It doesn’t rain much in Austin—I considered bringing an umbrella, but left it behind, chiding myself for overpacking—but it’s been raining for days, bringing the chaos level at the already-crowded Alamo Drafthouse to overwhelming levels as the crowds of people who usually mill around outside the theater converged with the throngs of adoring fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Tim Burton and Dolph Lundgren in the lobby. Throw in a full day of interviews, the Satanic spectacle of Denver-based occult marching band Itchy-O, and a much-needed run to one of the longest continually operating BBQ restaurants in Texas, and, well, we’re combining an entire weekend of Fantastic Fest into one dispatch. I mean, sorry guys, but how the hell are you supposed to write a review when this is going on all around you?:
And that was before the Chinese-inspired dragon and black-veiled belly dancers came out. Anyway, although we’re still not even close to true 50/50 gender parity in the world of film directing, it’s been encouraging to see the number of female directors screening their work at Fantastic Fest this year. Most high-profile of these is The Bad Batch (C), Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to her feature debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Backed by Vice and Megan Ellison, The Bad Batch sees Amirpour given a big box of crayons with which to scrawl all over the proverbial walls, resulting in a film that’s long on style, and short on substance. The cast, which includes Jason Momoa as a sensitive cannibal, a nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey as a sunburnt drifter, and Keanu Reeves as a Jim Jones-style cult leader in a Mad Max-esque desert dystopia, is similarly eccentrically utilized, for better (Reeves’ smarmy menace) and for worse (Momoa’s ill-advised Cuban accent, clearly stretching his range as an actor). Still, Amirpour’s talent is undeniable, particularly in scenes marrying the eclectic pop soundtrack and memorable imagery, and, after the buzz surrounding her previous film, perhaps a sophomore slump was inevitable.
More modest, but equally visionary, is Buster’s Mal Heart (B), Sarah Adina Smith’s cerebral follow-up to her debut The Midnight Swim. Rami Malek—who, in an amazing bit of timing, signed on to the film just before the debut of Mr. Robot—stars in a dual role as Jonah, a modest family man who works overnights at a hotel and dreams of buying a plot of land in the mountains, and as Buster, an anarchist vagrant who survives by breaking in to the empty vacation homes of wealthy part-time Montana residents. These plotlines are bridged by a geeky hacker, Brown (DJ Qualls), who introduces Jonah to the concept of “The Inversion.” Exploring loss of faith in authority both earthly and divine, the film deals with some similar themes to those of Mr. Robot, but in an even more enigmatic manner.
But the strongest of the female-led films I’ve screened so far at the festival is Raw (A-), Julia Ducournau’s beautifully realized, symbolically rich, and disturbingly erotic meditation on primal hungers of all kinds. Following a dramatic screening at TIFF where viewers were taken out by paramedics, Raw came to Fantastic Fest with a reputation as a gross-out gore movie. (The theater even ran a beef tartare special in honor of its debut.) But that’s not entirely true: Although the story of a young veterinary student who undergoes a terrible transformation after being forced to eat meat in a hazing ritual doesn’t shy away from showing the act of cannibalism itself, its intensity is as much emotional as it is visceral. It’s an audacious film, made even more impressive by the fact that this is Ducournau’s first feature as a solo director. Star Garance Marillier, whose transformation from a wide-eyed innocent into a feral seductress really sells the body-horror element of the film, is another one to watch.
My other favorite so far of the festival is another beautifully shot, deeply felt horror movie, The Eyes Of My Mother (A-). Like Ducournau’s film, director Nicolas Pesce’s debut uses the personal—in this case, family history—to ground the film’s more outrageously grotesque elements, here inspired by the infamous story of serial killer Ed Gein. (Gein’s case, not coincidentally, also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.) It’s a profoundly disturbing film, made even more so by how profoundly sad it is. Pesce’s film is one of a few promising horror films that screened in Austin this weekend, including Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (B), a melancholy, ’70s-set lesbian romance/Gothic horror tale featuring a blond, a brunette, and a mad aunt locked away in her Victorian house; and The Autopsy Of Jane Doe (B), André Øvredal’s follow-up to his breakout hit Troll Hunter. Øvredal said in his Q&A about the film that he wanted to do something tightly controlled after the chaos of Troll Hunter; visually and tonally, this works out great. But plot-wise, it could stand to take a few more risks.
Also screened this weekend: Dog Eat Dog (C+), Paul Schrader’s stylistically audacious heist film featuring Willem Dafoe out-Caging Nicolas Cage and marred by some played-out pseudo-Tarantino dialogue; Don’t Kill It (C+), basically a Syfy movie for the big screen—which should be no surprise, coming from Big Ass Spider! director Mike Mendez—that, while it has a charming sense of humor about itself, leans too heavily on CGI blood; The Girl With All The Gifts (B), a well-shot British zombie film that attempts to inject new life into a tired genre, and almost succeeds thanks to young star Sennia Nanua; and the disappointing Phantasm: Ravager (C-), a low-budget labor of love which, while it plays like a Phantasm fan film, ultimately undercuts the emotional closure it attempts to bring to the franchise by failing to resolve the central conflict between good and evil. And while dream logic and convoluted mythology are part of the charm of the Phantasm movies, even hardcore Phans may walk away from this one feeling unfulfilled.