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10 Genre Films at Sundance 2021 That Could Become Breakout Hits

From horror fantasies and revenge thrillers to a very adult animated film, a metaphysical documentary, and a good old-fashioned period werewolf movie, there's something for everyone.

by | February 4, 2021 | Comments

The Blazing World

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Although the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues have an impact on the film industry in 2021, the annual Sundance Film Festival remained determined to bring audiences the best new voices in indie cinema — and that extended to horror.

Even from the comfort of your own home, you could experience a years-long tradition of great and unique horror and genre films from Sundance. In particular, the Sundance Midnight program has a bit of a reputation behind it; it’s where we first saw films like His House, Hereditary, The Babadook, Get Out, and even The Blair Witch Project. This year, however, it was possible to find your favorite new genre film across the entire program, be it a documentary, an animated film, or a new Nicolas Cage extravaganza of weirdness.

Let the fancy awards watchers worry about what movie from the festival will go on to win trophies. We’re here to round up the weird, creepy, scary, bizarre genre movies from this year’s program that are likely to make a big impression when they get released.


The Blazing World

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Part Alice in Wonderland, part giallo-inspired nightmare, the feature directorial debut of Carlson Young is a strong first impression starring the always-deliciously-evil Udo Kier as an enigmatic dream guide. It’s a film bursting with imagination and a unique visual style, and enough bright reds to satisfy fans of Dario Argento.

Bloody Disgusting’s Meagan Navarro praises Young’s debut, describing the film as “bold, ambitious, and confident, and refusing to adhere to commercial conformity.” Meanwhile, Matt Donato of What to Watch celebrates the film’s cinematography and fantasy atmosphere, writing, “The camera glides in an unconscious state and draws the most candy-coated, delightfully whimsical hues from a movie that might as well take place in the Gumdrop Forest. What do you get? A tickled-transcendent collaboration of talents that’s en-vogue, saccharine-sweet, and establishes world building in a fraction of the time most other films require.”

Then there’s Udo Kier himself, a legend in horror filmmaking who plays a creepy, mysterious entity in the film. Nerdist’s Kyle Anderson writes of the actor, “Udo Kier gives exactly the kind of scary Udo Kier performance you want. An excellent casting choice to represent literal inner demons.”


Censor

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The 1980s were a golden age for horror fans, with the birth of home video allowing bold new voices to defy censorship and conventional distribution — leading to the “video nasty” era of British horror cinema. But what if a film looked eerily similar to the disappearance of your own sister years prior? Censor blurs the lines between fiction and reality in a feature debut that heralds the arrival of a brave new voice in horror, and a love letter to a bygone era of cinema.

The best-reviewed horror film out of the festival so far, Censor is being declared “the future of British filmmaking,” by the likes of Little White Lies’ Hannah Woodhead. Only time will tell if the hype is real, but for now, audiences can look forward to a confident feature debut by Prano Bailey-Bond and a captivating, blood-soaked performance by Raised by Wolves’ Niamh Algar. Critics are also praising the film’s graceful and nuanced approach to the debate of violence in film. Daily Grindhouse’s Mary Beth McAndrews writes, “Bailey-Bond contrasts over-the-top violent images in these films with violence shown on the news, as if exaggerated fictional violence is somehow worse than the horrific events that unfold in the world on a daily basis.”


Coming Home in the Dark

(Photo by Goldfish Creative courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Sometimes, a film is so intense that even the festival programmers warn the audience about what they’re about to watch. Coming Home in the Dark is definitely not for the faint of heart. Horror films have a unique ability to comment on the darkest, most unspeakable parts of the human condition while still delivering entertaining and thrilling rides, and this film definitely gets to some dark places.

