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“What Sound Does It Make?”: Fantasia International Film Festival 2022

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For its 26th edition, the Fantasia International Film Festival returned to a fully in-person, three-week event in downtown Montréal. The festival has always been my own personal summer retreat, affording me a few days in Canada to embrace the undying creativity of the independent horror scene and the festival’s homegrown traditions. For reasons I’ve never fully understood but have always been happy to accept the entire audience erupts in applause at a generic TV spot for Nongshim ramen and, as the lights go down before a film, loudly meows like a cat. If you attend a screening in Concordia University’s Sir George Williams University Alumni Auditorium—located directly above the D.B. Clarke Theatre, where the head-explosion scene in David Cronenberg’s Scanners was filmed—chances are you’ll witness festival mainstay Daniel Walther hyping up the crowd (in French, of course) and rushing to remove the mic stands after a festival programmer or filmmaker’s opening remarks. Feel free to shout “Daniel! Daniel!” as he rushes by. 

Given the length and scope of the festival—in addition to narrative features, there are countless shorts, documentaries and beautiful restorations— it’s impossible to fully grasp the lay of the land in any given year. An underrated home for new talent (submissions open a whopping ten months before the festival begins), Fantasia feels inclusive both on-the-ground and in the types of programming it offers. During my first Fantasia since 2019, three of the filmmakers I interviewed at that year’s festival for the world premiere of their feature debut were back in town, in production on a project much larger in scale. As theatrical play dwindles and distribution models continue to shift toward streaming (several of this year’s films will debut on AMC’s horror streamer, Shudder, later in the year; others, no doubt, would dream of doing so), the festival provides countless movies with a largely appreciative audience. 

In addition to the 2022 special honorees—including director John Woo (The Killer), producer Pierre David (The Brood), and historian Kier-La Janisse (Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A Map of Folk Horror)—Fantasia also celebrated the 14th edition of Frontières, the festival’s co-production forum and market. This year’s slate was comprised of 50% female directors with projects in development and early financing. One filmmaker with their debut feature in the festival and a second feature in the market was Avalon Fast. As they took meetings during the day, at night Fast was introducing audiences to Honeycomb, a selection in this year’s Fantasia Underground section. A sardonic no-budget take on Lord of the FliesHoneycomb follows a group of young women who abandon their dead-end, suburban lives to start a commune in the woods on Cortes Island. Rules are made, rules are broken and, before you know it, the friends are stabbing each other in the eye and planning a cruel prank involving bees. There’s a deadpan, often stilted quality to the nonprofessional cast’s line readings which adds to some of the more humorous exchanges: “We have to make some rules, guidelines, like a new way of life to follow…” “Can we do it later? I want to go swimming.” “Same.” Fast’s editing creates a disorienting flow to the film’s structure, whiplashing us from one scenario to the next. A film that credits “everyone” as boom mic operators, Honeycomb feels like a proof-of-concept for a project needing additional resources. Here’s hoping they arrive for Fast’s next feature, Camp; they’re certainly capable of handling them. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic creeps past the two-year mark, it’s inevitably seeped into horror filmmaking, its inclusion as narrative device proving alternately opportunistic and tasteless—after all, every great plague comes with a zombie movie or two. Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger mostly avoids these pitfalls, focusing less on the horrors of the pandemic than on the maddening effects of extreme isolation. Primarily set in a young woman’s Queens apartment (it’s the beginning of the outbreak and everyone is sheltering in place), Mitton’s screenplay reunites two college friends brought back together due to the recent sleepwalking spells and nightly visions of a masked figure Mavis (The Plagiarists‘ Emily Davis) has been terrified by. Monique (recent Tony nominee Gabby Davis) agrees to keep watch over Mavis, but soon she too begins experiencing bad dreams and visions of a long-beaked, masked figure who resembles a plague doctor from the 17th century. Turns out that when a plague comes calling, “the harbinger” comes collecting, taking your soul and erasing the memories of everyone who ever knew you. Before long, the two women are Zooming with a demonologist about cautionary next steps.

