What's Fantastic at Fantasia
Highlights from the Canadian genre fest, plus films you may see soon
By Richard Whittaker,
12:00PM, Tue. Aug. 14, 2018
The film festival calendar is a packed, year-round experience (and that's just in Austin). Yet with the fall rampage just about to bear down on us, it's across the Northern border we gaze for our first clues for the hot titles we may yet see – to Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival.
Depending how you look at the year, the three week Fantasia (which wrapped up last week), is the unofficial start or end of the festival cycle – maybe a little bit of both. Many titles that have either played Austin festivals already get their Canadian debut, but there's a host of films that have either already been confirmed for an Austin premiere, or will be turning up in theaters or on VOD soon.
On that list of films that played here first: Two Japanese cartoons, Akiyuki Shinbo's animated remake of Fireworks and Maro Okada's lyrical Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, already got US theatrical release, as did glorious retro-slasher Summer of 84 (still in Austin theatres this week). Scottish zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse was an audience favorite at Fantastic Fest 2018, and is just waiting for a seasonal theatrical release, whereas Japanese undead romp I Am a Hero was an audience award winner at SXSW 2016 (yes, you read that right).
In fact, there's a big crossover with some of SXSW 2018's more experimental genre titles. Two of Russian producer Timur Bekmambetov computer screen-grab dramas, the thriller Profile and Unfriended: Dark Web, played both, although they were joined in Canada by the upcoming Searching: and if their depiction of digital life seemed too fanciful, then online celebrity documentary People's Republic of Desire showed that it's not that far removed from reality. There was also a brace of female-fronted Midnighters, the subversive survival horror What Keeps You Alive and day-glo punk splatterfest The Ranger.
But what about those movies we haven't seen in Austin yet? Here's 10 of the most fantastical films to play Fantasia that may be heading our way soon.
D: Anthony Scott Burns, 2018, Canada
Festival scheduling is a peculiar deal, so while Fantasia crowds got Our House on the big screen, it's already on VOD in the states. But this very modern take on the ghost story is unmissable in any format. It begins with a hideous tragedy that befalls the Lightmans, leaving elder brother Ethan (Thomas Mann) caring for his younger siblings Matt (Percy Hynes White) and Becca (Kate Moyer). The family tragedy has forced him to drop out of college, but he picks up his experiment – a wireless electricity supply – in his basement. However, he's stirred up a lot more than electrons, and his device may have ruptured the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Burns' supernatural horror is genuinely chilling, and features some of the best ghostly designs since We Are Still Here. But where it really flies is in how it handles survivor's guilt. Ethan and Matt's tense sibling sniping, and Becca's infant desolation – a hole in her life that she doesn't quite know to call grief yet – is beautifully mapped out. When a way to communicate with those they lost appears, that's why they leap on it. Plus Parker Nathan's script dodges the tropes of having the scientist pretend that floating teddy bears and uncanny deaths can be explained by physics. It's rare to see a horror film that embraces, rather than rejects, technology.
D: Daniel Goldhaber, 2018, USA
Yes, it may be rare to see technology and terror, but not unprecedented, and the debut feature of Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei depends on the intersection of menace and the internet. Mazzei, herself a former camgirl (don't pretend you don't know what that is), writes what is first and foremost a rare and charming insight into the life of an online sex worker. Alice (Madeline Brewer, best known as The Handmaid's Tale's Janine) has her working relationship with her regular viewers, and makes a comfortable living (that she has to hide from her family). The story is sexually explicit and honest without ever feeling graphic and gratuitous, and that would distinguish Cam enough, but when a ghost in the machine starts imitating Alice, and picking up her fans, that's when it takes a fascinating sharp left turn.
Reminiscent of the SXSW award-winning Most Beautiful Island in its sensitive melding of genres, there's good news for Austin audiences: Not only has this been confirmed for Fantastic Fest, but it's also one of the recent high profile acquisitions for Netflix – making that FF screening even more of a hot ticket.
One Cut of the Dead
D: Shin'ichirô Ueda, 2017, Japan
Another title confirmed for Fantastic Fest, Ueda's first feature starts off as a gargantuan effort in indie horror virtuosity – a 37 minute single take zombie nightmare that looks like it fell straight out of a low-budget Japanese TV show. Which is exactly what it is. Once this incredible feat is done, the action flips behind the camera and back before the shoot started, where karaoke video director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) gets his one shot at, well, if not exactly fame, then at making something people may see some time other than when they're blitzed on overpriced beer with salarymen. What starts off as a lo-fi gorefest quickly becomes an incredibly charming family comedy about life on the fringes of filmmaking, somewhere between Bowfinger and Living in Oblivion.
D: Dennison Ramalho, 2018, Brazil
Another confirmed FF title, this time from Brazlian filmmaker Ramalho, who blew audiences away in 2013 with his dark cop drama "Ninjas" (see the full short here, and it is well worth your time). His debut feature expands on a core idea from that story – that we carry our dead with us, always – with morgue assistant Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) slightly bored by his late-night conversations with the dead. Most of those that end up on his slab are the dregs of society, and scarcely great conversationalists even before they passed: now they just complain to him. When he breaks his golden rule of not using what they tell him in his daily life, that's when Ronelho's gritty supernatural crime drama creeps into your skull.
