Frightfest turned 20 this year and, true to form, brought dozens of exciting new genre films to West End screens. Of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation to sit in a dark, air-conditioned room taking in as much vicarious suffering as possible. What else are you supposed to do on a sweltering bank holiday weekend? Here are my 10 favourite feature films from the festival.
Director: Alexandre Aja. USA 2019.
There’s a hurricane! And also, there’s an alligator! Wait, multiple alligators? This is what foolhardy swimmer Haley is up against as she tries to rescue her dad and herself from the gradually flooding crawlspace of her childhood home. Her calls for gator-aid go unanswered as the storm gains in ferocity, and the film draws an impressive amount of tension from its single location and a reptilian menace that never feels repetitious.
Director: Pollyanna McIntosh. USA 2019.
In this long-awaited sequel to 2011’s The Woman, the eponymous woman’s feral teenage daughter is discovered, promptly bathed and then shunted off to a Catholic boarding school for re-education. She makes good progress, learning to speak and resist the urge to bite people, but the hypocrisy of “civilising” forces is quickly revealed. Meanwhile, her mum will stop at nothing to find her darlin’. It’s not subtle and exists in its own reality, but there’s something beautiful and engrossing about Darlin’s struggle to fit into a world that is too small and crooked for her.
8. Happy Face
Director: Alexandre Franchi. Canada 2018.
In search of meaning, belonging, and escape from family tragedy, an attractive young man bandages his face and attends a support group for disfigured people. Everybody hates a tourist, but he’s willing to earn his keep by transforming lives in this emotional, funny and messy story that would make Cervantes proud. It’s not horror by any stretch, but it’s certainly unflinching, awkward and risky, so has plenty to offer open-minded genre fans.
Director: Kurtis David Harder. Canada 2019.
Malik and Aaron, along with their teenage daughter, move to a small town in search of a quiet life. Unfortunately, they’re met with backwards thinking and homophobia that seem deliberately designed to spoil their fresh start. The more Malik investigates, the more it seems there is, in fact, a conspiracy at work, but no one will believe him. Although the events of this film take place in the mid-nineties, its focus on circular trauma and recurring prejudice adds up to a story that is really about the modern day.
- Satanic Panic
Director: Chelsea Stardust. USA 2019.
This was a strong year for anarchic films that manage to lead their protagonists into what feels like real danger, while still allowing the audience a good laugh at their expense. Satanic Panic is no exception. It tells the story of one doe-eyed pizza delivery girl’s hellish night fending off a group of shi-shi Satanists who want her for their virgin sacrifice. It plays well to a crowd, and has some highly quotable moments that will give it strong rewatchability potential.
- Girl on the Third Floor
Director: Travis Stevens. USA 2019.
A disgraced business mogul moves into a suburban fixer-upper to renovate it for his young family. What he thinks will be a simple job is disrupted by unwanted visitors and dry wall that is a bit… wetter than he was expecting. At turns icky, funny and unpredictable, this entertaining film is more than just a showcase for its excellent, Cronenbergesque effects.
- Why Don’t You Just Die!
Director: Kirill Sokolov. Russia 2018.
This is Kill Bill in a Russian apartment. It’s what you get when you take a crooked cop, his resentful daughter and her crusading boyfriend and turn the violence up to 11. It throws its madcap style in your face, but only after earning that indulgence with satisfyingly over-the-top, pitch-black humour.
- Come to Daddy
Director: Ant Timpson. Many Countries 2019.
As the title suggests, this is a movie that strives to make its audience uncomfortable. It revels in ugliness, and there’s a distinct sense that you don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. Elijah Wood plays a lovable nebbish who, when he reunites with his estranged father in a remote cabin, finds himself thrust into a situation he’s in no way prepared for. It’s tense, it’s witty, it’s gross and it’s good fun.
- Death of a Vlogger
Director: Graham Hughes. UK 2019.
I love a film that not only works within its narrative construct, but thoroughly understands and embraces all it has to offer. That’s the case with this story about truth, fiction and Youtube, as a vlogger struggles to figure out which is more frightening: the ghosts in his flat or the trolls in his comments. This mockumentary rings so true for anyone who has spent too much time on the internet, that you may find yourself forgetting that it’s all pretend.
- A Good Woman is Hard to Find
Director: Abner Pastoll. UK/Belgium 2019.
Set in a Belfast housing project, this Flannery O’Connor-inflected crime thriller explores the reality of modern poverty while giving it a poetic, darkly comic significance. We first meet young mum Sarah as she struggles to make ends meet while uncovering the mystery of her husband’s death. When a blundering criminal barges into her life, she discovers sides of herself she never knew existed. This is a film that not only ‘knows what it is’, but is proud of its genre and the unique ability it has to grip an audience.