Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

A summary of this year’s Fantastic Fest

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

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Housebound

For the most part, this is how you do horror-comedy right.

New Zealand. Directed by Gerard Johnstone, 2014. Starring Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Ti Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp. 107 minutes.

Something about New Zealand seems particularly conducive to horror-comedy, from the early works of Peter Jackson (Bad TasteDead Alive) to the mid-2000s cult classic Black Sheep (not the Chris Farley one, obviously) and this year’s What We Do in the Shadows. Add to that list Housebound, a satirical look at haunted-house tropes that’s garnered a fair amount of attention since making its way to the States last October.

Morgana O’Reilly stars as Kylie, a petty criminal who finds herself sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home under the care of her estranged mum Miriam (Rimi Ti Wiata) and stepdad Graeme (Ross Harper). Long-buried memories find themselves dragged back up to the surface when Kylie discovers Miriam has always regarded the house as being haunted–a prospect that excites Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), a security guard assigned to Kyle who also fancies himself a paranormal investigator. Their investigations turn up a series of revelations, each wilder than the last, about the house’s history–particularly a murder that occurred in Kylie’s bedroom, not long before she and her family moved in.

First-time writer/director Gerard Johnstone puts his focus squarely on the characters and their eccentricities: brooding Kylie, well-meaning if somewhat clueless and overbearing Miriam, quiet Graeme, overeager supernatural sleuth Amos, not to mention a gallery of supporting characters including a creepy neighbor and an ineffectual social worker (played, respectively, by Mick Innes and Cameron Rhodes). It’s an eclectic but endearing assembly of comedic personalities, matched by a skilled cast.

Two performers deserve particular attention. O’Reilly’s performance is, in many ways, the key to Housebound. Kylie’s petulant childishness should make her hard to sympathize with, even when she’s funny, and while Johnstone develops her into the sort of protagonist people should think about when they hear the phrase “strong female protagonist” O’Reilly puts us on her side in short order, and she’s easy to like even when she’s eating all the meatloaf, hogging the television, or blowing up an ATM.

Ryan Lampp is the other standout performer. He comes into the story about halfway through the film and I don’t want to spoil his character too much, but his physical performance is one of the delights of the latter phases of the film and he’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on-screen.

The script’s emphasis on character, dialog, and individual set pieces unfortunately comes at the expense of plot: after a strong start, the story peters out somewhat going into the second act, as Kylie’s house arrest and electronic ankle bracelet become more of a narrative burden. Johnstone proves a bit reluctant to follow through with the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. For example, without giving too much away, Kylie does something that should have drastic repercussions for a person in her situation but nothing much seems to happen to her as a result of it. I’m willing to cut the film, which is at its heart an absurdist comedy, some slack in this department, but since Kylie’s criminal history and incarceration are such a central part of the film’s premise I feel it’s an undeniable flaw.

While Housebound does have a few flaws, they don’t keep the film from being an enjoyable, witty romp. For the most part, this is how you do horror-comedy right.

HOUSEBOUND poster

What We Do in the Shadows

An expert dissection of the modern gothic supernatural romance, taking Twilight to its logical, and hilarious, extreme.

New Zealand. Directed by Taila Waititi & Jemaine Clement, 2014. Starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh. 86 minutes.

Vampires are people too: vain, petty, condescending, and occasionally prone to not washing the dishes for five years. That’s the central theme of What We Do in the Shadows, a riotous mockumentary co-written and co-directed by Jemaine Clement (one-half of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi.

A (mostly) unseen camera crew films the daily routine of four vampires sharing a house in the New Zealand city of Wellington. The foppish Viago (Waititi) pines after a mortal woman he loved so much, he followed her from Europe–but since his familiar didn’t put the proper postage on his coffin, he arrived a year and a half too late, only to find his beloved married someone else. The pretentious Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who prefers to drink the blood of virgins “because it sounds cool,” copes with a petulant and incompetent servant who doesn’t put enough time and effort into fulfilling her master’s desires. The cruel Vladislav (Clement) broods over his defeat by his arch-enemy, the Beast. The ancient and monstrous Petyr (Ben Fransham) mainly stays in the basement and drinks from chickens.

Clement and Waititi expertly dissect the modern gothic supernatural romance. The culture of Wellington’s supernatural community resembles high school cliqueishness as much as it does Elizabethan or Victorian high society. The anger over being passed over as guest of honor for the annual society ball causes Vladislav to literally rot; the vampires consistently try to bully a pack of (admittedly somewhat nebbishy) werewolves led by Rhys Darby. It’s Twilight taken to a logical but uncomfortable extreme.

However, thousands of internet wags have proved that it’s too easy to simply mock handsome Byronic monsters who can pull off sexy but not dangerous. What We Do needs to be funny to be memorable. Thankfully, it’s not just funny, it’s consistently and excessively hilarious from its first scene (in which Viago’s hand emerges from its coffin to turn off his alarm clock) to its post-credits sequence. Barely a minute goes by without the film delivering a hearty belly-laugh, and much of the dialog should work its way into your day-to-day conversation. (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves!” “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, you’re going to enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” “You might bite someone and then, you think, ‘Oooh, those are some nice pants!'”)

The performances are universally excellent, with each actor and character getting a chance to shine; in addition to Clement, Waititi, and Brugh, other standouts include Jackie van Beek as Deacon’s bitter servant and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer as a recently turned vampire; Darby makes the most of his two or three brief appearances. Clement and Waititi also provide excellent direction and a lovely visual aesthetic, effectively contrasting “ancient and decaying” with “shiny, urban and modern.” The effects work is remarkably good for a film with such a low budget ($1.5 mil).

I’ve run out of synonyms for “hilarious” to describe What We Do in the Shadows. Suffice it to say it’s a brilliant and essential horror-comedy and a future cult classic in the making.

What We Do in the Shadows