Festival Films of the Year

This year I have been lucky enough to cover a ton of film festivals. 2022 marked my first time covering Sundance, SXSW, Soho Horror, Brooklyn, and Celluloid Screams. In addition to these new festivals, I once more covered Glasgow, FrightFest, Grimmfest, Fantastic Fest, and Fantasia. Having attended so many festivals I have been utterly spoiled with movies, and creating a list of just ten has been near impossible. To level the playing field somewhat, I’ve honed in on films I caught at film festivals that have yet to be released in the UK.

10. Moon Garden

During my coverage at Grimmfest, I saw Moon Garden, a film which generated a surprising amount of unexpected tears. Directed by Ryan Stevens Harris, Moon Garden tells the story of one five-year-old girl, Emma (Haven Lee Harris), who after falling into a coma, awakens to a strange new place. Trapped inside her subconscious, Emma must journey through the weird, wonderful, and dangerous environment to make it back to her parents.

Watching Moon Garden is akin to being trapped inside a nightmare. The viewer has no control over the events that unfold and it’s uncomfortable to have to passively sit and watch all manner of horrors descend upon a small child. 

Moon Garden is an emotive, almost lyrical, work of fiction. This is a film drowning in its feelings and as such, it wallops the viewer with a powerful gut punch. The sort of movie that tissues were made for, Moon Garden will reduce audiences to tears. Whether it’s from the dark beauty of the visuals, the haunting chords of the score, or the real concepts and situations that it is exploring, Moon Garden will wrench the scab off of any unhealed emotional wounds. A cathartic viewing experience that will leave you yearning for a cuddle from loved ones, Moon Garden transcends film to become something extremely affecting.  

9. Mean Spirited

A favourite from both FrightFest and SoHo was Mean Spirited. Directed and co-written by Jeff Ryan, who also stars, Mean Spirited offers a new variation on the found-footage format. Taking on the guise of an episode of a Vlogger’s YouTube show, Mean Spirited joins The Amazing Andy (Will Madden). Andy is the host of the Internet show, Mean Spirited, a programme built around pranking people and generally just doing silly things. Once upon a time Andy had a co-host, Bryce (Jeff Ryan), but after he was discovered by Hollywood, Andy was left behind. In an attempt to rekindle their friendship, Andy and his crew are invited to join Bryce for a weekend away in his mountainside abode. However, upon arrival it becomes clear that Bryce isn’t quite himself anymore…

Rather than being a po-faced found footage entry, Mean Spirited likes to have fun. This isn’t the trauma-inducing kind of movie like The Blair Witch Project, but rather a film that allows the humour in. It’s a little bit like if the Jackass crew woke up in a horror film; the frights are there, but the group want to have fun regardless. The comedy is threaded in through the personalities and actions of some of the characters. Mean Spirited has an overwhelming light-hearted sense of fun. Even in its darker moments, which would mesh well with The Last Exorcism, there’s an appealing sense of awe. Whether there be good or bad things unfolding, the viewer can’t help but get drawn into the fray.

Helped by the updates to its found-footage visual style, Mean Spirited feels modern and youthful. As with Andy, the viewer gets to revert back to their teenage years when watching the film. Watching horror films as a teen was always fun and Mean Spirited captures that same essence. A wild ride through the pitfalls of friendship, Mean Spirited is genre cinema at its most accessible and entertaining. 

8. Influencer

I’ve been a fan of Kurtis David Harder’s for a while. Whether he produces, writes or directs a project, I will always seek out his latest venture. So when I spied Influencer on the line-up at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, it was an instant must-see. As expected, it was another stellar project one very different to his previous offering, Spiral. Whereas Spiral was a dark and brooding affair, in contrast, Influencer is a much sunnier and brighter piece, or at least the setting is…

Set and shot on location in Thailand, Influencer joins social media star Madison (Emily Tennant), a young woman not having nearly as much fun as her posts to her followers suggest. Instead, she is lonely and fed up. All this changes however, after meeting fellow traveller, CW (Cassandra Naud). A hard to film to write about for fear of spoiling something, Influencer’s enjoyment comes from not knowing where it’s going to wind up next.

