REVIEW: FrightFest 2019 – Day 2 (August 23rd)


Dark Encounter

By Mike Jefferson
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)
Dark Encounter is a sci-fi horror with all the alien menace you could ask for, but not much actual drama.

A year on from the disappearance of eight-year-old Maisie, her family gather in commemoration at the house of her parents Ray (Mel Radio) and Olivia (Laura Fraser).

Ray is drawn with grief; sleeping on the sofa, one assumes as the result of marital discord. His brothers, bear-like Morgan (Vince Regan), droll Billy, (Sid Phoenix), and hangdog, Kenneth (Grant Masters) all try to talk to him, but Ray is beyond solace.

After a close encounter out on the porch, Ray heads impulsively into the misty woods in his truck, with torch, shotgun, and concerned siblins in tow. Olivia, slightly more stable, stays home with teenage son Noah (Spike White) and sister Arlene (Alice Lowe), but whatever it is out there is just as active on the domestic front.

The second film of writer-director Carl Strathie, Dark Encounter is a masterclass in UFO phenomenology; whether they’re causing the local bat population to take flight en masse or magnetising kitchen utensils to near-deadly effect.

While drawing distinctly from the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – orange light blazing through front windows, check – and E.T. – oddly familiar gazebo-cum-tool-shed, check – the film offers, to my knowledge, a few neat touches of its own to the catalogue: water spiralling out of the tap; filings being drawn to one side of an Etch-A-Sketch.

So committed is it to genre convention, however, that the film forgets to operate either as a study of a family in grief, as it initially sets out, or as an exercise in tension, as that family are terrorised by extra-terrestrial forces.

The production values are astonishing: Stathie makes intuitive directorial choices in shooting the ‘80s homestead, often involving reflections; Bart Sienkiwicz’s cinematography is crisp, textured, and deeply atmospheric; David Stone Hamilton neatly underscores the mystery with an evocative blend of orchestral and electronic; and the cast, Fraser in particular, turn in committed performances.

But Dark Encounter’s story is held in stasis: there’s too much hanging around aimlessly in blue-lit corridors, waiting for the next effects shot, for the emotions to hold much resonance. The aliens, meanwhile, ultimately add up to nothing more than a deus ex machina from the Interstellar playbook.

A series of memorable moments does not a movie make and so Dark Encounter, for all its ambition, doesn’t make for illuminating viewing.


The Wind

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
“Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.” – Seamus Heaney, Storm on the Island

The Wind may not take place on an island, but those early settlers of the prairie they may as well have been separated by leagues of ocean.

Emma Tammi’s revisionist Western extracts horror from an aspect of pioneer life rarely focused on: the sheer isolation.

Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) lives alone with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zuckerman) on a homestead somewhere in the Old West. By the time we meet them, their peaceful life has been shattered by tragedy: bloody sheets and a howl in the night.

The result of which is that Izzy is left alone on the windswept plain as her husband makes a trip back to civilisation.

The film, scripted by Teresa Sutherland, proceeds from there; flashing back to the events following the arrival of sly Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and the ineffectual Gideon (Dylan McTee), whose introduce the complication of human company, if not dependency, to the placidity of the Macklin’s quiet existence.

This disquiet takes the form of the everpresent wind; rising and falling unpredictably, merging with Ben Lovett’s score to haunting effect.

It’s the sort place to make you believe in demons – hence the recurring pamphlet, “Demons of the Plain”; illustrated with an inky-black malefactor that could be an artist’s fancy or perhaps something more…

As with 2016’s The Witch – though relatively lacking in phantasmagoria – The Wind presents the American wilderness as a place of danger that goes beyond the physical – wolves and fever may prove less of a risk to Izzy than her fears, both psychological and spiritual. As she says to a passing reverend (Miles Anderson), “I don’t suppose God has much business out here.”

On the edge of the world, where the only company is a distant lantern out there in the dark – and even that not always a comfort – Izzy’s delirium and paranoia begin to manifest in more tangible forms. A scene in which she struggles to relight a candle as shadows mass above her is truly a masterclass in tension; managing to imply ghastly legions with just air and shadow.

The Wind may not reinvent the wagon wheel, but, low-key and ingenious, and as chilling and insidious as  a low draftit’s the type of genre fare that deserves championing.


Knives And Skin

By Rob Daniel
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Lyrical, engrossing and infuriating, Jennifer Reeder’s magical realist take on teen angst is sometimes too pointed for comfort, but the end result gets under the skin.

Early on, band majorette Carolyn (Raven Whitely) is seen rebuffing the advances of boorish boyfriend Andy (Ty Olwin) during a nocturnal, lakeside tryst. Abandoned when Andy drives away, Carolyn is subsequently declared missing. The lives of the other girls in the town high school continue as the search for Carolyn rumbles on in the background.

These include Andy’s sister Joanna (Grace Smith), dealing with her unstable mother Lynn (Audrey Francis), while selling mum’s underwear and prescription pills to schoolteachers.

With its small-town intrigues (affairs and drug abuse abound), sense of imminent violence and the disappearance of a high-school sweetheart, Knives and Skin dwells in a place very close to Twin Peaks. A feeling doubled-down on with Nick Zinner’s synth score and a strong performance from Marika Engelhardt as Carolyn’s mother, someone as prone to unsettling displays of public grief as Laura Palmer’s parents.

What elevates Reeder’s film above mere homage is a focus on her female characters and their powerplays. Be it Joanna, using her intelligence to compromise male teachers, her friends exploring their sexuality or the sheriff’s wife (Kate Arrington), using her pregnancy as a weapon while having an affair with Joanna’s dad (Tim Hopper).

Even Carolyn has a power, the void she leaves repeatedly breaking characters away from their own obsessions.

In this, Knives and Skin would play well on a triple bill with Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation and Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take, another film about high school rituals and power structures in a rural midwestern town with missing kids.

As interested in moods and textures as dramatic moments, Reeder colours her film in bursts of pink and red, favouring dissolves between scenes for a weird, dreamlike atmosphere that keeps characters and audiences off-kilter. Although set in present day, a preponderance of cassette tapes and acapella renditions of ’80s songs during Glee club again keeps all this in an odd nowhere-time.

Not everyone will be on board with Reeder’s take on small town life. Riding the razor’s edge of profundity and pretention, the tone does slip (we predict some will bail around the time of a cunnilingus clown).

But, the character vignettes accumulate into an emotional payoff come the closing scenes, and the film lingers in the mind longer than many more immediately agreeable high school flicks.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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