Fantasia Review: The Columnist

After a columnist’s article goes viral, she gets a great book deal. The downside is, now she has trolls constantly harassing and threatening her on social media. The columnist decides to take matters into her own hands and exacts revenge on those trolls.

Hailing all the way from the Netherlands, Fantasia International Film Festival brings the darkly comedic horror film, The Columnist. The film is directed by Ivo van Aart (Quantum Zeno, Zes Dates) and written by Daan Windhorst (Quantum Zeno, Zes Dates). Together, this duo deliver a black comedy that is both hilarious and humorous. As a writer, this is a story that really hits home. Femke Boot is a columnist who writes a controversial piece that sets some of the more conservative readers on the attack. Trolls hound her on social media by threatening her, calling her names, and so on. It’s unfortunately all too common for the anonymity of the internet to embolden people to say whatever they want without fear of repercussions. Yet Famke isn’t going to take this harassment anymore. She begins tracking down some of the more vicious trolls and getting her revenge.

The plot of The Columnist is very straight-foward, if not a bit too on-the-nose, but still brings the laughs. Femke gets up to some very bloody and violent antics tinged with dark humor. What makes her violent acts even more hilarious is that they seem to help her break any writers block she runs into while writing her new book. It’s very clear how the filmmakers feel about internet trolls. They address it in a comedic way, but it also doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity within the plot. The only thing driving the story, aside from Famke trying to finish her book by killing trolls, is whether or not she will be caught. It leads to a rather predictable end, but the film is still a fun watch.

Each actor in The Columnist plays the role relatively straight, which makes their performances even funnier. The characters seem so normal on the surface, but their actions prove otherwise. Katja Herbers (Westworld, The Leftovers) stars as Famke Boot. Famke seems like the most normal, mild-mannered woman. Herbers does a great job of giving off that persona for the character, while also showing Famke becoming more unhinged the longer she scrolls through social media. It makes her murderous actions shocking, yet still plausible. Despite these violent methods, Herbers still shows Famke as a sympathetic character. Bram van der Kelen (Centraal, 4Jim) plays another writer, Steven Dood. At first Steven seems like he’s against Famke, but he eventually reveals he is simply playing a spooky persona to match his books. He’s an interesting character who is surprisingly sweet and van der Kelen’s performance adds a bit more commentary on the roles we play in the public eye. Herbers and van der Kelen are not only great together on screen, but they also perfectly show two opposing types of writers.

Despite the generally lighthearted tone of The Columnist, it still has a fair amount of gore. Each time Famke kills, the murder scenes become a bit more elaborate and violent. The best part is the “souvenir” she takes from each victim. The practical effects are disturbingly realistic. They are all the more disturbing because of the juxtaposition between the murders and the otherwise cheery Netherlands setting.

The Columnist is a delightful revenge fantasy for anyone who has dealt with internet trolls, despite it being a bit gauche. Windhorst and van Aart have a clear message they are sending to Fantasia International Film Festival audiences. There could have been a bit more subtlty, but the bloody dark comedy is still incredibly entertaining to watch. Both Herbers and van der Kelen deliver delightful performances. It’s an almost therapeutic watch that will hopefully make at least a few trolls think twice before posting hate on the internet.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Fantasia Review: Free Country

A couple of years after German reunification, two detectives, one from the West side and one from the East side, are forced to work together on a case. Two teenage girls have gone missing in a small community. The detectives must work through their differences while uncovering the many secrets the remote town has to hide.

Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences yet another fascinating film from Germany. Free Country is directed by Christian Alvart (Pandorum, Antibodies), who also co-wrote the film with Siegfried Kamml, who makes his feature-film screenwriting debut. The film was adapted from the screenplay, Marshland, by Spanish screenwriters Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos. Free Country follows two detectives who meet for the first time when they arrive at a remote town to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. One detective lived and worked on the West side before the Berlin Wall came down, the other on the East. They have very different methods and moral compasses when it comes to their jobs. As they work through the mystery around the young girls, they also have to navigate how to work with each other. It creates an interesting dynamic because at times their methods are at odds with each other, but at times one detective’s strength brings about at least a small break in the case. It creates a slow-burn, neo-noir thriller fraught with tension from the moment the two men meet all the way to the suspenseful end.

