During it’s 20th edition, the Fantasia Film Festival presented Takashi Miike with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Mike’s name has been a staple of the Fantasia experience over the years which is no surprise because the prolific Japanese filmmaker has over 100 credits to his name in 25 years.

If the shear number of films doesn’t blow your mind, the topics, extreme style and depictions of violence, dark humour, and the range of genres of film Miike has directed should: from crime dramas to kids’ films to ultra-violent manga adaptations to musicals to downright disturbing romances.

Personally, my introduction to Miike’s work came in the form of a recommendation by my trusted video store clerk, whose employee curated shelf served as a perfect Fantasia primer for my teenage self, handed me a copy of Miike’s 1999 film Audition (Odishon) with a firm warning and the seriousness of one facilitating a rite of passage. The film still unsettles me whenever it crosses my mind.

Photo by Julie Delisle

I had the honour of sitting down with Miike for a quick interview and had a chance to ask the filmmaker a couple questions.

Fillion: How do you choose which film projects you take on?

Miike: Firstly, I always look to see if I have the capacity to take on the project, if my schedule would permit it. So, if a project comes to me… If I think too much about the content, the budget, or which company the project is coming from, it would be shielding myself and it would cut off certain paths in my life. I don’t want to do that. So, I tend to take on work in the order that it comes to me.

Things change a lot depending on the times. Some of these elements will never come together again. Actually, my natural way is to see that the timing is right. If I think too hard I’ll miss certain connections and things I would have otherwise not known. My way is to try even if I am not familiar, even if it is the first time I attempt something.

Fillion: Which films have you found the most challenging to make?

Miike: Westerns or samurai films. Things that are not happening in our time. In my career, I had never done that before taking these on and it was something that was very interesting.

For example, when you are using horses, I didn’t know where to rent horses or where we could have the horses run. It was completely new for me. These are things that were common in older films but are on the verge of disappearing in current cinema.

The next thing that will be going will be action films with cars. They are too risky and many people no longer want to take that risk. In a film, there always needs to be an element of risk or else the spectators will feel this, that it’s not natural and lacks something. A film is like a gamble, to amuse the public, you have to bring something exciting. So overall, for me, making samurai films, older styles of films, was both interesting and very challenging.

Terra Formars: Bugs in Space

Along with coming to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award, this year, Miike brought two titles to the festival: As The Gods Will (2014) and Terra Formars (2016). Terra Formars is a live action adaptation of the Japanese manga series of the same name. Although not among the type of films I usually cover at Fantasia, Miike’s Terra Formars turned out to be a total blast: an action packed sci-fi somewhere at the meeting point between Starship Troopers and Power Rangers with a nod to Blade Runner.

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In a distant future, humanity is looking to Mars as a solution to the overcrowding on Earth and the depletion of its resources. Hundreds of years ago, a space program sent moss and cockroaches to Mars as a means of warming up the planetary atmosphere and making it a livable habitat for humans. After a failed first attempt at colonization, a second top secret mission is sent to Mars to rid the planet of its cockroach problem.

Led by Ko Honda, the mission participants are promised big bucks and fresh starts as long as they accept being subjected to some genetic modifications to survive on martian soil. Oh, and kill the cockroaches.

Not even an hour after their arrival, the space team (a mix of small criminals, murderers, hackers, yakuza), quickly realizes that beyond being annoying and strange, Ko Honda has misinformed them. Turns out the cockroaches have mutated into gigantic powerful beasts of sorts and that their genetic modifications were actually to give each of them the abilities of insects multiplied to human scale.

Terra Formars is ridiculous in so many ways and self aware. The film is as funny as it can be sort of gross, in the best of ways, and the action is exhilarating. Discovering which creature the crew have been spliced with brought me back to the thrill of seeing Power Rangers as a kid and waiting to see what the rangers would morph into.

Ko Honda, the film’s villain of sorts, is one of my favourite characters in the film. I’d honestly like to see a sequel that focuses on his character some more. Although he has some of the stereotypical characteristics of film villains (especially those of earlier films), there was something really endearing, fun and fresh about Miike’s villain.

Ko Honda’s obsession with fashion took on a new meaning after meeting Miike in person. Ko Honda is almost a counterpoint to Miike in many ways: Ko Honda is agitated and skittish while Miike is poised and calm. That said, Mike has to be one of the most fashionable directors I have ever met at Fantasia. His jacket was striking, enough so to make Ko Honda totally jealous.

*Photos of Miike courtesy of Julie Delisle

Something’s stirring inside me. It’s a strange feeling that I can’t resist, won’t resist. This year, as I gather my top must-sees, I’m being pulled into new directions at the altar of Fantasia’s offerings.

This is my fifth year covering the fest, and although I certainly won’t pass up the opportunity to immerse myself in my go-to films genres, I’m finding myself peering into different wells from amongst the 130 features screening over the next three weeks.

Here are the top 10 films you should see this Fantasia season.

#10. Born of Woman

001-16International Short Film Showcase/2016/ Multiple

I’m stoked beyond words about this showcase. This dedicated space at the Fest, serves highlights some of the powerhouse filmic voices of new auteurs whose works “centre on the body and uncanny of the interpersonal,” Programmer Mitch Davis adds, “the filmmakers you will encounter here are exciting, essential new voices that we cannot wait to introduce you to.” Not gonna miss this.

From the US, there is Venefica Maria Wilson, followed by Dianne Bellino’s The Itching, and then Jessica Makinsons’s Skin. Ensuite comes Anna Zlokovic’s Shorty, and Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist. The third act consists Canadian filmmaker Tanya Lemke’s Static,  Whole from german animation duo Verena Klinger and Robert Banning, and last but not least, Australian filmmaker Kaitlin Tinker’s The Man Who Caught A Mermaid.

Screens July 23 • 5:00 PM at J.A. De Seve Theatre

9. Little Sister

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USA/2016/Zach Clark/Comedy

Official selection at SXSW and the Boston Underground Film Festival, Little Sister comes highly recommended by fellow genre film buds. From the director of White Reindeer, comes this black comedy about Colleen, a young noviciate at the Sister of Mercy, who is pulled back into the world of the youth which she’d left behind her in exile. Once home, she finds much of what she left behind intact including her goth-y room, parent’s pothead ways and her recently returned veteran brother.. well, he’s changed. Can this short visit home and Colleen’s faith prove enough to make things right?

Screens July 28 • 9:45 PM  and July 29 • 2:45 PM at the J.A. De Seve Theatre

#8. Shelley

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Denmark-Sweden/2016/Ali Abbasi/Horror Drama

Shelley comes from the producers of When Animals Dream and Only God Forgive. Already, these are some strong signs that it is bound to be of solid quality.

Shelley follows Elena, a single mother in need of some serious change, who takes on a job as a maid for the forest dwelling of what she comes to know as an unusual couple. Signing a three year contract overlooking their odd lifestyle for the peace and quiet she needs. Then, the couple, whom she learns cannot conceive, ask Elena to be their surrogate mother in exchange for a hefty compensation. She accepts.

Soon, however, Elena begins to sense that there is something terribly wrong with what is growing inside her. From the trailer, Abbasi’s Shelley is likely to deliver a body horror gothic tale with a gripping performance at its heart.

Screens July 22 • 3:00 PM  and August 2 • 7:30 PM at the J.A. De Seve Theatre

#7. Lace Crater

Lace Crater from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

US/2015/Harrison Atkins/Romance & Comedy

During a getaway with friends, Ruth, who is recovering from a nasty break up, decides to stay in an adjacent guest house, despite a warning that it is haunted. When it comes time to retire from the evening’s festivities, Ruth returns to the guest house and slowly begins to feel a presence in the room. Out comes a burlap wrapped ghost, Michael, as he calls himself and naturally (or supernaturally), one things lead to another…

With a premise offering an intimate look at sexuality, the shame one can feel about what they enjoy, and the possible for some interesting character studies, Lace Crater also stars one of my favourite actors, Lindsay Burge, who was stellar in Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim.

Screens July 28 • 7:30 PM J.A. De Seve Theatre

#6. Women Who Kill

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USA/2016/Ingrid Jungerman/ Romance, Thriller, Comedy

Morgan and ex-girlfriend Jean run a weekly podcast, Women Who Kill from their apartment in Brooklyn. The two specialize in talking female serial killers. When Mogran meets Simone, she is goaded by her friends to unpack the mysteries of her new lover. A film noir modern comedy, Women Who Kill, draws inspiration from relationships, womanhood, and the director’s personal life and neighbourhood. This film didn’t quite catch my eye until I read more about it and I have high hopes for it.

