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Fantasia International Film Festival 2019: Fear and Formalism

Robert Patrick in Tone-Deaf

A good friend, suffering from an incurable case of acute cinephilia, recently informed me that we are “living in a golden age of horror,” citing breakout hits like Jordan Peele’s doppelgänger-dependent Us and Ari-Aster’s bucolically-tinged relationship drama Midsommar. But for every horror film remade (“reimagined”) to inspired results (Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play), a muddled, paint-by-numbers redo isn’t far behind (Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary). For every step forward the ever-growing Conjuring Universe took, it’s always as a result of first taking two steps back (the Nixon era period pieces The Curse of La Llorona and, to a lesser extent, Annabelle Comes Home). Jim Jarmusch’s zom-com, The Dead Don’t Die, felt like an excuse to use genre as an excuse to roast millennials. 

Now in its 23rd year, Montreal-based Fantasia International Film Festival served to restore my faith. The 2019 edition marked my seventh Fantasia experience; it remains an expansive (three weeks!) survey of daring and curious genre offerings. In addition to necessary world premieres of studio product, the programming, lead by the tireless Mitch Davis, digs deep to offer a diverse slate of independent freakouts, eyes-covering gorefests and uncategorizable international experiments. With the recent passing of midnight movie maven Ben Barenholtz, a festival like Fantasia is happily further burdened with the task of discovering your next late-night obsession, of gleefully finding comfort in the uncomfortable. Another plus: There is no talk of the hives-inducing, most despicable and yet buzziest of terms: “elevated horror.” We’re all in this together and new gems, like Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam (which had its world premiere at the festival last July) are supported and encouraged accordingly. 

Writer/director Gigi Saul Gurrero’s debut feature, Culture Shock, provides the American right wing’s worst fear come true: desperate (primarily) Mexicans attempting to cross the border. Pregnant Marisol (Martha Higareda) embarks on a dangerous journey that she’s determined to make. Right before Marisol and her colleagues can achieve their goal, however, they’re bombarded by cartels, and she wakes up in a picturesque working-class American suburb that would fit right at home with the uncannily cozy neighborhoods of Blue Velvet and Pleasantville. Distinctly caucasian, obsessively patriotic—the American flag is plastered everywhere across the elementary school, homes, and local park—this town is naively carefree, almost as if the Stepfordian residents, lead by genre favorite Barbara Crampton, are determined to prevent Marisol from ever leaving. As for Marisol’s Mexican compatriots, they’re also displaced in this Anywhere, U.S.A, re-emerging as brainwashed and pro-American as the latest Fox & Friends contributor. 

Part of Hulu’s “Into the Dark” anthology series of twelve features depicting a horrific scenario set on a particular American holiday (Culture Shock was tasked with the Fourth of July), this Blumhouse production is funnier than you might expect. It assembles some now recognizable Blumhouse plotlines: a character wakes up each morning, Groundhog Day-style, repeating the same bizarre routine (Happy Death Day), is confronted by townspeople who appear too robotically saccharine, almost as if they’re hiding something (Get Out), only to discover that they’re trapped in a frightening American allegory (The Purge). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Gurrero is at her best when she allows her overtly political material to play broad; stay for the end credits to witness a takedown of Donald Trump’s quick Twitter finger. 

Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel also made their feature debuts as realisateurs with Jessica Forever, a gnarly look at an Orwellian France in which orphaned adult men are taken in by the maternal title character. The setting is unclear, as is the year: some kind of post-apocalyptic future in which mankind is governed by murderous drones that swarm the sky looking to shoot down anyone who defies them. The emotionally-stunted men are each in their 20s, but, with a shady, criminal past, this band of misfit lost boys seem half that age; they want to please Jessica (Aomi Muyock), and Jessica wants to give them protection and a second chance. She provides housing (they frequent abandoned mansions) and firearms, clothing them all in black like fetishistic military. They’re ready to intimidate whatever urban threat comes their way. 

Having already played Toronto, Berlin, and New York (as part of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects”), Jessica Forever is an exacting exercise in formalism in which the only thing we can be clear of is the familial bond at its core. Poggi and Vinel have fun infantilizing the brutes that make up the ensemble (in one humorous scene, Jessica provides them with extravagant wrapped gifts as if it’s Christmas morning). In one oddly moving sequence, a dead sister returns from the grave to play video games with her older bro, the twist being that he’s the one who offed her. Complete with homicides, suicides and genocides, Jessica, Forever philosophizes and feminizes the gun-blazing macho man stereotype, with a few electronic dance music flourishes to seal the deal. 

There remains no voice as distinctly looney tunes and bloodthirsty as Richard Bates, Jr.  What the filmmaker is doing with his latest feature, Tone-Deaf, isn’t exactly horror—the scariest moment is when our lead’s cell phone goes down to one percent of battery life—but it is, in layman’s terms, horrific. It stars Amanda Crew as Olive, an LA millennial who, after getting cheated on and fired from her job, decides to rent a house out in the country for a weekend of rest and relaxation. The man who owns the house is a scary, off-his-rocker baby boomer named Harvey who looks a lot like the T-1000 of Terminator 2: Judgment Day; he is, of course, played by Robert Patrick (having a blast with Bates, Jr.’s absurd material) and will be staying nearby in case anything goes wrong. That they do, as the homeowner develops an insane bloodlust that has him murdering everyone around Olive until she’s the last left standing. 

