Despite the ongoing COVID crisis, this year the Sundance crew rolled up their sleeves and made sure Sundance ’21 was a (virtual) festival to be proud of. We were lucky enough to attend, and saw 11 new horrors (including some horror-adjacent thrillers and a doc). But which ones really hit the spot? Read on…
The best three horrors at Sundance 2021 were…
We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (USA; Dir: Jane Schoenbrun)
A girl signs up for an online horror game, with unpredictable consequences. Skating the edge of horror, it’s a great portrayal of the a place where ultra-online psychology meets teenage coming-of-age mythologising and the joys and dangers of reimagining yourself. Often zigging where you expect it to zag, this may even be the ultimate creepypasta movie in the way that it really digs into that subculture while deconstructing so many recent trends in horror cinema.
In a performance where she’s rarely off-screen, and often looking directly into the camera, Anna Cobb is phenomenal throughout. A star is born at the World’s Fair!
Censor (UK; Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond)
Prano Bailey-Bond’s directorial debut follows Enid, a BBFC censor in the stuffy Britain of 1985, as she investigates why certain scenes from a banned video nasty remind her so much of her own missing sister. Enid is played with a wonderfully stern-faced, buttoned-down quality by Niamh Algar, alongside a delicious Michael Smiley cameo as a sleazy film director whom she suspects knows more than he’s letting on.
Part Berberian Sound Studio, part Lost Highway, this is a fugue-state love letter to early 80s VHS horror that mixes in some ripe portrayals of office sexism, anxiety, loneliness, and guilt. As derealisation and paranoia set in, Censor becomes a gorgeous journey into the darkness, with shot after shot that you’ll just want to take home and frame.
This film makes for a fabulous calling card for its director – funny, stylish, atmospheric, and unsettling. Whatever becomes of Enid, the future of British horror is alive and well in the hands of Prano Bailey-Bond. Cut!
In The Earth (UK; Dir: Ben Wheatley)
Written under pressure during the UK’s first lockdown of 2020, and filmed speedily under quarantine conditions during the brief gap before the country’s second lockdown. Ben Wheatley has returned to some of his favourite themes and delivered another roaring success.
We follow Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and his guide, Alma (Elloria Torchia) on an arduous multi-day trek to reach a research site deep in an unnamed arboreal forest. Their target: the elusive Dr Wendle, who was closing in a great discovery before dropping completely off the grid. But they are not alone, and soon they leave science behind and enter the world of myth.
From the beginning, Wheatley establishes folk horror themes, with references to a powerful nature spirit that dwells in the forest, and a mysterious plague that’s ravaging the unseen cities of the land. But In The Earth is playful with its genres, and soon adds elements of buddy comedies, torture horror and psychedelic sci-fi to the mix.
Fry, Torchia and Reece Shearsmith (as a mysterious camper) are all great, and the movie is at its best when those three are together on screen. Fry’s Dr Lowry is subjected to increasingly nasty physical tribulations, and his despondent responses had me giggling into my sleeve. At points, it’s as if Eeyore had wandered into the set of Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005). Shearsmith’s ability to menace remains as strong as ever, Torchia is magnetic, and Fry underplays the dark humour perfectly, reacting with glum despair at everything inflicted on him
The third act aims for transcendence in the vein of Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974), 2001:A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), or Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018). It’s certainly heavy on the strobes – good luck watching this if you’ve got epilepsy!
These three were also very good…
John And The Hole (USA; Dir: Pascual Sisto)
A boy discovers a bunker, and to his immense joy manages to trap his family in it. Freedom for me, but not for thee! With Michael C Hall playing the father of this particular sociopath, I couldn’t help but think of this as Dexter: The Next Generation. Jennifer Ehle and Taissa Farmiga round out the rest of the trapped family, and all are superb.
John and the Hole clearly inherits its chilly observation styles from early Haneke and Dogtooth-era Lanthimos (although the director seemed to bristle slightly at this in the Q&A… but come on, the similarities are overwhelming). It also has a fun meta element that I won’t give away here. I will say though that the meta aspect, which threatened to take the film to the next level and make it a minor classic, eventually petered out in a way I found rather unsatisfying. But it’s a fun journey, with a nice drone shot gag in there too…
Ultimately John and the Hole may seem a little familiar to its target audience, but its playfulness and verve make this a winner.
Eight For Silver (UK/Fr/Ire; Dir: Sean Ellis)
At first glance, British director Sean Ellis’s (Metro Manilla, Anthropoid) 19th century quasi-werewolf flick is a loving homage to all things Hammer. When a tribe of Romany peasants lay claim to a tract of land, pompous local baron Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie – Cloud Atlas, Rogue One) decides he’s in no mood to negotiate, and sends in some mercenaries to scare them off – with predictably bloody results. As the last of the Romany dies, she places a curse on him, his children and his community: a curse based on a solid silver set of fanged dentures she clutches in her hands. It’s not long before the local children start sharing dreams about a ghostly scarecrow… and then the killings start.
