FrightFest is an international festival, opening its doors to horror of any accent – but it is has also always been a keen supporter of local product. You can already find full reviews of Wyndham Price’s Crow, Kate Shenton’s Egomaniac, Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s Cruel Summer, Steve Barker’s The ReZort, Ben Parker’s Chamber and Andy Edwards’ Ibiza Undead on this site; but here are some briefer capsules of other British features that enjoyed their world première at this year’s FrightFest.
The Creature Below
Owing to a teaser prologue in which a woman, crouching and terrified in the dark, has only a cigarette lighter as protection from the tentacular creature that menaces her, it is clear from the outset that Stewart Sparke’s The Creature Below is headed in Lovecraftian directions. Yet after Marine Biologist Dr Olive Crown (Anna Dawson) returns home from a deep-sea dive that went wrong (and that she can only partially remember), this pre-apocalyptic shocker brings an insulated domestic focus to the rise of the Great Old Ones. Olive discovers that she has brought a strange egg back with her from the oceanic abyss, and secretly mothers it down in the basement, without letting either her boyfriend Matthew (Daniel Thrace) or her sister Ellie (Michaela Longdon) know what is going on.
The result is a peculiar blend of Alien (monstrous hatchlings), Basket Case (“What have you got in your basement?”) and Hellraiser (woman lures humans as food for her loved one). The Creature Below may be pointing the way towards a grand cataclysm, but then, maternity is transformative, and having children is always the end of the world as their parents know it.
Let’s Be Evil
Most of Let’s Be Evil, Martin Owen’s second feature after LA Slasher (2015), is shot from the multiple first-person perspectives of high-tech glasses worn by its characters, transforming the principal location (the large basement of a corporate building) into the ‘enhanced’ virtual learning ‘Facility’ for children in a pioneering programme, the ‘Posterity Project’. Two sequences at the beginning – primal scenes, if you will – alone differ from this pattern by being shot ‘objectively’. In the first, a little girl ether witnesses, or herself perpetrates, the murder of her father in the shower; and in the second, Jenny (Elizabeth Morris) receives a call at home informing her that she can start work as a ‘chaperone’ at the Facility – a job that the experienced childminder takes to pay her ailing mother’s medical bills.
Jenny descends to the basement, dons her glasses, and joins fellow chaperones Kara Tointon’s ‘Tiggs’ – expressly an abbreviation of Antigone, the immured heroine of Greek tragedy – and Elliot James Langridge’s Darby in the Facility. There, guided by virtual reality spectre Arial (voiced by Natasha Moore), they are introduced to a brave new world of hive-mind superschooling, and Jenny forms a tentative bond with Cassandra (Isabelle Allen; the poster for Let’s Be Evil playfully mirrors Allen’s image from the poster of Les Misérables). Yet one of these wired-up, hyperintelligent young wards is the little girl from the opening shower scene, now older and working through her traumas and abnormal drives in the virtual world – which makes Let’s Be Evil a cyberpunk Psycho.
There is plenty to admire in the ambitious high concept of Let’s Be Evil, speculating on the augmented future of pedagogy and the dangers of online psychopathy – but once the children have turned on their minders, the film’s big ideas sadly get lost in seemingly endless scenes of adults running down hallways, hiding in rooms, and scurrying through crawlspaces, all of which, whether real or virtual, is numbingly clichéd. By the time you get to the mindmelt ending, the need to go back once more down, over and through those narrative corridors in order just to work out wtf, is no longer so appealing.
The Unkindness of Ravens
As Lord of Tears (2013) demonstrated, Scots director Lawrie Brewster likes his human-avian hybrid monsters, and for his second feature The Unkindness of Ravens, one man’s frayed psyche births a diabolical flock of bird-masked creatures whom he must confront on his hard road to recovery.
Andrew (Jamie Scott Gordon) is an ex-squaddie, shell-shocked by his experiences in Afghanistan, and now living rough with his nightmares. At the suggestion of his therapist Angela (Amanda Gilliland), nature-loving Andrew heads off alone to a highlands retreat to face his demons through rambles, photography and writing – but it is not long before the war vet is having harrowing flashbacks, engaging in conversations with his uniformed double, and playing horrific war games with the monsters of his mind.
