Perfection and Pitfalls: Five Smaller Horror Films of the Year
Written by Sarah W.
In a year of huge horror wide releases like Midsommar, Us, and It: Chapter 2, so many smaller gems fall through the cracks. Released during the midnight series at film festivals, these indie horror films are often provocative, enticing, and push the boundaries of filmmaking. Many of these low-budget films struggle to find distribution, or are released in a manner ill-suited to their proper audience. These five films came out of festivals in late 2018 and early 2019 with buzz for fascinating premises, interesting cinematography, or great performance, yet were not often viewed.
Braid dir. Mitzi Peirone
Mitzi Peirone’s Braid is a drug addled game of pretend, a twisted roleplay game between old friends and possible lovers. The set is a candy-colored dream house, but the innocent exterior is a facade for a twisted game of play-pretend doctor. When two of the group of three friends have their drug operation go wrong, they are reentered into a game they had played as children assigned roles and ordered around by their wealthy friend, played wonderfully by Madeline Brewer. What begins as a heist film turns dark, with the game growing more elaborately twisted, the cinematography growing wild with oversaturated pinks, and spinning camera angles à la Gaspar Noe.
Not to overuse the term Lynchian, but the film follows his signature style of pulling a complete 180 midway-through to explore a new tangent. None of the twists feel contrived, because the whole film is spiraling and unhinged. Even just by the trailer, it’s obvious this film is sure to be an interesting watch. It’s not a film for everyone, but for those looking for visually stunning, quirky, distinctly looking feminine horror, Braid is an absolute gem.
Them That Follow dir. Britt Poulton and Daniel Savage
Them That Follow seems to have created its own subgenre of Christion snake horror. Anchored by great performances by Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, and Alice Englert, the film is a slow burn that never entirely pays off. The first 45 minutes are incredibly slow and dragging, so the ending where it all blows up (metaphorically of course), while quite good, doesn’t make up for the heavy, repetitive exposition. The snake handling scenes are quite beautiful, providing more of a scare for many than the looming threat of forced marriage we are warned about from the start.
Maybe the film’s emotional scares would work better with characters with more complex allegiances. Here, evil is evil, and good is good, and we are meant to think that loving someone outside of the cult (or maybe it’s a religion?) is enough to be considered morally ambiguous. Here we have a film that is well crafted, but struggles to be as interesting as its premise. It seems to be 98 minutes of suffering, as that’s all the sympathetic characters seem to do, with not enough let-up to provide any surprises.
The Perfection dir. Richard Shepard
The Perfection is a film that particularly suffers from its audience. After fantastic audience reviews out of festivals last fall and its first night on Netflix, it suffered in reviews from a wider audience that didn’t know what they were doing. Each chapter of this film feels like its own genre, going from a budding romance to body horror, to a revenge thriller in the span of 90 minutes. Each chapter takes a sharp turn, but the usage of rewind sequences allows the transition to feel much sooner. The film as a whole recalls a lot of Korean horror, often compared to the films of Park Chan-Wook, albeit with a much messier script.
It especially succeeds with its visceral imagery, a satisfyingly gory finale that feels as if the whole film has been made to explain that one shot. The much discussed bus scene is of course a highlight, but the emotional highlights, coupled with fantastic performances from Allison Williams and Logan Browning are just as strong, if not stronger. The budding romance at the beginning is touching and tender with first love, making later parts of the film less absurd. Most often publicized as ‘The Netflix horror movie that will make you throw up’, it is deeply misunderstood and over-simplified. Like a gory version of Whiplash, The Perfection is a twisted tale of trauma that begs you to give it the benefit of the doubt, and believe in its reaches, but is cathartic, and even beautiful at times.
Ladyworld dir. Amanda Kramer
Ladyworld is a film that seems to not know if it is trying to be part of the mumblecore (or mumblegore, the horror equivalent) movement or not. The film is soft and whispery, with little background noise to interrupt the dialogue. The teenagers speak like ordinary teenagers; it’s a catfight between teenage girls locked in one place together calling itself a horror film. Billed as an ‘all-female Lord of the Flies’, it feels hopelessly out of touch, pulled more from the representations of teenage girls in Mean Girls than real life. The eight girls are trapped in their supposedly inescapable situation after some sort of birthday party, but the group is so ill bonded that all relationships between them crumble, their self-structured hierarchy soon uninforced.
Officially considered a thriller, this film tried to sell itself as a horror about breaking bonds. Yet the tension is not there even as a thriller, as the predicament of the girls feels forced and unthreatening. Some of the performances make it worth the time, especially Captain Fantastic’s Annalise Basso,and Stranger Things breakout star Maya Hawke. Overall, it’s a nice little experiment that feels both unrealized and unfocused, more of an oddity than entertainment.
Knife + Heart dir. Yann Gonzalez
The only non-English language film on this list, Knife + Heart is an oddity even in its subgenre- a French-Mexican giallo production made in the 21st century. It flips the classic giallo on its head, leaning full into the world of sleazy, low-budget porn producers with its serial killer storyline. The kills are wonderfully over the top, campy, over-the-top weaponry made from… well, you’ll find out soon enough. It follows gay porn producer Anne, played by Vanessa Paradis, who recreates the murders of her actors within her films in an attempt to win back her ex-girlfriend, played by the lovely Kate Moran.
Unlike most other films of the giallo subgenre, the emotional beats hit hard. The kills feel personal, and each of Anne’s films grow hungrier and hungrier to impress her former lover. The cinematography is gorgeous as well, diverse with neon lights in clubs, warm, sunshine-y green fields, and the grainy films that are being made. It takes its wild premise, and makes it softly engrossing, the lost-love story feels just as important as that of the masked killer. Wholly successful, Knife + Heart breathes new life into its genre.