Fantastic Fest

The Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest is always one of the most hotly anticipated events of the festival. Past years have brought guests such as Sandra Bullock and the Wachowski siblings to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. This year, with only one Secret Screening, guesses as to the surprise film screening ranged from big Oscar hopefuls such as “Birdman,” to high-profile genre films such as “Stretch.” However, no one predicted “Goodnight Mommy,” a deeply unsettling Austrian family drama with a pronounced mean streak.

The film begins innocuously enough, as twin brothers Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) enjoy a languid summer with their mother (Susanne Wuest), who is recovering from plastic surgery. She’s heavily bandaged and usually harsh towards the boys, refusing to even acknowledge Elias. As the summer goes on, the boys begin to question whether she’s their mother at all, a conflict that comes to a head in the disturbing finale. 

The Schwarz brothers are remarkable as the introverted twin brothers, giving a pair of completely natural, deeply intertwined performances. They’re an incredible find, and writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz do a great job capturing the near-telepathic shorthand that builds between twin brothers. Meanwhile, Wuest gives a versatile performance, impressively brittle in the film’s opening stretch and agonizingly sympathetic in its finale.

“Goodnight Mommy” builds deliberately, becoming increasingly unsettling as the brothers wage psychological warfare on their mother. The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered by the end, but the most compelling is who is the worst influence on Lukas: his brother or his mother. Both function simultaneously as a devil and angel on his shoulder, which makes for a compelling viewing, anchored by a trio of fantastic performances.

As a Fantastic Fest film is supposed to do, “Goodnight Mommy” ends up in a very dark place, and the film’s uncompromising ending is pleasantly ambiguous. Although some questions are apparently answered, nothing is as it seems in Fiala’ and Franz’s discordant mental landscape. The result is a wholly unsettling film that disturbs just as often as it impresses.

Despite the many impressive elements of “Goodnight Mommy,” one wonders whether it’s a good fit for the Secret Screening slot. While Tim League, one of the Fantastic Fest co-founders, must be commended for programming the film, it almost certainly would have played better without the burden of expectation. Even so, “Goodnight Mommy” is right at home at Fantastic Fest and among the best, most memorable films of this year’s festival. It’s reportedly been picked up for U.S. distribution, so many more audiences can expect to see it soon.

The opening night of Fantastic Fest is always a memorable event, and this year proved to be no exception. Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO, kicked off the evening with pyrotechnics and an extended rap session before introducing director Kevin Smith, who brought his “Human Centipede” remix “Tusk” to open this year’s festival. Smith pledged to retire from film after self-distributing the insufferably self-important “Red State,” but “Tusk” is a welcome improvement and a promising revitalization for the director.

The film was notoriously conceived on one of Smith’s many podcasts, and Justin Long fittingly stars as Wallace, a podcaster who travels the country interviewing social misfits and Internet video stars. When Wallace travels to Canada for an interview, only to have it fall apart at the last minute, he is desperate to come home with a story. Luckily, he stumbles upon Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a secluded old man who promises tales of a life of adventure. Howe has other plans, though, and Wallace soon finds himself a captive to a psychopath with one plan of action: to turn his new roommate into a walrus.

It’s an unabashedly absurd premise, and Smith deserves commendation for bringing his film’s concept to its grotesque logical end point. The film packs some truly unsettling imagery — and spectacular make-up effects from Robert Kurtzman — and even flirts with genuine social commentary, a first for the generally low-brow Smith. Although “Tusk” entertains throughout, the film occasionally drags, and it’s hard not to notice that the plot hinges on a series of coincidences, at best, and utter gaps in logic, at worst. 

Smith assembled a bold cast, led by Parks, one of the most reliable supporting actors in the business. Parks is hypnotizing as Howe, a lonely man with a lifetime of stories and regrets, and, even as the film delves into seriously bizarre territory, Parks keeps things on the rails. Long initially comes off as brash and unlikable, but his terrified work as he transitions from human to walrus is remarkable and disturbing. Meanwhile, an age-ravaged Haley Joel Osment is utterly distracting as Wallace’s podcasting partner, and Genesis Rodriguez is unmemorable as Wallace’s long-suffering girlfriend. 

At the post-film Q&A, Smith confirmed plans to make a trilogy of films set in Canada, kicking off with “Tusk” and ending with “Moose Jaws,” which is exactly what it sounds like. While “Tusk” is an imperfect work, predictably flabby with dialogue on occasion, it’s a promising start to a new phase in Smith’s career. 

