This year’s Fantastic Fest was held at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse from September 21st to the 28th, and this year’s programming was excellent. For the first part of my FF coverage, here are write-ups of films that played the festival which I covered for DG at previous events earlier this year. Dispatches for each day of the fest will follow soon.
78/52 (USA, dir. Alexandre O. Philippe)
Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO is unquestionably one of the most influential films of the 1960s, and one of the ultimate achievements in an incredible career. But one scene in PSYCHO truly set it apart from anything that had come before. Hitchcock meticulously planned and shot the shower murder scene over the course of several days—the title refers to the 78 camera setups used to shoot the scene and the 52 cuts employed in the finished version–and the effect on audiences was profound. This documentary speaks to a number of filmmakers including Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman, Bret Easton Ellis, Bob Murawski, Gary Rydstrom, Karyn Kusama, Oz Perkins, and Jamie Lee Curtis among many others. Everyone approaches their discussion of the scene from their personal experience and/or particular discipline: Elfman talks about Bernard Herrmann’s score, Murawski examines George Tomasini’s editing, Bogdanovich recounts seeing a press screening of the film just before its original release. It’s a surprisingly wide-ranging documentary for something with such narrow focus, but everyone here has great stories and insight, and it’s fun to feel like they’re all just hanging out talking about what they love.
DAN-DREAM (Denmark, dir. Jesper Rofelt)
Thorkil Bonnesen (Casper Christensen) is stifled at his day job by his superiors’ lack of vision. When they ridicule his insistence that every home will have a computer before the 1980s are over, he leaves the company to start his own and invent something important. When he meets electrical engineer Jens Knagstrup (Frank Hvam) and sees the electric battery Jens has rigged up for his bicycle, Thorkil is struck with inspiration. He recruits a team and moves them to a small town to start research and production, but tensions in the partners’ families and outside their company threaten the project. The people in the town hate Thorkil and his fellow “city people,” automotive expert Vonsil (Magnus Millang) keeps making inappropriate jokes at the expense of Thorkil’s African girlfriend Grace (Louisa Yaa Aisin), and Jens’s wife Kirsten (Stine Schrøder Jensen) is bored and endlessly scornful of both Jens’s ambitions and their daughter Fanny (Jelina Moumou Meyer). DAN-DREAM reunites writers and stars Christensen and Hvam from the KLOWN TV series and films, importing a similar sense of humor to a very different milieu. As in KLOWN, there is no shortage of deeply uncomfortable humor, frequently toeing a very delicate line dealing with some seriously volatile material. Some of this pays off in surprising ways, but there’s no question some viewers are going to find much of the comedy here to be “problematic.” It’s not quite as adventurous or outrageous as the KLOWN films, but DAN-DREAM has a slightly more optimistic tone and is much more interesting visually than those films, which borrowed the semi-verite approach to shooting handheld with digital cameras from the KLOWN television series. Veteran television director and first-time feature director Jesper Rofelt takes advantage of the early 80s setting to great effect, and the cast has fantastic comedic and dramatic chemistry.
DARKLAND (Denmark, dir. Fenar Ahmad)
Zaid (Dar Salim) is a successful heart surgeon and son of Iraqi immigrants to Denmark. His younger brother Yasin (Anis Alobaidi), though, has become trapped in a world of drugs and violence. He comes to Zaid asking for $100,000 to repay a debt, but Zaid can’t do it. Soon after their meeting, Yasin is hospitalized with severe injuries that lead to his death. The police don’t seem too interested in spending resources to investigate the death of a low-level drug dealer, and in frustration Zaid decides to try to find Yasin’s killers himself. He enlists the help of Yasin’s friend Alex (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), to help him track down kingpin Semion (Ali Sivandi), who ran the trap house Yasin sold out of. But as he spends more time in the underworld, his pregnant wife Stine (Stine Fischer Christensen) feels more and more neglected and worried, and Semion is more powerful and dangerous than Zaid may realize. DARKLAND is a Danish take on DEATH WISH, a slick and well-mounted action/thriller that feels overly familiar. The only thing it really has going for it to separate it from the countless revenge-film knock-offs that followed in the wake of that hugely influential film is the fact that it takes place in the Danish Iraqi community. The cast is great, especially Ali Sivandi as the menacing Semion, and the photography by frequent music video cinematographer Kasper Tuxen is impressive. The action and fight scenes are solidly staged and choreographed, but ultimately DARKLAND feels too familiar to be memorable. Perhaps director/co-writer Fenar Ahmad was concerned that making the characters’ world too specific to their community would risk audience identification at large, but developing that angle would have gone a long way toward making the film really stand out.
