The Sundance Film Festival 2020 is fast approaching, and we’re excited to be heading to Park City, Utah to check out this year’s lineup. Sundance has been the launching pad for scores of notable independent films, including genre breakouts like Get Out, Hereditary, What We Do In The Shadows, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, The Witch and The Babadook to name a few.
We’ve combed through the program of 118 films scheduled to be shown this year and have highlighted a few that we’re excited to see. From straight horror to dark comedy to sci-fi thriller to those defying categorization, these films cover a wide range of stories and a diverse set of filmmakers, each with something unique, terrifying, haunting, funny, thought-provoking and/or bold to say.
Scare Me – USA, 105 Minutes, Director: Josh Ruben, Writer: Josh Ruben
Fred (Josh Ruben), a frustrated copywriter, checks in to a winter cabin to start his first novel. While jogging in the nearby woods, he meets Fanny (Aya Cash), a successful and smug young horror author who fuels his insecurities. During a power outage, Fanny challenges Fred to tell a scary story. As a storm sets in, they pass the time spinning spooky tales fueled by the tensions between them, and Fred is forced to confront his ultimate fear: Fanny is the better storyteller. The stakes are raised when they’re visited by a horror fan (Chris Redd) who delivers levity (and a pizza) to the proceedings.
Writer-director Josh Ruben’s debut feature is a metafictional horror comedy about the pleasures and perils of storytelling and the genre’s power to exorcise social demons. SCARE ME is a clever and chilling hybrid of humor and horror that subverts the cabin-in-the-woods trope. Propelled by Cash and Ruben’s comedic chemistry, SCARE ME ventures into darker territory, drawing dread and pathos from the gender hostilities driving Fanny and Fred’s game of ghost stories.
Possessor – Canada/UK, 108 Minutes, Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), is a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies, driving them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. Her experiences on these jobs have changed her, and in her own life she struggles to suppress violent memories and urges. As her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, and soon finds herself trapped in the mind of a man (Christopher Abbott) whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.
Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s splendid mindfuck cinema pushes this pulpy thriller—his second feature film—to startling new heights. Cronenberg scripts an efficient mystery that is colored rich and grotesque in the depths of his imagination. While Possessor dazzles with impeccable design and ambitious world building, the film remains grounded by the haunting lead performances of Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If you are willing to accept the assignment, this violent shocker will be impossible to shake.
Bad Hair – USA, 115 min, Director: Justin Simien, Writer: Justin Simien
Los Angeles, 1989. Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) is a scarred survivor of a scalp burn from a mild relaxer perm. She also has the smarts and ambition to be the next on-air star at Culture, a music video TV show. After years of struggling to be seen for her ideas and hard work, Anna fears the worst when her dreadlocked boss is replaced by Zora (Vanessa Williams), an ex-supermodel with a silver tongue. Zora warns Anna that her nappy look has got to go, so Anna bites the bullet and gets a weave. Turns out, her flowing new hair is the key to success—but it arrived with a mind of its own, and it bites back!
Writer/director Justin Simien (Dear White People, 2014 Sundance Film Festival) triumphantly returns with this brilliant satirical psychological thriller that is bound to get Park City talking all over again. Simien plaits his incisive wit with startling moments of horror in this deliciously nostalgia-drenched creation. Flexing a hilarious ensemble cast led by Lorraine’s breakout performance, Bad Hair is cult-classic material.
The Night House, USA, 108 min, Director: David Bruckner, Writers: Ben Collins / Luke Piotrowski
Reeling from the unexpected death of her husband, Beth (Rebecca Hall) is left alone in the lakeside home he built for her. She tries as best she can to keep together—but then the dreams come. Disturbing visions of a presence in the house call to her, beckoning with a ghostly allure. But the harsh light of day washes away any proof of a haunting. Against the advice of her friends, she begins digging into his belongings, yearning for answers. What she finds are secrets both strange and terrible and a mystery she’s determined to resolve.
