FrightFest 2020: Four films destined for Shudder
These four films were included in the FrightFest programme, October 2020, and are all going to be available for everyone to see on Shudder in due course. A couple were great, and a couple were not, but I’m never going to complain about either FrightFest’s or Shudder’s commitment to a diverse range. I’ll have more to say about these films when they are widely released, but here’s a brief write-up of each for now.
Chris Smith knows how to make exciting horror films, but The Banishing is dreary and too full of slight plot strands for me to recommend it. It’s beautifully made, and with a sound cast; but the story is such a muddle, with many loose threads and much worse than that: it’s dull. The Banishing is set in 1930s England and is the story of Linus (John Heffernan), a young vicar taking his new wife and her young daughter to the rather grand manor on the edge of town. Linus worries that local superstition has rubbed off on his liberal-minded wife when she starts complaining of strange sounds and distinctly odd changes in her daughter’s behavior.
You probably know the kind of thing to expect in a period mystery horror, but somehow, despite spooky dolls, religious conspiracy, a bohemian occultist, and so on, there is nothing exciting in The Banishing. I found the relationship between the vicar and his wife interesting, and the period setting nicely done, but Smith’s usually suspenseful style didn’t really have a chance to show itself until the final twenty minutes or so.
Good news, I thought: a new Neil Marshall film. However, The Reckoning looks good, but it’s not good, little more than torture porn disguised as a period drama. It’s set in England in 1665 and is primarily about Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk), a young widowed farmer. Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington), a local big shot and her landlord, tells her she can pay her rent by other means if things prove difficult and finds himself humiliated by her rejection. He plants a rather strong rumor that Grace is a witch, but when she won’t confess and give in to him, he sends for the notorious witchfinder, Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee). The latter two-thirds of the film are largely given to Moorcroft’s interrogation and torture, and to Grace’s resistance.
The horror here is all in the torture, and this is definitely not a film for the squeamish. Marshall has essentially made a fancy dress, sadistic love letter to his partner (scripted by her) in which he gets to show her off to the world. Shallow writing, a pretty lead actor, glossy camera work, and melodramatic music: The Reckoning is hardly different from one of the racier Hammer horror films set in the same period.
Now, this was fun. Slaxx is a horror-comedy about – yes – a killer pair of jeans. Directed by Elza Kephart, and written by Kephart with Patricia Gomez, it follows young Libby (Romane Denis) on her first day in a job with Canadian Cotton Clothiers, a glossy, ultra-trendy clothing retail brand. It just happens that she is joining the store on the night when they are turning around stock for a new brand: the “Super Shaper” jeans, which mold themselves to your unique shape. No-one knows, though, that one of the pairs is possessed until someone tries them on.
The style is colorful to the max and satirical with it, the store and its corporate culture somewhere between exaggerated and idealized (every salesperson working in an “ecosystem”). There is a company chant, a uniform greeting, and an influencer coming to launch the jeans. As well as snide humor, Slaxx also comes with slasher-level violence and a sharp corporate social responsibility message. And just because it’s a comedy, don’t go expecting a joyful ending: the film has a message, but acknowledges it is one that people tend not to hear.
Directed by Natasha Kermani, and written by Brea Grant, Lucky is a surreal fable about contemporary women’s experience of both victimhood (from assault, harassment, etc.) and the gaslighting that can so often accompany it. Brea Grant also plays the lead, May, who discovers that a man tries to enter her home every night to kill her. She fights back, with no real support from anyone else, until she has no choice but to accept that she and other women will always be a target of one man or another.
Lucky may sound tough, but it’s surprisingly light in tone, like a homage to slashers who never give up set against bright suburbia. I admired the writing and direction hugely – despite the film touching a few personal nerves – and adored the soundtrack. I have no doubt it will be a talking point for anyone who watches it, and I’d be fascinated to see how different genders respond.
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