By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 15, 2012 at 2:33PM
Few would deny that the horror genre needs a serious shake-up: while each year brings one or two gems, for the most part, what we get are strings of sequels, remakes and derivative rip-offs borrowing from the same "The Exorcist" or "Halloween" template that's dominated cinemas for decades. But could Adam Wingard be the next leading light of the genre? The director, a Full Sail University grad, has been working for some time, mostly on the fringes of the festival circuit, winning acclaim for 2007's hallucinogenic "Pop Skull." Several impressive short films followed (so much so that he got his own sidebar at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival focusing on his work), but the last couple of years have really seen him gain traction. First up was 2010's "A Horrible Way To Die," about a serial killer stalking his alcohlic ex-girlfriend, which premiered at TIFF to raves from horror fans. Then he co-directed "Autoerotic" with friend and collaborator Joe Swanberg: a portmanteau picture about four sexually confused Chicago couples that's the best thing that Swanberg's been involved with in recent years, and showed that Wingard has talents beyond the horror world. And it looks like he might be set to cross over to the mainstream before the end of the year. His latest, "You're Next," about a family reunion interrupted by a home invasion, premiered at TIFF last year to strong notices. The film might sound rote, but by all accounts, Wingard gives the genre a fresh spin with crowd-pleasing thrills, and the film was snapped up by Lionsgate, which hopes that it'll become the same kind of sleeper hit that festival pick ups "Saw," "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious" have all been in recent years. The company still haven't set a release date, but it's suspected that it'll land in time for Halloween, and the delay shouldn't ring alarm bells -- nearly two years passed between Paramount buying "Paranormal Activity" and the film becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Either way, Wingard has continued to work, contributing segments to Sundance horror hits "V/H/S" and "The ABCs of Death," which are both also set to land in the fall.
For all the films with buzz coming out of Sundance this year, none were as rapturously received as Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a magic-realist tale of a father and daughter battling for survival in a landscape of Biblical floods and mythical creatures. The film walked away from Park City with critical raves, the Dramatic Jury Prize and a distribution deal from Fox Searchlight, and has meant that film writers everywhere have had to start spelling Ben with an 'h'. Zeitlin is a Wesleyan grad whose parents are both folklorists, and that's an interest that seems to loom large in his own work, from his "Moby Dick"-esque short "Egg" to 'Beasts,' which displays an ambition virtually unheard of in low-budget cinema. After graduation, Zeitlin moved to New Orleans, where he helped to found the independent collective Court 13, whose members include Spike Jonze protege Ray Tintori ("Death To The Tinman"). With them, he made the half-hour short "Glory At Sea," a precursor to "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with similar fantasy-elements and a tone haunted by the effects of Hurricane Katrina on his adopted city, and when it premiered at SXSW in 2008, it won the Wholphin Award (which was pretty much invented entirely to honor the film's ambition). Soon after, Zeitlin started working on his feature debut, and after an epic, almost Herzogian production, it bowed in Park City this January, and went on to follow the footsteps of festival grads "Precious" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" in being selected for the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes -- it'll show at the festival on Friday. Where Zeitlin goes from here is unclear. He seems far too idiosyncratic to sell out to the studio system, but his talent is so immense that companies like Fox Searchlight will surely be lining up to finance whatever he decides to do next. Back around the time of "Glory At Sea," he mentioned another potential feature project, called "Santa Maria," which "takes place in 90 minutes of real time aboard a boat led by a maniac who has acquired all the ingredients for a new civilization but has gotten stranded in the middle of the Arctic ocean." Could that be the next step? Either way, we'll be watching.