Fantasia 2003: The Heights of Low Budget

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 22 minutes (5424 words)

Any doubts FanTasia regulars may have had about the hosting capability of Concordia University’s Hall Building were doused on opening night. As if to prove a point, the opening film presentation of Jang Sun-woo’s change of pace Resurrection of the Little Match Girl was played so loud it made me nostalgic for my old rock concerts days at the Montreal Forum. I later found out that the abnormally high sound levels were as much a result of a technical learning curve than by design, but the message was served all the same: FanTasia had found a Big Screen, Big Sound theatre run by people who truly and honestly want to host FanTasia. Nothing of this magnitude comes down to one person, but the person in charge of Concordia’s projection facilities, Cindy Canavan, bent over every which way to ensure the Hall Building’s outstanding technical make-over and make the screenings run as smooth as possible. A round of applause should also go to the core group of young projectionists who adjusted well to FanTasia’s intense presentation schedule.

With everything in place and firing on all cylinders, all that counted were the movies. After a one-year hiatus it would stand to reason that FanTasia programmers had more to choose from than usual. And the selection of films confers this with the large number of films from 2001 and 2002. In comparison to other years, the final ledger was a solid year with perhaps less outstanding films but an overall consistent brew of challenging and/or entertaining cinema. What always marks good festival programming is the ability to look beyond auteur name pedigree or big studio production value to marginal films that have a unique and personal vision. The goal of a conscientious programmer is two-fold: 1) give the audience what they want (the genre’s auteur stars, the films with calling cards, and the established favorites), and 2) expose the audience to the hidden pearls and idiosyncratic gems which would otherwise never see the light of a theatre projector. Like medicine tossed in with the candy. The ‘medicine’ often comes in the form of financially handicapped and lesser known first-time filmmakers. It is not surprising then that what struck me the most this year, outside of the oddly coincidental recurring elements of suicide and vomiting, was the impressive collective force of the low and extremely low-budgeted films. Hence I’d like to concentrate on, and in the process pay homage to, those films which make up for lack of production value and polish with transgression, innovation, and heart.

As with everything, there is always a question of degree, and when it comes to cinema financing there is low budget and then there is REALLY low budget. My breakdown of films is not based on pure dollar and cents budget figures but common sense estimation centered on overall production value. Relative to your standard Hollywood fare, the following films would be low-renters: Cabin Fever (2002, Eli Roth), Pieces (1981, Juan Piquer Simon), Bubba Ho-Tep (2002 Don Coscarelli), Dead End (2003, Jean-Baptise Andrea & Fabrice Canepa), Love Object (2003, Roger Parigi), Maléfique (2003, Eric Valette), Mucha Sangre (2002, Pepe De Las Heras), In My Skin [Dans Ma Peau] (2002 Marina De Van), and Sangre Eterna (2002, Jorge Olguin). And relative to these are the real ‘no-budget’ bottom feeders: Plaga Zombie: Zona Mutante (2001, Pablo Parez, Hernan Saez), The Big Slaughter Club (2003, Hitoshi Ishikawa), Graveyard Alive (2002, Elza Kephart), Lucky (2002, Steve Cuden), Reflections of Evil (2002, Damon Packard), Sixteen Tongues (2003, Scooter McCrae), Celluloid Horror (2002, Ashley Fester), and Stacey (2001, Naoyuki Tomomatsu).

Cabin Fever by the energetic and talented Eli Roth was a breath of fresh air: a horror film which does not patronize its audience, and is clearly self-conscious of while remaining respectful of the 70s aesthetic (Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, the Crazies and Deliverance being the key touchstones). Everything from the story to the characters has a déjà vu feel to it, but the film works as a claustrophobic-paranoia horror because both the central and secondary characters are better drawn than most, and director Roth has a flair for putting the camera at the right angle or leading the audience on with adroit camera moves and edits. The story concerns a weekend trip at a remote country cabin that turns nightmarish for a group of college students when they become contaminated through the local water by a flesh eating disease. Audience pleasers include the party-animal sheriff and the autistic blond-haired girlish local boy Dennis, who will take a bite out of you if you get too close, and breaks into an unexpected slow motion kung fu attack!

