We’re hitting the road for the second Shockdown Saturday of the Soho Horror Festival, with the theme “Highway to Hell” taking us out of the woods from last weekend where we hunted for Bigfoot and got some bad news from a box of sympathy cards from the future. Our first feature this week, Thunderbird, was, of course, introduced with shorts reflecting the new theme and introduced me to the best short film in recent memory.
Helena, directed by Gabriel Campoy and Guillem Lafoz, starts with a woman (Anna Gonzalvo), assumedly the title character, trying her best to dump a body out in the middle of nowhere, retrieving a shovel, and pulling the body by the shoe to begin creating her gravesite. Fantastic cinematography and use of the open space at the location abound as the man (Javi Cornelio), whose face is covered by a burlap bag over his head, begins to use old school slasher tactics in making his way towards Helena. In the event we may have thought Helena was the villain in this story, our minds are changed when he lands a blow on her.
Despite Helena’s best efforts—and a bottle of accelerant—the man refuses to die and continues to come for her. With the conclusion seeing Helena leave the driver’s seat sheepishly compliant and a close-up on the faceless man’s knuckles tensely gripping the steering wheel followed by another close-up on Helena’s battered face, Helena’s story reveals her struggles in breaking the cycle of abuse and violence that refuse to let go of her. The directors’ brilliant use of the slasher genre to tell a story like that is nothing less than masterful, especially when you consider there is no dialogue. The film is stunningly effective in under ten minutes.
The follow up short, The Way Station, didn’t land as heavy a blow to me but scored big points for its Tales from the Crypt level of creativity. The Way Station involves a sleazy traveling salesman (Kevin J. McGrath) looking to catch a night of rest before continuing in the morning. The salesman makes unwanted, misogynistic advances toward the young hotel desk clerk (Amy Wickenheiser), who checks the salesman in professionally before the salesman makes his way to his room. Putting his head to a pillow proves to be a difficult task, however, as he can hear the man in the next room snoring through the paper-thin walls. The salesman looks to confront the man but finds something far more deadly. As the story concludes with yet another man (Terence Rosemore) condescending to the clerk, the viewer sees how this is going to end for any traveler looking to placate the clerk with novel endearment or unwelcomed flirting. The Way Station’s subtle twist provides a very satisfying ending to this fun, cautionary tale.
An albino snake opens our main event, Thunderbird, and claims the life of a mouse. Director Nicholas Treeshin sets the predator/prey scenario that’s about to transpire in the film as one man asks another, “What happens if you forget to feed [the snake]?” The other replies, “[the snake] finds a way out,” and we get the sense that nothing is safe from the snake’s hunger if it isn’t fed in the cage. We learn quickly that one of those men is our main character, Will (Colten Wilke), and he lives on a fishing boat where he has recurring nightmares of a mysterious creature chasing him around his ship.
Before the film can properly introduce Will, it shifts focus to the arrival of Detective Ivy Seymour (Natalie Brown). Ivy has arrived to preside over the most intriguing moment of Thunderbird, the homicide of a young girl laid out like Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer minus the clear sheeting. The near idyllic looking seaside town doesn’t seem to get many murders, and this one is particularly puzzling for local officer Joe Fletcher (Aaron Douglas). As Ivy approaches the pale body of a previously amputated woman, the camera shows her head to be embalmed in a wax-like substance that Joe says has yet to be identified. Given the victim’s amputation, Joe has a lead on her identity, but now the search for a killer who preys on the weak is underway.
Will is visited by a nurse (Nicole Shorrock) back at the boat, inquiring about how his sister, Sarah (Brittney Wilson), is doing now that she’s left the psychiatric hospital she resided in most of her life. The question confuses Will, not knowing that his sister had left the facility. The nurse says she’s been living with a roommate for about a year, but she concerns Will when she tells him the police have been seeking to ask her questions since they’ve recently discovered the body of her roommate. Will and Ivy’s stories begin to intersect as it turns that out Sarah is the roommate of the recent victim. When Will runs into Sarah’s house looking for her, Ivy arrests him.
Thunderbird is then partitioned into breadcrumb trails of origin, mythology, and investigation. Little clues make their way into the story, satisfying its lingering noirish sensibility. Sarah, having been the only witness to the gruesome murder of her parents when she and Will were children, was institutionalized after insisting “a monster killed her parents.” The parents are described by Officer Fletcher as having been sketchy in how they procured the land they were renovating from the indigenous people of the region. On the day of their murder, Will witnessed the community’s chief in an altercation with his parents and later pointed him out in a lineup at the police station, effectively sentencing him to a lifetime in prison. The chief died in prison, and the community now resents Will for his actions as a boy. They beat him to within an inch of his life every time he sets foot in town.
Ivy and Will team up to look for Sarah, and it becomes increasingly clear that nothing in the town is as it appears to be. The town itself harbors many beautiful surface qualities but is overwrought with its own hidden activities from raves to rituals. And if that is the case with the town, are Will and Ivy looking for Sarah because she may be the next victim, or could she have something to do with all of this? Thunderbird feels like a lost episode of The X-Files as told with the grit of True Detective and the extreme influence of Wolfen. This is a slow burn thriller that dives deep into Native American folklore and mythology but manages to find catharsis for its characters in confronting the past. It isn’t all that effective in its message and may end up being too patient in its pacing as it attempts a Silence of the Lambs vibe throughout without a captivating monster like Hannibal Lecter.
For the most part, I enjoyed Thunderbird for simply being different and unexpected. However, it does come off as somewhat unrewarding by the end credits. The film is so patient throughout that its ending feels somewhat rushed and not as conflicted as it should be. The film isn’t without its merits though. The acting, story, direction, music, and cinematography are all top-notch throughout Thunderbird, and that’s worth a lot here as all of those pieces keep the movie together and keep the film from sliding into banality.
Though the second of eight Shockdown Saturdays may be over, the fun will continue throughout February and March. If you’d like to be a part of the festival, all you have to do is become a member of the festival’s Facebook page and click the links in the announcements section when the films are released on Saturday. All showings are based on local time in Soho, England—check with their website and Facebook page for times. The festival is free, but Soho Horror Film Festival is operating solely on viewer support donations and entirely without sponsors. So, if you like what you see, I’d strongly encourage you to support them so we can all indulge in future events.