For our fourth installment of our shorter, snappier review from Glasgow Film Festival, we focus on three films that played at Glasgow FrightFest. Featuring a survival thriller, a sombre ghost story fuelled by post-partum depression, and a unique Irish folk horror, there’s a real variety of styles and approaches as always.

In Last Straw (Alan Scott Neal/ USA/ 2023/ 81 mins) a young woman working the back shift at a roadside diner has to fight for her life when it’s invaded by masked killers. It’s a strictly serviceable setup, and similar enough to recent films like Hunt Her, Kill Her and Night of the Hunted to keep one’s expectations fairly low. However, an interesting narrative spin and a forceful lead performance from Jessica Belkin make this feel like more than just movie junk food. When Nancy (Belkin) is promoted to manager by her father, who owns the diner, it’s a decision that annoys both her and the men who work there. Beyond the active hostility of her colleagues, she’s also dealing with a disruptive gang of masked teenagers. Having kicked them out through the day, they return at night with murder on their mind.

Lean and mean is the watchword in Last Straw. The movie is brisk, the dialogue is clipped, and the violence is a short, sharp, shock. But even at a sprint of a runtime, director Alan Scott Neal and writer Taylor Sardoni insert a non-linear structure to provide the context for the violence and to add a significant twist. Doing so certainly keeps things interesting, but does slightly jeopardise the considerable momentum generated in the first act. Yet Belkin’s Nancy is great heroine, slightly the architect of her own downfall, but through decisions that are understandable and sympathetic. Resourceful and capable without being superhuman, she’s the standout in a very decent, efficient little thriller. 3/5

Unlike Last Straw, Mom (Adam O’Brien/ USA, Canada/ 2024/ 95 mins) never overcomes its sense of over-familiarity. Emily Hampshire is terrific as a new mother whose overwhelming postpartum depression may be exacerbated further by supernatural forces, but this sombre, gloomy tale forces itself into a corner early and never quite recovers. When Meredith (Hampshire) and Jared (François Arnaud) bring their new baby Alex home, it’s clear Meredith isn’t coping. Jared doesn’t help, pretty much telling her to get over it. Beyond this, Meredith keeps seeing visions of Alex as a young boy, and a disturbing witchy figure with long, straggly hair. And then something truly horrible happens.

The first act of Mom is effective and becomes genuinely harrowing. Supernatural elements aside, the depiction of depression is both grounded and upsetting (and a genuine example of why content warnings would be more than valid). From there is becomes too generic, even as director Adam O’Brien tries to keep us guessing with its muddied narrative and increasingly choppy storytelling. In terms of tone and aesthetic choices it leans too heavily on recognisable tropes from J-Horror and Mike Flanagan‘s The Haunting of Hill House. Hampshire is compelling throughout, but Mom‘s setup is far more effective than its execution. 2/5

Saving the best for last, All You Need is Death (Paul Duane/ Ireland/ 2023/ 98 mins) is a beautifully creepy and unique folk horror that centres around a powerful, ancient folk song. Young couple Anna (Simone Collins) and Aleks (Charlie Maher) are ethnographers who track down rare Irish folk songs, often using dubious means to record them. On hearing of an ultra-rare song known only by one woman (Olwen Fouéré), the pair track the woman down, and persuade her to sing it. It’s a love song – of sorts – in a language older than Irish, and it awakens something primordial that does not take kindly to being recorded and translated. ‘Love is a knife/ With a blade for a handle’ indeed.

Ireland is the place to go for quality folk horror at present, as proven by You Are Not My Mother and Mandrake, and All You Need is Death is a superb addition. Mysterious and opaque without being confusing, it’s a hypnotic world to get lost in. Paul Duane’s script and direction emphasise atmosphere, favouring eerie imagery over jump scares, and also features some gorgeous, haunting songs and a rich score by Ian Lynch of experimental folk band Lankum. Its ideas occasionally overstretch its budget, but there is limitless imagination at work here. Above all, it’s well shot, well acted, and like the best folk horror will plant roots in your mind as deep as the ancient soil that birth such traditions. Magical stuff. 5/5

All films screened as part of Glasgow FrightFest 2024