• Maxwell J.

2021 Fantastic Film Festival Review

I am so thankful to have attended my first Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. I have been itching to go ever since I moved here and 2021 was my first chance to experience the magic. I am very happy to share that I enjoyed the vast majority of films that I saw at Fantastic Fest. I watched 17 films which averaged a 6.85/10 rating from me, which means I saw plenty of excellent films here.


Due to the nature of Fantastic Fest, however, there are some great films I could not see due to timing. Thankfully, plenty of them will be released soon. Lamb, Bingo Hell, and There’s Someone Inside Your House all have their premieres in the first week of October meaning catching them will not be difficult. The secret screening of Last Night in Soho was particularly painful not to attend but I’m grateful it is getting its theatrical release towards the end of the month. Knocking is heading to digital later as well, Shudder picked up The Dead & Beautiful for November, and AMC is streaming Silent Night in December. I plan on catching all of these films by the end of the year.


Unfortunately, some of the release dates of these films are still up in the air. Alone with You, The Innocents, and The Exorcism of God all have some form of release planned generally for early 2022. I’m still holding out hope for swift releases for Barbarians, She Will, Homebound, Masking Threshold, and Let the Wrong One In as well.


Without further ado, here are the 17 films I watched at this year’s Fantastic Film Festival and my personal ranking of how much I enjoyed them.



17. Luzifer (Director: Peter Brunner; Austria)

Johannes and his mother live an isolated existence deep within the mountains. While he explores the world with a childlike naivety and pet eagle always by his side, his mother, hardened by substance abuse and the death of her lover, rejects modernity and civilization. Both out of her deepened spirituality and rationality, she seeks to shield Johannes from the vices that plagued her and the people who wish to harm their way of life. This all comes to a head when a ski company pressures them to sell their land and initiates a series of events with reverberating consequences. Luzifer is an atmospheric coming-of-age horror that doesn’t amount to much in the end. Despite strong performances from the leads, the characters feel underbaked and essentially meander through the story until its downbeat conclusion. I loved some of the symbolic aspects of the film, particularly the use of drones as a source of anxiety for Johannes. His fear of the modern world hovers and observes him in all of his sacred places: his home, at church, and when mourning all the while adding a threatening aura and sense of danger. With a bit more care, Luzifer could be a really solid horror drama but instead it’s a muddled film with little direction for its many ideas.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


16. Agnes (Director: Mickey Reece; United States)

A priest is called to a distant convent to perform an exorcism on Agnes who has exhibited increasingly erratic and vulgar behavior over the course of the last two weeks. Accompanying him is a budding priest who, along with the Mother Superior finds the means inappropriate for the occasion. Off to the side is Mary who finds comfort in Agnes’s rejection of their principles and decides to leave the church once an exorcism is fully performed on her best friend. This is only the beginning of the story. The biggest issue with Agnes is that it is two separate films jammed together. Each story is good on its own but when presented as a full tale, it loses its luster quickly. The first half, its stronger half, plays out as a raunchy nunsploitation horror comedy only to end right when the action gets good. Then, we follow Mary for the rest of the film who feels like a random choice given how little development she receives until then. Her journey is interesting and could be a great story in its own if it had more of a climatic ending, rather than a denouement comprised of a conversation about a sandwich. A good movie is somewhere here, but there’s not much to possess me to seek it out again, and I suggest the same for you.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


15. Good Madam (Director: Jenna Cato Bass; South Africa)

Tsidi seeks refuge with her mother after an argument with other family members at her grandmother’s wake. Once back at the place she grew up, she finds herself falling into old patterns with her mother and watching as others fall with her. The longer they stay, Tsidi’s nightmares grow increasingly more hostile and disturbing. She will soon find out the truth as to why Diane and her family have such close relationships with their staff. Good Madam showcases just what happens when exploitation continues in unexpected and terrifying ways. The biggest disappointments in this psychological horror film mostly come down to pacing issues. Good Madam is painfully slow and leads up to a rather disappointing finale. It’s disheartening because there is a lot of cool imagery and ideas within the writing here. This especially comes up when we learn of why these problems are occurring and the implications of that discovery. Thankfully, the cast is solid, and the subject material is fascinating enough on a more grounded, dramatic level to support Good Madam as a film in general, even if it doesn’t capitalize on the horrors it promises. The stories of the past can repeat themselves for quite some time before we learn how to turn the tables; this film won’t do much to better facilitate that understanding.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


