Film Festival Review

Review: The Old Ways (Dir. Christopher Alender, 2021)

GFF 2021 – FrightFest

After taking an assignment in Veracruz, Mexico Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) finds herself hooded and imprisoned in small cell. Despite begging to see her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) and general protestations: “I’m an American… and a reporter” there she remains, shackled to the beautifully rendered and chalked wall, forced to ingest goat’s milk and pee in a bucket.

Keeping her ‘prisoner’ is local witch Luz (Julia Vera) and son Javi (Sal Lopez). Both are convinced that Cristina has picked up a demon that has hitched a ride on her soul following an illicit trip to the ruins of La Boca. As the days turn to night, Cristina tries to find ways to escape, however, soon she starts to feel that maybe she does ‘have it’ or something which is holding her hostage.

Exorcism films as a sub-genre are ten-a-penny and usually contain some white child/young woman losing the battle to find the devil within. Or there’s a haunting with a vengeful spirit/lost soul possessing a house or member of a family. Sometimes there are rites, rituals, a cassocked Priest, or perhaps a Rabbi, prayers, chants and holy water. It is refreshing therefore when a film tries to do something that little bit different with the well-worn tropes – Christopher Alender’s – making the leap from shorts and TV to his first feature – The Old Ways does just that (albeit with some old faithful). 

This is exorcism as repatriation. Cristina’s soul was up for grabs because she wasn’t quite fulfilled, living with trauma in a country she never quite belonged to, even if she didn’t realise it until now, drug addled and empty. She needs to commune with her forgotten heritage – one she was ripped from as a child – in order to heal and rid herself of the demon ‘Postekhi’. Her childhood trauma is never far from her mind revisiting her in flashbacks and nightly visits of a small boy.

The beauty of this film is its subtlety, it takes its time and doesn’t outstay its welcome which make the last fifteen/twenty minutes all the more forgiveable. There’s still fun to be had but it loses the nuance it worked so hard to build on and it is those moments which feel somewhat unnecessary. Joy-of-joys, however, the practical effects are great with the odd stomach churning moment, hair regurgitation is never pretty, and special mention goes to Luz’s make-up (courtesy of Josh and Sierra Russell); the cracking white face paint, the blood-red cross across the eyes and cataract lens is striking.

The cast of four play off each other brilliantly but it is Canales’ Cristina who is the standout. She doesn’t play her as a victim but survivor, fighting tooth and nail against what is or isn’t missing inside of her. This is less about restoration of a possessed soul – the snakes and milk symbols of renewal and rebirth – but more about reclamation of a heritage as a way of life and forging ahead. Forget the passive female protagonist bed-bound and helpless to prevent what’s happening, this one schools herself with a red leather bound book of demons (Jung’s manifesto of the same hue also detailed the recovery of a soul). There’s even humour with some amusing play-acting, bribery attempts, and the cell may be dotted in candles but there’s still an electric fan to help with the heat and humidity.

All-in-all The Old Ways is a smart and surprisingly subtle horror film. A really attractive looking feature which deftly goes beyond the expelling of demons, speaks to the migrant experience and embraces cultural significance (the Mariachi-instrumental of “La Bamba” is a nice touch). If you can take one thing from it it’s to never forget who you are or where you come from… and always invest in practical effects.

The Old Ways screens at GFF FrightFest from 5-8 March


Review: The Party’s Just Beginning (Dir. Karen Gillan, 2018)

As of 2017, Scotland held the highest suicide rate in the UK. Between 2011 and 2017 73% of those suicides were three times more likely to be men living in the most socio-economically deprived areas. Set in Inverness, The Party’s Just Beginning uses these statistics to shine a light on the issue and uses suicide to drive the overarching narrative. Not the most uplifting subject, however, first time director Karen Gillan puts her own surreal and oddly positive, comedic spin on dark proceedings.

Twenty-four year old Liusaidh (Gillan) works on the cheese counter of a local supermarket. Her evenings tend to involve getting drunk, getting ‘lucky’, then shovelling in chips along the long walk home a little worse for wear… and rinse repeat. Her nightly routine (when not out drinking) consists of opening the net curtains and observing the neighbouring families opposite and see how they are with each other, while her own parents (Paul Higgins and Siobhan Redmond) leave their only daughter to her own devices. Liusaidh’s best friend Alistair (Matthew Beard), unable to cope with his own problems – including the loss of his drug-addled father – jumped off a bridge and onto an incoming train the year before.

Liusaidh is stuck in her crummy little town destined to relive a groundhog day of grief while remembering the fun, friendship (and pain) they experienced when he was alive. These memories are intercut throughout the film in a series of flashbacks. Liusaidh is reckless and overwhelmed with sorrow, loneliness and thoughts of suicide; Alistair’s, her own and other people’s, and she copes in the only way she knows how – silence and self-medication.

She’s fighting to heal and when she meets beautiful and mysterious stranger Dale (Lee Pace, complete with yet another convincing British accent), things briefly improve and perhaps, perhaps a little happiness starts to creep in. There’s also the old man who calls the house. One of a group of many who hit a wrong digit and rather than contacting the Helpline they’re after get through to a cracked (not yet completely broken) household. Liusaidh doesn’t hang up on this nuisance caller – who is grappling with his own regrets and losses – his disembodied voice becomes the ‘in’ to her own recovery.

