Just about any major film festival will have a few selections that are controversially violent, graphic, or insane, or that address unserious topics like vampires and cannibals. These are often set aside in a “midnight madness” or “extreme” section, segregated from the more prestigious festival entries that go on to win Oscars.
But at Fantastic Fest, the bizarre is the norm. The films that play only late at night (or not at all) at other fests are the main attraction here. The emphasis is horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, but anything out of the ordinary — anything awesome — is embraced. Martial arts, anime, stoner comedies, future cult classics, and “There Will Be Blood” have all played here. This year’s opening-night film was “Let Me In.”
Founded in 2005 by Harry Knowles and Tim League, the fest is held at League’s legendary Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. I was familiar with the Drafthouse because it’s also a venue for the South By Southwest film festival, and I was familiar with the types of movies being showcased because SXSW has recently let League program a few titles, to give us a taste of what Fantastic Fest is all about.
But can a person handle a week devoted exclusively to the bizarre, outrageous, and effed-up stuff that he normally sees only in occasional doses? Will a viewer with a wide range of tastes enjoy pigging out on a single subsection of foods? That was the question facing me as someone who enjoys genre films but doesn’t specialize in them.
Here’s what I saw, and lived to tell about.
“Heartless,” a moody British thriller, stars Jim Sturgess as a withdrawn Londoner with a wine-stain birthmark covering much of his face and body. His working-class neighborhood is being ravaged by crime, desperation, and demons. Yes, demons, or at least it appears that way to our hero, whose mental acuity is under some question. Writer-director Philip Ridley juggles several creepy and disturbing ideas (including a Faustian deal with a terrifying man called Papa B), but in the end they don’t quite come together. It’s worth watching, though, and in fact is currently available On Demand through IFC Midnight.
“Mother’s Day” is a very loose remake of the 1980 cult classic, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (“Saw II,” “III,” and “IV”). In this version, a small party in a suburban basement is interrupted by three bank-robbing brothers and their malevolent mother (Rebecca De Mornay, for some reason). The homeowners’ last name is Sohapi (so happy) and the bad guys are named Koffin, so that’s pretty imaginative and not the least bit stupid. Bousman introduced the film to the Fantastic Fest crowd by saying it didn’t bear any resemblance to his “Saw” movies. This is laughably false, as “Mother’s Day” is rife with the casual cruelty and psychotic you-can-save-yourself-but-only-if-you-hurt-this-other-person mind games that are “Saw‘s” hallmarks. Short on suspense and true horror, it’s a run-of-the-mill violence ‘n’ pain flick. Supposedly set for a theatrical release in 2011.
For everyone who enjoys Norwegian gangster comedies, here is “A Somewhat Gentle Man”! It stars Stellan Skarsgard (who is Swedish but can pass for Norwegian) as a rather placid fellow recently released from prison for killing his wife’s lover. He just wants to set up a normal, calm life for himself, but his former associates think he ought to punish the snitch who put him in prison. Oh, and a scabby old maid keeps wanting to have sex with him, and this is gross and hilarious. So it goes. The comedy may be dark, but it is comedy, and Skarsgard’s performance is terrifically understated and droll. Strand Releasing will distribute the film in the U.S.
I saw “I Saw the Devil” without knowing what it would be beforehand, as it was one of Fantastic Fest’s famous secret screenings. Like approximately 95% of all movies from South Korea these days, this one’s about revenge, with a man setting out to find and punish the psycho who killed his wife. That’s not all, though. He wants to play cat-and-mouse with the creep, tormenting and hurting him without killing him. This is unsettling stuff, directed by Kim Ji-woon (“The Good, the Bad, the Weird”) with an unflinching eye fixed on the seedy underside of humanity. The “hunter of psychos becomes a psycho himself” angle is a little past its freshness date, but Kim makes the most of it. Magnet Releasing has the film in the U.S.; no word yet on a release date.
