Tuesday 3 September 2019

Films from FrightFest 2019 #1 - Reviews of Come to Daddy (Canada/New Zealand/ Ireland/USA 2019) Rock, Paper and Scissors (Argentina 2019), Dark Encounter (UK 2019), Dachra (Tunisia 2019), The Wind (USA 2018) and Girl on the Third Floor (USA 2019)

Come to Daddy (Canada/New Zealand/ Ireland/USA 2019: Dir Ant Timpson) Timpson's debut feature is a knowing, slyly funny comedy thriller, full of quirks and tics and with a mid point twist that I am unable to reveal but which is pivotal in transporting the movie from its somewhat awkward first half. Narval Greenwood (Elijah Wood who, like Leonardo Di Caprio, is an actor I can never unsee from his youth) is a supposed DJ and media star - although that might just be bluster - who is summoned by letter back to his dad's beachside home after thirty years of estrangement. Once he arrives, he finds that dad is a drunken wreck with little interest in his son, and concludes that the letter must have been written on one of pop's benders.

Narval isn't without problems himself - a recovering alcoholic, he's clearly trying to be a better person (a copy of 'The Celestine Prophecy' is his go to book) and because he was five when dad left the family home, he has no recollection of him. The pair fall out almost immediately and when dad drunkenly attacks him with a cleaver, it looks like the homecoming might be shortlived. But a fatal heart attack halts pop in his tracks, and Narval must deal with the aftermath. Things aren't helped by the coroners office having an oversupply of bodies, necessitating dad's embalmed corpse being returned to the family house prior to interment. A very distressed Narval struggles to cope with the situation, and when he hears noises suggesting that dad might be trying to communicate from beyond the grave...well the night is just getting started.

And there we must leave it plot wise. Come to Daddy's subsequent delights very much place it in the Friday-night-beer-with-your-mates category. It's definitely a film to see with an audience, and its feel is very much in Martin McDonagh territory, all one liners and quirky plot twists. But like McDonagh's work it sometimes feels that we're watching the results of clever scriptwriting sessions rather than a realistic film. Which is an issue as Come to Daddy struggles for emotional heft but misses its aim (Wood again, I'm afraid, whose continued state of saucer-eyed wonder never gives us anything more than constant surprise). It's great to see Martin Donovan and Michael Smiley enjoying themselves (again in roles I can't describe for spoiler reasons), and although, again like McDonagh's output there's an occasional whiff of misogyny, it's fun to watch but, despite its emotional pretensions, slightly insubstantial.

Rock, Paper and Scissors aka Piedra, papel y tijera (Argentina 2019: Dir Martín Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi) This rather extraordinary independent movie filters the spirit of Almodovar via Misery and Jack Clayton's 1967 feature Our Mother's House, in a story of three siblings who reunite after the death, by suicide, of their father.

As the title suggests, the trio of ill starred grown up children manage their lives together like the eponymous game, with each one taking it in turns to best the other. Magdalena (Augustina Cerviño), an actress, returns to the family home to deal with their father's estate and make sure she gets her part of the inheritance. On the surface she is the most sensible of the three, keen to sort things out and get on with her life as quickly as possible. Her half sister María José (Valeria Giorcelli) and brother Jesús (Pablo Sigal) seem to be almost housebound, ostensibly normal but gradually exposing themselves as barely developed adults.

Magdalena's attempts to wind up their affairs are thwarted when she falls downstairs (or was she pushed?) and is confined to bed with her injuries. She is tended to by Maria José who seems to have an obsession with The Wizard of Oz - and indeed the film is full of nods to that film, not least the characters milling round the bed-bound Magdalena/Dorothy. Meanwhile Jesús is making a shot on camcorder horror film, where the principal actor is María José. As the trio take it in turns to outwit each other, tensions in the household increase: it cannot end happily.

