Tuesday, July 28, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—THE DARK BELOW

The Dark Below (2015, USA, dir. Douglas Schulze)—With only one line of dialogue (“Love is cold”), Douglas Schulze delivers a harrowing aria of feminine survival through evocative visual storytelling reminiscent of the slo-mo prologues of recent Lars von Trier films, with flourishes of Stanley Kubrick for added citational texture. Rachel (Lauren Mae Shafer) is overpowered and abducted by a man (David G.B. Brown) who immobilizes her with injected drugs while he suits her up in ice diving gear, and drops her into a hole he’s hacked out of a frozen lake. With sadistic precision, he clearly intends for her to die slowly and torturously. As the ice seals above her, Rachel has to figure out how to survive, while piecing together the shocking revelations that have, perhaps predictably, brought her to this life-threatening situation. Struggling not to succumb to frostbite and numbing hypothermia, the arduous physicality of Shafer’s performance is impressive.

Without giving away the film’s reveals, The Dark Below harkens back—as Ian Olney has laid out in his essay “Dead Zone: Genre, Gender, and the ‘Lost Decade’ of Horror Cinema, 1946-1956” (published in Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces Of A Lost Decade. Eds. Mario Degiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé, and Kristopher Woofter, Lexington Books)—to a precedent of post-war movies of the 1940s that “tell women’s stories that are addressed to women. It is masculinity that is shown to be monstrous. Female protagonists must match wits with male villains—typically patriarchal authority figures like fathers, husbands, or guardians—who plot to deceive, entrap or murder them.” (2015:50-51)

The Dark Below becomes, then, a hyper-stylized melodramatic allegory of the conflict between the woman as protagonist and the man as antagonistic monster. As Olney continues: “Postwar horror films do not simply feature female protagonists doing battle with male villains, however; they also frequently invite us, via a variety of cinematic devices to identify with their heroines, to adopt a female gaze.” (2015:51)

Cinematographer Robert Skates accomplishes this in The Dark Below by submerging us into the water and under the ice with Rachel so that we intimately share her frantic desperation. Further, David Bateman’s intense orchestral and choral compositions underscore Rachel’s panic, while Jonathan D'Ambrosio provides an edited point of view through Rachel’s flashbacks and revelations. Determined to survive, Rachel is motivated by revenge, which has never been served icier than in this experimental thriller that formally challenges the conventional boundaries of genre. Fantasia correctly asserts: “You haven’t seen anything like it.”

One final alignment with Olney’s thesis is that—even as the female protagonist is valorized for confronting the monstrous-masculine, she does not do this alone. Instead, she fights the male monster with the help of another woman, as it is “only in collective feminist action” that there might be hope for success. (2015:55-56)

This is where Veronica Cartwright, who plays Rachel’s mother, squares off to the aggressor with a gaze as fierce and protective as a lioness. This casting coup has assured the film credence and pedigree, as Cartwright—a genre icon in her own right since as early as Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), through Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), onto TV’s The X-Files (1998-99)—has proven her unerring eye for choosing intelligent properties, no less here in The Dark Below. As Rachel’s mother, she and Rachel, and Rachel’s daughter form the collective feminism that will never stop glancing over their shoulders, fearful of masculine threat. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

 
The Dark Below from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Monday, July 27, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—SHE WHO MUST BURN

She Who Must Burn (2014, Canada, dir. Larry Kent)—In his introduction to the World Premiere of Larry Kent’s She Who Must Burn (2014), Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis claimed Kent as a national treasure, and described him as the Godfather of Canadian underground film and its first independent filmmaker of confrontational countercultural films. For over 50 years Larry Kent’s movies have given a regional voice to political outlooks that have—as Paul Corupe concurs in his program capsule—“infuriated uptight Canadian cultural guardians.” Theaters had their doors padlocked by censors attempting to keep audiences from watching his 1962 film The Bitter Ash, and when his 1969 film High screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, then executive director Shirley Temple Black resigned in protest. David Cronenberg has credited Kent as a major influence in his youth. At 82, Kent shows no signs of letting up and returns to Fantasia with what Davis suggests might be his most confrontational film to date.

In full disclosure, She Who Must Burn is a project that Kent has been talking to me about for years. He first pitched a treatment of the story over lunch two years back, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult it has been for him to achieve institutional financing after his crowd sourcing campaigns failed. He would be the first to admit that—were it not for the efforts of Executive Producer Pericles (“Perry”) Creticos (who served as producer on Kent’s 2005 film The Hamster Cage), and the loyal support of his Vancouver associates Shane Twerdun (who helped produce, co-write, and acted one of the main leads) and Andrew Dunbar (also a producer and actor in the film)—She Who Must Burn would never have been made. Include among his supporting contributors filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, who moodily scored the film for Kent.