Returning to the Sundance Film Festival with his latest descent into psychological horror, genre innovator David Bruckner’s new vision teems with superior craftsmanship and ghastly precision, proving him an integral voice in his field. Grounded by an absolutely impeccable performance from the peerless Rebecca Hall, who carries each frame with a weight and nuance that feels effortless, The Night House offers a stunningly effective take on the traditional ghost story, one that lingers with chilling grace.
Promising Young Woman – USA, 113 min, Director: Emerald Fennell, Writer: Emerald Fennell
Suspiciously unambitious Cassie (Carey Mulligan) leads a quiet existence as a barista who lives in her parents’ house since dropping out of medical school. She and her friendly boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), gab away days at the cafe. The way she spends her evenings, however, reveals a boiling vendetta. Men who cross her path are in serious danger, as beautiful and brutal Cassie seeks to heal from past trauma by doling out scathing lessons. When Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate, re-enters her life, so does the possibility of healing—until new details about the death of her best friend infuriate Cassie and inspire her most potent confrontation yet.
Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell brings her debut feature to the Sundance Film Festival after premiering Careful How You Go in the Shorts Program in 2018. Her signature bite, wit, and re-imagined femme fatales make Promising Young Woman a daring but dark inspiration. Fennell and her team paint a perversely heroic portrait and a eulogy to the loss of potential that occurs when male cruelty claims yet another promising young woman.
Spree – USA, 93 min, Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko, Writers: Gene McHugh / Eugene Kotlyarenko
Meet Kurt, from @KurtsWorld96. He dreams of one day sitting atop a social media empire, but he’s not there yet. He currently drives for the rideshare company Spree, which is cool for him because he gets to hang with so many dope people all day long. Fortunately, Kurt has come up with the perfect way to go viral: #TheLesson. He’s decked out his car with cameras for a nonstop livestream full of killer entertainment. In the middle of all this madness, a stand-up comedian with her own viral agenda, Jessie Adams, crosses Kurt’s path and becomes our only hope to put a stop to his misguided carnage.
Prolific indie director Eugene Kotlyarenko makes his Sundance Film Festival debut with this gonzo satire of demented social media obsession. Adopting the ambitious style of a continuous social media feed, Spree manages to keep surprising us with its ingenuity, its insights, and an energetic pulse driven by the lead performance of actor Joe Keery. If you follow @KurtsWorld96, he’ll follow you back.
Impetigore – Indonesia, 107 min, Director: Joko Anwar, Writer: Joko Anwar
How do you escape a family legacy when it’s ingrained inside you—literally? This is what Maya wants to find out after a close encounter with death leaves her with questions about the parents she never knew and what they potentially left behind. Accompanied by her best friend, Dini, she ventures to the remote village where she lived as a young child. Immediately, they observe strange phenomena; most noticeably, there aren’t any children around. As they peel back the layers of the village’s secretive facade, they find themselves at the center of a story that transcends life and death.
In his latest feature, Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar spins a tale of family inheritance, generational trauma, and betrayal set against the desolate landscape of Indonesia’s countryside. Forgoing traditional jump scares and haunts in favor of a more suspenseful, sinister narrative, Anwar delivers a ghost story that turns the esoteric upside down and inside out. His frequent star and collaborator Tara Basro imbues Maya with strength and empathy in her search for answers buried just beneath the skin.
Relic – Australia, 89 min., Director: Natalie Erika James, Writers: Natalie Erika James
When octogenarian Edna inexplicably vanishes, her daughter Kay and granddaughter Sam rush to their family’s decaying country home and find clues of her increasing dementia scattered around the house in her absence. After Edna returns just as mysteriously as she disappeared, Kay’s concern that her mother seems unwilling or unable to say where she’s been clashes with Sam’s unabashed enthusiasm to have her grandma back. However, as Edna’s behavior turns increasingly volatile, both begin to sense that an insidious presence in the house might be taking control of her.
In her feature debut, writer/director Natalie Erika James crafts an unforgettable haunted-house movie highlighted by unsettling sonic and visual design (and complete with literal bumps in the night), while gracefully incorporating the all-too-real terror of facing a deteriorating loved one. All three actresses do superb work building their characters’ frayed family chemistry, with Robyn Nevin remarkable in the terrifically challenging role of Edna—who may be the manifestation of the monstrous force destroying the house or perhaps just its most vulnerable prey.