Cabin Fever: Good advice on the sign!

Roth takes a page out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Shivers with his post-credit ‘pregnant question’ of a huge transport truck with the signage “Down Home Water” leaving for the city. The enjoyment of the film was no doubt helped by Roth’s passionate introduction, where he denounced the corporate mentality of Hollywood and the rampant ageism which keeps the older, seminal generation of directors way down in the pecking order when it comes to getting film projects financed (Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, George Romero, etc.).

A great time was had by all at the retro midnight screening of Juan Piquer Simon’s 1981 Pieces, a sleazy Puerto Rican, Spanish, US (Euro)-horror . Throw in Italian screenwriter Joe D’Amato, and it is not surprising that the film is a hybrid of the American slasher film and the Italian giallo. It begins in classic slasher style, with an intertitle reading “1942, Boston.” The scene begins with a boy lying on his bedroom floor putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a nude female pin-up. The mother enters his room and berates him for the sexual nature of the puzzle. The boy calmly leaves his room and returns with an axe, kills his mother and then seeks refuge in the closet. The police arrive on the scene of the crime, find the boy cowering in the closet and assume his innocence. The narrative flashes forward 40 years and picks up at a Carrie-like high school in the Boston area, where a series of violent, chainsaw murders are occurring. In a tenuous link-up to the opening, the killer is collecting body parts to form a human jigsaw puzzle. The scenario now turns into more of a giallo, with the black-gloved killer, the harried, cynical police detective (played by Euro sleaze star Christopher George), the who-dunnit plot, and the series of red herrings (is the killer the big, burly janitor? the Professor? the Dean?).

The murders are violent enough to warrant both styles, with a fair amount of requisite slasher point of view shots, although the murder tools are a hybrid slasher (chainsaw) and giallo (knife). While the killer’s weak psychological motivation for killing is more in the slasher than giallo tradition. The film works well enough on its own intended level, but what makes this a fun midnight entry is the unintentional humor. Examples include the scene where undercover tennis star Mary Riggs (played by Christopher George’s wife Linda Day George) lets out her sense of helpless anger after the death of another female student with three spaced apart primal yells of “Bastard……bastard…..……..bastard!” Horror fans will also smile as they recognize where the “original” music by Librado Pastor is lifting from (a mishmash of Inferno, Dawn of the Dead, and Friday the 13th). For what it is worth, the killer is revealed as the Dean (Edmund Purdom, British actor and regular fixture in the Euro-horror scene).

Love Object (filmed for under one million dollars in 3 weeks) falls short of putting all its pieces together into a coherent whole. The film follows the slow descent into madness of socially awkward technical writer Kenneth (well played by Desmond Harrington), whose fear of women leads him to blur all distinction between reality and twisted fantasy. When Kenneth’s boss (played by Rip Torn) forces him to work with new temp employee Lisa (Melissa Sagemiller), the chance for a meaningful human interaction proves too much for Kenneth and he opts for the comfort of a sex doll named “Nikki.” For a while Kenneth is able to juggle the two ‘relationships’ and uses Nikki to build self-confidence.

Unfortunately, Kenneth begins to lose touch with reality and descends into a violent psycho-sexual paranoid fantasy where he attempts to secretly construct Lisa in the image of the “domineering” Nikki. As I noted in the FanTasia Festival catalogue, the film borrows heavily from Hitchcock, especially Vertigo and Rear Window. For example, in the plot element described earlier, we see shades of Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) attempting to remake Judy into the image of the ‘dead’ Madeline (both played by Kim Novak) in Vertigo). Kenneth can also be likened to a male version of Catherine Deneuve’s Carole Ledoux from Repulsion.

