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Sundance 2023: Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, Run Rabbit Run, In My Mother's Skin

Andrew Bowser is a filmmaker who deeply commits to his creations, and I suspect that will help his budding career as a writer/director/editor/actor. Take his hilarious and impressive Midnight movie “Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls,” a handmade horror gem that centers Bowser’s geeky occultist character Onyx. Bowser has been working on Onyx for years in YouTube videos, and he brings Onyx to the big screen with a dedication to the same mannerisms he took to fake news interviews. With something of a resting stressed face, Onyx speaks quickly and anxiously as if trapped in the mannerisms of a dungeon master; he constantly looks uncomfortable, but the performance is seamless like great and memorable comedy characters are. Some people are going to find this level of actorly dedication really annoying. I couldn’t get enough of it. 

“Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls” finds our nervous Satan-worshipping hero on a retreat to hang out with his favorite occultist, Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs). It’s a break from his regular droll life of working at a burger shop (“How can I make your day a bit beefier?” he says with frightened eyes) and living with his mom (Barbara Crampton) and dad. At the retreat, he meets the other eccentric winners, like Melanie Chandra’s ornately dressed Jesminder (who claims she was married to Bartok in a past life) or the eloquent Mr. Duke (Terence 'T.C.' Carson), who loves Bartok, Satan, and education. These characters are like cartoons come to life, and show how this loving send-up of geek culture is a holy fusion of Halloween production design and VHS tapes from the ‘80s and ‘90s. You can practically taste the delivery pizza and soda when watching it.

Everyone is gathered here for a special ceremony led by Bartok and his assistant Farrah (a scene-stealing, green-haired Olivia Taylor Dudley). But they are unaware that they’re pawns for something more insidious, which Onyx accidentally and slowly starts to figure out. The plotting by Bowser’s script does a lot of table-setting for its exposition, and sometimes the character introductions can feel like a game going through the rules. But the movie is paced with such giddiness that once the movie takes off, the elaborate specifics within Bartok and Farrah’s evil plot prove not to be vital for enjoyment (nor do you have to like Dungeons and Dragons and such). You just follow the movie from one inspired and amusing sequence to the next, which sometimes includes stunning puppet work (the practically made monsters here are great) or laugh-out-loud jokes about running into cobwebs in the evil mansion’s passageways.

Onyx is our terrified surrogate throughout these ornate sequences (including a Meat Loaf music video hallucination). He calls himself The Fortuitous while never looking the part, and that's why we love him. With nearly all his characters and their adventures, Bowser shows that he knows a good-spirited joke based on a horror archetype. Maybe Onyx should only have this one great cult adventure, but Bowser proves here that geek movie culture needs a sense of humor and a mind like his.

Daina Reid’s “Run Rabbit Run,” acquired by Netflix on the first day of the fest, begins with two intriguing mysteries but struggles to maintain its slow burn as we watch them converge. First, why is Sarah Snook’s worn-down fertility doctor Sarah so avoidant of something, like when she gets calls from an assisted living care home or talks to her ex-husband? Second, what is happening with her daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre), who starts to draw sinister-looking black and red figures on the back of her schoolwork and wears a big pink mask that looks like a rabbit? And if that’s not weird enough, then Mia starts demanding to be called Alice, which we learn in time to be the name of Sarah’s sister, who went missing when they were both young. 

The answer to these questions and little else arrives over too glacial of a time in this script by Hannah Kent, which is filled with repetitive psychological fakeouts, of which only a couple work. Eventually, Sarah takes Mia to Sarah’s childhood home, away from the city and right near a cliff. This should be a setting for good thrills, but instead "Run Rabbit Run" engages in the worst impulses in horror storytelling, conjuring scare scenes that barely add nervous momentum; they only kill time. Mia acts as if she were being held captive during these many isolated, faux-freaky passages. Kicking and screaming when she's not silent, she demands to be called Alice, which only upsets Sarah more and more. 

Eventually the predicament of what is real and what isn't leads the movie to be stuck in its murkiness, despite the intense work by Snook and LaTorre (they have fitfully chaotic chemistry in such a wild situation, both pushing buttons about parenting and screaming kids). “Run Rabbit Run” can't follow up on its initial promise, and eventually even its bombastic score becomes numbing: the strings from Mark Bradshaw and Marcus Whale are always a signal that a tedious scare is coming soon. 

Sound also has a large presence in the Filipino horror movie “In My Mother’s Skin,” which Prime Video acquired during the festival. Written and directed by Kenneth Dagatan, “In My Mother’s Skin” relies a good deal on violence that is not shown on-screen but is heard, and also in creating a creepy soundscape for its 1940s setting and ominous mansion. The rest of the movie is much less effective, as it becomes far too shrill and gradual than it needs to be. 

“In My Mother’s Skin” focuses on a family during World War II living in the Philippines who are more or less doomed. After being accused of hiding treasure stolen from the Japanese, the father disappears, leaving behind daughter Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) and son Bayani (James Mavie Estrella), and mother Ligaya (Beauty Gonzalez). Gunshots can sometimes be heard in the distance, and the threat of the war is encroaching—when Tala and Bayani wander through the woods, they see dead bodies face down. And things get even worse when the mother becomes gravely ill.  

A fairy appears to Tala, who looks like a cicada and a statue of the Virgin Mary was blended in the machine from “The Fly”—she has wings around her head, something like a bug gown, and a wicked smile. The imposing figure offers Tala a way to make the pain disappear and save her mother from death. Most adults would know this was too good to be true, and “In My Mother’s Skin” is more about Tala trying to cheat the mortality cycle and then facing dire consequences. Taking a magical cicada from Fairy only makes her mother’s situation more painful and zombie-like, so much so that she has to be locked up as she screams for blood. The terror that follows is just too generic in execution, despite all the problems Dagatan piles on top of each other—the burden of mom’s new freaky bloodlust, the father’s disappearance, the missing treasure, etc.  

Though the movie has some commendable gore effects (as with a crow-puking beginning) “In My Mother’s Skin” becomes unpleasant, leading to some unearned gut punches concerning real grief seen through the eyes of a child. It’s miserable stuff, and not in an entertaining way. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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