Fantasia 2012: The Best of the International Selection
Founded in 1955, Séquences is the longest running film magazine in Quebec, Canada. I was therefore pleased to be entrusted with heading the Séquences jury to select the best International film at the 2012 edition. In terms of which nations were included, we decided (based on the Nations represented) on films from Europe, Australia, and the United States. The jury initially consisted of three members, but the third member had to bow out at the last minute, leaving it to myself and local film critic Pascal Grenier (to read Pascal’s own coverage of Fantasia for the local newspaper Métro.
Based on common films from our respective master lists we came up with a manageable number of 15 films to consider for the prize of best International film. The 15 films were:
As Luck Would Have it (Spain, Alex de la Iglesia, 2012)
Beast (Denmark, Christoffer Boe, 2012)
Black’s Game (Iceland, Óskar Thór Axelsson, 2011)
Black Pond (UK, Tom Kingsley, Will Sharpe, 2011)
Citadel (Ireland, Ciaran Foy, 2012)
Excision (US, Richard Bates, Jr., 2012)
Hail (Australia, Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2012)
Juan of the Dead (Cuba, Alejandro Brugués, 2011)
Memory of the Dead (Argentina, Valentín Javier Dement, 2011)
Resolution ( US, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2012)
Sleep Tight (Spain, Jaume Balaguero, 2012)
Toad Road (US, Jason Banker, 2012)
Turn Me On, Goddam it (Norway, Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, 2012)
V/H/S (US, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard, 2012)
Wrong (France/US, Quentin Dupieux, 2012)
My report will consist of a breakdown on these films, in order of preference, leading up to the prize winning film. The only film I’ve left out is As Luck Would Have it (Alex de la Iglesia, Spain, 2012), an engrossing tale of serendipity gone bad, but not really, I thought, a genre film in the Fantasia mold.
Turn Me on, Goddam It (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, Norway, 2012)
Turn Me on, Goddam It is a cute, entertaining little film with a winsome leading character, a tart, attractive 16 year-old high school student bored of her small town existence – and randy, to the point where she uses phone sex regularly. The film scores points largely by being so frank about female teenage sexual desire. Compared to the average US teen sex, coming of age story, this one is mature but without the sensationalist sex. When shy teen boy Artur expresses his interest in Alma in the most peculiar manner – “poking” her with his visible erection– Alma recounts the event to her best friends, who immediately tell Artur, and soon the whole school community becomes aware of their indiscretion. Showing the double standard of sexist attitude, Alma is alienated by her class mates, not so much for ‘inducing’ Artur but simply for telling about it. For all her thinking and fantasizing about sex, Alma never does have sex, but instead makes a getaway to Oslo to spend a day with her older cousin in the dorm room. Like the teens in Toad Road, small town community mentality leads to easy escape in the form of drugs and alcohol.
Black’s Game (Óskar Thór Axelsson, Iceland, 2011)
Produced by ‘Pusher” man Nicolas Winding Refn, Black’s Game is a solid if by the numbers rise and fall of the gangster film, set in Iceland 1999, influenced by Refn and Goodfellas, and purported to be based on real events. Most of the film has Stebbi the Psycho (Thor Kristjansson) character as the film’s mind’s eye, as we follow the story through his eyes, along with his friend Toti Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, and the sadistic ringleader, Bruno, nicknamed The Devil. Like most good gangster films, the film has lots of energy, with continually moving camera, like the opening, or rapid montage, like the credit scene where the characters are introduced through chronological family photographs. Stebbi becomes a driver for a drug lord who takes over the trade in Iceland. The opening scenes establish the rise –robbing a bank for capital, rubbing out the older established lords. The film’s centerpiece is a party scene where they fete their rise in a drug-fuelled orgy. Bruno (Damon Younger), aka the Devil, offers his woman Dagny (María Birta) to Stebbi, but after they have sex and she leaves, Bruno enters the bedroom and sodomizes him at knife point, foreshadowing the final scene, where he enters the door into Stebbi’s room unannounced. After the rape we get a great depiction of the fissure in Stebbi’s world, a moment of heightened subjectivity: the camera in close up, diegetic electronica booming on the soundtrack, as he walks in a state of shock through the main floor, surrounding by stoned couples engaged in sex. As the noose tightens around him, Stebbi stashes a duffel bag with cash and cocaine and sends it to his mom for care keeping. As the police raid the home we see, through his eyes, Devil throws his friend Toti off the roof. Stebbi manages to escape the Devil and the film flashes ahead five years. Stebbi goes to his mom’s funeral then to his childhood home, where he claims the duffel bag. A brief Leonoesque showdown between Devil and Stebbi ends with Stebbi victorious. In the showdown we see Stebbi grab a knife from the floor and the scene fades to black. The ending is set up by an earlier scene, where Bruno lords his sadistic power over Stebbi by showing him what happens to people who double-cross him: revealing a decomposed hand in a steel box. The last shot of the film shows a hand placing a second disembodied hand into the same steel box next to the first hand. Visible on the hand is a tattoo of the numbers “666”, which we assume, based on his nickname, to be Bruno’s hand.
