10 Traumatic Treats from FrightFest 2022 first published by BFI, 23 Aug 2022
Now, perhaps more than ever, we live in traumatic times. For as we see Roe v. Wade exploding long after Trump left the White House, unprecedented droughts and floods after a century of fossil fuel pollution, Ukraine invaded by Russia decades after it had gained independence from a collapsed Soviet Union, and Covid yielding Long Covid and even longer-term symptoms previously unnoticed, we can discern a pattern of cause and delayed effect, as past harm takes its sweet time to deliver the devastating consequences and forgotten history reminds us of residual pain in the present.
This is a process which horror is particularly well-suited to tracking. For it is a genre of ‘primal scenes’ – those chronologically anterior sequences, often although not exclusively set in childhood – in which a traumatising event negatively informs its character’s subsequent life. It is the genre where a character’s ingrained pain and psychological baggage are visualised, reified or made monstrous. And it is also, of course, the genre of wounds, scars and other signifiers of past injury and lasting anguish.
Trauma forms a prominent connective theme in many of my favourite films screening at this year’s Arrow FrightFest. Whether it is a sign of the times, or just a trending blip, the damage is already done and we can only bear witness to the emerging repercussions.
The Last Client (Klienten, 2022)
“Childhood traumas leave distinct marks on the client’s body, psyche and soul,” says young, intense Mark Zidenius (Anton Hjejle), reading a passage to corporate psychologist Susanne Hartmann (Signe Egholm Olsen) from her own book The Glass Child. Mark has personal experience with childhood trauma, having suffered abuse and abandonment early in his life, and having graduated at a very young age to parenticide. Now a serial killer of pregnant women, he has come to Susanne looking for answers, and as an Oedipal cat and mouse unfolds between them in Susanne’s consulting room, the older wife and mother will realise that she is in Mark’s headspace now.
Co-written by Jacob Weinrich and director Anders Rønnow Klarlund (who together pen crime novels under the pseudonym A.J. Kazinski), this is a twisty, two-handed psychothriller in which calculating Mark uses the talking cure to enact the perfect crime, and ultimately casts the viewer as uneasy moral arbiter.
When anxious influencer Cecilia (Aisha Dee), who peddles the virtues of calmness, wellness and self-care online, runs into her primary school ‘best friend forever’ Emma (Hannah Barlow), Emma immediately invites her to a hen party weekend in the outback, where ‘Sissy’ hopes to renew their once intense bond. The problem, however, is that Alex (Emily de Margheriti), the bully who drove a wedge between them in the playground many years ago, will also be there, and her presence is set to reopen old wounds, even if, curiously, it is Alex rather than Sissy who bears the scars of their last brief encounter.
Barlow and Kane Senes co-write and co-direct a darkly unhinged comic tale of arrested adulthood, pitched (in pastel pink) somewhere between Celia (1989), Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and The Loved Ones (2009), where deep grievances from a childhood trauma will leave blood on the wattle.
New Religion (2022)
Some way into Keishi Kondo’s mannered feature debut, protagonist Miyabi (Kaho Seto) gathers up the fallen parts of a bracelet that once belonged to her daughter Aoi. Later Miyabi will carefully recover the sherds of a pot that has shattered on the floor of her apartment’s balcony. Indeed ever since Aoi’s accidental death by falling three years earlier, Miyabi has been struggling to pick up the pieces and to rebuild her broken life.
While Miyabi longs for the idyllic moment, captured in a photograph, when she was with Aoi on the beach, the mysterious, moth-obsessed Oka (Satoshi Oka) pays to take piecemeal polaroids of her body parts. As Miyabi is deconstructed and reconstructed photographically, Aoi’s ghost reemerges ever more tangibly. Whether all this is a reification of maternal trauma, grief and delusion, an entomological apocalypse in imago, or a bodysnatching dream-within-a-dream, it is enigmatic, abstract, upsetting and utterly original.
In James Mark’s similarly themed feature, life is both a dream and a beach. Eileen (Sara Mitich) awakens in a strange cell and is given a series of increasingly bizarre tasks to perform within strict time limits or else, as the female voice on the tannoy insists, her young daughter Eve (Evie Loiselle) will be killed. The disoriented Eileen has amnesia, but she has partial memories of being at the sunny seaside with Eve, and will do anything to be able to return to that Edenic time, even if the arrival of her alcoholic husband Roger (George Tchortov) both in the cell and in her littoral recollections proves altogether less welcome.
While certainly a sci-fi ultimately delivering superheroics and physics-defying violence, this is also a psychodrama in which Eileen’s empowerment is the flipside of her agonised entrapment in a trauma that she seeks, paradoxically, to embrace as much as escape.
Writer/director Sébastien Blanc’s feature debut is, in keeping with its title, a cerebral updating of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, and even features a female character named Shelley – but at its heart lies a traumatic incident figured, in the surreal opening sequence, as a young man (Tobi King Bakare) bound to a chair by his mother (Ramona von Pusch) at the scene of a backroad car accident.
