The end of South by Southwest’s three days of premieres, to me, is something of a blessing and a curse. The downside is that I can no longer let serendipity guide my viewing selections, as it would in a conventional film festival; when building a schedule, it’s often easier to choose between the handful of films playing at a given time than to whittle down an entire festival’s worth of offerings. As a writer, however, it grants me the opportunity to strategize. Unlike the last three days, in which I was forced to grapple for common threads after the fact, I am now free to build intentionally themed blocks. So it was a no-brainer that my first “catch-up” day would be dedicated to the Midnighter selections I didn’t have time to see over the course of the week.* While I strive for well-roundedness (and my bedtimes have gotten earlier and earlier as the years go on), I am, at heart, a dyed-in-the-wool midnight movie creep, and this is maybe the only chance I’ll have to see all of a festival’s midnight selections.
My first “midnight” of the morning was Gaia, a deeply strange bit of eco-horror from the wilds of South Africa. Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are naturalists on a surveillance mission down a deep jungle river. While retrieving a felled drone, Gabi injures herself in a trap, and finds unlikely refuge in a cabin with a pair of eccentric white survivalists, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son, Stefan (Alex van Dyk). Gabi picks up strange vibes from her hosts; Barend has some fire-and-brimstone ideas about the supremacy of nature over humankind, and Stefan is something close to mute. But she soon realizes the real threat comes in the form of the blind, screaming fungus-zombies also roaming the jungle. It becomes increasingly apparent that Gabi needs to get back to civilization and evade her pursuers– fungal and otherwise.
As you can probably glean, there is a lot going on in Gaia. The design of the monsters is effectively horrifying (stopping just short of the “indistinguishably anatomical” vogue of the Quiet Place/Cloverfield model), and dazzlingly realized through a combination of practical effects, CGI, and contortionist actors. The film also leans hard into body horror (ever wonder what it would look like if your arm became a host for mushrooms), and the earth-first fundamentalism of Barend and Stefan shows that the filmmakers put a lot of thought into their world. Unfortunately, that attention of detail doesn’t quite extend to the screenplay itself; the dialogue is often clunky, and a budding romance between Gabi and Stefan feels ill-considered. Still, it’s a pleasure to see a film as original as Gaia, and it contains a lot of images I won’t soon forget.
Writing issues also plague Sound of Violence, a film with a great hook but little sense of what to hang on it. Jasmin Savoy Brown plays Alexis, a young musician with a unique form of synaesthesia: she sees a world of colors every time she encounters death, and finds herself driven to increasingly elaborate murders to compose her masterpiece. The visualizations of Alexis’ synaesthetic episodes are striking, and Brown plays the character with a grounded, tortured humanity. The problem is that the script doesn’t feel built for this character, and her Rube-Goldbergian torture devices require her to be a cartoonish criminal mastermind in the Jigsaw/Dr. Phibes vein. The death sequences are clearly designed to be outlandish, grand guignol set pieces, but the rest of the film is so entirely joke-free that they seem to be imported from a different movie (even comic ringer Brian Huskey is given little comedic material as Alexis’ music professor). Even the music, which could have elevated the material into something resembling a musical, feels like off-the-rack library material. There’s a kernel of a really interesting movie here, but unfortunately it just feels unpopped.
The best of my belated midnight offerings was by far The Feast, a chilly, fascinating Welsh film that stands at the intersection of contemporary social satire and old, archaic folk horror. A Welsh parliamentarian and his well-heeled family arrange a fancy dinner party in their Instagram-chic country home for the wealthy investor interested in drilling for oil on their farmland. To help with the festivities, the family hires Cadi (Annes Elwy), a young local woman, to serve as an all-purpose waitress/maid/”help.” However, there’s something implacably unsettling about Cadi, who rarely speaks and seems to observe the family with an alien detachment. By the time they start to figure out what’s going on with their new servant, it may be too late.
There is a lot to unpack in The Feast, and director Lee Haven Jones pulls it off with a remarkably sure hand. The family is a perfectly timely send-up of the contemporary bourgeoisie (one can imagine them scheduling diplomatic meetings with the family from Parasite), and their house is ostentatiously modern. Yet Cadi, and the horror she represents, feel ancient and timeless (and fully of a piece with the strange wonders of Welsh folklore). Cadi is, for much of the film, unknowable, but Jones makes the inspired choice to let us see her employers primarily through her eyes, accentuating the bizarre artifice with which they live their lives. Part of the pleasure is watching the film unfold, so I won’t spoil to much of what’s actually going on (other than that this makes the second horror film I watched in 24 hours with a marked eye toward environmentalism). With its folkloric terrors and eat-the-rich satire, it would make a great double feature with last year’s excellent La Llorona— or maybe the evening news.
* – Eagle-eyed viewers will note that one selection is absent; this will be saved for my final dispatch in the coming days.
SXSW, DAY 4:
dir. Jaco Bouwer
Sound of Violence
dir. Alex Noyer
dir. Lee Haven Jones
Part of our ongoing coverage of the SXSW 2021 film festival! For previous dispatches, click here, here, and here.
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