – Pigeon Shrine – also had some trailers, but all for unfinished works still in development. The big problem identified very quickly is that films that are still work in progress do not look great when blown up to 202m², and it’s especially easy to point out flaws when there are only four or so trailers and you’re watching them tens of times. Each of the films on display – “Swarm,” “Blood Engine,” “Sentinel Six,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” are heavy on the CGI and I’m not filled with a great deal of confidence by what’s been produced so far. From the derisory snorts of the audiences whenever the logo came up, or cries of “Have you not finished it yet?” when the obligatory ‘in production’ legend boomed onto the screen, I’m not alone.
It’s especially painful to think that we were robbed of James Cameron’s and Guillermo Del Toro’s “At the Mountains of Madness” for it to be made with virtual sets, backdrops of perfectly static penguins, and clunky CGI characters that stand out a mile. Top Tip: If it ain’t finished, don’t show it – the finished movies may be great (in fact, “Sentinel Six” in not trying to hide its computer-generated imagery, fares better than the rest – but the fact that the final line of dialogue from the trailer rips off 2012’s “Dredd” rankles somewhat), but these trailers do them absolutely no justice.
Rating: 17 stationary penguins
David Court is a short story author and novelist. Whilst primarily a horror writer, he also writes science fiction, poetry, and satire. He’s also been a freelance writer for Slash Film, and has a weekly Film radio show on Noisebox Radio – Court on Film – in which he plays film Soundtracks.His last collection, “Contents May Unsettle,” was released in 2021. As well as writing, David works as a Software Developer and lives in Coventry with his wife, Aslan the cat and an ever-growing beard. David’s wife once asked him if he’d write about how great she was. David replied that he would because he specialized in short fiction. Despite that, they are still married.Follow David on X at @DavidJCourt or visit his website at www.davidjcourt.co.uk
Tara Court is the narrator of the horror audiobook “What Good Girls Do” by Jonathan Butcher. She is also the host of The Killening Podcast (@Killening) – an irreverent and sweary look at horror. She also hosts a Sunday night radio show on Noisebox Radio – the Weekend Immune System. Follow Tara on X at @TheBluestStar