By Mark Wanner
Another year, another South by Southwest over and done with. The annual influx of creativity this festival brings into Austin always makes for a breath of fresh air (despite how overcrowded and congested the city may become). This marks my fourth year attending the festival. Normally, I try to pack in as many movies as I can. However, I was only able to squeeze in six this year. What follow are my reviews for the first three of these.
My festival experience got off to a disappointing start with this sorry excuse for a haunted house film about a single mother and her kids experiencing ghostly visions in their house. If you think you’ve seen this before, you’re absolutely right. Think of any haunted house film that you can, and you’ve probably got something very similar to The Diabolical, albeit much better.
First-time director Alistair Legrand starts things off on a unique note. Normally, the first act of a haunted house film follows characters slowly learning their house is haunted. The Diabolical introduces us to Madison (Ali Larter) and her children well into the haunting process. The characters are already aware of what’s going on, allowing Legrand to skip all of the early bumps in the night. Unfortunately, he skips what is usually the most interesting part of this type of film. Skilled filmmakers throughout the ages have been able to wring considerable amounts of tension out of those early scares, making the eventual reveal of the evil presence all the more terrifying. Just think back to Robert Wise’s The Haunting or, more recently, James Wan’s Insidious. Without this build-up, the effect the ghost has on us wears off rather quickly.
There’s a third act twist that I won’t reveal here. What I will say is that it takes an already-bad film and makes it even worse. The idea behind the twist is interesting, but the way it’s utilized here is hackneyed, much like everything else in The Diabolical. Overall, this is just incompetent filmmaking. Thankfully, it was the only case of it I experienced at the festival.
As if sensing my dissatisfaction with the first film, the festival really upped the ante for the next one. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is by far the best film I ended up seeing at the festival. With its expert direction, tight script, and strong acting, it made for a wonderful pressure cooker of a film.
Will (Logan Marshall-Green) hasn’t seen his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) in over two years. Out of the blue, he receives an invitation to a dinner party she’s hosting with her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman), at what used to be their house. With his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), he arrives to find a group of old friends, as well as some new faces. Throughout the course of the night, Will begins to suspect that something is not quite right with Eden, David, and their new friends. Is he correct, or is being back in his old house and revisiting unpleasant memories (such as the loss of his son) clouding his judgment?
In the opening scene, Kusama lets us know that this is a world where the normal can turn abnormal at any given moment. From there, the tension gradually builds until the viewer feels on the verge of having a heart attack. Some may think the pacing is too slow. For me, it’s pitch-perfect. Like Rosemary’s Baby, this film wants you to guess what’s happening beneath the surface. This makes the third act reveals much more rewarding. By the time the film is over, you’ll barely be able to breathe.
Kusama has assembled a strong cast. Logan Marshall-Green, best known for his role in Prometheus, makes for a strong center upon which the weight of the story lies. He brings the right mixture of pathos and edginess to his portrayal of Will. Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman are solid as the overly nice Eden and David (though Blanchard does go over the top in a couple of moments). We see why Will is skeptical of these two. The supporting cast does a great job reacting to being caught in the middle of the battle between Will and Eden. I can’t finish off a discussion of the cast without mentioning John Carroll Lynch, who gives an Oscar-worthy turn as Pruitt, one of Eden and David’s creepy new friends. Lynch channels the creepiness he used to such great effect in Zodiac. Whether he’s the main focus of the scene or off in the corner of the frame, when he’s on screen, you can’t help but focus on him. Especially during his lengthy monologue, which is nothing short of breathtaking.
I could go on and on about The Invitation (and believe me, I want to), but I have other films to discuss. Let me end by saying it’s a crime that it’s taken so long for Kusama to bring something else to the screen. Her last film was the underrated Diablo Cody scripted horror-comedy, Jennifer’s Body, in 2009. This time, she takes a more psychological approach to horror, playing with viewer’s minds and refusing to give them the sudden jolts that have become synonymous with the genre. With help from cinematographer Bobby Shore, she emphasizes the claustrophobic nature of the story. Aside from the opening scene, the whole film takes place in one location. It’s a challenge that Kusama overcomes with sublime results. What else can I say? Keep an eye out for this one.
I was actually able to follow up a film about an uncomfortable dinner party with another film about an uncomfortable dinner party. But, whereas Kusama utilized that discomfort for horrific results, Patrick Brice utilizes it for more comedic results. Brice, returning to SXSW a year after he premiered his first feature (the frightening Mark Duplass horror vehicle, Creep), takes a familiar premise and injects it with life. The Overnight is a pleasant little film which benefits from a delightful cast.
Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling star as Alex and Emily, a sexually-frustrated couple new to Los Angeles. While at a playground, their son befriends the son of Kurt and Charlotte (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche). Alex and Emily are extended an invitation to dine at their posh estate. What starts as a standard dinner party gradually turns stranger and stranger as marijuana, pornography, skinny dipping, and more are thrown into the mix. The wild lifestyle of Kurt and Charlotte may turn out to be too much for the buttoned-down Alex and Emily.
All four leads play very well off of each other. Both couples exhibit wonderful chemistry. As the more down-to-earth couple, Scott and Schilling are great at reacting to the absurdities of the situations they find themselves in. Their facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. Kurt and Charlotte definitely push the boundaries of what is considered “acceptable” behavior, but Schwartzman and Godrèche bring a lot to these characters, making them more lifelike than the two-dimensional caricatures they could’ve easily turned into.
What could’ve been a dull and clichéd movie, fully of wacky and absurd moments solely for shock value, turned out to be a pleasant and heartfelt comedy. It only runs about 80 minutes, which allows for tight and efficient storytelling. This film was picked up for distribution when it premiered at Sundance, so hopefully it will be finding its way to a theater in your neighborhood very soon. Stay tuned for part 2.
Mark Wanner is an avid film fanatic based out of Austin, TX. When he’s not watching movies, he fills his time with pizza and breakfast tacos.