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FrightFest 2021: Leicester Scares – by David and Tara Court



(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in September 2021)


Despite being a horror fan for many years, I’ve always just missed out on the chance to go to FrightFest, now in its 22nd year. I’ve always been somewhere else, or tickets have sold out too quickly and I’ve missed my opportunity. But this year my wife Tara saw the tickets go on sale and without hesitation we both snapped up a full festival pass – with a pandemic on, some of the regulars have been more reluctant to go, which meant that tickets were more available than usual.


Thursday evening saw us rocking up at the Imperial Pub in Leicester Square - somewhat of an unofficial drinking establishment for a great many FrightFest attendees – and made to feel very welcome by general all-round good egg (and excellent FrightFest ambassador) John Higgins, downing some drinks in advance of the opening film later that night.


The main IMAX screen in the Leicester Square Odeon would be our home for the next five days and nights, and it’s a beauty. With a screen three storeys tall, it’s the best way I can think of to watch a film.

Unexpected (and very welcome) guest Mark Kermode kicked off the proceedings, the houselights dimmed, and horror commenced…



Demonic


The cinema was jam-packed, and the buzz was positive for “Demonic”, the new feature by Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”, “Chappie”) made during the pandemic.

Carly Pope plays Carly, a woman who learns that her estranged mother Angela – convicted of burning down a care home some years before – is in the care of an organization called Therapol. She’s in a coma, and they’re using revolutionary technology to enable people to enter her thoughts and communicate with her. Carly goes to visit her mother and learns of the terrible secrets behind Angela’s killing spree.

Despite an interesting premise and set-up and some good performances, “Demonic” goes downhill fast. The virtual reality effects resemble either an isometric adventure game from the late nineties or are saturated with a filter that renders everything with a level of granularity that defeats the object of seeing it on a big screen.

It falls apart in the last act with some risible lines of dialogue – evoking titters of laughter or disbelief from the audience members around me. It’s one of those kinds of films where a character makes a wild guess about what is going on, and it turns out that they’re spot on and it’ll be the only exposition you’ll get. Top it off with an unconvincing rubber suited monster and the Spear of Destiny introduced in a throwaway line, and you’re left with nothing but a bitter disappointment.

I was once upset that Blomkamp had lost out on the Alien sequel gig – based on this and the diminishing returns of his previous films, I needn’t have been concerned. What a waste. The big question about this possession movie is – what possessed them to make it?

Rating: 4/10


The Brilliant Terror



A brief sojourn to one of the smaller screens for this, a documentary about grass roots horror film making – the world of independent microbudget horror movies. It was the world premiere of the movie, introduced in person by directors Paul Hunt and Julie Kauffman. What could merely have been just a very good documentary was thoroughly elevated by the appearance of Mike Lombardo, a creative working out of Pennsylvania. Mike is a revelation; a powerhouse of enthusiasm and passion for horror, and a joy to watch. Packed to the gills with examples of his work – and interviews with loads of people working in the scene – the documentary was genuinely revealing, respectful of the scene, and was a highlight of the festival, washing away the bad taste of “Demonic”.


“The Brilliant Terror” covered the tortuous production of Mike Lombardo’s “The Stall”, an ambitious 13-minute short set in a bathroom toilet stall during a Lovecraftian apocalypse. With freezing night shoots and difficult actors and locations, it’s hard to fault Lombardo’s dedication to the (often thankless) craft. It also provided a brilliant insight into a lot of women working in the grass roots horror movement, striking out with varying success into the industry. A wonderful glimpse at a common yet often forgotten part of horror.

Rating: 8/10


Brain Freeze


It was the International Premiere of this Québécois zombie comedy, and other than the premise I knew nothing about it. The title (which does it no justice) evoked memories of low budget horrors such as “Body Melt” and “Bad Taste”, so my expectations were as low as my usual yearly chances of getting hold of FrightFest tickets.


