Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (World Premiere, 2006)
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a slasher movie fan’s very own Man Bites Dog, not to mention one of SXSW’s greatest horror discoveries. While spending time with a serial killer obsessed with becoming the next Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, an overzealous documentary crew sinks deeper and deeper into Leslie Vernon’s (Nathan Baesel) world of murder and insanity, and as writer-director Scott Glosserman presents it, their descent into moral corruption is often hilarious. An entertaining blend of laughs and stone-faced terror, Behind the Mask is one of modern horror’s best slasher films, and it deserves an even larger cult following than it currently has.
Them (Ils; U.S. Premiere, 2007)
Consider this France’s response to what Robert Wise once did with The Haunting—that old “less is more” approach to genuinely scary horror. Often, and understandably, compared to The Strangers, Them is just as strong thanks to filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s decision to keep the invaders off-screen and anonymous for the majority of the movie. A first-rate exercise in restraint over gratuity, Them fries your nerves as a couple fend off the tireless assault of multiple intruders inside their isolated countryside home. Arriving at SXSW during the wave of extreme French cinema that brought about Martyrs and Inside, the minimalist Them was a superb antidote for critics and moviegoers who couldn’t stomach any more bellies getting cut open by scissors.
Lake Mungo (U.S. Premiere, 2009)
If you read a lot of interviews with horror directors and/or listen to like-minded podcasts, you’ve probably noticed a slight trend in how so many of them reference Lake Mungo as one of the most underrated modern horror films they’ve seen. And they’re all correct. A fascinating marriage of found-footage sensibilities and faux documentary presentation, director Joel Anderson’s somber and quietly unnerving film traces the efforts a grieving family takes to figure out how and why their 16-year-old daughter died. Anderson patiently escalates the tension through nicely timed clues and reveals, all building up to a climax that’s the epitome of nightmare fuel. Lake Mungo belongs up there with underappreciated creep-fests like Session 9, and displays how SXSW’s programmers wonderfully think outside the box.
Pontypool (U.S. Premiere, 2009)
Tired of zombie movies, now that The Walking Dead has turned reanimated corpses into corporatized shills? Well, look no further than Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool to resurrect your love for the living dead—just don’t expect to see too many of them. A ballsy subversion of what George A. Romero popularized, Pontypool stages a zombie apocalypse completely from inside a radio station, restricting its ghouls to the sounds they make pounding on walls and the devastation they cause via secondhand news reports. It’s a zombie movie for cynics who see “zombies” in a film festival’s guidebook, groan, and then can’t help but see it anyway. By Pontypool’s end, they’ve learned to adore those undead flesh-eaters again.
Amer (U.S. Premiere, 2010)
SXSW audiences love to have fun, but the word “party” isn’t one you’d used to summarize co-directors Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet’s audaciously singular Amer. Descriptors like “artsy” and “heady” would work better—it’s not quite the type of film you’d think complements Shiner beers and SXSW craziness. But give the festival’s genre programmers credit for knowing an amazing film when they see one, and for allowing open-minded attendees the chance to discover this hyper-stylized ode to Italian giallo films. Split into three distinct acts, Amer charts the tragic life of an eroticized young woman who’s destined for an early trip to the morgue, and it does so with rich color palettes, unwieldy editing tactics, a pornographic edge, and protruding close-ups. It’s less a narrative movie and more an art exhibit for fetishists raised on Argento and Bava.
Attack the Block (World Premiere, 2011)
Attack the Block is exactly the kind of movie that genre-leaning cinephiles attend SXSW Film hoping to discover: a raucous crowd-pleaser made by a rookie director. In this case, the novice was frequent Edgar Wright collaborator Joe Cornish, who combines livewire science fiction with inner city grit in Attack the Block, the best alien invasion movie of the last ten years. Set in London’s projects, and featuring a breakout performance from newcomer John Boyega (a.k.a. your next Star Wars franchise hero) Cornish’s film subtly posits plays on societal issues, admirably making thugged-out-looking black youngsters its valiant heroes determined to take out the horde of glowingly black extra-terrestrials.
Detention (World Premiere, 2011)
Ignore the mostly negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes—Detention is a ridiculous amount of fun. More of an exploding kitchen sink than your typical kitchen-sink genre mash-up, music video veteran Joseph Kahn’s unclassifiable film is a loud, messy blender full of teen romance, time travel, slasher film tropes, sci-fi weirdness, and Scream-like comedy—in other words, it’s SXSW heaven condensed into one 90-minute package. It’s as if Kahn took films from every SXSW section and stuffed them into one product, which is surely why critics who favor Cannes and Berlin over Austin’s anything-goes festival treated Detention almost as badly as they did the director’s previous movie, Torque. Those with open minds, however, will quickly think those critical haters deserve afterschool time-outs.
Insidious (U.S. Premiere, 2011)
The buzz surrounding James Wan’s Insidious was strong following its September 2010 world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The word was extremely promising for those who couldn’t attend TIFF’s Midnight Madness: after their studio woes with Dead Silence, Wan and screenwriting collaborator Leigh Whannell had finally made another horror film their way, like they did with their humongous DIY debut, Saw. And when they brought Insidious stateside for the 2011 SXSW Film Fest, Wan and Whannell solidified the inevitable—they proved that they’d once again made a “best of the new millennium” horror movie, one drenched with supernatural dread and a fantastical edge.
