The 9th edition of the horror film festival took up residence in Sheffield's bestest independent cinema the Showroom over the last weekend. Your correspondent forked out for a weekend pass and strapped in for two days and one evening of terror and gory violence (and that was just the Q&As etc). Here's what transpired.
Please note that the reviews of the films may contain mild spoilers. I'll not mention the endings but if you want to go in to any of them blind maybe give the below a miss.
After a brief introduction from our genial hosts Rob and Polly, things kick off with the brilliant and inventive short Great Choice. A woman is trapped in a looping commercial for Red Lobster and things get pretty nasty. Funny, disturbing and starring the amazing Carrie Coon, it's a great start (9)
The first feature is The Endless, the new film from Spring directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (who provide a fun video introduction). The pair also star as brothers who return to the cult (sorry, commune) they left 10 years earlier for a quick visit. Obviously all is not as it seems in the idyllic community where people are allowed to follow their artistic muse, but the mindbending nature of what transpires is unlike anything else I've seen. Inventive, original, sinister, warm, disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny, The Endless may even surpass Spring, one of my favourite horror films of recent years (9).
The next bill gives us 3 shorts. Creswick is atmospheric and tense but the ending doesn't quite work (5). Latched, where a new mother accidentally awakens a rather nasty fairy, is beautifully shot with some creepy moments (7). Animated Spanish war story Dead Horses looks fantastic and is depressing as hell, but didn't do much for me (6).
The next feature is Ashley Thorpe's Borley Rectory, an animated documentary about the “most haunted house in England” and the involvement of paranormal investigator Harry Price. On top of this, it's a love letter to the horror films of the 30s and 40s. A mix of live action recreation, rotoscoping and digital animation, the film looks incredible. My favourite trick used throughout the film is how ghostly images sometimes emerge from the digital effects used to age the film up. A genuinely unique experience but one where I appreciated the technical achievement and oddity of the work rather than a film I actively enjoyed (7).
Unfortunately I have to give 68 Kill and the associated shorts a miss to catch the last bus home. The Interchange at that time of night is the spookiest experience of the weekend.
Up bright and early to join the first of many queues in order to watch Icelandic horror film I Remember You. First though we have Swedish short Drip Drop and Australian offering The Man Who Caught a Mermaid. The former, about aquatic monsters terrorising a woman in her home is stylish enough, but is the first time I notice something many of these shorts share; the totally artistic but unnecessary close up of something (6). The latter is bleak with a great twist and anchored by a brilliant central performance (7).
Oskar Thor Axelsson's feature is a mix of crime procedural and ghost story, skilfully merging two different story lines. A couple and their friend move into a dilapidated house in the remote Westfjords, where there are no neighbours or phone signal. Meanwhile a psychiatrist haunted by unexplained disappearance of his son moves to Ísafjörður and is drawn into a homicide investigation where All Is Not As It Seems. The two stories eventually link up of course and the twist that does so isn't hard to guess. I Remember You has a melancholic atmosphere and some properly scary moments, while Iceland looks predictably gorgeous (7).
Another queue (seriously though, the amount of queueing) and it's time for Habit, which is preceded by Couples Night and Bon Appetit. Couple's Night brings the funny and piles twist upon twist to good effect (8). The latter is a slow burning cannibalism tale that aims for satire but lands on painfully obvious (5).
Director Simeon Halligan and actor Elliot James Langridge arrive to introduce Habit and do a Q&A afterwards (with producer Rachel Richardson-Jones). The film starts like a particularly good bit of it's grim in Manchester drama, before dropping in the gory horror. The two genres are skillfully merged throughout and things get pretty bleak. Helped by great performances from Langridge and the rest of the cast, Halligan has delivered a great modern British horror film (7).
After all that Scandinoir and northern gothic things pick up mood-wise with the next bill. In Your Date Is Here a mother and daughter play with an old board game with predictably horrific results. The dread builds nicely until an effective jump scare finishes things off (9). Meow is a good 80s pastiche that keeps things relatively ambiguous until the end. It's first time I notice another trend in these shorts; everyone has a record player no matter when the film is set. Cute cat too (7).
Then it's time for Tyler MacIntyre's Tragedy Girls. Two teenage girls seek to learn “the trade” from a serial killer, start bumping off people in their small town then use the ensuing social media meltdowns to rise to fame. A smart, hilarious satire that skewers both teenage and adult attitudes to social media, complete with brilliant turns from Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Tripp as the narcissitic BFFs, Tragedy Girls is like a 21st century update of Heathers (8).
After the longest queue yet it's time for Inside No. 9 with writers/known geniuses Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton providing an introduction to each of the three episodes. We're given “The Harrowing”, spookiest episode “Seance Time” and (eliciting the biggest cheer of the festival) are treated to brand new episode “Tempting Fate”. All three are brilliant episodes of TV and a treat to watch on the big screen. A lively and interesting Q&A follows (9 obviously).
A trio of shorts follow before the secret film. Crave (introduced by the director) is a smart update of an old horror story (saying which will ruin it) and one of the best shorts of the festival (9). I am ashamed to say I don't remember Third Wheel (it was a loooooooong weekend). Teddy Bears Picnic is grim and suffers from unnecessary close up syndrome (5).
