Fantastic Fest Day Two Recap

(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 two. In this entry, Reflections of Evil is one of the most insane movies ever made, The Death of Dick Long is a surprisingly tender movie about idiots, and Color Out of Space is the wild H.P. Lovecraft movie we’ve been waiting for.

Reflections of Evil

How do you even begin to describe Reflections of Evil, a movie that has no right to exist, let alone be newly restored by the American Genre Film Archive? Writer/director/star Damon Packard made this cinematic mental breakdown after inheriting $500,000 following the death of a relative and the resulting 137 minutes are better witnessed/endured than written about. This is outsider art at its most extreme and great trash at its most obnoxious and impenetrable. And yet (and that’s a big “and yet”), those who find themselves on the same wavelength as Packard’s stream-of-consciousness ode to chaos will find an oddity worth embracing.

Made in 2002 (a bus shelter ad for Miss Congeniality has enough screen time to be worthy of a supporting player credit), Reflections of Evil follows Bob (Packard), an obese wreck of a man who spends his days selling watches on the streets of Los Angeles, gorging himself on junk food, and generally losing his shit at anyone and everything that has the misfortune of crossing his path. There’s no story here, no structure, and absolutely zero discipline behind the camera. And yet (yep, this movie is a whole lot of “and yet”), there is indeed a vision at work, something spectacular and unique and wholly original to Packard. There’s nothing like this movie in existence, for better and worse. It’s a singular scream of anger and rage that quickly bites off more than it can chew and then spends close to two and a half hours dribbling all over your face with a primal scream.

Prepare for vomit. Prepare for gruesome head injuries. Prepare for an extended flashback sequence where a young Steven Spielberg causes a mass death on a film set. Prepare for horror sequences that look like high school experiments from the likes of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Prepare for cults and cult leaders who literally throw bags of PCP to strangers across suburbia. Prepare for Fox News clips and stock footage of airplanes leaving chemtrails. Prepare for Packard interacting with real people unfortunate enough to wander into his shots. Prepare for brazen copyright infringement, as footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars Episode II and Close Encounters of the Third Kind invades the story for reasons beyond comprehension. Prepare for dogs barking too loudly for too long. And most importantly, prepare for an extended climax shot guerilla-style at Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, including a nightmarish trek through the E.T. Adventure Ride queue that will leave your jaw hanging on the ground (Packard was ultimately banned from Universal Studios in real life).

But really, you are not prepared for Reflections of Evil. Having seen it, I feel less prepared than ever.

/Film Rating: ?! out of 10

the death of dick long trailer

The Death of Dick Long

If I were to spoil the entirety of The Death of Dick Long right here and right now, you’d probably roll your eyes, dismiss it as a one-note joke, and vow to never see it. But a plot synopsis cannot tell you about tone, and this a movie that walks a high-wire, avoiding mockery and condescension and easy low-blows to tell a riotous story of southern life and astonishing idiocy. Like Fargo before it, here is a movie that taps into an under-explored corner of the United States to tell a specific and human story that’s gruesome, surprising, and, when you least suspect it, tender as hell.

As the title implies, The Death of Dick Long opens with, well, the demise of one Richard Long, who is abandoned at a small-town Alabama E.R. by his two best friends and bandmates. He soon dies. The doctors are baffled by his shocking injuries. The police are on the case. And Dick’s buddies try everything they can to cover up what happened to him, even though they happen to be terrible liars, making the kind of bumbling mistakes an ordinary human being would make if forced to cover up something truly awful. The tension does not arise from quick-witted criminal geniuses matching wits with sharp cops. The tension comes from ordinary folks with badges butting up against immensely guilty, frequently good-hearted dummies who have never been tasked with keeping a secret this big in their lives.

