Twenty-two years into its run, the Fantasia International Film Festival is the grande dame of North American genre film festivals. And like any institution, it has its milestones—Fantasia was the first festival to screen Takashi Miike’s work in North America, and arguably launched the J-horror trend internationally—and its traditions, chief of which is the much-discussed meowing that fills the space between when the lights go down and the movie starts up. (That was launched either by a series of short films or a stray cat that snuck into a screening, depending on who you ask.) It also has its veterans, those who have risen through the ranks from volunteers to staff—and sometimes even back again, in the case of one former volunteer coordinator who’s moved on to a new job, but came back this year as a volunteer.
Given all of this, perhaps it’s inevitable that arriving in Montreal for a second year at Fantasia carries with it a sense of déjà vu, from the quizzical look at customs (“what kind of a film festival?”) to the bowl of pommes in the hotel lobby (green, both times). Even the inquiries from Canadians as to the fucked-up state of American politics, delivered over a pint of beer with a furrowed brow and a tone of commiseration at the Irish pub down the street from the theater, feel familiar. (That has changed slightly, given that the festival was forced to pick a new pub after the previous after-hours hangout was damaged in a fire.) But an earnest question over an unpretentious pint speaks to the essence of this particular festival, which may be modest as far as parties and celebrity guests are concerned, but is extremely adventurous in its programming. This is a light year for Fantasia, believe it or not, with a roster of 130 films; those 130 films are spread out over the course of nearly three weeks, as will be our coverage.
The opening weekend of the festival displayed all those seemingly incongruous elements—tradition and adventure, careful curation and sheer overwhelming volume—at once, revolving around a pair of anthology films trading on that old pop culture reliable: name recognition. First was the opening-night premiere of Nightmare Cinema (B-), a sort of sideways revival of the Masters Of Horror franchise from series creator and nicest guy in horror Mick Garris, who had been attempting to turn the concept into a Tales From The Crypt-style horror series, but ended up gathering a few famous friends for an anthology film instead. The ceremony was preceded by a lifetime achievement award for Garris’ friend and collaborator Joe Dante, who quipped, “Getting a lifetime achievement award is nice, but it makes you think your lifetime might be winding down.”
Dante has been on a downward trajectory as a feature filmmaker over the past decade or so (he’s been surprisingly busy in television), but the short-film format and collaborative environment of an anthology seems to have reinvigorated him: His Nightmare Cinema segment, “Mirari”—a winking horror-comedy set in the already-grotesque world of a Los Angeles plastic surgeon’s office—is his best work in years. In a move that suits his bright, unabashedly cartoonish style, Dante stays true to the EC Comics template, using an ethical dilemma as the setup and a nightmarish comeuppance as the punchline to a cruelly ironic joke. In between, Richard Chamberlain makes a scene-stealing appearance as a malevolent plastic surgeon, and prosthetic makeup from KNB Efx Group (the team behind The Walking Dead and the upcoming Predators, among many others) elevates the production value beyond the clearly low-budget sets. Although “Mirari” is nothing groundbreaking, it’s nice to see Dante having fun behind the camera again.
As is the case with all horror anthologies, the rest are a mixed bag. Juan Of The Dead director Alejandro Brugués does his best Dante impression (and it’s a good one) in “The Thing In The Woods,” described by its director as “the third act of a slasher movie” re-contextualized as a standalone short (we skip the kids arriving at the cabin and cut straight to the kills, basically) with a delightfully bizarre sci-fi twist. Downrange director Ryuhei Kitamura, meanwhile, swings for the fences and ends up with a mess with “Mashit,” a riff on ’80s Italian horror set in a Catholic school beset by demons and defended by a fornicating priest-nun duo. And sure, ’80s Italian horror isn’t exactly known for its tight plotting, but all the gleeful excess of the segment can’t make it any more coherent. Hard Candy’s David Slade puts his experience directing all those Black Mirror episodes to wonderfully bizarre use in standout segment “This Way To Egress,” a first-person descent into madness with a masterful command of tone and black-and-white cinematography that heightens the unease. Finally, Garris turns in an unexpected combination of family drama and intense violence in “Dead,” a segment that ekes real tenderness from the friendship between Riley (Faly Rakotohavana) and Casey (Lexy Panterra), teenagers holed up in a hospital ward who are both cursed with the ability to see the dead.
