Opening night became horror buzz night at SXSW, as two movies that took opposite approaches to the genre ignited conversations on the streets of Austin, Texas as well as on social networks far and wide.
The Evil Dead remake sparked outrageous reactions, almost entirely revolving around the level of gore. Our own Peter Hall pointed out that at least one of the sequences -- involving “tree rape” -- is “needlessly indulgent.” That scene evidently provoked a raucous response from the crowd at the sold-out Paramount Theatre (capacity: 1,200), though it’s not clear if audience members were merely appreciative of the nod to the original or if the ones who cheered were oblivoius to the actual content of the scene.
But you’ve already heard about Evil Dead, which opens in theaters on April 5. How about Cheap Thrills? That’s the title of a new thriller, directed by first-timer E.L. Katz, that debuted down the street from the Paramount at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. Every seat in the admittedly much smaller venue was filled for the screening, which got underway past midnight, but few had any idea of what was to come.
The film sets us a desperate situation for the likable character played by Pat Healey, a family man who has fallen far into debt, to the point that his family is threated with eviction. Then he loses his job! A chance encounter with an old, disreputable “friend” (Ethan Embry) then leads to a meeting with a wealthy, bored couple (Davd Koechner and Sara Paxton) who have more money than sense, and, step by step, money changes everything as the two old “friends” are pitted against each other in an increasingly macabre set of challenges.
Eliciting powerful reaction from the crowd due to the outrageous actions depicted, along with wince-inducing violence, Cheap Thrills succeeds thanks to great performances, a clever script, and a very dark sense of humor; you end up laughing even as you shake your head at what is befalling the characters. Word quickly spread that this was a fresh thriller not to be missed, an impression deepened by its second screening on Saturday, prompting an additional screening to be added last night. And Cheap Thrills also became the first title to close a distribution deal at the festival this year, which means that, thanks to Drafthouse Films, the movie has a chance to come to a theater near you.
Multiple titles vied for the buzz on Saturday, with Richard Linklater’s romantic talk-fest Before Midnight building on the buzz that was created at Sundance, and Joss Whedon’s low-budget Shakespeare adapation Much Ado About Nothing reigniting its buzz after getting lost in the crowd at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. The standout among world premieres was probably Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, a largely improvised piece that drew praise for the performances by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, among others in the talented cast. Even festival attendees who do not consider themselves to be fans of the prolific Swanberg’s past work acknowledged the merits of the movie, which bodes well for its future prospects.
The weather cleared up on Sunday from the rainy conditions that prevailed for the first two days of the festival, which might have put everyone in a better mood (i.e. even more receptive to the films). Jeff Nichols, an Austin-based director whose first two movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) have won considerable praise, debuted his new effort, Mud, which stars Matthew McConaughey as a man hiding out from the law and the bond he forms with two teenage boys. While the film has been respectfully received at other major festivals, the audience reaction at the Paramount was nothing short of rapturous. That could be attributed to the “local boy makes good” kind of backing -- or maybe it’s just because the film is a powerful piece of work that should resonate widely with audiences far beyond Austin. The buzz was pushed along further by McConaughey's self-effacing participation in the post-screening question-and-answer session.
Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (pictured above) debuted way back in September 2011 at the Toronto fest (read our review), and its long-awaited theatrical release in the U.S. is still another five months away. But SXSW was a good place to start the buzz, er, buzzing again, and a midnight screening on Sunday proved to be a hot ticket, mixing a select few who’d already seen the film with a majority contingent who’d only heard the hype. Nearly all indicators are that the buzz is deserved for the home-invasion thriller, so add another movie to your “must watch” list when it opens in theaters more widely in August.