Anya Stanley’s Fantastic Fest 2021 Diary

I landed in Austin, Texas early on opening day of its annual genre film festival, but this year’s Fantastic Fest already felt different. Sure, I checked into the press room and got my screening schedule in order, but the Highball Lounge wasn’t the bustling hub of whiskey, popcorn, and high expectations that it had been in pre-pandemic years. The Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Blvd. had been decimated in crowd size due to the ongoing fallout of COVID-19; despite vaccination cards, distanced seating, and a strong adherence to cloth masks, much of the midnight movie crowd either couldn’t or wouldn’t risk a trip to the largest genre festival in the U.S. 

Within that, the movies still ran. Masked gaggles of colleagues and film fans peppered the local Tex-Mex spots and the dispensary next door, determined to connect and resume the usual post-screening debates and industry speculation. The FF staff, dressed as firemen and armed with confetti cannons, preceded the opening night film, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, with a dance frenzy; the claps and squeals from the crowd returned the energy with a collective “Finally, we’re back” ovation. Fantastic Fest hasn’t returned to the old sense of normality, no more than any other sane establishment in the country. But it’s good to be back. 

Here are the highlights from Fantastic Fest 2021:

Written and co-directed by Sarah Appleton and Phillip Prescott, The Found Footage Phenomenon is a spotty but thorough look at a still-blossoming cinema approach to an ages-old oral tradition. The usual suspects like The Blair Witch Project are covered, sometimes so extensively that notable 2010s entries like As Above, So Below are noticeably omitted. Gems like Lesley Manning’s BBC faux-doc Ghostwatch is hailed as a fantastic example of real-life media informing cinema, to Host and the Unfriended films manufacturing reality with the latest tech. Appleton and Prescott differentiate enough between subgenres and styles to navigate the sheer variety of found footage cinema, while also tipping the hat toward progenitors across eras and mediums, such as Orson Welles’ live War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Over a wide cast of horror luminaries – including Patrick Brice (Creep), Aislinn Clarke (The Devil’s Doorway), and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) – the experts weigh in with a collective sense of excitement and mirth, eager to gather more film fans into the fold. The celebratory nature pays off in an exponentially grown watchlist alongside the likes of 2021 documentary Folk Horror wtih Kier-La Janisse, and a new understanding of reality, its malleability, and the ability of great storytellers to weaponize it to broach the unreal in a believable way. 

“Forget everything you heard about my movie,” director Julia Ducournau appealed ahead of her film’s Austin screening. Fitting, since Titane is the kind of movie you go into blind and come out emotionally mutated. Forget the salacious bits being spoiled on social media; Ducournau has thrust into Tetsuo: The Iron Man’s crucible and pulled out an operatic meditation on the essentials of humanity and connection, determinism be damned. Newcomer Agathe Rousselle reminds, at times, of Andrea Riseborough’s pensive turn in Christina Choe’s 2018 drama Nancy, also playing an impostor claiming to be a long-lost child. At others, Rouselle’s steely-eyed serial killer star Alexia (eventually shaving her eyebrows and claiming to be Adrien to elude the law) is constantly out of her element, even when she’s stabbing someone with a hair spike. Alexia cannot relate to people, shunning handshakes and vomiting after attempted sex. As the story goes on, Alexia’s arc undergoes its own fusion process as she is thrust into a situation that demands a selfless sacrifice, one she was never in a place to make. Belgian cinematographer Ruben Impens (whose lens graced Ducournau’s 2016 flesh frenzy Raw) showcases bodies on parade in various stages of suppression or enhancement, through repeating fire and metal imagery. While the pregnancy horror—strange leaking fluids, itching skin, engorgement—will no doubt gross out enough men to dominate conversations around the movie, Ducournau has nonetheless crafted a communal interrogation of masculinity, motherhood, and ultraviolence with the femme in mind, making good on the potential her debut teased just five years ago.

As the players of Titane thrash and struggle immensely to associate to one another, so do the youths of Eskil Vogt’s bad seed horror The Innocents. Mister Rogers used to sing, “What do you do with the mad that you feel/When you feel so mad you could bite?/When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong/And nothing you do seems very right?” Norwegian director Vogt gets this encapsulation of emotional power, both weak and invincible, and refracts it through the hideous in a strong sister story to his screenplay for the 2016 psychokinetic horror Thelma (directed by Joachim Trier). A Nordic quartet of young children learn that they share a sympathetic mental response—Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) can hear the thoughts of her mute playmate Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), and Anna’s sister Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) can repeat a whispered word from out of earshot. But Ben (Sam Ashraf) is a bad news bear, with the power to move objects and influence others—an ability that turns deadly as the little sociopath is crossed in any way. The Innocents carries such a potential to be hokey, but Vogt pulls it off with a stellar cast. There’s a structural sleight-of-hand here; fewer lines rest uncomfortably on your child actors if you have them communicate non-verbally for most of the two-hour runtime, but Asheim, Ashraf, Ramstad, and Fløttum mingle well enough to be believable playmates and sworn enemies as alliances change. For a tale so focused on the Sisyphean task of self-regulating our emotions, Vogt opts for the slow-burn creeps over shock value, and so while there is blood and a modest body count, this horror film will exact its toll in gut punches, not massacres. The Innocents is a taut fable, a grownup’s acknowledgement of the inherent messiness of what to do with “the mad that you feel.” 

