Employee Picks: What To Watch At Home If You're Not At Fantastic Fest

(Welcome to Employee Picks, a series where Jacob Knight uses his day job expertise as a video store manager to recommend unique and often overlooked alternative options to the big movies hitting theaters and home video.)

Yes, yes...I know last month I promised to take this column into its more "traditional" territory: offering up alternatives to upcoming theatrical releases. But September is my favorite time of the year for one simple reason: Fantastic Fest. So, in honor of the greatest genre cinema celebration on the planet, I thought it pertinent to pick a slew of recommendations based on eight titles from this year's utterly spectacular programming. That way, those of you who aren't lucky enough to attend the Austin shindig can throw your own little fest in your living room.

What do you say? Shall we get started?

Fantastic Fest Title: Halloween

Your Alternative: Halloween 2 (2009, d. Rob Zombie)

Rob Zombie's first attempt at a Halloween movie was an abomination against God. The same cannot be said of Zombie's only sequel – the much-maligned Halloween II. Arriving two years after his redneck reboot – which, to be fair, did make a solid dent for a weekend at the box office and garnered a cult of devotees thanks to his Director's Cut – continues the exploits of his hulking marauder in a weathered Shatner mask (played again by imposing superhuman Tyler Mane). In essence, Halloween II (excuse me, H2) feels like the slasher Zombie desired to craft all along. Since the perfunctory redux aspects are out of the way, Zombie's free to slather his foul-mouthed, gore-soaked, grease-painted clown makeup all over a horror franchise that already had its day in court and was found guilty of numerous continuity crimes (thanks to sequels David Gordon Green and Danny McBride's upcoming installment wisely ignores completely). Whether you dig Zombie's wicked brutality is up to the individual viewer. Yet there's no denying Halloween II is possibly the MOST Rob Zombie we were ever going to get injected into this series' set-in-stone formula. While DGG and McBride pay tribute, Zombie just did his own thing, much to the joy of this writer (and the chagrin of countless others).

Halloween 2 is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Sony Home Entertainment.

Fantastic Fest Title: The Standoff At Sparrow Creek

Your Alternative: Reservoir Dogs (1992, d. Quentin Tarantino)

Writer/director Henry Dunham's The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a tense, terse exercise in single location suspense, as a group of militiamen tear themselves apart following a shooting at a police funeral, and a former cop (James Badge Dale) tries to protect one of his own who's been embedded with the alt-right group since the start. The movie's wonderfully scripted 84 minutes owe a huge creative debt to Quentin Tarantino's break out smash, Reservoir Dogs, which finds a cadre of diamond thieves faced with a similar predicament following a botched, bloody heist. At this point, there isn't much left to say about QT's talky, profane, explosively violent initial masterpiece – which would help birth one of the most remarkable careers in American cinema history – yet it's always a great idea to revisit a classic once in a while, especially since its influence can still be felt at genre fests over twenty-five years since its own Sundance debut.

Reservoir Dogs is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Lions Gate.

Fantastic Fest Title: Climax

Your Alternative: StageFright (1989, d. Michele Soavi)

The slasher film arguably wouldn't exist if it weren't for Italian gialli (which began with Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much), yet none of those grisly body count movies incorporated the exploitation subgenre's Old World roots quite like Michele Soavi's Stagefright (which makes sense, given the director's background working with Dario Argento).  The black glove master's former Assistant Director transmutes an overnight theater rehearsal into a full-bore slaughter parade, as an owl-headed murderer starts picking off the performers, one by one. It's a hilarious, hallucinatory alternative to the stalk and slash style that'd become widely commercialized in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th's massive successes. So, while Gaspar Noe's experiential house music acid trip locks a troupe of dancers in with a vat full of hallucinogenic sangria, Soavi takes that notion one step further and just starts chain-sawing poorly dubbed princes and princesses to pieces. Ciao motherf***ers.