Wrong (Quentin Dupieux, France/US , 2012)
Wrong is director Quentin Dupieux’ follow-up to his sleeper comedy hit Rubber (2010), a film about a telekinetic killer automobile tire, and strives for the same oddball, surrealist humor, albeit in a more (relatively speaking) recognizable world . While at times clever, Wrong ends up ultimately repetitive and too singular in its comic tone. Essentially, a variation on someone’s life, Dolph (Jack Plotnick), going to pot after losing a prized possession, in this case a dog named Paul. Dolph’s search for Paul –not unlike Pee Wee Herman’s search for his prized bicycle– takes him on a tour of an America where, to quote Jim Morrison, “people are strange.” But after a series of loosely stringed vignettes of Dolph encountering one bizarre person after another, without an ultimate point beyond using the absurd to reflect the absurdity of normalcy, one wonders, why? The film’s humor comes from stretching normality bit by bit beyond recognition. People seem normal but behave as if the world were based on other laws. So Dolph’s suburban neighbor Mike (Regan Burns) denies that he is a compulsive jogger, as if it was an act to be gravely ashamed of (is jogging a twisted metaphor for voyeurism here?). Alarm clocks tick from 7:59 to 7:60am. Water glasses are filled to the point of overflow; and rain pours in Dolph’s office workspace, while employees obliviously toil their mindless jobs (Tarkovsky must be turning in his grave!). The film’s best scene is actually the opening, where we see a firefighting crew lounging around the middle of a street, one fireman text messaging, another stooped reading a newspaper, a third using a potty in middle of the road, all the while a van is on fire a few feet next to them. The surrealism works well here because there is an undercurrent of satire, as the firefighters are public officials working to protect the taxpayers that pay their salary. We later find out the van was driven by the man ordered by Master Chang (William Fichtner)–an authority on canine behaviour– to kidnap Dolph’s dog, with the ulterior purpose of strengthening their mutual love (absence makes the heart grow fonder must be the guru’s mantra). Instead the van crashes and the dog is lost.
Dolph spends the rest of the film dealing with the loss while people around him populate a strange existence. The private detective hired to find his dog, Ronnie (Steve Little), examines the house like a detective investigating a human case, asking questions about the dog’s behaviour, what he eats, and even asks for a fecal sample (which will come back later in the film’s most absurd moment, where he visualizes the turd’s subconscious memories, wafting from the inside of Paul’s intestines to the lawn). Outside of Dolph’s obsession over his dog, he seems pretty normal, at least compared to the others: Master Chang the pet animal guru with a mutating accent; French accented gardener Victor (Eric Judor) who dies after planting a tree, but then returns as if nothing happened; and the pizzeria waitress Emma (Alexis Dziena), who entwists Dolph in a philosophical discussion about the restaurant’s odd logo (a rabbit riding a motorcycle).
Aesthetically, the mise en scene underscores the sense of a strained normalcy in the all-white art direction: his house, walls, paintings, the blue white sky, the beach, the salt mines, where his distraught neighbor Mike drives off into infinity (his inability to admit that he jogs causes his depressive behaviour). The white reflects a certain opaqueness which reflects on the film’s meaning. At the film’s end a woman appears at Dolph’s house claiming they are married and in love. Then she sees the gardener and treats him as if her were Dolph, telling him she is pregnant. Her dream is to give birth on the beach which she does, but to a eight year old boy. For a film that prides itself on being weird, the ending feels decidedly bland and conventional: Chang oversees the happy reunion of Dolph and his dog Paul, as the dog exits from a bus and runs into Dolph’s happy arms.
Sleep Tight (2012, Jaume Balaguero, Spain)
Juame Balaguero is known for his hugely popular and successful [Rec] franchise, with three films in the can and a fourth in pre-production. Sleep Tight is a decidedly and welcome change of pace, similar to the [Rec] films in its being centered in a single location, but different in its slow burn manner (steady tracking shots and stolid framing, and painterly lighting as opposed to the hand-held, pseudo docu- look of the found footage films) and character study trajectory. The lead character is a concierge of an art deco apartment building, Cesar (Luis Tosar….brother of Pep Tosar, who has small role in film?) a slimy character best described as a more socially adroit Norman Bates, who gets his sadistic pleasures from making sure people around him are as miserable as he is, a condition he claims he was born with, “like being blind or deaf” (my first thought was, if he is a sadist, then does not that imply he does get some pleasure!) Cesar is a closet (pun intended) voyeur who gets his kicks entering people’s apartment. Cesar takes a particular shine to one tenant, Clara (Marta Etura), as much because of her unbridled, good-natured optimistic outlook on life –which he wants to break– as her good looks and begins to invade her privacy, going as far as drugging her while she is asleep and spending the night next to her in bed. A young girl Ursula (Iris Almeida) catches on to his criminal activity and tries to blackmail him, to little success. One of the strengths of the film is its perverse script, evident in one of the film’s best script moments, when Cesar denounces an elderly lady’s quaintly parental devotion to her dogs, bearing the cold hard facts of her future fate to die old, childless and lonely. Cesar is clearly a sociopath, cruel and uncaring to the core, getting perverse pleasure from preying on the weak and victimizing the innocent. Balaguero eschews the usual violence until the end, in the single grisly scene where he stabs Clara’s boyfriend in the neck with a glass shard, puts him in the tub, removes the shard and makes him bleed to death in the tub, framing it as a suicide. The script surprises by ending with the villain scot free, not arrested for his murder of the boyfriend, and he even gets to inform the woman Clara that her baby is indeed his (through artificial insemination while she was asleep).