Screens on July 27 • 9:50 PM  and July 28 • 3:00 PM  at J.A. De Seve Theatre

#5. Operation Avalanche

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Canada/2016/Matt Johnson/ Crime-Thriller

Fantasia presents the Quebec premiere of  one of most anticipated films coming to the fest this year: Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche, an official selection at Sundance, SXSW, AND Hot Docs 2016. I fucking loved Matt Johnson’s The Dirties and after speaking with him last year, am fascinated by what else this guy can come up with. It seems I am not alone and that The Dirties wasn’t a one time thing and that Matt Johnson and his team represent some major talent – talent that is steeped in they love of cinema and filmmaking.

In Operation Avalanche, worried that NASA and its Apollo program may be compromised and infiltrated by a Russian mole, a pair of young CIA agents pose as documentary filmmakers to gain access to uncover what kinds of sinister activities may be going on. Once there, they realize the space program isn’t as ready as NASA has been reporting to the world. Perhaps, with their geeky knowledge of film and uses of the camera, they can be of help.

Screens July 30 • 7:00 PM  and July 31 • 2:30 PM  at J.A. De Seve Theatre

#4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

New Zealand/2016/Taika Waititi/Comedy

I absolutely adored Eagle vs Shark (2007),  Boy (2010) and What We Do in The Shadows by Waititi (2014). His sense of humour and cinematic eye are a serious treat.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a filmic adaptation of Barry Crump’s over Pork and Watercress. Rick Baker, a foster kid who can’t seem to stay in a home for very long, is placed with a new family where he develops a friendship with his foster mom, Bella. When Bella suddenly dies, Ricky runs away into the depths of the forest and Hec, Bella’s partner, goes out to find him. Misunderstandings lead to social services assuming the Hec has kidnapped Ricky. From the trailer, I can already tell I’m going to love Ricky played by Julian Dennison.

Screens July 17 • 2:15 PM SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

#3. The Lure

Poland/2015/Agnieszka Smoczynska/  Discoball of Genre Hybrid Magic

What even is this magical gem of a film? Fantasia’s descriptionn of it has the longest list of genres I have ever seen listed. Seems like it’s uncontainable, just like the creatures surfacing in The Lure.

In early 80’s Poland, two mermaids Golden and Silver arise from the sea in search of nourishment: hearts. They find themselves in a good position to do so when they join an erotic discotheque where their mermaid act, less of an act than their horny audience expects, is perfect to reel in some fresh hearts. Thing get entangled when Silver develops feelings for one of their potential appetizers. If the trailer above alone doesn’t convince you to want to see this, please swipe left.

#2. Trash Fire

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USA/2016/Richard Bates Jr.

Narrowly beaten by Embers for the number one spot, Trash Fire has been on my radar for a while now and I’ve been burning with anticipation to see it. I had the chance to catch Bates Jr.’s two other films at Fantasia.

Excision remains to this day the most beautifully fucked up piece of gory poetry I have ever seen – I literally couldn’t breathe for a while after the credits. Suburban Gothic was a totally different beast, a lighter dark comedy oozing with ghostly love.

Trash Fire, as I understand it, was written during a bout of crippling depression and yet, Mitch Davis hails it as the filmmakers strongest work yet and that it “mines uncomfortable laughs from interpersonal dysfunction and a myriad of phobias, personal demons and deep-rooted resentment, proving once again that much of the best comedy is born from pain.” Um, yes!

In the film, a longtime fizzled out couple Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabelle (Angela Trimbur) visit Owen’s family and childhood home as a a sort of deal breaker for Isabelle who wants to see if Owen is the kind of man to build a family with. As the survivor of a horrific family tragedy, Owen’s got some issues and isn’t the easiest dude to build an intimate relationship with. When the two set out to meet his surviving relatives, they uncover things best left to rot alone….but it’s too late now.

Screens July 23 • 9:30 PM at SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

#1. Embers

USA/Poland/2015/Claire Carré/Sci-fi

Embers takes the top spot in my must sees of this year’s program. A poetic humane sci-fi offering with what looks to be a distinctive and unique aesthetic, Embers takes place in a world where humanity is denied memory. Following a few of the remaining survivors of this apocalypse, Embers explores the very foundations of human nature through the very promising cinematic voice of newcomer Carré.

Screens on July  22 • 5:00 PM J.A. De Seve Theatre & August 1 • 12:45 PM J.A. De Seve Theatre

Something’s stirring inside me. It’s a strange feeling that I can’t resist, won’t resist. This year, as I gather my top must-sees, I’m being pulled into new directions at the altar of Fantasia’s offerings. This is my fifth year covering the fest, and although I certainly won’t pass up the opportunity to immerse myself in my go-to films genres, I’m finding myself peering into different wells from amongst the 130 features screening over the next three weeks.

Amongst this top 20 you’ll find my usual favourite flavours – sci-fi existential films, gut wrenching looks at the underbelly of families, coming of age, and the nature of life itself. There’s no hiding that I’m a bit of a misanthrope with some leftover teenage angst.

This time, however, you’ll also find a lot more comedies, crime thrillers, and, the biggest surprise of all to me, several body horror and creature features. Take this leap of faith with me as we embark once again on our yearly Fantasia pilgrimage.

#20. For the Love of Spock001-9

USA/2016/Adam Nimoy/Documentary

For the Love of Spock is an in depth look at the Star Trek’s most popular character and the actor who brought him to life. The doc is narrated by Nimoy’s son, Adam Nimoy, and takes a look at the life and work of Leoard Nimoy through interviews with fans, family, friends, colleagues and his relationship with his son. For Trekkies and the Trek curious, For the Love of Spock is sure to please. Live long and popcorn.

Screens July 16  at 4:10 PM at the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

#19. The Master Cleanse

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USA/2016/Bobby Miller/ Horror, Comedy

This black comedy follows Paul (played byJohnny Galecki), who in the throws of heartbreak, decides to join a spiritual retreat to flush out those inner demons. Relatable. This retreat, however, might be more than his gut can handle.

The Master Cleanse is Bobby Miller’s feature debut and is having its international premiere at the fest. Mitch Davis, Fantasia Co-Director, hints to one of the secret ingredients in this cleanse regiment: “a assortment of practical puppeteer and animatronic creatures whom, it must be said, are some of the cutest creations the screen has see since Gremlins, even if they come from a much darker and more Cronenbergian place.” I’m sold.

Screens on July 16 • 10:00 PM at the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

#18. Don’t Breathe

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USA/2016/ Fede Alvarez/Horror

I hesitated at first with this film because I’m a bit done with home invasion films right now. That being said, this one offers a new perspective right off the bat: it is from the perspective of the home invaders. A trio of friends picks the wrong mark, a lonely blind man, when they suddenly find themselves trapped in the home in a hellish labyrinth.

With Ariel Esteban Cayer, fest programmer, hailing Don’t Breahe amongst the ranks of Saulnier’s Green Room and Fincher’s Panic Room, it’s hard to resist not going through that door (or broken window) ourselves.

Screens August 3 • 9:45 PM at the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

#17. The Dark Side of the Moon

The Dark Side of the Moon from Film Fund Luxembourg on Vimeo.

Germany/2015/Stephan Rick/Thriller

Urs, the head of a phamarceutical company, is growing weary of his life and after some bad shit goes down, decides, like one does, that what might really help him is to go do some drugs with a bohemian woman in the forest. Instead of finding an inner peace of sorts, Urs finds himself unraveling and desperate to find a way to stop things before he becomes something else entirely.

#16. Some Freaks

001-15USA/2016/ Ian MaCallistor-McDonald/Drama

Matt Ledbetter is a shy kid with a patch covering a missing eye. Being different in high school is certainly not synonymous with popularity. When Matt meets Jill,a large girl who is outgoing and brilliant, he feels an instant connection with her.

Some Freaks follows their relationships and the unexpected ways in which is it is challenged. When it comes to films about teenage outcasts, I trust programmer Mitch Davis’ instinct. He says of Some Freaks that it “will charm you heart – and demolish it.” Let’s just hope we are ready for this kind of heartbreak.

Screens July 19 • 5:00 PM at the J.A. De Seve Theatre

#15. Bad Blood

USA/2016/Tim Reis/Horror

Bad Blood is having its international premiere at the Fest and I’m stoked. There’s a lot going amiss around this local Texaco station. If only Victoria, a college student just doing her thing, had happened to walk into the middle of well… what is going on exactly? This creature feature promises to get messy doused in crimson and slimey love for those monster movies of old while offering a fresh and witty take.

