Like the rest of the world, Austin’s Fantastic Fest is at a turning point. No longer able to lean on the wacky stunts and wild partying that accompanied the Alamo Drafthouse’s rise to prominence in the mid ’00s, this year the festival, which last year faced a very public reckoning for its culture of white male alpha-nerd impunity and the sexual-assault allegations that accompanied it, made an effort to shift toward inclusivity on the ground—even as the films on screen sometimes struggled to catch up.
This effort manifested in reports of badges revoked for violating the festival’s new code of conduct, inspired by similar policies adopted by Comic Cons across America over the past couple of years. It also meant new events less focused around drinking and/or showboating, like an afternoon VHS swap and a K-pop dance party that attracted a younger and more diverse crowd than I think I’ve seen at any film festival event, ever. And for those (like, admittedly, me) who still wanted to get tipsy and holler themselves hoarse, the karaoke options, as always, remained plentiful. All in all, it was a suitable, if ironic, place to seek distraction from last week’s news, as the discourse about sexual assault and its consequences (or the lack thereof) reached new, nauseating lows.
You could see it in the packed lobby of the Alamo South Lamar: The numbers of female filmmakers, journalists, and programmers were noticeably higher, as well as the number of women and people of color in the seats. (I hosted one event, a welcome luncheon for female-identifying and non-binary attendees that was held off the festival premises.) You could also see it in the programming: Fantastic Fest offered multiple examples of low-budget auteurism from a female point of view, including archival screenings of Sarah Jacobson’s ’90s grrrl-culture classics I Was A Teenage Serial Killer and Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore, the campy melodrama Ladyworld, the sex-positive thriller Cam (a favorite from the Fantasia Film Festival), the YA sci-fi of Level 16, and the dystopian sci-fi short The Slows, the directorial debut of Guardians Of The Galaxy and Captain Marvel screenwriter Nicole Perlman.
In one notable case, you could also see it in the introduction. Both screenings of Isabella Eklöf’s challenging, accomplished debut Holiday were prefaced by a warning from programmer James Shapiro that the film contains a graphic rape scene. That was followed by commentary from Australian academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who’s written extensively on the subject of rape revenge in cinema and who is a big champion of Eklöf’s film. Not all films featuring sexual violence were given the same treatment, however. The subject of content warnings at a genre festival, where you’ll see more full-frontal nudity and graphic violence in a day than some see all year, is a tricky one to navigate. But I applaud the thoughtfulness of Fantastic Fest’s handling of Holiday, which I believe is an important film. I was happy to award it the Next Wave prize as a member of that particular jury.
Then there’s Fantastic Fest’s other great turning point: its increasing importance on the international festival scene. The rest of the critical world is just now catching up to festivals like this one, where the line between so-called “elevated horror” and, well, whatever the alternative is, was erased a long time ago. This is an audience that, for all its hyperbolic passion for blood and guts, is equally accustomed to, and passionate about, slow-burn arthouse genre cinema. Foreign-language distributors have known this for years, creating a pipeline from Cannes to Austin for titles like this year’s Knife + Heart and Fugue, the sophomore feature from The Lure director Agnieszka Smoczynska.
It’s happened many times: What might be dismissed as bizarre at a European festival, and pretentious by the Redbox set, will be rapturously received at Fantastic Fest. The festival went nuts for Antichrist in 2009, adopting “chaos reigns” as its unofficial slogan. (You don’t hear that as much these days.) The road that led to the creation of a Black Phillip Funko POP! doll leads through Fantastic Fest, which was abuzz over The Witch in 2015. And this year, the festival scored a major coup by hosting the North American premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, the most poorly kept secret screening in the six years I’ve been in attendance. But no matter. Keeping with precedent, it went over like gangbusters.
It’s not just the European genre cognoscenti who have noticed either. As we mentioned in our festival review of Bad Times At The El Royale, Hollywood had a strong presence at Fantastic Fest this year as well. That higher profile accounts for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Grade: B-), which was passed over by the Toronto International Film Festival and made its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest. A thoroughly middle-of-the-road effort, it may have been inevitable that actually watching director Terry Gilliam’s cinematic great white whale would be a bit of a letdown after 30 years of myth-making. There certainly was a lack of buzz about the film at Fantastic Fest, where it screened first against Halloween on opening night and again in the afternoon of the final day, when many industry types and critics had already gone home.