Both leads in Free Country do a fantastic job as the detectives. Trystan Pütter (Toni Ernmann, Anonymous) plays Patrick Stein. Patrick is from the West side and was sent to this remote town as a sort of punishment. He is the more honest, straight-laced of the two detectives, and Pütter does a great job of making Patrick seem capable, but also a bit soft. Felix Kramer (Dark, Anatomy 2) plays the more hardened East side detective, Markus Bach. Markus is used to making his own rules when it comes to investigating crime. Kramer shines as this gruff man who is having difficulty adjusting to the new order now that there is no divide between East and West. These two men play off of one another quite well as they go back and forth between being at odds with each other and looking out for each other’s backs.

The film expertly transports the audience into the past. Free Country is set in Germany during the early 90’s. Great care was put into many visual aspects to maintain that time period. Everything from the clothes, to the cars, to the technology (or lack thereof) maintain that early 90’s feel. Free Country also has a griminess to it that is often a signature of neo-noir films. The film is tinged with yellow, making it appear old, dirty, and weathered. This look goes hand-in-hand with the desolate town on the East side where life was harder than it was for those in the West. The buildings are more run down and the people don’t have the nicest clothes. Every visual is an indicator of the hard life these townspeople lead and why many are so desperate to head West.

Free Country is a German time capsule wrapped around a neo-noir thriller. Alvart and Kamml do a fantastic job of adapting a Spanish screenplay to fit into German history, while also maintaining the suspenseful investigation into the teen girls’ disappearances. The visually appealing film greatly benefits from stunning performances from the two stars, Pütter and Kramer. They both deliver powerhouse performances on their own and as a duo. The final moment might leave a bit to be desired, but Free Country will still be a hit to crime-thriller enthusiasts around the world (including my mom).

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fantasia Review: Fried Barry

Barry is a piece of shit. He’s a drug addict, he’s violent, and he’s a horrible husband and father. After a bender, he’s abducted by aliens. They return his body back to Earth, but it’s being controlled by an alien who explores human life through human eyes.

When you think of strange films you might discover at Fantasia International Film Festival, Fried Barry perfectly fits the bill. While he has created dozens of short films, this is the feature film debut for South African writer and director Ryan Kruger. Inspired by his short film of the same name, Fried Barry is a strange sci-fi/horror/comedy mash-up. Kruger makes sure the audience immediately dislikes Barry, which makes his eventual abduction and probing (yes, I said probing) simultaneously disturbing and humorous. It’s when the alien goes back down to Earth using Barry’s body that things really get strange. The alien gets a front row seat to the underbelly of human civilization as Barry goes from one misadventure to the next, often resulting in violence, sex, and psychedelic drug-induced insanity.

Fried Barry is the kind of film that will likely be polarizing. Audiences will either love it or hate it. The one main plot is simply the alien navigating through South Africa and learning about humans. Yet again and again alien Barry finds himself in increasingly strange and dangerous predicaments. It results in multiple subplots that make the film, at times, seem like an anthology with Barry as the connecting thread. Many of these misadventures show the seedy underbelly of South Africa. Part of me wishes there had been a bit more to the plot, such as a clearer motivation for the alien controlling Barry or something else driving the film forward, but it is still a film that sticks with you.

While Fried Barry has a rather sizable cast, there is one performance that takes over the film. Gary Green (Escape Room, Three Suspects) plays the titular character, Barry. As Barry, Green does a great job of making the character unlikeable. It’s when Barry is controlled by the alien that Green’s performances truly shines. Green already kind of has an alien appearance to him. He’s quite gaunt and skeletal, has penetrating eyes, and has an intensity about him. Alien Barry doesn’t talk much, so Green has to rely on his physicality to convey what the character is thinking and feeling at any given moment. It’s really a phenomenal performance and a large part of why I enjoy the film.