Screens on July 23 • 11:55 PM at J.A. De Seve Theatre

#14. Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children

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Spain/2015/Alberto Vázquez, Pedro Rivero/Animation

Having spent the last year working with animators, my love and admiration for works of hand drawn animation has woken from its hibernation ready for a bountiful spring. Fantasia delivers with Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children. There’s been a great accident on the island, and teenager Dinky wants to join her friends in leaving behind the dread and darkness of this place. But, Dinky won’t leave without Birdboy, whom pretty much everyone despises and who is a troubled drug-addicted outcast.

In 2010. Vasquez brought to screen his graphic novel ‘Pisconautas’ to the screen with the short film entitled Birdboy, shown at Fantasia’s Small Gauge Trauma. Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children brings to life an expanded and enriched version of Vasquez’ surrealist world.

Screens July 23 • 1:50 PM at SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre) and July 24 • 7:30 PM J.A. De Seve Theatre

#13. The Love Witch

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USA/2016/Anna Biller/Horror-Comedy

The first thing that strikes me about Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is it’s clear recreation of the mood of 1960s technicolour, romance/erotica and horror. It’s so meticulous it sort of feels like a time capsule. It almost seems to cast a glamour. Add to that high praise from my favourite film writer, Justine Smith, and that the film was shot on 35mm and my heart definitely starts to flutter.

Elaine, a witch with a strong appetite for love, comes to town and stops at nothing to have men love her. Even with a grimoire full of spells, she can’t seem to find love! Well, love that stays alive that is.

Screens July 16 • 5:15 PM at J.A. De Seve Theatre

#12. If Cats Disappeared from the World

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Japan/2016/Akira Nagai/ Sci-fi, Fantasy, Drama

When a 30 year old lonely mailman receives the bad news that he has only days to live, he gets a visit from the Devil. The Devil, known to love a pact or two offers him the following deal: for each day of extended life, the mailman must accept whatever the Devil selects and in exchange for his increased lifespan that one thing will disappear, even from memory. It’s only a matter of time before things get messy, perhaps worse than death itself, for a pact with the Devil is never what is seems.

Screens on July 24 • 7:15 PM at the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Hall Theatre)

11. A Conspiracy of Faith 

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Denmark/2015/Hans Peter Moland/Crime-Thriller

I gotta admit that lately I’ve been fascinated by cults. I’ve also been yearning for some solid crime thrillers for summer reading. Fantasia delivers, like Santa does since he always knows, by programming A Conspiracy of Faith where cold case investigators are stirred into action by a message in a bottle alerting them to something amiss with a rural sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The film promises a a troubling and tense ride.

Screens on July 17 • 10:00 at J.A. De Seve Theatre

Panelists Samantha Gold and Enzo Sabbagha discuss Jian Ghomeshi’s  second trial, the latest bathroom laws in the US and the Montreal festival season at its start. Plus the Community Calendar and Predictions!

Host: Jason C. McLean
Producer: Hannah Besseau
Production Assistant: Enzo Sabbagha

Panelists

Samantha Gold FTB Legal Columnist

Enzo Sabbagha: Musician, Podcast Production Assistant

* Ghomeshi and Bathroom Law Reports by Hannah Besseau

*Festivals Report by Enzo Sabbagha

* CLARIFICATION: The Peace Bond Ghomeshi signed doesn’t preclude other victims pressing charges. It only applies to Kathryn Borel.

Microphone image: Ernest Duffoo / Flickr Creative Commons

Winter is coming. At least it should be once Montreal stops getting assuaged by insufferable heat waves (not a fan). During Fantasia, I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Douglas Schulze and lead actor Lauren Mae Shafer of The Dark Below, which held its international premiere during the fest

Set on the icy Michigan Great Lakes, The Dark Below is an experimental thriller which takes bold risks by throwing cinematic conventions to the wind and explores terrifying subject matter lurking beneath the surface of ‘normal’ life.

In the opening sequence of The Dark Below, a woman (Lauren Mae Shafer) struggles against a man who renders her unconscious and abducts her. What he does next is clearly calculated; he takes her to a frozen lake, dresses her in a scuba suit and plunges her beneath the ice into the icy waters. The Dark Below is about her struggle to survive the torture of a killer intent on seeing his plan through to the bitter end. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, the events leading up to this torture are revealed as are the stakes for her to survive the ordeal.

The tension is unyielding, which the editing and score ensure, providing no ‘safe’ moments of escape for its audience. Veronica Cartwright’s appearance in the film is an unexpected bonus and her character is pretty badass.

“This project in particular is a bit of a diversion from our last film which was straight up horror called Mimesis,” explains Schulze as the three of us seek shelter from the sun, “When I was really young, we moved from the city to a rural area and we lived on a lake. I wandered out unto the ice in the middle of winter and fell through. I literally lost the hole when I fell under and it was completely dark. I managed to turn myself around saw the light and swam up to it and pulled myself up. You know, the rest sort of stayed with me for years growing up. I’d have nightmares and so forth. So, the idea of entrapment beneath the ice, always terrified me, and I thought ‘boy would it be interesting to make this into a film one day’. That was sort of the very early genesis of the project.”

The Dark Below from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Schulze and Shafer had worked together previously on Mimesis. When Schulze spoke to her about this new project, he warned her that this would be the most physical movie she would do in her career.

“At the time, I was like yeah, I’ll do the movie, I love movies, this is what I am born to do. I love challenges,” recounts Shafer. The crew went through scuba diving certification and trained with a marine. Safety precautions and measures were taken at every turn both Schulze and Shafer reassure me.

The production essentially included two very challenging shooting settings: the first taking place on the ice and the second below the ice. “I think we were filming around negative 20 degrees and the only outfit I have on is the scuba suit, which we called the Banana. It was a phenomenal experience. Just that outside portion in the snow was insane,” Shafer recounts. When the crew would break, Shafer’s scuba suit would be tossed in the dryer for the next take but often wouldn’t be totally dry:“I would have to sit there in front of the mirror, in this bathroom in this restaurant where we had our little station, and I would have to give myself a power talk.” Scenes when body heat can be seen emanating from Shafer or when she shakes uncontrollably are her body’s real reactions to the cold conditions of the shoot.

Another challenge Shafer faced during the shoot was when she had to remove her diving mask: “You are taking away your eyesight, you are taking away every sense that is possible, you can’t even feel your weight.”001

In terms of direction for the underwater scenes which make up a solid portion of the film, Schulze did everything from above the water.

“We had a monitor which was below the water and attached to the camera which was in a sort of little diving bell. We used a special under water camera housing. I would talk extensively with the camera operator before they submerged and I would explain the action to [Shafer]. It’s one thing to tell an actor this is what dramatic moment it is, you need to perform this, but then when things begin to happen organically under water you just kind of go with it.”

For many, one of the most strange aspect of the film is that it boasts only one line of dialogue:

“I am a firm believer that a film is written first and foremost and dialogue is meant to enhance a story. This story thematically deals with entrapment and a relationship. The opening quote speaks to the silence between the two characters. It is a bit of a violent ballet they perform. It seemed natural, it seemed the thing to do for the story.”

Schulze explains that the film is “in a quiet way” an hommage to the films of Stanley Kubrick. The striking colour contrast between the two main characters and single point perspective were a sort of inspired emulation.

I ask Schulze if he was mostly drawn to making genre films. In many ways, The Dark Below dives into subject matter that is equally as horrific, if not more so, than creature features such as violence against women and the dark truths we may choose not to believe. Schulze replies:

“I’m not sure if I would classify The Dark Below as a horror film. Actually, I was wondering how some of the festivals were going to take to it. You can’t really screen it next to a zombie film, you know what I mean? There’s no blood and guts in this film but there is non stop terror. And yet, there was something very attractive about that, there’s very little, if no blood, spilt in this film, it’s all terror on the ice.”

Schulze pauses and then adds poignantly:

“I almost think it’s the obligation of the independent filmmaker to push boundaries and there were so many zombie films and so many of gore films and this was an opportunity to push some boundaries and that’s what this was all about.”

Last week, We Are Still Here had its highly anticipated homecoming at Fantasia. Hours before the screening, I had the pleasure of speaking with director Ted Geoghegan, who has worked at the Fest for several years, and lead Barbara Crampton, well known for her role in the 1985 dark horror comedy Re-Animator. We Are Still Here is a whisky soaked dark melodrama not afraid to splatter the screen crimson.