With its revealing title and even more revealing poster, She Who Must Burn upsets narrative conventions by letting you know straight off what’s going to happen, such that focus lies more in the film’s percolating issues and how they build to achieve suspense. It's a masterwork of signposting and negotiating suspense through anticipation.  An exercise in genre, She Who Must Burn would probably best be categorized as arthouse horror, but exceeds that categorization for skillfully addressing the fact that nothing is quite as horrifying as reality itself. Though a Canadian entry, the sense of the film is an American critique of the fanatical right wing Christian constituencies attempting to destroy democracy’s separation of church and state under the guise of religious belief, emboldened by the fervor of conversion. Who isn’t horrified every morning in the U.S. reading front page articles of fanatics killing presumed “non-believers” in the name of a vengeful God?

In Kent’s harrowing tale, Angela (Sarah Smyth), a counselor at a Planned Parenthood clinic and common law partner of deputy sheriff Mac (Andrew Moxham) infuriates the local pastor Jeremiah Baarker (Shane Twerdun) who believes it is his God-given duty to rape his wife Margaret (Jewel Staite) to fulfill a divine decree to procreate. When he discovers Margaret has taken Angela’s advice to be on birth control, the good pastor goes berserk and beats her viciously. Margaret seeks shelter from Angela who arranges for her to be taken to a safe hiding place. Refusing to reveal his wife’s location, Pastor Baarker and his fanatical cohorts threaten Sarah and her clinic with violent retribution.

As the obsequious, religiously-deranged Jeremiah Baarker, Twerdun does a 180° turn from his previous performance in Kent’s Exley (2011), thereby revealing his significant acting range. Kent, in fact, is well-known for his masterful handling of actors and the ensemble in She Who Must Burn uniformly deliver honest, meticulously paced performances, from the put-upon Angela who seeks to help troubled women with sensible, medical advice to Baarker’s kin Rebecca (Missy Cross) who suffers from postpartum depression, speaks in angry tongues, and receives a vision that God wants Angela to be burned alive. There’s not a false note in any of these performances, nor in Kent’s handling of this controversial subject. One of the members of the pastor’s congregation objects to what the pastor is asking him to do. “I’ve been a religious person all my life,” he says, “and this is not that.” Thus Kent is not trying to set up a kneejerk enmity between Christians and non-Christians, far from it; he is focusing on the danger of fanatical evangelists to the Christian faith, as well as secular democracy.

With the local sheriff unwilling (or unable) to stop the rising tide of violence, and Kent’s admitted atheist position disallowing him to lean on a supernatural solution to his story, Kent instead provocatively suggests a kind of secular martyrdom of health care practitioners dying for their beliefs (not so distant from the midwives and herbalists sentenced and burned alive during the Inquisition witch hunts). What emerges as the most horrifying element of his film is its continuing relevance regarding women having the right to determine the fate of their own bodies, and there’s no question but that She Who Must Burn will agitate militant anti-abortionists and Bible belt patriarchs, particularly in the U.S. All the more reason that this movie should be seen far and wide to remind Americans that civil liberties are under determined assault. World Premiere. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

 
She Who Must Burn - Teaser from Elad Tzadok on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—TALES OF HALLOWEEN

Tales of Halloween (2015, USA, Multiple Directors)—Eleven filmmakers (who call themselves the “October Society”), 10 tales, and 80+ actors made the Fantasia World Premiere of horror anthology Tales of Halloween (2015) a veritable bag of treats. There is so much to snack on here. For starters, Tales of Halloween imaginatively captures the nostalgia for a holiday that’s lost traction in recent years. It only took one urban myth of a razor blade hidden in an apple to ruin it for everybody. Nowadays, to be safe, parents take their children to circumscribed, chaperoned Halloween events held in school or church parking lots, if the kids aren’t already hopelessly distracted by their cell phones and tablets and can’t be bothered. Three years running, I’ve sat patiently in my living room with a bowl full of candies waiting for the doorbell to ring and not a single kid has shown up, let alone in costume. One year, I even made homemade popcorn balls because—when I was a kid and going through my bag full of treasure on the kitchen table—popcorn balls were always the best, among bite-size pieces of Snickers, Tootsie Rolls and Butterfingers. That was the year I overdosed on popcorn balls and sadly realized Halloween was a holiday that had seen its day. Kudos to Epic Pictures Group and all of the talent involved in this anthology for limning my memories with the smiles of childhood.

What could have come across as a patchwork affair has, instead, been thoughtfully reined into a tightly structured mise en scène—suburban twilight through nightfall in Anywhere, America—with crossover casting providing an interstitial cohesion, as characters from one story show up in another (let alone that each filmmaker makes cameos in each others’ segments). Technical marks—set design, costuming, period detail, lighting, sound—are pleasingly even and consistent. The final result: a fun evening pulled together by a winning collaboration between the best and brightest of L.A.’s genre filmmaking community.

Taking my cue from the kickoff segment “Sweet Tooth” (a cautionary tale to not eat all your candy at once), and to keep this review brief, I’ll single out two of my favorite segments, though all warrant due praise. Mike Mendez (who thrilled me with Big Ass Spider a couple of Fantasias back) offers a hilarious mash-up of Leatherface and alien visitation. Even with chainsaw in hand, Leatherface is no match for a trick-or-treating stop action animated creature from another planet And the popcorn ball of this bag of treats? Neil Marshall’s “Bad Seed” where a genetically-modified pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern comes to life and wreaks murderous revenge. This mash-up mocks police procedurals with (literally) biting wit.

