SXSW Film Festival 2022: The Cellar

When it comes to horror, I’m always rooting for a win. As with any film, of any genre, I go into it hoping to be elated, engaged, and by its end, proud.

With The Cellar, the film started by intriguing me right away. A family moves into a new, obviously creepy house, and there are haunted vibes that are hard to ignore. Yet, somehow, they do. Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and her husband and co-worker Brian (Eoin Macken), daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz), and son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady), check out the strange home, including the ominous cellar. Ellie seems to be the only one noticing the glaringly obvious TURN BACK signs, including strange mathematical symbols above the doors.

For me, the beginning and the end are really what works (with a middle section that tries way too hard to be a combination of horror tropes). There is a very creepy scene with Elisha Cuthbert on the phone with her daughter who is terrified as she has to go to the cellar when the power goes out. As she steps down she counts (which is her mom’s suggestion to combat fear, but it also ironically ties into the narrative too? HMM…). It’s a suspenseful sequence as her voice changes, almost stilled, soulless, eerie. I felt like this was going somewhere intriguing. Then it halted that impulse with a regression that reminded me of more successful, past horrors.

When her daughter then disappears, it’s clear that this new home the family got at a steal (shocker) isn’t so inviting. At first, everyone seems to think she’s run away, but her mother knows something more sinister is at play. Their relationship is clearly fractured early on (partly because of her parent’s job with social media and influencers, and her own struggles there) but it’s something that isn’t fully developed.

In fact, there are several moments that invoke a sense of a chilled, endless space, with visuals that stick with you. There’s a scene where the stairs to the cellar seem to go on forever, and you’re left wondering… where does it go? What kind of hellish arrival will await this family? If only they had leaned into that creepy impulse, this film may have gone another way.

Brendan Muldowney writes and directs, and while The Cellar was disappointing to me, and I truly wanted to love it, I’m still curious to see what he does next because there is some value to take away. One of the other biggest gripes with the film was the lighting, at times it was like we were completely in the dark, and it didn’t infer fear, just frustration.

source: SXSW Film Festival

Then the film pivots, leaning into its slow-burn too much. The insistence on horror tropes makes the movie fumble in its middle section, and even the last stretch, which shows some great promise, doesn’t make up for its downfalls. There are some interesting elements involving math (personally scary to me- HA) and folklore, but it doesn’t feel fully delivered. In some ways, its choice to go into “other dimensions” feels underdeveloped, and out there just for the sake of being “out there.”

Cuthbert is terrific, empowering as a mother trusting her maternal instincts that something is wrong and not giving up on her daughter. It was great to see her return to horror, but the movie doesn’t fully capitalize on an interesting idea. Instead, it lingers too much on its weak points, and refurbished brands, while losing the overall scope of what made it fascinating, to begin with. I can’t help but wonder what it could have been. This is what makes the film so disappointing to me: a premise that doesn’t take.

The Cellar premiered at SXSW Film Festival 2022

SXSW Film Festival 2022: Jethica

When originality seems so rare these days, it’s refreshing to feel inspired after seeing a film, especially when it’s a strange, surprisingly standout ghost story.

Elena (Callie Hernandez) runs into a friend she hasn’t seen for some time, Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson), while looking after her grandmother’s home. The two head back to catch up, and she finds out that Jessica is trying to get away from her very insistent, relentless stalker Kevin (Will Madden). Elena, sharing some details with a person we only hear, after an intimate encounter, tells the story. A lot of what really happens is shrouded in mystery for a while, but it is clear both of these women are running from their own sort of demons.

There is an abundance of black humor worked within that makes this 70 minutes soar by. There are times when I was laughing out loud, and by its end, I was audibly saying, “aww.” I don’t want to give away too much, but within this property, there’s an underlying (and not fully explained) magical presence that traps ghosts in its midst. So, basically, if your body is brought to the property, you’ll be stuck there (though there are three ways to get rid of ghosts, as we soon learn).