When Geoghegan, who has been writing screenplays for almost fifteen years, first began writing We Are Still Here, he had not originally intended the project to become his first swing at directing. Richard Griffin had commissioned the script from Geoghegan based on a film they both loved: Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery (1981). Other inspirations for We Are Still Here include sleepy New England ghost stories, the Giallo type films of Geoghegan’s VHS filled childhood, and the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft.

These are palpable as is the nod to John Carpenter’s The Fog for some of the aesthetic choices effects wise.  The special effects in the film serve only to enhance the wonder of the practical effects, which for one segment include dunking someone repeatedly into 100 litres of mash potatoes mixed with black paint.

“I fell in the love with the script,” Geoghegan recounted. Having both the blessing from Griffin and the film now in his hands, Geoghegan approached friend Travis Stevens of Snowfort Pictures who, in turn, connected with Dark Sky Films, which eventually financed the film.

In We Are Still Here, Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) attempt to start over in rural New England after the sudden loss of their son, Bobby. But there will be little time for respite despite the sleepy surroundings. The house has a traumatic history all of its own and the floors are squeaking with secrets ready to spill out. Even their hippy “go with the flow” friends May (Lisa Marie) and Jacob (Larry Fessenden) are strung out by the vibes. Soon, they inadvertently unleash a bloody slaughter that literally paints the walls red.

“I think the silver lining to me taking over the project,” Geoghegan shared, “was that when I had written it for Richard, I had always written two of the roles with two of my friends in mind: I’d written Anne with Barbara in mind and I’d written Jacob with Larry Fessenden in mind.”

Crampton, Fessenden and Geoghegan met on the set of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next  for which Geoghegan was the publicist and in which Crampton plays the matron of a family for whom a quiet evening turns out to be a bloody last supper. Had We Are Still Here been taken on by its original intended director, the two may not have been cast.

“I think really these are the best roles that either one of us have had EVER,” Crampton noted, “ I felt close to the role and I’ve been getting some nice notices for it. I think that has to do with Ted’s writing and knowing me personally and so I’m really forever grateful and appreciative of Ted for that.”

idio0lO2jo8sndNPfxYiHlXZUHOAlthough Geoghegan has been in the industry as both a screenwriter and a producer, he had not been bitten by the directing bug before. The process of making We Are Still Here was a learning curve but Geoghegan felt encouraged by his cast and crew and peoples’ responses to the film.

“At first, I was very intimidated by the gravitas of my cast and the directors they had worked with previously. Barbara has worked with Stuart Gordon,  whom I’ve admired since I was quite young. Monte Markham, who plays the town patriarch in the film, has worked with Sam Peckinpah and with William Castle. Lisa Marie has worked with Tim Burton for years. To realize that I was going to be calling the same shots as these luminaries of film was very intimidating,” shared Geoghegan, “however, I quickly found that we had clearly cast the perfect people for the movie. I think this was due to the fact that everyone came into it very open minded with a very clean slate. I don’t think anyone brought any baggage with them. The experiences that they had previously ended up being of great benefit to the film.”

“I think as an actress too,” Crampton responded, “you have to take your cue, so to speak, from your director. Different directors direct very differently. Jim Warnoski is very different than Stuart Gordon. You really have to understand what language the director is speaking and really play to that.”

Crampton added: “even though we work in horror, actors have to work without fear. Whatever the chemistry is, you can’t be on camera and be afraid. You have to be really present and be believing in what your character is doing and not be afraid of what your character has to do, what the other actors are doing, you don’t want to be intimidated by any of the other players on the team. You just have to really relax into it.

To study for her role as grieving mother Anne, Crampton interviewed and communicated with two mothers who had lost their young adult children to automobile accidents. She asked them a series of questions about their every day struggles as well as how the deaths impacted their relationships with their partners.

“Just reading their responses brought me to tears and would bring me to the exact place that I needed to be which was a hollow place, an empty place, a lonely place, a place where there was no escape that I was a prisoner of,” Crampton explained. Although she hadn’t expected this, her portrayal of Anne, who seems tired and heavy with loss throughout, has struck a chord with persons with similar experiences who have reached out to her.

la-et-mn-we-are-still-here-review-20150605Crampton’s portrayal of Anne is strong, evoking the acting of earlier horror films. Larry Fessenden simply kills it as Jacob. Fessenden’s quirkiness brings to life the character, who swallows more than he can chew when he engages with the house’s nefarious history. Another standout performance was Susan Gibney as the town’s ‘takes no bullshit’ barkeep.

As for the editing process, Geoghegan explains that it took about a year to complete with some additional photography:

“A film like this has a finite amount of finances to work with. What you do have more of is time. So you make up for this by spending the amount of time needed to get it just right. Sometimes that takes longer than you expect but, as I kinda humbly say, this film proves, it pays off. It took the time to figure out where the film needed to be and how it needed to land.”

“I really love the fact and we didn’t even realize this until we cut the sequence but the film has virtually no dialogue until almost the ten minute mark,” noted Geoghegan,“I think that really works because by the end of the film it’s so over the top. From very silent to very loud. I think the film is a neat journey you get to go on with the characters.”

Crampton, who is hard at work with numerous projects, mentioned an intriguing upcoming film titled Sun Choke: It’s More Than A Vegetable where she plays the caretaker of a woman with an debilitating illness. Brampton describes the project as very dark, “It’s like if Lars Von Trier were more depressed than he already is. It’s pretty dark.” She also completed a film called Road Games which premieres at Fright Fest in a few weeks.

As for Geoghegan, he is currently writing a ‘secret’ screenplay for another director and has a couple projects bouncing around: “I don’t know if I am going to be producing anything else in the near future only because that takes a lot of time but I’m definitely gonna keep writing. I am hoping that within the next year or so, my next feature as a director will be off the ground.”

Panelists Pamela Fillion and Cem Ertekin discuss Fantasia (includes a segment from a forthcoming interview with the director and star of We Are All Still Here), zombie movies, a zombie apocalypse, the very real actions of Montreal police stopping a Unist’ot’en solidarity protest and Just for Laughs. Plus the Community Calendar.

Host: Jason C. McLean
Producer: Hannah Besseau

 

Panelists

Pamela Fillion: FTB music and film contributor

Cem Ertekin: FTB news editor

Read the rest of our Fantasia and Just for Laughs/OFF-JFL coverage and Cem’s report on the protest

FTB PODCAST #9: Fantasia and Zombies, Unist’ot’en Solidarity Protest Arrests and Just For Laughs by Forget The Box on Mixcloud

Microphone image: Ernest Duffoo / Flickr Creative Commons

The most unique thing about the action film Momentum is the fact that the star of the film isn’t Tom Cruise or Jason Statham. This time, it’s former bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). It’s a breath of fresh air to know that a woman besides Angelina Jolie is allowed to do these kinds of movies.

Kurylenko plays Alex, a mysterious woman involved in a bank heist gone wrong. When her face is revealed during the robbery, she has to go on the run. Meanwhile another mysterious group of people want what she helped steal, and will do anything to get it back.

Kurylenko struggles to make a lot of the dialogue feel authentic, but thankfully she’s more than capable of holding her own in the fighting and car chase scenes. Its unfortunate that the director felt compelled to include a few completely unnecessary shots of Kurylenko lounging around in sexy underwear. But at least Kurylenko spends the rest of the movie using her strength instead of her sexuality.

Kurylenko’s adversary in the film is Rome alum James Purefoy. It’s not much of a stretch to say he’s the strongest actor of the bunch. Similar to his portrayal of Mark Anthony, Purefoy’s in charge of bringing the charm and playful banter to the story. Except Purefoy is so charming that at times you forget that he’s supposed to want to hunt and kill Alex, not flirt with her. Perhaps a romantic comedy next time James?

In many ways, Momentum is nothing more than a formulaic action thriller. The plot is razor thin, the dialogue ridiculous, and the chemistry between the leads extremely questionable. So why then would anyone want to invest time and money in this movie? The same reason you watch all action films; to watch good looking people kick the shit out of each other and see big explosions. And on those two counts Momentum happily delivers the goods.

 

Is it truly possible start your life over? This is the main question asked by the Japanese romantic comedy La La La at Rock Bottom. What makes this film shine is the fact that it doesn’t try to answer that question with a bunch of sappy film clichés. In fact, while the film is gentle in spirit, it also doesn’t shy away from brutal violence. Those contrasts make the film offbeat at times, but also more realistic.

