Horror Review: Penny Reeve’s Top Picks from the Mayhem Film Festival

12 Nov

October is my favorite month of the year. From the first of the month I put on my favorite knits — regardless of the weather outside — and draw up reading and movie lists full of horror, creepiness and witchcraft. This October I spent time watching a ton of films — a lot of which were screened at the incredibly good Mayhem Film Festival held in Nottingham, UK, each year — and I wanted to share with you my top picks, from the classic to the hilarious to the ritualistic.

Have you seen anything great over the past month and a bit? Let me know in the comments.

SUSPIRIA

I must confess, as an avid horror film fan, that prior to this year I hadn’t watched Argento’s Suspiria. I know, I know; take my membership card away and throw me to the wolves. Happily I have now rectified the situation, and by watching it on the big screen no less. As much as the film itself was great, watching Suspiria at a cinema with a good sound system was a brilliant experience. The mixing is such that the sense of unease the audience feels is partly from the film itself and partly from the score, which features repeated use of Goblin’s titular track, an insidious little tune that will stay in your head for weeks on end.

Argento’s plot is rather sparse — prodigal ballet dancer Suzy arrives in Italy from the US to begin training at a prestigious dance school, which turns out to be run by a coven of witches. Trust me, I’m not really spoiling anything here, as plot is the last thing Argento is bothered with in this trippy, neon-drenched love affair with sustained shots and torturous scenes. The opening sequence itself — which runs to almost a quarter of an hour — is a thing to behold, with shattering stained glass and screaming women running around locked buildings while rain lashes down.

It’s very obvious now the impact this film has had on horror from Scream to The Shining to Crimson Peak and for that alone I’ll forever be a fan. The big question now is what the 2018 remake — starring Dakota Johnson and Chloe Grace-Moretz — will be like.

THE RITUAL

Based on the novel by the incredibly talented Adam Nevill and with a strong cast including Rafe Spall, The Ritual follows a group of mates on a walking holiday in the Norwegian wilderness, as they celebrate the life of a one of their group recently killed during a robbery. While following a shortcut through the woods the party quickly gets lost and, in a somewhat The Blair Witch style, begin to find evidence that they’re not alone.

The camerawork is deftly handled with sweeping shots of the Nordic wilderness contrasting well with close-ups that served to highlight the claustrophobia of being lost within a dense forest. The SFX also really impressed me; I’m usually a vocal opponent to the ‘monster reveal’ (I’m looking at you, Annabelle: Creation) but this was handled very well and didn’t pull me out of the movie. I also appreciated that the ‘monster’ wasn’t unleashed at every opportunity, meaning that the audience could reflect on the characters’ internal psychological and inter-group struggles as well as the problems facing them from the great unknown.

The thing that stood out for me the most during The Ritual was the dialogue, which dripped with wonderful British humor and matey joviality. Even when the horror starts to creep up on them the interplay between characters continues to serve as a buoy until, that is, the proverbial starts to hit the fan.

Almost a modern take on The Blair Witch Project but with some very old lore thrown in, The Ritual is a wonderful little horror film that I found totally absorbing and not a little creepy. I recommend you hunt this one out as fast as you can.

M.F.A.

I’m still questioning how I feel about this one. Certainly Francesca Eastwood gives a stunning performance as protagonist Noelle, who turns from nondescript student to femme fatale with nary the blink of an eye, but the story doesn’t keep my attention after it moves from an important commentary on attitudes towards sexual assault in the US to a standard slasher film, which felt very reductive.

M.F.A. follows shy and retiring Noelle as she studies, and struggles, to obtain a Master of Fine Arts degree. You see, Noelle’s artwork is lacking a certain ‘je ne sais pas’. It’s undeniably good, but there’s just something not right about her paintings. Her talent is spotted by Luke (Peter Vack), a classmate she has a crush on. When he invites Noelle to a party she goes, and we get the sense she feels she’s on the cusp of something, sexual awakening, or the acceptance of her flatmates. What actually happens is a violent rape, which turns Noelle into a vigilante, hell-bent on getting revenge over any man who has assaulted a woman.

I very much enjoy the premise of M.F.A. and the second part of the film — as Noelle’s work improves while the body count piles up — is, while rushed, perfectly entertaining, but the film would have benefitted from keeping the issue of sexual abuse front-and-centre. Maybe this would have taken M.F.A. out of horror and more into thriller territory, but I suspect it would have made for a much stronger film.  

M.F.A. could have been an important film, ably handling attitudes towards sexual abuse in the US and serving as a metaphor to give women their voices back. However, what we actually get is a slightly unsatisfying horror film that could have been so much more.

