news Horror Movies Dominated Sundance. Pay Attention to the Talent It’s Unleashed (Column)

When “Nanny” won the 2022 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this week, director Nikyatu Jusu became only the second woman in the history of the festival to take home the top prize. But “Nanny” was historic for another reason, too: It was the first outright horror movie to win the most coveted award in independent film, one that has anointed breakouts of the past decade ranging from Ryan Coogler to Damien Chazelle.

And it wasn’t alone. Horror and psychological thrillers made themselves known across the Sundance lineup this year, well beyond the insular Midnight section, and many of the filmmakers behind these highlights are available for hire. The industry — and all those soul-searching directors out there — should pay close attention, because this crop of newcomers points to an ideal happy medium between commercial opportunity and artistic growth.

This year’s Sundance had the usual big sale for a coming-of-age crowdpleaser (“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” to Apple for $15 million) and a booming documentary market (volcanologist romance “Fire of Love” landed with National Geographic after a bidding war), but the most exciting movies in the lineup were scary, unsettling visions from directors who wielded genre in original ways. As they premiered at Sundance, the fifth “Scream” entry — directed by festival alumni Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett — made bank at the ever-uncertain box office.

In the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, three movies from first-time directors wield the horror genre as a profound interrogation of racial and gender persecution: Jusu’s “Nanny” focuses on an African immigrant assailed by supernatural forces while tasked with caring for an affluent white family on the Upper West Side; Mariama Diallo’s “Master” follows the harrowing experiences of two Black women (Regina Hall and Zoe Renee) at a preppy New England college dominated by an eerie white gaze; and Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher” unfolds with the slow-burn intensity of early Polanski as it tracks the plight of a young woman (Maika Monroe) certain she’s being stalked even as all the other men in her life refuse to believe her. Meanwhile, the Premieres section included the wild Cronenbergian body horror of “Resurrection,” driven by Rebecca Hall’s startling turn as a woman recovering from an abusive relationship and haunted by an outlandish pregnancy conceit too outrageous to spoil here.

The Midnight section itself was an especially strong international meditation on the pliability of horror. The sleek Searchlight/Hulu acquisition “Fresh,” from newcomer Mimi Cave, started the festival out on a rather commercial note with its “American Psycho”-meets-Hannibal Lecter vibes that were all too eager to please.

Other entries included “Piggy,” a tense slasher from newcomer Carlota Pereda that suggests “Fat Girl” by way of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre;” Finnish director Hannah Bergholm’s “Hatching,” an oddball creature feature about an adolescent girl who tries to raise a killer crow monster in secret, and the Danish shocker “Speak No Evil,” director Christian Tafdrup’s Haneke-like tale of an overly polite family who visit a couple they meet on vacation only to become entrapped in a brutal scheme that destroys their life.

Morten Burien and Sidsel Siem Koch appear in Speak No Evil by Christian Tafdrup, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Erik Molberg.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Speak No Evil”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I’ve singled these movies out to continue the conversation from last week’s column where I bemoaned the lure of Hollywood blockbusters to Sundance breakouts who show the potential to create better, original work. It was no surprise that this assertion struck a nerve with directors and producers who pointed out that the job market for independent filmmakers is, well, not so hot. Finishing a second feature can take years, involve little-to-no-pay, and often leads to an incursion of debt with questionable ROI. “Man, let ‘em get that [money emoji],” one user wrote me via Twitter. “What’s it to you?”

To which I say: Well, duh. Of course I want to see strong cinematic achievements unfettered by vast commercial impulses, but far be it for me to question a paycheck gig.

This is the ‘great unspoken’ – the privilege of the many wealthy filmmakers in the indie and doc space who can pace out their films and appear artistically ‘pure,’ don’t have to make choices in order to eat and won’t lose time, creative energy and career momentum to day jobs.

— Alex Winter (@Winter) January 23, 2022

“This is ‘the great unspoken,’” actor-turned-director Alex Winter tweeted in response to last week’s column, “the privilege of the many wealthy filmmakers in the indie and doc space who can pace out their films and appear artistically ‘pure,’ don’t have to make choices in order to eat and won’t lose time, creative energy and career momentum to day jobs.” (Some may see irony in this observation coming from Winter, famous for playing Bill in the “Bill and Ted” movies, but he actually went into debt in the ‘90s directing features — including “Fever,” which premiered at Cannes to raves — before rebooting his career as a documentary producer and director.)

In any case, there is a much longer conversation to be had about the death of the middle class in the film industry and its migration to TV — an arena that is much harder to break into for emerging directors (and potentially less satisfying). That said, horror directors like these Sundance breakouts may be in a better position to build a sustainable career with their artistic integrity intact because their genre can get dark and difficult while making bank.

Over the past year, festival-minted filmmakers migrated to bigger genre projects with ease: Prior to “Scream,” Nia Dacosta’s “Candyman” reboot last year followed her Sundance labs project “Little Woods;” now she’s entering the MCU with “The Marvels.” However that works out, her bracing and timely approach to “Candyman” proved that pre-existing horror IP provides the opportunity for rich cultural exploration in a studio context.

