Abby Olcese’s Fantastic Fest 2023 Diary

I have an unfortunate history of arriving at established institutions right when they’re going through awkward changes. Case in point: the number of times people told me “This isn’t a normal year” or “You should’ve been here before” at this year’s Fantastic Fest when I told them it was my first time. Those observations didn’t refer to the film selection, which featured the biggest program the storied Austin-based festival has seen so far, or attendance — again, the largest yet. All of it had to do with the infrastructure, which felt bizarrely unsuited to the task of hosting a festival famous for its accessibility. 

The Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, the festival’s home, had just undergone renovations (as in, crews were still sweeping up sawdust on opening day). The changes diminished overall seating capacity and removed the theater’s once-spacious lobby, replacing it with a stylish but functionally useless hallway resembling The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. This meant hangout space between screenings was reduced to two options. The patio outside meant standing in the boiling Texas heat and swampy humidity. The Drafthouse’s Highball bar offered air conditioning, but quickly became crowded and loud from folks waiting for the next movie to start. These issues, coupled with ongoing drama surrounding the festival’s new ticketing system, left many attendees grumbling and discouraged.

It was an altogether non-standard experience for a festival that can hopefully learn from its missteps in time for its 2024 iteration. The programming, however, was appealing enough to make up for the inconveniences. Here are some highlights from this year’s Fantastic Fest: 

Macon Blair’s remake of The Toxic Avenger kicked off the Fantastic Fest experience in high gear, offering a brightly-colored superhero origin story that owes as much to its Troma source material as it does offbeat 90s super-stories like Darkman, Blankman and Mystery Men. Peter Dinklage is endearingly committed as janitor-turned-mop-wielding-mutant vigilante Winston Gooze. He’s joined by a game and highly silly supporting cast that includes Kevin Bacon, Taylour Paige, Jacob Tremblay and Elijah Wood as a stringy-haired henchman who resembles a cross between The Penguin and Grima Wormtongue. Blair’s film apes Troma’s sophomoric humor and plentiful gore (if you’ve ever wanted to watch a guy’s colon get ripped out of his anus, this is your opportunity) with a punk-rock indignation about the state of our own world.

The festival’s first secret screening was Emerald Fennell’s much-anticipated dramatic thriller Saltburn. While the film may look like an acid-tongued Brideshead Revisited in its marketing materials, it’s really an update of The Talented Mr. Ripley wrapped up in Evelyn Waugh-esque class satire. Awkward Oxford scholarship student Oliver (Barry Keoghan) befriends golden boy Felix (Jacob Elordi) their first year at school, and accepts Felix’s invitation to stay at his aristocratic family’s palatial estate for the summer. In the process, Oliver becomes decreasingly awkward and increasingly manipulative. In addition to Fennell’s trademark sharp humor and nasty plot twists, Saltburn is gloriously horny, with the camera lingering over its youthful cast’s languid, gorgeously lit bodies — a reflection of how those characters admire (and obsess over) each other. Patricia Highsmith would be proud.

Michel Gondry’s The Book of Solutions felt out of place in the Fantastic Fest lineup, given that it’s not really a genre film at all, but leave it to Gondry to charm the pants off audiences anyway. Inspired by the writer-director’s experience making 2013’s Mood Indigo, The Book of Solutions is a searing self-portrait of an artist coasting on his whimsical charisma, even as his megalomania threatens to drive away his closest collaborators. When Marc Becker’s (Pierre Niney) latest film prompts an dissatisfied response from the studio, he grabs his long-suffering editor Charlotte (Blanche Gardin) and assistant Silvia (Frankie Wallach), and holes up at his aunt Denise’s (Françoise Lebrun) house to finish the edit. There, Marc stops taking his meds — it’s never specified for what, but manic depression seems likely — and stops working on the film, instead developing a manifesto for creative success he calls “the book of solutions.” It’s basically a series of doodles and constantly-changing instructions for how to get everyone else to do what Marc wants. Those who enjoyed Gondry’s The Science of Sleep will likely also enjoy The Book of Solutions, given its fantastical DIY aesthetic and man-child protagonist who, were it not for his boyish good looks and boundless creativity, would be utterly insufferable. The difference here is that Gondry doesn’t condone that behavior — he’s clearly not happy with the man he was.

The indie horror darling trio RKSS hit Austin with two films: the horror-comedy We Are Zombies and Wake Up, a much nastier movie which blends the Gen-Z activism of How to Blow Up a Pipeline with Grady Hendrix’s big-box store horror novel Hörrorstör in an unwashed Vitamix borrowed from the Final Destination movies. A gang of young activists sneak into an Ikea-esque furniture store after hours to sabotage the place and yell about the company’s environmental destruction on TikTok. What they don’t plan for are a pair of security guards desperate to keep their jobs, one of whom is an amateur big-game hunter with a tenuous grip on reality. Like a lot of RKSS joints (they’re also the group behind Turbo Kid and Summer of 84), Wake Up is more style than substance, with a flimsy setup that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, but creative, well-projected kills that build tension well before their bloodily satisfying payoffs. Don’t come to this one expecting a statement on anything, but if you like watching obnoxious teenagers get dispatched by complicated improvised weaponry, you’ll have a good time.

While Fantastic Fest has plenty of splashy premieres of soon-to-be cult favorites, titles like The Origin, from first-time feature director Andrew Cumming, are the kind of movie it really exists to promote: Independent filmmaking that impresses viewers with what it can do on a limited budget. Cumming and his collaborators tell the story of a group of prehistoric settlers who believe they’ve arrived in the promised land, only to find that the land is already inhabited, and said inhabitants are willing to get homicidal to keep their territory safe. The film’s creative team uses every trick in the book to amp up this lean survival story’s mystery, menace, and verisimilitude. That includes creating a constructed language for the characters to use, amping up the sound mix to emphasize unseen potential threats, and employing expert use of light and shadow. It plays like gangbusters, with a result that’s one part Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey and two parts The Descent

Restore Point, a clever hard sci-fi thriller from the Czech Republic, hits similarly with its efficient, tight storytelling, though it’s set in the future and its premise is considerably more high-tech. In 2041, Central European scientists have developed the technology to revive those who’ve died unnatural deaths (that is, violent crime or accidents). Citizens have the constitutional right to restoration, as long as they keep a 48-hour backup of their memories on hand — think of it like a real-life version of a save point in a video game. Detective Emma Trochinowska (Andrea Mohylová) is tracking an anti-restoration terrorist group when she’s called to investigate the murder of the restoration institute’s lead research scientist, David Kurlstat (Matej Hádek) and his wife, neither of whom had a backup on hand. However, an illegal six-month-old backup version of Kurlstat later appears on Trochinowska’s doorstep, looking for answers about the crime. The unlikely pair team up, uncovering a vast conspiracy involving scientists, capitalists and terrorists. Restore Point combines elements of Minority Report, Blade Runner and William Gibson novels to create a thoughtfully designed speculative future, and a compelling crime thriller complete with empathetic characters and fascinating ethical quandaries. It’s both entertaining and a sterling example of its genre.

Abby Olcese is a film critic and pop culture writer. In addition to writing for Crooked Marquee, she is also the film editor at The Pitch magazine. Her work has appeared in Sojourners Magazine, Birth. Movies. Death., SlashFilm and more. She lives in Kansas City.

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