Adam Driver stars as Toby, an arrogant film director who sets out on a quixotic (ehh?) and possibly time-traveling adventure across Spain after buying a bootleg copy of his student film, a low-budget adaptation of Don Quixote, from a street vendor. Turns out that that long-ago project had some devastating, long-lasting effects on the village where it was shot: The film’s lead (Jonathan Pryce) now fully believes that he is Don Quixote, and its Dulcinea, a local teenager named Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), set out for Madrid in search of stardom shortly after Toby left town, and found nothing but misery and abuse. That all sounds like the setup to a deconstruction of the concept of the untouchable macho genius, but unfortunately, Gilliam doesn’t seem to have that level of self-awareness. Instead, Toby’s problems come mostly from beautiful women throwing themselves at him, and rich men who want to kill him because their women want him so bad. So while an extended sequence set in a Holy Week festival at a baroque Spanish castle does provide some flashes of that old Gilliam magic, mostly this is just a warmed-over Fellini rehash.
Even more disappointing is Lords Of Chaos (Grade: C), Jonas Åkerlund’s biopic version of the infamous tale of OG black-metal band Mayhem. On paper, Åkerlund, who began his career as the drummer for influential proto-black metal act Bathory, is the perfect director for the project. He may not have been present at the drunken rager where corpse paint was introduced for the first time—a scene documented early in the film—but he ostensibly understands the mind-set of disaffected teenagers like Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. Euronymous (Rory Culkin), Kristian Vikernes, a.k.a. Varg (Emory Cohen), and the rest of the so-called “black circle” that escalated from just talking about evil and death to perpetuating it in early-’90s Norway.
As it turns out, Åkerlund’s understanding is more like contempt, in a film that downplays the bigotry of the Norwegian black metal scene and shrugs off the severity of its actions with a “boys will be boys” approach that has no reverence for the scene, but doesn’t provide any insight into it, either. Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s main point seems to be that these were just dumb kids, whose obsession with authenticity and extremity covered up their own privileged backgrounds. But while pointing out the irony of recording an album with song titles like “Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown” and “Black Spell Of Destruction” with money borrowed from your mom is good for a few derisive laughs, it’s a feeble thing to hang a film on, particularly when adapting such a well-documented, complex story.
Åkerlund’s addition of a girlfriend character (and that’s all she is) in the form of Sky Ferreira’s Ann-Marit is similarly surface and cynical. It almost would have been preferable for the film to have no female characters at all, rather than its depiction of women basically as holes in need of filling. Capping it all off is the film’s heavy dependence on voice-over from Culkin straight out of a teen rom-com; I waited the entire film for a record scratch and a “You may wonder how I got myself into this mess” that never came. Again, perhaps that was the mind-set Euronymous and his friends had at the time. But two hours is a long time to point out how foolish and sexist teenage boys can be over and over again.
Equally aggro, but more gleefully so, was the world premiere of The Raid director Gareth Evans’ first foray into period horror, Apostle (Grade: B-), starring Dan Stevens and his deeply furrowed brow as a man in search of his kidnapped sister among a bizarre pagan cult. Michael Sheen is a standout as the cult’s charismatic “prophet,” whose public espousing of socialist values and private penchant for tyranny echo Jim Jones, another cult leader who led his flock into an isolated wilderness. (Pretty sure Jonestown wasn’t powered by an ancient tree witch hooked on human blood, however.) Apostle turns nonsensical in its gore-soaked second half, but only those with a strong stomach will notice over all the torture scenes.
Speaking of gore-soaked ultra-violence, the standout in this field at this year’s Fantastic Fest came from Evans’ home base of Indonesia and The Night Comes For Us (Grade: B), which, to its credit, doesn’t really even try to make sense. Instead it uses a thin plot touching on the classic Hong Kong action themes of brotherhood and loyalty as an excuse to string together a series of gonzo action set-pieces so ingeniously bloody that one could conceivably classify the film as horror. Director Timo Tjahjanto is very good at what he does, and what he does had even seasoned Fantastic Fest audiences squealing and covering their eyes. The Night Comes For Us also had the best neck-stabbing scene in a festival where more films featured that particularly visceral act of violence than didn’t, though The Blood Of Wolves (Grade: B)—an appealingly hard-boiled tribute to Kinji Fukasaku’s seminal Battles Without Honor And Humanity series from Toei, the same studio that released Fukasaku’s yakuza films back in the ’70s—came close.