D: Joko Anwar, 2017, Indonesia
With this loose remake/sequel/prequel to 1980 Indonesian groundbreaker Pengabdi Setan, director Joko Anwar manages the kind of revolutionary shock rarely seen since the first modern J-Horrors like Ringu cropped up on imported VHS tapes. Rini (Tara Basro) is the proxy mother to her three younger brothers, and housemaid to her father and grandmother, as her ailing pop musician mother (Ayu Laksmi) slowly dies in the upstairs room of their crumbling country house. Cue a terrifying maelstrom of possession, fratricide, zombies, cultists, and gory supernatural murders with more than a dash of The Omen about them. Satan's Slaves has undoubtedly been one of the most explosive break-out festival hits of the year (quite possibly only matched by the upcoming Panos Cosmatos/Nicholas Cage inferno Mandy), but it's not just for the excellent frights and well-timed gore. Satan's Slaves is a Muslim horror, an opportunity to see traditional horror tropes filtered through a lens other than Catholic angst.
D: Yoko Yamanaka, 2017, Japan
When life hands you lemons, you don't have to make lemonade. Schoolgirl Amiko (Aira Sunohara) is quite content to suck on the tart juice of her teen misery. Buried under bangs that engulf her face, submerged in a thick jacket and scarf that she looks like she'll never grow into, she's the definitional small town provincial rebel but never the cool kid. Yamanaka's deliciously observed portrait of a year and change in the life of a high schooler, through her obsessions, crushes, and adolescent selfishness is funny and painful in equal measures. Shot with the lo-fi intensity of early Ken Loach, it's an accumulation of details that build up Amio's personality – like the way she walks past lanky, diffident, Radiohead loving soccer player Aomi (Hiroro Oshita as the ultimate teenage daydream) again and again and again and again in the desperate hopes that he'll look her way. An astounding debut from Yamanaka, who was barely out of teenhood herself when she made it. Plus, she squeezes in the best nod to the dance sequence in 8 1/2 since Pulp Fiction, with an added political kick.
D: Xavier Gens, 2017, France/Spain
If you watched AMC's The Terror and thought to yourself, "what this really needs is ravening hordes of mermen," then Xavier Gens' period monster flick is a must see. It's a far remove from the grisly shock of his 2007 New French Extremity stomach-churner Frontier(s), or from the gruesome amorality of his post-apocalyptic survival nightmare The Divide, but keeps to his recurrent theme of how society's thin skin is torn away when no one is looking. In the opening moments of World War 1, a British meteorologist (David Oakes, like Tom Hiddleston with a hole in his heart) has been dispatched to a rocky outcrop somewhere in the South Atlantic, where the only other resident is surly lighthouse keeper Gruner (the inimitable Ray Stevenson, grizzled and world-weary). Well, that's not quite accurate. Every night, dozens of sub-aquatic, blue skinned, sharp-teethed beasts emerge to kill the humans, and every night the humans slaughter them by the dozen. Adopted from Albert Sánchez Piñol's novel (with some potentially inadvertent nods to Stuart Gordon's most under-rated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, Dagon), Gens injects a melancholic subtext about imperialism, colonialism, and the drive for isolation.
Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch
D: Yudai Yamaguchi, 2018, Japan
In Japanese, a rokuroku is the onomatopoeic name for a potter's wheel, the name reflecting the rumbling sound it makes as it turns. But a rokurokubi is a kind of Yōkai (the broader term for a supernatural beast) that looks mostly like a human – until they reveal their hideous true form. In a series of scarcely-connected vignettes, a series of these increasingly bizarre monsters turn up and make off with unwitting mortals: The stories vary from the hilarious – a glorious maritime monster with hands for teeth – to the deeply unnerving, such as a terrifying, stinking baby cart. Only one aging (and probably senile) retiree, and his unwitting granddaughter ready to take them on - and the granddaughter is more interested in having lunch with her long-missing school friend. A bonkers CG creature fest in the mode of Kodoku: Meatball Machine or Sadako vs/ Kayako, mixed with the quasi-anthology feel of 2005's Dark Tales of Japan, Rokuroku is less interested in a connected narrative than a providing perfect five minute spook-show creepy thrills.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich
D: Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund, 2018, USA
Full Moon Studio's craziest franchise (and that's saying a lot) goes from miniature malice to a constant stream of disembowelings in a major change of pace. Neo-sleaze master Craig S. Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99, Bone Tomahawk) takes over writing duties in this gore-drenched revamp of the adventures of the murderous marionettes in their 13th feature adventure.
Reno 911's Thomas Lennon may be the lead actor as a unwitting survivor of an earlier attack, but the real stars are the effects team, who make this the most gruesome story yet: Not surprising, since the director team of Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund made their reputation in Sweden for hardcore gore, rather than the puppets' prior emphasis on playful creepiness. That's not the only change: The series has always played fast and loose with continuity, but there is a major switch in the pivotal figure of Andre Toulon (played here by Udo Kier) that may sit -very- badly with long time fans. They may file it next to the non-canonical Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, while gross-out gore fans will bounce it to the front of their must-see list.
D: Ujicha, 2018, Japan
Kids and cartoons normally go together like cake and ice cream, but in Violence Voyager there's a lot more body horror than you'd expect, as two boys in rural Japan visit a small amusement park, and end up part of a hideous experiment. It's animation mad-man Uijcha's long-awaited follow-up The Burning Buddha Man, and it's kin not just in the distinctive paper animation (or has he dubs it, geki-mation) that is his signature style. There's the same thematic obsessions – abandoned and deformed children, weird bodily manipulation – and the same extreme gruesomeness that, if this was live-action, would be up among the most grotesque J-horrors ever made.