Nightstream 2020 horror festival – roundup

Earlier this year I was all set to travel to New Orleans to enjoy the Overlook Film Festival. Of course, that didn’t happen. But all was not lost – the guys at Overlook did manage to team up with several other US horror festivals (the Boston Underground, Brooklyn Horror, North Bend, and Popcorn Frights Film Festivals) to deliver Nightstream, the unified virtual US horror fest we were all hoping for.

The undisputed Queen of US horror festivals in 2020

This has been a crazy year, and it’s an incredible achievement that that from a standing start Nightstream ended up being the US horror event of 2020. Hats off to the genre lovers working hard behind this one, they really saved the day.

We got to watch a number of films programmed, either at the fest itself or shortly before or after, so here is a rundown of films that we liked, that we loved, or that gave us nightmares. With additional reporting by Victor Nixon in the US.

Five Best of the Fest

1. Black Bear (Levine)

Do you love horror-adjacent movies? The bifurcated structures of Lynch’s Lost Highway, or Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then? The behind-the-scenes drama and slippery reality of Irma Vep? Do you crush a bit on Aubrey Plaza? Then this is the film for you.

Plaza plays a writer-director who has come away for a ‘creative retreat’ to a forest cabin owned by a husband-and-wife team, who serve as her hosts. But is everything quite as it seems? And with a little imagination, might it be something else?

Black Bear is not only the best film I saw at Nightstream, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year period. It’s also the first US film I’ve seen that directly and unapologetically riffs on Hong’s trademark reality-slips. Combined with a theme of actress-director romance, this really is a massive Hong hommage – or Hongage, if you will.

I revelled in this movie’s metatextual playfulness and sadistic emotional chaos. Plus, if you liked Christopher Abbott in Possessor, he plays opposite Plaza here and is thrillingly unlikeable – a masterclass in self-centred needy toxicity, in various guises.

2. Survival Skills (Armstrong)

“The mark of a good cop is that he never makes the same mistake three times.”

Let’s watch a police training video, featuring the first year on the force of Officer Jim! He’s sure to have a great time, policing the community and doing the right thing.

Officer Jim, and Jenny.

I really enjoyed this one: it found interesting, fun, effective ways to play with its form and make serious points about policing, justice, and domestic abuse.

It draws on the kind of slippery reality more common in shorts (Suddenly In Michigan; Unedited Footage of a Bear; Too Many Cooks), but somehow through careful pacing and clear emotional stakes director Quinn Armstrong manages to make it work at feature length.

My favourite part was Officer Jim’s extremely supportive girlfriend, Jenny, relating a dream she had – a genuinely unsettling moment of pure dread.

A faintly psychotic delight!

3. Av: The Hunt (Akay)

A woman having an affair is hunted down by her husband, extended family, and the police.

Social distancing, Turkish-style

I was expecting Av: The Hunt (Av is Turkish for Hunt, so really it’s Hunt: The Hunt) to be like Catch Me Daddy, but really it’s more like Revenge meets First Blood… with perhaps a dash of the traffic-stop scene from Psycho… In any case, this was very much my jam. A sustained exercise in heart-in-mouth filmmaking, and a scream of feminist rage. Superb.

4. Reunion (Mahaffy)

A pregnant woman (Emma Draper) returns to her family’s rambling country home to work on her academic book on the occult, and help her estranged mother (Julia Ormond) pack things up following her grandmother’s death. But the longer she stays in the house, the more the past seems to have a hold on them all.

No huge spoilers in this trailer, so get stuck in.

This was one of the big surprises of the festival for me: a really great intergenerational trauma horror. A nightmare mum, spooky old house, maybe ghosts… or madness? There’s a lot of thematic crossover with this year’s Relic, but for me this was the more interesting film.

Plus Ormond is wonderful in this, one of the great antagonists of the year.

5. Run (Chaganty)

Remember when thrillers were hokey high-concept fun that squeezed enjoyably camp thrills out of every set-piece? Here’s a gloriously fun throwback to those times.

Feature newcomer Kiera Allen stars in festival opener Run as wheelchair user Chloe, who lives alone with her mum and starts to worry that something, somewhere, isn’t quite right with their family setup…

This is one thriller that’s bound to leave skidmarks.

I enjoyed Run a lot – a fine addition to the wheelchair-user-in-peril genre, which includes such gems as Scream of Fear and of course Misery. Paulson in particular knows exactly what she’s doing here – and helps to deliver a final scene that had me clapping with glee.