Overall, it was a strong year for Fantastic Fest, introducing new voices and perspectives while still giving festivalgoers the hardcore action and intense horror shocks that they crave. (Terrified (Grade: B-) a Conjuring-esque Argentinian ghost story, which won this year’s horror award and premieres on Shudder later this month, certainly delivered on the latter front.) The only film that I found truly disappointing was Lords Of Chaos, which was one of my most-anticipated titles of the festival going in. On that same note, no one film stuck out as the best at this year’s festival, and whittling down a top five out of the 27 films I saw this year was a challenge made easier only by the fact that I had a) already reviewed Suspiria, and b) was on the Next Wave jury, which precludes writing critical reviews of or assigning letter grades to those seven films. All that said, in no particular order, here are our favorites from Fantastic Fest 2018.
One Cut Of The Dead (Grade: A-)
The winner of this year’s audience award at Fantastic Fest, this microbudget horror-comedy does something many, including this writer, didn’t think was possible at this late point in the subgenre’s history: It reinvents the zombie movie. It’s already made more than 250 times its $27,000 (￥3 million) budget at home in Japan, much of that from repeat viewings; once you see the film, you’ll understand why. One Cut Of The Dead opens with a self-contained, honestly kind of crappy zombie short, notable only for the elaborate staging of its single, 37-minute unbroken take. It then backtracks to show you what was happening behind the scenes of all the weird errors and bad performances in the short, a clever structural trick that gives goofy jokes added depth by essentially putting punchline ahead of setup. It’s also a refreshingly earnest film, with memorable characters and an unexpectedly sweet subplot that sees a father reconnecting with his teenage daughter over their shared love of horror movies.
The Standoff At Sparrow Creek (Grade: B+)
This tightly wound ’70s-style thriller comes from RLJE Films, the distributor behind S. Craig Zahler’s films. Sparrow Creek shares much of its DNA with that particular director’s work, revolving around a group of militiamen who come together in the titular lumber warehouse in the middle of the night after reports of a mass shooting at a police funeral. Like the rest of the world, the men assume the crime was committed by one of their own, and so they deputize ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale) to use his interrogation skills to suss out the shooter. The chief pleasure of this small, self-contained film is in its dialogue, which is leaner and less garrulous than in Zahler’s films and will be throwback heaven for David Mamet fans.
Knife + Heart (Grade: B+)
A.A. Dowd already covered Yann Gonzalez’s neon-drenched love letter to giallo cinema at Cannes, and I was similarly charmed by the film’s embrace of both the genre’s strengths and weaknesses, down to the voice-over in the last five minutes of the movie explaining what the hell you just saw. In the Q&A following the film, Gonzalez said he envisioned the film as taking place in a utopia populated solely by LGBTQ+ people, which helps account for its dreamlike atmosphere, in which the lines between porn director Anne’s (Vanessa Paradis) films and the murders of her actors by a leather-clad killer with a dildo switchblade are often blurry. The gauzy cinematography also helps, as does the mise-en-scène, which poses Anne’s chosen family of proud perverts in studied tableaus reminiscent of the Renaissance masters. Only, you know, in a porno.
Burning (Grade: A-)
Another favorite of The A.V. Club’s from Cannes, consider this a second vote of confidence for Burning, a subjective detective story from South Korean master Lee Chang-dong. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, unlike some of the two-hour-plus films I saw at Fantastic Fest, Burning actually justifies its running time by slowly building paranoid atmosphere before an explosive, hauntingly ambiguous finale. More than anything, it reminded me of an arthouse version of the slacker detective stories like Search Party and Bored To Death that began popping up on TV about a decade ago. If that sounds intriguingly, and not off-puttingly, weird, definitely make the effort to track it down when it comes out in limited release on October 26.
In Fabric (Grade: B)
In Fabric is a very strange movie. Peter Strickland, if you believe in the auteurist idea that films reflect the inner worlds of their directors, is a very strange person. And although the latest from the Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke Of Burgundy director would arguably have been better off if it had concentrated on the first of two storylines involving unwitting consumers buying a cursed dress from the world’s most fetishistically bizarre department store, I still love it just as it is. It made me laugh out loud more than any other film at Fantastic Fest besides One Cut Of The Dead, and Strickland’s ability to convey tactile sensations in the visual medium of cinema remains unmatched. Submit to the exquisite mystery of retail, and enjoy.