Writer-director Gillan is best known for her work in front of the camera, first as Amy Pond in Doctor Who and now as blue-hued baldy Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, Infinity War and Endgame but has spent the last four years writing and directing short films. (One of which, Conventional, was screened at this year’s FrightFest). The Party’s Just Beginning is her first feature but you would never know it given its assured nature with visuals – shout-out to make-up artist Jacqui Mallett whose subtle brush strokes make Liusaidh’s stubble rash and growing black rings and eye bags wholly realistic – rapid kinetic cuts and the soundtrack. Composed by Kreng, it combines classical (including snippets of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”), electro and original music. The leitmotif of The Communards’ ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ is a nice (Scottish) touch to an already dark and, at times, absurd film.

While Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag cornered the market for middle-class woman in their thirties, Gillan’s Liusaidh has a lot to say for the millennial working-class woman in her twenties (even her name is Gaelic for ‘female’). Both created women struggling with their own identity and grief. Gillan uses the backdrop of the grey vista of Scotland to great effect. While the issues depicted are universal, the film is quintessentially Scottish and the scenes set in the Clootie Well (a Celtic place of pilgrimage where rags or pieces of clothing are tied to elicit healing) are beautiful with visuals and colours reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways and more recently Rachel Tunnard’s 2016 gem Adult Life Skills.

Not content with the themes of suicide, depression and mental health, Gillan also adds rape and notions of consent, alcoholism, drug abuse, religion, homosexuality and transgender identity. She should be commended for tackling such issues and not least in her first feature film, however, it becomes one issue too many and this shoehorning leaves a feeling of contrivance which unravels the narrative somewhat and stretches the gamut of believability. Nit-picking aside, Gillan has brought together a talented crew and supporting cast including Pace and Beard. There are also lovely parts for instantly recognisable Higgins (Line of Duty, Utopia) and Redmond (Unforgotten, Taggart) as well as cameos by Daniela Nardini (Waterloo Road, This Life) and Julie Graham (Shetland, The Bletchley Circle).

There are moments in The Party’s Just Beginning that will hit you in the gut with at least one aspect of the storyline that most will identify with. As a feature debut, it is formidable in parts, flawed in others and yet, well worth 91 minutes of your time.


Review: Frankenstein (Dir. Bernard Rose, 2015)

After adaptations dating back to 1910, you would be forgiven for dismissing yet another screen outing of Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein, and the men who have played both the infamous titular Doctor and their human, not monstrous, creation. There have been many, and several more via television and stage; even an ex-member of Bros was birthed as the wretch. Yet none is more renowned than James Whale’s 1931 version. Even if unseen, all are familiar with its star, Karloff in that Jack Pierce make-up and it is often this and its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, which are heralded as the yardstick by which all filmic adaptations have been measured. Not unfairly so but it was never as true to the original novel as once thought and most versions, if not all, fall down on their fidelity to Shelley’s 1818 novel. In 2015, there were two new attempts: one which received a cinema release and Bernard Rose’s.

Rose, not unfamiliar with literary adaptations, has given audiences some wonderful variations on numerous works of literature: from Paperhouse (1988), Candyman (1992) to his Tolstoy quintet: Anna Karenina (1997), Ivans XTC (2000), The Kreutzer Sonata (2008), Boxing Day (2012) and Two Jacks (2012). He even claimed at FrightFest 2015 that it is comforting to have a source material to hide behind. He needn’t worry, his attention to detail and dramatic creativity really serve this story above all else.

Despite the novel’s weight within the Gothic and Romantic, Rose’s 21st century Frankenstein straddles Gothic horror, the supernatural, and drama, and updates to a modern context and downtown LA. It also remains largely faithful to the original text and uses the chapters from “The Monster’s” point-of-view as the basis for his voiceover narrative and the inner monologue of Monster/Adam (Xavier Samuel). The film may be called Frankenstein but for all intents and purposes, he is one; the (brain)child of researchers Elizabeth (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Victor Frankenstein (Rose regular, Danny Huston). Adam is the result of a 3D printer which has created and shaped the human form and is the first real success in what is seemingly a long line of failures. While he resembles the form of a grown man, Adam is a baby. He is unable to support his own body weight, has difficulty focusing, eats and sleeps much like a newborn.

It is an astonishing performance by Xavier Samuel who brings such soul to a role which has him largely mute for the majority of the film. Samuel has produced a fascinating and varied filmography since making (personal favourite) The Loved Ones(2009) in his native Australia and has an incredible face even under heavy prosthetics; his ability to emote in such a way is impressive. When he opens his eyes, Victor actually yells – in an obvious homage/parody however you wish to look at it of Clive’s character in Whale’s film – “He’s alive!” Once he is, so is the film. Samuel’s Adam is a creation of life not a reanimated corpse, he symbolises the advancement and the potential dangers of technology and yet is more than a metaphor. For all his physical detriments, he feels, thinks and is perfectly human; a modern John Merrick.

