LFF 2019: Cult/Horror Rundown

This was another great year for horror and horror-adjacent films at the LFF. I managed to see everything in the ‘Cult’ strand (which promises mind-altering films from horror to fantasy, sci-fi and the unclassifiable), plus quite a few films from outside it that touched upon horror in some way, or incorporated horror tropes, themes or imagery.

Because not quite everything in the Cult strand was horror, and as there were those horror (or horror-adjacent) films outside it, I’ve merged it all together into one list. As a result, it’s a pretty varied list that stretches definitions – but I think the only film here that’s definitely not horror is You Don’t Nomi, the doc about Paul Verheoven’s Showgirls.

Altogether, there’s twenty-one films here. At the lower end, only one was actively bad. A few were a mixed bag, but had their good points. Above that, they’re all excellent – and the top 10 are really worth checking out if you get the chance.

Before I start – a quick shout out to three of the shorts that also played in the Cult strand. Jian Luo’s What Do you Know About the Water and the Moon, Leszek Mozga’s Roadkill, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Nimic. All are more than deserving of your time, so seek them out if you can! And with that said…


Cult & Horror Rundown

21. Antenna
(Orçun Behram)

A new satellite disk is installed atop a gloomy Turkish tower block, with the intention that it’ll broadcast government-approved bulletins to the residents. As soon as it is plugged in, however, people start dying. Could it be anything to do with the black goo that oozes up, first around the dish, then the plumbing, then the walls…

Antenna draws pretty obviously from Shivers, Videodrome, and Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and also reminded me pretty strongly of the David Tennant Doctor Who story The Idiot’s Lantern (with its characters whose faces vanish the more TV they watch), and maybe even Delicatessen (with its grimy, stylised tower block setting).

That all sounds great, except… it’s really dull in its storytelling, characterisation, and staging. The audience surrogate is a deeply ineffectual superintendent who mostly wanders around looking worried, simply frowning at things that would cause anyone with any sense to jump in a car and drive away.

To take so many of my favourite things and use them as influences on this tiresome lump of nothing… this was without doubt my disappointment of the festival.

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20. The Lodge
(Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

A father and his two kids head off to spend winter at a remote cabin in the snowy woods. But with her troubled past as the daughter of a cult leader, and the kids blaming her for their mother’s suicide, was this ever going to go well?

The Lodge was… fine. If it turns up on Netflix, well, you could do worse. Riley Keogh does well with what she’s given, but the script felt under-developed & hacky. A step down from the directors’ previous film, Goodnight Mommy. The basic idea behind the film (which is impossible to describe without getting heavily into spoilers) is an interesting one, but it’s delivered in a clumsy, uninteresting way, with the film leaning heavily into a portentous mood instead of decent storytelling. The whole thing slightly grates after a while.

Side notes: Lia McHugh, playing the daughter, is currently filming her role as ‘Sprite’ in Marvel’s The Eternals. Also, this has a remarkable cameo from Alicia Silverstone, but… she’s only in a couple of scenes early on, for reasons indicated the first paragraph of this review!

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19. Adoration
(Fabrice Du Welz)

A boy “rescues” a troubled girl from the mental-health institute where his mother works, and together they go on the run. Along the way he tries to work out whether she was locked up and persecuted by an evil uncle, as she says she was, or whether she as crazy as the nurses claimed?

This film turns into a trip along the river, with Night of the Hunter overtones, combined with a a teen love story. But the answer to the central question is obvious from the start, and ultimately Adoration presents us with a highly questionable, vaguely offensive vision of mental illness. The passive, idiot protagonist doesn’t help. It does look lovely (it’s shot in Super 16), never becomes boring, and boasts strong child performances. But it ends limply, and left me sighing with disappointment as we shuffled out of the screening.

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18. Synchronic
(Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson)

In Synchronic, Benson & Moorhead go relatively approachable. What starts as a decent, if routine, run through cosmic horror tropes (designer drug; pineal growths; voodoo; hallucinations, etc.) warps into a somewhat goofy time travel romp with Anthony Mackie running away from Klansmen etc.

I really liked the doomy, slightly apocalyptic opening act of this film. Then it swerves more into sci-fi then horror, with Mackie experimenting with the film’s own internal logic. At which point I was still with it. It’s sad then that it belly-flops into limp and uninteresting ‘adventure’ tropes towards the end, and delivers a truly lacklustre finale.

