Among my most anticipated films at the SXSW Conference was The Field Guide to Evil. The film festival section of SXSW tends to boast stellar horror in their Midnighters slate. But this title, in particular, stood out, packing together filmmakers responsible for some of the most inventive, darkly funny, and deeply twisted debuts in the past decade. Austrian writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala teamed up for the electrifying Goodnight Mommy, a psychological thriller about twin boys who suspect their mother is not what she seems. Polish helmer Agnieszka Smoczynska directed the trippy and feral horror-musical The Lure, which centers on a pair of man-eating mermaids who become a cabaret sensation. And these were just three of the talents asked to make horror shorts for this tantalizing title!
The Field Guide To Evil invited nine filmmakers to create horror vignettes; each inspired by the folklore of a different nation, most from their homelands. On top of Smoczynska, Franz and Fiala’s contributions, the film boasts shorts from America’s Calvin Lee Reeder (The Rambler), Germany’s Katrin Gebbe (Nothing Bad Can Happen), Turkey’s Can Evrenol (Baskin), India’s Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely), Greece’s Yannis Veslemes (Norway), and Hungary-based English helmer Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy). Their stories leap from long ago forests, jungles, palaces, and villages, to more modern horror in homes and vacation getaways. Terrors within include monsters, spirits, demons, and cannibals. Tones range from sentimental to surreal, gritty to campy. And while I praise the artistic ambition of this world-trekking, time-traveling omnibus of horror and folklore, the viewing experience is unwieldy and a bit underwhelming.
Some stories are fascinating and fun. Franz and Fiala’s “The Sinful Women of Hollfall” unfurls a sexy and subversive tale of forbidden attraction, where shame and religious intolerance play prelude to a vicious visitor in the dead of night. Smoczynska’s “The Kindler and The Virgin” delivers a fitting follow-up to her Lure, boasting beguiling dream logic, enthralling theatrical performances, and a grim tale of bloody ambition. Evrenol’s contemporary-set “Al Karisi, The Childbirth Djinn” plays more into modern horror conventions, with menacing figures sweeping through the frame’s background, stewing suspense, and a careless transgression incurring a ruthless recompense.
At its best, The Field Guide To Evil is delectably eerie, offering distinctive visions of horror. But even its best segments are undercut by the film’s editing, that slams hard and fast from one story’s conclusion to the next title card. This cuts off the audience’s time to absorb that final story beat or harrowing reveal, muddling climactic plot points and dulling their emotional wallop. Which is all the more frustrating when the next short is soggy.
Strickland’s “Cobbler’s Lot” offers curious visuals, with no dialogue but pantomime performances, and stylized hair/makeup that turn his characters into creepy illustrations out of a long-forgotten book of less-than-friendly fairy tales. But its story of a love triangle and brutal betrayal feels anemic in its emotions and gore, and never quite makes the impact it needs in its short runtime.
Still, the worst of the lot is America’s entry. Reeder’s “Beware the Melonheads” focuses on bulbous-headed, man-eating children. Everything about it feels B-movie, a jarring aesthetic after relishing in more artful explorations of horror. When revealed, the look of his Melonheads is strange and silly. Combined with the performance style that’s either intentionally campy or just painfully hokey, this short feels like a lost episode of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? It’s less elegantly scary, more ghoulishly goofy.
All in all, this was not the wall-to-wall fright fest for which I’d hoped. Still, horror connoisseurs won’t want to miss The Field Guide To Evil. Yes, like many an anthology, it’s uneven. The hard cutting from one story to the next absolutely murders any sense of flow, and made me pine for an onscreen storyteller to play MC (or Crypt Keeper), allowing for narrative breath and massaging transitions in tone. But despite its flaws and wonkier entries, the goods are good enough that you won’t want to miss them. Plus, it’s a worthwhile way to discover up-and-coming talents in the genre. But most enticing is the opportunity to explore how horror varies around the globe, and yet how its impact can be universal.
The Field Guide To Evil made its World Premiere at the SXSW Conference.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com