Updated: Sep 12, 2020
My reviews of the films that featured at the 2020 festival.
It has been way too long since I was sat in the Starburst International Film Festival watching the latest in Indie Horror and Sci-Fi films. Given the current pandemic and my own personal horror story - I hope I can be forgiven for being a little late off the mark with this blog.
It was great to see short films Eject and Black Mass pick up several awards as well as the Festivals clear commitment to diversity in film. Short films pave the way for a genre filmmakers career - but they are often overlooked. Therefore I hope to see more from David Yorke (Eject) and Scott Lyus (Black Mass) in future. Darling, Darling Wendy saw Beth Napoli pick up a best cinematography award. However, due to my work commitments I missed the lot. Dammit.
I did get to see some wonderful feature films. Whilst they were not award winners they were certainly worth the watch. See below for my detailed reviews - including why A Little More Flesh still has me talking about it weeks later.
Sea Fever premiered at Starburst International Film Festival. It was hotly anticipated by those within the genre as Ireland has produced quality horror rich in folklore. Sea Fever features the crew of a West of Ireland trawler, marooned at sea, as they struggle for their lives against a growing parasite in their water supply. It was refreshing to see a film that featured men and women as crew where most seafaring films seem to still have a predominately male cast - a positive influence of having female writer - Neasa Hardiman - take the helm as Director.
There was several nods towards Irish folklore -the superstition of having a redhead aboard a ship and the use of the tale behind the ships tale as a clever use of foreshadowing. The special effects including the creature itself and the gore of its parasitic young made for some good scares and were subtle enough to be believable. As other reviews suggest, it plays homage to similar sea monster films and bares a startling resemblance to Harbinger Down. However, this film really lacked character insight and development. I found I was not invested in the characters so barely raised an eyebrow when they died - and nor did I care who survived. Judging from the rest of the audience comments - I was not alone in finding Sea Fever tedious. Disappointing.
An English Haunting
Blake (David Lenik) and his alcoholic mother Margot (Tessa Wood) are forced to move into the mysterious Clemonte Hall, a vast isolated manor house, to care for his dying Grandfather, Aubrey (Barrington De La Roche) who resides in the attic room. Soon, ghostly goings-on fill the house with dread, as it becomes apparent Audrey's illness may have a supernatural cause.
An English Haunting was enjoyable and I imagine will be popular amongst a more mainstream audience looking for a classical approach to horror.
The location and cinematography are stunning and whilst the blurb states it is set in the 1960's - the film has a distinctly timeless feel to it. The film is well paced and both the story and each of the characters follow distinctive arcs. As a writer and reviewer, my biggest bugbear is poorly written characters. I am always going to champion a film that has believable characters brought to life by strong performances from the cast. Take Margot, who is resentful of reprising her role as her fathers carer due to their previously tumultuous relationship. It is a believable contrast to Blake whose loyalties are torn in several directions.
As the story unfolds, we are shown glimpses of a grotesque human-like monster on and Aubrey's involvement in its origins. In a subversive take on the feminine Gothic archetype - An English Haunting has us explore relationships between mother and son. Leading to a plot twist that was a genuine surprise. My only criticism was the portrayal of the three kings purely because I felt they did not contribute to the suspense of the film.
Audiences may be divided on An English Haunting. Genre audiences generally enjoy using their imagination - whilst mainstream audiences tend to expect all nuances to be made obvious for easier enjoyment.
The Black Gloves
Originally released in 2017 - The Black Gloves was re-released in colour for presentation at the Festival. The screening at the film festival was my introduction to the Moloch-based mythology of the Owlman, the film, and it's larger than life director Lawrie Brewster. Laurence R. Harvey recommended the film during our interview - so I tagged along with an open mind.
I feel I must start with a disclaimer that this review is in no way influenced by Lawrie hurling a plush Owlman figure at me from across the cinema - disappointing hardened fans - The cute version of the mysterious Owlman now carefully watches over my reviews.
The Black Gloves tells the story of a psychologist, Finn (Jamie Scott Gordon) who is obsessed with the disappearance of his young patient, and the menacing owl-headed figure that plagued her nightmares. His investigations lead him to a reclusive ballerina Elisa (Alexandre Nicole Hulme) who, just like his patient, is convinced that she is about to die at the hands of this disturbing entity. In the bleak Scottish highlands, Finn counsels his new patient, under the watchful eye of her sinister ballet teacher, Lorena. (Macerna Gomez)
Admittedly I was sceptical about this film and really had take time to consider my opinion. At first the film appears to follow the classic tropes of the gentle male rescuer helping the innocent female victim escape both her imaginary antagonist, and the overbearing clutches of an cruel -and usually foreign- matriarch. Initially I found Lorena hard to bear as I have really grown tired of this trope.
