The best horror and sci-fi movies and TV shows we saw

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Another South by Southwest is over, and though this year’s festival was forced to once again handle everything virtually, it was still an exciting event full of ambitious projects, dynamic speakers, and memorable performances. That was true across all the SXSW offerings this year, but it was particularly true when it came to genre projects.

From terrifying feature films to ultra-creative shorts to informative and often heartwarming documentaries, SXSW 2021 presented several new sci-fi, fantasy, and horror offerings that drew us in with the stories they had to tell. Whether we’re talking about a terrifying new period horror series, a film about one man’s quest for an obscure piece of physical media, or a documentary about one of the most heartwarming stage productions in recent memory, it was a festival full of offerings genre fans could sink their teeth into. It was a lot to take in, we watched as much of it as we could, and now it’s time to share the best of what we saw with you.

FEATURE FILMS

The Feast: I’ve already written at length about how much I enjoyed The Feast, but even in a crowded field of new horror films this remains the most stunning achievement of the festival for me. Director Lee Haven Jones’ slow-burning nightmare about a wealthy family set upon by forces they don’t understand in the middle of an act of gluttonous consumption of all kinds is the sort of film that worms its way under your skin and stay there. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Release date: TBA

 

Jakob’s Wife: Speaking of things I can’t wait to watch again, there’s Jakob’s Wife, the endlessly entertaining horror-comedy from Travis Stevens about a minister’s wife (an electric Barbara Crampton) who undergoes a startling and enlivening transformation, only to then deal with the bloody cost. It’s a clever twist on vampire cinema that also manages to delicately and wonderfully balance elements of comedy, domestic drama, and horror, sometimes running them all through the span of one scene. Crampton proves once again why she’s a living legend in horror, and the great Larry Fessenden shines as Jakob.

Release date: In theaters and on-demand April 16.

Gaia: Jacob Bouwer’s Gaia is a film that refuses to be pegged down, no matter how many times you think you can see the next wrinkle in the vast and intricate network of fungal dread it builds throughout its runtime. The story of a researcher who is pulled into the world of a pair of survivalists in the middle of a forest, this South African film blends nature horror with survival thriller, then throws in doses of dark character drama even as the primordial nightmares at the core of its mythology build to a fever pitch. It’s a deeply unnerving, yet constantly beautiful, piece of horror storytelling.

Release date: Summer 2021

Offseason: Any fan of The House of the Devil knows how good Joceline Donahue is at holding the attention of viewers for long stretches of alone time onscreen, and Mickey Keating’s Offseason takes full advantage of that gift to great effect. The story of a woman who returns to her mother’s hometown and finds something dark waiting for her, the film is both a gorgeously shot exploration of creepy seaside horror in the vein of The Fog and a hostile town story that reminded me at times of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. By the time it reaches its climax, this film will be thoroughly lodged in your brain.

Release date: TBA

Alien On Stage: This endlessly charming, spirit-lifting documentary begins as the story of a group of U.K. bus drivers who are trying to mount a stage production of Alien for a charity show in their town. That alone would be a perfectly pleasant viewing experience, but as the demands of the production build, so too do the stakes, and the documentary becomes about so much more than handmade props and amateur actors struggling to spout the sci-fi mumbo jumbo of the original screenplay. The result is a feather-light yet undeniably emotional celebration of fandom, collaboration, and earnestness. Every sci-fi fan should see this movie.

Release date: TBA

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror: There are thorough documentaries, and then there’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a three-hour behemoth chronicling the history of folk horror cinema from its hotbed in Britain to its roots in America and around the world. Featuring interviews with cinema experts, folklorists, and the writers and directors who made many of the films possible, it’s a thoroughly engaging trip through one of horror’s most potent subgenres that’s got enough underlying intellectual oomph to appeal to folk horror devotees and newcomers alike. I could have watched a whole miniseries of this journey.

