As home to the premieres of Hereditary, The Babadook, and Get Out, Sundance’s Midnight program has developed a reputation among genre fans. And this year’s lineup – on paper at least – looked set to hold up that legacy. There were a number of second features from directors who’d shown scary-good talent with their debuts – including the second film from Under the Shadow‘s Babak Anvari and the duo behind Goodnight Mommy – and a film that had already been picked up by A24, the distributor that has become a kind of stamp of approval for fans of quality indie chillers. But did Sundance’s 2019 horror offering live up to expectations? Will this year’s fest gift us with another Hereditary? We checked out the films, and rounded up what the critics were saying, to give you the heads up on which Sundance horror films are most likely to make a splash when they hit screens later in the year.
Release date: TBD
This “Shaun of the Dead Down Under” zombie comedy is (so far) the best-reviewed movie from the festival’s Midnight Program. It’s sitting at 100% on the Tomatometer after early reviews and being declared “a new cult classic” by the likes of Nerdist’s Dan Casey. Time will tell whether that kind of talk is just hype, but this story of a group of Australian kindergarteners trying to survive a zombie attack during a field trip to a petting zoo certainly has its early fans. Most of them are singling out Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as ukulele-plucking “kindy” teacher Miss Caroline, who – even as the groaning zombies close in – remains doggedly dedicated to convincing her troop of kids that it’s all just a game, and not at all the beginning of the apocalypse. (This gambit involves Nyong’o singing “Shake It Off” in what will be no doubt become a seminal moment in the zombie genre.)
“Little Monsters is a testament to the fact that Nyong’o is a force of a nature who should absolutely be in more comedies,” writes Casey. Even critics who didn’t wholly fall for the movie’s charms sang the actress’s praises: “[Nyong’o] sings, gets laughs, talks tough, wields a shovel and pitchfork, and expertly navigates a big monologue about Neil Diamond,” writes Jason Bailey for The Playlist. “She’s so good, in fact, that the pleasure of her performance makes Little Monsters worth seeing. But just barely.” Meanwhile, Josh Gad gives an “unhinged” and totally un–Olaf-like performance as a foul-mouthed American childrens’ entertainer (and literal motherf—ker) who finds himself mixed up in the gory action.
While many critics have noted the film can feel very familiar (you’ve seen this profane take on the undead in Shaun, Zombieland, and New Zealand flick Black Sheep), they also say its bigheartedness helps it stand out from the pack. The charming romance between Miss Caroline and slacker Dave (Alexander England), and Dave’s growing protectiveness of his nephew, are genuinely moving. (We’re not going to say we cried, but we’re not going to say we didn’t either.) Katey Stoetzel at The Young Folks puts it best: “Little Monsters will be one of the best feel good movies of the year.”
Release date: TBD
This lean mean Blumhouse gem – “82 diamond-sharp minutes,” as Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri puts it – was one of the true highlights of the Midnight program. The plot is simple by-the-campfire stuff: a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) washes up on a deserted island and is forced to survive. By day that means gathering wood and food and tending to camp; by night that means steering clear of a mysterious sea creature that comes ashore after sunset with food and terror on its mind. It’s the kind of film that rests on the strength of its central performance and on its director’s ability to build tension then ratchet it up, and early reviews say it succeeds on both fronts.
Clemons, who starred in last year’s Certified Fresh Hearts Beat Loud, is a dynamite and ferocious final girl (only girl?); “In mostly a one-woman show, Clemons does a great job being vulnerable and also tough as she faces off against the monster,” writes critic Rachel Wagner. Meanwhile, director J.D. Dillard (whose first film Sleight is Certified Fresh at 77%) constructs what Ebiri calls “an ingenious affair, a no-nonsense monster movie that uses its limitations effectively and tells its story cinematically.” Critics are split on the creature design, though – “cheesy” says Wagner; “well-designed” says the Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore – but we can confirm the movie does feature one of the best monster reveals we’ve seen in years.
Release date: March 1 (limited)
When a horror flick comes to us via A24, expectations are high – this is, after all, the distributor that in recent years has assaulted audiences with Hereditary, The Witch, and It Comes At Night. For some, “A24 horror” has become its own genre: unconventional and elusive family terror that digs right under the skin. On paper, The Hole in the Ground, which A24 acquired along with DirecTV before Sundance, mostly fits that bill.
Director and co-writer Lee Cronin’s film focuses on a broken family – a mom and her young son living in remote Ireland – their dank and shadowy home, and the mysterious forest it backs onto (which contains the foreboding crater of the film’s title). The scares kick off when young Chris (James Quinn Markey, giving off serious young Haley Joel Osment vibes) starts acting differently and mom Sarah (Seána Kerslake) begins to question if he really is her son – and if that mysterious hole has something to do with it? Cue creepy kid antics and lots of menacingly innocent “Mommy, are you OK?” inquiries.
If that all sounds familiar, it’s because it is: there is little in Cronin’s movie that you haven’t seen before – particularly if you’ve watched The Babadook, The Shining, or The Descent any time recently. For some, it’s all a bit unexpectedly conventional for an A24 acquisition. “The Hole In the Ground is less subversive than we’ve come to expect from the indie distributor’s genre fare,” Variety’s Guy Lodge wrote in his review. “Compared to Ari Aster’s penetrating family nightmare Hereditary, which likewise debuted in a buzzy Midnight slot at Sundance last year, Cronin’s film is more of a straight-up spookhouse ride: jolting in the moment, but less likely to linger in the bones long after viewing.” Similarly, Nick Allen at rogerebert.com writes: “This is a story that errs toward the familiar instead of embracing strangeness, its freaky kid becoming the distraction when you just want more time with the hole in the ground.”