The secret film turns out to be Ryuhei Kitamura's Downrange. A bunch of generically attractive carpooling 20-somethings are stranded in the wilderness when their giant SUV breaks down. Turns out the tyre was shot out by a sniper, who proceeds to pick our protagonists off one by one. This is a great premise, worthy of a gritty 70s thriller, but the director's aim is way off. Though mercilessly violent and incredibly gory, the dialogue creaks and people make incredibly stupid decisions. It's probably the film that raises the most unintended laughs of the entire festival. It'll pass a Saturday night in if you get good and intoxicated beforehand (5).
With that I decide to skip Suspiria and head home to get up bright and early for the 10am start on Sunday.
Proceeding bleary eyed to the Showroom, I need something relatively gentle to ease me back into proceedings. Instead we get Japanese WTF-fest Tag. Errrrrrrk.
First up though we have Eldritch Code, a neat Lovecraftian story about a corporate IT guy chasing a particularly nasty bit of malware. Doing a genuinely fresh take on Lovecraft is difficult these days, but Eldritch Code nearly pulls it off (7). This is followed by It Began Without Warning, a fairly meh alien invasion/evil kids tale (5).
So to Sion Sono's Tag, which is an odd one even by J-horror standards. It has the most astonishing opening 10 minutes of any film of the festival, when a malevolent wind massacres two coach loads of school girls (I am not making this up). Things get weirder from there as the main character starts to shift through different realities. There are a few great (and gory) moments, though none which match the opening for sheer jaw dropping audaciousness. However, the film doesn't stick the landing, while the pervy letching over school girls and other young women leaves a sour taste (6).
The next bill goes a lot better. It opens with Swedish sleep paralysis short Paralys, which is especially fun for those of us who do suffer from said ailment (8). Next up is Tickle Monster, which manages to be funny, creepy and deliver possibly the best jump scare of the entire festival (9). The final short is Ear Worm, the title of which is basically a spoiler and features a genuinely catchy song which has been stuck in my head since I saw it (8).
The feature is Mayhem by Joe Lynch, a big, loud, dumbass violent action flick with another killer concept. A virus emerges which removes people's inhibitions, allowing them to act out their (usually deadly) impulses. The virus strikes the building where our hero (Walking Dead alumnus Stephen Yeun) works on the day he is unfairly dismissed, and as any killings undertaken while ill are not considered murder he decides to take revenge. Funny, gory, intense and cathartic for us office drones, this is another great Saturday night film and easier to recommend than Downrange. Plus it's refreshing to see a non-white actor star in such a film (8).
Next, we have Short Cut and Undress Me. The former is a fairly good excuse for a nasty pun (7), while the latter is a dreary body horror story which feels twice as long as it's 14 minute run time (3).
M.F.A. by Natalia Leite is next and it's a tough one. Art student Noelle (an incredible performance by Francesca Eastwood) is sexually assaulted at a party. When the school authorities prove to be useless she takes matters into her own hands, the descent into darkness fuelling (and massively improving) her art. A brutal evisceration of rape culture on campus (and by extension in society as a whole), M.F.A. is more powerful and thoughtful than the dubious films usually filed under the rape/revenge category. The rape scenes were most difficult things to watch all weekend, while the violence that follows isn't glorified either. A timely film and one which will haunt the viewer for some time afterwards (9).
After a bit of walk to catch breath and clear heads, it's time to back to some good ol' fashioned demonic horror. We Summoned A Demon is from the same people as a short I saw last year called Death Metal (I still use the exclamation “Shit on my fuck!” on occasion) and is in a similar dumbasses vs Satan vein. Funny and violent, someone let Chris McInroy do a feature soon please (8).
So to the 30th anniversary of Hellraiser, showing in a new print. I've not seen it for some time so was looking forward to see how well it holds up. Like so many 80s films that you saw when you were too young, the sad answer “not very”. The dialogue, from the human characters at least, groans with cliches, while most of the performances leave a lot to be desired. Most of the effects have dated badly too. However, the Cenobites still look great and have iconic lines, while the story and Clive Barker's hugely original concept are winners (7). There's an informative Q&A with actor Nicholas Vine and make up artist Geoff Portass afterwards.
Next we have Flow, an amusing tale of two women soldiers who wipe out their enemies despite running out of tampons (7). Caravan is a dark and atmospheric Aussie chiller with a horrifying denouement (7).
The longest queue of them all is for the final film I see all weekend is Creep 2, which is a shame as it's a bit rubbish. A found footage film with pretensions to being more than the jump scare filled serial killer film it so clearly is, any points it tries to make about “art” or “journalism” or whatever gets lost in the meandering monologues. Both central performances are decent and there a few wry chuckles raised, but the film long outstays it's welcome (3).
Unable to justify the expense of another taxi home and a bit bleary eyed I sadly decide to miss closing film You Better Watch Out and go home to watch cartoons for a week.
Many thanks to the guys at Celluloid Screams for a great festival. Can't way for next year already!