Horror occupies an uncanny valley between real anxieties and their staging in fantasy form. It offers a nightmarish netherworld where psychology is reified, where different paradigms clash and where personal demons and metaphorical monsters come with palpable teeth and claws. It’s a platform for the irrational, the unearthly and the unconscious, where the repressed comes out to play.
The manner in which horror takes what is recognisable – often even ripped from the headlines – and defamiliarises it to uneasy effect closely allies the genre with the surrealist movement. Sometimes it is the genre’s own established tropes, more than any underlying reality, which anchor it, allowing the viewer a familiar purchase – although those tropes too can be recombined, hybridised and subverted to send the viewer plummeting into delirious disorientation.
Of course this is not true of all horror. The genre can be bog-standard, formulaic, even conservative, bludgeoning viewers not only with what they desire, but also with exactly what they expect, affording little deviation from the established norms and no surprise (beyond the odd jump scare).
Yet it is on its stranger margins that horror innovates, assuming hitherto unseen forms of monstrousness and perversion, and taking the genre down dark byroads previously untravelled. This is where horror can expand and breathe with new life. It is also the coalface which, every year, FrightFest mines, hoping to expose and extract the latest developments in the fantastique.
Now in its 24th year, FrightFest will hold its horror pilgrimage across multiple screens of Cineworld in London’s Leicester Square for an extended August bank holiday weekend, continuing its commitment to the genre’s cutting edge.
Alongside four revivals (Alligator, 1980; The Conjuring, 2013; It Follows, 2014; and a 50th-anniversary screening of The Exorcist in a ‘version you never saw before’), 66 new features will screen, including not just 25 world premieres but an especially strong ‘New Blood’ strand of local British feature debuts (look out for Chris Cronin’s astonishingly accomplished folk horror The Moor) and two films (Alice Maio Mackay’s T-Blockers and George Baron’s The Blue Rose) made by writer/directors so young that they barely meet the age requirements to attend their own festival screenings.
This is not just a showcase of horror, but of the genre’s future, discovered in early bloom.
New doesn’t necessarily mean good, but there is plenty in this international lineup to keep the viewer fascinated, freaked out, maybe even frightened. Several of my favourite features at this year’s FrightFest exist at the weirder end of horror, where anything goes.
The Blue Rose (2023)
Sometimes the word ‘Lynchian’ is used as a lazy shorthand for ‘weird’, but this feature debut from 18-year-old George Baron fully deserves the descriptor, with a generous sprinkling of direct allusions to Lynch’s works to match its own oneiric excursions through ‘Hollyweird’.
In a pastel-coloured 1950s, two rookie LAPD detectives (Baron and Olivia Scott Welch) investigate the fatal stabbing of a man, and the disappearance of his artist wife (Nikko Austen Smith). With the wife’s guilt – at least for the viewer – never in doubt, this is less whodunnit than why, as the young ‘tecs are led down a strange path where it’s hard to distinguish murder’s bloody actuality, art’s distorting mediations, family life’s fanciful fugues, or madness’s twisting corridors (and cosplay).
“Some art”, as one character says, “isn’t meant to be understood, but appreciated” – words fully applying to this funny (in every sense) neo-noir.
“So, are you sure all these pieces are gonna fit together?”, wonders a muppet trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. “Oh they will, I promise,” replies his felt companion, “You’ll see.”
This is one of several television programmes through which an old man switches late at night – with others including live news broadcasts from a violent domestic siege, an apocalypse-preaching evangelical, horny 1980s teen comedy Nutballs!, a documentary on vanished horror director Frank Tadross Roth (Vernon Wells), the premiere screening on another network of Roth’s final film Transmission (think Planet of the Vampires meets Event Horizon), porn and ads.
Innovatively presented as channel-surfing screenlife, Michael Hurst’s feature lives up to the puppet’s promise, as these disparate shows gradually form a composite mosaic that risks, Videodrome-style, infecting our reality with its baleful signal. This is meta-horror at its most mediated, repeatedly positing its own transmission as irresistible danger.