The brainchild of Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate), fellow October Society contributors include Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo: The Genetic Opera; Saw II), Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider), Paul Soulet (Grace), Adam Gierasch (Night of the Demons), Neil Marshall (The Descent; Centurion), Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red), Andrew Kasch (Never Sleep Again), Lucky McKee (May), John Skipp (splatterpunk actor turned director), and Ryan Schifrin (Abominable). Schifrin deserves an added shout-out for convincing his father Lalo Schifrin (famous for the Mission Impossible theme) to compose an eerie piece for the film.

In front of the camera are the likes of everyone you’ve ever enjoyed being victimized or victimizing others (including, to name just a few, Joe Dante, John Landis, Stuart Gordon, Barry Bostwick, Lin Shaye, Noah Segan, James Duval, Booboo Stewart, Barbara Crampton, John Savage, and—in an especially inspired piece of casting—Adrienne Barbeau reprising her role as the radio DJ from John Carpenter’s The Fog). Out of sheer fear, I leave the rest of this wicked, smart and fun bag of tricks and treats to Sweet Tooth. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

Friday, July 24, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—CASH ONLY

Cash Only (2015, USA, dir: Malik Bader)—Virile, yet vulnerable, Nickola Shreli bears the full weight of this intense crime thriller on his broad shoulders, both in his performance as Elvis Martini and as the film’s scriptwriter. Elvis is written into nearly every scene, which gets no complaints out of me; he’s that riveting and charismatic a character (and actor). Boasting one of the lowest budgets in Fantasia’s line-up, Cash Only (2015) gets high marks for stretching those bucks and delivering an authentic, intimate look at the Albanian-American experience in Macomb County’s Metro Detroit, which statistically has the highest percentage of ethnic Albanians not in Europe. Though not necessarily a pretty purview, it’s surprisingly compassionate, and brings the struggles of this challenged diasporic community square to heart, even at its most hardboiled and ferocious.

Everyone owes someone something in Elvis Martini’s Detroit; he, most of all. The bank’s about to foreclose on the building he owns and operates; his daughter plaintively wonders when her father will be able to afford the tuition that will allow her to return to a private Catholic school to be with her friends; but his tenants keep “working the system” and won’t pay their rent; and—aside from the bank—he owes big money to an unflinching loan shark. Above all, he owes himself some measure of forgiveness for accidentally killing his wife and that’s the debt that seems insurmountable, and one that remains the wounded core of his masculinity. When he’s forced to evict a prostitute tenant from her apartment, he discovers a stash of cash to momentarily set expenses right, only to discover the money is stolen from a mobster named Dino (Stivi Paskoski), one of Detroit’s worst denizens, and Dino will do anything to get his money back. Paskoski’s performance is terrifyingly ruthless. Subtext insinuates Dino’s Serbian, but Cash Only sagely avoids distracting its tense momentum in that geopolitical direction, and keeps its focus on the explosive stand-off between its desperate characters.

Director Malik Bader also provides comic relief as addled pot-grower Kush (who has no friends but an inflatable doll) and deserves well-earned props for eliciting restrained performances from an ensemble bursting at the seams with testosterone. Bader ratchets it down to a perfect, believable pitch. Inspired by Bader’s previous film Street Thief (2006), Shreli contacted Bader cold by email and pitched his script. Three years later, the result is street-smart, credible and—as Matthew Kiernan asserts in his program capsule—“brings something fresh and unique to the genre that hasn’t been seen in a while.” Fans of the early work of Nicolas Winding Refn will appreciate the raw violence on display. I’m already anticipating more dramas from the Bader / Shreli team. World Premiere. IMDb.

 

FANTASIA 2015—JERUZALEM

JeruZalem (2015, Israel, dirs. Doron Paz, Yoav Paz)—Hell hath no fury like a malfunctioning pair of Google glasses. There have only been three Israeli entries in all the years of Fantasia’s programming, and the Paz Brothers’ JeruZalem (2015) is, allegedly, Israel’s first true horror entry. Apparently young Israeli filmmakers are itchy to develop genre filmmaking in their homeland to escape traditional dysfunctional family dramas and war-torn narratives. Does this presage a boom for genre filmmaking in Israel? If so, will we have to bear the reinvention of the wheel and a rash of knock-offs before gaining any true traction?

