“Movies like this would not be possible without Netflix.” That’s what Jim Mickle said before the world premiere of In the Shadow of the Moon, a thriller he directed. Fantastic Fest has always been about celebrating genre filmmaking, whether it’s horror, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, and sometimes even romantic comedy. The thing about genre filmmaking is that, while there is an audience for it, it’s no longer the sure thing it was once. Movie theaters and cinemas are risk-averse, so they’d rather make a sure bet on Endgame or The Lion King, instead of an original entertainment that’s for adults. Netflix, for better and worse, is attempting to fill that hole.
At this year’s Fantastic Fest, there were a significant number of Netflix originals. One festival novelty is a “Secret Screening,” a film that attendees do not know until it’s introduced, or the credits start to roll. This year’s first big Secret Screening was Dolemite Is My Name, which is being distributed by Netflix. On top of that, the streaming service had at least another four original titles that were at the festival.
Jim Mickle, Brad Anderson, and Vinenczo Natali are not known quantities unless you’re deep into nerdery. Maybe you’ve seen Cold in July, Mickle’s thriller about an everyman whose life is thrown into disarray after he defends his home from an invader. You might have seen The Machinist, Anderson’s film that’s noteworthy because of how much weight Christian Bale lost (he looks like a skeleton). Natali is known for Cube, the closest thing we have to a modern Twilight Zone episode, as well as Splice, a modern riff on “Frankenstein.”
None of these filmmakers have made a superhero film, and you get the sense they would refuse the opportunity. You also get the sense they were born in the wrong period, insofar that they want to make original entertainments that are not remakes or sequels. The continuation of their careers are encouraging to anyone who values original filmmaking. These directors also handle prestige television, probably for hire, at least until they have an opportunity to make a mid-level film with many thrills and few stars. Big studios do not want to produce what they make, so maybe Netflix is the answer.
In the Tall Grass, In the Shadow of the Moon, and Fractured are all Netflix original films that will debut on the service in the weeks ahead. On one level, it is exciting to see movies on this kind of scale. There is an abundance of characters actors, and you don’t quite know where they will go. In the Shadow of the Moon is a police procedural with sci-fi elements. In the Tall Grass is the latest Stephen King adaptation, while Fractured is all about an innocent man who is perhaps wrongly accused. There are recognizable actors in each of these films, but no one you would describe as a “star.”
The thing about all these films, genre constraints or not, is that they seem designed to keep audiences streaming. Instead of a following their premises to their natural conclusion, many scenes repeat themselves. As an audience member who watched the film in a theater, with my complete attention given to what’s on the screen, I could see how these films spin their wheels. I don’t have any special insight into revisions or how Netflix produces their original entertainments, but Fantastic Fest suggests they’re like the cinematic equivalent of a blackjack table. You sort of know the next hand, but the predictability is the point. Netflix does not to to succumb to surprise, or even keep its suer engaged. Slack-jawed curiosity is its MO.
None of the Netflix films at Fantastic Fest are bad. They vary in quality, as they must, and some of them are downright clever. The problem is that Netflix, as a brand and a service, lets things unfold longer than they should. Netflix original films repeat themselves because they’re pretty sure you’re either looking at your phone, or fucking around in your fridge. Mickle is basically right: Netflix makes the films that frighten studios. The problem is they’re designed not to deserve your full attention.
At Fantastic Fest, every Netflix film came with a complimentary beer. Before Fractured started, Brad Anderson said to the audience, “I hope you pay close attention.” Free beer invites inattention, and the nature of streaming practically asks you to chill. Netflix has an interest in genre movies, but that interest is at the expense of careful viewers.