(Welcome to The Fantastic Fest Diaries, where we will be chronicling every single movie we see at the United States’ largest genre film festival.)
Welcome to Fantastic Fest 2019, day six. In this entry, Memory: The Origins of Alien finds new things to say about one of the best movies ever made, The Vast of Night is low-key science fiction that comes this close to working, and Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street is a fascinating and heartfelt blend of horror and LGBTQ history.
Memory: The Origins of Alien
Did we really need another documentary about Ridley Scott‘s 1979 masterpiece Alien? Memory: The Origins of Alien does the seemingly impossible and makes it clear that the answer is, somehow, yes. Despite the making of this film being extensively chronicled in countless books, documentaries, and DVD special features, director Alexandre O. Philippe finds an angle that has been largely untapped. Memory is less about the physical, on-the-ground production of the film and more about how masterpieces aren’t made in a vacuum and are the result of cultural vibrations that echo across the ages and inform what kind of art we embrace, even when we don’t know why we’re embracing it.
Yes, there are some familiar anecdotes here and that’s when Memory is at its weakest. You’ve heard the stories of how studio execs balked at H.R. Giger‘s disturbing creature designs and you’ve heard the cast recount the filming of the infamous chestburster scene more times than you can count. However, you haven’t heard H.P. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi break down the “weird tale” DNA inherent in Alien‘s screenplay and you haven’t heard another talking head explain the unseen and under-explored elements that make the character of Ash more disturbing than you realized, and this will probably be the first time multiple people much smarter than you draw a direct line from Alien to artist Francis Bacon to the Furies of Greek mythology. Yes, Memory is a trip and a trip worth taking for anyone who wants to understand more about why Scott’s movie works, even in ways that those who made it may not have fully understood.
If there’s a fundamental flaw to Memory: The Origins of Alien, it’s that it doesn’t feel like a complete piece of cinema. Anyone who has not seen Alien won’t find much to appreciate and the film asks you to already be intimately familiar with the movie before it begins. This isn’t a standalone film – it’s a companion piece, a superb collection of critical analysis, and a college course based on the film rolled into one tight 95-minute experience. If you already love Alien, you’ll love this movie. And since everyone with good taste loves Alien, Memory becomes one of the most valuable and fresh documentaries of the year.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10
The Vast of Night
If the reaction to The Vast of Night at Fantastic Fest is any indication, this low-key science fiction film may very well work for you and be the sneaky surprise of the year. Before sitting down to write these paragraphs, I spoke with many colleagues and friends, hoping to discern what I was missing, what I wasn’t seeing, why I felt let down by a film that is so beautifully made and so compelling for so much of its running time. Like the film itself, no easy answers were offered and I found myself thinking more and more about a movie that I can’t quite pin down.
So, in many ways, mission accomplished, The Vast of Night.
Andrew Patterson‘s directorial debut begins quietly, tracking two teenagers in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s who head off to their late-night jobs while the bulk of the citizenry is at a high school basketball game. She works as a switchboard operator. He hosts the nighttime shift at the radio station. And soon, they both start hearing a strange signal over the airwaves, a signal that draws them into a mystery that is best left under-explained here.
Acting as an extended homage to classic science fiction television (there’s even a framing device that presents the film as an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque anthology show), The Vast of Night is less about twists and more about character and tone, allowing us to get lost alongside the two main characters as they use their limited resources to get to the bottom of this mystery. Patterson’s framing exudes a quiet confidence – shots are long and steady, immersing you into lengthy dialogue sequences without calling attention to how impressive it all is. At its best, the film becomes an auditory experience, with the patient camera working to emphasize the pauses between words, the way a voice communicates over the phone, and how our bodies and faces shift as we share our greatest truths. For so long, The Vast of Night feels like the kind of remarkable indie film you hope to find at film festivals. For so long, I was prepared to call this one of Fantastic Fest 2019’s shiniest gems.
Unfortunately, the film falls off course in its closing act, ambling toward the most obvious endpoint and concluding exactly how you expected it to an hour earlier. I wasn’t even angry when the credits began to roll. I was just disappointed. A movie this well-made, this unique in tone and presentation, deserves a conclusion worthy of its craft. So I’m stuck with the most backhanded of compliments: I can’t wait to see what Patterson makes next.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
I was worried that Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street would be little more than a collection of examples reminding us that A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one of the gayest horror movies of all time. And that would’ve been amusing, because by accident or design (probably the former, as this movie seems to indicate), Freddy’s Revenge is really, really gay. This made it a punching bag for decades, the Freddy Krueger movie about the “fag.” And then the LGBTQ community grew to embrace it, to own it, and to elevate it as one of the great queer movies of the ’80s. And at the center of it all is actor Mark Patton, who vanished following the film’s 1985 release.
Then Patton, the rare male horror scream queen, re-emerged decades later. And boy, does he have a story to tell.
Scream, Queen! is not what you’re expecting. Using the queer subtext/text of Freddy’s Revenge as a launching point, the film uses the life of Patton to explore the life of a gay man in Hollywood in the ’80s, offering a deeply personal, sometimes joyous, frequently painful portrait of watching your rising star take a tumble against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. The film cuts between the modern Patton, who uses his B-list celebrity status to work as a gay rights activist across the horror convention circuit, and young Patton, who struggles to hide his identity in an industry terrified of his sexuality and his truth. The story is tragic and frustrating and will be familiar to many LGBTQ folks in the audience, but as Patton himself makes clear, he sees it as his duty to tell his story to as many young, queer horror fans as possible, to be a part of the historical record to make sure no one has to endure what he survived 30 years ago. And rather than peter out, the film only gets better as it goes along, climaxing with an astonishing meeting between Patton and writer of Freddy’s Revenge, upon whom the actor has placed so many of his personal demons.
As you’d expect from a crowd-funded documentary about a niche subject, Scream, Queen! is often rough around the edges and perhaps a bit too long. But as a curiosity object for horror buffs, it’s always fascinating. And more importantly, as a confessional from a gay man who has finally found his peace 30 years after watching his sexual identity tank his entire professional life, it’s the kind of story that needs to be told frequently and at great volume to as many people as possible.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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