Speaking of South Korean movies about revenge, “Bedevilled” is also a South Korean movie about revenge. A young woman from Seoul visits the small island where she spent time as a girl, reuniting with an old friend who’s now stuck in a subservient life with a rotten husband and unsupportive villagers. We wonder if either woman will take action — violent action, if necessary — to fix the situation. The fact that it’s playing at Fantastic Fest is a bit of a spoiler: If it were the kind of movie where people measure out justice peacefully, it wouldn’t have made the list. “Bedevilled” doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet, but it won the audience award at Fantastic Fest and was well received when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year, so it’s bound to show up sooner or later.
In a festival packed with films designed to elicit strong reactions, “Undocumented” got the biggest one out of me. I think I was genuinely outraged at one point, angry at how merciless the story had become. Yet for the most part, this torn-from-the-headlines horror flick, the first feature by writer-director Chris Peckover, isn’t shocking just for the sake of being shocking. Like a lot of good horror, it starts with a real-life scenario, then imagines what would happen if it went irredeemably awry. In this case, some illegal immigrants from Mexico — and the do-gooder documentary crew following them — are snared by a militia group whose anti-immigration enforcement tactics are, um, unorthodox. “Undocumented” achieves the social commentary that the “Saw” films often aspire to, but does it without getting heavy-handed. No distribution deal is in place yet, but a film like this — well-shot, with a few vaguely recognizable actors (Marshall from “Alias”! The guy from “Eurotrip”!) — is bound to at least make it to DVD.
Too bad the sadists in “Undocumented” didn’t apprehend the Mexican family of cannibals at the center of “We Are What We Are.” I’d pay a lot of money to see that movie. “We Are What We Are” is essentially a family drama — and a surprisingly relatable one at that — in which a widow and her three teenage children cope with the death of their patriarch. He wasn’t just their husband and father — he was also the one who procured the human component of their flesh-eating rituals. There are a million directions you could go with this premise; writer-director Jorge Michel Grau goes for low-key melodrama, with occasional pieces of dark humor, and uses the gore sparingly. He doesn’t take the easy route, in other words, and the movie is better for it. IFC will release it in 2011.
“Outrage” marks writer-director-star Takeshi Kitano’s return to the yakuza gangster drama that launched his career. I confess that this means almost nothing to me. Furthermore, while I usually find yakuza films very entertaining, I also usually have no idea what’s happening in them. “Outrage” is no exception on either front, and I found it a pleasantly baffling and cheerfully violent crime caper. Watch for a theatrical release sometime next year.
There was a film at Sundance this year called “Douchebag,” and I thought, wow, that title could apply to so many Sundance films. The same goes for Fantastic Fest and “A Horrible Way to Die.” How was such a perfect title not already taken? Cleverly constructed by screenwriter Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, the film is about a murderous psychopath named Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) who has escaped from prison, and about his former girlfriend, Sarah (Amy Seimetz), now a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to get over the fact that the man she loved turned out to be a monster. As the film hopscotches through time, we gradually learn more about Garrick and Sarah’s former life as a couple, Garrick’s incarceration, and the nice guy (Joe Swanberg) who’s now trying to get Sarah to come out of her shell. Wingard keeps the suspense ebbing and flowing like a pro, and Barrett’s story has some very satisfying surprises. Anchor Bay has bought distribution rights for the film, which won the Fantastic Fest awards for best horror screenplay, actor, and actress.
“Stake Land” is a road movie set after a vampire apocalypse has wiped out much of humanity. I heard several people complain that the vampires in the film more closely resemble zombies. That is a valid debate topic at Fantastic Fest. Whatever they are, they are dangerous, and a gruff man called Mister (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the film with director Jim Mickle) and an orphaned teen named Martin (Connor Paolo) have teamed up to seek a rumored sanctuary up north. That’s all pretty typical for post-apocalyptic road movies. What gives “Stake Land” a nice twist is that Mister and Martin also have to deal with religious fanatics who view the vampires as God’s avengers. OK, so “the humans are a bigger threat than the monsters” isn’t exactly original either. It doesn’t matter. “Stake Land” plays out like a moody frontier-set Western, focused more on characters than on viscera, and it mostly succeeds. Dark Sky Films will release it in 2011.