The Sundance Film Festival has, in the past, been something of a showcase for a variety of genre flicks. Reservoir Dawgs, The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Primer, El Mariachi all became notable at least in part due to the attention they received at Sundance. This year horror films have had a pretty strong showing at the festival, with three in particular standing out receiving high praise and/or considerable attention.
The Witch: A New England Folktale has been lauded as one hell of a scary flick at The Dissolve, Indiewire, Variety and elsewhere. It was apparently attracting quite a crowd, already a decent sign. The fact that it has apparently lived up to the expectation that such crowds would suggest is a better sign. Headline terms such as “Impressively Eerie” and Uniquely Spooky” all but certify that this is one to watch for when it reaches a wider audience.
The premise is as straightforward as the title. A period piece set in the 17th century, it concerns an isolated family in a rural area dealing with evils that are the result of malevolent witchcraft.
While we’re on the subject of stories featuring witches, I figured I’d chime in briefly on the discussion about whether stories exploiting, focusing on or otherwise incorporating the real, murderous offenses that were witch trials are “troubling” or what have you. While I think it’s a fair issue to bring up, I also think it’s pretty easy to shoot down. Witchcraft, as presented in most works of genre fiction, is an element of lore. Witches are akin to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies; they are staples of horror. Actual, organized murders committed against innocent people during witch trials are obviously an appalling piece of history, but fiction is obviously a separate thing. Any halfway reasonable person shouldn’t see a movie where fictional, evil witches are presented as legitimately threatening and frightful as a justification for horrible shit that happened in the real life. Just like any halfway reasonable person wouldn’t see the actions of the fictional characters in the movie The Skeleton Key as justification for lynchings. And I think I’ve already laid out my stance on this blog that art and criticism shouldn’t cater or bend to zealots and lunatics who can’t qualify as at least “halfway reasonable.”
Moving on, It Follows has been on the radar for a little while already, having debuted to enthusiastic reviews last May in Cannes. The enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Slashfilm claims it is “the scariest horror film in years,” which, granted, is one of those phrases that seems suspiciously pre-made for blurb quote. It’s also generic enough to nearly be meaningless. (How many years? Two, three? Twenty-three? And “scariest in years” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually scary if nothing within the unknown number of years referenced has been all that scary to the reviewer.)
With that said, the unusual premise is already enough to bring it attention. It Follows concerns a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that causes the recipient to be, well, followed by an entity disguised as a human. It simply pursues you, patiently and relentlessly, never resting, with a brutal death being the end result of it catching you, and the only way to be rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but even that comes with a catch. On paper, it’s a little difficult to say whether this premise is silly or avant garde. It sort of sounds like The Ring with the videotape replaced by coitus. But regardless of your initial impression of the story idea, the execution has garnered almost universal praise, the horror and setting being described as “dreamlike,” “panic-rousing,” and “arresting.” And I have to admit, the trailer really sold me on it as an unconventional, highly unnerving horror flick.
So that makes two horror movies from Sundance that I’m eager to catch when they get an official release.
And that leaves us with Eli Roth’s Knock, Knock. Truth told, I’m not the biggest Eli Roth fan. I haven’t hated his movies, or even strongly disliked any of them, but I’m pretty indifferent to his “old-school, exploitative gore” aesthetic. I’m not averse to gore, but if you’re going to go Grand Guignol and showcase it in a manner that makes the gore the primary reason for the film to exist, then everything about it and the rest of the film needs to be amazing. To quote the Wu-Tang’s late, great ODB, “[You] wanna perform a massacre, [you] better be coming with some motherf*ng sh* that’s spectacular.” Color me critical, but I’m going to stop short of saying Cabin Fever or Hostel qualify as grand spectacle (I haven’t seen Green Inferno, so I can’t comment on that).
Now that I’ve just spent a paragraph waxing negative regarding Eli’s reliance on gore, here’s where I tell you that Knock, Knock apparently marks Roth’s first foray into psychological horror. This seems odd, considering it’s a remake of an obscure, 70’s exploitation home-invasion film titled Death Game, which inexplicably isn’t also the title 1,000 Bruceploitation movies, but that’s what we have here. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful everyman, the good father and good husband sort, who ends up being put in “fresh, difficult and exceedingly awkward situations” after opening the door one night, while the family’s away, to let in two young seductresses who claim to be lost and need to use the phone. So… what sounds like the setup to a purely comedic sex romp, is supposedly a “glorious taboo thriller.”
Or is it? The reviews for Knock, Knock aren’t nearly as effusive as those for It Follows and The Witch, but the discord among reviewers makes the film seem promising in a different way. Roth is said to “[add] elegance” to Death Game’s set up, according to Variety. Alternatively, Shock Til You Drop, calls it an exercise in “absurdist psychocomedy” whose psychological torture elements cause it to bend toward tonal disarray as it progresses. While SlashFilm says it’s scary and thrilling, while Eric Walkuski at Joblo called it straight up camp along the lines of Nicholas Cage’s Wicker Man, and says Reeves horribly miscast. (Reeves, for his part, considers the movie to be a “morality tale,” which gives insight into what he thinks of his role and the tone of the film.) So what we potentially have here is an elegant, psycho-comedic horror / thriller slice of camp featuring a star in a role and type of film he’s never been in before, who may or may not be up to the task, and helmed by a director who sees this as film as a professional “turning point.” I’m not saying that adds up to a must-see movie experience, but it definitely has me curious.
Lionsgate is banking on their being people more people like me out there, as they’ve picked up distribution rights for a nice $2.5 million. The Witch was picked up for distribution by A24, and It Follows already has a theatrical and VOD release scheduled for March 27th. So again, that’s three genre flicks for fans to definitely look out for, and that doesn’t even count the Irish creature-feature The Hallow, the Canadian Hellions–set on Halloween–or the horror documentary The Nightmare, none of which received as much fawning or attention as the others, but all of which look pretty interesting in their own right.
While horror, like any other genre, is never at a dearth for subpar fare, there seems to have been a resurgence for more thoughtful, carefully crafted, well executed, and critically acclaimed fright films in the past five years or so. If the early word coming out of Sundance is any indication, 2015 looks to continue that trend.