Halloween FrightFest 2021 round-up first published by Sight & Sound
For its first time, this year’s Halloween FrightFest spanned two days, with a total of nine features (including John Campopiano & Chris Griffiths’ exhaustive, embargoed documentary Pennywise, on the making of the 1990 teleseries It). My top three picks come last.
The Seed (2021)
Vapid vlogger Deidre (Lucy Martin) and the more grounded Charlotte (Chelsea Edge) join friend Heather (Sophie Vavasseur) at her father’s luxury pad in the desert. The “once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower” that this sex-hungry trio witnesses makes it rain men – or at least an “ass-stinking dead bear” under whose alien spell Deidre and Heather soon fall, with only Charlotte left to stop its seed spreading to the world beyond.
Taking its visual cues from Society (1989), The Neon Demon (2016) and Revenge (2017), Sam Walker’s increasingly grotesque feature debut is as much a satire of online narcissism and viral toxicity as an alien invasion flick, as these earth girls prove all too easy in the face of outside influence.
The Possessed (2021)
Gifted with a talent to identify and ‘clear’ the demons that afflict people, ‘accidental exorcist’ Jacob Chandler (John Jarratt) has noticed that his community is being visited by ever more otherworldly entities. Accordingly Chris Sun‘s latest feature is not unlike Odd Thomas (2013) – except that it is very loosely based on a true story, and its Australian protagonist, in all his advancing years and modest ordinariness, is the very opposite of Odd.
Despite a number of creatures conjured through practical effects and CGI, for the most part this is a human hangout film, as we follow Jacob and the crew assembling around him in a repetitive if escalating routine of ‘clearings’. With even the demons being little more than mischief makers, this comes surprisingly without much sense of peril, or even of narrative closure – but with plenty of good-natured charm.
Last Survivors (aka SHTF, 2021)
This story of a father and son surviving off-grid against an outside world of “chaos and marauders” might seem a cabin-bound reimagining of the post-apocalyptic The Road (2009), but Drew Mylrea’s feature is more akin to The Village (2004). For Troy (Stephen Moyer) is a fantasist who has long been filling the head of his abducted son Jake (Drew Van Acker) with wild tales of World War III – and who kills anyone threatening to let reality intrude.
Adolescent Jake takes his first steps alone beyond the remote property, and has his first sexual experience – with a similarly reclusive neighbour (Alicia Silverstone) old enough to be his mother – but Jake’s disillusionment, and inevitable confrontation with daddy, also form part of these Oedipal rites of passage.
Ironies abound in Álex de la Iglesia‘s latest. A text disclaimer at the beginning promises both a work of fiction and elements of truth. A man disguised as a jester murders tourists in public while being cheered on for his supposedly staged performances. And even as all the most picturesque sights and clichéd pastimes of Venice are celebrated, the film simultaneously serves as anti-touristic propaganda (however tongue-in-cheek). This crazy, contradictory, carnivalesque spirit of the city is captured in the very title, a portmanteau on the Spanish for ‘schizophrenia’.
Five Spaniards on a bachelorette trip fall foul of a masked movement designed to halt cruise tours to the city, even as an insane member of the protest group goes bloodily rogue. What ensues is all at once slasher and operatic giallo, in which viewers – ourselves the rubber-necking tourists of cinema – will feel split between wanting the obnoxious foreign visitors equally to survive and to die.
Miracle Valley (2021)
Bird photographer David (Greg Sestero) travels to the Arizona backwoods, hoping to snap a rare hawk, but runs afoul of a murderous cult planning to exploit his girlfriend Sarah’s unique blood type, even as the cultists’ leader also exploits them in a for-profit scheme that never fully makes sense.
Sestero is best known for starring in Tommy Wiseau’s famously terrible The Room (2003), and a decade later for chronicling the experience in his (now filmed) book The Disaster Artist. Perhaps Sestero’s debut as writer/director seeks to replicate The Room‘s peculiar effect, leaving the viewer unsure whether its tone-deaf awfulness is a product of unhinged sincerity or knowing irony.
“Me and you against the world,” Adam (Iwan Rheon) tells Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) in Charles Dorfman’s assured feature debut, “And if anyone gets in our way, I’ll just shoot them to death”. The last person anyone would expect to engage in violence, snivelling urbanised milquetoast Adam is only joking.
Yet even as the couple’s forenames may suggest an Edenic idyll, the refurbished country home where they hope to live together forever has its fair share of bestial intruders: wild foxes entering the premises, aggressive alpha dog property developer Lucas (Tom Cullen) over for dinner with his pregnant girlfriend Chloe (Inès Spiridonov), and determined men in animal masks circling outside. As secrets out, hallucinogens kick in and chaos reigns, civilised-seeming birthday boy Adam and those around him will discover divided Britain’s barbarian side.
In actress Romola Garai’s feature debut as writer/director, one-time border guard Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), hailing from a wartorn European country, is now an illegal in England, where trauma and guilt about his past have him binding his own wrists before going to sleep. In exchange for room and board, Tomaz accepts a maintenance job in a large dilapidated house where another foreigner, Magda (Carla Juri), looks after her ailing, wheezing mother upstairs.
This is both haunted house and haunted man movie, as mutant bats in the plumbing and other monstrosities in the shadows all accommodate the secrets that Tomas himself carries within, until he is at last ready to bring them to term and let them bloodily out. In this brooding, atmospheric, ultimately transgressive mystery of mothers and martyrs, we witness destiny, cult and divine (but also self-inflicted) punishment playing out their never-ending ritual.
The Innocents (De uskyldige, 2021)
Easily my favourite of the festival’s titles, this latest from writer/director Eskil Vogt (Blind, 2014) is a story in which the exclusion and bullying so often experienced by young children are amplified – and to a degree allegorised – by the addition of superpowers.
Four marginalised pre-adolescents living on a Norwegian estate discover that their nascent telepathy, telekinesis and mind control increase when they are in proximity to each other. What starts as friendship quickly turns to war as the only male in the group, the damaged Ben (Sam Ashraf), starts using these newfound abilities to express his more sadistic impulses, so that Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), and sweet-natured Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) find themselves at mortal risk.
Drawing its title from Jack Clayton’s 1961 horror classic of horrific threat to young children, and its themes of terrifying child empowerment from Chronicle (2012), Brightburn (2019) and Thelma (2017) – the last co-written by Vogt – this film uses its genre frame to show the connectedness, curiosity and cruelty of its young characters, and also asks whether the inevitable loss of innocence at this age is a slate that can ever simply be cleaned.