When the film starts, we are introduced to a mysterious man (Subaru Shibutani) being released from prison. Hours after his release, he’s beaten brutally in the street and left for dead. When he awakes, he has no memory of who he is.

After wandering around town in an amnesia-induced daze, our mystery man breaks up a music gig and impresses its teenage leader Makiko (Sarina Suzuki). Allowed to make her own decisions since her parents are dead and her grandfather has dementia, Makiko decides to let mystery man stay with her. She even nicknames him Poochie after her dead dog.

Shibutani and Suzuki share an easy chemistry. Its easy to believe that, in their own weird way, these two strangers are perfect for each other. Suzuki especially shines in her role as a young woman who has taken on way too much responsibility for her age and is trying to make the best of it.

The screenwriter Kanno Tomoe also deserves praise. He has crafted a story that leaves the audience ultimately feeling uplifted, without resolving everything in a neat little bow. And that’s something that’s hard to find in North American film. It’s easy to imagine an LA screenwriter squeezing out every bit of heart in a Hollywood remake. Let’s just hope that day never comes, and this film can stay in its own little weird universe forever.

The Fantasia Film Fest is already nearing it’s midway point, and man, has it been a good one so far. While my FTB co-horts are off covering indie horrors and moody, introspective character pieces, I’ve been happily chewing away on Asian films and cinematic oddities, so let’s dive in.

Assassination-ClassroomAssassination Classroom

I’m not as plugged into the anime/manga scene these days as I was a decade or so ago (the tubes started chafing me), but I gather that Assassination Classroom is something of a big deal these days. How the live action movie (evidently the first in a series) holds up as an adaptation of the manga and anime is something I can’t comment on, but as a complete layman to the series, I can say it’s a heck of a lot of fun. It’s a prime slice of Japanese absurdity in the vein of Takashi Miike, but maybe with a touch less satirical wit.

The film, which tells the story of an alien who teaches a homeroom full of delinquent kids bent on killing him for a reward put up by the government, bears all the earmarks of an adaptation of a larger work, which is the biggest problem the film has. Characters who seem like they should be important come and go, plot points and important items are dropped in out of nowhere, giving the film that feeling of being condensed that you get with a lot of these kinds of works. It also doesn’t entirely have a proper ending, leaving way too many loose threads for me to excuse.

That aside, it has a lot of charm, humour, and surreal visuals that kept me consistently entertained.

The Arti: The Adventure BeginsArti poster

But speaking of movies over-packed with too many characters and story elements, here comes The Arti, a Chinese fantasy adventure brought to life by a combination of intricate puppet work and CGI that walks the line between Wuxia epic and Japanese role-playing game.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly, by the way. The Arti feels very influenced by stuff like the Final Fantasy series, combining martial arts mythology with a metric ton of lore, magical locales, creatures, and increasingly outlandish character designs. While Assassination Classroom more or less held up under the weight of the story it was trying to tell, The Arti feels smothered by all the lore, characters, sudden betrayals, macguffins, and flagrant deus-ex-machina.

Which is a shame, because it’s definitely an interesting film to watch purely on a visual level. The design and implementation of the puppets that make up the film’s cast is at times astonishing, and the copious amounts of CGI actually doesn’t look half bad alongside the puppet work. But it still feels ridiculously over-written in some cases, and under-written in others.

The Case of Hana and AliceThe_Case_of_Hana_&_Alice-p2

From two movies over-packed with story and suffering for it to a film light on story but heavy on charm, we turn to The Case of Hana and Alice. The film focuses on Alice, a teenage girl who finds herself in a new school and neighborhood, who befriends her reclusive neighbor on a quest to unravel a school mystery involving a supposedly dead classmate.

While this is the basic premise of Hana and Alice, the film seems less concerned with the plot as a whole so much as the scenes that make up the film. For long stretches, the quest at large will sort of drop by the wayside for infectiously charming scenes of simple character interaction, comedy sequences, and atmosphere. And throughout these sequences, I never felt myself growing bored or yearning for a return to the main plot.

I think this comes from the fact that the film is loaded with characterization. The cast rarely feels two-dimensional or hollow, everyone is bursting with character, which makes watching them interact and bond continuously fascinating. It’s a ridiculously charming, enjoyable little movie, one that kept me smiling and entranced virtually from the first frame until the last.

RoarRoar poster

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie quite so perplexing in a long time. Roar, a 1981 oddity of a movie that was recently re-released and picked up by Fantasia, is like some weird, tone-deaf mashup of a nature film and a home invasion horror movie. A hilariously All-American family comes to join the patriarch, a nature… scientist of some kind, in a house in Africa where he lives with over 150 lions, tigers, panthers, and other assorted big cats, in a mad scheme to prove that big cats and people can co-exist in the same habitat.

Of course, the family arrives when dad is out, leaving them to get menaced by their new housemates. The film was the demented brainchild of its stars, Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall, who conceived of the film as a way to raise awareness about the hunting of big cats and to cast them in a new, less threatening light. But in the process, Marshall and co. accidentally managed to craft more of a horror film than anything else. Especially if you’re aware of the fact that the big cats in the film’s feline cast were mostly untrained, Roar is a tense, sometimes terrifying experience. Watching Hedren, her real life daughter Melanie Griffith, and Marshall’s two sons run from big cats that very clearly want to do them no small degree of bodily harm is often more unsettling than anything I’ve seen in Fantasia’s actual horror film crop this year.

Of course, the horror element is often underscored by the bouncy, happy-go-lucky soundtrack that seems to suggest we should be finding all of this terribly amusing. Tell that to my clenched buttocks during the screening. Roar may not technically be a good film, but it is a fascinating one. It’s intriguing to see how colossally misguided and unaware of itself it is. I’m sure you could do a really interesting post-colonialist reading, the thesis statement being “white people are just so goddamn silly”, but sadly, I haven’t the room for that here.

Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.

Carl Sagan

There is something particularly thrilling about watching people battling insurmountable odds. Perhaps this is due to the way many of us are (not so secretly) preparing for the zombie apocalypse or the moment when global warming finally wreaks havoc and kicks humanity to the curb. Or maybe, it is a fear of the inevitability of death that provides an adrenaline rush and brings Fantasia goers together to watch characters and human kind struggle to survive (or not) harrowing situations – supernatural and otherwise.

THE HALLOW the-hallow

Ireland / Corin Hardy /2015

As part of his job as a conservationist, Adam moves his young family to a secluded house in the woods in order to continue his work preventing the few remaining forests of Ireland from being devastated by disease and loggers. Although the house has bars on the windows and their neighbour is beyond nosy, from the onslaught, warnings from locals about the dangers of his trespassing go unheeded. As the young wife removes strange ugly bars from the windows of the house while the father journeys happily into the woods, baby in tow, they remain unaware that they are also being studied and that time for a safe exodus is running out.

It is obvious that the makers of The Hallow have a profound love of horror films. The film demonstrates a fresh and keen eye for the contemporary ripeness of age old lore.

With a premise that rings sweetly familiar, The Hallow offers unconventional pacing that will feel unexpected yet welcome as the story moves between the a tale of an eerie place to body horror (hands down my favourite element) and, finally, to horrific survival mayhem – scythe on fire and all.

This pacing is quick, unsettling, and I would argue, one of the more formula busting elements of the film.  The Harrow tends to feel somewhat pre-digested: film savvy audiences will find some of the story’s exposure repetitive and overly spelled out. Almost as if there was a fear the audience would not fill in the blanks on their own.

However, this doesn’t stop the film from offering some jumps and scary bits that will leave audience members short of breath. The Hallow may not be groundbreaking but several of its scenes, especially the first real encounter, go in unexpected directions that are happy offerings to lovers of the genre. As a creature feature, The Hallow delivers some pretty sweet practical and special effects presenting some of the more horrific screen monsters in recent memory.

BRIGDEND

Denmark/ Jeppe Rønde/ 2015

Bridgend has earned iBridgend_PresseStill_0000000ts place as one of my favourite films of recent years. I would not be surprised to see it win several awards at Fantasia, and beyond, this year.

Bridgend is a riveting film with beautiful well-crafted visuals. This first narrative film for director Jeppe Ronde is an emotionally gripping exploration of painful subject matter inspired by recent events the the Welsh town of the same name.

