Freaks + Automata, Finale and The Witch Part 1: The Subversion Frigh (2018)

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Lexy Kolker, Amanda Crew, Ava Telek

Directed by: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B Stein

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Superhero sci-fi story Freaks was the definite highlight of my four film foray into this year's Frightfest, part of the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival. But before I get to it, here's a quick survey of the other films I saw.

The 'immortal princess' clockwork doll in Automata

I love the idea of Hex Studios – a Hammer-inspired horror studio established in the mighty Kingdom of Fife – but sadly, although I admired the ambition of their creepy doll/Gothic horror/psychosexual drama Automata, I really couldn't love it. From Prussian soldiers in US army uniforms to a tedious, maniacally laughing villain who couldn't make up his mind which accent to use to to a deeply confused plot about a stepfather and stepdaughter's mutual attraction to, er, some mostly naked men in wolf masks (huh?!) there was simply too much going on here, and none of it was terribly good. Even the titular automaton wasn't very scary (and I am SCARED of creepy dolls), being far too obviously a woman holding moving stiffly to clockwork sound effects to fall into the uncanny valley between real and android. Sure (spoiler alert), like the 18th century heroine imprisoned inside the 'immortal princess' model, there's a good idea in here somewhere struggling to get out, but it's smothered by a poor script, confused plot and often terrible acting. Five stars for effort, two for effect...

Anne Bergfeld in Finale

The following film, Finale, was far more like it. This dark Danish drama focuses on two women working alone in a remote gas station near the north German border. Denmark has made it to the final of the World Cup, and they're expecting a quiet evening. They get far more than they bargained for...

With effective use of CCTV footage and footage created by the bad guys, the film delves into the murkiest corners of the dark web, making a stark point about human beings' lust for violence while simultaneously serving up blood and guts by the bucketload for an eager audience. Featuring strong performances from the two female leads, it's a solid and often original addition to the 'things go wrong and you wake up tied up' genre. (Is that a thing?) Although perhaps the most concerning point was the fact that I managed to nod off in a torture scene... Three and half stars.

Poster for The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion

Deeply suspicious of the title (my general rule of thumb is that horror films with a colon in the title often suck – think Shadow: Dead Riot or Dead Rising: Watchtower) I found myself unexpectedly taken by Korean teen coming of age/martial arts/superhero origin story The Witch: Part 1 – The Subversion. Opening with a mysterious massacre at an orphanage, it tells the story of Ja-yoon (Da-mi Kim), who escaped the carnage to be adopted by a farming couple. But when the farm falls on hard times and Ja-yoon enters an X-Factor style television talent show to raise the funds to save it (as you do), she comes to the attention of some sinister figures. But there's more to Ja-yoon than meets the eye – just who is playing who in this high octane, action-packed drama?

Well-paced, engaging and based on a pleasing twist, if you're a fan of the X-Men movies you'll find lots to like here. Also three and a half stars.

Lexy Kolker and Emile Hirsch in Freaks

Which brings me neatly on to Freaks, a delightful slice of lo-fi X-Men style sci-fi. Henry (Emile Hirsch) and his seven-year-old daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker – and what a cracking little actress she is!) live barricaded in their house in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. The windows are covered, they live on canned food and Henry must educate Chloe on how to be normal, because to appear otherwise invites death. Yet outside all seems sunny and serene – are there really bad men out there or is Henry a paranoid, over-protective madman? Then one day, the jolly pink and blue ice cream van parked outside proves too much of a temptation for Chloe...

Like the best superhero stories (with Logan being the best, imo), Freaks focuses on the characters not the special effects and grounds the story in the real world (a disastrous sleepover scene is particularly affecting), so that we believe what we're seeing and genuinely engage with Henry and Chloe (as we do with Ja-yoon in The Witch), making it hard for us to see them as the monsters society paints them when their 'freak powers' are gradually revealed. Warm, funny, full of twists and edge-of-seat exciting at times, and featuring some great performances (Bruce Dern is splendid as the kindly ice cream seller with a secret agenda) Freaks is a thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable sci-fi/horror/family drama well worth hunting down. Four stars!

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