As all but the most self-disciplined among us know, what seems like a great idea at 3 a.m. usually isn’t so much fun at noon, and so it’s only by virtue of thinking it started earlier than it did that I was able to make it on time to the first film on Sunday morning, a 12:35 screening of Japanese Girls Never Die. And although the walk over was more like a trudge, I’m glad I got a chance to see this unusual, incisive, and unexpectedly moving film, which currently does not have U.S. distribution. With women still being pressured to marry young and quit their jobs as soon as they get married—with marriage and birth rates declining as a result—Japan has a patriarchy problem, and this film is a wild, anarchic cry of defiance.
Told not only with a nonlinear timeline but also multiple point-of-view characters—a theme at this year’s Fantasia, it seems—the story revolves around two characters, Haruko and Aina, young women both hurtling toward disillusionment at different speeds. Haruko, in her late 20s and still living at home, silently endures constant sexist condescension at her office job, while Aina, who just turned 20, dates a thoughtless cad who ditches her as soon as his art career starts to pick up. But the film isn’t all brutal vignettes of frustration and heartbreak, as it intercuts Haruko and Aina’s lives with surrealist interludes, colorful graffiti art, and a mysterious gang of high school girls who beat the living hell out of any man who dares walk alone at night. Japanese Girls Never Die is an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic portrait of life as a woman in modern-day Japan, with a little bit of art-world satire to boot.
After a much-needed coffee and croissant, it was back to the theater for Animals, a striking but ultimately rather forgettable French-Swiss co-production about a couple whose marriage is on the rocks heading to Switzerland for vacation, as all unhappy couples in European art films must at one point or another. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful lighting, composition, and imagery, but it’s a bit too preoccupied with mind-bending atmospherics to draw any real impact from its dual storylines about a frustrated author, whose husband’s constant infidelity slowly erodes her sanity—unreliable narrator alert!—and her lonely house-sitter back in the city. With shades of Lost Highway, Antichrist, Repulsion, and Vertigo, at times the film can feel like a game of spot the psychological horror reference, but at least it borrows from the best. And it had a talking cat, which is always a plus.
The news of George Romero’s death broke while we were in the theater, and we emerged into an already gray, rainy afternoon made even heavier by the loss of a man who many at the festival considered, if not a friend, a profound influence on their life’s work. (The producer and director of Romero’s new project were scheduled to attend Fantasia’s Frontieres Market in search of funding the following weekend, so the festival organizers were especially shaken.) That grim mood carried over into an emotional tribute to Romero from festival co-founder Mitch Davis in his introduction to the next film, but then the show had to go on for the Canadian premiere of Replace.
Director Norbert Keil, co-writer Richard Stanley, and co-star Barbara Crampton are all genre veterans, and the film engages with some pretty high-minded concepts about cell regeneration and the medical necessity of aging. (What else would you expect from Stanley, whose doomed obsession with The Island Of Dr. Moreau is the stuff of legend?) Crampton’s ice-cold performance as a mad doctor obsessed with experimenting on nubile young women brings her career delightfully full circle, and lead Rebecca Forsythe—yep, daughter of William—is game for all the scenes of outre body-horror her role as a beautiful amnesiac plagued by a mysterious skin condition requires. It’s too bad, then, that the plot devolves into predictable sci-fi fare fairly early on, seemingly sealing its fate as a direct-to-VOD release.
My last film of the festival, My Friend Dahmer, was also one of my favorite films of the weekend, which was a pleasant surprise. A fairly straightforward high school dramedy, My Friend Dahmer doesn’t fit the classic definition of a “genre” film, and was programmed at Fantasia presumably because of its dark subject matter. Well, implied dark subject matter: Based on the acclaimed graphic-novel memoir by underground comics artist Derf Backderf—who really did pal around occasionally with future cannibal killer Jeffrey Dahmer when they were students at the same high school in Akron, Ohio—the film stops just short of depicting Dahmer’s first murder. Instead, it paints him as a maladjusted teenager with admittedly strange fixations (collecting roadkill found by the side of the highway is a big one) and an inability to crack the popularity code.
You want to feel sympathy for Jeffrey, especially given the constant fighting between his chemist father (Dallas Roberts) and mentally ill mother (Anne Heche, unrecognizable and great) and his deep repression of his homosexuality. Seeing him desperately try to fit in at school by allowing himself to be the subject of humiliating pranks, you start to think that there’s a kid like Jeffrey at every high school, and if you didn’t know him, you might have been him. Then you remember that Dahmer was not just like everyone else. Producing horror by triggering the audience’s empathy for Jeffrey—a quality Dahmer himself notably lacked—is a clever technique, and director Marc Meyers uses it effectively throughout. So does former Disney Channel heartthrob Ross Lynch, who plays Dahmer as a hulking, mopey, slope-shouldered teen whose stoic demeanor covers a deep well of rage.