Memory of the Dead (Valentin, Javier Dement, Argentina, 2011)
In the past five or so years South America has given birth to a horror renaissance, most notably the Uruguayian The Silent House, 2010, which has already had its US remake. Argentina has been by far the most prolific in the contemporary horror film scene, “South America’s gore capital” according to Stephen Daultrey ( p. 67). Contemporary Argentinean horror directors include the prolific Adrián García Bogliano (b. 1980), whose Cold Sweat showed at Fantasia 2011, and Daniel de la Vega (b. 1972), Pablo Parès (b. 1978) and Herñan Saèz (b. 1978) The latter often direct together, with their infectious zombie, comedy, science-fiction, action cocktail debut Plaga Zombie (1997) also showing at Fantasia years back. Memory of the Dead is long-time screenwriter Javier Dement Valentin’s second horror film after the 2008 The Owner. Fantasia 2012 also screened the Chilean horror thriller Hidden in the Woods (Patricio Valladares, 2012), which so impressed Michael Biehn, who was at Fantasia with his own equally intense thriller The Victim, that he struck a deal with director Valladares to direct a US remake of Hidden in the Woods, slated for 2014 (let’s hope Fantasia programs that one too).
Memory of the Dead may not be entirely successful as a cohesive film, but that is largely due to Valentin’s ambition to make a film that touches on many emotions: from dark comedy, to gore gag humor, to soap opera melodramatics, to Bunuelian social satire, to Sam Raimi-like hysteria, to gialloesque visual panache (Bava’s gothic setting in the Wunderlack episode of Black Sabbath serves as a tasty backdrop for some of Valentin’s most impressive set pieces). Hence while it isn’t going to win any awards for dramatic integrity, it stands out as one of the most stylish films at Fantasia 2012.
The film opens with a powerful retroactive dream scare, of the wife Alicia (Lola Berthet) seeing her husband Jorge (Gabriel Goity) fall to his bloody death into an empty pool. As she wakes up from the nightmare, she steps into a real nightmare, as her husband bleeds to death internally. Alicia has all her husband’s best friends over for a posthumous reading of a love letter he wrote for them. The friend’s include long time school friend Hugo (Luis Ziembrowski), young gay looking artist Nicanor (Matías Marmorato), Mauro (Rafael Ferro), Ivana (Flora Gró), Fabiana (Jimena Anganuzzi), and Nené (Pamela Rementeria). As the plot thickens we realize that the gathering of Jorge’s friends by the wife has an ulterior reason, part of the wife’s black arts plot to bring Jorge back to life. Shortly after the letter reading the clock strikes midnight and a heavy fog sets outside the house, and a young girl appears on a swing, Bava-like in the front courtyard. One of the women thinks it is her dead daughter, so she goes out to investigate. Unfortunately for her, it is her dead daughter, only in the outside world only the dead can survive and the mother crumbles into a pile of bloodied flesh. Reminiscent of a supernatural Solaris, dead memories come back to haunt the living, leading to moments of tonal mixtures where heavy arsenals of emotional baggage from the past is mixed with grand guignol gore. For example, one woman is forced to revisit the sexual abuse she experienced as a child. In this fantasy scene the woman, who acts as if she has regressed-to-childhood, is raped by her father, while the mother stands in the left foreground, away from the rape, her ‘silence’ represented in graphic horror by her sewing her own eyes and mouth shut.
By contrast, the social or political subtext surrounding Mauro’s ‘returner’ works less well. Mauro’s ‘ghost from the past’ is the family maid with whom he had an affair and who was subsequently murdered by Mauro’s mother’s while caught in the act (class issues and Pyscho-esque mother complexes come in to play also). This scene languishes too much on the salaciousness of the mixture of sex and blood to carry the intended emotional weight. As the they have sex, with the maid straddling Mauro, the mother garrotes her from behind, adding a slightly incongruous dripping blood and demon change-over to the social mix. Hence, in some cases the contrast between wildly colorful visuals (saturated colors a la Suspiria dominate, plus wide angle shots, bold comic-book styled compositions, etc.) and the powerful social issues work well, and in other cases less so.
But director Dement (and the writers of course) does a credible job overall of fusing extreme gore with social awareness; the latter coming no doubt from one of the film’s major influences, Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), which deals with an upper class dinner party where the guests are unable to leave. Dement also stated in the Q & A that the dialogue in the final ‘twist’ ending between Nicanor and Jorge was lifted from the end of Viridiana. To fulfill her psychopathic love for Jorge, Alicia joins ranks with Hugo in a black arts rite that involves killing five of the guests who loved Jorge and pouring their blood into a collective vat (which leads to the sublimely grand guignol image of the victims hanging headless over a vat). Hugo is willing to sacrifice his life to the cause, but the fifth victim becomes problematic when Nacinor reveals that the only reason he befriended Jorge was to be close to Alicia, and that he does not love Jorge. This angers Alicia, who tortures Nacinor and gets him to do the unthinkable: to kill her to ensure Jorge’s resurrection. In a gory denouement, Nacinor agrees to kill Alicia’s, but like Alicia, he too has an ulterior motif: no sooner does Alicia’s blood spill into the vat, does Jorge come bursting through his grave (no worse for wear, looking quite fresh), leading to the final ‘twist’ which reveals the whole set-up to be a devious plot by gay lovers Nicanor and Jorge. It is a twist ending which not many viewers could have guessed.
