The 20th Anniversary of the Fantasia Film Festival takes place in Montreal for another week or so, but Den of Geek’s time there is done, and we have some thoughts on movies shown during the first weekend.
It’s a fantastic festival full of avid movie enthusiasts who enjoy the array of genre films being offered, often the weirder the better. It’s easy to tell why it’s such a popular film festival every year, because it’s one that still remains fairly approachable for the masses, rather than being about all the overpriced and exclusive gala premieres seen at other film fests.
We didn’t see that many movies in our five days at Fantasia, but we did get a good cross-section of Asian films, docs, as well as catching a couple of the festival’s World Premieres.
Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex
It might be somewhat surprising to see a documentary at a genre festival, but I can’t think of a more perfect match for Fantasia than this doc by Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet, which looks at the fantastic creatures and monsters from our favorite movies. Everything from the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein monster and the Lon Chaney Wolf Man to the evolution of creature effects into full-blown CG is covered with lots of great interviews with the likes of Phil Tippett and the son of Stan Winston.
So many movies I loved as a kid are covered, including Jaws and the Alien movies with lots of anecdotes about how creature design has evolved over the past 40 years. Some of the more interesting stories include how Jurassic Park was originally going to be stop-motion puppets until Dennis Muren convinced Steven Spielberg that computer animation was the way to go. I was actually amazed to hear the men behind the practical FX of The Thing sequel talk about how their practical effects were similarly replaced by CG for the worse.
A few of the minor quibbles I had with the film are the lack of women in the field of creature design, and also the lack of interviews with the likes of Doug Jones and Andy Serkis, who have been pivotal in bringing creatures to life as actors. Otherwise, this is a must-see movie for fans of movie monsters and creatures, whether it’s actors in costumes and make-up or CG. (The film was presented by Guillermo del Toro, one of the people interviewed, who spent a lot of time answering questions both after the film and in a press conference earlier that day.)
Parasyte Vols. 1 and 2
This two-part film is one of the many Japanese films based on popular Manga comic books at Fantasia. Having read a few installments of the comics, it’s certainly an interesting premise to bring to the screen, beginning with an alien invasion of sorts as a bunch of pods from space land and millipede-like creatures begin looking for hosts by slipping into the ears of sleeping humans. One high school student Shinichi Izumi (Shôta Sometani) is wearing ear buds so instead, the alien burrows into his hand and thus begins the partnership of Shinichi and his alien helper Migi, who appears as a mouth and eyes on his right hand. While it might sound like a great movie for kids, it’s actually quite violent and gory in the way the aliens use their powers to take down enemies.
Shinichi soon learns of other, more malevolent versions of his alien parasite who have come to Earth and who devour humans for nourishment so Shinichi and Migi work together to stop them. The alien invasion is led by one Ryôko Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu) who has been doing all sorts of experiments to figure out how humans and the alien invaders can live in peace, including getting pregnant by another possessed human.
The problem with the first movie in the series is that it doesn’t do much with the premise since Shinichi is only so interesting as a character, but Vol. 2 really delivers by introducing new characters and spending as much time with Tamiya and the detective trying to solve the “parasite murders” as it does Shinichi, making the battle between the humans and these aliens far more interesting. Director Takashi Yamazaki does a great job with characters and big set-pieces, making us wonder whether we might ever see him crossing the Pacific to make movies on these shores, as he’d be quite an asset.
As the Gods Will
Another film based on Japanese manga, this one directed by Japanese genre veteran Takashi Miike, who was making his first appearance at Fantasia to accept the Cheval Noir Lifetime Achievement after having 30 (!) films shown there over the festival’s 20 years. When we spoke to Miike, he was telling us how filmmakers in Japan are constantly trying to get the rights to the country’s most popular comics, which is why there are so many Manga-based films being released there.
This one also involves a high school student named Shun Takahata who gets caught up in a sadistic game used to weed out the weakest students. It begins in a high school classroom where a whimsical “Daruma doll” (basically a colorful head) is playing a game of “Red Light, Green Light.” Any student that moves and is caught when the head turns around explodes in a colorful spray of blood-red balls.
Needless to say, they’re all freaking out and the viewer is similarly perplexed, but this scene epitomizes the type of dark humor Miike does so well. The game continues with Shun and a couple classmates including a childhood friend who he thinks should be his girlfriend, before turning into something much bigger.
Things never really settle down as they go from one challenge involving a giant human-eating Hello Kitty statue to other similarly absurd challenges. The last act falls apart maybe because there’s only so much you can do with the premise before it becomes a little repetitive, but the movie played so well with the Fantasia crowd who were even clapping along to one of the adorable songs leading up to another slaughter.
Beware the Slenderman
Another doc, this one produced by HBO Documentary Films, looked at the two Wisconsin girls who in May 2014 stabbed one of their friends 19 times, claiming that an internet myth known as the Slenderman was the reason for doing it. The stabbed girl survived (something that’s a little confusing from Irene Taylor Brodsky’s doc), but the movie focuses on the families of the two girls as their parents talk about what happened, cut together with actual footage from the girls’ being interrogated after the incident. The movie is more about the trial to decide whether the two girls would be tried as adults and it goes on for a long time basically to get to a point where they spend a year in court determining that.
It’s a little frustrating because there are no real revelations in the movie in terms of whether the girls really believed in the Slenderman mythos or were just using that as excuse to get away with attempted murder, although Brodsky does spend a good amount of time explaining how Slenderman became such a popular urban legend. Because HBO famously produced the far superior “Paradise Lost” series of docs, this one was a little disappointing by comparison, although it was obvious that the story’s roots in urban horror made it suitable for Fantasia.
