The Austin Chronicle

SXSW Film Review: Monolith

By Richard Whittaker, March 24, 2023, 1:03pm, SXSW

It's easy to scare audiences with blood or shocks. But Australian horror Monolith seduces the audience to walk what seems to be the harder path of unsettling unease - a path that soon becomes a slippery slope into heartstopping fear.

As if to show the truth of that, Lily Sullivan pulled double duty this year at SXSW as Beth in Evil Dead Rise and the unnamed interviewer here in psychological cosmic horror Monolith, a far less splattery but much more understated and eerie kind of terror.

The interviewer has hit rock bottom, a journalist thrown under the bus by her (now former) bosses for a story by which she still stands. Now she's reduced to working for Beyond Believable, an Unexplained Mysteries-style podcast, scouring Reddits and wading through emails for whacky stories of people claiming pop-pop was abducted by aliens.

Desperately, she settles on one seemingly innocuous story: a brick. A black brick that suddenly appeared in the house, decades earlier. It's not much of a story, but then this isn't the kind of outlet that's bothered about what the story is, as long as there is a story. But as the investigator puts the pieces together - brick by literal brick - a terrifying design is revealed.

Look under "J" in the grand book of horror tropes and you'll find a long entry for "Journalists whose obsession with a mystery leads to terror" (Sinister, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and the ne plus ultra, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, just to graze the glossary). That's because they answer the core question of any horror wrapped in a mystery: why would anyone so willingly throw themselves down an increasingly labyrinthine rabbit hole? Here, it's because that's what journalists do, and that the investigator has a desperate need for professional and ethical redemption.

The script by Lucy Campbell works on a simple conceit, that the investigator (played with pained introspection by Sullivan) is locked away in an isolated environment - her parent's empty house. Her only means of communication are electronic and verbal, recordings of phone calls with people who have encountered the brick, or bricks just like it around the world.

That personal disconnect, that lack of in-person contact, is occasionally disturbed by a fascinating choice by director Matt Vesely to strip away the crackle and static of the phone, and instead bring the dialog to in-room conversational levels. That textural change is in opposition to cinematographer Michael Tessari's greyscale look, oppressive and bleak: but combined, along with the constant sense of something inexplicable beyond the walls, slowly seeping in, the effect is truly unnerving.


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