• Maxwell J.

2021 Chattanooga Film Festival Review

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

I had a blast attending my first film festival: the 2021 Chattanooga Film Festival. Entirely virtual, I had the privilege of watching 16 films I had never seen before this year. A healthy mix of recent releases and more obscure releases, I appreciated the value that my ticket got me in this festival. They also offered plenty of features for those aching for a more communal movie-going experience. I did not participate only because my time was limited due to work and personal obligations during the weekend. So, I wanted to maximize on the actual films I could see. From what I’ve read, other filmgoers appreciated this aspect of the fest, which is great!


Very similarly to how I will do reviews for a full year, I’d like to break down my thoughts on each of the releases. I have ordered them based on my perception of quality, but obviously everyone has different tastes so please take this with a grain of salt. Without further ado, here are the 16 films I watched at this year’s Chattanooga Film Festival.


16. Mom, I Befriended Ghosts (Director: Sasha Voronov; Russia)

Subjected to month after month of intense government-imposed quarantine to evade the effects of a deadly illness spread through water, a small Siberian town watches helplessly as people succumb to the powerful disease. A young girl sets out into the wilderness to find medicine for her sick mother but finds herself immersed in a world of horror as she dodges killers, creatures, and other survivors. Can she endure the brutal cold, the lurking fear of the disease, and sheer terror of assailants in the forest to save her mom? A timely Russian film about a community struggling during a biological menace, Mom, I Befriended Ghosts seeks to unnerve viewers through its quiet onslaught of horror. This Russian import is a stale and confusing story that merges the supernatural, infectious disease, and cannibalism but neglects to spin them together into a cohesive or enjoyable story. Characters wander around the wilderness before interacting with each other by chance. There is very little rhyme or reason, for pretty much any of the events happening onscreen which makes it seem unbelievable and poorly thought out. An overall displeasing experience, Mom, I Befriended Ghosts is the one latest release that I would actively avoid like the plague.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


15. Empire of the Dark (Director: Steve Barkett; United States)

On the hunt for a serial killer, a man stumbles upon a bizarre world of ritual sacrifice, other dimensions, and hell itself. After failing to save a woman from the clutches of an evil cult, this private detective sets on a journey to prepare battle in the future. His chance comes and he is whisked away to a world where monsters lurk, and sacrificial lemmings do the bidding of the Dark Lord. Can he put a stop to the evil that has been terrorizing communities for decades or will he succumb to the menagerie of horrors that await him in the Empire of the Dark? The second of the Barkett double feature that I watched, I found slightly less appealing. What starts strong with a cool concept and opening deteriorates fast by falling into old action and horror conventions of needlessly prolonging scenes to the point where everything feels overwrought and bloated. The plot is convoluted, and the action sequences feel uninspired. I’m sure if I saw it in the 80s when it came out, I’d feel a little differently, but I cannot spin a positive review this time around. Find another cult classic to scratch your end of days itch.


Where to Watch: Currently Unavailable


14. The Aftermath (Director: Steve Barkett; United States)

After crashing into Earth with no communication on the ground, an astronaut finds that the world he and his crew left behind has changed drastically since they departed. Some sort of nuclear and pathogenic apocalypse has ravaged the world leaving behind hordes of mutant cannibals and ruthless gangsters exploiting the few remaining survivors. Soon he finds a reason to push forward in the form of a woman whom he falls in love with, her child, and the child of a kind man who helps him along the way. He must do everything in his power to protect them and save others from the clutches of evil that spoil the land around them. Definitely leaning more into action than horror, the first of the Barkett double feature is more straight forward and enjoyable. The apocalyptic setting and character development do wonders at making the film more watchable, but it still falls victims to similar problems that ail its sister feature. The plot simply has too much going on for an action horror while simultaneously elongating scenes to beef up the runtime. I’m not a fan of either, but if I had to choose, I’d give the edge out here. The Aftermath may not be much, but it’s a fine enough way to spend an hour or two envisioning the apocalypse.


