In Haunt

Grimmfest– Manchester’s international festival of horror and cult film – took on the  uncertainty of 2020 in an innovative way: the whole festival migrated online! Between October 7th and 11th, Grimmfest, the ‘Online Edition’, presented over twenty feature films and over twenty genre shorts spread across three showcases. At a time when cinemas and the filmmaking industry are at such great risk from all sides, with cinema closures and production stalemates, it is no less than an absolute thrill to support independent filmmakers and festivals. All of this excitement began long before a single film was played, so naturally it was uphill from here for Grimmfest 2020.

Here at Haunt Manchester, our writer Rebecca Wynne-Walsh went along 'virtually' and gives her overview below... 

Grimmfest Online Edition

What was immediately striking about Grimmfest Online Edition 2020, was the variety of content on offer! On top of the diverse and high-quality array of features and shorts screened, there were also several online events, Q&As, seminars and panel discussions, some tied to individual films, others addressing the state of the contemporary horror industry. While it is of course disappointing that this year’s ‘attendees’ were not able to indulge in in-person ‘meet and greets’ after screenings, the festival went to great lengths to ensure interactive filmmaker question and answer sessions after each screening.

This of course begs the question, how did the online platform work and indeed, did it work out? The majority of the content on offer was streamed ‘live’ at set times, then made available to ticketholders for up to forty-eight hours after the original screening. This method worked a (trick or) treat! The online layout was both easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing thus creating a highly accessible festival. This year’s offering was indeed perhaps the most accessible iteration of the festival in quite some time, given the fact that all the content was enjoyed from the comfort of one’s own home, though comfort may be a poor choice of word in the context of the films that were shown! The sheer array of cinematic thrills on offer was as wide ranging as it was entertaining... and of course terrifying!

Every year Grimmfest also offers a deviously delicious array of horror shorts, and the Online Edition was no exception. This year’s selection of shorts presented viewers with jump scares, insidious tension, poignant uses of practical effects, clever incorporation of CGI and impressively high production values. Among the most enthralling and indeed frightening of the shorts screened this year were Antique (Morten Haslerud, 2020), Witches in the Window (Nikki Born, 2020), The Chrysalis (Michael Squid, 2020), and Dead End (Jack Shillingford, 2020); films which explore everything from possessed furniture to childhood traumas, dementia and of course that genre classic... werewolves! The shorts selections were certainly not to be missed this, or any other, year.

Film Stills

Among other full-feature highlights of the festival were the offerings of Hispanic horror, which had a respectable presence at the Online Edition. José Luis Montesinos’ Ropes (aka Prey, 2019) was a hit at the genre-essential Sitges Festival and has now graced the Grimmfest stage in all of its Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1981) meets Hush (Mike Flanagan, 2016) glory. The film follows quadriplegic young woman Elena (Paula del Río) as she is trapped alone in her dilapidated family home, fighting for survival at the mercy of a rabid dog. Another iteration of Hispanic horror was brought to the table by Alejandro Ibáñez, son of the iconic, prolific horror director, Narciso Ibañez Serrador. Ibáñez’ Urubú (2019 - film poster pictured below) was produced as a tribute to his father’s genre classic ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Would You Kill a Child?, 1976) and follows two parents and their daughter on a photography trip through a remote Amazonian forest, the situation spirals out of control, moving into graphic violence and sheer panic as the daughter goes missing, her parents believing her to be captured by locals. The use of animal horror in Ropes and eco-horror in Urubú exemplify these recurrent festival themes also seen in such films as Alone (John Hyams, 2020), Fear of the Woods (Titus Paar, 2020) and Unearth (John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, 2020).

Urubu

A popular approach taken by some of the films on show was a sense of nostalgia for retro-horror fare in the style of the genre’s golden era of the 1970s and 1980s. Erik Bloomquist’s rollercoaster 1980s set horror acid trip Ten Minutes to Midnight (2020) follows an aging, late night rock and roll radio DJ Amy Marlowe (played by Caroline Williams in a fun intertextual nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as she is bitten by a bat on her way into work. Her night soon devolves into an apparently chaotic psychological break. Pure flamboyance and indulgence aside, Ten Minutes to Midnight presents a lucid commentary on sexism and ageism in the entertainment industry. This is in-keeping with what must be commended as a powerfully diverse roster of films in this year’s festival. Given the current global socio-political context of mass cultural upheaval such polyvocality is not only appreciated but essential. Grimmfest gives space to the representation – both diegetically and extra-diegetically – of a wide range of characters, performers and creators with diverse nationalities, disabilities, genders, age ranges, races, and sexualities.