“Candyman” was produced by Jordan Peele, whose “Get Out” joined “The Blair Witch Project” and “Saw” in the pantheon of Sundance horror breakthroughs. Yes, Peele was already a rich celebrity when he pivoted from sketch comedian to auteur, but the point stands: Horror is an artistic Trojan horse that can work wonders on a massive scale; filmmakers keen on reaching that elusive mainstream audience would do well to embrace its potential.

“Honestly, it’s where people are putting money now,” Sundance programmer Charlie Sextro told me as the festival wound down. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more of it.” I first met Sextro when he was working for former programming director Trevor Groth; he’s now one of the festival’s two key genre programmers. Sextro was the one who fought to land “Get Out” in a prime Sundance midnight slot, launching its historic journey to box office greatness and Oscar season.

These days, he digs through a lot of genre submissions to find distinctive voices primed for the kind of launchpad a Sundance slot can provide. “Genre is a space where people are being allowed to explore deep things in fantastical ways,” he said. “I saw someone tweet a joke about the Sundance films they’ve seen [this year] seeming like a bunch of ‘Black Mirror’ episodes, but they were being dismissive. I mean, with the past two years we’ve had? Of course that’s where people’s heads are at!”


“Get Out”

Sextro said the successes of everything from “Get Out” to “The Shape of Water” and “Hereditary” stimulated greater interest in financing horror and supernatural movies, but he rejected works that were too overly imitative of those reference points. “When a film is really about ideas, that really speaks to us,” he said. “In the past few years in the wake of ‘Get Out,’ I’ve seen people who think they’re making horror films with social commentary, but they’re based in anger more than ideas.”

The downside to all this is that every successful horror movie leads to pressure for duplication. “The pitching process can be so dehumanizing,” said “Nanny” director Jusu. “People were like, ‘Oh, this is ‘Get Out’ meets ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ right? Uh, maybe if those are the only two films you’ve ever seen. You learn to whittle down your language so people can get excited about it.”

Likewise, Diallo said in an interview from IndieWire’s virtual studio that Michael Haneke’s small-town WWII thriller “The White Ribbon” inspired “Master” more than any genre film. Nevertheless, horror enabled her to dig deeper on the frustrations of working within a white institution from the position of the proverbial Other: “Horror allow you to really dig in creatively and represent not necessarily literally, but emotionally, in ways that be very, very truthful,” she said.

I was most struck by an observation made by Tafdrup, whose “Speak No Evil” landed distribution with AMC-owned horror streamer Shudder. Tafdrup’s previous two features were more traditional Danish dramas, but “Speak No Evil” scored him representation with WME this week. In an interview, he described to me the surreal experience of taking virtual meetings for prospective projects during this year’s festival while contending with his COVID-afflicted kids off screen.

“I’ve been zooming with every company in Hollywood except maybe Disney,” he said. “It’s very exotic but maybe a little surreal for me. I’ve knocked on a lot of doors without success for many years. I really feel like there’s real hype with this film.” When he made his first feature six years ago, aspiring to the likes of Lars Von Trier and Haneke, “I was thrilled when a few hundred people saw my film,” he said. “I felt like an artist. Now, I’d be extremely sad if that happens. You have to acknowledge that this is a media that must relate to people.”

Still, with “Speak No Evil,” he said, “I wanted to make a profound horror film that physically hurt you and wasn’t just entertainment.” With that out of the way, he’s keeping his options open. “If you asked me three or four years ago, I’d say I only to do auteur films,” he said. “But you need to have different directions if you want to make a living.”

Rebecca Hall appears in Resurrection by Andrew Semans, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wyatt Garfield.



And then there was Andrew Semans, whose “Resurrection” sold to IFC a full decade after his thriller debut “Nancy, Please” failed to secure him an agent. He then spent years writing unproduced scripts. His new movie, inspired by everything from “The Brood” to “Death Wish,” has made it clear to him which direction he wants to go now.

“Horror allows you to make frank movies about the unconscious,” he said. “It feels like there’s a greater opportunity to play and engage with material that is contradictory and frightening.” All of the projects he’s currently exploring deal with horror elements. “There’s just a bigger audience for it than a straight drama,” he said, before quickly adding: “I’m not saying that’s why I did it. But if you want to get a movie made, you’ll have better luck if it’s a genre movie.”

In considering this perspective, I’m reminded of “Hereditary” director Ari Aster, who took meetings for Sony’s upcoming “Morbius” superhero project and then basked in the glow of his bonkers horror epic “Midsommar” instead. The momentum for young horror directors should appeal to those uncertain about selling out above all.

“Horror is a really fertile world,” said Shudder VP of programming Sam Zimmerman, a former Fangoria writer who knows his stuff. “I find it less restrictive than these major IPs like superhero movies with more stringent parameters. The new ‘Scream’ felt really invigorating to me … Because the genre is adventurous, maybe these filmmakers coming from the indie world can still retain that freshness.”

Fingers crossed. While traditional distributors continue chasing that elusive “older arthouse audience” with “adult dramas,” the middle ground of horror movies — ones that can appeal commercially and take ambitious swings — stands out more than ever.

Of course, this opportunity might not be best suited for every director’s instincts, and it may be naive to assume that studios will embrace the scariest visions without ample restrictions. I welcome readers to challenge this assertion or suggest other avenues for sustaining horror careers beyond the commercial arena. Share your case studies, correct the record… or just call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: