The 13th Floor

Five SXSW Horror-Thrillers You Have to See (and One You Never Will)

The dignity of film festivals falls by the wayside a few minutes before midnight, when the monsters come out. That’s especially true for the illustrious South By Southwest (SXSW) film festival, with a popular “Midnighters” program that highlights scary movies, violent comedies, and bizarre experiments in audience discomfort.

I attended SXSW 2017 last weekend, where I was able to catch many of the Midnighters and one more genre thriller that I felt warrants a special mention. There wasn’t enough time to see everything (there never is), but these are the finest horror-thriller films I personally saw at SXSW. Most of them will eventually find their way to theaters, Blu-ray or digital streaming services and I recommend them all when that time comes.

But at least one of them will – allegedly – never be seen again. (Depending on your point of view, you may or may not have dodged a bullet.)

THE ARCHER 

Valerie Weiss’s feminist fugitive thriller demands to be taken seriously, but it also deserves to be appreciated as a smart genre about a teenager who fights the patriarchy while wielding a bow. Bailey Noble (TRUE BLOOD) stars as a teenaged archery prodigy who, while trying to defend the girl she loves from an abusive boyfriend, puts a sexist jerk in the hospital. The justice system rubber stamps our hero into the for-profit juvenile detention system, where the misogyny and abuse and sexual harassment continues, institutionalized and unabated.

Eventually THE ARCHER sends the hero into the woods with an ancient weapon, pursued by the corrupt warden (Bill Sage, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE). It sounds like an exploitation thriller, and maybe in its construct it still is, but Valerie Weiss seems to be aiming for subdued action and serious drama. She eschews any temptation to turn THE ARCHER into a FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION movie by way of THE HUNGER GAMES (although that sounds like a pretty cool idea too).

THE ARCHER is an intimate and dignified picture, one that relies on character instead of set pieces to make its audience invested. So even though there are only a handful of “badass” moments, those moments resonate. This film hits the mark, and with great force.

THE HONOR FARM

Some movies are hard to quantify, and THE HONOR FARM is certainly one of them. It features many elements of the horror genre but its focus is elsewhere, and one eventually has to wonder how much of the “scary” stuff we were ever supposed to take literally. Maybe all of it, maybe none.

That’s because THE HONOR FARM is mostly about a bunch of teenagers who are high on magic mushrooms, who decide to venture to an abandoned prison where unspeakable horrors once occurred and – allegedly – satan worshippers still routinely carry out their animal sacrifices. Yeah, that’s the perfect environment for psychedelics. Enjoy your freakout kids. You probably should’ve thought this one through.

Then again, THE HONOR FARM is actually all about thinking things through. It’s a head trip movie about moments of absolute awareness, those kinds of coming of age moments that many other films gloss over too quickly. Using subtly hallucinogenic visual effects, director and co-writer Karen Skloss slows her movie down and lets her young actors explore their psyches, and yes, get a little freaked out when those “satan worshipper” rumors turn out to be real (or are they…?).

If you go into THE HONOR FARM expecting a nightmare, I think you’ll be disappointed. If you go in expected a film about opening ones mind to new possibilities, you’ll appreciate that THE HONOR FARM does something distinctive and different, using a few horror tropes to goose what could’ve been a relatively plotless storyline and keep it intriguing, funny, and a little bit creepy.

MAYHEM 

Joe Lynch is back, and he’s bringing all the crazy with him. The latest film from the director of KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM and EVERLY is a workplace massacre movie, starring Steven Yeun (THE WALKING DEAD) as an ambitious young lawyer who is currently in the process of getting railroaded out of the company. Everyone he knows is cold and heartless and refusing to act like a fucking human being.

Fortunately(?!), there’s a new virus sweeping across the nation, one that makes you incapable of resisting your temptations, and one that jacks up your emotions as far as they can go. When the building suddenly goes into quarantine, and everyone – including our heroes – lets go of sanity, ethics and common decency. It’s the perfect occasion for everyone to exact their despicable revenge on each other, free from repercussions.

