A couple in a troubled marriage find themselves held hostage in a high-tech vacation rental home in the thriller Held (U.S.A., 2020). Emma Barrett (Jill Awbrey, who also wrote the screenplay) arrives at the isolated property before her husband Henry (Bart Johnson), after a taxi ride that borders on the uncomfortable. The couple plans a weekend together to celebrate their ninth anniversary, but they wake up on their first morning there to find that a stranger has implanted electronic devices behind their ears that dole out punishment if his orders are not carried out exactly. They find that there is no escape, and the intrusions and weapons get deadlier as the time wears on. Awbrey’s taut screenplay plays with familiar tropes such as a mysterious, unseen villain with an electronically disguised voice and a masked home invader but puts fresh, chilling spins on them, resulting in a film that delivers discomfiting tension involving gender politics. Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, who previously teamed together for The Gallows (U.S.A., 2015) and The Gallows Act II (U.S.A., 2019) build a claustrophobic atmosphere fraught with suspense, and Awbrey and Johnson have terrific chemistry, making their characters’ marital strife and fenced-in fears feel grounded and realistic.
Canadian feature The Sinners (AKA The Color Rose in the United States, 2020) serves up teen horror of several different stripes. Grace Carver (Kaitlyn Bernard) heads up a clique at her highly religious high school in her highly religious town, and her father (Tahmoh Penniket) just happens to be a prominent fundamentalist pastor. When fellow member Aubrey Miller (Brenna Llewellyn) outs the girls, dubbed The Seven Deadly Sins by their classmates, to the pastor, Grace plots revenge by having the rest of the group kidnap and scare Aubrey into obedience. Naturally, the plan goes awry, and when Aubrey is reported as missing — narration during the earliest moments of the film tells viewers that she wound up at the bottom of a lake — the other members begin being killed off, one by one. Director Courtney Paige, who cowrote the screenplay with Erin Hazelhurst and Madison Smith, does a super job at the helm, crafting a great-looking film led by a solid cast, with Bernard giving a deliciously wicked turn as the group — they don’t like being referred to as a cult — leader. The screenplay has a hard time holding up too many elements during the third act, including the sudden appearance of two smart-ass big city cops harassing the local sheriff and deputy and a head-scratcher reveal. The girls’ deaths also feel rushed, with no real set-ups showing them being kidnapped or sometimes even killed. With elements of mean-girls movies, slasher fare, occult horror, and other teen-terror tropes, The Sinners occasionally tries to juggle perhaps a bit too much, but it ultimately does so with panache and flair.
Combining folk horror, cult horror, and Lovecraftian elements, Sacrifice (U.K., 2020) is a dread-filled offering that sees Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and his pregnant wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) travel from New York to the small Norwegian island of his birth when he inherits the family home. Local sheriff Renate (Barbara Crampton) comes calling and tells Isaac that his father was murdered, whereas he grew up believing that his father had abandoned him and his mother. Renate also happens to be one of the high-ranking members of a water-worshipping cult, and after Isaac takes part in one of the group’s ceremonies, he begins turning on Emma and telling her he never wants to leave the island. Codirectors Andy Collier and Toor Mian — Collier gets a story credit, while Mian receives both a story and screenwriting credit — follow up their debut feature Charismata (U.K., 2017) with this eerie effort, which boasts a fittingly oppressive tone. Crampton is dynamite as the sherriff/cult leader, including scenes where her smile obviously masks hidden knowledge or reveals terrifying truths. Stevens is also admirable as she gets the chance to stretch the most, and nails myriad emotions. Hughes and the sizeable supporting players all turn in fine performances. Sacrifice goes a little heavy on scares within dream sequences, but the chilling cult ritual scenes help make up for that.
Held, The Sinners, and Sacrifice screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest’s Digital Edition 2, which runs from 21st–25th October, 2020. The Sinners is scheduled for release TBC Q1 2021 from Signature Entertainment.