As a hallucinatory study in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, The Unkindness of Ravens puts the viewer in the mental state of its protagonist, constantly upending its folksy rural reality with avatars of anguish. Though always sensitive to its subject, unfortunately the film also captures all too well the insidious, spiralling omnipresence of PTSD, playing out one (very similar) scenario of trauma after another with a bludgeoning repetition that suggests the material might have worked better as a short film. Still, this is a crowd-funded labour of love that shows off the talents of Brewster and his crew at constructing a fully realised psychological landscape, imaginative and beautiful, from a very low budget.
Overrun by juvenile gang activity, the Hallows Estate is a socioeconomic trap where tough-acting teens and young adults play out their sense of prospectlessness through acts of theft, violence and drug-dealing, as adults look on with uncomprehending disapproval and younger children with errant admiration. Her university degree almost finished, Cassie (Sarah Akokhia) has managed to get out, but she is concerned for her younger brother Darren (Ethan Taylor), a good(ish) boy who has fallen in with a bad crowd, and is slipping through the cracks. Meanwhile, a mysterious gang is leaving tags all around threatening that they are coming on October 31st to clean the place out. When Halloween arrives, Cassie, Darren and rest of the estate’s youth find themselves under deadly attack from a large, highly organised group of assailants dressed in hessian sack masks, and determined to create a curfewed Town That Dreaded Sundown of their own.
Hoodie horror with a guessable but still harrowing twist, Hallows Eve pits two gangs against one another, each fighting over the same turf, and each, though differing from the other in terms of experience, similar in their hope, despair and loyalty for their shared community. Always sympathetic towards the predicament of its young hoodlums, this is a film as much about the betrayal of their generation as about their ensuing delinquency. Once, though, it has fully donned the mask of genre, the cat-and-mouse business in an abandoned factory spends way too long going nowhere.
The pick of all these British premières was easily Shaun Robert Smith’s Broken, a claustrophobic psychodrama about a toxic relationship between two damaged people. Broken begins with Evie (Marjane Alaoui, cleverly recast from Martyrs) pretending, for a while, to be asleep, as a male voice, coming through an intercom, naggingly insists that she come downstairs. The voice belongs to John (Mel Reida), a one-time rock star turned hard-living tetraplegic, and Evie is his live-in carer – but it will turn out that this scenario (a male voice calling, Evie reluctant to get out of bed) is an echo of a primal scene which has left Evie as mentally scarred as John is physically.
Although John and Evie are not lovers, their relationship is inevitably intimate. The first time we see them together, Evie is wiping John’s arse and cleaning shit from his bed – although she leaves his sexual needs to visiting nurse Molly (Stephanie Thomas), who likes John and is happy to earn a bit on the side. Deeply despondent, self-medicating, self-pitying and highly aggressive towards others, John is a difficult patient, and, like so many of her predecessors, Evie cannot wait to move on to a different placement – but for now, with no staff available and John at a critical stage where he is finally beginning to accept his condition, they are stuck together for a few more days. John’s endless calls for assistance never go unanswered for long, but nobody seems willing to help Evie – until, sleep-deprived and haunted by the ripples of her own past, Evie finds herself trapped and triggered by the unwelcome advances of John’s best friend Dougie (played by the screenwriter Craig Conway).
Never getting beyond the front door of the house, Broken shuts these two characters in together, locked as they are into an intense dialectic between their different kinds of trauma, and struggling to see a way through fractures that they both know can never heal. The sinuous camerwork at the beginning, tracking Evie upstairs and downstairs and from one room to another, gives way, in the explosive climax, to a series of high-angle shots that present each room of the house as a tableau of the action’s aftermath. Reminiscent of the shots in the similar finale to Taxi Driver (1976), this ceiling’s-eye view of the house is a harrowing synoptic map of the damage that the whole film has been charting – and your mind will stay in that oppressively designed house for long after Broken has played its last cycling reel.
© Anton Bitel