It’s anticipated that each country has its own cultural legends to enhance boilerplate scripts, and JeruZalem’s assertion that one of the entrances to Hell lies beneath the Holy City is a promising premise, though more accurately the film’s true Hell lies behind an annoying choice to rework the already mined-to-death “found footage” trope by way of a woefully misguided decision to film the entire movie through the point of view of a lead character’s Google glasses. Ugh. Sure, this affords effective comic relief now and again (particularly through face recognition software that struggles to identify demons in the dark), but I came to scream not giggle, and have lost all patience with jiggling hand-held camera work rationalized as cinema verite. It doesn’t make it more “real”, kids, it makes it unwatchable. The Paz Brothers assert that they want audiences “to see up close what the resurrection may actually look like” but most of the time is spent running into stone walls in the dark with streaking lights and blurred focus and malfunction warnings from the POV Google glasses. Maybe that’s a techie’s version of the Apocalyse? Malfunctioning Google glasses? To each their own Hell?

Casting is predictable. Privileged young beauties, male and female, making stupid decisions. Even the harbinger—one of my favorite stock characters in horror films—is turned into a clownish overweight King David wannabe. JeruZalem becomes yet one more entry in a recent trend in “cyber-decoupage” that stacks online social network platforms, text messaging, facial recognition software,  SKYPE, you name it, to approximate contemporary communication practices. But these rich American Jewish girls who vacation in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur just to get laid by locals in hostels deserve every pitchfork coming to them.  It's hard to care about what happens to them when their behavior is fundamentally unattractive.

The hastened exit from the auditorium by the film’s World Premiere audience was revealing. Very few wanted to hear any excuses or rationalizations for this disappointing and cliché enterprise. I doubt that duplicitously gaining access to Jerusalem’s holiest centers of worship to shoot a horror film guerrilla style is going to do much to advance mainstream acceptance of genre filmmaking in Israel. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

 

FANTASIA 2015—SYNCHRONICITY

Synchronicity (2015, USA, Jacob Gentry)—With its stylish evocation of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), homage becomes—for genre fans, at least—a form of time travel. However, Synchronicity is less a replicant than its own atmospheric application of noir aesthetics to a sci-fi narrative about time looping through parallel universes. Although we’ve seen this premise before with such films as Timecrimes (2007), Looper (2012) and Time Lapse (2014)—and the requisite effort to bring compromised timelines back into alignment—Synchronicity admirably maximizes the bang for its buck and delivers an elegantly-mounted puzzler with swank art direction by Jenn Moye that looks like it was created with a considerably heftier budget, bolstered by Ben Lovett’s melancholic score that recalls Vangelis without losing its own significant character.

Jacob Gentry, who contributed direction to the braided narrative The Signal (2007), goes solo and—taking a further cue from Code 46 (2003)—ingeniously utilizes the Atlanta architecture of John C. Portman, Jr., whose neofuturistic designs work perfectly as the urban backdrop for this story of physicist Jim Beale (Chad McKnight) who has invented a time machine that uses wormholes to navigate the time-space continuum. The story shades noir when Beale becomes a chump for femme fatale Abby (Brianne Davis) who uses her wiles to woo secrets from him about his invention to satisfy the corporate greed of venture capitalist Klaus Meisner (in a menacing, measured performance by genre alum Michael Ironside).

McKnight’s disheveled masculinity generates erotic tension set against the seductive precision of Davis. A bigger budget and potentially longer shooting schedule might have afforded the opportunity to explore slight variances in McKnight’s characterization of Beale, which could have strengthened the concept of multiple dimensions by subtly differentiating them; but, even absent such subtlety, McKnight’s performance remains compelling. As the physicist traveling into the past to prevent the theft of his invention, love becomes Beale’s predominant motivation to repeatedly cross time lines seeking alternate results while hazarding unforeseen consequences. The same could be said of the Abby character who is, at turns, a femme fatale and, then again, “just a girl.” Why she chooses to love Beale in one timeline over another is left unfortunately vague.

The central image of the dahlia—an apparent noir citation, either by way of The Blue Dahlia (1946) or the Black Dahlia murders of L.A. (take your pick)—aligns visually in its unfurling structure with the wormhole itself and serves as the catalyst for the film's time jumping. Synchronicity exceeds budget limitations to deliver an intelligent script, focused performances that offset challenges in scriptural continuity, and glossy, good-looking production values that convincingly ensorcel the viewer with its moody, unpredictable universe(s). World Premiere. IMDb.


Synchronicity from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—(T)ERROR

(T)error (2015, USA, dirs. Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe)—Surveillance (as previously noted in my entries for Slumlord and Observance) continues to be a trending theme in narrative horror films, but can there possibly be anything more terrifying than the real thing, especially when conducted by a government agency like the FBI in the name of homeland security? David Felix Sutcliffe is no stranger to the subject. As noted in his IMDb bio, Sutcliffe “is an independent documentary filmmaker whose work explores issues of national security and civil liberties in the post-9/11 era. In 2013, he was included in Filmmaker Magazine's annual list of ‘25 New Faces of Independent Film.’ His 2011 film, Adama, was broadcast on PBS, and featured the story of a 16-year-old Muslim girl growing up in Harlem who was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of being a ‘potential suicide bomber.’ His follow-up film (T)error, co-directed with acclaimed photojournalist Lyric R. Cabral, … debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival where it won a special jury prize for Break Out First Feature. Along with (T)error co-director Cabral, Sutcliffe was honored by the Tribeca Film Institute with the 2013 Creative Promise Award.” The film also received the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury award at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

With such credentials in place, I’ll accept Sutcliffe’s synopsis on his own terms: “(T)error is the first documentary to place filmmakers on the ground during an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Through the perspective of ‘Shariff’, a 63-year-old Black revolutionary turned informant, viewers get an unfettered glimpse of the government’s counterterrorism tactics and the murky justifications behind them. Taut, stark and controversial, (T)error illuminates the fragile relationships between individual and surveillance state in modern America, and asks who is watching the watchers.”

