WHO INVITED THEM
Director: Duncan Birmingham
Writer: Duncan Birmingham
Cast: Ryan Hansen, Melissa Tang, Timothy Granaderos, Patty Mattfeld
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 81mins
What’s the story: Adam (Hansen) and Margo (Tang) throw a housewarming party in their plush new home in the hills. After everyone leaves, one couple remain, the chic Tom (Granaderos) and Sasha (Mattfeld). The problem is, Adam and Margo have never met them before.
What’s the verdict: Who Invited Them mines fresh gold from subgenres always threatening to tap out: the comedy of embarrassment and the home invasion. Promising to be a dinner-party-from-Hell movie in the tradition of The Invitation, The Feast, and Coherence, it lands a good joke early on with the revelation that none of the guests can stand the faux-modest host Adam, and fall over each other to get out.
Adam and Margo are soon alone, bar supercool party crashers Tom and Sasha. After apologising for the intrusion, the chic couple suggest they stick around for a drink. Adam and Margo agree, the wife more reluctantly than the husband.
Anyone with a passing familiarity of horror cinema will be able to make broad stroke guesses about where Who Invited Them’s plot is heading. The fun comes from writer-director Birmingham’s witty script, brimming with believable social awkwardness and point-scoring micro aggressions. As the drink and drugs flow, buried tensions are teased to the surface. Birmingham has the guile to signpost what other films would make a big twist, and wisely holds back the wilder stuff for late in the day.
The director also knows to cast comedians to land both cringe moments and outbursts of horror. Party Down’s Ryan Hansen does a good line in over-friendly neediness as Adam. The Kominsky Method’s Melissa Tang sells Margo’s shift from annoyance to caustic to beyond. In the Dark’s Patty Mattfeld and Jonathan Groff-alike Timothy Granaderos are well-cast as the power couple with outside-the-box party ideas.
Engaging up to and including the climax, Who Invited Them manages to pull off a genuinely unnerving and ambiguous ending. It is a neat final flourish for this unexpectedly rewarding treat.
Director: Michelle Garvas Cervera
Writer: Michelle Garvas Cervera, Abia Castillo
Cast: Natalia Solián, Alfonso Dosal, Sonia Couoh, Mayra Batalla
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 98mins
What’s the story: Valerie (Solián) is overjoyed to learn she is pregnant. Yet, she grows convinced a malevolent spirit has cursed her, and cannot convince her friends and family that something supernatural wants her baby. How much of this can be explained by Valerie’s pregnancy fears?
What’s the verdict: Impending motherhood anxiety is fertile ground for horror cinema. Radically altered bodies. Hormonal imbalance. Something growing inside you that may turn out to be a demon, not just act like one. Or worse still, something growing inside you that is utterly vulnerable and requires your constant attention. Terrifying.
Director and co-writer Michelle Garvas Cervera’s chiller is a worthwhile addition to this horror subgenre, the standouts of which include the classic Rosemary’s Baby, and the more recent Prevenge. Huesera (Spanish for “bone girl) conjures atmospheres of dread right from the opening pilgrimage to a huge religious shrine. Neatly sketched family backgrounds explain why Valerie is twitchy even before she becomes convinced her baby is under threat from the titular cracked-limbed entity. Not just a film about parental apprehension, this is also for anyone who grits their teeth through passive-aggressive family get-togethers.
Cervera and co-writer Castillo make a good fist of blending local customs and magic with the plot tension that all this could be located purely inside Valerie’s fretful imagination. Here they benefit from Natalia Solián’s frazzled performance as Valerie, Alfonso Dosal as her increasingly exasperated husband, and Sonia Couoh as Valerie’s acid-tongued sister-in-law. Cervera and Castillo are also unafraid to make Valerie understandable, but not always likeable. A relationship twist adds another layer of personal and cultural complexity, leading to a satisfyingly ambiguous ending.
Where the film is less successful is in the broader horror beats, relying on J-Horror tics of contorted, jerky apparitions, and guessable nightmare sequences. But, worth a visit for the subtler chills provided.
INCREDIBLE BUT TRUE
Director: Quentin Dupieux
Writer: Quentin Dupieux
Cast: Alain Chabat, Léa Drucker, Benoît Magimel
Running time: 74mins
What’s the story: Alain (Chabat) and Marie (Drucker) find a dream home with a difference. A hole in the basement will lead them on a time-twisting journey that could answer all their dreams. Or not…
What’s the verdict: The spirit of early Charlie Kaufman pulsates through this offbeat French kind-of sci-fi comedy. To reveal too much would spoil the surprises, but we’ll say all modern suburban malaise is contained within. With some possible answers. The fun comes in watching the comfortable, well-heeled characters risk madness and ruin chasing that greener piece of grass just over there.
