I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
This year marked my fifth attending Austin’s Fantastic Fest (Sept. 20-27). It’s a genre film festival that I look forward to all year long, because the energy is infectious, the people are friendly and the films, for the most part, are pretty damn good.
There were many highlights, but here are the top five biggest takeaways:
Studio films didn’t wow
Every year when I look over Fantastic Fest’s lineup, I naturally get the most excited about the studio films. This year, the new HALLOWEEN opened the festival, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (Oct. 12) closed it and OVERLORD (Nov. 9) played right in the middle to keep the pulse up. While I didn’t stick around to catch BAD TIMES, the general consensus out of the Twittersphere was it’s a little long (2.5 hours), but it’s fun and it has some great performances (Jeff Bridges being a key player).
However, I did see HALLOWEEN and OVERLORD. Both films are harmless and enjoyable but didn’t capitalize on their potential. Both of their trailers made them out to be a certain kind of film. HALLOWEEN looked to capture the spirit of the original and push what a horror sequel could be. Sadly, aside from a few gripping sequences, too much is the same and has the same issues as other sequels in its franchise.
OVERLORD is rather safe with its craziness. When you have a story about supernatural Nazi experiments (the act of reanimating corpses and turning significantly injured people into superhuman zombie-like figures), the mind tends to wander. There are so many great possibilities, but OVERLORD didn’t steer its story in too many interesting directions.
Netflix is killing it
While some of the bigger studio films at the festival were underwhelming, Netflix brought the heat with its releases. Jeremy Saulnier’s quiet but haunting HOLD THE DARK (now available to stream on Netflix) and Gareth Evan’s follow-up to his brutal RAID movies, APOSTLE (Oct. 12), exceeded expectations.
I’ve often complained that Netflix’s movies and television shows are overproduced, too polished and clean. HOLD THE DARK and APOSTLE are films that should be playing on the big screen. But because it’s too difficult to gauge what’s going to be a box-office hit these days, I don’t blame filmmakers for making the jump to Netflix. If anything, it gives these filmmakers a lot of creative freedom to make the movie they want to make. After seeing HOLD THE DARK and APOSTLE, two highly strange and brilliantly unconventional works of art and madness, it couldn’t be more apparent they were given the license to run wild, and for the better.
Nothing will ever top the secret screening experience two years ago when filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, actor James McAvoy and producer Jason Blum showed up at Fantastic Fest with their film SPLIT. Word never got out about what the movie was before it started, and no one anticipated that the film was going to be a quiet sequel to 2001’s UNBREAKABLE. It remains my most treasured memory from any year at Fantastic Fest.
This year, someone leaked that the secret screening was Luca Guadagnino’s rendition of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic SUSPIRIA (Oct. 26). Of course, you can suspect that someone is just spreading a rumor to throw attendees off the true scent, but, before the movie started, everyone was talking and knew.
That said, SUSPIRIA couldn’t have picked a better place than Fantastic Fest to introduce itself to U.S. audiences. It’s extremely disturbing (two scenes, especially), had a lot of great visuals (like the original, but not as lush) and took its sweet time to put the hook in you. Fantastic Festers are willing to take chances on what they watch, and SUSPIRIA was a gamble that came with some big, nightmarish rewards.
Blind movie watching
Often at film festivals, there’s not much information out there about their films. It’s the first time they are being shown to audiences. So when you encounter something you don’t recognize, you just have to put your ear to the ground or take a leap of faith.
THE PERFECTION (no release date), probably my favorite film at Fantastic Fest, was a film no one knew much about. All we had to go off of was a simple one-line plot description, a single image that shared nothing about what kind of film it was and a list of the cast members and filmmakers attached. Talents such as filmmaker Richard Shepard (DOM HEMINGWAY) and Allison Williams (GET OUT; GIRLS) immediately caught my eye, so I thought, “There has to be a reason they made this movie.” So I stayed up past midnight to watch its opening night world premiere, and I’m so glad I did.
What resembled WHIPLASH wound up marching to the beat of its own drum. It’s a film so littered with twists and turns that one might lose their head, in the best way possible. It’s a difficult movie to talk about, so I’m going to hand off the mysterious baton and hope you run with it.
Elijah Wood riding a rental scooter
It’s not uncommon to see celebrities and important figures walking around Fantastic Fest. Screenwriter and podcast host C. Robert Cargill (DOCTOR STRANGE) attends every year and is always happy to shake the hand of a stranger and talk movies. But to see Elijah Wood, another active Fantastic Fest attendee, riding so casually on a rental scooter while smoking a cigarette and with the biggest smirk on his face, his presence took the cake.
Oddly enough, Cargill snapped the photo of him that went viral. Immediately after it popped up on Twitter, it spread like wildfire and turned the LORD OF THE RINGS actor into a meme overnight. Nick de Semlyen, features editor of Empire magazine, sealed the deal when he also shared the photo on his Twitter, with the caption: “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”
How can you not be romantic about Fantastic Fest?
For all my Fantastic Fest coverage, visit our “Film Festival” tab. We will be posting the remainder of my film reviews and interviews in the coming weeks as more titles make themselves available to the public.