The third is what my week at the Seattle International Film Festival entails, as I see Beasts of the Southern Wild and V/H/S. Beasts won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for its New Orleans-set story of magical realism. The horror anthology V/H/S caused a moviegoer to faint and require EMT assistance during its Sundance screening — arguably the horror movie’s equivalent of winning a Grand Jury Prize.
I move from the Egyptian Theatre to the SIFF Cinema Uptown, a theater close to the Space Needle, to catch these two buzzed-about films. (Apparently, I missed Star Trek star Chris Pine the second day, who was there to promote his new Hollywood weepie People Like Us.) Thankfully, both films lived up to expectations — albeit in very different ways.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a strikingly assured debut, a showcase for director Benh Zeitlin and actress Quvenzhane Wallis in the same way Martha Marcy May Marlene was for its director-actress team last year. Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a six-year-old who lives in New Orleans’ Bathtub district with her father Wink (Dwight Henry).
In the film’s first moments, it offers an inventive vision not unlike Terrence Malick meets Where the Wild Things Are. The fragmentary cinematography paired with narration recalls The Tree of Life, while appearances of the titular creatures and a chaotic scene where Hushpuppy inadvertently sets fire to her ramshackle house recall Maurice Sendak’s children’s book.
The movie eventually expands to a more traditional narrative, as the Bathtub district’s residents weather Hurricane Katrina and try to survive in the aftermath. Within the magical realism of its world, Beasts of the Southern Wild is able to extract some real poignancy about Katrina’s damage to these New Orleans residents and the need to rebuild, as suggested by a great final shot.
The film should hopefully start long careers for Zeitlin, Wallis and Henry — all impressive in their debuts. It has already started to gather whispers of Oscars, and although it may be too abstract for the awards ceremony, Beasts would be a deserving contender.
Meanwhile, V/H/S is successful in achieving a completely different goal — be a memorable, clever and violent horror anthology. The film brings together five of the best current horror filmmakers, including The House of the Devil helmer Ti West and You’re Next director Adam Wingard, in a movie that combines the current found-footage trend with vintage VHS aesthetics.
Wingard directs the wraparound segment, which follows a group of neighborhood deviants who are hired to break into an old house and retrieve a VHS tape of unknown content. Yet to find the right one, they have to look through various VHS tapes, with each tape representing a different segment.
The Signal director Adam Bruckner starts off strong with a segment that uses a glasses eye-cam and drops one single, disturbing element into a night of frat-boy celebration. Considering how great his films are, West’s segment is a little bit of a letdown, starting off with his typical slow-burn and a creepy appearance of a switchblade before ending with a weak twist.
Glenn McQuaid’s entry centers his Friday the 13th-esque slasher around one audio-visual trick, but the next two segments end the film on a higher note. Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg’s creepy piece takes place entirely in Skype conversations between a medical student and a girlfriend afraid of her apartment, while filmmaking troupe Radio Silence creates the cinematic version of a haunted house in their fun, final segment.
V/H/S is the kind of clever horror film that delivers violence and female nudity to its core audience, while simultaneously subverting those expectations with often-odious male protagonists and creatively assertive women. It’s also ingenious in its use of VHS effects, gory as all hell and gleefully anarchic — perhaps best exhibited in a credit sequence that mashes up VHS footage with The Death Set’s unruly “They Come to Get Us.” Call it Creepshow for the Generation Tech.