Other Highlights

Rose Plays Julie (Lawlor, Molloy)

A disturbed vet decides to track down her birth parents and set a few things right in this often unbearably tense thriller. Rose Plays Julie primarily highlights its female leads (Ann Skelly, Orla Brady, both excellent) but I did also enjoy how pathetically whiny Aidan Gillen was as the father. A nasty, dangerous, blubbing manchild. Excellent!

Honeydew (Milburn)

Kicks off by linking medieval fungal brain contangions with accusations of witchcraft, follows a scientist and her boyfriend on a trip through rural American to examine the remote site of a potential outbreak. From there we have hicksploitation twists and and turns aplenty, with grisly mutilation, family transgressions, stomach churning hijinks and a very unexpected cameo. Beautifully shot (albeit with a somewhat pointless occasional use of split-screen), and horribly memorable.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Making of The Exorcist (Philippe)

The best documentary on The Exorcist you’re ever likely to see, build around extensive interviews with Friedkin himself.

Dinner in America (Rehmeier)

A high-school misfit girl teams up with a young punk on the run. But little does she know that he’s actually the masked singer of her favorite band. A sweet, oddball drama in the vein of Napoleon Dynamite, or perhaps early 90s indie comedy romance dramas, a la Hal Hartley. Are we seeing a quiet return of Slacker Cinema?

Ema (Larraín)

An interesting counterpoint to Rose Plays Julie; another tale that hinges on an adoption going wrong, but this time told from the perspective of the adoptive parents. The dynamic between husband and wife feels so ‘off’ as to suggest a child’s fantasy; a distinctive thumping soundtrack and absolutely stunning visuals make this a must-see from Larrain. How has this still not received a full release in the US?

Detention (Hsu)

This Taiwanese horror’s combination of spooky mystery plot and scary stalking monster had a slightly awkward rhythm that I couldn’t quite pin down. Turns out that it’s an adaptation of a computer game, which rather explained a lot regarding its plot construction.

It’s set in the 1960s “White Terror” period of authoritarian rule, and effectively mines its grim period for paranoid dread (a la Pan’s Labyrinth). Its shadowy, otherworldly school setting felt very Silent Hill, too.

Lapsis (Hutton)

At some point later this century, a man tries to raise the funds for his brother’s medical treatment (possibly caused by quantum technology) by taking part in the gamified job of quantum cable laying. Be Your Own Boss indeed, although it doesn’t quite work out like that if you have to contend with suspicious co-cablers, rival drones, arcane rules and some dubious legacy data hidden on your account. And just who is the mysterious Lapsis?

This is a faintly absurdist near-future sci-fi tale (but isn’t the future bound to look faintly absurdist to our eyes?) On closer inspection though, this is a cutting satire of gig economics, of a kind that Ken Loach doesn’t have the wit to make.

Satire aside, I mostly loved that the main character was such an absolute geezer. One for fans of Black Mirror.

Anything for Jackson (Dyck)

The small-town influence of Stephen King permeates this tale of a pregnant woman kidnapped by two parents, and tied to a bed in the bedroom of their son, Jackson. There’s something they need her to do for him you see. Because he’s dead…

A lot of fun for fans of ghosts and demons who repurpose our glib Halloween iconography for their own purposes, this film has its fair share of tricks and treats… plus a local demonology group, of course.

Come True (Burns)

The tale of a homeless runaway plagued by night terrors who books herself into a sleep research clinic just to have a bed for the night – and ends up unleashing something unexpected. Come True has shades of Beyond The Black Rainbow, which can only be a good thing, beautiful bisexual lighting, and a standout lead performance from Julia Sarah Stone, of whom I hope we’ll see more in the future.

True, the ideas don’t entirely gel, or fully explode (the film is often content to refocus on new variations on sleep horror, rather than fully exploring the ones it has) but they are rich ideas and film has fun with them, never letting the audience settle, and taking unexpected turns right up until the final scene.

32 Malasaña Street (Pinto)

If you miss James Wan-style cattle-prod horror, it’s here, transposed to an apartment in late-70s Madrid, empty for years but now sold to a family of country rubes looking to make money labouring in the big city. There’s a been a lot of sniffing of this style of horror of late, but it requires skill and craftsmanship to pull of effectively – and I’m happy to say 32 Malasaña Street is one of the better ones: if it didn’t get jumps from this jaded reviewer, it did get nervous flinches and uneasy shifting, and that’s not nothing! If one were to compare it to Wan’s own films, which it happily apes… it’s no Conjuring, but I’d happily put it alongside Insidious.