It, perhaps, goes without saying but often it’s filmmakers who are watching the watchers (think CitizenFour, whose director Laura Poitras served as a creative consultant on this project). A documentary as highly-lauded as (T)error has been on festival track is cause for hope that the FBI will eventually be held accountable for the errors made in their war on terror (as cleverly conflated in the film’s title). As Sean P. Means nails it at the Salt Lake Tribune: “It's the sort of movie around which congressional investigations are, or at least should be, built.” On a grass roots level, the filmmakers’ concerted effort to mobilize audience engagement has resulted in their association with Project C.L.E.A.R., which is well worth checking out. Official website. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Ariel Esteban Cayer is equally articulate in his program capsule for Fantasia: “The intimate, unprecedented portrait of a covert FBI informant, Cabral and Sutcliffe’s debut film (T)error is a tense and upsetting documentary tour-de-force. Connecting the dots of the FBI’s long history of domestic operations, from COINTELPRO’s war against the Civil Rights and black nationalist groups of the 1970s to the current, post-9/11 regime of preemptive strikes and rampant domestic espionage, (T)error … unfolds like a psychological thriller, and amounts to a stark, bold perspective on the never-ending War on Terror (both real and manufactured); an up-close look into the FBI’s deceptive methods for assuring national security at the expense of privacy, freedom of belief, and the individual lives shattered in their wake.”

Kudos to Fantasia for including a hard-hitting investigative documentary like (T)error in their line-up, which serves as an obvious reminder that genre films bear a vital importance for inflecting the dread and anxiety felt by individuals towards social forces over which they have no control. Horror films are often mistakenly reduced to mere entertainment and diversion, when in fact they bear a cultural value in the public sector for expressing justified dread seeking articulation and redress.

 

FANTASIA 2015—ANGUISH

Anguish (2015, USA, dir. Sonny Mallhi)—The most visceral achievement of Sonny Mallhi’s directorial debut Anguish (2015) is its nerve-wracking sound design, imaginatively executed by Sonic Magic, a near textbook example of the vital importance of sound for a horror film to have full impact. But that’s just one accomplishment among many in the World Premiere of Mallhi’s fresh, riveting approach towards the now-cliché exorcism film.

What starts out as a study of mental illness among adolescents slowly morphs into a jarring tale of spiritual possession. Please notice I did not say demonic possession, because that’s the pivotal difference in Mallhi’s filmic strategy, whose research into the subject revealed therapeutic systems of spirit release, in contrast to patristic Catholic approaches of ritual exorcism that often causes harm (if not death) to the possessed individual, precisely for maligning and mishandling the possessing spirit as demonic.

Allegedly based on true events, and actual statistics of the number of adolescents suffering from mental illness, Mallhi—producer of The Strangers (2008) and At the Devil’s Door (2014)—takes over the helm to create not only a harrowing but admirably compassionate tale of 16-year-old Tess (in a powerhouse performance by Ryan Simpkins, 15 at the time of filming) who has been struggling with a personality disorder since the age of 5 that has confounded all the medical specialists approached by her mother Jessica (Annika Marks), who, alone, is barely coping as hospital bills mount while her husband is deployed to the Mideast. Jessica hopes that moving to a small town in a pastoral setting might calm things down, unaware that a recent tragedy has left Sarah (Karina Logue), the local book shop owner, bereft of her daughter Lucy (Amberley Gridley) in a sudden, horrific accident. World Premiere. IMDb.

Two mothers, two daughters, cross and exchange lives as Lucy seeks closure before passing on. This female-centric narrative offers remedial critique to the male-dominated worlds of medicine and religion who eagerly prescribe drugs and exorcism to take care of Tess’s problem. That the two mothers take it upon themselves to work this out between themselves sets the audience up for an evening at the threshold to the dead with lost spirits known and unknown passing through Tess. “I want people to look beyond their comfort zone,” Mallhi asserts, and he has achieved a discomforting, frequently terrifying, experience at the intersection of mental illness and spiritual possession. Anguish will predictably walk away as one of the horror discoveries of Fantasia.

 
Anguish from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—GOODNIGHT MOMMY / A HARD DAY / BØRNING

Goodnight Mommy / Ich seh, Ich seh (2014, Austria, dirs. Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala)—The horror genre has made me completely distrust corn fields. The minute Goodnight Mommy starts with nine-year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (played by the eponymous Schwarz brothers) playing hide-and-seek in the corn fields that flank their lonely country house—with woods stretching off to the distance on the other side—my skin began to crawl. The expansive landscape felt claustrophobic and insular, a trap.