From start to finish, this film assaults the senses. Fried Barry has a general griminess to it. Each scene feels dirty enough to make your skin crawl, which fits the overall tone of the plot. Yet this griminess is broken up by scenes of vibrant, hallucinatory colors and images to convey Barry’s more drug-fueled moments and the abduction itself. Then there is the musical score by Haezer (The Experimental Witch, Nobody Dies). Much like the visuals, the music is gritty and vibrantly synth in turn, fitting perfectly with each image on the screen.

Fried Berry takes audiences on a strange journey that will make you laugh while also making you feel like you need a shower. This film is an incredibly strong feature film debut from Kruger that truly shows his filmmaking prowess. Green’s portrayal of Berry definitely helps to make the film a standout at Fantasia International Film Festival. While it won’t appeal to every viewer, it is guaranteed to be a memorable viewing experience that makes audiences laugh and cringe in turn.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Fantasia Review: Sleep (Schlaf)

A woman plagued by vivid dreams travels to a remote German village to try to solve the mystery inside her head. She suffers a medical episode and her daughter stays in the town to be near her mother. The daughter picks up where her mother left off and begins to unlock the secrets behind her mother’s dreams.

Coming from Germany to Canada, Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences Sleep. This is the feature-film debut of director Michael Venus, who co-wrote the film with Thomas Friedrich, also making his feature-film debut. Sleep begins with a tangle of different mysteries. The filmmakers take their time in unravelling these mysteries, building the tension and constant sense of dread throughout the film. It begins as the mother’s story, but when she is hospitalized the focus quickly shifts to the daughter. Despite that protagonist shift, it is still largely the mother’s story. Over time we slowly learn the answers behind the mother’s strange dreams and what brought her to the hotel in the remote village filled with tragedy.

Throughout Sleep, the idea of dreams and having trouble separating reality from what’s inside your head is a common theme. It’s a great way to make the audience second guess if what they are seeing is real while also including some nightmarish yet visually stunning scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the plot seems to move a bit too slowly. This is likely at least in part due to a few subplots that are never fully explored. There are at least two subplots that are introduced later in the film that are never explained further nor do they reach any kind of resolution. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the primary plot, but it will likely leave at least a few viewers with lingering questions.

Each of the performances in Sleep are quite haunting. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, Requiem) plays the mother, Marlene. The most powerful aspect of Hüller’s portrayal of Marlene is her physical performance. During Marlene’s nightmare and mental episode, her body goes rigid and her eyes are clearly in another world. Hüller delivers a performance that is truly disturbing. Gro Swantje Kohlhof (Tatort, Ever After) plays Marlene’s daughter, Mona. It’s almost immediately established that Mona is more the parental figure than Marlene is. Kohlhof perfectly conveys that maternal instinct and Mona’s capability when it comes to taking care of business. August Schmölzer (Schindler’s List, Downfall) plays Otto, the owner of the hotel mother and daughter visit. Otto is a character who outwardly seems warm and helpful, but there is something sinister to him that makes it clear he can’t be trusted. Schmölzer does an amazing job of delivering that duality in his performance.

Aside from the interesting story, Sleep is simply beautiful to look at. A large part of that has to do with the setting, especially the hotel. It is large and industrial looking, but it’s barren. Through the entire film, the only guests we see are Marlene and then Mona. The architecture of the hotel and the rest of the town just feels slightly off throughout the entire film. It makes it incredibly eerie, especially with the dense surrounding forest. The cinematography also helps to create that unsettling feel along with sequences of nightmarish, psychedelic imagery and coloring. It all ties together to be both gorgeous and haunting.

Sleep is a waking nightmare that slowly unravels the mystery at its center. This is another Fantasia International Film Festival entry that delivers a powerful debut for first-time writers and directors. Venus and Friedrich clearly know how to tell a good mystery with supernatural elements. There are times when the film seems to stall, but it doesn’t take away from the film’s overall achievement. Sleep also includes strong performances and gorgeous visuals, making it an atmospheric, suspenseful film.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Fantasia Review: Clapboard Jungle

Fantasia International Film Festival has always been a haven for indie genre filmmakers. It makes sense that their 2020 lineup would include a documentary about the journey of an indie filmmaker. Clapboard Jungle: Survivng the Independent Film Business is the result of five years’ work from filmmaker Justin McConnell (Broken Mile, Lifechanger). 

