At most film festivals, the Satanic ritual would have gotten a little more attention. But in a satellite theater livestreaming the opening ceremony for Fantastic Fest 2023, the festival staff chanting in a circle wearing long black robes as festival founder Tim League did a fire-and-brimstone preacher schtick barely warranted a glance from festival-goers preoccupied with their menus and phones. The devil has made appearances at this festival before: 2015 was a big year for the Dark Lord at Fantastic Fest, with “The Witch,” “The Devil’s Candy,” “Southbound,” and “Evilspeak” all on the lineup. Something was in the water that year. This year, it was more of a design motif.
2023 marked the 18th edition of the long-running Texas genre film festival, which bills itself on its website as the largest of its kind in the U.S. (Canada’s Fantasia takes the title for North America.) Its current motto, “the film festival with the boring parts cut out,” speaks to the sensibility at play in the programming—although the most interesting areas of Fantastic Fest, at least from a critical point of view, are the ones where genre and “challenging” arthouse cinema overlap. This year’s main competition winner, “Property,” a bleak tale of class struggle plucked from this year’s Berlinale, exemplifies that approach. But those weren’t the screenings that packed the theaters at the Alamo South Lamar.
What fills the seats at Fantastic Fest are movies like “The Toxic Avenger,” festival alum Macon Blair’s agreeably goofy, splatter-filled reimagining (it has very little to do with its predecessor, save for the tutus and toxic waste) of Troma’s most successful property. Since SXSW in March, the Alamo’s flagship location in Austin underwent a major renovation. Among other changes, the new Drafthouse replaced traditional folding seats with the padded recliners standard in corporate movie theaters that try everything to get people off their couches, short of showing good films with quality projection and sound.
This reduced seating capacity in each of the Alamo South Lamar’s ten screens is … not ideal for a film festival. Festival audiences don’t need to be bribed with luxury amenities; they just want to be in the room where the movies are playing. And so the already-competitive ticketing lottery for each day’s screenings got more frenzied than ever, with popular screenings selling out before the public (here, the standard “fan” badge) could get tickets. This happens all the time at festivals. But the naysayers complained on Facebook that “it doesn’t happen at Fantastic Fest.”
The “old” Fantastic Fest was lawless, sometimes in a good, fun way and sometimes in a bad, predatory one. And attempts to recapture it through stunts just don’t play the same in the new era. Which is fine—from experience, I can testify that it’s a Sisyphean task to try to live up to people’s nostalgic expectations of an event (or, in my case, a website) whose flaws were never visible to those who moan the loudest about how things used to be so much better in the old days. I also know what it’s like to work at a beloved institution after it’s been purchased by venture capitalists and trying to maintain some level of personal and institutional dignity under those circumstances. You love the thing; you wouldn’t have patiently climbed the ladder if you didn’t. It’s the devil you know.
Last year’s event established the leadership of festival director Lisa Dreyer and director of programming Annick Manhert, bringing a palpable change in the energy from alpha-nerd aggression to a more welcoming, female-led environment. (Fantastic Fest also gets a little queerer every year, which is a delight.) The horror genre, in general, is in the midst of an aesthetic shift from the bifurcated “elevated”/heavy-metal approaches of the 2010s into something new. That something is still amorphous, but it does present an opportunity for Fantastic Fest’s current programmers to shape and nurture it, putting their own stamp on the festival in the process.
The devil Fantastic Fest knows is ‘80s-influenced neon and splatter, as reflected not only in “Toxic Avenger” but also the closing night film “Totally Killer,” Canadian indie “The Last Video Store,” and the latest “V/H/S” sequel. But around the edges of the festival, a more adventurous energy coalesced around the latest cut of “Caligula,” of all things, as well as the relatively new Burnt Ends section (it was launched last year as an online section and made the leap to in-theater screenings this year) from programmers Ahbra Perry and Peter Kuplowsky.
