This year’s Sundance Midnight offerings included a paranoid psychological thriller and a body horror doppelgänger creature-feature, each examining its own kind of female-centric horror.
Being a woman can be scary, and two Sundance midnight selections explore that idea from a distinctly female perspective.
Chloe Okuna’s feature directorial debut, “Watcher,” is a streamlined, effective thriller that harkens back to classic paranoid thrillers of the 50s-70s. Evoking whispers of “Rear Window,” “Watcher” follows an American couple, Julia (Maika Monroe) and Francis (Karl Glusman), as they arrive in Romania, where Francis has been transferred for work. Left alone most days in their well-appointed apartment, Julia begins to feel isolated, and the language barrier (Francis can speak Romanian, she can not) doesn’t help. She notices a neighbor (Burn Gorman) who appears to be watching her through their large picture-window, and when she and Francis learn that a serial killer nicknamed “The Spider” is on the loose in their neighborhood, Julia begins to suspect that her neighbor and “The Spider” are one and the same.
There’s an added layer of discomfort for Julia when the people around her gently dismiss her concerns as paranoia. And maybe they’re right? After all, it’s a big leap from curious neighbor to brutal killer. Then again, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean your neighbor’s not out to get you. Especially when your neighbor is played by a creepily effective Burn Gorman, who gives a perfectly balanced performance that teeters between low-key psycho and lonely European nerd. And thus a very specific kind of horror that is familiar to women presents itself – the self-doubt of our own senses and judgment, spurred on by the dismissal and gaslighting of others, and the general vulnerability of being a woman alone. Okuna plays up these fears smartly and efficiently, in a confident and competent debut that, bolstered by Maika Monroe’s compellingly grounded everywoman, should keep you guessing until the very end.
Finnish director Hannah Bergholm’s feature debut is a body-horror female coming-of-age doppelgänger tale (try saying that three times fast) that speaks to the pressures applied to young women to fit within a certain standard of conformity and perfection.
Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) is a 12-year old girl whose mother (Sophia Heikkilä) obsessively prides herself in having a “perfect” family, often sharing videos on social media of how happy and wonderful their life is. Beyond the superficially saccharine exterior however, things aren’t as sweet as they seem. Tinja’s mother pushes her too hard to excel in gymnastics, while at home her Dad is a clueless and distant push-over, her brother is a spiteful brat, and mom is having an affair.
One day, Tinja has an encounter with a wounded bird, after which she ends up hatching its rather mysterious large egg. A creature emerges, bringing chaos into her life, and yet Tinja feels a strange kinship with this hideous being. As pressures continue to mount, cracks in the facade continue to grow. When the hatchling creature becomes a danger to them all, Tinja must decide its fate, and hers.
“Hatching” is a darkly comedic horror film that plays upon the same dysfunctional family themes as “American Beauty,” while featuring one of the most memorably bizarre creature and human friendships since E.T. The practical fx on display here are truly impressive, like a nightmare version of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Siiri Solalinna meanwhile is excellent in her debut performance as Tinja, proving herself an instant star. Still, despite its candy-coated exterior, there’s a definitive darkness underneath Hatching’s shell. With something to say about toxic motherhood and about embracing your imperfections, director Bergholm proves herself an exciting new voice in horror.