It’s Christmas Time at Fantastic Fest! This year, the festival programmers seem to have gotten the holiday spirit a bit early, and there are a number of holiday horror films on the program. In addition to The Sacrifice Game, I have seen a handful of others that are not only enjoyable, but each have a unique take on the Yuletide Spirit.
The Uncle 5/5
Some films are to be savored. You walk in knowing little about the plot, outside of a simple premise. The lights go down, the movie starts, and you find yourself asking….”What the HELL is going on here?”
That’s the joy of The Uncle. It keeps you guessing. It drops information like breadcrumbs. Bit by bit, we gain more understanding of our characters and the strange situation they find themselves in.
At the beginning of the film, a family prepares for their Christmas celebration. The turkey is roasting, the tree is lit, they are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their uncle. Finally, he arrives. They greet one another. It seems....forced. But they're family. Familial relations are always strained. Especially around the holidays.
The father pulls Uncle into his arms and greets him as "brother." But he is young enough to be Uncle's son. They gather in the living room to open gifts. The son is gifted a toy air rifle from his favorite Uncle. But the son is in his late teens - way too old for this toy. And again, his reaction seems forced. Unnatural. Everything about this Christmas gathering is just a little bit off. All of the pieces of a holiday celebration are here, but they’re not fitting very well.
To explain any more would be to ruin the fun. A big draw with Uncle is unwrapping the story, moment by moment, and trying to piece together exactly what the hell is going on. Directors David Kapac & Andrija Mardešić have paced this story to perfection. They drop their breadcrumbs slowly, giving us just enough new information to wonder, and pulling away before we get too much of the larger picture. It’s incredibly enticing and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
It's a weird family drama, a twisted suspense film, and nothing you'd ever expect. Darkly funny one moment, and brutal the next. But a captivating mystery, all the same. This definitely won't be for everyone, but will certainly appeal to audiences who enjoy the unexpected.
You Are Not Me 3.5 / 5
Aitana (Rosar Tapia) has the perfect Christmas present planned for her family. After a 3 year absence, she is flying home as a surprise for the holidays, along with her new wife and their young baby. She is so excited to see her family, particularly her brother Saul, who has been having some health issues. When they arrive, her parents don’t greet her with nearly the level of enthusiasm that she had anticipated. They are caught off guard and are even a little cold.
Aitana tries to brush it off. She didn’t get the warm welcome that she had been hoping for, but she still gets to have a wonderful holiday with her family. Except her family seems to have grown a bit. She soon meets Natalia, a refugee from Romania, who Aitana’s parents have recently taken into their home as a caretaker for Saul. She has firmly ingratiated herself with the family; they dote on her, have her staying in Aitana’s room and have even given her some of Aitana’s old clothes. She is clearly more than a simple houseguest, but why she is here and why her family seems to care so much for her is unclear.
This film, from co-directors Marisa Crespo and Moisés Romera, plays upon familiar family frictions and dysfunctions. The harder Aitana pushes for answers, the more frustrated her parents become. The circumstances open old wounds and cause further conflict as the evening goes on. But the truth at the heart of this strange holiday is not merely in Aitana’s head. It's not a childish response to her parents’ kindness toward a stranger. There is something sinister going on and Aitana must find out what.
Crespo and Romera deliver a tense film that pulls from both the secrecy in the plot as well as the strained relationships between the characters. The film gets a little slow in the middle, but it rallies and finishes with a very satisfying ending. It’s definitely a darker holiday piece, but one that you will be excited to have on your watch list.
There’s Something in the Barn 4/5
This one is most definitely a crowd-pleaser. After inheriting a house from his deceased Uncle, Bill (Martin Starr) moves his family from California to Norway to start a new life together. They arrive at their new, picturesque home just in time for the holidays. The move has been stressful on the family, who have had to leave friends and familiarity behind them, but Bill is hoping that this will represent a new start and a new opportunity for them to reconnect as a family.
His lonely son Lucas (Townes Bunner) discovers an elf living in the barn. Local folklore states that elves must be kept happy. If you treat them well, they will treat you well. Lucas befriends the shy elf, promising to keep things the way he prefers them (dark and quiet), and giving him the occasional cookie. In spite of Lucas’ warnings, Bill decides to throw a Christmas party in the barn in order to try to get to know their new neighbors. The elf is less than pleased, and the peace that Lucas has garnered fizzles. It’s Game On between the Elves and the Humans, and nobody is messing around.
Directed by Magnus Martens and written by Aleksander Kirkwood Brown, There’s Something in the Barn is a lot of fun. While bloody at times, it never gets too dark and is going to appeal to a pretty wide audience. It’s got some solid Krampus vibes in that it’s not afraid to go to violent places, but it keeps things pretty slap-stick and entertaining, while keeping the relationship between the family members front and center.
Martin Starr was born to play the “trying hard, but still kind of hapless dad.” He gives this character a great balance of humor and heartfelt love. The rest of the cast rounds the story out nicely, particularly Calle Hellevang Larsen, who plays a local resident/Elf specialist and brings a hilariously dry humor to the script.
There’s Something in the Barn is one that you’ll definitely want to keep your eyes on. It’s a fun, and light-hearted horror film that you will definitely want to add to your annual holiday viewing.