As glossy as the most refined Netflix thriller show, and as compulsive as any CW network show, Influencer is the perfect follow-up to Spiral. Harder has created a film that works as day to its predecessor’s night. There is plenty of darkness contained with Influencer, it’s just played lighter. This is a zippy sun-soaked thriller that rewards the viewer with its spellbinding blend of glitz, glamour, and mystery. Another hit from Kurtis David Harder, Influencer spins conventions on their head. In doing so, Harder crafts a tantalising thriller that would fit in head and shoulders above most similarly pitched offerings on the likes of Netflix. 

7. New Religion

Keishi Kondo’s feature debut, New Religion, was one of my biggest surprises at FrightFest. A perfect example of a film that is a riddle wrapped within an enigma, New Religion embraces its seductive and mysterious nature. Every aspect has been carefully constructed. Like pieces on a chess board, Kondo strategically moves the different elements into position, weaving a delicate trap of sensory overloads for all of those that experience it. 

New Religion tells the sad story of Miyabi (Kaho Seto). Since her daughter’s tragic death, Miyabi has been adrift in the world. At night, Miyabi earns a living as a call girl. Her profession introduces her to a client with a strange but simple request. He wants to photograph her. What starts as some shots of her spine, spirals, and as the sessions start to take a peculiar hold on her, Miyabi loses all sense of space and time. 

The auditory soundscape of New Religion is a fundamental component. With dialogue kept restrained and to the point, New Religion would languish in silence were it not for the music and score. They work to manipulate and disorientate the viewer. A steady electronic drone is ever-present during Miyabi’s photography sessions. What starts out gentle, soon escalates into being monstrously loud. It rattles your bones and chatters your teeth, the sound travelling directly through the audience almost to the point of being overwhelming. Mirroring Miyabi’s grief, the machine-like thrumming becomes so intensely oppressive that it’s a genuine relief to exit those sequences. 

Keishi Kondo’s debut feature commands attention with its unflinching heavy and sombre atmosphere. A masterful work of moving art, New Religion is an experience not only for the eyes and ears, but for the soul and mind too. Intricately manipulated and expertly constructed, New Religion is an exceptional film at any stage of career. Kondo’s first film has captured lightning in a bottle. Electric and intoxicating elements combine to create an immersive sensory and emotional overload.

6. Night Sky

Last year, director Jacob Gentry’s Signal Broadcast Intrusion was one of the most talked about films at FrightFest. This year, his new film, Night Sky is one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. Starring Brea Grant and AJ Bowen, Night Sky is a haunting and melancholic journey through the human condition. After an injured Oren (AJ Bowen) is helped by Annie (Brea Grant), he must help her travel cross-country. Initially unenthusiastic, he slowly begins to find Annie’s outlook on life appealing. It’s not all plain sailing though as there is a mysterious man tracking the pair…

Night Sky is a gentle and tender film, the narrative is kept simple and wholehearted. The story follows the pair’s journey, but doesn’t concern itself with filling up on side stories or obstacles. It is instead focused on two strangers with different outlooks on life coming together. In a lot of ways it has that road movie essence that makes The Terminator so special to me, and I think it is this element that has made it hard for me to forget.

Jacob Gentry’s hard-work, commitment, and dedication pays off as Night Sky is a remarkably complex story. A film that pulls you under its spell and lingers long after watching, Gentry’s latest offering is charming and evocative work. An emotionally driven slice of science-fiction, Night Sky is marinated in melancholy and bathed in beauty. 

5. Candy Land

Another FrightFest favourite, one which also screened at Grimmfest, was Candy Land. Set in 1996, Candy Land joins a group of truck-stop parking-lot sex workers. Consisting of Saie (Sam Quartin), Riley (Eden Brolin), Liv (Virginia Rand), and Levi (Owen Campbell), the unit earn a living pleasing others. After their antics catch the attention of the local religious zealot, a dead body turns up on their turf. As the local Sheriff, Rex (William Baldwin), begins to investigate, Remy (Olivia Luccardi) arrives. Remy has fled the control of the zealot and with no place else to go, Sadie offers her sanctuary. Safety comes at a cost though, and as Remy tentatively begins to infiltrate the group, the bodies continue to pile-up. Can they catch the culprit?

