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At Fantastic Fest, the Sick Get Sicker and the Rich Get Eaten

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It tells you a lot about what makes Fantastic Fest unique when a surprise screening of a new Marvel offering is met first with laughs of disbelief, then irritated sighs, and soon, clusters of attendees huffing toward the exits. The annual film festival, which returned this past week to Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, was founded in 2005 on principles of adventure and audacity. It’s a celebration of horror, fantasy, and other so-called genre films that are pulled in from the fringes, then given a big-screen showcase for a proudly niche audience. So when one of the festival’s “secret screenings” turned out to be an advance look at Werewolf by Night, a new Marvel TV special that debuts on Disney+ on October 7, the audience’s grumbling was understandable. 

This was no judgment on Werewolf by Night itself, mind you. The show, starring Gael García Bernal and Laura Donnelly as rival hunters of the paranormal, pays loving tribute to classic forties monster movies in a way that’s perfectly enjoyable. It’s directed by Michael Giacchino, who’s best known as an Oscar-winning composer, in richly textured black and white, and it’s a far stranger, more violent animal than any Marvel product to date. On paper, this should have been right up the alley of the Fantastic Fest audience, something Giacchino himself noted in his prescreening remarks (which, adding to the anticlimax of it all, he delivered via Zoom, explaining that he’d recently come down with COVID). 

On the other hand, going to one of Fantastic Fest’s hot-ticket secret screenings only to be presented with the latest Disney/Marvel commodity couldn’t help but feel like a letdown. While another secret screening later in the week made some amends with a sneak peek of Hulu’s rebooted Hellraiser, that brief intrusion of the Disney machine on the festival’s outsider ethos carried a symbolic weight. It seemed to sum up how this formerly underground, deliriously ramshackle festival had at long last become an institution, not unlike the “genre movie” itself. 

After all, most of this year’s biggest Fantastic Fest titles—Bones and All, The Menu, The Banshees of Inisherin, Triangle of Sadness—had already played stodgier, more traditional festivals such as Venice, Toronto, and Cannes, where their gore and bizarre concepts were lauded by tuxedo-clad normies who weren’t all loopy on beer and sleep deprivation. What was once considered “cult” or “fringe” now forms the appropriated backbone of a lot of broadly popular stuff: Stranger Things, A24 films, and yes, even Marvel. Having a chunk of Disney+ flotsam occupy such a hallowed place in Fantastic Fest’s lineup felt, in many ways, like the geekdom singularity, as the festival was inevitably overtaken by a movement it had played no small part in starting.   

And yet, while I’ve never been to Cannes, I’m pretty sure you can’t leave a screening there and walk directly into a bar where you probe a robot’s rectum in a game of Prostate Hero. This was just one of several mechanized delights on hand at Fantastic Fest’s opening night party, courtesy of the Vienna-based Roboexotica, which also brought in crepe-making machines and a tiny electric chair where a man, dressed as a cop, strapped in hot dogs, grilling them to perfection while the condemned wieners writhed and convulsed. 

I also can’t imagine the haute couture crowd of Venice putting up with the Denver-based music collective Itchy-O, who closed out the party with a show that was equal parts Satanic marching band, confrontational performance art, and terrorist invasion. Its members, their faces obscured by pitch-black balaclavas, pounded away at drums, fired off smoke cannons, and filled the air with a cacophony of sirens, all while a Chinese dragon with glowing eyes pushed and pawed through the crowd. This was the kind of barely controlled chaos that you’d expect only from Fantastic Fest—even if it took place against the gleaming, glassed-in mixed-use development that the Alamo Drafthouse now calls home. 

That kind of shared catharsis is Fantastic Fest’s stock-in-trade, and it took on a greater resonance, obviously, in the shadow of COVID-19, which had caused the festival to be canceled entirely in 2020 and forced it to dramatically scale back in 2021. This year, to quote festival director Lisa Dreyer’s opening remarks, marked the first “full-blown f—ing Fantastic Fest” in nearly three years. There was a distinct sense of pent-up energy being gloriously released in the return of festival stalwarts like the Fantastic Feud trivia contest, as well as 100 Best Kills, the popular compendium that this year paid homage to Texas’s new abortion laws by counting down some of cinema’s best on-screen castrations. 

The cloud of COVID was also felt in the prevailing theme of trauma that coursed throughout the festival lineup, as it has a lot of horror movies from the past decade. Nearly all of the festival’s marquee selections dealt with deeply damaged humans grappling with grief, betrayal, or loneliness, which had left them feeling unmoored from the world. Typically they found themselves facing some near-cosmic threat that arrived out of nowhere and spared no one. The real-world parallels to the pandemic, to climate change, and to the general atmosphere of inequity and discord in our daily lives were hard to miss. Here are some that I managed to catch.