Early reactions from critics describe this film as “bleak, tense, and often unshakable,” as Chris Evangelista wrote for SlashFilm. In a tight 90 minutes, James Ashcroft delivers an anxiety-inducing film you simply can’t take your eyes off of, one that is frequently unpleasant but never boring. What to Watch’s Matt Donato writes, “Ashcroft executes horrors of commonplace means through barbarism, revenge, and admittance. Not without his acting troupe’s investment.” A big part of the film’s success in holding your attention is Daniel Gillies’ performance as one of two murderous drifters holding a family captive during a night of utter terror. As Screen Zealots’ Louisa Moore writes, “Gillies gives a spine-chilling performance as a quietly unhinged lunatic, and he’s able to establish so much fear with nothing but a menacing stare.”


Cryptozoo

(Photo by Johnny Dell'Angelo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

What do you get when you combine the plot of Jurassic Park, the visuals of Yellow Submarine, and the mind of one of the most unique voices currently working in animation? The bizarre, colorful, and fascinating world of Cryptozoo.

SlashFilm’s Hoai-Tran Bui describes Cryptozoo as “the slyly anti-Disney film, digging into the idea of capitalizing on the magic of the world and turning it into a corporate product.” The film is about a sanctuary for mythical creatures and the shady military guys who are hellbent on using the creatures for their own nefarious purposes. The consensus seems to be that the film’s strongest asset is its unique kaleidoscopic animation, which Eric Kohn describes for IndieWire as “a cluttered symphony of erratic line drawings, psychedelic colors, and recycled genre tropes galore.” Because animation is more than just kid-friendly content, viewers should beware that Cryptozoo is definitely not for kids, but a film loaded with bloody shootouts, explicitly sexual content, and a surprising amount of gore. If you ever wanted to see a Gorgon having to escape the clutches of a giant Kraken while turning the soldiers chasing her into stone, this is the film for you.


Eight for Silver

(Photo by Sean Ellis courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The werewolf genre is in need of a comeback, because one can’t simply watch Underworld on repeat forever. So it’s great news that Anthropoid director Sean Ellis is giving us a much-needed fresh coat of silver on the werewolf movie with his new period horror film, Eight for Silver. In it, Boyd Holbrook acts as a Van Helsing type investigating some grisly murders and disappearances in the French countryside, where a mysterious set of silver teeth are bringing a lupine horror to the unsuspecting townsfolk.

Most critics agree that the film brings some fascinating and gnarly additions to the werewolf myth: Bloody Disgusting’s Meagan Navarro wrote in her review, “This unique form of curse relies on some biblical evils, and the werewolf mythology itself gives thrilling glimpses of body horror that would make The Thing proud.” There’s also some love for Boyd Holbrook’s wolf hunter, with Brian Tallerico at rogerebert.com writing that the film includes “another game performance from Holbrook, who could make a career as a cinematic monster hunter and I’d be pretty happy.”


A Glitch in the Matrix

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Reality can be scarier than fiction; that much we’ve learned from Rodney Ascher’s films. Ascher has made a career out of peeking into what makes our imaginations run wild and dissecting the things that we’re obsessed with, most notably in 2012’s Room 237, which explored the wild conspiracy theories surround Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining. Ascher’s latest, A Glitch in the Matrix, is all about another conspiracy theory that has slowly grown over the last couple of decades: the idea that we all live inside a computer simulation. It’s a frightening thought made all the more terrifying by Ascher’s deep dive into why people believe this theory.

Writing for the AV Club, A. A. Dowd praises the film’s exploration of human obsession, stating “This film uses simulation theory as a window into the desperately human search for order and logic, with technology as just another variant on some grand designer outside the membrane of our consciousness.” Meanwhile, Nonfics’ Christopher Campbell writes of its potential as a horror film, “A Glitch in the Matrix is a perfect midnight movie because it does eventually become something of a horror movie but is also the sort of trippy feature, with its heady metaphysical subject matter combined with its surreal visuals, that is going to welcome drug-fueled viewings.”


In the Earth

(Photo by Neon courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Ben Wheatley returns to his folk horror origins with a timely, psychedelic film that was part of a new wave of pandemic-themed movies at this year’s Sundance. In the Earth is a movie about paranoia and isolation and a true attack on the senses that overcomes even the “at-home” part of Sundance to deliver an effective horror film filled with dread. This is in part due to a fantastic, synth-heavy score by Clint Mansell that includes plants in its sounds.