If you’ve seen the “Nick of Time” episode of The Twilight Zone (the fortune teller one with William Shatner), you’ve got the framework for Junta Yamaguchi’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. Cafe owner Kato (Kazunari Tosa) receives a message from himself in his apartment above the shop. Future Kato informs Current Kato that the TV screen in his cafe is precisely two minutes ahead of time. His friends discover the phenomenon and play around with time in a plausible, funny way (soon finding that knowing the future might be more trouble than it’s worth), though the experiments do become more repetitive than is forgivable for such a premise—that said, the overall runtime is a crisp hour and ten minutes, keeping the visit brisk and fun. Born of a theatrical workshop, written by Makoto Ueda, and shot on iPhone, Two Minute’s solid camerawork keeps the seemingly one-take feature from getting stale, and the result is an easy, lighthearted entry in the time loop subgenre as fun and endearing as Shinichirou Ueda’s recent zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead

The Black Phone perches itself as an American analog to the harrowing environments of Guillermo Del Toro’s cinematic children. Rather than starting their tales from the Apollonian safety of white picket fences and domestic peace, the kids of Phone come from a brutal late 70s jungle where pain, love, and violence are bewilderingly intertwined, catching crushing humiliations on the baseball field and rough beatings when Dad has had a few too many again. As such, director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer C. Robert Cargill adapt and expand Joe Hill’s short story of the same name with controlled sentimentality, leaving the heart mostly to their two young leads. As siblings Finney and Gwen Shaw, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw share an exceptional chemistry, echoing the tender brother-sister pairing of Mike Flanagan’s 2016 haunted artifact picture Oculus.  McGraw turns in a notably sandy performance akin to Maddie Ross in True Grit, letting f-bombs and “fartknocker” trip off her tongue as easily as the pleases and thank-yous that the authority figures around her expect. The kids speak with a matter-of-factness that that stuns and endears in a Wes Anderson film, but here characterizes the savagery of their world, before The Grabber gets his hands on them. Playing against his own grain as a giggling child killer, Ethan Hawke acts with his mask instead of around it, letting his eyes make the threats and adapting the body language of a teenager at times and a sleeping giant at others. Rounding out the standouts is previous Derrickson collaborator James Ransone as an area man with theories on the local child disappearances; Ransone is quickly becoming a reliable character actor with the range and twinkle-eyed quality of William Sadler. The narrative does get repetitive in its flashbacks, bloating the second act with too many victims on the Black Phone’s line, but it’s a mere stumble in Derrickson’s gallop. The final product heckles supernatural nostalgia cash-ins from under the bleachers, revealing a nastier depiction of childhood that has its own monstrousness and thus, its youths might be more equipped to come out alive from the beast’s lair when they find themselves in it.

The knee-jerk response is to call Netflix’s latest teenage slice ‘n dice offering There’s Someone Inside Your House a nouveau-I Know What You Did Last Summer, which makes some sense on the surface level. But from Stephanie Perkins’ 2017 young adult novel to Henry Gayden’s screenplay adaptation to Patrick Brice’s direction, There’s Someone Inside Your House speaks with an expanded vocabulary from that of the sardonic Kevin Williamson teen slasher of the 90s, while staying true to the genre’s obsessions with identity. Not bothering with the crisp needle-drops and tube-socked camp counselors of Netflix’s recent Fear Street films, Brice doesn’t lean on nostalgia and keeps its characters rooted in the present and future—only being punished for their past. The premise has high schoolers being hacked up for prior crimes like hazing and spouting racist pseudoscience but loses its way when one poor character’s capital offense is only opiate addiction, which in turns leads to an underwhelming killer reveal. But the expansion of characters on the slasher stage can lead to interesting evolutions of the scenes we’re used to checking off in past chillers like Wes Craven’s Scream, like the inevitable post-slaying student memorial that brings out “friends” who never were and admiration for qualities that didn’t exist in the recently dispatched. Perhaps the next iteration of the teen slasher doesn’t kick in the door, but invites you to sit at a bigger table for better conversation.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website www.anyawrites.com and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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