Isolation, sisterhood and ‘80s nostalgia tinted this year’s Sundance horror offerings—a slate that happened to be predominantly written, directed, edited by as well as starring women and non-binary creatives. While the festival’s gritty Midnight section is typically where darker genre staples are housed, a smattering of macabre titles were represented across the NEXT and U.S. Dramatic categories. While only six festival titles were overtly labeled as “horror” on Sundance’s online catalogue, several more are undeniably in conversation with the horror canon, largely through incorporating or eschewing widely-held genre tropes.
Two films from the festival that parallel one another to the point of eeriness are writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (co-written by Anthony Fletcher) and writer/director/star Carlson Young’s The Blazing World. Both are debut features concerned with long-lost sisters and the irreparable damage their respective absences have imparted on the protagonists. On top of that, they are both brimming with overt homages to the genre: Censor’s Enid (Niamh Algar), is a film censor cemented in the reactionary ideology of video nasty hysteria in 1980s Britain; The Blazing World’s Margaret (Young) ventures into a horrifying wormhole that transforms her family home into an unyielding mash-up of horror movie references. The two women begin to teeter towards instability as they search for their sisters—finding brief glimpses of them in the hyper-realistic practical effects of ‘80s gorefests or in the wake of an overtly demonic Udo Kier.
Both films falter in their ability to conjure something truly original from the scraps of their predecessors, which unfortunately coaxes the viewer into idle thoughts of how they might rather be watching a grimier video nasty or a headier horror film. Prano-Bailey’s direction, however, deserves particular praise—Censor is compositionally stunning even when the narrative begins to slog, the juxtaposition of drab screening rooms and the hazy, projected hue of taboo media creating an apt metaphor for liminal cultural spaces. The Blazing World has genuine moments of anxiety and intense visual dread, but lacks subtlety and direction in the script, ultimately leading supposedly ominous moments to mistranslate as vexingly humorous (an unconvincing CGI bird at the top of the film immediately comes to mind).
Censor and The Blazing World have very similar ideas about the cruelty of family-inflicted trauma—particularly when one child must tandemly shoulder guilt and grief over the fate of a childhood sibling—but fall short of providing genuinely satisfying or shocking climaxes. Censor comes much closer to redemption than The Blazing World’s uninspired pastiche, as it’s somewhat able to tease audiences with its gorgeously surreal final minutes, although not well enough to make up for previous shortcomings.
Similarly embroiled in the complex relationship between formerly-estranged sisters is writer/director Erin Vassilopoulos’ Superior, which casts co-writer Alessandra Mesa and her real-life twin Anamari Mesa in the leading roles. Another film based in the ‘80s, Superior relishes in gorgeous costumes and set design (who knew carpeted floors could be so aesthetic?) which entertain the elevated thrift shop fantasy of modeling vintage clothing with an enduringly modern appeal. The distinct rocker style of musician Mirian and Vivian’s polished homemaker wardrobe serve as a creative way to distinguish the twins. Eventually they also serve to mute their individuality when Miriam’s not-so-recent past begins to catch up with her, with the two casually switching identities in order to avoid their own personal hells.
At times Superior admittedly drags—likely a byproduct of stretching what began as a short film into a 97-minute feature—but never loses heart, humor or intention. While the film doesn’t offer much for horror fans in search of gripping thrills or ample bloodshed, it earns at least a few brownie points for refusing to engage with the “creepy twins” trope. The most unsettling moment in the film is by far a scene depicting some of the most blatantly open drink-spiking I’ve ever witnessed on screen. In turn, the tangible reality of violence against women becomes the clear focal-point of the film, dispelling any lingering unease surrounding the twins and their propensity for coyly masquerading as each other.
Where Superior fosters a feel-good yet conventional message of the unwavering love between sisters, writing/directing/producing duo Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s Violation serves viewers a more sinister concoction of familial betrayal and tension. Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, a woman whose stagnant relationship with her husband leads to a momentary lapse of judgment with her sister Greta’s (Anna Maguire) husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). When Miriam realizes the severity of her actions, she apologizes and resolutely tells her brother-in-law that their brief kiss meant nothing—but Dylan has other ideas.
