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Fantasm (2013)

Condemned to Repeat It

This is a strange thing to say, but the main problem with Kyle Kuchta's Fantasm is that it's deeply personal. Filmed over six months at six different events across America, the documentary aims to capture the experience of attending a horror convention. On that base level, Kuchta succeeds. But his film falls short of the unique spirit (indeed, the reason to exist) that pervades other fandom documentaries, like the Trekkies movies, or even Comic-Con Episode IV. Because the writer/director is so new to this scene, there's a charming but ultimately frustrating lack of depth that makes Fantasm seem more like an over-long, star-studded local commercial than an exposé.

Full disclosure: From 2005 through 2010 (with some quick drop-ins later on), I regularly attended horror conventions. I recognized a lot of faces and places in Fantasm, and was instantly transported back to the sights and sounds of various Midwest hotel ballrooms. As an audience member with some knowledge of the subject, I had certain expectations going in that the filmmaker failed to meet. Whether or not you share those expectations will likely affect your enjoyment of the movie.

By now, most people with a computer and at least a passing interest in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are familiar with fan communities. In some form or another--whether in the neighborhood, on-line, or at a convention center in Rosemont, Illinois--large gatherings of like-minded nerds (a term I don't use disparagingly) have been around for decades. While sci-fi and comic-cons dominated the landscape until failry recently, Kuchta's wide-eyed discovery of the horror scene is rather puzzling. He interviews attendees, vendors, and celebrities about their experiences, but never gets beyond boilerplate responses about acceptance and the joy of fans interacting with genre celebrities (and vice versa).

This is a fine foundation for a horror-con documentary, but Kuchta recycles the same points for fifty-five minutes, in a completely insular context. While some of the interviews take place off the convention floor, they don't get into the subjects' lives off the convention floor--except to say that horror cons are a great escape from everyday life. Variations of that phrase appear often in Fantasm, but the follow-up questions go unanswered: What's so lousy about your everyday life that it needs escaping? Are you a wage-slave, or do you have a high-pressure corporate job? Do you have absolutely no outlet for self-expression, except during a three-day HorrorHound event? If so, why?

As for the celebrity interviews, it's always a pleasure to see A Nightmare on Elm Street's Heather Langenkamp, and I love Joe Lynch as much as the next guy,* but they offer little insight beyond "horror fans are very nice, very loyal, and the reason we get to do what we do". By the time I'd heard Tom Atkins, Tuesday Knight, and Amanda Wyss say the same thing, I was convinced I'd stumbled on a geek-themed remake of The Stepford Wives. I wasn't looking for controversy--and I'm certainly glad Kuchta had warm experiences with his heroes--but the homogenized responses sucked some wattage out of Fantasm's star power.

Going back to films that have handled this material better, Fantasm would have benefited greatly from some Trekkies-style character profiles. The only personality we really get to know is Kuchta, who talks about his early love of horror while driving to a convention. It would have been neat to get such access from, say, a con vendor, a die-hard fan, a first-time attendee, and a celebrity--all interwoven into the floor footage and culminating in some kind of point. Instead, we're left with repetitive talking heads, spliced with Kuchta wandering similar-looking crowded aisles and looking at merchandise. Occasionally, he stops to talk to someone, or captures audience-eye-view footage of a celebrity-guest panel--but the audio is so muddled that we either have to infer what's going on or simply bide our time until the next monologue about escapism.

There's a great documentary about horror conventions waiting to be made, but Fantasm plays like the rough-cut of its first act. A more sophisticated filmmaker might tackle, for example, the differences between online and in-person horror-community dynamics; how fan perceptions of cons have changed in the last decade-plus; or how escalating ticket prices, celebrity autographs, and photo ops may or may not be changing the wider convention landscape. Maybe it's unfair to criticize Kuchta for not tackling topics that are in my head, but Fantasm's encapsulation of the horror-con experience is akin to someone making a documentary about baseball fandom that turns out to be sixty minutes of gushing over ballpark hotdogs.

That said, I'd love to see a sequel down the line, in the vein of Michael Apted's Up series. What will Kuchta's attitude towards horror cons be five years from now? Will he still attend them? Will his present-day subjects still be around, selling identical pictures and posters with the same cheery dispositions? Or will familiarity breed disillusionment? Whatever the case, it would prove an interesting second act, which this first film desperately needs.

You can check out Fantasm for free online through February 28th, 2014, as part of the New Hollywood Online Film Festival. Simply visit the film's page at and create a username and password (no spamming, no obligation).

*Seriously, if you haven't checked out his Movie Crypt podcast with Adam Green, do yourself a huge favor and dive in. Incidentally (i.e. shamelessly) you can also catch Green and Lynch on the very first episode of the KtS Podcast.