Pete Ohs directs and also co-writes with Andy Faulkner, Callie Hernandez, Will Madden and Ashley Denise Robinson (talk about a collaboration). It’s a character-driven take on ghost stories, giving us a personal and yet entertaining foray. At times chilling, at times ethereal, Jethica hits some key, ghoulish notes.

source: SXSW Film Festival

The environment of New Mexico is not only utilized but also used to enhance the sensation of these characters’ isolation. It’s beautifully filmed, with some terrific long shots.

There’s a lot to unpack with Jethica, more than you may even realize until the credits roll. It wields its humor with a sharpness that never feels forced but still manages to make you feel.

It simultaneously seems ominous and yet hopeful. It mixes genres, and with strong lead performances, the film keeps us wondering what exactly will happen. Even as the movie came towards its close I wasn’t sure, and I was worried it would be anti-climatic. But, by its finish, I was happy with its decisions and it felt warranted. I can imagine others handling this differently, but its sensitive end felt more in tandem with the story being told.

This shows how a low-budget, minimalist approach can be effective, especially when the characters and themes loom so large. The supernatural, the dangers of stalkers, and the sense of connection and contentment all play a role in this intriguing mix. There’s clearly love put into this picture. It portrays stalking in a real way, while also expressing vast amounts of humanity and charm.

Quirky, hilarious, and somehow cathartic, this movie perfects just the right amount of earnest charm. It maximizes on its dry humor while honing it’s bittersweet mentality and terrific performances, all residing within an unique ghost story. Ultimately compelling and wholly original, I loved Jethica. So far, this festival’s standout!

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Resurrection

Resurrection had me scratching my head in ponderous turmoil more than any other film at this year’s fest. On one hand, I was applauding Rebecca Hall’s spectacular performance (when doesn’t she though, really?) On the opposite side of things, I found that the film struggles with the fatigue it puts on the characters, and subsequently the audience, by credits end.

And its ending goes really hard, kind of emulating Titane but without the tenderness. The final scenes feel harsh and shocking, heavy on ambivalence. That’s not to say this doesn’t have it, it certainly does. I’m actually grateful for its final shots because it seemed like the director made a choice and decided to just go there. Not to mention that it is worth it alone to see Rebecca Hall give such a tour de force.

Margaret (Rebecca Hall) and her daughter seem to live a fairly safe, fruitful life, but as we often see when her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) – who is on the cusp of leaving for college – leaves or does anything reckless, she is very worried. It’s normal for mothers to be concerned, but as Resurrection gives us tidbits of explanations for what happened to Margaret in the past it becomes painfully clear that it was something very bad. Not just bad, but bizarre, horrifying. Some of the storytelling is aimed unevenly, making aspects harder to take in.

source: Sundance Film Festival

Enter the menacing Tim Roth as David. The first time she sees him she has a panic attack and that fear and hold he has over her is only magnified as we scrape away the armor she’s built up to protect herself from this, well…monster. I won’t go into the details, but he’s quite creepy, and incredibly manipulative. It is one of the most effective portrayals of emotional manipulation I have seen, and it’s truly terrifying to see the grip he exhibits over her, even now, and when she finally gives us the excruciatingly disturbing monologue (to a coworker not quite equipped for it) of their past, it shakes you.

Andrew Semans writes and directs this feature that shows trauma astutely, emphasizing psychological horror in an intriguing way, that borders on incredulous. Even in its extremes though, it ultimately is conveyed believably due to his lead star.

We all have our pushing points, and Margaret begins to unravel; a complete opposite of what we see in the beginning of the film: disciplined, put together. Her past comes back to unnerve her, but she’s strong and won’t give up without a fight.

Resurrection isn’t perfectly done but it brings such an intensity that it’s difficult to ignore. The performances alone are electric. It’s outrageousness will either impress or disgust (maybe both) but you won’t forget it. It bewildered me some.

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Dual

When Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds out she has an incurable disease that will take her life, her next step, obviously – is to choose whether or not she wants to get a clone of herself made. Because, of course, in Dual‘s reality, that’s not only an option, but it is encouraged. It allows you to prepare your loved ones for your demise, and make it easier when you’re gone, because, well, a version of you will remain.

There isn’t a whole lot of consideration, but an hour later and we’ve got two Sarahs.

When she receives the good news that she is no longer dying, she is told her clone is set to be recommissioned. Unless, the double wants a life for herself, then she can request a duel to the death. For there can only be one Sarah.

