Eight domestic horrors – seven British – at the Halloween FrightFest 2020 first published by Sight & Sound
Though international in outlook, FrightFest has long championed genre cinema from the United Kingdom – and this year’s expanded Halloween digital edition boasts a particularly fine selection of homegrown titles. Maybe it is the polarising effects of Brexit, or the threat of the Union’s breakup and the return of a hard border to Northern Ireland, but currently films from these Isles are buzzing with the kind of tension that galvanises horror. In keeping with these Covid times, all eight of my recommendations (seven British) are also suitably housebound.
Three British films focus on home invasions. Much as head of the house Michael Henderson (Frank Jakeman) – first seen dressed as Father Christmas – recalls a time when his own father used to work down the mines before the Eighties closures, Adam Leader and Richard Oakes’ unnerving SF horror Hosts exposes a deep seam of dysfunctional fathering and familial alienation, as a Yuletide dinner at the Hendersons’ is violently disrupted by body-snatched neighbours, and home truths are excavated.
Julius Berg’s The Owners follows four young adults trying to burgle the rural pad of a sweet-seeming old couple (Sylvester McCoy, Rita Tushingham). From this chaotic clash between different classes and generations, a genre-distorted picture emerges of contemporary Britain. Here property is in the hands of senior citizens, and the have-nots are forced to keep living with their elders.
Divisions of class also feature in Will Jewell’s tense thriller Concrete Plans. Here, as exploited workers – local and foreign – decide to take back what is theirs from a similarly exploited employer, their Welsh building site becomes a microcosm for British insularity, xenophobia and dog-eat-dog rapacity, with everyone trying to rip off a corrupt London-centric system that is loaded against them.
Benny Loves You
Set mostly in its protagonist’s childhood home, Benny Loves You is Child’s Play (1988) with Chucky reimagined as an irrepressibly cute Elmo-like teddy bear which gives murderous expression to the id of its manchild owner Jack (played by writer/director Karl Holt). Benny eliminates anyone who makes Jack feel angry, jealous or humiliated, while unleashing a limited repertoire of cheery pre-recorded phrases that become ever more hilarious as the bloody body count rises. In this comic killer doll film, our hero struggles to put away childish things, even as we are left wondering whether it might be Jack’s own arrested psyche, rather than a stuffed animal, that is the real deadly danger.
Three more British titles took very different approaches to the haunted house. Chris Smith’s The Banishing offers classic gothic in a prewar 1938 setting, as a vicar (John Heffernan), the fallen woman (Jessica Brown-Findlay) he has recently married and her daughter (Anya McKenna-Bruce) move into a large parish estate (modelled on the notorious Borley Rectory) that is haunted by a history of patriarchal misogyny buried beneath its foundations. The vicious revenants within this house mirror the spectre of fascism rising beyond its walls – and the film points to a grimly repeating history that continues into our own age of the alt-right, neo-Nazism and resurgent white supremacy.
Damian Mc Carthy’s extremely mannered, near silent Caveat is a puzzle-box film of entrapment, madness and revenge. Amnesiac Isaac (Jonathan French) takes a well-paid job babysitting psychologically disturbed young Olga (Leila Sykes) in a run-down property on a remote island, where Olga’s fear of men obliges him to wear a chained harness that restricts his movements around the house. He soon finds himself locked into conflict not just with Olga, but with another presence in the building. The uncannily claustrophobic design of the setting matches the tightness of the irrationally unfolding narrative in this slice of ghostly surrealism, so beautifully styled that you can practically smell the mildew-stained walls. A clear favourite.
The World We Knew
Alongside Caveat, WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s The World We Knew is my other favourite of FrightFest’s British contingent. It starts out like an English Reservoir Dogs (1992), as a criminal gang hides out at a large country house in the aftermath of a London heist gone wrong. With one of their number dead and another dying, they know that a traitor is in their midst – and this isolated residence has a special way of confronting murderers with their guilt. “You’re empty,” one gangster tells another near the film’s end. His words refer specifically to a gun’s chamber, but apply equally to the existential hollowness of all these men, haunted by bad consciences as much as phantoms. Economically told and full of lived-in performances, this bleak gangland ghost story shows toxic masculinity caught in its own limbo.
Despite this very strong run of British titles, my outright pick of the festival is American: Devereux Milburn’s Honeydew, a food-focused farmhouse freak show which riffs off Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) while repeatedly wrong-footing the viewer’s expectations. It is a familiar story, told in a defamiliarised, disorienting style, and its excruciating cavalcade of carnivorous transgressions represents the craft of unease at its most pure and perverse.