Opening night of Fantastic Fest concluded with a double feature of raucously entertaining sequels: “The ABCs of Death 2” and “Dead Snow 2.” “ABCs” is an anthology of horror shorts, with 26 directors helming 26 methods of demise in alphabetical order. While the first film delighted in a disgusting variety of bodily fluids, the sequel reins in the fart jokes and ups the tension and creativity, resulting in a vastly improved product. With segments in a variety of languages and formats — one of the most memorable is a nightmarish stop-motion piece — “ABCs of Death 2” has a far-from-perfect batting average but remains engaging and entertaining throughout.

Meanwhile, “Dead Snow 2” builds on the original film’s Nazi zombie premise by introducing an army of Russian zombies who are destined to meet in the extended climactic battle. That should tell you everything you need to know about the film, which has plenty of blood, guts and even a small helping of brains. Martin Starr brings the laughs in his small supporting role, but Vegar Hoel is fantastically brawny as the unflappable lead character.

With its first two entries, “V/H/S” established itself as one of the most promising horror franchises around, featuring a variety of talented directors and an intriguing, carefully revealed mythology. Unfortunately, “V/H/S Viral” puts a brutal halt to the franchise’s momentum, demolishing every meaningful tenet of the franchise and failing to produce a single scare.

As with the other films, “V/H/S Viral” opens with a segment that threads the other tapes together, featuring a renegade ice cream truck racing around Los Angeles and causing chaos wherever it goes. While previous films stayed with a single perspective in the wraparound segment featuring characters actually playing the titular VHS tapes, “Viral” is content with letting the wraparound function as an extra burst of violence between more scenes of gratuitous violence. Unfortunately, the wraparound segment is mostly nonsense, providing little connective tissue between the other shorts in the film. 

The other shorts in “V/H/S Viral” range from pleasantly clever to genuinely toxic. A segment by “Dance of the Dead” director Gregg Bishop, featuring a magician obsessed with his darkly powerful cloak, is amusing enough, with a handful of memorable moments. It also provides the closest thing “Viral” has to an actual scare, a commodity that the film drastically lacks. 

Meanwhile, Nacho Vigalondo, Spanish filmmaker and Fantastic Fest mainstay, produces the best segment of the bunch: the tale of a scientist who creates a door to an opposite dimension only to find out that the grass is decidedly not greener on the other side. Vigalondo’s short is full of funny little moments and haunting images — and is an easy highlight of the film. 

Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are to blame for the bad taste “V/H/S Viral” ultimately leaves in its viewers’ mouths, as their segment pushes the film from decent to downright disappointing. When a gang of despicable skateboarding teens goes to Tijuana, Mexico, to make a skate video, they end up in an extended, bloody showdown with members of a supernatural cult. 

This segment features a handful of satisfying kills — especially once the kids get their hands on some fireworks. Unfortunately, it’s also completely incoherent, a barrage of senseless bloodshed captured with absolutely no effort toward geography or character. While plenty of horror films have had fun with teens fighting for their lives, this one becomes nauseous, as they take pleasure in shedding blood, making the entire segment feel like a juvenile fantasy about going down to Mexico and getting in a crazy gang fight. The characters are unlikable at the beginning of the short, but, by the conclusion of the short, it’s easy to root for them to meet their end, preferably with the same enthusiastic violence they’re using to defend themselves. 

While it’s impossible to trace the failure of “Viral” to any single source, one wonders whether the absence of producers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett is an influence. Wingard and Barrett are among the most exciting directors working in indie horror, and “Viral” direly misses the sense of humor and impeccable style that their feature films consistently tout. 

“Viral”’s lack of cohesion, inconsistent batting ratio and occasional moral bankruptcy render it wholly unsatisfying and, again, not the least bit scary. “V/H/S Viral” is the first major disappointment of Fantastic Fest, a marked misstep in the trajectory of a genuinely exciting franchise, and, hopefully, the inevitable fourth entry in the franchise gets things back on track.

Daniel Radcliffe takes on a sinister role in "Horns," playing at Fantastic Fest Sunday and Sept. 24.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

Film fanatics are gearing up for Austin’s annual Fantastic Fest, a week-long event at the new Alamo Drafthouse location at South Lamar Boulevard. A can’t-miss event for movie enthusiasts, especially those who adore the horror genre, the festival promises to bring a fair amount of features, shorts and other special events to Austin movie lovers, as well as attract big name stars and other important figures in the film industry. Here is a list of a few of The Daily Texan’s most anticipated films. The festival runs until Sept. 25.

