Sundance Film Festival 2021: In The Earth

For the second Sundance screening of the week, we were presented with Ben Wheatley’s experimental plague horror film. I had absolutely no expectations for this film, as I’ve only seen Wheatley’s earlier film A Field in England (2013). Martin (Joel Fry) is able to get out of the city following the seemingly global pandemic, that is clearly modeled after COVID-19, and sets out to find a doctor who has been missing when he joins forces with Alma (Ellora Torchia). What follows is an incredibly experimental take on horror and science fiction, focusing on nature, psychology, and possibly magic. Honestly, this one didn’t do a whole lot for me, but it serves as a very interesting experiment of the COVID age.

Wheatley’s film features very interesting visuals and beautiful shots of nature, but very little character development for the two main protagonists in the film, leaving the viewer with little to connect with outside of being able to comprehend the isolation of quarantine and the trauma of plague. The base concept of the film is interesting, and I do like the idea of it being an experiment to create something relevant during COVID-19. It was fun seeing pumps of hand sanitizer, people wearing masks, and social distance being respected between the actors. But ultimately, it didn’t add up to more than a visual experiment that addresses the psychological impact of isolation and the pandemic.

In the Q&A following the film, Wheatley discusses how this was the first production to film following the initial lockdown in the UK in 2020. He stated that while writing the film in March of 2020, he was at home in lockdown watching films that were being released on streaming platforms that had been shot prior to the pandemic and how it was so weird seeing sequences with large crowds and no reference to the events of the world. That is something that I have often thought about when viewing films during the pandemic. It is odd seeing large crowds and social events in films and how it is just not something that is happening right now. Once again, Heidi Zwicker did a nice job moderating the Q&A. Wheatley and Torchia both gave detailed accounts of how different it was preparing for and shooting the film during a pandemic, touching upon the many Zoom meetings and how some folks hadn’t met until their first day of shooting.

If you’re a big fan of Wheatley’s work, you might find yourself interested in this and able to draw comparisons to themes touched upon in some of his other, more experimental, features. Personally, this was a one-and-done for me, but it was definitely interesting to see a film made during the pandemic that was shot outside of Zoom.

Here’s to four more Sundance screenings this week!

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Sundance Film Festival 2021: Censor

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This week I find myself lucky enough to be friends with someone who has passes for six films being shown virtually in the Sundance Film Festival. Honestly, it has always been a dream of mine to go to a legitimate film festival, so this is a really amazing and fun opportunity in the middle of a hellish pandemic. So, a huge thanks to my friend Lee for making this possible.

Starting off our screenings of the festival is Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature film debut Censor (2021). The film focuses on Enid (Niamh Algar), a troubled woman who censors “video nasties” during the height of the moral panic of Thatcher-era Britain in the 1980s. Enid watches with distaste all of the shocking and disturbing horror films of the time to censor out the bits that would warp the minds of children and “drive people to commit violence themselves”, as was so often the thought process behind the conservative British politicians of the time who sought to stamp out the violent horror films. Adding to her discomfort, Enid is suffering from the trauma of her sister disappearing when she was a young girl. Constantly attempting to find her and trying to recall new information that might lead to her sister’s rescue, Enid goes on a psychological journey that takes the viewer on an intense and disturbing ride through the glory days of horror films past. (Note: That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, so as to not spoil anything for anyone!) At a brisk 84 minutes, there is not a moment in the film that drags, and I found myself captivated and entranced for the entire feature.

Prano Bailey-Bond achieves great things in her first feature. This is an incredibly strong start to what I hope is a very successful career. She has also directed three shorts that I need to seek out online to watch immediately. She has a very keen eye for 80s-fused visuals that harken back to the VHS genre classics that her film both honors and critiques. It’s beyond refreshing to see such a unique and bold female perspective on horror from someone who so clearly loves the genre. I’m incredibly excited to see her future work in horror. I’ve included her introduction to the film below where she briefly discusses the influences of the film and her process.

Bailey-Bond introduces the film for Sundance.

Niamh Algar’s performance as Enid is the very backbone of the film. In Enid, Algar has captured such a conflicted and complex sense of the character. The way Algar is positioned throughout the film, often in powerful and commanding poses that really reminded me of Katherine Hepburn’s stance in her classical films of the 30s, counters the increasing paranoia of the character and we physically see her mental state change over the course of the narrative through her physicality. I loved her period clothing that really captured her sense of morality through costume, as well. This was the first film that I’ve seen Algar in, and again, I’m very excited to see more of her work, also.

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Zwicker, Bailey-Bond, and Algar in the Q&A following the film

The film was followed by a lively Q&A session with Bailey-Bond and Algar where they answered questions from fans and questions prepared by Sundance Senior Programmer, Heidi Zwicker. This was a fun opportunity to see Bailey-Bond really showcase her knowledge of the horror films of the time, as she was asked what films have greatly influenced her (The Evil Dead (1981), Suspiria (1977), the films of Lucio Fulci, and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971) were the films she name-dropped). It’s just always such a treat to see a filmmaker get to gush about the films that made them who they are. Algar also had great comments about her immersion into the genre to prepare for the role. I wasn’t aware that the Q&A would be included with the pass, at first, so this was a really exciting treat as it made it a more personable experience overall. Bailey-Bond and Algar were both great in the Q&A and Zwicker did a really nice job moderating.

Overall, I just really loved this film. It checked off all of my horror genre boxes, showcased all female perspectives in the genre, featured stunning visuals and a riveting narrative, and was both thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure. It’s definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time, and it’s one that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who is a fan of the video nasty era and is yearning for female representation within the genre. It also has a sequence that played with aspect ratio in a way that I had never seen before, so the film tech geek in me was just giddy in all regards. So, in closing, this is a film that you should definitely rush out to rent or purchase when it is eventually released if you enjoy horror films that pay tribute to the genre’s greats and feature a strong female perspective.

Here’s to five more exciting Sundance Film Festival screenings this week!

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