Udo Kier (who also makes an appearance as himself in the documentary Celluloid Horror) plays Kenneth’s nosey landlord/neighbor Radley, who becomes suspicious by the sounds and sights he witnesses from Kenneth’s apartment (chainsaw buzzes, screaming, a huge box delivered to Kenneth’s apartment, the green body bags he carried out, etc). Suspicion gets the better of Radley, and he uses his pass key to enter Kenneth’s apartment. Once again recalling Repulsion, Radley is bludgeoned to death from behind with a hammer (Deneuve’s character Carole uses a candelabra). When Lisa catches on to what is happening Kenneth holds her hostage in his makeshift torture chamber apartment and attempts to transform Lisa into a living mannequin by filling her with embalming fluid. This is where the film falls apart. Lisa surprises Kenneth and switches the power dynamics (a la Servant). Kenneth is now tied up in the doll crate and at the mercy of the vindictive Lisa. Just as she is about to kill Kenneth, the police break the door open, misread the situation and shoot Lisa dead. This bit of intended irony where the hero/heroine is mistakenly killed recalls the powerful ending to Night of the Living Dead. But while the irony works in NOTLD, it does not in Love Object, for a variety of reasons. Namely, the character who dies in NOTLD, Ben, is well developed and the posse who kill him are believable as representatives of a particular social and political group (trigger happy, rural members of the National Guard). Through no fault of actress Melissa Sagemiller, who is quite good, Lisa is a one-dimensional character, while the police who kill her are laughable stereotypes (and poorly performed at that). Hence the effect of having the only female character killed of by a group of dumb men, and the ‘cycle of violence’ continuing by Kenneth being accepted back into the (predominantly all-male) workplace (he was fired from his job earlier) leaves the stench of misogyny rather than the intended irony.

A similar fate befalls the much lower budgeted Lucky, although this DIY shot-on video feature is much better written than Love Object (and probably 90% of the films screened at FanTasia). There are many similarities between them: lead male characters with live-in jobs (a television/film writer here) who can’t separate reality from fantasy and who ultimately succumb to their dark, suppressed misogyny. Lucky belongs to the rich tradition of writer’s block films (The Shining, Barton Fink, Adaptation) but steers the subject farther into dark humor than any of the other films. Our lead character is a thirty-something cartoon writer named Mudd (actor Michael Emanuel), his name, like his pig sty apartment, a reflection of his confused and chaotic mind. The character’s filthy environment is introduced to us in an impressive wide-angle, hand-held, two minute long take camera movement that takes us from his front yard, into his house through the front door, through each room, back out the back door onto the veranda, back into the house through a side door, and down a flight of stairs into Mudd’s home office. The snake-like camera movement is accompanied by Mudd’s sardonic voice-over narration which, along with the subjective point of view feel of the camera movement, suggests a trip into Mudd’s troubled subjectivity. The alcoholic Mudd has reached a creative impasse and is unable to fill his blank computer screen with any meaningful words. On his way out for more beer he runs over a dog. Thinking that the mangled road kill is still alive he brings the dog home. Soon after the dog springs to life in his mind and becomes his live-in muse. The film assumes Mudd’s subjectivity by presenting us with a seemingly living dog who speaks to Mudd in voice-over (Lucky’s voice is performed by David Reivers). Lucky is a relentless commandant who forces Mudd to work non-stop. The totalitarian measure reaps benefit, as Mudd begins to sell his work, but the resulting increase in Mudd’s self-confidence also gives venom to his violent tendencies which were earlier restricted to verbal assaults.

Lucky becomes less interesting when it reduces Mudd to the role of serial killer (albeit a very literate and funny one). The dark and fully internalized anger of the early film becomes less funny and troublesome when Mudd begins to kill women at random and with misogynistic malice.


Thankfully there were also plenty of empowered women gracing the FanTasia screen. Although not feminist in any conventional sense, the films Graveyard Alive, In My Skin, and Celluloid Horror all feature interesting female characters (a real person in the latter case) who take matters into their own hand. Perhaps it is not too surprising that each of the above films was directed by a woman. Graveyard Alive, directed by Elza Kephart, also features women in the role of writer (also Kephart), producer (Patricia Gomez, Kephart, and Andrea Stark), and central protagonists (Anne Day-Jones and Samatha Slan as nurses Patsy and Goodie Tushuze). With this production content and the symbolic transformation of Nurse Patsy from a “patsy” to a sexpot zombie, Graveyard Alive comes the closest of all these films to a feminist subtext. This form of symbolic female empowerment in horror film is not anything new (The Cat People, Cat Girl, and Ginger Snaps come to mind). What makes this film unique is its aesthetic mix of black & white retro, which recalls the early thirties Universal horror films and 1920’s German Expressionism, with an anachronistic widescreen process invented in 1963 and rarely used since the 1960’s and 1970’s, Techniscope.