Where to Watch: See Here


13. Black Medusa (Director: Youssef Chebbi, Isamaël; Tunisia)

Nada is a reserved young woman who works her office job without much noise or complaint. She is hard of hearing, so she finds it easier to communicate using voice-to-text features for essential work issues and pushes away anyone that tries to get too close. While she normally would go home at the end of the day, Nada has decided to embark on a week-long revenge tour where she murders men who try and take advantage of her. All is going according to plan until she finds a new coworker much harder to brush off than anticipated. A sleepy revenge thriller, Black Medusa never really tops its wicked opening sequence. Ambiguity can be frightening, intriguing, or exciting, but here the best way to describe it is meandering. Nada sleepwalks through her world while committing acts of violence for justifiable reasons in some cases. The problem lies in that it goes nowhere. We learn nothing and know very little about Nada by the end. It feels more like a slideshow of vaguely connected killings more than a film. Truthfully, this film is one of the only films I’ve considered turning off this year. This isn’t because it’s offensive or terrible, but because it isn’t engaging at all. Stylistically sound and brimming with potential, Black Medusa hits a stone wall before eroding away from memory shortly after the credits end.


Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


12. An Ideal Host (Director: Robert Woods; Australia)

Liz wants nothing more than to enjoy a nice dinner party with friends and have her boyfriend “surprise” propose to her during dessert. Unfortunately for Liz, her former friend Daisy is on her way to crash the party, get drunk, and ruin the evening like she always does. Although panicked that Daisy will destroy her evening, Liz elects to maintain composure in an effort to preserve her night. She’ll soon find out that Daisy is the least of her worries and that something much more pressing may put dinner on hold. I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, I didn’t vibe with this film. Between so-so acting, sparse characterization, and a plot that feels very low stakes, it is a hard film for me to get into truthfully. Knowing the story behind its production, however, makes me admire the moxie behind the cast and crew. It doesn’t make up for an overall fine end result, but it adds charm to it. It also leans heavily into situational comedy which is just not my cup of tea, so if that sounds like your type of movie, please give it a try! While not my ideal kind of movie, An Ideal Host is a serviceable enough invasion horror comedy.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


11. Bloodshot Heart (Director: Parish Malfitano; Australia)

Driving instructor Hans becomes infatuated with the new tenant, Matilda, who moves into the spare room of his and his mother’s apartment. She reminds him of a lost love that until then had been long forgotten. Hans’s desire takes over and he finds himself plotting to make Matilda his to make up for lost time. What entails is a sad and frightening tale of just how far a person will go to make a memory into a current reality. Bloodshot Heart is a film that I was really excited for but then actually saw it. From the start we realize that this film is going to rely heavily on the “is this really happening” trope while weaving in related backstory flashbacks. It’s well shot, well-acted, and has a unique flavor to it, it just didn’t hit the mark for me. Much like the preceding film, this entry has received a lot of great reviews, so I could be missing something here. I especially appreciate some of the more inspired sequences, one drug infused hallucination sequence stuns both visually and viscerally. Overall, the final product feels tired and unmemorable, which is disappointing to say the least. Be wary that you don’t develop bloodshot eyes as a result from nodding off in between mental breakdowns to fully enjoy this Australian import.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


10. Parallel Minds (Director: Benjamin Ross Hayden; Canada)

A detective investigating the strange death of a researcher stumbles upon a bizarre underground world dedicated to staving off an A.I. invasion. Working with the researcher’s colleague and a woman who has been fighting this battle long before anyone else, they must figure out how the technology works and what exactly they are fighting against. Between evil, faceless corporations and an invisible threat, there’s a lot going against them in the fight to preserve humanity. I have to say that while I did find myself enjoying this film, I wanted so desperately for this film to be good too. Its wonky and convoluted plot meet its match for its overly enthusiastic cast and odd directorial choices. I had to check myself out once the physical embodiment of the killer AI comes to life in the third act. There are kernels of a great film underneath the tackiness and slapshot job at piecing them together, but it isn’t a film I can go about recommending anytime soon. I do appreciate the Native representation and meaningful inclusion in the story though. It’s definitely not the future, so there’s no need to give it yours unless you already tapped into all the other films in your watchlist.