14. Possession (Director: Andrzej Zulawaski; France, West Germany)

After returning from a long job a man comes home and finds his wife acting strangely. Shortly after, she asks for a divorce. Offered little explanation and due to the continual and increasingly bizarre behavior exhibited by his ex-wife, he seeks to find out what is happening. What’s more than just infidelity is discovered to be something far beyond his nightmare’s most vivid imagination. Working hard to understand her peril and shield his son from her influences, he must do what he can to save her from her newfound desires before they destroy everyone around her. Possession might be one of the most challenging films I have ever watched. The acting and plot are so over the top that it becomes difficult to connect with the admittedly deep themes and symbolism attached with the story. While I can’t say I ever fully understood why things were happening here, I found myself pulled into the feature through the strong direction, great cinematography, and insane practical effects. Relying on its dark and chaotic atmosphere, Possession lives up to its reputation of being an absolute wild ride. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it isn’t the type of film I’d ever sit down to re-watch without intent. A movie you should probably see at least once, if only to see how weird it is, Possession will certainly be one film your mind will let you forget.


Full Review: N/A

Where to Watch: See Here


13. Titane (Director: Julia Ducournau; France, Belgium)

A young woman commits a series of crimes before leaving town. After suffering from injuries sustained in a car crash years ago, she struggles to understand the changes happening to her body after an encounter with a sportscar. She crosses paths with Vincent, a man who has long been searching for his missing son. Together they form an unlikely relationship built on the lie that Alexia is his long-lost child. Conflicted that she might be going too far and taking advantage of this man, Alexia must make the choice of whether to stay and if she will be able to control the changes happening to her body. Another mindfuck kind of movie, Titane starts off vaguely like a slasher before turning into a more grounded found family drama and ultimately ending as a full-on metallurgical body horror. Dealing with themes like femininity and gender politics, family, and trauma, it’s a difficult film to fully grasp, especially when it relishes in its shinier moments. It’s compelling enough and features phenomenal performances from both Vincent Lindon and Agathe Rousselle finding each other amidst the emptiness in their respective lives. The glitz and glimmer of its trailers may betray you, but Titane is a sturdy character study that is equal parts touching and bewildering.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here


12. The Beta Test (Director: Jim Cummings; United States, United Kingdom)

Hot shot Hollywood executive Jordan receives a letter in the mail that offers him an exclusive, no-strings-attached sexual experience at a hotel. Initially disinterested, Jordan, changes his mind when he finds the lack of control in his perfect life suffocating. When he arrives, he is instructed to wear a blindfold, which he sheepishly does. Although he quickly regrets the encounter, even though it was satisfying, Jordan grows weary that something isn’t quite right about the process. He begins questioning who he slept with and if his secret is safe from his fiancé. A psychological descent into the madness of social relationships, The Beta Test manages to offer social commentary on social media’s influence in our daily lives, the failures and fakeness behind the entertainment industry, and the implications of the nature of adultery in a post #MeToo era. While it doesn’t quite make it all work, it’s a charming enough attempt to attack the institutions that help define current society. Jim Cummings once again gives a fantastic performance unearthing the charisma and vulnerability necessary to play a character as unhinged as Jordan. In the end, the film doesn’t quite intertwine everything together in a satisfying manner, but it still works for the most part. The Beta Test is one invitation you will not want to turn down.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here