If you somehow stumbled into the film not knowing a single thing about Jeffrey Dahmer, the final title card, which details his crimes, would be a jaw-dropper. But I’m willing to bet that a large portion of the film’s audience will see it because they know all about Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, and for those viewers, little moments like Jeffrey leading the family dog out into the woods behind his house are nauseatingly foreboding. Being able to produce such a churn of unsettling emotions without excessive onscreen violence is a remarkable directorial achievement, and Meyers’ commitment to accuracy, which went so far as to shoot the film inside Dahmer’s real childhood home, is also worthy of praise. More than anything, though, My Friend Dahmer doesn’t humanize one of America’s most notorious serial killers for shock value, but to raise the question of, if someone had gotten this troubled young man some psychiatric help, or even just shown him some real support and affection, would the 17 men and boys he killed be alive today? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s thought-provoking nonetheless.
Also screened at Fantasia: Many of the features were paired with short films, and while there’s not enough room to list them all, I’d like to mention two worth seeking out: It Began Without Warning (directed by Santiago C. Tapia AND Jessica Curtright), a DIY effort that still managed to cram more moments of visceral shock and sheer “WTF?!” in six minutes than in some feature films I’ve seen recently; and Hum (directed by Stefano Nurra), a British short that blends hard sci-fi and soulful emotion in unexpected ways. Keep an eye out for these directors and their future endeavors.
Hopping vampires, exploding heads, and bloody revenge? Just another Saturday at Fantasia International Film Festival
Fantasia may keep things simple as far as premieres go—no black-tie galas or elaborate theme parties here—but it’s not like you have to dress up Montreal all that much, anyway. A truly international city that alternately gives off shades of Seattle, New York, Tokyo, and an idealized vision of Paris, it seems to cradle the entire world in its humid green palm. Four days there is not nearly long enough to begin to unravel the mysteries of Quebecois French, but it is long enough to be able to utter the phrase “parlez-vous anglais?” with only a mild glimmer of panic, as I was finally able to do after a full 24 hours of frozen terror every time someone addressed me in French. Not that it was that much of an issue; most Quebecois can smell the American on you, anyway.
The aura of exclusivity, the welcoming of those who get it and indifference toward those who don’t, that hangs over Montreal is also part of Fantasia’s DNA. That’s not to say that people are cold or exclusionary; in fact, they’re some of the nicest and most open people you’ll ever meet. But the tight-knit nature of the Fantasia community has led to some quirky traditions, like the Nongshim ramen commercial—that, granted, looks like it hasn’t been updated since the ’80s—that’s met with outsized, semi-ironic cheers and whistles. But the most beloved, and confusing, Fantasia tradition is the meowing. Originating with a series of short films called Simon’s Cat, somewhere along the line people started meowing every time black leader shows up on the screen between the commercial pre-roll and the film itself. Then people started hissing at the meowing, and barking at the hissing, and that brief moment of blackness is now filled with a cacophony of animal noises. But only during the leader; doing it during the film itself would be rude. You won’t see a single cellphone out during a Fantasia screening, and there’s no threatening video that plays before the movie warning you to put them away. So that’s what it’s like to live in a civilized country.
The animal noises were in full effect during the first screening of a relatively light Saturday, Vampire Cleanup Department, a colorful and fast-paced homage to the wave of vampire films that came out of Hong Kong in the ’80s. Colloquially referred to as “hopping vampires” because, well, they hop around with their arms sticking straight out in front of them, Chinese lore features a wholly different, but equally codified, set of vampire tropes, all of which get trotted out to comedic effect here.The plot revolves around a teenager who joins up with a secret government agency in charge of making sure the public never finds out about the existence of vampires (thus the “cleanup” bit), but that’s just a framework on which to hang sight gags and snappy dialogue. Watching the film, you get the feeling that you’re watching another culture’s equivalent of last year’s Ghostbusters remake (sans gender swap, of course), an impression that’s only enhanced when the plot starts borrowing elements from Ghostbusters.
With only a couple of hours to shift mental gears between light-hearted supernatural comedy and serious-minded brutality, later in the evening the same auditorium played host to the world premiere of Mohawk, the new film from We Are Still Here director Ted Geoghegan. Co-written by My Best Friend’s Exorcism author Grady Hendrix, the film aims for the same historical verisimilitude as The Witch, but with scrappier production values. It drags a bit in its front half, introducing Mohawk warrior Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), her lovers Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) and Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren), and the existential crisis facing the Mohawk people two years into the War Of 1812. But while the film’s positive depiction of polyamory is certainly bold, the real thematic heart of Mohawk is the resilience and bravery Native Americans have shown in the face of attempted genocide. The horrors inflicted on the Mohawk are avenged with startlingly brutal practical effects—the image of a thumb being ripped apart from the rest of a character’s hand is especially nauseating—and an intriguingly vague supernatural element, suggesting that the land itself comes to Oak’s aid after another bold plot twist fundamentally changes her situation about halfway through. By the final scene, Mohawk has crescendoed to a powerful symbolic reckoning between oppressor and oppressed, well worth sticking it out through the opening scenes of characters chasing each other through the woods.