John Swab does great work setting up both the world and characters of Candy Land. The core unit of workers are intimately close, and early scenes easily communicate their bond. These charismatic characters instantly draw the viewer in, seducing them into their world. It mirrors the experience of Remy, who appears immediately taken with the group. Her arrival allows some classic fish-out-of-water elements to creep into the plot and, in a warped way, Candy Land makes for a compelling coming-of-age tale.

From uptight religious virgin, to empowered female, Remy’s sexual awakening pushes the film down a new direction. What starts as a coming-of-age tale of sexuality and desire descends into a murderous rampage of stabbings. A film that is restrained with its use of violence, bar one brutal encounter involving Levi, Candy Land unleashes maniacal Hell during its third act. The bodies that have been slowly appearing quickly amass into almost every character dropping dead. Though not technically a slasher in the traditional sense, Candy Land borrows plenty of aspects of the sub-genre and the wild nature of the deaths displayed is an enjoyable joy ride. 

There’s a saccharine coating that permeates the core group one that makes Candy Land somehow sweet. That is until the floodgates are opened and it quickly becomes sickly sticky. There’s a playfulness present from the start as jolly Christmas music intersperses with montages of the girls and Levi working. This tongue-in-cheek humour continues, gradually growing until it becomes a gleefully maniacal final act. Even as the film ends, Swab maintains his funny bone with the inclusion of the needle-drop of the festival. Despite its frenetic, traumatic conclusion and graphic content, Candy Land has a lightness to it. With elements of Saint Maud, Tangerine, and American Psycho, Candy Land is a tonal oddity that somehow works beautifully.  

4. Mother May I

2022 was a great first year to cover Brooklyn Horror Festival as several films on the line-up have made this list. Another entry reviewed during the festival is the oedipal nightmare of Mother May I? Starring Dinner in America‘s Kyle Gallner (who has had an excellent year) and Teen Wolf‘s Holland Roden, Mother May I is a strange analysis of relationships and maternal ties.

Emmett (Gallner) and his girlfriend Anya (Roden) travel to the house of Emmett’s recently deceased mother. The remote country home is Emmett’s inheritance and the pair plan on selling it to help with their dream of starting a family. As they arrive at the building there’s an awkwardness in the air. This unease is in part due to the fact that Emmett hasn’t seen his mother since he was a child. Shortly after arrival, events take a strange turn when Anya suddenly begins acting like his late mother. Is she playing a warped game with him, or is there a more sinister reason for her change. 

With only Anya and Emmett on screen for almost the entirety of the film, Mother May I gives Roden and Gallner’s acting skills a full workout. Whilst Roden has to juggle two women in one body, Gallner’s Emmett is thrown into emotional turmoil. Emmett has clearly never dealt with his mother’s abandonment and immediately resents being back in the house from his youth. As time progresses and he begins to form connections with his ‘mother’ finally after all these years, his perspective changes. He goes from traumatised and desperate for Anya to be normal, to bereft and despondent when his wish appears to come true. The emotions and themes at play in Mother May I are fascinating and would have kept Sigmund Freud fed for weeks. 

Mother May I explores childhood trauma and repression in a unique and engaging way. Told via two exceptionally thoughtful and complicated performances this is the kind of movie that you can easily disappear into for an hour or two. 

3. Daughter

Daughter played both Brooklyn Horror Festival and FrightFest and caught my attention due to the inclusion of Starship Trooper‘s Casper Van Dien on the cast list. Having carved out a niche career within the world of science-fiction and b-movies, the actor now turns his attention to something more stripped back and horror adjacent as he steps into the role of Father in Corey Deshon’s Daughter. 

Daughter marks writer and director Corey Deshon’s first steps into feature films. It’s an accomplished debut and one whose simple premise masks a closet full of enigmas. The story sees a young woman (Vivien Ngô) ‘saved’ and brought to a secluded farmhouse. Upon arrival she is told by a man known only as Father (Casper Van Dien) that she is now to fulfil the role of Daughter. Her new role will allow her to fit in with her new ‘family’, which also includes Mother (Elyse Dinh) and Brother (Ian Alexander). The group lives off of the grid, contained within their house due to a deadly disease that has ravaged the planet. Believing Brother to be special, Father insists upon the perfect family unit to keep his son happy, but will Daughter provide the missing element, or will she fail to live up to expectations like those before her?