Benson and Moorhead often try to mix tones and go for the unexpected choice. I don’t think it came off here, but that’s the risk they take. What’s undeniable is the love they have for their fans: hanging out afterwards to answer everyone’s questions – showing real love for the cult cinema community.

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17. The El Duce Tapes
(Rodney Ascher & David Lawrence)

Edited-together VHS footage of El Duce, the lead ‘singer’ (or, perhaps, ‘shouter’) of Seattle’s wilfully offensive ‘rape rock’ band (yes, really) The Mentors.

This film starts off shocking, becomes depressing as El Duce spirals downwards, and ends up surprisingly heartbreaking as he is consumed by the void. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say El Duce seems to have been destroyed by his own toxic stage persona and the childhood trauma it was supposed to help process. In its final stretch, cross-cutting with sneering new anchors, venal politicians, ranting shock jocks and YouTube edge-lords, The El Duce Tapes becomes very troubling in its suggestion we’re now living in El Duce’s world.

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16. Judy & Punch
(Mirrah Foulkes)

In a town called Seaside, somewhere indeterminate in days gone by (the 1700s?), the boozy puppeteer Professor Punch’s violence gets out of control. Will his wife Judy manage to put him back in his box?

This film was real mixed bag: by turns darkly comic & glibly ham-fisted; simultaneously trying to be somewhat accessible, but also genuinely odd. It reminded me of the strange reworkings of folk stories that DC Comics would put out under its Vertigo imprint in the early 90s.

Although Judy and Punch‘s tonal control comes and goes, I liked what it was trying to be, and appreciated its intermittent willingness to get dark and gnarly. Damon Herriman sinks his fangs deep into the juicily evil role of Punch. For her part, Judy (a game Mia Wasikowska) does a superhero landing at one point, then quotes directly quotes Gladiator. It’s just that kind of film.

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15. Little Monsters
(Abe Forsythe)

A deadbeat dad, idealistic primary school teacher, and boozy children’s entertainer must all join forces to save a class of kids from losing their innocence and/or limbs when their school trip to a petting zoo is engulfed by a zombie attack.

This unexpectedly foul-mouthed rom-zom-com is a lot of fun, except for those parts later on when it’s trying to be wince-inducingly sincere. Josh Gad and Alexander English enjoyably compete in selfish obnoxiousness; Lupita Nyong’o gets fewer punchlines but does score some action beats.

One thing Nyong’o does get a chance to nail is the idea that you’d do anything to be with her; she a classic dream girl in this movie, for better or worse. Hollywood should offer her all the romantic comedy roles, but also give her more punchlines. I’d have loved it if she turned out to be as secretly awful as the guys in this one, but alas she’s as delightful as she appears.

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14. Vivarium
(Lorcan Finnegan)

A good, solid Twlight Zone concept, entertainingly delivered even as it imparts a somewhat commonplace message about soul-crushing standardisation under nuclear-family capitalism.

What elevates it is Imogen Poots in the lead role (more screentime, more lines, and more audience sympathy than Jesse Eisenberg). She’s great, giving a strung-out, exhausted, bags-under-eyes performance as a woman increasingly at the end of her tether, hope slowly fading in her eyes as she brushes her teeth again and again. Also, she made an Upstream Color reference in the Q&A afterwards. I honestly can’t see how Upstream Color has any influence on Vivarium at all, but I do appreciate a Shane Curruth shout-out.  Love the Pootster.

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13. Wounds
(Babak Anvari)

Gnostic demons target toxic alcoholic New Orleans barkeeper Armie Hammer, via a mobile phone that he finds in the aftermath of a bar brawl. Will he succumb to the mentally and spiritually eroding force of their dark power?

Wounds comes on initially like a slightly second-rate Ari Aster (but second-rate Aster is still good)… Later in the film it simply descends into schlock. That’s not entirely a complaint: when it’s good it’s fun, but when it’s schlocky it’s very fun. Armie Hammer holds it together with his performance as a blank void of a being – who simply thinks he’s human.

Groans and catcalls from most press at the end; giggles from me.

Now available in the UK and other territories on Netflix.

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12. Little Joe
(Jessica Hausner)

The plant overlords of Little Shop of Horrors meet the identity paranoia of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers meets early Cronenberg. Emily Beecham’s genetically engineered plant is designed to encourage happiness. But does its pollen quietly re-write the brains of the botanists that tend to it?

