As I get older, I am finding more things about my body that make me feel genuinely decrepit and gross. Whether it’s my newfound back pain, a new mole somewhere unexpected, or simply coming to the conclusion that my acne is going nowhere, these are things I find myself ashamed of and wanting to hide away from the world. It’s a part of aging that Olay doesn’t market to insecure people through their magic anti-aging creams, and it’s something that I struggle to find talked about in major media, leading me to wonder…is this not normal? Is my body falling apart? Writer/director Anna Zlokovic’s debut feature Appendage, while not really my style when it comes to horror, did finally speak to me about normalizing and cherishing the quirks of our own bodies that might be considered abnormal by others and worthy of shame, even if we have to suffer some extreme body horror to get to that conclusion.
Hannah (Hadley Robinson) is a young, budding fashion designer living in New York, working as an apprentice to the widely respected, but maddeningly cruel fashion designer Christeàn Ulman (Desmin Borges). Living day-to-day with her best friend, Esther (Kausar Mohammed) and budding romance Kaelin (Brandon Mychal Smith), Hannah’s life, while stressful, retains a sense of comforting normalcy. This is until the day she discovers a disturbing, oozing rash on her lower stomach where her birthmark is, and as dermatologists struggle to discover its origin, it grows into a mutant appendage that gains a violent sentiency, seeking to derail any sense of normalcy her life once held. In search of answers, Hannah discovers a support group for those with her condition, and learns she is far from alone, making new friends with the magnetic and mysterious Claudia (Emily Hampshire).
I spoke above about how Appendage isn’t really my thing, that “thing” being horror-comedies with a larger emphasis on the comedy side of things, but I suspect that for those who do find solace in lighthearted horror with a gross-out side to it, Appendage will absolutely do the trick. With shades of Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy and the early work of Peter Jackson, mixed with the life-consuming curse of working within fashion à la The Neon Demon, it’s hard to not be taken by something that doesn’t take itself so seriously, while also not completely discounting the intelligence of the viewer. It’s a fine balance that is generally pulled off.
If there is something about Appendage that works genuine wonders, it’s Robinson’s performance at the center of the film, while other actors like Hampshire and Borges have 10 tons of fun with their respective characters. They fulfill caricatures in a broad-strokes story, but Robinson’s take on Hannah is both whimsical and nuanced, finding shades of Julia Garner and Jena Malone in their ability to hit both the soft and quiet, as well as the loud and bombastic sides to her character. She is a name to look out for, or at least should be.
This is the third Hulu original produced at the relaunched 20th Digital Studios (under the 20th Century Studios umbrella), showing there is a lot of potential for this label to help platform new and upcoming voices in the genresphere to move onto bigger and better things. Though, unlike something like Hellraiser (2022), or other 20th Century Studios films released on Hulu like Prey (2022) or Fire Island (2022), there’s something rather…sterile about Appendage, as if the “20th Digital Studios” branding almost dooms it to looking very flat and almost TV-like, giving it the sheen and grayness of a typical streaming venture that has invaded other streamers (*cough*Netflix*cough*) like a plague. It’s not poorly made, it’s just rather bland and generic in terms of visual style. I’m almost certain it comes down to budget, but being a subsidiary of the largest media company in the world should ideally give filmmakers access to resources to make even the lowest-budgeted films have some character to it. Then again, they can’t even make their $200 million flagship franchises look that way, so I can’t say I’m surprised at a streaming film looking any better.
There was a moment where I did believe that Appendage had pretty much lost me. Not that I was overly repulsed or put off by the film’s tone, but rather I found it going into a severe lull during its second act that I struggled with staying engaged with. Luckily, the film’s momentum picks up wonderfully in the third act, giving the story new life with a fun little twist that also gives the entire cast much more breathing room to fully embrace the film’s rather silly premise with open arms. It’s what brought me back around to crossing the threshold of enjoying what Appendage had to offer. I can’t say I’m going to remember the plot details or character quirks of Appendage long after watching it, but I do have my eye on Zlokovic’s future features as director, and I am especially keeping a very close eye on Robinson’s acting career as I was transfixed by her energy here. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than with a foul-mouth vestigial twin.
Screened during SXSW 2023.
For more information, head to the official SXSW Appendage webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.