Horror is about so much more than things that go bump in the night. What's truly scary is not the monster hidden, but the real-life fear it represents. Plumbing the depths of such terror are three films from SXSW's Midnighters section: "Sound of Violence," "Jakob's Wife," and "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror."
Writer/director Alex Noyer makes his feature debut with "Sound of Violence," a killer thriller inspired by Synesthesia, a neurological condition that can cause people to see sounds as swirls of color. Alexis Reeves (Jasmin Savoy Brown) first enjoyed the surreal rush of this sensory splendor when she was a little girl. More specifically, when she was a little girl who murdered her rampaging father. Ever since, she's made unconventional recordings of children fighting, BDSM sessions, and more sinister stuff, always chasing that ultra-violent audio high.
While Synesthesia is a real condition, it's not the root fear playing at the core of this music-throbbing thriller. Alexis is pulled steadily down a dark path, where she compromises her morals, safety, and closest bonds to chase the high experienced through sounds of violence. The fear here is about addiction, and how it might rob even a sweet little girl turned shy musician of their sanity and humanity. To fully capture this horror, Noyer binds us intensely to Alexis. We are her silent witness in a sequence of formative childhood trauma. We discover her yearning for connection through sheepish smiles and longing gazes at her bubbly and beautiful roommate Marie (Lili Simmons). We share in the pleasurable throb of the waves of sound and violence.
Noyer bathes the screen in pulsing blues, reds, oranges, and greens. The smash of a skull, the tear of flesh, and the splurt of blood are not just disturbing visual effects. They become translated into an abstract and enchanting boom of aural awe. However, "Sound of Violence" does not relish this descent into merciless murder. Marie's story begins to branch out with her catching clues that something horrid is going on in Alexis' head … and in her hideaway RV. The twisted smiles that crawl across Alexis' face become red flags that can't be ignored. But can she be saved? Is that even what she wants?
A true midnight movie, "Sound of Violence" plays out a resonantly deranged concept with unapologetic gore and a sensational style that aches to overwhelm its audience. Yet, even with his most imaginative slaughter sequences, Noyer aims for more than shock value. His script begs us not only to be horrified but also understand the motives of its monster. Brown strums Alexis to life with wide-eyed vulnerability, an invite into her head that we cannot refuse. Her instrument is the twist of her lips, which can spark compassion, concern, and terror, depending on how that smile takes shape. Simmons is her skillful partner, playing a duet of passion and pain that is exquisite and strange. Together, they stride into a final sequence that is unnerving, gruesome, and bizarrely bittersweet. Like the catchy song caught in your head long after a concert's ended, "Sound of Violence" will stick with you.
Next up is "Jakob's Wife," Travis Stevens' follow-up to his clunky but ambitious haunted house horror "Girl on the Third Floor." Once more, the co-writer/director invites us into the home of a dysfunctional married couple. Cult horror luminaries Larry Fessenden and Barbara Crampton star as Pastor Jakob Fedder and his subservient wife of 40 years, Anne Fedder née "Adventurous Anne." Long ago, she had big dreams, a wild streak, and an independent spirit. However, as her minister husband ignores or talks over her before congregants and cops, it's easy to see how the light inside her has dimmed. That is, until she crosses paths with a vampire/life coach.
Once bitten, a fire burns within Anne. She rejects the sexist expectations of this suffocating small town and her brow-furrowing husband. She ditches the modest frocks for flashier fashion, takes time for self-care, and has a hankering for blood by the butcher bag. Strutting in the footsteps of many a horror anti-heroine, her monstrous makeover has an edge of female empowerment. No longer will she suffer in silence. Like the deadly divas that have come before, Anne is a strong woman who owns her lust and can bite back against the patriarchy's pressures.
The script, written by Stevens, Kathy Charles, and Mark Steensland, hits this message with the subtlety of a shotgun to the face. Characters lament to Ann that she was once free and wondrous. They tell her she could chart her own course again. They suggest she leave her insensitive husband who only wants her to be a submissive housewife. Frustratingly, all the characters that tell Anne who she is, how she might feel, and who she could be are all male. She's not trusted to express her own emotional journey and is hardly developed outside of the requisite drab-to-fab makeover and the hackneyed perspectives of men. Thus, her seemingly feminist quest becomes cringe-worthy as she becomes a literal man-eater with no depth and no regrets. Meanwhile, Jakob strives to save her from the vampire's influence, while suggesting she bears some blame for her scowling husband's bad behavior.
The fear here seems to be about feminism going too far and turning doting wives into cold bitches. If intended as satire, it plays as well as "Jakob's Wife"'s DOA comedy-horror gags. Kill scenes brandish flesh-eating rats, sprays of blood, and a vampire master that looks like "Nosferatu" on a budget. It's the kind of goofy gore that might be eaten up greedily in an actual midnight movie setting, where the audience is intoxicated by a long day of festival activities (and sleep deprivation). But in a virtual fest, such B-movie schlock feels cheap and uninspired. A bigger problem is that the film isn't signaling as a comedy from the start. A first act that involves church worship and miserable domesticity doesn’t establish any kind of wackiness. So, when Crampton begins dropping corpses with madcap playfulness, it's unexpected, odd even, but not really funny. Perhaps the issue is the performance style, which leans to stilted instead of over-the-top. For some horror devotees, Crampton and Fessenden together is a win, no matter what. Personally, I wished for the kind of campiness and unapologetic theatricality of "Death Becomes Her," where divas were monsters and damn hilarious. Even aiming for a "Meet The Applegates" level of sitcom spoofing could have been a hoot! Without that embrace of the absurd, this monstress lacks bite.
