FrightFest 2023

Endless Cycles and Eternal Returns: Pigeon Shrine FrightFest 2023

Pigeon Shrine FrightFest 2023 takes place 24th-28th August. Festival and day passes go on sale from 15 July. Individual tickets to films will follow on 22 July.   

Horror, like history, is circular and backward-looking. Traumas recur, the repressed returns, the dead come back, tropes and conventions die hard, old titles are remade, reimagined and rebooted. It is a genre which, even as it moves forward, always casts a nervous eye back and looks behind itself for essentially the same old demons and monsters in pursuit, even if they come metamorphosed and updated. Our anxieties, our innate vulnerability and mortality, do not really ever get resolved or simply go away – and horror charts their persistent, insistent, inevitable comeback.  

The UK’s foremost horror festival, FrightFest, also runs in circles, ever evolving, yet somehow always returning to its primal scenes. Its original home, back when it was a single-screen event at the turn of the millennium, was the Prince Charles Cinema, after which it moved to Odeon West End – but it first established itself as a multi-screen event at Leicester Square’s mighty Empire in 2009, and despite ventures to VUE in Leicester Square (and one year even in Shepherd’s Bush), it has since returned to a refurbished ‘Empire’ (now Cineworld) and a similarly refurbished if not renamed Prince Charles Cinema. This year, despite the main sponsor changing to Pigeon Shrine, once again there are notable returns to the past. For the first time since 2013, it will take place only at the ‘Empire’, and again for the first time since 2013, everyone will be in a single screen for the festival’s main programme, while three ‘discovery’ strands will be spread across separate screens in the same Cineworld space. One can expect the usual murder, madness and mayhem, but this time, we will all be in it together (again). 

  FrightFest opens with the return of longtime festival favourite Joe Lynch, whose Suitable Flesh is “a lovingly batshit resurrection of Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraftian spirit”, starring (and produced by) another FrightFest favourite, Barbara Crampton. It closes with the European première of The Sacrifice Game, directed by Jenn Wexler, here coming full circle given that her feature debut The Ranger opened FrightFest back in 2018. Indeed one of the ways festival-goers can navigate their way through the dizzying features on offer (including 24 world, 12 international, 12 European première and 12 UK premières) is to stick with what – and who – they know and like. You might, for example, be drawn to a filmmaker’s proven history in horror, like the Adams family here with Where The Devil Roams, Xavier Gens here with Farange, Sean Hogan with To Fire You Come At Last, Erik and Carson Bloomquist (here with holiday slasher Founders Day), Graham Hughes with Hostile Dimensions, Takeshi Kushida with My Mother’s Eyes, Stewart Sparke with How To Kill Monsters, or even Marcel Walz with That’s a Wrap. You might even want to seize a rare opportunity to watch classics like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973 – naturally introduced by Mark Kermode), Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) return to the big screen.

Takeshi Kushida’s My Mother’s Eyes

Still, while FrightFest is always respectful of horror’s history, part of its joy is the discovery of the new, whether it is in young directors like Alice Maio Mackay, whose debit feature So Vam (2021) was made when she was just 17, and whose third feature T Blockers represents her FrightFest first – or like The Blue Rose directed by ad starring George Baron who, at 18, is only just old enough to attend the festival. FrightFest has always been a champion of emerging filmmakers and homegrown product – and nowhere more so than in its First Blood strand, this year featuring Chris Cronin’s The Moor, Tariq Sayed’s Isaac, Tony Devlin’s The Glenarma Tapes and Dominic O’Neill’s Haunted Ulster Live – any or all of which may just prove to be the future of British horror.

Yet it is not all domestic, and festival goers can also catch films of course from America and Canada, but also from Greece (Konstantinos Koutsoliotas’s Minore), the Philippines (Richard Somes’ Topaak / Trigger), Germany (Thomas Sieben’s Home Sweet Home: Where Evil Lies), Finland (Jonaas Pajunen and Max Seeck’s The Knocking), Japan (Junta Yamaguchi’s The River), France (Quarxx’s Pandemonium) and South Korea (Jeong Yong-ki’s The Ghost Station). There will also be the usual mix of documentaries, shorts, trailers and karaoke all making their return.

I cannot make recommendations or comment on the quality of any of the programme, besides what I have already seen (Viljar Bøe’s Good Boy, Daniel Turres’ Here For Blood, Matt Vesely’s Monolith, Barnaby Clay’s The Seeding, Joe Lynch’s Suitable Flesh, Ariel Vida’s Trim Season, Zach Passero’s The Weird Kidz) – but part of the fun here is diving into FrightFest’s carefully curated selection, and losing yourself in its depths. So put on your bravest face (or at least someone else’s), try not to scream, and enjoy the long weekend of transgressive adventure. One thing I can predict: you’ll be back. For this is FrightFest’s recurring cycle of life (and of death, which in horror is seldom final).

For more details, go to FrightFest’s main site

© Anton Bitel