Largely by virtue of the budget level that SXSW filmmakers often reach, and the cinematic heroes who came from this part of the world, many of the films here in Austin could politely be called “talky.” A lot of them are dialogue-driven looks at, as they say, “people coming to terms with things.” However, there are always a few surprises, a few movies that feel less inspired by Richard Linklater and more inspired by something unexpected, and such is the case with a pair of flicks from this year's fest that owe more to European horror from the ‘60s and ‘70s than anything from the modern independent scene.
The better of the two is Sebastian Gutierrez’s riff on Bluebeard, the stylish “Elizabeth Harvest,” starring Abbey Lee (“The Neon Demon”), Ciaran Hinds and Carla Gugino. The set up for “EH” is almost straight out of the classic tale in that a man (Hinds) brings his new wife home (Lee). He’s clearly wealthy and powerful; she’s beautiful and happy. What could go wrong? “The only off-limits room is this one,” he tells her about a mysterious chamber. And then he leaves her. Boredom and curiosity get the best of her, and, well, she finds something truly terrifying.
“Elizabeth Harvest” has drawn comparisons to Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” mostly because of plot points and less so because of form but it reminded me of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma much more. Gutierrez uses color in broad, character-driven form, not unlike Argento, washing the screens in vibrant reds and greens. And he’s even willing to do a classic De Palma split-screen during an intense sequence, and is unafraid of sex and violence in ways that reminded me more of those ‘70s/’80s auteurs than the ones working today. The design elements of “EH” are fantastic all around—including the production design of the house, which feels both opulent and terrifying, the beautiful costume design, and the score, co-composed by Rachel Zeffira, who did that so-memorable work on “The Duke of Burgundy.”
I wish “Elizabeth Harvest” was a little tighter in places as it runs too long at close to two hours, and so much of the second half consists of nearly-nonstop exposition that it can become oppressive. It’s a complicated tale—so much so that a character literally finds a journal that explains it in one of the more unique ways to convey exposition in a while—but I found myself less hooked on the twists and turns and more engaged in the imagery and the filmmaking. And that feels refreshing at SXSW.
Much less effective, although I admire the effort, is Michael Tully’s “Don’t Leave Home,” which reaches further back than Gutierrez’s film for a cinematic exercise inspired on remote haunted locales like “The Haunting” or “The Innocents” (one of my favorite films of all time). Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is an American artist who has become fascinated by an Irish urban legend. The story goes that an 8-year-old had a quasi-religious experience in a grotto, a priest painted the experience of the girl in front of a Virgin Mary statue, and, later, the girl vanished from both the real world and the portrait at the same time. Melanie is an artist working on a show inspired by the story when she’s contacted by someone who says she can get her in touch with the painter himself. And off she goes to Ireland. The title is a clue as to how well that goes.
There are some great ideas in “Don’t Leave Home” about the intersection of faith and art, but they’re all too thinly developed. Tully has an intriguing concept and a fantastic final scene, but he didn’t flesh out the movie between the credits. And so he has to rely on too many filmmaking tricks to try and keep it interesting—slow-motion, over-use of score, a dream within a dream twice. Even more damagingly than the distracting style choices are the performances, which feel wooden or exaggerated, as if there’s a style that Tully is going for in the acting as well but not quite reaching. As wonderful as it is to see a filmmaker with more uncommon inspirations than some of his peers, it’s equally disheartening when he falls short of them.