Dispatch: Austin’s Fantastic Fest Features a Riff on Stephen King and a Witty, Demonic Coming-of-Age Thriller
Our Fantastic Fest coverage continues with these highlights from the genre film festival in Austin, Texas.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines
In the press notes for Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (the prequel to one or both of the adaptations of Stephen King’s immensely scary Pet Sematary), it says “based on the never before told chapter from Pet Sematary,” which almost makes it sound like King edited out this story from his original novel. In fact, other than the actual burial ground and the character of Jud Crandall (played by Fred Gwynne or John Lithgow, depending on which adaptation you watch), there’s very little connecting this story to the original. In fact, this story answers the question that no one was asking: why did Jud (played here by Jackson White) never leave his hometown of Ludlow, Maine even when he knew an evil force existed within its woods?
In this version of the story and town, pretty much everyone knows the burial ground exists and that if you bury something in its sour earth, it will come back to life in a corrupted state—in pain, confused, angry, and somehow knowing your deepest, darkest secrets, eager to use them against you. Less an “Indian burial ground” and more a tainted place that the local indigenous tribes discovered hundreds of year ago, the place looks pretty much the same as in other adaptations. Early-20s Jud and his girlfriend (Natalie Alyn Lind) are about to leave town to join the Peace Corps during the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, but they get held up when they spot the dog belonging to neighbor Bill (David Duchovny) and decide to walk it home. Bill’s son (and Jud’s childhood pal) Timmy (Jack Mulhern) has just come back from the war a changed man (in more ways than one, as you can probably guess), and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Timmy wants to make a small army of things like him, so he starts out on a killing and reanimating spree among his old friends.
I like that there are actually Native actors in Bloodlines, including Forrest Goodluck’s Manny (one of Jud and Timmy’s childhood pals) and his sister Donna (Isabella Star LaBlanc), who has one of the more interesting arcs in the movie, and that they aren’t treated like mystical beings who can solve all the town’s issues with the cemetery. They get caught up in the horror with everyone else. The film comes courtesy of first-time director and co-writer (along with Jeff Buhler) Lindsey Anderson Beer, who injects the story with a certain amount of curiosity as she attempts to use what little information there is about Jud’s history or the history of the burial ground in King’s novel to build and entire film upon. But simply repeating the line “Sometimes dead is better” a couple times just to have some recognizable connection to the original films isn’t quite enough to bring this one home. Henry Thomas and Samantha Mathis are on hand as Jud’s parents, but even that doesn’t quite justify the questionable existence of this prequel. There are a couple of good ideas here, but they all feel thin. We’re basically skimming the surface of something promising but never diving deep enough to discover what exactly.
The film begins screening October 6 on Paramount+.
In 2012, I saw the terrific documentary The American Scream, which paid loving tribute to small-town, family-run or neighborhood-operated haunted houses that popped up on streets around October but took months of preparation and construction. Now, there are few specific stories like that told in director Quinn Monahan’s Spooktacular! doc, which charts the rise and fall of Spooky World, an entire horror theme park built in the middle of a Massachusetts cornfield that became a destination for fans of horror films and hay rides alike. The founder, David Bertolino, was part ringleader, part huckster, and all showman as he parlayed his time working in his father’s costume shop into creating the largest horror attraction of its kind. He’d bring special guests, including makeup effect legend Tom Savini (who later had a hand in building up the facility and is an executive producer on the film), Linda Blair, Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, Elvira, Tiny Tim (?), and more, and would swap out some of the attractions to reflect current horror trends of the 1980s and 1990s.