McConnell’s documentary takes audiences on his five-year journey as he attempts to get multiple film projects made and distributed. His projects include multiple feature-length films and a few short films made between projects. We get to watch as McConnell utilizes various methods to attempt to get his films produced, into the film festival circuit, and distributed. He supplements his own journey with interviews with individuals involved in different aspects of filmmaking such as producers, writers, directors, casting directors, and more. There are even big name filmmakers, including Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead), alongside indie darlings including Jenn Wexler (The Ranger) and Gigi Saul Guerrero (Culture Shock). 

Clapboard Jungle is effective in authentically conveying what happens when trying to make an indie genre film. Often times the filmmaking process can seem glamorous and straight-forward. McConnell shows that is not the case. He explains how the filmmaking process from concept to distribution is long, complex, and many films never see the light of day. Clapboard Jungle also makes it clear that there is no one correct way to make a film. While the audience primarily sees the methods McConnell employs to make his films, we also see multiple interviews with different filmmakers at varying levels of their careers and tips for making a film. It quickly becomes clear that each one of them has different advice.

While much of the documentary focuses on McConnell’s journey, he also acknowledges the journeys of others. Specifically, McConnell points out that he is a white male in a predominantly white male industry. He points out that, despite how difficult his film journey has been over this five-year period, women and people of color have a much more difficult time getting their films made. This may be a small part of the overall narrative, but it really forces one to think just how much women and POC have to do to make a film after watching the trials and tribulations McConnell experiences.

Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business is essential viewing not just for filmmakers, but for anyone involved in the film industry. The documentary is sometimes brutally honest, but also provides helpful tips for budding filmmakers who are trying to make a film. Based on this and McConnell’s other recent film, Lifechanger (which I was able to review last year), he is clearly very passionate about what he does and skilled at it. Normally I give a number rating for films, but I don’t like to do that for documentaries as they are often very personal to those who made the film. Instead I will say this is a must-watch for anyone interested in the indie filmmaking process.

Impetigore

After a deadly encounter with a stranger, Maya decides to learn more about the parents she never knew. With her best friend Dini in tow, they travel to a small village where Maya might be from. They soon regret ever trying to uncover the secrets of Maya’s past.

Beloved Indonesian writer and director, Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves, Folklore) brings audiences around the world new terror. Impetigore wastes no time in bringing suspense to the screen. The protagonist, Maya, has a frightening encounter at work that leaves her shaken and questions her past. She was raised by her aunt and knows almost nothing about her parents or where she comes from. From there, the tension continues to build as the two friends arrive at the remote village and get a chilly reception from the locals. Anwar takes his time with the plot, allowing the audience to connect with the two female leads. He also takes his time in revealing shocking revelation after shocking revelation leading to the explosive finale. There are so many secrets to unpack throughout the film and each one manages to be more surprising than the last. This focus on building suspense and minor scares over bigger jump scares and horror leads to an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience. It also results in a film that stands apart from others like it and an ending you won’t see coming.

One of the things I love about watching foreign horror films, and Impetigore specifically, is learning about different cultures. Every culture has its own legends, customs, and ghosts. Impetigore offers a fascinating glimpse into the customs of a rural Indonesian village and their unique view of curses. While the legends are incredibly interesting, the integration of traditional Indonesian puppetry is not only stunning, but it adds another captivating cultural aspect. As an anthropology major, I greatly appreciate when a horror film can be eerie as well as a learning experience.

