2019 marks the 23rd edition of Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, which has become one of the most prominent genre film festivals in the world over those twenty-plus years. Boasting 130+ films screening over the course of three weeks, Fantasia is the largest genre fest in North America and plays host to premieres of films from around the globe. In addition to dozens of new films, this year’s festival includes repertory screenings from Vinegar Syndrome and Severin Films as well as a special tribute to Ted Kotcheff (director of FIRST BLOOD) and Joe Bob Briggs presenting his comprehensive history of hicksploitation cinema HOW REDNECKS SAVED HOLLYWOOD among many other events.
BLOOD & FLESH: THE REEL LIFE AND GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON (USA, dir. David Gregory)
Al Adamson was a legend of cult/exploitation cinema, directing over two dozen films that were shamelessly marketed under countless alternate titles. Adamson and his producing partner Sam Sherman were an endlessly resourceful team, shooting for almost nothing and editing existing features into new forms while Sherman found talent who hadn’t been on the big screen in years (including Angelo Rossitto from Tod Browning’s FREAKS) to give their films some name recognition. BLOOD & FLESH charts the course of Adamson’s career in film from his early days as an actor to that wild 60s and 70s run with Sherman, featuring new and archival interviews with Sherman, Adamson, Kenneth Adamson, Russ Tamblyn, John “Bud” Cardos, Marilyn Joi, Fred Olen Ray, Robert Dix, Stevee Ashlock, and Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s a wild ride that comes to an abrupt and tragic end in the 90s when Adamson was murdered by Fred Fulford, a contractor who was supposed to be working on his home but who became dangerously fixated on Adamson’s fame. Once it reaches this point BLOOD & FLESH changes gears abruptly from a film documentary to unflinching true crime. While it’s deeply uncomfortable to see actual police video footage of the discovery of Adamson’s body–and even photos from the autopsy, although the body is blurred out–it’s also impossible not to wonder whether exploitation-savvy Adamson wouldn’t be impressed with such a lurid hook to draw in curious audiences. Once it gets to actual 2019 phone interview audio with Fulford, there’s no question that BLOOD & FLESH is likely to be the definitive cinematic word on Adamson’s life and death.
JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (Spain, dir. Miguel Llansó)
After one of their fellow CIA operatives is somehow killed for real while jacked into virtual reality, Agents Palmer Eldritch (Agustín Mateo) and D.T. Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) are tasked with going in and stopping a virus called Soviet Union before it can execute its mysterious attack on omnipresent computer network Psychobook. For Gagano, it’s his One Last Job before he takes off with his wife Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas) and helps her live her dream of opening a kickboxing gym. But something goes wrong and Soviet Union captures Gagano, makes a copy of him, and sends the unwitting duplicate to another VR world called Betta Ethiopia in order to suss out the CIA’s countermeasures. As the duplicate’s existence fades, he must discover who’s at the bottom of all this before it’s too late. JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY is not shy about its influences–it opens with an 8-bit game title screen and lifts a major character name directly from Philip K. Dick–but it’s so outrageously inventive and gloriously unhinged there’s no way to mistake it for any other film. The VR world is presented in stop motion but using actual human actors wearing paper masks as their avatars, just one of numerous wild visual tricks that give the film an exhilarating unpredictability. Writer/director Miguel Llansó amps up the low-key absurdist humor of his debut feature CRUMBS to delirious levels, playing with espionage film tropes but constantly throwing curveballs while keeping Gagano’s relationship with Malin as an emotional anchor for the sheer insanity going on around him. It’s absolutely hilarious, hugely entertaining, and there’s absolutely nothing out there like it.
DREADOUT (Indonesia, dir. Kimo Stamboel)
A group of foolhardy teens looking to go viral for doing ill-advised stuff heads to a long-abandoned apartment building purported to be haunted. They manage to convince shy Linda (Caitlin Halderman), who knows the security guard, to ditch her shift at a gas station and join them so he’ll let them in. While the place is abandoned and a little spooky, it’s mostly a disappointment until they snap through the police tape into an area the guard gave them strict instructions to avoid. There they find the apartment that was the site of a supernatural occurrence ten years earlier, and through typical horror movie teenager hijinks they manage to reopen the magic portal and let whatever is on the other side back into our world–and some of them get sucked into the portal to confront what’s on the other side. DREADOUT is an adaptation of an Indonesian survival horror video game, but even without being familiar with the source material it’s easy to pick up what the film is laying down. This is a familiar “cabin in the woods” type movie with a few fun twists. Directed by KILLERS co-director Kimo Stamboel, it’s well-paced but also oddly tame when it comes to violence. There are some imaginatively creepy images and some fun camera play, but this would probably land on the harder end of PG-13 by American horror standards. That’s not to say DREADOUT doesn’t have its charms, of course, but anyone expecting a typical Mo Brothers goreathon is going to come away disappointed. Those looking for more traditional supernatural thrills, though, will have a good time with this fast, fun EVIL DEAD-alike.
