There’s such a fun energy in the room when crowds fueled on barbecue and whiskey gather long after the sun has set in Austin, Texas to watch a new genre film. Festivals have always been a great place for horror, but there’s something about the atmosphere in Austin that conjures the spirits. Sadly, my SXSW is virtual again this year—hopefully, for the last time—but that doesn’t mean I can’t imagine how much these movies probably left audiences laughing and cheering over the last 36 hours since the start of South by Southwest.
And the truth is that most people will watch these three films as I did: on my couch. That’s certainly the case with the best of the trio, Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ “Sissy,” as it was just picked up by horror streaming giant Shudder. A clever twist on the morality tales about the dangers of bullying, “Sissy” has a twisted sense of grisly humor, unleashing some impressively brutal practical effects as its protagonist becomes truly triggered.
That’s Cecilia (Aisha Dee), a young woman who has become a powerful social media influencer with hundreds of followers. There are echoes of one of the best installments of Hulu’s “Into the Dark” series “New Year, New You” in how that film unpacked the fine line between self-help and bullying. After all, most self-help gurus have to start with convincing you that you are so flawed that you need them to fix your broken identities. But Cecilia seems to truly believe that she’s serving the greater good in her encouraging videos, even if she walks a fine line of dispensing advice that she’s not really qualified to give.
Everything changes for Cecilia when she runs into Emma (Hannah Barlow), who used to be her BFF way back when. That was before Emma met Alex, who put a divide between the forever friends in a way that would end in violence. Over a decade later, Emma invites Cecilia to a bachelorette weekend, reigniting the conflict between her the girl who was mockingly called Sissy and Alex (Emily De Margheriti) in a way that can only end in tragedy.
Barlow and Senes thread the needle in terms of viewer compassion in “Sissy” in a way that’s fascinating. From the beginning, one can tell this is more than a simple story of vengeance against a childhood bully. Cecilia is a bit unhinged herself. So who are we supposed to root for when Cecilia and Alex’s rivalry gets bloody and the bodies start falling? Maybe nobody? Is the point of “Sissy” that our image-crazy world hides dark, violent urges? I’m not sure that it all comes together, and sometimes wish that the film explored some of its ideas more seriously, but this is an effective little horror flick with some of the more gasp-inducing, gruesome deaths in a while. I wish I had seen a few of them with the crowd at Austin.
A similar crowd-fueled energy probably pushed along the action of Vanessa and Joseph Winter’s “Deadstream” when it premiered on opening night. A sort of “Evil Dead” for the YouTube generation, this comedy/horror hybrid has some impressively constructed sequences even if the whole thing starts to wear out its welcome about halfway through. My general problem with things like this and “DASHCAM” (a similarly constructed film from last year’s TIFF) is that the locked POV can often feel like being chained to an idiot. Still, I enjoyed the ride here more than a lot of screenlife films and admired the commitment of its co-director and star.
Joseph Winter stars as a disgraced internet personality trying to make a comeback. He’s constantly shouting half-hearted apologies to his fan base, and Winter nails the kind of insincere egotism that fuels YouTube superstars. This particular image-conscious idiot is trying to win back his followers by spending a night in a haunted house and livestreaming the entire event. He starts by removing the sparkplugs from his car and throwing them into the woods; he then literally padlocks himself into the abandoned, incredibly creepy abode. He’s not too bright.
The Winters get around some of the framing restrictions of screenlife movies by giving Shawn a pretty impressive set-up. He has a camera on his wrist that shows his face/reactions most of the film but can also switch to POV. He also has cameras all over the house, which allows for some fun scenes in which something is picked up that Shawn can’t see off-camera. “Deadstream” wears out some of its welcome about halfway through when it starts to descend into pure panic mode for Shawn, but there is an impressive consistency to the way the filmmakers bounce this man who’s used to living online around an unimaginably real nightmare. He becomes kind of like Ash in the Raimi films, only this time the Necronomicon is online.
There is one effective moment in Brendan Muldowney’s “The Cellar,” and it involves a frightened girl counting the stairs down into her basement to restore the power. While Ellie (Abby Fitz) is on the phone with her mother Keira (Elisha Cuthbert), it becomes clear that something is very wrong … and then Ellie disappears. What follows is Keira’s investigation into the history of the new home in which they live, and how it has a dark history that centers on, you guessed it, the cellar.
I generally tend to the positive when covering film festivals, wanting to highlight the best new films for readers to see when they work their way off the circuit and into theaters, streaming, or VOD. So I’ll be brief. “The Cellar” is shockingly incompetent in terms of basic filmmaking criteria like pacing, framing, characters, lighting, etc. It is a deeply frustrating experience that produces not a single real scare after the aforementioned moment. In fact, it becomes increasingly impossible to care about what happened to Ellie or what could happen to Keira if she discovers the secrets of her new house. While horror movies often produce gasps at SXSW, this one probably only led to yawns.