Popcorn Frights 2023: Puzzle Box, T Blockers, Subject

Image courtesy of Popcorn Frights

Popcorn Frights is one of those film festivals that always delivers. Nearly 10 years ago Popcorn Frights slashed their way into the festival scene with an audience of around 400. Now, they have proudly welcomed prestigious theatrical distributors like A24, IFC, and Oscilloscope to name a few [of my favorites]. Idiotically, I almost missed the cutoff for press credentials for Popcorn Frights 2023, but thankfully a divining essence saved me from my misery. The lineup for this year’s fest has a few films I have been anticipating for a few festivals and a few new names that caught my attention immediately.

The first few films I want to talk about run the genre gamut. First, we take get trapped in a labyrinthine house in the woods. From there we take a dip down unda with one of the most politically poignant boundary-pushing zombie films in recent times. Finally, we get thrown into an experimental prison, forced to study a being from out of this world.

Puzzle Box

Written and Directed by Jack Dignan

A nigh vision image of a camera facing down a set of stairs while a woman looks up at the camera
Image courtesy of Popcorn Frights

When the screaming starts, it doesn’t stop. Literally. Puzzle Box takes us on a self-reflective journey of two sisters who find themselves in an exquisite house deep in the woods. Recovering addict Kait (Kaitlyn Boyé) relents when her sister Olivia (Laneikka Denne) offers to self-rehab in the woods. It’s clear rehab clinics aren’t working for Kait, so Olivia has hopes that this method might just help her sister after all.

Puzzle Box is a liminal existential horror film that takes the viewer on a trip through hell and back. While liminal horror isn’t a new idea, films like Skinamarink and The Outwaters have shown how stepping outside the box for horror has positive consequences. Puzzle Box isn’t trying to be the next Skinamarink, but I truly think Skinamarink has paved the way for films like this. Dignan’s screenplay does leave a bit to be desired, as it seems as if at least 45% of the script says “screaming woman chases Kait through the house.” There is a compelling story here, and if you stick it out for the entire ride you will be satisfied with the ending. Very rarely does horror like this give you a specific answer, even if it’s the answer you didn’t know that you were looking for.

While there was more I wanted from the script, Dignan’s direction really shines through this film. The camera work is paramount in a film like this, and putting the camera in our character’s hands adds credence to its true horror. Olivia’s plan to keep the camera rolling in hopes to force Kait to stick to the rehab is a great idea. When conceiving a found footage film you must give the audience a reason as to why the camera continues to roll, and Dignan found a great way to do so.

My misophonia triggers with the usual sounds like open-mouth chewing and slurping, but one of my biggest triggers is screaming. Which in hindsight is weird for a horror fan. I need my screams to be there for maybe 10-15 seconds, and anything longer than that I start to get incredibly uncomfortable. Not like spooky uncomfortable, it’s more of a twitching in my seat, tapping my foot, starting to get angry type of uncomfortable. There is a large portion of this film that revolves around a screaming woman and it really started to become too much after a while. That’s just a personal thing though, and by the end of the film, I was content enough with the rest of the film that I could look past it.

This isn’t your usual cabin-in-the-woods film. Puzzle Box is a new and creative look at the idea of addiction and how people handle it. It’s unfortunate how cyclical the cycle of addiction can be, and this film does an excellent job of showcasing that unfortunate cycle. Never once does Dignan feel like he’s looking down on someone suffering from addiction, this film feels like it really comes from the heart.

T Blockers

Written by Alice Maio Mackay and Benjamin Pahl Robinson, Directed by Alice Maio Mackay

Someone is lit in a neon green and is covered in some goo, with black goo spilling out of his grinning mouth
Image courtesy of Popcorn Frights

18 years old, with three feature films in the bag, Alice Maio Mackay is truly making her mark in the genre. Mackay’s films have been hit or miss for me. I wasn’t a huge fan of So Vam but I really enjoyed Bad Girl Boogey, so we’re batting .500 here. With T Blockers Mackay is batting, go figure, .666. T Blockers is an unbelievably fresh take on a tired subgenre. Bringing life and poignancy to the zombie subgenre is no small feat as it really seems like anything and everything that could be done with zombies has happened. Obviously, Mackay isn’t the first person to bring social commentary into a zombie film, as their inception was based on xenophobia, but how Mackay handles transphobia within this specific setting is a task not many accomplished filmmakers can do, let alone an 18-year-old with THREE films to their name.

