Monday 31 August 2020

Films from 2020 Digital FrightFest Part 2: Reviews of They're Outside (UK 2020) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM, Skull: The Mask (Brazil 2020), Hail to the Deadites (Canada 2020) and Hall (Canada 2020)

They're Outside (UK 2020: Dir Airell Anthony Hayles, Sam Casserly) Welcome to spooky Hastings! Along with Playhouse Hayles and Casserly's movie forms the 'new directors to watch' strand of FrightFest, indicating that while these filmmakers might have a way to go in terms of finished product, they're talents to watch.

They're Outside, as a found footage movie, feels more assembled than directed, which is in keeping with the faux reality subject matter that makes up its running time. We get some pompous footage about folklore in Hastings, courtesy of Richard (Nicholas Hellraiser Vince) and, in the main part of the movie, YouTube psychologist Max (Tom Wheatley) who, in the latest edition of his online show, encourages an acute agoraphobic, Californian Sarah (played by actual Californian Chrissy Randall), to take a few steps outside of her front door. Sarah had a daughter, thought to have died in a car crash, although she maintains that she was actually abducted by a regional mythical creature called 'green eyes.'

Max proves himself to be a thoroughly unlikable cove, exploiting Sarah's pain for his own egotistical ends and tearing into his own film crew as well. Much of the movie takes place, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Sarah's home, and feels cramped and claustrophobic as a result. Sarah's friend Penny turns up (Emily Booth), and some meta fun is had in that Penny, like Booth, was a presenter in the 1990s. Of course Sarah's suspicions about the fate of her daughter turn out to be true: They're Outside mixes fact with fiction - incorporating the annual Jack in the Green event which takes place in Hastings, a real slice of folk horror in among the supernatural goings on. It's a passable film, clearly filmed on a minuscule budget, but captures well the scrappy and immediate feel of social media recordings.

Skull: The Mask (Brazil 2020: Dir Armando Fonseca, Kapel Furman) Well it wouldn't be FrightFest without at least one batshit crazy movie, and right on cue it arrives.

Back in 1944 a bad guy tracks down and secures the horned Mask of Anhangá, the executioner of Tahawantinsupay, a Pre-Columbian God. When activated via an incantation the mask gives the wearer considerable power; it also has the capacity to make the wearer's head explode if the ritual to enable its powers goes wrong. Which is what happens.

Flash forward to 2019, and the mask turns up in the depths of the Amazon jungle, where it's crated up and shipped to Sao Paolo, destined to be a museum exhibit. The person organising the shipment, archaeologist Galvani Volta (Guta Ruiz), is in the pay of dodgy Tack Waelder (Ivo Muller) who secretly wants the mask for himself. Volta's girlfriend Lilah (Greta Antoine), can't wait for a look see when the shipment arrives, and sets up the invocation ritual, which goes wrong, killing both Lilah and Galvani.

Put upon cop Beatriz Obdias (Natalie Rodrigues) takes a break from investigating the kidnap of some schoolchildren to look into the deaths of the women. Two murder site clean up guys arrive to, er clean up, but the mask, which briefly took itself into hiding, reappears and attaches itself to one of the guys, causing him to go on a murderous rampage, ripping the hearts out of unsuspecting victims. Meanwhile Manco (Wilton Andrade), a descendant of a guy committed to suppressing the mask, fetches his temperamental flamethrower out of a vault in the local church, and prepares to do battle.

Arguably there are way too many plot strands and ideas for this film to work, but Fonseca and Furman's latest feature just throws the elements together and launches the movie at break neck speed; the gamble pays off as it's a hugely enjoyable ride, gory as hell and loopy as you like, and is over before you can catch your breath. But there's a lot of talent here too. It's superbly edited, and Andre Sigwalt's photography catapults the camera through the San Paolo streets with wild abandon. The cast play it straight and the mask, which is an ingenious creation, should have the opportunity to become a franchise. Excellent stuff.

Hail to the Deadites (Canada 2020: Dir Steve Villeneuve) I originally felt slightly duped as I was expecting this to be more of a celebration of The Evil Dead than its actual subject, an examination of the fandom surrounding the movie. Villeneuve, clearly a massive fan of the flick, wanted to find out what it is about the film that drives so many fans to be obsessive about it, and journeys across Canada and the USA to find out (there's little Brit input apart from a couple of UK fans interviewed at a US convention, which is a shame because, on home video at least, the movie was initially more commercially successful here than in the States).

So what we get here are a lot of young men (and occasionally women) who were largely unborn when The Evil Dead was theatrically released, but who discovered the movie via video rental courtesy of progressive or uncaring parents. Villeneuve doesn't really ask the question 'why?' in terms of the extent of the fans' obsessions, and it's this approach which makes the documentary rather more palatable than a 'come and look at the freaks' direction it could have taken in another director's hands. But it's pretty obvious that for some the completist approach to collecting items of memorabilia answers some inner question about the best way to cope with the rigours of real life (Bruce Campbell, who contributes a number of observations on fandom - and looks like a million dollars next to some of the pastier individuals in the film - commented that he couldn't understand the logic of people who would stand in line for hours for an autograph and then not make eye contact with him).

But the pleasure of this film is entirely in the stories of the fans: a couple who got married based on their joint love of the movie (they were divorced a year later - I think there might be a lesson in there somewhere); a Bruce Campbell cosplay lookalike whose crowdfunding campaign to visit his hero was considerably assisted by a generous donation from someone called 'the chin'; and a guy with a story of personal heartbreak over the loss of a baby boy he'd named Ash. The rest of the cast of the movie sequence, who regularly turn up to conventions and meet and greets, seem genuinely delighted to be surrounded by continued deification, and it's fitting that a movie made by horror fans should be kept alive by exactly the same type of people, nearly 40 years on.

Hall (Canada 2020: Dir Francesco Giannini) Hall feels like the ultimate concept movie: how can you make a horror feature whose setting is almost entirely restricted to a hotel corridor?

Naomi (Yumiko Shaku), a heavily pregnant woman, has checked into a hotel after leaving her husband back in Vietnam; it was brave journey at the best of times, more so because of an epidemic spreading through the US.

In the same hotel Val (Carolina Bartczak), her husband Branden (Mark Gibsen) and their 8 year old daughter Kelly (Bailey Thain) are also holed up. There is an undercurrent of domestic discord between Kelly's parents which materialises into a pattern of abusive behaviour towards Val. We learn that from a phone call with her mother that, unlike Naomi who has already made the break, Val is planning to take Kelly and leave her husband. Finding bruises on her daughter's body seals the deal, but as she goes to leave Branden, who is showing symptoms of infection, he attacks her, biting her ankle.

Elsewhere on the same floor of the hotel, a man closes a box full of vials of liquid. The lid is marked with a 'virus' logo: "it's started," he says. Naomi is also showing advanced signs of infection, and leaves her room for help, crawling along the hotel's corridor past other residents and staff who have already succumbed. Val and Kelly must also try to make their escape.

Filmed in the Santa Clarita area and completed during lockdown, Hall is slow (as another critic has mentioned, it's like Rec at 10% of the speed). Very little happens in the movie but Giannini creates a real sense of dread in such a limited setup. Here the insidious contagion of abuse is linked to the spread of the virus and the Ballardian payoff - a group of wealthy people are partying on the ground floor with no concept of what is unfolding on the upper levels of the hotel - makes the politics of the film clear. It's an intriguing piece that feels a little unfinished (it was completed during lockdown), but I rather liked its strangeness. Unfortunately there's an end coda to the movie which provides context to what we've seen before, and I could really have done without that.

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