Fantastic Fest – Part 1

Hello there! Fantastic Fest has been buzzing along so very nicely — what an impressive line-up of interesting films that show filmmakers evolving tastes and talent. The in-person event is wrapping up tomorrow in Austin, TX but have no fear, FF@HOME is beginning on the same day and runs through October 11 — so you have even longer to enjoy a number of these films, many on the list below and in another group I’ll be posting tomorrow. Here is a link to more info: Fantastic Fest @ Home

Homebound

While we’ve already seen a number of examples of resourceful filmmaking during the pandemic era on the indie drama side of things, I’m more than a little interested to see what fun horror directors have come up with over the past year.  Take HOMEBOUND, for example.  Here’s a simple enough plot.  Estranged father is using the birthday of his youngest child at a secluded estate in the English countryside as a way to introduce his new wife to his ex and all three of his children.  The bride isn’t that much older than the eldest daughter and right from the start it’s clear something is…off, about things around the house.  The man’s ex-wife has up and left without saying goodbye and the children have perfected a whispering glower they level at the outsider to their ranks.  At first, director Sebastian Godwin appears to have big plans for the weekend but after a shifty first half you start to wonder when the threat of danger will lead to something of substance.  I appreciate the subtle approach but there’s restraint and then there’s ‘in need of resuscitation’ and that’s unfortunately where HOMEBOUND finds itself by the end.  Don’t snooze on Godwin though…there’s a director to watch right here.

Slumber Party Massacre (2021)

Growing up haunting the horror section of my local video store and waiting to be old enough to watch the films labeled with that red circle sticker with “R” emblazoned on it, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre was always one that fascinated me.  The infamous cover with nubile ladies cowering in fear in front of a man holding a drill was classic VHS heyday memories for many.  Directed by Amy Holden Jones, the movie is surprisingly agile and smarter than you’d think, ranking high on an entertainment and replay scale.  So reading that a ‘reimagined’ version simply called SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE from director Danishka Esterhazy (set to premiere on SyFy October 16) was showing at Fantastic Fest I went after the chance to review it.

Look, I appreciate that there’s a fondness for these older titles and rising directors want to take a crack at putting their spin on them.  I’m not one to think that there are a lot of films that are overly precious (this from the person that was incensed they are remaking The Bodyguard, but, I digress) but if you are going to “reimagine” a film and still slap the original title on it, I at least want there to be some thread that ties it to the original or a nod to what has come before.  Despite some interesting kills (a number of which feel sanitized for the TV broadcast along with some oddly digitized covering up of male nudity) there’s little to suggest this SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has anything to do with the 1982 one save for a killer with a drill.  That leaves Esterhazy with a cast that is mediocre at best slogging through a script that, wait for it, has a post-feminist spin on the women-as-victims in horror films tropes.  It just all seems so tired in 2021 – if this was made in 1991 it could be forgiven.  I will say this – while the first hour of the film is fairly ooky, the last half hour starts to redeem the whole affair with some bloody fun and actors that finally wake up and realize what type of movie they’re in.  If only the rest of it had that same energy to it.

V/H/S/94

I felt a little old watching V/H/S/94, and not just because I watched it way past my bedtime.  I can remember seeing the first film on my gigantic iPad (the original) back in 2012 just after it was released, and I did much of my correspondence regarding this fourth entry in the series working off of an iPhone 12 mini.  (This ends my product placement for Apple, clearly.)  I vividly recall being bowled over by the mechanics of the anthology original, with contributions from six directors that would all go on to have lucrative careers in bigger films.  While two sequels followed with their own “before they were stars” behind the cameras, neither matched the creative energy that went into that first outing.

