Fantastic Fest is a film festival that I feel has a distinct advantage over others. The programming is so subversive and different that you really never know what you’re going to get. Sure, there are a few commercial titles like Frankenweenie, Looper, and others that you have an idea of going in. But other than that, no film ever plays out exactly the way you expect. As a genre festival, it’s very easy to get caught up searching for a hard-edged, violent action or horror film in the mix to champion. Certainly, there are some, but I’ve found that every year the films that tend to win me over the most are the ones with the most heart.
Enter I Declare War. While not the most touchy-feely movie of the festival, it spoke to many truths of being a kid. The film follows a bunch of kids playing “war” out in the woods. Their weapons are made of a bunch of sticks and other environmental props put together to resemble guns and ammunition, but we see the weapons as every bit as real as they can imagine them. To these kids, this is every bit as real as an actual war out in the woods behind the neighborhood, and having set very specific ground rules for the art of combat, they use strategy to win.
Every one of these kids is a total potty-mouth, despite none of them being older than middle-school students. I can see that making some audiences uncomfortable, as well as the dark places it goes with a couple of characters and their psychology, but these are a few of many things in the film that make it ring true. Pre-teens and early teenagers, especially boys, are foul-mouthed and aggressive. But the film is about more than that. At the end of the day, it’s hilarious and a ton of fun, but it really speaks to the truths of child’s play and what it’s like being a kid. Friendships are tested over games, and that’s very true to real life. Admittedly, the film could have gone a bit deeper with a lot of these things, but it would’ve ended up a much more ponderous affair than the absolute blast it is.
However, if you’re looking for films with more heart at Fantastic fest, look no further than The American Scream. The film is a documentary from the filmmakers behind Best Worst Movie, and follows the lives of “haunters”, or more specifically, three families who transform their homes into haunted house attractions every Halloween. In fact, they spend most of the calendar year preparing for this one night, as it is the biggest day of the year for them. This is their passion, and every year has to be better than the last.
I cannot think of a better film festival to premiere it at than Fantastic Fest. The families presented in the film could very easily be seen as oddball misfits, but they’re ultimately just doing what they love, and if doing that brings them joy, then they should be given every opportunity to fulfill that desire. There’s a really great moment at the end of the film where one of the haunters talks about how other holidays like Christmas bring families together, but Halloween brings an entire community together, even for just one night, all for the joy of the shared experience. To these haunters, that’s what this is all about, giving an entire community one night to come together and have fun being scared out of their minds.
And really, that speaks to what Fantastic Fest is about. It brings people together from all over the world for a week where we all just come together to enjoy the weirdest and wackiest that cinema has to offer. Every year I nearly double by social circle, and if this year was any indication, next year will be even better. After a long week of movies and friends, the closing night party was a bittersweet moment. I’ve long abandoned staying out way too late and partying, but exceptions have to be made. If staying out until nearly 4am and drinking too much means getting to have a blast with friends I may or may not see for the rest of the year, it’s worth it, even if the morning after is a brutal reminder that I’m getting older.