Excision (Richard Bates, Jr., US, 2012)
While Memory of the Dead can be described as Latin Surrealism Meets French Grand Guignol, Excision matches ‘afternoon school special’ with Grand Guignol. Excision is director Bates’ own redux of his same titled short from 2008, which also played at Fantasia. Excision joins ranks with a growing body of recent American horror films that feature violent young protagonists who kill out of either twisted delusions, exaggerated social justice, hyper-driven hormonal change, or good old plain castrating anger/vengeance (Neighbors, Woman, Teeth, Dead Girl, Jennifer’s Body, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, American Mary, Carrie and I Spit on Your Grave remakes to name only a few). The anorexic looking Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) has delusions of being able to cure her terminally ill (cystic fibrosis) younger sister Grace (Ariel Winter), leading to the film’s starkly gruesome and surprisingly touching grand guignol finale. Traci Lords is very good as the castrating mother Phyllis, who means well but is in over her head with her nihilistic older daughter Pauline (a top drawer performance by AnnaLynne McCord). The chemistry between the two sisters is reminiscent of the two sisters in Ginger Snaps, as is the high school milieu, the caring but ineffective parents, and ineffectual authority figures (which leads to a great scene of Pauline getting the better of John Waters’ well-meaning priest). Pauline cares for her sister Grace, who is idolized by the mother, an unequal show of parental love which no doubt is at the root of Pauline’s self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour. The father, Bob (Roger Bart), spends most of this time hiding behind his newspaper, pretending that nothing is going on around him, not unlike the father in Ginger Snaps. Pauline has dark dreams, fantasies that involve seeing herself as a foxy babe in heat, as opposed to her real self, an otherwise attractive young woman (as was seen in her public appearance at the screening) made to look unwell through bad posture, bad skin, dirty, stringy hair, ill-fitting clothes, etc. In her fantasies, which are always set against an antiseptic high school bathroom styled white/blue tiled room, she is often prowling over dead corpses in necrophilic heat. Sex and violence dominate her fantasies, with each one getting increasingly violent and less obviously sexual. But as the director and actress said in the Q&A, for them they saw the blood itself as being sexual. Unable to afford a real psychiatrist, they send her to the local parish priest William (played with stoic perplexity by John Waters) for psychological help, but Pauline is far too clever for William’s attempts at reform. As she tells him, he has his own sexual repression to deal with, and as far as she knows, psychiatry is a science and science and religion don’t mix! Pauline walks up to popular boy Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and bluntly tells him that she would like to lose her virginity to him, and if interested, to meet her at her place at noon Monday! He and his friends are stunned by her boldness, but he, like any male teen, can’t resist, which leads to a funny sex scene where she dominates him, forcing him to go down on her during her period! The film does become repetitive, stretching out a scenario where Pauline’s antics are met by Phyllis’ anger and frustrated attempts at authority. Along with Pauline’s sexual fantasies she is also delusional about becoming a surgeon, and it all ends badly when she attempts a kidney transplant on her sister using an annoying next door neighbor as the unwilling kidney donor. In an oddly touching ending, Phyllis returns home to discover the garage converted into a bloody operating room. Pauline’s psychopathic act is a hugely misguided cry for love, and an accumulated act of parental acceptance. The bloody ending is in a sense a happy one in that both mother and daughter appear to finally understand what has kept them apart. It ends with a collective primal scream, with the mother and daughter embracing for the first time, sharing a true emotional bond, coming to the very pricey realization that love should come with very few strings attached.
V/H/S/ (2012, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard)
V/H/S/ came with a lot of fanfare and buzz, and while it does not re-invent the found footage horror film, it does add a few nice tweaks and twists to separate it from the ‘found footage’ heap (there’s already a sequel, V/H/S/2, 2013, which I haven’t seen yet). Since each of the filmmakers were on their own there is some repetition, like scenes of youngsters being chased, camera hurriedly running after them. The premise is set up by the framing device (“Tape 56” dir. Adam Wingard), filmed in frenetic, hand-held style: a gang of thugs who get their kicks out of staging and filming attacks on women, break into a home looking for a specific VHS tape and instead find a dead corpse and loads of video cassettes. Each tape they put into the tape player represents the next episode. In the first story, “Amateur Night” (dir David Bruckner) some young guys are picked up by a lithe, dark haired woman who ends up a feral vampire that rips them apart (Montrealer Izabel Grondin did a better take on this type of story in her 2004 14 minute horror short Le Drujes) . In the second story, (“Second Honeymoon” by Ti West) a man at a hotel ends up being set up by his girlfriend’s lesbian lover, who brutally murders him (another instance of women that kill). The third story, “Tuesday the 17th” by Glenn McQuaid, deals again with young characters encountering a serial killer in the woods. The highlight is the fourth story, Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Young,” which deals with a Skype relationship that twists and turns with great “look what’s behind you” scares and a shocker twist that reveals the man, feigning to be a doctor, a serial killer who implants women with some kind of alien lifeform. The episode is a modern take on the “When a Stranger Calls” idea of the “killer is in the house.” The final framing device before the last episode brings us back to the house, where the last man standing finds his friend decapitated, and the killer inside chasing after him. The frenetic camera remains turned on while he runs down stairs, a frame jolt and he falls to the bottom of the stairs, where the killer descends and finishes him off (the camera falls static to the ground). But then the final episode begins (we can only assume the killer put the tape in?). The fifth episode, titled by the on-screen date of the recording, “10/31/98” – Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella) is also strong, dealing with a group of young people who invade a home as a place to party on Halloween but end up instead trapped in a delirious haunted house, with ghostly arms that lunge from walls, Repulsion-like, victims thrown vertically up to the ceiling by unseen forces, unhinged doors and utensils that float through space in slow motion, and creepy demons appearing. It is the only episode which bears the stamp of considerable CGI effects, not something you normally associate with the found footage film. Once they manage to escape the house into the apparent safety of their car, a character breaks the tension by bemoaning, “What the fuck was that!” An injured woman in the car begins to act strange, hair grows on her hands; the woman exits the car, leaving it stuck on train tracks, with a train heading straight toward the car. The men inside try, but the doors don’t open. Perhaps as a tongue and cheek visual pun: the film ends with a literal train/car wreck!
