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Old timers kick ass and Nicolas Cage freaks out as Fantastic Fest enters its second half

Martin Kove (L) and Stephen Lang (near R) give VFW director Joe Begos (C) a hard time at Fantastic Fest
Photo: Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest is a young person’s festival. Not too young of a person—aside from the special youth-oriented screening of Overlook Festival winner The Vast Of Night, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of 17 wandering the Alamo Drafthouse’s South Lamar location during the festival. And that makes sense, given that many of the films screened here (take The Golden Glove, for example) will eventually come out unrated to avoid the dreaded NC-17. But the retiree set is also way less of a presence here than at the tiny arthouse theater where I used to take tickets and sweep up popcorn, and most attendees aren’t much older than the slabs of plastic and analog tape that lined folding tables during Sunday’s VHS swap.

In fact, the crew gathered at the front of the stage after the world premiere of VFW (B) is probably the biggest gathering of the over-65 set that I‘ve ever seen at this festival. It’s a regular intergenerational summit of a movie, bringing together a young director on the rise (The Mind’s Eye’s Joe Begos), a cast of veteran actors (Stephen Lang, William Sadler, David Patrick Kelly, Martin Kove, Fred Williamson, and George Wendt topline the cast), and a recently relaunched magazine (this is the third film from the new Fangoria, following Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and Satanic Panic) for an ‘80s exploitation throwback that’s outrageous in all the right ways. And it was clearly a lot of fun to make, as the cast’s gentle ribbing of their bearded and tattooed director at the Q&A can attest.

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VFW
Photo: Fantastic Fest

Lang stars as Fred, the bartender at a wood-paneled VFW hall in an unnamed city where a drug called “hype” has transformed the local youth into braindead homicidal punk mutants. Fred and his pals (Sadler, Williamson, et al) prefer booze, and thus avoid confrontation with the punks holed up in the abandoned movie theater next door—that is, until a kid named Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals a stash of hype as revenge for the death of her addict sister. She flees into Fred’s bar pursued by a frothing mob of hype junkies, interrupting the guys mid-drunken reminiscence about the good (but also bad, but also good) old days in Vietnam. Cue an Assault On Precinct 13-style siege punctuated with wet, visceral bursts of extreme violence—it’s not a Joe Begos movie unless at least one head explodes—as these grizzled vets defend their bar with shotguns, sharpened pool cues, broken bottles, and tennis balls stuffed with gunpowder.

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Like Begos’ previous feature Bliss, VFW was shot on film, and the celluloid grain combines nicely with the stark, colorful lighting for a visual flair that recalls ‘80s splatter movies, particularly Street Trash (1987). At times, you can see where producer/editor Josh Ethier had to cut around certain budgetary limitations in the fight scenes, but the pacing is lively and relentless enough that those moments barely have time to register. Of a piece with the straightforward plot is the film’s apolitical point of view on military service and intergenerational conflict; aside from one conspicuous millennial joke, the film concentrates on the camaraderie between the veterans—who do have one token young guy played by Tom Williamson on their team—rather than their hatred of those younger than themselves. Fred even serves as a tough-talking father figure for the defiant Lizard, all of which points towards Begos making this movie because he thinks these guys are awesome and he wants to see them together on screen, not as a “get off my lawn” type of gesture. It’s a less personal, and therefore less impactful, film than Bliss, which comes out this week in limited theaters and which screened immediately after VFW at Fantastic Fest. But the chemistry of the ensemble cast and the entertaining action make this the best of the new Fangoria movies yet.

Color Out Of Space
Photo: Fantastic Fest
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Another highlight of the middle portion of this year’s Fantastic Fest also comes from a legendary (and legendarily cranky) team: Director Richard Stanley and actor Nicolas Cage, whose Color Out Of Space (B) is Stanley’s first proper feature film since he was infamously fired from directing The Island Of Dr. Moreau in 1996. Cage is best when he’s paired with directors who also operate on a wavelength others can’t quite seem to hear. And Stanley—who’s quite a character in his own right—keeps Cage grounded in a dorky-dad energy even after his body is possessed by a radioactive alien brain that drives him to his signature manic excesses as it turns the entire world into a glowing purple mushroom trip.

Let’s back up for a moment: Color Out Of Space is based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, from a script Stanley and co-writer Scarlett Amaris adapted back in the late ‘90s. And it’s lucky for them that witchcraft is coming back in style, as the film opens with a young scientist named Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) interrupting teenage Wiccan Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) mid-ritual. Lavinia lives on a nearby farm with her two brothers (Brendan Meyer and The Haunting Of Hill House’s Julian Hilliard), mother (Joely Richardson), and father (Cage)way out in the woods somewhere near the fictional town of Arkham, the setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories. And while their lives aren’t exactly typical—dad herds alpacas, the kids are into smoking weed and reading the Necronomicon, and a hippie squatter played by Tommy Chong lives in a makeshift cabin on their land—they are routine and relatively peaceful.

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That’s true right up until a meteorite cuts through the sky with a blinding beam of light and crash lands on their front lawn. As the Gardners soon discover, the meteorite not only poisons the local water, it also sends out solar flare-like pulses of energy that fuse together anything, or anyone, they touch into grotesque, mutated monsters. (Think the shunting from Society, but even goopier.) They also produce paralyzingly powerful hallucinations in the affected, and the majority of the film watches this cosmic horror creep out of the well and into the Gardner’s fevered brains one by one with a combination of practical and CGI effects. So although the film is undoubtedly rough around the edges, its psychedelic horror elements are quite compelling and effective. I went in with admittedly low expectations given Stanley’s two-decade hiatus from filmmaking, and was pleasantly surprised.

Homewrecker
Photo: Fantastic Fest
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The boldly feminine Canadian psycho-stalker comedy Homewrecker (B-) was another pleasant surprise, even if its clever comedic writing couldn’t quite overcome its sometimes subpar camerawork. Stars (and co-writers) Alex Essoe and Precious Chong both turn in solid performances in this Lifetime Original Movie-inspired two-hander, which satirizes feminine rivalries and Canadian politeness alike. It does so through the story of an interior designer who seems have everything you could ever want out of life (Essoe), and her wild-eyed yoga classmate (Chong) who guilts her into first having a coffee together, then having a drink before noon, then watching a movie over at her house, until oops! It’s a kidnapping.

We Summon The Darkness (B) is another film I saw at this year’s Fantastic Fest that didn’t bring a whole lot to the table in terms of visuals, but whose script was nimble and surprising enough to make it work. (This one was more professionally shot, however.) The film is propelled by a confident lead performance from Alexandra Daddario as the ringleader of a clique of teenage metalheads in ‘80s Indiana, and seasoned with an inspired bit part for Johnny Knoxville as a TV preacher who rails against the corrupting influence of rock ‘n’ roll music. It also hinges on a big plot twist, so all I will say for now is that it’s the best Satanic Panic-inspired horror movie I have seen this year, and there have been several. We’ve still got a couple days of Fantastic Fest left to go, though, so there’s still time.

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