Impetigore has a wonderful cast who all deliver haunting performances. Tara Basro (A Copy of My Mind, Gundala) stars as Maya. Basro gives off an air of innocence, which works well for her character. She is unaware of her past and deals with new information as best she can throughout her hellish journey. Marissa Anita (Gundala, Folklore) plays Maya’s best friend, Dini. Dini is a much more outspoken character and Anita perfectly shows how she is Maya’s protector and does what she can to be a supportive friend. Ario Bayu (Java Heat, Soekarno) plays the village elder, Ki Saptadi. Bayu’s portrayal of this character is memorable because he comes across as a very calm, stately man, but he also manages to convey a sinister nature in his eyes. Honorable mention goes to Christine Hakim (Eat Pray Love, The Golden Cane Warrior) and Asmara Abigail (Gundala, Satan’s Slaves). Together these two women offer two differing points of view of the superstitions of the small village.

Every scene in Impetigore is gorgeous and atmospheric. The film opens in the big city, but as soon as Maya and Dini travel to the village it’s as if they have been transported to another time. The set and production design are truly stunning to behold from the smaller huts to the grand house Maya’s parents once owned. The puppetry scenes are also quite beautiful. It is a traditional Indonesian form of puppetry that utilizes light to project the shadows of the puppets onto a screen. The use of light and dark, like with the puppets, is a common theme throughout Impetigore. In the village there is no electricity, so many of the night scenes are lit by candlelight. It creates an unsettling ambiance while also making each scene captivating. On top of that, there is even a surprising amount of disturbing and realistic practical effects that result in rather shocking scenes.

Impetigore is a bewitching Indonesian horror film that drips with atmosphere and spins an intricate web of magic and deception. Joko Anwar proves yet again that he is a talented storyteller. His handle on Indonesian folklore allows the rest of the world to be exposed to his frightening tales. The performances from the entire cast are delightful, especially Basro’s portrayal of Maya. Through the slow unravelling of the mystery of Maya’s family, audiences will not be able to look away at the truly fantastic visuals. And, because I unfortunately still have to do this for some people, I will warn audiences that the film is subtitled. Yet I hope that won’t deter anyone from feasting upon all Impetigore has to offer.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

The Rental

To celebrate a successful business deal, two couples decide to rent a secluded vacation home on the coast for the weekend. What begins as a pleasant weekend quickly spirals out of control. They have to deal with relationship issues, a creepy racist property manager, and someone might be watching them.

The Rental is the feature film debut for director Dave Franco, who is primarily known for his acting. Franco also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Swanberg (V/H/S, Easy). This thriller manages to maneuver through many different plot points, while still being cohesive. As soon as the two couples arrive at the vacation rental, there is immediate tension as the property manager is outed for his racist behavior. Things only escalate from there after a drug-fueled night of partying leads to many bad choices. The true catalyst for the horrifying events that follow is the discovery of a hidden camera in the rental. In this modern age when most people are staying in vacation rentals rather than hotels and technology is so advanced, the fear that the owner or someone else could have camera installed to watch you is a very real fear. This discovery is what sparks the shift from a purely suspenseful film to a chilling slasher. Individually, these varying plot points are relatively simple, but when put together they create a more complicated story. It doesn’t necessarily always add up and I wish some aspects could be explored more in-depth, but it manages to generate more than a few white-knuckle moments. It almost ends up feeling like the film is split in half, the first part being a new-age thriller and the second half being a classic slasher.

Packed with indie favorites, The Rental has several recognizable faces and memorable performances. Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Argo) stars as Mina. Mina is the total package; she’s smart, beautiful, kind, and incredibly strong. Vand makes it clear Mina will always stand up for herself by confronting the racist property manager when others want to avoid conflict. Dan Stevens (The Guest, Apostle) plays Mina’s business partner, Charlie. Stevens does a great job of making Charlie seem like a great guy on the surface, but the more we learn about him, the more he seems a bit shady. Jeremy Allen White (Shameless, Bad Turn Worse) plays Josh, Mina’s boyfriend and Charlie’s brother. Josh has had a rough past, but White makes him a very endearing character. He clearly adores Mina and is trying his best to be a better man. Finally we have Alison Brie (GLOW, Horse Girl) as Charlie’s wife, Michelle. Brie plays Michelle in a way that makes her the most sympathetic character in the entire film. Together, all four actors play off of each other very well, creating different chemistries and building tensions in turn.