There are several other films with similar kill-or-be-killed storylines but the genius of Joe Lynch’s MAYHEM is that no one, not even the so-called “good guys,” are capable of moralizing. There’s no high ground here. Everyone is a total a-hole to each other, unable to filter even their basic dickish thoughts. Against the backdrop of sterile workplace servitude and forced civility, this turns every interaction in MAYHEM – once the violence gets started, anyway – into a gloriously entertaining time.

Also, Steven Yeun is simply amazing in this movie. We all know he was one of the best parts of THE WALKING DEAD for years but with MAYHEM he proves he needs a shot at superstardom. He’s freakin’ magnetic.

PIG 

You are probably never going to see PIG. But depending on your point of view that may actually be for the best. Adam Mason’s outraged torture porn film is a plotless nightmare about a maniac subjugating women through murder, cannibalism, urination and rape. And because it all plays out in a single take (mostly), there’s nothing to distract you. It’s just one man brutalizing people in unspeakable ways for over an hour.

Whether that intrigues or repulses you, I think it’s fair to say that PIG is just about as good as it sounds. It’s an experiment in shock violence, and you’re not really supposed to have a fun time watching it. If anything, the point is you probably shouldn’t want to see anything this vile ever again.

Well, mission accomplished. Once is enough for me. For those who will never see PIG (which is most of you, since the filmmaker has said these were literally the film’s “final screenings”), I’ll be describing the experience in much greater detail in a separate article. Enjoy that… if you can.

PREVENGE

Written, directed by and starring Alice Lowe (GARTH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE), the horror-comedy PREVENGE is a droll and insightful film about a pregnant woman whose unborn child is talking to her and telling her to kill people. And you thought cravings were bad.

There’s a bigger reason why the murders are happening, and the movie gets to that eventually, but the plot is a tertiary concern. Alice Lowe’s film portrays pregnancy like a physical hijacking by an outside source, a curse more than a blessing, which highlights a multitude of anxieties about motherhood that most movies don’t even consider, let alone lay bare for everybody.

PREVENGE is also, and this is very important, funny as hell. Alice Lowe is an intensely sympathetic performer – you feel for her plight as much as you feel for the plight of her victims – and she has an uncanny knack for cutting through pretense of social situations with perfectly time, perfectly droll candor.

As a film, it’s episodic and perhaps too slowly paced, but as a character study it’s gangbusters. Try to imagine the lovechild of VAMPIRE’S KISS and ROSEMARY’S BABY and you’ve got the right idea in your head. Just go see PREVENGE to watch how that idea plays out.

TRAGEDY GIRLS 

Another great horror comedy, TRAGEDY GIRLS stars Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand as teen girls who kidnap a slasher killer (Kevin Durand) because they want to be unstoppable murderers themselves. It’s a fun concept and there are multiple ways it could have played out, but director Tyler MacIntyre chose to tell the story of TRAGEDY GIRLS like a teen comedy, in the vein of HEATHERS and MEAN GIRLS and BETTER OFF DEAD, with the reality slightly heightened and the cynicism playful and poisonous. It turns out that was smart play.

We are supposed to root for the “Tragedy Girls,” who are eager to start a killing spree to promote their social media presence, and because the tone is perfectly off-kilter – and because Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand are hilarious, distinctive actors – we kind of do. TRAGEDY GIRLS plays just enough like a cartoon to make even the most sadistic acts of violence seem halfway adorable, and I suspect that the positive, can-do spirit of these homicidal online entrepreneurs is probably going to inspire a passionate fanbase a la AMERICAN MARY or THE CRAFT.

Along with MAYHEM, the delightful TRAGEDY GIRLS is the best horror movie I saw at SXSW this year. Don’t miss either of them, and keep your eyes peeled for the rest because there’s something to recommend in every single one of them (except for PIG of course, but even that’s a strange kind of recommendation).

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