We can pretend like Greta Gerwig not receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Little Women is the end-all, be-all of discrimination against women in the film industry, but the misogynistic practices of this massive industry stretch much further and wider than any award ever could. Women still struggle to procure jobs behind the camera of films of all sizes, with most being relegated to smaller indie films and traditionally “feminine” pieces while the men still mostly carry the big projects. This is no more apparent than in the realm of horror, with nearly all of the big names associated with the genre largely still being male. What the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, that ran from Feb. 6-9 in Berlin, Germany, seeks to achieve is to bring awareness to horror films and shorts that are written, produced, and/or directed by women and non-binary filmmakers. To dedicate an entire festival to bringing not just a general awareness to what femme horror looks like, not filtered through the male gaze, is not only refreshing, but it’s a necessary component to see horror for all of its worth in the modern era.
Horror aficionados who have been around the block know the full power and necessity of female voices in horror, with filmmakers like Jen and Sylvia Soska, Mary Lambert, and Mary Harron having gotten the chance to strut their stuff before Hollywood even knew what the word “representation” meant. And while new voices like Veronika Franz, Julia Ducournau, Karyn Kusama, etc. are coming hard and fast into the genre scene, there is always work to be done to ensure that all confident voices looking to tell a story have the platform to tell it.
For this festival, I put a focus on a few of the short film blocks, if only because so many amazing horror filmmakers have had their big break through horror shorts, which can really show how a filmmaker can effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) tell an engaging and frightening story in a short amount of time. These shorts and the curation of the individual themes of the festival just are a wonderful reminder of the power that horror can hold in its traditionally ugly and dark motifs. Many of these films don’t lack the things that make horror moving and scary just because of their short runtime, and some of them transform themselves through their shortcoming, making for some truly fun scares.
Perhaps the most refreshing block of shorts that came about was that of the Queer Horror shorts block, which put a focus on queer, trans, and non-binary femme voices. While femme visions are hard to come by in horror, finding those of queer femme visions are even harder.
Skin by Audrey Rosenberg
Skin, directed by Audrey Rosenberg, details the sometimes-horrific feelings that body dysmorphia can wreak on a person’s mind through the eyes of a teenage trans boy. It utilizes many elements of Cronenbergian body horror (not my favorite type of horror, but so perfectly fitting for this story being told) to wonderfully illustrate the journey our protagonist goes on and how horrific things might not be all that horrific beyond a first glance. It’s a shame the film is hindered by a slow first act that doesn’t really go anywhere, but its finale is a stunningly moving tribute to the beauty of trans bodies.
Tea Parties for Babies by Teja LoBreglio
Tea Parties for Babies is a quirky little horror-romance film by Teja LoBreglio that is equal parts flirtatious romp and cautionary tale of feeling accepted by a crowd. Following Emily, a young queer woman living in a suburb of New York, as she follows Bunny, a beautiful, confident woman just a few years older than her, tempting her with a good time in the city. Emily soon finds herself down a rabbit hole of mystery, intrigue, and terror inside one of New York’s hottest nightclubs. While genre films with allusions to Alice in Wonderland are far from uncommon, LoBreglio’s campy, lighthearted romp works thanks to its likable leads and interesting queer storylines.
Labrys by BJ Colangelo
Labrys, by BJ Colangelo, is a lean, exceedingly simple tale of vengeance following a homophobic attack during a date between two women. It’s definitely a bit more high-concept than the others, having to pour its resources into the visual effects of its final moments, and it does sometimes feel like a more fleshed-out story is being sidelined for said moments, but the brief lead-up still works thanks to the unconventional chemistry between the two leads. It doesn’t mask the tonal issues the film has, but it’s still padded nicely with two very good things.
