Film reviews

Grimmfest 2020 – Highlights Reel

Grimmfest, Manchester’s international festival of fantastic film, went digital this year, providing a satisfying selection of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and cult features and shorts. We jumped in and watched as many as we could!


The Oak Room

The Oak Room is a story about stories. Directed by Cody Calahan (Let Her Out, Antisocial) and written by Peter Genoway (Masks, Night Moves), it tells the tale of a man called Steve who returns home one night, in the middle of a raging blizzard, to settle up his debt with local bartender Paul and retrieve his deceased father’s body and possessions.

But it turns out that he doesn’t have cash to pay his debts. He has, as he says, something better than cash. He has a story. The story is of events that went down in a bar called The Oak Room, on a night very much like this one, when a drifter arrives at the local bar just as it’s closing. What follows is a series of tales within tales as Steve lays out what he claims happened that night, slowly weaving layers of narrative until the film climaxes in an ending that is ambiguous yet still satisfying … and that is really all that can be said about this film without giving away the plot. The Oak Room is a story of possibly unreliable narrators and of dealing with the consequences of past decisions.

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Set almost entirely within the confines of the two bars, the film is reliant on the cast to sell this set-up to the audience and it completely succeeds. RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad, The Recall) is fascinating to watch as Steve, deftly weaving his story. Playing alongside him for most of the film is Peter Outerbridge (Nikita, Orphan Black) as the bitter and suspicious Paul, filled with anger and mistrust of anything Steve has to tell him, still angry that he was left to deal with the funeral for Steve’s father, Gordon, while Steve was off “drifting” as he puts it.

A great soundtrack, a great cast, and compelling stories all lead up to a pay-off that is both ambiguous and yet still satisfying. Definitely one to watch if you get the chance.


The Deep Ones

IA IA Cthulhu Fhtagn! IA IA Cthulhu Fhtagn! The Deep Ones is a story about happy cults, voyeurism, tentacles and Great Old Ones. It’s a cheesy slice of HP Lovecraft inspired horror that clocks in at a brisk 82 minute running time. Directed by Chad Ferrin (Parasites, The Ghouls) and starring Gina La Piana (Stay With Me) as Alex, Johann Urb (Arrow) as Petri and Robert Miano (Donnie Brasco) as Russel it’s a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously as it weaves the tale of Alex and Petri, who rent a beachside house to get away from everything following Alex’s miscarriage.

What they find instead is a small commune of somewhat too-friendly neighbours who turn out to actually be a cult worshiping Dagon and the Deep Ones. Will they make it out alive, or are they destined to join the cult themselves? The ending is perhaps fairly predictable but as with all these things it’s all about the journey rather than the destination.

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Is this a good film? Kinda. It’s unlikely to win any awards, and some of what you see on screen is, well, it’s hard to say if they were trying to be tongue in cheek, but if they were then they succeeded. There are tentacles hiding in ALL kinds of places in this film and the cast play it admirably straight. There’s even some Trans representation on screen in the character of Dr. Gene Rayburn, the overly solicitous doctor.

This is a film that tries to strike a somewhat lighter tone with Lovecraft’s work, not spending too much time delving into the mythos itself. All you need to know is there’s a creepy cult and fishmen who want to rape your wife. Is it worth checking out? Ehhhh… if there’s nothing else on? If you happen to be in the mood for a Lovecraft-themed movie I’d recommend Color Out of Space myself.


The Unhealer

The Unhealer is a lovely little twist on revenge stories. Directed by Martin Guigui (9/11, Swing) and starring Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Millennium), Natasha Henstridge (Species, Ghosts of Mars) and Elijah Nelson (Mad Men, Chain of Death) it tells the story of the acerbic faith healer Pflueger (Henriksen) who performs a healing on a boy called Kelly (Nelson), to hopefully cure his pica which is making his life a misery.