11. Black Friday! (Director: Casey Tebo; United States)

On the craziest night of the year, Black Friday, employees at a We Love Toys store are getting everything ready for the Thanksgiving rush. Among them are “too cool for school” Ken, germophobic young adult Chris, girl next door Marnie, and plenty of others working for the chain store. Unfortunately for them, the shoppers are rabid with more than just great deals on flat screen television sets and Dour Dennis teddy bears. They have been transformed by an alien substance that turns them into frothing zombie-like creatures with a compulsion to build. Can the group work together to get the hell out of there or are they doomed to ring up overtime there for eternity? An excellent cast and a killer concept elevate this film to a level it otherwise would not achieve. While I enjoyed the silliness and found it to be a quick-paced bout into balanced horror, sci-fi, comedy, and action, Black Friday! doesn’t quite make the impact it should. Its story sags a bit, particularly in the middle, deflating the energy it builds initially. The creature effects are largely great until the end where it gets way too cartoonish. By the end, it feels very cookie cutter in execution without truly exploring its fun-filled setting or underlying themes of anti-consumerism effectively. Regardless of its flaws, Black Friday! is well worth the trip to the megaplex this year to celebrate the happiest day of the year. For CEOs.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


10. Eyes of Fire (Director: Avery Crounse; United States)

After a preacher is accused of bigamy, he and his followers escape from their town and set off into the forest to begin a new life. Facing the elements, other colonists, and Indigenous folks protecting their land, they decide to traverse into a valley marked as territory free from outsiders. They stumble upon some abandoned homes and decide to set up camp there, ignoring the eerie signs that something is not right with the land. The horrors of the forest come alive when they learn the truth behind the emptiness of the land. A lost relic from the 80s, Eyes of Fire is a wonderfully weird tale of folk horror that delivers an unusual and quite unique story without sacrificing on thrills. Sharp characters keep the film feeling fresh and add to the sense of danger. While the effects do not translate perfectly to today’s standards, for the time they are quite well-done and get quite nasty when the time calls for it. An underseen gem by the nature of it being out of print and circulation on streaming platforms, Eyes of Fire is a film you should prioritize once its restoration is released. The woods may lead you down a dark and dangerous path, but I promise that I am not doing the same with this recommendation.


Full Review: N/A

Where to Watch: See Here (Re-release Coming Soon)


9. Hellbender (Director: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser; United States)

Izzy lives with her mother on a mountain in the middle of the woods. All Izzy wants to do is meet other kids her age and get some distance between her and her mother. Her mother is fearful that Izzy’s contact with others may harm her and that it is dangerous. Eventually, Izzy learns the truth as to why she cannot interact with other people and begins experimenting with her newfound knowledge and understanding of the world with deadly consequences. Another indie gem, Hellbender crafts an excellent little witchcraft-esque tale of mother and daughter trying to survive and grow together in the wilderness. The small cast allows for a deeply intimate examination on the relationship between the two female leads that digs deep into the complexities such bonds have. The worldbuilding and mythology behind the story is a triumph in its own. While remaining grounded in what makes great stories great, the family of directors and actors makes their film seem grandiose in ambition without succumbing to the usual pitfalls lower budget productions face. A wickedly cool premise and strong performances make Hellbender a must watch film for those seeking something off the beaten path. No matter winter, spring, summer, or fall, Hellbender is perfect to watch any season of your life.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


8. Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It (Director: Yernar Nurgalivev; Kazakhstan)

Dastan is bickering with his pregnant wife Zhanna when he decides to go on a fishing trip with his best friends Arman and Murat. After a visit to a creepy gas station and experiencing some issues on the road, they finally find themselves relaxing in the water. Until they accidentally witness the murder of a man at the hands of four brothers who are now after them to ensure they never talk. They’ve also crossed paths with a man who has made it his mission to kill the brothers after they killed his beloved pet. And in all this insanity Zhanna calls Dastan to let him know she’s in labor. Take one guess on how she is going to react to all this once, or if, Dastan makes it. This film is an absolute blast. From beginning to end, it is filled with some of the best comedy I’ve seen in a horror flick, from physical comedy to recurring gags and even some great wordplay and puns. The center of the film, however, is the relationship between the three friends navigating an increasingly wacky situation that puts their friendship to the test. A quality Kazakh horror comedy, Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It will leave you, and its protagonists, in stitches.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


