Fantastic Fest: Days 1 & 2

Howdy from rainy Austin, Texas!  I am here for the entirety of Fantastic Fest and will be putting up these mini-reviews every two days for the next week.




Proxy (dir. Zack Parker)
At the screening of Proxydirector/writer Zack Parker stated that the less you know about Proxy before seeing it the better.  I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment, which explains this vague review.  I can tell you that the film focuses on the complex relationship that two women have.  Parker wanted to explore his ability to control the audience’s sympathies (which he skillfully did in 2011’s Scalene) and show a story that continues beyond where the audience is expecting the story to stop.  Unfortunately this intentional meandering can be felt in the film’s pacing.  It feels much longer than its actual running time, and often has long stretches that drag along.  Also, the film’s score is melodramatic and over the top at times.  It is good that Parker understands the gravity of the situations he is placing his characters in, but these over the top orchestrations did get a few unintended laughs from the audience.  Even with these flaws, Proxy is a fascinating film.  The complexity of the characters and their unique backgrounds make the film stay in your thoughts for long after the screening.

Almost Human (dir. Joe Begos)
It is always fun to root for the underdog in independent horror.  The films with no budget that somehow scrap together a decent story that makes you wish they had more money to fully realize their vision.  I really wanted Almost Human to be one of those films, but with the major flaws in story and tone I just can’t pick up my pompoms for it.  The film (a basic alien abduction where the alien returns two years later to try to convert humans into aliens) amazingly never shows its budget.  The acting performances are spot-on, and the story was clearly designed to only include elements it could afford.  But the film unsuccessfully tries to be a deeply emotional account of loss with a few misplaced campy alien infestation gimmicks.  The Q&A with director Begos made is clear that he thought the film was funny and exaggerated, when he had actually created a serious and somber film.  This means that the silly elements (including one that made me simply write “unnecessarily rapey” in my notes) strike a discord in the flow of the film.  It made me both want to see that fun campy film Begos thought he made, as well as a more serious version of Almost Human.

We Are What We Are (dir. Jim Mickle)
The American remake of the Mexican cannibal film is easily the early front-runner for my favorite film at Fantastic Fest.  I am a huge fan of the Jorge Michel Grau original, and was extremely concerned when I heard that the film would be reinterpreted by an America for our finicky domestic audience.  I never should have doubted director Mickle, who has a solid genre track record with Stake Land and Mulberry Street.  What he has created is the perfect example of a film adapting another film’s original concepts, but becoming in insular film onto itself. Much was changed from one film to the next, and both films are stand-alone masterpieces.   This version of the cannibal tale takes place in the Catskills- a far from the congested urban environment in Mexico.  The film also swaps the genders of the remaining family members, with a father, two daughters and one young son rather than the mother, and two teenage sons and daughter of the original.  But the most striking difference between the two films is the audience’s exposure to the family’s ritual.  The original keeps the audience mostly in the dark about what their annual ritual consists of, focusing more on the sudden battle for sibling hierarchy.  Mickle’s version shows the ritual in full glory.  It is not done for gore, or shock-value, but rather to drive forward the emotional progression of the two daughters.  We need to see what they are going through to fully appreciate where they are coming from.   Mind you, Mickle does not eschew covering the delicate family dynamics of the Parker family, but sibling fighting is not the main focus here.  This film is well worth your time, and will hopefully open the doors for thoughtful reinterpretation of films, rather than uninspired Hollywood regurgitation of international films that deserve a larger audience.

Tales from the Organ Trade (dir. Ric Esther Bienstock)
Originally financed as an HBO documentary, Tales follows the illegal world of organ buying from both the recipient and donor’s perspective.  While there was no coverage of men in 1970s Times Square waking up in a bathtub of ice, it does primarily follow kidney donation.  Narrated by David Cronenberg and featuring a parade of intense scars, this film was a natural fit with the mostly narrative film programming at Fantastic Fest.  The film introduces us to people who have been on the wait list for new kidneys for years, one Canadian gentleman who purchased a kidney for himself in Kosovo, and the demonized doctors who ran an illegal transplant clinic.  While the film was well done, and got many interesting interviews, it was incredibly biased.  I know that all films have their own angles, especially ones that are purporting to tell the truth, but this was exceptionally heavy-handed but tried to present itself as objective.  It is clearly in favor of paying willing donors, and offers no evidence to support the actual ethical complexity of introducing that to the world.  The one donor who has health issues is framed as being a victim of bad kidney screening, and not a victim of the abject poverty that drove him to have few options to survive.  And the one person interviewed who refused to donate a kidney to a relative is shown as selfish and unable to articulate why she won’t save her father’s life.  This is an interesting topic, which is deserving of more thorough and balanced exploration.