Yes, you eventually learn what happened to Dick Long. It’s in the title. And you’ll gasp and laugh and probably look around the room and mouth “Is this actually happening?” to your fellow moviegoers. But director Daniel Scheinert refuses to let his film be a series of shocking revelations. Yes, this is a movie about bad decisions made by people who really didn’t think things through, but it’s also a movie deeply in love with its characters and affectionate for its rural southern setting. Alabama never becomes a joke and the jaw-dropping revelations aren’t reduced to gags. This is a movie powered by affection and empathy, tossing you in the deep end of something horribly uncomfortable and demanding that you know actually look these human begins in the eyes rather than just guffaw.

The Death of Dick Long sent my body into deep stress convulsions – my skin tingled and my face twisted as I tried to come to grips with the incredible discomfort the film asks you to deal with. But that discomfort was tempered by a cast who refuse to treat their characters like jokes and a filmmaker interested in the human side of increasingly poor and downright baffling decisions rather than just waiting for the dominos to tumble. The stakes are small here, but they burn with the fires of shame and yes, the understanding that all mistakes arise from the fact that we’re only human. You’ll never have a more memorable time attempting to find empathy for people who, when reduced to a newspaper headline, would become a one-note joke.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

color out of space review

Color Out of Space

Nearly a century after his death, H.P. Lovecraft’s influence looms large over genre storytelling even as too many filmmakers fail to grapple with (or simply ignore) his basic horror philosophies. Stuart Gordon turned his work into black comedy. Others simply make memes about tentacles. But director Richard Stanley, returning after decades away in the wilderness, understands that Lovecraft is less about ancient gods and monsters and more about a universe that won’t acknowledge your pain and suffering, not because it’s evil, but because it’s indifferent. Your human suffering is nothing when placed alongside the vastness of the cosmos. The unspeakable threats that lurk beyond the stars, beyond the threshold of our understanding, don’t seek out to harm us as much as they simply brush against us, unaware of the chaos they create because human life and all of its seeming complexities are but insects hovering around an elephant. The elephant flicks its tail and entire worlds burn.

Color Out of Space isn’t a wholly faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s famous short story about a rural family torn to pieces by an extraterrestrial sickness that arrives at their farm via a meteorite. Stanley infuses Lovecraft’s work with his own sensibilities, taking the source material’s science fiction perversion of the Book of Job and transforming it into an allegory for family dysfunction in the 21st century. But it works: Stanley moves the setting from the early 1900s to modern day and refuses to act like every original beat would remain relevant in a world dominated by television and the internet. What remains untouched, and what remains refreshing for Lovecraft readers so used to shallow cinematic takes on his work, is Stanley’s focus on how our pain means nothing to the cosmos, to an entity that can’t even stoop to acknowledge our lives behind being hunks of meat on which it can casually feed. The titular monster here isn’t even a monster – how do you define something so alien that it can’t be fought, can’t be reasoned with, and can break any brain that dares to look for a moment too long?

That’s not to say Color Out of Space doesn’t deliver the midnight movie goods. It does. This is a gooey movie, filled with all kinds of body horror nastiness and creature designs that go beyond the text and feel more like they were borrowed from John Carpenter’s The Thing. And anyone hoping for star Nicolas Cage to go to 11 will be happy to know that he manages to go to 14 – it’s the kind of swing-for-the-fences performance that defines modern Cage, something so big that it’ll elicit chuckles from some but so earnest that you can’t argue with his decisions. That feels right in the end. Stanley’s touch here is nothing if not earnest, presenting Lovecraft without a wink of post-modern irony. Either you buy into it or you don’t. Quite frankly, I bought it hook, line and sinker.

Stanley knows his audience, filling the film with winks and references to Lovecraft’s larger, witch-haunted Massachusetts. The easter eggs are a hoot and suggest that an entire line-up of modern takes on this seminal corner of genre fiction would be more than welcome. But this is less about pandering to the nerds and more about recognizing that Lovecraft and his world is so rarely done justice on the screen. For all of its imperfections, Color Out of Space is the kind of big swing that avoids being a home run but manages to deliver a rougher, more intriguing play that will leave people chatting for far longer than something smoother and more wrinkle-free.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.