Sundance Report: The Worst Horror Is When a Thriller Brings Laughs

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Ratliff at a party Saturday night. Photo: Getty Images

George Ratliff's Joshua, a thriller about a disintegrating family set amid New York icons from the Dakota to the Brooklyn Museum, came into the Sundance Film Festival as a highly anticipated entry: It's competing for the Dramatic Competition Jury Prize, and it boasts an impressive pair of leads, Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, as affluent Central Park West parents dealing with a newborn baby and their son Joshua — newcomer Jacob Kogan — a young prodigy with a sinister streak.

But instead things started seeming sinister for the film leading up to its 11:30 p.m. screening at the Park City Library Theater last night.

The icy sidewalks, for starters, left filmgoers struggling to regain their footing — which you could see as an omen a major slip-up was approaching. Sure, there were competing parties, frigid temperatures, and the late start time, but, still, there were way too many empty seats in the threadbare auditorium. And when the film started, the worst signs appeared that something was deadly wrong with Joshua. Sundancers laughed at moments meant to be scary. There was back talk and vocal disbelief at implausible scenes borrowed from The Omen, The Tenant, and the most famous of New York–based horror movies, Rosemary’s Baby. And the most stinging slap came after the credits, when the audience offered only slight clapping — festival audiences are notoriously polite and enthusiastic — and exited quickly to avoid a post-film question-and-answer session.

Ratliff has a strong reputation thanks to his acclaimed documentary, Hell House. One presumes he awoke this morning to realize a new meaning for that term: a screening room filled with people laughing at what’s meant to be a horror movie. —Steve Ramos