For the first time in its 43-year history, the Sundance Film Festival—usually held in the snowcapped mountains of Salt Lake City, Utah—went virtual. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival scaled down and moved online; festival director Tabitha Jackson succeeded in organizing an engaging, diverse slate of films, ranging from eco-horrors to lyrical documentaries. The following horror and thriller films, all directed by women, tackle themes of mental health, family, and trauma—some backed by luscious soundtracks, others muted but purposeful. These movies join the likes of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), The Lure (2015), and Most Beautiful Island (2017) as meaningful entries into genres that, in the last decade, have turned their sights toward social commentary in lieu of cheap thrills and jump scares.
Director Prano Bailey-Bon
Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature opens on a bleak 1980s London, a time when political transformation and social conservatism—spearheaded by the likes of Margaret Thatcher—gripped the nation. It’s out of this dynamic that the “video nasty” hysteria arose; the British public demanded that exploitation films—those containing extreme gore, violence, and nudity—be censored if not banned altogether. We follow Enid (Niamh Algar), a censor who works for a national censorship board, as she wipes low-budget horror films of gratuitous eye-gouging, decapitations, and dismemberment. On the surface, she appears to be a diligent worker, so much so that her mostly male coworkers tease her for being uptight; they speak over her during meetings and question her decisions, but it’s not this workplace environment—one that is unfortunately familiar to many women—that serves as the source of horror in Bailey-Bond’s film. Rather, the terror begins to bubble when Enid’s composed exterior shatters and we learn of the guilt she is harboring from her childhood, when she witnessed her sister’s kidnapping.
After viewing an especially gruesome film, Enid is convinced that the main actress is her missing sister, and embarks on a journey to uncover the truth. What follows is a riveting pursuit of autonomy, as Enid takes matters into her own hands and uses her diligence and industry knowledge—the same knowledge she was teased for at work—in hopes of reaching some kind of absolution. Though the film focuses on video nasties, fans expecting gore will be disappointed: Bailey-Bond is measured with the violence she puts to screen, an excellent choice as this maintains the focus of the film (and the audience) on Enid and not on the acts that make horror films so sensational. Enid’s quest is partly about relieving her guilt and partly about shedding the suffocating constraints of being a woman in ’80s Britain—but most importantly, her journey spotlights the necessity of agency. In forgoing the blood and guts of its subject matter and focusing instead on one censor’s plight, Censor runs the risk of being misunderstood. But ultimately, Bailey-Bond succeeds in delivering a thoughtful, sensitive film that makes for an impressive debut.
Director Erin Vassilopoulos
The 1980s—this time, across the pond in the United States—also serve as the time period for Erin Vassilopoulos’s stylish debut noir Superior. Rife with memorable visuals and borrowing from the aesthetics of Brian De Palma and Pedro Almodóvar, Superior opens on Marian (Alessandra Mesa) running from her husband Robert (Pico Alexander), after she hits him with her car in a dramatic act of self-defense. Fearing that she didn’t succeed in killing him and that he will seek revenge, she goes to stay with her identical twin sister Vivian (Anamari Mesa) in a small idyllic town in upstate New York. This is the first time the sisters have seen each other in six years—for reasons we’re never told—and when living side by side, their differences become all the more clear: Marian, a guitarist for a punk band, is apathetic to everything but her music, while Vivian, a housewife trying to get pregnant, is concerned with showcasing a manicured life despite being obviously bored and unhappy. Marian is plagued by nightmares of Robert invading Vivian’s home, breaching the bubble of security she’s established at her sister’s. Playing out like a darker version of The Parent Trap and The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Vivian and Marian dress alike and switch places; Vivian, posing as her sister, works in a local ice-cream shop run by a teenage stoner, while Marian takes her twin’s place—cleaning the home, tending the garden, and shooting down the advances of her brother-in-law (who believes she is his wife). As we lose track of which sister is which, Robert’s shadow looms large, and a palpable sense of dread settles into the shadows of the second half of the movie.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Vassilopoulos’s film, nor is there a pertinent social message coursing through the eclectic score and ’80s aesthetic, but Superior is a stylistic and confident debut. Not every thriller needs to sound a call to action—but, in being sterilized of any substantive social messages (other than, maybe, hinting at the idea that traditional gender roles are restrictive, something Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s 2019 film, Swallow, does more effectively), Superior doesn’t quite match up with its contemporaries. Current sensibilities within the thriller genre are to imbue the narrative with a sense of urgency; one that refers to the #MeToo movement—like Kitty Green’s The Assistant (2020)—or marginalization and classism—like Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Superior doesn’t have much to say about the social fabric within which it operates, but it is an exciting debut from a director to watch.
