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Fantastic Fest 2023: The Last Stop In Yuma County Absolutely Kills!

Image courtesy of Prodigy PR

You can’t spell Fantastic Fest without fantastic! While Fantastic Fest has made a name for itself with some jaw-dropping horror releases, they are not a straightforward genre festival. An argument could be made that even their non-horror films are still horror-adjacent. The first film I had the opportunity to screen falls more in the horror-adjacent category. At least that’s what it feels like to me. The Last Stop in Yuma County is not a straight-up horror film, but it does have excellent horror themes and feelings. Originally I was a bit on the fence about whether covering it for Horror Obsessive was the right move. Thankfully I watched it before making a review decision, and WOW I’m glad I did. Let’s get into it.

The Knife Salesman holds a gun towards the screen
Image courtesy of Prodigy PR

On a hot summer day, a traveling knife salesman (Jim Cummings) finds himself stranded at a combination gas station/diner. The gas station may be out of gas, but at least the diner has some food! Soon after, the salesman’s arrival Beau (Richard Brake) and Travis (Nicholas Logan), two violent bank robbers on the run, also stop at the same station for gas. Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue) eventually finds herself busier than she’s been at the diner in quite a long time as more people become stranded waiting for the gas tanker. The missing gas tanker quickly becomes the least of their issues as Beau and Travis worry their cover might be blown, and, well, that’s when all hell breaks loose.

You know how they say if you put a lobster in a pot of water and turn the temperature up a little bit every few minutes the lobster won’t notice? Or maybe it was frogs. Anyways. Writer/director Francis Galluppi treats us like a lobster. He spends the first few minutes of the film getting the pot prepared with water, we’re none the wiser. Then the stovetop is turned on. We’re lowered into the water (Beau’s introduction), and the rest of the film is the audience getting boiled alive. It’s a special thing when a filmmaker can create such a thick level of anxiety and anticipation even when the audience might not feel it. While a lot of credit must go to Galluppi for that, there also has to be props given to the cast.

Charlotte walks with a plate of biscuits and gravy
Image courtesy of Prodigy PR

Of course, Richard Brake completely kills it. Hah. His performance is raw and blunt, it really feels like a performance he has never given before. Rather than just being his usual hillbilly creep, which he excels at, there are some real emotional depths he takes his character to. Jocelin Donahue shines, as per usual. No notes. We need more Jocelin Donahue in our lives. Jim Cummings excellently takes the lead in a way we don’t usually see. While Last Stop feels like an ensemble piece, it all really hinges around The Knife Salesman. There was a moment where we don’t hear from his character for quite some time, and then BOOM he pops back in. Under a lesser screenplay/director, this could easily feel jarring and quite amateur. But the way Galluppi handles The Knife Salesman makes it feel as if it couldn’t be done any other way.

The Last Stop in Yuma County serves as Francis Galluppi’s directorial feature debut, and you can feel the love and energy put into it. Utilizing a single location for the overwhelming majority of the film, Galluppi creates a chaotic and claustrophobic environment with ease. Having a main location of a diner creates this feeling of familiarity and safety; cheap food, cheap coffee, good times. Galluppi finds minute ways to humanize the protagonists and changes the tone of specific characters when the setting is ripe for disruption.

You could make an argument that The Knife Salesman is the main character, as he is the only character sans a name, but it’s better to look at the film as a chamber piece of sorts. The majority of the time when you think about a chamber piece you think of four walls confining our characters in a limited space. What Galluppi does is give us a chamber piece but lets us see the vast emptiness surrounding our characters. Sure, if they want they can make their way on foot, but it’s a scorching summer day, and they’d have to make their way past the baddies. Plus having a film like this take place in the daytime adds a level of fear and anxiety; yes, the bad guys are on the run and are stuck between a rock and a hard place, but seeing them operate in broad daylight adds a whole level of terror to their characters.

Sybil and Miles practice with their newly acquired gun
Image courtesy of Prodigy PR

Throughout Galluppi’s career, there’s been a bit of a trend; his short films have seemed fairly nihilistic. The Gemini Project literally starts with a wildfire! The Last Stop In Yuma County does not derivate from the nihilistic stylings of his previous works. In fact, I finished the screening of this film with a pit of despair in my stomach. What’s impressive about this film is how if handled just a little bit differently it would feel like a Tarantino copycat, but Galluppi finds a way to make it feel like his own. There is a level of fear and terror I felt while watching this that I don’t think Tarantino could have pulled off. The Last Stop In Yuma County is a refined (nearly) chamber piece of unrelenting anxiety and dread. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this film it’s to never stop at a combination gas station/diner in the middle of the Arizona desert.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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