ABCs of Death 2

Thursday, Sept. 18, 8:40 p.m. & Thursday, Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m.

A follow-up to the ambitious cult classic, “ABCs of Death 2” features an anthology of the most creepy shorts ever imagined, each separated by a letter of the alphabet. Helmed by 27 different directors, the film offers several unique takes on the horror genre and promises to shock and gross out as many viewers as possible.

Tusk

Thursday, Sept. 18,
5:30 p.m.

Directed by the legendary Kevin Smith, “Tusk” is a horror dramedy about a podcaster who is kidnapped by a man for nefarious purposes. “Tusk” is the director’s first film since the 2011 release of “Red State” and has received admiring reviews from critics since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment and Johnny Depp.

Closer to God

Thursday, Sept. 18, 5:35 p.m. & Monday, Sept. 22, 3:15 p.m.

After Dr. Victor Reed manages to clone the first human being, he faces a strong backlash about the moral and ethical consequences of his discovery. Directed by Billy Senese, the film seeks to explore the ethics of such a decision and challenges the viewer’s own sense of what can be considered moral.

John Wick

Friday, Sept. 19, 8:30 p.m. & Tuesday, Sept. 23,
12:10 p.m.

Keanu Reeves returns to action flicks after the critical and commercial failure that was “47 Ronin.” In “John Wick,” Reeves portrays a former hit man on the run from a former ally, who has been assigned to murder him. Promising to be a pulse-pounding thriller, the film also stars Bridget Moynahan, Willem Dafoe and
Jason Isaacs.

Horns

Sunday, Sept. 21, 5:05 p.m. & Wednesday, Sept. 24, 9:00 p.m.

After a man named Ig is accused of murdering his girlfriend, he wakes to discover horns growing on the sides of his heads. Soon after, he realizes that he possesses incredible, sinister powers. Desperate to discover who actually killed his love, Ig becomes seduced by darkness and begins to use his new powers to his advantage. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, “Horns” both examines and combines the fantasy, drama and mystery genres and tells an interesting tale of love
and horror. 

Cub

Thursday, Sept. 18, 12:00 a.m. & Monday, Sept. 22, 8:00 p.m.

When a Boy Scout troop convenes for their yearly camping trip, the scouts become frightened by the legend of a murderous, feral boy that roams the forest. Assured by the troop leaders that the tales are false, one scout begins to see evidence there may, in fact, be some truth to the legend. Belgian director Jonas Govaerts’ feature debut, “Cub” seems to embrace extreme, graphic horror and bleak humor to tell a story of a terrifying trip into
the woods. 

Nightcrawler

Thursday, Sept. 25,
7:45 p.m.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a desperate crime journalist, “Nightcrawler” delves into a world where people rush to document mayhem for profit. Influenced by classical noir films and containing a strong, moody atmosphere, the movie teases intense action along with thrilling surprises for
the audience.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

I remember the exact moment I realized how great it was to work for The Daily Texan. I had been in college for roughly a month and had been assigned to cover Fantastic Fest. For its closing night party, the festival bussed attendees to a ghost town outside of Austin, and, as I waited in line for knife throwing lessons while talking to a fellow critic about samurai movies, it came to me: Sublimely awesome moments like this were why I wanted to write for The Daily Texan.

Four years later, I’m saying goodbye to the Texan. I’ve gone from lowly issue staff to life & arts associate editor; from a freshman looking to write about movies to a certified critic teetering on the edge of adulthood. I’ve worked with a dozen different editors, and every single one of them has made me a better writer in one way or another.

Amber Genuske gave me my first byline, my first press badge and was the first to teach me what constructive criticism really means. Gerald Rich showed me how to nurture a beard to its full glory and taught me that film festivals are not a time for sleep. Katie Stroh and Aleks Chan pushed me to unleash my inner snark, and Sarah-Grace Sweeney put up with me when I bit off more than I could chew. I also have to thank Hannah Smothers and Lauren L’Amie for giving me more encouragement and support than I could ask for in my last semester. And last, but certainly not least, Kelsey McKinney, for always pushing me to be a better, more adventurous writer.

I’ve also had the privilege of watching Alex Pelham, Colin McLaughlin and Lee Henry grow into strongly opinionated film reviewers over the last year, and I hope, someday, they’ll be mentioning me in their own farewell columns.

