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Review: 'Screamfest 2020' A Mixed Bag

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Oct 8, 2020
'The Brain that Wouldn't Die'
'The Brain that Wouldn't Die'  

LA's long-running horror film festival "Screamfest LA" returns amidst the global pandemic with a drive-in alternative to their usual theatrical week-long celebration of all things spooky.

With ten new features films, dozens of short films, and a slew of classics like "Halloween 1 & 2, 4 & 5, (not to mention the 35th anniversary of "Friday the 13th Part 5"), there's plenty to see this year — all from the comfort of your own car.

We all know what happens to Michael Myers in his early incarnations, but what about the new offerings Screamfest has in store? Below, I'll review a slew of features that will be slaying their way to drive-in screens starting October 8th and running through October 15th.

"An Ideal Host"

This comedy/horror/sci-fi gem from Australia is certainly a low-budget affair, but the riotous script and terrific actors in "An Ideal Host" make you forget any budget issues.

The film revolves around a young couple, Liz (Kristen Wiig lookalike Nadia Collins) and Jackson (Evan Williams), who are set to host "the perfect dinner party" for a handful of their closest friends. The night is to not only show off their new home in the middle of nowhere in the small town they all grew up in but also to have Jackson propose "spontaneously" during dessert.

A wrench is thrown into the mix when Liz's frenemy Daisy (Naomi Brockwell) is invited and gets drunk, ruining (hilariously) the evening. But that's not all. There seems to be something wrong with one of their other friends, and that will spin the night into a gruesome ride of body horror and dead friends. Yet, it's all done with a huge dose of humor, clever banter, and fun.

Brockwell as the uninvited ex-best friend has a lot of the snarky lines that she delivers with perfection. She is matched by the sometimes-dim Mara (Mary Soudi), who is more interested in hooking up or incessantly trying to talk about her recent trip to Bali than worrying about the uncomfortable dynamics that have been exposed.

This is the first film from writer Tyler Jacob Jones and director Robert Woods, and it's a terrific industry calling card. Not only have they assembled a game and uproarious cast, but they also easily dash between the funny and the grisly.

This was my favorite of the films I saw, and definitely one to seek out.


"Caveat"

My second favorite is the stylish and unsettling "Caveat." An import from England, this feels like the recent "Relic" with a dash of Ari Aster thrown in.

The film stars Jonathan French as Isaac, a man suffering from partial memory loss, who is hired by Brett (Ben Caplan), an acquaintance of his, to look after a disturbed young woman named Olga (Leila Sykes), who lives in a dilapidated house on an isolated island. If that's not enough to turn him off from the job, once there Brett insists he wears a leather harness attached to a thick chain that is itself attached to a large hook in the basement. This will ensure he doesn't go into the woman's room, as this would upset her.

Having no money, and having some recent issues in his own life, he accepts the job, which will only last a week. As he wanders the run-down house, he engages a bit with Olga, who lets him know her mother was crazy and is missing. Her father isn't around anymore, either, so she is alone in the house and psychologically not altogether there.

Things seem to be okay until the house seems to become unsettled and a mysterious rabbit toy starts beating its little drum randomly. Or is it random? That damn rabbit eventually leads Isaac to discoveries he probably wishes he hadn't uncovered, and a fight for his life to get out of the house in one piece, as all of the secrets cave in around him.

Writer/director Damian McCarthy's feature film debut is incredibly well shot, and the production design by Damian Draven is impeccably realized. While I wanted a bit more information about that dang rabbit, the image is incredibly disturbing, and it makes for a classic horror movie icon. (In the same way Sam from "Trick 'r Treat" became a cult favorite, the rabbit might be next.)

The cast is terrific, and all three leads sell the film by taking the material seriously and imbuing their characters with depth and purpose.

It's not a terrifying film, but it will undoubtedly get under your skin, and certain scenes will live in your memory after the credits roll.