While Graveyard Alive is essentially a lighthearted zombie fable, Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) is arguably the most harrowing film of FanTasia 2003. Director De Van also stars as a young woman, Esther, who becomes so alienated from her boyfriend Vincent (Laurent Lucas) and his circle of business acquaintances that she takes refuge, literally, in her own skin. While at one of her husband’s social engagements, Esther wanders out into the backyard and accidentally falls into a hole in the garden, which leaves her with a deep gash in her leg. Out of ennui or curiosity she begins to pick at the gash, setting in motion a series of increasingly morbid self inflicted body wounds, cuts, and lacerations. The self-inflicted violence is raised a notch when Esther begins to suck blood from her wounds and eat her own skin (auto-cannibalism). In one stunning set piece, Esther sits quietly at a dinner table picking at her arm with a fork under the table while the guests engage in mindless after dinner conversation. At one point the film’s hyper realism is disrupted by a flight of surrealism when Esther’s left arm detaches itself from her wrist and threatens to expose her condition to her friends before she is able to screw it back onto her wrist! In the film’s equally powerful ending, Esther shuts herself into a hotel room for a night of private self-mutilation. The final shot of the film is a slow dolly back from a close-up of Esther’s face as she lies motionless on the hotel floor, to an extreme long shot of her full limp body. For emotional rather than thematic reasons, the shot reminded me of the combination zoom out/dolly back from a close-up of Marion Crane’s eye to her dead slumped body in the Psycho shower scene. Her slow descent into psychosis once again recalls Repuslion, while the realistic treatment of vampiric and cannibalistic violence owes something to Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001). Some people at FanTasia were even comparing this to a short film screened years earlier at FanTasia, Doug Buck’s Cutting Moments. However, there is a major difference. In Cutting Moments we know the reason behind the woman’s self-mutilation, but there are no such explanations here. In the end we do not know whether Esther is dead or alive. But this ambiguity is as intentional as the nature of her actions.

Female empowerment of a different kind takes hold in Ashley Fester’s engaging documentary Celluloid Horror. The subject of Fester’s film is someone known to FanTasia organizers and friends, the horror critic/enthusiast and programmer extraordinaire of the Vancouver-based CineMuerte International Film Festival, Kier-La Janisse. It would have been hard for a film to fail with a character as winsome and easy to like as Janisse, but director Fester holds her end of the task by managing to weave Janisse’s personal life history with more universal subjects such as artistic censorship, obsessive behavior (in the good sense!), and the nuts and bolts of organizing a film festival without government sponsorship (the said CineMuerte International Film Festival). Janisse’s tireless crusade against government censorship and her never say die attitude, and her commitment to artistic integrity over commercialism can serve as inspiration to anyone who has been up against the odds. Horror aficionados will also feel vindicated by Janisse’s constant endorsement of a liberal, inclusive understanding of what constitutes a horror film. With respect to the film’s style, while Fester never overwhelms her subject, she does just enough to keep the film from ever feeling like a conventional talking head documentary. Playful touches to the traditional interview process include the use of a peephole-like fish-eye lens that isolates Janisse in the frame; or having Janisse walk while talking to keep the frame mobile. The film’s appeal is heightened by the presence of invited CineMuerte Festival guests Jörg Buttgereit, Jean Rollin, Jeff Lieberman, Buddy Giovinazzo, Udo Kier, and like-minded festival programmers and cinemaniacs (FanTasia’s) Mitch Davis and Anthony Timpson (New Zealand’s The Incredible Film Fest).

