Fantastic Fest Day 1: Pleasant surprises, small disappointments, and some nudity required

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Charles Band makes me an executive producerAs with the inaugural event, Fantastic Fest is a test of the moviegoer's will and tolerance for sleep deprivation. There's no arguing that the second year of Austin's genre film blowout is bigger and badder, but some of the changes may not be as welcome as they were intended to be. More about that, however, after quick reviews of some of the flicks thus far. In this roundup of first-day films: Oculus, Haze, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and the Full Moon Travelling Roadshow.
Oculus is a short film that, based on the trailer, I hadn't intended to see. It looked under-produced and almost hokey, with a premise upon which it couldn't possibly deliver. (Actually, that describes a great number of the short horror flicks I've seen.) As it was attached to Haze, however, I ended up seeing it anyway, and my first impression couldn't have been more wrong. On a per-minute basis, Oculus is one of the tightest pieces of spooky storytelling I've ever seen. The story concerns a young man who encounters a mirror steeped in bad mojo (it essentially eats people) and, being the scientist type that he is, attempts to dissect it under controlled conditions. It's a stone cold freakout that borrows - successfully - from both new and old traditions in horror movies, particularly from recent popular trends in Asian horror. The acting, which is done nearly solo by Scott Graham, is perhaps a tad arch, but it's a minor flaw in a this pleasant surprise of a film.

The 50-minute feature Haze (directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, who created Tetsuo the Iron Man) was not quite as much a treat as Oculus, but it is an effective and amazingly tactile horror movie. There is not so much a story as a setup - a man (the director himself!) awakens in a cramped dungeon and must subject himself to ever-increasing and ever-more arbitrary physical tortures while looking for the exit. (There's one bit involving a pipe and the protagonist's teeth that made me reflexively grit my own.) He eventually encounters a young woman and they talk each other through the process of escape. I was reminded of several other films while watching Haze (Cube particularly came to mind), but other than the visceral involvement of the first half-hour or so, I can't particularly recommend it.

Fantastic Fest's opening night blowout flick was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which is an appropriately high profile movie to show as an appetizer. I found, however, that the event lacked the same sense of giddiness that last year's opener, Zathura, brought to the evening. Despite the extended Q&A with cast and crew (including the legendary R. Lee Ermey), the extended gore-fest of TCM: The Beginning was kind of a downbeat, brutal start to the festival. The film itself is about what you'd expect - lots of screaming, lots of blood, lots of noise. Unfortunately, its prequel status means that there are few surprises in store, and the film's predictability simply increased in direct proportion to its body count. The director claims he wanted to restore The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise to the throne of ultimate gore. I guess he succeeded, but I had a difficult time bringing myself to care.

The evening ended for me on a relatively up note with Charles Band's Full Moon Travelling Road Show. The king of direct-to-video '80s schlock (he directed the Puppet Master films as well as the Trancers series and other cheesy goodness) now capitalizes on the nostalgia market by trotting a clip show from state to state, telling stories and auctioning off props from his glory days. Particularly amusing is the bit in which Band directs members of the audience in a movie scene, first casting the actors by audience vote and then convincing his cast to act out in bizarre ways. One of the scene's "hot chicks" was even game enough to expose herself at the story's climax -- a fact as much appreciated by Band himself as by the gents in the audience. Band has suffered at my keyboard in times past, but he is such an agreeable personality that I even shelled out a hundred bucks to become an executive producer of his next film. (I'm hoping it's the one he mentioned with the haunted casino.)

One regret: Full Moon staple actor Tim Thomerson (he played the hero in the Trancers series) was apparently scheduled as a surprise guest but couldn't attend because he fell victim to the recent breakout of e coli infected spinach. As the man who created the very first Tim Thomerson fan site on the web way back in 1997, I was crushed. This just serves to further deepen my distrust of vegetables.

As it was getting late and my wife and daughter waited at home, I opted to skip the evening's screening of Funky Forest, thinking I could catch in on Saturday night (tonight). Silly me - it turns out that the Fantastic Fest organizers have arranged a second surprise screening directly opposite Funky Forest, and being the sucker that I am, I can't resist the lure of the secret screening. This is one of the things I don't appreciate about this year's Fantastic Fest - I'd much rather know what I'm getting into and be able to plan out my festival experience. Scuttlebutt in the halls says that the Ain't It Cool News screening later in the week will likely be Pan's Labyrinth (there's even a poster for it hanging at the theater), but tonight's surprise remains a mystery. Funky Forest will have to wait for DVD, though I'm told if I decide to skip out on the secret screening once I discover what it is, I won't be any more lost coming in on the middle of Funky Forest than I would if I had seen the beginning.

It seems a bit churlish to complain, however - Fantastic Fest is living up to its name again this year and I'll live with the little disappointments.

Next: Weird Wednesday's Lars denounces Midnite Movies. Abominable, Renaissance, and Zhest.

Oculus

Haven't heard of Oculus, but it does sound neat. I always find it interesting when the scientists get a hold of "the bad thing" and try to figure it out. (Hence my liking of Day of the Dead.) I look forward to hearing about Pan's Labyrinth.