Vampires and Gangsters Among Best at Fantastic Fest

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One of my favorite things about Fantastic Fest is seeing a film that I just can’t wait to share with my friends, and the festival always provides enough fodder for many an offbeat movie night. This year’s programming was absolutely exceptional, and two of its best films, “Afflicted” and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell,” have already been picked up for distribution, which means that I’ll be able to unleash them on a room of unsuspecting film buffs sooner rather than later.

The two films occupy separate ends of the same filmmaking spectrum, with “Afflicted” taking a emotionally viable found-footage approach to a familiar supernatural story and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” tossing together a mish-mash of genres, influences and dismembered limbs in a gleefully absurd film about filmmaking.

“Afflicted” stars writer-director team Derek Lee and Clif Prowse as themselves, and the first act straddles a thin line between documentary and narrative. After Derek is diagnosed with a brain disease that could kill him at any moment, he throws himself into a yearlong trip around the world, working down a list of things he wants to do before he dies. Clif, his best friend and a documentarian, comes along, filming every moment for their friends back home.

One of the biggest struggles with every found footage film is making the characters’ desire to film everything plausible. “Afflicted” manages to not only do that, but instill its premise with an immediate, relatable emotional weight, which makes it all the more upsetting once things start to go wrong. One night, Derek is attacked by a woman and starts to experience dreadfully familiar side effects, ranging from an extreme sensitivity to the sun to an unquenchable desire for blood.

Once it becomes clear what kind of film “Afflicted” is becoming, it slips into a groove, charting Derek’s decline with equal parts awe and terror. The film has drawn a lot of comparisons to “Chronicle,” but as Derek slips deeper and deeper into his new identity, the film takes some heavy turns that put the comparison to shame. It’s a testament to the originality of Lee and Prowse’s script that they manage to take two tired genres, the vampire and found-footage film, and make them fresh again by combining them. They parcel out their big moments carefully, and Lee’s increasingly bewildered performance sells every new development.

Eventually, “Afflicted” starts to explore the rules of its vampirism through a few dynamic action sequences, but the film ends just as it appears to be ramping up, leaving the audience eager for more. Then a stunning mid-credits sequence blindsides us, and it becomes clear that Lee and Prowse are very savvy filmmakers, designing their feature debut to simultaneously establish them as smart storytellers and instantly build interest in whatever they do next. “Afflicted” will be getting a release from CBS Films in the near future, and I can’t wait to check it out again.

“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” opts out of  “Afflicted”’s emotional engagement, instead aiming straight for the absurdist funnybone in director Shion Sono’s ode to filmmaking and CGI blood. Sono deftly establishes a handful of dueling factions in an extended prologue, setting up two warring yakuza clans, the aspiring actress daughter of one of the yakuza bosses, and a gang of renegade filmmakers that call themselves the Fuck Bombers, and then attempts to tie them all together.

With a tall narrative order to fill, the film barrels through plot so fast that you barely have time to ask questions. It’s probably better that way, since “Why Don’t You Play in Hell”’s distinct pleasures are found not in the story’s coherency, but in the frantic punctuation of each scene, the enthusiastic embrace of the pulpiest possible moments, and the same infatuation with filmmaking that many members of the rowdy Fantastic Fest crowd shares.

“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” definitely suffers from being overlong, clocking in at an exhausting 126 minutes, but the film’s peculiar editing style builds up a sweeping narrative momentum. By the time every character has converged on a yakuza compound for the film’s finale, a shower of meta jokes, crime film tropes, and bloody dismemberment, things have taken on a downright joyous feeling. The film lets its characters fulfill their greatest dreams before brutally dispatching them, and its finale is satisfying as a cathartic end to its characters’ journeys and the most gleefully insane melee fight this side of “Kill Bill.” It’s hard to do the inspired, maniacal “Why Don’t You Play in Hell” justice, since its best moments come from the visceral aesthetic rush that it manages to milk out of every major beat. 

Both films cleaned up at this year's Fantastic Fest Awards, with Afflicted winning for best Horror Feature, Directing, and Screenplay, and "Why Don't You Play in Hell?" claiming awards for Best Comedy Feature and Director. It's great to see films this innovative, distinct, and roundly excellent being honored. Suffice to say, when Drafthouse Films releases Sono’s latest in theaters next year, it will instantly register as an essential theatrical experience. CBS Films will hopefully be throwing all their weight behind the excellent "Afflicted." Check them out as soon as you get the chance.