Pedophilia, euthanasia, human centipedes and a slow burn thriller kicked off my Fantastic Fest on Thursday. Three out of the four movies I saw delivered and one… well, let’s just say it delivered on its promise, only to its detriment. Finally wrapping up in my day job around noon, I headed over to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, the headquarters for Fantastic Fest and, as of this year, the only venue showing movies. It seems the festival programmers have decided to forego the larger studio premieres that would be hosted at the large, beautiful (and extremely uncomfortable) Paramount Theater downtown in favor of smaller films, the largest being IFC’s unveiling of The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence). I feel this is a change for the best, as it allows people to focus on seeing lesser known, possibly never-to-be-released films rather than try and pack everyone in for some gala event for a movie that will be released wide two weeks later.
Having rearranged my schedule to accommodate it, my first film of the day, known as the “pedophile” movie, was Michael by first time director Markus Schleinzer. Figuring, if anything, it would be an interesting way to kick off 8 days of insanity, I was pleasantly (and somewhat uncomfortably) surprised to say that I liked the movie. Quietly shot with a distinctly absent soundtrack, we’re presented with an average Austrian insurance salesman, the aforementioned Michael (Michael Fuith) who when not working shelling out insurance over the phone as a cubicle jockey, spends his time at home with a young boy locked in his basement.
Presenting what one can only assume is an accurate portrayal of the days in the life of a depraved human being; it’s at once fascinating and also, at times, is played to uncomfortable humor. Michael allows itself and its characters to slowly develop over its runtime so you get not just the immediate impression of how reprehensible this man is, but to really get a sense of the depth of his insanity. And no worries here about it ever displaying anything outright shocking, it remains suitably restrained. Honestly, a movie like this probably shouldn’t even exist. I’m not sure anyone was clamoring to see the most realistic portrayal of a pedophile and his young victim, but it’s hard to deny that it’s well executed. Pedophilia unfortunately exists and Michael never glorifies it but rather very smartly allows itself to just tell a story. It’s filled with strong performances and despite the shocking nature is compelling but certainly kicked off the festival on an awkward note.
Luckily, this year Fantastic Fest has made improvements to its ticketing system. For anyone who did not purchase a VIP pass in past years, this meant that if you were trying to get into more well known shows it would require waking at 7 or 8am to go down and get in line for tickets. They choose to hand out tickets for all your selected shows at once. Once tickets are in hand it then works much like the group boarding of Southwest Airlines, in groups of 50, which frees the attendees from having to stand in lines in between the movies. I’m a big fan of this process, even having done it 4 years in a row previously, and while getting out of a midnight movie at 1:30am only to have to get back up at 7am to head to the theatre can be exhausting only days into the festival, the long term positives outweigh that negative.
This year, the largest positive improvement was made by having an online ticketing system where the regular badge holders can reserve their daily movie slots 2 hours before the box office opens. If you’re unconcerned with a low boarding pass number (which allows you to choose better seats), then this gives you the ability to get a few extra hours of sleep every morning, something every festival goer appreciates.
After spending sometime in between movies hearing about what people started off their week with, we were seated for movie number two of the day. My choice was a Belgian black comedy Kill Me Please, by the producers of Man Bites Dog. Kill Me Please is set at an assisted suicide clinic in the hills of Belgium where Doctor Krueger (Aurélien Recoing) attempts to help his patients overcome their suicidal feelings and, if taking that final step seems to the only option, helps them to pass into the next life.
Complete with a cast of zany characters, including an appearance from character actor favorite Saul Rubinek, this French language comedy explores the nature of suicide from the perspective of people on the verge of dying or who think they may want to die, all whilst dealing with locals who want the clinic shut down, considering it an abomination. People may not find the idea of suicide humorous but director Olias Barco has found a way to explore the topic with a wry sense of thought. Kill Me Please was a lot of fun and even in its more shocking moments had me laughing, ending up as a pleasant second movie choice.
Once out of the theater, I noticed that an EMT truck had shown up at the Drafthouse, lights flashing. I had hoped it wasn’t for any actual emergency but erring on the side of Tim League theatrics I figured it was a William Castle stunt for the next, much talked about selection. Everyone was abuzz for the world premiere of Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), Tom Six’s followup to his “less is more” feature.
Speculation abounded as to how graphic the movie actually was and given that the UK Ratings Board had already banned it from public display in the UK, it was fairly certain we were about to see something attempting to push the boundaries of taste. And it does, much to the movie’s detriment. I’m actually a fan of the original movie, where a disgusting concept is delivered without actually showing anything graphic, which allows your imagination to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, in this sequel, more isn’t good.
I was on board with the film at first, as we follow Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a bug eyed, short, overweight parking attendant who is obsessed with the original film and who never speaks a word of dialogue throughout it’s run time. Turns out Martin has decided to create his own centipede and he’s not content to have only three people sewn a*s to mouth, oh no. This time around he wants to create a twelve man creature. Using victims from his parking garage, he transports them to a newly rented warehouse before the final act where the actual construction begins. It was at that point that the movie fell apart for me. I have no issues with over the top gore but it has to connect emotionally with the characters. Here we have torture, s**t eating and rape only to shock and disgust. It’s a pointless exercise that unfortunately, given the nature of people’s must-see attitudes, will only help to generate more buzz for a movie that’s only purpose is to be outrageous.
Luckily for me the final movie of the night was by Adrián García Bogliano, whose film Cold Sweat I was a fan of during SXSW. Penumbra tells the story of Marga (Cristina Brondo), a well-dressed, beautiful business woman who clearly is used to having her own way and is not happy to be sent to Argentina from her home in Spain to try and rent out an apartment and whip her local office into shape. Yelling into her cell phone on the street, it becomes apparent her ego can get the best of her and that she makes poor impressions on people when she ends up overreacting and tazing a homeless man. Finally able to meet her client in the apartment, one gains the sense that something is awry with these potential buyers and future tenant. Why wouldn’t it be, when a man is willing to pay four times the price for a dump of a flat right at the same time an eclipse is about to happen?
Clever, funny but maybe a bit poorly paced, feeling slow out of the gate, Bogliano has created yet another movie that I found to be utterly compelling and fresh. It tells a story of what may happen when one’s arrogance can get the best of you, especially when encountering strange outside forces. To say too much would ruin the film, but Penumbra is another win in whats looking like a stellar lineup for Fantasic Fest this year.