Sounds good – but when I say “early Cronenberg”, this lacks either the aggressive formal experimentation of Crimes of the Future or Stereo, or the schlock grindhouse thrills of Shivers or Rabid. What we’re left with is the flat, affectless, often expositionary dialogue, flat cinematography, sterile work environments, funny hairpieces, and a sense of chilly unease.

The line readings are not naturalistic enough to be engaging, nor stylised enough to be interesting, so they comes across as a little dull. The exceptions are the child actors, who perhaps are more tuned in to the real-life activities of ‘playing normal’ and ‘shutting down conversations with adults.’ Jessie Mae Alonzo is particularly good as Selma, girlfriend to Beecham’s son, Joe (played by Kit Connor).

Despite the possibly off-putting tone, there’s a genuinely good idea at the heart of Little Joe – the idea that identity can be erased and replicated, and it night be literally impossible to tell the difference. The power of that idea means there’s decent fun to be had for lovers of the “chilly identity loss” sci-fi/horror genre.

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11. Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist
(Alexandre O. Philippe)

A 105-minute chat with a genial Friedkin about The Exorcist. He gives Mercedes McCambridge her dues (finally) as the real voice of Pazuzu, discusses replacing Stacy Keach as Karras, the fundamental influence of Th. Dreyer’s Ordet, the logical sinfullness of the ending, and his experiences of the magic of zen.

As with most films-about-films, this is perhaps a Blu-ray extra with its chest pushed out. But what an extra! Sits alongside last year’s Filmworker and this year’s You Don’t Nomi as fascinatingly watchable film docs that provide real insight. This might now be the best documentary about The Exorcist we have.

A particularly juicy nugget: did you know Willian Peter Batty was willing to forgo payment to play Karras himself?

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10. Koko-Di, Koko-Da
(Johannes Nyholm)

There’s a noble history of time-loop stories: Run Lola Run, Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Russian Doll. This Swedish/Danish Horror applies that concept to a creepy singsong Eden Lake setup. Plus it’s a study of grief, trauma, anxiety & bad communication!

When a couple’s daughter dies unexpectedly on her birthday, they fail to properly process the grief. Three years later they  set off on a camping trip, crabbily kvetching at each other. But during the night, three figures emerge from the woods – the three painted characters from a musical lantern, the final gift they gave to their daughter. These characters – one somewhat like an ogre, one resembling a witch, and one dressed like a carnal barker – aren’t messing around. But when they kill the couple, the cycle starts afresh. Can the eternal recurrence be broken? And if so, how?

This film brought me close to my limit for watching a vulnerable woman be attacked by a dog (it happens a lot), but in the end Koko-Di, Koko-Da really does have something to say about mourning and healing.

Side note: the occasional switches to shadow puppetry are beautiful.

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9. You Don’t Nomi
(Jeffrey McHale)

At last Showgirls gets the love it deserves. That film’s stylisations showcase the strangeness of the human ego; the weirdness of our drives; the alien enchantments and awesome, terrible deadness of humans-as-objects. It’s a great, affectionate satire of empowerment.

You Don’t Nomi shows all of this through the voices of those who have crossed paths with the movie: the fans, the critics, the lovers & the haters. We get to see the film via its own cultural reflection, and in the spaces it takes up in the hearts of its viewers. We also get to explore how it indulges Verhoeven’s quirky preoccupations with potato chips and getting  your nails done. And when Elizabeth Berkeley came out at the end to embrace her role in the film… the audience, rightly, was shook.

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8. Color Out of Space
(Richard Stanley)

The film they said couldn’t be made! The story they said couldn’t be filmed! Well, here comes Richard Stanley (of Hardware, Dust Devil and kicked-off-Dr-Moreau fame) to prove them wrong, because this is Lovecraft done well.

The whole cast is great, especially Nic Cage and Joley Richardson. Cage starts the film about 5% ‘off’ and gradually dials up to 100%. For some people a Cage performance is a turn-off. Very well – this film won’t be for you.

HP Lovecraft films used to involve rubbery monsters. Now we get something rather better looking than that, as the special effects throughout are very good indeed, especially when considering that the film was made for just a few million – peanuts compared to today’s blockbusters.

