One woman’s inner turmoil becomes a shit-talking outer tumor that grows and grows in writer/director Anna Zlokovic’s cringey little blast of fun, Appendage. The short film of the same name, which played 2022’s Sundance and became part of Hulu’s Bite Size Halloween, was a lean, focused piece that perfectly executed its obvious depiction of externalized self-doubt. The expansion of this fascinating story into a full-length feature is pulled off flawlessly. What if the Audrey II of Little Shop of Horrors could possess its host appearance in addition to feeding on humans? With a strange mythology, darkly comedic moments that shine through, and great performances from Hadley Robinson and Emily Hampshire, Appendage may be hands-down my favorite horror of 2023’s SXSW Film Festival.
Hannah (Robinson) is a budding young fashion designer desperate to be one of the chosen few hand-picked by Kristean Ulsan for his spring collection. Her charming best friend, Esther (Kausar Mohammed), works tirelessly by Hannah’s side, hoping to also people-please enough for her garments to be selected. Kristean himself acts rude, abrasive, and judgmental towards everyone, as designers are stereotypically wont to do. With any free time, Hannah’s hunky boyfriend, Kaelin (Brandon Mychal Smith), also competes for her attention. In early scenes, the audience is made privy to some strange happenings, including grumblings in Hannah’s stomach as she violently picks at her nails, and she falls victim to her tics of nervousness. Is something literally moving around inside of her, or is just a figment of Hannah’s imagination?
When it begins, Appendage sticks relatively close to the way the action played out in the short film. A nasty growth on Hannah’s body has a little face that talks, though what it says is certainly not nice. Evoking vibes of Basket Case or Brain Damage, Appendage lays on the weird by way of its metaphorical subtext and practical effects work. The Appendage itself is gnarly-looking, screaming that Hannah is an “unoriginal piece of shit.” Yet, The Appendage causes Hannah to create clothing that Kristean actually seems fond of. He calls her new clothes “twisted, sexy, eccentric,” but Hannah is tapping into an unnerving inner energy. The creature seems to prey on Hannah’s insecurities, growing stronger as she grows weaker.
Where Anna Zlokovic evolves past the framework of the short story is in several major ways. The creature grows and feeds similarly to the weird egg-bird-being in last year’s Finnish delight, Hatching. Without spoiling anything, there is another layer to the nastiness that involves an extended tongue. Hannah’s rabid search for answers leads her to an anonymous meeting of Dual-DNA truthers—this strange group of people seem convinced that they all have an extra appendage that grows out of their birthmarks, and feeds on them to survive. Is it really an “undiscovered genetic defect,” or perhaps something worse? Schitt’s Creek alum Emily Hampshire shows up as the alluring group-friend Claudia; her appearance changes the direction of the film as Hannah begins to implode. She pushes away her parents, Kaelin, and Esther, as the negativity of her Appendage and drive to impress Kristean take center stage.
Zlokovic is smart enough to never overcomplicate the proceedings. Appendage stays exciting throughout, sure to save the craziest bits for last. Esther and Kaelin race to save Hannah from herself as she retreats deeper into her own pessimism. The film manages to find a potent mixture of sick and twisted horror, propulsive thriller, and sharp comedy. For genre fans desperate for the next big thing, Appendage is certainly a tasty and weirdly seductive eruption of body horror.
Appendage screened at 2023’s SXSW Film Festival, and will be coming to Hulu later this year.