By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
2022 was one of the strongest years for horror cinema in recent years, and the likes of M3GAN, Scream VI, Infinity Pool, Knock at the Cabin, and Sick have already continued the trend of terrific terror in 2023. Now, 2023 SXSW Film Festival sees the premiere of Appendage, a disturbing and darkly comic body horror film from 20th Digital Studio based on a short film of the same name. Appendage follows a young woman named Hannah, played by Hadley Robinson (Little Women, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), a fashion designer in New York City who begins to grow a ferocious appendage on her body with a mind of its own.
Think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers mixed with some Malignant and maybe a dose of The Neon Demon and you’ve got Appendage. Disgusting to the point of hilarious at times, Appendage isn’t afraid to lean into its horror influences, but comes across in a manner that is both polished and refined. This marks the feature directorial debut of Anna Zlokovic, who also wrote the film and created the short that Appendage is based on. Zlokovic achieves a tone akin to James Wan’s Malignant, one that can be described as both simultaneously outrageous and horrifying. It’s mere minutes into Zlokovic’s film that our lead character Hannah begins to have pain from a birthmark on the side of her body and the audience is prepared for the inevitable: something ferocious is growing inside her body. When the titular Appendage emerges, Zlokovic captures an Evil Dead-sense of horror and humor. Bolstered by impressive creature effects by Amber Mari, the Appendage is vile, sprouting horribly hurtful things to Hannah with an ominous voice and glassy blue eyes. One second, you’ll be laughing at the creature and the next thing you’ll be cringing at some spine-tingling look at its deformed, mangled face.
Appendage aligns with recent horror from the likes of Jordan Peele and Jason Blum in being a well-crafted horror film that gets all the scarier when thinking about its deeper subtext. When introduced to Hannah, the young fashion designer is overwhelmed by stress and intrusive thoughts. Her mother exhibits passive aggression toward her. Her boss is openly condescending and antagonistic. And she is crippled with self-doubt about her ability as a designer. It’s during these moments of stress early in the film that Hannah’s birthmark begins to ache and eventually bleed. With more and more stress, Hannah’s body can’t take anymore and the Appendage emerges – a tangible manifestation of all of Hannah’s negative automatic thoughts and worst fears. The more Hannah tends to what the Appendage has to say, the stronger it becomes and the greater hold it has on her. As a metaphor for the effects of intrusive or obsessive thoughts, or even the pull of addiction, or the strong relationship between physical and mental health, Appendage works exceptionally well. The subtext isn’t unnecessarily abstract or obscured, but, rather, presented in an approachable and extremely relatable manner. In this sense, Zlokovic captures a horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares or traditional thrills. Instead, it’s a film that terrifies both with its imagery and with its disturbing relatability.
Much of this relatability can be attributed to the lead performance of Hadley Robinson as the troubled and tormented Hannah. She conveys a vulnerability key to the film’s horror, but is also deeply empathic. Similarly likable are Kausar Mohammed and Brandon Mychal Smith, who play Hannah’s best friend and boyfriend respectively. Mohammed adds much needed levity to the film as the dedicated and witty friend, while Smith plays the partner concerned for Hannah’s rapidly changing behavior. Perhaps most prominent in the supporting cast is Emily Hampshire (Schitt’s Creek). Hampshire plays a woman named Claudia, who meets Hannah as a member of a support group for people suffering with similar appendages. Hampshire is fantastic in a role quite different from her comedic performance as Stevie in Schitt’s Creek to say the least.
As Appendage moves forward, the story takes a number of twists and turns and even includes some unexpected world-building. Some twists and revelations work better than others, and it’s possible the film overcomplicates itself with some unnecessary explanations, but it manages to captivate from beginning to the end of its brisk 90-minute runtime.
Appendage marks an impressive feature directorial debut from writer/director Anna Zlokovic. Heavily leaning into influences from Malignant and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Zlokovic’s film cleverly balances a tricky tone that makes for a film that is so outrageous and disgusting that it’s darkly funny. The horror of the titular creature, brought to life with extraordinary practical effects, is amplified by the disturbing relevance of the film’s themes related to intrusive thoughts and self-doubt. Appendage will stream this October on Hulu as part of this year’s Huluween Celebration and, as such, is a more than worthy addition to horror enthusiasts’ spooky season collection.
Appendage premieres March 11 at 2023 SXSW Film Festival and will stream on Hulu this October.