I might have been a tad hyperbolic calling T Blockers a zombie film, rather it’s a parasite film that turns people into zombie-like creatures. Figured I’d stop the comments now. It’s clear Mackay pulls from personal experiences for the script but also connects those personal experiences with the true horrors that are happening all over the world. A lot of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but when a group of marginalized humans have been reserved with their message and still continually get the boot it makes sense to see that message told aggressively. When a large group of people want to deny, and basically annihilate your existence, you’re going to be mad. Why be subtle when the people who hate you refuse to be subtle about their hate?

Out of everyone to talk about transgender humans, I’m without a doubt not qualified to do so. There are terms in T Blockers I don’t understand like “chaser” and “presenting yourself” but Mackay was able to provide context without having to give me a straight-up definition. And that’s what I appreciate about the film. I’m not ashamed to say I don’t fully understand the intricacies of being transgender, but I will continue to support being who you truly are. If you are open-minded and accepting T Blockers has a lot to teach you. My interpretation of the film is this is how it feels to be transgender in the current world, and seeing it told with the antagonists literally being flesh-eating creatures speaks volumes. What really spoke to me most in the film is the friend group. Sophie’s (Lauren Last) friend group is unbelievably supportive of her, and she is of them. And at the end of the day, it’s about the company you keep; sometimes it’s the family you make, rather than the family you have.

This review has kind of gone in a different direction than I had planned it’s just after sitting on this film for 24 hours and really letting it seep in…I just couldn’t shake these thoughts. All of this thinking led me to this final thought: if a film makes you reflect that much, then it must be a successful film. From the beautiful color palette to the surprisingly realistic-looking practical effects, T Blockers is a truly inspiring film that after sitting with me for, now, 48 hours is still stuck in my brain. You don’t want to sleep on this film.


Written by Vincent Befi, Directed by Tristan Barr

A creature holds someone up against the wall at a 45 degree angle
Image courtesy of Popcorn Frights

Subject is an interesting film that raises a lot of questions, but doesn’t necessarily answer all of them. I am a fan of ambiguity. Give me some pieces to the puzzle, let me put them together, let me put in the work. What I’m not a huge fan of is when films try and be ambiguous to seem more intelligent than they might actually be. That’s not to say this film is trying to be more intelligent than it is, but it seems like there is some sort of disconnect between the story they want to tell and which pieces of information to hide from the audience.

Willem (Stephen Phillips) finds himself en route to prison for an undisclosed crime. Some government spook kills the guards and offers Willem the opportunity of a lifetime: don’t go to jail, come observe an experiment for us! Instead of three hots and a cot, Willem gets an egg and one hell of a thing to observe.

It’s never divulged what this shadow organization is that is doing this to him, although further rewatches and pauses might give some more information. I can see there being two camps for this film, one set of viewers will accept the lack of pertinent information, putting them in Willem’s shoes, while the other set of viewers won’t be satisfied and want a more omniscient point of view. Barr’s direction isn’t bad in any sense, though it does feel as if Befi’s script and Barr’s direction are trying to go in two different directions.

The psychological aspects of Subject are definitely its strongest points, and the slow disclosure of the exposition does well with the intrigue building. And I do like this whole idea of whether Willem is the subject, or is what he is observing the subject? This is a great parallel to social media and advanced tech, almost like a terms of service agreement. We’re constantly being watched and recorded. Facebook will turn over your messages to government entities if they suspect you of having an abortion, hell there are companies out there that sell covers you can put over the camera on your laptop! What I appreciate most about this film is the message and the question it leaves the viewer with: do you know who is watching you?

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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