Hey everyone! The 15th annual Fantastic Fest kicks off this week, and this year, it’ll be myself, Heather Wixson, as well as Emily von Seele and Adrian Torres, who will be bringing you all kinds of coverage out of Austin for the duration of the festival. To celebrate Fantastic Fest’s momentous birthday this year, we have picked a few of our favorite films that have debuted over the years, and will be celebrating them as we lead up to the kickoff of Fantastic Fest on Thursday. If you missed out on our first set of films from yesterday, you can catch up with them HERE.
The American Scream (Emily von Seele): Michael Paul Stephenson's Halloween-themed documentary The American Scream was an audience favorite when it premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2012. The film centers on three families in a small Massachusetts town as they create elaborate haunts to frighten and delight their friends and neighbors. Every year, they erect mazes and scenes ranging from playfully creepy to full-on frightening and invite people to walk through on Halloween night. They enlist the help of friends to play the colorful cast of characters populating the haunts and always have a line of eager spectators outside waiting to get in.
For these families, Halloween is the biggest day of the year and they spend the entire year in preparation, buying Halloween decorations, knick-knacks, building materials, and anything else that they can use to transform their suburban yards and create something magical and nightmarish, if only for a few hours. These are not professional haunters; these are people who find a great deal of personal satisfaction in creating something just to be shared with others.
The American Scream celebrates our cultural love for Halloween and embraces the fact that this love doesn't have to be something that we leave behind as we grow. Leading the charge to create these amazing attractions and haunted scenes, the adults in the film are just as excited about Halloween as their children (if not more so), and it's something that the film's core audience (us) can easily identify with. Halloween is a holiday near and dear to all our hearts, and Stephenson's The American Scream explores that feeling—the way it allows us to hold on to our childhood selves, the way it invites us to be something horrifying and scary once a year, and the way so many of us forge a bond through that feeling. Many of us may have never met the Bariteau family, the Souza family, or the Brodeur family, but we know them. They are just like us. And every year, we get to celebrate Halloween alongside them.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Adrian Torres): The mere idea of a third sequel in a series that finds itself shuffling off into the direct-to-video realm doesn't exactly scream "film festival fodder," which is why Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning isn't your regular flash in the pan. It's really a horror whodunnit, placed on the skeletal structure of an actioner—one that isn't afraid to take narrative chances that may alienate viewers on their first watch. Truthfully, that's what makes this film enjoyable. Each rewatch of John’s (Scott Adkins) descent into hell to confront Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is better than the last, as everything stands with clear focus. Seriously, the more you watch the film, the more you begin to appreciate the little things that the film is attempting to do. It's not a perfect beast by any measure, but it's still one hell of a bloody, bloody good time.
That emphasis on the "bloody" isn't a joke, mind you, as Day of Reckoning goes whole hog when it comes to displaying all the carnage that unfolds throughout the film. Gunshot blasts, knife wounds, chrome bats to a chrome dome—you name it, it gets seen here. In fact, the premiere at Fantastic Fest has gone on to become a thing of legend, in a way because it is one of the only times John Hyams' fully uncut (originally rated NC-17) vision was unleashed in theaters. Today, if you're lucky enough to find the Canadian Blu-ray for Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, you can see what sent audiences into a tizzy. But this is just another example of why you take chances on unlikely films at festivals like Fantastic Fest—it just may end up being a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience.
The Collection (Heather Wixson): I’m totally cheating with my pick today, as I’ve only had the pleasure of covering Fantastic Fest in person for the last four years, but considering I’m always looking for any excuse to proclaim my love for The Collection (which came out in 2012), I couldn’t resist including it in this series, and that’s that. And while I do enjoy The Collector, I feel like The Collection is where this world created by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton feels fully realized and morphs into something a bit more original than what we see in the first film. The sequel also manages to flesh out a compelling killer that we know very little about, and yet, I was completely enthralled as Dunstan pulls back the veil a bit in The Collection, and gives us fans a glimpse into the methods of the Collector’s madness.
Beyond that, The Collection also has the good sense to give Emma Fitzpatrick (who is also great in Bloodsucking Bastards) a chance to do some real ass-kicking here, alongside Josh Stewart, who also shines in The Collection, and some of the set-ups in The Collection are so gnarly, they’d make Jigsaw blush. Also, I have to take a moment to tip my hat to Graham "Grace" Walker’s production design, the brilliant special effects created by the legendary Gary Tunnicliffe, and Charlie Clouser’s score is freaking awesome as well.
Whereas The Collector feels far more like a straightforward home invasion film, The Collection is like a trip through a full-on slaughter-fueled funhouse that I absolutely adored the hell out of. It takes some chances mixing up the tried and true formula of slasher movies, and even though it’s been a long wait, I’m extremely excited we’re finally getting The Collected from Dunstan and Melton sometime next year. And if you’ve somehow always dismissed The Collector films as Saw knock-offs, I’d heartily recommend going back and giving them a shot (also, there’s a fun tie-in on The Collection home media release that sets up part 3 in the series).