Resolution (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, US, 2012)
Resolution is an interesting, nuanced horror film that skirts around the genre by offering the suggestion of premonition, folklore and the supernatural, stopping short of ever heading fully into standardized horror terrain. Conventional horror fans may feel frustrated at the lack of a payoff, but fans looking for something offbeat will find much to admire in its open ended and subtly reflexive narrative. Mainly a two-person character piece which could have been a play in a previous lifetime, as most of it takes place in an abandoned rural cottage on a Californian Indian reservation where we witness a battle of wits between two friends, dispirited drug addict Chris (Vinny Curran) and his best friend Michael (Peter Cilella) who attempts to help him get his life back on track. Chris seems puzzled to see Michael arrive at the cottage where he is attempting to detoxify, but Michael is equally puzzled as he is under the impression that Chris sent him a video soliciting his help (Chris claims to not have sent him anything). This sets the intriguing pattern of technology –photographs, VHS tapes, audio, Super 8 film, phonographs– giving them premonitory clues, at once frightening them but giving them a potential path to salvation. Objects are found where they were not; photos and slides appear that impossibly include them. Video footage also supplies clues. For example, Michael’s laptop turns itself on and shows them a video of the two drug dealers who have been providing Chris entering the cottage and beating them to death. In the car they hear a CD which has the sounds of gunshots, people dying, and the killers talking. They agree that if they return to the cottage they will die. They stay outside the cottage, where they see the Native American landlord of the cottage arrive with help, carrying guns to kill the two drug dealers seen entering the cottage earlier, and then set the place afire. Is it a Native American curse that is channeling technology? Is the cottage somehow haunted or a portal to the future? Or is everything just a weird, unexplainable coincidence? The final shot teases us with an answer, but only peers around the corner to give us a fleeting glimpse of what might be causing these inexplicable events: the two friends are transfixed by the fire; from a high angle position the camera captures a darkening frame, maybe a shadow spirit hovering above them. They both stare at it as if it were a threatening force, perhaps a demon or a sorceress, but the film never gives in to its title.
Beast (Christoffer Boe, Danish, 2012)
Beast is an intense chamber piece between, largely, a couple who are always on the brink of self-destruction. The man Bruno (Nicolas Bro) is overweight and probably lacks the confidence to hang on to his beautiful wife Maxine (Marijana Jankovic), and things turn worse when his suspicions of an affair are confirmed with his best friend, the much better looking Valdemar (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). The film is about obsessive, sick love, taken to an internalized extreme, with Bruno’s emotional pain often externalized in stylized fashion. For example, Bruno appears ill, often fainting or collapsing in pain, and clutching his stomach. To give the growing subjective pallor an added intensity, the film is shot largely in close ups with unsteady hand held camera, and natural lighting. Director Boe adds fantastic touches and heightened subjectivity by recurring impressionistic shots of Bruno’s red insides and a close-up of a knife cutting into his wife’s abdomen (which ties in to his obsessive desire to possess her –to have a “piece of her” ). She in turn has her odd physical moments, like a shower where her vagina releases jet black liquid, which leads to a symbolic image of the dissolution of their relationship: a pure white soap smeared with her black vaginal fluid.
The violent end is tensely set up by a scene where Bruno purchases a large chef’s knife at a cutlery boutique. Ironically, the tragic end follows a scene where Maxine breaks off with Valdemar, choosing, it seems, to keep open the possibility of remaining with Bruno. But the die has been cast. As Bruno is preparing dinner, Maxine announces that she has something to tell him (That she is pregnant? That she has broken up with Valdemar?). During the conversation Bruno becomes nervous and centered on trying to ascertain “what is important” to Maxine and concludes, for himself, since Maxine seems confused by his questioning, “There’s no price high enough to be with you.” Bruno follows his enigmatic line by cutting off his own fingers in front of a horrified Maxine. Maxine follows the bleeding Bruno to the bathroom, where he threatens her at knife point. While Bruno yells, “You deserve to die,” Maxine turns into the aggressor, controlling the knife and stabbing him repeatedly in the stomach (suggesting retroactively that the earlier red inserts were a foreshadow of his death). The film ends with his dying fantasy, which begins with an extreme close-up of a bloodied Maxine holding and kissing what looks like an aborted fetus; and cuts to the apartment courtyard that we saw in the first scene – the bond of their union– and then a high angle pull back of Bruno and Maxine seated with a baby carriage; the camera zooms out to a wonderfully evocative image of swirling blood superimposed over a window, which dissolves to the blood-red interior motif over which run the closing credits.
