In its 15th year, Fantastic Fest celebrated with a slate full of wild films, studded with strange spectacle and surprises. At the Alamo Drafthouse, throngs of cinephiles flocked daily not only to see the titles that have been tearing it up at Cannes and TIFF and to discover hidden gems that might shine best under the bat-streaked skies of Austin, Texas. This year, the selection included award-winning Oscar front-runners alongside provocative genre-benders, outrageous creature features, and out-and-proud adventures fictional and stranger-than-fiction.
Opening Night kicked off with the U.S. Premiere of "Jojo Rabbit," with writer/director/star Taika Waititi in attendance and ready to party. The quirky World War II comedy about a German boy and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. But the response was more muted in Austin, where the consensus was the film was fun but falls short of Waititi's best. Greater enthusiasm met the Texas Premiere of Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," the Palme d'Or-winning thriller with blisteringly dark humor that had audiences squealing and applauding with shock and awe. Then, as a capper to his embrace by the Fantastic Fest community, the South Korean filmmaker was honored with a bronze plaque that christened the festival's hub, the Alamo Drafthouse S Lamar, as the "Bong Joon Ho Cinema."
This dedication occurred on Closing Night, where "Parasite" played as a perfectly themed class-warfare precursor to a special presentation of Rian Johnson's "Knives Out." As it did at its TIFF World Premiere, the star-stuffed whodunit had audiences cackling and clapping as Daniel Craig's Southern-Fried sleuth unlocked the secrets a bizarre case. Yet the reactions to this rousing crowdpleaser did not compare to those of "The Pool," a Thai creature feature that had crowds going wild.
Written and directed by Ping Lumpraploeng, "The Pool" follows the fight for survival of a man (Teeradej Wongpuapan) who falls asleep on a raft as a deep swimming pool drains. He awakes to discover he can't reach the top. He cries for help, but no one hears. Matters only get worse when a crocodile comes into the mix (and the pool). Lumpraploeng stirs tension by meticulously unfolding one after another inventive escape attempt. But what makes this Texas Premiere especially suited to Fantastic Fest audiences is its infusion of cracklingly black humor to its monster thrills. With each failure, the tension is released not with salvation but with a stinging visual (and sometimes literal) punchline that invites the crowd to barks of shock and twisted glee as our hero's plight becomes so outlandish that you can't help but laugh (and scream).
Among the most talked-about films of the fest were "Knives and Skin" and "Swallow." Both films premiered at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year before hitting the Fantasia International Film Festival. But having attended both of the above fests, I can report the buzz has never before been so breathless for either title as it was in Austin. Casually asking filmmakers, fans, and fellow press what were their favorites of the fest, these two fabulous films came up over and over, championed for their bold takes on female experience and unique style.
Jennifer Reeder's "Knives and Skin" is a genre-blending mind-bender that begins with a teen girl going missing in a small town. The film follows how this disappearance affects the locals, but pays special attention to the missing girl's high school classmates. Colorful characters fill every scene, getting up to strange and sweet endeavors like talking to a tiger t-shirt, exchanging slippery tokens over a bathroom stall, and whispering secrets under a melancholy musical number. (Yes, musical numbers!) Reeder blends a neo-noir plot and a love of neon lighting with a tender teen-melodrama and haunting musical numbers, all of them a capella covers of '80s pop songs like The Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed" and Naked Eyes' "Promises Promises." The result is a dizzying film that feels like an exhilarating blend of David Lynch, John Waters, and "Degrassi High." So it's little wonder Fantastic Fest audiences, who crave the strange and unusual, went ga-ga.
Moving from teen angst to marital ennui, Carlo Mirabella-Davis' "Swallow" centers on a housewife whose life is picture-perfect, yet leaves her with a hole that can only be filled by swallowing inedible objects. A marble, a thumbtack, a AA battery, all go down with a gulp and a pleasant smile, a little something secret and illicit just for her. Haley Bennett plays this fascinating heroine with a Marilyn Monroe bubbliness that makes her instantly enchanting, and her swallowing all the more transgressive. With an aesthetic that satirizes '50s domesticity and profound empathy for its self-destructive rebel, "Swallow" caught Fantastic Fest audiences off-guard with its stomach-churning sequences and bright humor that keeps its journey jaunty even amid marital strife and emergency room visits. Throughout the film, the audience erupted with gasps, gulps, and giggles, as they were led to an ending that's well-earned and fittingly controversial.
Speaking of controversial, Fantastic Fest awarded great fanfare to "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge." The 1985 slasher sequel has long been sneered at for its provocative gay content, including its centering on a Final Boy played by Mark Patton. Polarizing horror icon Patton reclaimed his crown, attending the fest not only for a revival screening of the make-or-break film that broke his career, but also for the US Premiere of "Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street." Documentarians Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen dig into the legacy of "Freddy's Revenge," and how it went from loathed sequel to beloved queer-horror cult-classic. Then, they give Patton the space to tell his story, one of homophobic Hollywood pressures, stepping away from the spotlight, finding himself and a path forward.
Both films were also celebrated with a special stage show: Queens, Screams, and Dreams: A Drag Horror Event. Legendary drag queen Peaches Christ hosted a night of horror-themed lipsyncs and comedy bits, including local queens like Louisiana Purchase and Die Felicia as well as a special "Drag-O-Matic machine" into which audience members were fed. Going in they were average shmoes. Coming out the other side, they were transformed by quick-drag, slap-dash make-up, foam wigs, and brightly colored t-shirts cropped and fringed for fabulousness. Patton was also welcomed on stage, where first we celebrated his birthday by singing the traditional song. He was presented him with a cake incredibly crafted to look like Freddy Krueger's head. (Naturally, the layers inside were rainbow-colored.) Later, Patton returned to go through the Drag-O-Matic. Once transformed from self-proclaimed scream queen to newly minted drag queen, he happily rechristened himself with the drag name Kitty Litter. And the rowdy crowd roared in approval.
Entertaining, informative, and shockingly tender, "Scream, Queen!" was easily among my favorites of the fest. But contending for the top spot is another proudly queer story about reclaiming your narrative. "The True Adventures of Wolfboy" centers on 13-year-old Paul (Jaeden Martell) who has hypertrichosis, a condition that causes unusual amounts of hair to grow on the face and body. Mercilessly mocked by his peers, he runs away to find the mother he's never known and discover a world beyond his imagination.
The script by trans writer Oliva Dufault weaves in urban versions of mermaids and pirates, as well as a snarling John Turturro as a merciless ringmaster. Along the way, Dufault carves a sensational and inspiring coming-of-age story for any kid who has ever felt like a freak. But specifically, "Wolfboy" turns its LGBTQ+ subtext into text by paralleling its hero's quest for acceptance with that of a new friend, a dazzling transgender girl played by riveting trans ingenue Sophie Giannamore. Together, these two forge their own community, carving out a happy ending despite all the haters. It's an absolute joy to behold. Director Martin Krejčí brings a beckoning blend of grime and fantasy as well as a whole lot of heart to a scrappy indie that's daring, delightful, and—confoundingly—still in need of a distribution deal.
Here's hoping that'll soon change so that "The True Adventures of Wolfboy" can journey to a theater near you.