So far so traditional, although cursed teeth are at least an intriguing addition to werewolf lore, and for a while Eight For Silver makes for relatively slow going. Around the halfway point, though, things really pick up. Ellis wanders even further off-piste with his werewolf lore, portraying the werewolves as almost shark-like, hairless beings, and mixing in body horror imagery – certain images reminded me of The Thing and even Species 3.
Improving as it builds up steam, the film has a third act that’s a grandiose romp. Kelly Reilly gives good value throughout as the beaten-down Baroness, and the mostly-moored compositions are gorgeous to look at. Never less than deadpan, Eight for Silver is nonetheless at its best when it’s at its campest and most winkingly referential.
Violation (Can; Dirs: Dusty Mancinelli, Madeleine Sims-Fewer)
This twisty, thorny deconstruction and problematization of the rape revenge genre has a couple of great scenes, including a fabulously tense set-piece in the middle. But it can feel slightly over-directed at time – and its central innovation, a fractured chronology designed to obscure any sense of catharsis, took away more than it gave by making the storyline confusing. A frustrating film that occasionally brushes with excellence. Recommended for people interested in the ways directors (and in particular female directors) are reconfiguring and exploring this dangerous terrain.
These three are also worth a look…
Prime Time (Poland; Dir: Jakub Piatek) – In 1999, 20-year-old Sebastian locks himself and two hostages in a TV studio. He has a gun and message, but will anybody be listening?
First-time feature director Piatek claims Prime Time is a ‘fantasy of revolt and rebellion’. I didn’t get that at all. Instead it’s a solid one-location (almost) thriller, which drops off a little as it gets into the second act.
There’s some fun when a second network gets involved, but ultimately this doesn’t go to interesting enough places, but some of the inter-character back-and-forth on the way is pretty good (and surprisingly funny?). It seems to peak emotionally somewhere near the middle, as the gunman negotiates with his own dad, and then can’t quite find somewhere to go after that. A shame, as by some light restructuring (putting that parental confrontation at the climax, for example) this could have been excellent.
Still, Prime Time is nicely played by the ensemble cast, and features some fun 1999 nostalgia – notably some shots of the Macarena, and Gala’s eurodance banger Freed From Desire blasting out over the end credits.
Knocking (Sweden; Dir: Frida Kempff) – Molly hears knocking coming from the attic of her new apartment. Is someone trapped? In a deep heatwave, she struggles to find the source, and as the situation escalates she wonders… why doesn’t anybody care? (Remember… as the saying goes: Just because you’re psychotic doesn’t mean there might not be a woman chained up in your apartment block.)
Knocking feels like a cousin of cooped-up lady starts to doubt her reality films such as Repulsion. It’s nicely shot and acted, but the plot felt just a little too thin – clearly there’ll either there’ll be a woman held prisoner or there won’t, and we end up kind of waiting things out to see which option they go with. It does however feature a needle drop of You Don’t Own Me, which of course absolutely slaps.
Recommend for big fans of House of Psychotic Women.
Prisoners of the Ghostland (Japan/US; Dir: Sion Sono) – A shotgun-toting Nicolas Cage must tear Samurai Town apart in a bid to find the Mayor’s daughter. Not that he wants to – it’s just that he’s been sown into a leather suit that’s set to self-destruct. Cult favourite Sono directs Cage in a film that wants to be an unhinged, delirious spin on Fury Road and Escape from New York. But financial and production worries behind the scenes clearly had an impact – the film sorely misses the big chase action sequence(s) that were cut at the last minute, and what we have left feels like a firecracker thrown at the floor that fails to go off. Still, there are some potent ideas on the way (lots of Hiroshima and Fukushima imagery), and if you like Nicholas in ‘wildcat’ mode he has at least one line here that seems destined to end up in any Cage Supercut worth its salt.
And a couple that had a swing and a miss…
Documentary A Glitch In The Matrix (USA; Dir: Rodney Asher) took a look at “simulation theory” but failed to deliver anything beyond numerous YouTube videos on the same subject (World on a Wire, which the Matrix infamously steals from, didn’t even get a mention). And The Blazing World (USA; Dir: Carlson Young) riffed on Labyrinth via Von Trier and Gilliam, which sounds great, I know… but the resulting adult fairy-tale felt like an exercise in imitation, lacking spark or power. Young does have a great face for this sort of thing though – she gives a truly wonderful grimace at one point, eyes wide mouth full of terror. I do hope we see more of her.