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Why Indie Horror Films Are Doing Better Than Ever

Why Indie Horror Films Are Doing Better Than Ever

READ MORE: Is ‘It Follows’ Paving the Way to a New Era for Indie Genre Films?

A pair of influential figures in the genre film community were wandering the streets of Montreal one night, unpacking a day of outlandish movies that didn’t exist yet.

“I really liked the body-swapping project,” said one. “Wait,” said the other, “Weren’t there two of those?” Then they shifted gears to talk about “elegant cyberpunk” and other pressing matters.

So went the chatter last weekend at the Fantasia International Film Festival, which hosted the third edition of The Frontiers International Co-Production Market, the festival’s globe-spanning market for genre films. Though the festival, currently wrapping its 19th edition, runs long — three weeks, from July 14 – August 5 — Frontiers stuffs a whole lot of frenzied activity into one dense weekend.

Distributors and sales agents flock to Quebec from around the world for early looks at works in progress, featuring ghoulish concepts aimed squarely at the people who like that sort of thing. It’s a refreshing juxtaposition to the wheeling and dealing of cookie-cutter drek that dominates most marketplaces.

Why It Works

Unlike Cannes, where posters for tons of junky knock-off projects line the marketplace and obscure the vague sense of quality lurking within, the projects that come to Fantasia speak to a precise sensibility — the desire to support outré cinema of all stripes.

Genre fans tend to stick together — and so do their festivals. From mainstays like Fantasia, Sitges in Spain and Austin’s Fantastic Fest to relative newcomers like the Stanley Film Festival in Estes Park, Colorado, celebrations of creepy and sometimes depraved cinema attract a tight-knit band of filmmakers, programmers, distributors and others who have managed to translate their passion into a career. Fantasia’s Frontiers marketplace gives them an organized framework for doing that.

“Every genre festival wants a market,” said Peter Van Steenberg, an agent at ICM Partners who attended this year. “It’s a niche community. So the vibe is kind of like, ‘Hey, my buddy made a movie, and I want to help him sell it.'”

Already, those efforts have started to pay off. Last year, the triumph of the marketplace was a “post-apocalytpic BMX action splatter comedy” called “Turbo Kid,” which later premiered at Sundance’s midnight section and opens theatrically later this summer. At Frontiers, the three directors of “Turbo Kid” received a hero’s welcome, workshopping their experience in the weekend’s only panel discussion — but they were also there to pitch a new project.

In a year when the psychological horror-thriller “It Follows” garnered well over $14 million at the box office and the supernatural thriller “The Witch” won Best Director at Sundance, it would appear that high quality genre filmmaking is healthier than ever before. Still, the Frontiers crowd was a select bunch: The festival invited 20 projects, for which representatives prepared eight minute pitch sessions that ran all day long.

Already, it seemed as though another lively, outrageous project had inherited the “Turbo Kid” legacy: “El Gigante,” the feature-length debut of Mexican-Canadian filmmaker Gigi Saul Guerrero, signed with major Canadian sales company Raven Banner at the start of Frontiers — the first time such a deal materialized during the market. It’s easy to see what Raven Banner found appealing about the project, which purports to be the world’s first “luchagore” film: It’s the grisly tale of a Mexican wrestler with a thirst for blood.

Whether or not “El Gigante” could stand out at markets designed for broader interests, the precise expectations at Fantasia certainly didn’t hurt. “It’s a smaller market, so people get to know each other,” said Lindsay Peters, Frontiers’ Market and Industry Director. “But they also take it seriously. It fits with the Fantasia mentality. We’re making it more about the community and less about the competition. I mean, people want to see these projects get made.”

Guerrero’s film, which was based off a crowd-pleasing and utterly gory short film playing at this year’s festival, already has built-in appeal — who wouldn’t crack a smile at the luchagore concept? — which helped it close a deal fast. “Even with its low budget, it has a visceral quality to it,” said Raven Banner’s James Fler, in a conversation at one of Frontiers’ daily happy hour gatherings after closing the deal. “We know the marketplaces from Cannes on down. We know the buyers and we know that this will be well-received.”

Just as Hollywood has turned to international box office figures to quantify its successes, so too have smaller titles sought global appeal. The films pitching to sales agents and distributors at Frontiers speak to that underlying goal, perhaps none more so than “El Gigante.” “Every territory has its own market,” said Fler. “I don’t know how to get butts in seats in Japan. But if I have enough hooks to make the Japanese buyers interested, then we can let them do their job. At the end of the day, genre product still is the best-selling product. What’s funny here might not be funny in Asia — but scary is scary.”

Previewing the Next Hits

The next morning, the Frontiers crowd fought through hangovers from their antics at the Irish Embassy Pub & Grill, where diehards gather late each night. By 10:30 a.m., a crowd had assembled in a modestly-sized screening room to preview four works in progress at various stages of production. The range of options was notably comprised only of American projects, an unseemly contrast to the international selection of Fantasia’s programming, but it nevertheless illustrated the scope of possibilities being produced for today’s robust genre audience.

