▶︎ FrightFest 2020 runs 27–31 August online at frightfest.co.uk.
(Pictured above: Azura Skye in Dean Kapsalis’s The Swerve.)

In 2020, Covid–19 has driven the August FrightFest underground and online, in a streamlined edition – also a mixed bag – of 25 features (plus two shorts programmes, a panel debate and a ‘pub’ quiz), ranging from from the flying SS selachians of Marc Fehse’s Sky Sharks to the anthropophagous Antipodean bigotry of Jesse O’Brien’s Two Heads Creek.

Of necessity, these films all stopped shooting before lockdown commenced, but nonetheless horror thrives on crisis, ensuring that at least some of them chime presciently with our current anxieties. What (arbitrarily) unifies my otherwise disparate personal picks for this year is that Lynchian figure, the ‘woman in trouble’. Genre has always loved a damsel in distress, but these films turn that tired trope every which way, politicising and subverting it to reveal the attitudes into which we have become locked.

Hall (2020)

Perhaps the title closest to our current plague conditions is Francesco Giannini’s Hall, in which two female hotel guests (Carolina Bartczak and Yumiko Shaku) struggle desperately to get away from the twin toxicity of abusive male partners and a rapidly spreading virus (itself man-made, naturally). As patriarchy and pandemic collide in the corridor, either one proves equally inescapable for these two women hoping against hope to break their children out into a healthier world beyond. It is a taut, hallucinatory, not-quite-zombie film in which women are exposed to the worst pathologies of the human condition.

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Katja Herbers in The Columnist (2019)

Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is The Columnist in Ivo van Aart’s film of the same namea single mother who responds to all the aggressively misogynistic tweets and rape threats that her journalism attracts by tracking down and violently confronting her male trolls. Soon this sweet-natured woman becomes a ruthless serial killer – and her writing improves for it – even as her rebellious teenage daughter (Claire Porro) conducts a high school campaign for free speech.

The result is a blackly funny satire exploring the limits of obscenity and hateful discourse in our new mediated age. It is a debate also played out by the renaming of the film’s original Dutch title De Kuthoer (literally ‘The Pussy Whore’), apparently deemed too offensive for English-speaking viewers.

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Dark Stories (2019)

Guillaume Lubrano and François Descraques’s Dark Stories is a made-for-television anthology of angst-ridden tales, but their Scheherazade is a suburban mother Christine (Kristanna Løken) who is tied up in the basement and trying to distract a knife-wielding semi-animated mannequin from going upstairs to where her young son is sleeping.

Christine may seem helpless, but her mastery of different subgenres (monsters, ghosts, zombies, djinns, aliens) matches that of the filmmakers, and her careful control of mood ensures that she has her murder-happy audience right where she wants him, until finally the tables will be turned as he finds that he too has been framed by a bigger horror story.

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Angela Battis and Chloe Farnworth in 12 Hour Shift (2020)

In Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift, overworked junkie nurse Mandy (Angela Battis) has a lot of problems – illegally harvested organs gone missing, a patient-murdering cousin, a trigger-happy policeman, a determined gangster, a cop killer on the loose, cravings for opiates and a traumatic past. Yet instead of playing victim, she greets every chaotic vicissitude with the same jaded eye roll, as though to suggest that this long dark night of the soul is just one of many – a surgical slice of life – for our troubled anti-heroine.

This dark Coens-esque farce is very much a women’s picture, as Mandy, her corrupt manager (Nikea Gamby-Turner) and even her crazy cousin (Chloe Farnworth) must show a grudging female solidarity so that they can live to face the same shi(f)t on another day.

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Blinders (2020)

Blinders might seem the odd one out in this selection – for here one male character, Andy (Vincent Van Horn), finds himself being stalked, off- and on-line, by another, Roger (Michael Lee Joplin), and the only female character of note, Andy’s new girlfriend Sam (Christine Ko), comes across as merely an underwritten foil to Andy’s spiralling troubles, and as a classic damsel in distress to be jeopardised and perhaps rescued by her beau in the climax.

Yet director-co-writer Tyler Savage has painstakingly constructed his thriller so that the male perspective on what makes a woman tick is far from the reality. This is a clever, deeply subversive take on gendered norms, where the blinders are ultimately on the viewer.

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Azura Skye in The Swerve (2018)

My favourite film of the weekend is writer-director Dean Kapsalis’s feature debut The Swerve, which shows suburban wife and mother Holly (the extraordinary Azura Skye) losing her grip on the wheel in harrowing slow motion.

It is hard to say what exactly drives this brittle, tightly wound woman into her tailspin. Perhaps it is the invasive mouse which disrupts Holly’s fragile sense of domestic order; or the return of the sister (Ashley Bell) with whom she has always had a fierce sibling rivalry; or the husband (Bryce Pinkham) who takes her for granted; or the two sons who treat her like a servant; or the sleep disorder which makes it hard for her to tell dreams from reality; or the transgressive, desperate affair that Holly begins with a similarly depressive high school student (Zach Rand).

Holly is twice shown baking that most all-American of dishes, an apple pie, while adding her own unconventional ingredients to the wholesome recipe. The results are no less irresistible and poisonous than the nation’s prevailing patriarchy, making Holly’s violent deviation from her prescribed homemaking path the last tragic swerve of a woman in trouble.

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