Not only that, but after some time, the loves ones in her life seem to prefer the replacement. Overall, Dual‘s future and Sarah’s apathy towards existence is pretty damn bleak. By its close, I can’t say that aspect has changed much, but it’ll leave you thinking, and hopefully laughing along the way.

In one of her best performances, Karen Gillan nails the dry deadpan, bouncing between intentionally stoic and yet infallibly human. Before this happened she was in an unhappy relationship, brimming with loneliness and complacency for life. When she finds out she’s sick it strikes as more inconvenient than tragic, but by the film’s end, she displays a ferocity that makes her rootable.

This isn’t a film teaming with likable characters, and everything is given to us in a matter-of-fact way that’s both awkward and strange, yet delivered in a way that makes the audience feel like the odd ones. It pulls some inspiration from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster.

That’s also part of the charm. Stearns’ subverts expectations throughout the movie, making it hard to know exactly where things will go next. It’s tragic, and it is cynical so it’s bound to be divisive among viewers. The purposely stiff performances and mashup of tones and genres may make some woozy.

I like my science fiction film to have an element of the strange with a clever bite. Dual most certainly has that and there is more to appreciate than snicker at. Its bold ideas kept me intrigued, and was not at all what I was expecting, proving that Riley Stearns has a signature style that can really entertain. Aaron Paul plays Trent her trainer for the dual, and he is also hilarious. Some of their scenes are my favorite within the film, including an unexpected dance lesson and a slow-motion fight training session. For the most part though, this is Gillan’s film, and she manages to hold it the whole way through.

source: Sundance Film Festival

I found myself consistently engaged, curious where things would end up. But we didn’t need a dog to die, (just saying) and preparing anyone who needs to know it prior to going in.

Little flourishes, especially when it comes to the comedy, really sold me on the film. The narrative leans on humor more than the intellectual, which doesn’t always pay off. Did it astound? No. But, it took its swings, and finished with a bold finale.

With absurdity in troves, Dual takes an introspective approach and consideration for the will to live and claim your life. The dark comedy sci-fi has a lot to appreciate, especially the deadpan delivery and quirky storytelling choices (love the dialogue). Karen Gillan & Aaron Paul are pitch-perfect.

Bottom line: Don’t get a clone.

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Speak No Evil

The effects of this movie, and its final scenes still cling to my bones. Speak No Evil winded down with a quick and punching descent into significant darkness, and it left me pondering the details I had consumed in the previous 70+ minutes of watching. Shook.

This is how horror is meant to be. The foreboding, the casual (but not really casual) cues that something is amiss. For most of Speak No Evil it feels like -to an extent- an awkward social exchange that most of us have dealt with. Especially with someone you hardly know, but are too polite to point out. You tuck away your discomfort and do the strange dance around the issue until it’s time to leave. Or is it?

Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) and daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) meet Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders) and their son while on vacation. What a wonderful surprise! Right? They instantly hit it off, so when they’re invited to visit them in their home in Holland for a long weekend, they say yes. Even when they aren’t sure if it’s a good idea. You can feel their uncertainty, sense their apprehension, but, especially if you’re someone who hates to displease, the glass half full ideal makes you wonder… is it okay?

source: Sundance Film Festival

Christian Tafdrup co-writes and directs with a script that really hits. The tension builds to a point that’s unavoidable. Our leads are terrific, making this situation feel grounded even in its most exaggerated moments. The direction captures this too, making each leer of the camera or close up of precariousness, apt.

I love the progression of Speak No Evil. As you’d expect the tension grows and that pit in your stomach gnaws. This family is kind, and they genuinely want to give this new couple the benefit of the doubt. However, if there’s a film that proves listening to your gut is crucial, this is it. Folks, trust that, please. Things move from odd, to off, to completely unnatural, taking our emotions for a ride. I was perceptibly uneasy for most, remembering my own experiences of awkward first-ish encounters. This plays like a dry comedy that could be laughed off later to a worst case, horrifying scenario.

