The Park City at Midnight category used to be the thing that was my main focus as I headed to Sundance each year. So many favorites that I saw for the first time in the late, late hours at the Egyptian, the Prospector, or the Library. Films like 28 DAYS LATER, HARD CANDY, ENTER THE VOID, THE BABADOOK, and the film that became the couple’s movie for my wife and I – OLDBOY. I think I may have stood in the freezing cold in the wait line next to the Egyptian for 5 hours to make sure my friends and I would get into see 28 DAYS LATER. That’s how important it was – to not draw the short straw…
But seriously, I remember sitting in anticipation with the audience and feeling a collective slump when we quickly realized this one wasn’t going to be “the one,” as well as the growing buzz and agitation as the film went on that we were seeing one of the really good ones that we’d all be preaching about when we got home.
But frankly, that’s not the case any longer. Sundance is really a friend to horror and genre films no longer. You get the feeling looking at the schedule the last couple of years that there seems to be a preference for GREASY STRANGLER outlandishness and cinematic pranks, as opposed to breathtaking “scare the crap out of you” cinema. Who is the genre lover in the programming staff? Something tells me they wouldn’t admit to it if there was one.
So, the fact that I found three films I REALLY LIKED A LOT, with a fourth I also enjoyed this year is a win, simple as that. By this point, in Sundance-land, I’ll take what I can get to satisfy the genre and horror itch, so here are my favorites this year:
Coralie Fargeat’s REVENGE focuses on Jen, a party girl hanging with her married lover at his posh desert villa before his annual hunting vacation. Of course, spoiled beautiful people paradise has to be interrupted by his two oafish hunting buddies that naturally feel she’s literally up for grabs and more when her boyfriend leaves them all alone one morning. Bad things happen, and Jen gets violently assaulted and left for dead in the middle of the desert, Of course, she isn’t dead, and now the men are about to find out what it’s like to be the hunted ones.
REVENGE is a perfectly serviceable tables turned stalking and revenge (I mean; clearly no one is playing coy with what the audience is going to see here.) thriller. The one interesting note is that, although the film is directed by a woman, it features about as straight up a male gaze as anyone else could have delivered. Whether that was intentional is not entirely clear, but suffice it to say, the film delivers on its title promise in bloody fashion.
TIME SHARE (TIEMPO COMPARTIDO)
Sebastián Hofmann’s TIME SHARE follow a couple with a young son as they arrive at a mega-resort hoping to restore a lot that’s been missing in their lives with a week-long vacation. Immediately that idea is threatened as they discover another family has been double-booked in the same villa. The husband protests and fights the powers that be in order to salvage what he can for his family, while everyone else just goes along with the resort’s controlling wishes. Meanwhile, an estranged, middle-aged couple working at the resort are similarly being manipulated and torn apart by the same monolithic forces led by the membership sales gurus. While she works to ingratiate herself, he does laundry, suspicious of their new corporate overlords. As the father becomes paranoid that his family is being turned against him, the laundryman reaches out to team up, hoping to expose the evil working against them in this supposed tropical paradise.
TIME SHARE wasn’t actually in the Park City at Midnight category. It was screened in the World Cinematic Dramatic Competition. However, the day before, I had attended a panel on horror films, sponsored by Shudder and a key topic of conversation had been the expansion of what is considered horror or genre these days. It’s an idea that I completely agree with and this film is a wonderful example. Placed side by side with films like ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW or CARNIVAL OF SOULS, TIME SHARE offers up an eerie, unsettling, and ultimately evil world for its characters to be forced to survive in. There is legitimate threat and looming terror behind the neon-colored tropical paradise, a rot obscured by the candy colors and bright sunlight. But make no mistake about it, viewed in the harsh light, it is horrifying for all concerned.
Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY follows the Graham family, whose lives become the target of very dark forces following the death of their grandmother. The parents (Toni Colette and Gabriel Byrne) try, in one desperate and futile attempt after another, to deal with their grief and figure out what is going on in an effort to protect their peculiar teenage granddaughter, who the grandmother had a special connection to and her older brother, who has always been relatively distant from everything. Increasingly, the threat builds as tragedy follows tragedy in their household until their mother is forced to confront the evil they all seem to have inherited in order to escape the darkest of fates.
HEREDITARY was the only “pure” horror film offered up at Sundance this year, and if they had to narrow it down to just one, at least they got it right. The film relentlessly builds a level of dread that is palpable and pays off that promise with moments of exquisitely visceral horror. Led by an engrossing fever-pitched performance by Toni Colette, who sacrifices herself agonizingly throughout the proceedings to try and save her family, the film is not just haunting, but jarring in the best way.
Panos Cosmatos’s MANDY stars Nicolas Cage as a forester who has built an idyllic life for himself and his love, Mandy in the wilderness. However, everything he had held dear is ripped away from him when a band of crazed religious zealots, aided by a trio of motorcycle-riding demon men take her captive and make him watch as they destroy his life with hell-bent glee. Unfortunately for them, they make the mistake of letting him survive, and now he has one thing and one thing only to live for – to hunt down each one of the maniacal villains and take exact the most violent vengeance at hand.
MANDY was inarguably the most enjoyable film experience any audience member had an opportunity to see at the festival this year. A film that framed the most basic of revenge thriller scenarios within the trappings of a surreal, trippy, and dreamlike setting, it also unleashed a not-so-secret weapon in a beyond unhinged Nicolas Cage performance. Going in to the film, there where declarations heralding the ultimate “Cage Rage” performance, and even with that build up, the film – and Cage – did not disappoint. One scene in particular: featuring a wounded, recently escaped Nicolas Cage in a tiny grossly-wallpapered bathroom with a full bottle of vodka – is the stuff of great, giddy, grindhouse fun. Can’t recommend this one enough, as I look forward to my next chance to see it.