With a title like Violation, one anticipates another entry in the ever-expanding rape-revenge sub-genre, which has recently harbored an influx of women filmmakers who aim to make unwaveringly feminist and cathartic films that tactfully depict the act of rape and the strength of survivors. Violation isn’t afraid to interrogate much bigger, messier consequences of revenge, which in itself obliterates the tired portrayal of rape survivors as beacons of innocence, their sexual assault experiences suddenly awakening a primal bloodlust. Sims-Fewer notably directs herself, which is starkly evident in the subdued but gut-wrenching depiction of rape and the intentional placement of the rape scene after Miriam has already tasted sweet vengeance (the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold” will forever possess an unshakable mental image among audiences). In fact, like many recent women-helmed rape-revenge films, Violation never exposes Miriam’s nude body. Don’t feel too relieved, though—a shocking yet deliciously effective scene that inverts the use of excessive nudity is drawn out to provoke maximum discomfort.
While not a horror film in the traditional sense, it would be remiss not to mention director/writer Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature Pleasure (co-written by Peter Modestij), which distills an equally disturbing essence of realistic exploitation in order to provide an unflinching look at the predatory nature of the adult film industry. In Violation and Pleasure, erect penises have never looked more sinister. There is no need for bogeymen, deteriorating mental faculties or supernatural interferences when reality is allowed to be presented in bleakly graphic form—a scene involving rising porn star Bella Cherry (luminously played by Sofia Kappel) and the unstated but visceral threat of enduring a physically demanding shoot alone in a room with three men easily trumps several moments of fabricated fear among conventional horror films.
Though in no way a genre-defining lesbian horror film, director Frida Kempff and screenwriter Emma Broström’s Knocking offers a relatively nuanced take on the lingering dread of failed relationships through the recurring motif of main character Molly (Cecilia Milocco) dreaming about a former lover basking on a white sand beach. Shortly after being discharged from a mental institution, Molly moves into a cramped studio apartment in the midst of a brutal heatwave and begins hearing noises in the walls. Knocking suffers from a plodding plot—a shortcoming afflicting more than a few Sundance titles which choose to savor atmospheric moodiness in lieu of compelling character development—only narrowly salvaged by a performance from Milocco that singularly prevents the film from veering into the realm of sheer tedium. Knocking can’t help but feel like a reductive and stale metaphor for the concept of female hysteria—part myth of Cassandra, part Elizabeth Moss in The Invisible Man—that does little to diverge from existing narratives.
Then you have a film that veers hard in the other direction. As a horror fan, it’s rare to indulge in a film so innovative and affecting that it completely overhauls one’s entire understanding of terrestrial terrors and the dredges of hell. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair—the follow-up to writer/director/editor Jane Schoenbrun’s 2018 found-footage Slenderman doc A Self-Induced Hallucination—is by far the most exciting new work which premiered at Sundance this year, transcending genre in favor of creating an immersive internet wormhole complete with creepypastas and pirated foreign-language TV. The film follows Casey (Anna Cobb in her debut role), a lonely teenager whose only solace is couched in YouTube’s auto-play feature. After taking the “World’s Fair Challenge” behind the closed door of her attic bedroom, Casey begins uploading videos containing disturbing anecdotes and images concerning the challenge’s creeping effect on her, resulting in a stranger known only as JLB (Michael J. Rogers) revealing to Casey that she is in great danger.
A film that largely takes place in the intimate crevices of niche internet search results, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair remains uniquely disturbing in the midst of computer screen horror flicks (like Unfriended, Searching and Host), zeroing in on a largely unexplored junction of teenage malaise, the guise of imagined communities and an ever-changing digital landscape. At once intriguing and alarming, World’s Fair is an unexpected e-vite to participate in humanity’s ever-waning presence in this physical realm—the muted glow of LCD screens perpetually beckoning to come closer, look deeper and stay longer.
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.