I’ll say this though: Annihilation as a novel was heavily indebted to short story The Color Out Of Space, but was (whispers) actually rather better, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation film was likewise better than this movie. But it is good, both in terms of visual and thematic imagination – it’s punchy, fun, spectacular, and features an oh-so-memeable Nic Cage raving about alpacas. Who couldn’t enjoy that? A blast, in every sense.

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7. Fanny Lye Deliver’d
(Thomas Clay)

Very much folk-horror-adjacent: folk thriller perhaps, or folk western, with some horror stylings along the way.

The mid-1600s world of Fanny Lye (Maxine Peake) is turned upside-down when she and her Puritan husband (a great, game-for-it Charles Dance) discover two strangers in their barn. What they don’t initially realise is that these pitiful interlopers are in fact High Achievers – or ‘Ranters‘, if you will. When a nosy sheriff comes calling, the scene is set for a showdown between the forces of liberty, sex, the patriarchy the state, ideology and sheer greed. Can under-the-thumb Fanny come out on top?

I love the mood of this – Cromwell’s Shropshire never seemed so horny. It also has a great period soundtrack, written and orchestrated by director Thomas Clay himself. In fact, I think this soundtrack may have been my fave of the fest – excellently evocative of time and place, rousing and menacing in equal measure. This was shot in 35mm, and I perhaps unwisely ended up scheduling a DCP viewing. What I saw looked gorgeous, but I could tell it would be all the better with a projection light illuminating the analogue film grain. If you get a chance, take that option!

Without spoiling anything, the superb ending is one of the best I saw this year – with the soundtrack swelling and the mists closing in. Marvellous.

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6. Atlantics
(Mati Diop)

Going into the festival I knew that Mati Diop’s (35 Shots of Rum) directorial debut would be one to watch, and so it proved.

In Dakar, Senegal, an almost-complete futuristic skyscraper looms over the surrounding suburbs. Ada, 17, love construction worker Souleiman – but she is engaged to another man. Denied their rightful wages, Souleiman and his co-workers leave the country by sea, in hope of a better future in Spain. When a fire engulfs Ada’s wedding bed, and the eyes of Ada’s friends start turning white, it seems not everything is right in the world. Could it be that Souleiman and his friends have returned – in a very different form to the one in which they left?

This is an entrancing, ruminative fantasy of border crossings: from Senegal to Spain, from childhood to marriage, and from this world to the next. Its potent images have stuck in my mind ever since: the white eyes of the possessed, a clinical virginity test, and a sweating policeman staggering home as he seems to zombify before our very eyes.

Atlantics shows some of the influence of Diop’s mentor Claire Denis in that it follows its won internal rhythms to a degree that requires the audience to pay attention and keep up – vital twists in the narrative are not at all signposted. It also has, perhaps, a surplus of final shots lines. If they’d cut down that final voiceover and settled on just one image to land on, that may have been for the better.

That point is perhaps nit-picking though. This is a thunderingly great debut feature, and a genuinely original supernatural drama: I cannot wait to see what Diop does next.

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5. Saint Maud
(Rose Glass)

Maud, a shy young private nurse, arrives at a luxurious home to care for Amanda, a libertine dancer laid low by leukaemia. But while Maud only wants the best for her patient, things aren’t smooth sailing – because Maud has recently found God, and is operating under his strict instructions.

This was a rivetingly tense horror-adjacent character study. You can more or less see where it’s going from white early on in the plot, but the hope that someone is going to step in and defuse the situation. While it lacks narrative complexity or any real surprises, Rose Glass more than compensates with a deft directorial touch, delivering rich imagery & savage edge, maintaining tension and tone throughout. The final shot (only about 6 frames long) is delightfully nasty; if it wasn’t for Portrait of a Lady On Fire, in fact, this might have been my final shot of the festival. This was also the only film I saw at the festival where a cockroach delivers Biblical prophesies in Welsh.

(Side note: alongside Atlantics, this makes two really great horror debut features from female directors.)

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4. The Painted Bird
(Václav Marhoul)

As if Lars Von Trier dispensed with his sense of humour, and decided to do a nearly 3-hour spin on Ivan’s Childhood.

Remorselessly brutal and bleak episodic tale of a child wandering across Poland during World War II – partly in search of his family, and partly to keep moving on from the people he meets, who are almost all brutal sadists.