Two films I have already written about in the FanTasia catalogue, 16 Tongues and Sangre Eterna proved their mettle against the demanding and discerning FanTasia audience. The films are completely different in look and feel. Sangre Eterna, a clever and atmospheric goth thriller, features deceptively impressive looking production values on its small budget. Contrarily, Sixteen Tongues will fool no one over its miniscule budget, but did surprise viewers with its daring mix of cyberpunk and psychosexual imagery. What makes Sangre Eterna refreshing is the way young director Olguin lulls us into a expecting a hip, quick-paced, teens versus demons plot, and then takes us into a dark, somber, place where the demons just may be a projection of the lead character’s increasingly fractured state of mind. Questions of objective and subjective reality are also central to Sixteen Tongues. In writer-director McCrae’s dystopian world, characters spend most of the time isolated in their tiny apartments, preferring to communicate to themselves and others through technological mediation, telepathy, or through their own inner voices.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the presence of the amiable and engaging Ray Wise. Actor Wise, well known to many as Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks, was an invited guest on the basis of two films, Dead End and Jeepers Creepers 2. Wise was in Montreal for over a week and was as gracious a guest as FanTasia has ever seen. Wise gave engaging introductions and responded to every question, good, bad, or inane, as a consummate professional. Of the two films the hands down winner was (surprise, surprise, the much lower-budgeted!) Dead End. From an acting standpoint, the latter was much more substantial for Wise, with his role in Jeepers Creepers 2 amounting to not much more than a few key scenes. In Dead End he is once again the patriarch, driving his wife, teenage son, daughter, and boyfriend, on an overnight trip to an annual family holiday dinner. Blending the night-time visuals of film noir (think the opening of Kiss Me Deadly) with the spooky ambience of a camp-fire ghost tale, Dead End is a taut, relentless chiller than keeps you on the proverbial edge of your seat with simple but elegant touches of lighting, composition, and editing. It was also voted as the Best International Feature film.

Ray Wise in Dead End

Stacey was as pleasant a surprise as The Big Slaughter Club a frustrating disappointment. Club was gory in a comic book sense, but its flat full-frame video look never raised the material above its sophomoric level. The film begins with an opening hotel room scene between a teenage prostitute and her male client, which ends with the male accidentally falling backwards and impaling the back of his head on a clothes peg. No doubt influenced by Visitor Q, the scene has none of Miike’s subversiveness or queasiness. The film skews from the start by failing to convince viewers on the believability of the teenage girls as prostitutes. Some credit should be given to director Ishikawa for completing the film in such a short time (about 10 days according to the producers), but there is no forgiving groundless style (fast motion, rapid editing, stop motion animation) trying to save bland content. Director Tomomatsu does a lot better on Stacey with similar financial restraints (although I’m not sure on the budget in either case).

The zombie film ruled at this year’s FanTasia, with no less than six entries (Mucha Sangre, Plaga Zombie: Zona Mutante, Stacey, Graveyard Alive, Beyond the Re-animator, and Undead). Where originality was concerned, none of them has anything on Stacey (although Mucha Sangre, with a pony-tailed Paul Naschy leading a group of sodomite, alien zombies comes pretty darn close). Stacey does borrow from zombie film lore, especially Day of the Dead and Evil Dead (including a recurring television host selling the new “Bruce Campbell’s Right Hand 2” chainsaw), but mixes a trippy blend of canto-pop sentimentality and genuine teen angst into the equation. Some time in the future, all girls between the ages of 15 and 17 die and come back to life as zombies (in true Japanese style conformity, they are all called “Staceys”). Before dying the girls experience a desensitizing high called N.D.H. (“near death happiness”), with their bodies covered in “Butterfly Twinkle Powder” (B.T.P.). The only way to kill a Stacey is to dismember them by chainsaw. This leaves an awful mess of body parts around, which sets up the darkly humorous scenes of government workers driving around collecting the body bags. One of the central narrative threads concerns Eiko (Natsuki Kato), in the throngs of N.D.H., who walks around smiling, singing, and playing an annoying twinkle bell. Eiko strikes a deal with puppet maker Nozomi (Hayashi Tomoko). She will sleep with him if he “repeat kills” her after she dies. The socially awkward Nozomi can’t help but fall in love with the china doll-like Eiko, adding an emotional edge to his task.