Juan of the Dead (Cuba, 2011, Alejandro Brugués)
Juan of the Dead Cuba’s first ever horror film, is one of the best gore gag comedies since Shaun of the Dead, and perhaps the best example since of the spirit of the master of the gore gag comedy, Peter Jackson. The film has great characters with warmth and charisma, and while indebted to many of the great zombie films of the past, has its own uniqueness which derives from several aspects (use of Cuban locales, running political commentary on the state of Communist Cuba, frank sexuality, often at the expense of gay characters and character homophobia, and innovative gore-gags and zombie set-pieces). The protagonists include best friend slackers Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina), Juan’s estranged daughter Camila (Andrea Duro), Lazaro’s son Vladi California (Andros Perugorría), transvestite La China (Jazz Vilá) and her muscle-head boyfriend El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez). (To capture the youth market Brugues adds to the mix attractive young actors Camila and Vladi.) Together they form a zombie fighting posse/survival group. In Shaun of the Dead fashion, Juan and Lazaro aren’t that flustered by the zombie epidemic taking over the community –or if you believe the state run news feeds, “the work of imperialists and dissidents!” Rather they see the inconvenience as a way to make a few bucks, offering their services as collective zombie fighters & clean up squad. Director Alejandro Brugués manages to make the Cuban locations an integral part of the film’s atmosphere, at once decrepit and run-down but beautiful and resilient. Juan and Lazaro don’t want to move to Miami because they “would have to work,” but end up taking advantage of the situation by learning by trial and error, first how to identify the undead, and then learning how to kill a zombie; which in itself gives evidence that this is the first ever Cuban horror film, since the characters do not have the usual film history savvy to understand zombie mythology. The scene where they encounter their first zombie is one of the best. Juan heeds an old ladies call to see if her husband, seated on his sofa couch, is dead. After Juan slaps the seated corpse a few times he pronounces him dead, but the old man wakes up, angry and hungry. In what will be a running gag based on Lazaro’s dangerous ineptitude with a harpoon, Juan’s sidekick harpoons the old man but also kills his wife standing behind him (a critique of ‘friendly fire’?). With the zombie kept a safe distance by the length of the bow’s string, Juan, Lazaro, Vladi go through a roll call of monsters in their attempt to identify what the old man has become (a vampire? a werewolf?), and then how to kill it.
Other highlights include the double homage to Fulci’s Zombie and Jaws of an underwater army of zombies and the hilariously inventive scene of the Aussie Zombie Hunter who kills a car park full of zombies through mass decapitation using his jeep and a steel wire attached to an arrow . In nice formal symmetry, the film opens and closes on the ocean. With the zombies outnumbering the humans, Lazaro, Camila and Vladi decide to leave by boat to the promised land, Miami. While the lure of escaping to the United States is too strong for most of the motley gang, our anti-hero Juan decides to stay in Cuba, to continue the ‘fight.’ Director Burgues holds his political cards close to his chest, at once critical of Cuba’s state but making the anti-hero Juan too emotionally tied to Cuba to leave (confusing matters more, in the post-credit animated scene, Juan is joined by Lazaro, Camila, and Vladi in his fight against the zombies!).
Third Runner-up to Best International Film
Black Pond (Tom Kingsley, Will Sharpe, UK, 2011)
Black Pond remains one of the most refreshing mockumentary films I’ve seen in years, a film full of clever dialogue, inventive subjective touches, and a fresh overall style, mixing Christopher Guest –like mockumentary of characters commenting on past events, and the events as they played out. Like Killer Joe (also played at Fantasia) we are in the land of the dysfunctional family, here British middle class instead of lower white trash. News clippings and TV reportage frame the family as having committed a collective murder, but by the end we gain the proper context that reveals them not as murderers but sympaths to a stranger, whose tragic story about losing his wife touches them so deeply that they consent to his strange demand of being buried next to his wife. The husband Tom Thompson (Chris Langham) and wife Katie Thompson (Anna O’Grady) have grown emotionally distant, she a frustrated poet and he a rich dilettante with two daughters who are socially challenged. Enter a stranger, Blake (Colin Hurley) Terorema style, who gets the family to boil, simmer, and live again. The man appears a simpleton, maybe even dangerous, but the father takes a liking to him and invites him back for tea. He remains a house guest and we learn (through visually interesting flashbacks) that his wife drowned in the pool, a tragedy he has never recovered from. During a family dinner, the stranger appears with a bizarre request: he tells them he is dying and wants them to bury him near the pond to be near his wife. In the end the family are cleared of murder charges but the encounter has changed them for life.
Second Runner-up to Best International Film
Citadel (2012, Ciaran Foy, Ireland)
Citadel would make a fantastic double-bill with another intelligent horror film at Fantasia this year, The Tall Man, as they both deal with abducted children, social issues (poverty, housing issues for the poor, single parenthood) and with a hint of the fantastic that is in the end abandoned for keeping the film in the social world (click here for Teresa Lobos’ review of The Tall Man). Comparatively speaking, Citadel is more of a horror film, meaning it is creepier, with more of a horror film aesthetic, but it also packs an emotional punch. The opening scene creates a great feeling of helplessness. A man Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) leaves his very pregnant young wife Joanne (Amy Sheils) outside in the hallway of their condemned apartment, as he leaves to load the taxi cab that will drive them to a new lease on life. But fate says otherwise. As he goes downstairs a group of hooded children go up to his apartment. When he returns, he views the horror of his wife being beaten through the opening of the elevator door, helpless to do anything behind the stuck door. He manages to get the elevator to move down and then runs up the 11 flights, but when he arrives his wife is unconscious with a hypodermic needle stuck in her stomach. The attack leaves him an emotional basket case, afflicted with agoraphobia and stricken with fear. When he misses a bus and has to return to the flat, the children come back, breaking into the flat looking for the baby. The scene is harrowing and cleverly designed horror showcase, with good use of tension, jump scares, suspenseful music, imagistic framing (shadowy presence seen through the matted window of the front door). At his wife’s funeral the priest tells him, “they will come back for your child,” an admission that further terrifies poor Tommy, who is left to fend for himself, helped only by a caring black social worker/nurse, Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), whose stubborn refusal to give any credence to Tommy’s fears puts her at risk and eventually victimized by the same evil children. The one scene of Tommy at a support group meeting sets the thematic core of the film, and the allegorical nature of horror. The group leader watches him and then tells him that anyone can “see the fear in him.” This later becomes key when the Van Helsing like priest (James Cosmo) tells Tommy about the monstrous children who are born with the ability to ‘see’ fear. The children are descendents of twins who were born in the building prior to it being condemned (the mother died giving birth). The twins, who contracted an infection from the sick building, lived on to give birth to generations of infected, feral children who stalk the community looking to increase its numbers with babies (when he pulls the plug on his comatose wife the death tag reads: “death by unknown infection”). The priest tells Tommy that his ‘son’ Danny (Jake Wilson) was once abducted by the evil children and was rescued, but remains scarred by traumatic blindness that is a result of the infection. All the monstrous children are blind, but born or groomed through genetic design with the noted sensory perception of being able to ‘see’ fear. Like The Tall Man, the abducted babies are placed in cells in the basement until they are infected, a sort of training via a groundwork of infection. When Tommy enters the room looking for his kidnapped baby daughter Elsa, the scene recalls the caged horror of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The priest sacrifices himself to the evil children while Tommy takes the priest’s young son Danny with him to save Elsa. Tommy gets a chance to redeem himself when Danny is attacked at the very same spot as his wife: outside his flat, numbered 111 (symbolically, the number adds up to the family unit of three). He kills the attacker, goes to the basement to save his daughter, and then comes face to face with fear, in the form of a group of children blocking his exit to safety at the end of the tunnel. Danny can now see, but at the price of losing the ability to shield the fear of others. He now needs to be protected, and Tommy, overcoming his fear, tells him to hold onto him because “they won’t see us.” He manages to escape into the white light of a hopefully more positive future. The final third of the film is less effective because it becomes predictable and nearing cliché, but the opening strengths, the sense of dread, empathy for poor Tommy, depiction of urban squalor al la Combat Shock, raises it well above the average horror film (though evil monstrous children have been mined recently in such films as Ils and its US remake Strangers, The Children, The Orphan and The Orphanage).
First Runner-up as Best International Film
Toad Road (Jason Banker, 2012)
“I wanted the film to feel like a drug experience, a bad trip” (director James Banker, Spectacular Optical).
If ever a film succeeded in its director’s stated goal, Toad Road would be it. Quite disarmingly, the final 30 minutes of Toad Road were some of the most harrowing, wrenching moments I’ve spent in a film in a long while. Not horror of the normal, expected kind, but a horror of lost souls, of young people succumbing to the easy seduction of drugs and crossing over, little by little, into the metaphorical path of “seven doors of hell.” This is not the first film to use metaphor for drug use or addiction, note for example Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (a slug’s pararisitic need for blood as a metaphor for drug addiction and Bad Biology (sex as a drug) , Larry Fessenden’s Habit (vampirism as an addiction), but conceptually this one feels more potent: the pathways to hell as a metaphor of a descent into drug-abused mania and psychosis. The first 45 minutes sets up the non-linear style, and the visual/aural style setting off a verité, “this is real” mumblecore aesthetic, against more poetic, languid moments. In the verité scenes the camera is not so much an objective presence but feels like an intruder into the private moments, the drug parties, drinking binges, vomiting, passing out. We can assume these group of late-teen early twenty-somethings are having fun, but it never really feels like it; or that the characters actually enjoy each other’s company. We rarely see them eat, and sex is curt and cautious. The outsider from the city is Sara (Sara Ann Jones), and her summer boyfriend is James (James Davidson). James is in a edgy rock band, but we only see them play once and even that seems more like aggressive posturing than artful music. Sara enters the gang a novice to drugs, but once she takes the drugs is unsatisfied with just getting ‘stoned’ and begins to crave something truly transcendental from the drugs. When James tells her about the urban tale of a road that contains seven gates, with each moving progressively closer to hell, she convinces James to join her on the journey. So while the first half or so of the film deals with the alienated youths and their misadventures, the second half shifts to Sara and James’ intertwined journeys: James to forge something positive with his life beyond his stoner friends and Sara to experience the paranormal.
Sara craves a more engaged experience with drugs. She claims she doesn’t just “stare at walls” like James and his friend but achieves higher levels of consciousness. In the middle of the film, confirming this idea, is a montage of four or five ‘experts’ or ‘witnesses’ talking about the experience of drugs as a transcendental one. The first two are young boys who liken drugs to a religious experience, a drug trip better than reading the bible seven times! For the last thirty minutes Sara asks James to take her along the pathway to hell. And the metaphorical is littered with reality moments that bear great emotional weight. Sara’s VO explains the seven gates, with the fifth achieving a “Zone” like play with space and time. At some point along their path, with experimental music, slow motion cinematography, angelic lighting, and other formal touches pushing the experience toward the sur-natural (with a little hint of Malick in the nature shots) James wakes up to find Sara gone, eventually making his way out of the woods. The last image we see of Sara, prior to James awaking alone, comes while they walk together through the woods while Sara in VO explains the experience of moving through each successive gate. Her own thoughts about turning cold and disappearing is matched by a chilling shot of Sara seemingly moving through a stained glass mirror. The voice-over halts, and James appears to be alone. The scene is intercut with an abstract montage of flash images, one quick shot is a medium low angle of a bloodied James appearing to strangle someone below frame; other close-ups are of a bloodied Sara, and Sara with demon-like egg shell eyes. James wakes up, calling out Sara’s name; instead we hear Sara’s continued voice-over description of passing through gate five. Once out of the clearing James meets a friend and finds out he’s been away “a while” (maybe as much as a month or six months based on fragments of dialogue); the police are after him; Sara is missing and her family and police are asking questions, since he was the last person to see Sara. He spends a night at an uncle’s empty cottage, while thinking back subjectively on what might have happened in the woods with Sara. In a gut wrenching scene, a drugged James meets some stray kids on the boardwalk and he asks them to try and knock him out with punches to the head. Like most of the film, everything feels too real. Estranging the real is the concave, fish eye lens casting the head punch in a surreal light. From this point on things get really cloudy, as time and space begin to emulate the non-rational parameters of the fifth gate. As James gets up slowly from the punch (still shot in fish-eye lens) Sara’s VO returns, describing the physiological trauma of passing through the final gates, of how “it penetrates you from the inside out” (all of this paralleling a drug trip). “If you don’t sacrifice yourself it will rip you apart…if you don’t leave your old self, there on the ground, so you can finally reach the end.” James nearly trashes the cottage in a fit of anger, perhaps an anger resulting in the realization of what he might have done. The angered destruction is intercut with quick close-up edits of Sara and James’s bloodied faces. The horrors of the present give way to a nostalgic moment of their courtship, James and Sara happy, kissing.
