Film festival programming is a real-world Choose Your Own Adventure game where individual moviegoers can have wildly varied, simultaneous experiences at the exact same venue. Overall, I had a great time at this year’s Overlook (an annual horror festival that’s quickly become the most rewarding cinematic Cultural Event on the New Orleans social calendar), but I weirdly frontloaded my personal programming choices so that the films I was most excited to see—Late Night with the Devil, The Five Devils, and Smoking Causes Coughing—were all knocked out as a rapid-fire triple feature on the very first day. For the rest of the weekend, I wandered around Overlook in a self-induced daze, wowed by my Opening Night selections and hoping something smaller & more anonymous would match those early highs as I bounced between screening rooms at the downtown Prytania. I can’t say I ever got there (at least not in the way other festivalgoers gushed about big-name titles like Renfield, Talk to Me, and Evil Dead Rise throughout the weekend), but I did find some clear thematic patterns in my personal program as the fest stretched on. For instance, my entire second day at this year’s Overlook focused on the horrors of motherhood, a self-engineered happenstance I can’t imagine was the intent of the festival’s programmers, since they could not have known which exact Choose Your Own Adventure path their audience would lock ourselves into. While nothing on Day 2 floored me the way buzzier titles had on Day 1, they collectively gave me a lot of squicky Mommy Issues to dwell on in the festival’s downtown shopping mall locale – a theme that, come to think of it, was also echoed elsewhere on the docket in Clock, The Five Devils, Give Me an A, and Evil Dead Rise.
The best of the motherhood horrors I caught that day was the prickly pregnancy story Birth/Rebirth, which will premiere on Shudder later this year. In its simplest terms, Birth/Rebirth is a morbid little Found Family story where the family glue is composed of reanimated corpses & unethically harvested fetal tissue. Let’s call it Women in FrankenSTEM. It details the unlikely team-up of a brash, uncaring pathologist who experiments on reanimating dead bodies in her inner-city apartment and a warm, compassionate nurse from the same hospital who loses her young daughter to an aggressive bacterial infection. The two women form a makeshift family when they inevitably bring the daughter back to “life” via a serum derived from prenatal tissue, harvested through a chemical process that eventually leads to desperate acts of violence to keep the experiment going. There’s plenty of morbid humor in the film’s “Honey, I’m home,” “How was work?” domestic banter as this new family routine becomes more comfortable, but its tone & central themes are relatively heavy. For all of its upsetting surgical imagery involving needles, spines, and wombs (sometimes made even grimier through found-footage camcorder grain), the film often just engages in a very thoughtful contrast/compare debate about the differences between science & medicine. That debate gets especially heated when hospital staff maintain a cold, scientific distancing from their pregnant patients instead of treating them like human beings in need of compassionate care, a threshold that even the more humane nurse crosses in pursuit of keeping her daughter “alive.” Birth/Rebirth is refreshingly honest & matter-of-fact about pregnant women’s bodily functions and the medical industry’s indifference to their wellbeing. It’s not a great film (often lacking a pronounced sense of style or narrative momentum), but it is a satisfying, provocative one.
The worst of the motherhood horrors on my docket was the Mongolian axe-murder thriller Aberrance. Aberrance may even be the worst feature I can remember seeing at any film festival, a self-programming mistake that became apparent as soon as its opening frames foreshadow its pregnant damsel in distress running from its axe-wielding killer under a veil of cheaply rendered digital snowfall. Whereas Birth/Rebirth had smart, straightforward observations to make about how misogynist the medical industry can be, Aberrance instead follows a series of for-their-own sake plot twists that muddle any possible good-faith readings of its social messaging. At the start, this vapid, cheap-o thriller pretends to be a domestic violence story about a heroic neighbor bravely standing up to the abuser next door, who keeps his pregnant wife locked away from the world in order to “protect” her from her own mental illness. Several generic plot twists & mainstream horror tropes later, the movie appears to be asserting an extensive list of incendiary falsehoods that get more infuriating as they thoughtlessly pile up: Don’t be nosy about apparent domestic abuse conflicts in other people’s homes; don’t trust the medication prescribed to treat your mental illness; and, most importantly, if a woman is mentally ill, the best fix is for her to just have a baby. While Birth/Rebirth has incisive things to say about women’s minds, bodies, and care, Aberrance doesn’t care at all about the pregnant victim at the center of its story. She’s a mostly wordless vehicle for thematically inane, irresponsible plot twists and flashy, for-its-own sake camerawork that initially appears playful & inventive but quickly becomes dull & repetitive. The only halfway interesting thing about the movie is the cultural specificity of its Mongolian setting, but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for its boneheaded qualities as a mother-in-peril story.
Lurking somewhere between the disparate quality of those two polar-opposite motherhood thrillers is the couture-culture body horror Appendage, which will premiere on Hulu sometime later this year (likely as part of their annual “Huluween” package). Appendage‘s connections to the day’s unintentional motherhood theme are initially less apparent than the first two films’, unless you consider a woman growing a sentient, talking tumor on her hip to represent an abstract form of giving birth. The story follows a young fashion designer whose professional stress over a highly competitive, demanding job manifests in a hateful, id-indulging tumor that grows on her body and gradually develops a life of its own. It’s a fairly common creature feature set-up, especially in a horror comedy context. Think Basket Case but make it fashion (or Hatching but make it fashion, or Bad Milo but make it fashion, or How to Get Ahead in Advertising but make it fashion, etc.). The scenes featuring the rubber-puppet monster make for an adorable addition to that subgenre, but they also highlight how bland Appendage can feel when the absorbed-twin tumor is nowhere to be seen. Except, I did find its connective-tissue drama interesting within the larger theme of the day, if only through happenstance. By the end of the film, it’s clear that our troubled fashionista’s self-negging workplace woes are less about job stress than they are an echo of her uptight WASP mother’s overly harsh criticisms of her every decision. As it chugs along, Appendage proves to have way more on its mind about its underlying Mommy Issues than it does about the fashion industry, which is mostly used as an arbitrary broad-comedy backdrop akin to the killer-blue-jeans novelty horror Slaxx. The promise of the premise is that we’ll watch a young woman spar against the monstrously abnormal growth on her body, but instead we often watch her do petty, verbal battle with the abnormal monster who birthed her.
Birth/Rebirth was my favorite selection from the second day of Overlook by any metric, and it only grew in my estimation as the day’s incidental horrors-of-motherhood patterns revealed themselves. Even so, there are brief moments of Appendage that make it recommendable as potential Halloween Season viewing, especially for anyone who’s delighted by throwback practical-effects monsters. The same cannot be said about Aberrance, an entirely useless work as both a pregnancy narrative and as an axe-wielding slasher cheapie. It’s admirable that Overlook programmed a low-budget no-namer from an underserved market like Mongolia but, much like me, they took a chance on a dud. It still helped guide & flesh out my Choose Your Own Adventure programming choices for the day, though, even if only to make the other motherhood horror titles that bookended it appear even greater by comparison.
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