In fact William Blackwell is in a coma having a nightmare, but once he has awoken and, still physically and mentally damaged, gone home with his neurologist father (Steve Oram), both will, in their different ways, try to bring back the beloved wife/mother who is now a mere ghostly absence in their domestic lives. As recriminations, hubris and Oedipal conflict build, more than one kind of monster will surface and all the film’s horrors will come down to family ties that bind.
Addison Heimann’s feature debut is regularly punctuated with scenes where adult potter Will (Zach Villa) visits different doctors, all of whom diagnose his complex symptomatology as psychosomatic, with ‘stress’ at its core. Indeed the film is a kind of diagnostic chart of a man who, aged 10, was forced to howl in a wolf suit by his mentally ill mother (Marlene Forte) and, during one of her more manic episodes, nearly strangled to death. Now 28 and in a stable relationship with his boyfriend (Devon Graye), Will seems well-adjusted, but when his estranged mother tries to reestablish contact, all the old trauma comes rushing back as Will shoulders his mother’s psychological legacy.
Will’s pathologies, both real and imagined, assume the form of a lycanthropic companion – a hybrid expression of his dual child and adult selves united in both conflict and partnership. For inside him there are two wolves…
A Wounded Fawn (2022)
In his feature debut the ghost story The Girl on the Third Floor (2019), Travis Stevens showed a man falling victim to his own toxic masculinity and a history of misogyny. Now for his third feature he returns to these themes, only with art and ancient myth modelling a modern bad man’s undoing. Still recovering from the trauma of three years in an abusive relationship, museum gallery curator Meredith Tanning (Sarah Lind) ventures out on her first date since, but does not know what we know: that Bruce Ernst (Josh Ruben), who shares her love of fine art, is a ritualistic serial killer.
Dominated by Hellenistic statuary figuring the Erinyes’ vindictive persecution of Orestes, and filled with characters whose surnames coincide with twentieth-century dadaists and surrealists (and with imagery that brings these artists’ nightmarish paintings to life), this mannered revenger’s tragedy suggests that Hell hath no Furies like a woman traumatised.
The Ones You Didn’t Burn (2022)
“I feel so guilty,” says Nathan (Nathan Wallace) to his sister Mirra (Jenna Rose Sander), as they contemplate, now that their estranged father has drowned himself, selling off land that has been in their family for generations. Yet when these siblings return to the Upstate New York property to settle things, Nathan, already struggling with nightmares of drowning, comes to believe that the land is ‘cursed’ and that daddy’s death was suspicious.
Heir not just to ill-gotten lands, but also to his father’s addictions and broader principles of patriarchy, Nathan suffers from a guilt as much collective as individual, rooted in a landed history of misogyny and massacre. As he unravels, Mirra forms a sisterhood with locals Alice (writer/director Elise Finnerty) and Scarlett (Estelle Girard Parks), sowing a new, all-female future for the place. Meanwhile Scarlett’s nickname ‘Scar’ is indicative of trauma sustained, long endured and perhaps finally healing.
The Leech (2022)
In Eric Pennycoff’s second feature, the obvious candidate for ‘leech’ is Terry (Jeremy Gardner), a homeless, godless hellraiser who, along with his pregnant girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke), takes advantage of the hospitality of upright, uptight Father David (Graham Skipper). Yet the parasitic relationship that forms between priest and his profane houseguests proves bidirectional, as they share food, drink, drugs and beds together, and as David at last has a captive congregation for his endless, increasingly deranged sermons.
Both a son of God and a momma’s boy whose inherited home is dominated by crucifixes and portraits of his late mother’s ever-watching ‘bulldog’ visage, David is a casebook study in Freudian repression and Biblical fanaticism. As his psychosexual hangups reveal themselves, this deeply damaged manchild comes over all at once as Jesus, the Devil and overbearing matriarch, while pushing his pro-life line in paradoxically murderous fashion. His trauma is also contemporary America’s.
The Harbinger (2022)
My favourite of this year’s FrightFest films is set in a recent but almost wilfully forgotten past, when the Coronavirus’ first wave was decimating New York’s elderly, with no vaccine yet in sight.
Monique ‘Mo’ Cartwright (Gabby Beans) and her brother (Myles Walker) have formed a tight-knit bubble around their widowed, immuno-compromised father (Raymond Anthony Thomas) in the family home upstate, when Mo gets a call from old college mate Mavis (Emily Davis) asking for help. Without hesitation, Mo returns to the City’s zone of infection, and to her friend plagued by a condition which will prove even more dangerous than Covid: a dream demon whose victims, once taken, are wiped from everyone else’s memory as though they never existed.
Playing on panic and pandemonium, alienation and oblivion, Andy Mitton’s latest harrowing feature addresses a collective trauma: the gaping hole left by the thousands who died during the pandemic without proper closure or funerary memorial, and are now reduced to impersonal statistics and ghostly memories. Here the devil is an anxious idea (of existential emptiness and annihilation) which, once implanted, never leaves – and so it will keep haunting us too, long after the film is over, lest we forget.