Adapted from a stage play by Garcia Lenzi, this is a claustrophobic and unsettling chamber piece, soporific in pace and profoundly weird. Both Cerviño and Giorcelli reprise their parts from the stage version and bring a thespian intensity to the proceedings. It's a film full of very odd little details, superbly and dully photographed in a confined space and with great attention to detail in the colour palette. It's not a film for everyone, but its sense of quiet menace makes it a worthy addition to the crazies-in-a-house genre that covers everything from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Spider Baby through to Chabrol's La Ceremonie.

Dark Encounter (UK 2019: Dir Carl Strathie) Hot on the heels of Strathie's debut feature, the astronaut-stuck-in-a-space-capsule Solis, the Scottish director returns with his low budget take on Close Encounters of the Third Kind with added metaphysical elements.

Filmed as 'The Encounter', with the word 'Dark' added for additional marquee value (unnecessarily but rather fittingly as it turns out - the movie is pretty much all shot at night), it's set in Pennsylvania in 1983, one year to the day following the abduction of 8 year old Maisie from her parents' home. Mum and dad, Olivia and Ray, have gathered for dinner with Olivia's sister and other members of the family. While the search is still going on for the missing girl, tensions within the household continue to run high, exacerbated by the guilt felt by the parents in that they left Maisie home alone on the evening she disappeared.

But when a series of strange lights are witnessed in the forest, and all the electrics in the house begin to malfunction, it becomes clear that something extraterrestrial has visited them. And the inter-galaxy visitors have a specific purpose.

Like Solis before it, Dark Encounter was almost totally filmed in the modest Goldfinch studios in North Yorkshire (an enterprising studio that's in the process of launching its own streaming channel) and utilising the same FX team and soundtrack musician from the first film. The problem with Dark Encounter is that setting it in the US when it patently wasn't filmed in that country means that the film never rings true. Additionally a UK cast are all required to adopt US accents, some much more convincingly than others (the normally dependable Alice Lowe, as Olivia's sister Arlene, is particularly problematic here). But the movie's biggest problem - aside from that silly generic title that suggests a 1990s softcore thriller - is its unevenness: in setting up its last reel twist/reveal you have to sit through a rather dull first hour, interspersed with the FX team mounting a few incongruous set pieces. There's no doubt that Strathie is a competent, if not particularly exciting director who has assembled a good team to work with, but I feel everyone has just bitten off too much with this one. You have to wait a long time for something to happen, and when it does, it's both silly and in rather poor taste, and no amount of heavenly choirs and soaring strings can disguise that fact.

Dachra (Tunisia 2018: Dir Abdelhamid Bouchnak) At FrightFest last year South African chiller The Tokoloshe played to largely unmoved audiences, who remained divided over its effectiveness in telling the story of a demonic force preying on a young girl and a cleaning lady in urban Johannesburg. In keeping with the Festival's commitment to screen fright flicks from around the globe. Dachra shares with The Tokoloshe the uneasiness of the existence of primal and demonic fears within a continent's belief and economic systems. But where last year's film remained distinctly 'other' in its treatment of subject matter, Dachra appropriates the language of western horror movies to tell its story.

Supposedly based on a true story, a line which is harder to swallow as the movie progresses, the film revolves around the continued belief in witchcraft among rural communities, which is still an issue in parts of North Africa. Three journalism students, investigating potential subject matter for a final year video documentary, are introduced by one of their number, Walid (Aziz Jbali) to a story about Mongia (Hela Ayed), a hospitalised woman who for the 20 years of her incarceration has been regarded as a witch. Walid and his study partners Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) bribe their way into the hospital to interview Mongia, but all they come away with is the knowledge about Dachra, the village that the strange woman originally came from. The trio decide to locate the village, but when they arrive, after the initial friendliness of the occupants wears off, things take a darker turn when their car breaks down and they become isolated in the rural community: and of course there is no mobile signal. The students gradually piece together the truth about what's happening in the village, the evil that exists within the community and, equally worryingly, the inhabitants' dietary requirements.

