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Highbrow horror and lowbrow comedy collide on the first day of Fantastic Fest

Darling
Darling

Although it’s not the longest film festival out there—only one week to Fantasia’s three, for example—you have to be careful not to get burnt out at Fantastic Fest. Okay, so there’s the constant temptation of full food and alcohol service at every screening. And nobody loves a theme party more than the Alamo Drafthouse: Over the course of the opening evening, the lobby of the Alamo South Lamar changed from a Shining theme to Christmas in September, leading to a steady stream of nerds in horror T-shirts posing for pictures with Santa. But just because you ran into a friend you hadn’t seen in a few years (dressed in a reindeer suit, naturally) in the lobby doesn’t mean you should stay up until last call, eventually crashing a karaoke party and doing what you thought at the time was a pretty decent rendition of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Pace yourself. Hydrate. Screenings start at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow. Remember, you’re going to be here for a while.

This, I learned the hard way. Now in its 11th year, Fantastic Fest takes place entirely within the confines of the Alamo South Lamar, located in a strip mall in what is apparently a hip area of Austin, which makes sense because Austin appears to be composed entirely of strip malls in hip areas. This creates a sort of hothouse atmosphere, which has its upsides—there’s a real sense of community, and film guests mingle with other attendees in a very casual and unpretentious way—and its downsides. (See above.) Festivities started the day before with a putt-putt outing, but I arrive in the early afternoon in time for the first official screenings of the festival.

My opening film was Demon (B-), which arrived in Austin with some positive buzz from its TIFF debut and morbid buzz from the death of director Marcin Wrona earlier this week. Taking a distinctly arthouse approach to the possession movie, Demon draws from the traditional Jewish legend of the dybbuk to tell the story of Piotr, a British-Polish man who returns to Poland to marry. Eager to overcome his future in-laws’ skepticism, Piotr begins restoring an old house on the family’s property; while digging a swimming pool in the yard, he unearths what appears to be a human skeleton, which he hastily reburies. Over the next few days, Piotr begins having increasingly unsettling visions of a ghostly young woman, leading to a disturbing disruption of his wedding day. According to the programmer who introduced the screening, Wrona “directed the fuck out of this movie,” which, if crude, is apt; the comedic moments transcend the language barrier, and Wrona effectively re-creates the chaotic joy that accompanies weddings. But despite its thoughtful approach to the material, Demon loses rather than builds tension as it goes along, and by the frustratingly vague final act viewers may feel as broken down as the disheveled, drunken wedding guests on screen.

Reflecting Fantastic Fest’s wildly eclectic programming approach, my second movie, Lazer Team (B), couldn’t be more different from the first. The result of a record-setting Indiegogo campaign by comedy troupe Rooster Teeth, this sci-fi comedy shamelessly mines the current nostalgia for ’80s blockbusters. The overall tone resembles a mashup of Super Troopers and Independence Day with a smattering of Ghostbusters, which in practical terms means a little bit of action bombast, a little bit of “heart,” a John Williams-esque orchestral score, and a lot of gags about dicks and Facebook. The jokes come hard and fast—a phrase the characters would most assuredly find hilarious—and while not all of them land, none stand out as painfully tone-deaf. It’s silly stuff, and the characters are all stock comedy stereotypes. But the premiere was a crowd pleaser, and thanks to Rooster Teeth’s Austin roots, the Q&A after Lazer Team—which the troupe had to rush to attend from another sold-out screening across town—was wildly enthusiastic. (If they haven’t already, someone should offer director Matt Hullum a studio comedy.)

Then the reindeer man appeared, buckets of Shiner were ordered, and my notes dry up.

Fast-forward to 8:30 a.m., when, with the aid of iced coffee and Austin’s ubiquitous breakfast tacos, I make it to the press screening of Darling (B+), the fourth feature from Pod’s Mickey Keating. Lauren Ashley Carter (Pod, Jug Face) turns in a mesmerizing performance as Darling, an anonymous woman in an indeterminate year who takes a care-taking job in an elegant New York townhouse. On her way out the door, the owner tells Darling that there have been rumors about the house and its former caretaker, who committed suicide. But, she assures her, “nothing like that could ever happen again.” Shot in gorgeous black and white, this pseudo-Satanic riff on Repulsion and The Shining uses minimal locations and minimal characters; Sean Young and Larry Fessenden provide genre cred in small roles, but Carter is alone on screen for most of the movie. Her breakdown (or maybe it’s a possession?) is underscored by jarring sound effects and flashy editing tricks that, applied incorrectly, could seem pretentious. But here, they work, because they actually makes sense in the context of the story. Deeply unsettling, with flashes of extreme violence, Darling is a ghost story with no ghost, just Carter’s intense eyes, expressive face, and an ominous white door at the end of a hallway.