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Fantasia 2022: Country Gold, The Harbinger, Glorious

Mickey Reece’s “Country Gold” is a surreal sight and sound oddity about country musicians, like the opposite drug you could take to come down from seeing Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” Such ideas of legacy, ego, and influence are explored here similarly, but with a black-and-white cinematography and a general laidback warmth. Reece’s film, co-written by John Selvidge, establishes control over its bizarre story that’s only initially about a modern country star meeting the legendary George Jones. 

Reece plays said modern country star, hilariously named Troyal, as if his name causes everyone to speak a little funny. (Reece has the presence of a non-aggressive Danny McBride, along with the same goofy boyishness). Troyal, star-struck and bursting with a whole lot of pride about an invitation to meet his new best friend, ventures down to Nashville for dinner. There, Jones takes him down a few pegs, but also reveals his main plan: to be cryogenically frozen the next morning. The two then embark on a night where Jones riffs on his legacy and lamentations, reflecting Troyal’s rising career and his naïveté about life.  

“Country Gold” is mostly driven by conversation, but rarely loses its rhythm. Part of that comes from a deceptively concise nature—it’s more interested in hitting you with a great piece of dialogue (“I’m just a pipe for fluids to run through,” says Jones, from an incredible performance by Hall) than a sprawling scene. The movie is also openly, curiously bonkers, like when it suddenly gives Troyal’s two young sons the low-low-pitch voices heard on a Ween song, or sets Troyal into an industrial music-inspired interlude, just because. But you don’t question it (and it’s often funny). The scenes work like that, as while you’re never sure where you’re going next, you’re certain that you won’t get lost. The black-and-white cinematography by Samuel Calvin keeps the script's many emotional questions in the air, like anytime Troyal’s cowboy hat shadows over his face during this progressively hedonistic journey, and renders him an equally compelling and sensitive question mark. 

One of the more subtle jokes throughout “Country Gold” is how it’s riffing on Garth Brooks—a country star in the mid ‘90s, who then embraced his darker side, AKA the way that Brooks became Chris Gaines for a famous spin, darkening his eyes and his image. Reece makes such references with the same way he has depicts Texans talking and hanging out, all with a great and essential deal of sincerity, his unique comic and dramatic tone dancing on the brim of a cowboy hat. “Country Gold” has a wild, fascinating kick, a movie that has the sensitivity of a liquor-drenched ballad, but has the “What if?” of science fiction as its North star. Why not use George Jones and cryogenics to get to genuine points about being happy on Earth? How weird to see all of this is in such a handsomely composed comedy, and how freeing.

Writer/director/editor/composer Andy Mitton’s “The Harbinger” stares right into the abyss of our COVID fears from the 2020, and captures the trembling uncertainty we all felt. It is a monster and nightmare movie, with a stalking bird and sleepwalking characters, told with the fear of also not knowing what is going on while we're awake. It is more claustrophobic than your regular haunted house thriller, and the story does more than just use COVID as a familiar plot point, as it seeks to get underneath the feeling of trying to avoid it, too. 

Gabby Beans gives an immersive and emotional performance as Monique, who ventures out of her suburban bubble with her very cautious father (Myles Walker) and brother (Raymond Anthony Thomas) to help her longtime friend Mavis (Emily Davis) in Queens. The decision to help Mavis is a bold one; we can feel the heaviness on everybody if not remember it immediately. And when Monique gets there, she sees a sick boy being carried in. A very ominous sign, added by the heavy coughs that later come through the ceiling when Monique is tending to her friend. The horror with Mavis is of the more expressive but genre generic variety, involving a large hooded figure that comes in the night. But it eats at Mavis' state of being, expressed by her hollowed out gaze and desperation. 

Mavis' apartment is fit to give long, bad dreams, which are effectively drawn out and disorienting as the movie goes along. I’m not sure that all of the extensive nightmares built from COVID anxiety come together in their grand statement, but they are impressively made with the select pieces they have to work with (including a strong, small ensemble), and as accompanied by Mitton’s elaborate score. “The Harbinger” is the kind of horror movie that becomes personal for each viewer; if one is not afraid of its story's more tangible concepts, Mitton does a credible and careful job of evoking the lasting ethereal ones. 

Alas, Rebekah McKendry’s “Glorious” is not as much fun as it sounds. In it, J.K. Simmons voices a gloryhole in a grimy rest stop bathroom that has been possessed by a long-winded, ancient demon whose name is wildly difficult to pronounce. The demon is in such a place for such a world-shattering reason, but he needs the help of one pre-destined schlub, Wes, played with too much comic broadness by Ryan Kwanten. After setting up the aching break-up pain within Kwanten’s character, the movie gets into its main focus, the gloryhole. 

It’s a tricky feat to make this visually exciting, and the editing and cinematography does give a sense of movement and dynamic within this small space, creating a light show of purple and blue and shadows all before it goes heavy on the H.P. Lovecraft monster effects. The gloryhole also is decorated with a successfully disturbing image of its monster, with a mouth of circular teeth, many freaky eyes, long snake-like beasts from its head. 

But it’s the story that lets the cosmically gross promise of this movie down, starting with the reams of dialogue that either fill in demonic exposition, or have Kwanten not believing this weird hellish experience he is in. Once Wes understands that he's not being pranked, he desperately tries to get out, and Simmons just keeps talking. It’s only amusing for so long before it becomes draining, and Simmons’ Audiobook-ready voice delivery feels like an incomplete joke. The writing by Todd Rigney, Joshua Hull, and David Ian McKendry can only do much to make a feature out of something that would be so much punchier as short, especially as we don't dread whatever might eventually happen to Wes, who we care less and less about. 

"Glorious" also shows an uglier side when it throws in another character—a Black man—for story purposes that better modern horror productions are more conscious to avoid. (For starters, he's just there to ask questions. I won't spoil the rest, but maybe you can guess.) You can watch “Glorious” on Shudder when it premieres on August 18, but it's this chapter that should make the streamer’s “Horror Noire” documentary a higher priority. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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