It’s like watching a succession people stamping on a kitten for 169 minutes, with a title card every so often to introduce the new stamper. The stampee, however, remains the same – our bright-eyed, taciturn boy.

The closest thing to a joke is that there’s a Soviet orphanage boss who looks like Putin.

It’s so well done though – brilliantly shot, acted, & designed. There are sequences in here that are incredibly well-staged (a mass escape from a camp train; an airborne attack on a village), and images that’ll stick with me for some time (a kitten nibbling on an eyeball; a sniper spilling a handful of sand to check for wind direction).

Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands and Barry Pepper are all in this, speaking Polish. I was initially impressed with what sounded like very good accents, but then deep in the credits I noticed it listed their Polish ADR doubles. Very well then – I’m impressed with the ADR technician who managed to line up the Polish dialogue so seamlessly to their mouths.

I really liked this one. It’s harsh, uncompromising, nihilistic, and lets the audience make of it what they wish. It hold me in its grip for 169 minutes. The staging, photography, and sheer overall verve are phenomenal. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer brio and execution.

And for what it’s worth, I think everyone who complained that Jojo Rabbit was ‘sentimental’ should be made to watch this.

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3. Deerskin
(Quentin Dupieux)

Georges (Jean Dujardin), a man with nothing else to live for, decides to live for his nice new jacket. In fact, he thinks it should be the only jacket in the whole wide world.

Deerskin felt to me like a soft, cheeky version of a Haneke farce. Gently absurd, with a bleak edge and a worrying grin. At a mere 77 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Its perfectly paced, with the escalations doled out nicely. And it’s genuinely funny – my audience of jaded press and industry professionals was laughing uproarously throughout. Horror-comedy is a very difficult thing to get right, and where Little Monsters was fitfully successful, Deerskin is an out-and-out triumph: far smarter, more original, and for me at least just funnier.

Adèle Haenel does great work as the female lead, in a very different roles to her part in Portrait of a Lady on Fire elsewhere in the fest). I also loved to see all the Mini DV tech that George employs in his scheme – it took me back to my own experiments in filmmaking, in 2003. Ah, the power of nostalgia.

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2. Zombi Child
(Bertrand Bonello)

My most anticipated film of the festival did not disappoint: Zombi Child is a sly, provocative, troubling postcolonial satire that slowly sinks its claws into you and then attacks with frenzy and precision in its final act. This is a phenomenal films, showcasing Bonello’s instincts for juxtapositions & endings, refuses to force interpretations on the audience.

The two stories interwoven here are the famous zombification of Clairvius Narcisse in 1962 Haiti, and the acceptance of a young French-Haitian girl into a secret sorority at a self-important boarding school in present day Paris. How those two stories are linked, and how they reflect on each other, is engine that drives the film.

The skill here is in generating tension not so much from the plot (though there is that), but from the charged gap between signifiers, and the interplay of themes. A battle rages throughout – partially on the screen, but partially in the audience’s own subliminal perception of where things are going, and what it all means.

Zombi Child, alongside Nocturama & Sarah Winchester: Opera Phantome, shows Bonello to be one of the best directors we have: projecting the enigmatic depths of the subconscious out onto the nominally real, all the better to see both more clearly.

This film sits on the edge of a strange abyss. I loved it.

Available in the UK in cinemas now and for the next 29 days on Mubi.com

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1. The Lighthouse
(Robert Eggers)

A Beckettian meltdown in glorious black and white. A screaming sea-shanty into the void. A salty death-shudder beneath the unyielding gaze of Neptune himself.

This was significant departure from The Witch: less horror, more mood/character piece about the cabin fever from hell. Willem Defoe is as good as he’s ever been as the surly, bullying lighthouse master, Robert Pattinson perhaps even better as his enigmatic new colleague – each chewing on their meaty, raving monologues.

This was absolutely gripping in its demented intensity, and that was before it moved into hallucinatory delirium and horror elements stared erupting out of the screen. The Lighthouse looks RAVISHING in it’s beautifully shot aspect ratio, and the sound design blew everyone away. The blaring foghorn seems to vaporise the characters very souls before our eyes. You could practically smell Defoe’s grunting farts, wafting off the screen.

A purgatorial nightmare like none other. A masterpiece.

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Other non-horror LFF reviews to come next week…

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