Then I began to calm down as the truly adorable Elias and Lukas are shown jumping up and down on a trampoline in the rain, running through the woods, catching big beetles for their bug collection, saving a stray cat from an ossuary, and sharing whispered secrets by flashlight underneath their bedcovers. But then there’s the problem of mother. She’s returned home from the hospital with extensive facial surgery, her head wrapped in bandages, her eyes swollen and bloodshot, and she’s different than before, short on patience, stern, changing all the house rules and not for the better. Elias and Lukas begin to wonder: Is she really their mother? And set out to test her.

Produced by Ulrich Seidl, it’s to be expected that Goodnight Mommy will transform into a dark, existential struggle for identity and fundamental trust—what Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis describes “as a profoundly disturbing work of macabre beauty and black poetics, of unspeakable horror and scorching psychological hurt” —proving yet again that no one can hurt you as much as your own family. IMDb.

At Variety, Peter Debruge says Austrian newcomers Franz and Fiala have created an "elegantly stylized, thoroughly unnerving attempt to creep the heck out of arthouse horror fans" and "a home-invasion scenario where the aggressors lived there all along." David Rooney's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter: "Even Joan Crawford didn't have these kinds of parenting problems." Both liken the film to Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997). Rooney adds that "this insidious tale of a mother-son bond gone haywire is squirm-inducing stuff" and has "cult potential stamped all over it." At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw likewise references Haneke, and includes Jessica Hausner's Hotel (2004) as a comparison. His main critique: "Perhaps a more unassuming genre director would have tightened this movie's cables a little, so that it had more tension and less revulsion. At all events, it delivers some nasty shocks."


Goodnight Mommy - Trailer from Films Distribution on Vimeo.
 
A Hard Day / Kkeutkkaji Ganda (2014, South Korea, dir. Kim Seong-hun)—As synopsized by Fantasia: “Homicide detective Ko Gun-su is having a hard day. His mother has just died, and he and his colleagues are being investigated by the internal affairs over bribery charges. Then on his way to his mother's funeral, he drives recklessly and commits a fatal hit and run. He tries to cover-up the accident by hiding the man's corpse in his deceased mother's coffin. But someone has been watching all along, and Gun-su gets a mysterious call from a person claiming that he was the sole witness to the crime, who now begins to blackmail him." Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

In his program capsule, Nicolas Archambault promises that A Hard Day "contains everything that contemporary Korean cinema is reputed for, including intense chase scenes, strikingly realistic tussles, biting dark humor, corrupt anti-heroes and glorious production values. No wonder this instant classic received a standing ovation from the notoriously difficult Cannes crowd. If the film is largely carried upon the shoulders of actors Lee Sun-kyun (Our Sunhi, 2013) and Cho Jin-woong (Hwayi: A Monster Boy, 2013), dead-set in an intense duel, it is Kim Seong-hun's impeccable direction and bullet-speed script that steal the show, marking him as one of the most promising emerging Korean filmmakers."

At Variety, Maggie Lee states that Seong-hun handles "a taut yet elaborately plotted narrative with poise, control and near-faultless technical execution." At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton claims A Hard Day provided Cannes "a masterclass in throat-squeezing, stomach-knotting suspense" and a narrative "full of smart surprises and darkly funny lurches." Catching the film at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, Tony An enthuses at Ynot At the Movies: "The film's sense of humor is simply irresistible."

I haven’t much more to add other than that this is all absolutely true. A thoroughly rousing, crowd-pleasing cat-and-mouse chase that will leave you gasping and laughing in the same breath, if you haven’t already fallen off the edge of your seat.



Børning (2014, Norway, dir. Hallvard Bræin)—Another film to buckle in for (it’s the law, afterall) is this formulaic car race that guffaws its way across the length of Norway, offering some spectacular views of the countryside underneath the roar of engines and screeching wheels. Fantasia claims Børning is "faster than Cannonball Run and funnier than Smokey and the Bandit", and it certainly boasts its share of speed and telegraphed jokes, sleek cars and hot babes, but I really wish there would have been a hunk or two to distract me from the obvious and the cloying sentimentality of a father trying to communicate with his estranged daughter. North American Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.



Monday, July 20, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—DIRECTOR'S COMMENTARY: TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN / WE ARE STILL HERE

Director's Commentary—Terror Of Frankenstein (USA, dir. Tim Kirk)—This “mockumentary” of sorts sports a brilliant concept, albeit unevenly executed. I dozed off now and again because listening to two old men recount memories, however intriguingly morbid, has a certain lulling effect, and—truth be told—I’m not a huge fan of listening to director’s commentaries on DVDs and Blu-Rays, though I know diehard fans who devour such things for every bit of trivia they can access about a movie.

