A Fantastic Dispatch from Fantastic Fest

Just about any major film festival will have a few selections that are controversially violent, graphic, or insane, or that address unserious topics like vampires and cannibals. These are often set aside in a "midnight madness" or "extreme" section, segregated from the more prestigious festival entries that go on to win Oscars.

But at Fantastic Fest, the bizarre is the norm. The films that play only late at night (or not at all) at other fests are the main attraction here. The emphasis is horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, but anything out of the ordinary -- anything awesome -- is embraced. Martial arts, anime, stoner comedies, future cult classics, and There Will Be Blood have all played here. This year's opening-night film was Let Me In, of which we'll have a review later in the week.

Founded in 2005 by Harry Knowles and Tim League, the fest is held at League's legendary Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. I was familiar with the Drafthouse because it's also a venue for the South By Southwest film festival, and I was familiar with the types of movies being showcased because SXSW has recently let League program a few titles, to give us a taste of what Fantastic Fest is all about. (Here's something I wrote during SXSW.)

But can a person handle a week devoted exclusively to the bizarre, outrageous, and effed-up stuff that he normally sees only in occasional doses? Will a viewer with a wide range of tastes enjoy pigging out on a single subsection of foods? That was the question facing me as someone who enjoys genre films but doesn't specialize in them.

Here's what I saw, and lived to tell about.

Heartless, a moody British thriller, stars Jim Sturgess as a withdrawn Londoner with a wine-stain birthmark covering much of his face and body. His working-class neighborhood is being ravaged by crime, desperation, and demons. Yes, demons, or at least it appears that way to our hero, whose mental acuity is under some question. Writer-director Philip Ridley juggles several creepy and disturbing ideas (including a Faustian deal with a terrifying man called Papa B), but in the end they don't quiet come together. It's worth watching, though, and in fact is currently available On Demand through IFC Midnight.

Mother's Day is a very loose remake of the 1980 cult classic, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, and IV). In this version, a small party in a suburban basement is interrupted by three bank-robbing brothers and their malevolent mother (Rebecca De Mornay, for some reason). The homeowners' last name is Sohapi (so happy) and the bad guys are named Koffin, so that's pretty imaginative and not the least bit stupid. Bousman introduced the film to the Fantastic Fest crowd by saying it didn't bear any resemblance to his Saw movies. This is laughably false, as Mother's Day is rife with the casual cruelty and psychotic you-can-save-yourself-but-only-if-you-hurt-this-other-person mind games that are Saw's hallmarks. Short on suspense and true horror, it's a run-of-the-mill violence 'n' pain flick. Supposedly set for a theatrical release in 2011.

For everyone who enjoys Norwegian gangster comedies, here is A Somewhat Gentle Man! It stars Stellan Skarsgard (who is Swedish but can pass for Norwegian) as a rather placid fellow recently released from prison for killing his wife's lover. He just wants to set up a normal, calm life for himself, but his former associates think he ought to punish the snitch who put him in prison. Oh, and a scabby old maid keeps wanting to have sex with him, and this is gross and hilarious. So it goes. The comedy may be dark, but it is comedy, and Skarsgard's performance is terrifically understated and droll. Strand Releasing will distribute the film in the U.S.

I saw I Saw the Devil without knowing what it would be beforehand, as it was one of Fantastic Fest's famous secret screenings. Like approximately 95% of all movies from South Korea these days, this one's about revenge, with a man setting out to find and punish the psycho who killed his wife. That's not all, though. He wants to play cat-and-mouse with the creep, tormenting and hurting him without killing him. This is unsettling stuff, directed by Kim Ji-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) with an unflinching eye fixed on the seedy underside of humanity. The "hunter of psychos becomes a psycho himself" angle is a little past its freshness date, but Kim makes the most of it. Magnet Releasing has the film in the U.S.; no word yet on a release date.

Speaking of South Korean movies about revenge, Bedevilled is also a South Korean movie about revenge. A young woman from Seoul visits the small island where she spent time as a girl, reuniting with an old friend who's now stuck in a subservient life with a rotten husband and unsupportive villagers. We wonder if either woman will take action -- violent action, if necessary -- to fix the situation. The fact that it's playing at Fantastic Fest is a bit of a spoiler: If it were the kind of movie where people measure out justice peacefully, it wouldn't have made the list. Bedevilled doesn't have U.S. distribution yet, but it won the audience award at Fantastic Fest and was well received when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year, so it's bound to show up sooner or later.

More to come...

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Eric D. Snider (website) believes that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, although sometimes it kills you AND makes you stronger.

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