Fantastic Fest Forever: The Five Best Rep Screenings

Jacob Knight counts down the five most mind blowing repertory screenings during his time at Fantastic Fest.

With all its high profile opening/closing night screenings, celebrity guests and genre premieres, it’s somewhat easy to forget that Fantastic Fest was primarily a repertory showcase when it began in 2005. Classic rarities and exploitation gems such as No Blade of Grass (1970) and 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) played alongside international shockers like Pulse (2001). Wes Craven’s seminal dreamscape slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) would share the same screen with Jim Muro’s bum meltdown opus, Street Trash (1987) in 2006. Nikkatsu noir minor masterwork A Colt is My Passport (1967) was projected with handwritten subtitle cards held up to the screen by volunteers in 2007. Arguably the best POTA picture -- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) -- blew minds in 2008. A Stuart Gordon retro in 2010 reminded everyone who the master of horror really was via the gross out duology of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Lucio Fulci rose from the dead via Zombi 2 (1979) and House by the Cemetery (1981) restorations in 2011. And who could forget Nicolas Winding Refn blurting out “I’m so uncomfortable” during a reel of porno trailers that played before Joe Sarno’s My Body Hungers (1967)? First and foremost, Fantastic Fest is a party made by and for true film fans; those who seek out the oddities and obscurities, hoping they play on celluloid to a packed house. Everything else organically grew out of that ethos and became the “best week of the year” it is today.

2016 is no different, and even though some of the biggest releases the fest has ever seen (Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden) are set to blow audiences’ collective hair back, wacko works like Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell (1968) and a 4K restoration of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) are also here to remind us of Fantastic Fest’s roots in genre cinephilia. The new stuff is sure to be great, but these titles have already proven themselves to be eternal. With that thought in mind, here are the five best rep screenings FF has showcased during the years this writer was lucky enough to attend.

The Astrologer [1975] (d. Craig Denney, w. Dorothy June Pidgeon & Craig Denney [Probably])

“This movie takes ‘auteurism’ to a whole other level,” Nicolas Winding Refn claimed when he introduced the 2014 screening of this AGFA-discovered DIY oddity, and he wasn’t lying. A true work of WTF recklessness, Craig Denney directed, produced, (probably) co-wrote, and starred in this globetrotting exploitation escapade. The Astrologer is a cavalcade of disorienting filmic nonsense that congeals into a maniacal, somewhat coherent whole. Denney is the titular man of the stars who rises to fame from the dumpsters of a carnival sideshow. Along the way there’s murder, sex, poisonous snakes, an Indiana Jones-esque trek, and even a scene where Denney watches a movie get made about his own life before attending the gala 42nd Street premiere. These shenanigans are all set to an obviously uncleared Moody Blues OST (rumor has it the band had no idea the movie existed until recently), as Denney turns his untrained artistic eye into avant garde eccentricity; visually arresting even as you question whether or not what you’re watching is simply a series of “happy accidents” (a slow motion dinner argument is, no lie, one of the greatest sequences from any era of cinema). Sadly, due to the aforementioned rights issues, the film may never see the inside of dingy rep houses again. But the Fantastic Fest audience who were lucky enough to witness the 2K restoration had their lives changed forever. Too often, fans describe idiosyncratic grindhouse works as “unlike anything you’ve ever seen”, only to reveal their ignorance on the subject. The Astrologer actually is one of a kind, ranking with the output of Duke Mitchell as some of the greatest outsider art ever produced.

Farewell Uncle Tom [1971] (d. & w. Gualtiero Jacopetti & Franco Prosperi)

When this author found out a 35mm print of Farewell Uncle Tom was going to screen at Fantastic Fest, it brought on dueling sensations of horror and exhilaration. The horror stemmed from the notion that this was one of the most gut wrenching films I’d ever seen on the big screen (back in the early aughts, it played on a double bill with Cannibal Ferox courtesy of Philly-region rep stalwarts Exhumed Films). The exhilaration came from the idea of seeing how many walkouts the film could generate amongst even the hardest core genre heads. Farewell Uncle Tom is revolting and vile; a fantastical mockumentary that rubs the audience’s nose in the horrors of slavery that was at least partially produced utilizing dictator-sponsored slave labor (the filmmakers were infamously hosted by Haitian overlord Papa Doc Duvalier). Folks fuss about the moral implications of sitting down with a Mel Gibson movie, but Mondo Cane legends Jacopetti and Prosperi’s Uncle Tom is a legitimate insult to human decency. The fact that the film was conceived as an apology of sorts for Africa Blood and Guts (1966) – which saw Jacopetti tried for murder after allegations of staging the execution of a Congolese Rebel for the camera – is the #problematic icing on this pile of gorgeous shit. Proof that Fantastic Fest was willing to showcase even the most extreme, upsetting works of art; many drinks were consumed in the Highball afterward as we flailed to make sense of this Italian sleaze legend.