His House – United Kingdom, 93 min, Director: Remi Weekes, Writer: Remi Weekes
Many refugee stories end in the same place: a safe (if slightly bewildering) new home. And that’s where His House begins, with a Sudanese couple arriving in a quiet English town for their “happily ever after.” But as their acclimation process falters, we realize that there’s more to blame than cross-cultural misunderstanding. Things begin to go disastrously wrong. “Screaming nightmares” wrong. “Blood magic” wrong. And then, it gets much, much worse.
In his debut film, writer/director Remi Weekes performs a truly stunning feat of genre alchemy. He transforms the sort of real-world atrocities that too many people find ways to ignore into unhinged, capital H Horror. These ghosts are real, and all the more terrifying because of it. Weekes keeps us all on a razor’s edge, aided by stellar cinematography and a brilliant cast, led by Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu.
Run, Sweetheart Run – USA, 97 min., Writer: Shana Feste, Director: Shana Feste
Timid and hardworking single mother Shari (Ella Balinska, Charlie’s Angels) brushes away hesitations and decides to dip her toe back into the dating scene after being spurred on by her coworkers. She’s thrilled when her boss sets her up on a blind date with Ethan (Pilou Asbæk, Game of Thrones), who initially proves every bit as charming and magnetic as his photo. Ethan can’t hide his true nature for very long though—and when things quickly turn sinister, Shari must find a way to escape. Forced to navigate the streets of LA after hours on foot, Shari learns Ethan is far more connected and violent than she ever imagined.
Writer-director Shana Feste (The Greatest, 2009 Sundance Film Festival) returns to the Festival with a twisted, daring horror film that blazes its own trail, unafraid to shatter expectations as it invites audiences to descend into a traumatizing, blood-riddled nightmare. Balinska picks up speed as a woman who discovers that her ingenuity and sheer determination to survive may just make her a match for the worst evil the patriarchy can muster.
Amulet, United Kingdom, 99 min., Director: Romola Garai; Writer; Romola Garai
A young man is brought to a dilapidated house in order to care for a woman and her elderly, dying mother. Falling in love with the younger woman, he begins to suspect she is enslaved to a demon, and resolves to fight the creature and rescue the woman he loves…but all is not what it seems.
Romola Garai’s feature directorial debut demonstrates a hauntingly assured work constructed with frightening momentum. With crackling performances from incredible actors ratcheted to a simmering tension, Garai’s confidently intuitive eye builds a profoundly restrained dread as she unleashes a phantasmagorical nightmare seething with imagination and purpose. Approaching folklore with a fiery spirit, Amulet propels a terrifying morality tale into the realm of high art.
La Llorona – Guatemala/France, 101 min., Director: Jayro Bustamante, Writers: Jayro Bustamante / Lisandro Sánchez
Jayro Bustamante’s haunting third feature, a richly layered political horror film, won the top prize at its Venice Days premiere and has gone on to captivate festival audiences worldwide.
Indignant retired general Enrique finally faces trial for the genocidal massacre of thousands of Mayans decades ago. As a horde of angry protestors threatens to invade their opulent home, the women of the house—his haughty wife, conflicted daughter, and precocious granddaughter—weigh their responsibility to shield the erratic, senile Enrique against the devastating truths being publicly revealed and the increasing sense that a wrathful supernatural force is targeting them for his crimes. Meanwhile, much of the family’s domestic staff flees, leaving only loyal housekeeper Valeriana until a mysterious young Indigenous maid arrives.
Bustamante boldly re-interprets the Latin American folktale of “La Llorona,” a weeping woman doomed to haunt the earth mourning her dead children, embedding it within a powerful account of Guatemalans’ struggle to account for their country’s not-so-distant history. The visually eerie, ominously scored La Llorona brings a tragic realism to the horror genre and creates a spellbinding cinematic experience.