The Top 10 Movies of FrightFest 2021

The best part of FrightFest 2021 was the festival being back in the cinema for the first time since The Before. Whether watching on the IMAX screen, the Super Screen or a Discovery screen, having that collective experience was thrilling, and genuinely moving. It is not until you regain something you realise just how much you missed it.

Despite us still being in a pandemic, the calibre of movies this year remained high. At least the 27 I watched. The only film that disappointed was arguably the most high-profile title playing, Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland. Choosing the 10 best films inevitably means some favourites did not make the cut. Also important to note I did not manage to see certain Top 10 contenders. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It and Motherly drew buzz at the festival and are now on a To Watch list.

But, on with the show (although The Show is also not featured here). The top 10 movies I have chosen reflect the exciting and eclectic approaches different filmmakers took to the genre this year. In reverse order then…


10. BRING OUT THE FEAR

The first of two films on the list from the First Blood strand. A strong year for the strand, with Boy #5, The Last Rite and Are We Monsters all bringing vibrant new voices to British horror cinema. Richard Waters’ Bring Out the Fear is a salutary lesson for anyone thinking the Great Outdoors will be their friend. The writer-director discovers fertile ground to explore in a well-trodden plot (couple in the woods discover they are trapped by evil forces). In the lead roles, Ciara Bailey and Tad Morari compound the tension through raw performances.
FULL REVIEW…


9. THE MAID

While not scary or original, this Thai ghost story is bouncy horror-comedy fun. Director Lee Thongkham never met a jump-scare he didn’t like and uses them here the way Quentin Tarantino employs colourful language. The wildly convoluted plot throws up plenty of twists, based around dark family secrets, unbridled passions and revenge. Handsomely mounted and shot by Thongkham and his production team, The Maid skillfully slips between horror, melodrama and black comedy as it builds to a memorably messy climax. As the young house servant investigating those bumps in the (day and) night, the lively Ploy Sornarin is the glue holding everything together. 
FULL REVIEW…


8. ULTRASOUND

As mentioned in the Ultrasound review, if Christopher Nolan is looking for inspiration following the stale Tenet, he should turn to Rob Schroeder’s irresistible brain scrambler. In doing so, there would be an element of paying back in kind, as Ultrasound has some of The Prestige’s scent wafting about it. Yet there is more to this sci-fi tale than mere homage. To reveal too much would spoil the journey. But, with government agencies, over-sexed politicians, confused couples, and magic all swirling within the movie, reality grows more intriguing the more it dissolves.
FULL REVIEW…


7. THE SADNESS

You know a horror film is bringing something spicy to the party when it causes walkouts at a horror film festival. Four people around me bailed early into Rob Jabbaz’s gleefully nihilistic pandemic atrocity exhibition. There may have been more; The Sadness is not to all tastes. But this 28 Days Later meets Train to Busan meets The Ebola Syndrome shocker makes a strong statement about how divisive our pandemic-weary world is becoming. The movie’s virus may mutate into a rabies like pathogen, but its bloodthirsty maniacs are not a million miles away from anti-vaxxers raging against mask mandates in schools.

Jabbaz can build tension as expertly as he can spray gore. A 10-minute subway scene escalates the unease to the point where the carnage initially comes as a relief. Initially… Elsewhere, a blood-slathered orgy attains a surreal beauty. To repeat, not a film for all tastes.
FULL REVIEW…


6. NO MAN OF GOD

You may be forgiven for thinking, “Another year, another Ted Bundy movie.” Most Bundy films make the mistake of feeding into the mythos that he was some Hannibal Lecter-like supervillain. Director Amber Sealey and writer C. Robert Cargill (under the pseudonym Kit Lesser) dodge this trap. As played by Luke Kirby to an unnervingly accurate degree, No Man of God’s Bundy is an intelligent, charming man who uses his talent solely to kidnap and destroy women for squalid self-gratification and aggrandisement.

Elijah Wood is Bill Hagmaier, the FBI man and audience surrogate assigned to extract a confession from the cruelly reticent killer. As Bundy casually reveals his pitiless nature, our appalled reactions are frequently mirrored in the expressions on Wood’s face.
FULL REVIEW…


5. THE ADVENT CALENDAR

Christmas horror has become an annual FrightFest tradition, and The Advent Calendar may be the best entry to date. The wheelchair-bound Eva is gifted an ornate wooden advent calendar from her best friend. Once she opens the first door and eats that sweet, she must continue for 24 days lest misfortune befall her. She soon discovers that bad things happen even when she eats the candy, but to those making her life difficult. With the advent calendar’s powers seemingly limitless, the question becomes how miraculous can it be? And, what price must be paid?

Eugénie Derouand is excellent as Eva, leaning into a script that understands its heroine does not need to always be likeable. Writer-director Patrick Ridremont stirs different horror flavours into his Christmas pudding, with ingredients including The Monkey’s Paw and A Christmas Carol. Plus, in the demon tormenting/liberating Eva, a creation that could have been spat out of that basement in Martyrs. Easy to see why FrightFest co-director Alan Jones named this glorious slice of seasonal spookiness his film of the festival.


4. EVIE

One of the most rewarding elements of FrightFest is the variety of films programmed. Evie could not be more different from The Sadness, which is ironic as Dominic Brunt and Jamie Lundy’s film was the saddest title playing this year. A sensitively handled character study that uses a folkloric monster as a metaphor for addiction and destruction, it is a haunting work of art. Holli Dempsey excels as the troubled adult Evie, attempting to shape something resembling a manageable life from the wreckage of her past. As the younger version of the character Honey Lundy (the co-director’s daughter) is a talent to watch as she shifts from brightly inquisitive to confused, enraged, and dangerous.
FULL REVIEW…


3. WHEN THE SCREAMING STARTS

The only film to have three screenings at FrightFest 2021, an extra showing necessary due to high audience interest. Understandable why When the Screaming Starts generated such buzz. This horror-comedy delivers genuine laughs before performing a tonal triple axel, landing in deadlier territory. Writer-director Conor Buro and co-writer and star Ed Hartland create a tightly plotted mockumentary about a loser who dreams of becoming a serial killer. The cast inhabit their roles perfectly, matching the movie’s dark-comic pitch. Particularly Hartland in the lead, Jared Rogers as the opportunistic documentarian, Kaitlin Reynell as Hartland’s morbid girlfriend, and Octavia Gilmore as someone who knows actions speak louder than words.
FULL REVIEW…


2. NIGHT DRIVE

Night Drive played the same time as this year’s festival opener, Demonic. A shame, as most audiences would have missed one of FrightFest 2021’s best movies. Taking cues from Collateral and Night on Earth, Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon’s lively crime caper is short, surprising, and delightful. AJ Bowen’s hang-mouthed ride share driver must chauffeur Sophie Dalah’s thrill seeker through one eventful night in Christmas-time LA. Dalah is clearly into some risky business, and the fun comes in seeing where she takes Bowen, and us, next. Few will guess the film’s destination, but everyone should enjoy the ride. Conversely, festival-goer feedback on Demonic was not so enthusiastic…
FULL REVIEW…


1. THE LAST THING MARY SAW

Before this August, 2019 was the last time FrightFest saw the inside of a cinema. My film of the fest that year (and 2019 overall) was Emma Tammi and Teresa Sutherland’s The Wind. Appropriately, the movie to top the list this year is another beautifully shot period piece of Gothic uncanny, toxic religion and sexual repression. From a debuting filmmaker.

Edoardo Vitaletti’s The Last Thing Mary Saw is a maturely handled LGBT+ story of forbidden desire, with Stefanie Scott and Isabelle Fuhrman the star-crossed lovers. Judith Roberts is terrifying as the cruel-smiled matriarch of Scott’s Calvinist family. Rory Culkin also menaces as a stranger who brings more misfortune to the young women. The opportunity to watch this gorgeously shot film on a massive screen again reminds us why it is fantastic to have FrightFest back in cinemas.
FULL REVIEW…


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Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

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