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7 wild movies from Fantastic Fest that you should know about

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Vampires! Taiwan! Wicked excess! "Dead & Beautiful" is very Fantastic Fest.

Science has long proven that you could technically live at Alamo Drafthouse. 

(Fantastic Fest is the science. Mad science, though.)

From Sept. 23 through 30, the Austin-based cinema’s signature film festival brought new and classic genre films — sci-fi, horror, crime, kung fu, what have you — to ravenous fans, with the festival hosting many world and U.S. premieres.  

It was a return to (something resembling) normal for Fantastic Fest in its 16th edition, after a digital, nontraditional 2020.

Because of the pandemic, this year Fantastic Fest got rid of badges, opting to sell individual tickets to in-person screenings. Shows were split across three Drafthouse. They kept a virtual component, dubbed FF @ Home.

On the ground, all seemed to go smoothly. The usual swarms of fans in the lobbies disappeared, but the diehards showed up, swapping stories outside the theater and in the Highball bar.  

Fantastic Fest made good on its policy requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter screenings. Check-in tables were placed prominently at the front of the theater at both the South Lamar and Village cinemas. Most fest-goers wore masks at the screenings I checked out, too. 

More:Apocalypse or not, Fantastic Fest will be bloody good, Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League says

 “The idea was to always try to do the right thing and to create something that is safe and appropriate for our times,” Alamo Drafthouse co-founder and executive chairman Tim League told me last month. 

As promised, the movies were wild, and they were a mixed bag, because it’s a festival. 

Fantastic Fest loves a stunt. Opener “Titane,” in its U.S. premiere, began with a mob of folks in fire fighter costumes dancing through the aisles of the theater. Filmmaker Julia Ducournau introduced her Cannes hit, ribbing League at the mic and speaking to the heart of the festival. 

“Certain stories are universal and should not be niche,” she said. “Genre is not niche.”  

"Titane,” already a darling of critics, is one of the most visually visceral movies I’ve ever seen, full of body horror, industrial bloodshed and dazzling images. Ducournau spoke plainly about allusions and metaphors in her film during the Q&A. In its tale of a homicidal woman (with a plate in her head and monsters inside her body) and the grieving fire captain who takes her in, there’s room for everything.  

It might be too alarming for casual movie-goers, but don't be surprised if it picks up some awards steam later. (And then when it invites the requisite pearl-clutching.) “Titane” is in theaters now. 

'Titane' review:Sex, cars and the most twisted gender reveal party ever

The second night of Fantastic Fest brought “Bingo Hell,” a horror film streaming on Amazon Prime Video as of Oct. 1. Production company Blumhouse has cornered the market on high-concept scaries for streaming services. “Bingo Hell” is the latest part of their themed horror anthology series for Amazon. 

The film finds Lupita (Adriana Barraza) struggling to keep community spirit alive among her aging circle in the rapidly gentrifying Oak Springs. A sinister figure (Richard Brake) moves in on the town’s old bingo hall, opening up a flashy new game room with impossibly high-money prizes. Then, as people start winning big, they start turning up dead, too. Pretty soon, it’s just Lupita against the forces of darkness. 

Before the screening, writer-director Gigi Saul Guerrero said, “We need abuelas carrying a shotgun more often.” (Yes, true.)  

"Bingo Hell" is a weird and wild genre take on gentrification.

“Bingo Hell” is high schlock with a touch of melodrama, or in other words, the perfect Fantastic Fest selection. There are seams showing, for sure: the Hallmark movie-grade score, some strangely erratic editing and broadly drawn stock characters keep the film from what you’d call conventional quality.  

There’s no denying the thrills of Guerrero’s movie, though. Barraza’s performance is undeniably great (those sneers!) and the menace of the bingo man (those gums!) earns genuine chills. “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” set under the multicolor lights of a bingo hall. 

Speaking of style, Dutch director David Verbeek’s “Dead & Beautiful” takes an admittedly heavy-handed metaphor — hot young things from billionaire families wake up from their lives of bored excess in Taiwan to find that they’re vampires, but like, the kind with fangs — and makes it look as cold, dark and gorgeous as possible. 

The internal logic strains credulity at times, but I have to say, I found “Dead & Beautiful” mesmerizing. With a premise so on the nose, you have to allow for some indulgent camp, all provided by the ghostly, glowing luxury rooms; designer goth outfits; and vapidly idiotic main characters. There’s a big twist at the end, which I obviously won’t spoil, and know that it basically doesn’t work. As commentary on a generation rotted by wealth, social media and lack of purpose, though, it’s got teeth. 

