Rituals and Cycles of Grief

Rituals and cycles of grief: 10 picks from FrightFest 2021

Rituals and cycles of grief: 10 picks from FrightFest 2021 first published as a preview piece for BFI

Includes capsules of: Post Mortem, Slapface, Offseason, Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night, Hotel Poseidon, Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes, The Unburied, Coming Home In The Dark, Ultrasound, Broadcast Signal Intrusion

Grief is an essential part of mortality – and of the human condition – but we seem right now to be living in a period where it is heightened. Pandemic has spread chronic illness and death through the world’s populace, directly affecting many with its contagion, leaving others confused about when and how to move on, and locking us all into a bunkered, sometimes blinkered mindset. At some point there will need to be a reckoning of the toll – physical, emotional, spiritual – that the Coronavirus has taken on us all, individually and collectively, even if for the time being we may still be stuck in the middle and unable yet to glimpse a way out of the darkness. 

Naturally horror can help show the way, furnishing imaginary scenarios that allow viewers to process vicariously their unresolved, negative feelings. So it is perhaps no surprise that this year’s FrightFest, returning to a hybrid live/digital event after last year’s fully online lockdown editions, boasts a number of excellent films that depict characters working through grief and guilt about the past. 

Post Mortem (2020)

The film that chimes most closely with our own times is, ironically, Péter Bergendy’s period piece in which Tomás (Viktor Klem), having died and miraculously revived on the battlefields of the Great War, now travels the Hungarian hinterlands as a ‘post mortem photographer’, posing the dead for final portraits to bring closure to their families. It is therapeutic work, and now that the Spanish ‘flu pandemic is finishing off so many who survived the war, business is good. 

As a winter-bound village’s unburied dead start to have a baleful influence on the living, Tomás forms a ghost-busting team with local young orphan Anna (Fruzsina Hais), who has herself survived a near-death experience. This odd couple dives deep into the villagers’ fragile psyches, using then cutting-edge (and now outmoded) photo- and phonographic equipment to capture the spirit(s) of the times, and offering a charming if creepy promise of gradual community recovery.

Slapface (2021)

Living in dysfunction out on a small town’s woodland margins, pre-adolescent Lucas (August Maturo) and his older brother Tom (Mike Manning) are gripped with unaddressed grief and guilt. Unwilling to discuss or confront the circumstances of their parents’ death, they have developed the game ‘slapface’ as an unhealthy, abusive outlet for their emotions – but it is not enough, and while Tom seeks solace in alcoholism (like their dad), damaged, vulnerable Lucas instead, in an improvised, ritualised attempt to contact their mother, conjures local legend the shape-shifting, child-killing ‘Virago witch’ (Lukas Hassel) and makes a possibly imaginary, certainly dangerous companion for his own cruel coming of age.

Writer/director Jeremiah Kipp has crafted an ambiguous film of mourning gone wrong, as a neglected boy’s transgressive rites of passage play out simultaneously as supernatural tale and psychodrama, with a murderous monster emerging as much from within as from without, and brothers’ festering feelings being viciously fought out. 

Offseason (2021)

Still reeling from the recent death of her mother Ava (Melora Walters), and confused as to why the body has been taken, against Ava’s express wishes, back to the coastal island of Lone Palm where she grew up, Marie (Jocelin Donahue) heads there with her boyfriend George (Joe Swanberg). Arriving just as the last summer tourists leave and locals are battening down the hatches, Marie finds herself trapped in the place’s strange seasonal cycle, in an ever-negotiated boundary between land and sea that matches the waves of her grief. 

Lone Palm is where personal and cosmic horror meet on the infinite shoreline. For in this liminal, littoral location closed off from the world, suspended in time and lost to the darkness, writer/director Mickey Keating resurrects the spirits of Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter and H.P. Lovecraft for a retro-layered reimagining of the myth of Persephone.

Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night (Nocturna – Lado A – La Noche del Hombre Grande) (2021)

“Every day is the same,” complains ninety-something Ulises (Pepe Soriano) to his wife Dalia (Marilú Marini), as they cycle through their banal routines in a Buenos Aires apartment. Yet writer/director Gonzalo Calzada is about to take doddery, demented Ulises on an internalised odyssey through his receding memories and hidden regrets. For as a mysterious woman comes knocking on the door, our ancient hero will be forced to confront some home truths, and to redress (at least in his head) past wrongs that have taken up insistent, invasive residence in his addled conscience.

Falling somewhere between Michael Haneke‘s Love (2012) and Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020), and playing hide and seek with the emotions, this long, dark night of the soul sends Ulises on a mystical round-trip home to his long-lost wife and family, before letting him finally make peace with the grief and guilt that haunt his wandering, rapidly emptying mind.