7. Saloum (Director: Jean Luc Herbulot; Senegal)

A trio of mercenaries flee Buinea-Bissau via plane with a druglord in tow when they find themselves in need of an emergency landing in the Saloum region of Senegal. Chaka the group, Rafa is the muscle, and Minuit offers more restraint through his spiritual and shrewd role in the group. After a day’s journey they end up at a camp hotel where they must trade chores for a place to stay. The atmosphere is already tense given how far they strayed from their plans, but it gets much worse when a police officer arrives and one of the other guests threatens to out them if they don’t take her with them. A breath of fresh air, Saloum is twisty, genre-bending gem that doesn’t quite go where one expects. Its clever concept and use of source material is boosted by its frantic and lively camerawork that puts the viewer on edge for the whole film. A great cast pushes it even further, giving depth to characters who we only get precious few minutes to know. It’s also a great meditation on the concept of revenge and how it endangers oneself when fed. Many may not know about Saloum now, but one day it’ll come out of nowhere and excite the general public just like it has dazzled festivalgoers.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


6. Midnight (Director: Oh-Seung Kwon; South Korea)

After a long day at work and trip out to get drinks with her company’s clients, Kyung-mi is on her way to pick up her mother and return home. She’s feeling particularly heated after taking the abuse of her clients with a smile despite them mocking her Deafness and muteness. As she is parking her car, she inadvertently crosses paths with a serial killer in the process of deciding his next victim, who turns out to be So Jung, who is on her way back from a date and not returning her older brother’s calls. With no one to listen, Kyung-mi must rely on her strength, resilience, and intellect if she intends to survive and save those she loves. A tight serial killer thriller, Midnight is an unrelenting night of terror in the empty streets of a city. Posing thoughtful commentary on how the Deaf and hard of hearing community is ignored, infantilized, and feared at the hands of hearing folks unable or unwilling to listen to them, Midnight elevates its concept beyond something that merely titillates. The film is frustrating to watch because of how easy their plight could be addressed but isn’t solely because others cannot trust or believe a Deaf person. The cast deliver stellar performances and show off their excellent cardio skills in some of the longest chase scenes I’ve seen in a while. Midnight is one nightmare you won’t want to live, or run through, ever.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here


5. Slumber Party Massacre (Director: Danishka Esterhazy; South Africa)

A group of friends on their way to a cabin in the woods get stuck in a Podunk town in the middle of nowhere due to car maintenance issues. Not wanting to let that stop the party, the crew decide to set up shop at another cabin just for the night while they wait for their replacement parts to arrive. Immediately, they bust out the party playlist, heat up some pizza and brownies, and dance the night away before they have to turn away the guys from across the lake. It’s all fun and games until the Driller Killer comes out of hiding to finish what he started years ago. Slumber Party Massacre is an absolute blast. Everyone from the writer to director to the cast turns the camp up high and leaves it there for the remainder of the film. It morphs from standard teen slasher to parody back all the way to the dark and foreboding to finish strongly, never forgetting its sharp commentary about gender and the treatment of women in these sort of films. As a remake it straddles the line between paying homage and respect to the film that bore it and taking the material in a new direction for a new generation of horror fans to relate to and love. A slasher full of love, gore, and badass women, Slumber Party Massacre is a must-watch this year.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


4. Zalava (Director: Arsalan Amiri; Iran)

With the apex of the Iranian Revolution imminent, Massoud is finishing his post in Kurdistan where residents of a nearby town practice rituals he deems superstitious. Believing their city is constantly at threat to demons, the locals adhere to rituals of bloodletting and rely on exorcists to save their loved ones from demonic forces. In an effort to curtail this, Massoud confiscated the town’s firearms before relenting to a court order to return them. These tensions come to a broil when an exorcist named Amardan claims to have secured a demon within a jar when answering his latest call. A wonderfully taut and intense horror drama, Zalava asks how far can faith push someone to do something awful. I appreciate the balance given to the characters here. There isn’t a single person or “side” that is seen entirely as good or bad. They all operate in shades of gray and willful misunderstanding. But it also offers deeper questions than what can a belief do to a person. What are the consequences of placating others? Is it worth it to escalate a heavy situation in the name of being right? What are the ethical implications of being a bystander? It’s such a great piece of cinema to think about while being ferociously engrossing and entertaining to boot. You may not believe me, but Zalava is definitely the film to look out for here.


