Day 2 of the Atlanta Horror Film Festival started strong, got extremely weird and concluded in a Mary Shelley-inspired frenzy. Trust me, it’ll all make sense (mostly) as you read on. Started in the early afternoon last Friday, fans were once again treated to four short film blocks curated by themes: Kids Fears, Horror Comedy, Deranged Dames and Local Shorts. The evening concluded with the premier of Rob Grant’s feature survival horror flick Alive.
From top to bottom, this block was the strongest and most consistent. The first film, Save (Ivan Sainz-Pardo, Germany, Spain), relied on the perspective of a couple coming to the horrible realization that their infant has been abducted by a supernatural entity. For such a short piece, it builds the tension quickly and holds it while we witness the reality of their worst fear.
Something in the Darkness (Fran Casanova, Spain) presents us with Veronica, a 6-year-old that is struggling to overcome her fear of the dark. Like most films in this vein, we see Veronica frozen in abject fear by strange sounds in her room and moving shadows. Although the plot is derivative, the piece was very well shot and one that has strong feature potential. We find out the older sister was behind some of the scares, but immediately get another revelation that there indeed is a menacing presence within the room.
My two favorites, Marian (Brian Patrick Lim, Philippines) and The Dark Room (Morgane Seagaert), focus on how kids reconcile death and traumatic loss. With Marian, the title character is also dealing with mental and physical abuse. We get some of our most intense scenes of the day in watching young Marian scream and shed blood, leading to the brutal climax. You can watch the entire film HERE.
The Dark Room, which takes place in 1910 France, finds young Cassandre feeling helpless as her mother succumbs to a mysterious disease. Cassandre begins to see a large monster hovering around her mother and causing her pain with every touch.
Unlike most kids in horror films, Cassandre has no fear of the beast. She slaps its hand away when it attempts to touch her mother. She yells at it to go away. In many ways, this touching tale is a chronicle of the stages of grief and the loss of innocence. The mother, played by Julia Leblanc-Lacoste, also does an ine job as the dying mother. She’s sympathetic to her daughter’s denial of the inevitable, but also never stops trying to lay the seeds so Cassandre is prepared to live in a world without her.
Remember how I said earlier things got very weird in the middle of the festival? Most of that can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Robo Greaser (Dakota Arseneault, Canada). The story, and I use that word loosely, is about a retro 50’s robot who’s mourning the closing of his favorite hangout and place of employment, the local roller-rink. As he arrives the day of the closing, we’re treated to some snarky LGBTQ social commentary, off-kilter humor, and a dash of horror with an eye-gouging kill.
The retro 80s feel is great, but this humor won’t be for everyone. Subtlety be damned in this one. The first few minutes will make it clear if this is your type of film.
A serial killer and his accomplice get more than they bargained for in What Metal Girls Are Into. The title comes from the killer, who lures victims to their deaths under the guise of being an Airbnb owner. The three metal girls are in town for a concert and see right through the killer’s “nice guy” facade, ignoring his attempts at small talk.
Soon, the girls learn that giving him the cold shoulder isn’t enough when he begins leaving body parts from past victims in their refrigerator. We get a short but effective cat and mouse game between the girls and two killers before the satisfying finale. There’s an ending feminist statement by one of the characters about not being entitled to women’s attention. Depending on your taste, that may be a bit too much on the nose and propagandistic. However, it fits well with the story’s progression as the killers continually refuse to accept the girl’s rebuffs, leading to their bloody ruin.
Ghosts can get sprung too? In Ghosted, a sultry woman seeks the help of a psychiatrist exorcise a love-sick ghost that follows her at every turn. A pysch doctor is an odd choice for this type of help and things get even weirder when the ghost is able to predict the doctor’s disalogue.
By the halfway point, it becomes clear the woman isn’t telling the whole story. What she’s hiding isn’t disclosed, but we clearly see she holds seductive power. The ghost becomes more manic at the thought of losing her while the psychiatrist falls deeper under her sway.
You’ll be left with further questions after the final scene, but one thing isn’t up for debate — this woman is the literal definition of a soul-snatcher.
Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Daniel Simoni and Peter Hartsock, the creators of The House on Pumpkin Drive.
The story revolves around Jerry, a caterer who finds himself in a nightmare after planning a party of Santiago and his Igor-like sidekick Francisco.
Simoni and Hartsock display their love for classic horror with an intro that’s a wink and nod to the documentary-style beginning of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There’s others like the sudden, 70s style zoom-ins on character’s faces. But the film also subverts your expectations with pregnant pauses in the dialogue that give it the deadpan, anti-humor you find in live-action Adult Swim shows.
Despite all this, the villain Santiago mostly plays his menacing role straight, leading to even more indirect, nervous laughter when Jerry, our bumbling, hapless lead, goes from hostage to a Satanic ritual sacrifice. And even then, the tropes we expect from a conjuring get played with when the Dark Lord is more annoyed than triumphant with his disciples.
If you love crazy women, this was the block for you.
Heartless (Kevin Sluder, USA) is a savvy, corporate office twist on Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Telltale Heart.” In this version, our lead is an overlooked associate named Shelby (Stacy Snyder) who’s trying to climb the corporate ladder. Standing in her way is belittling trio of “dude bros” who urge her to “smile” and making other random sexist comments in their pre-meeting banter.