Hotel Poseidon (2021)

Living in an inherited hotel that has long since closed its doors to the public, Dave (Tom Vermeir) is, like the building that accommodates him, a bedraggled wreck, trapped in his own squalor and neglect, and locked in from any kind of future outside. He is also arrested by sorrow, whether for the father who died in the hotel when Dave was a child, or for the aunt who has more recently succumbed to a long illness, and whose corpse remains – like Dave – on the premises.

Stefan Lernous’s feature debut is a surreal day and night in the life, showing an oppressed, alienated man’s stasis in a place of hospitality more normally associated with passing through. Dave may retreat into ever more dreamlike flights of fancy but, in this bleak portrait of crippling grief, proves unable to break the cycle of decline or to check out from his self-imposed entombment.

Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes (Hinter den Augen die Dämmerung) (2021)

Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes

Perhaps more optimistic about the possibility of breaking cycles is Kevin Kopacka’s backward-looking feature, which begins with a couple trapped all at once in a hoary old castle that one of them has inherited, in the passé stylisations of late Sixties Euro-gothic, and in their own dysfunctional relationship, all under the watchful eyes of the resident undead. 

Then the film shifts to a different, if equally haunted, scenario in the same location. Endless narrative layers and variations in a retro-furnished castle merge with a different kind of eternity, staging and restaging an old story of male treachery and female liberation. In this metacinematic hall of mirrors, characters whose every step seems prescribed and well-rehearsed will need to rewrite the screenplay if they hope ever to see in the mo(u)rning and move on. 

The Unburied (El cadáver insepulto) (2021)

When the patriarch of an all-male orphanage (and working slaughterhouse) suddenly dies, cash-strapped psychiatrist Dr Maximiliano Espósito (Demián Salomón) is drawn back from Buenos Aires to the rural home where he was unhappily raised, all on the promise of a much-needed inheritance. Yet this legacy will turn out to be not merely economic, but a meaty mix of nature and nurture, as the conflicted, urbanised ‘Maxi’ finds himself competing with his ‘brothers’ in a bizarre boys’ game – involving their adoptive father’s unburied corpse – that will determine who becomes the new head of the house and pillar of the community.

  Writer/director Alejandro Cohen Arazi’s film shows a man mourning his lost past, facing his patrimony and finally accepting a part of himself that he has long rejected, all though a cultic, carnal ritual that restores a dysfunctional family to its former, self-perpetuatingly toxic state of masculinity.

Coming Home In The Dark (2021)

James Ashcroft’s feature debut concerns a round trip. Middle-class, middle-aged high-school teachers Alan (Erik Thomson) and Jill (Miriama McDowell) drive out with their two teen sons for a hike in the wilds, and then return as captives of the armed and horrifically vicious Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), who wish to teach Alan a lesson in how the social exclusion, criminality and sociopathy of their lives is intimately connected to the privilege of his own. 

On this long drive through the dark, a past that Alan had thought he had long left behind catches up with him. Here the unresolved grief belongs to the young abductors, while Alan is a small but significant part of its cause – and as the car speeds towards a different home from which it set out, the circle is never fully closed. 

Ultrasound (2021) 

Like rats in a maze, a number of disparate people play out contrived, even clichéd scenarios, all linked by pregnancy – and the viewer is, at least at first, no less confused and disoriented than the characters as to what is real, to what degree they are being gaslit, manipulated and brainwashed, and who exactly is pulling the strings. For here different interests – scientific, political, military, personal – vie for control over a narrative that is fast coming to term.

Rob Schroeder’s mesmeric mystery might at first seem an odd fit here, but its portrayal of people so trapped in escapist routines and displacement activities that they are no longer able even to grasp the reality of what they have lost, makes this, among other things, a study of misdirected, misunderstood mourning for an irrecoverable past. 

Broadcast Signal intrusion (2021)

“Grief can be a tricky thing.” observes one character in my favourite film from this year’s FrightFest – and grief radiates from the film’s very centre to impose an oneiric order on the world’s chaos. 

It is 1999, and in his profession as a video archivist, James (Harry Shum Jr) is expert at processing the past – except in his personal life. After the disappearance of his wife three years earlier, James is still caught in a free fall of guilt, denial and despair over her loss, and unable to plug the emptiness left by her absence. So when he chances upon a tape of a bizarrely overcoded broadcast signal intrusion from 1987, he willingly, wilfully plunges down a rabbit-hole of conspiracy theory, hoping to find an alternative narrative which will both explain his wife’s fate (even if he already has a more economic, less thrilling explanation) and to give him a channel to resolve his sense of anger and injustice. Yet the deeper he goes into this strange, shadowy world, the more he seems to be digging his own grave. 

Expanded by screenwriters Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall from their 2016 short film of the same name, Jacob Gentry’s feature is a story of spiralling descent, as James goes in manic search of a meaning for his mourning which the real world may simply be incapable of furnishing – until, like Oedipus, he becomes what he fears. 

Anton Bitel