The final film of the evening, Game Of Death, blended horror and comedy, but with a tongue-in-cheek nihilism that, as much as I hate to participate in the bad-mouthing of a generation that gets bad-mouthed enough as it is, can only be described as “millennial.” Assembled from a series of shorts originally released on streaming video app Blackpills, the film’s Fantasia screening was a homecoming victory lap for Montreal-based directors Laurence “Baz” Morais and Sebastien Landry, who introduced it in French to wild applause. Game Of Death’s serial origins are reflected in its structure, but the real problem with the film is its self-conscious edginess, loading up the opening segment with teens-gone-wild sex and drug content and subsequent segments with over-the-top gore that soon leaves every young, half-dressed character completely soaked in blood. As the title implies, this is indeed a killer board-game movie, with especially brutal rules that charge players with killing a total of 24 innocent people. And if they don’t comply—kaboom! Their heads explode one by one. Game Of Death’s playful tone does land some absurdist laughs, but attempts to reconcile the film’s ironic distance from its pervasive bloodshed and the serious (and interesting!) moral conflict produced by the game’s rules land with a splat.
Lowlife highlights day one of Fantasia
Plenty of festivals have casual dabblers and weekend warriors, but to stick it out for the entirety of the Fantasia International Film Festival—which spans three and a half weeks every summer—would be a superhuman feat. Not that people don’t do it; the day after checking in to my hotel in Montreal’s central district, I met my next-door neighbors, two filmmakers who were settling in for nearly a month of continuous movie bingeing. But they were from Australia, so they had an excuse. The fact of the matter is, while watching movies is certainly nothing to complain about, it is exhausting to take in that much visual, auditory, and, if you’re lucky, emotional stimulation in one day. And that’s not even accounting for late nights spent at the pub.
Now in its 21st year, Fantasia remembers a time when obsessing over fantasy worlds of monsters, ghosts, and psycho killers was something you kept to yourself. The organizers talk about the early days, when obscure films were only available on bootleg VHS and people would introduce themselves by their message board handles because there were no photos online to recognize them by. Now the internet is home to a thriving horror fan culture fueled by enamel pins and Twitter one-upmanship, but Fantasia continues to keep things simple.
A cardboard standup with the festival logo suffices for a red carpet, and screenings are held in auditoriums at Concordia University Montreal, where festivalgoers mingle with college students rushing to class. (As always, you can tell the difference by the content of their T-shirts.) Gala receptions for visiting filmmakers are held at the Irish pub down the street, as informal of an official meeting point as you’re going to get. Everyone, from celebrity guests to your average ticket buyer, inevitably ends up there after the last screening of the night, and you can absolutely walk up and introduce yourself, although you’d better be ready to talk movies.
My first film of the festival was Lowlife, an American indie that came seemingly out of nowhere to make its world premiere at Fantasia. Set in the Mexican immigrant community of Los Angeles, the film revives the post-Pulp Fiction boom of films with fractured timelines and multiple points of view revolving around a colorful crew of criminals, addicts, and ordinary people in way over their heads. Being a debut feature, the film at times struggles to stay on track tonally—a graphic autopsy scene at the beginning seems to portend a much different kind of story—but once it rights itself, it’s off like a bullet from the chamber of a gun. Blending extreme violence and uproariously funny dialogue, the film is most notable for its engaging characters, which include a moving turn from Animal Kingdom’s Nicki Micheaux as a motel owner plagued by regret, a deathly serious Ricardo Adam Zarate as a luchador turned bodyguard struggling to live up to his father’s legacy, and Jon Oswald as perhaps the most lovable ex-con with a swastika face tattoo ever committed to film.
Unfortunately, my second film of the day, the deathly dull character study Tilt, was not so engaging. Billing itself as “the first post-Trump horror movie,” the film clearly has something weighty on its mind, but buries it under tedious layers of post-adolescent ennui, dropped narrative threads, and literal aimless wandering as a documentary filmmaker pouts about his new role as house husband whose deep thoughts on the American political system are ignored by his wife. (Never mind she seems to have enough going on between working full time, studying for her medical school exams, and being pregnant.) There might be something there about the decline of masculine identity in 21st-century America, but even when the film reaches its inevitable violent climax, it’s frustrated in its expression of white male frustration.
Follow-up film Super Dark Times was, in its way, equally confounding, although much more entertaining in the telling. The film falls into the general Stephen King-esque mold of coming-of-age stories about teenage boys who ride their bikes around, swear a lot, and stumble into life-changing trouble, with a dark twist that I wasn’t expecting. (Kudos to writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski for that.) Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan (a.k.a. Gotham’s Dr. Jonathan Crane) co-star as best friends in a sleepy Northwestern town whose lives go down completely different paths after an accident that kills a classmate one afternoon after school. Both leads turn in solid performances anchored by realistic teen dialogue, even as the plot ties itself into knots around them. I wasn’t as impressed with the film as some of my fellow audience members, but Kevin Phillips, transitioning from music videos to feature films and from cinematography to directing, has an undeniable eye.