The Screen Scene: Sundance Film Festival 2021, Part 4

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

It’s a time-honored festival tradition to screen the scary, darker films in the wee hours of the morning, and the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival honored that custom, making a selection of horror films and creepy thrillers available at the end of each festival day.  No coverage of a film festival is complete without a look at these Midnight films. 

Eight for Silver deserves to be considered one of the best horror films of the year.  Seamus Laurent (played by British actor Alastair Petrie) owns a large estate in the rural countryside of 19th-century France.  The local villagers and farmers are all tied to Seamus’ for their financial security.  When a band of gypsies arrives and asserts a claim to their ancestral lands, Seamus and the town leaders agree that it would be in their best interests to dispense with the gypsies altogether.  They hire a group of mercenaries and a massacre soon follows.

During the slaughter, one of the older gypsies buries a set of silver teeth on Seamus’ land and invokes a curse on Seamus and his family.  Not long after dispatching with the gypsies, villagers begin dying, the apparent victims of a wild animal.  When Seamus’ son disappears, we are left to wonder if it’s a kidnapping or if he’s the latest victim of the animal on the loose?   A pathologist (played by Boyd Holbrook) arrives in town, examines the remains and develops an unusual theory of his own.

Eight for Silver drips with atmosphere.  The production design, costumes and dialogue all evoke another time and place without becoming stilted or stagy.  The combination of the period setting, gypsy curses and werewolf mythology create an immersive horror experience.  Mood and tone are things you just can’t fake, and Eight for Silver excels in creating dread.

It’s also a luxury to have such quality performances in what is essentially an elaborate monster movie.  Boyd Holbrook plays the pathologist, John McBride, with a perfect combination of flair and gravitas.  Alastair Petrie is the man you love to hate as the patriarch who believes in none of the gypsy nonsense.  Kelly Reilly plays Isabelle Laurent, wife of Seamus and mother of the missing boy, like the heroine of a gothic novel by one of the Bronte sisters.  The trio of performances never become silly or campy and serve to ground the more fantastical elements of the story.

In a world filled with “cinematic universes,” franchises, sequels, prequels and reboots, writer-director Sean Ellis has created an original horror film, and that’s no small accomplishment.  I, for one, would love to see the continuing adventures of pathologist John McBride.  Until I know if that’s in the film production cards, I’ll satisfy my craving for historical horror by picking up Eight for Silver when it hits home video.

Coming Home in the Dark is horror of a much more realistic vintage.  Although it takes place in the wide-open landscapes of New Zealand, it has the feel of a home invasion thriller like The Strangers (2008).  It manages to feel claustrophobic even though it’s set during a family camping trip that goes horribly awry.

Hoaggie, his wife and two kids are taking some time away and heading out into the wilderness for a long hike.  They’ve barely gotten underway when they cross paths with Mandrake and Tubs, a couple of rough-looking customers who seem intent on menacing the innocent family. 

As the film slowly unfolds, the audience will begin to question this premise.  Is this actually a random act of violence?  Is this really an innocent family?  Or is there something more to all of this than immediately meets the eye?

Coming Home in the Dark is a stellar thriller.  Writer-director James Ashcroft is unafraid to push the boundaries of this gritty crime film.  On several occasions, I asked myself, “Is he going to go there?”  And, yes, he does, without flinching.  Ashcroft’s willingness to be bold gives Coming Home in the Dark an unpredictability that’s lacking in so many modern thrillers.  Anything goes, and that sensibility ratchets up the tension.

As the primary “heavy”, Daniel Gillies drives the film with his pitch-perfect performance as Mandrake, a kidnapper with a grudge.  He’s menacing and terrifying, but Gillies also manages to make Mandrake relatable.  Too many villainous performances involve chewing the scenery, swearing, sweating and generally acting like a lunatic.  Instead, Gillies plays Mandrake as sensible and rational, right until the moment he’s not.

Some horror films are fun, a rollercoaster ride of cathartic screams and scares.  Other horror films are intense examinations of the evil that lives inside some of us and what happens when we encounter that evil in the wild.  Coming Home in the Dark is a stunning example of that intense school of horror.  It’s impressive filmmaking, but prepare yourself, it’ll leave its mark on you. The release schedules for Eight for Silver and Coming Home in the Dark are not yet known.  Stay tuned to The Screen Scene at WRBL.com for updates.   

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