We round up the final few films of Glasgow FrightFest. Featuring Christina Ricci shining in a 1950s-set monster movie, circus freaks battling Nazis in occupied Rome, and an old-fashioned chiller.

Monstrous (Chris Sivertson/ USA/ 2022/ 89 mins) sees erstwhile Wednesday Addams and current ‘YellowjacketChristina Ricci as Laura, a young mother fleeing an abusive relationship with her 7-year-old son Cody (Santino Barnard). Laura settles in a remote house by a lake in a picture postcard ’50s America. While presenting a perfectly composed face to new surroundings that aren’t incredibly welcoming, Laura’s bent double with her order and Cody’s own trauma is expressed in anger towards his mother. Even worse, the boy begins to sees a hag-like figure emerging from the lake. Is the child imagining things, or is something else going on beneath the Norman Rockwell pastel veneer?

Ricci proves a magnetic figure in a much more challenging role than she’s often been given throughout her career. The eerie placidity of Wednesday is still present, yet there’s always something ready to split her Stepford visage. Her subsequent breakdown is believable and harrowing given her innate likability. And this is a film all about surfaces and artifice. The gorgeous, opulent production design and omnipresent bubblegum pop music frequently hint at darker currents, of which the lake-hag may be a literal or figurative part. As with many recent psychological horrors, the supernatural elements operate as a metaphor for grief and trauma and if you’re familiar with films like The Babadook, Censor, or even more family-friendly fare like A Monster Calls, you may get a grasp on where the film is heading. It doesn’t all add up entirely satisfactorily, but with two great central performance and that beautiful visual style, there is more than enough here to hope that Ricci’s involvement will get this independent production solid distribution. 3/5

Freaks Out (Gabriel Mainetti/ Italy Belgium/ 2021/ 141 mins) is a difficult film to parse, partly because it’s a distinctly chaotic piece, and partly down to a premise that skirts the boundaries of taste. Four Italian circus performers seek to escape to America after their circus is destroyed by a Nazi airstrike. Cencio (Pietro Castellitto) can control insects; Mario (Giancarlo Martini) is a slightly mentally-impaired dwarf  with magnetic abilities; Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) is a strongman covered in hair; and Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) is a young woman who can conduct electricity, but can’t control it, leading her to shun human contact. Opposing their migration is Franz (Franz Rogowski), a 12-fingered Nazi pianist who runs another circus as a front to find the troupe of freaks who have been haunting his dreams. It just so happens that in his dreams Franz can see the future; one that includes PlayStations, Radiohead, Muhammad Ali, and most pertinently, Hitler’s suicide. Franz, powered equally by fanaticism and self-loathing, believes that if he can harness the power of these ‘superheroes’, he can change the future and turn the tide in favour of the Axis powers.

Freaks Out is epitomised by the opening scene, in which the magic of the circus – captured with full Fellini-esque affection – is abruptly shattered by the Luftwaffe, leaving broken bodies in their wake. Gabriel Mainetti tries to thread the needle between magic and carnage throughout, frequently unsuccessfully. This isn’t aided by the very real shadow of the Holocaust lurking over the proceedings. It’s a delicate balance indeed to reconcile magic realist whimsy with systematic extermination, and this is not a delicate film. It’s also highly derivative. While Mainetti has made a phenomenal-looking film within a fully-realised universe on a comparatively tiny budget of €12m, stylistically it’s too redolent of other filmmakers who have managed to incorporate darker content into fantasy narrative far more deftly – Guillermo del Torro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s collaborations with Marc Caro are obvious progenitors. It’s also loaded with references to other properties like The Wizard of Oz, Fantastic Four, and Star Wars. Instead of frills on a satisfying narrative, it leaves it feeling merely gimmicky and devoid of the emotional core it’s searching for.

To be fair to Mainetti, there are moments of invention. Franz’s Vaudevillian Nazi big top is a loopy extension of his delusion, and one pitched battle around a train heading to the death camps is a heart-stopping piece of action and one of the rare instances where the stakes really feel earned rather than exploitative. It also can’t be denied that Freaks Out was pretty clearly the most obvious crowd-pleaser of the entire festival, given its rapturous reception. However, it is narratively a real mess. Even if the incorporation of the Holocaust into its grab bag of elements stays within the bounds of acceptability, there’s little of genuine wonder here that hasn’t been filched from other sources with an almost magpie kleptomania. 2/5

The weekend concludes with The Cellar (Brendan Muldowney/ Ireland/ 2022/ 90 mins) perhaps the most traditional horror movie of the festival. Another of the Irish influx that has been such a welcome addition to FrightFest, this traditional haunted house tale is the weakest of the group. It isn’t terrible by any means, it’s just rather inspired, apart from a gradual build to an apocalyptic, hopeless tone that brings to mind Fulci‘s The Beyond in its latter moments. Former Noughties staple Elisha Cuthbert plays glacial family matriarch Keira who uproots her family to a sprawling pile in Ireland. With family tensions running high teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) vanishes after braving the titular cellar to replace a fuse. Keira has to learn about the ancient entity inhabiting the cellar if she want to rescue her daughter.

Structured like countless other supernatural mysteries – much Googling, perfunctory jump scares, arcane symbols, and a visit to an occult expert/harbinger – this Cellar is cluttered with all kinds of cliches yet it remains fairly watchable. It actually gets more interesting as it goes on, fashioning a decent third act from really quite nondescript material. It does have to be said that the arcane knowledge on show is of the most laughably basic imaginable. Keira somehow fails to recognise Hebrew, and the latin phrase ‘Solve et Coagula’ is a fundamental of alchemy, which is not exactly an untapped wellspring in the genre. Nevertheless, it does manage to build to a climax that hits a real vein of existential despair and it’s difficult to take too such a hard switch into that realm. Unfortunately, overall it ends FrightFest with a whimper rather than a bang, but count small mercies, they could have scheduled A Cloud So High to close. 2/5