Most of FrightFest was scarily enjoyable, but there’s always an exception. In 2019, that exception was The Drone, a monumentally stupid and clunkily obvious tech thriller with zero scares although some laughs. Director Jordan Rubin makes no attempt at subtlety as the central conceit is revealed early on and no suspense as we see everything that could be remotely creepy laid out with insulting obviousness. It is also annoying as it focuses on two hopelessly beautiful people – Chris (John Brotherton) and Rachel (Alex Essoe) – living in a luxurious house of chrome, concrete and glass that you want to throw stones at. The perfect life is disrupted by the drone that takes too prominent a role in their life early on, and the minor twist that appears adds very little beyond a hamfisted attempt to shove in a comment on abusive relationships. The saving grace of the film are the leads, who despite their prettiness are also game and fully commit to the film’s utter stupidity. They do inject the film with some humour, but overall The Drone tries to be an updated possession horror, but ultimately fails to attain any height.
Feedback breaks a key rule of drama: show, don’t tell, as it tells its story rather than showing in its restricted setting of a radio studio. One of the scariest films at this year’s FrightFest, Feedback features nothing supernatural or even uncanny. Rather, the horrors are all too human in this sleek, brutal, claustrophobic and ultimately devastating thriller of past crimes, recriminations and the need to listen closely. Eddie Marsan is Jarvis Dolan, a forthright and uncompromising radio host who uses his platform to challenge the British establishment, especially pointing out the corruption of Brexit. When masked figures take him and a fellow host hostage, Jarvis finds himself confronting uncomfortable truths of his own. The radio conceit is emphasised as Jarvis and the viewer must listen closely and reconsider their own level of involvement and culpability. Increasing tension is interspersed with brutal violence, as hammers, bullets and blades meet flesh with sickening force. The film also makes striking use of sound, including a ‘dead room’ where sound is muffled, that speaks to the film’s wider conceit of voices being silenced and only some being heard. Laced with ideas of #MeToo and redolent of the Weinstein scandal, Feedback is a gripping and scarily relevant tale of our times.
Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary is one of the most bonkers films imaginable. Beginning with a creepy sequence involving a legend around a haunted mirror, Fabrício Bittar’s film then introduces four YouTubers who want to be Ghostbusters and call themselves Ghoulbusters in a transparent attempt at differentiation. Called in to rid the school of a troublesome spectre, our colourful band of busters encounter further oddballs including a skeptical and mean-spirited principal, an experienced and compassionate teacher, a security guard who seems to belong in a bank rather than a school, and a kid who veers from being annoying to inspiring. Knowingness runs throughout the film, recalling such postmodern delights as Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. Meanwhile issues of celebrity and identity are also explored, without ever seeming laboured as the film moves through increasingly deranged set pieces. These sequences feature all manner of bodily emissions, including blood, vomit, faecal matter and semen, all thrown around with reckless abandon in ways that are both shocking and hilarious. An animated turd and a condom projectile progress the madness, before a scene occurs involving a possessed foetus that might be one of the most batshit crazy things ever seen. Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary gives great hope for Brazilian horror, being a thoroughly postmodern and completely demented horror comedy of knowing, nerdiness, celebrity and every variety of bodily emission.
It is lazy but almost unavoidable to describe Knives and Skin as Blue Velvet with teenagers. The dreamlike quality of the images, the de-emphasized yet foundational supernatural aspect and the almost tactile sensuality recall Lynch while also being entirely of its own. Writer-director Jennifer Reeder crafts an exquisite and arresting drama of young people as well as their parents, performing a subtle inquiry into the underbelly of Americana. Teenage relationships play out in unexpected ways, toxic masculinity is highlighted, troubled adults seek solace and associations that are unfulfilling and inappropriate. Most peculiar and compelling is a girl’s a cappella group taught by one of the parents, whose rendition “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is almost heartbreaking. Superb and unsettling, yet also moving and quite lovely, Knives and Skin is an eerie and dreamlike dance macabre into sensuality, coming of age and people both very strange and recognisable.
Is it King? Is it Kubrick? This is the question raised by Doctor Sleep, an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining. Almost forty years after the original, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now a man troubled by his past, plagued by alcohol (much like his father) and literally haunted by the ghosts of his time at the Overlook Hotel. Over the course of the film, he encounters regular people as well as fellow ‘shiners’, both benevolent and malevolent. The film strikes a remarkable balance between innovation and homage, with designs, images and edits echoing Kubrick’s legendary horror chiller while thematic and emotional beats recall the concerns of King. But beyond these, writer-director Mike Flanagan also makes his own contribution, demonstrating a particular use of space and a crawlingly enveloping atmosphere. Much as he did with the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan makes significant use of menacing figures and also disrupts the very space before us. Figures are not only menacing but often not what they seem, location, time and identity are questioned, walls become floors, indoors becomes outdoors and faces become porous. So for all the various influences on Doctor Sleep, it would be fair to say that while there is much of Kubrick and of King here, in the end, it’s Flanagan. And that may the greatest achievement of all.