Full Review: See Here (Coming Soon)

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)


3. V/H/S/94 (Directors: Jennifer Reeder, Chloe Okuno, Simon Barrett, Timo Tjahjanto, Ryan Prows; United States, Indonesia)

A SWAT team is conducting a drug raid on a large compound when they discover mass casualties and mysterious video tapes depicting unspeakable terrors. “Storm Drain” follows a news reporter and her camera man investigating an urban legend in their city’s sewer system. A young funeral home worker discovers the dead are never truly dead in “The Empty Wake.” A mad scientist experiments on “The Subject” before he is surprised by the authorities. And lastly, a plot to blow up a federal building with a monster they’ve been holding captive in “Terror” goes awry. I love a good anthology and V/H/S/94 kicks it out of the park. Without a single dull moment or weak spot, it achieves something most films of this nature can only dream. The practical effects are incredible for found footage films and more traditional horror as well. Its camerawork largely looks like it is lifted directly from a storage bin collecting dust since the Clinton administration which helps solidify the authenticity of the film. While all five subjects are great, Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” is by far the standout here, reveling in the guts, glory, and all-out insanity of its terrifying premise. Another great film to uncover, you’ll be thanking yourself for checking it out once you pop that tape in to the VHS player (or streaming device, whatever).


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here


2. The Sadness (Director: Rob Jabbaz; Taiwan)

Debates surrounding the threat posed by the Alvin Virus culminate in the day a strong mutation arises and begins spreading through cities like wildfire. The effects of this variant showcase in its hosts by attacking their limbic system which pushes them to perform the most grotesque and depraved acts upon their fellow citizens. Capable of basic cognizant thoughts but overwhelmed by the desire to inflict pain, the masses ravage the city within hours. Amidst the chaos and violence, a young couple fights to reunite and leave before they become victims to the scourge. I can’t say that this film is one I’d recommend to anyone due to how brutal it gets, but this movie absolutely floored me. I have never felt more disgusted, uncomfortable, and truly terrified than I felt when watching The Sadness. And, for that I have to love it. Merciless and nihilistic, this gritty piece of cinema exudes as much confidence as it oozes blood. I may be biased because the premise is straight out of actual nightmares I have had, but I truly think its one of the scariest films of all time. Bleak and bold, The Sadness will have you feeling hopeless once you finish.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)



1. The Black Phone (Director: Scott Derrickson; United States)

A rash of kidnappings has been sweeping the primarily working-class community of North Denver in 1978. Finney is cautious and a little scared of the predator known as The Grabber which his sister Gwen teases him for before consoling him about his missing friends. Not long afterwards Finney is abducted by The Grabber and locked in a spartan basement with only a few necessities and an old black rotary phone that is disconnected. In his terror and shock, Finney is understandably confused when the phone starts ringing and he hears the ghosts of the killer’s previous victims share warnings or advice from the other side. A truly fantastic period horror that nails the appropriate tone, design, and atmosphere necessary to pull off a concept like The Black Phone. Ethan Hawke’s performance as the Grabber is excellent while the leading child actors Madeleine McGraw and Mason Thames deliver raw and emotional performances with depth and care. Packed with plenty of scares and an overwhelming sense of dread, The Black Phone will stun with its clever script and compelling narrative. Combing the terrors of the supernatural with the horrors of reality, The Black Phone is ringing and it’s letting you all know just what’s coming to you next February in theaters.


Full Review: See Here

Where to Watch: See Here (Wide Release TBD)



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