If one is looking to dip their toe into international travel, Montreal is a good place to start and the Fantasia International Film Festival is a terrific reason to be there. Great movies, great food, and a great time can be had by all in the great white north and Fantasia offers up all sorts of cool genre fare from Hong Kong action to creepy horror. With countless high-rise apartments making you feel like you’re wandering around a David Cronenberg movie, Montreal is a perfect setting for a genre film festival. So many notable places to eat and drink: grab lunch or a late-night snack at L’Express, a smoked meat sandwich at Lester’s Deli or, if you don’t mind the line, grab one at Schwartz’s and bring it down to Bar Bifteck. Verres Stérilisés—which translates to Sterilized Glasses—is a perfect dive for an afternoon drunk and don’t forget to do at least one Inception Shot (a Rube Goldberg machine of a drink that combines a jager bomb and a car bomb…how international) at festival headquarters McKibbins Irish Pub. But we’re here for the movies, right? Running from July 11th to August 1st, Fantasia is certainly one of the longest festivals, making it almost impossible to catch everything (although Jason Coffman will probably come the closest, and you can read his coverage here), so let’s take a look at the weird and wild genre cinema of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
SWALLOW is barely a genre film, instead it is a compelling and offbeat drama about a bored, newly pregnant housewife afflicted with pica, an eating disorder where one eats items not generally thought of as food (paint chips, nuts, bolts). Haley Bennett delivers an on point performance as Hunter who spends her days in pretty dresses cleaning her constantly redecorated—and very expensive—home that she shares with her husband portrayed by Austin Stowell. Stowell is appropriately dopey as a clueless selfish man of the house, so much so that you wonder exactly what she ever saw in him. The film approaches coping with tragedy with a gallows sense of humor and offers up surprises throughout, including a notable performance from Dennis O’Hare. Despite the nature of the story, SWALLOW is darkly humorous, affecting, and in its own way touching in the way it tackles the deeper issues at hand.
SADAKO kicks off with a compelling opening featuring a retro score reminiscent of THE EXORCIST. A mother has her child locked in a closet, convinced that she is Sadako—that evil ghost girl seen it the previous RINGU films—incarnate. From the promising opening, the film quickly devolves into a by the numbers potboiler offering up tired scares and barely bringing any new ideas to the table. The return of director Hideo Nakata suggests an attempt to recapture the selling points of WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE or even JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY with the creator of the first returning to bring audiences something new. If the RINGU series is Japan’s answer to franchise horror, then the most recent film plays like a late era, direct to video entry. The film hits all the marks it’s supposed to—creepy ghosts haunt hallways and crawl out of televisions—and there is a flirtation with an interesting idea involving YouTube in the social media age, but any promise is wasted. There are a few perfectly acceptable scares, but at this point in a long running franchise you can either rest on your laurels—as SADAKO does—or try and maybe fail—to swing for the fences and inject some humor or deliver something offbeat, weird, or at the very least ridiculous.
Bruce McDonald’s DREAMLAND finds Stephen McHattie—a hitman for hire—on the wrong side of crime boss Hercules (Henry Rollins) who has begun selling young girls into the sex trade, something that McHattie’s character just can’t abide by. What begins as a fairly standard crime thriller—arguably inspired by YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE—gets real weird real fast when it’s revealed that one of Hercules’ customers is an actual vampire. DREAMLAND encapsulates cult favorite McDonald’s offbeat auteurist vision with memorably odd performances from McHattie, Juliette Lewis, and Tomas Lemarquis as the vampire. McHattie does double duty as a drug addicted jazz legend as well Johnny the hitman, assisting the film in its truly bizarre anything goes sensibility. With a stylish, visual flair and plenty of brutal violence, DREAMLAND is a true original and pops with enough action and oddball characters to captivate viewers who are willing to commit to the world McDonald has created.
It really shouldn’t be that hard to make an enjoyable Critters movie. All you truly need is some nifty puppet work and have the Critters occasionally curse in subtitle and most of the audience will be satisfied. Yet 2019 has delivered two lackluster entries (lest we forget CRITTERS: A NEW BINGE from earlier this year) in a franchise that began in 1986 and for the most part, retained a certain sense of quality even when they brought the little monsters back to space. CRITTERS ATTACK! From director Bobby Miller and writer Scott Lobdell attempts to recapture the relatively kid friendly PG-13 vibe of the original two films but lacks the manic energy and loveable human characters that elevated those entries above so many GREMLINS knockoffs to create something memorable. The filmmakers attempt to inject some cool ideas into the film, introducing a good Critter—it’s surely no mistake that she resembles a Mogwai from GREMLINS—as a foil to the criminal crites and the return of Dee Wallace (as a completely different character, a bounty hunter no less). Wallace’s return is at once welcome and confounding, but she’s ultimately wasted. There are a few sight gags (using a Critter as a loofa in a shower) that play well, but anytime the movie seems like it’s going to take off running (a sushi chef tangling with the Critters outside his restaurant), the filmmakers cut away. With a lethargic pace, even at 89 minutes, CRITTERS ATTACK! Is a drag.
THE LODGE finds GOODNIGHT MOMMY directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, mining similar territory as their 2014 critical fave. A pair of children terrorize their stepmother in a desolate lodge. The sense of dread that the filmmakers are attempting more often becomes tedious and show-offy camera movements and perfectly composed shots draw attention to themselves, losing the audience. Quite a bit of suspension of disbelief is required for THE LODGE, and it’s a long way to get there.
