2014 SXSW Horror Round-Up: ‘Oculus,’ ‘Stage Fright,’ ‘Creep,’ ‘The Guest’ & More

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As a horror addict, the SXSW Midnighters are always the favorites, but this year in particular, almost every single one of them reflects thoughtful, high-quality filmmaking. We’ve got first features, worthy remakes and veteran efforts marking considerable improvements and topics ranging from alien abductions to musicals gone wrong, deranged house guests and so much more.

Sadly there wasn’t enough time to see them all, but read about the late-night screenings we were able to catch below.


13 Sins

Ron Perlman in 13 Sins

This is the latest from the man behind The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm. 13 Sins involves just that – 13 sins. Mark Webber’s character gets a random phone call daring him to swat a fly in exchange for money. He knows it’s crazy, but does it anyway and, sure enough, the funds are deposited into his account. Now, all he’s got to do is complete 12 more sins in order to hit the jackpot and essentially be set for life. The trouble is, the challenges become more and more intense, vile and deadly each step of the way.

13 Sins is a remake of the Thai film, 13 Beloved, but we’ve also got a string of horror films hitting that involve similar scenarios like Cheap Thrills and Would You Rather. Originality is always great, but it’s also impossible to discount 13 Sins because it’s such a highly entertaining watch that lets you get in on the thrill by making you wonder how you’d fair in such a situation. The logic behind the whole operation isn’t entirely sound, but Webber’s performance is so engaging and Stamm has such a firm handle on every other element of this production that those flimsy narrative elements rarely pulls you out of the experience.

When can you see it? 13 Sins is available on VOD now and will hit theaters on April 18, 2014.


The Guest

Dan Stevens in The Guest

Last year Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard showed off You’re Next and VHS 2 at SXSW and this year they’re back with The Guest, which is actually more of a violent and bloody thriller than a horror movie. It focuses on the Petersons, a family of four that just lost their eldest son in combat. When a soldier named David (Dan Stevens) knocks on their door claiming to be their son’s good friend, they welcome him in with open arms. Even though David appears to be the perfect houseguest, giving the kids rides to school, helping Mrs. Peterson with the laundry and more, soon enough, Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe) starts to connect the dots and realize David might be responsible for unexplained deaths in the area.

Barrett and Wingard have delivered solid work since day one, but The Guest is a game changer. There’s no found footage perspective and there’s no chance they could have pulled this all together on a whim with their frequent collaborators. This is a substantial production and the duo definitely treated it that way. The Guest is a highly stylized piece that is totally dependent on setting a proper tone and Wingard locks that in tight through stunning visuals, perfect music cues and a downright outstanding performance from Stevens. David will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable and dynamic antagonists out there.

When can you see it? Picturehouse acquired the US distribution rights, but a release date hasn’t been announced. 



Harry Treadaway in Honeymoon

Honeymoon stars Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie and Penny Dreadful’s Harry Treadaway as Bea and Paul, newlyweds on their way to a remote cabin out in the woods for their honeymoon. At first, Bea and Paul are the perfect pair. They’re completely in sync, love each other dearly and are absolutely thrilled to begin their life as a married couple. However, after Paul catches Bea sleepwalking in the woods, it’s like she’s become a different person. She’s detached and cold, making him think that something far more serious happened that night.

Honeymoon marks Leigh Janiak’s first feature as well as an excellent start to her career. The film does bear a few components that are clearly first feature and low budget appropriate, namely the fact that it involves two characters in a single location, but Janiak gets the most she possibly can out of all of them. Honeymoon is a bit of a slow burn and the über cutesy affection at the start of the film may be too much for some, but Janiak does find a great deal of success turning that dreamy romance on its head, plunging her leads into a nightmarish scenario and ensuring you’ll never forget what happened to them.

When can you see it? Honeymoon has yet to secure distribution.



Karen Gillan in Oculus

Not so thrilled about another haunted object movie? Trust me; you’ll want to give Oculus a chance. The film features Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver) as Kaylie and Tim Russell. Back when they were kids, their parents were murdered right in front of them and Tim was blamed for their deaths. Years later, Tim is released and finally has a chance to live a normal life, but Kaylie is still obsessed with proving his innocence and that it was the supernatural force in the Lasser Glass that committed the crime.

Writer-director Mike Flanagan skillfully interweaves two narratives, one of which follows the young Kaylie and Tim brilliantly played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan while they’re first discovering that something isn’t quite right with that mirror and then a second involving Gillan and Thwaites’ older rendition of the characters. The portion revolving around the kids is quite powerful, but what makes Oculus a standout is what Kaylie is busy doing in the present. Most haunted object movies simply involve a character finding a creepy thing, unleashing its power and then all hell breaks loose. Here, Kaylie is already a major step ahead. She knows what the Lasser Glass is capable of and has spent years figuring out how to beat it, and that makes her story fresher and immensely more exhilarating than most other familiar executions of this scenario.

When can you see it? Oculus is due for a wide release on April 11, 2014.