To keep the golf courses playable all year round, an experimental fertilizer is used on the greens – which somehow ends up seeping into the water supply and transforming people into bloodthirsty mutants. Set amongst a rich gated company on an island separated from the mainland by a single bridge, a young teenager (Iani Bédard – the spitting image of Alex Bain – aka Simon - from “Coronation Street”) and his toddler sister are forced to team up with a survivalist security guard named Dan to survive.


It’s a horror comedy that’s light on gore but with genuine laughs and – other than a few comedic misfires – taps into a rich vein of humour that never feels forced. The characters are likeable, and there are some moments of genuine poignancy and pathos in it. It chugs along at a jaunty pace with no real surprises, but it’s done with respect for the genre and a certain amount of flair. There are a few elements that feel like they’ve been airdropped in from a different film – a pair of twin female assassins, for one – but it seemed to go down very well with the audience. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating: 6/10


Pretty Boy


Hello! I am David’s oft mentioned wife, Tara. It’s a pleasure to meet you all. There were a few films that David wasn’t too bothered about watching so I said I’d step in and give it a go at writing a couple of reviews, can’t be that hard right? (I’m joking of course).


I went into this film armed only with the knowledge that genre favourite Robert Rusler was in it. In fact, I found out about it from his Instagram, so I was stoked to see it playing at FrightFest. What I DIDN’T know because I hadn’t done any kind of research into the film at all, is that it was in fact a sequel to the 2019 Marcel Walz film Blind. So, you could say I went into this one blind if you wanted to attempt a terrible joke.


Quick synopsis of Blind (not that it matters as there’s a brief recap at the beginning of Pretty Boy) Faye, an actress (Sarah French) loses her vision in an accident and that effectively ends her acting career. Alone in her house in the Hollywood hills, she tries to put her life back together with the help of her friends. And on top of all of that, Sarah is stalked by a creepy mask wearing stranger who proceeds to kill everyone around her.


As mentioned before, the start of Pretty Boy essentially recaps the events of Blind. The creepy mask wearing stranger (from here on in known as Pretty Boy) is walking down a road holding an unconscious Faye, wearing a blood-spattered turquoise seventies style tuxedo.


Elsewhere, Preston (Jake Red) is hosting a Valentine’s Day party that is exclusively for singletons, including Rayna (Heather Grace Hancock) who he is trying to sign to his record label. Pretty Boy shows up and well, things don’t end well. After Faye escapes from Pretty Boy’s grasp, she is wandering the streets where an old man (Robert Rusler) finds her and offers comfort and help, or does he?


Genuinely didn’t know what to expect from this and yes, much like Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece The Room, some of the script and acting is questionable at best, I thought it was a lot of fun. A lot of unintentionally funny bits got a lot of laughs from the small crowd in the Discovery 2 screen; however, it does take a darker turn in the last act with some of the content a bit uncomfortable (forced pregnancy anyone?), but I liked it for being stupid fun. If you can leave your expectations at the door, then this film might exceed them. I’d quite like to see it again.

Rating: 5.5/10


Broadcast Signal Intrusion



Harry Shum Jr plays video archivist James and comes across a wildly disturbing clip, one that sends him down an investigative rabbit-hole, to uncover a conspiracy that may be connected to the disappearance of his wife some years before.


FrightFest was hosting the European Premiere of this American horror thriller, inspired by the unsolved Max Headroom Signal Hijacking in 1987, when the broadcasts of two television stations in Chicago (showing Doctor Who) were overridden with footage of an unidentified man wearing a Max Headroom mask.


With shades of “Videodrome” and seventies thrillers such as “The Parallax View” yet grounded in the nineties with its murky bulletin boards and its proto-Dark Web, “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” is a pacy thriller, the horror moments coming in the form of the bizarre and otherworldly video clips he encounters – in the exact words of my wife, “they’re nightmare fuel.”