Halley (dir. Sebastian Hofmann)
Halley is a film that seems to think it is much more clever than it is.  It is a Mexican film focusing on one undead security officer, Alberto, as he tries to deal with his decaying state both emotionally and physically.  His body is slowly decomposing, so he takes to tending to it with as much care as he handles his porcelain collections.  Exploring the care of his body and comparing it to the physical upkeep of china is an interesting concept to explore, but unfortunately this more interesting potential is left to the wayside for poor pacing and attempts at artistic shot-framing.  The truth is this film runs dreadfully slowly.  It creeps and crawls along, and it makes the assumption that the filmmaker’s obsession with beautiful shots will engage the viewer.  The shots are quite pretty at times, but they do not warrant their length of lingering.  That coupled with the fact that the greatest tragedy that happens to Alberto is masturbating to the point of ripping off his penis, makes this film self-indulgent, and a waste of time.  By the time the non-sequitur ending, I was completely lost.  The ending was so unrelated to the rest of the film that the guy sitting next to me thought he had fallen asleep.  He hadn’t.  That is not a good sign.  

A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley introduced his film by first saying it was not quite like his other films.  Then again, none of his other films (notably Kill List and Sightseers) are similar to one another.  A Field in England is a period film, set in England’s 17th century and filmed in black and white it is in fact a far cry from his other films.  The loose plot of the film follows two soldiers and one alchemist’s assistant as they leave the battlefield in search of a pub and their masters.  As they get further from the battle they encounter a man who is familiar with the alchemist and has stolen some of his papers.  Greed takes over and that man uses the other men’s brute force and his own incantations to dig in the field for treasure.  The film does not focus on any one aspect of it.  It has hilarious dialogue and is frequently interrupted by the characters striking a pose and becoming ersatz still life dioramas.  As the magic in the alchemy sets in, the film takes a sharp turn into the psychedelic.   Wheatley experiments with distorted images and kaleidoscopic lenses.  These sequences are reminiscent of 2009’s Valhalla Rising, and are another example of a narrative interruption benefitting the film, rather than detracting from it.  With these sequences, A Field in England becomes a film that necessitates and acquired taste to appreciate it.  That being said, if you have enjoyed any of Wheatley’s films to date you should check out this one as well.

The Sacrament (dir. Ti West)

Ti West has a deserved reputation of making creepy, atmospheric, slow-burn horror films.  Both The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil are two of the best examples of subtle horror that we have seen in some time.  It is clear that he is adept at building suspense and maintaining throughout the length of a feature.  With The Sacrament, West shows us that he can also create horrors that are fast, sustained, and nothing like what he has shown us so far.  The Sacrament is a found-footage mockumentary of a Vice magazine crew looking for one of their photographer’s sisters.  She was living on a commune, only to be transported out of the country to live in a more insular community.  When her brother tries to contact her, he is told by an intermediary that he can go visit her at the new commune if he wishes.  He tells his editor at Vice, and they grab a camera man and all take off on an adventure together.  To no one’s surprise, the commune seems harmonious on the inside, but there is something a little off about it.  Perhaps it is the armed guards at the gates?  Or their creepy leader who is dripping with superficial Southern charm and the unwavering devotion from his followers, who call him “Father.”  Bringing outsiders in to this commune is quite the disruption, and the ripple effects of their presence there are soon turned into the catalyst for the community to come to a violent and crashing halt.  The film is a welcome example of nearly flawless, original horror, and I am even more excited to follow West’s career as a now well-rounded genre director.

Witching and Bitching (dir. Álex de la Iglesia)

It is really difficult for me to get behind any film that spends the majority of its screen time showing hatred toward strong women.  This is why it pains me to say how much I enjoyed Witching and Bitching.  After some slowly paced, and frankly disappointing, films Witching and Bitching was the first snappy, fun, and hysterical film I have seen at Fantastic Fest.  The film begins with a robbery of a gold exchange in Madrid.  Only this heist is pulled off by the costumed characters who hang around in the square to have their picture taken with gullible tourists.  The silver coated Jesus and green army man, with the help of Sponge Bob Square Pants and Minnie Mouse, steal a duffle worth of gold rings, hijack a taxi cab and take the police on a chase.  Though the group gets separated Jesus, who is actually Luismi, and Tony the plastic soldier, end up heading to the hills with Luismi’s young son in the car.  After all, it is his day for getting his son and he will not let something like crime interrupt his family time.  They encounter a coven of wealthy and powerful witches who are gearing up for a major ritual to make themselves, once again, the most powerful beings on earth.  They need the bandits and the son for their ceremony and they do their best to stop them from escaping.  All of these women are confident and powerful, but they are all shown as bickering, greedy, and insane.  The men in the film are no better- just about everyone is an idiot here- but the fact that the plot of the film focuses on how horrifying it is for women to want to gain their power back, is the most troubling part.  Politics aside, the film is silly and fun.  It is also gorgeous, featuring enormous sets, countless extras, and mostly well executed effects.  The actors all have fun with their bumbling characters, and the overall result is a great film.

Deirdre Crimmins

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Deirdre (Dede) lives in Chicago (via Boston and Cleveland) with two black cats. She writes for Film Thrills, High Def Digest, The Brattle Theater, Rue Morgue Magazine, Birth.Movies.Death., and anyone else who will let her drone on about genre film. She wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero and is always hopeful that Hollywood will get its head out of its ass.

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