Fantastic Fest: Day 3

SEPTEMBER 25, 2021


Day 3 was the "busiest" on my schedule; it was three movies like the day before, but one was twice as long as the average movie and another was a late-starting world premiere, which meant it would undoubtedly start later than scheduled, but also wouldn't be something I could easily rewatch (via screener link or the like) if I were to pull a Collins and doze off. Luckily I stayed awake (and this would be true for all the features I saw at the fest - a first!), so it seems this new approach of going back to my room and relaxing whenever possible (since there was little to nothing else going on, and a staggered schedule which meant even seeing friends in between movies was a crapshoot) instead of standing around drinking and singing karaoke or whatever was a wise one!


Full disclosure: I did the end titles for this documentary on the history of folk horror films, so I didn't rate it on Letterboxd and won't be saying much here, because that feels icky to me. That said, I found it to be an incredibly informative doc about a somewhat off the radar sub-genre; indeed, I don't even have a "folk horror" tag on the site (I usually just lump them in with "Supernatural" and/or "Cult"). Not only did I learn some history (always a plus), I walked away with a nice handful of new (well, technically old!) titles to check out, a few of which will be on Severin's upcoming boxed set centered on the doc, which will be available on its own as well for those who don't want to splurge for 20+ movies at once.


I'll have a full review up on WhatToWatch soon (unlike BMD, they have to go through a longer process from the time I submit something to when it actually goes live), so I won't ramble too much here except to say I kind of loved it, but know perfectly well it'll be a very polarizing film. Shot almost entirely in macro closeups with narration from someone who we never really see (someone said it was like a 90 minute unboxing video, which from an aesthetic POV is pretty accurate), the film tells the story of a man who is driven insane by an extreme case of tinnitus he has tasked himself with curing on his own after the doctors proved to be no help. Unfortunately his experiments are increasingly uncouth; he starts off with determining the aural qualities of everyday objects and ultimately - through his own actions - discovers that his affliction can react to the "sound" of something's (or, indeed, someONE's) life ending. A fascinating experimental film that was my favorite surprise discovery of the fest.


One great thing about a festival is that every now and then you can find yourself seeing the world premiere of a fairly major film before there's even been a trailer to spoil its surprises. All I knew about Black Phone is that it reunited the core creative team of Sinister: producer Jason Blum, the writing pair of C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson (based on a Joe Hill story), with the latter directing, and even star Ethan Hawke. As a huge fan of Sinister, I would have been there on day one when the movie opens in January, but it would have been after seeing a trailer or two and, most likely, even gotten a few cheers/jeers worming themselves into my brain and messing with my expectations. Instead I got to see it without even knowing the plot, let alone how well it was or wasn't received by my peers.

And yay, it was good! Not quite on the level of Sinister, but then again that film (concerning murderous kids) is more in my wheelhouse than this one, which is a period piece (1978 to be exact) about a local boogeyman named The Grabber (Hawke) who has already taken a few kids in the area and has now set his sights on our young hero Finney (Mason Thames), with The Grabber dumping him in a basement with only a mattress and the eponymous phone to keep him company until the villain does whatever he plans to do (since the movie is entirely from Finney or his sister's POV, we naturally don't know what The Grabber is actually doing until we see it happen to Finney). The Grabber insists the phone is broken, but it starts to ring... and that's where the fun begins.

The nature of the calls is something folks can discover on their own when the movie opens (or, likely, from the trailer) so I won't spoil it for now. I'll just say that Thames handles the material quite well, though he kind of gets the movie stolen away from him by Madeleine McGraw as his younger sister Gwen, who is quick to protect him from bullies (both of them suffer from an abusive father, so taking punches is sadly something they're accustomed to) and swears like she's been possessed like so many other little girls of '70s cinema. As for Hawke, his face is almost always obscured by a mask (designed by Tom Savini!) so it's mostly his voice informing the audience of who it is, but he is unnerving af - the man should play more villains.

The period detail is also terrific, largely depicted through the wardrobe and set dressing (dig that shag carpeting!) as opposed to obnoxious references and a greatest hits soundtrack. I like a lot of Blumhouse films, but production value isn't always one of their strong suits as they tend to take place in modern (read: bland) suburban homes, but here there are several exteriors and not once was I zapped out of the illusion (kudos to their location scouts for finding a North Carolina suburb that hasn't "enhanced" itself all that much for the past 40+ years). That aesthetic and the kid-heavy plot had me thinking that this would be a beloved fave for fans from my generation, had it actually been made in 1978 and allowed us to grow up with it. It's rated R, but mostly for language (The Grabber's more overt crimes are largely offscreen, thankfully), and Thames' appearance had me thinking of young Mike from the first Phantasm, another movie seemingly designed for young boys to transition into more adult horror and/or give them one last terrifying nightmare before they grow out of the adolescent idea that the movie monsters might be under their bed. Instead, it'll just be a great option to show our own curious kids.

What say you?


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