Family melodrama propels THE WRATH, a perverse Japanese ghost story. Big scares and an ultracool exorcist who takes on the supernatural threat elevates this one.
At this point, the zombie comedy is as ubiquitous as the zombie horror story in film. While at times LITTLE MONSTERS is far too cute for its own good, but delivers on the slapstick comedy more often than not. When a school field trip to a petting zoo falls under attack from a zombie horde that has escaped a nearby government facility, it’s up to teacher Lupita Nyong’o and deadbeat musician Alexander England to protect the kids. Josh Gad is easy to hate as a selfish kid’s show host and on the flipside, England is easily likeable as he attempts to win the affections of Nyong’o throughout. Nyong’o is the heart and soul of this film, a commanding screen presence, effortlessly charming and can really make a ukulele sing.
The imaginary friend terror tale DANIEL ISN’T REAL is exploitation that eschews the trashier elements of the genre. When a college student’s childhood imaginary friend re-emerges as an adult, director Adam Egypt Mortimer composes many memorable shots—particularly during the film’s climax featuring a weird and wild trip into Daniel’s psyche, drenched in neon and synths, that features his inner demons manifested as actual demons—and pulls gangbusters performances out of Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger that drive the film. DANIEL ISN’T REAL is minded, but also massively entertaining genre cinema.
Filmmaker Joe Begos makes the movies he wants to see. BLISS is a greasy and grimy vampire fable featuring Dora Madison as Dezzy, an artist in Los Angeles looking for inspiration. After partaking in a new drug known as “bliss,” Dezzy’s life spirals out of control yet her art thrives like never before…but she has also developed a taste for blood. Like MARTIN if it were directed by Abel Ferrara, BLISS delivers gruesome gore with a rock ‘n’roll attitude; a new vampire classic for the era. Click here for my full review.
Modern films that fit squarely in the Wuxia genre are the artier version of American films like 300 featuring melodramatic, action filled tales of long ago with dubious historical merit. While their American counterparts are awash in video game like ugliness, their Chinese counterparts offer up beauty, violence, and beautiful violence. With SHADOW, director Zhang Yimou returns to the Wuxia genre that he explored with HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, delivering a stunningly beautiful tale of royal intrigue and action. Shot in shades of grey, SHADOW finds two armies at odds with one another leading up to an action packed climax that features an array of wild weaponry—the bladed umbrellas are thrilling to see in action—and exiting martial arts set pieces.
SONS OF DENMARK is a captivating political thriller, dealing with terrorism and xenophobia in Denmark. When the leader of a fringe political party runs for prime minister, two members of a terrorist sleeper cell plan to assassinate him, putting them on a collision course. The plan falls apart and the film twists and turns, pulling the floor out from under the audience as it builds towards its tense climax. Refreshingly bleak, SONS OF DENMARK hearkens back to political thrillers of the ‘70s with deliberate pacing and quiet moments allowing the audience to spend time with the complicated characters.
1976’s LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY is a mostly forgotten made for television sequel to Roman Polanski’s 1968 devil worship classic. With no relation to Ira Levin’s sequel novel Son Of Rosemary, the film finds Rosemary’s child Adrian all grown up and wrestling with his legacy, a subject that was explored much more effectively three years later with DAMIEN: OMEN II. The low-budget production does provide some notable moments, with an adolescent Adrian murdering a few bullies and a terrifically funny performance from Ruth Gordon returning as Minnie Castevet, but overall, LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY is forgotten for a reason. Fantasia presented the film in a rare 16mm print, featuring era appropriate commercials to heighten the experience.
For PHANTOM OF WINNIPEG, filmmaker Malcolm Ingram collected a loveable cadre of weirdos—as well as star Gerrit Graham and composer Paul Williams—to explore the singular phenomenon of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE‘s success in the Canadian city of Winnipeg. A flop in the states, PHANTOM garnered a following that found it out-grossing JAWS in Winnipeg. To coincide with WINNIPEG’s premiere, Fantasia hosted a 45th anniversary screening of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE which was a treat to see on the big screen with several of the original Peggers in the audience. PHANTOM remains a singular moment in the career of Brian De Palma. Just like the cult that surrounds it, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is truly one of a kind. My full review can be read right here.
Having police and thieves team up always makes for good drama: The duality of man, are they really that much different, the dichotomy of people from opposite sides of the law forming an alliance. THE GANGSTER, THE COP, THE DEVIL is a massively entertaining police thriller from writer director Won-Tae Lee that briskly delivers thrills and chills with some fine performances to boot. When big time gangster Jang Dong-sii is attacked by a serial killer, he and cowboy cop Mu-Yeol Kim make an uneasy deal to catch the serial killer: whoever gets him first—the criminal or the law—has their way with him. GANGSTER is effortlessly stylish and undeniably cool; reminiscent of ‘80s action thriller hybrids like COBRA and 10 TO MIDNIGHT, GANGSTER slickly combines genre tropes—a police work montage is cut to a rock ‘n’ roll score, several impressive martial arts sequences, the ultra-creepy serial killer. Good looking Mu-Yeol plays the role with the right amount of cocksuredness and charm as the copper who plays by his own set of rules and Dong-Seok Ma gives a world weary performance as the head gangster in charge, a violent man who does things his own way, living by his own code. THE GANGSTER, THE COP, THE DEVIL delivers gangbusters action sure to thrill and excite.
Fantasia is a wild ride and I’m looking forward to seeing what they serve up next year, no doubt it will be memorable.