Destruction Makes the World Brighter by Kalen Artinian
I could also say the same regarding Kalen Artinian’s Destruction Makes the World Brighter, a high-concept piece that pulls a large-scale story into a very intimate story of the physical sacrifices that have to be made for someone you love during times of strife, in this case, a zombie apocalypse. Tonal issues are also what left me feeling a bit distant from this one, as its dark, heavy air is followed-up by a twist ending (and resulting visual effects) that turn the film into something more like a B-movie than that of anything emotionally resonant.
Blood Orange by Aliya Haq
Then comes Blood Orange, the film I had really been waiting for in a block of queer horror shorts. Made at Columbia College in Chicago, this short resembles that of Chicago-set horror feature Knives and Skin, if said feature had leaned far heavier into the supernatural element and hyper-colorful color palette. Blood Orange just shows how fucking awesome Chicago gays are at creating engaging art through a singular aesthetic; basically if Saved By The Bell somehow took place at Chernobyl (after the meltdown). It’s definitely a bit campy, but it embraces that fully and completely, telling the story of a young server at a smoothie cafe that discovers what the addicting Blood Orange smoothie actually contains within it. This is a short that has everything: neon makeup, cheesy visual effects, lesbianism, characters who look like Lisa Marie would play them in the mid-’90s. It might not make a grand statement on the nature of queerness within the confines of horror, but it’s a bitingly fun little short that shows the fun side of queer macabreness.
Following the Queer Horror shorts is the Folk Tales shorts block. Focusing on the myths and legends of history taking form in modern society, the Folk Tales block is where this festival becomes truly international, telling the stories of cultures all around the world, including a few from countries I can’t say I’ve ever experienced films from in general, let alone horror.
Drum Wave by Natalie Erika James
Shockingly, my biggest realization of this block is that I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a Chinese horror film before. Apparently, China’s censors are often so demanding with toning down horror films that they are just passed over completely. Natalie Erika James’s Drum Wave, while technically an Australian production, checks the box of the first Chinese-language horror film I’ve ever seen. It follows a pianist during a visit to her husband’s family home. Her trip is marred by a supernatural presence challenging her fear of motherhood and family tradition. This is a short that I dearly wished could’ve been a feature, to which my hopes were met in the news that Drum Wave is to become a feature as James’s next project (following her recent first feature premiere, Relic, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival). This is a subtle, slower film that really is the type of stuff that is pandering to me and specifically me. In a short amount of time, James explores the nature of fertility, in-laws, and the real mystery of intimate relationships and the beds you share. It’s one of the best I saw at the festival.
The Boogeywoman by Erica Scoggins
The Boogeywoman by Erica Scoggins is a strangely similar piece that, rather than exploring a grown Chinese woman’s fear of motherhood at her in-laws’, follows a young woman’s fear of “womanhood” after getting her first period at a skating rink with her friends. Being the last of her friends to get it, there’s shame and lack of understanding from the perspective of her friends, which manifests itself into a supernatural spirit within her with a hunger for vengeance. The Boogeywoman isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, utilizing a far more intimate and hyper-Americana approach to its tale, it’s a surprisingly grounded look at Western ideas of womanhood through menstruation and the tragic ridiculousness of it all. It’s got that soft aesthetic found in that of Sofia Coppola films and has the subtle allegorical storytelling that we would expect of her, filtered through a dark and horrifying lens.
The Doula by Sarah Elliot
The Doula is a short that on paper, is something I would eat up, in that it looks to be a biting satire of the nature of gentrification (specifically, that of Brooklyn) and commodification of traditional medicine as a hot new trend among said gentrifiers. Unfortunately, the film lacks the gravitas that’s needed to create truly effective satire, settling for a campy B-movie effect in the end. And yes, while campy B-movies are incredibly fun, and this film does put in the work to make sure that the effects of it all are top-notch, I can’t help but feel like something was missing from The Doula, something that would’ve given it a bit more bite in its execution.