Secretary director Stephen Shainberg’s first film in 10 years was an odd one that received mixed reactions. It stars Noomi Rapace as a single mother kidnapped and taken to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere for a series of bizarre experiments that are done for unknown reasons, forcing her to do whatever it takes to survive and escape. It’s a fairly divisive movie depending on what you’re expecting from it, because while it’s definitely a genre film with ties to science fiction—in some ways, it pays tribute to stories about alien abduction—it’s not a particularly gory movie in terms of horror. Imagine something more claustrophobic like Ryan Reynolds’ thriller Buried as this movie deals with fear and how it can be used against us. What makes the film so effective is not knowing exactly what is happening or why, but also rooting for Rapace’s character to figure her way out of it, as she’s a very resourceful woman.
Rapace gives another amazing performance—and really, it’s as much a performance piece for her, as it is a way for Shainberg to delve further into genre. The ending is the only part that might feel somewhat forced, because it requires even more suspension of disbelief than the rest of the film, but it’s hard to say more without spoiling the bigger twists. (Look for our interview with Shainberg soon.)
One of the films that got a lot of interest based on its title alone, this debut feature from Argentina’s Daniel de la Vega didn’t live up to many of the expectations. It probably didn’t help that the world premiere of this thriller was plagued with technical problems and ended up being shown off a watermarked screener (that didn’t seem to include the final sound mix). Like Rupture, it also involves a mother—one of the running themes at Fantasia this year—this one driving through the country with her daughter, who suddenly disappears sending the mother on a chase to find a “white coffin” along with a number of other mothers with similarly missing children.
It starts to get pretty gory and crazy as we learn that the kidnapped girls are being used in rituals by a cult with aspects of the film reminding one of The Wicker Man or even something like Race with the Devil. But it just doesn’t stand up to those horror classics, maybe because the lead actress isn’t that strong of an actor, and it just falls apart as it goes along, because of that.
Miike’s other film based on a Manga wasn’t quite as thrilling, this one about a group of convicts and outlaws sent to Mars to clean up the “cockroach problem.” You see, in order to make Mars habitable for humans, they had to send cockroaches there, knowing the little critters could survive on the planet. Survive they do, and when the group gets there to exterminate them, they find out that the roaches have evolved into strange super-powered humanoid creatures called Terraformars. Knowing about this transformation, the corrupt businessman behind the venture gives each of them special “insect powers” to use in their fight against the Terraformars, but mostly, they just get slaughtered in exceedingly graphic ways.
As much as it’s cheesy fun, Miike’s gotten a bit out of control with the CG in his movies, and that’s really evident here with some of the crazier set-pieces spoiled by the cheesy low-budget CG used to make things happen, compared to how some of the similar large set-pieces were done in As the Gods Will that felt more natural.
The Eyes of My Mother
This thriller from New York filmmaker Nicolas Pesce received a lot of acclaim out of the Sundance Film Festival for its moody tone and stark black and white visuals, but I just didn’t find it nearly as compelling as some of my colleagues. It involves a young girl named Francisca, whose eye surgeon mother is killed when a stranger is allowed into the home, but her father chains the killer in his barn. Years later, Francisca is a young woman (played by Kika Gagalhaes) who continues to torture her mother’s killer after her father passes away, but she also keeps her father’s corpse around and starts luring people to the remote farm where she also kills them.
The opening scene of a bedraggled woman in the middle of the road almost getting hit by an 18-wheeler gives the film a feel like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there’s also aspects that remind us of Norman Bates in the original Psycho. It gets pretty disturbing, especially once Francisca kidnaps a mother and her baby, and we again cut forward years to see that she’s raised the baby as her own son while keeping the mother in the bar similar to the killer from earlier.
While there were a lot of great visuals and music, I just never felt much for Francisca as a character and I think you really need to sense some sympathy or empathy with her to make the film work. Also, her actions just make it impossible. This will be distributed by Magnet Films presumably later this year, and some will definitely like it more than others.
Possibly one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year is this attempt to update the classic Jean Claude Van-Damme action series of the ‘90s with a movie based around a new star in stuntman Alain Moussi, who is such a bad actor you wonder how he scored this leading role. He plays Kurt Sloane, a kickboxing expert whose brother was killed in an underground match with the brutal Tong Po, played by Dave Bautista in a role where he barely says five words for the entire movie. (At least he has more to do in the movie than Gina Carano, who is wasted in the role of the woman organizing the fights.) Moussi is a very bad actor and is only as good as his martial arts moves, but most will be seeing the movie for Van-Damme.
He is the best part of the movie, although he doesn’t appear until after the 30-minute mark, and he spends the entire film wearing sunglasses and a hat, not really putting much into his performance. And yet, he steals every scene from the far weaker actor without having to do much. The story is your typical martial arts revenge movie, but with such bad writing and such incompetent directing, you may be surprised to learn that it’s directed by John Stockwell, whose earlier films like Blue Crush and Into the Blue weren’t great but point to a filmmaker who should be able to make a more competent film than this one.
There are moments that are laughably bad like a training sequence montage that includes scenes of Moussi in bed with his female co-star with absolutely no explanation, but trying to explain any of this would probably be a futile effort. It’s hard to believe how bad this movie is but even harder to believe they’ve already started producing a sequel called Kickboxer Retaliation (i.e. another word for “Vengeance”) before anyone has had a chance to see this one.