So far, early reviews are praising this as Wheatley’s return to form after his disappointing remake of Rebecca for Netflix, and it’s a gnarly return at that. For SlashFilm, Chris Evangelista writes that “There’s a wealth of close-ups here of ruined, bleeding, open flesh; of skin stitched up with foreign objects inserted beneath the surface. It’s all so gross and weird and kind of wonderful.” Meanwhile, Consequence of Sound’s Joe Lipsett recognizes that those along for the ride will find a unique sensorial experience, writing, “Restless audiences may quibble with the pacing and length, but fans of bombastic visual sequences and discomforting violence will find plenty to like.”


Knocking

(Photo by Hannes Krantz courtesy of Sundance Institute)

At one point or another, everyone has had experience with an annoying neighbor who makes noise at inappropriate times, but what if that noise — say, a knocking sound — began to sound like cries for help? And what if, when confronted, no one seems to be able to hear the knocking? That is just the beginning of Molly’s (Cecilia Milocco) problems in the new Swedish horror film Knocking. 

Pajiba’s Kristy Puchko is enthusiastic about Knocking in her review, writing “Methodically paced and keenly tense, this thriller draws you in with the openness of Milocco’s visage, then hooks you with its titular inciting incident,” comparing the film to the works of Darren Aronofsky in their handling of insanity, vulnerability, and obsession. Frida Kempff’s film is unapologetically about gaslighting and the threat it continues to be to women, and the film plays with the audience’s expectations as it makes viewers reconsider what is and isn’t real.

If there’s one consensus, it’s that Cecilia Milocco delivers a knockout performance here. Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky writes, “Her performance easily grips onto the audience’s hearts and pulls them along with her as all we can do is watch Molly spiral onscreen. With a mixture of vulnerability and strength as Molly fixates on saving whoever is trying to initiate contact, the magic and glue of this film is truly found in her.”


Prisoners of the Ghostland

(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Japanese director Sion Sono makes his English-language film debut with arguably the most bonkers film to have graced Sundance moviegoers’ screens since Mandy; this one just also happens to star Nicolas Cage.

The film is a unique blend of Eastern and Western sensibilities, and finds Cage playing a former bank robber strapped into a black leather suit rigged with explosives (including one for each of his privates) and tasked with rescuing the governor’s adopted granddaughter from the “Ghostland” before his suit explodes. Writing for Nightmare on Film Street, Kimberley Elizabeth describes the film as “a melting pot dystopia of the nostalgic neons of both Eastern and Western culture.” Believe it or not, critics say that this could be Cage’s craziest film yet, with IndieWire’s David Ehrlich writing, “Cage screams at the sky while stretching the word ‘testicle’ for the length of an aria,” and that is enough to pique our interest.

Though critics describe the film as a more muted Sion Sono, What to Watch’s Matt Donato still finds the director able to play with a largely practical world, “Sono’s prop-latent universe includes carnivalesque 18-wheelers outlined in neon light trims, modded arm-swords on mangled appendages, and Mad Maxian devastation that still carries creative flourishes.” That’s all well and good, but did we mention the testicle bombs?


Violation

(Photo by One Plus One courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Though Violation had its world premiere at TIFF last year, it’s part of the Sundance program this year, and it absolutely deserves recognition. This is a rape-revenge film with graphic violence that will make even hardcore horror fans squirm and raw, noteworthy performances.

Indeed, many critics praise the central performance by Madeleine Sims-Fewer, including The Playlist’s Monica Castillo, who writes “Sims-Fewer’s incredible performance takes up space usually reserved for blood splattery comeuppance with a full gut-punch of intensity.” That being said, many critics also note that this film may be too shocking for some audience members. Pajiba’s Kristy Puchko writes, “It’s a film that strips away the artifices of genre to leave us with the bones of pain and horror. It then scrapes those bones, carving out a cinematic experience that is electrifying in its agony and empathy.”


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