In the end, "Jakob's Wife" doesn't deliver on the promise of the premise. Pastor's wife becomes a sexy, sinister vampire! It should be wild, weird, and fun. Sadly, Stevens stumbles combining comedy and high-concept horror. Settings of warehouses, parking lots, and muddy gardens give a grubby aesthetic that gets grosser as gloppy special effects rain down. One scene after another ends without comedic flourish or a button punch line, creating a lumbering pace bled dry of energy. The two leads are lackluster in scenes that don't involve blood. While they throw themselves full-bodied into murder or make-out sessions, Crampton and Fessenden have no chemistry; the Fedders' marriage doesn't seem like it's on life-support, it's already dead. Without that emotional tension, and without the spark of hard-hitting humor, "Jakob's Wife" is more draining than entertaining.
Last but certainly not least is Kier-La Janisse's wildly ambitious documentary, "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror." It's an absolutely breathtaking deep dive into all things folk horror. Over its 3 hours and 13 minutes, Janisse charts the origins of folk horror from British cinema of the 1960s, back through gothic literature, nihilistic Westerns, and true-crime inspirations, then forward through its international spawning in America, Australia, Europe, Asia, and Beyond. It sounds like a promise too big for one feature film to attempt, but Janisse smartly divides the discussions into six chapters, which could easily be reframed as a TV mini-series. And might actually be better for it!
Don't mistake me. Janisse has done a phenomenal job of packing every chapter to the brim with information. She's interviewed over 50 people, including film historians, programmers, screenwriters, academics, actors, and directors, among them Mattie Do ("The Long Walk"), Alice Lowe ("Prevenge"), and Robert Eggers ("The Witch"). Collaboratively, these interviewees build a history of folk horror, adding anecdotes and insights about how it speaks to our deepest fears and evolves through different cultural backgrounds. (Jesse Wente, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office, proves a standout with a wit as sharp as his observations.) Playing unseen narrator, Janisse confidently draws a line from the pagan-centered stories of England to the rise of the "Indian burial ground" as a device, movies of witches, zombies, hellish hillbillies, wronged women seeking revenge beyond the grave, and more. Over 200 films and television shows are discussed here, some in passing, others in depth. It's positively fascinating to see how a common thread can be found between "The Wicker Man," "Deliverance," "Children of the Corn," "The Shining," "The Craft," and "Midsommar."
Through interviews and a jaw-dropping array of film footage, folk horror as a genre seems defined by the uncovering of an ancient and deadly secret. Its cornerstone is a fear of the past and of the rural areas where modern society cannot save you from mayhem. However, as folk horror's influence spreads, the rules become murkier, allowing for a dizzying array of subjects, tones, and centered terror. As one interviewer argues, it becomes more of a "mode," locking into a grand tradition but not locking down its filmmakers to the constraints of expectation.
This observation comes toward the end of the generous runtime, giving a loving embrace to all the information, intellectual theories, raised issues of representation and changing societal norms. Janisse is relentless in the pacing of it all, ravenously pouncing from one insight to the next. It's exciting to experience, as if you're the wordless witness to one of the greatest movie lobby conversations of all time. For those aching for the return to the frenzied energy, passionate arguments, and exuberant love of cinema that in-person film festivals casually offer, "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched" is a sensational substitute!
However, my brain grew ragged, racing to keep up with each leap. My notebook was flooded with scribbles, noting curious questions, brilliant arguments, but also a frantic, growing list of movies I felt compelled to seek out! By the final chapter, I was punch-drunk, overwhelmed by the enchanting relics and riches Janisse and company had unfurled before me. Too often a documentary mini-series pads its episodes to string audience on for as long as possible, teasing us to return with a cliffhanger revelation at episode's end. Here, Janisse clearly puts a lot of thought into who would have the last word in each chapter, providing food for thought to sink our teeth into. If only we had time to chew, swallow, and digest these goods before the film moved on!
Essentially, my only criticism of Janisse's film is that it'd be better served as a TV series. She's done an astonishing job compiling a smorgasbord of interviews and film clips to create a thorough and captivating exploration of folk horror. Her subjects share their love for the topic with verve, wit, intelligence, and vulnerability. Her editors, Winnie Cheung and Benjamin Shearn, do a jaw-dropping job pulling from literally hundreds of films and TV shows to create a rapturous collage of all the curious corners folk horror has traveled to. And the enthusiasm of all involved is absolutely infectious. As is, perhaps all this is too much for one sitting. Still, "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror" is a resplendent treasure for horror lovers, sure to excite, inspire, and awe.