KNIVES AND SKIN (USA, dir. Jennifer Reeder)
Teenager Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing after football star Andy (Ty Olwin) ditches her by the local make-out spot, leaving her distraught mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) and not-really-friends to deal with the fallout while their own lives bounce and chafe against each other. Unexpected crushes, parental neuroses, creepy substitute teachers, and other soap-operatic troubles threaten to push Carolyn’s disappearance out of the public consciousness, but Lisa lurks on the periphery haunting everyone while they try not to think about it. Jennifer Reeder’s KNIVES AND SKIN is an odd beast, feeling at times less like a narrative film and more like a video installation deconstructing teen drama films and television series. Impeccably shot by Christopher Rejano, Reeder’s collaborator on her previous feature SIGNATURE MOVE, the film looks absolutely gorgeous. This only adds to that impression that it would be equally at home screening in a modern art museum as a movie theater, although this isn’t really a complaint. Its cast of characters speak and behave bizarrely, mostly in a register that pushes into the realm of absurdity. The cast is great and the score by Nick Zinner is fantastic, but it’s difficult to get a read on the film’s tone when it feels so intent on putting the viewer at an ironic distance from the weird goings-on. Ultimately KNIVES AND SKIN feels like a hybrid of RIVERDALE, STRANGERS WITH CANDY, and a Gregory Crewdson exhibit. That might be a tough sell for some viewers, but there’s no doubt that this is the product of a singular vision and for that alone it’s well worth a look.
ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE (France, dir. Arielle Dombasle)
Hambourg (Michel Fau), the bastard son of the Egyptian god Horus (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is attempting to engineer the creation of the ultimate androgyne by bringing together film director Dolores (director/co-writer Arielle Dombasle) and insufferable prick musician Nicolas (co-writer Nicolas Ker) while Hambourg mixes liquids in Jägermeister-branded test tubes in his submarine. But there are complications, including a dogged police detective who travels with a cadre of cops who have strobe lights on their hats and like they’re about to start stripping any second. They’re out to bust Hambourg’s Illuminati-esque secret society (which includes Christian Louboutin, possibly playing himself?), and the society’s mirror-faced assassins are easy to track since they leave a trail of corpses of beautiful young women for him to follow. ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE is destined to be compared to the “outsider cinema” of Neil Breen, but the similarities are mostly superficial. Dombasle’s debut feature looks like a bunch of bored rich people decided to make a movie with their iPhones without bothering to come up with a story that makes any kind of sense or any compelling reason for anyone who isn’t in the movie to watch it. The approach to filmmaking here consists of throwing some famous and/or beautiful friends in front of a camera and seeing what sticks–for example, Asia Argento has dialogue in two scenes in this entire film and her character serves zero purpose other than to appear in some dreams/fantasies and dance around with Dombasle. Worse, both Dombasle and Ker have multiple scenes where they make out or have sex with much younger women, making this feel like a somehow even sleazier version of THE ROOM where two people concocted an excuse to put their hands all over some young blondes. No doubt some fans of deep irony are going to find this hilarious/awesome/whatever, but ultimately it looks an awful lot like the idle rich making a play at “art,” ignorant of (or just not caring about) the uncomfortably exploitive nature of the final product.
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Tags: al adamson, Alien Crystal Palace, Arielle Dombasle, Asia Argento, Caitlin Halderman, Crumbs, David Gregory, DreadOut, Ethiopia, Evil Dead, France, Gregory Crewdson, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jennifer Reeder, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, Killers, Kimo Stamboel, Knives and Skin, Marika Engelhardt, Mo Brothers, Neil Breen, Nicolas Ker, Raven Whitley, Riverdale, Russ Tamblyn, Severin Films, Signature Move, Spain, Strangers with Candy, The Room, Ty Olwin