THE ENDLESS (USA, dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)
Brothers Justin and Aaron Smith (writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, respectively) are muddling along in their lives without much direction. They grew up in a “UFO cult” and escaped in their teens, but after a brief period of public interest they’re stuck in dead-end jobs. Aaron wants to go back to the cult’s compound for a visit, and after some reluctance Justin grudgingly agrees. They arrive to find things exactly the way they were when they left. In fact, not just the grounds, but the people are still exactly the same. Aaron finds himself attracted to Anna (Callie Hernandez), a young woman who used to babysit him when he was younger and who still looks the same age. Justin chalks it up to their strict regimen of organic foods, exercise, and hard work, but as the brothers spend a few days in the camp it starts to look like something else might be the source of the cult members’ youthful vigor–and it may already be too late for the brothers to escape again. Benson & Moorhead’s debut feature RESOLUTION was a brilliant take on the basic “cabin in the woods” template that spiraled out from the tense relationship between two best friends to encompass a brain-breaking cosmic horror. THE ENDLESS is something of a return to that world, and it’s arguably even better. The writer/directors have a convincing fraternal chemistry, and they’re a great comic team as well. THE ENDLESS expands on the mythology established in their first film and the obscure online companions that helped flesh out this world a little beyond the text of the film itself. The writer/director/stars manage an impressive tightrope act between the comic and horrifying, and while it’s certainly not a requirement to see RESOLUTION before this film it is that rare sequel or companion film that not only improves on its predecessor, but actually improves the experience of watching its predecessor. This is one of the biggest surprises and best films of the year in any genre.
JUNK HEAD (Japan, dir. Takahide Hori)
Thousands of years in the future, mankind has built cities reaching far into the skies. Somewhere below live the descendants of a class of cloned workers who rose up against humanity nearly two millennia ago. When a crisis arises among the human population, an explorer is sent down the lower levels on a desperate mission, but before he even lands his ship is destroyed and his head (encased in a robotic helmet) removed from his body. A scientist puts the head on a new body, but the explorer has forgotten who he is, and plunges into a series of misadventures with the bizarre inhabitants of the lower depths. JUNK HEAD is an astonishing technical achievement, a nearly two-hour stop-motion sci-fi epic made by Takahide Hori and a handful of collaborators over the course of several years. Like Nick DiLiberto’s hand-drawn animated feature NOVA SEED (which played Fantasia last year), JUNK HEAD is an undiluted vision that looks to have been beamed directly from Hori’s brain onto the screen. The creature design is imaginative and nightmarish, but for all the scary stuff happening JUNK HEAD is surprisingly funny. Its characters speak in multiple invented languages, so there’s not a single word of decipherable dialogue for the entire film, but the subtitles and expressive character designs ably tell the story. It’s such an impressive feat that the abrupt ending is a massive letdown; the film ends at what feels like the start of the third act. Here’s hoping Hori and the citizens of his crazy little world return with a sequel to finish the story sooner than later!