The film ends by returning to the blue lit scene in the forest, with James lying face down in the snow, which is where the film begins, revealing its flashback structure. Sara’s VO returns, describing the 7th gate as like “being surrounded by absolute nothingness….floating in the ultimate solitude.” He wakes up, screams for Sara, and then the final shot leaves us with James, silent, almost comatose, in the passenger front seat of a car, with the exact nature of Sara’s disappearance still a mystery (Did James kill her? Did she fall prey to the horrors of hell? Or is she just lost in the woods?).
Toad Road is unique in its ability to fuse touching, honest, almost loving moments, like the long lateral track following them screen right to left as Sara and James cycle along while James talks about getting his life back on track, the slow motion back lit kisses, the opening languid, slow motion shot of James and Sara walking through the woods, with Sara’s soft-spoken voice-over telling us that James’ story of the seven gates of hell was “the most beautiful thing I have ever heard,” along with harsher, brutal moments, like the closeup of a pile of vomit, the gross-out drug party pranks (pulling a condom into a nostril and out the mouth), and the snuff-film styled punches to James’ head. The experience of the film is made that much more enchanting because of its inchoate, dream-like, non-linear narrative, mixing past and present, memory and nightmare, reverie and fantasy, into a shared experience of transcendence and blunt realism .
To read what director Banker had to say about the inspiration for the film, click here (Accessed on July 27, 2012)
PS: Just as I was going to publish this report I learned from a press release announcing an upcoming theatrical, VOD and DVD release of Toad Road from Artsploitation Films that actress Sara Ann Jones died tragically of a drug overdose on September 4, 2012, shortly after the world premiere of the film. What a tragic loss.
Winner of the Best International Film at Fantasia 2012, as Selected by Séquences:
The press release we released to announce are selection of the Best International Film was as follows:
“The Séquences jury selects Hail (2011, Australia, dir. Amiel Courtin-Wilson) as the best International film of Fantasia 2012 for its original and poetic blend of intimate realism and bold formal experimentation. Featuring stark naturalism and gut-wrenching performances by a largely non-professional cast, Hail is the moving journey of an ex-con’s losing battle with his inner demons. “
Hail marks documentary filmmaker Courtin-Wilson’s first fiction feature, although his background in documentary is evident everywhere in this reality-based story about an ex-con who attempts to go straight but is burdened by bad karma and negative emotional weight to be derailed into a (echoing Toad Road in this regard) a slow descent into a his inner fire. Danny (Daniel P. Jones) plays a fifty year old, low-lifer, out of prison but primed to rehabilitate his life. His return to his wife, Leanne (Leanne Campbell), whom he genuinely loves, makes for the film’s most tender moments, but which soon give way to the harsher aspects of Danny’s life. He tries to go straight but he gets injured on the job, which just aggravates his dear of not being able to adapt to civilian life. Courtin-Wilson brings a great sense of stylistic maturity to the piece, using a vibrant realism to establish the two principal characters, with shots that continually go in and out of focus, hand-held camera, naturalistic lighting; and then takes the realism away from us –largely- after his wife is killed by a friend of hers, a Mauritian. The loss sends Danny, who loses it and slowly descends into pure vengeance as the only reason of living. He visits lowlifes, torturing and intimidating his way to the whereabouts of his wife’s killer. At this point he becomes more sullen, quiet, and the film reflects his detachment from reality by becoming abstract, the music alternating between contrapuntal happy music and jarring instrumentation. The film begins like John Cassavetes’ Faces and then switches into Ted Kotcheff’s Aussie patriarchal meltdown Wake in Fright (1971) mode. The realist mode is periodically ruptured by tranquil respites (shot of him in front of the ocean, in the meadows), more aggressive imagery (the scene of him in the car with the hail outside; the swish pans with white streaks, the breathtaking scene of a REAL horse free-falling through the sky, one of two great metaphors at Fantasia this year, the latter a metaphor for Danny’s own free-fall descent into violence, and the seven gates of hell as a metaphor for the downward spiral of the bad drug experience in Toad Road. Two things suggested Tarkovsky to me: the airborne falling horse reminded me of Andrei Rublev in two senses: the opening aerial hot-air balloon scene that ends with the balloon crashing to the ground, and the subsequent jarring cut to a horse; and the fact that Andrei Rublev also has an infamous unfaked scene of a horse falling down a set of stairs. The ending of Danny reunited with his dead wife Leanne on the beach, even suggests the posthumous fantasy ending of Ivan’s Childhood.
Daultrey, Stephen. “Viva la Horror Revolución.” Bizarre June 2012, p. 65-69.