Kill List (World Premiere, 2011)
Anyone who’s seen Kill List can imagine the crowd’s response once English director Ben Wheatley’s movie finished screening for the first time at the 2011 SXSW Film Fest. Audiences inside the Alamo Drafthouse must have been holding their beers and burgers in silence, jaws dropped and eyes unblinking. A remarkable genre achievement, Kill List is a film you show to unsuspecting people in hopes of blindsiding them and ruining their evenings. Starting off as a bleak hitman thriller, Wheatley’s stunner gradually descends into a terrifying and brain-twisting explosion of occultism, and once it ends, its final images burrow into your thoughts.
Little Deaths (U.S. Premiere, 2011)
Horror’s recent resurgence of anthology films has given us plenty of winners, including the V/H/S and ABCs of Death franchises, both of which have received tons of press. But one of the best modern-day horror omnibus films has gone largely under-seen since its 2011 premiere at SXSW, and that’s a shame, because it’s truly something else. Comprised of three hardcore, sexually motivated shorts, the British anthology Little Deaths isn’t for the squeamish or prudish. One segment, Andrew Parkinson’s “Mutant Tool,” subjects a prostitute to an insanely heinous Nazi-minded experiment that, to put it lightly, is disgustingly phallic. The showstopper, though, is Simon Rumley’s “Bitch,” the see-it-to-believe-it story of a guy who uses dogs to get revenge of his abusive and cold-hearted girlfriend. For Rumley’s contribution alone, the twisted and mentally scarring Little Deaths is the quintessential SXSW genre movie.
The Cabin in the Woods (World Premiere, 2012)
A meta love letter to horror and monsters, co-writer Joss Whedon and director/co-writer Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods is the kind of horror film that’s specifically engineered for fun-loving genre audiences. When The Cabin in the Woods unveiled its endless barrage of self-aware humor, horror geek insider jokes, and that creature-feature-on-steroids third act, the SXSW audience went berserk. Even if Goddard’s film didn’t kill it theatrically, like it no doubt should have, the filmmakers can take solace in knowing that they totally owned Austin, Texas, back in early 2012.
Citadel (World Premiere, 2012)
You’re going to hear the name Ciaran Foy quite a bit this summer—he’s the filmmaker handpicked by Scott Derrickson to direct the highly anticipated sequel Sinister 2. One look at Irishman Foy’s debut, Citadel, and you’ll understand why Derrickson handed him the keys to Mr. Bughuul’s kingdom. Inspired by Foy’s own bouts with agoraphobia, Citadel centers around the skittish Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), a grieving widower who’s deathly afraid of going outdoors with his infant daughter, a fear that amplifies once a hooded gang of humanoids starts terrorizing him. Slowly paced and heavy on suggestion, Foy’s film has the kind of overpowering dread needed to continue Sinister’s mood. Definitely give this one a look via Netflix Streaming before Sinister 2 opens in August.
Cheap Thrills (World Premiere, 2013)
Cheap Thrills doesn’t initially sound like a horror movie. Technically an ultra-dark comedy, first-time director E.L. Katz’ award-winner follows a down-on-his-luck guy (the terrific Pat Healy) as he desperately tries to earn money by accepting one outlandish bet after another from a couple of wealthy yuppies (David Koechner, Sara Paxton). As the film progresses, though, and the nightmare intensifies for Healy’s character, Cheap Thrills reveals its underlying heart: it’s the ultimate horror film for our economically uncertain times. Katz cleverly disguises much of the film’s sickness with raunchy humor and wild sight gags, but the naturalistic creepiness is always there. The complete package is altogether brilliant. It’s no wonder why Cheap Thrills won SXSW’s Midnighters Audience Award in 2013.
Evil Dead (World Premiere, 2013)
Horror fans regularly cringe at the thought of big studios remaking classic movies like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and for good reason. But when a genre-savvy festival like SXSW programs an Evil Dead remake on opening night, it’s hard to keep hate instead of participating, and, thankfully, novice director Fede Alvarez’s take on the ultimate “cabin in the woods” movie didn’t disappoint. In fact, it positively nauseated, showing off some of Hollywood’s coolest and nastiest gore moments and practical effects work in recent memory. The crowd inside Austin’s Paramount Theatre went apeshit for Evil Dead in March 2013, beginning the film’s road towards proving the anti-remake masses wrong.
Starry Eyes (World Premiere, 2014)
There’s a monster in Starry Eyes, co-directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch’s exceptionally horrific character study. It’s ugly, too, but there’s a catch—you can’t actually see the film’s monster. Rather, it’s lead character Sarah’s ambition, and how terrifically actress Alexandra Essoe plays it, showing how an aspiring actress’ insatiable desire to make it in Hollywood gradually changes her into the personification of sheer evil. Granted, she’s helped out by a group of Tinseltown Satanists, but the monster’s within her, not them. Aided greatly by Jonathan Snipes’ synth-heavy score, Starry Eyes came out of nowhere at last year’s SXSW to shock, awe, and hold up as one of 2014’s best horror movies nine months later.