Smile

COVID-inspired feelings of isolation and ambient dread factored heavily, if obliquely, into Smile, a new supernatural horror film from Paramount that seemed destined to be one of the festival’s bigger breakouts. As writer-director Parker Finn explained in his postscreening Q&A, a lot of us have spent the past several years covering up those emotions and uncertainties behind the masks of our smiles. With Smile, he aims to make that mask as terrifying as any worn by Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.

In Smile itself, this is hardly a metaphor: its main monster, evil spirit, or whatever—Smile doesn’t bother with the folklore—literally feeds on people’s trauma, passing into new victims by forcing them to watch the previous one commit suicide. When Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is visited by a patient who’s raving that no one can see the thing that’s been following her then slits her own throat, Rose finds herself infected by the same vision: a deranged smile that creeps across the faces of friends and strangers alike. Rose soon becomes increasingly unhinged herself, unable to convince others that she’s not just having some sort of nervous breakdown. 

Smile is clearly indebted to movies like It Follows and The Ring, which makes the whole thing a tad predictable once its pattern unfolds. When it comes to whether you’ll be frightened by people cheesing like they’re in a yearbook photo, well, your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, Smile mashes every button while trying to amplify its modest terrors, with Finn layering on jump scares with increasing absurdity. (Hold onto your seats as Rose suddenly opens a can of cat food!) Eventually, he brings in some gloriously old-fashioned creature design from horror-movie godheads Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., of Alien fame. Still, perhaps Smile’s most lasting effect is its unrelenting bleakness; for a movie called Smile, it is surprisingly cheerless, offering more of an extended wallow in our grim societal attitudes toward mental illness than the kind of sinister fun that’s promised by its premise (or its viral marketing campaign).  

Satanic Hispanics

A mysterious curse also hangs over Satanic Hispanics, a collection of loosely connected shorts that’s directed by five Latino filmmakers who all allegedly met at Fantastic Fest. In the film’s wraparound segment, some ancient, pissed-off something is stalking Efren Ramirez’s the Traveler, an enigmatic character who tries to persuade a pair of El Paso cops to let him go by telling them a series of tall tales filled with ghosts, demons, and mystical dildos.

As with most anthologies, Satanic Hispanics is a bit all over the place, taking wild tonal swings from episode to episode, and managing to feel both rushed and occasionally inert. Naturally, some segments work better than others: Eduardo Sánchez’s “El Vampiro” is a fun, gory farce about a bloodsucker who’s racing to get home before daylight saving time kicks in. And Alejandro Brugués’ “Hammer of Zanzibar” puts Mystery Science Theater 3000 host Jonah Ray Rodrigues in a winking Evil Dead pastiche that’s mostly an excuse for a lot of quippy gunplay delivered in cool-guy slow motion (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In other words, Satanic Hispanic feels like the quintessential Fantastic Fest movie, one that plays to an indulgent audience that’s well versed in horror tropes and all too happy to see them deployed over and over again with such giddy force. 

King on Screen and Lynch/Oz

After all, if there’s one thing that can be said of the Fantastic Fest crowd, it’s that it knows what it likes. It’s a sensibility, both erudite and open-minded, that could be found in a pair of documentaries paying homage to author Stephen King and filmmaker David Lynch—who could be considered the twin poles between which the entire festival oscillates.

Of those two movies, King on Screen felt by far the least essential. Belgian documentarian Daphné Baiwir looks at the dozens of Stephen King stories that have been adapted for movies and television, interviewing some of the directors who have made them, while also digging for some larger understanding of why there have been so damn many. But the film’s lack of any real structure—or a clear thesis beyond why a good story begets a good movie (most of the time)—leads to a whole lot of repetition and empty platitudes. King on Screen manages to feel overlong at just north of an hour, padding out its running time with lots of irrelevant behind-the-scenes tangents and coming off like a glorified DVD extra at best.

By contrast, Alexandre O. Philippe’s Lynch/Oz zeroes in on its single, film school essay–like conceit with compelling results, examining the occasionally subtle, yet frequently overt, influence that The Wizard of Oz has had on David Lynch creations such as Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, and Mulholland Drive. As in Philippe’s 2017 documentary 78/52, which delved equally obsessively into the three-minute shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, his narrow focus here yields some far-ranging insights into the creative process. And these are unspooled across discretely fascinating chapters narrated by Lynch admirers and fellow filmmakers such as John Waters and Dallas’s own David Lowery, who cop to some of their own influences (and thefts) along the way.  

Country Gold 

The films of Oklahoma director Mickey Reece have often been likened to those of David Lynch, occasionally to Reece’s chagrin, but his newest feature, Country Gold, confirmed once again that he’s not so easily categorized. It’s another surreal, dialogue-driven affair from the DIY director who has often described his work as “people talking in rooms.” This one chronicles a long night of conversation and confrontation between a fictional country music star, the thinly veiled Garth Brooks parody Troyal Brux (Reece himself), and East Texas legend George Jones (Ben Hall), who invites Troyal to join him for one wild night in Nashville in 1994. That’s when the “Ol’ Possum” reveals to Troyal that this will be his last night on earth, since he plans to be cryogenically frozen in the morning.