Things go awry, to put it mildly, and as well as curing the pica Kelly finds himself imbued with invulnerability. Hit him, and the attacker feels it instead. With this new power he sets out to improve life for him and his mother (Henstridge), and stand up to the bullies who have made his life hell. When things escalate the bodies start to mount and the blood starts to flow in beautifully gruesome and gory ways.

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This film is just great fun. Lance Henriksen is a delight to watch as the mercantile and thoroughly unlikable preacher, Nelson treads a fine line between sympathetic and maniacal and pretty much everyone turns in a top notch performance. It’s a shame that some practical effects are, oddly, eschewed for CGI. I will never understand why you can do a practical effect of someone’s face melting, but you have to CGI in the blood spurting from a leg? Weird. There’s other CGI which is, well, understandable with what the film is trying to accomplish but it’s less egregious. I just have a bugbear about fake CGI blood splatter. It’s always so glaringly obvious.

But! Complaints about blood spurts aside, The Unhealer is a great little movie. Definitely check it out if you get the chance.


Rent-a-Pal

Tell you what? I bet you’re full of surprises! So says Andy, the Rent-a-Pal, your new best friend. Do you remember Star Trek: The Next Generation? Do you remember Wesley Crusher, the character everyone loves to hate? Well, he grew up and now he’s charming, friendly and deeply, deeply creepy.

Rent-a-Pal tells the story of David (Brian Landis Folkins), a forty year old man trapped living in his 73 year old Mom’s basement as he cares for her. She suffers from dementia, so his every day revolves around her. In an attempt to meet other people he’s signed up to a video dating service without much luck. One day, though, while visiting the video dating offices, he notices a video cassette in the bargain bin. Picking it up on a whim and taking it home, his magical journey with Andy (Wil Wheaton) begins. They’ll laugh, they’ll cry, they’ll share everything! When you have a friend like Andy, who needs other friends? Or family? Or ANYONE ELSE BUT HIM.

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The plot won’t win any awards, but it doesn’t need to. Despite Andy’s claim of surprises there’s not a great many to be found, but that honestly doesn’t matter. This is a story that hinges on the relationship between Andy and David. If that doesn’t work then nothing else will. I’m happy to report that Folkins and Wheaton are brilliant together, their strange relationship compelling and surprisingly believable. It’s such a subtle thing, when Andy’s responses stop sounding pre-recorded and he starts talking direct to David. Or is he? Is this some strange, malevolent celluloid demon or the slow descent into madness of a man who’s simply been pushed too far and taken too much?

The climax of the film is a gloriously creepy and unhinged few minutes, ultimately ending without ever really answering the question of who or what Andy is but you know what? It simply doesn’t matter. Ghost in the machine or mental breakdown, Andy’s the kind of friend you only meet once in a blue moon.


Anonymous Animals (Les Animaux Anonymes)

This is some fine visual storytelling. With no actual dialogue, everything has to be shown on screen and writer/director Baptiste Rouveure (And the Winner Is) delivers in spades.

From the moment the film opens on a half-naked man chained to a tree by the road like an abandoned puppy, you know you’re in for something a bit different, a bit strange, a bit special. Welcome to a strange, stark world where humans fill the roles of animals and the roles of the human owners and masters are instead filled by strange, animal-headed humanoids.

Clocking in at a mere 64 minutes it’s a difficult film to talk about in some ways. It’s a series of vignettes, following the treatment of a selection of unnamed humans as they find themselves at the mercy of these new, strange animals that have taken their places.

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The deer-headed figure with the shotgun is probably the image that will linger the longest, though the film certainly has no shortage of striking imagery. Respect has to be given to the direction on display here, the human characters moving and behaving like frightened, abused animals while their anthropomorphic masters herd and beat and hunt them.

With themes of cruelty, abuse and cannibalism this film holds a mirror up to the way humans treat animals and it’s not an entirely pleasant experience. In other hands, with another writer or director this could easily have been something silly or ludicrous but here it’s cold, oppressive and brutal. Not a film for everyone, but fans of minimalist storytelling will find a lot to like here.

Grimmfest ran from the 7th to the 11th of October 2020. You can find our full Grimmfest coverage here.

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