THE CHAMBER **** UK 2016 Dir: Ben Parker. 88 mins

An intense feature debut from Ben Parker, in which veteran Captain Johannes Kuhnke leads his ageing submarine “The Aurora” on a secretive retrieval mission at the bottom of the Yellow Sea. As the nature of their mission becomes clear, a misguided detonation damages the sub, spins it upside down, trapping the crew in a grim situation where rescue will be 36 hours at best, communications are down and their top ship may well have already been boarded by hostile North Koreans.
This claustrophobic exercise in submarine crisis cinema owes an obvious debt to Tony Scott’s CRIMSON TIDE, but triumphs as an economical, sometimes sweat-inducing thriller in its own right. The escalating perils are impressively executed, the final act is particularly taut and most of the cast rise to the challenge of the restricted backdrop. Evocative, suitably tense score by Manic Street Preachers guitarist / vocalist James Dean Bradfield.

MERCY ** USA 2016 Dir: Chris Sparling. 90 mins

A disappointing feature from writer-director Chris Sparling, who wrote the outstanding BURIED, the effective ATM and the impressive found-footage horror THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE. This Netflix production centres on a pair of half-brothers gathering around their ailing matriarch at their family home. The downbeat reunion raises questions about the dying woman’s substantial inheritance but family bickering takes a backseat when a group of masked strangers hold everyone hostage, their motives unclear save for a prominently displayed, fiery message that reads, simply, “Mercy”. An uninvolving riff on the over-saturated home-invasion sub-genre, this loses audience engagement early on thanks to dull protagonists and bland performances, largely neutering any tension the slow-moving hostage scenario may have created.

FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET *** South Africa 2016 Dir: Alastair Orr. 90 mins

Shot in South Africa, this is an all-too generic attempt at an American-style horror film, though it does generate a genuinely eerie ambience for much of its duration. The reliable Sharni Vinson is among the gang behind an ambitious Cape Town diamond heist, where the daughter of a wealthy distributor is kidnapped and prepped for ransom. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that they have been unfortunate enough to abduct a girl who’s possessed by a soul-eating demon on a mission to walk the Earth. “You should let me go…it’ll be better for all of you…” she accurately warns. As the characters are terrorised by monstrous versions of dead loved ones and priests are crucified, the movie offers some pleasing, retro-styled gruesome make ups and effective chills, though it descends into routine boo-scares and narrative repetition.

PET **** USA / Spain 2016 Dir: Carles Torrens. 90 mins

Dominic Monaghan is terrific in this intense, unpredictable psychological horror flick that subverts expectations at a crucial narrative stage and never takes the conventional route. Largely a two-hander, it starts out in familiar but involving ONE HOUR PHOTO territory, anchored by Monaghan’s credible portrayal of a sad, vulnerable yet potentially dangerous social misfit. Channelling Anthony Perkins, his fixation on an unobtainable young woman (Ksenia Solo) leads to an extreme act of objectification and entrapment. Flirting with the tropes of the 21st century post-9/11 American torture movie cycle, PET cannily manipulates the audience’s empathy for both Monaghan’s low-paid animal shelter employee and Solo’s down-trodden waitress, with layered performances from both dominating the screen. Unafraid to be unpleasant and brutal, it sustains the incendiary dynamic between the two disparate leads and offers a vivid insight into one of the most memorable serial killers of recent genre cinema. Jeremy (THE LAZARUS EFFECT) Slater’s blackly comic script expertly juggles the tonal shifts, and the denouement is suitably sour and disturbing.

WHITE COFFIN ***** Argentina 2016 Dir: Daniel de la Vega. 75 mins

The bleak mantra of this balls-to-the-wall, relentlessly paced occult-horror extension of DUEL is reflected by one character’s climactic observation that “Sometimes it’s better to be dead”. Co-written by emergent horror auteurs Adrian Garcia Bogliano and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano (HERE COMES THE DEVIL), it is bookended by a deceptively lovely giallo-like theme in the Morricone tradition, and it takes no prisoners. On a fretful road trip with her young daughter in the midst of a custody battle, lone mother Julieta Cardinali gets a flat tyre on a remote stretch of road and, following a truck-stop abduction, is  plunged into a harrowing eight-hour battle to rescue her kid from ritual sacrifice. Its unforgiving tone reinforced by the use of a fleeting clip from the most disturbing scene in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, this movie doesn’t waste a moment of its stripped down running time: one piece of expositional information is tattooed on a severed head! Infused with a simmering dread from the very first scene, it randomly unleashes buzz-saw bisections and offers a particularly bold and taboo-busting take on the sadistic “games” of the SAW movies. The nightmarish climax is as downbeat as they come, reinforcing the parallels to THE WICKER MAN with a final sacrifice involving the eponymous “White Coffin”.

Reviews by Steven West

Frightfest 2016: Day One reviews are here.

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