Nearly all early reviews have noted that however familiar the story is, Cronin does do wonders with mood and delivers some effectively chilling scars (arachnophobics be warned: this one is not for you). The movie’s excellent craft explains its current 91% Tomatometer. Writing for Digital Spy, Ian Sandwell went so far as to declare Hole the “first great horror of 2019,” and writes: “For the most part, Cronin avoids jump scares – although a couple of vivid nightmare sequences do go for the quick shock – and crafts an atmosphere of pure dread, combined with astonishing and immersive sound design.”
Release date: TBD
Directors Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala continue to mine mommy issues for scares with The Lodge, their English-language follow-up to Certified Fresh genre slow-burn, Goodnight Mommy. There are parallels to that film in The Lodge – an impenetrable and potentially dangerous mother, for starters – but critics have been pointing to another film when considering the pair’s latest work. “The film frequently recalls the atmospheric, strings-heavy A24 horror house-style,” A. A. Dowd writes in the AV Club. “In fact, its foreboding establishing shots, deliberate pacing, and dollhouse imagery specifically bring to mind Hereditary.” Emily Yoshida at Vulture similarly writes that “the eerie rhythms of the universe that gave us Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug’s Life, and Fyre and Fyre Fraud have conspired to make The Lodge exist in Hereditary’s shadow, but while some tonal and iconographic similarities exist, the two films jump off their shared diving board into very different corners of the psycho-mom pool.”
The “psycho-mom” in question here is actually a stepmom and the lone survivor of a cult suicide; when circumstances put her alone with her two stepchildren in the titular lodge, the scares and psycho-mom freakouts begin. Critics have been unanimous in praising Riley Keough in the lead role, with The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney writing that the actress “goes all in with fanatical-evangelical whack-job fervor” and Yoshida writing that “Keough’s performance walks a tricky line skillfully.” It’s not quite enough to put the film at the level of Goodnight Mommy, nor Hereditary, but it delivers on scares – particularly in its opening moments. As Rooney writes, “The opening 15 minutes alone is must-see stuff.”
Release date: March 29, 2019
Armie Hammer had been leaving plastic cockroaches all over Park City in the lead-up to the midnight premiere of Wounds, a brutal little Cronenbergian body-horror piece from Under the Shadow director Babak Anvari. (Your RT correspondent got a rude shock when he sat down at the Library screening room and stepped on one.) See the film and you’ll get the gag: This is one roach-filled movie. And a scare-filled one. And a very Armie Hammer-filled one (he’s essentially in every scene). In Wounds, the actor plays a New Orleans bartender who unlocks a cellphone left behind by a group of kids, discovering some disturbing videos and images stored in the camera roll; things get worse for him when the texts start coming. It all has to do with “wounds,” and portals, and yes, roaches.
Most critics agree that Wounds is probably the most surprising of Sundance’s horror offerings: Mashable’s Angie Han wrote in her review, “What this movie is about, what it’s trying to do, I couldn’t tell you. But it is never boring.” And many are praising Hammer for a big, Nic Cage-esque performance as the bartender increasingly on the verge of some kind of breakdown. For Film Threat, Norman Gidney writes, “Hammer’s performance is unhinged, insane, and totally relatable,” while David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter writes that Hammer “gamely loses himself in the sweaty panic of the role, subverting his golden matinee-idol persona to explore the gnawing sense of inadequacy eating away at Will and steadily filling him with overwhelming rage.”
Is the movie scary? At times it’s plain terrifying; one late-night kitchen sequence was the freakiest thing we saw at the fest. But as many critics are noting, Wounds doesn’t quite live up to Anvari’s Certified Fresh first feature, which sits at 99% on the Tomatometer. As Rooney concludes: “There’s nothing here that comes close to the fascinating cultural specificity, the sobering political perspective or the elevating personal connection of Anvari’s first feature, set in the Tehran of his childhood, near the end of the protracted Iran-Iraq War. But the director nonetheless remains a skilled craftsman, subtly tapping into the flavorful history of New Orleans as a hub of dark magic, while wrapping the entire action in a soupy soundscape of ambient dread.”
Release date: TBD
Corporate Animals arrived at Sundance with big horror-comedy pedigree: writer Sam Bain was a co-creator of beloved British TV comedy Peep Show and director Patrick Bice gave us Netflix’s acclaimed low-budget chillers Creep and Creep 2. Plus, Animals features Demi Moore in a rare comedic role, playing the head of a company whose employees get trapped in a cave during a corporate retreat and resort to cannibalism – as you do.
Still, in early reviews, many critics aren’t feeling it. The Hollywood Reporter’s DeFore writes that “Bain’s script is about as fresh as the air in a cave nine people without toothbrushes have shared for a week,” while Screen International’s Anthony Kaufman wondered whether the horror-comedy elements were working together as seamlessly as they should: “On an episode of Parks and Recreation, there might be instances of office politics, insults lobbed at the quirky intern, and general backstabbing, but it’s not remotely credible coming from a group of people who are trapped, starving, and dying of thirst.” Others, however, were digging Animals’ absurdist vibe and Moore’s comedic turn: “The cast is full of comedians who deliver but they all orbit around Moore,” writes Fred Topel at Monsters and Critics. “She has never been this funny. I hope Corporate Animals is the beginning of a Demi Moore comedy renaissance.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs January 24-February 3, 2019.