Dispatch: Highlights from Fantastic Fest, a Genre Film Festival for the People

Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, is something of a Mecca to genre film lovers, a supporter and champion of challenging and thought-provoking new cinema, as well as a platform for restored, long-forgotten repertory works. Even with the current WGA and SAG/AFTRA strikes, the guest lists this year are impressive (we love directors too!). But the real stars of the week-long event are the ground-breaking movies that attendees clamor over each other in order to get the limited number of tickets available to each screening. I’m in Austin for most of this year’s event (after not having attended Fantastic Fest in about 10 years), and I’ll spend the next few days attempting to cover as much of what I see as possible, so keep an eye on these and other Fantastic Fest titles.

Animalia

A critical favorite from Sundance earlier this year, writer/director Sofia Alaoui’s feature debut Animalia tells the sometimes-surreal story of Itto (Oumaima Barid), a Moroccan Berber woman who comes from a poor family but has married up in the world with her adoring and very successful businessman husband Amine (Mehdi Dehbi), much to the dismay of her mother-in-law. Itto is many months pregnant and uses that as an excuse to spend the day at home alone, avoiding a family outing to the governor’s house. But while she’s home alone, the sky gets dark and storm clouds roll in, bringing in a strange fog that seems to be having a mysterious impact on local dogs, birds, even ants. The film wisely never attempts to explain exactly what is happening, and the brief glimpses we get of local news reports don’t help clear up the source or residual effects of the fog. Able to get in touch with her husband finally, Itto is meant to ride with a neighbor and his family to the town where Anime and his family are staying. Needless to say, things get complicated.

She eventually meets a fellow Berber, Fouad (Fouad Oughaou), who agrees to get her to her extended family after a delivery, but their route takes them right into the fog, where they see and experience things that cannot be explained. Before long, the strange behavior seen in the animals starts to be noticed in humans as well, but the resulting behavior stems from a strangely science-fictiony concept of “Everything will be fine,” rather than any inherently threatening situation. The film is intimate, personal and stems from a woman who doesn’t like being reminded of her roots, unless it suits her needs, and it finds its footing when it tackles issues like class bias and standing up for yourself when you absolutely need to. But the unnatural undercurrents of the fog seem to pull out the uni-mind device of a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Things seem peaceful, but at what cost to individuality? With such a thoughtful work, I’m anticipating where director Alaoui takes us next in her storytelling.

The Origin

For those who found fresh ideas in a film like the prehistoric-set Prey, Scottish-born filmmaker Andrew Cumming (working from a sharp screenplay by Ruth Greenberg) delivers The Origin, set in the Old Stone Age (roughly 45,000 years ago) and centering on a group of six early humans who work together to find a new homeland. But in their travels, they start to believe (for good reason) that an other-worldly creature is on their trail, and they must not only fight the being but also find a way to wrap their collective heads around the idea that such a creature might even exist. The film relies heavily on fleeting glimpses and a truly unnerving soundscape to generate palpable levels of fear in the already scared group. They have traveled by boat to this raw, desolate landscape and are hungry and incredibly hopeless. But when the sun goes down, they add terrified to their list of emotions and even begin turning on each other.

Using an invented language to tell this story, director Cumming turns things from bad to worse when a young boy in the group gets snatched by whatever is hunting them, and with a combination of loud screaming in the dark and impressive combat skills, they all presume that something monstrous is waiting for them all. The Origin isn’t afraid to get shockingly violent, subvert expectations, and reveal whom among a group of prehistoric men and women actually steps up and takes control in the search for missing loved ones and in the fight for their lives. One young woman, Geirr (Kit Young) begins to piece together what is going on and who are the true monsters in this powerful survival story.

Strange Darling

Perhaps my favorite film of the festival so far is the second feature (after Outlaws and Angels) from writer/director JT Mollner. Strange Darling was perhaps most notable going into the festival for having actor Giovanni Ribisi as the the movie’s director of photography (shot on 35mm film, no less). The published plot synopsis simply states: “One day in the twisted love life of a serial killer,” and saying too much more than that would risk giving away far too much. Told across six chapters, revealed out of order, the film includes a young woman (Willa Fitzgerald, the Reacher series and the upcoming The Fall of the House of Usher Netflix series) running for her life, bloody and terrified. The only other main character (neither is actually given a name in the credits) is a charming but distractingly thoughtful man (genre mainstay Kyle Gallner, Smile, last year’s Scream, Jennifer’s Body, Red State). We see the two on a date, getting involved in a little bedroom role-playing, and in less that ideal circumstances as well.

Their chaotic involvement eventually pulls an older couple (Barbara Hershey and Ed Begley Jr.) into their gravity, and things only get worse for everyone involved. The crackling, precise writing; the stunning cinematography; and the acting from the two leads, all work to keep us actively involved in what is unspooling and guessing until the end what the hell is happening. The out-of-order storytelling is so often used as a gimmick to no real effect that it’s genuinely surprising when it’s used purposefully and beautifully. The film actually hinges on it. And as strong as Gallner’s performance is as the stoic guy with the positively glowing mustache, it’s Fitzgerald (a discovery for me) who steals this movie. Her reactions and sense of nervy cool completely pulled me into this death-defying movie. Do everything in your power to let this one be a surprise for you, and your reward will be one of the most fascinating, flawlessly constructed crime dramas I’ve seen in a while.

