SXSW Brings The Scares
Joining the run of festivals finding virtual alternatives for this year’s programming, Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) concluded its online conference on March 20 with promises of a physical event later in 2021. Introducing the online version for this year’s festival on March 16, SXSW integrated a plethora of digital tools to provide attendees access to conference sessions, Music Festival performances, educational keynotes, and Film screenings from across the globe.
The reimagined showcase for SXSW pressed on with impressive ingenuity, even implementing a whimsical mapping of the city of Austin that attendees could roam and explore to their heart’s content. While this year’s orientation certainly looked different for returning participants, many were pleased to see that festival traditions venerated. One tradition that serves as a perennial favorite is the “Midnighters” category. This section focuses exclusively on the more transgressive and fringe entries. Of course this encompasses our particular issue of interest, the latest entrants of the 2021 horror scene.
Amongst this year’s thrilling menagerie of terrific torments, there were many titles that stood out. There was Jaco Bouwer’s eco-horror film Gaia, fantasy-horror animation The Spine of Night, Welsh anti-bourgeoisie revenge thriller The Feast, and even a chilling documentary Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched. While each title mentioned is clearly distinctive in their own right, it was easy to pick up on a few re-emerging themes in this year’s selection. Most noted was a “return to gore,” a motif which cropped up across the board.
Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia blends the dramatic scope of a Creature Feature with the existential dread dictated by environmental horror conventions. Set in South Africa’s Tsitsikamma forest, the film follows two park rangers, played by Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi, who are sent to check on surveillance and discover a strange group of people caked in mud. This discovery is the first of many startling revelations of all that tarries in the forest. Bouwer’s unique vision for Gaia is especially complimented by the contemplative cinematography of Jorrie van der Walt, who more than succeeds in establishing the choking atmosphere of Tsitsikamma.
While Bouwer’s Gaia is occupied with the primordial problem of “man against nature,” Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s The Spine of Night tends to the Hobbesian “man versus man” conflict. One of the more zany entries in this year’s lineup, The Spine of Night is an animated splatter fantasy spread across all land and time. The film features the iconic voices of Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, and Patton Oswalt. Set in a magical universe, a crew of heroes from different parts of time and space must work together to battle the dark forces plaguing the land. While predicated on Tolkienian fantasy and quest canon, don’t expect it to be any trip in the Shire. The Spine of Night is astounding in its violent execution. Keeping with the “return to gore” motif, characters are dismembered in the most gruesome of modes. Despite being animated, this is certainly not a film for the faint of heart.
Just as bloody as the rest is Lee Haven Jones’ latest film The Feast. While playing out as an epic revenge-fantasy, The Feast takes a page from the greatest auteurs of Arthouse Cinema with its dark and disturbing characterization of the bourgeoisie. The Welsh film follows a young woman who serves at a dinner party in an upper-class home in the countryside. However, the guests are unaware that this is to be their last supper. Though this entry serves as more of the slow-burn on the list, it’s perfect for the pensive spectator. The haunting visuals and off-putting wide shots are not only stunning, but the film proves a mastery in psychological proximity.
The last title to garner a lot of attention was the documentary Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched. Rarely do we have a documentary turning heads in the horror section of any festival program, but Kier-La Janisse’s latest film broke the rule in 2021. Featuring an incredible array of horror experts, the film takes an in-depth look at the folk horror phenomenon. Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched not only works to cover classic western favorites like Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man and Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, but it also looks at how this phenomenon has translated in other parts of the world as well. Spanning three hours and fourteen minutes, Kier-La Janisse takes viewers on a six-part journey delving into the genre’s foundations.
While there’s still no news yet on when we can expect any physical events for South by Southwest, those interested can check out their official website https://www.sxsw.com for any upcoming news and dates. While there, you can also take a step inside the virtual world in which this year’s festival was hosted.