Hello, dear readers! The 2022 SXSW Film Festival featured an impressive number of genre goodies on this year’s programming slate, which kept this writer rather busy over the last few weeks. Here are my thoughts on a pair of super fun indie horror projects that fans should definitely keep on their radars for later this year: Kane Senes and Hannah Barlow’s Sissy and Deadstream from the husband-wife team of Joseph and Vanessa Winter.
Sissy: In Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ Sissy, we’re introduced to social media influencer and self-appointed self-help guru Cecilia (Aisha Dee), who has never quite shaken the memories of losing her childhood best friend Emma some decades ago. But fate steps in one day when Cecilia bumps into Emma (played by Barlow) at a pharmacy, and her former bestie invites Cecilia to come out and celebrate her impending nuptials to her fiancée, Fran (Lucy Barrett), that night. During the festivities, Cecilia finds herself getting roped into coming along for Emma and Fran’s bachelorette weekend hosted by Alex (Emily De Margheriti), who also happens to be an influencer and a key figure in the former BFF’s past as well. But when the party takes an awkward turn, Cecilia finds herself on the outs with everyone else, and she quickly realizes that she’s unable to control her dangerous impulses, and before she realizes it, Cecilia ends up embarking on an unintended murderous rampage that’s equal parts horrifying and hilarious.
In this slick and thought-provoking slice of modern Ozploitation satire, both Barlow and Senes lean into so many tropes that many of us genre fans are extremely familiar with throughout Sissy, and they find some extremely clever ways of turning them squarely on their heads to deliver up a cinematic experience that often subverted so many of my own expectations and genuinely surprised me during key moments, which is no easy feat. I think one of the most interesting aspects to Sissy is that instead of focusing its story on the stereotypical final girl, they keep their spotlight squarely on Dee’s character, who some may view as the film’s villain, but others may see as a relatable anti-hero (this writer fell squarely into that second group of viewers). The way this script (co-written by Senes and Barlow) cleverly toys around with how we’ve been trained as horror fans is one of its biggest assets, as it challenges our sensibilities and keeps the story from ever feeling like something we’ve seen countless times before to boot.
There are also quite a few tonal shifts throughout Sissy, but both Barlow and Senes do a great job of finding ways of blending these shifts rather seamlessly, which is no easy feat, especially considering there’s an emotional weight to the deaths in this story, but also, they are moments that will leave you cackling in delight due to how ridiculously fun they are. It’s also worth noting that Sissy features a ton of amazing practical effects throughout, and I give the Aussie filmmakers credit for being able to devise a gruesome death scene that I’ve never seen play out in a horror movie before, which again, is no easy feat, either.
As far as the performances go, Dee is utterly spectacular in Sissy, and she brings so much to the proverbial table with her dual performances here, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her character Cecilia, even though she ends up going down a rather unsavory path in this story. The rest of the cast of Sissy are pretty great, too, including Barlow, Barrett, and De Margheriti, who all do a great job of giving their characters some much-needed notes of humanity, thereby giving Cecilia’s actions a bit of extra weight. But it’s also worth noting that other supporting members of the cast, Yerin Ha and Daniel Monks, are also total delights in this, and their performances highlight many of the script’s more satirical elements.
As someone who is a huge mark for genre projects told with a bit of a darkly comedic slant to them, Sissy was completely up my alley. Both Barlow and Senes do a great job of creating an ingenious story that dives into some topical issues these days, like bullying and the duality of our online personas versus the harsh realities of our offline lives, but also wholly entertains as it delivers up some stylishly gnarly kills and visuals. Sissy is going to be arriving on Shudder sometime later this year, and I highly recommend it.
Movie Score: 4/5
Deadstream: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really the target audience for influencer videos, simply because I’m a bit older and thus, I don’t typically find that kind of presentation to be all that enjoyable (barring a few folks here and there who I tend to enjoy simply because I know them beyond their online work). With that in mind, I went into Deadstream with my own reservations, but there was a point at about 25 minutes into the movie where it totally won me over as a viewer, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the madness that co-writers/co-directors Vanessa and Joseph Winter managed to conjure up here with their collaborative efforts.
For Deadstream, we follow disgraced vlogger Shawn Ruddy (played by Joseph Winter), who sets out to try and win back his fans and followers by livestreaming himself in an abandoned haunted house in rural Utah one fateful night. But as Shawn sets out to document his activities, he unknowingly ends up pissing off a vengeful spirit, and from there, the internet personality’s true colors come out as he’s forced to fight an onslaught of supernatural entities hellbent on making sure that Shawn never gets out of the house alive.
One of the many things about Deadstream that I really appreciated was just how well the technology behind the project works in the favor of the story. In my interview with the Winters, they credited producer/cinematographer/all-around “get it done” guy Jared Cook for finding a way to create the needed technology for Shawn’s ill-fated endeavor so that everything about this feels seamless, authentic, and wholly immersive. Something else that totally rules about Deadstream are all the kickass special effects created by Mikaela Kester and Troy Lawson, resulting in an experience that I would liken to a modern-day, tech-driven Evil Dead. The duo created a handful of amazing characters for Deadstream, and I really hope that genre fans fall in love with these unsettling creatures the way I have after getting to see them for myself.
Since Joseph’s character, Shawn, is the driving force in Deadstream, the movie’s success is dependent on Winter’s performance in the movie, and he does a fantastic job of creating a protagonist who is both endearing and infuriating. Melanie Stone also pops up in Deadstream about midway through as Shawn’s superfan Chrissy, and her arrival adds a whole new dynamic in this story, and things head in some rather surprising directions once she begins to help the vlogger contend with the malicious monstrosities who begin to stalk his every move inside the house.
While Deadstream’s pacing is a bit clunky early on, where it feels like it takes its time to really get its motor firing on all cylinders, once it does, Vanessa and Joseph Winter’s low-budget, high-ambition project really hits its stride, resulting in one of the most fun haunted house movies in years. It’s also worth noting that Shudder has picked up the rights to Deadstream, too, which means you’ll be able to check it out for yourself sometime later in 2022 (and it is a movie that is very much worth any horror fan’s time).
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Go HERE to catch up on our coverage of the 2022 SXSW Film Festival!
[Photo Credits: Above photo from Sissy courtesy of Steve Arnold ACS / SXSW. Above photo from Deadstream courtesy of Jared Cook / SXSW.]