At Cannes, one can expect major works from internationally famous auteurs. Oscar hopefuls vie for spots on the TIFF lineup. My colleague A.A. Dowd gave his definition of a “Sundance movie”—basically, a quirky indie crowd-pleaser—on our Film Club episode about that festival. But SXSW’s hybrid identity as a music festival/film festival/tech conference makes it difficult to pinpoint its place in the larger film-fest ecosystem. In the years leading up to the pandemic, the festival had started to carve out a niche as a home for more commercially driven projects; let us not forget that Ready Player One made its world premiere at SXSW in 2018. But it’s the next year’s opening night film, Jordan Peele’s Us, that reflects what a “SXSW movie” means to me.
Genre filmmaking is practically an industry unto itself at this point. It’s definitely a scene, as I’ve found traveling the genre-festival circuit over the past five years or so. And although the uncertain future of Fantastic Fest and the shuttering of Birth.Movies.Death may very well change that, Austin has been at the center of that scene as long as I’ve been a part of it, with SXSW’s genre-focused Midnighters slate at its apex. It’s not so much subject matter as trajectory and geography that holds together Midnighters; this year’s selection is no more cohesive than last year’s, save for the common thread of up-and-coming filmmakers making a (virtual) pilgrimage to Austin. A number of sleeper hits, including Attack The Block, Kill List, Hush, and Upgrade have made their world premieres at the festival. And so, as far as I’m concerned, a Midnighter is a “SXSW movie.”
In fact, this year’s lineup features a Midnighters reunion, as Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden, who co-starred in 2015 selection We Are Still Here, once again play a married couple in director Travis Stevens’ new film, Jakob’s Wife. Stevens produced We Are Still Here and made his directorial debut at SXSW in 2019 with the CM Punk vehicle The Girl On The Third Floor. Just as that film blended Cronenbergian body horror and haunted house thrills, this one pairs two seemingly contradictory horror impulses: a pulpy, ’80s-style vampire romp (think Fright Night or The Lost Boys) and a supernatural feminist character study a lá George Romero’s Season Of The Witch.
Crampton stars as the title character, Anne, the wife of small-town minister Jakob (Fessenden). She acquires the proverbial “hunger” after being ambushed by a vaguely bat-shaped shadow at a construction site. Ashamed to admit that she was with an old flame when the attack happened, Anne tries to keep her symptoms to herself. But her newfound dissatisfaction with her role as a submissive Christian wife and helpmate—not to mention the dead body on the kitchen floor—give away her transformation to her husband. The opening scene of Jakob’s Wife seems to foreshadow a dark, sadistic streak of religious horror, but to Stevens’ and his co-writers’ credit, I did not see the eventual direction of this particular subplot coming at all.
If marriage drama isn’t your bag, Jakob’s Wife also has fountains of blood spurting from severed jugulars, long-limbed creature effects, and two creative additions to vampire lore that would make the film’s writers fit for a gig on What We Do In The Shadows. (A scene demonstrating the agonizing aftermath of a tooth-whitening procedure on budding fangs is the big showcase, but I was tickled by the film positing that smoking a little weed helps vampires with more than just glaucoma.) Stevens mostly compensates for weaknesses in the dialogue by shifting among the film’s wildly divergent tones, but this is Crampton’s movie through and through. The role is sexy, scary, gross, and vulnerable—sometimes all at the same time—and she sinks her teeth into it with aplomb. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Another Midnighters veteran is director Mickey Keating, whose Carnage Park premiered at the festival in 2015 and who brings his latest, Offseason, to SXSW 2021. Like Stevens’ film, Keating’s blends elements we’ve seen before. The best way I can think of to describe this movie is that it’s like if Rob Zombie remade 1981’s Dead & Buried in Florida. The film opens with our main character, Marie Aldrich (The House Of The Devil’s Jocelin Donahue), receiving a letter saying that her mother’s grave has been desecrated—a detail ripped from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that’s typical of this stylized ’70s pastiche. Pastiche is kind of Keating’s thing, as is atmosphere, which is spread so thick that you’d need a steak knife to cut through it. But while the filmmaker excels at flashy camera tricks and isolated moments of terror, this film—like all of his others—never quite takes off.
Meanwhile, SXSW midnighter The Spine Of Night takes paying tribute to formative influences to some pretty impressive heights. This R-rated anthology was created using an old-school animation technique known as rotoscoping, where an artist hand-draws figures over live-action footage, frame by frame. Rotoscoping was famously used to create Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta’s 1983 film Fire & Ice (a clear inspiration for this movie), not to mention the T&A-filled sci-fi epic of choice for generations of teenage boys, 1981’s Heavy Metal. In the spirit of the latter, The Spine Of Night opens with a shot of cartoon breasts that fill the screen as a powerful sorceress clad in bones and leaves trudges across an icy wasteland. This film isn’t as juvenile as its predecessor, however; it’s an earnest attempt at creating an original, adult fantasy universe that adds shades of Game Of Thrones to the style of legendary French comics artist Philippe Druillet.
Translated, that means that The Spine Of Night is wall-to-wall medieval ultraviolence, as flying steampunk assassins and warrior monks battle an immortal wizard intent on enslaving the world using magic stolen from the shamanistic swamp witch we met at the beginning. The film has one of the most high-profile casts of any at SXSW this year, with Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, and Joe Manganiello all appearing in key roles. (Oswalt is particularly fun as a petulant, sadistic tyrant, a part made for him.) But the project’s low-budget origins—co-writers and directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King animated the entire film themselves over a seven-year period—can’t help but poke through, so viewers will have to be forgiving of some crude action and sparsely animated background characters. Still, it’s the definition of a labor of love, and the team deserves kudos not only for the mountain of effort put into creating this film but also for its world-building and character design.
Film writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse’s documentary Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History Of Folk Horror is also a labor of love, and not just because it’s almost three and a half hours long. Janisse (with whom, full disclosure, I once worked on the programming team for another festival) is best known for her book House Of Psychotic Women, a game-changing blend of memoir and film analysis that’s been hugely influential on a new generation of critics who like to view their horror movies through a personal and/or political lens. This film doesn’t have an autobiographical angle, but as a piece of scholarship it’s equally brilliant, creating a unified theory of how national trauma is reflected in folk horror movies from around the world. The documentary begins in the British isles, which is ground zero for the folk-horror phenomenon thanks to three films: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). This portion of the film is informative albeit a little esoteric when it goes off into the wilds of British TV programs from the ’70s and ’80s that aren’t readily available abroad.
It’s when we head overseas, first exploring American folkways from New England to the Deep South before expanding to a global view, that the depth and scope of Janisse’s work is revealed. To reduce it to its broadest strokes, her thesis is that folk horror—loosely defined here as tales that incorporate myths and folk traditions into contemporary horror storytelling—represents a “return of the repressed” that manifests lingering historical atrocities as monsters that symbolically take their revenge on the modern world. An exploration of indigenous horror is especially enlightening on this front, as is the analysis of folk horror in countries where ancient pagan beliefs were suppressed by Christianity centuries ago. Bridging the gap between Joseph Campbell and Pete Tombs’ (sadly out of print) book Mondo Macabro, the film isn’t really for dabblers, especially given its extended running time. But it does provide a book’s worth of keen insight for anyone who’s interested in movies, mythology, and the intersection between the two.