SXSW 2023

Midnight in Austin: four world premières at SXSW 2023

Midnight in Austin: four world premières at SXSW 2023 first published by Little White Lies

Includes capsules of: Late Night With The Devil, The Wrath of Becky, Appendage, Brooklyn 45

While other festivals offer tradition, prestige and respectability, SXSW is just ‘out there’ for the cool kids in Austin, Texas. Here are four genre titles which had their world première at this year’s festival.  

Late Night With The Devil (2023)

SXSW 2023

On 31st October, 1977, in New York – a year after the wife of Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) died of cancer – the TV host is making a last-ditch effort to get his syndicated late-hours talk show Night Owls back in the ratings. 

It is a Halloween special, with a guest line-up including a psychic (Fayssal Bazzi), a stage hypnotist turned paranormal debunker (Ian Bliss), and a parapsychologist (Laura Gordon) with her strange, supposedly possessed young subject (Ingrid Torelli). As Jack finds his grief and ambition in uneasy alliance, and as pandemonium breaks out live on air, questions are raised as to whether what unfolds is illusion, reality, collective mesmerism, corporate control, or a personal breakdown viewed from the inside. 

That ambiguity is key to a film which foregrounds debates about the veridicality of what we are seeing, and which introduces enough narrative layers to confound everything (while conjuring entities that “thrive on confusion”). Formatted in a 4:3 frame to emulate standard-definition TV, purporting to be compiled from “what went to air that night as well as previously unreleased behind-the-scenes footage”, and realising on-screen devilry through Seventies-appropriate SFX, this feature from Australian writers/directors/brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes (100 Bloody Acres, Scare Campaign) is found footage reminiscent of Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch, Damien LeVeck’s The Cleansing Hour and Cristian Ponce’s History of the Occult. For here, the medium (in every sense) is the message, and viewers risk coming under its baleful influence.

The Wrath of Becky (2023)

SXSW 2023

Three years ago, then 13-year-old Becky (Lulu Wilson) – in Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s 2020 film that shared her name – took out a quartet of home-invading Neo-Nazis. Now she is back in a sequel from Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote, constantly training for a second round that she knows is coming as much as we do. Even before the real action starts, the orphaned teen fantasises about murdering anyone who causes her minor irritation, which is to say that this angry anti-heroine has long since broken bad, and keeps us on side only in the special hatred that she reserves for the far right. 

Her prayers for violence will be answered in the form of ‘The Noblemen’, white supremacists plotting to trigger an insurrection with the assassination of a female Hispanic Senator. En route to this coup, three new members (Matt Angel, Michael Sirow, Aaron Dalla Villa) make the mistake of killing Becky’s only friend and abducting her beloved dog, which sets Becky on a path of vengeance that is part John Wick, part Home Alone – except this time she is bringing the mayhem to their home turf, at the farmhouse of ex-military Noblemen leader Darryl (Seann William Scott). 

Small in cast and scale, and clearly setting up a second sequel where Becky’s rogue brand of sociopathy will become more legitimised (and inevitably more adult, in denial of the story’s original USP), this feels a bit of a filler – but Becky’s need for teen kicks delivers enough delinquent destruction of Nazis to bring bloody satisfaction.  

Appendage (2023)

SXSW 2023

New York fashion designer Hannah (Hadley Robinson) is under pressure. Stressed by her über-successful parents, hassled by her insanely demanding boss (Desmin Borges) and still carrying trauma from her troubled teens, she is already driving away her boyfriend Kaelin (Brandon Mychal Smith) and BFF Esther (Kausar Mohammed), when she births a rapidly growing and transforming creature – the ‘appendage’ of the title – which embodies all her anxieties and sets about undermining every aspect of her life. Discovering a small community of people with the same problem, Hannah starts taking tips from the more experienced Claudia (Emily Hampshire) on how best to live with her repressed – but now unleashed – dark side.  

Expanding this from her 2021 short of the same title, writer/director Anna Zlokovic at first riffs on Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, Bobby Miller’s The Cleanse and Cody Calahan’s Let Her Out,with a monstrous story of returned vanishing twins who play Hydes to their hosts’ Jekylls. Thereafter Zlokovic goes full body snatcher, in a twisty tale of a vulnerable woman’s agonising journey towards personal wholeness. So while this feature debut is certainly body horror, it is also a psychological allegory, dramatising Hannah’s therapeutic path to both emotional balance and accommodation of her worst qualities alongside the best.

Brooklyn 45 (2023)

SXSW 2023
BROOKLYN 45 – Still 11

On the evening of 27th December, 1945, three old friends – Mjr. Archibald Stanton (Jeremy Holm), Mjr. Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington) and experienced interrogator Marla Sheridan (Anne Ramsay) – along with Marla’s civilian husband Bob (Ron E. Rains) – have a reunion in a Brooklyn brownstone. They are there to console another close friend, Lt. Col. Clive Hockstatter (Larry Fessenden), whose wife Susan recently committed suicide when everyone, ‘Hock’ included, dismissed her conviction that their German neighbour (Kristina Klebe) was a spy. Desperate to make amends with Susan, Hock proposes a séance – yet all these members of America’s Greatest Generation are haunted by their own questionable conduct in the war which has just ended, but which is not, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, ever really ‘over’ for those who made it to the other side. 

“All you really need is a mirror,” says Hock of the séance. Indeed the ghosts raised at the table are reflections of these characters’ innermost consciences, as they become locked not just into the parlour room, but into their own damaged sense of righteousness and integrity. 

Meanwhile, a US flag hangs prominently on the wall to drive home that the hypocrisies, evasions, prejudices and guilt on display are national as well as personal. For in this latest feature from writer/director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here, Mohawk), these five – and an unexpected guest or two – are contending over one long dark night of the soul with deeds that can never be undone. Here, (post)war is hell, even if the future must be built on it.

Anton Bitel