Always Going, Never Gone by Wanda Nolan
The same could also be said for Always Going, Never Gone, a beautifully shot, but narratively empty Canadian short that tells the story of a folklorist seeking information from the last surviving member of a forgotten community in Newfoundland. The biggest thing with the film that keeps it from telling the story on paper as effectively as it does visually is that the film utilizes a ton of ambiguity in its storytelling which, unfortunately, doesn’t always transfer over perfectly. This leaves the film feeling less ambiguous and more incomplete.
Hunting Season by Shannon Kohli
Conversely, the next short, Hunting Season by Shannon Kohli is some Canadian horror that is *extremely* my shit. Following a young woman working the graveyard shift at a rural gas station, she must deal with the paranoia and chaos of the community dealing with attacks from an unidentified creature. Throughout the night, she must ease the tensions of her patrons, while eventually coming to the realization of what exactly is killing everyone in the area. While the film’s finale does leave a bit to be desired, Hunting Season paces itself near-perfectly in building a world of tension and atmosphere in an uncannily liminal manner. Everything about it feels so familiar (in a good way) and real that, regardless of what the revelation ends up being, there’s a level of involvement and fear that permeates through the screen from the film’s neutral neon aesthetic, to its nuanced performances, and the visual effects that, for a horror short, are nothing short of fantastic.
Xiomara by Loelle Monsanto
Much like Drum Wave, Xiomara is an international first for me, as it is the first film originating from Suriname that I’ve ever seen. In fact, as much as I pride myself on world knowledge and geography, I had to double-check where Suriname was and that they did indeed speak Dutch just to be sure of myself. This short is a big reminder to me that Caribbean folklore is some of the darkest, most interestingly macabre of any cultures on the planet, and it’s underrepresented in film and by filmmakers actually hailing from these places (Suriname is technically in northern South America). Anchoring ancient folklore in the modern social media age shows just how much of a grip these stories can hold on a society beyond spooking children and are woven into the fabric of individual cultures and peoples. It’s not the scariest short I saw by any means, but it’s one where, come its finale, made me want more from the filmmaker, the region, and the country of Suriname itself because there are some major talents to be found there.
Vinegar Baths by Amanda Nell Eu
Rounding out the Folk Tales shorts is Malaysian short Vinegar Baths. Telling the story of a malevolent female spirit taking the form of a nurse in a maternity unit, Vinegar Baths is definitely the strangest film I saw at the festival. Based on the Malaysian myth of Penanggalan, a headless demon that feasts on the blood of newborns and bathes in vinegar after the fact, Vinegar Baths follows a nurse in a maternity ward that feasts on the weaknesses of pregnant women and steals their babies. This is a tale that’s very folky, but it’s told in a way that modernizes the brutal and often hyper-violent nature of so many legends passed down from the generations unto children. This is not a fun short film to watch, but it’s one that is a deeply unsettling tale of violence that features some great visuals. It’s gross and heavy, but doesn’t good horror sometimes have to be that? Horror isn’t supposed to be comfortable.
Rounding out the short blocks is the true-crime shorts, which do quite a bit to expand upon the parameters of “horror” by bringing said horror down to reality and showing us what we should fear in our daily lives, as opposed to the grand cosmic visions of what we could fear.
Last Seen by Drew Van Steenburgen
Last Seen kicks off the True Crime shorts with humor, following a woman who is facing a lull in her unsolved murder podcast and is about to be dropped by her producers if she fails to produce another episode for them. In her time of struggle, she learns how to take the trajectory of her true-crime podcast into her own, bloodied, grizzled hands. This is definitely the most lighthearted of any of the films at the festival, but it juggles that tone with a nihilistic and violent bite that brings it into perfect balance, balance that most comedy-horror set pieces lack.
Kaya by Catherine Fordham
Kaya is perhaps the most grounded horror film at the festival, briefly and concisely demonstrating the very real horror that sex trafficking holds for so many girls all over the country. Following an unnamed young woman in New Mexico, floating from trucker motel to trucker motel looking for her sister, Luna, who has been kidnapped by violent sex traffickers. In her search, she finds another victim named Kaya, and, in her struggle, discovers an obligation within her to help free all the victims of sex trafficking she can find. Kaya is a film that does feel a bit narratively incomplete, constrained a bit by its short runtime, but one that utilizes all of the emotionally-charged terror to involve the audience from beginning to end. It’s grimy, nasty, violent and horrifying, and if that isn’t horror in its purest form, I’m not sure what is.