Daughter keeps the script sparse, Deshon utilising cleverly constructed camera angles to fill in the blanks. There’s a difference to how the camera behaves, one that is dependent on which characters are interacting. Right from the very start there’s a clear distance between Father and Daughter. Scenes between the pair are shot from a distance. The camera keeps to the far corners of the rooms, distorting the viewpoint, communicating space between the viewer and Father, and in doing so replicating Daughter’s feelings toward him. This visual separation contrasts with the camera treatment of scenes between Mother and Daughter. In these moments the camera is vastly closer, capturing the intimacy of the two strangers. For scenes between Daughter and Brother, the camera falls somewhere in the middle, though gradually it starts to work closer in. 

A technical marvel, in Daughter first-time director Corey Deshon has crafted an exceptionally intricate film that flips conventions and expectations on their head. Shot on 16mm to ensure maximum quality of image, Daughter is a mesmerising and beautifully dangerous cinematic experience. Incredibly layered and intricately planned, Daughter demonstrates an almost genius level of technical skill and visual flourishes. Assisted by nuanced performances across the board, Daughter possesses an unquantifiable abundance of talent across the board. A well-worn idea filtered and distilled through a new perspective, Daughter is an exceptional debut.  

2. Huesera

Despite having covered several festivals that Huesera was playing at, it took me until Celluloid Screams in October to finally watch it. Huesera was a film I knew that before watching that I would likely love and my instinct proved to be right. Sitting in the dark on that Sunday morning I connected with the film heart and soul. So often the experience of pregnancy is inaccurately portrayed on screen and I loved how Huesera offered a more warts and all experience.

Huesera explores the long and complicated journey from woman to mother. The would-be-mother that Huesera casts a spotlight onto is Valeria (Natalia Solián). Valeria and her husband Raul (Alfonso Dosal) are desperate to have a baby. Their efforts are taking longer than they anticipated and Valeria is suffering. Then after a trip with her mother to a statue of the Virgin Mary, something finally clicks and Valeria finds herself pregnant. Elated, Valeria immediately begins nesting, but after the initial honeymoon period wears off, events take an unexpected turn. Haunted and hunted by a strange and sinister woman, Valeria must do all she can to save herself and her unborn child. 

A horror film for mothers everywhere, Michelle Garza Cervera’s Huesera captures the side of pregnancy that society wants to believe doesn’t exist. Even the most hopeful mother can experience doubts or distress when faced with the cold reality of how much of themselves they have to sacrifice to become a parent. These anxieties are filtered beautifully through the story in Huesera. Cervera’s feature debut also works for those that haven’t experienced being pregnant with some well placed instances of more traditional horror. Huesera bridges the gap between real horror and the fictionalised variety, producing a film able to terrify and traumatise all on some level or another.

1. Hypochondriac

I fell head over heels for Hypochondriac at SXSW. Since then I haven’t stopped championing it. The elevator pitch would be a queer Donnie Darko, but it’s so much more. Written and directed by Addison Heimann, Hypochondriac was inspired by his own mental health breakdown. Zach Villa plays Will, a potter whose life devolves into chaos after he loses full function of his body whilst being haunted by the physical manifestation of his childhood trauma.

The horror genre and the exploration of mental illness have been bedfellows for generations, but Hypochondriac is an example of how to combine them well. One reason for the ease in which they gel so effectively here is the real scenario that forms the source of the story. Although several elements have been embellished or finessed to craft a more compelling work of fiction, the factual aspects enrich the piece, lying just under the surface, helping to keep everything grounded. Hypochondriac also doesn’t lean too heavily into the horror aspects, following in the footsteps of Daniel Isn’t Real and Donnie Darko, and cherry-picking a handful of components to keep the viewer on edge. 

Nothing has been overlooked in the construction of Hypochondriac, everyone has put as much care and attention as they can into the piece to do Heimann’s own experience justice. The respect helps sell the stranger elements and the result is a modern marvel that looks set to take the genre world by storm. A stunningly honest and frightening journey through the darker aspects of the human psyche, Hypochondriac should be immediately added to the top of your watch-list.

All of the films listed are awaiting a UK release.