StageFright is available to stream on Amazon

Fantastic Fest Title: Maniac

Your Alternative: Uncle Sam (1996, d. Bill Lustig)

The 4K restoration of Bill Lustig's gnarly, brutal NYC grime classic Maniac is going to be one of the hot tickets at this year's Fantastic Fest, as a slew of cinephiles line up to see Tom Savini's groundbreaking splatter SFX work remastered to the point that they notice every little piece of brain and skull flying across the screen. But if you've already seen Joe Spinell's hulking, sweaty murderer stalk models one too many times for your own good, maybe it's time to give Lustig's underappreciated reunion with writer Larry Cohen (who penned his Maniac Cop series) a quick look. Surely not the grindhouse auteur's best work, this subversive allegory – following a fallen Desert Storm trooper who rises from the grave on July Fourth to kill the unpatriotic citizens of his hometown – is still angry and ugly enough to make up for the fact that it doesn't quite work as a pure horror picture. Sadly, Uncle Sam still stands as Lustig's final feature offering as a filmmaker, as he's since retired from the camera to help rescue lost pieces of exploitation cinema, via his Blue Underground home video label. Come back Bill! Us scumbags miss you!

Uncle Sam is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Blue Underground.

Fantastic Fest Title: Hold The Dark

Your Alternative: The Edge (1997, d. Lee Tamahori)

Before he tackled the Pierce Brosnan Bond era, Lee Tamahori brought David Mamet's script about distrustful businessmen (Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin) being hunted by a rampaging grizzly bear (before squaring off against one another) to bloody life. Full of Mamet's punchy, repetitive dialogue, Tamahori's film owns a gory, adventurous flair, making us feel the cold, wet environment these men are trapped in to our bones. Much like Jeremy Saulnier's haunting trip to Alaska in Hold the Dark – which also finds humans staving off animals, madness and each other – The Edge explores the darker corners of man's nature as its central protagonists battle the mother of all creation Herself.

The Edge is available to stream on Amazon.

Fantastic Fest Title: Knife + Heart

Your Alternative: City In Panic (1986, d. Robert Bouvier)

Yann Gonzalez's Knife + Heart is a sleazy, violent, and strangely romantic murder mystery set in the world of gay pornography. While watching, this writer couldn't help but wonder what other horror movies took a rather routine storytelling framework and distinguished themselves by applying it to a particular subsection of society. City In Panic (a/k/a The AIDS Murders) is one of the first gay slasher pictures, where the killer begins targeting a series of sexually promiscuous men who, as it turns out, have all contracted HIV. Unfortunately, this political angle isn't explored to its fullest potential (or at all, for that matter), yet it's still fascinating to visit this sort of hyper-specific curio. Undeniably low rent and grungy, City In Panic is still attempting to do something distinctly different with a horror mode that'd already grown stale six years into its very existence.

City In Panic is available on DVD, courtesy of Massacre Video.

Fantastic Fest Title: Apostle

Your Alternative: The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971, d. Piers Haggard)

With Apostle, Gareth Evans abandons the realm of action cinema he'd mastered via his Raid duology, and instead opts to tell a Clive Barker-tinged horror story about a wandering addict (Dan Stevens) who sets off to a secluded, oppressive religious colony (overseen by a scenery-chewing Michael Sheen) in search of his lost sister. Fans of '70s pastoral horror will instantly recognize the genre's influence on Evans' attempt to leave silat and car chases behind (though his camera certainly comes alive during a few close quarters fist fights). For this writer's money, the best examples of that form came from the Tigon Studios – a competitor of Brit Horror staples Hammer and Amicus – who only released a handful of titles. Next to (the incredible) Witchfinder GeneralBlood on Satan's Claw is easily their best film that (much like Evans' film) combines horror, exploitation, religious repression, Gothic ambiance, and (to a lesser extent) gory shocks. For those looking to be beguiled by one of the '70s better mood pieces, Piers Haggard's somewhat overlooked gem should be the first thing they toss in the player.

The Blood on Satan's Claw is available to stream on Amazon

Fantastic Fest Title: Piercing

Your Alternative: What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974, d. Massimo Dallamano)

What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is the thematic follow-up to Massimo Dallamano's What Have They Done To Solange?, which – when combined with Alberto Negrin's Rings of Fear – make up the notorious Italian exploitation "Schoolgirls In Peril" trilogy (Negrin filling in for Dallamano after the director died in a tragic car accident). Both intertwine adolescent sexual awakening with grisly violence to become a gialli commentary on how society's evils crush the innocent. Daughters is somehow a nastier movie than Solange – which is really saying something, given that film's back alley abortion plotting – while also combining thrilling motorcycle mayhem with its whodunit? genre trappings. It's almost a full-blown buffet of Italoschlock, giving you a sampler platter of that country's icky output during the '70s. All in all, What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is a perfect companion to Piercing's imitations of the aforementioned Eurocrime nightmares.

What Have They Done To Your Daughters? Is available on Blu-ray, courtesy of Arrow Video.