This film relies heavily on the set and other smaller details to visually enhance the plot. The location of The Rental is a truly stunning home with lots of big windows overlooking the seaside cliffs and the ocean beyond. Surrounded by the beach and ocean on one side, then nothing but green forest on the others, this home is definitely isolated. Even before the tiny hidden cameras are discovered, there is a sense of paranoia and being watched that comes from being in a secluded place with those huge windows open for all to see in. One detail that isn’t shown much in the film, but still leaves quite an impression, is a mask worn by the killer. It is an eerie, almost featureless human face so it takes a moment to realize you’re looking at a mask. All these visual aspects add to the general sense of paranoia and being watched.

The Rental is a manic, paranoid thriller turned slasher and a strong directorial debut for Franco. It does almost feel like watching two films in one, but that doesn’t take away from the overall success. Franco and Swanberg show a mastery of bringing together various threads to gradually build the suspense and keep the audience at the edge of their seat. The entire cast carries the film beautifully, but it’s Vand that delivers the most memorable performance. The stunning vacation rental offers a gorgeous setting that quickly turns ominous. The Rental is sure to make audiences wary of where they spend their next vacation.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Sea Fever

A research scientist in Ireland charters a spot on a fishing boat to study any abnormalities in the boat’s catch. The ship is suddenly marooned in the middle of the ocean. The small group discovers some kind of giant aquatic creature has taken hold of the boat and it has unleashed deadly parasites that threaten the lives of the entire crew.

Writer and director Neasa Hardiman (Jessica Jones, Happy Valley) delivers a disturbing new aquatic horror film with Sea Fever. The film quickly establishes Siobhán, the scientist, as a loner amongst her peers who is dedicated to her analytical research. Her boss is making her work out in the field to come out of her shell. Despite their better judgement, the boat crew take her on because they need the money. When a huge, frightening sea creature grabs hold of their ship it leaves them marooned in the middle of the ocean. Even worse, the creature has unleashed a deadly parasite. The tension between the members of the crew and the terror from not knowing who is infected not only create a frightening film, but the subject is also very topical with the state of the world right now. An added suspenseful aspect is a battle between those who know the importance of quarantine and those who think only of themselves and desperately want to get home. It is something we are currently living, but done on a smaller scale and with a parasite that almost certainly means death for those who are infected. It’s truly terrifying, although there are a few minor aspects of the plot that leave bigger unanswered questions.

One aspect of Sea Fever that I find truly fascinating and well done is the juxtaposition of science and superstition. Siobhán is a very calculated individual and sticks to the facts. Her marine biology background proves to be very helpful in figuring out what is happening when they encounter the mysterious creature and the parasites. On the other hand, most of the ship’s crew is incredibly superstitious. We learn this very quickly when they discover Siobhán has red hair, which is apparently considered bad luck. While she is trying to use her scientific rationale to help them all survive, the crew is constantly combatting her because of their superstitious beliefs. Seeing these two opposing sides adds a human danger to what’s happening while also showing how turning you back on science only makes things far worse.

The performances are all absolutely fantastic. It’s difficult to narrow down the standouts from Sea Fever because they all truly give it their all. Hermione Corfield (Rust Creek, Slaughterhouse Rulez) stars as Siobhán. Corfield initially plays Siobhán very socially awkward, but the more time she spends with the crew the more she seems to be in her element. This is especially noticeable as she takes charge when using her knowledge to try to save the crew. Dougray Scott (Ever After, Mission: Impossible II) plays the ship’s captain, Gerard. Gerard is arguably the most superstitious person on the ship. Scott conveys this quite well as Gerard becomes increasingly hostile the more dire the situation gets. Ardalan Esmaili (Greyzone, Domino) plays the ship’s engineer, Omid. Esmaili is fantastic in this role, acting as a sort of intermediary. As an engineer, Omid clearly has a very scientific mind and sees Siobhán’s point of view, but because he has worked on the boat for so long, he also understands the superstitions. Other brilliant performances come from Jack Hickey (Mary Shelley) as Johnny, Olwen Fouéré (Mandy) as Ciara, Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman) as Freya, and Elie Bouakaze in his debut as Sudi.