Release date: TBA

Broadcast Signal Intrusion: Though it never verges into the supernatural, there’s still something magical at work in Broadcast Signal Intrusion, director Jacob Gentry’s film about a lonely man pursuing a mystery related to a series of pirate broadcasts that may have involved someone in his life. For one thing, setting the film back in the late 1990s lends it a sense of nostalgia for physical media, creating an aura around tapes and archival footage that Gentry then turns on its head, pushing that magic into the realm of menace. The result is an obsessive, nerve-shredding thriller framed around absolutely terrifying signal intrusion sequences.

Release date: TBA

Violation: Like Broadcast Signal Intrusion, there’s nothing supernatural to the horror of Violation, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most thoroughly unsettling films I’ve seen in a long time. Anchored by a tremendous leading performance from Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also co-wrote and co-directed with Dusty Mancinelli), this taut, non-linear revenge movie plays at times like a nightmare, and at times like an all-too-real primal scream into the world of a woman who’s been told one too many times that she’s gone too far.

Release date: March 25 on Shudder.

TV SERIES

Them: If you love the films of Jordan Peele and the stunning blend of horror and history that is Lovecraft Country, you will not want to miss Them. Created by Little Marvin, the Amazon Prime original series follows an affluent Black family in the mid-20th century who moves to Los Angeles to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South, only to find another kind of oppression in their new, all-white neighborhood. The human horrors are upsetting enough (Alison Pill is absolutely terrifying as a particularly hostile neighbor), but then the story starts to pivot into more supernatural territory, and the result is a must-see series that merges several very American forms of fear into something truly terrifying.

Release date: April 9 on Amazon Prime Video.

Made For Love: Cristin Milioti’s incredible work in Palm Springs proved just how adept she is at milking sometimes off-kilter comedy from bizarre situations, and Made For Love makes full use of that talent. The new HBO Max sci-fi comedy focuses on Milioti as the unhappy wife of a tech billionaire who tries to escape her constantly surveilled existence, only to find a new chip in her brain might make that very difficult. Part Black Mirror, part Invisible Man, it’s a series packed with potential that further showcases Milioti’s talent for dark, often unexpected comedic flights.

Release date: April 1 on HBO Max.

Sasquatch: Is Hulu’s Sasquatch the story of a mythic cryptid slaughtering pot farmers in Northern California in the 1990s, or is it the story of shady dealings among the region’s cannabis farmers that went a little too far? Maybe it’s both, but whatever the conclusion turns out to be you won’t want to miss this absolutely bonkers ride of a docuseries. From its explorations of the impact of the Sasquatch legend on the locals to the cloak and dagger crime drama unfolding over the course of one man’s journey to try to get the truth, it’s a wild trip for Bigfoot hunters and skeptics alike.

Release date: April 20 on Hulu.

SHORT FILMS

The Moogai: There’s a lot of very creepy stuff in Jon Bell’s short film about two new parents who start to suspect something is stalking their baby, but what’s most striking about it in my memory is the way it sets the tone with a single simple visual: A little girl sitting in a chair. It’s a film that lets us know something is wrong in such a small, straightforward way, but the craft that goes into making all that wrong-ness work results in an altogether terrifying experience, building to a truly chilling conclusion.

Release date: TBA

The Thing That Ate The Birds: Dan Gitsham and Sophie Mair’s The Thing That Ate The Birds is a story of exactly what it says on the tin. A man is troubled by the continued appearance of dead birds and the creature that seems to be stalking and eating them. That’s not the only thing our protagonist is troubled by, though, and the way Gitsham and Mair’s film balances domestic struggles with something more monstrous is key to its unsettling aura. It’s a film that lingers with you.

Release date: TBA

A Tale Best Forgotten: Tomas Stark’s A Tale Best Forgotten is short, direct, and packed with intoxicating creative flourishes. Over the course of this adaptation of a dark ballad, the camera never stops moving, the characters don’t speak, and we get little explanation aside from the lyrics of a song, but that doesn’t stop the film from casting a dark spell. It leaves you wanting more, while also leaving you feeling like if you actually got more, you’d be terrified to see what was offered.

Release date: TBA

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