Horror films don’t have to be plausible, logical, or even necessarily coherent to be great. Some are at their best when they leave all three of these adjectives in the dust. What matters is whether or not they’re convincing. What draws us into scary movies—and down into their hidden chambers and sunken places—is belief, whether it belongs to the characters or to us. Ideally, we take our cues from those on the screen. In The Exorcist, we watch Father Karras’s skepticism melt away and realize ours has evaporated as well; in The Blair Witch Project, the lost filmmakers’ confusion and claustrophobia become contagious.
One reason that David Prior’s The Empty Man has proceeded directly into the cult canon after hitting VOD earlier this year is because its conspiratorial, extremely online subtext is perfectly suited to at-home viewing, even as its widescreen style demands theatrical scale. The plot turns on a plunge down a Google rabbit hole; the horror in the story is a matter of conversion.
In Saint Maud—an impressive directorial debut by 31-year-old British writer-director Rose Glass that is the best new horror movie of 2021 so far—the protagonist knows, to a certainty, that God has tasked her with saving a dying woman’s soul. The only evidence she has of this mission is her own belief. It’s all that she needs.
With its windswept seaside setting and story of a young woman who believes she has a direct line to the Almighty, Saint Maud could be seen as an homage to Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Glass has some of von Trier’s ecstatic boldness and mordant humor as well; the contrast between hospice nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) and her lymphoma-stricken charge Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) suggests a kind of bickering, metaphysical odd couple. Maud is young and strong but hobbled by religious devotion; she doesn’t get out much and it doesn’t go well when she does. Amanda, a former choreographer who now uses a wheelchair, retains a lust for life (and flesh) that only gains in intensity as her condition worsens. Maud’s tenderness and patience seem infinite, at least until the older woman tells her that she’s an atheist; the reason that Amanda isn’t ready to meet her maker is because she doesn’t think he’s there in the first place. From there, the question of whether Maud’s relationship to faith is genuinely ecstatic or a mask for guilty self-loathing incurred by past failures is replaced by a bigger issue: whether or not she’s sociopathic, and what’s going to happen to the people around her as a result. In other words: How do you solve a problem like Maud?
Glass makes a number of savvy directorial choices throughout Saint Maud, and the sharpest is to limit what we see, hear, and know to her heroine’s point of view. The upshot of this approach is a wonderfully paranoid sense of clarity: In lieu of judging its namesake, the film communicates what it’s like to see the world through her piously downcast eyes and live inside her pale, all-too-vulnerable skin (which she razes regularly as a form of atonement). Where Glass truly recalls von Trier is in her skill at dramatizing the kind of all-consuming martyr complex that can’t be psychoanalyzed away, and which eventually crosses over from being a burden to a means of liberation, a state of grace in which there’s nothing left to be exorcised.
Clark’s performance is a study in coiled tension gradually going unsprung, which crucially isn’t played for clichéd mania but an earnest and unlikely form of self-actualization. (If Maud has the look of an avenging angel by the film’s end, she’s one following a self-fulfilling prophecy.) At times, Saint Maud’s alternately stringent and deep-red imagery feels borrowed—from von Trier, as well as his hero Andrei Tarkovsky—but this is less a case of thievery than a gifted filmmaker’s ambitious (and mostly successful) attempt to connect herself to a cinematic spiritual lineage. Saint Maud is a modest production: tight, compact, and under 90 minutes. There isn’t a jump scare or a CGI effect wasted. But Glass’s small-scale tragedy of devotion metastasizing into something demonic has grandeur all the same. It makes you believe.
The same can’t quite be said for Canadian filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns’s Come True, but this thrifty psychological thriller comes so close to realizing its mindfuck potential that if you squint just right while streaming it, it looks a bit like a cult classic. Visions seen with eyes wide shut are the subject here, with Julia Sarah Stone starring as Sarah, a teenage runaway whose inability to get a good night’s rest stems from both her compromised sleeping arrangements—bedding down on the slide at a local playground as she avoids her mom—and recurring night terrors that send her floating through a series of stark, greyed-out hellscapes populated by lurking, faceless wraiths. Whenever she’s awake, Sarah feels like she can’t outrun her problems. When she’s dreaming, it’s as if she’s being drawn toward some looming, ominous vanishing point. Hoping to find answers, she signs up for a local sleep study whose designers promise to unravel the mysteries of her subconscious.
