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Frightfest 2020: Day 4 round-up

Updated: Oct 29

Natalie Erika James’s Relic, Tyler Russell’s delightful B-movie Cyst, Karl Holt’s feature debut Benny Loves You and Jud Cremata's Let's Scare Julie

Written by Jonathan Hatfull

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The day’s highlight and one of the best films of the festival was Natalie Erika James’ slow-burn Australian chiller Relic. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) head out to their dementia-suffering mother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) home in the woods after she goes missing. The house is full of old memories, post-it reminders and a nasty black mould, and when Edna reappears Kay decides it’s time to move her out…but is there more to the situation that she’s not seeing?

Relic is a quiet, beautifully performed family story with a real sense of tragedy at its core. There’s so much pain and regret as Kay and Sam grapple with what’s happening to Edna, who flips in and out of lucidity and is fierce enough in either state. The horror is introduced gradually as James tiptoes into different subgenres (folk horror, ghost story, House of Leaves-esque mind-bender) but the destination is no less affecting for its inevitability. There’s real heartbreak to be found here, but also a sense of acceptance and understanding.

A gang of bank robbers fleeing a heist gone south take refuge in a remote country house in WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s The World We Knew, a brooding, meditative drama that slowly gives way to supernatural horror as war stories are told, betrayals are exposed and old wounds are opened. There are some very strong performances (Johann Myers is particularly good as a twitchy former boxer) and a lovely score by The Limiñanas. The filmmakers have an excellent handle on mood and pacing, and those who like their ghost stories laced with tragic cynicism should track this down.

On the other end of the energy spectrum is Tyler Russell’s delightful B-movie Cyst, an extremely gooey throwback about what happens when a mad dermatologist’s experimental cyst-removal ray goes horribly wrong. The casting is self-aware (it stars Troll 2’s George Hardy as the mad doc and The Room’s Greg Sestero as a token hunk dressed like a Wes Anderson character) but it’s a sincerely silly monster movie that understands and loves its predecessors, with a nice line in off-beat humour and perfectly pitched performances. It’s not for anyone with an easily upset stomach as giant pimples are popped and pus squirts freely, but it’s inventive, funny and very well made.

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Like Cyst, Karl Holt’s feature debut Benny Loves You is a love-letter to schlock movies of yesteryear but in a Puppet Master/Child’s Play vein, as man-child Jack’s (Holt) attempts to grow up and take responsibility are hindered by his suddenly sentient and murderous childhood teddy Benny. The toy business is brilliantly done and there are some good jokes as Jack refuses to see anyone’s problems but his own, but it does start to flag from time to time. If it sounds like it’s your cup of tea, it’s certainly worth a look.

A successful stand-up comic preparing to star in a new film finds himself targeted by a potentially murderous fan in Heckle, which features a brief, caustic performance from Steve Guttenberg as the deceased subject of the biopic in question. With no likeable characters, an increasingly mean-spirited tone and a lack of plot, not to mention scares, this feels like an overextended short.

For the Sake of Vicious also feels somewhat like it’s killing time for its first half, as a nurse is taken hostage by a crazed fellow convinced that the man he’s tied up in her home is responsible for a terrible crime. That first half is a bit of a slog, but it’s all a set-up for an action packed, blood-drenched second half as home invaders come calling. The violence is very impressive, but feels a little like a demo reel for the filmmakers and stunt co-ordinators. (Released by Signature Entertainment on 11 Jan 2021)

Period folk horror Blood Harvest, also known as The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, is operating on a very different energy level. A devoutly religious community is deeply suspicious of outsider Agatha Earnshaw, whose crops survived a brutal blight, and now her secret teenage daughter Audrey has decided it’s time for them to stop hiding… Writer-director Thomas Robert Lee has crafted a cold, handsome film with good performances, some genuinely nasty surprises and a heroine whose sense of dark purpose is clear from the get-go. It gets a little lost in its second half but it’s one of the better folk horrors to have followed The Witch. (Released by Signature Entertainment on 16th November)

British horror Hosts is sure to cause a bit of a stir thanks to one particularly brutal scene, but it all starts off at a relatively leisurely pace as two families prepare to share Christmas dinner. However, after strange lights are seen outside, some guests might not be who they appear to be… Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a clear influence here but directors Adam Leader and Richard Oakes have no time for that film’s ambiguity, plunging their characters into a series of cruel and twisted games. The first half is effective but after the halfway mark the relentless grimness takes its toll.

A group of teenage girls decide to prank their next-door neighbour in Jud Cremata’s Let’s Scare Julie. They’ll be back in a minute…or will they? The real time one shot (although there are plenty of cuts in and out) pays off in the film’s second half and there are some good chills late on, but it doesn’t find a way to translate the terror of our protagonist Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, who is very good), resulting in a film that feels more deserving of praise for its technical audacity rather than its script or scares. (Released by Signature Entertainment on 21st December).

Colin filmmaker Marc Price returns with another ambitious low-budget effort: SF Roger Corman homage Dune Drifter. After a dog-fight leaves her stranded on a hostile planet, Adler (the excellent Phoebe Sparrow) must stay alive, fix her ship and avoid the enemy. The deliberately retro feel of the opening sequence (all rear-projection and crackly comms) changes quickly once Adler crash lands, and Price’s gift for making something from nothing is especially potent when utilising his Iceland location. It may test the patience of some viewers but it’s an impressive achievement and you’re rooting for Adler all the way.

Canadian horror-thriller Broil is a strange beast, with a self-aware script, a Tarantino-esque chaptered structure and enough plot to suggest that this might have been a TV series pitch at one point. A powerful family with a supernatural secret is about to undergo a massive power struggle, but who will survive, and how does a serial killer chef fit into things? There is something loveable about the film’s determination to include as many plot strands as possible and there are some fun ideas floating around. The problem is that there is simply too much going on, and after the first act the jumble begins to feel messy rather than striking. However, it’s never boring, and I’d definitely watch a TV show of it. (Released by Signature Entertainment in 2021).

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Through the Trees is a UK based, independent online magazine focused on horror, cult and the outré in all its forms. We cover Film, TV, Books and Games.