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Fantasia’s Frontières Market: The Best Horror Films Yet to Be Made, Including George Romero’s ‘Road of the Dead’

The Montreal festival has become an increasingly important launch point for adventurous genre fare.

For the past six years, genre moviemakers and moneymen have congregated for long weekends at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, taking part in the Frontières Co-Production Marketplace. Founded in 2012, the market was conceived as a place for horror/fantasy/action auteurs — both established names and newcomers — to pitch projects to potential backers and take part in various networking events.

A highlight of the Market is the opening-day pitch session, in which selected directors, writers, and producers offer multimedia presentations of their nascent features. At the very first Frontières, this event spawned Anouk Whissell, Francois Simard, and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s exuberant futuristic actioner “Turbo Kid”; subsequent movies that took their first steps to fruition there include Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie’s cult/monster horror film “The Void”; Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard’s science-fiction thriller “Radius,” which premiered at this year’s Fantasia; and Jenn Wexler’s upcoming punk-slasher opus “The Ranger.” (Julia Ducournau’s celebrated “Raw” was similarly launched at a Frontières event in Brussels.)

This year, a record 20 features were previewed in the pitch rounds, running the gamut in terms of both subject matter and stylistics. Easily the most conspicuous was “Road of the Dead,” the new entry in George A. Romero’s classic zombie-film series, to be directed by his longtime stunt coordinator Matt Birman. There was a bittersweet feeling cast over the presentation due to Romero’s passing the Sunday before, and market director Lindsay Peters opened the event with a tribute to the horror master.

Birman and producer Matt Manjourides’ pitch included a brief proof-of-concept video demonstrating the premise of ghouls whose remembered behavior now includes the ability to operate motor vehicles. This is only part of the scenario in Romero and Birman’s screenplay, however; it is largely concerned with the former’s traditional theme of human divisiveness in the face of a massive, flesh-eating threat.

The setting is an island where a dictatorial ruler ruthlessly controls who is allowed to enter and entertains his subjects with deadly races in which the drivers are undead. Romero may no longer be with us, but Birman’s determination to keep his vision alive rang throughout the “Road of the Dead” session.

Road of the Dead poster

Also among the promising projects seeking the backing to come to a screen near you are:

“The Restoration at Grayson Manor”

Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix has long been a breeding ground for unconventional horror, and this latest project from writer/director Glenn McQuaid (of the much-praised “I Sell the Dead”) is no different. A combination of Gothic family conflict and modern technology gone awry, it focuses on a wealthy, hedonistic young man whose hands — severed in a tragic accident — are replaced by robotic appendages he can control with his mind.

Black humor is mixed with the shudders here, as evidenced by a proof-of-concept short screened by McQuaid, Fessenden, and co-scripter Clay McLeod Chapman, in which a hunky studmuffin enters an ornate mansion and ascends to an upper floor, stripping naked as he goes, before one of the artificial hands takes him out. Eye-catching animation was also part of this spirited preview, and if half of its energy translates to the feature, it’ll be lots of grisly fun indeed.

“The Cleaner”

There have been numerous movies and TV shows in which young people discover their destinies as monster/demon hunters; this adventure from the Netherlands’ writer/director Jan Van Gorkum producer and Jan Doense promises a distinctive twist on the form. Here, the hero is a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck construction worker who inadvertently learns of the creatures that dwell among us, and becomes employed by a company devoted to keeping their existence a secret. His job: to mop up after the monsters. Van Gorkum and Doense’s impressive concept reel ended with the tagline “Coming Soon to Clean Up the Mess” and left the viewer anxious to see just how messy things get.

“The Home”

Gustavo Cooper’s period chiller has already been previewed via a well-received, same-titled short film (which can be seen on the Shudder streaming service) that was excerpted as part of a dynamic graphic presentation at Frontières. Based on the pitch by Cooper, scriptwriter Peter Cilella, and producers Peter Phok and Alix Taylor, this 1910-set story of two women facing monstrous terror at a Catholic women’s home in the Spanish Pyrenees should deliver plenty of atmospheric frights. They’ve already got a top-notch talent on board for the creature conception: Neville Page, who designed the critters in “Cloverfield,” “Super 8,” and many others (and also serves as a judge on Syfy’s “Face Off”).

“A Nightmare Wakes”

There have been countless screen adaptations of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but this may be the first one spearheaded by a filmmaker who’s part of Shelley’s lineage: writer/director Nora Unkel, also a producer on this project with DJ Dodd and Devin Shepherd. Rather than a direct interpretation of the novel, “Nightmare” focuses on Shelley herself, exorcising the trauma of a miscarriage as she writes her classic-to-be saga of “birth,” and experiencing hallucinations in which she encounters her own creation, Victor Frankenstein. Unkel’s film bids to be a fascinating variation on the oft-explored theme.

“Nameless”

Writer/director Yannick Muller and producer Delphine Crozatier brought along a teaser trailer that began with a riveting scene in which a young woman attempts to drive through a crowd of masked, marching activists, only for them to violently turn on her. It proves to be just a dream, but it’s a grabber of an introduction to a scenario in which five young people on the way to a global-justice demonstration become stranded in the French countryside. Though their varying political views initially cause division among the group, they soon have to unite when a disguised killer with a big blade comes after them. If the cyclical slasher genre is poised for a comeback in the 2010s, “Nameless” feels like a particularly relevant way to launch it.  

“Black Bats”

A teenage girl who thinks she’s becoming a vampire and a guy who believes a rabid-dog bite will transform him into a werewolf sounds like the perfect match, right? Unfortunately, things do not go at all happily for the couple, as they lose themselves in their delusions and bloodshed results. Writer/director Rick Spears and producer John Lang gave their youth-horror opus a good sell, but what really clinched it was a clip from Spears’ previous short “Black Eyes.” The scene of two kids faking their own demises demonstrated a keen insight into how young people process and play with death, one that could find greater, disturbing flower in “Black Bats.”

Also part of the Frontières weekend was a special session in which women filmmakers and screenwriters pitched scripts that are seeking backing, producers, and, in a couple of cases, directors, and received immediate, largely positive feedback from a panel of industry professionals. All of these varied projects were intriguing, and two especially stood out:

Slaxx poster

“Slaxx”

If a potential instant cult favorite emerged from Frontières, it was this satirical gorefest energetically pitched by writer/director Elza Kephart and writer/producer Patricia Gomez Zlatar. When an Indian child laborer accidentally gets mulched in a cotton processor, her angry spirit infests a pair of jeans that wreak bloody havoc at a department store. The ghost’s ultimate goal: to unleash an army of killer pants on Black Friday. Its only weakness: Bollywood music. What more do you need to know?

“Water from Stones”

While a certain morality-based, blade-wielding horror franchise is trying to squeeze more blood from its own stone this Halloween, writer Bridget Canning’s topical thriller sounds like it could be a more timely successor. A murderer is targeting internet trolls, slaying them in ways corresponding to their cyberbullying: a racist who espouses lynching is hanged, a man who tells a woman she’d still weigh too much if she were cut in half suffers that very fate, etc.

A student who has been a victim of revenge porn becomes intrigued by the crime spree, but then finds it hitting too close to home, in a project that’s just a title change (to one that’s a little less vaguely metaphorical) away from having surefire appeal to contemporary audiences.

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