Kirk advances the notion of an unreliable narrator by providing an unreliable commentary to an all-but-forgotten—yet authentic—Frankenstein film, Calvin Floyd’s Terror of Frankenstein (1977). Fans of the previously eccentric cinephilia demonstrated by helmer Kirk and producer Rodney Ascher (Room 237 and The Nightmare) will have no trouble taking to this film’s metatextual approach. While offering an opportunity to take a look at Floyd’s original film, the “commentary” is the real movie here, heard not seen, which recounts a series of grisly murders allegedly associated with the making of the film by a serial murderer who’s a member of the cast. Can you guess who? In a way, it’s a MacGuffin, as what is most entertaining about Director’s Commentary is its droll sense of humor, replete with throwaway lines that hardly offer time to laugh—think MST2K spliced with Masterpiece Theater. Director’s Commentary likewise takes a wry punch at the way momentary nostalgic interest in a film can breed financial exploitation. Equally clever, and with a tip of the hat to Room 237, the spirit of Kubrick is conjured yet again, this time as the lead actor of Terror of Frankenstein, Leon Vitali (featured in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut) revisits his role as Victor Frankenstein to acerbic effect. One can almost imagine him shrieking, “It’s alive … again!!” International Premiere. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.


Terror of Frankenstein Director's commentary from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

We Are Still Here (USA, dir. Ted Geoghegan)—I’m only two days into the festival, but I’m going to be hard-pressed to find anything as satisfying as Ted Geoghegan’s directorial debut. Long-time fans of Fantasia know Ted as one of the festival’s hardest working publicists, so there was a real sense of keeping it in the family and rooting for the home team at the one-off screening of We Are Still Here’s Canadian premiere. I look forward to transcribing the lively Q&A.

But for now, let’s focus on my immediate satisfaction. I’ve long been hard-pressed to justify to more “serious” movie fans my unflinching passion for the horror genre. No other genre (when done well) achieves the catharsis I crave from watching sci-fi, horror and dark thrillers (accounting for my continued presence at Fantasia over the years). Without playing it for irony, We Are Still Here succeeds as a meticulously enamored homage to the giallo films of Lucio Fulci, specifically The House By the Cemetery (1981)—several characters in We Are Still Here are, in fact, unapologetically named after characters or people associated with Fulci’s film—yet Geoghegan retains a distinctly unique contemporary pace and directorial signature. Pacing and balance set We Are Still Here apart from so much of that ill-behaved step-child—the horror-comedy genre hybrid—which rarely works for me, even as it seems to be the kneejerk indulgence of fledgling genre filmmakers. If I laugh at a horror film, I want it to be out of nervous relief (catharsis in action), and not because I’m making fun of the genre or holding myself above it.

Pacing and balance determine the pitch of a film. I knew Geoghegan had the pitch perfect when a flashlight beam streaking across a cellar wall made me shriek and flinch. And then I laughed, because I had been terrified by something so simple, which meant I was being expertly set up. Send me to a psychiatrist and pay the invoice if this concerns you. The film’s atmosphere is beautifully established through Karim Hussain’s widescreen cinematography: an early scene shows snowy plains whipped by wind into whirling snowdevils, which presages disquietude to come. Wintry isolation brackets the embered spirits of We Are Still Here, creating an elemental tug-of-war between snow and fire.

In the cold, wintry fields of New England, a lonely old house wakes up every 30 years—and demands a sacrifice. As Dave Alexander describes in the program capsule: "The spirits in We Are Still Here aren't simply content to slam doors and lurk in shadows. They're out for blood—and get plenty, literally painting the walls crimson." And don’t misunderstand me, there is plenty of intentional humor in We Are Still Here that succeeds on its own merits, particularly the performance of Larry Fessenden as the pot-smoking husband of a clairvoyant wife. His characterization has a touch of Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining; demonic, by way of demented.  Barbara Crampton provides the film’s emotional center as the grieving mother unable to let go of her dead son’s spirit. IMDb. Facebook

At Variety, my SFFCC colleague Dennis Harvey is less enthused: "Ted Geoghegan's feature directing debut somewhat awkwardly straddles straight-up horror and tongue-in-cheek homage, its humor seldom foregrounded yet still sufficiently omnipresent to somewhat undermine the scares. ...Even the occasional gaps in narrative and character logic make sense in the context of homage—particularly to Fulci, but also to such cultish U.S. indie horror films of the era as Let's Scare Jessica to Death. Of course, viewers with a shallower genre viewing history to draw on will simply fault We Are Still Here as being corny and careless."

At The Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck's bottom line is that We Are Still Here "plays like an old ABC TV 'Movie of the Week'—and that's a compliment." Scheck adds: "Showcasing juicy performances by its actors who tear into their stock roles with admirable conviction," he gives "special props for the casting of 79-year-old Monte Markham in a role in which the veteran character actor truly sinks his teeth."

At Twitch, Peter Martin states: "We Are Still Here does not reinvent the horror wheel, but it respects the genre enough to know when it's time to grease that wheel with a little blood—OK, a lot—and more than a few welcome surprises. It manages to do all that with an authentic spirit, whether it's being quiet and unsettling or jolting and savage." Martin likewise praises cinematographer Karim Hussain, "who captures the beauty and terror of the story's many daytime settings, putting the lie to the idea that horror only comes out at night."