Where to Watch: See Here


9. Duel on the River (Director: Isaac Rathé; Canada)

After his girlfriend breaks up with him for failing to take control of his life, Frank finds himself compelled to by a kayak and paddle out into the Detroit River. Enjoying his newfound peace and calm, he tries to figure out what s next for him. Unfortunately for him, he has become the latest target of a deranged serial killer who gets his kicks by terrorizing people in kayaks from his boat. With nothing but the sheer desire to survive and grit it takes to take down a maniac on a power trip. With Duel on the River we are starting to get into the films that I actively enjoyed. While I found myself distracted by some of the quality concerns in earlier films that detracted from the feature, I found myself feeling the opposite about this one. Let me be clear: the dialogue is rough, the acting is sketchy, and the cinematography is as choppy as the waters of the Detroit River. But there is so much energy in this film. I can’t describe it. It’s tense, disturbing, and has a certain twisted reality to it. I think the team should feel proud of how much they pulled off with nothing. Duel on the River may not win any awards, but it was certainly a great stroke of luck in terms of my evening.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here


8. Five Desperate Women (Director: Ted Post; United States)

A group of college friends get together on a deserted island’s resort for an anniversary celebrating their friendship and time graduated from their alma mater. As they fall into old patterns, they can’t help but notice that not everything is as rosy in each other’s lives as one would hope. What starts as a quaint and relaxing getaway turns deadly when one of their friends is murdered while everyone was out. Aside from the handyman and boat Captain, they are the only guests on the island. Who can be trusted and who cannot? With everyone a suspect, what can they do? An unexpected treat from the festival was their second billed secret screening, which actually showed first, Five Desperate Women. There is something charming about this proto slasher that makes it stand the test of time. It’s clear that life hasn’t been the kindest to our heroines in one way or another before they are thrust into such an awful situation. Their flaws make them human and easy to root for. The action is largely sparse, it did premiere on television in the early 70s, so that is expected. To me, the finale is worth the price of admission alone, as it feels very much a great example of empowered women in horror that sometimes gets lost in translation in more grandiose pictures. You likely won’t find this streaming anywhere, but if you find an opportunity to watch it: kick back, relax, and enjoy your brief respite from the modern slasher.


Where to Watch: Currently Unavailable


7. She Watches from the Woods (Director: Beau Ballinger; United States)

After bouncing around from one mental hospital to the next, June returns home to visit her dying mother, Tammy, and come to terms with her tragic past. Her supportive girlfriend, Maeve, backs her all the way until she finds June slipping into old patterns as she begins to obsess over the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death. Rattled with guilt yet determined to clear her name, June uses this visit as one last chance to get to the bottom of who (or what) killed her sister before that same force strikes again. Personally, She Watches from the Woods is the film I’d say has gotten the most unfair criticism out of all of the releases I saw at this year’s fest. It’s an exceptionally haunting film with great atmosphere, solid acting, and a fun, if predictable, story. If you’re a sucker for small town horror, you’ll fall for this one quickly. The lore doesn’t add up much and its budget shows every now and then, but She Watches from the Woods is a fun horror romp if you let it be. Check it out, and I’m sure that you’ll be taken by it, let’s just hope it hasn’t taken you below the depths of any nearby lakes or rivers!


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


6. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (Director: Jonathan Cuartas; United States)

Dwight and Jessie revolve their lives around taking care of their younger brother Thomas who has a mysterious illness that requires him to consume human blood. Jessie works at a diner where she earns money and scopes out potential victims for Dwight to kill and prepare for Thomas. While they all very much love each other, no one is happy with their state of affairs, and they find their small family buckling under the pressure of their circumstances. Will they come together or be torn apart by their differences? What a heavy film. Family horror can hit hard, as it often centers around loss. Cuartas’s feature expounds upon that dark reality by taking us through the unravelling of an already tenuous family structure. It’s hard to watch as each sibling cries out what they want. Everyone’s needs are at odds with each other, which tells us that it will likely end poorly for most of, if not, all of them. More heartbreaking than scary, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To doesn’t mind making you or its characters uncomfortable. The moral dilemma involved with killing others to survive weighs on everyone a little differently here, and yet it doesn’t make it hard to sympathize with the killers a bit. They know it is unfair and wrong, but they know there is no other way. Horror drama with heart and bite, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To drips with tension, dread, and, of course, blood.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here


5. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Director: Jane Schoenbrun; United States)

Isolated and lonely young teenager, Casey posts a video of her performing the ritual of a role-playing online horror game that requires initiates to complete a challenge. After completing the challenge, she finds herself changing into a person that she doesn’t recognize. Are these changes the result of confirmation bias or has Casey really fallen into the clutches of a predatory entity that controls the game? The only person Casey confides in is the blank screen of a man known only as JLB who encourages her to continue posting videos to document the changes surrounding her transformation. What and who is real? We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is an intriguing look into the psychology behind virality, loneliness, and the connections we form online. Vacillating between the real and the imaginary, Schoenbrun maintains a certain level of ambiguity in how she tells the story behind Casey’s transformation. It’s easily the most genuine portrayals of falling victim to the horrors of the internet I’ve seen that still manages to subvert expectations at to what is exactly happening. Another more quiet and disturbing entry of horror We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a great choice for arthouse lovers and those searching for something more mysterious. I went, are you going too?


