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SYFY WIRE Sundance

Sundance Roundup: The record-setting "Palm Springs" and other genre highlights of the fest

By Andy Hunsaker
Palm Springs

When you think of the Sundance Film Festival, it's usually associated with indie dramedies, coming-of-age stories, or intense or quirky documentaries, but it's also a showcase for insane horror madness and unique sci-fi. Here's the slate of genre pictures from this year -- keep an eye out for them sooner (or in some cases, later).

PALM SPRINGS: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons get caught up in a mysterious time loop and go absolutely insane with the premise in this Groundhog Day meets The Hangover style comedy that was grabbed by Hulu (streaming) and Neon (theatrical) for $17,500,000.69, which beats the previous Sundance acquisition record set by Birth of a Nation by exactly 69 cents, apparently just to make Samberg laugh. This was the hardest film of the fest to get into, but it will likely have the widest-reaching mainstream success. Variety says it's "the rare Sundance crowd-pleaser that’s truly crowd-pleasing, because it’s actually a terrific movie." [UPDATE: After this was written, Deadline reported that the actual price Hulu and Neon paid for the film is closer to $22 million, shattering the previous record of $17 million.]

NINE DAYS: One of the buzziest films in terms of actual eventual Oscar buzz for star Winston Duke, in the role of a formerly alive man whose task it is to determine which of the personified souls in his charge (including Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, and Bill Skarsgård) will have what it takes to be born into our world as a full-fledged human being. It hasn't been picked up for distribution yet -- the original concept might be a little hard to pitch -- but audiences are being moved by it. Writer/director Edson Oda was given the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for it as well, confirming THR's take on it as "a special, one-of-a-kind work that announces a significant talent."

THE NIGHT HOUSE: Rebecca Hall is an embittered widow reeling at her husband's sudden death who begins to believe that he's haunting the house they lived in together. Searchlight is picking this tense supernatural thriller up for around $12 million, and Hall's performance has and will turn some heads. Variety wasn't super charitable about it, but still called it "an above average genre exercise." 

BAD HAIR: Justin Simien, director of Dear White People, goes in a sharply different direction with a crazy story about murderous hair weaves set in 1989 Los Angeles at the height of New Jack Swing. There are definitely things in this movie you've never seen before, and The Hollywood Reporter noted it's at its best when it "goes for broke with batshit craziness." Hulu picked this freaky film up for about $8 million and will be looking to add a threatrical distributor, which shouldn't be too hard now that Disney controls Hulu.

HIS HOUSE: Director Remi Weekes blends refugee trauma with supernatural horror in this saga about Sudanese immigrants in the London area trying to settle into their new surroundings while fighting off the vengeful spirits spawning from their tragic journey. Netflix bought this film the day before the festival even started, so they have a lot of confidence in it. dubbed it "the kind of confident debut that from start-to-finish feels like beholding a major new vision in horror."

SAVE YOURSELVES!: Sunita Mani and John Reynolds star in this sci-fi comedy about a soft young Brooklyn couple who try to unplug from social media for a week and wind up completely missing that aliens have taken over the world. It's a fun, relatively light-hearted rom-com that manages to mix in murder monsters with an relationship-driven indie flick in a way that audiences like, but don't necessarily love.

HORSE GIRL: Star and co-writer Alison Brie (Community, GLOW) walks the line between an alien conspiracy and her own paranoia about it in this strange drama based on Brie's own family experiences that you can catch on Netflix on February 7. 

WENDY: Searchlight premiered this modern yet dreamlike take on J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan story from director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), set in Louisiana and focused on the adventurous, strong-willed young girl for which it is named. Hollywood Reporter said it feels "handmade, one-of-a-kind, and exceptionally fresh." This will be out in theaters on February 28, and while it's possible this will be the one that figures out how to draw audiences to Pan movies, arthouse style doesn't usually jive with kids.

POSSESSOR: Brandon Cronenberg directs this unnerving sci-fi mindfuck about a corporoate assassin who hijacks people's bodies via gruesome brain implants to commit her crimes. A perfect fit for Sundance's Midnight section and an intense chapter in the Cronenberg family legacy of body horror. 

SCARE ME: CollegeHumor vet Josh Ruben wrote, directed, and stars in this low-budget tale of two writers, Fred and Fanny (Aya Cash, You're The Worst), who trade scary stories during a power outage, and things get more dangerous when Fred realizes Fanny is a better storyteller than he is. Shudder picked this up for its streaming service. 

AMULET: Writer/Director Romola Garai (Last Days On Mars) debuts with a "creepy and icky" film featuring a nun (Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter, Maleficent) who connects a transient ex-soldier with PTSD (Alec Secareanu, God's Own Country) to a desperate woman (Carla Juri, Blade Runner 2049) in need of help to look after her dying mother, in a dilapidated old house that seems to have some kind of eerie, sinister, unnatural presence alongside the black mold. 

SPREE: Shot entirely from the perspective of webcams and cell phones, Joe Keery (Stranger Things) stars as Kurt From Kurt's World, a longtime Youtuber with nary a double-digit viewership to his name who has nonetheless come to define his life's worth by that metric, who decides to livestream his own murder spree as a ride-share driver in the attempt to finally spike his social media engagement levels. There's nothing supernatural or impossible about this - all too real, perhaps - but it's tech-centric achievements and Keery's bonafides make it worth a mention, and it may be picked up by RLJE for distribution. 

IMPETIGORE: This freaky Indonesian film, which writer/director Joko Anwar (Satan's Slaves) calls "a love letter to all the horror movies I grew up with," follows Maya (Tara Basro) as she investigates the mysterious history of her family, comes across a strange village with no children to be found anywhere, and learns of a curse she needs to break. 

LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON THE EXORCIST:  This one is for the true movie aficionado, as this is essentially just a really long Alexandre O. Philippe interview of William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, about the genesis and making of the legendary film.

RELIC: Robyn Nevin, Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom, Mary), and Bella Heathcoate (The Man In The High Castle) are "three generations of women who become haunted by a manifestation of dementia," in the words of writer/director Natalie Erika James, making a "terrifying," "remarkable debut" according to