Primarily confined to two indoor locations, the film uses narrative trickery—lowlit, disorienting dreams (and dreams within dreams)—to pull us out of Mavis’s apartment and Monique’s father’s house upstate. While the jump scares are rote, I did appreciate the specifics Mitton includes of early 2020, when hanging out with friends indoors was dicey, contact-less pickup sounded revolutionary (the bags needing to be cleaned with alcohol wipes) and an annoying neighbor would walk the hallways maskless, ranting and raving about the masked being brainless “sheeple.” The film isn’t too heavyhanded, and if the psychological effects of COVID-19 serve as the story’s invitation to allow the harbinger in, it never loses sight of the demon’s most frightening power—if he captures you, your existence is essentially erased. I have no interest in grappling with the metaphor and viewers don’t need to: the film’s concluding downer note works effectively on its own.

House of Darkness marks playwright Neil LaBute’s first feature in several years (the director’s absence partly explained by his personal issues on the New York theater scene). It’s a minor but enjoyable single-location two-hander that plays off the chemistry between Justin Long and Kate Bosworth. After a night out in which the two meet at a bar, Hap (Long) drives Mina (Bosworth) home to her unusually large estate, which resembles the kind of castle where characters played by Vincent Price used to frequent. Once inside, Hap has the hunch that he’ll be able to “seal the deal” with Mina (even bragging, while Mina is in the other room fixing drinks, to a friend on the phone that he’s about to get laid), but her stunted foreplay and methodical questioning begins to make the mood slightly uncomfortable. After an extended, back-and-forth in front of the fireplace, Mina finally gives in, sensuously removing Hap’s pants—only for her sister, Lucy (Gia Crovatin), to abruptly make an appearance in the doorway. Wait a minute, didn’t Mina say she lived alone? Is this all a trap? Before he can get a direct answer, Hap is guided on a tour of the estate, receiving a glance of the balcony, and decides to propose a threesome between himself and the two sisters. Go big or go home! As things begin to take another unexpected turn, one more sister (Lucy Walters) ominously shows up and the three siblings reveal their sinister plans for poor Hap. 

House of Darkness has so far received comparisons to Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and other thrillers that resemble a response to the #MeToo movement. Whether LaBute is capable of pulling that off aside given his history, what I most enjoyed about the film is nothing new for him: extended dialogue sequences between actors that are allowed to play out, more or less, in real time. The tension comes as much from LaBute’s gothic horror scenario as it does from the viewer’s restlessness: anticipating danger while watching actors converse in repetitive close-ups and modest two-shots (the film won a festival prize for Daniel Katz’s cinematography). It’s refreshing to have a jump-scare actually be unexpected as opposed to being carried through an extended ten-minute sequence that resorts to cheap fake-outs (thank goodness it was just the cat!). The joy derived from House of Darkness comes in watching these actors have fun with the specificity of their squirmy dialogue; the abrupt conclusion, gory though it is, feels like an afterthought. 

Another dialogue-heavy film set in a mansion and written by a playwright was the festival’s closing night selection, Bodies Bodies Bodies. With a screenplay by Pultizer Prize finalist Sarah DeLappe (story by Cat Person scribe Kristen Roupenian) and direction by Halina Reijn, the film is a murder mystery set in a giant house on a dark and stormy night. Disruptive weather has knocked out all power and, with cell reception eviscerated, threatens to cause a rupture between a group of twentysomethings. If their friendship doesn’t make it through the night, the silver lining is that neither will they. An A24 production, Bodies Bodies Bodies is less a horror film than a comedy that embraces and critiques a generation of young people who can’t communicate without resorting to social media buzzwords and extremely online nomenclature. Some may find that grating (the punchlines are references you’ll hate youself for understanding), but I grooved to the speed with which the jokes were delivered and the inventive ways actress Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby) could always be heard delivering a one-liner slightly off-camera. 

As I watched Bodies Bodies Bodies, I occasionally thought back to the forgotten 1986 pick-em-off-one-by-one flick, April Fool’s Day, released by Paramount during the Friday the 13th slasher boom. That, too, was a film that gathered a group of young people in a fancy pad and had them expire in creative ways. However, the twist was that, true to its name, the murders didn’t actually occur; they were one big April Fool’s joke! That’s not the route Bodies Bodies Bodies takes, but the low-stakes vibes are similar. As the film progresses and characters die off, one gets the sense that whatever twist the film has up its sleeve won’t be as impactful as the journey getting there, and that’s OK. Reijn enlists the services of a fellow Dutchman, DP Jasper Wolf, to incorporate all forms of ambient light—as the characters are literally in the dark, they often resort to their iPhone flashlights and headlamps (reserved for camping) to navigate the winding hallways and staircases—and stylish, Argento-like lush reds and the glow of neon necklaces to make for a darkened but colorful affair. The film also makes good use of an unsettling score by Disasterpeace (It Follows), its anachronistic sound resembling an exploitation film you’d come across on the bottom shelf in the horror section of your local video store.