An example of the film’s off-kilter point-of-view: Olive has a backstory that involves her playing piano as a little girl; on the night of one of her concerts, her father tragically hung himself. In any other film, the biggest takeaway here would be her father’s death, but in Tone-Deaf it’s that Olive truly, undeniably is terrible at playing the piano. Harvey, an angry “get off my lawn” type who continuously breaks the fourth wall to rant about this new generation of men and women looking for a handout, has also experienced a family member, his wife, who took her own life (while playing the family piano!). Sounds heavy, right? Bates, Jr. isn’t interested in the pathos of something so tragic, going more for a theatrical approach. The most effective sequence involves Olive experiencing a bad LSD trip that doubles as a “Ghosts of Boyfriends Past” scenario where she’s visited by old flings. The last man to appear is Olive’s deceased father, played by someone not known for playing great dads, Ray Wise of Twin Peaks fame. Bates, Jr.’s love for bizarre supporting characters is well used here, right down to a Texan boy Olive meets on a blind date who turns out to be a serial killer. What does it all add up to? Quite the blast actually, and it’s to Bates, Jr.’s credit that his films continue to be hard to market, finding their widest audience on VOD (where this one is currently available). Tone-Deaf is a unique achievement. 

Glass Eye Pix founder (and Dead Don’t Die co-star) Larry Fessenden returned to the festival with Depraved, the director’s modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like many of Fessenden’s films, it remains an intricate New York artifact (our lead gets stabbed to death in DUMBO, a flashback between he and his girlfriend takes place at the Strand Bookstore, she works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the choice was appreciated by this New York native. Fessenden’s city that never sleeps is forever dark and dreary—never put to better use than in 1995’s Habit—and the filmmaker loves casting himself as the biggest creep in the room. Here, he’s a barfly at a local watering hole where the Frankenstein monster flirts with a woman before murdering her. 

Better behavior was on display, to some degree at least, in Zach Gayne’s Homewrecker, primarily a two-hander inverting the home invasion subgenre: in this instance, it’s the invited houseguest who’s held captive and unable to leave. After meeting Linda (Precious Chong, Tommy’s daughter) at a fitness class, Michelle (Alex Essoe), an interior designer, runs into her again at a local coffee shop. Overly aggressive in her niceties, Linda begs Michelle to offer a fashionable, professional evaluation of her home. Michelle reluctantly takes her up on it. Once there, however, things get weirdly sinister as Michelle, feeling out of place and out of whack, is drugged and locked in a bedroom fit for a child. Linda is off her rocker alright, and Michelle will forever regret not having the nerve to initially tell her to F-off in that coffee shop. 

Shot over 12 days last summer, this Torontonian production is more screwball comedy than a north of the border Single White Female, and it’s to the actresses’ credit that we accept its thin premise for most of the 75-minute runtime. Playing the straight woman who has trouble putting herself first (a subplot involving her character’s shady husband bubbles to the surface in the third act), Essoe is especially good at being both audience surrogate and primary cause for their impatient frustration (“she should’ve left when she had the chance!”). Her performance as a trusting, supportive wife will undoubtedly serve as good practice for her next role as Wendy Torrance in The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, due this November. Although occasionally overly-reliant on split-screens and inherent absurdities, Homewrecker trusts its performers to sell the zany concept for all its worth. It also knows when to let it breathe, as in an extended sequence where the women play a 1980s board game crafted for the consumption of teenage girls. 

Of the nonfiction offerings, I was able to catch Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson. A deep dive into the exploitation, no-budget, drive-in cheapies made by a prince of the grindhouse, director David Gregory’s film, although light on adventurous filmmaking of its own (talking heads and dirt-ridden archival material dominate), is an adoring portrait and eulogy of a director who cut every corner to make barely comprehensible but no less filmic experiences. The documentary is an appreciation of the art and craft of moviemaking itself; often rewritten, reshot, and redited on the fly, Adamson’s storytelling could only exist as a picture in constant motion. Cinematographers László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond (interviewed for this doc prior to his death in 2016) are just some of the talent who got their start (or, in the case of actor Russ Tamblyn, career rejuvenation) working with Adamson, a filmmaker who came in contact with everyone from Lon Chaney Jr. to Charles Manson, having once shot a film on the infamous Spahn Ranch. Gregory’s film finds everyone under the sun to interview and, if it dives down a few too many rabbit holes (there’s an implication that Adamson at one point came in contact with a real-life alien from another planet), it more than lands the ending: Adamson was found brutally murdered in his home, buried in cement underneath the former site of his beloved jacuzzi. 

Fantasia isn’t merely a celebration of new titles, however (the barely remembered 1976 TV sequel Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby was feted with a theatrical screening on an ultra-rare 16mm print). Having a few hours to kill before a later movie, I decided to catch up with a film I’d managed (and actively tried) to avoid my entire life: First Blood, aka the first Rambo flick, directed by famed Canadian Ted Kotcheff. Kotcheff was on hand for the screening, as he was being honored with a trailblazer award by the festival (his 1974 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz screened the following day). As not much of a Sylvester Stallone acolyte, First Blood, presented in a new 4K restoration, was nonetheless something of a revelation for me: smart, emotionally complex, and filled with exaggerated but practical action scenarios that the human eye could actually process. The film had a weight to it (the burden of a failed war and a country ashamed of its dire past) that played against the testosterone-driven stereotype I had always believed the lead character to be. When it comes to Stallone going to battle against Tony Award-winning antagonists, I’ll gladly choose Brian Dennehy and this film over John Lithgow and Cliffhanger

Directly from John Rambo I hopped across the street to catch the world premiere of Ready or Not, the mid-level budget splatter-comedy that features what amounts to a female Rambo of its own. Presented by the filmmaking collective Radio Silence (directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and executive producer Chad Villella), Ready or Not is now in theaters and felt, upon its world premiere amongst a raucous Fantasia crowd, like the type of film built to discover a loyal fanbase. In other words, it was a perfect fit for this festival. Here’s hoping similar cults are birthed and nourished in Montreal next year.

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