3. The Blazing World
Director Carlson Young
In the 17th century, Lady Margaret Cavendish, an English aristocrat and philosopher, wrote The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, a text charting the existence of an alternate dimension—and a seminal work of science fiction. Four centuries later, Carlson Young, borrowing ideas from Cavendish’s work, wrote and directed The Blazing World. This kind of time jump may seem dramatic, but so is the scope of Young’s debut film, which examines topics of esotericism, familial trauma, and mental illness. The film opens on young twin girls, blond hair in neat bobs, catching fireflies on the green lawn near their home’s pool. Tchaikovsky’s “Pas de Deux” (one of two Tchaikovsky songs that appears in the movie) blares in the background, while the girls’ parents fight in the house. Hoping to catch a firefly that flies over the pool, one of the girls jumps into the water and drowns. This event serves as the emotional core of the movie, as a now-grown Margaret, played by Young herself, is haunted by her twin sister’s death. In fact, in the first scene in which adult Margaret appears, she is climbing into a clawfoot bathtub and contemplating committing suicide.
Some time later, Margaret returns to her childhood home and enters a new dimension through a passageway in the house, hoping to appease her anxiety by verifying whether there is another world (and whether her sister is there). Think Alice in Wonderland meets Pan’s Labyrinth meets Coraline (meets Margaret Cavendish). It is within this alternate dimension that the fun really begins, as Margaret needs to accomplish a set of tasks in order to reunite with her sister. Unfortunately, this is also where the movie loses its already-tentative grip on reality, as the deeper Margaret wanders into purgatory, the less sense her actions, and their consequences, make. Not only does the plot meander, but the aesthetic flair that made the movie so unique in the beginning becomes grating; Young fills her film with eclectic visual motifs—everything from fog and candles to masquerade masks and sand—that feel less and less cohesive as the movie progresses. The Blazing World is an enjoyable film in a campy sort of way; it’s melodramatic and over the top, often treating Margaret’s mental health with more callousness than sympathy, but it makes itself memorable by being visually ambitious, even if this ambition flounders at times.
Director Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli
Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer team up to direct Violation, the latest addition to the trending revenge genre. A bleak, dry film, Violation doesn’t sugarcoat any step in Miriam’s (Sims-Fowler) quest for revenge after she is assaulted by a man she’s close to. With almost no score and no visual flair, Violation is the antithesis of The Blazing World, sticking to visceral realism to grow the tension. There are no shrieking violins or sudden jump scares; all we get is unabated dread. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer’s film is explicit in its portrayal of gore and nudity, walking the line of “torture porn” by avoiding the usual horror gimmicks. But make no mistake: Though it doesn’t linger indulgently on severed limbs or deep wounds like movies from the Splat Pack or other auteurs of extreme cinema, the events that transpire onscreen in Violation are just as disturbing. The violence doled out by Miriam isn’t to meet the gore requirements of a niche genre or collective of horror filmmakers; it’s purposeful, measured, and makes us question the very act of revenge and any subsequent catharsis: Do we have a responsibility to ourselves (and to others) to extract justice? The farthest thing from a “good time” flick or one that can be enjoyed on family night with a tub of popcorn, Violation is a challenging and commendable work. Explicit in its depiction of both grief and violence, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli’s film is a valuable addition to the revenge-thriller genre.
Director Frida Kempff
The only foreign-language horror movie in this year’s Sundance lineup, Knocking, directed by Frida Kempff, offers yet another take on the paranoia genre, joining the likes of The Babadook (2014) and Unsane (2018) in focusing on women who are losing their grip on reality. Mourning her girlfriend Judith, who is implied to have drowned, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) has just been released from a mental institution when, upon settling in her new apartment, she begins to hear incessant knocking. Believing a woman is being held captive somewhere in the building and trying to communicate with her, Molly makes it her mission to uncover the source of the noise. It’s a basic premise and, unfortunately, Kempff does little to provide it with nuance. For the hour-and-a-half run-time of the film, we watch Molly saunter through every trope and cliché related to mental illness—everything from writing on walls to hallucinating apparitions—before ultimately spiraling into a feverish outburst of mania.
There’s little focus on Molly’s sexuality—her ex-girlfriend appears in dreams as a silent blur—or any significant details about her mental illness. In keeping both of these components vague, the movie makes it hard for the viewer to mine a substantive message beneath the surface. The intersection of mental health and queer identity has been an important staple of many genres, from meditative dramas (Gregg Araki’s 2004 film, Mysterious Skin) to tragicomedies (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine). Horror has also trudged these same waters—Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle (2014) and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) being worthy recent examples—but in bringing nothing new to a genre that’s ever-evolving and ever-innovating, Kempff’s film is unfortunately bound to get lost in the current.