The project that had most buyers intrigued went first: “78/52,” a measured breakdown of the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” explored through the perspectives of various filmmakers and experts from seemingly every angle possible. With subjects including Peter Bogdonavich, master editor Walter Murch and Elijah Wood’s Spectrevision production team, “78/52” (whose title refers to the 52 cuts and 78 set ups from the scene in question) was positioned by the film’s producer as the “first-ever feature on a single scene.”

The director, Alexandre O. Phillipe, has a track record with genre-focused non-fiction work (he previously made the aptly-titled “Doc of the Dead”), and this time seemed to be banking on the recent popularity of “Room 237” and “Jodoworsky’s Dune” to deliver another complex look at cinema designed for people passionate about it. The material displayed in the presentation showed just how broad a perspective the filmmaker took, from analyzing the use of sound in the shower scene by stabbing 27 varieties of melons to animating Saul Bass’ original storyboards.

While “78/52” illustrated the appeal of genre movie obsession, the other projects showed it in practice. “Bad Blood” showcased an elegantly-shot story about a patently absurd concept: “It started out as a werewolf movie, but it turned into a were-frog movie,” the film’s director explained, then went on to share footage of exactly that. Shot with bright colors and a noir-like atmosphere, the fragments of movie on display came across as an impressive attempt to make outrageous concepts into a palatable, even shocking allegory for substance abuse.

Citing “Frankenhooker” and Stuart Gordon’s “Re-animator” as influences, the director stated his preference for “the kind of movies that reach beyond the low expectations they invite. Show it to your mom and she won’t get it. But you might leave the theater with a greater impression of what you saw.”

Distributors were looking to capitalize on that elusive appeal. “On paper, a lot of this stuff sounds nuts,” said Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Aaron Katz. “But then you see what people have to offer and a lot of it actually looks great.”

Finding Audiences

The mentality that Fantasia represents for the international genre film community is embodied by the festival’s programming director Mitch Davis, an affable, broad-shouldered cinephile with flowing black hair that runs past his shoulders. By the time he sat down with Indiewire at a Frontiers happy hour, his reputation preceded him through his hollering intros to enthusiastic crowds before the festival’s biggest screenings. (One audience member described Davis’ presentations as “part rock concert, part performance art.”) Known for sleeping well past noon during each day of the three-week festival, only to spend the next several hours cavorting with the festival scene, Davis had a surprisingly gentle manner as he recounted Fantasia’s history.

Launched in 1996 by Pierre Corbeil, Fantasia was initially designed as a one-time showcase for 35 movies from the so-called Asian New Wave. But the turnout at the Imperial Theater was so impressive that it quickly became something more. “It was crazy huge to a degree that astonished everyone,” Davis said.

For Davis, who had been writing for fanzines and developing some projects of his own, it opened the door to an underrepresented sensibility. “As a guy who grew up loving so many unconventional films that weren’t released in this part of the world, I would always have these VHS bootlegs, but couldn’t get my friends to sit down and watch them,” he said. “But here we saw hundreds of young people lining up to see films shot in a language they didn’t speak, from a culture they didn’t immediately identify with. It flew in the face of what so many distributors think about what young moviegoers like. It was life-affirming.”

These days, thanks to ample support from video game giant Ubisoft as well as the Canadian government, Fantasia looms large in the genre film space. For Davis, it provides not only a meeting ground for tastemakers in the genre world but the opportunity to expand its reach. “There’s real curiosity and interest,” he said. “The challenge is making people aware of these films.”

Thus, Davis throws his weight into his introductions, ensuring each screening is a night to remember. “To see the films with no industry connections come to life in front of an audience — you’re watching a filmmaker’s life change in real time,” he said.

That seemed to be the case on Saturday, when the short film “El Gigante” premiered in front of several hundred people on Saturday night. Though it was booked ahead of the feature-length Finnish B-movie “Bunny the Killer Thing,” there was no doubt about the real star attraction as “El Gigante” director Guerrero took the stage and her producers celebrated their robust plans for a feature. The short didn’t disappoint: Based on the novel “Muerte con Carne” (“Death With Meat”), the unsettling spectacle found a terrified Mexican man essentially selling himself off to be murdered by the titular luchador for a hungry, demented family.

Equal parts “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “We Are What We Are,” the story centered around a horrific showdown that didn’t hold back, followed by a grotesque culinary punchline. There was just enough there to pick up on potent themes involving crime, stereotyping and poverty south of the border without negating the underlying thrills. At the end, the crowd erupted in a thunderous applause as Davis returned to the front of the room.

“How fucking amazing is it that in a short time, the world will get an ‘El Gigante’ fucking feature film?” he roared, and the room erupted in boisterous approval. It was clear at that moment that “El Gigante” would have no problem finding an audience, because it already had one.

READ MORE: Here’s How the Stanley Film Festival Immerses Audiences in Horror

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