Every year, the SXSW Film Festival showcases a wonderful lineup of powerful documentaries, heartbreaking dramas and colorful comedies, but when midnight rolls around, things get a little strange. Anything that's too scary, too bloody and too weird to play during the day is welcomed with open arms once the sun goes down. The SXSW Midnighters roster is typically one of the strongest sections of a generally strong fest and this year was no different, showcasing a selection of varied films that have little in common aside from the fact that they're best when watched late at night with an enthusiastic crowd (and maybe with a beer or two in your hand).
Best Midnighter Movie to See with an Audience: You're Next
Horror fans have been eagerly anticipating Adam Wingard's You're Next since it first brought the house down at festivals two years ago. Many hype-filled months later, the film is finally looking at a theatrical release and there's no denying it: this thing is a blast. It would be fine if You're Next was just a tense, funny home-invasion flick filled with great performances from likable actors, but the film has plenty of surprises up its sleeve, doling out twist after twist right up until the final moments. It's a horror film made by horror buffs for horror buffs, so do yourself a favor and see it with the biggest crowd you can possibly find. Every aspect of the film, from the inventive kills to the jokes to the surprising plot reversals, feels like it was built to be fueled by audience enthusiasm. You're Next is a damn fine horror movie, but a great crowd can elevate it into an incredible experience.
Best Midnighter Movie to Show Your Kids: Haunter
Perhaps it's unfair to expect something envelope-pushing from Haunter. Director Vincenzo Natali made the honest-to-god genre classics Cube and Splice, so it may feel initially disappointing that his latest effort feels so safe and tame. While hard-core horror fans may not be the best audience for Haunter, their new-to-the-genre kids are really going to dig it. A "reverse ghost story" following a 15-year-old girl who realizes that she died 20 years ago and is haunting her former home, the film is occasionally spooky and frequently twisty without being bloody or disturbing in any way. It's a solid Twilight Zone episode stretched to 90 minutes. As a full-fledged horror movie, it's lacking, but as a stepping stone for younger viewers interested in the genre, it could be a minor touchstone.
Best Midnighter Movie to See Under the Influence: The Lords of Salem
To call The Lords of Salem a good movie would be pushing it, but it sure is a fascinating mess. Over the course of five movies, director Rob Zombie has showcased a clear and consistent voice without ever delivering a fully satisfying film, making him walking proof that the Auteur Theory is alive and well in the realm of bad cinema. To Zombie's credit, his generally bad films are always worth talking about (yes, even Halloween II) and The Lords of Salem is no different. Abandoning the grim, in-your-face brutality of his previous films, Zombie attempts to emulate the methodical pacing and surreal imagery of filmmakers like Dario Argento and Mario Bava with mixed results, creating a film that is intermittently dull and bonkers. The movie's lack of coherence and reliance on nonsensical, nightmare-logic scares allows it to be an experience that you can take while under the influence of the substance of your choice without worrying about missing anything too important. By the time the absolutely batsh*t climax rolls around, you'll have long given up trying to understand it and will just be going with the flow.
Best Use of a Handful of Pennies: Big Ass Spider!
The are low-budget moves and then there are cheap movies. Big Ass Spider! is the latter. However, director Mike Mendez and his motley cast and crew make up for the fact that the whole thing looks like it was made for a few bucks with a genuinely enthusiastic and infectious "Let's put on a show!" vibe. It's a Syfy-esque movie made by people with a genuinely funny sense of humor. It's an Asylum-esque production made by people who actually love movies and moviemaking. It's a group of grown men and women literally playing Monster Movie. While Big Ass Spider! lacks a budget, it more than makes up for that in sheer enthusiasm. There's not a cynical bone in this movie's body. Plus, Greg Grunberg is the main character! Greg Grunberg!
Midnight-iest Movie of Them All: V/H/S/2
Comparing other horror movies to V/H/S/2 is just plain unfair because watching V/H/S/2 is like watching 10 horror movies at once without any marathon fatigue. Despite the number in the title, you don't have to see the first V/H/S to enjoy this one -- any tenuous connections to the first film can be easily ignored. Like any horror anthology, V/H/S/2 is hit and miss, but unlike most horror anthologies, you can translate "miss" to "very good" and "hit" to "extraordinary." Things get off to a good start with Adam Wingard's segment and get better with Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez's segment, but the movie reaches next-level greatness with the one-two punch of Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's segment and Jason Eisener's segment. The escalation of the stories ensures that each short never feels disappointing -- they just keep on getting bigger, better and scarier. While each short is a found-footage horror story, each finds fresh ways to tackle the format. How about a zombie invasion seen from the point of view of the undead thanks to a GoPro camera? How about an alien invasion seen from a camera strapped to a dog's collar? V/H/S/2 oozes ingenuity and inventiveness, but it wouldn't amount to more than that if it wasn't a complete and total blast. So, thankfully, it is. This is your new favorite horror movie.
Best Commentary on Modern Society: Cheap Thrills
In order for a movie to stick with you long after the credits roll there needs to be a sentiment behind the shocks, and that's precisely what makes Cheap Thrills the best film of the 2013 SXSW Midnighters. E.L. Katz's film about a down-on-his-luck father (Pat Healy) who bumps into an old friend (Ethan Embry). It turns into a normal night of drinking until they meet a pair of strangers at a bar (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). The strangers start flashing around a ton of cash and the pair soon find themselves partaking in an increasingly insane set of dares for quick cash. Its commentary on economic inequality and how the rich use and abuse the poor is far from subtle, but it still makes for a helluva entertaining movie about the limits we'll break when our bank accounts have run dry. (-Peter Hall)