When US indie movies flirt with horror

OCTOBER 24 — Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when names like Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Whit Stillman, Richard Linklater, Todd Solondz, Gregg Araki, Hal Hartley and Quentin Tarantino were making a splash in the world of cinema, American independent films not only had a notable presence in mainstream media, but also a wholly deserved critical cachet. 

A lot of the films from the US indie scene back then were exciting, thoughtful and even provocative.

Those days are long gone now as any sort of “edge” the US indie scene had, has gradually been dulled to the point that they are almost indistinguishable from mid-budget Hollywood Oscar bait films. 

Market demands have made it a norm for producers of US indie films to insist on at least a few recognisable “star” names just so it’ll be easier to sell the film to distributors (especially overseas ones) once they are completed.

And with “star” names often comes limitations on not only what the stars are willing to do on screen, but maybe even the subject matter of the films, making it even less likely that an indie film with a controversial or provocative subject matter will get greenlit by financiers. 

It’s the combination of this and many other factors that have made most of them such unexciting propositions in the last few years.

In the world of international festival films, there has been an increasing trend of world cinema auteurs sneaking in elements of genre films, especially horror, to spice things up. 

Films as varied as Bacurau, Atlantics, Parasite and The Whistlers, from the Official Selection line-up at Cannes last year, all saw names associated more with arthouse cinema embracing genre films to tell their personal stories.

So I guess it’s only a matter of time until we witness the same from the US indie scene as the filmmakers try to inject some life into the increasingly boring films that have been coming out of the scene. 

And true enough, as I was browsing my watch list and randomly chose to watch two films that were marketed as horror films, it dawned on me as I watched that these are actually more like US indie films spiced up with horror elements, and my oh my, how these genre elements have helped make them much more interesting and fun to watch!

The Wolf Of Snow Hollow

When I first heard of this film and the pedigree behind it, which is the fact that it was directed by and starred Jim Cummings, fresh off the 2018 SXSW Film Festival sensation Thunder Road, I was honestly didn’t know what to expect from his new film. 

Despite the accolades, I found Thunder Road to be just a mildly more amusing take on the usual Sundance trope of the white male (or female) nervous breakdown film.

Cummings tackles more or less the same subject in The Wolf Of Snow Hollow. He plays a police officer in both films, and both characters are divorced single fathers gradually going through a blackly funny nervous breakdown, and both characters have a recently deceased parent who nudges them over the edge. 

So it’s remarkable what a bit of the fantastical can do to enliven a film, as Cummings weaves in mystery killings (that people are suspecting is the work of a werewolf) into the framework, adding some extra herbs and spices in the form of horror set-pieces during the werewolf attacks, all of which organically contribute to the lead character’s increasingly fragile state of mind.

If Thunder Road shows promise, then The Wolf Of Snow Hollow decisively confirms and delivers on that promise, as Cummings has delivered both an outstanding US indie film and an expertly executed horror film as well, a highlight in both categories this year. Jim Cummings, remember that name. 

Uncle Peckerhead

Another typical US indie trope that gets a fresh makeover courtesy of genre film’s more fantastical elements is the indie/punk band on tour road movie, courtesy of writer-director Matthew John Lawrence. 

The band in question is call DUH, who’s just about to embark on their first ever tour when their van is repossessed, and in a last ditch attempt to secure a van to go out on tour with, ends up being joined by an old man, the Uncle Peckerhead of the film’s title (who turns into a man-eating demon at midnight, for 13 minutes) as their driver and roadie.

Lawrence lets the acting and scenes breathe here, aided by some really appealing performances from everyone involved, and the result is a really sweet and fun road movie that’s spiced up with some hilarious gore scenes when Uncle Peckerhead goes on his midnight rampage. 

More than anything else, this is a movie about friendship, and the bonds that are formed when you’re cooped up in a van and the same hotel with the same people throughout the duration of a tour, and it’s quite simply lovely to witness the chemistry between each and every one of the major characters.

Chet Siegel as the band leader Judy and David Littleton as Peckerhead steal the show with their effortless charm and easy-going charisma, so if you’re looking for a nice hangout movie with some laugh-out-loud gore set-pieces, you’ve come to the right place with Uncle Peckerhead.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.