After an inauspicious start due to technical difficulties—likely the work of some supernatural issues leftover from last week’s “ghosts in the machine” theme—the Soho Horror Film Festival’s Shockdown Saturdays event was able to get up and running for this week’s “pets at home” theme. The night’s first feature, Bats: The Awakening, made its world premiere at Soho Horror Festival this weekend. Self-described by co-directors Scott Jeffrey and Rebecca Matthews as a shoestring budget ’80s throwback to monster horror, I became extremely excited. Based on the images I had seen from the film to this point, Bats: The Awakening seemed to have Jeepers Creepers potential in the practical monster effects area and hopefully serve up some on-screen scares from a house full of potential victims.
Suspense, the night’s first short, is an immediately atmospheric film fittingly titled and well-executed by brothers Ben and Jacob Burghart, who obviously have a love for Chupacabra stories like the rest of us. Having just ejected from a crashing fighter jet, a young pilot (Jelani Talib) hangs from a tree unable to remove his parachute vest. Focusing on the ground ten feet below him, the rustling noises of a creature stirring and stalking him in the surrounding forest build the chest tightening tension of the film. As the pilot momentarily reconnects with his copilot, Dave (Robert Coppage), the unseen creature begins to move in. Performances by Talib and Coppage and excellent use of music help make Suspense work so effectively, though its abrupt ending left me wanting a bit more.
Next, directors Walter Forsyth and Angus Swantee’s Grave Sight provided an “eye-popping” short about graverobbers and curses. Featuring tremendously well-crafted practical effects, silly sound effects, and some nausea-inducing plot points, this enjoyable gross-out horror-comedy short covers all the bases. One woman’s (Holly Stevens) search for power from a cursed witch’s ring leads to one man’s (Craig Gunn) misfortune and subsequent loss of 20/20 vision. With some Troma-inspired carnage, Grave Sight is the best kind of bonkers entertainment.
I want to preface Bats: The Awakening by saying that, like anyone, I go into a film with a general number of expectations based on what type of movie I’m seeing. Indie horror has its limitations, especially when filmmakers need to get creative with a budget, so, my presumption of the content isn’t set to the standards of something studio made like Cronenberg’s The Fly, but maybe more tuned to the subtlety of a psychological monster like Possum or the atmospheric aspect of films like The Monster. There are also many times I’m largely impressed by a movie that can make use of the talents they do have to make something small appear much bigger. As aforementioned Bats: The Awakening had potential, unfortunately, its script isn’t inspired enough to make better use of it.
As described, Bats: The Awakening presented some throwback qualities: hair in one-sided ponytails, neon makeup, a rather fantastic synth-laden film score, and a completely irreverent hypersexual situation for its introduction. Three partying teenagers break into an abandoned home for a fun night of alcohol and sex. The two boys (Marek Lichtenberg and Ellis Tustin) are really just the worst, but I get it, we’re supposed to hate these characters and, being that they’ve already broken three rules of old school horror, we’re not going to miss them when they die. It is now a very ’80s trope to use the sex cliché to inflict doom upon characters, but these dude-bros are so one-dimensional they’re practically cardboard cutouts. There are no redeeming qualities for either, specifically after the sweet pillow talk of Drew’s (Tustin) confession to Nicole (Nicole Nabi) about his crush on her mom while asking about how her first time was. It should play as a satiric homage to awkward horror movie sex scenes, but instead feels a bit sleazy and not fully thought out.
The forthcoming creature attack, however, does everything right. Thermal imaging eyesight for the creature helps give the film the quality of escape from the graboids of Tremors, the screamers in Screamers, or Karen Black’s Zuni Fetish Doll of Trilogy of Terror. The practical effects costume is really well-done also, grotesque and elaborate, and certainly reminiscent of a The Creeper from Jeepers Creepers as previously stated. Bats: The Awakening gives vague reasoning to the presence of this terrifying monster lurking in the attic of a country house; all we know is there was some nuclear contamination nearby and townspeople had to leave in a hurry. Now, a decade later, people have been cleared to come back to their homes. This felt like a setup for the arc of the film, and I did enjoy the lean into ’50s nuclear terror films like Them! and Tarantula, but, again, the film fails to capitalize on another story angle.
The film’s thirteen-minute intro calms itself down by setting up the arrival of the homeowners back to the countryside, but the pacing and choice to use certain locations for unnecessary exposition stall the film out until the next creature encounter about twenty minutes later. This might be okay if there was more of a sinister feeling, creepy noises, or foreshadowing, but this time is generally spent with parents (Amanda-Jade Tyler and Ricardo Freitas) cleaning with grandmother (Kate Sandison) while sisters Jamie (Megan Purvis) and Amelia (Georgia Conlan) opportunely lose the family’s car keys while discovering an abandoned nearby church.
The plot is not at all subtle, but creature features never have been. The film may struggle with blurring the line between taking itself too seriously and intentionally playing it that way for laughs. And it isn’t like Bats: The Awakening is deprived of fun, either. The third act in particular has a lot of wonderfully realized cinematic angles, a surprising death scene, and a terrific final showdown—the kind of technical prowess that shows the makings of talented individuals behind the camera. While Bats: The Awakening may be far from a perfect film (the immediately noticeable and questionable decision to have all of the actors speak with American accents reflects that), but Jeffrey and Matthews manage to realize some of their concepts without having the money of a James Wan picture at their disposal.
Bats: The Awakening is one of seven-plus planned 2021 directorial releases for Jeffrey and Matthews among the significant number of films they are also producing within the next two years. These shoestring budget horror pictures are mostly the typical midnight movies you might find when perusing the Wal-Mart DVD bins or the far reaches of Amazon Prime when looking for schlocky midnight entertainment. The two directors seem to be acutely cornering the market on films I have certainly scrolled by before with some curiosity, like Jeffrey’s The Bad Nun or the A Quiet Place inspired film Don’t Speak. Though most prefer quality over quantity, the quantity still works and, honestly, I can appreciate their work ethic. Jeffrey and Matthews’ names could, given time, aptly be built into a conversation with the likes of Roger Corman or Takashi Miike, and neither name is bad company to be in at all.
Shockdown Saturdays are continuing throughout March alongside fun interactive events like next week’s virtual Murder Mystery Zoom Party. 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 become available on Saturday. All showings are based on local time in Soho, England—check with their website and Facebook page for times (often they leave the links open until Sunday at midnight). 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.