This year’s SXSW Film Festival kept this writer plenty busy, with a ton of great genre movies that were part of their Midnighters programming slate, and in many cases, there were even some that screened outside the genre-friendly section. Here are my thoughts on a terror-filled trinity of films that I had the opportunity to check out while in Austin over the last week: Colin Minihan’s surprising psychological thriller What Keeps You Alive, the newly revealed sequel Unfriended: Dark Web, and Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories.
What Keeps You Alive: Last year, Colin Minihan really impressed me with his unusual zombie effort, It Stains the Sands Red, and less than 12 months later, he left my proverbial jaw on the floor with What Keeps You Alive, a shocking and intimately crafted thriller that effectively proves you can never really know everything about the people you love. Anchored by a pair of endlessly watchable performances from Brittany Allen (who was also in ISTSR) and Hannah Emily Anderson, What Keeps You Alive may seem like a film experience you’ve got pegged once it begins, but Minihan has other plans for viewers, taking his script in some truly unexpected directions.
WKYA starts off idyllically enough, with spouses Jules (Allen) and Jackie (Anderson) heading out for a romantic weekend in the wilderness, spending some time with just the two of them at Jackie’s family vacation home to get away from it all. But upon their arrival at the cabin, Jules begins to notice that her wife isn’t exactly acting like her normal self, with a visit from a childhood friend (Martha MacIsaac) seemingly triggering something deep inside Jackie. And that’s when the mystery really begins to build in WKYA.
One of the biggest assets that What Keeps You Alive has going for it is the fact that at a certain point, the film takes a total left turn, with Minihan’s tautly crafted script becoming an entirely different beast as his narrative kicks into high gear. To say anything more about the story of WKYA would be a huge disservice to both the writer/director and potential viewers alike, but suffice to say that Minihan has now taken on two very popular subgenres with his last two features, and found new and clever ways of exploring the themes that we enjoy about them. I’m supremely impressed by how his abilities as a storyteller just keep getting better and better.
The other assets to why What Keeps You Alive works as well as it does are undoubtedly Anderson and Allen, who deliver two beautifully complicated depictions of women driven by very different emotions. Their palpable chemistry makes their on-screen relationship both engaging and thought-provoking (especially in the film’s latter half). And again, to say anything more would reveal What Keeps You Alive’s cinematic gifts, but there are some inspired decisions by both Minihan and his cast that help elevate his latest and transform the heady thriller into an experience that gleefully pulls the rug out from beneath you time and time again.
Movie Score: 4/5
Unfriended: Dark Web: When the first Unfriended film made its US debut at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, it completely caught me off guard, as I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it nearly as much as I did (I’m old, so tech-fueled teen horror rarely connects with me as a viewer), and I loved how it blended aspects of our reality with an otherworldly premise of teens being haunted via their computers. During this year’s SXSW, the team behind Unfriended debuted their sequel, Dark Web, under a guise of secrecy (although most of us in the audience seemed to know what was coming), and it felt like the perfect way to spring the surprising sequel on audiences. And while I may still prefer the original film to this latest movie, I do think Unfriended: Dark Web has a few wickedly fun moments, as well as a bit of a nasty streak that left me cackling at various points.
In Dark Web, we’re introduced to Matias (Colin Woodell), who is setting up his new laptop so that he can utilize it as a means to communicate better with his girlfriend, Amaya (Rebecca Rittenhouse), who is hearing impaired. What we don’t know at first is that Matias’ new set-up is actually stolen, so when he embarks on a Skype-based game night with several of his pals (Blumhouse mainstay Betty Gabriel being among the group) and shows off his new acquisition, Matias stumbles upon a secret folder that contains some horrifically twisted content, and that’s when the real games begin—games that come with some hefty stakes attached for our protagonist and all of his digital buddies.
For Unfriended: Dark Web, writer/director Stephen Susco only utilizes the technology framework established in the original film, going for a more realistic route in the sequel and ditching any of the supernatural conceits we were introduced to in Unfriended. And there are aspects to Dark Web that are bone chilling in their own right—especially how easy it is for anyone in the world to get access to your own personal technologies—but the third act gets really muddled and too overly ambitious for its own good, killing most of the creeping dread Susco so effectively establishes in the first two acts of Dark Web. I will say, though, that the sequel does have some strong performances from its entire ensemble, and features one of the most messed-up shots I’ve seen in a modern horror movie in quite some time, which earned it a bit of goodwill with me.
Unfriended: Dark Web is still a viciously entertaining experience, even if it isn’t nearly as much fun as its predecessor and gets slightly bogged down by its own mythologies in the end. It may not be as slick as the original, but this Unfriended still features a myriad of unsettling developments and effectively taps into desktop terror in its own twisted way.
Movie Score: 3/5
Ghost Stories: I’ve addressed this a few times here on Daily Dead (as well as on various episodes of Corpse Club), but when it comes to various subgenres of horror, supernatural cinema isn’t my preferred flavor for frights. So, you can imagine my delight upon seeing Ghost Stories, the wonderfully weird adaptation of the highly successful UK theatrical production from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, which subverted all my expectations, especially when its terror-filled tale hits a particular WTF moment, making everything we think we know about Ghost Stories mean something entirely different. It’s a dark and bold examination of guilt and the things that haunt us—both literally and figuratively—and it’s a top contender to make my Favorites of 2018 list to boot.
Ghost Stories follows Professor Philip Goodman, a professional debunker who spends his time proving that there is no such thing as life after death, or that paranormal phenomena exists. He’s summoned to visit an idol of his, a fellow debunker by the name of Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), who tells Philip that he not only believes in the existence of ghosts, but also has three different cases that can prove that the supernatural realm is in fact very real. Charles wants the professor to take a look into them and see what Philip can make of these occurrences.
Ghost Stories’ first tale is centered around Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman terrorized one evening by an angry apparition in the form of a tortured young girl. Philip’s second fact finding mission involves a teenager named Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), who finds himself terrorized by a demonic beast while driving home one night. And finally, the last case introduces us to successful businessman Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), who shares with the professor his own macabre experience involving his wife’s pregnancy that went horribly wrong. All of that sounds pretty par for the course, right? It is, but it’s during that third telling in Ghost Stories where Dyson and Nyman’s collaboration goes in such an admirably gonzo direction that I actually guffawed aloud in utter disbelief.
This is yet another cinematic experience that’s better left unspoiled for viewers, so I’m keeping this somewhat brief, but suffice to say that Ghost Stories is one of those films that will still deliver top-notch genre goods with multiple viewings, and that is no easy feat. The performances in the Dyson/Nyman adaptation are stellar across the board (with Freeman taking on his character with a sense of gleeful abandon), and their script does an excellent job balancing out the horror and comedic notes with great assuredness. IFC Midnight is releasing Ghost Stories on April 20th here in the US, and I cannot recommend it enough. It’s an absolute blast.
Movie Score: 4/5
Missed out on our previous SXSW 2018 coverage? Check here to catch up on all of our live coverage from Austin!