FANTASIA 2015—SLUMLORD / OBSERVANCE

The horrific hazards of surveillance—whether this side of the lens or that—is the connective trope between the World Premieres of Slumlord (2015) and Observance (2015) at the 19th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia). Whether one believes that evil enters through the eye as a witness to atrocity, or that the voyeuristic eye itself commits atrocity, the eye becomes the fulcrum through which these criminal processes are understood.

In Peter Marra's survey of the slasher film genre " 'Strange Pleasure': 1940s Proto-Slasher Cinema" (recently published in Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces Of A Lost Decade, edited by Mario Degiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé, and Kristopher Woofter, Lexington Books), Maara outlines the formulas strategically used to position audiences in relationship to onscreen antagonists, notably "the emphasis on a psychologically motivated human killer who functions unrecognizably in normalized society and elicits audience sympathy; the distinct association made by the film between its audience and the killer's perspective, specifically through the use of point of view shots…." (2014:27) Whether we "understand" Norman Bates' voyeuristic compulsions in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and, thereby, ameliorate his pathology, Hitchcock nonetheless frames Norman's pathology in a stunning detail of his eye looking through a peephole at Marion Crane; the light from the other room illuminating his eyeball. It's his eye, what he sees, his motivated perspective on the world, that becomes the signifier of evil foreshadowed.

Slumlord (2015, USA, dir. Victor Zarcoff)—The McManus Brothers Kevin and Matthew brought their directorial feature debut Funeral Kings to Fantasia in 2010 (to considerable acclaim), and have upped their game this year as producers for newcomer Victor Zarcoff's Slumlord, a study in terror that—Fantasia says—modernizes both Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) for our digital era. I would argue it's actually Hitchcock's Psycho that's at play here as so much of the film focuses on the jaundiced eyes of Gerald (the titular slumlord creepily portrayed by Neville Archambault) and his obsessive watching. The peephole in the wall has been updated to installed fiberoptics, but the act of voyeurism, and its calculated intentions, remain the same.

Simon Laperrière observes in his program capsule that "the suspense of this hyperrealist thriller slyly unfolds, ascending to unbearable heights of anxiety. Neville Archambault portrays Gerald [the slumlord] with an intensity that instills fear from his very first appearance on screen. The narrative juxtaposition of home invasion and gripping conjugal drama is done to perfection."

In an eleventh hour effort to save their crumbling marriage, Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and Ryan (PJ McCabe) move into a new home hoping for a fresh start. "Intimacy counts for naught", Laperrière notes, as—unbeknownst to them—their creepy landlord is methodically calculating their behavior via hidden surveillance cameras; an act not as uncommon as one might think. Statistics indicate that there are now thousands of cases of landlords spying on their tenants. The acting ensemble is tight, but what intrigues me is how their character flaws in a way serve to justify their landlord's actions. Claire is manipulative and needy, Ryan is a philanderer and a liar, and his love interest Hannah (Sarah Baldwin) is a bit of a stalker herself. They almost deserve to be spied upon and they're literally asking for their comeuppance. "Wonderfully acted by a cast straight out of a Tobe Hooper film," Fantasia asserts, "this domestic nightmare builds suffocating tension by exposing the fragility of our intimacy in today's world." World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

 
Slumlord Trailer (2015) Fantasia Film Festival from McManus on Vimeo.


Observance (Australia, dir. Joseph Sims-Dennett)—The eye returns in Joseph Sims-Dennett's Observance (and is featured prominently in the film's poster). Our protagonist Parker (Lindsay Farris) arrives to his new job, undeniably handsome but noticeably harried. He's been asked by a client to observe a beautiful woman Tinneal (Stephanie King), to take photos of her from across the street, and to record her daily actions. Although he's not too keen on the assignment, he desperately needs money. Thus begins this perplexing tale of a man manipulated by forces beyond his control incriminated into a ritual act he hardly comprehends. Purposely enigmatic, it's difficult to know what's going on in Observance (do you always understand your nightmares?), and don't expect any kind of meaningful resolution wrapped up in a neat bow. With sufficient interest, this film warrants a second watch and considerable afterthought to comprehend what's just been seen; but, despite its (at times annoying) obfuscations, it offers significant scares, and a stylized descent into madness reminiscent of the films of Roman Polanski. Filmed in an admittedly disorganized 11 days, the film's true creative feat lies in Charles Ivory's layered, evocative editing, which melds a haunted past with a doomed present, juggling the diabolic with the quotidian, and instilling mounting dread as an unnamed, unknown menace begins to manipulate events. High marks to actor Farris who I could watch for hours, even spitting black goo into a bathroom sink. Observance may not be so much about a woman being observed, as we're first led to believe, as it is about noting an important ritual moment of insinuated black magic. World Premiere. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

 
Observance from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.