Arriving in Austin late on Wednesday, I was dropped off in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse’s South Lamar outpost, the central locus for all things Fantastic Fest. At that point, it just looked like a regular movie theater (albeit one with The Shining-themed carpet), as a crew of festival employees with power tools and armfuls of tissue paper prepared for this year’s festival. I went off into the humid Texas night, dragging my suitcase behind me in search of the flop house booked by a group of fellow critics. (That may sound like the setup to a horror movie, but, ill-advised late-night Lone Star consumption aside, it turned out just fine.) The decorators stayed through the night, though, and when we bleary-eyed press corps returned less than 12 hours later, the theater lobby was festooned with colorful Indian-style banners in honor of this year’s theme. (Fantastic Fest appears to be moving eastward; last year’s theme was in honor of Turkey, and this year Indian films are in the spotlight. Maybe China next year?)
I was back for a morning press screening of The Handmaiden (Grade: A-), which The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo also saw at Cannes. Like many of his films, Park Chan-wook’s newest defies any one specific genre label, but is undoubtedly a genre film. Sumptuously shot to the point of fetishism, The Handmaiden was every bit the erotic period drama promised by its trailers (the explicit lesbian sex is just the beginning of this film’s erotic delights), but also had an unexpected comedic streak culminating in a brilliantly executed moment of literal gallows humor. Female leads Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri are both standouts, conveying the complexity of the film’s multi-layered con games with subtle changes of facial expression and tone of voice. Unless the fall movie season surpasses all expectations, this one seems like a lock for my top 10 of the year.
After a mid-afternoon H-E-B break to pick up some of That Green Sauce I’ve been hearing about, it was time to get back to the theater for the official opening night. Rather than attend the marquee film, Arrival—which our own A.A. Dowd covered in Toronto just a few weeks ago—I instead decided to get into the festival spirit by walking blind into a more under-the-radar selection, the Russian fantastic dramedy Zoology (Grade: B-). Naturalistically chronicling a few weeks in the life of a middle-aged office worker who suddenly sprouts a long, fleshy tail, Zoology starts intriguingly ambiguous, then gets frustratingly so, only to come back around for a heartbreaking cliffhanger ending. But while I would only recommend it to art-house enthusiasts due to its slow pace, it is refreshing to see a film that deals with body image from an older woman’s point of view.
The following film, the world premiere of the Christmas horror-comedy Safe Neighborhood (Grade: B), was a sharp right turn from Zoology. Set in an idyllic suburban neighborhood and shot like a kids’ movie from the ’80s, Safe Neighborhood plays like a profane, sadistic, R-rated Home Alone sequel. Disclosing too much of the plot would be counter to the spirit of the film, so I’ll just stick with a few, hopefully intriguing points: First, Levi Miller, who played Peter Pan in last year’s mega-flop Pan, stars as a precocious 12-year-old who is not at all what he appears to be on the surface. (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, who played brother and sister in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, co-star as his babysitter and best friend, respectively.) Second, after the first big twist about a half-hour into the film, you might think you’re in for an icky, misogynist torture porn, and momentarily wish to leave the theater. (I did.) But stick it out, because the film will continue to defy your expectations. Third, the ever-delightful Patrick Warburton wears a series of Christmas ties, and that’s just fun.
Finally, as the opening-night party raged around me, complete with whiskey and chai tea cocktails, fire-breathers, and one huge, coiled, terrifying snake, I ducked in for another world premiere, The Void (Grade: B-). Directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski (Father’s Day), The Void marks a new, more serious direction for Canadian genre filmmaking collective Astron-6. Like the group’s previous work, though, for better and for worse The Void doubles as a game of “spot the reference” for horror fans. The formula here roughly comes out to Halloween II + The Thing + Hellraiser, combining slasher-movie aesthetics with nightmarish, goopy monsters and an interdimensional black-magic cult over one fucked-up night at a rural Canadian hospital. Aesthetically, The Void raises the bar for Astron-6, both in cinematography and practical effects; however, the acting isn’t similarly elevated, making it ultimately only halfway successful as a serious horror film.