Without question, the #1 annual film event on the New Orleans culture calendar is the Overlook Film Fest, or at least it has been since the once nomadic festival settled here in 2018. Screening all of the year’s best horror titles on the top floor of the Canal Place shopping mall over a single weekend, it’s an annual vacation to genre nerd heaven. Even while I’m getting stoked for the can’t-miss programming coming to Overlook at the end of this month (The Five Devils! The new Quentin Dupieux! A 30th Anniversary screening of Joe Dante’s Matinee!), I’m still catching up with titles I missed at last year’s fest – most recently the cheeky, supernatural stalker thriller Jethica. To be honest, the microbudget horror comedy hadn’t jumped out at me as essential festival viewing at first glance, since its competition included Best of 2022 titles as formidable as Mad God, Deadstream, and Flux Gourmet. But then I overheard and eventually chatted up Jethica star Will Madden as he was personally promoting the film in the screening room for the festival opener Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. I recognized Madden from the teens-in-peril gun violence drama Beast Beast, an intense little indie that I wish more people had seen, in which he plays a lonely teen boy with a firearm fetish who gets radicalized by the wrong kind of attention online. All of that weekend’s screenings of Jethica clashed with other movies I already had tickets for, but nearly a year later it eventually found its way to streaming on Screambox & Hoopla, and I got to see Madden perform again, this time in a slightly goofier register (without forfeiting any of his Beast Beast intensity). So, even when I’m not looking forward to Overlook or enjoying myself at Overlook, I’m looking back to the other movies I wish I had made time for last Overlook. Their programming is that trustworthy and that rewarding; it’s the very best in the city.
I was delighted to see even more overlap with the team behind Beast Beast in Jethica‘s credits, including that film’s director (Danny Madden, Will’s brother) handling the sound design and its MVP editor (Pete Ohs) taking auteurist control as writer, director, editor, producer, and cinematographer. Ohs’s style is much more relaxed & upbeat here, trading in the frantic intensity of Beast Beast for an oddly warm, friendly tone, even in the face of Madden’s agitated stalker mania. I don’t want to give away too much about the film’s central conceit, which is a fun novelty to discover in the moment, but Madden essentially plays the modern incel equivalent of Beetlejuice: a lonely young misogynist whose unhealthy fixation on a college classmate transforms him into a kind of supernatural ghoul. He’s a very chatty ghoul, rattling off nonstop rants about the titular target of his desire (Ashley Denise Robinson), whose name he incessantly mispronounces due to a childish lisp. Jessica teams up with an old friend (Callie Hernandez) to shake her It Follows/Lucky-level stalker for good, only to discover that the friend also has a lonely hanger-on of her own. It’s essentially a dirt-cheap horror comedy about the bottomless, dangerous loneliness of emotionally stunted straight men. It’s also literally dirt cheap, in that it was filmed in a vast wasteland of actual New Mexican dirt, so it feels like the central four players—the women and their respective stalkers—are the only souls walking the planet Earth, eternally struggling to break free of their social rut & rot until the stalkers find healthier ways to ease their loneliness. And it’s all filtered through a post-sex chat in the backseat love nest of a Los Angeles parking lot, which combined with its 70min runtime makes it feel more like an amusing anecdote than a harrowing male-gaze nightmare.
Jethica is not quite the microbudget marvel of American desert madness that you’ll find in The Outwaters, but it sometimes gets pretty close while maintaining a prankster’s smirk. Ohs amplifies Jethica‘s supernatural menace with the same howling desert winds and flashlit nighttime exteriors as Robbie Banfitch’s found-footage breakout, even though his own film is ultimately more of a joke. Every element of horror is treated both with genuine tension and with wry comedic sarcasm. When a quick montage cuts away from the relaxed quiet of the American desert to flash sinister glimpses of Madden’s stalker gear, the edits linger on his New Balance sneakers to emphasize his bland white-boy personality in self-amusement. When his single-minded stalker mission transforms him into something more glaringly monstrous, the effect is achieved with low-effort laptop CG effects and a Party City makeup kit, outright shrugging off the pressure to look scary on a shoestring budget. The real key to that balance is Will Madden’s manic performance as the stalker. He alternates between scary, pathetic, and weirdly sweet in rapid succession with very little interaction from his costars to help keep his energy up. Jethica is the exact kind of low-budget, high reward genre novelty I’m always searching for at film festivals, and I’m grateful that Overlook’s programmers put it on my radar – even if it took me a full year to catch up with it. I look forward to bouncing around Canal Place’s few, compact screening rooms in a vain attempt to see every one of this year’s offerings in a single weekend, then spending the rest of 2023 hunting down the many excellent movies I missed.