2022 wasn’t really Fantastic Fest’s return to an in-person event, but it felt like it. The festival’s 2021 edition was a scaled down affair, with limited seating capacity and no in-person parties. The festival was also spread out across several Alamo Drafthouses, negating one of the best (and most potentially dangerous) things about Fantastic Fest: Its centralized location.
Every Fantastic Fest screening, party, and event save one all take place at the same location: the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, which used to be in a dusty parking lot and now resides wedged between high rise condo buildings. This makes it extremely easy to socialize—or “network,” if you’re giving yourself the benefit of the doubt—in the lobby, on the front patio, or at the Highball bar adjoining the theater. (This can also be a nuisance when you’ve got a deadline to hit.) Late into the night, these same areas become parties, both official and default; this year, I was standing outside chatting with a friend when I was startled by an inflatable dancing dragon that appeared right behind me.
The opening night party featured the return of festival favorites Itchy-O, a Denver-based group whose act can be imperfectly described as a combination of a second line parade, an occult ritual, and a heavy-metal drum circle. Itchy-O’s 57 members infiltrated the party in snaking lines, sneaking up behind festival-goers and crawling between their feet. Once they reached the Highball stage, the Satanic laser light show began. (I missed the other rowdiest event of opening weekend, the Fantastic Debates, where filmmakers face off in the boxing ring. But according to sources, the beer was still free, and the air conditioning actually worked this year.)
The crowds felt familiar, but the behind-the-scenes faces were new. Under new festival director Lisa Dreyer and Director of Programming Annick Mahnert, the Fantastic Fest programming team is three-quarters female, a sea change for a festival that was one of the first to face a #MeToo reckoning in the late 2010s. In a podcast recording for “Letterboxd,” programmer and restorationist Liz Purchell noted that the vibe at the festival was much less masculine than in years past—a welcome change I’d chalk up both to the programming team and the noticeable uptick in the number of female directors on this year’s schedule.
Fantastic Fest still covers your classic nerd bases: Gore-driven horror for dudes in black T-shirts (the abysmal “Terrifier 2”), the latest otaku must-see (the uplifting “Shin Ultraman”). It’s just doing so with a less aggressively male, alpha-nerd type of energy. And trust me, the men still came out in numbers. Things have changed at Fantastic Fest, but the line for the men’s bathroom is still longer than for the women’s.
The big events on opening weekend were the world premiere of “Smile,” which I’ve already covered for this site. Critical reception for the wide-release Paramount horror film was colder here than at subsequent press screenings: This crowd really knows, and cherishes, its horror. And considering that “Smile’s” biggest weakness is its similarities to other horror movies, that may have hurt it here more than elsewhere. Kevin Bacon, who’s no stranger to horror himself, and Kyra Sedgwick turned out to support their daughter Sosie Bacon, who stars in the film as a psychiatrist dogged by an unkillable entity that feeds on trauma. (That’s not a metaphor, which is itself an interesting variation on a theme.)
Park Chan-wook, meanwhile, looked a little bewildered when festival co-founder Tim League (humbled, but present) presented him with a wrestling-style championship belt and had the entire theater get on one knee and genuflect to him before a screening of “Decision to Leave”—a ceremony I imagine was quite different from the awarding of Park’s Best Director prize at Cannes. Park then took the microphone and told the audience that this was his funniest film to date, and that it was okay to laugh, although he wasn’t sure if this was the right festival for this classical detective romance. The audience seemed to genuinely enjoy the film, although I couldn’t help but wonder if they were laughing extra hard because Director Park told them to.
“The Menu,” whose deadpan morbidity made it a natural fit for Fantastic Fest—for its sense of humor as much as its horror elements—was another hot ticket on opening weekend. Of the Thursday-Sunday lineup, the only primetime slot that really didn’t work was the first of the festival’s legendary secret screenings, which in the past have included Lily and Lana Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria.” (And those are just the ones for which I was in attendance.)
The pervasive rumor this year was that the latest “Hellraiser” movie would be one of the secret screenings—and unfortunately for the first wave of press and industry (like myself) who had already left by Wednesday, it was indeed secret screening No. 2. No. 1 was the upcoming Disney+/Marvel Studios TV special “Werewolf by Night,” which made sense for Fantastic Fest in the sense that it’s a black-and-white tribute to Universal Monsters movies of the 1930s and ‘40s. That being said, whoever proposed this tie-in overestimated the overlap between the Fantastic Fest and New York Comic-Con crowds: Much grumbling in the theater and complaining on Facebook groups followed Mahnert’s announcement of the title on Sunday night.
