Soho Horror Film Festival features reviews

By David Dent

Here’s our roundup of features screened at the first ever Soho Horror Film Festival.

Involution

Pavel Khvaleev’s last film was the oblique III: The Ritual, a dense horror about the effect of a mysterious illness which strikes in a small town. But that movie seems like a beacon of clarity next to his latest outing.

Khvaleev’s latest revisits the idea of an epidemic affecting society: the official blurb for Involution tells us that “the Earth has been sent out ofcontrol, affected by a cruel and inhuman mechanism that turns back Darwin’s theory of Evolution.”

But if the viewer is hoping for Romero-style zombie thrills they can look elsewhere –Involution’s, er, revolution is a quiet one. Central character Hamming (Ryan Masson) lives an orderly life, but when girlfriend Liv(Alyona Konstantinova) disappears, he must decide between his safe existence and the chance to save her. And that’s pretty much it.

While Involution looks beautiful, with some great photography in and around Berlin, it movesat a glacial pace and arguably is too clever for its own good. It doesn’t help having actors speaking languages that are not natural to them – or where they dubbed? It was very hard to tell.

The whole exercise is supposed to be dissociative, and certainly achieves that, but if it’sat the cost of the viewer understanding what’s happening, it’s all rather counter productive.

Not really for me, sorry.

Inner Ghosts

This Portuguese/Brazilian co-production, filmed in Lisbon and directed by first timer Paulo Leite, is a bold movie, full of ideas and exposition largely in place of action, which draws on the spirit of the late Nigel Kneale in its conflation of the topics of science and the supernatural (Leite admitted when I spoke to him after the screening that he had been heavily influenced by 1970s and 80s spooky UK TV programmes which regularly cropped up on TV in his home country as a youth).

Helen (Celia Williams)is a neuroscience researcher trying to develop a revolutionarytherapy to treat degenerative brain diseases. She is also psychic –useful to her work, in which she wants to test her theories on ghosts– but she renounced her gift after the death of her daughter fifteen years previously.

Moving in to a flat haunted by a number of spirits, she’s also introduced to Elsa(Elizabeth Bochmann, Williams’s real-life daughter) a graphic artist who has been plagued by a demon and is looking to Helen forhelp. The ghosts communicate to Helen the details of a device which,created using a 3D printer, can improve communication with those thathave passed – a neat little Carpenteresque bit of plotting. All ofthese strands are brought together in a hugely intense climax whichis in direct contrast to the lack of dramatic tension in the previoussixty minutes.

I realise that theabove synopsis probably makes Inner Ghosts seem rather daft, and itsslow pace won’t be for everyone. But it’s such a great film ofideas, delivered so seriously that the viewer accepts the veracity of the explanations even though the ideas expressed are pretty far-fetched (although I suspect that, like Kneale before him, Leitecarefully researched his subject to at least ground the fantasy inscientific reality). The star of this is Celia Williams who has tocarry the film – she’s in pretty much every scene and has somelong monologues in which she’s both credible and fascinating.

If you think that 1970sgenre TV – and the works of Nigel Kneale – are slow and silly, you’ll probably not get much out of this. But if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief Inner Ghosts is a thrilling and stately ride through the liminal spaces between science and the supernatural – I loved it.

All the Creatures Were Stirring

Ah, how the (modern day) anthology film loves a holiday – well provided that holiday is either Halloween or Christmas of course. And as the title suggests, this five story portmanteau picture revolves around ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’

Max and Jenna, two Californians, are having an awkward Christmas Eve date –  they’d both rather not be alone at this time of year, but it’s hardly romance. Their destination is a small theatre where a cast perform inmime, acting out the stories we watch on screen in the movie’s version of the linking device (at the beginning and end of each ofthe short films the actors use mime to reproduce elements of each story, which is hilariously executed).

As with all such movies, the individual short films are a mixed bunch, including; a guy doing some last minute shopping who runs into a camper van ofpeople who trick him into being shackled to a demon; a Christmascurmudgeon who is subjected to a visit from ‘three ghosts’ to show him the error of his ways (sound familiar?); and a photographer who hits a certain deer while driving, who exacts revenge from beyond the grave.

Directors David IanMcKendry and Rebekah McKendry have a lot of fun with the format –it’s their first feature but you wouldn’t know it – and thewhole thing doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s good fun, no more, but the couple McKendry know what they’re doing, and it will be really interesting to see future projects from them.

Rock Steady Row

Trevor Stevens’ debut feature is half Turbo Kid, half The Bicycle Thieves, by way of astand off western and more than a whiff of ‘wasn’t VHS a great format?’ (which honestly I’m getting a bit sick of).