More than the free movies and swanky parties, I’ll miss the sense of community that’s always present in the basement, the driving sentiment that we were reporters for a publication that’s not just a learning exercise for fledgling journalists but an essential, thriving component of the University. I’ll also miss geeking out about “Breaking Bad” with Bobby Blanchard and getting a small ego boost when I read Doug Warren’s critiques.

If The Daily Texan was hitting theaters this weekend, I’d give it a glowing review. It’s been an essential part of my college experience and an organization I’m proud to have worked for. Like any great movie, I wish my time at The Daily Texan could last forever, and, now that the credits are about to roll, I just want to rewind to that excellent night on my freshman year and watch the whole thing again.

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Vampires and Gangsters Among Best at Fantastic Fest

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. 

A normal weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse might include a movie quote-along, but Fantastic Fest brought horror, sci-fi and fantasy films from all over the world to North Austin. The Daily Texan saw 17 films in total. Here are the films and events that stood out the most. 

Day one

“Patrick,” which premiered Thursday night at Fantastic Fest, comes from a place of genuine affection. The director, Mark Hartley, touched on the original “Patrick” in his documentary about Australian cinema, “Not Quite Hollywood,” and remade the film for his feature debut. The result is a heavily atmospheric thriller that drags through its first act before picking up speed as it barrels towards an endearingly bonkers climax.

The best film from Thursday night was “Almost Human,” a gratuitously gory alien riff with its heart squarely in the 1980s. Writer/director Joe Begos tells the story of a man abducted by aliens returning two years later to lead an invasion with a charming DIY style.

Day two

Ti West is a master of methodical pacing, and his stories unfold at a precisely measured clip. “The Sacrament,” his latest film, is no exception, building ominously before taking a horrifying turn, and while it’s far from West’s scariest film, it’s easily his most accomplished.

It bears to mention that while “The Sacrament” is riveting and bluntly horrific, its approach to some familiar subject matter is in bad taste, trivializing some real and terrible events in a flippant manner. A moody score, unflinching approach and great performances go a long way toward making the film as gripping and entertaining as it is, but its misguided approach gives “The Sacrament” an undeniably ugly bent that’s hard to shake once the credits roll.

Day three

Any time a film at Fantastic Fest hails from South Korea, it is worth seeing. “Confession of Murder” is no exception. Blending satire with crime thriller, the film packs some impressive action scenes on top of some clumsy social commentary.

The film’s action scenes establish Byeong-gil Jeong as a skilled director in his narrative debut. While the film doesn’t perfect the balance between social commentary and white-knuckle action, it has a strong script, directed with typically dynamic South Korean flair. 

The Fantastic Debates kicked off at midnight. Film critics fought first with fiery rhetoric and then with their fists, squaring off on topics like Sylvester Stallone’s status as the greatest action star to whether or not “28 Days Later” is a zombie film. In the final debate, Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, argued that Tae Kwon Do is the best fighting style against Keanu Reeves. While League dominated the verbal debate, he was beaten to a pulp by Tiger Chen in hand-to-hand combat. 

Fantastic Fest Day 3

South Korea is one of the most interesting countries in the world for genre filmmaking, with output ranging from downright disturbing (“Oldboy”) to gleefully insane (“The Good, the Bad, the Weird”). Any time a film at Fantastic Fest hails from South Korea, it’s going to be worth seeing. “Confession of Murder” is no exception. Blending satire with crime thriller, the film packs some impressive action scenes on top of some clumsy social commentary.

Fifteen years after a Korean town was terrorized by a serial killer, homicide cop Choi (Jae-yeong Jeong) is haunted by his inability to catch the murderer, who left him with a grotesque scar on his face. Once the statute of limitations has expired on the murders, Lee Du-sok (Shi-hoo Park) writes a book confessing that he was the killer, causing Choi to reopen his hunt for the final victim, whose body was never recovered.

What emerges is a film that’s more “Network” than “I Saw the Devil,” with a rabid cult of followers springing up around Lee, and Choi being brought onto television to publicly debate the alleged killer. However, most of the film’s satirical undertones are fairly obvious and inelegantly deployed, while its thriller elements are roundly superior.

In just a handful of action scenes, Byeong-gil Jeong firmly establishes himself as a skilled director. While this is his narrative debut, Jeong directed a documentary about South Korean stunt drivers, and he clearly picked up a few things up, staging a hugely thrilling car chase that packs the best stunt work this side of “Death Proof.” Other action scenes are creatively staged, with visceral, effective camerawork and plenty of memorable beats.

