The South by Southwest Film Festival has always been a welcoming platform for horror directors. It’s a city with a personality that’s proudly just a bit left of center, and genre filmmakers typically embrace that cultural viewpoint. There’s a reason the notable genre fest Fantastic Fest is here too. And so I’m always a bit more interested in the Midnighters program than at other fests because it feels like the programmers here have a large array of potential options from which to choose. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that low-budget, indie horror has always been and always will be a rollercoaster of quality, and this year is no different.
The defiant writer/director with the amazing name Dutch Southern gave the best introduction I heard at SXSW this year for his “Only the Good Survive,” calling the film punk rock in a way that could only happen in Austin. Conceived and shot there, Southern went as far as to proclaim that if you don’t like his movie, you don’t like Austin. Well, I like Austin. And I like his movie. So maybe he’s onto something.
“Only the Good Survive” is one of those films that won’t leave too many viewers in the center when it comes to its appraisal. You either get on its quirky wavelength or you don’t. For me, Southern’s blend of Texan anarchy, classic thriller storytelling, and quirky sense of humor clicked from beginning to end. This is a movie that isn’t going to work for all but will REALLY work for some, and I think Southern is perfectly fine with rewarding a specific audience instead of trying to appeal to everyone.
Sidney Flanigan of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” plays Brea Dunlee, a young woman who is introduced as the only survivor of something awful, being interviewed/interrogated by an officer named Cole Mack (Frederick Weller). And so the film has an unreliable narrator structure that gives it a very different energy than a traditional thriller as Mack tries to pull out what happened from Dunlee’s brain in clever, playful ways. As this “The Usual Satanists” gets deeper into its twisted tale, Weller and Flanigan playfully bounce back and forth, having a blast with Southern’s clever, referential dialogue.
Oh what a story Brea has to tell. It starts with a chance meeting of a cute boy named Ry (the great D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai of “Reservation Dogs”), who brings her into a plan with his a guy named Erve (Will Ropp) and some charismatic muscle named Dev (Darius Fraser). Ry stumbled upon some rare coins in the home of an elderly couple, and brought in Erve and Dev to help steal them. Maybe Brea could be the lookout? Of course, the trio of robbers stumble upon something VERY different from coins in the house, and all Hell breaks loose, maybe even literally.
But maybe not. Southern’s film has a fun tone that intentionally plays with the freedom of filmmaking, using animation, quick cuts, questionable POV, and more to keep the momentum going. It’s a film with a punk rock aesthetic and self-aware style—at one point, Mack even asks if this is a comedy or a horror movie—that is very all-or-nothing when it comes to audience engagement. You’re in for the ride or stay at home. As someone who saw a lot of films at this year’s Sundance and SXSW that felt like they had no personality at all, I was happy to see one that uses its personality like a challenge. Are you in?
Another genre film in Austin this year that leans into its ridiculousness is an unexpected sequel called “The Wrath of Becky.” I’ll be honest that I had memory-holed 2020’s “Becky” so completely that I didn’t even realize this was a sequel to it until not long before the screening. If you are in a similar boat, “Becky” was the tale of a group of Nazis, led by Kevin James, who learned the hard way that the titular girl (Lulu Wilson) wasn’t an average teenager. In the far-superior follow-up by writer/directors Matt Angel & Suzanne Coote, Becky is now working her way through the world on her own, but there are still those damn Fascists out there, waiting to be brutally murdered.
Becky is working at a diner and living with a woman who was kind enough to take her in when she happens to serve a trio of noxious incel morons who belong to a group called the “Noble Men,” an obvious riff on the Proud Boys. They’re in town because a local senator modeled off AOC is going to hold a rally, and they’re ready to f- things up in a way that these idiots often do. When Becky pours a cup of coffee on their leader, they come back to the house, beat her loyal canine companion, and kill her benefactor. They messed with the wrong waitress. Becky finds them, accompanied by their charismatic leader Darryl (Seann William Scott) and his right-hand man Twig (Courtney Gains). She brings bear traps and grenades.
There’s a charming simplicity to a genre film that can be introduced as “Let’s just kill some fascists!” and Angel & Coote know how to pace and deliver this kind of gut punch of a movie. I was hoping the film might expand a little bit in the final act—it’s a single setting piece—but it’s never boring. It gets in, gets the job done, and gets out. And it helps that Wilson has improved as an actress. She’s got such a strong physical presence that when “The Wrath of Becky” ended in a manner that feels like it’s setting up a franchise, I was kind of pumped for where Becky could go from here. I won’t be surprised next time.
For my final genre film of the year in Austin, I settled on Bishal Dutta’s “It Lives Inside,” a film that descended on Texas with the buzz that comes with one of the most fascinating distributors out there, Neon. Much like A24, Neon has become a brand and usually a sign of quality. While I appreciate the effort here and the quest for representation involving a culture that is not often seen in American horror, the execution misfires in every direction, leading to one of the most frustrating films I saw at SXSW this year. I kept actively trying to like “It Lives Inside.” It kept pushing me out.
Megan Suri plays Samidha, an Indian-American girl in suburban America who is at that point where her culture and hanging out like a normal teenager collide a bit. She has supportive parents in Inesh (Vik Sahay) and Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), an ally in a teacher named Joyce (Betty Gabriel), and she’s interested in a boy named Russ (Gage Marsh). However, none of this matters when an old friend named Tamira (Mohana Krishnan) reaches rock bottom at school. You see, Tamira has a jar that she claims houses an ancient demon. When it breaks, Samidha discovers that sometimes the legends are true.
The demon and the jar are obviously symbols for depression and other things that teenagers have to struggle with in our modern world, but Dutta only half-bakes most of the ideas in this film. There’s so much dialogue that plays at being deep, but too much of it makes little sense. There’s a line for Samidha about what was outside now being inside that baffled me so much I couldn’t pay attention to what happened next. Without dialogue that really builds characters or even tension, the cast has nothing to hold onto and delivers largely ineffective performances, forced to play the situation instead of anything else. It’s another of those films wherein it seems like the characters know they’re in a horror movie, getting cautiously scared in a way that makes you wonder if they can hear the imposing score instead of acting like normal human beings. Dutta resorts to the same scared eyes and slow-turning heads to see what the film doesn’t really reveal until the end over and over again. I like many of the ideas in “It Lives Inside,” but they never got under my skin.