The symbolic socio-political undertones in Stacey are there for the taking. There is so much pressure on Japanese teens to excel academically and make it into the best schools, that failure to do so is the equivalent of ‘early career death.’ If you don’t make it into the top college or university, you become a social “Stacey.” Extrapolating the story into the future makes for a fascinating scenario where Japan becomes a “dying,” all-male society, a not-too subtle yet forceful critique of patriarchy. However, Stacey is not a “message” film. Its true colors (no doubt red) come through in an all-out gorefest finale at a government compound that rivals Peter Jackson’s Braindead in the blood and guts tally.

I was flabbergasted and extremely pleased to see one of my favorite films at FanTasia, Damon Packard’s Reflections of Evil (2002), win the Public’s prize for “Groundbreaking Film,” ahead of second and third place winners Suicide Club (Shion Sono, Japan 2002) and Ichi the Killer (Takashi Mike, Japan 2001). (For a complete list of the prizes, go to the FanTasia website.)

I had never heard of Packard or his film before making email contact with him over our mutual appreciation of King Hu. He asked me if I would like to see his latest film and a few weeks later I received a DVD copy of Reflections of Evil in the mail. In the meantime I found out about its notoriety through its dedicated website, but nothing could have prepared me for this highly original and unparalleled attack on mainstream sensibility. As I said in my FanTasia catalogue notes, Reflections of Evil is one of the most unflinching and piercing attacks on Hollywood culture and American society ever made. In it Packard plays Bobby, an overweight man who spends his time walking the streets of LA selling watches and getting into constant conflict with pedestrians, dogs, police, car drivers, homeless people (psych-ward day patients?) and anyone else who crosses his lumbering path. Conspicuous in the grandest way, Bobby seems to wear everything he owns. From time to time his mother allows him to enter their home, but she seems more concerned with Bobby eating every ounce of her food than his welfare.

The film’s schizophrenic structure cuts from these “reality” scenes to found footage from old television shows and movies, brief scenes with secondary characters (an elderly, terrified coupled imprisoned in their apartment, Bobby’s sister moving through deserted urban streets in search of Bobby), and dramatizations loosely based on Bobby’s childhood. The latter involves a trip to the Universal Studios which includes the hilarious scene of a hopelessly energetic Steven Spielberg filming Something Evil (circa 1971). Even though the film mixes styles and formats (16mm, Super 8, digital), Packard manages to maintain a cohesiveness. So much so that when I first saw the film on DVD I made the mistake of referring to scenes of a woman running through deserted city spaces as found footage. Only on second viewing did I realize that the woman is Bobby’s sister, and hence was shot by Packard but in such a way as to feel like an old television show from the 1970s.

Another thing that struck me particularly when watching Reflections of Evil on a big screen is how impressive the camera work is. Many scenes in the film have a spontaneous and vivid feel that Cassavetes would have been proud of, and yet the camera is effortless in its ability to dolly, pan and tilt in perfect harmony with the actions. The final scene at Universal Studios is especially noteworthy in this respect, with complicated camera movements following a harried Bobby through crowds, on a rollercoaster ride, and quickly panning to suggest a crashing rollercoaster car.

The film’s anger is thrust in two general (though not entirely disconnected) directions: the omnipotence of mass commercialism lurking on every street corner, and popular Hollywood entertainment exemplified by Spielberg & Lucas Co. For my taste, the more disturbing and effective scenes are those that relate to the first ‘area of attack,’ the LA street scenes. Packard paints a vision of humanity unable to engage in any form of communication other than raw rage –an “urban jungle” indeed. The highlight of these city scenes, and perhaps the film, is the unrelenting montage of Bobby’s hellish walk through a street lined with ‘domestic’ dogs. Clearly humans are not the only angry species in Reflections of Evil, proving that ‘dogs are not always a man’s best friend,’ at least not on this street. Reflections of Evil is often a very funny film, but its anger is so palpable it can be felt through every fiber of its celluloid, in its sound editing and sound mix, its frantic montage, manic acting, and intensely controlled camera movements. The film’s overall effect is one that leaves the viewer unsettled rather than relieved, as in traditional comedy.

