The opening night of a film festival resembles a glimpse of that new love feeling – giddy with anticipation, will this be a good experience, will it break my heart, will I have wasted my time pondering and waiting for hours in line? Fantastic Fest day one brought me all these feelings and I couldn’t have been happier to be anxious and excited!
I’ve been attending Fantastic Fest since 2015 but missed out on last year’s fest due to work so I was more than eager to get back to this iconic horror genre festival that keeps Austin weird. And unlike other Austin festivals, the perk of FF is that it all takes place in one location – the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. That may not sound exciting, but when you know you don’t have to circle around blocks and blocks to find an open parking spot and pay an outrageous parking surcharge, it’s a win! Free parking and one location, let’s do this!
One thing that is not fun about film festivals is the ticketing process – every year there’s a new app or new process and there’s always some kinks to work out. For this year’s fest, one has to reserve tickets to screenings at 10am the day before the screenings. Not wanting to miss out on the opening night film, I readied my plan of attack, charged my phone, connected to wifi and kept refreshing until 9:59am came along and by a miracle it opened up a minute early and I snagged a ticket!
The Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar location has been renovated many times and they recently underwent a complete transformation to The Shining theme. One questionable renovation is the large lobby that once was is now completely gone now that they’ve inserted another theater block in that space. It’s made this year’s festival quite claustrophobic in some ways – the only places to hang out are in The Highball next door or in the tent outside – which during the Austin days can get quite steamy in the 95 degree weather. Alas, are you even at a film festival if you’re not sweating a bit?
While waiting for The Toxic Avenger, I zig zagged between waiting at The Highball and sweating outside. While frustrating, it’s also part of the experience. You gotta roll with it or it can dampen the experience of what you’re there for! Luckily, Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger did not disappoint (full review here).
For the intro of the film, Blair gave thanks to Lloyd Kaufman who was in attendance and said, “If you don’t know anything about this film, it’s a very classy movie, it’s very subtle, it’s very thoughtful and you can discuss it afterwards and see what it means.” This really gave an insight to the thinking behind the creators of this new reimagining. It’s clear from Blair’s intro and subsequent Post Q&A how much care, laughter and thought went into making this in the spirit of the original but also updating it for a contemporary audience.
When the credits rolled, one can understand why the Fantastic Fest programmers chose this as the opening night film. It’s action-packed yet sets the tone with a lot of heart behind the toxic ooze. I really enjoyed this one and you can read all my toxic thoughts in my review.
What could follow such a high of the opening night film? Day two said, hold my toxic ooze and upped it to some salty bath water (IYKYK!) I’ve avoided secret screenings – too hard to get into and usually films that you can see in theaters on the wide release. But I thought, why not try and get mixed in with the Fantastic Fest tradition. I mentally prepared for the heartbreak of not getting in and telling myself at least I gave it a good ole’ try. Luckily, the stars aligned and I was seated for this first secret screening of the fest and my second film of the festival. Out of all the possibilities of what the film could be I never thought Saltburn but goodness, delicious gracious – I’m still thinking about this film days later.
The Academy Award-winning Emerald Fennell graced us with a pre-recorded intro, wished she could be with us and told us we’d be some of the first few to see her second film, Saltburn. Never did I guess that this would be secret screening #1 but it was a lovely surprise. It burns so good. Keoghan is in his own element, it’s a true delight to watch him go up against what Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant and Carey Mulligan are given to play with. One word that keeps coming to mind is delicious. Fennell gives everyone delicious dialogue to eat up and it’s captivating to watch. What ensues in the third act and the final scene with Keoghan is mesmerizing and one that should be studied and watched over and over again. Not to throw this word around lightly, but it is masterful. Thank you for this gem, Fennell. Run, don’t walk when Saltburn hits your theater.
After riding a Saltburn high, I had some time to rest up before going into another masterful work, Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997) 4K restoration. I feel ashamed to say that I was not aware of this film up until a week ago, and not familiar with Araki’s monumental work and contribution to the New Queer Cinema movement of the 90s. But I am now!
Araki was in attendance along with actor James Duval to proudly present the newly restored and soon to be released 4K restoration of Nowhere, the last film in his Teen Apocalypse trilogy.
Nowhere was another visual cinephile treat and 3/3 in my film selections at Fantastic Fest. While this is almost 26 years later, Araki asked the audience at the start of the film, how many people were seeing it for the first time. Almost the whole audience raised their hands and he was delighted and still shocked that people are discovering this very personal and low budget film he made underground all those years ago.
After watching it, one is not surprised why this film has built a cult following not only in LGBTQ+ circles but in general cinephile realms. It’s stunning, and is sadly still relevant with certain storylines that are depicted and so timely in capturing what it’s like to be 18 and not know where you are going in life.
We follow a variety of characters throughout a 24-hour snippet in the lives of Los Angeles college students. All types of characters are rooted with Duval’s character, Dark Smith. First off, this film is stacked with 90s teen talent – Rachel True as Mel, Christina Applegate as Dingbat, Guillermo Diaz as Cowboy, Ryan Phillippe as Shad, Heather Graham as Lilith, Scott Caan as Ducky, a very baby Mena Suvari as Zoe, Shannen Doherty as Val-Chick-2, Rose McGowan as val-Chick 3 and Denise Richards as Jana. Also starring some icons, John Ritter as Moses Helper, Beverly D’Angelo as Dark’s Mom, Christopher Knight as Mr. Sighvatssohn. Araki mentioned in the Post Q&A moderated by Richard Linklater, that he has been frustrated with all the bootlegs and horrible copies of his films and why he was so excited to have this restoration done with him overseeing the work in sound mix and coloring.
Araki jokingly brought up that people ask him all the time why he only chooses to make things that are of the younger generation and he states that as you get older that confusion, the insecurities you feel tend to go away, you are not as lost or determined to fit in. If he made a film about his life now, he said it’d be so boring. The highlight of his week is going to Trader Joe’s with his boyfriend.
Duval gushed over the art of an Araki script in the post Q&A and how he was spoiled from then on and tended to be disappointed reading other scripts after being spoiled by Araki’s. Araki, Duval mentioned, is so descriptive in the language that he uses in the script that while you’re reading it you’re sucked in with his offscreen commentary and stage directions. And a fun tidbit is that these scripts are available to read via the Oscars Core Collection files.
It was a true delight to watch the Nowhere restoration and I’m so glad Fantastic Fest gave Araki a space to show this beautiful and important film.
It’s the magic of film festivals to be able to see films like The Toxic Avenger, Saltburn and Nowhere all within a span of 24 hours. It was a dream and I’m ready for more Fantastic Fest gems in my next couple of days!