This year, SXSW was a hotbed of buzzworthy horror movies, many from first-time directors. That’s one of my favorite things about film festivals—new voices and diverse viewpoints are given their time in the spotlight, and we’re all the better for it. This is especially true for horror, which benefits drastically from creative, fresh voices. After all, the same old shit can’t be relied upon to continually explore our fears, and filmmakers shouldn’t try.
Of the horror-comedy films at SXSW, Extra Ordinary was my favorite. Though it wasn’t without flaws, it was a confident debut for its first-time directors. It was an original horror-comedy with a distinctly Irish flair. It is also the most adorable horror-comedy I’ve ever seen, and I enjoyed it immensely. Who knew that sacrificing virgins and exorcizing ghosts could be so uproarious and charming?
Set in rural Ireland, Extra Ordinary is the story of Rose (Maeve Higgins), a gentle and unassuming driving school instructor who longs for companionship. She also happens to possess a gift for communicating with the dead and other supernatural entities. Despite her talents, which could help countless people, Rose is reluctant to use them (or expose herself to any risk in her life). That is until a lonely widower named Martin Martin (Barry Ward) asks for Rose’s help. Aging one-hit wonder rock star Christian Winter (Will Forte) has made a deal with Satan for a return to glory, and he’s chosen Martin’s daughter as his sacrifice. Together, Rose and Martin work to save the girl and maybe find the cure for their loneliness.
A great deal of the success of Extra Ordinary is the script. Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, who also directed the film, have created a sweet, hilarious story with a touching message about believing yourself and accepting your talents, even if they scare you. It’s immediately clear that they’ve seen tons of horror movies and have a particular affinity for classic horror-comedies like Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive, and Ghostbusters. With those films as inspiration, Ahern and Loughman developed their main characters, crafted tons of self-deprecating and witty humor, and infused enough bawdiness into the film to buoy the mood.
But really, Extra Ordinary’s secret weapon is its cast, the members of which clearly have a lot of fun while being careful with the film’s heavier elements. Maeve Higgins brings much humanity and respect to Rose, even as she pokes fun at Rose’s many quirks. Rose has experienced tragedy, but she’s used her past as an excuse to become kind of really lame. Instead of playing her as a pathetic, sad-sack character stereotype, Higgins creates balance in the role and renders Rose likable and relatable instead of annoying. That’s hard to accomplish. I think she’s a comedic actress to watch for. Hopefully, she finds a good deal more roles after this film.
Barry Ward does an excellent job with Martin Martin as well, balancing the character’s guilty reluctance to move on from his dead wife with his longing for a happier life free of her presence. It helps that he’s also a gifted comedic actor, just understated enough for him to feel like a real person.
Then, of course, there’s the incomparable Will Forte as Christian Winter. During the Q&A portion after the SXSW premiere of Extra Ordinary, an audience member asked Will Forte what kind of research he did for playing Christian. Will Forte said, and I quote: “This is probably closest to the real me.”
To which I say, that’s pretty awesome. And telling.
He’s the picture of lame early 80s has-been: vain, insecure, eccentric, and completely selfish. (He’s also the worst, because, seriously, you made a deal with the devil because you couldn’t write decent music? How hard is to hire better producers? What the hell?). Evilness aside, Christian is a wonderful character, leaving you in stitches even as he tries to conjure up demons. Will Forte uses his trademark awkwardness and silliness to disguise his character’s inherently sinister motives, such that the viewer has to stop and realize just how evil he’s being.
That’s the fun part about Extra Ordinary—so much of the story’s actual horror is wrapped up in comedy that one must pause to fully grasp how messed up it all is. That’s not easy to accomplish.
While I enjoyed the film and recommend it, I do have to point out some of Extra Ordinary’s flaws. I don’t usually notice the quality of a film’s editing, but some scenes lacked appropriate pacing. This was particularly evident in scenes where certain jokes or one-liners didn’t land right—they lacked the snappiness that a tighter editing job would have helped and strengthened the overall comedy.
Additionally, the supporting characters did not receive the same kind of nuanced development as the principal characters. The film doesn’t give Claudia O’Doherty, who plays Christian Winter’s wife Claudia, much to do and thus wastes her quirky humor. Her character feels extraneous, half-baked, there only to annoy Will Forte and push the plot forward when needed. The same is true for Sailor Dooley (Rose’s sister) and Emma Coleman (Martin’s daughter); to be fair, the latter spends most of her time unconscious and under the influence of a powerful spell.
On top of that, I found the portrayal of Martin Martin’s deceased wife troublesome. Not only does the ghost refuse to leave Martin alone, but she is also violent towards Martin, slamming his head into cabinets, hitting him, smacking things out of his hands, and on and on. The film plays this violence for laughs, but it comes across as abusive. It made me very uncomfortable, especially because the film hints that this kind of behavior always marked Martin’s relationship with his wife. There are many other ways to portray an annoying ghost than by making it abusive. This aspect of the film was unnecessary, undermined the humor, was not properly addressed, let alone developed.
However, these flaws do not derail Extra Ordinary, and it’s well worth a watch. Horror fans will appreciate the effective balance between comedy and horror, as well as the many callbacks to Extra Ordinary’s horror movie influences. It’s not a scary movie by any means, but there’s just enough ghostly stuff and wicked fun to keep you watching and laughing.