Horror fans will not be disappointed by the visuals in Sea Fever. The setting alone sets the tone for the film. The fishing boat seems to be in need of repair and helps create a claustrophobic feeling once they’re out on the open ocean. The creature design is also quite stunning. It is huge, ominous, and also beautiful with its bioluminescence. What makes the creature even more frightening is that we never see the entire creature. It lurks in the dark depths where we can’t see it, so we can only guess its true size and what it looks like. It’s very clever because the audience gets to see the creepy glowing CGI tentacles, but the rest is left to the imagination. There is also some disgusting goo and smaller creepy crawly parasites. These are created by a combination of CGI and practical effects. The practically created wounds are also beautifully grotesque.

Sea Fever is a topical aquatic horror film that combines the frights of a creature feature with the suspense of an outbreak film. Hardiman absolutely kills it with this film, delivering as much heightened tension as she does fear of what’s lurking below in the deep waters. The battle between science and superstition throughout the film makes it especially fascinating and relevant. On top of the great plot are brilliant performances from the entire cast and a smartly designed menacing deep sea creature. This is a film that will make people afraid of what is waiting for them in the ocean’s depths.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

1BR

Sarah moves to LA to start a new life and pursue her dreams. After staying in a crummy hotel, she finally finds what might be her dream apartment. At first it seems like the perfect place to live, clean, great location, friendly neighbors, but Sarah soon learns that nothing is quite as it seems.

Making his feature film debut, writer and director David Marmor brings to life what might be my actual worst nightmare with 1BR. From the very first scene, Marmor establishes a feeling of unease as the camera tracks along, showing an apartment courtyard filled with friendly, waving neighbors. Anyone who has ever lived in a city apartment knows that neighbors are never this friendly and rarely even make eye contact, especially knowing this film takes place in LA. When Sarah first tours the apartment, the open house has dozens of other hopefuls vying for the apartment, so when she is the chosen one, she is elated. That joy isn’t long lived as she is kept awake night after night by loud noises in the walls and has increasingly strange encounters with her neighbors. Then the true motives of the neighbors are revealed. Sarah is forced to decide if she wants to become part of this community, allowing every moment of her life to be monitored and controlled, or find a way to escape.

The idea of 1BR works very well for me, primarily because I would rather eat glass than interact with my neighbors. It’s interesting because it points out how segregated we have all become and how there is no true sense of community these days, at least not in the city. Yet it also shows how cult-like communities can be when left to their own devices. The film ends up being very suspenseful and manages to keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next. Again, this worked for my because it played to my own person anxieties, but it might not be for everyone. The tension is banking on viewers being more antisocial, so individuals who are more social creatures might not find it quite as suspenseful. Without giving too much away, 1BR also does one thing common in horror films that always comes across as a somewhat cheap attempt and shock. As soon as we see Sarah in her hotel room, we know one minor plot point will inevitably happen and it is something I wish horror films would steer away from.

This film has a surprisingly large cast. Each actor is great in their respective roles, but three of them truly stand out. Nicole Brydon Bloom (The Affair, Law & Order: SVU) takes on the leading role of Sarah. This is Bloom’s first starring role in a feature film and she definitely delivers. Sarah is a very kind, vulnerable person, but Bloom also makes it clear to the audience that she has an inner strength and conviction because of her past. Taylor Nichols (Jurassic Park III, The Boiler Room) plays the apartment manager, Jerry. Jerry has all the attributes we have come to expect of a cult leader-type character. Nichols makes Jerry charming, even-tempered, and authoritative. He speaks in a soothing voice and he is able to get people to do his bidding. Then there is Giles Matthey (Jobs, True Blood) as Sarah’s neighbor, Brian. Matthey stands out in this role because at first, Brian seems like the sweet, cute guy in the building. Once the truth of what the community is comes to light, Matthey does a sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality transformation and is quite disturbing.

Visually, 1BR is highly successful at creating tension with space and creating minor details for the audience to notice. Even before we learn the sinister truth of the apartment building, the unease of the place is quickly established. The building almost becomes a character itself as we learn its secrets. It also takes on a claustrophobic quality, especially when in the courtyard at the center of the building, surrounded by the eyes of other tenets and no clear means of escape. There are also tons of little details within the apartment itself, as well as on the other residents, that elude to the truth of what’s happening.