Good Boy (2023)
“If you have a pulse and two legs, then we’re well on our way,” reads the Tinder bio of impoverished student Sigrid (Katrine Lovise Øpstad Fredriksen), openly advertising her low standards and even lower self-esteem. It certainly attracts the attention of the rich heir Christian (Gard Løkke), even if he is already tied up in a creepily close bond with a four-legged friend – except that Frank (Nicolai Narvesen Lied), beneath his canine costume and conduct, is clearly a man.
As Sigrid, a little freaked out yet not incurious, spends a weekend out of the city with her Prince Charming and Frank to determine where exactly she fits in Christian’s menage(rie), the fetishistic puppy play will take on a sinister turn that might just send the young woman packing – or have her rolling over.
Using BDSM motifs to allegorise the twisted dynamics of love, writer-director Viljar Bøe unleashes a tensely barking romance.
Konstantinos Koutsoliotas’s Athens-set UFO is an indefinable mix of myth and monsters, with traditions of masculine heroism in its spotlight and under pressure.
Sailor William (Davide Tucci) is on shore leave in search of his Greek roots. On the one hand he is a sea-faring Odysseus, returned home after decades, but other narrative matrices vie to frame what is unfolding: the teachings of the Church, the downbeat lyrics of popular rebetiko (whose melancholic minor key songs give the film its title), resistance tales from the civil war and the present-day preoccupations of a ragtag bunch of characters. Amid all the ensemble drama, there is even, both improbably and hilariously, something of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! – or at least its Greek equivalent.
Amid mysterious mists, apocalyptic dreams and the dazed disappearance of people into the sea, a small band resists, with the community’s elderly – William’s estranged, bouzouki-playing father (Meletis Georgiadis) and a plucky granny (Efi Papatheodorou) – leading the fight against some different ‘Old Ones’, and with William picking up the instrument that is his cultural inheritance. Here art conquers all – even Lovecraftian invaders.
My Mother’s Eyes (2023)
After an argument about her lack of maternal love and an ensuing car accident, cello teacher Hitomi Eida (Akane Ono) finds an unusual way to reconnect with her cellist daughter Eri (Mone Shitara). For Hitomi plugs the experimental contact lenses that she uses as a cure for her blindness into the VR headset of her paralysed, hospitalised daughter, becoming Eri’s eyes and ears and doing her vicarious bidding like a remote-controlled puppet.
Yet this strange duet between mother and daughter is really a quartet, as the reclusive ophthalmologist (Shusaku Uchida) who designed the lenses wants Hitomi to become mother to his cellist son Satoshi (Takuma Izumi), and is himself pulling the strings from the side.
Equally mannered, mature and perverse, Takeshi Kushida’s follow-up to Woman of the Photographs (2020) is a perspective-shifting domestic drama about the peculiar ties that bind a mother to regret and self-sacrifice.
Where the Devil Roams (2023)
My favourite of FrightFest’s odder offerings also deals with domestic dysfunction – although in fairness this has been a constant preoccupation in the work of Toby Poser, her husband John Adams and their daughters Zelda and Lulu, whose previous horror titles like The Deeper You Dig (2019) and Hellbender (2021) have presented an image in negative – and through genre idioms – of their own efforts to maintain family integrity as the girls grow up and spread their wings. In their latest, beautifully shot film, these outsider artists reflect themselves through an itinerant family of sideshow performers in Depression-era America.
All are damaged goods. Following an abusive childhood, mother Maggie (Toby Poser) roughly converts serial-killing compulsions to acts of class revenge. Shellshocked from trauma in the First World War, stepfather Seven (John Adams) can no longer stand the sight of blood. Their beloved daughter Eve (Zelda Adams), a young adult gifted with a beautiful singing voice yet otherwise mute, has a promising future, even if her violent upbringing has given her some macabre hobbies – and just as she mends broken dolls with needle and thread, she also keeps her family together.
This is a film of two halves. The first shows a killer family’s working dynamic, and the second – more hallucinatory and unstable in form – shows the family’s dissolution and magical reintegration following a life-changing incident. Whether these latter scenes, and the supernatural, Satanic element that drives them, are real or merely in Eve’s unravelling mind, they stage a transgressive depiction of the way we all recombine pieces of our parents, who stay with us even beyond the grave.
FrightFest takes place 24 to 28 August in Cineworld Leicester Square, London.
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