While dramas of drum players (Whiplash) and Somali pirates (Fishing without Nets) dominated the actual awards when it ended, the 2014 edition of the Sundance Film Festival was one of the most horror-friendly major fests in a long time. Programmers didn’t just relegate horror to the beloved Midnight slots, placing films with genre themes throughout the line-up, even in the coveted U.S. Competition and Next programs. At every turn, someone was talking about a horror film in Park City, whether it was a debut like Ana-Lily Amanpour’s vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a festival regular like Adam Wingard with The Guest, or competition films Life After Beth, Jamie Marks is Dead, and Cold in July. And even with high-profile flicks like Cooties, What We Do in the Shadows, Killers, and Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, the most-buzzed midnight film was a debut, Jennifer Kent’s excellent The Babadook.
Here were the biggest horror stories of Sundance 2014:
The natural inclination of a horror junkie is to check the midnight slate of programming when the Sundance schedule is announced. Last year produced the premieres of V/H/S/2 (then known as S-VHS) and Jim Mickle’s great We Are What We Are. Mickle graduated to the competition section this year with the strong Cold in July, a film that plays like a pulp fiction novel brought to life and stars Michael C. Hall, but one of the V/H/S boys was back on opening night with the world premiere of The Guest, a film that director Adam Wingard explained to me came about after watching The Terminator and Halloween back-to-back. If the hit You’re Next was Wingard playing with the legacy of Wes Craven, The Guest is his riff on the great John Carpenter, and the legendary filmmaker would be proud. A charismatic soldier (Dan Stevens) comes home to the family of one of the fallen heroes with whom he served and quickly becomes a part of the family. Of course, he can’t be trusted. With each film Wingard seems to be growing more confident as a filmmaker and he brings such energy to this piece that it’s sure to have fans when it descends from the mountain air of Park City later this year. It also features the best bar fight you’ve seen in a long time. It’s fun, twisted, and always engaging.
And yet even Wingard’s film kind of felt overshadowed a bit by Jennifer Kent’s stellar The Babadook, a film that falls into the “nothing is scarier than parenthood” genre of works like The Orphanage and The Shining. Essie Davis gave one of the best performances of this year’s fest as Amelia, a single mother to Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose father died on the way to the hospital on the day Samuel was born. Naturally, this creates an odd blend of grief and joy in the days before Samuel’s birthday. The pair finds a book about a boogeyman named The Babadook, and, well, you can see where this is going. The book foreshadows the darkness that will descend on Amelia and Samuel. Kent tells a relatively straightforward ghost story but she does so with enough humanity and filmmaking energy to keep it entertaining, and, believe it or not, scary. There were no greater “jumps” this year than in Kent’s film, and she actually earns her scares. IFC Midnight picked this up and it will surely be one of the most critically-acclaimed horror flicks of the year.
Speaking of energy, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead has the visceral adrenalin of a Troma movie or Sam Raimi in his DIY days. Remember the first film’s set-up before the Nazi zombies went crazy? Well, forget that. This movie is all action set-piece with more uses for zombie intestines than you thought possible. It’s funny, smart, and with the driven pace of a movie like Evil Dead: Dead by Dawn, another flick that took the set-up of its predecessor and just took it well over the top. Martin Starr nearly steals the piece as the leader of the Zombie Squad, a trio of net nerds obsessed with the undead apocalypse to the point that they may be the only ones who can stop it. Crazy, bloody, and just ridiculous in the ways you want a movie about the undead SS to be, Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead is a blast.
If Red vs. Dead was the most (enjoyably) ridiculous horror movie of Sundance 2014, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was the most atmospheric and moody. The title is a bit of a bait-and-switch in that you need not be nervous for this solitary female. She’s a vampire (Sheila Vand), gutting her Iranian small town of its most worthless inhabitants. She crosses paths with a James Dean wannabe named Arash (Arash Marandi) and realizes that he may be worth saving. It’s an imperfect work that sometimes feels narratively thin but it’s also one of the most visually striking horror debuts in some time, shot in gorgeous black-and-white.
Lionsgate quickly moved to grab the star-studded Cooties, which premiered at the Egyptian ten years to the night that Saw first took the world by storm. Also featuring a script co-written by Leigh Whannell (who also appears in a small role), the horror-comedy could be called Recess of the Living Dead. Wood plays a substitute teacher named Clint who gets a job at his local elementary school on the day that a bad chicken nugget turns all the wee ones into brain eaters. Other teachers are nicely filled out by Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Nasim Pedrad, Jack McBrayer, and more in a film that promises gleeful, Romero-esque insanity and only half-delivers. When it works, like when Wilson is bashing a kid’s head in with a fire extinguisher, Cooties is twisted fun.
For most fests, the films mentioned above would be more than enough to call it a good year for horror fans. It was really just the beginning. Dane Dehaan and Aubrey Plaza star in the zombie romance Life After Beth, which earned mixed reviews but praise for its fearless stars. The Mo Brothers (Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto) brought the brutal Killers to the midnight section; Jemaine Clement made his directorial debut with a bloodsucker mockumentary called What We Do in the Shadows; the “arthouse Sixth Sense” approach of Jamie Marks is Dead had some fans in competition; Finally, while it’s not traditional horror, Jeremy Saulnier’s rightfully beloved Blue Ruin contained some of the most WTF shocks of Sundance 2014. Releasing in most markets in March or April, it’s the first great Sundance 2014 horror flick you’ll probably be able to catch. It won’t be the last.