Sara, her beloved horse, and her father move back to Bridgend, Wales when he takes on a job as a local cop. However, the two were not prepared for what is happening in the town they called home many years ago. A wave of cluster suicides has stricken the town, not unlike an epidemic, and the townsfolk are left with a host of unanswered questions.

Quickly, Sara begins befriending the local lost boys and girls, whom many view as troubled and destructive, while her father, preoccupied with distractions of his own, is tasked with addressing the scope and severity of recent events. Rebellious teenage antics are more than they seem as Sarah’s new friends show her a world of bonding, pronounced highs and lows, and youthful romps: a place where the dead are, perhaps, not lost forever.

Tackling the phenomena of youth suicide, in any media or format, is no simple feat. Few films have done so successfully and Bridgend stands alongside Quebec feature Toute est parfait (2008) for doing the subject matter justice. Bridgend moves beyond the grounded realism of Toute est parfait however, and delves into the realm of arthouse and visual poetics and offers a sensory experience that plunges the audience into this beguiling setting alongside Sara. Hannah Murray (known for Skins and Game of Thrones) stands out as Sara, whose world becomes ever murkier as she begins to unravel.

By refusing straightforward answers, allowing the contemplation of the unknown, and avoiding tropes, Bridgend opens up a world of questions and a multitude of interpretations by literally setting ablaze the screen with raw performances and inspired cinematography.

* Fantasia continues until August 5th, schedule available at fantasiafestival.com

The end of Fantasia, for me at least, really means the end of summer. Oh sure, there’s still a month or so of getting to spend days on end sitting around in my underwear re-watching The X-Files, but the heady, intoxicating nights bingeing on fine cinema before stumbling back home are over, and really that’s what summer’s all about.

Endings are important; they put the proper button on experiences and no matter how good something is, if it doesn’t end well there’s the sense the whole thing was a waste. I mean, just look at look at…well, The X-Files, come to think of it. But I’m happy to report that not only has Fantasia 2014 ended well, it’s ended superbly, going out on a much suitable note of low-brow fun, indie weirdness and Asian period action. So let’s take one last look before sauntering off into the night to begin the wait ’til next year.

Zombeavers-PosterZombeavers

I think Zombeavers may end up as the most quintessentially “Fantasia” movie I’ve seen all year. An intensely low-brow but even more enjoyable tongue-in-cheek horror romp about a bevy of attractive and usually barely clothed co-eds falling under attack by zombie beavers while on a cabin trip.

Like Dead Snow 2 before it, Zombeavers knows exactly what it wants to be (fun, crass and incredibly silly) and goes about achieving that with as much gusto as a low-budget horror comedy can, which in this case is a whole lot. The cast are the usual assortment of good girls, bad girls, dudebros and shotgun-wielding hill-folk, and all of them perform about as admirably as you’d want them to. Despite the tongue-in-cheek drum the film is furiously beating on, none of them ever feels like they’re phoning it in. What I rather like the most is how the film actually keeps you guessing until the very end about which of the female protagonists will be the survivor and throws the occasional curve ball into your expectations, probably cracking them on the jaw in a way that will require some expensive dental work.

It’s just clever enough that it doesn’t become an attempt at some Cabin in the Woods-esque meta-commentary and isn’t dumb enough that you feel yourself edging towards the exits before the first undead aquatic rodent rears its ugly head.

Kundo: Age of the Rampant

As we’ve covered before, South Korean cinema is becoming big business. In my experience, that business has been a store specializing in unflavoured rice cakes and saltines. But at the last moment a Korean film came along that impressed me with its personality and charm, that being the period actioner Kundo.

On paper, it plays out like Star Wars with more bamboo groves: evil empire oppressing the people, scrappy band of rebels fighting for equality and justice, seen through the eyes of a normal joe on the ground floor. Except the normal joe in this case is a former butcher turned top-notch cutting swordsman who heaves around a pair of cleavers that look like they’re a few bangles away from something out of an early Final Fantasy game. Which sounds a bit dull, but is pulled off with a fiery energy that mixes rapid-fire editing, a score with echoes of a Spaghetti Western, and some surprisingly coherent fight scene photography.

Of course, it takes a good while to get off the ground, devoting the entire first act to the overly-drawn out origin of our hero. Once the landing gear comes up and the flight attendants let us go to the bathroom and use our smartphones again, you’re in for a pretty darn entertaining martial arts movie with some good fights and memorable characters.

I am a Knife With Legs posterI Am A Knife With Legs

I want you to imagine for a moment a sect of monks, raised in the furthest reaches of the globe and trained from birth in the art of nonsense. While other men and women have trains of thought, these proud warriors of the random have Jackson Pollock paintings of thought, with no notion or idea they have being in any way related to what came before or after in their seething, chaotic mindscapes. Sensibility and reason are their sworn enemies, which they regularly trounce at all opportunities.

Now imagine the greatest of these monks are brought to the Western world, given a budget consisting of 50 bucks, an old Kit-Kat wrapper and a pat on the back, and told to make a film. I Am A Knife With Legs is about as close you’re going to get to that film. To describe the plot almost seems futile and the best I can do is that it centers on a European pop star named Bene who goes into hiding after the love of his life is killed and a Fatwa is taken out on his life. Left mostly alone in an LA apartment, Bene can only contemplate his impending death, sing odd songs only vaguely related to the plot at large and find some way to escape the approaching “SSN”.

I Am A Knife With Legs is that one wild summer fling you only half-remember as a storm of madness and confusion, as some girl with a mad gleam in her eyes and an intoxicating smile pulled you kicking and screaming from your comfort zone into a succession of things which seem frightening and strange at the time, but can be described as “adventures” once the scars have healed and the hair dye washes out. It’s pure, concentrated, madcap lunacy that can’t ever be predicted and God damn, do you love it for that. It’s the kind of completely singular experience that film festivals like this exist to bring about, the kind you rave about to friends who are probably questioning your sanity more with every word. And really, “experience” is the best way I could hope to describe I Am A Knife With Legs. You don’t watch it; you live it, and remember living it, even if you don’t entirely remember what “it” was, for the rest of your life.

 In the years I’ve been covering Fantasia, there hasn’t been a lineup of filmmakers as diverse in terms of the gender as this year’s program. What often feels like a boys club (the film scene in general that is, not Fantasia) was refreshingly less so. One of the films that peaked my interest from the get go was Honeymoon, which tackles some of the ways that human relationships can be horrifying. I had the opportunity to speak with director Leigh Janiak about the inspiration for the film, casting, lepidoptera, and her experience directing an engrossingly eerie debut.

Offering an unconventional cabin in the woods tale,  Honeymoon refuses to rely on traditional scares and manages to build tension in a way that is insidious. Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie) are a pair of lovebirds sojourning at Bea’s family cabin for their honeymoon. Neither of them could have imagined the turn of events just a few days in the wilderness could take.

Honeymoon_film_poster-1The incentive behind making Honeymoon, Janiak explained, came from trying to break into the industry with her scriptwriting partner Phil Graziadei in LA since 2005:

“There was the writer’s strike and it was just not a great time to be trying to be a new writer. And I think it was around 2011 that the movie Monsters came out and we kind of just had this epiphany of what are we doing here, why don’t we just make a movie?”

The idea of making a film that would explore a relationship launched the story that would eventually become Honeymoon:

“I like this idea of how you never really know who another person is. I think that anyone who has had any kind of relationship, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, wife, husband, has had that moment where even if you’ve been with them for a long time, something happens and you are suddenly reminded that they exist outside of you,” Janiak added, “there’s this idea, this freudian thing of the uncanny, which was the Das Unheimliche, and that was a kind of core theme for the movie too. Which is that sometimes the most familiar thing can become horrifying.”

From this, Janiak and her writing partner began thinking about movies they both loved centering on 70s horror films like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and Body Snatchers, which she cited as the strongest influence. However, Janiak is more inclined towards sci-fi than horror and particularly “grounded movies that become fantastical.”

The casting in Honeymoon is excellent. The performances by leads Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway render Honeymoon’s tensions and eeriness palpable.

“I had read the Game of Thrones books before the show and Ygritte was one of my favourite characters. When Rose showed up I was just so excited because I had seen her on Downton Abby and this scottish show called Newtown. She was completely different in those two roles and then she was completely different again in Game of Thrones. I just thought her talent was incredibly immense. She just has this great charisma […] I just felt lucky that she responded to the material and signed on,” Janiak recounted.

