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Fantasia Festival: Don’t Text Back!

Directed by Mariel Sharp and Kaye Adelaide, Don’t Text Back! is a highly satisfying queer horror-comedy short film about toxic masculinity and the literal horrors of dating.

Kelly (Danielle LaPointe) is a 30-something woman who is seeking the help of an energy healer Jaren (Nancy Webb). She’s in dire straits as the necklace she wears is strangling her and cannot be removed. It tightens every time the guy she’s seeing texts her and only lets up when she texts him back. Jaren helps Kelly uncover that her heteronormative relationship with a men’s right group activist is toxic on many levels. But Kelly needs to discover something about herself first before she can be free.

Gratifying and funny, Don’t Text Back! is a must see for any woman who has felt the effects of toxic masculinity… so pretty much everyone. And I definitely want to see much much more from this filmmaking duo!

Don’t Text Back! had its Canadian premiere at the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.

La Llorona

A motherland that weeps for her sacrificed, lost, drowned, dead children.

Director Jayro Bustamante offers a compelling and terrifying twist on the popular legend of La Llorona. The original myth tells the story of a woman who, as punishment for drowning her children, must wander the world as a ghost. The living are haunted by her cries. (La Llorona is translated into English as The Crier). In Bustamante’s film, simply titled La Llorona, the ghost was a victim of the brutal Guatemalan Civil War and has come back to haunt Enrique (Julio Diaz), the former general turned dictator.

Enrique, his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) all live a cushy life within the walls of their mansion. Their world is turned upside down when Enrique is put on trial and convicted for his role in the 1980s genocide of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans. Now the Mayans who lost family members during the worst days of the Guatemalan Civil War want justice. After Enrique’s bizarre and dangerous behavior, elicited by the cries of a mysterious woman, drives away their staff, they hire a new maid, an Ixil woman named Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy). The infiltration has begun and Enrique is about to face his reckoning.

“Creating a new version of La Llorona is the perfect opportunity to try to change those stigmas that are etched into our cultural inheritance. At the same time, the psychological suspense that goes along with the character allows me to recount Guatemala’s recent, dark history to a national audience that is generally more interested in purely commercial entertainment movies.”

Director Jayro Bustamante

A Shudder original film, La Llorona is a fascinating drama that tells the story of Guatemala’s deep injustices through magical realism. The true horror of La Llorona is income inequality and how it drives those on both sides to do drastic things.  The basis of which comes from deep-seated racism against indigenous groups and rampant corruption and greed. In the film, the dictator (inspired by real life Guatemalan president Efrain Rios Montt) and his family depend on the extension of his impunity and his conviction shakes up their world and they can’t quite process the ire of the victims of the civil war.

Anyone who enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and want to explore about the inequalities between white Latino and indigenous communities, will want to check this one out. I much prefer La Llorona‘s approach as it demonstrates an uprising of the disenfranchised rather than keeping things status quo. 

The climax of La Llorona was a bit too predictable for my tastes. However, the film offers plenty of atmosphere, context and haunting visual imagery that will keep viewers enthralled throughout.

“Guatemala is one of the richest and most diverse countries in Central America, but levels of inequality remain high. The historical exclusion of indigenous people, especially women, means they lack access to education, health services, political participation and land.”

Oxfam America

La Llorona is available to watch on Shudder.

Please note that this film is not to be confused with The Curse of La Llorona (2019) or La Llorona (2020).

Host

Review by Ally Russell

What happens if your virtual meeting room is haunted?

Host is a new Shudder original horror film about six friends who decide to hold a virtual séance using the popular video communication platform Zoom. As the group’s evening of entertainment quickly unravels into a night of terror, viewers are immersed in a found footage-style horror movie that shows the worst-case scenario when technology and the supernatural converge on a computer screen.

Filmed in the homes of the actors and directed from afar, Host was conceived of by director Rob Savage (Dawn of the Deaf, 2016), who collaborated with his producing-partner Jed Shepherd (Salt, award-winning short, 2018), producer Douglas Cox (Dawn of the Deaf, 2016), and writer Gem Hurley (Tin Foil) to craft the story and script. In his director’s statement, Savage credited his enthusiasm for found footage horror movies, specifically Unfriended (2014), for inspiring Host, but it was Savage’s recent Zoom prank that propelled the idea of the film that’s now streaming on Shudder.

Host is haunting, and it doesn’t waste time telling its scary story. There is no trivial dialogue or banter to introduce the characters. There is no music to lull you into the story. There are no intro credits because, after all, you’re just watching a free 40-minute Zoom session. Savage quickly familiarizes viewers with the group’s relationship dynamics and drama, and he grasps our short attention spans with speedy pacing and plenty of obligatory jump scares…and he does it in less than an hour.

The friends, played by Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louis Webb, Caroline Ward, Radina Drandova, and Edward Linard, have outstanding chemistry, which bolsters the film’s authenticity. For viewers, the experience is a bit uncanny because it feels like you’re zoom-bombing a private moment between friends. Savage attributes the harmony of the cast to their long standing friendships beyond the “set” of the film.

In addition to acting, it is worth noting that the actors operated their own cameras and assisted with their own lighting and practical effects. While all of the actors were stellar in their own roles, we must give Emma Louis Webb a special round of applause, because her genuine fear and panic are palpable on screen, and she does a lot of the emotional lifting toward the end of the film.

