• Through the Trees

Grimmfest 2020: Top Picks

Five films we recommend out of Manchester's independent horror film festival

Written by Tamsin Cleary

2020 has been a difficult year for film festivals, particularly those of a smaller scale and an independent spirit. But, undeterred by a global pandemic, Manchester’s own Grimmfest has taken its particular brand of cinematic mayhem online, highlighting indie productions and emerging talents from around the world.

Covering a wide breadth of different tones and styles, Grimmfest’s offerings in 2020 range from straight-ahead shockers and splatter comedies to more unclassifiable genre-bending fare - a diverse selection of films to ring in a new decade of independent horror cinema. We watched them all! Our top picks of the festival:

Ten Minutes to Midnight (Erik Bloomquist)

It’s ten minutes to midnight at a local radio station and DJ Amy (Caroline Williams) is just about to hit the airwaves for her very last graveyard shift. Suffering from a bat bite (yes, really) and saddled with a snot-nosed understudy that’s poised to replace her, Amy’s farewell hardly befits thirty years of service - but things get even worse when a vampire bat bite results in, well, vampirism. As her grip on both her body and mind begins to slip, Amy is plunged into an existential netherworld and must confront her fears.

What initially appears to be a camp 80s throwback gradually reveals itself to be something wholly unexpected: a meditation on mortality and misogyny. Operating on a kind of dream logic closer to Lynch or Kaufman than A Nightmare on Elm Street, director Erik Bloomquist has crafted a deeply odd film. It’s one that seems destined to attract a small but ardent fan-base thanks to Williams go-for-broke and genuinely affecting performance.

Rent-a-Pal (Jon Stevenson)

Dejected, dateless and caring for his ailing mother, lonely bachelor David (Brian Landis Folkins) finds an unlikely source of solace in a mysterious “Rent-a-Pal” VHS tape. Said tape features Andy (Wil Wheaton), an unnervingly chipper virtual buddy who conducts one half of an increasingly personal conversation. This bizarre simulacrum of an intimate friendship becomes a source of comfort for David and then, ultimately, something much darker.

The film may be set in 1990 but its themes feel worryingly pertinent to today’s cultural landscape. Aside from inadvertently reflecting a particularly 2020 sense of social isolation, this is a film that thoughtfully explores a very contemporary bogyman, the “incel”, from the inside out.

Death Ranch (Charlie Steeds)

In this 1970s-set action-splatter-comedy three African-American siblings are on the run from the law after one of them, Brandon (Deiondre Teagle), escapes a Tennessee penitentiary. The fugitive, along with big brother Clarence (Travis Cutner) and sister Angela (Faith Monique), hold up in an abandoned ranch to rest for the night – only to happen upon a Ku Klux Clan rally right next door. Thus begins a bloody face-off with hateful white supremacists’.

This endearingly goofy, home-grown grindhouse pastiche from Charlie Steeds may be rough around the edges but after a slightly shaky start it’s guaranteed to win over a crowd with its plentiful DIY splatter and incendiary, take-no-prisoners swagger. It’s hard to wipe the smile off your face as you watch Monique eagerly enact unconvincing yet vivid genital torture on a yelping clansman.

Alone (John Hyams)

This spare, stripped-down thriller follows the recently widowed Jessica (Jules Wilcox) as she packs up her old life and hits the open road. But grief and an uncertain future become the least of her problems when she finds herself drawn into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with an unassuming, psychotic everyman (Marc Menchaca).

Alone treads familiar ground - at various points echoing Duel, The Vanishing and Deliverance amongst others - but it does so with enough vim and vigour to take the edge off any cinematic déjà vu. John Hyams’ direction is lean but muscular and Menchaca is suitably chilling as the calculating maniac.

Ropes (José Luis Montesinos)

Returning home from hospitalisation, the newly quadriplegic Elena (Paula Del Rio) is a young woman at the end of her tether. The car crash that left her wheelchair-bound also took her sister’s life and, racked with guilt, she sees little point in carrying on. But fight for her life is exactly what she’ll have to do, tooth and nail, when her support dog becomes a rabid, slobbering beast.

There’s something distinctly Stephen King-ish about this toothsome Spanish indie – not only in its resemblance to Cujo (King’s own perennial killer canine yarn) but also in its unflinching depiction of trauma and guilt. This impressively economical thriller makes good use of its premise and Del Rio impresses in the lead.

Click here for more information on Grimmfest.

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