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


4. Blood Conscious (Director: Timothy Covell; United States)

Kevin, his sister, Brittney, and her fiancé Tony arrive at their parent’s lakeside vacation cabin to find it surprisingly abandoned. While investigating they discover a grim scene. Kevin and Brittney’s parents have been gunned down alongside every one of their neighbors. Before they have time to process what happened, the mass shooter who killed them all confronts them, explaining that he had to kill them because they became demons. The trio will have to decide if he is a sick man that gets off on hurting others or if his claims might be true. Blood Conscious is an excellent convergence of siege horror, slasher films, and demonic possessions. It’s core cast of characters are dynamic, intelligent, flawed, and likable which make it easy to root for them and makes the situation even more terrifying. Covell creates a severely paranoid atmosphere by making everyone a suspect. Old tropes are subverted and the mystery behind the shooting soon becomes evident. Often stated with Blood Conscious is its clear social commentary on mass shootings, race relations, and conspiracy theories all tied together in a neat and well shot film. I know it’s hard to trust anyone these days when it comes to this, but I promise that Blood Conscious is exactly what it says it is: a smart and well-directed horror.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


3. The Old Ways (Director: Christopher Alender; United States)

Cristina is brought to her childhood home in Veracruz for a work assignment. There, she hopes to cover the mystical origins of a cave deep within in the rainforest. The next thing she knows, she awakens to find herself in a witch doctor’s home, chained to a bed. She manages to convince her captors to contact her cousin Miranda to get her. Miranda breaks the news to Cristina that they believe there is a demon inside of her and they have to exorcise it out of her before it is too late. An interesting inversion of possession films, The Old Ways is a charming and well-constructed take on demons. The film’s story begins after Cristina is taken, using flashbacks to piece together why and how she got into this situation. It’s clear that she is not only fighting one demonic force but other demons that have plagued her for much longer. Brigitte Kali Canales gives a great performance and sells the anguish of Cristina before, during, and after her possession which makes her transformation credible and satisfying. With great cinematography, solid effects work, and a smart script, The Old Ways manages to find balance between classic horror scares and modern approaches to horror. You’ll find a better appreciation for The Old Ways after watching.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


2. Coming Home in the Dark (Director: James Ashcroft; New Zealand)

While on a road trip together a family decides to have a picnic in a scenic yet remote park. As they are enjoying their meal, two drifters appear setting into motion a terrifying sequence of events throughout the night where the family must endure a road trip from hell. The father of the family becomes their primary target once he reveals that he is a schoolteacher and that he may have a past that’s worth questioning. The further they continue, the more past secrets and transgressions come to life. What justice will come from the night and who will reap it? This dark import from New Zealand pulls no punches and is an absolute force of a film. From its paralyzing opening to the violence that ensues for the entirety of its runtime, Coming Home in the Dark knows how to unsettle, unnerve, and terrify its viewers. It works as one giant chase scene as our characters fight for any way out of their night of horror. With strong characters and relentless violence, this film grabs your attention and keeps it until its dizzying and gut churning climax. One choice can change your world, I hope you’ll choose to watch Coming Home in the Dark as soon as it is available to you.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


1. Broadcast Signal Intrusion (Director: Jacob Gentry; United States)

A video archivist falls down a rabbit hole while parsing through conspiracy theories related to a series of pirate broadcasts throughout the 90s. Convinced that they are related to the disappearance of his wife, he makes it his mission to uncover the truth no matter the cost. As he uncovers more about the incidents, he finds himself getting tangled in a series of confusing encounters and dangerous situations. Are the people he meets along the way truly helping him or are they muddying the waters further? He’ll find out this and just how far he’ll go to get closure for his loss. The last film of the festival, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a fantastic horror noir that blends slow burn horror with a pervasive and tantalizing mystery. Mimicking the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole, Broadcast Signal Intrusion uses the idea of spiraling through a conspiracy theory before seeing it through to its inevitable ending. Harry Shum Jr gives a fantastically grounded performance that showcases his range and depth. Director Jacob Gentry exudes confidence and finesse in crafting a taut and unwavering horror experience. Make sure you tune in as soon as it comes out.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)

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