All killer no filler: The Overlook Film Festival premieres some of the best horror films of 2024

The four-day horror festival in New Orleans provided early screenings of this year's frights. And we caught a bunch

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published April 8, 2024 2:36PM (EDT)

Justice Smith as Owen and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Zoey Kang/A24)
Justice Smith as Owen and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maddy in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Zoey Kang/A24)

Light spoilers throughout

Usually, at a festival of any size, a handful of truly strange things are bound to happen. But at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, held in New Orleans over the past four days, I didn’t witness a single person trip and fall down an escalator. Nobody puked during one of the slasher films, and the eccentric local we refer to as “the velvet suit guy” behaved himself, for the most part. Things went off without a hitch, and I have to say, I was a little disappointed. But maybe I should factor in that the world doesn’t go away whenever I shut my eyes and conclude that the weird stuff happened while I was still at home managing my stress-related alopecia, having hot flashes, and bleeding from the neck because I scratched a mole too hard. Wait. I see why I didn’t witness anything strange at the fest. I bring it with me.

As in previous years, The Overlook Film Festival — which first ran in Mount Hood, Oregon in 2017 and moved base to New Orleans starting the following year — is dedicated to all things horror, partnering with studios and filmmakers across the world, both big and small, to provide a massive selection of features and shorts, some of which are premiered months before anyone else gets to see them. And while leaving the house is historically difficult for me in a very "Grey Gardens" way, there’s only one thing that could move me to exit my front door four nights in a row, and that’s horror.

From big budget vampires to Canadian indie killers in the woods, here's a rundown of everything I saw at the fest this year, and everything you should make a point to see when released in the upcoming days and months.

CuckooHunter Schafer as Gretchen in “Cuckoo” (Courtesy of Neon)
At the top of my short list of must-see features from this year's festival, "Cuckoo" stars Hunter Schafer ("Euphoria," "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes") in her first lead role in a feature film, playing a teen named Gretchen who, after the death of her mother, relocates from the U.S. with her estranged father and his new family, to live in a suspicious-from-the-jump resort in the Bavarian Alps. As one would guess, nothing good comes from this.
As Gretchen's father Luis (Marton Csokas) and his wife Beth (Jessica Henwick) settle in and confer with the resort's owner, Mr. König (Dan Stevens), who has employed them to redesign the interior of the property — although there is, of course, much more at work here than that — Gretchen quickly notices that König is latching on to her 8-year-old half-sister, Alma (Mila Lieu), in an obsessive way. From here, viewers catch on to the relevance of the film's title and Gretchen gets a painful — both physically and mentally — crash course on the breeding systems of cuckoos, a species of bird that König is attempting to preserve by way of a loosely-explained human/avian cross-breeding that involves shrieking noises that lead to seizures and time loops, eating fistfuls of goo, and puking all over the place. 
Notes taken on my phone in the dark theater of the screening I attended at the festival will neither spoil the delightfully creepy surprises of the film, or do much to add further context, but I'm putting them here now, because they're funny:

Gretchen is moving in with her dad after the death of her mom.


Gets offered job working at resort. Guest starts randomly barfing everywhere.


Gretchen finds comfort in listening to music and playing music.


Gretchen’s father’s youngest daughter doesn’t speak. She absorbed her twin in the womb. Heard shrieking noise in woods and has a seizure of sorts. Time seems to loop. She scratches Gretchen’s face.


Gretchen meets cool lady named Ed (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). During their first conversation another lady starts puking everywhere.


Riding bike home and woman runs very fast behind her. Owner of resort seemed to be calling the fast running woman with a little flute.


Gretchen stabs a cuckoo.


**** what ever happened to their dog?

Being that this is only director Tilman Singer's second feature and Schafer's first big film role, "Cuckoo" is a wild ride from beginning to end and chaotic in the best possible way, with only a few vague and/or dropped plot points that don't detract from the fun of the whole. In one scene, Gretchen and Alma make a big production out of letting their dog out of the back of the family car, only for that dog to never been seen or mentioned again. But, really, it's easy to excuse things like that when you're focused on human cuckoo monsters just looking to make a family for themselves and villains blowing creepy little flutes into the woods. Ask yourselves, when has a flute ever been an indicator of good things to come? Outside of the Renaissance fair.

Add to all of this that the film is beautifully shot on 35mm with a fantastic soundtrack to boot — featuring a singing credit from Schafer, who learned how to play bass for the role of an angsty music-lover — and it's safe to make the call that this will be a standout within the horror genre. You'll never look at birds the same again. 