On the positive side, that disappointment cleared the runway for that night’s other world premiere, the Epix-produced horror anthology “Satanic Hispanics.” Like all anthology films, this one was a mixed bag: Demián Rugna, whose 2017 film “Terrified” was a word-of-mouth hit at Fantastic Fest, brought the best segment by far with his original, unsettling short “Tambien lo Vi.” Mike Mendez’s wraparound “Traveler” also had its merits, especially when it turned into a pre-Colombian creature feature towards the end. On the other hand, horror-comedy hybrids from Ed Sánchez (“The Blair Witch Project”) and Alejandro Brugués (“Juan of the Dead”) felt like throwaways. (Brugués’ segment is essentially one long dick joke.) And “Nahuales” was a rare miss from Gigi Saul Guerrero, who usually excels in the shorts format. The film did win a horror directing award, however, so maybe I was just tired. Or maybe it’s as simple as this: As Mendez told the crowd before the premiere, this movie was conceived at and for Fantastic Fest (and its juries).
In Mendez’s view, a film that’s “for Fantastic Fest” is an outrageous, uproarious midnighter. And he’s half right—this has always been one festival where audiences truly appreciate that style of genre work on its own merits. But “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which premiered at Venice and played TIFF, also went over really well with the crowd. So did “Decision to Leave.” “Holy Spider” was announced as Iran’s Oscars pick during its Fantastic Fest run, and Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness” closed this year’s fest. In a microcosm of the battle for the soul of Fantastic Fest, A24, and Shudder were both prominent presences on the industry side, each presenting original productions that were competing for buzz among this omnivorous, enthusiastic audience.
I found the A24 oddity “Medusa Deluxe,” a dialogue-driven murder mystery set at a regional English hairstyling competition, to be narratively messy, but formally unexpected, mostly in a good way. But the buzziest titles on opening weekend came from neither company. New Zealand-based film producer Ant Timpson has been a presence at Fantastic Fest for over a decade, and this year the EP brought the world premiere of “Mister Organ,” from “Tickled'' director David Farrier, to the festival. And although it wasn’t the highest profile premiere, it was the film most likely to inspire impassioned conversations among strangers and friends alike.
It felt ... not okay to laugh at Farrier’s distress and discomfort while he was in the room. But there’s no other way to react to the brain-breaking experience of watching this documentary. Like “Tickled,” “Mister Organ” begins with what seems to be a quirky investigation into a harmless eccentric—here, the price-gouging attendant at an Auckland antique store parking lot. But as Farrier begins asking around about this mystery man, Michael Organ, he finds a long trail of traumatized former roommates, criminal charges, and even untimely deaths.
“Mister Organ” is a very New Zealand documentary, in the sense that everyone knows each other, and people are less numb to threats of violence and intimidation than in America, where belligerence is a way of life. (That being said, some of Organ’s tactics, like stealing Farrier’s spare key and taunting him with it, would be frightening anywhere.) But it profiles a universal phenomenon: The best way to describe Organ is an energy vampire, like Colin Robinson from “What We Do in the Shadows” but more malevolent. Organ uses nonsensical rambling as a weapon to agitate his victims, all of whom walk away from their interactions with him feeling vulnerable and confused. He certainly seems to have gotten to Farrier, who said in the Q&A that, while he’s proud of his work on the film, he would never have pitched it if he had known how damaging the experience of knowing Michael Organ would be on his psyche.
Another highlight of the weekend, “A Wounded Fawn,” also used psychological distress as a storytelling tool. But here, the torture is inflicted on a very worthy subject: A serial killer (Josh Ruben) whose career in murder comes to an end with the death of a museum curator (Sarah Lind) who unleashes the Furies of Greek mythology onto this misogynist monster. In its first half, this 16mm throwback plays like a pulpy grindhouse thriller. In its second, it relaxes into something far more esoteric and surreal, painted in red-orange blood and soaked in feminist rage. I’ve been lukewarm on writer/director Travis Stevens’ work in the past (“Girl on the Third Floor,” “Jakob’s Wife”). But “A Wounded Fawn” captured my imagination like few other films at this year’s festival.