“For Harry,” she continued, “I had been kind of scouring young actors and all of the agencies in LA were sending us ideas. Harry ended up being on one of those lists and I was immediately extremely excited when I saw it because I had loved him from Control and Fish Tank. He hadn’t just come to mind. I had just seen all of these American men that were talented but they were all kind of looking and blending together. They all seemed the same. So, I skyped with him. I think he was still on set for Lone Ranger at the time and he was wearing this crazy cowboy drag makeup. I don’t know how to explain it but when you have a conversation with Harry he just comes alive in this amazing way. He did a tape for us and it was perfect; he was Paul right away.”

honeymoon-sxsw-review

Janiak’s background involves working as a production assistant on several bigger film projects. When we spoke, I asked what unexpected lessons she had learned making her first feature. Janiak explained that although warned, she had left some of these unheeded and learned things the hard way.

“ Shooting on the water with a tight schedule is something that everyone had said is a nightmare, but I hadn’t quite realized how difficult it would be. Our amount of coverage just dropped, it was not as nearly close to what we had when we were inside […] The night shooting outside, that’s another that people had warned me about but I hadn’t quite realize the limitations that we would have with the limited schedule until we got there. And then the only other thing that I’d say really really was a great thing for me to learn and I’ll certainly keep with me on my next movies is the importance of a temp score.”

Honeymoon boasts strong, at times subtle, stylistic elements as well as reverberating imagery. One of these is that of moths, fascinating creatures that they are. Janiak shared her experience directing moths:

“Fun is not the word. It’s interesting. My writing partner is an amateur moth-er, I guess, I don’t know what you call that. He advised the prop master about how we need to kind of capture moths and keep them happy and healthy while we are shooting. It involves this mixture of molasses and beer. And you are supposed to have this crazy light. They caught a bunch of moths and had them feeding in the back camera room. Then, we would start rolling and everyone on set would just be holding their breath that the moth would perform. We ended up getting really lucky. They did what they are supposed to do and go to the light [laughs].”

We’d like to thank Leigh Janiak for a captivating in depth interview that tempted us to write two feature length pieces.

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nicholas McCarthy before the premiere of his second feature At The Devil’s Door to talk about his debut film The Pact, the craft of storytelling and the casting for his latest project.

In 2011 The Pact screened at Fantasia leaving me unsettled and creeped out for many months.

“When I premiered The Pact short, I hadn’t even a glimmer of what it could be,” McCarthy explained. “I think between when I first sat down to write it, it was 40-something weeks ’til when it was finished.”

One of the greatest strengths of The Pact are the stories that are left untold, and the moments left unseen.

The-Pact-2012-Movie

“The kind of gamesmanship in The Pact feature was about not showing some things and showing others,” McCarthy said. “When you look at Hitchcock, you see a film like Frenzy and The Birds and you realize that he probably [wanted] to show horrific things but it was censorship and the times that prevented him. Or maybe [it could have been] his own British morality. That’s not to say that that made him a worse filmmaker, it probably made him a better filmmaker.”

McCarthy found inspiration in short fiction such as Raymond Carver and John Cleever’s short stories along with the curious question of endings. He found formal inspiration in this for both the short and feature versions of The Pact as well as for At The Devil’s Door

“It’s all about kind of following down these trajectories, these hallways, and then you come to a wall and you don’t know where you are going to go and then you go where you never had thought you were going to go,” he said.

After The Pact premiered at Sundance and went on to be successful, McCarthy found himself in new territory.

“I was in a position for the very first time in my life of meeting people who wanted to make movies with me, which is a thing that I, of course, had wanted my whole life,” he said.

Although he was advised to adopt the safe route towards lining up to make a studio film, McCarthy chose a different path.

“For me, the cinema was the thing that brought me to this point in my life,” he said. “What I really wanted to do was to make another movie with my core crew. And to make it a film that I necessarily hadn’t felt like I had seen before […] I told myself that I shouldn’t be afraid  to fail instead of taking that path that in some ways one is expected to follow in Hollywood, which is to find a series of sure things.”

McCarthy retreated to a cabin in the woods to write his second feature. He began with the “obsessive dramatic structure” that he had begun exploring in The Pact about sisters. Along with this, an incident fueled his creative well. While at Sundance, a cab driver, prompted by the title of McCathy’s debut film, shared in detail with the director about how he had made a pact with the devil and sold his soul.

“I was sitting idling in front of the condo listening to this and I realized that this was a story that would make a really great scene in a movie and so that became something else that I was working on,” he said. “And that really was the genesis of this movie. I was just organically trying to find things that meant something to me and that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why. I just wanted to weave something that felt unexpected to me.”

At The Devil’s Door has the uniqueness of starring three leading women. McCarthy shared that he enjoys casting and finds it an important part of directing a film in terms of learning to communicate the ideas that will be most important in the film.

“We decided on the role of Leigh first just because she sort of dominates one section of the film,” McCarthy mapped out. “The very first name that came up was Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) […] I met her and I realized that she has this really interesting poise, she’s very beautiful, and she has this kind of distance that’s really, really intriguing. It’s really what I wanted for this character that is in some ways a contrary sort of impulse for a lead. I knew frankly that maybe it would be something that would turn some people off.”

Next, McCarthy had to cast Lee’s sister. Although McCarthy had not seen Naya Rivera in her starring role in Glee, his editor highly recommended he meet her.

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“I just knew as soon as she walked through the door that she’s gonna play this part,” he said. “It’s a very similar role in some ways to Caity Lotz’ in The Pact: a lot of pantomime, it’s a lot of walking through dark hallways and reading her face. The character needed to have a certain toughness that you can’t act. Naya has that.”

Last but not least, McCarthy and his team cast the third lead. As with Rivera, McCarthy had not seen Ashley Rickards (Awkward) in her current role playing a teenager on television. McCarthy was drawn to Rickards for her performance in Fly Away where she played someone severely autistic.

“So I wanted to meet her and it was clear from meeting her that she was going to jump into this thing without any hesitation and she was really, really excited. Her role is the most kind of extreme in this film,” McCarthy said.

Keep an eye out for At The Devil’s Door for — fingers crossed — a wide release. Although not as strong as McCarthy’s debut, At the Devil’s Door is a film that doesn’t shy away from trying unconventional narrative structures, exploring the meaning of home and will have you jumping out of your seat (literally, I dropped my popcorn). Added bonus for fans of Naya Rivera and Ashley Rickards who will find thrills in seeing these two actors out of high school, on the big screen and in altogether darker and more sinister circumstances.

Trying to keep up with this beast of awesome that is Fantasia has left me breathless. I’ve fallen into a strangely blissful kind of sleepless stupor. No complaints! Now that I’ve finally sat down long enough, here is a report on 4 of the 15 films named (by me) as most anticipated in this year’s program: Life After Beth, Suburban Gothic, Cybernatural, and The Harvest.

Life After Beth (Baena, 2014)

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Life After Beth is a refreshing addition to the growing list of zombie coms.  Life After Beth fleshes out the ups and downs of hanging on to a relationship that is over; attempting to revive what should be mourned.

Dane Dehaan (Chronicle, Kill Your Darlings) plays Zach whose girlfriend Beth, played by none other than the fiercely deadpan Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Rec), has recently succumbed to a snake bite. Overcome with grief, Zach finds solace in hanging out with Beth’s parents who at first welcome him with open arms and then suddenly shut him out.  For, you see, Beth has come back from the grave and doesn’t realize she’s died. Zack is overjoyed… but for how long?

Before the screening, I had the opportunity to tag along with Ryan Stick of Season Xero to interview Jeff Baena and Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds), who plays Zach’s bizarre brother Kyle who is the film’s absurdist comic relief.

 

In a way, Life After Beth is itself a filmic zombie having been written by director Jeff Baena years ago, abandoned, and then revived by happenstance into the wonderfully strange creature before us. During the Q & A, Beana mentioned his interest in the work of Jacques Derrida at the time. This perspective opens up a whole new dimension of the film in which Beana engages with ideas of inversions which are sprinkled throughout.

Dehaan’s performance as Zach is one of the film’s greatest strengths as his emotional roller coaster and brief dances with madness lead the audiences further down(up) the rabbit hole. Along with his performance and those of Plaza and Gubler, the film offers some great scenes that stay with the viewer even after the credits have rolled. Life After Beth is very relatable in a twisted kind of way, boasting delightfully raw comedy.

