Written by James Rodrigues
CW: Mentions of child abuse
Living through 2020, it sticks in the mind how difficult things have been. Being unable to see loved ones, missing the communal experiences we took for granted, the frustrating people who can’t simply wear a mask, it’ll be easy to recall the tribulations that came through the year. But when looking back, we should remember those who tried to make things a little bit easier for all. Among those is Mitch Harrod, the organiser of the relatively new Soho Horror Film Festival. One of the earliest adopters of virtual festivals, he’s managed to programme four different events since May, making these difficult and uncertain times just a bit brighter.
While the people couldn’t drink and chatter in each-others company, social media and modern technology has allowed us to replicate the experience as best as possible. The people were treated to a number of different events, each appropriate to the festive period. Opening this festival was a Christmas quiz, which notably caused a stir due to a risqué round, which resulted in Mitch getting warnings from Facebook. Following in that was the return of Andy Stewart & Mitch Bain, hosts of the Strong Language & Violent Scenes Podcast (if you haven’t yet checked out this hilarious podcast, it’s very much worth your time). They hosted a Zoom watch-along of 1989’s infamous feature, Elves, a film described as “unbelievably incompetent, but endlessly entertaining”.
Offering a nice change of pace were the Yuletide Ghost Readings, as guests appeared to read some of their favourite Holiday Horror stories. There was also a live commentary for Anna and The Apocalypse, which saw the arrival of the film’s cast and crew, but the event unfortunately had technical issues for some people. Closing things off was a Secret Santa event, which took place on Boxing Day to ensure all taking part received their presents, and one last Zoom watch-along to end on a high note.
Over December 19th and 20th, the feature films were split into blocks, and typically paired off with a short film or two. Ushering audiences in was Lower World, which follows a timid illustrator who must contend with her self-doubts, in this visually fantastic short full of imagination. It paves the way for the remainder of the block, which is indebted to Joe Dante’s 1984 classic, Gremlins. Ryan Patrick directs a love-letter to the film with Gremlins: Recall, a short beginning on the promise that Mogwai’s can be cured of their curses, so nobody has to worry about getting them wet, exposed to sunlight, or fed after midnight. Naturally, things go wrong, causing the familiar terror to be unleashed on a local diner. It’s brought alive with excellent puppetry and a knowing wit, but what hurts it is the lack of a third act.
Rounding off the first block was the first feature, Gremlins: A Puppet Story. Narrated by Chris Walas, Oscar-winning special-effects and make-up artist, he recounts memories from his time working on Gremlins. He offers images and videos from his personal collection, to chart the evolution of these iconic creatures, advanced through various kinds of puppets. At times, this feels more like a PowerPoint lecture, but that doesn’t detract from how fascinating it is to see what led to icons such as Stripe and Gizmo being brought to life. If you’re a fan of the festive classic, or interested in practical effects, this documentary is a must-see for you.
For the next block, we focus on pretenders dressed as Santa Claus, using the iconic red suit to be naughty. Appropriately, the first short is titled Naughty. A petty thief breaks into a house on Christmas Eve, dressed up in an effort to steal presents. His plans go awry when he’s caught by a little girl, and then things get REALLY interesting. A hilarious short which makes the most of its 7-minute runtime, and a far-cry from what comes next. The next short, Dona & Vixen, follows a teenager who still believes in Father Christmas, and finds her repressed memories come flooding back. It’s an extremely dark tale, and is never less than compelling to watch.
Following those shorts is Christmas Blood, an old-school slasher throwback from Norway. For 13 years, a killer has struck on Christmas Eve, his victims being unconnected. He was previously caught, but has escaped this year, ready to strike again. At the same time, a group of friends arrive to celebrate the holidays with debauchery, unaware of the terror they face. It’s an interesting mixture to watch the police hunting a dangerous killer, interspersed with a Black Christmas style plot of friends holed up together for Christmas, unaware they’re being stalked by a murderous figure. It certainly delivers on the blood, but it can also feel frustrating when the plot stalls for so long, and makes the runtime feel overlong.
Next up was the strongest block of the festival, containing my picks for the best short, and the best feature. First up was Landgraves, an atmospheric tale following a young journalist interviewing a heavy-metal duo, who are recording their first album since being imprisoned for murder. This short brings to mind Jonas Åkerlund’s powerful film, Lords of Chaos, but without the nasty gore. This isn’t a knock on the work of Jean-Francois LeBlanc, as this unsettling mood piece will keep you hooked as to its destination. After that was the secret film, which was revealed as Cody Callahan’s The Oak Room. Centring on the pairing of RJ Mitte and Peter Outerbridge, this feature sees a young man return home to face his troubled past, offering to settle an old debt by telling a story. It’s a film consisting of men sitting in rooms and telling stories, delivered in ways that grip your attention and leave you on edge. Of all the features Soho Horror has delivered this year, this easily ranks among their best.
