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SXSW 2024: Oddity, Azrael, Kryptic

The general feeling around SXSW this year was that the Midnights, often a strong program at the event in a city that boasts how it needs to be kept weird, were a little lackluster. Whether it was a lack of visual language or narrative cohesion, horror and its sister genres didn’t exactly fare as well as it did at Sundance, where films like “In a Violent Nature,” “I Saw the TV Glow,” “Love Lies Bleeding,” and “It’s What’s Inside” made for one of the strongest Midnights programs in years. I didn’t get to as much of the program as I do most years, but that was partially because buzz on the street kept advising me to make other plans. However, one of the most buzzed films of the fest, and one of my personal favorites of this year’s SXSW was a Midnighter. And it’s an unforgettable one.

That title belongs to the riveting “Oddity,” a movie that lives up to its title by blending Irish Folk Horror, elements of gothic horror—I was reminded of one of my favorites in that genre of all time in Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”—and a bit of a Peter Strickland vibe. Damian McCarthy follows up “Caveat” with a more confident, powerful piece of work about betrayal, murder, ghosts, and a terrifying wooden mannequin. This one is gonna be a hit for genre fans and might even break out from that niche when IFC releases it later this year.

McCarthy opens with a phenomenal scene in which a woman named Dani (Carolyn Bracken) answers the door when she’s alone late at night in a home that she’s renovating for her and her husband Ted (Gwilym Lee). From the beginning, McCarthy is playing with noise and space as Dani walks the cold, empty halls of a home that may not be that empty. Ted works at a psychiatric hospital nearby, and a patient named Olin Boole (Tadhg Murphy) is the one knocking on the door. He’s jittery, and generally unsettling, but he insists that he’s not the danger. He saw someone else come through the door when she left it open. Dani needs protection. And there have been weird things happening. Let in the seemingly dangerous man outside to help against the unknown or risk it?

It’s no spoiler to say that Dani ends up murdered, and the cops pin it on Olin. A year later, Ted is already with a new girl named Yana (Caroline Menton) when Dani’s twin sister Darcy (also Bracken, excellent in the dual role) shows up at the door with a box that contains an enormous wood mannequin. Why? Darcy happens to be a psychic, and she has some plans to figure out exactly what happened that night her sister died. It’s gonna get weird.

“Oddity” is genuinely and consistently unsettling. Instead of relying on cheap jump scares, McCarthy goes for mood—a much harder thing to pull off, but he does exactly that. “Oddity” has a cold, unpredictable aesthetic that makes it equally riveting and tense. The economy of characters and storytelling allow McCarthy to deliver in terms of craft, turning viewers into residents in a remote Irish home in the middle of the night, a place where the skeletons in the closet might be literally deadly.

E.L. Katz made waves a decade ago at SXSW with the twisted “Cheap Thrills,” a film I genuinely liked (and one of my first RogerEbert.com reviews, for the record), so I was excited to see him team up with the underrated Samara Weaving on “Azrael,” a film that promised a bloody, post-apocalyptic thrill ride. Sadly, this one is a broad misfire for Katz and Weaving, a film that joins a weird little subgenre of dialogue-less films of late, a sort-of-horror-sister to John Woo’s “Silent Night.” The problem is that when a film eschews all dialogue, it needs to compensate with strong visual language and narrative momentum—this movie has neither.

Set years after the Rapture—yes, that one—speaking has been deemed a sin in this future world with no supplies and dwindling humanity. Azrael (Weaving) wanders the woods with a partner (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and, although we get no dialogue, they’re clearly living in fear and hiding. Before long, they’re caught by a group of roving marauders, and Azrael is strapped to a chair. A ceremony begins and what appear to be almost demons emerge from behind the trees, ready to chew on human flesh. Azrael escapes but fate keeps bringing her back to the marauder camp, which anyone who has ever seen a movie knows she will eventually topple.

A film like “Azrael” needs thematic density to break through the lack of dialogue, and writer Simon Barrett probably knows his project well enough to think that’s there, but it’s not well-conveyed to audiences. Instead, “Azrael” becomes a flat genre exercise, a series of poorly-staged combat sequences and some truly creepy creatures that look kind of look severely burned humanoids. Weaving is consistently giving “Azrael” her all—there’s just nothing giving back in return.

Director Kourtney Roy promised “rivers of mucus” before the premiere of her “Kryptic,” and that’s truly about all this experimental misfire has to offer. Again, the writer, Paul Bromley in this case, probably thinks there’s a lot going on here in this twisted tale of a cryptozoologist in search of a monster and herself, but nothing of substance comes through to the audience. I don’t mind a film that traffics in striking visuals instead of direct narratives, but “Kryptic” isn’t confident enough for either. It’s like a student film—full of ideas but none of them are how to tie a film together.

To be fair, Chloe Pirrie is impressive as Kay Hall, a woman who goes on a trek to find a mysterious Bigfoot-like creature who may have run off with a local scientist. After a weird encounter in the woods, Kay returns to a life she doesn’t quite understand. Is she actually the missing woman? She jumps into a new life with new characters before spiraling back to what could be her own with an overbearing husband named Morgan (Jeff Gladstone). More visually than narratively, Roy seems to be weaving in themes of suburban ennui, sexual violence, and even alternate realities. None of it adds up.

Again, I don’t think a film needs to be a math problem, but incoherent narratives need to be offset by captivating visuals. “Kryptic” simply doesn’t have that in its favor. Basic composition and editing choices baffled me here in a way that kept the film from casting a spell. Pirrie does a lot to hold it together when it threatens to become a total disaster, but even she gets carried away by this monster movie misfire.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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