 Suburban Gothic (Bates Jr., 2014)

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Richard Bates Jr.’s first film Excision raised the bar for genre films and what the initiated expect from genre and horror films whose aim is to cause visceral emotional reactions in their audiences. Bates Jr.’s sophomore film Suburban Gothic, then, was an automatic must see this Fantasia. Although it is a completely different kind of film it’s also a great flick proving that this director is more than a one hit wonder and is one to keep an eye on in the next years.

In the vein of childhood mysteries (Scooby Doo, Hardy Boys and Are You Afraid of the Dark) with a hardy splash of profanity and paranormal ejaculate, Suburban Gothic follows recent graduate Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) who finds himself having to move back in with his parents (a nightmare in and of itself), a doting mother and an unrelentingly disappointed father (Ray Wise). Soon Raymond finds himselt t(h)aunted by strange visions and soon must face his proclivity for the paranormal.

Bates Jr. spoke of this film as a project made with a bunch of friends, a project of the heart, and this comes through in the film. Those seeing Suburban Gothic should go into it expecting an oddball tale made wonderful by Gubler’s strange antics, the strained relationship between Raymond and his bizarre folks, and Ray Wise’s great ability to play a total jackass.

Cybernatural (Gabriadze, 2014) **Best of the Fest**

cybernaturalCybernatural is hands down one of the best films of Fantasia. Furthermore, I’d add that it is one of the most innovative films screened at the fest in the last few years.

Told completely from the perspective of a fixed computer screen, Cybernatural is a thriller that follows, in real time, six friends who on the eve of the suicide of a fellow classmate, meet up on Skype. Unexpectedly, a seventh uninvited guest shows up and soon the teenagers are faced with the horrors of their social media ways.

Cybernatural is storytelling adapted to the age of social media. It breaks new ground and marks the beginning of a branching off of found footage, which is itself is the descendant of the epistolary novel in the advent of new media (from letters to film, from film to video, from video to phone cameras, and from these to digital media).

McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” might be, would be apropos here. Throw in some Donna Harraway. Cultural studies scholars will surely be speaking of this film in years to come: “From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Gabriadze’s Cybernatural: The Medium is the Murder.”

Truly, what makes Cybernatural remarkable is that its finger is right on the pulse of the ways in which we currently produce the stories of our lives. Cybernatural explores with its narrative methods how our lives unfold and the ways in which stories, told and untold, have the power to shape our lives in a myriad of sordid ways.

Along with this, Cybernatural features a talented cast, a mix of fresh faces and seasoned actors: Shelley Henning (Blaire), Renee Olstead (Jess), Jacob Wysocki (Ken), William Peltz (Adam), Courtney Halverson (Val) and Moses Jacob Storm (Mitch). These six actors deliver performances so realistic that it’s easy to forget that they are acting at all. Often for this kind of spooky thriller, characters are undeveloped dispensable walking body parts. Cybernatural however succeeds in grabbing the viewer into the screen by delivering chemistry between the cast that is remarkable.

Director Levan Gabriadze, writer Nelson Greaves, and producer Timur Bekmambetov not only crafted an immensely enjoyable (read: thrilling) film but one that has developed new methods for filmmaking that will no doubt change the landscape of many movie genres.

The Harvest (McNaughton, 2013)

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After hearing whispers of how dark and negative John McNaughton’s The Harvest would be, seeing the film was a disappointing experience. Perhaps I am jaded by having seen so many dark and twisted films (i.e. Excision) that something like The Harvest leaves me unmoved. Perhaps not.

The Harvest follows a nurse/doctor couple, Richard (Michael Shannon) and Katherine (Samantha Morton), who take great pains to take care of  and shelter their sick son Andy (Charlie Tahan). When Maryann (Natasha Calis), a young girl who just lost her parents, moves in next door and tries to befriend the mostly bedridden Andy, his parents’ reaction is beyond bizarre.

Although I am not inclined to hail it a total loss, The Harvest just didn’t work. To begin with, the title is too straightforward and unimaginative. Although Morton’s performance was interesting as was Shannon’s emasculated broken father, most of the film felt forced.

The Harvest felt uncomfortably off beat. There were pleasant touches of fairy tale-like elements in the film, but performances and music choices were at odds. The few thrills the film had were early on and the climax was at its height at the first reveal with the second twist being so obvious that it was painful. The resolution was just okay, slightly on the boring side.

Perhaps this was the wrong audience for a film like The Harvest and it might appeal to non genre audiences who are looking for a bit of a strange dip into the dark basement of suburbia. Perhaps not.

Up until this point I’ve been able to tie these little three film jaunts together into some kind of loose theme or experience, which, if nothing else, makes this little opening blurb easier to write. This time, however, I’m presented with a problem: how exactly does one tie together a kung-fu flick, an arctic Nazi zombie movie and an anime film?

The answer remains elusive, and I feel this may be the point at which I have to abandon the method all together and present the first of what will probably be several completely theme-less articles. So this time, let the downward slide commence as we begin our first random Fantasia grab-bag.

Demon of the Lute posterThe Demon of the Lute

Shaw Bros. Kung-fu movies are a favorite of my particular circle of film nerd friends. Screenings of classic Shaw goodness at Fantasia are usually a sea of familiar faces, usually faces with far more experienced and knowledgeable brains than mine lurking behind them. I say this because I want it to be known exactly how remarkable it is that The Demon of the Lute left most of its audience completely dumb-struck.

Shaw Bros. Films are known for being a bit off-the wall at times, going into slightly ridiculous territories of kung-fu action. However, I think even the most seasoned Shaw aficionado isn’t prepared for Demon of the Lute.

While other Shaw films like Battle Wizard wade into a pool of ridiculousness, Demon of the Lute cannonballs in like a rowdy fratboy, presenting the audience with one insane concept after another. A giant axe-wielding, pink haired warrior who rides into battle on a chariot pulled by German Shepherds one moment, a game of kung-fu air hockey the next, all set to a score that’s equal parts rock guitar and Goblin-esque synth. The creativity and imagination of the minds behind the film is shining through every frame, and probably a fair number of their acid hallucinations as well.

It doesn’t look or sound like any Shaw movie I think anyone in attendance had seen before. A high-octane anomaly of some kind never considered for mass consumption, too insane not to enjoy, and too weird to ever forget.

Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead

The original Dead Snow was a fun enough tongue-in-cheek zombie flick out of Norway, a pretty ideal Fantasia movie that didn’t take itself in any way seriously and committed fully to just being gory, low-brow fun. The apparently long-awaited sequel recently hit screens at Fantasia, and pretty much everything nice you can say about this first one, you can say about the sequel.

Trading in small scale zombie horror comedy for large scale zombie action comedy, I’d almost call it the Aliens to Dead Snow’s Alien. While the first one took a small cast and a few locations and used them for scares and horror, the second goes full-on action movie, with the nazi zombie horde from the first film marching against a small Norwegian town. The over-the-top gore and gross-outs are aplenty and usually skillfully executed enough to keep a Fantasia audience more than happy.

And although I could easily rattle off a list of films that do the horror comedy route better, I would be hard pressed to find one that commits to its own ridiculousness more whole-heartedly. Dead Snow 2 seems more than eager to break every taboo, cross every line and go big in every regard, and I can’t help but admire its dedication to being the biggest, loudest, most ridiculous piece of schlock it can possibly be.

Giovanni’s Islandgiovannis-island-poster

Shifting gears from the ridiculous to the sincere, we close this grab-bag on Giovanni’s Island, one of Fantasia 2014’s anime selection. While our last two films were over-the-top romps, Giovanni’s Island is dead serious, set on a small Japanese island in the immediate aftermath of WW2, and showing a family torn apart by Russian occupation and later internment.

It’s rare to see an animated film staunchly refuse to pull as few punches as this one, and indeed make as many precision-targeted strikes right at the audience’s feels. Despite whimsically portraying the main character’s boundless imagination struggling against the harshness of reality, Giovanni’s Island rarely shies away from showing that harshness as well. The realities of post WW2 Japanese life are shown in full, as families are pulled from their homes and thrown into Russian-run internment camps, or forced to watch as occupying forces take over their houses and workplaces.

And when the film isn’t reducing you to a quivering ball of emotion and anguish, it’s astonishing you with just how pretty anime can still be after all these years. The backgrounds and character models are stunning, often having a quality that gives the impression that the whole thing was drawn in colored pencils by one of those colored-pencil savants you see in your Facebook feed.

At times it lays the emotion on a bit thick, straying uncomfortably into melodrama with the occasional overly-picturesque montage, but Giovanni’s Island is if nothing else a gorgeously animated film that will probably reduce half the audience to heaving, undignified sobs.