Among the most catholic of genre film festivals, and still the single largest such gathering in North America, the annual Fantasia Festival is Montreal's international magnet for every facet under the mutant sun that can be branded as horror, thriller, action, science-fiction, Asian, fantasy, cult, weirdo, grindhouse, psychotronic or animation.
As always, the latest edition included anticipated major studio releases ("Guardians of the Galaxy") and nifty not-really-a-genre-film-but-we-like-it-anyway titles ("Boyhood"), as well as a host of culture heroes on hand to celebrate their latest films with the boisterous crowds – from cherubic Japanese director Noburo Iguchi ("Live") to Tobe Hooper (with his 4k edition of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre").
Now in its 18th year – and officially of legal drinking age in Canada – the festival also serves as a barometer of film trends and outlier phenomena. Here are a few observations on some of the most successful and surprising films screened, and how they offer signs of life in the genre film.
1. No matter how recycled the concept, someone's going to redeem it.
It's been 15 years since "The Blair Witch Project" ushered in the era of the found-footage horror film, and about five minutes since the last groaningly redundant effort to milk a few stray pixels of excitement from a formula that induces headaches at its mere mention.
So the buzz for "Cybernatural" was a real surprise. Not only is it found-footage horror, it's found-footage horror whose gimmick is social media. The whole show unfolds on one of the character's laptops, where she communicates with four other players and, it soon becomes apparent, the vengeful ghost of a classmate who shot herself in the face after one party member posted a humiliating video online a year before. The laptop window as mise-en-scene also pops up in Nacho Vigalondo's new "Open Windows" and is likely to surface in the next installment of the "VHS" series, the oxymoronically titled "VHS: Viral."
It's hard to imagine anyone improving on the deployment mastered by filmmaker Levan Gabriadze, at least on the (apparent) zero budget level. Skype, Facebook, Google and an (unnamed) YouTube are prominent in this cyber-bully variant on "Ten Little Indians," as is the MacBook that meshes deceptively (and disturbingly) with your own -- if you watch the movie on a laptop. It may be one of the few occasions where doing so is more satisfying than watching on a big screen. If only William Castle were still alive to handle the marketing campaign!
2. It's never wise to sleep on the "fantastic" documentary.
The non-fiction film is an often overlooked corner of the genre universe. Though there are recent standouts like "Jodorowsky's Dune," the anthropological oddity "The Final Member" and the stranger-than-Hollywood "The Dog," the category isn't an obvious fit. That made "The Creeping Garden" an essential reminder of how smart docs about peculiar subjects can be as entertaining as any psycho thriller. This particular epic science documentary is the "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" of slime mold. Who knew fungal gunk could be so rapturous to behold? Well, any old mycologist, of course, and filmmaker Tim Grabham, a guy whose taste for unexpected topics led to his 2011 debut "KanZeOn," which concerned a beatboxing Buddhist priest.
There are also elements of the transcendental and unorthodox that inform "Garden," which was co-directed with writer and "Midnight Eye" editor Jasper Sharp, and which welcomes the audience into the secret world of slime fanaticism – replete with an encyclopedia's-worth of weird science facts and enthusiastic testimonies. The macroscopic time-lapse photography of some of the 900 types of molds in motion has a psychedelic allure, enhanced by an original soundtrack from guitarist-producer Jim O'Rourke.
3. Women directors!
As always, the film industry continues to lack as many women directors as men. But the genre film world presents a somewhat more optimistic picture. Because genre films so often have been typified by the predatory "male gaze" and gratuitous tits-a-hoy, when women are behind the camera, suspenseful psychological thrillers conjure very different dramatic textures that tell us more about character and interior states of mind than merely punching the customary formal buttons – or, at least, they did here.
Josephine Decker's "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely," which bowed in Berlin and had its North American premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival in April, twists a Southern Gothic theme on its pointy little head, with Joe Swanberg (the Kevin Baconesque point-of-all-references for the microbudget/genre-flick convergence) as a taciturn laborer ensnared in an ever-curiouser emotional triangle with an alcoholic farmer given to Old Testament raving (Robert Longstreet) and his daughter (Sophie Traub), whose poetic reveries veer into eruptions of libido witnessed from the perspective of a cow. The film's free-form (and floating) consciousness is buoyed by cinematographer Ashley Connor's pursuit of surreal imagery and fecund landscapes, with an air of formal self-reflexiveness that plays like a shotgun wedding of William Faulkner and Maya Deren. And unlike many young filmmakers, Decker betrays no third-act jitters. The film's spring to its climax (in every sense of the word) is visceral and shocking – and pure horror-movie.
I wish that word-of-mouth favorite "The Midnight Swim," directed by Sarah Adina Smith, had a little more scare and reveal to accompany its saga of three adult daughters reuniting at their scientist mother’s lakeside home after her unexpected and presumed death.
The lake into which she dove and disappeared harbors secrets and myths, and when their presence begins to assert itself in mysterious signs and occurrences, the film's drama shifts from mere sibling tensions into something creepier. Lindsay Burdge's June is the odd duckling whose video documentation rankles everyone and whose psychological issues prompt suspicion, seeming to offer a rational explanation for the uncanny scenario that unfolds. The "what-huh?" ending is bold, suggesting the point of the film is more spiritual than spooky, and indeed it is more striking not as a thriller but as a thoughtful study of sisterhood and mysticism.
4. The rock-musical comedy lives!
Audience favorite "I Am a Knife with Legs" offers up one Bennett Jones as the facetious French rock idol Bené, a kind of one-man Spinal Tap, whose utter cluelessness plays as absurdist fancy – illustrated in ridiculous song and childlike animated sequences – as he hides with Beefy, his drummer/manager/Man Friday, in Silver Lake, waiting for an assassin to fulfill a jihadist threat against his life. The movie is 99 percent explication, but even that doesn't help much since this is the kind of comedy where characters have names like Baguette. It all falls to Jones and his deadpan delivery to sell this clever/dumb material, which will prompt comparisons to "Flight of the Conchords," if Bret and Jemaine flew Spirit Air. I'm not sure if the world is ready for the "Ab-hole" yet, but if any Fantasia selection deserves a cult breakout, it's this. (Read John Anderson's review here.)
5. Creeps never die.
Scraped up out of the New York gutter with an (apparently unknowing) eye to the psychotic mayhem of late-’70s/early ‘80s Gotham slasher flicks, "Bag Boy Lover Boy" was either one of the best or worst things to happen at the festival. (Read John Anderson's review here.)
I'd lean to the former, personally, even though it makes me itchy and uncomfortable to fully embrace this gonzo hybrid of "Color Me Blood Red" and "Trees Lounge." It's rare, however, to come across a film as sincerely disturbing, a quality instilled through director and co-writer Andres Torres' casting of Jon Wachter as his anti-hero Albert. The film's sheer misanthropy is focused without mercy on Albert, a seeming idiot with an uncertain foreign accent who mans an all-night hot dog stand on Canal Street.
On a broader scale, "Bag Boy" could be aligned with the slacker-rage dramas of Joel Potrykus ("Buzzard"), which posit chronic loserdom as a kind of political act against stiffening class divisions. But its premise actualizes the found-object nature of Wachter's persona when a fatuous photographer (an excellent, slimy Theodore Bouloukos) hires him as a model for a series of kinky sexual photographic sessions that involve faux-bloodletting and black garbage bag asphyxiation roleplay. Use your imagination from there, as the art-world spoofery gives way to a next generation "American Psycho." The film's audacity is as pure as it is mean, which gives it a taboo edge that’s rare and elusive in these post-"Human Centipede" days.