Jen Yamato covers film for Deadline, but she especially loves genre. That’s the place where a million dollar budget film has the best chance to do 20 times its cost on opening weekend, with the right concept and an eye catching trailer. It’s big business, and she will cover it with a fun, but grounded page that will appear Saturdays. This page is for fans, and filmmakers who love these films, so seek her out with genre news. And while we’re still working on this layout, come on up to the lab, and see what’s on the slab. Here’s Jen:
I spent the week diving into genre fare at Fantastic Fest, the Austin, Texas-based beer and barbeque soaked gathering that in a decade now boasts the biggest collection of genre films in North America. It might not be the only festival that has fist fights, but it’s the only one that provides the gloves, the ring and referee. And shut up about the observation that some of these filmmakers do their best work, spilling blood on that canvas. I love these movies and there were some gems here. Not from Kevin Smith, who opened the proceedings with his so-so horror comedy Tusk; Dan Gilroy closed it with his electric L.A.-set Nightcrawler, starring a feral, wild-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal. RADiUS-TWC, IFC, and Magnolia screened titles, but it was Lionsgate that scored the knockout, bringing Keanu Reeves and his crowd-pleasing actioner John Wick.
This irreverent gathering is part talent search, part revelry, and it is becoming more than a secret guilty pleasure. RADiUS brought a half-dozen titles, including the Salma Hayek actioner Everly, Alexandre Aja’s Horns, and a secret screening of the Venice pickup Goodnight Mommy. Geek faves James Gunn, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Nicolas Refn all flew in without films, mostly to vamp the works of pals. And of course there were brawls that pitted filmmakers, critics, and festival founder/Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League against one another. “It’s hard to put a tangible value on things like that, but it’s one of those things that makes us truly unique,” League told me. He won his title bout with The Sacrament director Ti West in a hard-fought, two-rounder in front of an SRO crowd. Let’s see Sundance’s Redford go two rounds.
League is the P.T. Barnum-esque figure at the center of Fantastic Fest, which is squarely connected to his growing Alamo Drafthouse theater business that has gone from a single screen theater into a movie geek mini-empire. There was no grand plan when League and wife Karrie opened the first Alamo Drafthouse in 1997, screening second run films to Austin audiences. Drafthouse Films has gotten two Oscar noms and has a collectible print and soundtrack label, a pop culture and lifestyle blog, and a line of restaurants and bars. The cinemas cover seven states, with LA on the horizon next year.
League also knows the value of publicity; he’s the same guy who banned Madonna from his cinemas after she allegedly was busted for texting (though not at his theater). He’s more serious about expansion. “I’d like to open 5 or 6 theaters next year,” he told me. “I want to have a national footprint, to build a national audience for these kinds of films. Right now we’re testing the limits of the venue, so we’re probably not going to grow any further in terms of the number of people. The sense of community the festival has is important, that it all stays at one venue. We dabbled years ago with taking it bigger, moving it over to the Paramount Theater and doing some big gala screenings with 1,200 people in attendance but it ended up just draining the energy of the festival. So that’s going to be a factor in our size. I think we are at our max and that’s just going to drive scarcity and then we’ll probably sell out quicker.”
Premieres this year included ABCs of Death 2 and V/H/S: Viral, sequels that got lukewarm notices. That’s not good considering how rabid the crowds here are. Also faring okay were cult movies like the Mark Hartley docu Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, about how Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus managed to crank out hundreds of movies at one point, without a lick of cinematic taste to guide them. There was the docu Lost Soul, chronicling how South African director Richard Stanley’s ill-fated 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau went terribly south, including the director showing up in costume as a mutated islander after he was sacked and replaced by John Frankenheimer. There was The Editor, a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, complete with the bad overdubbing, and cheese of that cult subgenre that was presented so convincingly that the film played 10 minutes before anyone realized the sound wasn’t intentionally out-of-sync, but rather was a projector snafu.
Fantastic Fest is becoming a viable place for specialty distribs to create buzz for smaller titles. Audiences sparked to It Follows, the teen horror from David Robert Mitchell that Radius-TWC picked up out of Cannes and will distribute next year. IFC’s Aussie boogeyman tale The Babadook won Best Horror Film, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress and also scored well with audiences. Also connecting was Spring, the TIFF horror romance from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead that Drafthouse Films acquired after its screening here. Studio Ghibli animation The Tale of Princess Kaguya took home the Audience Award and is set for an October release via GKIDS. Danish werewolf tale When Animals Dream, which Radius bought in Berlin, played strongly; Alleluia, the Belgian thriller about a destructive pair of lovers inspired by Lonely Hearts killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, also shone. Music Box will release it late this year or in early 2015. The 1950s-set Spanish thriller Shrew’s Nest was another standout that is still seeking U.S. distribution.