A DAY (하루)

Korea on the whole produces a very high standard in films, especially in the horror and thriller genres, and debut director Sun-ho Cho’s stylish and intricate A Day is no exception.

When famous doctor Jun-young returns from a post with the UN, he’s set on rekindling his fading relationship with young daughter Eun-jung (Eun-hyung Jo). However, while rushing to meet her at a prearranged time, he stops at the scene of a traffic accident, only to discover that one of the victims is Eun-jung. On realising he can’t save her, Jun-young is transported back in time to relive the day and try once more. And try he does, interrupting press conferences to ask Eun-jung to meet him at a different location, getting to the scene earlier and devising ways that the taxi (which ultimately kills his daughter each time) misses its mark. Despite changing all of the variants of the accident, Jun-young never manages to prevent Eun-jung’s death. But Jun-young soon realises that there’s someone else living through this nightmare with him: A young medic called Min-chul (Yo-han Byeon) is also trying to prevent the death of his wife, a passenger in the taxi, with similarly bad results. It’s up to both Jun-young and Min-chul to work together to find out why they’re stuck in a never ending hell and prevent the accident from happening once-and-for-all.

A Day kept me on the edge of my seat from the first accident. Watching Jun-young fail to save his daughter was heart-wrenching every time, and the excellent twist brilliantly blends both the sci-fi and thriller genres to create a moving and thoughtful exploration of death and redemption.

HAPPY DEATH DAY

I thought Happy Death Day would be a little too close to A Day, what with them both featuring a Groundhog Day style central narrative. But whereas A Day is a hard-hitting meditation on the choices we make and consequences thereof, Happy Death Day is just a bit of fun with no real substance. And that’s not to say that’s not exactly what writer Scott Lobdell wanted. For all of its lack of plot it’s a fun little film that makes for a pleasing hour and a half.

The story runs thusly: Popular college student Tree wakes on the morning of her birthday in a stranger’s bed. As she goes about her day being the stereotypical popular girl, attending parties and meeting up with her professor fuckbuddy, she ends up, uh, murdered. At the point of death Tree is returned straight back to her stranger’s bed to repeat the day again, in a bid to work out who the killer is and prevent her death from happening again. There’s plenty of fun as Tree discovers the murderer by process of elimination, and the plot offers up a couple of great twists. However, plotholes do abound and a last-minute discovery that the injuries sustained each murder are leaving their mark is badly thought out and abandoned mid-film.

Billed as the Scream for 2017, I’m not sure it quite hits the mark, being not quite scary enough to give anyone the shivers and not quite funny enough to get the laughs (note my earlier point about horror/comedy mash-ups) but strong performances from Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard as love interest Carter, plus a great supporting cast, elevated Happy Death Day from okay to pretty good … just don’t expect it to win any Oscars.

Note: I was furious for the first quarter of the film as we see Tree (Rothe) waking up in some guy’s bed with a heavy inference that they had sex, despite learning that Tree was so drunk she didn’t remember anything, and everyone seemed to be okay with this. The incident was addressed later in the movie, though I still have issues with the drunken frat boy ignoring her cries for help as she’s pinned to a bed by his ‘friend’.

PARANORMAN

Somehow, great little stop-motion film ParaNorman has missed entry into the pantheon of ‘great Halloween films’, and it’s such a shame. It has it all: zombies, magic, a centuries-old curse, ghosts, ghouls and the best dance-off to Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp I’ve ever seen.

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a middle school kid who has the gift of seeing ghosts. A simple journey to school for our hero is peppered with the spirits of past townsfolk going about their business, wishing him a good day or moaning. But when Norman starts seeing terrifying visions of the past and his Uncle Prenderghast (the excellent John Goodman) shows up to tell Norman of a curse which he must stop, things go from weird to really weird.

By turns funny and sad, ParaNorman is a parable to accepting each other’s differences. The characters are all pretty stereotypical and one-dimensional but they all work together to achieve a common goal: in this case, preventing the town from succumbing to a terrible curse. These are dark days and it’s pretty cool for kids to have a  film where a diverse cast of character personalities (alas, BAME representation is still sadly lacking) support each other, not drag each other down. It’s also great to see one of the main characters coming out as being gay, especially as the other characters just accept the news without the batting of an eyelid. More of this, please. 

 


Mayhem Film Festival: http://www.mayhemfilmfestival.com/
Penny Reeve is the publicity manager for Angry Robot Books. You can see more of her thoughts here on Twitter.
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