Reflections on the Sundance Film Festival: Midnight!

There’s me in front of one of the many displays plastered with Sundance film posters.


No Sundance experience would be complete without seeing a few midnight movies. The crowds is rowdier, the films are not in competition, and everyone is either hyped up on coffee or drunk. Our group saw the gonzo horror film “S/V.H.S.”, a series of very fun (if gimmicky) found-footage shorts. There is a thin wrap-around narrative that connects everything together, but each film is shot from a primarily first-person perspective. The first section follows a man with a robotic eye (conveniently housing a camera) who begins to see dead people. It’s filled with effective jump scares. The second short follows a biker with a GoPro camera on his head who is bitten by a zombie. Hilariously, we then follow the new zombies slow, deadly walk as he looks for human flesh. The third short follows a film crew that snags an exclusive interview with the leader of a strange and mysterious Indonesian cult. When the crew finds out what’s really going on, things get very, very, very gory. Multiple people walked out of the theater during this short (including one from our group), and it’s easy to see why. It’s stomach-churning but also pretty funny and quite scary. It’s also the only short that uses multiple camera perspectives. The final short follows a group of rowdy teenagers as they are slowly abducted by menacing aliens. The chaos is shot from a camera on top of a dog’s head (what will they think of next?). The sound design here is particularly incredible, making the aliens seem much more menacing than they might look otherwise.

Another excellent midnight horror film is “In Fear,” a clever take on the “road horror” sub-genre. A new couple is looking for a rural hotel, when they soon realize they’re driving through a sadistic horror maze. The setting is effective; as we see what the passengers are seeing, we can always imagine what’s around the next turn of the curving road. And our imagination gets the better of us.

Things get even more interesting once their tormentor, Max, convincing them he’s another victim, finds his way into the car with them. I thought the psychology in this film was fascinating. How does a couple that has only been together two weeks act when their lives are suddenly in danger? Do they really love each other? They don’t even know yet, but this experience brings out the worst in both of them. It’s a primal story of humanity vs. survival. In the end, we’re not sure if the protagonists end up with either. I found that ambiguity fascinating.

My favorite midnight movie was the Roger Corman-produced (never thought you’d hear that name at Sundance, huh?) “Virtually Heroes.” Corman came to the director and asked him to splice together 11 1980’s Vietnam action films into a narrative. The director thought of a twist: what if the action stars were in a videogame, being controlled by some loser teenager? That’s the concept, and it works wonderfully. The film is gloriously low-budget, but the writing is spot-on. I’d say it has as much or more nerd cred than “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The writing is great; the jokes are aimed at the gaming crowd, but I think the laughs are more accessible than those in “Scott Pilgrim.” There’s even a Konami code joke. There’s not much depth here, but it’s just flat-out fun, the way a midnight movie should be. Oh, and Mark Hamill plays a monk. Now tell me you don’t want to see that. I dare you.

Oh, and we had the pleasure to see this short film in front of “Virtually Heroes.”