The discontentment is not restricted only to the couple with their unique new home. Alain’s boss Gérard (a hilarious Magimel) believes electronics can give him the keys to happiness. But, one rule of our modern age is that if an app can go wrong, it will go wrong. Be sure it doesn’t malfunction in the wrong place and the worst time.
Writer-director Dupieux can juggle tone, so nestling alongside the laughs are disquieting scenes of people destroying themselves to achieve warped views of perfection. He is also a master of economy, cramming everything into a 74 minute runtime. Several wordless, laugh out loud montages play with time as much as that tricksy ladder in the basement. Keeping the whole thing grounded are Chabat and Drucker’s believable performances. Not only wouldn’t you mind hanging out with them, but watching that hole work its mojo on them tugs at the heartstrings.
Cult novel House of Leaves and cult film Timecrimes also cast their scent over proceedings. But Incredible But True brims with its own originality and imagination. Spread the word and start the cult now.
Director: Mark Meir
Writer: Yuri Baranovsky
Cast: J. Quinton Johnson, Emma Fitzpatrick, Angela Gulner, Salvador Chacon, Frederick Stuart, Mark Meir
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 87mins
What’s the story: African-American car mechanic Elijah (Johnson) and his rockstar girlfriend Lyn (Fitzpatrick) are invited to a secluded spa for a three day therapy session. They are joined by super rich investor Joe (Chacon) and his ex, movie star Tara (Gulner). Overseeing proceedings is Dr. Justus Frost (Stuart). But, what is the point of all this therapy?
What’s the verdict: Mark Meir’s snappy directorial debut takes familiar low-budget horror tropes (small cast, isolated single location, trailer-friendly violence) and whips them into something fresh. An actor by trade, he draws uniformly strong performances from his cast. Leading these is Johnson as the mechanic out of his social depth, navigating veiled condescension from the privileged, white faces he joins at the spa.
Meir demonstrates a flair for effective, efficient compositions, never letting fussy direction smother the emotion or suspense. Yuri Baranovsky’s script has shades of Get Out and The Shining, and other films that would spoil the surprises if mentioned here. Both director and writer score good horror points with plot ambiguities and unease, before delivering a series of well-orchestrated twists as terror supplants trepidation.
Rather than being clumsily bolted on, commentary on inherited social advantage and subtle class and racial suppression is baked into character motivation and plot events. Short, sharp, and satisfying.
A WOUNDED FAWN
Director: Travis Stevens
Writer: Travis Stevens, Nathan Faudree
Cast: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind
Cert: 18 (TBC)
Running time: 91mins
What’s the story: Museum curator Meredith (Lind) has recently escaped an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, her new partner Bruce (Ruben) is a serial killer who worships a gigantic red owl. A weekend break in a cabin in the woods turns into a fight for survival. But, does Meredith have unexpected allies?
What’s the verdict: Writer-director Travis Stevens follows up festival favourites The Girl on the Third Floor and Jakob’s Wife with a full-blooded serving of folk and Greek myth inflected horror. Drawing heavily upon the story of the Erinyes (the Furies), A Wounded Fawn slow burns tension in its first half, then is wild payoff in the second. Act One, as the onscreen text has it, is the more successful, with social awkwardness and subtle power plays (e.g. Bruce repeatedly resting his hand on Meredith’s leg), stirring up the discomfort. Strong suggestions of supernatural occurrences add to the unease, before a midpoint plot twist seemingly out of the Hitchcock playbook pushes the film into Act Two.
This second half is stalk n’ slash in the woods, with a feminist spin. The remote cabin is recoded from a location of male threat to female strength through associations with nature and creation. Like the recent Nightsiren, this repositions snakes from a symbol of evil to a denotation of female power. Stevens stages effective sequences in this latter half, and Dan (Possessor) Martin’s make-up FX are of the usual high standard. But, the tone slips and slides, veering between the playful (one scene seems to reference Evil Dead 2) and straight horror, while the battle of the sexes theme loses the subtlety of the film’s first half.
Josh Ruben, writer and director of the gem Scare Me, delivers good psycho, his domineering friendliness boiling over into vicious temper. Sarah Lind breathes real life into Meredith, a woman done with toxic relationships and keen to turn trauma into action.
THE EYES BELOW
Director: Alexis Bruchon
Writer: Alexis Bruchon
Cast: Vinicius Coelho
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 77mins
What’s the story: A journalist (Coelho) on the verge of breaking an explosive story finds himself trapped in his bed by a supernatural creature. He must rethink his ideas of reality to battle the entity.