"Books of Blood"

The opening night selection was the horror anthology "Books of Blood," a Hulu original based on the work of Clive Barker. Sort of a "Creepshow" for the new millennia, this film — consisting of four(ish) short stories - is the slickest of the Screamfest offerings, but only moderately successful in its execution.

In the first story, a psychologically scarred girl named Jenna (Britt Robertson) runs away from her mother, who wants to put her in a mental institution. She eventually finds herself at an inn, where she uncovers some odd goings-on by the caretakers.

The second story involves Simon (Rafi Gavron), a medium who confronts a professor (Anna Friel), convincing her he can speak to her dead child.

The third and fourth stories intertwine the above stories with a few new characters in an attempt to tie them together.

The most successful story is the initial one about Jenna. Her character is interesting enough, and the mystery of the house is intriguing. The problem is that the stories are so short that you never feel like you get to know the characters, and the plots never feel fully developed. The result is stories that feel partially told, and ultimately wind up disappointing.

"Books of Blood" is an easy way to pass the time, but it doesn't stick with you after you close its sticky pages.


"Initiation"
 
Harkening back to the teen slashers of the '90s, "Initiation" has some good ideas, but they all get thrown away for a not-so-surprising twist that just raises more questions.
 
The thriller opens at a frat house on Homecoming weekend, where the sororities and fraternities are partying hard and acting like the appropriately obnoxious teens/young adults they are. But as things wind down, responsible Ellery (Lindsay LeVanchy) goes to collect her drunk friend Kylie (Isabella Gomez), only to find her in a locked room with arrogant and often shirtless Beau (Gattlin Griffith) and her own brother Wes (Froy Guiterrez).
 
Things seem off, but not completely so, so she grabs her friend. The next morning, however, Kylie feels like she might have been assaulted. Not only that, Wes has commented on a picture of her on Instagram with a simple exclamation point. This apparently is key to some gross game the guys are playing, and Wes immediately has it removed.
 
But soon after, one of the kids is gruesomely murdered by a person in a mirror mask, and all hell breaks loose. As questions pile up and everyone seems like a suspect, the body count increases until there is a showdown in the student affairs building. 
 
Written and directed by John Berardo, the film looks slick and brings back that fun stalking serial killer genre that hasn't been so evident as of late. The problem is that the script seems like it has been chopped up so much there are things missing. The "exclamation point" game appears to be a big plot point (it's even part of the poster's title art) but aside from it being mentioned as an "eww," there's not much more to it. Additionally, the film is called "Initiation," but there's no initiation involved. 
 
Once the killer is revealed, you then start asking more questions about the how and why. It's one of those films you walk away from thinking "Okaaaaay," and wondering if there were another 20 minutes that somehow got cut out of the screening.
 
The plus is that the cast is very good. In the first 10 minutes, there was so much shallowness to the characters and the "party-acting" I was fearful. But once the inciting incident occurs, Berardo dials it back and allows the characters to be real people. And for the gays, there is a veiled LGBTQ subplot and a lot of gratuitous butt shots of Griffith. (Nice to see it happening to a guy instead of a girl.)
 
To be fair, it's an entertaining movie, but it won't be a classic addition to a genre that could use a rebirth. Berardo has a career in front of him if only he can get his scripts to be airtight.


"Sanzaru"

The downbeat drama "Sanzaru" will most likely test the patience of horror fans, despite the good cast and overall mood it casts on its audience.

The film stars Aina Dumlao as a live-in home health aide, Evelyn, who cares for Dena (Jayne Taini), a dementia patient who spends most of her time in bed. Evelyn's brother Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz) lives with them, but it's clear he'd rather be home with his mother. Meanwhile, Dena's son Clem (Justin Arnold) lives in the trailer on the property, and her daughter Susan (Tomorrow Shea) seems like she doesn't want to be bothered.