Another highlight of the features on offer was Death Ranch (Charlie Steeds, 2020) from the director’s own Dark Temple Motion Pictures production company, a specialist in ‘new retro’ horror for genre-buffs feeling nostalgic for a by-gone era of indie US slasher fare. Death Ranch offers an ode to canonical texts such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre infused with the contemporary ideological leanings and racial discourse of such modern classics as Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) and Antebellum (Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, 2020). Death Ranch follows three African-American siblings as they return to their abandoned family ranch in the deep US South where they encounter a cannibalistic sect of the Ku Klux Klan, and a glut of gore and racial revenge ensues.

Death Ranch

Revenge was, as the name suggests, also a key theme in Revenge Ride (Melanie Aitkenhead, 2020 - film poster pictured below), a horror-thriller following a vigilante female motorcycle gang who traverse the country enacting vicious vengeance on rapists whose crime has gone unpunished. This highlights the massive, and massively appreciated, trend of female-centred horror at this year’s festival. Another example of this is the murder-mystery cum lesbian kidnapping thriller cum bigfoot movie, Monstrous (Bruce Wemple, 2020), starring Anna Shields, who also wrote it! The strong female representation at this year’s festival peaked with the Female Horror Icons panel which showcased a lively discussion between stars of the genre whose careers have been both on-camera and behind it. The heavy female-focus of the Online Edition is furthermore incredibly timely given recent movements such as #MeToo and the release earlier this year of Mark Cousins’ landmark Women Make Film (a fourteen-hour long documentary highlighting the work of almost 200 female filmmakers).

The Female Horror Icons panel was certainly a big highlight of the non-film content at this year’s festival. The virtual Zoom event featured female actors, writers and directors such as Krista Allen, Caroline Williams, Tiffany Shepis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Kelli Maroney and Natasha Halevi. These icons, known to Grimmfest fans for films such as Revenge Ride, The Final Destination and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, engaged in a lively discussion on topics from their personal heroes, to characters they’d love to play, to ageism and sexism both within the horror genre and filmmaking industry. Another impressive event was the interactive question and answer session with this year’s recipient of the Grimmfest Lifetime Achievement Award, the ‘master of horror’ himself, Mick Garris.

Revenge Ride

In another exciting development, the Grimmfest Online Edition also saw the release of the brand new Grimmfest Comic. The comic’s first ever edition was made available for free to festival pass holders, with over twenty-four pages of exclusive artwork and stories!

Whilst most of the festival content such as the shorts showcases, many features and the comic were available to all pass-holders, there was also some ‘exclusive’ pass-holder content on offer as well. Two outstanding films on offer here were the Russian feature Stray (Olga Gorodetskaya, 2019) and the American documentary, The Horror Crowd (Ruben Pla, 2020). The superb timing, high production values and tense subtlety of Stray established it rather rapidly as one of the bone-tinglingly terrifying films of the whole festival. A pensive rumination on grief that gets under the skin of the audience as it explores the true horror that is the loss of a child and the difficulties of ‘letting go’. Stray is also peppered with a handful of well-timed jump-scares that truly pack a punch. Despite the genre’s penchant for excess, Gorodetskaya’s film is a masterclass in less, more often than not, being more in order to create a fear and dread that last long after the credits have rolled.

The documentary-style choice of The Horror Crowd then provided further food for thought, especially when thinking about the implications of the horror genre.  The film follows horror filmmaker and performer Ruben Pla as he interviews some of the biggest names in the contemporary American horror industry. Pla speaks to a massive array of performers and creators including (but most certainly not limited to) Lin Shaye, Greg Grunberg, Russell Mulcahy, Oren Peli, Adam Robitel and Clare Kramer. The Horror Crowd is not just a film about filmmakers, it is also a film by, about and for horror fans. It provides a highly personal insight into what makes the horror ‘crowd’ tick, so to speak. The documentary is divided into multiple thematic sections looking at what inspires contemporary horror creators such as being the ‘weird kid’, relationships with parents, women in horror and race relations. Some of the most intriguing discussions included in the documentary centred on the disparity felt between working in the studio system versus independent horror filmmaking and the sense of true comradery within the horror community. Fittingly, given the Grimmfest exhibition platform, most filmmakers interviewed cited the importance of genre film festivals in promoting filmmakers both young and established as they seek funding, distribution and general career progression. The documentary highlights that which most horror fans are well aware. That despite the gore, violence and fear on which the genre is based, the surrounding community of filmmakers and fans are among the warmest and most welcoming around. As Grimmfest aptly puts it, ‘when it comes to horror, we really are all in it together’, and that horror fans from far and wide could unite virtually to enjoy the array of offerings at Grimmfest Online Edition 2020 highlights its great and unifying success.

By Rebecca Wynne-Walsh

Images provided by Grimmfest

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