Women and Horror at SXSW 2022 – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reports

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It’s almost SXSW o’clock in Austin, and the alarm is set for an impressive range of women-helmed horror films and others that delve into similarly dark, macabre or just good old fashioned unladylike territory. Whether it’s serial killers in Romania, bachelorette parties in Australia or ghosthunters in Utah, from the beloved Midnighters program and beyond this year’s SXSW is full to the brim with a diverse range of films that prove once again the domain of women’s filmmaking is often much wider than commonly assumed.

Following from her extraordinary 2018 horror-comedy short Hair Wolf, Mariama Diallo’s feature debut Master will no doubt continue to make waves after its recent Sundance debut in its tale of a young woman called Jasmine (Zoe Renee) who finds university life is more challenging than she expected as she navigates the haunting stories that mark the campus’s history. Regina Hall joins Renee as the college’s new Dean of Students, Gail, who is on her own journey, and alongside her friend and colleague Liv (Amber Gray) the three women find that the horrors of the past and the horror of the now are in a clear, direct dialogue.

Co-written, co-directed and co-starring Hannah Barlow, Sissy is an Australian horror film where the past also menaces those in the present. Here, Cecilia (Aisha Dee) bumps into her high school best friend Emma (Barlow) a decade after having last seen each other and attempts to reconnect at Emma’s bachelorette weekend. But when the girl who bullied her in high school turns up, things don’t go quite as Cecilia had hoped. With its world premiere at SXSW, Sissy was also co-written and co-directed by Kane Senes.

Another world premiere horror film co-directed and co-written by a man and woman, Deadstream by Vanessa and Joseph Winter stars the latter as a once-successful internet livestreamer eager to recover from cancellation by hosting a real-time evening in a haunted house. Finding more than he bargained for, this horror-comedy film tracks his journey for survival.

Starring the incomparable Rita Moreno and directed by Maureen Bharoocha, The Prank continues the dark-themed comedy vibes as Moreno plays a vicious, unpopular teacher who pushes things just a little too far. Infurating perfect student Ben (Connor Kalopsis) and his best friend Mei (Romana Young), they decide to teach her a lesson by framing her for murder in an irreverent tale of social media run amok.

Chloe Okuno is involved in two films at SXSW this year, first of which is the Texas premiere of her debut feature Watcher with Maika Monroe, a compelling thriller with strong Polanski tones. Following a young couple who move to Romania, Monroe’s character Julia finds herself lost in her new home of Bucharest while her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) works all day. Familiarizing herself with the new city where a serial killer is roaming free, she is increasingly haunted by the feeling that she is being surveilled by a neighbour, but no one believes her.

Okuno also co-wrote Halina Reijn’s star-studded comedy-slasher Bodies Bodies Bodies, starring Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson. Following a group of young people throwing a party in an isolated mansion, the interpersonal politics turn deadly serious when the fun and games get out of hand. A new direction in the genre for revered entertainment company A24, Bodies Bodies Bodies is one of the most anticipated horror premieres of the year.

Beyond films where women have a seat in the directors chair, women collaborate in significant ways in other horror films at SXSW this year. Pete Ohs supernatural stalker film Jethica was co-written by its two stars, Callie Hernandez and Ashley Denise Robinson. And while not horror per se, Eli Horowitz’s The Cow sees the welcome return of Winona Ryder to dark themed material continue, the Winona-renaissance continuing to be dominated by all things strange and dark, from the hit series Stranger Things through to the much-hyped, long-awaited sequel, Beetlejuice 2. Both behind and in front of the camera, SXSW 2022 shows yet again that horror and similarly dark genre movies are no longer the boys club they once were assumed to be.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).