Written by Becky Darke

A gasp of raucous laughter and shock explodes the air as a little girl – probably racist, definitely cannibal – takes a cricket bat to the face and sails backwards through the air, while Harrold Bishop’s son from Neighbours rampages somewhere off-screen.

This is the kind of reaction and experience well known to attendees of FrightFest, and a glimpse of normality this year that suddenly had the half-dozen of us responsibly watching Two Heads Creek (2019) in a living room feel like we could almost be in one of the Leicester Square cinemas with hundreds of like-minded gore hounds, just like in The Before Times.

So 2020 was the year that FrightFest went virtual. The horror/genre film festival beloved by many for its sense of community and between-movie socialising was forced by these truly cursed times to adapt and offer something that could still scratch our itch for new flicks, while also maintaining some semblance of the vibe we’re used to. 

The pandemic has brought with it a few silver linings and new opportunities to take a step back and really think about the ways we do things. So did FrightFest rise to the challenge, or was it the horror show we didn’t actually want?

A lot of stuff worked. Firstly, the ticketing process was less painful than usual; a limited programme meant the cost of a weekend pass was down and without the usual panicked scramble for seats, the servers coped a lot better under the demand. Sadly missed were the pass-holder goodie bags, but at least the hangovers weren’t as killer and my wallet certainly took less of a hammering, far away from the temptations of the bar at The Imperial and the Arrow video stall in Cineworld. I’m not sure how many group chats I was in by the end of the weekend, but the ability to comment along with the films was a pleasant change; of course harder to do when the film was decent or subtitled but a welcome distraction to live-bitch along to the festival’s shoddier offerings. 

Anyone concerned that a virtual FrightFest was going to feel like an average watching-a-movie-on-your own-at-home experience only needed to hear that familiar crashing intro to the films to feel that excited chill. Anyone else have their sound turned up and then nearly blow their speakers when a new showing began? Retaining filmmaker interviews as part of the programme certainly gave it more of the festival experience, and the carbon footprint must have been greatly reduced. Plus the natural lag and lack of eye contact that comes from doing these things over video call masked some of the usual awkwardness that can come with on-stage interviews.

FrightFest virtual digital edition 2020 horror film festival review

For me, the overriding negative of virtual FrightFest was organisers’ decision to try forcing the ‘festival experience’ by making passholders choose between movies. Surely, the key benefit of a virtual film festival is near infinite capacity and the advantage of allowing people to miss nothing that they want to see. But apparently that’s what makes FrightFest, so rather than capitalise on this year’s unique circumstances, they enforced limited viewings. This was even more galling when decent movies were put up against each other – for example, the brilliant 12 Hour Shift (2020) and the explosive Triggered (2020) – while other sections of the programme were padded out with frankly terrible films. Programming a virtual festival in the middle of a pandemic must be difficult when distributors don’t want to risk their films being pirated, but then why not fill a single ‘screen’ with the good films that are available, so everyone can see them all? 

Programming struggles were likely behind another downside from this year’s festival, namely that there was no big film. Even thinking of last year’s offerings, we had blockbuster fare like Crawl (2019) and Ready or Not (2019), plus big names like Elijah Wood in Come To Daddy (2019) and Gary Oldman in Mary (2019). Unfortunately, 2020 saw nothing even close to that level.

But there were gems to be found. Highlights for me were the aforementioned Two Heads Creek and 12 Hour Shift, both successfully balancing brutal violence with varying levels of black comedy – perhaps the perfect representation for 2020; if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. Also well worth the watch were The Columnist (2019), Blinders (2020), and A Ghost Waits (2020) which had previously been shown at FrightFest Glasgow in March. You can find my full reviews for these films here on Zobo With a Shotgun.

There was a solid anthology in Dark Place (2019); five stories about aboriginal people of Australia, written and directed by Kodie Bedford, Perun Bonser, Rob Braslin, Liam Phillips and Bjorn Stewart. The film brought some refreshing perspectives and welcome naturalistic performances. ‘Scout’ is a story of revenge by women caught in a sex trafficking outfit and highlighting wider struggles of aboriginal people, plus it includes a surprise that had me applauding. ‘Foe’, is a creepy doppelgänger story of trauma and grief. ‘Vale Light’ is a witchy tale of wish fulfillment. ‘The Shore’ is a black and white vampire myth. And ‘Killer Native’ is a period, Evil Dead-style comedy shocker of fart gags and pus – good but an odd choice with which to end the anthology, considering the tone of the preceding four shorts.