Host is an outstanding horror film because it doesn’t allow us to escape the terror of our current reality. This film is set in the present amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and every facet of the film—from the plot to the production—reminds us of that alarming fact. Why are these friends having a Zoom call instead of meeting up at someone’s house or a pub? Because they and we are in the middle of a pandemic. Why are they risking their spiritual and physically safety by holding a séance via Zoom even though, as their spiritual guide warns, the group will be “slightly less protected than they might have been”? Because of the pandemic. Why can’t they leave their homes to escape their frightening situations? Because pandemic. When two of the characters do come face-to-face, they greet each other by bumping elbows. Pandemic, pandemic, pandemic.

It’s difficult to go into detail about the plot without spoiling the fun of the film. So, for a fully immersive—and potentially haunting—experience, grab your laptop and just press play!

Host is best described as a fraught fifty-seven-minute thrill ride with Paranormal Activity (2007) meets Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) vibes.

 

Ally Russell occasionally creates content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, SCARY OUT THERE, and she hosts the FlashFrights podcast on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. Ally lives in Boston and works at an independent children’s publisher. She enjoys talking about cryptids in her free time. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

The Beach House

“Life is so fragile.”

What begins as a romantic getaway quickly evolves into an unimaginable nightmare. Emily (Liana Liberato) and her boyfriend Randall (Noah Le Gros) head to his family’s beach house for some much needed alone time. Their relationship is on the rocks and while Emily hopes this trip will help mend the wounds of the past Randall is still as aloof as ever. Their reunion is interrupted by two new faces at the beach house. Older couple Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryanne Nagel), longtime friends of Randall’s estranged dad, just happen to be staying at the house as well. Randall decides they’ll all stay at the house together and Emily is not given a choice in the matter. The couples bond over dinner, admiring the natural phenomenon happening outside their door. But something isn’t quite right. The fog, the glowing dust and the mysterious invertebrates take over, infecting the foursome. Will Emily and Randall be able to escape the seaside town before the phenomena consumes them for good?

The Beach House is an infectious genre film that will linger long after the credits have rolled. In his directorial debut, Jeffrey A. Brown offers indie horror that feels both classic and brand new. This is a quiet, atmospheric film with a slow build up of tension that will reward patient viewers.

Liana Liberato is the anchor of the film and Emily is a compelling and complex female character. She’s a biology student who offers deep philosophical observations on what it means for organisms to survive in extreme environments, unaware that she’s about to face the same thing. Randall is absolutely useless and only holds Emily back. I relished in the patheticness of his character was and kept rooting for Emily to dump the dead weight that was their relationship.

Horror films are completely out of my wheelhouse so I can’t speak as to whether this entry is worthy of its genre. I did find it comparable to other films I enjoyed including Sea Fever, Outbreak and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And being from Massachusetts, I appreciated the fact that this was shot on location in North Truro, Cape Cod.

“I wanted to take what I felt was missing from horror movies and inject that into the script and production plan. My concerns about the onset of an environmental apocalypse provided the vehicle for the horror, while an interest in evolutionary science became the microbial fuel of the story.”

Jeffrey A. Brown

The Beach House is available to watch on Shudder.

Starfish

“People are going to die anyways. Their stories don’t have to.”

Aubrey

If you could turn your grief into a horror film, what would it look like? A.T. White’s new film Starfish transforms the mourning process into a cosmic and post-apocalyptic drama that is as quiet and spare as it is fraught with tension and mystery.

After the sudden death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson), Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) travels back to her hometown for the funeral. The small town seems even smaller one day when Aubrey wakes up in Grace’s apartment to discover she’s the only one left. Extra-terrestrial creatures had invaded and killed everyone in town and possibly everyone else on earth. It isn’t until she comes face-to-face with one of the deadly creatures that she hears another human voice by way of a walkie talkie. Before Grace passed away, she uncovered a series of mysterious transmissions by which the creatures transported themselves to earth. Through a series of mixtapes she created a way to save Aubrey and save the world. The voices through the walkie talkie help Aubrey but eventually she must face the barren landscape and escape the creatures on her own. 

Starfish was written, directed, edited, produced and composed by A.T. (Al) White. This film is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s more of a mood than it is a cohesive story. White plays with different mediums and one scene is even told through animation. We’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is reality or Aubrey’s dissociation as a result of her grief. I love how the film plays with our perceptions, distorts the story and both confuses and intrigues us at every turn. One beautiful shot projects an imagined scene on the ceiling. Another scene takes Aubrey out of her reality and onto a movie set where she sees a version of herself talking to a director and surrounded by a film crew. Very meta. The time setting is left ambiguous but there are some clues in the technology used including an old TV set, the FM/AM radio that receives the mysterious transmissions, a rotary phone, cassette tapes, etc.

Overall the film is quite intimate. We never stray far from Aubrey as she guides us through her world. The star Virginia Gardner is up to the task and delivers a beautiful and haunting performance. 

I interpreted the film as a metaphor for grief and mourning. When someone you love dies, it feels like they’ve abandoned you and you’re left to fend for yourself. I know I felt this way when my father passed. What they leave behind, in the case of Starfish it’s the mixtapes Grace leaves Aubrey, helps us get through the pain and the days to come. I could identify with the themes of loneliness and abandonment. 

As someone who doesn’t watch horror, I found this one to be manageable. There was enough to frighten me but not too much to overwhelm. It’s a film both horror enthusiasts and avoiders can appreciate.

Starfish is available on digital VOD through iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, FandangoNow and other platforms in select territories. The film is dedicated to Sayako Grace Robinson who passed away in 2014 and all profits the director makes from the film are to be donated to cancer research.

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