The Montreal-based Fantasia Film Festival, which kicked off last Thursday and concludes on September 2, was forced to go virtual this year – that didn’t stop them from pulling together an incredibly diverse lineup filled with world premieres, an exciting shorts section, and numerous panels and workshops. Some highlights:
Stories of ex-convicts trying to make a fresh start on the outside are nothing new in the crime-thriller genre, and Orson Oblowitz’s third feature The Five Rules of Success overcomes this familiar setup with its unique filmmaking voice, a twisty screenplay, and a knockout performance from Santiago Segura (perhaps best known from MTV’s Scream adaptation). Segura plays X, a recent parolee finding it difficult to adhere to a self-designed guide to prosperity in Trump’s America, and after taking a job at a Greek restaurant, he slowly gets sucked back into crime shit with the owner’s son (Jonathan Howard). Oblowitz (who also shot, wrote, and edited the film) has a strong visual style that alternates between hyperkinetic and ethereal, and clearly knows what he’s doing with actors – one scene involving X and his parole officer (Isidora Goreshter) particularly stands out. While the propulsive energy never lets up, the film doesn’t quite stick the ending which feels a nod to the anti-bourgeois “Be Black Baby” segment in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom.
A true standout in this year’s Underground section, writer/director Amelia Moses’ haunting wintertime thriller Bleed With Me is perfect for those who deplore cheap jumps scares and prefer good old fashioned psychological horror. The action takes place in a single setting, a cozy cabin in the woods where the unstable Rowan (Lee Marshall) spends a weekend with co-worker Emily (Lauren Beatty) and her boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros). They get drunk and stoned, tell spooky stories, and as the days unfold, Rowan’s paranoia gradually increases as she starts to suspect something sinister afoot with her hosts. Light on plot but heavy on atmospheric dread, the action unfolds slowly yet surely as the subtle shocks (involving sleepwalking, hallucinations, dead animals, and plenty of blood) pile up. Moses’ storytelling constantly subverts expectations and thankfully never devolves into familiar “the-killer-chases-the-girl-around the house” territory – instead, the director leaves it up to the audience how to interpret the deeply unsettling final reel. // Screening alongside Bleed With Me, self-described lesbian power couple Mariel Sharp and Kaye Adelaide’s uproarious short film Don’t Text Back stars Danielle Lapointe as a young woman who visits a pretentious energy healer (Nancy Webb) to help get rid of a cursed necklace that chokes her anytime she neglects to text back a bad Tinder date. Both actresses deliver the sharp dialogue with perfect comedic timing and we’d love to see this talented team make a full feature.
A beguiling throwback to ‘70s folk horror, Canadian director Thomas Robert Lee’s second film The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw opens with a lengthy text that sets the stage for its paranoid witch-hunt narrative. In the late 1800s, a group of families splintered from the Church of Ireland to establish a devoutly religious settlement. In 1956, Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) secretly gave birth to a daughter during a mysterious eclipse that poisoned the soil and animals, yet her land continued to prosper, arousing the suspicion of local townsfolk. Cut to 17 years later, Agatha’s daughter Audrey (Jessica Reynolds) is all grown up, possibly a witch, and ready to defend her mother at all costs from the hostile villagers. Punctuated by 4 chapter headings – Incantation, Descent, Fallout and Spring – the film moves at a unhurried pace with slow-burning tension that crescendos to an intense climax. There’s plenty of blood to satisfy horror buffs during the buildup and the supporting cast is terrific (you better work, Don McKellar!), but the real star here is Nick Thomas’ beautifully somber cinematography.
Combining horror and comedy is a notoriously difficult task – for every winner (like Shaun of the Dead or last year’s Ready or Not) there’s hundreds of misfires that fail to strike the right balance between the two genres. Taking place over the course of one night in an Arkansas hospital ward, Brea Grant’s hilariously trashy bloodfest 12 Hour Shift stars Angela Bettis as Mandy, a drug-addicted nurse caught up in a black market organ-trading scheme with her messy-ass cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth). Naturally, everything that can go wrong does so in a spectacular manner and it’s a lot fun watching the leads dig themselves out of the mess. A film populated with idiot cops, shady nurses, dumb crime kingpins, not to mention a random David Arquette cameo, this endlessly amusing film is what it’d look like if John Waters had made a splatter movie in his early days. Look for a theatrical/VOD release from Magnet on October 2.
Imagine Martin Scorsese’s After Hours but instead of a goofy New York yuppie lost in Soho, the protagonist is a drugged-out South African dude name Barry (Gary Green) whose body has been taken over by an alien. Let’s get this out of the way: the first act of Ryan Kruger’s Fried Barry clearly shows the director has issues with queer people – not only does our antihero murder a gay man who offers him a blowjob, he also gets a trans sex worker killed via hit-and-run. Ostensibly a series of vignettes both comedic and horrifying, there’s other intentionally problematic shit (like a scene in a mental institution), and the self-conscious desire to be offensive and edgy quickly becomes tiresome. That’s a shame, because the film has so much other cool and stylish stuff to recommend, like Haezer’s thumping EDM score, Gareth Place’s neon-tinged cinematography, and the most dazzling alien invasion scene in recent history.
An icy medical thriller shot with heavy blue filters, Martin Kraut’s feature debut La Dosis introduces Marcos Roldán (Carlos Portaluppi), a nocturnal ICU nurse in his 50s whose life is thrown out of balance with the arrival of handsome young nurse named Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers). The men share a dark secret related to their profession – both like to euthanize patients, but for different reasons. Marcos does it out of pity, and Gabriel out of pleasure. As the bodies pile up and the top brass start to suspect something’s up, the two men form a toxic relationship that quickly spins out of control. The setup is quite intriguing, but there’s something stagey about the execution, and there’s a distinct lack of danger in the air. Rogers underplays the role and never seems unhinged enough to do something violent or erratic beyond killing bedridden patients. Gripes aside, there’s something fascinating going on here, and the film remains perfectly watchable throughout its brief 90 minutes. Kraut maintains plenty of tension, but his script just needs a better third act.
Based on the infamous true story of a woman who married the Eiffel Tower, Zoe Wittock’s visually hypnotic Jumbo stars Portrait of a Lady On Fire’s Noemie Merlant as Jeanne, a amusement park worker who falls madly in love with a Tilt-a-Whirl ride. Not LGBTQI+ film per se, there’s definitely a barely concealed queer subtext that explores the lonely “otherness” to which some members of our community can relate, and much of the conflict revolves around Jeanne’s “coming out” to her overbearing mother (Emmanuelle Bercot). In the wrong hands, this could turn out cheap and exploitative, but Wittock’s take on the story is dead serious and brimming with empathy – our heroine is never judged for her proclivity (known as objectophilia) and a sex scene involving oil is handled with care. By the end, audiences will find themselves shushing the naysayers and rooting for the girl and the machine.
Fantasia Festival is currently underway and runs through September 2. Check back next week for another roundup of highlights.