The Broadcast Signal Intrusion clips themselves were inspired by the real life “Tara the Android” clips from 2009, again a bizarre mystery all to themselves. You can watch it here, if you want to be genuinely unnerved. The author holds no responsibility for sleepless nights or if you get sucked up into a paranoid conspiracy investigation.


It was entertaining throughout with enough twists and turns to hold my interest but as with many films of a similar theme I start to get a little nervous towards the last act, hoping that the pay-off is worth the build-up. That admitted, I’ll confess to being a little disappointed in the ending, which was rather more ambiguous and abrupt than I’d hoped.


This is partly down to timing; no fault of the filmmakers at all of course but having seen the excellent “Censor” a fortnight before – which treads a similar path of investigations leading the protagonist into possible madness or altered reality – it didn’t feel like anything new. Genuinely creepy moments, beautifully shot and performed with an intriguing central premise, but a little unfulfilling.

Rating: 6/10


Dawn breaks behind the eyes



I was so thoroughly relieved I knew nothing about this film, other than the positive buzz on the internet. It was this film’s theatrical premiere and opens as a lusciously slot unnerving piece about a couple and their troubled – and damaged – relationship, as they move into a new inherited property. The gorgeous poster conjures memories of 70’s Italian horror, all Giallo and Mario Bava, and the film is a loving tribute to that style.


I thoroughly recommend you go in completely blind – avoid trailers and reviews (other than polite non-spoiler ones like mine, obviously) and your experience will be all the better for it. It’s a bit of a sensory overload, and thoroughly beautiful.


Reminiscent of both Peter Strickland’s Berbarian Sound Studio and Gaspar Noé’s Climax – two films I’ve raved about before on these hallowed pages – “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” was right up my proverbial street, and one I’m eager to see again once it gets distribution – there’s a lot to unlock there, I feel.

Rating: 8/10


Mask of Evil Apparition


I should stop getting my hopes up, shouldn’t it? I adore “Dark City”, the 1998 movie by Alex Proyas – a film which, in my mind, shared a similar storyline to “The Matrix” but was by far the better film. “Mask of Evil Apparition” is a short set in the same universe, showcasing the work of his virtual production studio. I’ve been waiting for a “Dark City” sequel forever, so went into this with not a little excitement.


Sometimes all you want is a little straightforward narrative. Ambiguous and vague is all well and good, provided the story is strong enough to propel it forward and maintain your interest. “Mask of Evil Apparition” is a nonsensical lunge from scene to scene, all looking like it’s taking place on the set of a weirdly lit nineties point and click adventure game. Embarrassingly bad, and thankfully only twenty minutes long. And ends mid-story, so what’s the point? What is it with decent directors phoning it in?

Rating: 3/10


Sweetie, you won’t believe it

I don’t know what I was expecting from this. Kazakhstan doesn’t have – shall we say - a huge reputation for horror films, and the title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue – but it was a hell of a lot of fun.


Coming across as a weird bastard hybrid between “The Hangover” and “The Hills have Eyes”, “Sweetie, you won’t believe it” (and I’m not typing that again) follows three hapless friends on a fishing trip gone horribly, horribly wrong. Daniar Alshinov plays Dastan, soon to be father and henpecked husband, and he and his fishing companions (literally) piss off the wrong people, leading them into a life-or-death fight for survival against shotgun wielding oddballs, shopkeepers straight from Kazakhstan’s equivalent of Royston Vasey, and a one-eyed psychotic with a penchant for martial arts.


More than just “Deliverance” with blow-up dolls, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, gory, with a surprising amount of heart and a lot to say about friendship and loyalty. It seems to veer wildly between styles and moods, but this is one of those films where that’s a boon and not a drawback. I look forward to “Sweetie, you won’t believe it 2: Steppe Brothers” (they can have that title for free).

Rating: 7/10


When the Screaming Starts


Again, off to one of the smaller screens for this. With some ticket confusion (with our PDF printout telling us the viewing was in screen 2 but that our seats were in screen 1 – a headscratcher to confuddle even Christopher Nolan) we eventually found ourselves in a screening where my wife and I turned out to be two of the few people in the room who weren’t cast and crew!