What’s the verdict: The Eyes Below is a film that demands your full attention be brought to enjoy all it has to offer. Alexis Bruchon’s follow-up to The Woman with Leopard Shoes teems with imagination, bizarre visuals, and moments of genuine sweaty-palmed anxiety. That alone is impressive enough for a second feature. But even more so when discovering that Bruchon accomplishes all this with lead actor Coelho, one other player, and no dialogue.
The film is reminiscent of the cult-arthouse movies by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forazni, e.g. Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Particularly as Bruchon is riffing on the style and conventions of the Italian giallo and European fantastique cinema that also beguiles Cattet and Forzani.
Yet, this is not empty pastiche. Visuals and sound whirl around each other to create an atmosphere of night terrors, evoking Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare. The mundane and metaphysical compete for dominance. Surreal violence erupts, centred around Freudian oral fixations (oily liquids are vomited into mouths, elsewhere glass is regurgitated). Then Bruchon slams rational and supernatural explanations against each other and dares you to pick up the pieces.
The unconventional plotting and presentation won’t suit tastes. But for those who like their horror daring and unusual, we recommend looking out for The Eyes Below.
Director: Eric Pennycoff
Writer: Eric Pennycoff
Cast: Jeremy Gardner, Graham Skipper, Taylor Zaudtke
Cert: 18 (TBC)
Running time: 82mins
What’s the story: Father David (Skipper) brings the destitute couple Terry (Gardner) and Lexi (Zaudtke) into his home over Christmas. They quickly outstay their welcome, threatening the fabric of David’s faith.
What’s the verdict: If like the nightmarish couple in this film The Leech ultimately outstays its welcome, there are still memorable moments along the way. Riffing on the premise of Pasolini’s Theorem, Miike Takashi’s Visitor Q, and particularly Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, this has a respectable homeowner forced to have a jolly good look at himself and how he treats guests. Not that the guests are spotless. The homeless Terry has a penchant for blaring (satanic) heavy metal at full volume, smoking pot indoors, and pleasuring himself in the spare bedroom. Girlfriend Lexi is best described as… confrontational. But as tensions rise, Father David’s Catholicism grows decidedly old school.
The cast bring their characters to caustic life, and writer-director Pennycoff stages nightmare comedy scenes of dinner table brawls and an impromptu party from Hell. Subtle visual touches – infernal red lighting, inexplicably flickering electrics – suggest the interlopers carry a whiff of sulfur about them as they torment their reluctant host. The script volleys hypocrisy and pride back and forth between the two parties, so nothing is as black and white as David’s shirt and clerical collar. Not even the title.
Where The Leech falters is in adding any variations in tone. Beginning at an 8, it settles into an 11 some distance before the violent conclusion. Worth a look, and may work better as a party film than a solo watch.
Director: Grégory Beghin
Writer: Nicolas Tackian
Cast: Sofia Lesaffre, Victor Meutelet, Kassim Meesters, Joseph Olivennes
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 81mins
What’s the story: Sonia (Lesaffre) takes visiting friends Henry (Meutelet) and Max (Meesters) into forbidden areas of Paris’ catacombs, her drug dealer Ramy (Olivennes) as their guide. Claustrophobic makeshift tunnels and an encounter with skinheads become the least of their problems when they discover a World War 2 bunker that still holds terrifying secrets.
What’s the verdict: We’re going underground again for this likeable, pacy horror movie that nods to The Descent, As Above, So Below, and Creep. While remembering to bring thrills of its own. The 1980s period setting is not overdone, and the simmering racial tensions make this feel depressingly modern, ratcheting up the tension even before the characters go subterranean.
Director Beghin shoots with a tactile sense of the cramped tunnels and crawlspaces, evoking the dust, damp, and smells that assault the gang of thrill seekers (some more thrilled than others). Beghin can also inject immediate unease into an encounter with muscled, moronic skinheads, and confidently handles the more traditional horror beats in Nicolas Tackian’s incident-packed script. As the plot unfolds, Sofia Lesaffre emerges as the lead. But with the cast unknown to most audiences, there is no safety net of guessing who will survive the increasingly violent goings-on.
Well-mounted and performed, the one disappointment is that Deep Fear does not have the resources to fully deliver on its horror promise. Messy prosthetic FX show the aftermath of confrontations, but not the attacks themselves. Although one character being blancmange’d offscreen is still likely to elicit good laughs, while an OTT face-stomping should have gorehounds applauding.
Podcast: The Movie Robcast