1BR is the embodiment of my worst nightmare: being forced to be part of a community with my neighbors. In an increasingly anti-social world, this is likely a cause of anxiety for many. Marmor exacerbates this feeling with his film, while also pointing out how we have become far too separated from those around us in a selfish world. It likely will not strike the same chord with all viewers, but it still creates a suspenseful, unsettling story with strong performances. There is definitely a moral to this story, but whether it’s to be more or less involved with your community will likely vary quite a bit from person to person.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Beach House

A college-age couple drives to a family beach house for a romantic getaway. Shortly after their arrival, they discover an older couple are already guests at the house. The two couples decide to spend an evening together, but the weekend soon turns into a nightmare of catastrophic proportions as the world around them crumbles.

The Beach House is an incredibly strong feature-film debut for writer and director Jeffrey A. Brown. The film begins when the young couple, Emily and Randall, go to Randall’s family beach house. Brown takes his time with the plot, establishing these two characters and their relationship before introducing the older couple already staying in the house, Mitch and Jane. From there the plot takes on a slow burn approach to build the sense of tension and dread. It begins with awkward moments between the two couples over dinner, then escalates as the situation reaches an apocalyptic level. Brown also excels at leaving breadcrumbs throughout the beginning of the film to hint at what’s to come. The first half of the film does move at a slower pace, which may alienate some audience members, but it is vital to the way Brown builds the plot. It’s a very effective method of storytelling because it not only generates a feeling of unease right from the beginning, but it also allows Brown to essentially switch horror subgenres halfway through the film from a taut thriller to full-blown body horror. The film has an edge-of-your seat story that delivers surprise after surprise.

The cast of The Beach House, for the most part, is top notch. Liana Liberato (If I Stay, Light as a Feather) stars as Emily. At first, Emily comes across as a very soft and reserved young woman. Yet Liberato quickly asserts that Emily is also highly intelligent and capable of great things. Noah Le Gros (Depraved, A Score to Settle) plays Emily’s boyfriend, Randall. As first, Le Gros’s performance feels a bit stiff. Yet, as he gets his stride, he really becomes Randall and delivers a strong portrayal, especially in the second half of the film. Jake Weber (Dawn of the Dead, Meet Joe Black) plays Mitch, half of the couple who is already staying at the beach house. Weber is very skilled at presenting a calm persona, even in the face of terrifying circumstances. This is true even in his portrayal of Mitch, although his sense of calm actually adds to the fear and tension in this film. Maryann Nagel makes her debut as Mitch’s wife, Jane. Nagel is fantastic in this role starting out as a sweet, sickly woman and then transforming into something much more frightening. Each actor helps to bring this story to life and they have great on-screen chemistry, but it is Liberato who audiences will likely remember most from this film.

On top of having a fascinating plot and great performances, The Beach House is simply stunning to look at. Despite the many houses around the one Emily and Randall visit, there are virtually no other human beings around. This and the slightly monochromatic color palette helps to give the film a sense of emptiness. Then, during the first night, the filmmakers bring vibrant colors and lights that almost make it feel as though you’ve been transported to another planet. The colors and sets are enhanced by gorgeous cinematography, which also often heightens the suspense of the film. Then there is the horror-fan’s bread and butter, practical effects. There is some marvelous goo, fabricated monstrosities, and terrifying creature design. It is all incredibly well done and adds to the disturbing climax of the film.

The Beach House seamlessly transitions between horror subgenres and creates a gruesome story that feels hauntingly real. Brown takes a concept rooted in reality and throws it into a horror context making the audience ask the question, “What if?” The opening of the film might be a bit slow and off-putting for some horror fans, but the payoff at the end is well worth it. The strong performances from the entire cast, especially Liberato, ground the film by making us care about the fate of each character. Not only will viewers get a compelling tale with interesting characters, but they also get a visually stunning film that brings shock and awe.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10