What transgresses is the worst of situations, with so many cringe moments where you want to simultaneously hug and yell at the cast. Our couple is smart, they know something is wrong, but they are also passive, which, is exactly why they are in this conundrum. The writing emphasizes this, balancing between sympathy and frustration. I reflected a lot on this film after seeing it, and I’m certain every detail was intentional.

With a no holds barred ending that is shocking, even if it is to a degree expected (though who knew it would look like this), Speak No Evil plays with our fears, and tickles our curiosity, ultimately delivering on the things we don’t want to face: people can be terrifying.

Speak No Evil premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd.

Sundance Film Festival 2022: Fresh

As the credits rolled for Fresh, the feature directorial debut of Mimi Cave (Yesss female horror directors), had me in between a holler and a cheer. In many ways, this disturbing, twisted take had me quite uncomfortable, but much like other satirical horrors, it also had me laughing and enthralled.

At first, Fresh shows us the unfortunate sides of dating, especially when you don’t fully know who it is you’re running into at the grocery store. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) admits early on that she is tired of the scene and from her opening disaster of a date, it’s easy to know why. When she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) it almost seems too good to be true. And, well, it most certainly is. It takes its time coming to the opening credits as our lovely opening meet-cute is cut drastically, direly short. Reality hits, well – slaps, swings, hard, and Steve is not who Noa thought he was. In fact, his intentions are quite nefarious, and their long romantic weekend becomes a nightmare. It doesn’t take long for her best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) to grow concerned, and she begins her own quest to find Noa.

There are a lot of truly grotesque and discomforting moments in the movie. As with most of the like, I think it is best if you don’t know a lot going in, but if you’re faint at heart, know your stomach will be turned. The style and storytelling prowess make even the harsher moments easier to digest (couldn’t help myself there).

source: Sundance Film Festival

Sebastian Stan as Steve is just fantastic, both creepy and charming, with biting moments of humor. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as our lead is courageous, intelligent, and also hilarious. The chemistry between these two, including the angry static that grows between, is part of why this film really pops. As the film moves and things become dire and tension is at the max, Noa proves to be a real beguiling match for Steve. Aesthetically, Fresh keeps its bite, and with the screenplay by Mimi Cave and Lauryn Kahn, it utilizes what it has in plenty. In the third act the story goes a bit as expected, but not without its own details that make it simmer, and ultimately satisfying.

It moves from a rom-com gone wrong to a tense fight for survival that will ultimately make you squirm as much as chuckle. There’s a fluency to the genre shifts that never feels artificial. The dark humor cuts when it hits. The film mostly takes place in a single location heightening the tension and stakes as we witness the women at the throes of Steve and his plans. Our leads truly commit to the roles, giving us an enthralling thriller that doesn’t skimp on waste. Stan seems to really have fun with the performance which translates to the audience. There’s a scene where he’s dancing as he “works” (terrific soundtrack) that harks back to the Huey Lewis one in American Psycho.

Fresh works best when it marries the grossness factor with slick black humor, percolating to a place of truly provocative horror. The film really shows promise for Mimi Cave and I can’t wait to see what other delicacies she has in her freezer. Sorry, not sorry for the quips.

Fresh had it’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival on January 21st and will be hitting Hulu on March 4th.

TIFF21: MIDNIGHT MADNESS: You’re Not My Mother & Saloum

For the last week or so I’ve been lucky enough to watch a lot of impressive films virtually at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (for the rest of my coverage go here filminquiry.com). But for the most part, surprisingly, I haven’t seen a lot genre, specifically, horror films.

Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness, much like other festival that have midnight showings, is for the horrors: the strange and unusual (HELLO!). This year there were two I was able to catch that seemed especially born from a strange and eerie, and different… place: You’re Not my Mother & Saloum. Be on the lookout for both of these directors who are sure to continue to do imaginative work.

source: Toronto International Film Festival

You’re Not my Mother (Kate Dolan)

This folktale inspired story intertwines the youthful uncertainty of being a teenage girl, dealing with a loved one who a mental illness, as well as the supernatural/superstitions that come out of small towns and family secrets.

Char (Hazel Doupe) lives with her grandmother and mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who suffers from depression, and seems on the precipice of something bad. At school she has to deal with consistent bullying, that often goes dangerously too far. When her mother goes missing, and then returns, Char can tell something is wrong right away. Like the title suggests, this isn’t the woman -her mother- who left.