With heavy (must be deliberate) vibes of “Knives Out” from the poster, we weren’t sure what to expect. It was the World Premiere for the film, and it’s quite daunting knowing you’re in a room with the people who made it – still, unlike “Demonic”, the laughs in a comedy are intentional.

Aidan Mendle (writer/producer Ed Hartland) is very enthused on the concept of becoming a serial killer and invites a documentarian and his crew along to record his rite of passage to becoming a murderer. His initial attempts (hilariously) meet with little success, and so Aidan decides to become a murder cult leader instead.


This horror mockumentary treads familiar ground – it’s “What We Do in the Shadows” meets “Man Bites Dog” and Ed’s wannabe psychopath Aidan – confident and enthusiastic, yet hopelessly naïve - gets some of the best lines, in a performance reminiscent of that of Tim Key. It’s a great ensemble cast, clearly all friends who work well together, and is spirited, great fun and – most importantly – funny. Like Aidan’s best laid plans, it sags a little towards the end, but at just shy of ninety minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome. Great fun, and it deserves to do well. The enjoyment from the cast and crew was palpable as well, which was a delightful way to see a film for the first time.

Rating: 7.5/10


King Knight



The least FrightFest film of the whole five days, but a bloody joy. Thorn is the High Priest of a modern coven in California - caring, spiritual, inspirational – but a secret from his school past (namely he was once one of the popular kids), sees him banished from the group and forced to confront his past. And, possibly, dance.


No horror at all to speak of here, unless the thought of Aubrey Plaza voicing a pinecone fills you with any kind of dread. It’s a gentle comedy – a less gross “Grosse Point Blank” with warlocks, filled with the sort of quirky humour you’ll recognise from comedies such as Flight of the Concords. It’s been compared with Jim Hosking’s “The Greasy Strangler” but – in my opinion – doesn’t quite match the level of insanity and sheer weirdness of that.


With brief appearances by horror stalwart Barbara Crampton (screaming her ever reliable lungs out) and Ray Wise as Merlin (“He’s my favourite fucking wizard”), it’s sweet, strange and life-affirming.

Rating: 8.5/10


Sound of Violence


Having its UK premiere at FrightFest, “Sound of Violence” tells the tale of Alexis, a music student who saw her family die brutally at the hands of their father, shellshocked with PTSD having returned from a military tour of duty. The experience awakened something within her; a bizarre orgasmic synaesthesia of colours whenever she witnesses acts of extreme violence. Like Brian and Aylmer in Frank Henenlotter’s “Brain Damage”, her craving for this experience drives her to depraved and murderous ends.


As well as her musical talents, the audience must suspend their disbelief a little in that she’s a master engineer as well, crafting elaborate musical/torture instruments to fulfil her violent needs. That might make it all sound a little “Saw: The Musical”, but it’s classier than that. I think I found it harder to sympathise with the lead than the director intended, but it was a great debut with some stand out set-pieces – with a particularly wince-inducing scene involving a harp with razor-sharp strings.


The director, Alex Noyer, was a little emotional at the conclusion of the film – and who can blame him, having his feature debut shown on a screen three storeys tall. “Sound of Violence” is something he should be very proud of, with an original premise that gave us something a little different.

Rating: 7/10


Evie



Dominic Brunt is no stranger to FrightFest, having had a number of his premieres there. We were first made aware of his work in the brilliant “Before Dawn”, his relationship drama with zombies thrown into the mix. This time he’s sharing directorial duties with Jamie Lundy, from his story which has been adapted into a screenplay by Dominic.


The film – the world premiere - was introduced by the pair of them, clearly visibly moved by how many people had come to see the film. Jamie discussed how the inspiration for the story came from his own battles with alcoholism and mental illness, and the film began to enthusiastic applause – Brunt is clearly well-loved in the FrightFest community, and rightfully so.