South Shore by Xavier Hamel
South Shore is perhaps, at least by standard genre constraints, the least “horror” film of the festival, but it’s also one of the more emotionally resonant pieces of short filmmaking I’ve seen in a while. After the brutal murder of a young woman in a sleepy town in Quebec, a suburban woman must come to grips with the reality of the crime that occurred, and the information she holds inside herself about the crime. The best way to describe South Shore is if Xavier Dolan took a crack at a murder mystery. With all of the salacious, sensationalist routes the film could’ve taken, director Xavier Hamel approaches the material with a sobering look at the collateral damage that brutal crimes take on their surrounding communities beyond just the victim ,all culminating in a scene that brings together the different facets of grief and guilt into an emotionally devastating show of emotion not brought about in many shorts.
Children of Satan by Thea Hvistendahl
The last short of the festival I saw was the Norwegian short Satan’s Children (there’s some confusion whether the title is Satan’s Children or Satan’s Barn, until you realize that “Barn” is the Norwegian word for “children”), which is by-and-large the most polished and fully-realized short of the festival. Taking on a cold and constricting aesthetic from the start, Satan’s Children follows two young girls at a Christian summer camp tasked with welcoming a new camper among their ranks. Upon arrival, the girls soon realize that this new camper holds much darker and more violent secrets than they could imagine, and soon they find themselves tempted to the darkness by her strangely off-putting magnitude. Beyond that, it’s hard to describe Satan’s Children without spoiling the entire thing, and Thea Hvistendahl’s riveting little film here should be entered into with as little knowledge as possible. Evoking the cold feeling of Scandi-noir films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as the paradoxically constricting agoraphobia of films surrounded by immense nature such as Hereditary, this is a film that, despite its cheesy title, examines the complicated relationship between children and organized religion, and the pros and cons of indoctrinated morals on young minds. It’s certainly less supernatural than one might assume it to be on the surface, but the film culminates to a surprisingly quiet finale that hits a more devastating note than one could ever get from a slam-bang finale.
Swallow by Carlo Mirabel
There was time for one feature while covering the festival, that of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow, executive produced by filmmaker Joe Wright and soon to be released by IFC Films, to which there will be a full review posted for around release. In short, however, Swallow is a film that follows a pregnant housewife, played by Haley Bennett, who finds a strange obsession with swallowing household items that definitely should not be swallowed. This is both an excellent film, as well as one that I absolutely never, under any circumstances, want to watch again, but that seems to be the point. A domestic body horror film that focuses on the effects of familial abuse and the ways people learn to “cope” with that holds so much more emotionally raw power than one could expect from the film’s admittedly gimmicky premise on paper. Bennett is one of our most underrated actresses of her generation and everything should be done to protect her in this industry, because that’s how good she is in this film. It’s a moving and absolutely gut-wrenching film that gets you worked up over things that are hardly what you could describe as “traditional gore,” but approaches the material with the same dexterity that someone like Darren Aronofsky would do with a script that seems to be co-authored by Sofia Coppola and David Cronenberg…actually, I might watch this movie again. It’s too good to ignore.
For a film festival still in its burgeoning roots, the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival is off to the right foot on so many levels. Placing a heavy focus on undiscovered talent, both in short and feature-length films, as well as celebrating the beauty that is both the horror genre as well as the work of female and non-binary directors is pretty fucking spiffy, if you ask me. In a perfect world, horror films and films directed by women would be accepted at all of the big “normal” film festivals as much as prestige dramas directed by men are, but a perfect world is a long way off, and until then, the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival is a hell of a good first step in that representation we need.
For information on the festival, head to the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival official website.