The movie meanders through these characters lives as Evelyn starts to notice some unsettling things about the house. Voices can be heard through the house's intercom system, music plays at all hours, and there is a frequent beeping caused by a fire alarm that isn't there. Meanwhile, mail arrives in the post-office box for a Mr. Sanzaru, who no one knows, and there's a locked room in the garage that, through a small opening, reveals a box of videotapes inside.

Amos starts to have dizzy spells and is accused of stealing jewelry from Dena, and Clem spends his nights cutting himself, all while Dena is having episodes where she says things that don't make sense or also cuts herself.

Frankly, Evelyn has her hands full, and it just keeps getting worse.

The film is well-made. The acting by all (especially Dumlao and Taini) is excellent. The sound design (Michael Capuano), production design (Caitlin Ward), cinematography (Mark Khalife), and directing by Xia Magnus are all on point, it's the story (also by Magnus) that lacks.

I was never sure what the plot of the movie actually was, and when we finally understand the secret room in the garage, it sort of takes the movie in another direction, but then back again to something supernatural. You never really get attached to the characters, and without a driving force, it's hard to know what you're waiting or watching for. It's also very slow-moving and not scary, so horror fans might feel a bit disappointed by this entry.

It's made by talented folks, it just needed a tighter story to keep our attention.


"Sweet River"

Another well-made Aussie film, this dour, depressing supernatural crime drama has its moments, but ultimately it feels confused.

Hanna (Lisa Kay) returns to her small hometown and rents a house so she can try to get over the loss of her son. He was one of four kids that were murdered by a local, although all of the other children's bodies were found except his. As a result, Hanna's grief remains as open as a wound.

A number of things happen in this very slow drama, much involving creepy dead children that roam the sugar cane fields at night. But what do they want, and why is Hanna seemingly a target for them?

There's a lot of talk about "red lights," and what happened to the kids, and why they stopped looking for Hanna's son, but we're never sure exactly what Hanna is trying to accomplish. She's always listening to recordings to help her meditate on feeling better and finding happiness, but then she goes back to the rental and spreads newspaper clippings about the murders all over the floor. Then she starts wandering around the cane fields and the house of the murderer, who hanged himself shortly after the killings.

It also opens with a man having almost hit something with his truck and then getting sucked into the cane fields by what can only be described as, a monster, or at least something really, really strong. This is never explored, and if it's supposed to be the creepy kids, how'd they get so strong and why are they mad at anyone but the guy who killed them?

The acting is fine, and the film looks pretty good, but this is a very slow burn with no scares and no real payoff in the end. It's a drama all the way, so this is another entry that feels like it won't thrill fans looking for some actual screams at Screamfest.


"A Ghost Waits"

This super low-budget indie is mainly a comedy about Jack (MacLeod Andrews), who cleans houses before new tenants move in and stumbles upon a ghost hiding out in the home he's currently working in.

That ghost is Muriel (Natalie Walker), and she's not so good at haunting. Well, she has been in the past, as many tenants move out swiftly, but Jack is a loner with no friends and no life. This job is pretty much all he has, so when Muriel tries to scare him out of the house he fights back. Soon enough, they become buddies and, eventually, Jack falls for her.

There are a lot of clever ideas here that seem to reflect an indie update on "Beetlejuice." Andrews, who also wrote the script, is a likable lead, and his script tries to dance between absurd comedy and true heartfelt emotion, but it doesn't always gel. In fact, the ending is a bit of an awkward downer that I didn't find romantic or even appropriate. It would have been more daring for the two leads to learn more from each other so they could move on to wherever they needed to move on to next. Instead, it's weirdly selfish and squirmy.

Technically, it's as low-budget as you can imagine. The sound quality is spotty, and the make-up on our ghostly characters is so evident you can practically chip their faces through the screen.

I get what Andrews and first-time director Adam Stovall were going for, but it felt like it needed a bigger budget to make the humor completely work. More importantly, it needed an ending that respected its characters a little more.


The SCREAMFEST Film Festival runs October 5-15, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. Drive-in venues vary. For more information and tickets visit screamfestla.com

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.


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