V/H/S/85

As we say about all horror anthologies, some of the segments here work better than others. With the recently revived V/H/S franchise, the first remains the strongest, last year’s is still the weakest, and the new entry, V/H/S/85, seems grounded firmly in the middle of those two, with the caveat being that one of the newest segments is easily one of the best the franchise has ever seen. This film has the bad luck of being released (on Shudder, October 6) just a couple of weeks after the vastly superior Satanic Hispanics, both of which feature entries by the always-game Gigi Saul Guerrero, who provides the series’ best God of Death segment, about a group of office workers and rescuers who attempt to escape a building after an earthquake only to stumble upon ancient ruins at the subterranean lower levels. The segment is chaotic, very scary, and culturally specific as it embraces its Mexican setting (with subtitles) and mythology.

The whole work is tied together with director David Bruckner’s (The Night House, the recent Hellraiser reboot) story about a weird research facility. The idea is that all of the shorts are actually found-footage VHS tapes, complete with magnetic tape glitches, and the one that seems to take full advantage of that is Natasha Kermani’s (Imitation Girl, Lucky) TKNOGD, featuring a performance artist whose one-woman installation goes wrong when she incorporates actual incantations. The film looks like someone simply shot their shoebox-theater show, and it works thematically. I also like the first half of No Wake short, which is split up into two segments by director Mike P. Nelson (Wrong Turn), the first of which feels like a commentary on America’s gun obsession (I realize the irony of writing that statement while in Texas). But the back half about a death cult that carried out the brutal slaying of a group of campers seems silly, bordering on camp. The final chapter is Dreamkill from director/co-writer Scott Derrickson, Sinister, The Black Phone), the most surreal of the bunch about a young man whose video camera seems to record murders before they happen; I’m neutral on this one, but I was thrilled to see Freddy Rodríguez and James Ransone as the investigating detectives. It’s fun to see how hard all of these filmmakers went, but it’s only the segments that go beyond the expected blood and guts that worked for me.

One-Percenter

Writer/director Yûdai Yamaguchi (who contributed to the horror anthology The ABCs of Death) brings his extreme and eccentric style of filmmaking to a much more personal story, which still features an extended fight sequence that pits about 100 yakuza against one past-his-prime stunt actor who is simply trying to find a location for this next movie. The esteemed Japanese actor Takuma Toshiro (Tak Sakaguchi, for whom this part was clearly tailored) is done making standard-issue action movie (he thinks wirework in martial arts is for dancers and not real men), so he develops of style of fighting called “Assassination Jitsu,” which commits to genuine action with fight choreography that is as close to real martial arts as possible. After quitting the business for a time, Toshiro decides to make his own movie and heads to a remote, abandoned factory to find the perfect location.

What follows is Toshiro and a small crew arriving just as two yakuza gangs do, looking for a hidden stash of cocaine. By adhering to a fairly generic action plot but front-loading it with some of the most brutal and believable fighting, both the filmmaker and Toshiro are basically making the action movie of their dreams. Very little about the long-take fight sequences (choreographed by the great Kensuke Sonomura) are graceful or pretty, but they are undeniably skillful and without a stitch of CGI or quick cutting to hide the actors’ limitations—they don’t seem to have any when it comes to combat. One incredible sequence involves Toshiro fighting against dozens of opponents in a pitch-black room with only a flashlight and his fists as weapons. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the lines between reality and fiction are when watching One-Percenter, but that actually factors into Toshiro’s story as well. After watching this, I’m excited to explore Sakaguchi others works and (apparently) impressive collection of YouTube videos. Add his name to the increasingly short list of real-deal action stars the world has to offer.

The People’s Joker

After being pulled from film festivals (including Fantastic Fest) after its 2022 Toronto Film Festival debut for all manner of questionable uses of copyrighted IP, writer/director/star Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker is back and just as trippy as ever. Lest you think the movie is going to be some takedown of comic book films, think again. Drew embraces the many tropes of DC and Marvel movies (and flat out takes most of her characters from the many Batman iterations) and turns her work into a statement about alt-comedy vs. more established, safer forms of organized humor (the film’s real target seems to be “Saturday Night Live,” and it should come as no surprise that Drew worked for a time with Tim & Eric and on Comedy Bang! Bang!). Drew casts herself as Joker the Harlequin, a trans woman trying to free comedy from corporate overlords. There are many variations of Joker, since apparently all comedy in this universe comes from clown schools, which is why Joker and The Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) start an anti-comedy troupe in the hopes of drumming up support for other forms of popular humor.

Words will never fully explain or describe what makes The People’s Joker so unique, energetic, and just plain anti-establishment, but it uses dozens (maybe hundreds) of artists to piece together background, animated sequences, special effects, and other eye-popped visuals, and the result is memorable and mixed. I love the idea of turning the Joker’s story into a queer coming-of-age work that also wants to be the voice of those comedy performers who aren’t always allowed to work traditional venues. Even as her performance hits all the right notes, Drew’s vision as a writer and director feels unfocused at times, while drifting into keenly observed set pieces in other moments. The idea of pulling in a huge number of Batman’s Rogue’s gallery to tell this story is inspired (there are some truly deep cuts here), and when the story shifts into going after SNL in general and Lorne Michaels specifically, I was stunned (in a mostly good way). The film is campy, silly, colorful, and feels like it’s from the mind of a twisted genius—when it doesn’t feel childish. I’m a bit divided on this one, but I’m absolutely glad it exists.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.