As well as being Tunisia's first horror film Dachra scores a double whammy in being Bouchnak's first feature. This shows in places - it's about half an hour too long with a mid section that could do with some editing, and some of the casting is a little questionable (the students look a little long in the tooth, for example). But until it veers into grand guignol territory in the last half hour and a climax which ties up the plot points a little too tidily, it's an interesting meditation on a country that is keen to progress but is mired in traditional beliefs and customs, and it's to be praised for making religion key to the story rather than merely a plot device. Filmed in authentically bleak Tunisian locations, Dachra does well to remain gripping in the company of a cast of largely unlikeable characters. It also sat rather uneasily alongside some of FrightFest's more mainstream fare, but on reflection that was probably to the film's advantage.

The Wind (USA 2018: Dir Emma Tammi) Nothing is what it seems in Tammi's extremely eerie and atmospheric story of a frontier woman confronting a combination of ancient evil and the demons of her own mind in 1800s mid west America.

Caitlin Gerard is exceptional as Lizzy Macklin, who with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) has taken a plot of land and a farmhouse in a god forsaken (literally as it turns out) part of the prairies.

At some point afterwards a younger couple, Emma and Gideon Harper (Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee) become their neighbours - well if you can call people living a mile away neighbours, that is. Lizzy and Isaac have suffered sadness in their lives, and the arrival of newcomers from St Louis, Missouri, also hoping for a new start, initially lifts Lizzy's spirits. But when Emma becomes pregnant she begins to fear the presence of something terrible in her midst, which in turns stirs Lizzy's memories of her own past.

Tammi chops up her narrative so that the viewer is never sure whether they're in the past or the present, but unlike, say Nic Roeg's frantic time slicing, The Wind's mood is at times almost elegiac. The movie begins with a terrible moment - the aftermath of the death of a child - and the mood scarcely rises above the deeply sombre, pausing only for scenes of a nascent friendship between the two women, before those are replaced with a sense of rising dread. Lizzy's mind becomes as fractured as the sequence of images before us, gradually unveiling a force older than the bible which stalks the prairies, sometimes appearing as little more than a shadow on the wall or a noise in the wind, other times as something far more visceral. It's quietly powerful stuff, framed by Lyn Moncreif's static, unflinching photography.

Based on a 2012 short film The Winter, made by The Wind's scriptwriter Teresa Sutherland, but not suffering the fate of many shorts developed into overstretched features, this is an impressive debut by anyone's standards. With the imposing and inhospitable wilds of New Mexico as a backdrop, and the war between superstition and progress being waged quietly but forcefully, it leaves a powerful impression.

Girl on the Third Floor (USA 2019: Dir Travis Stevens) This rather uneven comedy/horror sees dad to be Don Koch (a Jon Hamm-esque Phil Brooks aka C.M. Punk, sporting ink in places where other people don't have places) moving into a rather large fixer upper house, and deciding to take on all the home improvements himself. In the course of this he discovers an additional floor to his home - rather oddly including a minstrel gallery - when part of the second floor ceiling falls though. He's against the clock to get the house in shape as his wife Liz (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is about to become a mother.

But we soon learn that Dan is not exactly dad-of-the-year material when he gets it on with passing flirty neighbour Sarah (Sarah Yates) who just happens to stop by to hold his hammer. Dan's also a reformed alcoholic who has previously been prosecuted for fraud. So you know, all round good catch.

Realising that he may may made the wrong moral choice Dan subsequently 'ghosts' the girl, which is ironic as that's what she turns out to be (can you 'ghost' a ghost?). Sarah's not taking no for an answer, that's for sure, and Liz is due home at any moment. What's a guy to do?

I'm guessing Girl on the Third Floor was chosen for its festival friendly vibes, as it's not a movie to tax the intellect. There are elements of the Hammer House of Horror episode 'The House That Bled to Death' in the amount of gloop that pours out of the walls and light fittings. I was also reminded of George Wendt being menaced in Steve Miner's 1985 comedy House, and of course spooked caretaker Jack Torrance in The Shining. It's a rather laboured haunted house story that tries to say something about gender and alpha-maledom (the house's origin was a brothel) but despite this subtext and Mr Punk's very physical performance, it wasn't for me.

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