The 2019 edition of Frightfest, the UK’s biggest horror film festival, had a little something for everyone, from the mainline up on the IMAX screen (for those who had festival passes) to the more obscure offerings in the Discovery screens (mainly at London’s famous Prince Charles Cinema).
Here’s my round-up of recommendations, beginning with some awards…
Best film: Come To Daddy (dir: Ant Timpson)
Best supporting performance (male): Michael Smiley (Come to Daddy)
Come to Daddy is a gloriously twisty, unpredictable thriller/horror. It stars Elijah Wood and Martin Donovan, but it’s stolen by a deliriously unhinged Michael Smiley, who (just when things are getting gory) delivers a very unexpected joke on a distinctly 80s British subject – the best line of the fest.
The basic setup is that Elijah Wood receives a letter from his estranged father, asking him to come and join him at his beach house. To say any more would give the game away, as this is a movie whose key joys lie in all the twists and turns – so go in cold!
Best film in a Discovery screening: Haunt (dir: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck)
HAUNT slayed the audience! After being handed a flyer at a party, a bunch of teens take trip to see a backwards funfair-style haunted house. The problem is, it turns out to be even more “extreme” than advertised, as the kids are picked off one by one. Writer-directors Bryan Woods and Scott Beck also wrote A Quiet Place and they clearly have a love of ramming nails through feet and cocking shotguns. Back-to-basics horror fun, with a great hook.
Best female lead: a three way tie!
1. Samara Weaving (Ready or Not)
A star-making turn from Weaving, increasingly embracing her final girl status as the movie develops – from scream queen to sardonic shrug, she rules over this slapstick occult romp – a neat reversal of a the slasher formula in which only a couple of people are protagonists and absolutely everyone else is a killer. Cheers throughout from the pumped-up Frightfest crowd, but it’s Weaving’s performance that the movie lives or dies by, and she hits exactly the right tone – with all the precision of a crossbow bolt to the head.
2. Dora Madison (Bliss)
Bliss showcases a ferocious lead performance from Dora Madison – hip, alienated and ravenous. This movie is something like Devil’s Candy meets Ferrara’s The Addiction with a dose of grungy strung-out LA nihilism. It boasts a distinctive 16mm look, a thrashy metal soundtrack and thrashy editing to match. Great practical effects too – part of a trend of showing vampires as cannibalistic and feral.
3. Sarah Bolger (A Good Woman Is Hard to Find)
Sarah Bolger’s performance is the absolute bedrock of this Belfast-set what-would-you-do thriller. I went into this cold: it turned out to be the tale of a Belfast single mum pulled into a situation that requires bold action to resolve – with impressive use of a hammer. This was very good; strong storyline elevated by unshowy-yet-effective direction and excellent performances not only by Bolger but also Andrew Simpson as the local baddun’ who would like to use her flat as a drugs drop for stolen cocaine. The movie is at its best when they’re on screen together – their back-and-forth dialogue crackling with tension.
Best male lead: Frankie Muniz (The Black String)
Frankie Muniz is menaced by a succubus controlled by a witch coven, and picks up a sort of occult STD… or maybe he’s just psychotic. Director Brian Hanson introduced the film and name-checked Rosemary’s Baby, Black Swan, Jacob’s Ladder and Donnie Darko. Decent overall, but a great lead performance from Muniz, who does manic very well – sweating bullets, waving a knife around and insisting he’s not crazy.
Best supporting performance (female): Alison Midstokke (Happy Face)
Most moving film: Happy Face (dir: Alexandre Franchi)
Genuinely touching story of an outpatients’ facial disfigurement support group. First movie at the fest to actually move me. Importantly, the cast is made up of actors who have these real conditions; no phoney latex make-up here. A heartfelt therapy session in cinematic form that relied upon its cast to sell its premise – none more successfully to me than Alison Midstokke, giving a powerful, gutsy performance as a patient with Teacher-Collins syndrome (familiar to fans of Milly Shaprio in Hereditary).
Best jump scares: Crawl (dir: Alexandre Aja)
Alligators attack during a hurricane. Crawl delivered the most, and best, jumps of the fest – just when you relaxed, another alligator was ready to rip through a wall and devour a hapless human. This film was a cocktail of ominous music, terrible decisions, implausible animal behaviour, and character development that may as well have been signposted in flashing neon. But those jumps were strong, and they did a good job in getting Serbia to look like Florida. Plus – the cutest dog of the ‘fest!
Best lighting & set design: I Trapped The Devil (dir: Josh Lobo)
Obviously, a superb title. A man and his wife visit his reclusive brother – who turns out to think he has someone very special locked in his basement. Or does he? If you’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode The Howling Man you’ll get the general idea. This was beautifully shot, great set design: lots of Christmas lights, murky rooms, shabby-chic walls… just great to look at. As for what’s in the basement… don’t listen to it… and don’t open that door!
Best effects: Daniel Isn’t Real (dir: Adam Egypt Mortimer; effects: Baked Studios and Illusion Industries)
Daniel Isn’t Real is the story of a boy revisited by the seductive Id-like figure of his childhood imaginary friend, Daniel. It came over like HP Lovecraft’s Drop Dead Fred. I dug it – and in particular loved the practical effects for Daniel’s cosmic horror home, which resembled the Phantom Zone from Supergirl. Yet more notable Jacob’s Ladder influences too (plus lead Miles Robbins is Tim Robbins’s son!) Maybe Jacob’s Ladder is the key influence for a new wave of psychological horror?
Best spoof: The Drone (dir: Jordan Rubin)
he Drone plays like one of the later Child’s Play films, except with the titular drone instead of a doll. A dying serial killer transfers his soul to the flying device by reciting not a voodoo spell but a string of ones and zeros (says an anxious cop: “That sounds like binary!”). This was goofy old-school nonsense, with tongue firmly in cheek. You need at least one such film at a FrightFest, and (excuse me…) this drone delivers.
Special Brian De Palma homage award: Bloodline (dir: Henry Jacobson)
Brian De Palma homages everywhere in this special screening of the “unreleasably nasty” NC-17 cut of Bloodline: split diopters, split screens, & split throats. It also knowingly classic giallo stylings – black gloves, black raincoats, white architecture. Apparently Sean William Scott kept telling the director “make it darker, make it darker!” and, well, he got his wish!
Other recommendations include:
Feedback (dir: Pedro C. Alonso) – Eddie Marsan is a bloviating talk radio host, held hostage in his studio by masked goons in retaliation for his (possible) part in a Weinstein-esque incident from some years previously. What really happened that night – and who will die now? Feedback is very effective: nailbitingly tense & superbly paced. It also features Richard Brake, “The Chemist” from Mandy, who ha a great face for horror. It does, however, rely on you having an appetite for a film that addresses MeToo concerns through the eyes of a (maybe guilty) accused man, so your mileage may vary.
Rabid (dir: The Soska Sisters) – As a lifelong Cronenberg fan I was nervous – but they really pulled it off. A passionate love letter not only to the ‘77 Rabid but to his entire filmography, from Dead Ringers and The Brood to Drive and Crimes of the Near Future. Packed with fun references, gloopy gore, and high fashion. Thumbs up!
The Banana Splits Movie (dir: Danishka Esterhazy) – more audience-pleasing spoofery. It’s “tra-la-la-terror” as The Banana Splits get a “5 Nights At Freddie’s” makeover. Alongside Freddie’s and the Child’s Play remake, are we seeing a surge in Animatronic Horror? Bizarrely violent, very silly, lots of laughter. Intestines everywhere, and a physically traumatic magic trick provided maybe the best kill of the festival. Tah-dahhh!