It’s here!!! The event I’ve waited all year for. The only film festival worth crying about if I couldn’t go. And so begins Fantastic Fest 2017, the thirteenth year of the festival.

Day 1 is a odd one. For one thing, everyone’s here, or should be. I had to work right up until the start of the festival (by choice), but fortunately, all I needed was my trusty iPad Air and Wifi; I didn’t have to be at the office dealing with the usual office politics and minor drama. Just a few more emails pointing fingers… and done! Log off. Ahh…

What else makes Day 1 odd? For one thing, it’s Thursday, so I don’t believe everyone is here yet. Industry people, some filmmakers, and the mainstream press tend to hang out Friday – Sunday, and then skip town Sunday afternoon. After that, to keep the energy level high, the organizers of Fantastic Fest have created a sweet “Second Half Badge” for a fraction of the price of a normal pass, but you get to attend the last 4 days of this 8-day festival (although it’s Mon-Thurs). This makes up for the industry people leaving Sunday. And that’s par of the course for all film festivals.

But that’s for a normal year. This year isn’t normal because there’s no opening night film. Of course they had one booked well in advance, but the distributor of that film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missorui pulled it at the last minute, leaving the programmers to rejuggle the schedule. Longtime sponsor and festival partner AICN was also dropped as a sponsor, and long-time program director Todd Brown resigned last week. There’s a whole story about that which you read about here, but I won’t address it further in this post, maybe later.

Now, on to the films:

The Prince of Nothingwood

This documentary delivers exactly what it promises: a portrait of its titular star, Salim Shaheen, the “prince” of Afghani cinema, which as an industry is virtually non-existent, except for the particular no-budget action-melodramas made by Shaheen. He’s an actor, director, producer, singer, dancer, exhibitor, and all around larger-than-life story-teller, with an appetite, ego, and chutzpah to match. Director Sonia Kronlund also explores how the Afghan people, even the Taliban view Shaheen’s artistic efforts. A fascinating look at being a film auteur at the ends of the earth. 7/10

Thelma

This was easily the best film I saw at the festival on Day 1. It is a meticulously crafted tale about a haunted young college student with an undiagnosed condition that causes her to suffer from seizures, and that’s when mysterious things happen around her. It doesn’t help that these seizures seem to be brought on by emotional stress, and what could be more stressful than going off to live on your own for the first time, meeting new people, and falling in love? Thelma is both a coming of age movie and a mind-bending sci-fi drama. Tonally and thematically, it’s this year’s Raw. 7/10

Vampire Clay

This was my first midnighter of the festival. The goofy title should give you a good idea of what it’s about: modeling clay that eats hapless art students in a small-town art school in rural Japan. To raise the stakes, there’s a rivalry between the new girl and the others students for top spot in the art competition. And some sad backstory about how the teacher ended up in this small town trying to make her dream of opening her art school a reality. On paper, it’s got everything a J-horror fan needs: gore, a goofy concept, black comedy, gore, and some camp and melodrama. And it filmmakers mostly pull it off. The gore effects are serviceable, even charming for horror fans. Nothing really scary or original, other than ridiculous idea. The story is the weak point, and the story telling stumbles in places. 6/10

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