Brain Freeze (Julien Knafo, Canada)
I’m so glad I managed to catch this one, another title to evidence my claim that you can rarely go wrong with Canadian horror. This time, it’s comedy horror, with some action/mystery thrown in, but still with plenty of shocking moments and serious messages. The setting is a small urban island in Quebec populated by working people as well as an elite golf course. The golf club has invested in some hasty fertilizer development to ensure that the grass will still be playable through the icy months. No one suspected that residue would end up in the public water supply and that those who consumed it would turn, um, green.
The characters of this quarantined community are introduced properly early on, which makes the action and mystery-solving so engaging later. Most notable are Iani Bédard as adolescent André, who has a lovely arc taking him from apathetic to town saviour; and Roy Dupuis as Dan, the security guy who he teams up with. Both have family responsibilities and guilt that they carry with them, which are well written and superbly portrayed. The special effects are equally fun and gross, especially the use of the neon green colours. The satire of Brain Freeze comes in two flavours: that of capitalists not taking the health risks of those around them seriously, and—embodied by a talk show host—who really cares about “other people’s problems”? Oh and watch out for Mylène Mackay as The Protocol times two (twins), channeling Ruby Rose’s Ares from John Wick: Chapter 2: very sleek!
The world premiere of Brain Freeze took place on 5 August at Fantasia International Film Festival, its international premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest 2021 on 27 August, and it will be available via Amazon and other digital platforms from 6 September.
Captive AKA Katherine’s Lullaby (Savvas Christou, USA)
I have to confess I pressed “play” on Captive with some reluctance: as I’ve said before, I’ve had my fill of films about men capturing women. This one definitely came at the model from a different angle, though, so I found myself paying attention after all. The difference is this: Evan (William Kircher), the man in question in Captive, was delusional and thought he was holding on to his own daughter rather than a stranger. Lily (Tori Kostic), the young woman he is desperate not to lose, has to work out the best way to navigate this imagined relationship in order to regain her freedom.
There was a risk that Kircher might take his character over the top somewhat (as “mad” male characters often are), but the physical aggression, even shouting, was kept to a minimum. That’s where Christou’s clever writing comes in: it’s Evan’s attitude towards Lily that keeps her from going anywhere, as much as closed doors. The actors’ energetic and nuanced performances are excellent, especially Kostic as a relative newcomer, and their complicated, claustrophobic bond made me feel really uncomfortable. Then there was the ending: strong, surprising, no less uncomfortable, yet it made a strange kind of sense for the characters. One to watch if you get the chance, before you hear much more about it.
Captive had its European premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest 2021 on 27 August.
Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It AKA Zhanym, ty ne poverish (Yernar Nurgaliyev, Kazakhstan)
You’ve probably come across a comedy show or film in which a group of friends go out for some male bonding, get up to some ludicrous/dangerous hijinks and come home to disbelieving spouses. Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It is like that, though it combines the comedy trope already mentioned with the horror staples of creepy gas station and disfigured maniac in the redneck swamps. I’m not sure, but it could easily have been produced as an homage to these genre models, especially the themes and stereotypes of masculinity that they all use.
Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It is essentially about Dastan (Daniar Alshinov), whose mates Arman (Azamat Marklenov) and Murat (Erlan Primbetov) rescue him from his expectant wife’s nagging with a day out fishing, which none of them really know how to do. On the way, they unwittingly cause the death of the dog belonging to the resident one-eyed creep (Dulgya Akmolda), and things steadily go from the frying pan into the fire for not just these three but everyone concerned. It’s very nicely played out, so that we first get to know these everyday blokes, meet some not-entirely-competent gangsters, and steadily discover that these two groups have someone else to fear in the backwoods. The camera is never too busy in a broad rural setting with just a handful of characters, but focusing does get easier as the brutal headcount proceeds. Oh yes: this film certainly delivers a gory-slapstick cocktail, with a similar tone to Why Don’t You Just Die! I’d like to think that the gender stereotypes here are being poked fun at rather than reinforced, but either way, it’s a fun film. Anyway, this is only my second Kazakhstan film, after Bullets of Justice, and I’m more than happy to look out for more.
The UK premiere of Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It took place on 28 August at Arrow Video FrightFest 2021.
Bring Out the Fear (Richard Waters, Ireland)
Bring Out the Fear is the story of Rosie (Ciara Bailey) and Dan (Tad Morari) out for a day hiking in the densely forested Wicklow mountains. They’re not great for each other, though they’re trying to be nice about it: there’s certainly some realism about an everyday couple who are no good at living together but lousy at breaking up, too. When they reach the peak and look over to the coast, things feel bright and more than tolerable; but after that, they cannot seem to find their way out to the road and frequently stumble across odd folklorish figures and other bad signs. Their approach to being lost diverges as much as their approach to their relationship, which only serves to get them more lost. Is this real, some spooky goings-on, or simply an eco-metaphor for a hopeless relationship?
What worked especially well was the cinematography (thanks to Rowan Moore, who I’m not surprised to find had previously gained experience on Calvary): the forest was captured beautifully and certainly made to feel bigger than it probably is; as well as that, he also presented the sense of being lost that really complemented the writing. The overall writing, especially how the characters were drawn and their advancing confusion, worked; or should I say should have worked. But there are also two reasons why it essentially failed for me. Firstly, the acting and the dialogue the actors were given were dire: no more to be said there. Secondly, there wasn’t enough care given to basic details: they were walking “for days” and yet Dan’s stubble showed no growth; and no woman wakes up with full make up and a smile.
Bring Out the Fear had its world premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest 2021 on 28 August.
Mystery Spot (Mel House, USA)
A different tone again, Mystery Spot is an old-fashioned horror story. No axe-murders or jump scares here, this one is all about a creepy, cryptic atmosphere, in a Twilight Zone kind of way. It’s set at a motel, in middle-of-nowhere Texas, which is situation nearby to a ruined old tourist attraction—the kind of “tilted house” where laws of gravity appear not to apply. A disparate group of people are drawn here—some for a brief stay, some long term—and each of them have some freaky experiences at the motel.
When I first saw that Mystery Spot involved people being drawn to a motel, I couldn’t help but expect something like James Mangold’s Identity. Mystery Spot is quite different, though. The pace is slow for the most part, though when it ramps up towards the end, that feels perfectly apt. This slowness isn’t dull by any means but is instead almost dreamlike, and it’s easy to wonder whether the strange experiences are actually happening or just imagined. The music and cinematography reflect this neatly, reminding me of Ultrasound in parts. The characters all have well-drawn personalities, though their backstories are only hinted at when relevant. Mystery Spot hardly leaves the motel at all, making it feel like the viewer is trapped there; a resident occasionally goes out for a bite or a day trip, but we never see any other location, except for the tourist trap on the edge of the property. Tantalisingly, we never see inside that “dangerous” ruin. I’d really rather like to go there.
The world premiere of Mystery Spot was on 30 August at Arrow Video FrightFest 2021.