Two campus gangs war itout on the campus of Rock Steady University, where education hasdefinitely taken a back seat; red jacketed jocks from Kappa Brutus Omega versus the High Society’s more cultured blue regaled dandies, looking like a slightly more urban barbershop quartet. Into this ongoing feud rides Leroy aka The Freshman. New to college and being unaware of the currency of two wheeled machines, he loses his bike tothe leader of one of the gangs – distracted by the charms of Yvette, the gang leaders’ moll – and spends the rest of the movie trying to get it back, by playing off the two warring factions against each other.

Maybe it was the exposure to so many movies (I saw this as the last film at the two day Soho Horror Film Festival) but Rock Steady Row was neither clever enough to overcome its plot limitations, or knowing enough to function as satire. Stylistically it’s a confident piece, holding itself together smartly and choosing not to go down the Troma route of high school excess, but it’s – sorry – just not that interesting.

Boo!

Back in 1980, during wholesome apple bobbing, cute kids style Halloween celebrations in a relatively affluent suburb of Detroit, a guy goes crazy, shooting his wife and family at home before turning the gun on himself.

Cut to the present day,same suburb, same time of year. But forty years on the area has clearly seen better days. We’re introduced to a family who are emblematic of the neighbourhood decline in their own dysfunction. Mum Elyse (Jill Marie Jones) drinks to cover up the trauma of a lostchild, religiously driven dad James (Rob Zabrecky) buries himself atwork in the local bookshop (typical utterance “The only ghost is the Holy Ghost!”), leaving errant teenage daughter and potentially suicidal Morgan (Aurora Perrineau) and withdrawn but morbidly artistically gifted son Caleb (Jaden Pinner) struggling to make sense of what’s happening to the household.

When a bag containing a chain letter style Halloween game is left on their porch, James is dismissive of its contents, a page of verse which is to be read andpassed on, including a curse for non-participation. Against the advice on paper and the protestations of Caleb, dad disposes of the package, which, coincidentally or not leads to the whole family gripped by nightmarish visions – A Nightmare on Elm Street style -where their own inner fears are exploited. Caleb is pretty convinced that the same thing happening to his family also caused the gunman togo off the rails all those years ago.

Luke Jaden’s feature debut fires off in lots of different directions, with a few interesting scenes – including a Viewmaster as ghost viewer – but ultimately finds itself pursuing too many story strands, while the threat to the family remains unfocused and irresolvable; also many of the family crisis scenes feel overlong and talky, and some of the plot is frankly unbelievable. No one, for example, seems in the slightest bit concerned that Caleb’s room is full of ghoulish art and a skull – would God fearing James really have allowed that?

“We are haunted by our mistakes, not ghosts,” concludes one character, and while in a more experienced directors’ hands the ‘is-the-curse-real-or-is-the-family-doing-this-without-supernatural-assistance?’ conundrum might be interesting, Boo! merely confuses, and Jadenbungles any scenes of tension or menace.

Framed

Horror movies that capitalise on aspects of social media are in great danger of reaching their sell by date very quickly. So while the technology on display in Framed is still reasonably state of the art, make sure you see it now, because I feel in a couple of years it’s going to appear rather old hat; not a criticism, just an observation, as this is a good if rather extreme film.

A Spanish variation of the home invasion thriller, Framed’s mix of comedy and violence is exemplified by its opening scene: a businessman comes onto a young female workmate in his car, but his plans are sidetracked by the arrival of a guy with a baseball bat, who smashes his head to pulp. The attack has been suggested by the businessman’s wife, clearlyfed up with her husband’s philandering, and the whole thing is filmed for a web app called ‘Amusement in Somebody Else’s House’(I’m not sure that title translates very well from Spanish), which seems to be a request show for the carrying out of extreme acts of violence.

The nutters behind the show set their sights on their next project; a group of young people gathered in a house to celebrate one of their number leaving for Berlin. They are of course big fans of the app, but it takes them quite a long time to realise that it’s their home that the three assailants have targeted for the next episode.

It’s not long before the blood starts flowing as the friends try to stay alive, and if this all sounds like a bit of a ripoff of The Purge movies, Framed goes way further – drugs, rape, cannibalism all feature, and there’s gleeful abandon to the production. Of course what director Marc Martinez is really asking his audience is ‘how much can you stand to watch?’ and ‘If this was real, would you turn off or carry on viewing?’ It’s unsavoury stuff all right,but it’s really well executed (arf) and looks way better than its budget.

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