As in a lot of Reece’s work, there’s plenty of absurdity in Country Gold—much of it supplied by Reece’s Troyal, who talks with the puffed-up, self-aware machismo of a Danny McBride character. The film, replete with strange animated and fantasy sequences, also delves into the ludicrous side of celebrity according to its own dream logic, making it a spiritual kin to Reece’s bizarro Elvis Presley biography, Mickey Reece’s Alien. But the biggest surprise of Country Gold is just how moving it is. It turns on a dime from a bit of fabulist fan fiction into a touching rumination on the pressures and compromises that come with creating art for an insatiable, ungrateful audience. It’s something even indie-movie-averse fans of the real George Jones might appreciate, if they can adapt to Reece’s peculiar rhythms. 

The Menu  

The often-hostile tensions between artist and audience were also the main theme of, ironically, this year’s Audience Award winner, The Menu. Destined to be one of the fall’s most talked-about movies, The Menu is a wickedly fun send-up of elitism and entitlement that often plays like some fever dream mash-up of Se7en, Top Chef, and Succession. That last comparison makes certain sense, at least: director Mark Mylod and writer Will Tracy (who cowrote the script with his old colleague from The Onion, Seth Reiss) have created some of the most cutting episodes of HBO’s black-comedy/drama about the miserably rich. Together with producer Betsy Koch (a Plano native and University of Texas at Austin alum), they’ve plated another deliciously sour satire of wealth and pretension.  

Here, much of that ire is directed at the world of fine dining, which is exemplified by the beyond-exclusive, private-island restaurant lorded over by dogmatic head chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik serves his lavishly tailored tasting menu to a gaggle of diverse yet equally privileged jerks: There’s a trio of high-fiving finance bros; a washed-up, Johnny Depp–like actor (John Leguizamo) and his long-suffering assistant (Aimee Carrero); a pompous food critic (Janet McTeer); and an obnoxious, self-styled “foodie” (Nicholas Hoult) and his date (Anya Taylor-Joy), who remains unimpressed by Slowik’s fussy, overcomplicated food. As the “story” that’s being told by Slowik’s courses begins to take a more personal turn, the diners soon realize that there’s a more sinister plan afoot—one whose aims you can probably guess but whose specific means, much like the deceptively familiar ingredients in a dish, still manage to come together in surprising ways.

Triangle of Sadness

Superficially, The Menu treads very similar territory to Fantastic Fest’s other big “get,” Triangle of Sadness, which arrived fresh from winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund has crafted his own mordant satire of the idle rich that unfolds in three parts, revolving around a pair of in-love-for-the-Instagram fashion models. The film picks up steam when they board a luxury yacht but quickly runs aground atop a giant allegory when a storm upends the fancy dinner. In the film’s long, creeping third act, the po-faced couple and their fellow privileged few are stranded on an island, where they must confront their utter uselessness. 

There are moments of keen, comic observation in Triangle of Sadness, but these are too often overwhelmed by Östlund’s blunt social messaging, not to mention the torrent of vomit and diarrhea the ship’s seasick passengers expel for endless minutes in the film’s centerpiece. Overall, Triangle manages to be both too on the nose in its intent and cravenly vague about articulating it, although there are still a few bright spots along this journey. Not least of these is Midland’s own Woody Harrelson as the yacht’s Marxist captain, who pops up blitzed and quoting Noam Chomsky with typical wild-eyed glee.


If one can take the cultural temperature through a smattering of regional film festival offerings—and who the hell says we can’t?—then we seem to be living in an especially tetchy age. (And one in which every studio is looking for its own Parasite or Knives Out.) Maybe we’ve just been cooped up too long, but our stories are suffering from an ennui that’s tinged with nihilism and existential dread. Judging by the tenor of these movies, we’re also growing increasingly hostile toward those who would indulge themselves while the world burns. In The Menu, Fiennes’s character posits this as a war between “givers” and “takers”—between those who create and those who mindlessly eat without ever tasting, consuming and complaining and burping out opinions, then impatiently demanding that the next course be brought around. 

He’s talking about food, but it’s easy to extrapolate this lesson to all the other things we take for granted—even the opportunity to watch a perfectly fine Marvel TV show. Yes, Fantastic Fest may be bigger these days, slightly more corporate, a touch more alienating than it used to be. But its purity of purpose remains: to remind us of the simple joys of connecting with one another, however briefly, over the shared pleasures that make life worthwhile. Otherwise, we’re all just out here, sitting in the dark, waiting for the monster to take us.



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