Evie, upon finding a mysterious talisman washed up on the beach near her home, begins acting troubled – violent towards a classmate on a school trip, abusive towards her mother. We then skip forward in Evie’s life where she’s ricocheting between drunken nights and one-night stands, her only real friend a woman she works with. She contacts her estranged brother Tony, and we learn of the tragedy that befell her family in the intervening years. It’s a reunion that will ultimately open barely healed scars, and end in tragedy.


It’s a retelling of the infrequently told Selkie myth and looks stunning. The seascapes are panoramic and oppressive, and the performance by the two leads – Hollie Dempsey and Jay Taylor as Evie and Tony respectively – is incredible: so natural, honest, and painful. An appearance by genre favourite Michael Smiley as Father Robert - priest, and friend of the family - tops it all off. Joanne Mitchell brilliantly plays the mother of Evie and Tony, all pent-up frustration at her daughters’ behaviour and weary resignation. The tragic nature of the story could so easily have made it fall into Shane Meadows territory, but despite the bleakness of theme, there’s a certain lightness to it and a dark humour that penetrates the misery. The rolling oceans and bleak landscapes are as much a character as any of the humans that inhabit this tale, and it may well give you a new fear of the depths. I think – rarely - in this case I’d have preferred a tad more ambiguity to the ending, but other than that minor gripe, I can’t fault it.

Rating: 9/10


The Retaliators


Hi, its Tara again. Here is the other film that David didn’t see. The Retaliators promo stuff was great, bags, tee shirts and baseball caps along with stickers and badges. There was also a vox pop thing afterward where you could put over your thoughts. I did one. If you see a redhaired woman wearing a dress with eyeballs on it, its ME!


The makers of The Retaliators really like rock music, so much so that this film has cameos from rock musicians and bands such as Five Finger Death Punch, Tommy Lee (playing a strip club DJ playing Girls Girls Girls by Mötley Crüe), Jacoby Shaddix from Papa Roach and Spencer Charnas from horror movie parody song band Ice Nine Kills.


FrightFest was the world premiere of The Retaliators and so just before the film began, we saw a zoom call that Greg (one of the FF organisers) had recorded with various cast members, the aforementioned Jacoby Shaddix and Spencer Charnas, Michael Lombardi who plays the main protagonist Bishop, Katie Kelly who plays Bishop’s daughter and Marc Menchacha who plays the grizzled old world-weary cop, Jed. It was a lovely thing to see the

actors genuinely excited for the film to premiere at FF and their enthusiasm was infectious.

We open with two young women in a van on a road trip. Of course they get a flat tyre and so of course something bad is going to happen to one of not both of them. A group of what look like escaped lunatics (all bloodied and bitey) approach and it doesn’t end well for the young women.

Elsewhere, John Bishop is a widowed cool Pastor (rock bands in church!) raising two daughters, Sarah (Kelly) and Rebecca (Abbey Hafer). They have a lovely relationship, him being a genuine nice guy although perhaps a little too nice. In one scene at the Xmas tree lot, Kevin Smith alumnus Bryan O’Halloran takes the Xmas tree Sarah and her family had selected. Rather than stand up to the bully, Bishop just lets it go, prompting his eldest to ask why he didn’t stand up for his daughters.


Meanwhile, we see a wheelchair bound fellow enter a garage. He’s doing a drug deal with a Very Bad Man. The deal doesn’t go well for him.


Later, Bishop allows Sarah to go to a party, after she’d practically begged him to let her go. As she gets to the gas station to fill up the car, she comes across the Very Bad Man. After hearing sounds of someone banging from the inside of his car trunk, they catch each other’s gaze and Sarah drives off, trying to get away. The Very Bad Man catches up to her, runs her off the road, zip ties her hands to the steering wheel and pushes the car into a lake.


Bishop is devastated at losing his daughter and Jed, the detective, comes into his life to help solve the crime but to offer Bishop an opportunity.

