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Appendage: SXSW Film Review

Appendage unevenly tows the line between intentional horror camp and failed attempts at sincerity, but either end is memorable, for better or for worse.

It’s been two days since the premiere of Appendage … and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what in the world I saw. All I know is that I’m definitely not going to forget this movie, which I’ll take any day over something that just bored me. But what makes it so memorable isn’t just the weirdness of the whole experience. It’s also my confusion at exactly what emotions that weirdness is trying to get out of the viewer. It’s how much the film jumps across the spectrum between intentional horror camp and failed attempts at legitimate drama. All I know is that if you hear the premise and are expecting something truly scary and disturbing … well, that’s not what this is. But I’m pretty sure it’s not trying to be that.

Hannah (Hadley Robinson) is a young fashion designer who struggles with anxiety and self-hatred. Soon, those feelings begin to physically manifest in strange sprouts and nausea, which quickly grow into a ferocious, sentient life form. This appendage gets stronger as she gets weaker, building upon and feeding off her anxieties. Fortunately for her, she comes across a support group for people who suffer what’s obviously a normal problem … at least, they talk like it is. One member of this group, played by Emily Hampshire, befriends her, but their appendages have crafty ways of getting under their skins … that is, figuratively, not literally like how they started out.

The idea of a sentient tumor may remind some people of 2021’s Malignant, as it reminded me. That film’s major issue is how much of it is a generic blend of serious and goofy that only fully embraces its campiness towards the end. Little did I know that Appendage would follow that same pattern, but in some ways to an even greater extreme. I’ll be totally honest: by the halfway point, I was getting ready to call this one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The acting, music, and cinematic framing all made me think the film was trying to be taken 100% seriously, even with its obviously ridiculous choices.

The best example is the appendage itself. This thing takes very little time to actually show up, and when it does, it looks great. An actual puppet was built (believe me, nowadays that’s a rarity), and it looks pretty grotesque. Even the makeup and CGI when it transforms look all-around solid. But picture the most comically exaggerated “dark” and “menacing” voice it could possibly have, and you’d get a good idea of what it sounds like. That at least matches its beyond corny dialogue as it shallowly berates Hannah. The lips don’t even match the dubbing half the time! It’s laughably not scary … though again, it may not have ever been trying to be. We’ll get to that.

loud and clear reviews Appendage 2023 film sxsw movie
Hannah, portrayed by Hadley Robinson, in the film APPENDAGE directed by Anna Zlokovic. (Powell Robinson, Courtesy of SXSW 2023)

The line between intentional humor and cringy attempts to be taken seriously is pretty much nonexistent. Everyone talks like a bad parody of the legitimate horror film they’re supposed to be from, whether it be the wacky best friend, Hannah’s overbearingly pompous fashion supervisor, or the appendage itself. Hannah’s mental anguish doesn’t come from realistic circumstances that quietly build in her mind. They come from people being so outlandishly mean-spirited that it comes across as artificial ways to make her feel worse. The decision-making is just as bad, with Hannah having a giant bleeding tumor sticking out of her and deciding not to go to a hospital until well after the appendage has burst out of her. She also doesn’t show the appendage to anyone, even after she’s fully incapacitated and tied it up in an abandoned room.

All of these sound like the symptoms of your typical bad horror film, cranked up to eleven. But then, Appendage takes a turn. A big reveal takes place that I genuinely didn’t see coming and, more importantly, causes a few (not all) of the nonsensical choices on characters’ parts to actually make a lot more sense. This is also when Appendage goes from seemingly unintentionally funny to very much intentional camp. As in, you would have to be willfully ignorant to think it’s supposed to be taken seriously, unlike the first half where it’s so much harder to tell even now.

Once this turn takes place, Emily Hampshire, who becomes crucial to the film, really gets the chance to ham things up. She and Hadley Robinson are suddenly allowed to have a lot more visible fun on the screen, taking full advantage of the much more unambiguously hilarious dialogue they’re given. The remainder of the film, right up to the resolution and final image, are so silly that everyone involved must have known what they were doing. It’s the kind of goofiness that you could only get in a deliberately campy B-movie. Which, I came to realize, is what Appendage is trying to be … I think.

Here’s the persistent problem with Appendage: getting to that point. The lens of it being blatant camp definitely puts a lot of my earlier problems in a better context. But the fact that it took me so long to realize that speaks to how unevenly Appendage juggles its tones. I can see the conventionally serious framing of the first half being part of the joke, intentionally contrasting how dumb what we’re seeing is. But within that, there still needs to be something of substance and quality to make the film feel more assured of itself.

A recent campy thriller that pulls this off is M3GAN. While that movie is definitely goofy, it still has a good story and themes about parental negligence and technology raising children. It’s also just better written with sharper dialogue. There’s almost zero nuance in Appendage’s exploration of mental health and self-deprecating anxiety. It’s as painfully simplistic a depiction as you can get, which makes it impossible to connect with on an emotional level. The earlier dialogue of Appendage, and even some of the later, intentionally silly dialogue, is often devoid of any wit or cleverness, sometimes feeling barely worthy of a first draft. Someone literally calls someone else a “f**king f**k,” I kid you not. Some may see that as intentionally weak and therefore funny, but I see it as just weak … but still funny.

But then some other bits of the film are well-written … ugh, it’s weird. Like I said, the reveal in the middle really rectifies a number of bad choices and even leads to a creative link between appendages and their hosts. I also really like how the ending insinuates that we can never truly get rid of our own doubts and anxieties. We can only learn how to control them. I meant what I said at the start of this: I’m still trying to wrap my head around Appendage. I can’t believe I went from thinking it was totally irredeemable to now debating whether or not I want my review to lean positive or negative. I’ve talked about how you can never be sure of a film’s quality until you see it all the way through, and Appendage really drives that point home.

All I can say for sure is that, good or bad, I’m at least glad I saw it. This isn’t some bland cookie cutter experience. It’s weird, unhinged, and memorable. Sometimes for the reasons it clearly strives for, sometimes for completely ironically reasons, and sometimes for reasons that fall into a murky gray area. Believe it or not, I think horror fans should at least try it out. They may love it, hate it, or fall in between, but they’ll have something to talk about no matter what.

Appendage premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 11-16, 2023. Read our SXSW reviews!

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