Arrow Video FrightFest, the United Kingdom’s biggest horror and fantasy film festival, returned to the big screen with in-person attendance at London’s Cineworld Leicester Square from Thursday, August 26th through Monday, August 30th, 2021 and then presented an online edition from September 1st through 5th. Here is the first in a two-part series of reviews from the festival.

Auteur Neill Blomkamp takes a step away from the satirical science fiction for which he is best known (such as District 9 [2009] and Elysium [2013]) for a delve into sci-fi horror with Demonic (Canada, 2021), which sees Carly (Carly Pope) reluctantly agree to participate in a science experiment to communicate with her comatose mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt). Carly had not spoken to her mother in years — not since Angela burned down a care facility, resulting in the death of many people. Seeing this simulation project as a chance to tell her mother off, Carly instead unlocks the door to a diabolical entity that is looking for a route back into the waking world. Never heeding the wise “leave it alone” advice of longtime friend Martin (Chris William Martin), Carly instead throws herself further into the titular proceedings, leading to a frenetic third act. Blomkamp effectively creates both an eerie real-world atmosphere and creepy, glitchy visuals for the time spent in the computer-based mind-melding world. Demonic is an unsettling, tense entry into the subgenre of possession horror, reaching for some brass rings that it doesn’t quite touch but delivering a fine share of hand-wringing set pieces. Fine performances from its cast members, which also include Terry Chen and Michael J. Rogers as the project managers, bolster the proceedings. 

Knocking (Sweden, 2021)

The highpoint of Knocking (Knackningar) is star Cecilia Milocco’s enthralling performance as Molly, a woman recently released from a psychiatric ward after the death of her girlfriend. Alone in her new apartment, Molly hears knocking and sobbing but can’t place from where it is coming. Her neighbors say that they can’t hear anything, and she begins taking ever more dangerous risks to prove that what she is hearing is real and not some figment of her imagination destined to send her back to a psychiatric facility. Director Frida Kempff starts off with a slow burn approach and cranks up the tension in the third act, and cinematographer Hannes Krantz gets so extreme on some close-ups of Molly that they have a near–fish-eye-lens feel to them. Emma Broström’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Johan Theorin, doesn’t offer a lot new in the departments of suspicious neighbors, potential gaslighting, nor a woman’s possible descent into madness, and the film leaves much open to ambiguity. Still, it’s a slick, well-helmed ride, and Milocco nails subtleties as well as huge emotional displays with her all-in performance — reason enough to seek out this thriller.

The Exorcism of Carmen Farias (Mexico, 2021)

The Exorcism of Carmen Farias (El Exorcismo de Carmen Farías) serves up possession horror in a gothic setting. Although it is light on new ideas and contains a fair share of tropes already overly familiar to scare-fare aficionados, it drips eldritch atmosphere with highly detailed set designs — director Rodrigo Fiallega’s previous work in digital effects and keen eye for arresting visuals shows — and boasts some fine white-knuckler material. Reporter Carmen (Camila Sodi) has just surprisingly inherited her grandmother’s old house. She and husband Julián (Juan Pablo Castañeda) move in temporarily, with much on Carmen’s mind as she grieves over both the recent death of her mother and a miscarriage. Frustrated with not getting enough feature articles, Carmen hopes that looking into her family’s past at the house might make for a great story. Her reporter’s sense should have tipped her off, though, that the religious icons placed around sealed windows and the wax stuck in the front door’s keyhole meant that entering the abode was a bad idea. Generational terrors come to roost when Carmen uncovers some old videotapes that show what her grandmother got up to, and she seeks out the help of a now-blind priest, Father Juan Navarro (Juan Carlos Colombo), who worked closely with her grandmother. The film’s title delivers on what it promises, and Sodi is engaging as the lead character. The Exorcism of Carmen Farias goes for an eerie mood rather than grandstanding with such possession horror chestnuts as gore and vomit, making it a solid watch. 

Slapface (United States, 2021)

Director Jeremiah Kipp (Black Wake [2018]; Theresa & Allison [2019]) turns in an absolutely terrific effort with Slapface, the feature-length expansion of his 2018 short film of the same name. Lucas (August Maturo) is a troubled adolescent loner grieving the loss of his mother. He is under the care of his older brother Tom (Mike Manning), who has a drinking problem and who has been warned by Sheriff John Thurston (Dan Hedaya) that Lucas is close to being in trouble with the law. Lucas is bullied by twins Donna (Bianca D’Ambrosio) and Rose (Chiara D’Ambrosio) and their friend Moriah (Mirabelle Lee), the latter of whom also acts like a quasi-girlfriend when the sisters aren’t around. After burying a photo of his mother on which he dripped blood after cutting himself on abandoned property which local legend says houses a witch named Virago (Lukas Hassel), Lucas enters the building there on a dare from the three girls and comes face to face with Virago, who has a great creature design that looks like a much more frightening and menacing version of the classic hook-nosed witches from such comic books as Gold Key’s Little Lulu. Nobody else sees her besides Lucas — unless, that is, the witch decides to kill them to protect Lucas. As the bond between the boy and the supernatural entity grows stronger, Virago’s actions put those around Lucas in danger while making it seem like the boy could be the cause of the peril. Kipp, who also penned the screenplay, serves up fine drama combined with gripping coming-of-age horror, with an emphasis on bullying and familial abuse. The cast members all give terrific performances, with Maturo outstanding as the confused, hurting Lucas and Libe Barer providing superb support as Tom’s new girlfriend Anna, who seems to care more about what Lucas gets up to than his brother.

The Advent Calendar (France/Belgium, 2021)

Writer/director Patrick Rideremont’s The Advent Calendar (Le calendrier) recalls such variations on “The Monkey’s Paw” and cursed object horror as the classic The Twilight Zone episode “Nick of Time” (1960) and Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009), but delivers plenty of originality on the theme, too. Eva (Eugénie Derouand) is a paraplegic former dancer who still keeps active by swimming when not working at an insurance sales office with a bad-mouthing boss. Her friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) returns to Paris for a quick trip back to Germany, giving Eva the titular gift, which she stole from a Christmas market. The calendar — a terrific-looking, ornate prop — comes with explicit instructions to follow certain rules “or I  (a demonic beast) will kill you.” Eva finds that the objects in the box, from candy to toys, affect her life positively and cause harm at first to those who do her wrong, but then to those close to her — not even her beloved dog is safe. When Eva realizes the advent calendar can possibly help her walk again, the film goes into all-out “Be careful what you wish for” horror territory. Ridremont cranks up the tension and delivers the diabolical goods, aided wonderfully by Derouand’s arresting lead performance and a fine supporting cast.

Demonic, Knocking, The Exorcism of Carmen Farias, Slapface, and The Advent Calendar screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2021.

Signature Entertainment’s Demonic opened FrightFest on August 26th and is at U.K. cinemas and on Premium Digital from August 27th and on Blu-ray & DVD from October 25th.

FrightFest Presents and Signature Entertainment present Knocking on Digital Platforms from November 15th.