Unbeknownst to them, our Shelby is on the brink of snapping. Last night, she killed a rival colleague to get this opportunity to lead the meeting. The murder leads to the famous “beating heart” sequence, prompting Shelby to fall apart and enact gory retribution on her wise-cracking male colleagues.
The special effects, kills and laughs are well-balanced. Who hasn’t wanted at some point and time to kill a coworker or boss?
Stray (Dean W. Law, Australia) was one of my favorites in this block. It tells the story of a crippled WW2 veteran (David Breen) that returns home to find his wife under the control of a demonic black cat.
The wife has devolved into a savage state, hunting for food and making noises like a wild animal. Soon, a showdown commences between the couple as the wife refuses to part with the animal. Speaking of said cat, it can’t be killed by conventional means.
Melinda Joan Reed’s turn as the possessed wife is terrifying and captivating, making me wonder how much more she could have done to show the character’s descent to madness in a longer film.
Don’t look for a happy ending here – the husband, who was last see limping off to the horizon, is poignant when you realize he’d rather return to war than continue facing the evil that’s consumed his wife.
Never put yourself between a mother and her child…especially if said child has been dead for several years. Riley Was Here (Jon Rhoads, Mike Marrero, USA) brings a unique twist to the zombie apocalypse plot in having a survivor named Junior (Julio Trinidad) agree to a controversial medical treatment with Raquelle (Elena Devers).
What makes the treatment dangerous is it temporarily infects you contagious blood. Junior is in it for the “high” while Raquelle, who’s using the blood of her dead soon, wants to briefly “see” her son return in Junior’s zombie throes. For Raquelle, who links her mind with the subject, there’s the danger of sudden death from an aneurysm.
The effects are in the vein of 28 Days Later and both actors do an excellent job of conveying the despair of their situations. Once the treatment goes awry, you find yourself hoping for Junior to reach the cure serum and prevent complete contamination.
Remind me to NEVER stop by Doris’s (Mary Sheen) house. The United Kingdom offering from Hayder Hasen is about an elderly mum Doris who loves bingo and entertaining guests. Turns out what she and her crew of elderly psychos really love is to steal people’s babies and torture the mothers.
Helping her carry out these nefarious acts is a hulking son/grandson (?) who functions as her very own Leatherface. The Texas Chainsaw blueprint is seen again during the bingo table scene where Doris holds court with her clan while the bloody, tied up victims whimper.
Sheen is a delight to watch in this despite the horrific acts she oversees. It says a lot that the lovable granny routine still disarms you despite you knowing she’s a homicidal maniac. On the second thought, that yummy pink icing cake she was making might make me stop by and risk the torture and death.
There’s immense talent in Atlanta as this block attests to.
Top honors for me goes to Ryan Buffa’s Apples & Orange. We are introduced to River, who’s being sexually abused by a neighbor who’s ingratiated himself into her family.
This is a difficult topic in any genre. In horror, special care has to be take to not come off as exploitative. Buffa is acutely aware of this and brings a layered approach to each character’s motivations. No one, including the abuser, feels like a caricature.
The title is a play on words from the “lessons” River learns from her mother and grandmother. The former is more philosophical while the latter is practical. In the final confrontation, we see River draw strength from both to face down her abuser.
As a horror film, Nightbird (Rob Sorensen) leaves a lot to be desired. But story-wise, it was a compelling, tension-filled watch. Curtis intercepts a letter addressed to his wife from his mistress Wren. Like any cheating man on the brink of ruin, he goes to confront the mistress, aptly named Wren.
The anger between the two is expertly done as Wren, while hurt, still longs to be with Curtis. Although the “supernatural” element feels tacked on, it doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the performances.
Nicole Lehrman’s Hinterland takes us back to the fragility of the human mind in isolation. This time, our protagonist is Sarah (Kelly Figley), a pregnant woman who’s left alone after her fiancé Ash (Alex Westrick) leaves the country to visit family.
Slowly, we find something amiss as Ash doesn’t return calls and an evil presence manifests in the house. While the ending is not surprising, the assortment of ghostly apparitions, voices and flashbacks of Ash keep you engaged to find out what is true and false in Sarah’s mind.
Feature Review: ALIVE
A man and woman awake in an abandoned medial facility with no memory of how they got there. They aren’t alone – the pair are tended to by a secretive and sadistic caretaker simply called The Man (Angus MacFayden), who brutally subdues any attempts to escape.
Between such horrors as the man getting his lips sewn shut, the captives build a bond and plot their escape. As they navigate the facility, they find an innumerable amount of chopped up bodies, confirming they are just the latest potential victims. Compounding their issues are repressed, fragmented memories that offer hazy clues to who they truly are.
Although the pace plods in the first half, the big chase/escape sequence is great. MacFayden shines when he tows the line between bloodthirsty and benevolent when pursuing his victims. His character is prone to rage at being challenged and also tender care when he sees his victims near the breaking point.
The big twist is that the caretaker was a glorified Dr. Frankenstein, grafting our patients from the body parts of the newly deceased. The reveal is awesome in its setup – the patients’ memories are not theirs but those of the multiple people used to graft their bodies. Even their fingerprints belong to someone else, as the family members of the missing victims are aghast to see.
Alive takes time to find its stride, but its final 30 minutes will make your patience worthwhile.