If it's September, it must be Fantastic Fest. And, with the home release schedules of independent and genre movies being what they are, there's a slate of 2014 titles arriving on DVD and Blu-ray this month. So if you didn't get enough last year, or you're still catching up, here's the best of what you missed last time around.
If film festivals have a purpose (beyond red carpets and free booze), it's to give some exposure to remarkable cinema that might otherwise go unnoticed. The downside is that, sometimes, such films get swallowed in the deluge. So seemingly was the case with The Treatment, which didn't emerge with much audience buzz, but now gets a second shot, courtesy of the resurgent Artsploitation label.
Adapted from British crime novelist Mo Hayder's 2001 book of the same name, director Hans Herbots moves the action over the English Channel to Belgium, but retains the same sense of unending despair and doom. Police Inspector Nick Cafmeyer (Geert Van Rampelberg) is working a horrific child abduction case: A family is locked in their own house for three days, the child taken, and for some reason the father seems unwilling to talk about exactly what happened. That's a trigger for Nick, who is still dealing with the abduction of his own brother by a predatory pedophile when he was 9 years old.
Child sexual abuse in cinema is always a thorny topic, but in Belgian cinema it will always come with the added weight of Marc Dutroux, the infamous child rapist and murderer. The investigation of his crimes was so botched that to this day there are suggestions of complicity among the Belgian social and political elite (suspicions that may only be heightened by the recent investigations of politicians and celebrities in the UK, and Europol's massive Operation Rescue arrests). That means that Herbots was challenged with balancing the drama required by a cop procedural with the sensitivity the material requires.
What's remarkable is how well he manages exactly that, while being prepared to shock and disturb the audience in a non-prurient way. While not as unrelentingly offensive as the infamous A Serbian Film, it's unflinching in depicting the emotional and physical carnage that pedophilia inflicts. It's really Van Rampelberg that is the fulcrum for that balancing act, as he hunts for the mysterious figure that children call the Troll. His sense of barely healed damage, of the guilt he feels for what happened to his brother, and the shortcuts he will take to ensure that no one suffers the same way, are the true drama here.
Through a recurrent image of powerlessness, Herbots also ensures that no one walks away from this unscarred, which is the truth in such stories. He keeps this as a police procedural, and it is that underlying verisimilitude that makes this both so appalling and enthralling. Hey, no one said that cinema – especially confrontational cinema – had to be easy.
There's a different sense of survivor's guilt in Redeemer, which may be the most Fantastic Fest-y film ever. The festival is infamous for its regulars and favorites, and this is pretty much an FF six degrees of Kevin Bacon sandwich. The latest from Chilewood (the Chilean movement dedicated to putting the South American nation's most popular movies on international screens), it reunites director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza for a fourth time with his Mirage Man/Mandrill/Kiltro star Marko Zaror in a tale of revenge, drug dealers, and (as the title suggests) redemption.
Zaror (a legitimate martial arts badass, with the moves of a young JCVD and the stony visage of High Plains Drifter-era Clint Eastwood) is a man with a guilty past and fists of iron. The opening scenes are a blur of seemingly unrelated scenes: Zaror, dying in the desert; praying in a church; playing solitaire Russian Roulette; and beating seven shades out of a bunch of rapist neo-Nazis. When he checks into a down-at-heel hotel in a small fishing village, his guilty secrets and overbearing shame are revealed, as is his motivation: He did something terrible, and now he will walk the Earth, avenging those that cannot seek retribution themselves. All the while he is hunted by another killer (José Luís Mósca) with his own twisted motivations and a much more malign take on killing for Catholic angst.
Shot on a minimal budget, almost overloaded with religious symbolism, and purposefully dour, it's the classic tale of the stranger who drifts into town and gets dragged into everyone else's business, just with a Chilean accent. And that's absolutely fine. Espinoza isn't trying to reinvent any wheels, and while this is no Pale Rider, it has some of the most excellent fight sequences onscreen this year. There's a glorious sense of energy whenever Zaror gets past the crowd of underlings and immerses himself in a five minute mano-a-mano slugfest with whatever tough guy the drug lords menacing the town send against him.