While wearing “numerous hats” is an essential requirement for many first-time feature filmmakers, additionally placing yourself in front of the camera can prove one task too many. Not so in the case of two films I caught back-to-back one evening: Joseph and Vanessa Winter’s Deadstream and Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl. A haunted house livestream gone wrong, Deadstream does well casting its co-director (Joseph Winter) as Shawn Ruddy, an extremely dumb, previously cancelled influencer desperate to get his fanbase back. Like previous online idiots who lost sponsorship revenue due to questionable behavior, Shawn just wants to regain audience approval (and ad money) and goes about setting up a bunch of cameras (including a Go-Pro on his forehead)inside a creepy abandoned house to obtain it. As expected, ghosts, ghouls, and other creatures soon come and Shawn is forced into his own “Sophie’s choice”: what’s worse, a demon or potential demonetization?

I hesitate to label Deadstream “found footage” or a “mockumentary,” as it’s primarily a critique of those genres (early on, an ominous, Blair Witch-like title card appears on screen seemingly revealing Shawn’s fate…only for the camera to pull back and reveal that we’re merely looking at text on a black t-shirt that Shawn is cheekily selling to his fans), but maybe “Blair Witch meets Evil Dead 2 for the influencer generation” is appropriate. The Winters’ screenplay is keenly aware that making Shawn overly unbearable would make the film a bit of a slog, and it’s to their credit that we do ultimately find ourselves rooting for the poor schmuck. The practical gore and creature effects also match the hokiness of the material, and just when things teeter toward getting too cutesy, the Winters surprise us with a legitimate, good-natured scare. Up next for the duo is a segment in the anthology sequel, V/H/S/99, premiering next month in Toronto.

“This is like a good calling card movie,” the man sitting next to me with an apparent propensity to overshare said to himself in Concordia’s J.A. de Sève Cinema once the end credits began rolling on Jacksonville-based Franklin Ritch’s The Artifice Girl. Although nowhere near as impenetrable as Primer, Ritch’s feature debut is similar in its low-budget, high-concept narrative and equally as dialogue-driven in explaining its egghead premise while casting its writer/director in a lead role. Ritch plays Gareth, a tech genius who, in the first act, is interrogated by two special agents (in a room slightly larger than a closet) who enlist him to help catch child predators. The most impressive creation of Gareth’s curriculum vitae is Cherry (Tatum Matthews), an adolescent girl who helps lure pedophiles online for impending arrest. Cherry isn’t a real child but a digital creation that Gareth, in a funny anti-Hollywood aside, made after years of perfecting CGI-recreations of deceased actors for tired blockbuster franchises, uncanny valley be damned. Cherry looks and sounds like a human being (in fairness, she is always played by Matthews, giving an excellent performance) and Gareth’s personal investment in catching child predators eventually comes to light before the end credits roll. Ritch’s screenplay takes an unexpected but welcome emotional turn in the film’s concluding twenty minutes that involve, giving his best performance in decades, the now 82-year-old Lance Henriksen. And while early reviews have noted that The Artifice Girl “tells more than it shows,” with its limited budgetary means, I’m unconvinced that’s a hindrance.

For a festival that celebrates filmmakers working within and rising above their economy of means, Ritch’s film felt like a worthy addition to the party. Even among my eight years of attending the festival, the 2022 edition featured a moment so organic to Fantasia’s audiences I doubt I’ll ever forget it: at the midway point of Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s Vesper—an apocalyptic, steampunk sci-fi epic in which all animals have perished and the only documentation of domesticated pets is a storybook for children—a character points to a drawing of a cat and innocently asks, “What sound does it make?” The vocal Fantasia crowd was more than happy to provide an answer.

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