Stage Fright

Meatloaf & Allie MacDonald in Stage Fright

After the success of his horror musical short film, The Legend of Beaver Dam, Jerome Sable is back with his first feature, Stage Fright. The story begins with Minnie Driver. Her character is the lead in “Haunting of the Opera” on Broadway, but her run is cut short when she’s murdered just a few rooms away from her young daughter, Camilla. Years later, Camilla (Allie MacDonald) is all grown up, but rather than following in her mother’s footsteps, she’s stuck working in the kitchen at a performing arts camp for kids. When it’s announced that the camp’s big summer show will be a rendition of “Haunting of the Opera,” Camilla is determined to make her mother proud and lock in her old role. Even though Camilla does manage to steal the lead from the paying campers, a serial killer taking out the cast and crew one-by-one still threatens to destroy her big debut.

I’m all for pushing the boundaries and giving a horror musical a shot, but when Stage Fright’s first trailer dropped just before the festival, I was all but convinced this wouldn’t work at all. Well, I’m eating my words now because not only is Stage Fright a great film, but it’s also the most fun I had in the theater the entire festival. The narrative is familiar and you can predict where the story will go, but the abundance of nods to horror classics and playful jabs at the theater community as well as the novelty of seeing musical numbers come together with gore is an absolute riot. Stage Fright’s got a rip-roaring pace to begin with, but then add in charmingly cheesy fanfare-type romps and even some exceptionally well placed metal numbers and you get this added jolt that powers viewers through the narrative with such force, you’ll come out with a huge smile plastered on your face and, for lack of better words, walk away totally jazzed about what you just saw.

When can you see it? Stage Fright will be available on iTunes and On Demand on April 3rd and get a theatrical release on May 9th via Magnet Releasing.


Starry Eyes

Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes

Starry Eyes tells the story of Sarah (Alex Essoe), a wannabe Hollywood starlet who’s giving it her all, but getting no results. Even though she works all day at a fast food restaurant to make a living and attends every casting call imaginable in her free time, it seems as though her friends are making far more headway. Just when she thinks she’s hit rock bottom, she goes on an audition and actually manages to book a lead role with the potential to launch her career. The problem is, the role requires quite a bit from her emotionally, morally and physically, and now Sarah is forced to decide what she’ll risk in exchange for a shot at living her dream.

Similar to 13 Sins, part of what makes Starry Eyes such an affecting watch is its ability to get into your head and force you to consider how far you’d go in such a situation, and the fact that it’s easy to relate to Sarah makes the thought especially disturbing. When we first meet Sarah, she’s rattled, but also the type of person many strive to be – kind and hardworking. However, the more time we spend with her, the more she unravels and Essoe’s delicate approach to that transition will have you sympathize with and understand her decisions. Even though you’re well aware that they’re not the healthiest choices, you might even catch yourself rooting for her to seize the opportunity no matter the consequences and that makes the horror that follows so much more than gore for the sake of gore, but rather carnage with a disturbing amount of thought behind it.

When can you see it? Starry Eyes has yet to secure distribution.



Creep Film Still

(Non-Midnighter, but still horror.)

Patrick Brice both directed and stars in Creep. He plays Aaron, a guy scouring the web, hoping to make an extra buck. When he finds an ad calling for a filming service in exchange for $1,000 for the day, he takes the gig and heads off into the mountains to go to work for the employer. There’s something off about Josef (Mark Duplass) right from the start, but when he tells Aaron his story and why he wants the day documented, Aaron can’t help but to empathize and give him a shot. Aaron manages to get the job done, but when the time comes to call it a day and go home, Josef has an unnervingly hard time letting go.

You think you’ve had enough found footage and documentary point-of-view horror? Creep is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. Just imagine the uncomfortable feeling when someone is just a little too close during a conversation. Do you laugh it off after or does it creep you out? Creep manages to achieve both. One minute, you’re laughing at Josef’s antics, but the next, they bear a disturbing quality and you’re genuinely concerned for Aaron’s safety. It’s a fun, fascinating sensation that’s a thrill to try to decipher.

When can you see it? The filmmakers have yet to announce a distribution deal, but during our conversation with Duplass and Brice, Duplass did note that something is in the works.


Open Windows

Sasha Grey in Open Windows

(Non-Midnighter, but still horror.)

Open Windows takes place on a laptop. Yes, a laptop. We begin with Elijah Wood’s Nick who owns and operates a website dedicated to the famous actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). He’s absolutely thrilled because he’s under the impression he’s won a fan contest and will get to have dinner with the starlet, but that’s when he gets a mysterious Skype-type call from someone who informs him that the dinner is off just because Jill doesn’t feel like going anymore. Insisting that Nick should still have the opportunity to spend time with her, the caller, Chord (Neil Maskell), gives him the tools to do so – access to her cell phone camera, a video camera to spy on her from his hotel room window and more. It all seems harmless to start, but the more Chord allots Nick, the more Nick starts to realize that there’s something much bigger going on.

Nick’s laptop camera, the view from Jill’s cell phone, security cameras, and more – each and every one of them are crammed onto Nick’s laptop screen and the entire narrative plays out by navigating from one open window to the other. It’s an incredibly ambitious effort and writer-director Nacho Vigalondo does deserve some serious credit for giving it a go, but ultimately, he just doesn’t pull it off. One of the first noticeable problems is that the movements around the laptop screen need to feel motivated by Nick in order for this point-of-view to feel natural. They’re not. But the issue that ultimately makes Open Windows crash and burn is the painfully convoluted and totally nonsensical narrative. There are so many twists and turns crammed into the film that by the time you are rewarded with reveals, you’ll have forgotten why you wanted them in the first place.

When can you see it? Open Windows has yet to secure distribution.

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