Her mother’s behavior continues to grow more unexpected and volatile. There are a few sequences where her actions are more odd than supernatural, and you aren’t sure if it’s mythical or just medical. Most of the film takes places inside the home, really spotlighting domestic discomforts and how any place can really become terrifying given the circumstances.

Kate Dolan‘s directorial feature debut dances a bit between psychological thriller and horror, effectively being terrifying at times, but often choosing a slow build, more tense, reveal. Using the changeling folklore and making it new, there’s an interesting idea at the center of You’re Not My Mother.

Occasionally the film moves too slow, with lulls that would threaten your attention if there wasn’t already an underlying sense of dread that keeps you invested. I think the story takes on a bold idea, but doesn’t entirely commit. I would have loved it if the film went weirder and darker, but still found a lot to appreciate. All of the performances are great, especially Hazel Doupe.

By blending folklore with horror, psychological with the supernatural, and relying on a quiet terror rather than a flashy reveal, You Are Not My Mother builds a creepy base for which the talent to stand on. I always love a good twist of folklore, and there are some scenes that are definitely unforgettable.

While it’s a simple story, it’s still an effective one. You Are Not My Mother utilizes talented performances, a creepy atmosphere, and an unescapable dread. Look out for Kate Dolan, horror-world!

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

source: Toronto International Film Festival

Crime? Horror? Western? Fantasy? Saloum mashes all of these genres up, spins them around, and produces something truly unique. As one of the biggest surprises for me at TIFF this year, this unexpected watch proved to be quite the spectacle.

Saloum is a confident directorial vision that manages to be both bizarre and absorbing. Over the course of its lean run time it manages to reinvent itself time and time again.

It starts with the three mercenaries, the “Bangui Hyenas” Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit (Mentor Ba) along with a drug trafficker. A badass opening scene gives us a quick intro to each of these different personalities. When they escape with millions in gold in tow, they soon realize they have to land their plane unplanned, in Saloum, Senegal. The group then heads to a local camp that is run by Omar (Bruno Henry). What starts off as an unexpected stop, soon switches to a purposeful destination. They aren’t alone here, with a few guests and staff residing, and some buried, dark, secrets.

There’s a lot of inspiration pulled from a variety of film styles and genres while also manufacturing something inventive. Saloum keeps the suspense alive while also making time for humor. The lively scores ensures that the pulse is kept high.

“Revenge is like a River.”

From the very beginning the ominous whisper of revenge lingers in the story, and when it finally comes to a screaming head, the events to follow include a supernatural fight for survival. You remember this is midnight madness, right?! Friend and foe have to team up if they are going to make it out alive. This unexpected group carries terrific chemistry, including Awa (Evelyn Ily Juhen) a mute guest, who proves she has just as much bravura as the rest.

Bursting with energy, Saloum doesn’t shy on being consistently entertaining. It’s not a perfect film by any means, at times feeling rushed, but it manages to create a lively mash up that is easily guaranteed to be something you haven’t seen before. While the film is brimming with talent, Yann Gael and Evelyn Ily Juhen were stand outs to me, though the chemistry of the entire cast, especially within the initial group is notable.

There’s really no waste with this fast-tempo’d thrill ride. Halfway through the film, once the curtain is down and the Wizard is – as you will- at colorful play, the film moves even faster, over-relying on horror and style and less on story. I would have appreciated a little bit more time with it, especially if it meant giving extended insight on certain elements. Yet, the movie still manages to sweep you up, and even if I feel like I’m dropped into a story that’s already got quite a past (something I’d love to see, Hyenas prequel anyone?) I enjoyed the ride.

I won’t give away some of what makes this constitute as a horror because it’s best going in knowing less, but once the movie goes into hyperdrive it is reeling with an pulpy almost video game aesthetic. I really loved the costumes, cinematography and the eye catching detail to color. It’s a bold, intriguing narrative that really soars with the help of the visual flair. It’s atmosphere and location are also both striking and unsettling.

Saloum spins a vibrant combination of genres and tones that makes for a blast of a viewing experience.

Were you able to see either of these? Let me know your thoughts!