Austin-based genre festival Fantastic Fest is accustomed to the big guns of genre cinema — both M. Night Shyamalan and Guillermo del Toro have made appearances — and this year, two iconic women of horror showed up to promote their new films (and old ones). Jamie Lee Curtis flipped off the audience and yucked it up for the Texas premiere of “Halloween,” while Jessica Harper surprised a stunned theater of Dario Argento superfans who anticipated the event’s secret screening would be Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of “Suspiria.” It was, and god, was it dazzling. While these big-ticket guests and films are always a draw, the best of the fest lay in the scrappy, bizarre pics fighting tooth and nail to find their audiences.
Some of the films have already seen their world premieres at Sundance, Venice, Cannes or TIFF, but they’re no longer competing for audiences against the big mainstream fare or being relegated strictly to the midnight slot. A movie like Peter Strickland’s sisterhood-of-the-murdering-dress movie, “In Fabric,” can play at 11 a.m. to a packed house of its intended audience. It’s no wonder A24 picked up the film out of Toronto, as Strickland’s popping colors, intermittent kaleidoscopic video effects and deadpan humor are an apt fit for the tastemaker distributor. But watching “In Fabric” at Fantastic, in the context of other films (like Yann Gonzalez’s “Knife + Heart”), drawing from the same rich giallo traditions, allows it to feel like an extension of genre cinematic history. “In Fabric,” here, feels like more than a wacky premise with slick execution; it feels important.
The same applies to Nicolas Pesce’s “Piercing,” a stylish chamber dramedy tale of a murder gone wryly wrong when the victim turns the tables. The director’s 2016 black-and-white human-bondage masterpiece “The Eyes of My Mother” is a tough act to follow, but “Piercing” — which, no joke, begins with a father contemplating whether or not he’s going to stab his baby with an ice pick — becomes, at times, wildly and uncomfortably funny, like if Todd Solondz wrote a script for “Trouble Every Day”-era Claire Denis.
Some titles at the festival never previously got the attention of Strickland’s or Pesce’s work but are just as deserving. Aaron Schimburg’s movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie “Chained for Life” explores disability and disfigurement through a meta-story about a film crew making a “Freaks”-esque horror film. Jess Weixler (“Teeth”) and Adam Pearson (“Under the Skin”) star in this ultimately hilarious and self-aware philosophical experiment of uncomfortable encounters between the disabled and the able-bodied who yearn to be woke to their new colleagues’ struggles.
And yet the cringey moments of “Chained” didn’t make me squirm endlessly in my seat like two other films. Isabella Eklöf’s crime drama “Holiday” takes a magnifying glass to toxic masculinity but also to its feminine counterpart. Likely inspired by Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible,” one long, uncut rape sequence made my heart drop into my stomach, and yet it was wholly blunt, desexualized, and compelling for how the character study examined the victim’s psychology before and after the event. The other film is Amanda Kramer’s pyscho-melodrama “Ladyworld,” about eight girls trapped in a house after an earthquake. Drawing from the cinema of R.W. Fassbinder and other Brechtian influences, it’s a claustrophobic wonder of female mania and tribalism, with one hell of an unnerving and relentless score comprised of human groans and sighs.
One of the biggest surprises of the festival was Henry Dunham’s “Standoff at Sparrow Creek,” a tense neo-noir set in a remote Michigan lumber factory. A group of militia men spend the night glued to the CB, trying to figure out which one of them broke into the armory and opened fire on a police funeral earlier in the day. Driven by smart dialogue and a cold, gritty visual style, this slim 88-minute film is full of organic narrative twists. And then there’s Daniel Goldhaber’s “Cam,” which tells the story of sex worker “cam girl” who films her life for tokens and fans, until her doppelganger steals her account — and her spotlight. A circular narrative with wry humor and a bleak but honest dissection of online life, “Cam” seems inspired by “Videodrome” and Cronenberg tragicomedy.
Of the world premieres, Brett Simmons’ “You Might Be the Killer” proved a satisfying comic-slasher palate cleanser for the more serious films, like Quarxx’s “All the Gods in the Sky,” about a schizophrenic man caring for his severely disabled sister while he waits for some aliens to take him away and absolve him of his sins — heavy but beautiful. Jessica Leski’s “I Used to Be Normal,” a documentary on boy-band obsessions, seems at first maybe not the most obvious fit for a genre festival, but its exploration of fandom from a feminine perspective seems almost a meta-commentary on the fest itself: If you clear your schedule for a week to watch movies with strangers for 16 hours, you don’t get to criticize teen girls for their heartthrobs.
But to pinpoint two of the most beloved world premieres out of the lineup, that would be “The Perfection” and “The Night Comes for Us.” The latter stars an enigmatic Allison Williams and evil Stephen Weber as cello protégé and teacher in a time-rewinding, pulpy revenge flick masquerading as a respectable drama. Though the style is raw — music seemingly unfinished and every scene blasted with too much light — there’s an undeniable charm in a film that’s willing to “go there” with body-horror exploitation. Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Night Comes for Us,” on the other hand, is a polished, gory delight of frenetic one-take action sequences. There’s no way you can make it out of this machete-filled film without gasping over every breathless fight. One in particular between three female expert assassins (one wielding a deadly yo-yo of sorts?) just kicks so much ass that it’ll go in the history books.
One of the more special elements of the festival, however, isn’t the new releases, but the programmers’ obvious love for repertory cinema. René Manzor’s “Deadly Games,” a 1989 blood-and-guts, evil-Santa Euro precursor to “Home Alone,” played to rapturous applause, and will likely become an old-new holiday classic now that it’s getting a Blu-ray release. (It’s already joined my Christmas collection.) For those who were smart enough to sign up for the Miskatonic Institute’s Ghouls to the Front lecture, film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas delivered a one-off lesson on some of the female filmmakers she discovered for the first time while researching her book “1000 Women in Horror.” A packed theater of men and women alike thought they were merely getting a clip show and ended up, heads down, taking furious notes on scraps of paper.
What’s special about Fantastic Fest is how all these self-professed genre experts are still eager to be taught, to catch a film like the lesser-known 1971 Korean revenge flick “Quit Your Life” or the forgotten 1997 Sarah Jacobson lo-fi teen feature “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore,” and to share that knowledge with others. This desire to learn apparently also applies to something like real-world gender dynamics; after an embattled year of missteps, Fantastic Fest brought on a new board with gender parity, published and posted a code of ethics, courted women guests, and somehow successfully shifted the culture towards inclusivity. At least on the surface. (There were reliable reports of at least three badges revoked when people broke the rules of respect.) So, in summation, the real best of the festival is the ongoing growth of those involved — and the friends we made along the way.