The film’s finale hinges on a series of big twists, and it’s rare that a film’s final carpet tug can be genuinely surprising and logical in the context of the story, but “Confession of Murder” sticks the landing to an impressive degree. A series of revelations dramatically build to a well-staged final showdown, but Jeong unfortunately fumbles the climactic moment, turning the film’s apex into an understated, jarringly quiet moment.

While “Confession of Murder” doesn’t perfect the balance between social commentary and white-knuckle action, it’s a strong script, directed with typically dynamic South Korean flair. It’s far from the best film to ever come out of the country, but it’s also an unpredictable, exciting ride that’s worth seeking out once it releases in the US. 

From Chinese director Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) comes “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”, one of the most energetic movies to play Fantastic Fest so far. The film’s plot is simple: a series of animalistic demons are plaguing ancient China, and lackluster demon hunter Xuan Zang (Zhang Wan) fumbles his way into dispatching them, one by one. The film’s first half moves with infectious glee, but the episodic structure starts to lag. When it picks up speed again for a rousing finale, “Journey to the West” is effortlessly engaging, and with maybe 20 minutes trimmed from it, it would be one of the best films of the festival.

Meanwhile, Drafthouse Films’ “Borgman” is one of the festival’s strangest. The absurdist home invasion film documents a homeless man’s slow infiltration of an upper class Dutch family, but the tragically underwritten characters frustrate with their passivity, allowing their lives to be ruined with little-to-no resistance. The auxiliary characters, like a nanny who works for the family or the titular character’s roving troupe of hobos, are mostly undeveloped, which is frustrating as they become essential to the film’s final result. Despite compelling moments and strong performances, “Borgman”’s lacking script simply can’t justify its characters’ inaction, making for a frustrating experience.

Fantastic Fest Day 2

Ti West is a master of methodical pacing, and his stories unfold at a precisely measured clip. “The Sacrament,” his latest film, is no exception, building ominously before taking a horrifying turn, and while it’s far from West’s most traditionally scary film, it’s easily his most accomplished.

Like many other films at this year’s festival, “The Sacrament” is a found footage piece, documenting a VICE crew’s infiltration of a cult compound. Sam (AJ Bowen) is incorrigibly inquisitive, slowly starting to understand the appeal of the compound, and his cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) is a lot slower to warm up to its charms. Amy Seimetz plays Caroline, the sister of their friend Patrick (Kentucker Audley) and their ticket into the compound, which is led by a charismatic enigma named Father (Gene Jones).

Ti West plucked Jones from a bit part on FX’s “Louie,” instantly recognizing him as the man for the role, and Jones tears into West’s script, playing Father with equally reassuring and chilling notes. Father is a grandstander, using buzzwords and mythmaking to manipulate his followers. It’s an outstanding performance from Jones, and one that anchors the film as things spiral into a disturbing climax.

AJ Bowen is solid here, helplessly curious and empathetic, and while Joe Swanberg’s role as the cameraman means he stays off-screen for the most part, he makes the most of his limited screentime. Amy Seimetz gives a magnetically daffy performance, maintaining a gentle warmth even as she’s performing some heinous acts in the film’s finale.

There’s a clear tipping point in “The Sacrament,” a moment when things take a decided turn towards the sinister, and it’s a perfectly subtle, chilling moment that pulls back the curtains on the compound. “The Sacrament” doesn’t have a ton of scares in the traditional sense, lacking any ghosts, zombie, or vampires, which makes its relentless finale all the more unpleasant. West stages a climax that’s aggressively disturbing, all the more so because it plays out in broad daylight, making for a hugely intense experience.

It bears to mention that, while “The Sacrament” is riveting, taut, and bluntly horrific, its approach to some familiar subject matter is in fairly bad taste, trivializing some very real, very terrible events in a fairly flippant manner. A moody score, unflinching approach, and great performances go a long way towards making the film as gripping and, yes, entertaining, as it is, but its misguided approach gives the film an undeniably ugly bent that’s hard to shake once the credits roll.

Among the other films that played Fantastic Fest yesterday, “Detective Downs”, a film about a PI afflicted with Downs Syndrome, is charming and surprisingly tactful. While it’s a bit overlong, the film’s original concept, strong performances, and a jazzy, memorable score keep it from dragging too much.