The Omnipotence of Mass Consumerism, in Reflections of Evil

I will conclude with a thought on a subject disconnected from the low budget thread. Largely as a result of the recent successes of The Ring (1999, Japan, Hideo Nakata) and The Others (2001, Spain, Alejandro Amenábar), the Asian Continent (mainly Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan) and Spain have seen a substantial increase in their horror production. FanTasia has been at the forefront of featuring these films, including the North American premiere of Nakata’s The Ring in 1999. The usually very reliable Video Watchdog erred in this regard in their special coverage of the Ring cycle (No. 92), when writer Richard Harland Smith stated that Ring did not play in North America prior to its screening in 2000 at the Edinburgh International Film festival. It played at FanTasia in 1999, and FanTasia went even one better by playing Ring 2 and the Korean remake The Ring Virus in the same year.

My point is that there is a general difference in style and sensibility between the approaches to horror taken in the Asian and the Spanish films. The Asian and Spanish horror films often begin from the same place: personal tragedy, in the form of the death or physical loss of a loved one, which usually results in the protagonist being haunted by the ghost of the missing or dead person. The difference is that in the Spanish films the context for the death and the subsequent supernatural events veers toward the religious-cult framework, whereas in the Asian films the context veers toward a pure fantastic-surreal framework. We can certainly say that this difference reflects cultural differences, with the religious framework of the Spanish films making the upturned moral values more powerful and real for a Catholic nation.

But there is also a stylistic difference, with the Asian films tending toward a heavy reliance on heightened technique, and the Spanish films on a more classical, plot-based approach. You can synthesize these different approaches as “formalist” (Asian) and “realist” (Spanish). In the worse case on both sides the style can feel extremely mannered and rehearsed. I felt this was the case this year with certain of the Asian films which would punctuate otherwise crass scare moments with what I call a ‘frail, wispy’ aesthetic (lots of blowing wind, billowing curtains, whispering sounds, slow motion, etc.). This seems to be less the case in the Spanish films, but that may be partially because there are many more Asian films in the mix. More damaging, is that the formalist Asian approach, when mannered and clichéd, has the effect of drawing the viewer away from the personal tragedies of the central protagonists. Which of course makes the horror less emotionally involving. This was a problem with many of the Asian films screened this year, and a major reason why the two Spanish horror films, though far from great, were better films. The Asian and Spanish horror films screened at FanTasia this year that reflected this difference were: (Asian) Double Vision (2002 Taiwan, Kuo-fu Chen), The Eye (2002, Thailand, Oxide and Danny Pang), New Blood (2002, Pou-soi Cheang, Hong Kong), The Big Slaughter Club (2003, Hitoshi Ishikawa, Japan), Inner Senses (2002, Chi-leung Law, Hong Kong, Phone (2002, Byeong-ki Ahn, Korea); and (Spanish) Second Name (2002, Francisco Plaza) and Nos Miran (2002, Noberto Lopez Amado). Other recent Asian and Spanish horror films that would fit this paradigm, though not necessarily with the same evaluative results, include (Asian) Whispering Corridors (1999, Park Ki-Hyung, Korean), Victim (1999, Ringo Lam, Hong Kong), Kakashi (2001, Norio Suruta, Japan), Nang Nak (1999, Nonzee Nimibutr, Thailand), and Ring 2 (1999, Hideo Nakata, Japan); and (Spanish) El Celo (Presence of Mind, 1999, Antoni Aloy), 99.9 (1999, Augustin Villaronga), and The Nameless (1999, Jaume Balagueró).

Nos Miran

I’ve ended this report failing to mention the continuing excellence of Korean cinema (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, My Sassy Girl, Bad Guy, Public Enemy) and the knockout shorts (Aspiralux, Love From Mother Only, Timmy’s Wish, Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl, Forklift Driver Klaus- The First Day On The Job, Ward 13), but maybe some of these will make their way into Randolph Jordan’s report next month? Stay tuned.

Fantasia 2003: The Heights of Low Budget

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 Festival Reports   action film   fantasia   horror   japanese cinema