That team brought Vera Drew’s “The People’s Joker” back to the festival a year after its first scheduled screening was canceled amid what Drew has characterized as a “strongly worded letter” from Warner Bros. around the film’s (totally legal, protected by the First Amendment) parodic use of Batman characters. Burnt Ends also featured the sexually charged, proudly indulgent “polyamorous soap opera” “The All Golden,” as well as English filmmaker Felix Dembinski’s haunting and beautifully contained 61-minute film “Letters to the Postman.”
Conventional wisdom maintains that an hourlong film is essentially impossible to program, and Fantastic Fest paired Dembinski’s film with another 75-minute film, “A Guide to Becoming an Elm Tree,” to fill out the time slot. Both films are hushed, ghostly black-and-white mood pieces; “Elm Tree” draws from your expected ghost-as-grief themes, while “Letters to the Postman” goes in a more otherworldly but still romantic direction. Dembinski’s film was inspired by the BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas” TV specials (also short-ish films) and the work of Robert Aickman, a British author whose work remains little known abroad. In the post-screening Q&A, Kuplowsky and Dembinski described Aickman’s stories as “unfilmable,” another reason to commend the young director for adapting one of them.
Another welcome surprise in the horror genre at this year’s Fantastic Fest was “Stopmotion,” which was acquired by IFC Films ahead of its world premiere in Austin. This particular film also comes from an English director, Robert Morgan, who primarily works as an animator. The movie, which stars Aisling Franciosi ("The Nightingale") as the daughter of a famous animator who loses her grip on reality while trying to make something wholly her own, features stop-motion sequences created by the director himself. Early on, the story seems to go in a conventional grief-metaphor direction. But the manifestation of that angst is more physical and visceral here than in recent films like “Relic,” culminating with a shocking and potent self-mutilation sequence that revels in its protagonist’s abjection.
In a sort of passing of the independent torch, festival alums Larry Fessenden and Jim Cummings served as shepherds at Fantastic Fest 2023 for feature debuts that distinguished themselves in different ways. “The Last Stop in Yuma County,” from writer/director Francis Galluppi, takes the route of putting familiar-to-this-crowd faces—Richard Brake, “The House of the Devil's” Jocelin Donahue, Cummings—and pairing them with a strong screenplay and a little bit of money spent in the right places. Galluppi’s film evokes the brainless criminals and darkly humorous repartee of early Coen Brothers, combining them with sunbaked Western visuals and a hot potato of a heist plot for a crowd-pleasing crime comedy that could really take off with the right distributor.
Fessenden, meanwhile, developed the story for “Crumb Catcher” with director Chris Skotchdopole, who also makes his first feature with this audacious genre-bender. Again, the screenplay is the real star here. And as a fan of wild swings and tonal gambits (see also: last year’s “Resurrection” with Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth), I couldn’t help but be charmed by the movie’s bizarre premise. Anchored by John Speredakos’ volatile performance as a nightmare version of the annoying guy who won’t leave a party, “Crumb Catcher” crosses “Funny Games” with an extended “I Think You Should Leave” sketch, mixing the violent undertones of a home-invasion thriller with cringe comedy for an unpredictable ride.
One tried and true Fantastic Fest specialty that still paid dividends 18 years into the festival was hyper-violent international action. Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” inspired League to start the festival back in the mid-’00s, and a midnight screening of Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Night Comes for Us” remains a highlight of my decade and change at the festival. Gonzo action still plays beautifully to this crowd: The manic, profane Spanish film “I’ll Crush Y’all” (a.k.a. “Os Reviento”) won this year's Audience Award, and the Indian bloodbath “Kill” had the most animated screening of any I attended at the festival this year.
“Kill” is a chamber piece set on a speeding train—there’s some background plot, but it doesn’t really matter—that starts the action 20 minutes in, splashes a title card at the 40-minute mark, and continues to build in intensity through its last hour, racking up a preposterous body count along the way. This crowd is numb to extreme violence and greets it like a Looney Tunes cartoon. And so “Kill” suited them perfectly, combining gasps and cheers with laughter at the sheer absurdity of the bloody display. Horror may have gone mainstream, but giggling and cheering on graphic throat-slashings and gut stabbings with the exhilaration with which most people respond to a football game is not yet a “normal” sensibility, the “Crank” movies notwithstanding. Does it really need to be?