Written by: Matt Patti | October 7th, 2023
Fantastic Fest 2023 just wrapped, concluding a week of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy premieres. The annual event was founded in 2005 and is America’s largest genre festival, held in Austin, Texas. This year, it ran from September 21stto September 28th; I had the opportunity to cover it remotely. Since the selection of films available for review to virtual press was quite small, consisting of only an online screening room of maybe a dozen or so films and whatever films press reps were willing to send out screening links for, my coverage was not as comprehensive as I’d have wished. However, I was lucky to watch four films via screeners sent to me, three of which I enjoyed very much. Below, I present some quick, summarized thoughts of each film. For two of these films, I have already published longer, more in-depth reviews, to which I link.
Spooktacular! (Quinn Monahan)
Spooktacular! explores the phenomenon of Spooky World, a haunted attraction that opened in the early 1990s in the small town of Berlin, Massachusetts. It was billed as America’s “First Halloween Theme Park,” consisting of not just one haunted house, but several haunted houses, attractions, and a haunted hayride, something that was nonexistent back in that time period. The haunt became extremely popular, especially when owner David Bertolino brought horror icons such as Robert Englund (the original Freddy Kreuger) and Linda Blair (of The Exorcist fame) on site to sign autographs. Director Quinn Monahan takes a deep dive into the event’s successes and failures, and it’s quite fascinating to witness its growth and eventual decline. The doc also features interviews from both fans and critics of Spooky World, offering a plethora of perspectives. You can read my full review of this intriguing documentary here.
When Evil Lurks (Demián Rugna)
When two brothers discover that an evil spirit has taken over the body of someone in their small town, they are quick to take action. The brothers, along with a neighbor, decide to drive the possessed individual far away and dispose of the body. However, their decision sets off a chain reaction of sorts, with spirits bouncing from person to person akin to how a plague would. Spanish director Demián Rugna (Terrified) dials up the tension and thrills in this fast-paced, chaotic horror film. In addition to the suspenseful sequences and grotesque imagery, Rugna invests time in his main characters, leading to some emotionally resonant moments. When Evil Lurks plays out like a zombie action-thriller but with a paranormal skin over it, making for a unique and satisfying genre film.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines (Lindsey Anderson Beer)
A prequel of sorts that takes place in the same universe as the original, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines takes the audience back to Ludlow, Maine, in the year 1969. Jud Crandall (Jackson White, The Space Between) wants to leave the town he grew up in and join the Peace Corps. However, before he can leave for good, he discovers an ancient evil that has plagued the town for quite some time: the power of bringing something dead back to life. Just as we find out the hard way in the original Pet Sematary, however, sometimes, dead is better. The film offers a sustained creepy atmosphere throughout and some quality scares, but it can’t quite recapture the magic of the original. What’s missing is the emotional connection to the characters that raises the stakes and was quite prevalent in both the original and 2019 remake. Still, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines offers palpable tension and a few suspenseful sequences, so there is some enjoyment to be had, though it is overall a bit disappointing.
Strange Darling (JT Mollner)
A film with a very vague synopsis and very little information available about it, Strange Darling is a pleasant surprise that stunned this critic. The plot is told in six chapters, but the chapters are presented out of order, giving us only a small piece of the puzzle that we’ll put together later. We begin in chapter three, where a man (Kyle Gallner, Smile) stalks a woman (Willa Fitzgerald (The Goldfinch) through the woods in relentless pursuit, hunting rifle in hand. There is so much we still don’t know, though. Who are these people? What is their relationship to each other? Why is the man trying to kill the woman? The answers to each might not be what you think, which leads to some shocking twists and fulfilling reveals. As the film jumps around from chapter to chapter, more and more starts to make sense until it divulges its final, largest secret. Director JT Mollner plays the viewer right into the palm of his hand, as he shows exactly what he wants you to see at any given point in time, leading one to possibly form incorrect assumptions. Clever dialogue and exceptional performances add to the already enthralling story, providing us with a memorable, quality experience. You can read my complete thoughts on this impressive, twisty thriller in my full review here.