More:Webb: Actually, Austin's zillion festivals are good

The U.S. premiere of A24’s livestock fantasy-thriller “Lamb” also transported Fantastic Fest to lands abroad, this time the green countryside of Iceland. Writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson and star-executive producer Noomi Rapace came for the fun, which began with League in a lamb costume and a group of film-goers wearing lamb masks in the front row. (Upon the sight of which, Rapace laughed and said she loved it.) 

“Lamb” is a tricky one to parse, both truly watchable and perplexing all the way around. Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason play husband-and-wife farmers who adopt a strange creature born in their lamb pen one day. The film is slow and sparing with its horror, though the baby is certainly adorable in all its … well, you would have to watch it. There’s much to guess at the thematic intent of “Lamb”: parenthood, grief and man’s relationship to nature are all swirling about in the Nordic mist. If you figure it out, let me know. It’s in theaters Oct. 8. 

"Slumber Party Massacre" screened as part of the 2021 edition of Fantastic Fest.

The world premiere of COVID-era spook-fest “Alone With You," created by Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks and starring Bennett, was much more generous with its answers (and its scares). The film follows Charlie (Bennett) as she goes from awaiting the return of her girlfriend from a trip to fighting for her sanity in a supernatural hellscape, right in her own home.  

It’s about as indie as you can get, with a chaotic back end, but “Alone With You” has some good bones. Bennett holds her own in the world of one-room psychological thrillers, a picture of bright capability slowly melting into madness. We all love a good old fashioned jump scare, of which this movie has plenty. Dora Madison, as Charlie’s FaceTiming friend, is a comedic treat, and horror vet Barbara Crampton crafts such a precise portrait of a passive-aggressive, religious zealot parent that you gotta wonder where the inspiration came from. 

Now, the inspiration for “Slumber Party Massacre” is clear — it's a reboot of the 1980s slasher franchise of the same name. A SyFy original, you’d be forgiven for tempering expectations.

But director Danishka Esterhazy has done a marvelous thing in not only flipping the genre on its head, but making an honestly hilarious movie that doesn’t trade any of its garish, gory, Grand Guignol delights away. 

While it disappointingly shifts into more conventional territory in the second half, “Slumber Party Massacre” is a genre buff’s playground. One, its phenomenal cast of young actresses (led by Hannah Gonera and Frances Sholto-Douglas) is game as hell to turn the Driller Killer’s hunt around on him, all winking in unison at how these things usually go. Two, it uses a crew of useless, generic hot guys as plot devices and shameless beefcake. (A shower scene? Hello.) The script, she’s been flipped. 

You can watch “Slumber Party Massacre” on Oct. 16 on the SyFy channel. 

Secret screenings are a hallmark of Fantastic Fest, and fans can usually expect to see high-profile flicks before they hit theaters or streaming platforms. Recent secret screenings have included “The Lighthouse” and “Dolemite Is My Name.”

This year, the first surprise was Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho,” starring Anya Taylor-Joy. (I missed it; Moontower Comedy Festival called.) But reveal No. 2 was provocateur Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun story “Benedetta,” due out this winter.  

In the intro, League himself nodded at the fact that this was not necessarily what audiences might have expected, teasing a dive into “faith-based” cinema before being dragged off by a horde of people in nun costumes.  

It wouldn’t be the first angry horde of the night in Verhoeven’s adaptation of the book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has visions of Jesus in her 17th-century convent, much to the suspicion of the abbess (Charlotte Rampling, spectacular). When a novice named Bartolomea ends up in Benedetta’s bed (for the Lord, of course), the prophetic sister leads a revolution set against the backdrop of plague. 

No sense in dancing around it: “Benedetta” is as salacious, sacrilegious and explicit as you’d expect from something I called “Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun story.” But it also low-key slaps, a heightened costume drama with gonzo moments and heartfelt drama, if you can believe it.  

If you’d still like a piece of the Fantastic pie, FF @ Home runs through Oct. 10. “Alone With You” is screening as part of the virtual festival on Alamo On Demand, along with films like “After Blue (Dirty Paradise),” “Zalava” and more that took home awards during the in-person festival. Go to fantasticfest.com for more information.