Settling in to watch a scary movie has long become a staple of the modern Halloween experience – but as fun as re-visiting the classics is, there is a world of independent filmmaking just waiting to shock intrepid viewers. In his own search for new horror this October, Dr Vincent M. Gaine decided to sample some of the delights at Grimmfest 2023. Here is what he found.
Horror film festivals are a surprisingly common phenomenon. From FrightFest in London (and Glasgow) to Shocktober in Oxford, from Imagine in Amsterdam to Morce-GO Vermelho in ‘the heart of Brazil’, audiences the world over flock together for scares, chills and the warm hug of the horror community. I can confidently say that for every horror festival I go to, I walk away with new friends, all of us brought together by the love of all things scary.
Grimmfest 2023 was no different. The premiere horror festival for the north of England took place at Odeon Great Northern between 5th and 8th October 2023. I attended the event and saw a host of great films, attended some great talks and Q&As, and spent time with some thoroughly awesome people.
Running since 2009, Grimmfest offers a diverse range of films, including new releases, cult classics and more. The directors this year, Leonie Rowland and Linnie Blake, programmed the festival to be ‘interior, intelligent, engaged and explosive’ (Rowland). There were strong vibes of female-centric horror and existential threats, a healthy dose of moral compromises and some deep dives into the ways we bring about our own damnation.
The first night featured some preview screenings including Suitable Flesh, Bug and Sam and Doug, but I didn’t see those because I was at a pub quiz. Run by the Evolution of Horror podcast, a partner of Grimmfest, this quiz offered a variety of questions about all manner of horror films, ranging from a picture round where heads had been replaced to a round where you had to identify a film from a description of a venue in the style of a TripAdvisor review. Lovely comfortable hotel, but the caretaker offers rather inappropriate advice about correcting one’s family. This quiz was a delight, and my team came second, coming away with lovely Evolution of Horror hoodies.
The first full day of screenings was a roaring success. I (only) saw three movies that day, and each impressed me more than the last. Pandemonium combined all manner of references including Jean-Paul Sartre, Angela Carter, H. P. Lovecraft and Lars von Trier to create a nightmarish journey into the hell that is other people. I found the film to be slightly overdone but so thoroughly bizarre and committedly grim and bleak that it made for an impressive mélange of grief, damnation, liminality and different responses to death. Next up was The Sacrifice Game, a 70s set blend of choice Christmas cuts, home invasion chills and occult thrills, that offered thoroughly gory and fiendish fun. Friday rounded off with one of the strongest films of the whole festival, Faceless After Dark. This inspired-by-real-events descent into madness is ferociously incisive and gorgeously styled, and engaged with multiple relevant issues of mind, identity, creativity and toxicity. All in all, a very strong day that explored mortality, humanity’s capacity for evil, home invasion, the repression of women plus rising against the patriarchy, and the plethora of pressures placed upon performers.
What happened on Saturday? Oh yes, more movies! There was some varied Spanish horror in the form of Keratyna and The Coffee Table, the first of which was a bizarre and quirky chamber piece of strange occurrences and conspiracy theories that subverted expectations while highlighting narcissistic masculinity. The latter was a pitch black and exquisitely excruciating domestic drama of marital strife and the worst furniture ever, and while I do recommend it, parents of babies and young children may find it especially distressing.
Saturday continued with the superlative Give Me An A. This insightful and righteously angry anthology of 16 short films, produced in response to the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe V Wade, included satire, body horror, sci-fi, comedy, genre and political awareness, delivering multiple powerful and timely messages. Saturday rounded off with What You Wish For, where a skilled chef finds himself dealing with a truly exclusive clientele. This tense, sweaty and satirical thriller takes consumerism to the nth degree. I say Saturday rounded off here, but there was a fair bit of time spent in the Golden Lion pub afterwards.
On Sunday, the festival revellers with the energy left to continue got to enjoy more international delights. First up was Evil Eye from Mexico. While rather jumbled and overly convoluted, this folk horror of monstrous family and pagan folklore offered sumptuous design and some truly chilling moments. Then came the Argentinian Auxilio, a heady and visceral nunsploitation tale of eroticism, forbidden passions and standing against various forms of oppression. Another highlight of the festival was Door, a Japanese film from 1988 that was thought lost for thirty years. Rediscovered and primed for a home release, Grimmfest had the privilege to present the European premiere of this gripping and increasingly fraught yet controlled and taut home invasion horror. With steadily escalating menace, fear, unease, and domestic threat, this shows how bad things can become when a salesman calls. The last film I saw was 8 Found Dead, an American home invasion / whodunnit that was a bit gimmicky but offered some fun twists and smart knowingness.
It is often the case that films in a genre remind you of others in that genre. That was certainly the case with many of the films shown at Grimmfest, as familiar tropes of home invasion, patriarchal oppression, generational strife and the clash between tradition and modernity appeared throughout the festival. But none of this was a problem because the familiarity of such tropes is part of what makes genre, including horror, comforting and enjoyable. This may have been my first time at Grimmfest, but in many ways it was like coming home. A home I intend to come back to many times in the future.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
Dr Vincent M. Gaine is an academic, film critic and podcaster. He has published books and articles, as well as reviews for the Geek Show, the Critical Movie Critics, Bloody Good Screen and Moving Pictures Film Club. His podcast, Invasion of the Pody People, offers reviews and recommendations of genre cinema. He specialises in the intersection of globalisation, liminality and identity politics on screen and will happily talk for hours on end about spies, superheroes and Boston.