Fantasia’s mascots adorn the official 2019 festival poster
Photo: Fantasia Film Festival

Montréal adores Brutalism. It’s everywhere in the downtown area of the city, the harsh high rises coexisting surprisingly well with the lush summer greenery and colorful graffiti art. Even the name of the widely abhorred architectural movement has a dual identity that feels very Quebec: French architect and artist Le Corbusier coined the imposing midcentury style “Brutalism” after “beton brut,” translated as “rough concrete.” The fact that it also has wildly alienating connotations in English is just a bonus.

The ubiquity of Brutalist architecture is one of the main reasons David Cronenberg shot so many movies in Montréal, as a native proudly explained to me between puffs of his cigarette. We were standing outside of a typically severe building at Concordia University, the public college that for three weeks every year doubles as the headquarters of the Fantasia Film Festival. Aside from festival volunteers, I’ve never spoken to a Concordia student in the three years that I’ve been at Fantasia; if I did, they’d probably pretend not to speak English, the default response of Montréalers to strangers who look like they want something. But I do wonder if they know, or care, that the exploding head scene from Scanners was shot in a lecture hall on their campus.

Montréal in general cares very much about Fantasia, as evidenced by the long lines outside of every screening full of locals who buy their tickets a la carte rather than purchase badges. The theater was packed for the opening night film, Sadako (Grade: C-), the latest in a series that began with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu back in 1998. Nakata returned to the franchise to direct Sadako, so it’s doubly disappointing that the film suffers from so many of the tell-tale afflictions of a horror series past its expiration date. Chief among these is an overabundance of convoluted, sometimes contradictory mythology, which drains the film of all energy in its back half. (The flat, apathetic performances don’t help in this regard.) That being said, there’s about 10 minutes of a decent hospital horror movie in the middle of all that lore. But if, as another critic pointed out at the opening night mixer, the best scene in the movie—a viscerally creepy moment where Sadako crawls out of the TV in a hospital waiting room— is a rehash of a scene from another, decade-old Ring movie, that doesn’t really count for much.

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It didn’t seem to matter that Sadako was a disappointment, however. The biggest draw of the weekend, and the one that inspired the most childlike excitement in the festival-goers I talked to, was the double dip of redemption for Brian De Palma’s 1974 horror rock opera Phantom Of The Paradise. De Palma rarely talks about the film, and certainly never shows up for retrospective screenings. Star William Finley died in 2012, and Jessica Harper’s busy on the Suspiria circuit, leaving 78-year-old co-star and songwriter Paul Williams to carry the torch of the film’s small but intense—and heavily Canadian—“phandom.” I confess I spent much of the weekend trying to understand the question of why Canada, and specifically Winnipeg, loves this obscure ’70s artifact so damn much, never realizing that I was humming the answer to myself the whole time. It’s stuck in my head right now, in fact.

No one sang along at the 45th anniversary screening of the film on Saturday night, which was held in an appropriately baroque movie palace in downtown Montréal outfitted with marble statues and red velvet seats. Although it shares certain aesthetic qualities with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Phantom Of The Paradise inspires much less audience participation: The self-proclaimed “‘Peggers” in the crowd clapped along with Williams’ Swan when he slaps his gloved hands together three times in the opening scene. But that was it. The rest of the film, whose offbeat glam-rock theatricality I appreciate more every time I see it, unfolded in hushed silence, before the eruption of standing ovation as Williams took the stage for a post-film Q&A. Williams was audibly moved as he thanked the crowd for their undying support, telling them that it was because of them the movie lives on. They loved that.

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It was heartwarming to recognize a few Winnipeggers on screen the following morning at a screening of Phantom Of Winnipeg (Grade: B), a crowdfunded documentary that sets out to answer my exact question of why Winnipeg, Manitoba is one of only two places in the world where Phantom Of The Paradise was a hit. (The other was Paris, where the future members of Daft Punk met at a screening.) And the film comes close to providing real insight into the question, going beyond the usual “isn’t this fun” platitudes of a fan documentary to explore how growing up in a cold, isolated area like Winnipeg shapes a person’s sensibilities, as well as how the internet has changed the nature of fandom. That being said, the inclusion of Kevin Smith, whose obsession with Canada is funny but more than a little patronizing, draws attention away from the fans, all of whom are great characters in their own right. One man, who plays in a Phantom cover band and offers to trade his buddy a black Gibson Flying V for a signed copy of the soundtrack, says he saw it 50 times in its initial run. Another woman shows off her handmade Phantom purse, with the Death Records logo on one side and “Trust Me. -Swan” cross-stitched onto the other.

Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland
Photo: Fantasia Film Festival

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As if that wasn’t enough Canadian quirkiness for one weekend, Fantasia also hosted a screening of Dreamland (Grade: C+) the latest from Pontypool and Hard Core Logo director Bruce McDonald. Dreamland is nothing like either of those movies; it’s a seedy-yet-quirky thriller best described as a gonzo take on You Were Never Really Here. Both have troubled hitmen trying to atone for their many sins by saving a preteen girl from sex traffickers. But only Dreamland has Henry Rollins as a hot-tempered mob boss, Juliette Lewis as an incestuous countess, a literal vampire, and dozens of kids in three-piece suits whose function lies halfway between Varys’ “little birds” on Game Of Thrones and the homeless assassin network in the John Wick movies. If that’s all not strange enough, Stephen McHattie appears in a dual role as both the remorseful hitman and a junkie trumpet player. This movie operates on a very specific frequency, one that’s not quite camp but not quite self-serious. And either it resonates with you or puts your teeth on edge—a bit like Phantom Of The Paradise, actually.

All the legal cannabis in Canada couldn’t get the audience on the frequency of Look What’s Happened To Rosemary’s Baby (Grade: D), the justly forgotten 1976 made-for-TV sequel to Roman Polanski’s horror masterpiece. The main impetus for the screening seemed to be taking advantage of McHattie’s presence at the festival, and he delivered in a post-screening Q&A where he remembered what he could about the ’70s and responded to a question about whether he keeps in touch with his co-star with a casual, “Oh, he got murdered.” (That would be David Huffman, who was stabbed to death in a Los Angeles park in 1985.) I’m glad I went, though, for the Q&A and for the opportunity to be introduced to the Cinéclub Film Society, which spliced some truly delightful vintage ads into the commercial breaks that Cinéclub director Philippe Spurrell explained to me were built into the original 16mm print.

Here it is, if you really want to watch it.

But although I had joked that you’re not really at a film festival until you’ve seen a depressing Chinese student film—as we had before the fest’s screening of Shadow, which opened in the States in May—the biggest hits of my time at Fantasia were both populist in nature. Of the two, I prefer the Korean box-office smash Extreme Job (Grade: B+), an extremely funny and high-energy blend of food porn and slapstick action-comedy about a gang of bumbling narcotics cops who buy a fried chicken joint. The place is meant to serve as headquarters for a stakeout, but the cops’ plan soon proves imperfect as customers keep coming in looking for something to eat. Paranoid about blowing their cover, they scramble to come up with a dish to serve at the restaurant, then are shocked to find that it’s a hit—so much so, business starts getting in the way of their undercover duties.

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With receipts of more than $127 million, Extreme Job quickly became the country’s highest-grossing film of all time when it was released in South Korea in January. And it’s easy to see why: The movie is laugh-out-loud hilarious from its opening moments, but doesn’t skimp on the literally hard-hitting action. Its only issue is that it runs long at 113 minutes, which gets exhausting considering the film’s breakneck pace. An American remake starring Kevin Hart is already in the works, but I’d recommend seeking this one out for the superb performances from the core ensemble of Ryu Seung-ryong, Lee Hanee, Jin Sun-kyu, Lee Dong-hwi, and Gong Myoung, all of whom excel at physical comedy as well as hand-to-hand combat.

And although a lot of it just gave me a headache, many of my fellow festival-goers were enamored with Little Monsters (Grade: B-), a movie that I would have hated if it weren’t for Lupita Nyong’o. Set in Australia, the film opens with a montage of a couple screaming at each other in various social and domestic situations until they finally break up. From here, we follow half of that couple, stereotypical slacker Dave (Alexander England), as he makes petulant, half-hearted efforts to become the adult his ex said he’d never be. The first third contains a couple of decent sight gags, but Little Monsters is mostly just a grating mix of hacky dick jokes and repetitive children’s songs—until, blessedly, Nyong’o shows up as Dave’s nephew’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Caroline.

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In a film where everyone is turning their caricature meter as high as it will go (Josh Gad is the worst offender as a kids’ show host addicted to sex and booze) Nyong’o plays Miss Caroline as a real person, one who has a past she’s not especially proud of but has found new purpose working with children. Radiant in a bright yellow sundress, she’d lay down her life for these kids—and she almost has to when the farm where Dave and Miss Caroline are chaperoning a field trip becomes overrun with zombies. Determined to spare her students the trauma of a zombie attack, Miss Caroline tells the kids that it’s all a funny game, and saves the movie in the process. It’s really too bad that she’s not the protagonist, because that would have made for a better film.

Little Monsters
Photo: Fantasia Film Festival

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International journalists attending Fantasia are flown up, put up in a charmingly ugly Brutalist hotel, crammed full of movies and bagels, and flown back home, all within five whirlwind days. But the festival goes on, as its sleep-deprived publicists will tell you with grim resolve. The A.V. Club’s coverage of Fantasia will also go on, with another dispatch coming next week.