I won’t mention too much more, but if you like bloody gore, rock music and the most creative use of a piece of jewellery that almost made me puke, then this is for you.

Rating: 6.5/10


Slapface



We’d only learned of Slapface a few days before, as the director/writer Jeremiah Kipp had featured in “The Brilliant Terror”. I’d wrongly assumed that Slapface was also from the school of grass roots horror film making so was intrigued by what that would look like on the big screen. Naïve of me – Kipp has an IMDB credit list as long as your arm – even more so if you’ve got a particularly long arm.


Lucas (looking uncannily like a young Finn Wolfhard) lives with his brother Tom in their home in the woods. With their parents having died in an accident, Tom is forced to bring up his younger sibling, something he’s finding increasingly difficult as Lucas goes more and more off the rails. To placate a trio of female bullies, Lucas is forced to enter a nearby dilapidated building where he meets something quite monstrous – the two strike up an unusual relationship, one which will change the lives of everybody in the boy’s world.


“Slapface” was an absolute triumph. In my arrogance, I’d mentally began criticizing the director’s choice of revealing the monster – and too much of it - too early, but I couldn’t have been any more wrong. Even familiarity with it doesn’t dampen its impact – in fact its presence removes any hint that it’s a metaphor. As Kipp said in his introduction, it’s a monster – plain and simple.


The two leads are terrific – you could have removed any trace of the supernatural from the story, and I’d have been equally as captivated. It’s a story about irreparably damaged people doing awful things to one another – sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly - and its bleak, compellingly beautiful, and broke my heart.

Rating: 9/10


The Sadness


We’re all bored of zombie films by now, aren’t we? Pardon the pun, but they’ve all been done to death. Occasionally something comes along with a novel take on the genre that shakes it up a bit, but for every “Train to Busan” there’s another dozen straight-to-streaming Walking Dead variants.


Admittedly the antagonists in “The Sadness” aren’t zombies but rabidly angry maniacs (“28 Days/Weeks Later”, anybody?) but the premise is the same – humans fighting or locking themselves into siege against overwhelming and growing numbers of things that want to eat you. Or in “The Sadness” eat and rape you – hopefully, for the victim, in that order.


It was the last film, so saw a packed cinema. The posters declared it “the most violent and depraved zombie movie ever made”, which you have to agree is a pretty bold claim. The writer/director Rob Jabbaz introduced it, stating that the film was made by Machi Xcelsior Studios “which is funded by crypto and camgirls, so if you’ve ever jerked off to a camgirl, you helped make this film get made and made this man very happy.”


It starts sedately enough, following boyfriend and girlfriend Jim and Kat, preparing for the day, arguing over holidays – all very kitchen-sink and ill warning for the madness ahead. There’s nice Mister Lin from next door with some fresh Thai Basil for them! And because we’re doomed to have COVID influences in every film made in the foreseeable future, it’s set during a pandemic where the virus is feared to mutate.


Man, does it mutate. The not-zombies-but-people-suddenly-driven-by-their-base-instincts make their play in a crowded café, throwing a pan of hot fat over the chef and clawing away at his bubbling burning face. “The Sadness” is a succession of increasingly violent and depraved set pieces – including a particularly shocking scene on board a packed subway train.


It’s great. And there’s just enough rumination on the human spirit and the nature of conscious thought to provide something apart from the eyeball gouging, blood-soaked orgies and grenades thrust into mouths. There’s more of a tendency towards sexual violence than I’d like, but – unlike the rest of the visceral blood flowing – it’s mostly implied rather than shown. A great crowd-pleaser and an ideal way to finish a horror festival where – with certainly many of the films I saw – veered more towards ambiguity, metaphor, and atmosphere.

Rating: 8/10


So, that’s it. our first FrightFest, and hopefully the first of many. Although if they all feature films like “The Sadness”, my heart might not hold out that long. The Digital FrightFest event (where you can see many of the films mentioned above) runs from the 1st to the 5th of September.

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