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Fantastic Fest Report: Horror is Alive, Vital and Varied

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I am dead, and so are an unimaginable number of fictional characters. While my (figurative) demise is simply representative of long, multiple movie days and longer, multiple beer nights, theirs mean something: this genre is alright.

It isn’t difficult to get down on contemporary horror, as any brief glance at comments, boards and other harsh vibe holes would show you. But the collective chatter is all too often shortsighted and redundant. Everything is case-by-case and the simple (and simplistic) decree of “remakes and sequels fuck off” is poor perspective. Video on demand for instance, while not ideal, brings independent and foreign horror to audiences at a spectacular rate, and your first look at many of these creative, ambitious films can be found at festivals. Like the one that’s killed me (I’m fine).

Arguably the most wonderful of these annual celebrations, Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse-centric Fantastic Fest, has wrapped. For the first time, I’ve stayed the full week. What I found was invigorating.

Horror is boundless. From the uncanny to the all-too-real, it is a genre which defies categorization; funny, as the compulsion to compartmentalize into subgenres comes so naturally. Refreshing then, that much of the bountiful horror selection at Fantastic Fest (it is a genre centric celebration, after all) was hard to describe. It was never more evident that filmmakers of varying ages and nations and genders want to play. They want to explore, and the constructs and tropes of the eerie and unreal are where they’re creating a space to do so.

Take SPRING, for example. The second feature from directing duo Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead is just as unusual as their metaphysical debut RESOLUTION. Similarly existing in a world where the unnatural is accepted as just the opposite and sought with understanding and empathy, Benson & Moorhead have crafted a legit horror romance. It is not one or the other. It is both, it is tender and it is uninterested in giving over to anyone’s expectations. It is, like a number of films I saw this past week, something special.

Many of the best features at Fantastic Fest had a similar current of empathy running through. The Danish WHEN ANIMALS DREAM (pictured, top), from director Jonas Alexander Arnby, is a beautiful werewolf tale about a changing, developing, ostracized girl, the entirety of which simply boils down to telling young women in the audience: “you do you.” Similarly, Martin De Salvo (who took home Best Director in the Horror Features category) structures his straightforward DARKNESS BY DAY from a delicate point-of-view, that of its Argentine vampire and not the older men hunting her. Instead, DARKNESS finds a cooped up woman, relegated to hearing stories of world-traveling friends and cousins, liberated by vampirism. All three films join an increasingly exhilarating trend of neo-she-creature pictures like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT and Tamae Garateguy’s SHE WOLF.

Decidedly unsupernatural is FELT, of which director Jason Banker’s empathy is integral. Banker, a doc filmmaker who made his narrative debut with the raw, hallucinatory TOAD ROAD experiments with traditional genre by focusing on a real life subject and building a fictional tale around them. With FELT, he’s turned his camera on Amy Everson, an enthralling artist and first time performer (certainly not last, she is incredible). Fascinated by Everson’s felt art, including full costumes, baby Hitlers and fake penises, Banker’s observational aesthetic chronicles her life of inner anguish following sexual assault, the ensuing trauma and the regularly hostile attitude the world has toward women. For a male filmmaker, or male audience, the latter is inherently impossible to understand, so it is vital it’s met with empathy and belief. Banker and his camera do just that by capturing candid moments that lay bare what women are met with on a daily basis.

"Felt"

“Felt”

Banker is just as observational of Everson’s art, giving her the filmic space in which to don her costumes (some of which are cartoonishly muscular) and fake sexual appendages, and explore rural landscape to try and gain an agency or power she feels lacking. The most alive section of the film finds Amy spend an uncompromising evening with friend and similarly frustrated Roxanne (Roxanne Lauren Knouse). It builds and descends to more of a recognizably genre destination, but like TOAD ROAD, Banker’s horror isn’t what you think or want. FELT is indicative of a more artful rape-revenge film (though that categorization isn’t exactly fair or worthy), one that isn’t just a costumed exploitation movie. Thus, what should be its ultimate visceral act is trumped by an utterly haunting final image, one that’s again lensed with empathy.

That’s not to mention previously (and deservedly) acclaimed festival titles like Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK, Gerard Johnstone’s HOUSEBOUND and David Robert Michell’s IT FOLLOWS, which explore pained motherhood, parent-sibling relationships and the sexual stigmas pushed on youth, respectively in thoughtful and frightening ways. And SHREW’S NEST, the first feature from duo Juanfer Andrés & Esteban Roel, goes a great way toward developing its characters before raining hell down upon them. Richly designed as a period melodrama, SHREW’S NEST features a tremendous lead performance from Macarena Gómez as an agoraphobic and overprotective, older sister. The film is a warped, stunning debut.

Centered on less personal stories of horror were ambitious, ultra low-budget efforts like CLOSER TO GOD (Dir. Billy Sense) and STILL LIFE (Dir. Gabriel Grieco), whose sociopolitical perspectives looked to cloning, reproductive rights, and animal rights. The Latvian THE MAN IN THE ORANGE JACKET (Dir. Aik Karapetian) meanwhile, admirably and strangely wages class warfare within one man alone.

And then there were the good times, films which—like many horrors do—looked to favorites of the past for inspiration, or had a sole interest in pulp party. While the former is a dangerous prospect, many Fantastic Fest films boasted a craftsmanship and energy which nostalgic titles often lack. Jonas Govaerts’ CUB is a nasty, forest-bound slasher with polish, inventive kills and setpieces, and a killer score. The Roache-Turner brothers of Australia execute manic zombie comedy in WYRMWOOD with swift, gory charge that midnight crowds should get stoked on. Ireland brought two films, one the rural gothic of FROM THE DARK (Dir. Conor McMahon), the other the gory siege of LET US PREY (Dir. Brian O’Malley). Even Takashi Miike looked to the past, building OVER YOUR DEAD BODY on top of classic Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan,” using metatextual elements to comment on the cyclical nature of domestic horror.

"Cub"

“Cub”

Fantastic Fest will even cut the pastiche and go straight to the source, hosting a series of rep screenings and celebrating the truly obscure. One of the best events belonged to Bleeding Skull!, who presented the World Theatrical Premiere of 1987 oddity THE SOULTANGLER. A wonderful example of the type of outsider cinema which the genre loves to champion, Pat Bishow’s Long Island-lensed homemade horror is absolutely insane, building a fascinating story of gory soul transference and climaxing with a nutty DIY SFX splattershow.

Horror thrives on films like these, crafted by the independents, the creative and the visionaries. It’s easy to focus on what’s going wide and subsequently disappointing on a mass scale, but that’s betraying of the communal, supportive and discovery-based atmosphere of this genre. Sure, the distribution fates of many of these films remains to be seen, but in risking oversimplification, what’s most important is that they’re out there. They exist, and they’re coming to get you.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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