Ninja III: The Domination/Death Wish III [1984/1985] (d. Sam Firstenberg, w. James R. Sike; d. Michael Winner, w. Don Jakoby)

The infamous Cannon Group was profiled by Fantastic Fest regular Mark Hartley in his BTS doc, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. To coincide with that pick, a slew of the craziest offerings from Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ infamous house of genre disrepute were programmed to play. Amongst them, arguably the two most bugnuts offerings Cannon ever bestowed upon unsuspecting crowds – third entries in series that upped the crazy to near immeasurable levels. Ninja III takes the Sho Kosugi franchise and adds a dash of Lady Terminator to the proceedings (though one could argue vice versa as that Indonesian head splitter came after The Domination). After mauling bad dudes on a golf course, the soul of a fallen karate man (Kosugi) possesses an aerobics instructor (Lucinda Dickey) in order to carry out the remainder of his diabolical mission. V8 Juice covered sex scenes and ultra-violence ensues, as studio workman Sam Firstenberg delivers on the studio’s MO of “we’re just making this shit up as we go along”. Meanwhile, Death Wish III continues the (mis)adventures of Charles Bronson’s iconic vigilante Paul Kersey, who just can’t seem to keep anyone he loves from getting raped or killed. This time, his old Korean War pal, Charley, is mauled by a gang of urban mutants seemingly readying themselves for an oncoming Road Warrior-style apocalypse. Kersey teams with a rogue police inspector (Ed Lauter) in order to unleash large caliber (not to mention rocket launcher) fueled hell upon the miscreants in order to save the “good folks” (see: diverse geriatrics) who call the borough home. Utterly deplorable in its right wing politics, Death Wish III is the most fun you’ll ever have cheering on blatant fascism and the absolute best illustration of the kind of ridiculousness Hartley’s doc can only hint at.

The Shining – Forwards and Backwards [1980/2011] (d. & w. Stanley Kubrick)

Almost better suited for a museum installment than a traditional screening room, this dual projection of two prints of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining layered on top of each another (one shown traditionally; the other in reverse) is like an epic Warholian trauma. Yes, the meticulous symmetry of Kubrick’s horror masterwork is revealed (“Which room was it?” Shelly Duvall asks, as a close-up of a key marked Room 237 appears beneath it), but the experience is a brain-splitting phantasmagoria of art house experimentation. Think of the REDRUM reflection, only now that’s the entire motion picture. Much of the runtime is spent pondering if we were always supposed to watch the movie this way – catching the loops and callbacks that are buried beneath layers of formal design. Or is this just another tinfoil hat conspiracy theory the likes of which Rodney Ascher masterfully outlines in his superlative documentary regarding how we watch movies, Room 237 (which played the same year as this wackadoo project)? Admittedly only for the super curious and those who were obsessed with dropping acid and seeing if Pink Floyd synced with Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, The Shining – Forwards and Backwards is nevertheless a wholly unique cinematic experience that spoke to just how trusting the programmers were when it came to their audience following them on a bizarre journey.

The Devils [1971] (d. & w. Ken Russell)

It’s fitting that Ben Wheatley – who is arguably the closest thing our generation has ever seen resembling a Ken Russell – would bring an almost completely uncut print of the English provocateur’s examination of sex and religious persecution to Fantastic Fest. The Devils remains as shocking and uncompromising as it was upon release 35 years ago, smashing through the walls of decency and damnation. Oliver Reed’s boozy, hyper-sexual turn as Father Urbain Grandier – master lothario and victim to false accusations of witchcraft and heresy – is perhaps the blustery highpoint of the genius actor’s career. The deafening cacophony that comes along with the finger pointing of sexually repressed nun Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) is Russell at his absolute finest, pushing the boundaries of taboo as he layers one utterly devastating scene of carnal depravity and inquisition on top of another. Best of all may be Michael Gothard’s “Mick Jagger as a wicked oppressor” turn as Father Barre – mastermind behind Grandier’s persecution and wielder of various violent enema tools. Certainly not one for the easily offended or uptight, The Devils was met with rapturous applause once its apocalyptic final reel rolled for a crowd of the fest’s devoted. Sins of the flesh have rarely been this harrowingly explored onscreen.