Enhanced sci-fi horror movie 2020 from FrightFest film festival

FrightFest always does more than horror and it was great to see some decent sci-fi on offer. Enhanced (2019) is heavily influenced by properties like Heroes and the X-Men, with a hefty dose of Whedon (particularly Dollhouse and season 4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer) thrown in. Directed by James Mark and starring Alanna Bale, George Tchortov and Chris Mark, it’s got some solid action and effective low-key FX. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun and the characters are likeable, which is more than can be said for much of the programme this year.

I never go into films wanting to dislike them, especially not the first film at FrightFest, but goddamn There’s No Such Thing as Vampires (2020) was dire. There’s no such thing as convincing acting, there’s no such thing as decent dialogue, there’s no such thing as pacing, there’s no such thing as scares, there’s no such thing as on-screen chemistry, there’s no such thing as charm, there’s no such thing as show-don’t-tell, there’s no such thing as cinematography. There’s no such thing as a rewatch here.

Sadly for a film on FrightFest’s First Blood programme, Playhouse (2020) didn’t fare much better. Written and directed by brothers Fionn Watts and Toby Watts, and starring Willam Holstead as the archetypal try-hard dad to archetypical obnoxious teen, Grace Courtney. It looks good – the setting and cinematography show that the directors have something to offer – but from the description, I was hoping for something like the super-fun Here Comes Hell (2019) and unfortunately got a drearily slow, unconvincing plod-fest with stilted acting and zero chemistry between our leads.

The less said about Blink (2019), the better. 

The Swerve 2020 psychological horror movie from FrightFest 2020 film festival

I’ve heard great things about the closing film of the festival but I chose to give The Swerve (2018)… a swerve. I was so bummed out by last year’s finale A Good Woman Is Hard To Find (2018), and I didn’t want a repeat of such a downer ending to the weekend. What happened to finishing FrightFest with films like Tragedy Girls (2017) and Climax (2018)? If we could have used anything this year, it was to finish with a fun, cathartic bang.

I would have liked to have seen the festival’s short film offerings, but the organisers made another baffling decision by putting the showcases behind a pay-wall. When shorts are such an integral part of the horror festival circuit, and so much can be done in the genre with a short run-time and low budget, it was a huge shame to not show them before the features, as has been done before. Less an inconvenience for pass-holders, this move seemed more of a kick in the teeth to the creators.

However, two of my highlights of the weekend were free to everyone – even beyond the festival. Mike Muncer’s Evolution of Horror pub quiz was a perfect addition and entertaining kick-off to the festival, and Rosie Fletcher’s Den of Geek panel ‘Horror in Lockdown’ was a treat; it worked pretty much seamlessly online and featured stellar guests Rose Glass, Rob Savage, Anna Bogutskaya and Paul Tremblay.

So all in all, virtual FrightFest was a success and a fun weekend of films and friends in an otherwise horrific year. But a final word from me about the diversity of the biggest genre festival in the UK… 

12 Hour Shift female directed horror film 2020 Frightfest film festival

As I’ve said, my stand-out film of the festival was 12 Hour Shift from director Brea Grant, but movies from female filmmakers were once again in woefully short supply. It was also a very white, cis year, with film-makers and stars from different ethnicities, and/or from the LGBTQ+ community almost unseen. When the world seems to be against you, it can feel easy and comfortable to stick to what you know, but if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the time is now to make the changes that need to be made, and resting upon one’s laurels is a luxury that should no longer be taken for granted. I have no doubt that being more inclusive to the various groups that make up the horror community would have made the first virtual FrightFest even more successful, by making the decisions about what they’re supporting and the films chosen more satisfying. It may feel like a down-note to end on, but this is a drum we should continue to bang until we see a conspicuous upswing in representation behind a festival that caters to such a diverse community. As such a big influence in the industry, FrightFest should be leading the charge here, not feeling like they’re behind the times. 

Like my argument about the final films for future years – whether virtual or back to the glories of being able to be there in person surrounded by our horror friends – let’s aim for less narrow-focussed disappointment and more crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping, boundary-pushing euphoria.

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