After a nice lie-in I was ready to see, from what was in the write-ups in the programme, two of the most promising films of the festival, Duress and the low-budget UK production Down Terrace.
First up though was a guest trip outside of Austin to the world famous steakhouse, Smitty's. We were told this was the best barbeque steakhouse in Texas, so technically it could be the best in the world – I've been having flashback dreams about that barbeque ever since.
We each were given two big slices of steak, a big, spicy sausage and a dry piece of bread, all served on a bit of paper towel. It was most definitely the best food experience I had ever had. I was quickly coming to realise that FantasticFest isn't all about the films, it is the outings like these that make it so special, knowing that you can't experience something like this anywhere else in the world.
The aptly named Duress tells the story of a recently widowed man with a young daughter, who becomes the latest victim of a murderous maniac who forces his prey into being an accomplice to his unlawful activities.
What starts off as a strong, gripping thriller slowly loses it's punch due to the miscasting of Greek pop singer, Sakis Rouvas, as the villain, and Martin Donovan playing widowed father Richard as being so spineless that he is almost completely unbelievable as a character, let alone capable of gaining sympathy from the audience. The real gem in the film is the Richard's daughter Sarah (played by Ariel Winter), who could have written the book on creepy kids on the big screen.
The film really picks up again towards the last half an hour, so even if you feel yourself slipping, stick with it, and don't blink or else you might miss the twist.
Up next was Down Terrace, a labour of love from three friends (and film buffs) from Brighton, which tells the story of a dysfunctional family caught up in a long tradition of guns, gangs, and hitmen. Not quite as glamourous as it may sound, lead character 32-year-old Karl (Robin Hill) lives at home with his mum and dad (the latter played by his dad in real life, Bob Hill) on Down Terrace. Having just been released from prison Karl is keen to get his life back on the straight and narrow and rekindles his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Valda.
Much to the disappointment and disgust of his increasingly overbearing parents, Karl receives the news that Valda is pregnant with his child. This news is just the tip of the iceberg for the family who are up to their necks in trouble, trying to work out who tipped off the police, causing Karl to be sent down. The backstabbing and deceit ensues, causing accusations to fly and everyone to turn on each other.
More a comment on the destructiveness of the nuclear family than on gang culture and crime in the UK, this is a very effective piece of filmmaking, with moments of tension that will keep you guessing which direction it will go in next, juxtaposed with brilliant observational British humour that I'm sure rings true within every family.
Down Terrace is one to watch this year, and undoubtedly was my favourite of the festival. I'm looking forward to seeing how well this one does on it's release and hopefully the boys will be back to raise the bar for next year.
Our day ended at The Highball for some Michael Jackson Dance Party action. Clashing with Secret Screening #3, which we didn't manage to get tickets for, we decided to head along for some crotch-grabbing, moon-walking fun instead. When Tim and the FantasticFest team decide to put on a party, they go all out; a choreographer on stage to teach willing participants the Thriller dance, a big screen to show all of the music videos to accompany the vast MJ playlist throughout the night, and a pole-dancing performance to "Dirty Diana".
It was fun to see the FantasticFest crowd leaving their dignity at the door and cutting up a rug – in the case of some though it really was blood on the dancefloor.
Also showing that day were House of the Devil and The Children, which had been shown at FrightFest last month. Ti West's highly anticipated return to filmmaking (after the will it? won't it? debacle surrounding Cabin Fever 2, which it turns out Ti West no longer wishes to be associated with) reveals itself in the form of a retro throwback to '80s occult horror movies. Even down to the garish yellow font of the opening credits, West captures the heart of the subgenre and makes it relevant and interesting to a modern audience.
A real slow-burner that confidently takes its time in unravelling the plot and building up the tension, House of the Devil lulls you into a false sense of security. Just when you think it's safe to assume that the suggestive camera pans and climactic music will amount to nothing, that's when you are delivered a swift kick to the proverbial balls with a then unexpected, explosive scene featuring devil worship and aspects of the occult that you were so eagerly promised from the title.
Starring Jocelin Donaghue as the lead, Samantha, we are presented with a strong Final Girl character who is likeable, sensible and intelligent. The film spends enough time to develop her character, ensuring that we will empathise with her and will for her survival, when the time comes.
Also featuring a cameo from horror icon Dee Wallace, the film captures the essence of the time period perfectly, from the haircuts down to the fashion and music. There were many moments that had me jumping out of my seat, but unlike many recent horror films, this film uses suggestion to build tension and work up the audience so that their nerves take them over the edge, rather than just the typically boring technique of using a loud bang to scare the shit out of them.
Directed by Tom Shankland, The Children is set in rural England and sees three families come together for the Christmas holidays. It's all good fun until someone loses an eye – but in this film it's the adults who should be afraid, not the children. As tensions build in the house between the adults, the children's behaviour starts to change, and circumstance mixed with opportunity allow for certain horrible 'accidents' to occur, knocking the adults off one by one. The only teenager of the group, Casey (played by Hannah Tointon), becomes increasingly suspicious of the little brats and tries to save her older relatives, albeit too late.
With some truly terrifying performances from the youthful cast, this is the sort of thing they should be showing around secondary schools as part of sex-ed – it could easily replace more common forms of contraception, with more long-lasting results. Despite the obvious, initial notion of "you can't kill a kid in a horror film!", by the end of it you'll find yourself thinking of your own grizzly ways to end their ungrateful, miserable little lives – Mr Shankland: job well done.
More Information For further information on FANTASTIC FEST 2009 visit the festival website:www.fantasticfest.com.