However, writer Sarah Daly introduces subtle nuances which turns these classic tropes inside out and keeps you captivated until the films redemptive end. We begin to question Finn's intentions. His professional ethics seemingly fall by the wayside as his infatuation with Elisa - and his need for reprisal for the death of his young patient - grows. Whilst we soften towards Lorena as her unconditional love of Elisa becomes apparent.
The colour rendering on the 2020 release is simply gorgeous. Although black and white films ramp up both the creep factor and the nostalgia of the bygone era of retro horror. Yet, you really gain a sense of the forties with the meticulous attention to detail - not only in costume and makeup but in fittings at the location. The visuals in each scene are stunning, and the canting camera angles cleverly adds to a growing sense of insanity before the truly disturbing dance sequence which will haunt your dreams for sometime.
So whilst I was somewhat reticent when discussing my opinion of the film in the bar post-screening, The Black Gloves is definitely worth a watch and has attracted critical acclaim from critics and viewers alike.
The Hollow Child
Samantha (Jessica McCloud) is a troubled teen who is trying to fit in with her new foster family. Reluctant to be a responsible big sister, their young daughter - Olivia (Hannah Chemary)- disappears after Samantha leaves her to walk home alone. Their parents are distraught and therefore are obviously relieved when Olivia shows up again. Overlooking the fact she starts to demonstrate some disturbing behaviour. This leads to a simply beautiful Pans Labyrinth style story of love and sacrifice as Samantha searches for the truth.
Apart from the gorgeous cinematography and great direction - the entire cast deliver superb performances. The characters and their relationships are multi-dimensional, relatable and entirely believable which immerse you into this deeply moving horror. Credit must be given to child-actress Hannah who delivered a complex performance without falling into the trap of of the 'creepy child' trope.
The Hollow Child is sadly understated. Despite receiving a awards on its release,the film received poor reviews which in my opinion are not warranted. Each to their own, but I love folklore -inspired horror and this is a real gem.
A Little More Flesh
Stanley Durall (voiced by Director Sam Ashurst, played by James Swanton), the notorious director of a series of intense erotic dramas, is returning to his debut movie,God’s Lonely Woman, to provide an audio commentary for the film’s first Blu-ray release since it was banned in the 1970s. We learn that the female stars Isabella ( co-writer Elf Lyons) and Candice (Hazel Townsend) are no longer alive.
Whilst this film premiered at the 2020 Starburst Film Festival - it cleverly has all the hallmarks of a soft porn filmed in the 1970's - complete with psychedelic fashion and the soft focus of a Vaseline smeared camera. What is fascinating is that the only audible dialogue is the commentary provided by Durral - meaning the cast had to deliver via physical expression of their various reactions and emotions. This is done superbly. At first we find Durrall's commentary almost laughable. However, as his transgressions are revealed via the commentary and increasing visual discomfort of its stars Isabella - you (should) lose all sympathy for the guy.
It should be remembered that this is a film for the #metoo generation - and it really packs a punch. Whilst jump scares are delivered in J-horror inspired flashes, the true horror arises from the fact that this reflects real-life for many - both inside the film industry and out. Perhaps the most disturbing part about this film was the audience reactions - many where still laughing at the commentary despite the obvious and increasingly upsetting transgressions committed against Isabella. So I didn't hide my smile when the same audience members squirmed when Isabella finally takes an 'I Spit On Your Grave' style revenge from beyond the grave. As a feminist and a survivor - I applaud Elf Lyons and Sam Ashurst for their bold commentary on misogyny, the male gaze and abuse within the industry. A Little More Flesh was my personal favourite at the festival.
To be watched.
Sadly, I could not be in two places at once meaning that I did not get to see all the films I wanted to. Award winning features Stay Out, Stay Alive and Nefarious along with Artik and Those Who Deserve to Die are still on my 'to watch pile'. Fortunately, I was provided links to locally produced horror anthology Surprise and the fantasy short The Lost Treasure of the Valley which I will be showcasing in later reviews.