Drafthouse tested challenging fare also: the Ukrainian film The Tribe is a dialogue-free coming of age crime drama set within a school for the deaf, told entirely via sign language. Drafthouse’s League and James Emanuel Shapiro acquired the film from first-time director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky out of Cannes and screened it with bated breath at Fantastic Fest. The more daring festival-goers seemed somewhat enthused, but it’s an open question whether wider audiences will care and have the patience for the sign language narrative.
Some of the other highlights:
Whose life is being directed by whom? I asked filmmakers Liv Corfixen and Nicolas Winding Refn when the filmmakers stopped by Fantastic Fest with the docu My Life, which she directed about her husband as he made the unflinchingly raucous film Only God Forgives. “It’s my life that’s being directed by his life,” said Corfixen. RADiUS, which released Refn’s film, picked up Corfixen’s docu and screened it privately in Cannes. “They kept telling us if you want it for the cinemas you have to make it longer, but I felt it could not bear to be longer,” said Corfixen. Radius will release the hourlong film digitally in December. (See my detailed Q&A with Refn).
Eurythmics co-founder and music producer Dave Stewart told me he’ll make a feature adaptation of Zombie Broadway, based on his 2008 graphic novel. Stewart, who won a Golden Globe for his 2005 original song from the Alfie soundtrack, directed a number of Eurythmics music videos before making his own narrative directing debut with 2000’s Honest. He told me his love for film originated as a child. “I remember my dad used to have these 8mm cine-cameras. He would edit home movies with old fashioned splicer, add a title card, and we’d switch the lights off, hang a sheet on a wall and project them.”
It was always the intention for that graphic novel to become a movie and a stage musical, he said. “These are beautiful ballads that happen to be happening between a sweet young girl and a zombie,” he said. “It’s the difference between ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics and ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Marilyn Manson. In this musical the narrative allows the music to go from the craziest Broadway musical into the heaviest, darkest death metal. It’s the zombie movie to end all zombie movies.” Musicians always spark to genre films, from Rob Zombie to guitarist Slash and why should Stewart be any different. For a guy who has had so much success onstage, his excitement for genre is palpable.
“I got the opportunity in the beginning of The Eurythmics to write storylines and co-direct our videos with cinematographers,” he said. “My world revolves around music and film and has since ‘Love Is A Stranger.’ Before that I was just stoned all the time and really couldn’t hardly get off the floor. Not just stoned on really strong grass but full on LSD, 250 trips or something. If you put all that together and look for an idea for a film, you turn out something like Zombie Broadway.”
Comic book legend Stan Lee is taking his original Bollywood superhero Chakra to the big screen. Unlike his many creations for Marvel which went on to fuel huge billion-dollar franchises for the comics publisher, Chakra is an original character Lee created through his own POW! banner, through the animated series Chakra the Invincible. That launched on TV in India last year and has drawn 25 million views on streaming platform Rovio Toons TV. Lee and partner Graphic India are hoping to expand with a live-action feature film. Chakra tells the story of Raju Rai, a young boy from Mumbai who develops a technology suit that activates the mystical chakras of the body. Donning the suit, Raju discovers superpowers and vows to protect the city from a barrage of supervillains.
“The world was clamoring for an Indian superhero, and I came up with Chakra,” said Lee. “I based it on the fact that human body has chakras that motivate us, and they’re spiritual. He’s a teenage boy who learns to control and utilize the chakras in his body. We hope to make Chakra the Indian Spider-Man.”
While Marvel mints billions of dollars with movies based on the angst-ridden caped characters that Lee and his cohorts hatched in that cramped Marvel Comics office during a 60s golden age of creativity, Lee has had a harder time creating characters in his golden age that stick. Can Lee manufacture the kind of superhero hit that Marvel made out of his classic creations? “While the superheroes definitely get all the attention, what really drives the landscape forward is the stories,” said Lee. “In fact, you don’t need a marquee character to make a good superhero film. Whether it’s the origin stories of some of the characters we created at Marvel, from Spider-Man to Thor, or the most recent movies today like Guardians of the Galaxy, audiences recognize a great story and it’s what makes superheroes so universally loved. With Chakra we have combined great story telling with an exciting and relatable hero and I can’t wait to see it all brought to life on the big screen.” Rock on, Stan Lee.