Midnight screenings are my personal haven at festivals. Whenever main competitions start to feel a bit weary, I gladly deflect to genre-driven sessions for a sharper edge and a quickened pulse. At the same time, the competitions have also made some welcome room for genre (consider Parasite or Bacurau), which serves as a reminder that horror has always been well suited not only to bold narrative leaps and visual experimentation, but also to a social and cultural critique. This proclivity continues in the recent electrifying horror movies by Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us), and by indie women directors. I’m thinking particularly of Amy Seimetz’s stellar I Die Tomorrow, which was originally scheduled to premiere at SXSW, in 2020, and Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, an absolute find at TIFF, in 2019, which is finally getting recognition in the UK, and was just released in the US.
When it comes to horror movies directed by women, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was an exciting, nervy treasure trove. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (Midnight section), Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation (Midnight section), Carlson Young’s The Blazing World (NEXT section), Karen Cinorre’s Mayday (US Dramatic Competition), Frida Kempff’s Knocking (Midnight section) and Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (NEXT section) were among the boldest stories. Some of the women’s prominence no doubt comes from the festival’s recent commitment to gender parity. According to the festival’s data, that parity was at fifty percent across the US and World competitions, and at 49% percent when considering the festival as a whole. It’s no doubt also helpful that women have risen to many leadership positions at the festival, starting with Tabitha Jackson as festival director.
Some of these movies were labeled as “revenge thrillers,” a moniker that tends to flatten their complexity. Mayday, Violation and Censor come closest to this categorization, but another thread that emerges from them is more intriguing: These films center not on revenge (against men) alone, but rather on complex relationships amongst women, revealing the complexity of women's responses when solidarizing with each other's vulnerability, particularly guilt, when it comes to having failed to come to the other's rescue. In this sense, what emerges is a much broader sense of trauma, as a phenomenon that’s systemic, with rippling intermediary effects, rather than concentrated and singular.
In Bailey-Bond’s Censor, a young woman, Enid (Niamh Algar), is in charge of cutting offensive scenes from nasties, aka B-movies with sexually explicit, violent content. Enid’s analytical, frosty approach to the endless scenes with men brutalizing women soon clashes with her inner torment: An actress in one of the nasties eerily resembles Enid’s lost sister. Enid’s obsession with this coincidence, and with a particular director, causes her to repeatedly return to the scene when her sister was kidnapped, while they were playing in the woods—and to start to fill in some of her memory’s blanks with the images that the nasties so insidiously provide.
Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher’s script delivers brilliantly on full-throttle psychological horror. The real world’s walking nightmares—the fact that Enid is surrounded by ego-tripping, patronizing, chauvinist industry men—mesh with her desperate search for her sister’s kidnapper. The oppressive reality makes the individual trauma reverberate until the latter highjacks Enid’s mind. Thanks to Annika Summerson’s moody, shadow-enthused cinematography, the tormented snapshots of Enid’s personal past start to blur with the gory, overblown genre aesthetic and plots of the nasties, to the point of no return. In fact, it’s the absolute confidence with which Bailey-Bond and the production designer Paulina Rzeszowka (previously of Saint Maud) establish this visual alliteration that makes Censor frightful.
A similar sinister reverberation occurs in Frida Kempff’s knockout indie scare, Knocking. Cecilia Milocco plays Molly, a private, tight-lipped woman who, after losing her female partner and a brief stay at a psychiatric facility, moves into a new place in a drab apartment block. Much as in Censor, the loss happens in a blink of an eye, a split-moment of inattention (in this case, by the seaside). From then on, there’s only the aftershock. When Molly starts to hear a woman’s screams, tries to investigate, and is repeatedly dismissed by her rather domineering male neighbors, the stage is set for her obsession. Again, the desperate desire for sisterhood, and the urge to protect—the entwining of desperate cries with a lover’s sudden death—prove psychologically corrosive. Molly’s savior syndrome utterly rewires her world. The jerky camera movements lock us into her disorientation and the oppressive sound design seals her mind’s manic claustrophobia. And while there’s vindication in the end—there was a real living victim, after all—the anguish of one woman’s solidarity with another’s plight is so desperate and intense, Molly’s psyche scorched, one could hardly call this discovery a “happy end.”
Young’s The Blazing World offers a more hopeful resolution, but again, only after a mind-bending ordeal. As in Censor, there’s the figure of a lost sister—this time, a twin, drowned in a pool, with the sibling playing nearby. Many years later, Margaret (played by Young), returns to her tragedy-stricken family home. Her scarred parents have been living out their lives in a posh, sterilized bubble, but for Margaret, denial is not an option. Her trauma returns as a violent hallucination, morphing into an otherworldly Alice-in-Wonderland portal (a fantastical twist that The Blazing World shares with the less successful Mayday). Udo Kier plays a magus-like menace, embodying, perhaps too neatly, Margaret’s warped subconsciousness. To fight back, Margaret must find keys to move through visually stunning, surreal dimensions. And if this fantasy’s too-muchness somewhat blunts its edge, The Blazing World is nevertheless the most visually daring movie I’ve seen at this year’s Sundance, with a credit due to Sean F. Kelly, who previously shot Richard Linklater’s trippy A Scanner Darkly and his wistful Boyhood.
Sisterhood proves fraught and corrosive in the tightly constructed Violation. The savior trope appears early in Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli’s film: Two sisters, Greta (Anna Maguire) and Miriam, played with a chilling clinical edge by Sims-Fewer, reunite after an unspoken but long and clearly mutual avoidance. Greta notes playfully that when they were children, Miriam used to be Greta’s “white savior.” But to be a savior is to possess power, and power’s a dangerous thing in Violation. Greta, Miriam and their respective partners meet up for some idyllic good time at a cabin deep in the woods. On the basic story level, Miriam then says “no” to Greta’s flirty beau one night, as they drunkenly lounge alone, by the campfire. Her rebuff unheeded, followed by the beau’s denial of responsibility—a gross suggestion of Miriam’s complicity in the act—leads Miriam to take sadistic revenge.
Early on, the film features a crepuscular shot of a rabbit being torn apart by a black wolf—a stunning creature that’s clearly as much an image of repressed urges as a natural predator. The film’s insistence on including such metaphorical elements—the vast, dense woods, a spider creepily crawling down a pristine flower—lifts the grimness of Miriam’s misdeeds out of the ordinary realm. The woods themselves, when shot from above, fan out onto the steel-gray waters of a lake like a cunning Rorschach test. In terms of editing, Violation, very much like Censor, structures trauma as a splintering rewind. The plot lurches forward, then backtracks, creating an uncertainty about Miriam’s state of mind, while it also plants more firmly the realness of the rape. In this sense, Miriam’s never out of trauma’s bind. As eeriness intensifies, its meaning deepens during the tense exchanges between the two sisters. It’s when we can’t be sure of their true solidarity—when the sisterhood of blood waivers, before it can be redeemed as a symbolic one—that Violation cuts deepest, and true horror strikes.