Another film that sparked with me at Fantastic Fest was “Bones and All,” a movie that “Suspiria” naysayer Glenn Kenny also enjoyed at Venice. (Me, I’m a “Suspiria” apologist.) This film is shambling and desaturated, where “Suspiria” was meticulous and decadent. But it does continue director Luca Guadagnino’s impish technique of casting famous actors and then rendering them unrecognizable with prosthetics. You’d have to check “IMDb” first in order to recognize Chloë Sevigny when she appears on screen in this film. But I wouldn’t advise it. This is a film that plays best if you go into it completely cold.
Guadagnino does a surprisingly good job capturing the more hardscrabble corners of the American Midwest in “Bones and All,” whose ‘80s setting makes a bizarre bedfellow with the grisly cannibalism scenes. The film makes romanticized connections between outcasts in a way that feels like a metaphor for queerness. And while Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet give better performances separately than together, the at-first halting, then all-consuming, nature of their romance tracks with the arc of a queer sexual awakening. Combined with intense gore and voluminous blood—Chalamet spends much of the movie coated in it, like a YA version of Bill Paxton in “Near Dark”—“Bones and All” feels like cracking open your true love’s chest cavity and ripping their heart out.
The heart of Fantastic Fest will always be the random picks at the bottom of the lineup, however. This year, thanks to a post-pandemic reduction in my tolerance for staying up and drinking until all hours, I really enjoyed my peaceful 11 AM dates with Asian sci-fi and fantasy fare. One morning, I spent two hours with 4K remastered episodes of “Ultra Q,” which were screened for a small audience that included a few sleepy badge holders sitting alongside Shinji Higuchi, director of “Shin Ultraman” and lifelong “Ultraman” superfan.
But the most compelling of these was a screening of “Demigod: The Legend Begins,” an also surprisingly bloody wuxia movie told through the unconventional medium of Taiwanese bùdàixì glove puppetry. The puppetry style is stiff, and one actor does the voices for every character, none of whose mouths move when they speak. At its most off putting, it’s like watching a martial arts version of Todd Haynes’ infamous “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” But if that description doesn’t make you even a little bit interested, we have different priorities when it comes to movies. Besides, as “Demigod’s” story gets more psychedelic, any lingering doubts get swept away in a swirl of CGI effects, making the experience fully immersive.
Surreal moments are expected at Fantastic Fest, where it’s not uncommon to see big name directors casually hanging out—this year, Rian Johnson showed up unannounced for a screening of Noah Segan’s directorial debut “Blood Relatives”—or a festival programmer walking around in costume. (This year, it was an inflatable shark suit, in honor of the unusual concentration of shark movies on the lineup.) These figures mingle with up-and-comers like Chicago-based director Alex Phillips, whose domination of the “Puke and Explode” eating contest was an excellent advertisement for his underground gross-out movie “All Jacked Up And Full of Worms.” (The contest included both hot dogs and Malört, so obviously a Chicagoan was going to win.)
But that was nothing compared to this year’s edition of “100 Best Kills,” an annual event where longtime festival staffer Zack Carlson collaborates with found-footage artists to make clip shows designed to test the endurance of this iron-stomached crowd. The subtitle of the 2022 event—which took place at 11:30 PM on a Monday and still sold out a 200-seat theater—was “Texas Birth Control, Dick Destruction.” Dreyer opened the festivities by saying that, in a post-"Roe V. Wade" Texas, women are prepared to take matters into their own hands. I’m paraphrasing there, but the image is apt for an onslaught of castration footage, some of it hilariously fake and some of it uncomfortably real.
Canadian programmer and filmmaker Louise Weard led the show, with a microphone in hand and a palpable sense of glee at subjecting the audience to 90 minutes of dick destruction. (“It’s classy!,” she exclaimed over an infamous scene from “In The Realm of the Senses.”) Early, campy sequences from movies like “Leprechaun 4” and “Robocop” were set to music, and produced hooting, laughing and cheering. Later on, Weard—who is transgender—upped the ante with a five-part gauntlet of ascending carnage that incorporated footage from real gender reassignment surgeries. It was a tough sit, even for the hardened gorehounds.
There was an energy in the air as the crowd shuffled out at 1AM that morning, however, that was like nothing else I experienced this year. We had just witnessed something that was truly transgressive, and how often do you get to say that? The Fantastic Fest staff seemed nervous, anticipating angry emails and phone calls from corporate once they realized what had just happened. The audience was giggly and shaky, wrapping arms around each other’s shoulders as comrades in arms in the war on penises. For an hour and a half, Austin was still weird, and Fantastic Fest was like no other film festival on earth. I’ll never forget it.