Watch the official trailer for "Cuckoo" here, and see it when it hits theaters in the U.S. on August 9, distributed by Neon.

"In A Violent Nature"
In A Violent NatureRy Barrett as Johnny in “In A Violent Nature” (Courtesy of Pierce Derks/IFC Films & Shudder Release)
Prior to the start of the screening of "In a Violent Nature" that I attended on the second night of The Overlook Film Festival, one of the fest's organizers described it as being one of the most soothing horror films ever. Going on to say that we'll leave the theater feeling as though we'd all had deep tissue massages. Riffing off of that, director Chris Nash gave his own introduction, joking that during the Q&A afterwards he won't be able to answer questions as to how long we snoozed through it. And I'm glad he stated in advance that he wouldn't be monitoring that because I did, in fact, doze off a few times. But that's more a me thing than an "In a Violent Nature" thing. If I don't get a full sleep each night, I'm hurting. And this review is evidence that I stayed up past my bedtime two nights in a row. There's no telling what shape I'll be in for the next screening. Maybe I'll fall flat in the theater like a fainting goat.
The uniqueness of this Canadian slasher — set in the Ontario wilderness — is layered. There's the soothing element mentioned above. Which is experienced through numerous almost comically long shots of a masked killer named Johnny (Ry Barrett) trudging through the woods at a glacial pace, racking up a body count along the way. And there's the freshness of it being shot via the killer's perspective. A creative choice that I don't believe I've seen utilized, to this degree, in a horror movie prior to this one. 
At the start of the film, we first meet Johnny as he resurrects himself from the muck, deep within the woods he was buried in after being killed years ago at the hands of angry locals. This process of clawing his way out of his lonely grave takes about two minutes, but watching it feels like twenty. Not because it isn't interesting, but because we're not used to long shots with no dialogue in this current bang bang, go quick, never stop talking ADHD cinematic climate. I found it to be quite nice. Maybe not deep tissue massage nice. But better than leaving a theater feeling like someone just screamed in my face for two hours.
As funny as it is gory, timing and ambient sound run a strong rope back to front here, making it so that a running  #1 motherf**ker gag, a solid "What are you waiting for!?!?" "I Know What You Did Last Summer" reference, and the grossest, most elaborate kill-scenes I've ever seen in my life all fit seamlessly, where in other films a similar hodgepodge could fall flat amidst the chaos. This feels classic and completely new all at once. Don't sleep on it.
Watch the official trailer for "In a Violent Nature" here, and see it when it hits theaters in the U.S. on May 31, distributed by IFC Films. Or watch it streaming on Shudder sometime later this year.
AbigailAlisha Weir as Abigail in “Abigail” (Bernard Walsh/Universal Pictures)
During each Uber ride to the screenings I attended for this festival, there seemed to always come a time when I was asked to break down the plot of the movie I was about to see. Quiet rides aren't really a thing in New Orleans, as the people who live here are naturally curious about people and the many things to experience at all times of the day and night here. For "Abigail," I enthusiastically rattled off a synopsis while inching through a packed French Quarter on a Saturday night, saying it's about a group of criminals who kidnap a little girl and then come to find that they made a big big mistake when they learn that she's not actually a child. She's an ancient vampire who also happens to love ballet. He thought this was funny, but also said it sounded really cool. And he was right on both counts.
One of the bigger gets for the festival, I wasn't able to take notes on my phone for this one because it was the world premiere. We were issued a firm warning to put away our devices, and studio executives from Universal Pictures were on hand to eyeball the theater, making sure we all took that warning seriously. Turns out I didn't need to jot down reminders for myself anyway because Alisha Weir, who plays Abigail in her first big role following "Matilda the Musical," would be hard to forget.
In an interview with Collider, directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin — the filmmaking team behind "Ready or Not," 2022’s "Scream," and "Scream VI," who operate under the moniker Radio Silence — describe the casting of Weir in this project, which is so outside of anything she'd done before, saying, "She’s one of those prodigal talents that, when you get to know them as an actor - and this is so much a part of this collaborative approach — when they tell you what they’re good at, you have to listen. We showed up and Alisha was a great singer, a great dancer, and very funny, and could do literally 99% of the stunts in this movie." And although she definitely steals the show, Weir is one of several slam-dunks in terms of casting here. Putting that big studio money to use, "Abigail" is rounded-out by Dan Stevens (AKA, "creepy flute guy" from the "Cuckoo" review above), Giancarlo Esposito ("Parish," “Breaking Bad”), Melissa Barrera — who made headlines after being ousted from the "Scream" franchise following a series of social media posts in support of Palestine — and Angus Cloud ("Euphoria") in one of his last projects filmed prior to his death in 2023. During a Q&A at the festival, Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin spoke of working with the late actor, saying, "It was so fortunate to have had his breeze blow through both of our lives."
A take on "Dracula's Daughter," "Abigail" has humor, action and lots and LOTS of blood. It's hard to stand out in a red sea of vampire movies, but this one does it.
Watch the official trailer for "Abigail" here, and see it when it hits theaters in the U.S. on April 19, distributed by Universal Pictures. 

