Frightfest 2020 - Virtual Edition Thoughts

For the first time in its long history, London Frightfest has moved to a virtual event. For those unfamiliar, Frightfest is a horror movie festival which occurs every August Bank Holiday, since the year 2000. Described by Guillermo Del Toro as "The Woodstock of Gore", it's known for the wonderful community as much as it's horror-centric line-up. The pandemic has forced things to change, so the 2020 festival occurred online.

So, what did I think of this event? How did I find the transition from the big screen, to my screen at home? Read on and discover.

Thursday 27th

As a precursor to Frightfest beginning, the Thursday night started with a traditional pub quiz. This year it came courtesy of The Evolution of Horror, the best horror movie podcast out there (no disrespect to other horror movie podcasts, but it's true). The event was presented by the podcast's host, Mike Muncer, who was aided by BBC film-critic Rhianna Dhillon (who is also Mike's girlfriend). Much like their previous quizzes, it was composed of questions to really test your horror knowledge, a tough music round, and fun images of listeners remaking horror movies. There was even a round related to Frightfest itself, which brought up a moment of infamy involving a screening of R.I.P.D, where a couple were caught engaging in a sex act (apparently it was a hand-job). All in all, it was a marvellous way to kick off the event, and to celebrate the podcasts second birthday. Ending on the sweet sight of Rhianna gifting Mike with a David Lynch face-mask, this was a wonderful entrance to the festival.

The evening was not over yet, as for an extra £5.99, you could watch a film entitled Sky Sharks. I can't say I understood why this film cost extra, but wanting the full Frightfest experience, I duly joined in. To make viewers feel more at home, there were appearances from the Four Horsemen, and past interviews with directors whose films had previously been shown at the festival. When it came to the film, the gory set-piece which kicked it off promised a shlocky crowd-pleaser. Unfortunately, it didn't stop there, as the proceedings were dragged down by overlong exposition, a lack of sharks flying in the skies, and a misogynistic streak which left me feeling grotty.

Friday 28th

The first official day of this years festival, and it begins with a welcome return of the Turn Off Your Bloody Phone. A virtual setting has done nothing to curb this part of the festival, enacted in as bloody and humorous a way as ever. This was a wonderful start to this shortened day, in which I stayed with the selections from the Arrow Video screen.

My first film of the evening came in the form of There's No Such Thing As Vampires, directed by Logan Thomas. It's easy to understand why it's been compared to Mad Max, The Terminator, and Duel, as we follow a pair of young characters, trying to outrun a creepy RV that stays on their tails. In this stripped down format, the film works very well, driven by the leads chemistry amidst the never-ending chase. It peaks with a tense game of hide and seek at a police station, but then the gears change, leaning into the vampire elements for the third act, while setting up a sequel. The film may wear its references on its sleeve, as evidenced by opening on a screening of Nosferatu, but we didn't need the plot to stop so a horror lover can wax lyrical about classic slashers.

Following on from that was Brea Grant's second feature as a director, 12 Hour Shift. A dark comedy of escalating errors, as a junkie nurse and her scheming cousin run afoul of criminals they partake in organ-trafficking with. It's a stylishly directed feature that's wonderfully acted by the cast members, especially Angela Bettis and Chloe Farnworth. By the end, I'll admit it feels overstuffed, but I was so swept along by it all, it didn't matter. An utter gem which the festival can wonderfully deliver, and worth seeking out.

Saturday 29th

As is traditional, the introductory day is followed by a throw into the deep-end, with a full day of films following it up. My day was made up of the selections offered on the Horror Channel screen, beginning with Phillip G. Carrol Jr's The Honeymoon Phase. A premise which feels right out of Black Mirror, a pair of young lovers pose as a married couple, to take part in an isolated experiment for $50,000. Their relationship is set up with a cheery montage and LSD cookies, but it unfortunately feels forced, and more would've been welcome. As tempers flare and the good times turn sour, it ends up being difficult to care, and unfortunately feels so miserable.

One of the festival's most wonderful aspects is First Blood, a talent seeking strand where first-time filmmakers get their feature films screened to a wide audience. I managed to catch the two recipients at this years festival, starting with Fionn and Toby Watts' Playhouse. The story follows horror writer Jack Travis, whose desires to make a theatre show in a haunted castle hits a snag, as demonic forces begin to prey on his daughter. An interesting idea with potential, but the more interesting stories fall to the side, centring on the tortured writer narrative. Plus, for a story set in a creepy castle, I was left wanting more in terms of scares. The other First Blood feature was They're Outside. Airell Anthony Hayes and Sam Casserly focus on Max Spencer, a YouTube psychologist intent on curing a woman's agoraphobia for views. What we get is a creepy look at dealing with trauma, while the unfolding story adds layers to the characters, up until the chilling finale.

The last feature of the day was an Australian anthology, Dark Place, and was one of my standouts from the festival. Running at just 75 minutes long, the 5 segments are each strong in their own way, differing in themes and tone, but each an exceptionally directed effort. The differences are best highlighted in the book-ending segments, opening on a tastefully handled tale about sex slavery, and ending with a Sam Raimi style blend of slapstick and gore, poking fun at the ineptitude of white colonisers. While I found this to be a day of two halves, the strength of the last two films made it worthwhile.