Closing out Saturday was a more fun change of pace, which was perfectly suited for the late-night slot. A quick taster was The Predator Holiday Special, 2-minutes of stop-motion hilarity depicting the iconic creature going on a murderous rampage at the North Pole. As wild as it is to see Elves and Reindeers being gruesomely dispatched, this is just an appetiser for the manic nature of La Ultima Navidad Del Universo. If you’ve ever wanted to see jolly Saint Nick inhabiting a Mad Max film, prepare for your dreams to come true. Santa wants to fulfil his purpose and deliver a present to the last good kid on Earth, or the closest thing to it. To get there, he must cross a never-ending army of villains, armed with only a sack of toys, to be utilised in utterly horrifying ways. With the amount of grisly practical effects on-screen, you’ll believe in the destructive power of a Mr Potato Head. This would’ve blown the roof off in a packed theatre, but at home, it remains a bloody good bit of fun that leads into the feature film, Santa Jaws. An aspiring artist finds his comic-book creation has come to life, the titular Shark with supernatural powers related to Christmas. This begins a battle to protect his loved ones, in an entertaining picture that’s more than just a humorous title. There’s heart to this tale which has you caring for the family unit, in this harmless picture that wouldn’t feel out of place on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Sunday opened with a double-bill focused on the zombie threat, told from a more comedic perspective. No Thank You is a lean 7-minute short, set in an apartment in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. One roommate wants to take her chances in the wider world, but the other is at peace with spending her last moments on the couch. An amusing idea, which led quite well into this block’s feature film. Witness Infection follows two rival mob families, who happen to be placed in witness relocation in the same town. To try and keep the peace, one family’s son is tasked with marrying the other family’s daughter, but the zombie apocalypse may just scupper those plans. Mobster cliches being used on the backdrop of the dead walking is intriguing, but the execution sadly feels lacking. Humour is a subjective genre, but for me, the attempts missed the mark, falling back on fart gags far too often. When the action-centric parts make an appearance, it’s ironic there’s a lacking pulse. For what it’s worth, the effects work is rather good, especially with the gruesome design of these undead creatures.
Next up was an appropriate double-bill for the time of year, due to the wintery settings. Set in Alaska, 1992, Fear of the Woods follows a family venturing into the woods. Vernon Wells leads the proceedings, keeping the peace between his proud bear-hunting brother, and his animal-rights activist son. This light-hearted clash between family is rather familiar, but doesn’t last, as the trio find themselves facing a giant bear. It’s a gripping tale, and with a next chapter promised, consider me on-board for the story continuing. Paired up with it is a previous Soho Horror favourite, in the form of Charlie Steeds’ Winterskin. The film played at the first physical festival in 2018, and has yet to receive a UK release, but was brought back to fit this festival’s wintery/festive theme. When Billy Cavanagh is gunned down in the snow, he’s taken in by a kooky old lady named Agnes. What he doesn’t realise is the isolated log cabin may be under threat by a bloodthirsty creature without skin, intent on getting inside. The snow is regularly painted red, for this confined tale with a gruesome streak, resembling Misery with additional flayings. There’s a great idea central to this tale, but it can feel drawn out for the feature runtime.
Due to other issues, I was unable to view the penultimate block, which contained Thirst, a vampire film from Iceland, and Finnish short film, The Helsinki Mansplaining Massacre. The final film of the festival had no short films attached beforehand, due to it being made up entirely of short films. Closing out the proceedings was Deathcember, an anthology film made up of 26 stories from a variety of directors. With such an array of talent on-board, there’s the hoping each viewer will come away with a favourite among the many segments. I certainly came away with favourites, such as the haunting Milk and Cookies, the riotous All Sales Fatal, and the lavishly crafted The Hunchback of Burg Hayn. Unfortunately, I came away with the same issues as The ABC’s of Death, where I left disappointed with the majority of segments. I also want to single out one more short named Crappy Christmas: Operation Christmas Child. Animated through Claymation, this takes aim at paedophile clergymen through graphic scenes of child abuse. As somebody who double-billed A Serbian Film and Irreversible recently just for fun, I found this to be too mean-spirited and unpleasant to work. It’s a shame to end this segment on a down note, but the sour taste this short left overshadowed the film for me.
In the aftermath of this film, the festival’s Twitter account put out a formal apology, recognising how they should’ve been more transparent in warning people about the potentially triggering content. Nowadays, it’s all too easy for somebody to half-ass an apology online (see Ali Larter’s response to Leonard Roberts’ piece for Variety, about tensions on the set of Heroes.) When an apology is made by Mitch Harrod, you know it’s made with full sincerity, for the festival’s mantra is to be “as inclusive, welcoming, and open to all as possible”. They’ve strived to make a safe-space for horror fans to enjoy, at a time when we need to feel safer than ever before.If you’d like to support this festival, you can do so at the following link. It’s understandable that times are tough, but if you’re able to, please donate whatever you can. These fine people run independently, and have managed to provide free content to people FOUR times throughout 2020, so anything you can spare is most appreciated. In these tough times, Soho Horror has just strengthened its name brand through these generous events, and when things are safer, I’ll gladly make the journey to attend a physical event. Hopefully, I’ll see you fine people there for drinks, films, and fine conversations.