RON GOOSSENS: LOW-BUDGET STUNTMAN (Netherlands, dir. Steffen Haars & Flip Van der Kuil)
The Dutch film industry is in a crisis. Union stuntmen have driven the cost of film production through the roof. When career alcoholic Ron Goossens (Tim Haars) becomes a Youtube sensation for crashing his car while trying to jump a raising bridge and emerging from the water with the year’s hottest catchphrase (“I’m like totally shitfaced!”), a producer approaches him in hopes of hiring him as cheap stunt labor. Ron isn’t interested—he has just enough money to drink himself stupid every day, and that’s all he really wants out of life—but then his wife Angela (Maartje van de Wetering) announces she’s pregnant and gives him an ultimatum. If Ron can get Dutch superstar Bo Maerten (playing herself) into bed, Angela will let him stay. So Ron takes the gig and begins implementing his master plan, which mostly consists of suffering one grievous injury after another while he tries to do stunts completely drunk and occasionally harasses Ms. Maerten. RON GOOSSENS is the latest feature from Steffen Haars and Flip Van der Kuil, creators of the hit NEW KIDS TV series and films. While there is plenty of goofy slapstick humor that transcends cultures, there’s also no doubt a familiarity with popular Dutch cinema would probably be helpful. Several people play themselves including Maerten and musician Dennie Christian, and there are a number of direct references to the NEW KIDS films. Still, there’s a lot of very funny stuff here and a lot that will probably make North American audiences a bit uncomfortable. RON GOOSSENS is probably best enjoyed with a beer or two (or five, or more), but it’s still pretty funny if you’re sober. Just probably not as funny.
SUPER DARK TIMES (USA, dir. Kevin Phillips)
In a suburb somewhere in the American Midwest in the 1990s, lifelong best friend Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) do what bored teenage boys did before the internet. They ride their bikes around town, watch scrambled cable porn, and hang out with people they’ve grown up with whether they like them or not. When Josh kills one of these acquaintances in a tragic accident, Zach tries to cover it up along with the younger kid Charlie (Sawyer Barth) who saw it. The timing couldn’t be worse: both boys have a crush on classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), and she begins making her move on Zach. But while Zach tries to keep things from falling apart without pushing Allison away, Josh can’t hid his fraying sanity. True to its title, SUPER DARK TIMES is a pitch-black “coming of age” story that perfectly evokes the era in which it takes place. The young cast is great, but Amy Hargreaves is particularly affecting as Zach’s mom Karen. Despite its subject matter, the film manages a few moments of surprising bleak humor and its moody cinematography by Eli Born and excellent score by Ben Frost conjures an almost palpable sense of dread.
TIGER GIRL (Germany, dir. Jakob Lass)
Maggy (Maria-Victoria Dragus) blows her police school entrance exam with a spectacular fall off a pommel horse. She decides to take a training course to be a security guard instead, and while out with her fellow trainees for a drink she meets Tiger (Ella Rumpf). Tiger is everything Maggy is not, namely fiercely independent and utterly certain of who she is. Tiger dubs Maggy “Vanilla the Killah” and tries to help her realize her own potential with advice such as “Politeness is a form of violence, but against yourself.” Impressionable Vanilla takes Tiger’s wild ways to heart, Tiger hardly has it all figured out. She lives in an abandoned bus and hangs out with a couple of drug dealers who squat in the attic of an apartment building. Vanilla, excited by chaos after a life of repression, starts acting out in ways that put both women in danger. Ella Rumpf made a big impression on international horror fans in Julia Ducornau’s RAW, and she’s unquestionably the star of the show here. Tiger is charismatic and convincing, even when she says things that don’t make much sense if given even a moment’s thought. Some of Tiger and Vanilla’s antics are highly amusing, especially a stunt in which they pose as mall security guards and subject a series of randomly-chosen people to increasingly bizarre tests. But there’s a dark undercurrent in the relationship between the two women, and Maria-Victoria Dragus does a fantastic job of depicting Vanilla’s escalating addiction to antisocial behavior. Even at her worst, her reprehensible behavior is understandable if inexcusable. These two great lead performances make TIGER GIRL well worth a look.
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Tags: Aaron Moorhead, Alexandre O. Philippe, Austin, Bob Murawski, Bret Easton Ellis, Callie Hernandez, Casper Christensen, Danny Elfman, Denmark, Ella Rumpf, Fantastic Fest 2017, Fenar Ahmad, Frank Hvam, Gary Rydstrom, George Tomasini, Germany, guillermo del toro, Jakob Lass, jamie lee curtis, japan, Jesper Rofelt, Justin Benson, Karyn Kusama, Kevin Phillips, Oz Perkins, Peter Bogdanovich, The Netherlands