EJ Moreno looks at Sundance and its long history with horror…
In many ways, Sundance Film Festival is a horror movie territory. The iconic Utah-based film festival has been home to countless memorable horror debuts for decades. From modern classics to classic defining moments, we’ve seen the best of the best come through this festival.
Now, as we prepare for another year of festival delights, let’s look back at the horror history of Sundance. We’ll look at ten movies that debuted at the film festival and explore their legacy and what made them so good.
Let’s look at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival to establish the relationship between Sundance and horror. We see the “Park City at Midnight” era in full effect, allowing more obscure and strange films to showcase during the usually awards-friendly film festival. The Midnight section is where movies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive / Braindead had a moment to shine in their debut.
Peter Jackson is obviously better known for his work with Lord of the Rings, but his gross-out horror moments live on in genre fans’ minds for decades. In Dead Alive, the filmmaker throws good taste to the wind and makes one of the most outrageous pieces of horror cinema ever. Ass-kicking priests, evil babies, and a lawnmower scene with gallons of gore; all come together for a memorable film that shook its viewers at Park City.
2014 is one of those quiet banger years for horror. Plenty of indie favorites would go on to make a lasting impression. You can’t mention films with an impact like that without mentioning The Babadook. The film made its global premiere at the 2014 edition and quickly found its way to horror iconic status.
At the time, the film was off to a memorable start. The festival reviews were positive, and the film was quickly picked up by IFC Midnight following its Sundance premiere. The buzz kept on to its debut, and soon, The Babadook found a way to become a horror icon and a meme machine. It was odd to see, but looking back at the festival debut, everyone should’ve seen The Babadook dominance coming.
The Night House
The latest film on this list, The Night House, is a modern classic. So much of this film plays like classic horror, giving you a bit of Polanski but still feeling wholly original. This film is precisely the type you’d hope to find at a film festival, and it served as a modern reminder that Sundance is still the home for horror.
Sadly, the pandemic messed up the film’s release as it had its festival debut in January 2020 but wouldn’t see a release until August of the following year. Hell, even the streaming debut wouldn’t happen until Spring 2022. The Night House could’ve slayed 2020 as its defining genre entry, but it still made a splash upon release. The Critics’ Choice Super Awards nominated it for Best Horror Film and Best Actress for Rebecca Hall’s memorable turn.
To think Robert Eggers only entered the lives of horror fans in just 2015. The filmmaker took the festival by storm that year, declaring 2015 Sundance the year of The Witch. The folk period horror turned out to be the most memorable film of that year’s event and would go on to be a paradigm shift of sorts.
As we have seen what this film has done for A24 and the careers of director Eggers and lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, it’s wild to think of its bold beginnings. The film won Robert Eggers a director’s award at Sundance and launched Joy to a career where she just earned yet another Golden Globe nomination. The Witch is a force in the horror world and precisely the bold debuts that make Sundance that early go-to.
The Blair Witch Project
It was 1999, just another midnight in Park City, when the world of horror saw a seismic shift. The Blair Witch Project was unleashed upon the world with its Sundance Festival debut, and it soon became the industry standard for years to come. Boundaries were pushed, styles were formats; Blair Witch was the moment.
This small indie movie made for less than $700,000 was bought for a million dollars because of its strong festival showing. Along with its innovative marketing campaign, we saw the birth of what so many artists are still doing today to make bold hits. But not many movies featured on this list honestly had the impact and genre implications we saw birthed at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
“The word on the web is that American Psycho is going to be this year’s Fight Club.” That’s what The Guardian wrote in 2000 about American Psycho, the Mary Harron masterpiece based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. If they only knew how right they were, American Psycho created a legacy.
The 2000 horror film perfectly adapted the source material, but we saw true masterful direction breathe new life into the work. It’s gruesome, receiving an NC-17 upon its original cut, and declared itself one of the most notable films at the year’s jam-packed festival. American Psycho also gave us adult Christian Bale, in a role that would define his career and make him one of the most important actors of the 2000s.
A modern genre master was born at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Following one of the most notorious short films, Ari Aster brought Hereditary to the world, making every genre fan extremely happy that day. The fact the film left the event without a single award is mind-blowing.
As we await Aster’s upcoming project, this season is the perfect time to reflect on the horror debut that shocked us all. A fresh new director offering up a genre classic with serious talent involved, it’s a perfect storm. The chilling and, at times, darkly funny film feels like the type of project tailored made for Sundance. It helps elevate Hereditary as one of the essential Sundance films in modern times.
If you’d look at the genre in 2004, no one could’ve seen the rise of films like Saw. Debuting early in ’04 as part of the Midnight movie selection, the torture-filled slasher would later become all the rage following this event. We also saw the rare “purchase before Sundance” hit here.
What also stands out about the film is how it launched the careers of two industry titans. 2004 Sundance saw the rise of Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, The Invisible Man) and the horror master James Wan. We all know how stacked Wan’s resume would become soon after this film, and it almost feels wild to see how the film launched as a humble little midnight horror film. So many filmmakers would later try to recapture what Wan brought here.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
An underrepresented genre on this list is the lovable horror comedy. Sundance can bring the thrills and the chills, but it can also get some bloody good laughs. One of the best examples is the rewatchable and hilarious Tucker & Dale vs. Evil from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
There’s been plenty of hard-hitting films from this festival, but it says something when two laugh-out-loud splatter-fest made the list. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil had stiff competition at this year’s event, with 2010 being one of the current standout years. What helps this one stand out, in particular, is the lasting impression it makes on viewers. You see this once, instantly know the quotes, and the gory goodness stays with you.
Get Out is one of the most successful horror films in recent years, let alone from the Sundance Film Festival. It’s safe to say that Jordan Peele’s debut shook the table and let viewers know that the filmmaker was not playing around when entering the horror genre.
The Academy Award-winning movie felt like nothing at the time, and as countless filmmakers attempt its twists & turns, we see there’s still nothing quite like Get Out. To this day, I don’t know if a single horror film has made the splash at Sundance that this did. Hell, most movies wish they could have the cultural impact that this movie made. Peele made something unique and proved once again that horror belongs at Sundance.
Sundance 2023 runs from January 19th to 29th. Be sure to follow Flickering Myth for exclusive coverage and horror reviews from this year’s event.