The doc gets deep into the inner workings of the park, with interviews of people who were performers or managers when things were absolutely hopping. Since the park was only open in October, a lot of activity had to be crammed into a short spot of time, which left room for mistakes, safety concerns, scandals, and eventually leading the town to step in because they didn’t like that this horror-themed attraction was pulling in so much money and not sending them a big enough cut. The layout and themes of the various sections of the park were a horror-leaning fan’s dream come true, and the legendary spooky hay rides were a staple for tourists of all ages, often being the first to sell out. The history lesson is impressive, but the heartfelt stories from those who were there are what pulls us in. Spooky World captured audience at a time when American horror films were at a peak, and it rode that wave to its inevitable conclusion. More corporate and studio-sponsored horror pop-ups have taken over the landscape today, but this is where a lot of the ideas for today’s spook houses came from. The film is truly touching, funny, and a peak into a nearly forgotten corner of the horror world.
There’s Something in the Barn
What could be better than a Christmas-themed, Norwegian horror-comedy starring Martin Starr (Dead Snow 2, Silicon Valley)? Well, a few things, but this one isn’t half bad. Starr plays Bill, who inherits his uncle’s estate in an isolated corner of Norway, where he moves his family in the hope of starting their lives over again and bringing him closer to his kids after the death of his first wife. Before long, Bill’s son Lucas (Townes Bunner) discovers that the barn on the property has a “barn elf” living in it, one that is willing to help the family out as long as he’s kept fed and the family adheres to a few Gremlins-like rules (no bright lights, no loud sounds, etc.). If they break the rules, the elf will get destructive or even murderous, which of course ends up happening when Bill decides to throw a Christmas party in their barn to get to know the neighbors. Lucas’ pleas for quiet are ignored because nobody believes him, and before long, it’s elf vs. humans for the fate of the barn.
Under the direction of veteran television series helmer Magnus Martens' (Walking Dead spinoffs, Luke Cage), There’s Something in the Barn is meant to be equal parts nightmare and comedy, but Starr’s aw-shucks delivery feels broad and uninspired—a rare miss for him. Bill’s new life-coach wife (Amrita Acharia) seems to have a firmer grasp on reality and what’s wrong with her husband's overly positive attitude, while his daughter Nora (Zoe Winter-Hansen) is so negative that her character grows tiresome very quickly. The film is liberally laced with culturally specific jokes about Norwegians and Americans; most of that material hits just right, and parts of the elf-centric material reminded me of Rare Exports or even Krampus. But the film doesn’t quite hit the heights of either of those. I certainly laughed quite a few time during this work, and the action-oriented sequences are well done. I just wish I’d cared more about this family, whose members are drifting apart by being so far from the familiar. The elf attacks just underscore something that’s already happening to Bill’s brood. It’s a modest recommendation, mostly because once the elf army comes in, the movie kicks into just the right gear, and the blood finally starts flowing.
The Sacrifice Game
One of the more captivating offerings at this year’s Fantastic Fest is director/co-writer Jenn (The Ranger) Wexler’s The Sacrifice Game, concerning two young boarding school girls, Samantha and Clara (Madison Baines and Georgia Acken), who are stuck at school during the Christmas holidays at some point in the 1970s. It just so happens that in the surrounding area, there have been a rash of Manson-family-style ritualistic murders. With only a protective teacher, Rose (Chloë Levine), and her handyman boyfriend, Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy), to protect them, these two lonely girls must survive Christmas Eve when the murderous gang arrives at their doorstep and reveals that the school is a focal point for a ceremony that will bring out an ancient demon that they think they’ll be able to control.
The film finds ways to incorporate rebellious youth, disenfranchisement, girl power, and satanic panic into a frothy summoning story that has a fairly memorable twist. With Mena Massoud’s Jude and Olivia Scott Welch’s Maisie as the two leaders of the four-person murder squad, The Sacrifice Game also serves as a worthy coming-of-age story that only works if the two students manage to stay alive. Director Wexler has complete command of the period look and feel of her film, with her two lead actresses providing unique and very different performances while somehow both sharing the chemistry of outcasts who must bond in order to survive. The film also gets incredibly gory at points, lest you think the age of the leads would prevent that—skin and organ removal are a top priority in some of the demon-summoning rituals. Wexler’s sense of delight at what she’s putting her cast and audience through, with occasional pops of humor at just the right moments, really make this one a holiday-themed treat.
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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.