“A Field in England,” on the other hand, practically prides itself on its glacial pacing. The story of five men wandering a field in England, eating mushrooms and looking for treasure, plays like a Lars von Trier movie without any compelling parts. While there are excellent elements, especially the screenplay’s relatable, crackling dialogue, the stunning black & white photography, and a rhythmic score, “A Field in England” is mostly interminable nonsense, stretching 30 minutes of story out to excruciating length.

“We Are What We Are,” a remake of a Spanish film that played Fantastic Fest back in 2010, is the rare rehash that improves on its predecessor. In a gender reversal from the original, a family is left in the lurch after its matriarch dies, and eldest daughter Rose (Julia Garner) must step forward to continue the family’s tradition of ritualistic cannibalism. “We Are What We Are” may be a bit dour for the midnight slot, but it’s a fantastically moody work, beating the original for ambition, scope, and commitment to its premise, and featuring roundly solid performances. This Southern Gothic plays a delicate tonal game, and by the time it escalates to an absolutely insane finale, it’s easy to come along for the ride.

“The Sacrament” screens again Monday 9/23 at 4:50.

“Detective Downs” screens again Wednesday 9/25 at 5:45.

“A Field in England” screens again Wednesday 9/25 at 5:00.

“We Are What We Are” screens again Tuesday 9/24 at 11:45.

Fantastic Fest Day 1: Remakes, aliens and CGI blood

Joe Begos, writer and director of "Almost Human," introduces the horror film at the opening night of this year's Fantastic Fest. Photo courtesy of Fantastic Fest. 
Joe Begos, writer and director of "Almost Human," introduces the horror film at the opening night of this year's Fantastic Fest. Photo courtesy of Fantastic Fest. 

Remakes are tricky, walking a thin line between honoring the original and desecrating its grave. “Patrick”, which premiered last night at Fantastic Fest, obviously comes from a place of genuine affection. The director, Mark Hartley, touched on the original “Patrick” in his documentary about Australian cinema, “Not Quite Hollywood”, and remade the film for his feature debut. The result is a heavily atmospheric thriller that drags through its first act before picking up speed as it barrels towards an endearingly bonkers climax.

“You’re Next”’s Sharni Vinson stars as Kathy, a nurse at a hospice for long-term coma patients. Dr. Roget (Charles Dance) is the maniacal head of the facility, using brutally unconventional methods to awaken brain activity in his patients. Kathy is the first to notice unusual behavior from Patrick (Jackson Gallagher), and once he starts openly communicating with her, the film turns from misguided love story to telekinetic slasher flick.

As Patrick’s developing powers become more and more pronounced, they also become increasingly inconsistent, with Patrick taking control of some people’s minds and merely tossing objects at others. “Patrick” is full of jump scares, some more inspired than others, and for the first half of the film, they exist mostly to give breaks in the exposition. However, the film ratchets up the intensity as it heads towards its finale, and the crackling climax, full of creative demises and genuine tension, is hugely entertaining.

Unfortunately, despite its good momentum, the film never seems to fully engage its actors to the fullest of their potential. Sharni Vinson is charming and compassionate as the nurse-turned-victim, but doesn’t match the charisma she displayed in “You’re Next,” and the film’s attempts to give her character a backstory are hasty and uninteresting. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see Charles Dance show up in the credits, and he plays strict and authoritarian with his usual haughty elegance, but fails to bring any discernible personality to the role. Given the much shorter end of the stick, Rachel Griffiths, Peta Sergeant, and Martin Crewes all function purely as plot mechanism, with the script losing interest in them as soon as they deliver their requisite exposition.

“Patrick”’s greatest sin is being merely capable throughout, distracting enough to hold your attention but too lightweight to leave much of an impression, and is far from the best film I saw at Fantastic Fest last night.

That honor goes to “Almost Human,” a gratuitously gory alien riff with its heart squarely in the 1980’s. Writer/director Joe Begos tells the story of a man abducted by aliens returning two years later to lead an invasion with a charming DIY style, and finds some suitably gross moments to earn the film its midnight slot at Fantastic Fest.

The opening night film, “Machete Kills,” is similarly retro, with fun moments throughout (often punctuated with unconvincing splashes of CGI blood) that would be right at home in a goofy 80’s flick. The massive cast provides lots of fun surprises, with Mel Gibson and Demian Bichir giving admirably manic performances as the film’s tag-team villains, and Danny Trejo’s unruffled charisma as the titular character is always welcome. Unfortunately, the film details itself halfway through, setting its eyes on a third installment without wrapping itself up.