Note: A transgender plot thread is, I would say, clumsily handled.

Mandibles (Dupieux)

I was enormously looking forward to the new film from Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Deerskin), but it felt like a throwaway short stretched out to 77 minutes. Mandibles is the almost fable-like tale of two dumb bros who steal a car to courier an illicit suitcase – only to discover a giant fly in the trunk. Most of the rest of the film is taken up by these jovial bozos simply trying to find a place to quietly train the fly, so they can make money getting it to perform tricks – or possibly rob banks.

Mandibles is an low-energy tale that never really goes anywhere, and whose funniest joke is an annoying girl who shouts all her lines because she has a brain injury. A shaggy dog story, then – or rather, a buzzy fly story – but at least you can never quite see where it’s going, and it did raise a smile. Possibly one for stoners.

More to Enjoy:

The rest of this list is presented alphabetically; each of these films had something special to give.

An Unquiet Grave (Krey) – A decent setup and stakes in this well-written tale of ghostly possession with a twist. Essentially a two-hander, with the lead female role played by co-wroter Christine Nyland – I’ll be keeping an eye on what she does next.

Bleed With Me (Moses) – A promising setup involving illicit bloodletting in an isolated cabin. It perhaps fails in the end to lead to anywhere particularly fascinating, but it’s beautifully shot, and has a astute eye on the toxicity of certain kinds of female friendships.

Bloody Hell (Grierson) – In which a whacky dose of schizophrenia helps an American man deal with being kidnapped by a Norwegian hicksploitation family. Includes some explosive violence that seems inspired by Sam Raimi, but your views may vary according to whether you find the humour grating or not.

Boys From County Hell (Bough) – Wise-cracking booze-downing Irish labourers versus “the vampire than inspired Dracula.” Call it ‘Craic meets Drac’, maybe. Tries hard to keep the energy levels high. Coming soon to Shudder.

Frank and Zed (Blanchard) – Puppet-based medieval gothic monster fun, in which a village of torch-wielding yokels are manipulated by crafty nobles to assault a castle housing Frank (a Frankenstein’s creature), and Zed (a zombie). A bloodbath of red felt ensues. The character designs for Frank and Zed themselves is decent, and I enjoyed the establishing shots of the castle very much – a lightning-blasted nightmare ziggurat on a mountaintop.

Jumbo (Wittock) – A girl falls in erotic love with a giant flashing amusement park ride. But will her mother accept this fairground attraction? Starring Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), this is a genuinely affecting, decidedly queer tale about knowing yourself, and respecting the choices of people you love.

Lucky (Kermani) – This playful deconstruction of slasher tropes starts wonderfully but ends up as Men Women and Chainsaws For Dummies. It slowly becomes obvious what the film is trying to say, and then inch by inch the central allegory became incredibly on-the-nose. Talk about making the subtext text! What could have been truly great becomes merely interesting, but I’ll always remember the playful intrigue of the early scenes. Director Natasha Kermani doubtless has the skills, if only star Brea Grant’s script could trust the audience a little more.

May The Devil Take You Too (Tijahjanto) – This sequel is a step up from the first instalment – punchier, goofier, more fun and with more heavily-pronounced Evil Dead references too. Alfie (Chelsea Islan), the heroine of the earlier film, is kidnapped and taken to a derelict orphanage to help eliminate the demonic presence that’s taken root there. Islan is a natural, and her performance anchors the increasingly deranged (though but you could base a decent drinking game on the number of times she opens her eyes wide and slowly turns to see what’s behind her). It’s not a huge spoiler to say this sets up a third entry in the franchise, so Tijahjanto clearly feels he’s got a winning formula. Indonesian horror is having a bit of a moment – there are both better and worse examples than this, but it’s fun, splattery, occasionally scary stuff.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (Cuartas) – A very nicely shot “mumblegore” tale of sacrifice and the power of our family obligations to entrap us, for better or worse. In this case, worse, because the family member at hand is a vampire suffering from blood withdrawal. A very promising first feature from Jonathan Cuartas – a bleak subplot about a sex worker was a particular standout.

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