Your dear film editor is in Austin, Texas covering Fantastic Fest, a film festival that focuses on horror, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, and similar ilk. Here’s his latest dispatch.
Before a film begins at Fantastic Fest, a programmer from The Alamo Drafthouse addresses the crowd and gets them ready for what they’re about to see. Right before The Golden Glove, a German film from Fatih Akin, she warns, “You are not going to enjoy this movie.” She was right: it tells the story of Fritz Honka, an infamous serial killer in Hamburg who butchered women he met in the same dive bar. Fantastic Fest audiences are known for their high tolerance of on-screen violence, but I suspect everyone here recoiled in disgust. When the film has a wider release, walkouts will be common.
Jonas Dassler is a handsome young actor, and as Honka, he is unrecognizable. His character haunches over with stringy hair and grotesque features. When Honka tries to pick up women by buying them a drink, they often refuse because he is too ugly. His MO is simple, and seemingly unplanned: he finds the most vulnerable woman he can – usually someone who is old and desperate – and gets them drunk. After he has sex with the women and kills them, he usually leaves some body parts in his attic. The smell is awful, to the point where there is a running gag about all the air fresheners in his apartment.
The cumulative effect of watching The Golden Glove is to feel dirty, and a hellish impossibility of reason. Akin has no interesting in ordinary, happy people who have normal lives. His characters are depraved, lonely, vulgar, and cruel. They are drunk all the time, to the point where the film recalls a Bukowski novel. The technical skill and restraint here is admirable: Akin films all the misogynistic material at a distance, with enough clarity so you understand the extent of Honka’s crimes. The camera never enters Honka’s bedroom, for example, and a doorway separates the sex, which is always clumsy and devoid of affection.
It is unclear why a film like The Golden Glove needs to exist. Maybe Akin wants to disabuse audiences from their fascination with true crime, or maybe he looks for humanity in a group of losers that society would prefer to forget. Either way, this is a film that will struggle to find an audience, unless there are people out there who thought Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was too tame.
Swallow, a body horror film that shifts into an empathetic drama, may also struggle to find an audience. After premiering at The Tribeca Film Festival, the audience at Fantastic Fest was mostly in tune with its quiet sense of outrage. Still, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis creates a detached curiosity about what happens to his lead character, and for a while, we are not sure what to make of her.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) leads a life of comfort and privilege. Her home is an architectural marvel, full of big windows and open spaces, and it looks out onto the river. She does not need to work because her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) is a wealthy executive in her father’s company. All these comforts are conditional: her in-laws do not treat her like part of the family, and they’re skeptical whether her love is genuine. Once she gets pregnant, however, all that concern dissipates since she may effectively continue the company’s legacy. Alone and awaiting her newborn, Hunter develops a strange habit. She swallows inedible objects like marbles, batteries, and even pushpins.
The need to swallow such objects is commonly known as “pica,” and it is a real eating disorder. Mirabella-Davis said he based this film on his grandmother, and the way it depicts Hunter’s repression has the edge you could sometimes see in Mad Men. Bennett is terrific as Hunter, an intelligent woman who succumbs to her compulsion because it is the only that gives her a sense of value or control. Richie and her family try to dominate her, so she lashes out by swallowing even more objects. There is a satisfying arc to the drama, although its sense of catharsis is a bit tidy. Still, by tying Hunter’s disorder to deeper psychological issues, Swallow has a lot to say about independence, womanhood, and self-determination.
One additional note about Swallow: at the screening I attended, there was a man who was either confused about the material, or maybe uncomfortable by it. He was laughing at jeering for the entire film, which is pretty low-key, despite its genre constraints. Such a reaction may have been genuine, but the longer it went on, it started to sound disrespectful. Here’s a pro-tip for all the fans out there: if you think you’re smarter than the movie, do everyone else a favor and keep it to yourself.
The Vast of Night is something special. It might be the most exciting debut science fiction film since Shane Carruth made Primer, except the two are nothing alike. That’s exactly the point: director Andrew Patterson, along with screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, have used their limited resources to craft a thriller that stirs the imagination with an economical story and limited special effects.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, since it’s something you best discover on your own. Let’s just say it takes place in a small town in the 1950s, and unfolds over the course of one evening. Most of the residents are at the high school basketball game, except for the local DJ (Jake Horowitz) and the switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick). Something strange starts to happen while everyone roots for the home team.
Montague and Sanger use quite a bit of misdirection. You’re never quite sure what the characters are thinking because they guard their feelings, and don’t blurt out what they fear. The dialogue is also speedy without being too cute – the DJ is a motormouth, while the switchboard operator is perky – except all that stylized language drifts away once they grow increasingly frightened.
The Vast of Night does not need strong direction. It is mostly dialogue scenes, and there are lengthy sequences where we watch characters listen to other people tell stories. In fact, it is a bit like Orson Welles radio performance of The War of the Worlds, a comparison the director invites since so much of it has to do with a mysterious sound everyone hears. Patterson is not content simply to listen, so The Vast of Night includes long, eye-popping tracking shots through the town where it takes place. Sometimes the camera follows Everett as he schmoozes with the locals, or there are takes where the camera glides from end of town to another. The camera is almost like a character in the film, one who feels an omnipotent sense of urgency. By the time the final scenes slow down and reveal what is at stake, there is Spielbergian sense of wonder, albeit with slightly more suspense and fear.
Amazon picked up The Vast of Night, which means it will probably have a brief theatrical run before it’s available on the streaming platform. You’ll want to see this one with an audience, and not just because you will avoid spoilers. It reminds us why we go to the movies, and how all those smoke and mirrors can tease out our sense of wonder.