REVIEW: FrightFest 2019 – Day 1 (August 22nd)

Scary Stories

Come To Daddy

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
You might expect a film with a title like Come To Daddy to be fraught with a certain amount of Freudian psychodrama.

You might not be prepared, though, for one of the oddest, bloodiest, and most strangely poignant horror-comedies you’re likely to see all year.

The directorial debut of producer Ant Timpson, it stars Elijah Wood as Norval, a hipster music producer with a prescription haircut and mustache, who has received a letter from his long-estranged father, asking Norval to visit. He obliges, of course – travel bag in tow; arriving at a gorgeous home on the remote Oregon coast.

However, rather from the figure from his childhood, Norval finds himself united with a gaunt and gristly stranger (Stephen McHattie), who’s strung-out bewilderment quickly gives way to reveal a nasty side. Awkward, if essentially friendly catching up quickly descends into increasingly abusive powerplay from a man who’s idea of a “good night” is to tell the story of a time he once kicked a man’s ear off.

Screenwriter Toby Harvard – who worked with Timpson on The Greasy Strangler – has a way with vicious, belittling father figures, and a scene in which Norval’s, admittedly insufferable, bragging about his musical versatility – “I’m not someone you can pigeonhole” – is humiliatingly twisted back on him must rank as one of the year’s best.

Wood, with those big, vulnerable blue eyes, draws out human sympathy from beneath Norval’s image-obsessed surface while McHattie, none more Mephistophelian by firelight, delivers a mean old bastard for the ages.

It’s clear their relationship is a dead end, that this rapprochement cannot end well, but Come To Daddy keeps things fresh – or at least embalmed – by introducing some more outlandish elements into the mix. These include Jethro (Michael Smiley), a Hook-haired two-bit criminal with a truly disgusting weapon of choice, and the mysterious Brian (Martin Donovan).

A tight, toxic two-hander becomes a deliriously offbeat crime caper that suggests a meeting of the minds between Martin McDonagh and David Lynch. The tonal shift is so pronounced from one moment to the next, you may want to rewind to check, though the segue here plays, to my mind, as oddly winning rather than simply abrupt.

There’s the suggestionmthat Norval, if not exactly better off, might learn something through the ordeal; a certain resilience, maybe even something about his father.

Daniel Katz’s cinematography charts their journey from sunnily oversaturated day into high-contrast, neon-lit nightmare, aided by Karl Steven’s playful score, shifting from woozy strings to strident war drums.

From cartoonish violence to unexpected tenderness, Come To Daddy remains disarmingly grounded and never less than a treat. Seek it out.

 

Crawl

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Crawl is a creature feature perfectly evolved for the metroplex.

A high-concept survival thriller, the film keeps low to the ground and shows that all you need to ratchet tension is a confined space, a ticking clock, and maybe a couple of alligators.

With a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on Florida and a widescale evacuation in progress, swim student Haley makes a trip to the old family home, seeking out her estranged father Dave, who’s gone incommunicado. She doesn’t expect to find him in the crawlspace, nor in the vicinity of two sizeable alligators.

Largely reining in the stomping and snapping, director Alexandre Aja focusses instead on the father-daughter dynamic as the two struggle to survive. While the injured Dave is mostly immobile, forced to rely on a length of pipe and grim determination, Haley is close to action hero status.

Whether creeping through the substructure like Ripley in Aliens or leaping from one piece of debris to the next atop the murky water. Even getting on the wrong side of one gator’s toothy grin doesn’t slow her down for long.

Similar to Jaume Collet-Serra’s use of negative space in The Shallows, Aja ramps up tension by keeping Haley in hard focus and hinting at the terror that could be lurking mere feet away, shrouded in darkness. The gators are at their deadliest when hidden, lurking just beneath the surface, or navigating the surging flood waters of the cul-de-sac.

The crawlspace location is deeply (pun intended) symbolic, but Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s script keeps the family drama at surface level – more hors d’oeuvres, than Ordinary People.

Still, with its handful of gory takedowns, at least one killer line reading (courtesy of Mr. Pepper), and a snappy 87 minutes all in, Crawl is a brutally efficient exercise in suspense you should hurry to see.

 

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Somewhere between Goosebumps and IT lies Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark.

Based on the book series by Alvin Shwarz, the setup is pure Stephen King: It’s 1968 and, in a small milltown in rural Pennsylvania, a group of misfit kids have banded together to celebrate Halloween.

There’s Stella (Zoe Colletti), a wise-beyond-her-years redhead with aspirations of being a horror writer. There’s also the lanky, deadpan Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and loose-lipped goofball Chuck (Austin Zajur). So far, so Losers Club.

After hiding out from the local bully in the car of cool-kid drifter Ramón (Michael Garza), they decide to show him the local haunted house: the former home of the wealthy Bellows family, whose history is mired in murder and disappearance. Most notably the tragic death of their daughter Sarah, who, the story goes, they kept locked up in the basement where she wrote stories.

It should come as no surprise then whose book they find; the stories in which starting writing themselves and coming to life with terrifying consequences…

Directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Scary Stories is essentially an anthology a la R.L. Stein – a series of encounters with archetypal monsters, here largely drawn from folk tales, who stalk their victims till gruesome death. Tying them together is the mystery of Sarah Bellows, which Stella and co. must solve in order to put the book to rest.

Though ostensibly intended for kids, Scary Stories has secured a 15 rating in the UK; due largely, one assumes, to the freakishness of the monsters, played by the likes of long-limbed horror stalwart Javier Botet. A lumpen, insect-riddled scarecrow clumping through a cornfield, or the blobby, smirking Pale Lady, halfway between Samara from The Ring and the Pillsbury Doughboy, growing ever closer no matter which way you turn.

There are hints at deeper character relevance – Stella lives alone with her dad (a sadsack Dean Norris) – or social commentary – the self-satisfied Sheriff (Gil Bellows) is prejudiced against Ramón, and Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon are recurring elements – but, ultimately, the film is a straight-forward supernatural horror; albeit glossily executed.

Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich’s score neatly telegraphs the terror – jangling on the monster’s approach, blaring with its appearance – but its Roman Osin’s cinematography that does the most to elevate the material: lush and textured, it draws out the texture from the 60s decors and from the world at large.

Scary Stories is a perfectly well-executed by-the-book horror, though it may leave you wishing for slightly better material.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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