Thankfully, Elizabeth is a partner in the research facility in Rose’s version. It is interesting that in spite of Shelley’s famous feminist parentage, it is a London-born male film director who actually gives the character, Elizabeth a more prominent role. By supplanting Victor in this way, it gives more depth to the film. She is also the maternal that Adam wants to return to after his escape, and in this aligning there is a more primal notion to the story, perhaps even Oedipal reading. She is the first person he sees when he awakens and like most animals, he imprints and any notion of the ridiculous when a grown man is seen suckling from the teat of a bottle dissipates as a standing testament to Samuel’s performance. Instinctively, his first few words are ‘mama’ and dada’ which seems to touch Elizabeth more, albeit briefly, than Victor.  Sadly, the new family is short-lived as necrosis attacks Adam’s tissue, the flesh-eating bacteria and breakdown of cells render him monstrous and thus he begins to associate with this and even adopts the name “Monster” for a time. Far from the perfect specimen they thought they had created, Victor and Elizabeth make the decision to essentially euthanise their infant son. From then on, Adam is alone and flees to shed his innocence and experience the world, such as it is.

Noise, aggression, pollution, often violent confrontation as society greets him; when they don’t he is able to appreciate nature in all its beautiful, calming glory. It’s a motif which is dotted amongst the pages of the novel and its obvious Romanticism links are weighted in Adam’s relationship with the natural world and surroundings. This is a film, for all its brief horrific moments (amongst others, there is an appalling moment with a surgical saw… God bless Randy Westgate’s incredibly realistic looking effects make-up) about societal privilege, man’s consciousness, his commune with nature and, above all, love.  Some shots are reminiscent of Botticelli/Michelangelo; religious iconography shapes the Oedipal readings while the police state which inhabits LA and preys on the homeless community keeps a tight and suffocating grasp. It’s a fascinating take on one of the themes in the original novel and one which is so palpable, resonating on a profound topical level. How many individuals are shot, assaulted and/or murdered based on the way they look? How many police officers believe they are above the law?

Most will know the outcome of Frankenstein whether via the novel or the previously released films or stage productions, as well as specific plot points, most of which are restored and depicted here. The blind man is played by an outstanding Tony Todd, reuniting with Rose for the first time in 22 years. Here he is transposed as a homeless blues singer who ‘takes in’ Monster and teaches him to speak (and sing), act in company and generally fend for himself on the street and, above all, gives him hope. That is until it is cruelly taken away.

It has taken approximately 85 years to produce a film on par with Whale’s and a couple of hundred to finally see one which does the novel justice and serve Shelley’s narrative. That said, Rose’s Frankenstein is as beguiling as it is beautiful, as dark as it is primal and disturbing. It’s quite the feat to breathe new life into something which has saturated modern culture and present something as visceral and emotional as this. See it, it’s stunning. By using the voiceover narrative which frames the story it affords the audience a stronger connection with the lead. Perhaps, that’s why it is so moving, cathartic and tear-inducing; he is Adam, not a monster.


Review: We Are Still Here (Dir. Ted Geoghegan, 2015)


The opening shot of Ted Geoghegan’s directorial debut We Are Still Here is a blank canvas of snow; desolate, cold and perfect. Anne and Paul Sacchetti are on the way to their new home – the exterior landscape is not the only frosty element to the scene, the deep chill clearly present in the car. Anne (Barbara Crampton) is broken – though no victim; devastation is written all over her face, her eyes red raw from crying. Paul (Andrew Sensenig) keeps his feelings hidden in the odd tumbler of scotch. They have recently lost their son Bobby in a car accident and the new home is obvious attempt at escaping painful memories; the couple are connected in their grief and yet completely alone with it.

From the moment they pull up to the house, it is evident that things are not what they seem. It is very subtle but look closely at the shutters of the windows, they move, as if they are blinking; the house lives. It has a history and energy which hippy séance-loving friends Jacob and May Lewis (Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie) zone into when they pay a visit to the Sacchettis. The eeriness of the vacant rooms, creaking of door hinges and floorboards and a breeze coming from seemingly nowhere that keeps knocking over a framed photograph of Bobby. It has all the hallmarks of a haunted house film but somehow this feels more authentic. The camera is intrusive and lurks voyeuristically, the editing similar to Don’t Look Now as it draws the audience in, dialogue is scarce but that just adds to the tension.

Family is the heart of this film and Wojciech Golczewski’s original music compliments the theme wonderfully, playing with the melodrama and creating tension and foreboding. There are nods to Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Pupi Avati but they blend perfectly with the contemporary, albeit dateless, setting. There is even a yellow labelled J&B bottle of scotch perfectly placed, (although rebranded as B&J) displaying a sense of humour amid the modern aesthetic. The film is a slow burn and builds steadily to a bloody, yet profound, denouement. Oddtopsy FX provide some fabulous effects and gives us some real picturesque deaths as the house quite literally devours. Who knew arterial spray against a canvas backdrop could look so beautiful?

We Are Still Here plays with the 70s and 80s but feels wholly original. It is smart, well-acted, funny and was the standout of this year’s FrightFest.