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"I Saw the TV Glow"
I Saw the TV GlowI Saw the TV Glow (Zoey Kang/A24)
As I'm writing this review, North America is collectively pumped about a total solar eclipse where, as The New York Times dramatically describes it, "the moon will materialize and eat into the yellow orb of the sun, casting a shadow over a swath of Earth below, causing a total solar eclipse and reminding all in its path of our planet’s place in the cosmos." And this is perfect because that's exactly how I felt after walking out of "I Saw the TV Glow" for my grand finale screening at The Overlook Film Festival last night: like something had cast a shadow over my personal swath, leaving me shaking on a street corner while waiting for my ride home, furiously vaping and darting my eyes around, feeling completely out of this world.
I've been following director Jane Schoenbrun since the 2021 release of their debut feature, "We're All Going to the World's Fair," and have been feeling thrilled for them and the world at large after it was announced that their second feature would be distributed by A24. A true trophy for filmmakers. Getting the chance to see it early at this festival felt like creative vitamins. Like it has quite possibly added years to my life. And I'm already curious to see who will agree, as those people will fall into the category of "my people," and everyone else . . . will not.
Leaving the screening last night, rattled to my core, I overheard a woman behind me say, "I'm on the fence about that one." And I had to physically restrain myself from whipping around and shouting, "Well then you're a fool!" Her comment, mixed in with exclamations of "What??" from certain members of the audience throughout the film, tells me that the heady, LGBTQIA+ to the max nature of this one will be a hard pill to swallow for some. Well then, choke on it. I say. This is, quite literally, one of the best movies I've ever seen in my entire life.
To hear Schoenbrun describe the premise for the film themself: "It's about two lonely teenagers who find each other through their shared love of a strange, kind of scary, kind of sweet TV show [called 'The Pink Opaque.'] They get together every week to watch it, but when their obsession kind of gets out of hand, their entire sense of reality kind of gets called into question." And, yes, that's a perfect blanket synopsis, but a whole world lives within those words that you have to see play-out on screen (preferably a big one) to understand. And even then, it's more felt than understood. Similar to watching any of David Lynch's films.
"The Pink Opaque," the fictional TV show mentioned above that characters Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) obsess over together, contains heavy nods to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," with targeted intention. Anyone well-versed in the BTVS universe who felt ten times gayer the further Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara Maclay (Amber Benson) fell in love will be be hooting and grinning to see the Double Lunch — this world's version of The Bronze, with Phoebe Bridgers and King Woman as nightly performers — and nearly jump out of their seat when Benson herself shows up in a cameo as the mom of one of Owen's friends in his real, verging on unreal, life. 
As Maddy wishes for her life to be more like "The Pink Opaque" and makes it so, Owen struggles with his gender identity and the pull between choosing his authentic self over the "easier" path of humdrum suburban life where we see him working at a children's adventure center, making his family home his own after the death of his mom (Danielle Deadwyler) and a-hole father, played by a sinister Fred Durst. In one scene, a now elderly Owen, still working at the same job he's had nearly all his life, has a breakdown while tasked with singing "Happy Birthday" to a child, along with his younger-seeming co-workers. "I"m dying right now!" Owen yells out, running to the bathroom to compose himself via cutting into his chest and letting the light of "The Pink Opaque" escape. After this, we see him walking the floor of the adventure center telling customers as they pass, "Sorry about before." And in a memorable shot towards the end of the film, "There is still time" is written in neon chalk on the road. A reminder to us all to not live and die scared of being who we are.
Watch the official trailer for "I Saw the TV Glow" here, and see it when it hits theaters in the U.S. on May 3, distributed by A24.

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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