There are shades of A Nightmare on Elm Street, of course, especially the franchise’s third (and best) entry, Dream Warriors, which figures into Burns’s creative matrix alongside the collected works of Carpenter and Cronenberg (whose Videodrome comes to mind in the form of some weird high-tech headgear). These I Love the ’80s–esque reference points are inescapable for millennial genre filmmakers, and Burns tries to offset the derivativeness of his visuals by leaning into his low budget. The scariest sequence features the emergence of blurry, barely discernible figures on a cheap hospital computer monitor. He’s also aided hugely by the presence of Stone, whose huge, spooked eyes are ideal for a horror-movie protagonist, especially one who has trouble keeping them closed.
The biggest problem with Come True is, paradoxically, the same thing that separates it from the rest of 2021’s VOD horror cohort: a startling, swing-for-the-fences ending that’s already inspired debate about its meaning and ultimate effectiveness. It’s a genuinely outrageous finale, prodding the audience to reevaluate and reexamine everything that’s come before—or maybe to call bullshit on the whole thing. Not everything in Come True works, but I didn’t see the last couple of close-ups coming. There’s something to be said for being taken by surprise.
Predictability has its own pleasures, of course, and the hook of Mike P. Nelson’s Wrong Turn is that you’ve seen it all before: The film is a reboot of Rob Schmidt’s 2003 backwoods slasher about a group of teenagers being hunted by mutated serial killer. In broad outline, Nelson’s movie is a replay of its predecessor—city kids become lambs to the slaughter—but if you dig into the meat and gristle of its script (written by Alan McElroy, who also created the original) Wrong Turn 2.0 is the richer and more satisfying B-movie experience—closer to a B+.
The well-educated, urban-outfitter heroes are in Appalachia to locate an abandoned Civil War fort, a plot point that swaps out its template’s general concept of the “old, weird” America for a potent, concrete symbol of American social and political division. Where a wingnut like Eli Roth delighted in (literally) skewering liberal activist kids in The Green Inferno, Nelson elicits a mixture of humor, idealism, and pathos from his millennial protagonists’ weapons-grade wokeness. He also shows a knack for gruesome, booby-trapped set pieces, including a shocker with a massive, hurtling tree trunk. Wrong Turn finds its agile equilibrium in the balance between being a film of ideas and a film with a body count.
There’s also something political at play in The Dark and the Wicked, which envisions a community on the wrong side of trickle-down economics. Even before something evil infiltrates the rural sheep farm that serves as its setting, Bryan Bertino’s film conveys a feeling of grim, twilit precarity—of a way of life that’s slowly slipping away. Returning to their family home to visit their ailing father, adult siblings Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Louise (Marin Ireland) seem wary and freighted by obligation: They don’t want to be there, and their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) doesn’t seem to really want them there either. But Mom isn’t well, and steady interlacing of generational resentment with supernatural menace—each feeding, zombie-like, off the other—gives The Dark and the Wicked a subtext that’s almost strong enough to offset its largely generic scares.
The relative roteness of the freak-outs is disappointing given that the movie has been directed by Bertino, whose 2008 home-invasion thriller The Strangers is a gold standard of cat-and-mouse minimalism (and who took a pretty good stab at a straight-ahead, no-frills creature feature with 2016’s The Monster). Because Bertino is such a skillful filmmaker—so adept with voyeuristic camera placement, and at guiding our eye through deceptively uncluttered interiors toward unnerving intruders—The Dark and the Wicked has its share of anxious and unsettling passages. But where The Strangers used clichés as a means of unveiling true horror (as in its deathless, it-is-what-it-is final lines), here it feels like Bertino is going through the motions because he can’t find another way to say what he wants to say—and also that what he’s saying about trauma as an invitation to let the Devil in has been offered up by every other “elevated” horror film released in the last half-decade.
There were more original visions on display in the genre standouts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including Jane Schoenbrun’s inventive, melancholy creepypasta riff We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which feels plugged into a pandemic zeitgeist, probing the link between loneliness and superstition—and the ways that online communities can simultaneously combat and deepen a sense of individual isolation. (It would make a stellar double bill with The Empty Man). And then there’s Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which opened theatrically in the U.S. this month before hitting VOD, and deserves to be experienced in that setting for its ear-splitting sound design, which offers the most convincing evidence in years of a wild formalist’s return to form. Sometimes, hearing is believing.