Garris said at the Q&A following the film that he’s hoping to use Nightmare Cinema as a launching pad for lesser-known directors from around the world. It’s a noble goal, but although this edition has some bankable names behind it—besides the directors, Mickey Rourke appears as a hammy Cryptkeeper-type character in an ensemble straight out of cybergoth night at the local fetish club—it’s just too uneven and low budget to make that likely, unfortunately. That uneven quality is not for lack of trying; the below-the-line crew, including music from Full Moon’s Richard Band, is shared across several of the segments, and several of the screenplays even share similar origins, having been cut down from feature-length scripts. (That’s not necessarily a good thing, particularly in Kitamura’s segment.)
Considering how active Garris has been in the horror world these past few years (we’ve covered his Post Mortem podcast in our Podmass feature), we kind of figured we’d see him and his buddies on screen again in some capacity. But we certainly weren’t expecting to see the premiere of Tales From The Hood 2 (C) at this year’s Fantasia. (Recently revived by Universal, the sequel is set for a VOD release in October.) If you’ve seen the original Tales From The Hood, which has become something of a cult classic in the 23 years since its release, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from this decades-later sequel, which similarly combines progressive social commentary and campy horror fun. How many other horror series—or films in general—can you name that have a giant killer doll and references to Marshall McLuhan and Black Lives Matter?
Keith David of The Thing and They Live fame is clearly relishing his role as the diabolical master of ceremonies, taking over for Clarence Williams III in the original. (Williams is 78 and happily retired.) There’s nothing subtle about David’s red-and-black brocade suit, and the pretense that brings him into the film is utterly absurd: A weapons manufacturer named Dumass Beach (get it?) has hired him to feed a Trumpian RoboCop called the PatriotBot stories of the criminal underworld—tales from the hood, if you will—to refine its law-enforcement abilities. Will that robot eventually go amok and mispronounce its creator’s name as David cackles diabolically in the background? You already know the answer to that one.
In short, Tales From The Hood 2 is silly, low-budget, over-the-top, and a real hoot for those with a soft spot for direct-to-video ’80s and ’90s horror. (Everyone else can comfortably skip it.) The film consists of three comedic stories—highlighted by a segment with Mad Men’s Bryan Batt as a TV psychic/con man who becomes the unwitting vessel for a recently deceased pimp—and one serious segment, “Sacrifice,” in which a black Republican is confronted by the ghosts of victims of racially motivated hate crimes. In a bit of role reversal, Fear Of A Black Hat’s Rusty Cundieff (who also directed quite a few episodes of Chappelle’s Show) takes on the more serious segments, with Menace II Society producer Darin Scott, who’s spent much of his career working on horror cheapies with titles like Megachurch Murder and Something Wicked, handling the more comedic segments. It won’t win any awards for subtlety, but if you’re a fan of the original, you already know that.
In another coincidental act of mirroring, two of the other most buzzed-about films of Fantasia’s opening weekend were documentaries. First, there was Boiled Angels: The Trial Of Mike Diana (B), a look back at comic book history through the story of cartoonist Mike Diana, the first American cartoonist to have been convicted of obscenity. Through talking-heads interviews with the likes of Neil Gaiman and late underground comix artist Jay Lynch, the film traces comics history from Seduction Of The Innocent to Diana’s conviction on charges of obscenity for two issues of his zine Boiled Angels in May of 1994—a conviction remarkable not only as a historical milestone, but for its many ironies and absurdities, like the condition of Diana’s probation that he wasn’t allowed to draw. At all. He was even subject to random searches to make sure he wasn’t doodling in his spare time.
If you aren’t familiar with Diana’s work, make no mistake: It’s extremely cynical, diabolically creative, violent, crude, and obsessed with child sexual abuse and the mutilation of women. It’s also, occasionally, rather poetic. Even when it’s not, though, it’s clearly the work of a sensitive soul whose ugly drawings are raging against the ugliness of society. In that sense, his comics are like a gory heavy-metal album cover: immature as hell, but unlikely to inspire any real-world violence, or, indeed, be seen by anyone outside of a handful of similarly minded long-haired kids. For what the documentary asserts are political reasons, though, Diana’s home state of Florida thought he was dangerous, and declared him a person of interest in a series of gruesome murders that took place in Gainesville in 1991, when he was 21 years old. When authorities were unable to pin those crimes on the morbid young artist, they prosecuted him for obscenity instead—ironically making him and his work exponentially more famous than they would have been if they had just left him alone. (Before the trial, only a few hundred copies of Boiled Angels had been produced, and traded through the mail or sold at head shops.)