Sunday 30th

Much like the previous day, Day 3 was also filled to the brim with films to watch. I began on the Arrow Video screen, with the Brazilian film entitled Skull: The Mask. From directors Kapel Furman and Armando Fonseca, this followed the hunt for an ancient mask which possesses a human body to commit gruesome sacrifices for its god. This made a fantastic showcase for the visceral gore, brought alive through some gnarly effects, while these slasher elements hinted at a wider mythology. What I found bizarre was how this wasn't the films focus. Instead, we followed a police procedural which paled in comparison, and felt tenuously connected until the last act. Regardless, this was an opener ready to satisfy the gore-hounds.

For the next feature, I flipped over to the Horror Channel screen, and watched Two Heads Creek. Director Jesse O'Brien and write Jordan Waller craft this tale of twins who leave a Brexit affected Britain for Australia, in search of their birth mother, but stumble into a town's dark secret. A story which sticks two fingers up at outdated xenophobia, this is one of the best entries into this year's festival. It balances laugh out loud humour with excellent gore, and even throws in a catchy musical number, while never forgetting about its characters. This was an excellent little surprise which deserves to be widely seen, and considering it's out on VOD very soon, be sure to check it out.

Moving back to the Arrow Video screen, I had a surprise with a short film called Day 14. Filmed by a family in lockdown, this half-hour short depicts a sister looking after their kid brother, while they're stuck indoors amidst a quarantine. Meanwhile, their mother is locked in her own room, having been infected. It sounds like a grim experience, but it plays out rather sweetly, and is a necessary reminder of having hope in these tough times. Once that ended, we swiftly to the main feature, Hall, and it's a contrasting way to approach the current events. An airborne virus affects the lives of two women, one pregnant, and one trying to find her young daughter, while escaping an abusive relationship. Between the confined settings and the character based drama, what promises to be a tense tale sadly doesn't match up. There's little sense of threat among the muddled proceedings, while the pregnant co-lead just feels like a way to pad out the film, and the post-credits scene feels too tacked on to work. A shame, as Francesco Giannini has an eye for visuals, and the cast does good work.

My last feature was one I'd been anticipating greatly, ever since it premiered at Glasgow Frightfest back in March. A Ghost Waits tells the story of Jack, a man yearning for a connection, but finds himself pushed away from those he reaches out to. In the midst of this, he discovers the house he's working on is haunted by a ghost named Muriel. She wants to scare everybody out of the house, but Jack isn't budging. What Adam Stovall has created is beautiful, as the two lost souls bond over their desire for connection. This heartbreaking and humorous tale may only last for 80 minutes, but by the end, it felt like I'd experienced one hell of a journey. My top pick for this year's Frightfest.

Monday 31st

For the last day, I decided to begin things with something different, with a live recording of the Arrow Video Podcast. Regular hosts Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin return with their magnificent beards, bringing on the people who work for Arrow Video, to discuss their work. It's a fascinating insight behind the scenes, as James Flower, Nora Mehenni, and Heather Buckley each discuss their part in making an Arrow release. If this sounds interesting to you, be sure to check it out when the episode releases later this month.

The first film I watched today aired on the Arrow Video screen, an excellent tale of survival called AV The Hunt. This Turkish film follows a woman named Ayse, who's trying to escape her toxic family that want to kill her, in order to restore their honour. Emre Akay directs this relevant story about one woman's fight against the patriarchy, something too deeply ingrained for one woman to fight alone. As this story deals with heavy subject matter, while never letting up the tension, it isn't an easy watch.

For the closing film, I moved over to the Horror Channel screen, and was greeted by a few surprises initially. There was firstly a Thank You message, directed to everybody who helped to make this event work, with hopes to return to a physical event in October. That was followed by a message from director Howard J. Ford, who introduced his trailer for his latest film, The Lockdown Hauntings. Don't be surprised if it appears in the October event.

It then came time for my final film, The Swerve. Writer and director Dean Kapsalis crafts the unravelling of Holly, who's left to feel unappreciated by her family and disconnected from her life. It's an immensely sad tale which feels unrelentingly bleak, brought alive thanks to the astounding performance by Azura Skye. It's a downbeat way to end the festival, but it's an astounding picture you'll struggle to forget.

Final Thoughts

Considering this year's event relied on internet connections, I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly it all went down. There were a handful of instances where some films stuttered, or momentarily froze, but they were far and few between. Even more surprising was how the community didn't feel missing, as social media allowed viewers to discuss what they saw, and introduce themselves to relative strangers. I must admit, I missed having a singular opening and closing film. For an event where everybody splits up to make their own choices, a unifying film which everybody saw was greatly missed. If the festival incorporates a virtual segment in the future, I don't think it'll impact things too much. Part of the appeal has been the community, and when it's safe, people will gladly choose to attend in person, and share drinks at a nearby pub in-between films.