There's the inevitable romance subplot, as hotel maid Antonia (Loreto Aravena) tries to break through the Redeemer's self-sacrificing exterior. And there's also one of the funniest comedy subplots the genre has ever seen, courtesy of another FF veteran. Noah Segan (Looper, Brick, and FF 2015 hot pick Follow) plays the American drug lord as the idiot abroad, his smattering of Spanish and desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with the locals (such as wearing a poncho and chupalla) make him a source of dangerous comedy.
It's no secret that I think Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is an unlauded masterpiece, but he may have exceeded that with his follow-up Duke of Burgundy. Springing out of a failed attempt to remake Jess Franco's Lorna the Exorcist, Strickland has combined the most salacious aspects of early Seventies' Eurosleaze – lesbianism, sadomasochism, fantastical, Gothic locations – and rewrites it as a tender, hilarious, incisive tale of power in relationships. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) are unashamedly erotic and emotional in this genteel fairy tale that explores questions of intimacy and fetish without being prurient.
As my wife pointed out after last year's FF screening (read the full review here), he ingeniously removes questions of gender politics by having a same-sex couple, allowing a better, more tender examination of how age, youth, energy, experience, and the desperate desire to please your partner shape a relationship. It's in moments like Cynthia tossing a chocolate wrapper on the floor as Evelyn hand-brushes the rug: it seems callous, but is so perfectly timed to indulge Evelyn's masochistic wishes that it becomes an act of love.
Yet this never seems heavy or overwrought: Strickland's playfulness, complimented perfectly by the Gainsbourg-inspired and Luis de Pablo-influenced soundtrack from retro-popsters Cat's Eye, dances between maudlin and hilarious (if you don't laugh during the hand-flapping dumb show, you may be dead inside). It's also definitely worth picking up the disc for Strickland's commentary: unlike his almost deliberately obtuse supplemental for Berberian, he's far more explanatory and open about what he's doing and how he did it. Plus, anyone that shows so much unabashed love for the work of Jean Rollin and Alain Robbe Grillet, and makes an argument for the sensuality of John Candy, can't be wrong.
If you're not burned out on genre films by the end of the fest, there are still a couple more titles arriving on home release in early October. Alleluia (read the full review here) is based on the true life story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the notorious Lonely Hearts Killers. Transferring some of Beck and Fernandez's worst crimes from 1940s' New York to contemporary Belgium, Alleluia touches on Duke's themes of power dynamics in a relationship. Part of the new wave of European gritty pyscho-horrors (alongside The Treatment, last year's FF secret screening Good Night, Mommy, and Der Samurai), the end result plays like a Michael Haneke cover of Ben Wheatley's Sightseers (minus the deliciously mordant humor).
And if Redeemer ignites your passion for Chilewood, then you have a second option next month with the release of The Stranger. Sorry, make that Eli Roth Presents The Stranger, since the horror auteur has become one of the loudest cheerleaders for the scene. The English-language directorial debut of his The Green Inferno co-writer Guillermo Amoedo, it's the mirror image of Redeemer, with a mysterious figure arriving in a small town. Only he's not such a stranger. Martin (Cristobal Tapia Montt) arrives in the (clearly not Canadian) Canadian town, looking for his ex-wife that he seemingly abandoned 16 years ago. A man at the end of his rope, he doesn't seemingly care when he's brutalized by neo-Nazis (again with the Chilean neo-Nazis!), or when he's taken in by local teen Peter (Nicolas Duran) and his mother (Alessandra Guerzoni). But then, he does seem to have bigger, more supernatural fish to fry, with his own theological rampage putting the Redeemer's in the shade.
Ameodo aims for low key and unsettling, and he's assisted in that mostly by Montt and his hobo Jake Gyllenhaal vibe. True, he telegraphs the sanguine-centric horror a little early, but if revisionist, character-driven vampire drama is to your taste, this sits somewhere between the outright revolution of Near Dark, and the Southern retelling of Carmilla in The Unwanted.
DVDanger returns in two weeks, as soon as my Fantastic Fest hangover clears up.
Redeemer (Dark Sky Films), The Duke of Burgundy (Sundance Selects/Shout! Factory), and The Treatment (Artsploitation) are available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD now.
Alleluia (Doppelganger) and The Stranger (Shout! Factory) will be released on Oct. 6.
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