Boiled Angels is directed by Basket Case’s and Frankenhooker’s Frank Henenlotter and narrated by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, both of whom clearly consider themselves warriors in the battle against good taste. That manifests itself in a thrash-punk soundtrack and obnoxiously brash graphics, both of which suit the subject matter in an endearingly juvenile way. These are paired with animations of comic strips from the issues of Boiled Angels discussed at Diana’s trial, lending visual interest to a film otherwise consisting of archival footage and talking-heads interviews. This gleeful primitiveness is less beneficial in terms of the film’s content; Henenlotter is so intent on preaching to the free-speech choir that he takes Diana’s rather glib assertion that he did it all because he hates Florida at face value, leaving the rich, potentially thorny subject of what was going through Diana’s head when he drew this stuff completely un-interrogated. (He and Diana were friends for many years before the making of the film, so there you go.)
A better, more nuanced documentary would have had more to say about the First Amendment than the eye-roll-inducing title card that proclaims that the “politically correct” should “stop watching now” that opens this film, but then again, nuance is hardly Diana’s thing—or Henenlotter’s, for that matter. Still, it’s a fascinating case study of government overreach far grosser than the comics it claimed it was protecting people from, and one that should be more widely known.
The highlight of the weekend was another, more low-key documentary: People’s Republic Of Desire (B+), director Hao Wu’s documentary on the fast-growing Chinese live-streaming trend. Where Boiled Angels is unsubtle, People’s Republic Of Desire is all nuance, weaving together the stories of two live-streaming stars, a manager, and a devoted fan to form a portrait not only of the extreme acceleration that defines contemporary Chinese pop culture, but also a microcosm of the bizarre fantasy economy and complex, parasitic interdependencies of late capitalism as a whole.
A distinction should be drawn between Chinese live-streaming and Western YouTube stars: The Chinese phenomenon is more like a daily talk-radio show, where “hosts” go on camera for hours every day to talk directly to fans, who leave comments and send small cash gifts to get the attention of their favorites. As you might expect, this unfiltered access to online celebrities leads to extremes of both adoration and abuse, as in the case of Shen Man, a beautiful, talented 21-year-old singer who’s one of the most popular hosts in all of China. Shen Man makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year live-streaming—for now; she notes at one point that by the time she’s 25, her career will be over—but to do that, she has to tolerate a foul torrent of slut-shaming and misogynist vitriol that grows alongside her popularity. She also supports her entire extended family, and works every day of the week, struggling to appear cheerful on camera while her off-camera life is stressful and isolated.
The content of live-streaming shows can vary widely, from explicitly sexual to family-friendly and from off-the-cuff to elaborate and scripted. Shen Man’s is as innocent as they get, consisting mostly of her singing along with pop hits in her ultra-girly bedroom. The male host who’s the other focus of the film, 24-year-old Big Li, is a comedian whose appeal to his mostly male audience comes from his status as a self-proclaimed “daosi,” a Mandarin slang word for a loser with no prospects for upward mobility. Big Li’s fans find hope in seeing a fellow loser make good, though Li himself is prone to periods of deep depression exacerbated by his perpetual underdog status in the live-streaming celebrity ecosystem.
Both of them are hiding their misery in order to give ordinary citizens, many of whom make less than $500 U.S. a month and tithe a portion of that to their favorite hosts, a respite from theirs. Further complicating the dynamic are “kings,” anonymous members of the nouveau riche who spend outrageous sums—a patron who goes by the screen name “Caterpillar” once dropped $16,000 in one session—on live-stream hosts in exchange for the adoration of ordinary fans, who get a vicarious thrill at watching people they consider their social betters throw money around. Some of these patrons have become celebrities in their own rights, and some have even opened “talent agencies” to groom stables of stars. All this converges in an annual competition in which losers and kings alike can buy votes, each costing a few yuan, for their favorite hosts. The hosts with the most votes in different categories are awarded statuettes in a televised awards ceremony.
Wu demonstrates this unbridled orgy of abstract consumerism—everyone, all down the line, is simply buying good feelings and/or status by participating—with extensive use of clips from live-streaming sessions, enhanced with CGI graphics that mimic the bright, loud, extremely confusing (from the outside; once you get used to it, it’s apparently addictive) experience of using a live-streaming site. That’s combined with revealing documentary footage that gets bleaker as the documentary goes on. As Shen Man puts it, “When money is involved, family, love, friendship, they’re all bullshit.” Tell that to top live-streaming site YY, which was listed on the NASDAQ exchange in 2012 and has seen its price rise dramatically in the past year.
Our Fantasia coverage will continue on Monday, July 23, with reviews of The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot, starring Sam Elliott in the title role; Luz, a ’70s and ’80s art-horror throwback in the style of filmmakers like Andrzej Zulawski; Chained For Life, a meta-horror film about the romance between a beautiful actress and a deformed actor; and Cam, a Lynchian thriller set in the world of webcamming (the American, sex-work-specific kind) from first-time director Daniel Goldhaber.