After seven years, the franchise starts up again with V/H/S/94 and before you start dead-horsing this out of your consciousness I’d encourage you to give it a try because while not every tape is a winner, there are a few that remind you why short-form storytelling can have such a big impact.  Releasing as a Shudder original film on October 6, the bookends and interstitials around the four main stories involves a SWAT team invading a warehouse straight out of a site-specific haunted attraction. Inside, the team members find, among a host of other nastiness, TVs playing the found-footage tapes that form our stories.  There’s the journalist hungry for her big story that gets more than she bargained for when she researches an urban legend known as Ratman inside the city’s sewer system; a woman working a late-night wake at a funeral home during a thunderstorm thinks she’s hearing sounds from inside the coffin; a man experiments on human bodies to meld machines and flesh into dangerous tools of death; and a radical group set on making a political statement has found a supernatural way to speak out. 
I’ve a feeling there will be two camps for V/H/S/94.  Those who feel it gets better as it goes or the other way around.  I was in that first group, finding the first story with the reporter the strongest from a tension building perspective and feeling that last chapter hit its mark too early and then kept whomping on it until it was pulp.  The centerpiece is clearly meant to be the third chapter but that one is just insane, stomach-churning stuff.  Not for lack of artistic expression but it was exhausting to get through.  If you’ve got the iron will for Tape 3 and can weather that toxic storm of Tape 4…prepare to check out V/H/S/94 because overall it’s a worthy watch.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

Until now, I’ve been avoiding this 3-hour documentary about the history of folk horror but only because I never could fit it into my schedule.  I love a good doc that traces the lineage of a subgenre and film expert Kier-La Janisse appears to be the perfect storyteller to tackle the subject from its origins in England to its spread around the world.  Divided into a number of easily digestible chapters that may be seen as a refresher to some or primer to most, Janisse and a well curated team of experts go deeper than the usual talking heads go and get downright scholarly about the influences folk horror has had on people and culture over time.  My one piece of advice to you is that you have a notebook and pencil handy because you’ll be scribbling down a bunch of titles for films to investigate further.  I found so many I’d never heard of while watching this well-made, fast-moving piece – truly fascinating material for even a casually curious horror film fan.  The only thing is that if you aren’t into spoilers there are a number of clips shown that give away the endings or twists in plot so proceed with caution.  Janisse and company appear to expect most to come prepared but a little compassion for those who are approaching this as newbies would be nice too.  Still, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR is unmissable.  Make the time.

Hellbender

(reprinted from my Fantasia coverage) Every time I do one of those “Best Streaming Horror” searches, a title that comes up is The Deeper You Dig, a well-reviewed horror film made by an entire collective family of filmmakers.  The Adams Family (dad John, daughter Zelda, mother Toby Poser, and more) contribute as writer, directors, actors, and other jobs to get the movies made and they had a new title, HELLBENDER, at Fantasia.  I’ve yet to see that earlier film but you better believe I will after catching their latest, an extremely satisfying bit of occult fun that has a distinctly female voice and perspective.  A mother (Poser) and her daughter (Zelda Adams) live a quiet existence isolated in the woods.  Eating meals consisting of pinecones and other fallen foods, the daughter knows nothing much of the outside world.  When she meets a man in the woods who tells her about his niece that lives nearby, it’s the first step toward the daughter experiencing people her own age…and all the problems that come with it.  Eventually awakening something inside her the mother has long attempted to contain, it pits the two women in a power struggle for dominance in which only one can rule the roost.  For what could be deemed a “family project” this is creative, exciting filmmaking and the acting is top-notch as well.  Poser, especially, is a force to be reckoned with and gives the tale not just its surprising amount of heart but its solid backbone as well.  A strong recommendation!

Agnes

(reprinted from my Fantasia coverage) This is a film I had wanted to catch at Tribeca but slipped through my fingers at the last minute, so I was glad to have a second chance here at Fantasia.  I’d also cheated a bit and peeked at the reviews out of Tribeca so was prepared for the tone and timbre of director Mickey Reece’s oddball mix of religious horror with fish-out-of-water humor. Still, I had a hard time with this one and not just because it’s advertising itself as one movie when it has its foot halfway out the door most of the time in a different universe.  The exorcism of a nun brings a priest and a young man waiting to take his vows to a convent where a lot of hullabaloo and shenanigans go on for about 40 minutes.  There’s some dreadfully arch acting from actors I won’t name and the whole thing plays like a big prank is being pulled on…someone (the audience?).  Thankfully (for me, at least), Reece pivots dramatically about halfway through and that’s when AGNES becomes less of what it was and more of what it maybe should be – a focused character study.  Reece can’t help adding some crazed touches but as much as you want to compare AGNES to Saint Maud for once there are too many people IN on the joke to create much of an emotional response anywhere else.   This ends up amusing only the people that made it.

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