Friday, July 31, 2015

FANTASIA 2015: BITEThe Evening Class Interview With Chad Archibald

Chad Archibald's Bite (2015) had its sold-out World Premiere in a one-off screening at the 19th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 29, 2015, in Montréal's J.A. DeSève Theater. Aware that I would be unable to attend his premiere, Archibald generously provided a streaming link, and agreed to sit down and talk with me about his latest effort before I headed out of Montréal. We met on the terrace of Le Nouvel Hôtel. Within minutes of meeting, Archibald struck me as a no-nonsense fanboy making films for fanboys, down-to-earth, friendly, and amusingly candid about his self-taught filmmaking.

Director and owner of the Guelph-based film studio Black Fawn Films (established in 2007), Chad Archibald is a graduate of Humber College's Multimedia Design and Production program. At 22, he co-wrote and co-directed his first feature Desperate Souls (2005), which was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate Films and Alliance Atlantis. After a stint of working on seven episodes of the Canadian television series Creepy Canada (2006), he took what he'd learned from that experience and applied it to making his next film Neverlost (2010), which won the Audience Award at that year's Fantasia. In 2014, he returned to Fantasia with The Drownsman, following up this year with Bite.

As noted by Heather Buckley in her Fantasia program capsule for Bite: "Within the canon of contemporary horror is the woman-body rot cycle. Instead of iconic female beauty, the camera is here to destroy, distort and decay this form. ...Bite reinvents and meditates on Cronenberg's The Fly, but with a woman and without the existential death / AIDS metaphor of its predecessor. ...Black Fawn delivers on exquisite cinematography and excellent acting, and treads in a quasi-retro '80s space, creating something thoroughly contemporary while rooted in cinema's past."

While talking to Archibald, I kept eyeing and coveting his Black Fawn vest and asked if they were for sale; but, he made it clear they were only worn by key members of the Black Fawn family, much like the bandanas that the company parcels out—different color each film—to cast and crew. When one of their films premieres at Fantasia, it's not unusual for their whole crew to attend, sometimes up to 40 people "coming from Toronto and whatnot", and they all wear their bandanas so they can identify who's worked on what film, much like they do during production on set. When I asked how this tradition got started, Archibald recalled having an exclusive number of red bandanas made up as thank you gifts to the cast and crew of Neverlost. Everyone on the cast and crew was given a red bandana, which they loved. Anytime someone would be seen wearing one of those red bandanas, it signified they'd worked on Neverlost. The gesture generated such good will that Archibald decided to do it for every film, but in a different color. Towards the end of a shoot, he gathers cast and crew together and distributes bandanas. Some folks, he smiled proudly, have even framed them for their walls. It represents the camaraderie of the Black Fawn family.

Please be forewarned that my conversation with Chad Archibald is not for the spoiler-wary!

* * *

Michael Guillén: You consider your Black Fawn team to be a family?

Chad Archibald: Yes. We spend so much time on set together and are so close with everyone. Our films are made with pretty low budgets, so we rely on a lot of people working very hard for much less than they deserve to be paid, and with fewer resources. We really work hard at treating everyone with respect. We've been on sets before where we've seen people unhappy and how sour it can get and people being miserable. Luckily, we're blessed that we haven't had many situations like that.

Guillén: You trained in multi-media design? What exactly is that?

Archibald: Web design and stuff like that. I went to school for multi-media design and had one film course. Basically all they taught you to do was how to plug a video camera into your computer. It wasn't really part of my program, but I managed to get in the course so I could use their cameras and make movies on the weekends with my buddies. I'd always made home videos and stupid little shorts and stuff, but that was the first time I could actually plug something in. I had edited from VHS to VHS, trying to cut scenes together. They were fun to do. I grew up in the country and had nothing better to do. My folks got a video camera so I was like, "Okay!" I'd create little movies to pass the time, I guess.

Guillén: That first video was Desperate Souls, which—despite having a 2.4 IMDb rating—was picked up for distribution. What quality do you think you had in that first piece that attracted distribution?

Archibald: When we made that movie, I'd never been on a set before. I had no knowledge of what to do. We found a scriptwriting program online and me and Philip [aka Gabriel Carrer] started writing it, and we called all our friends and buddies and said, "Let's go! We're making this movie this weekend!" We didn't even know how long it would take to shoot stuff. We thought we could shoot a movie over the weekend, maybe a few weekends, something like that? But it ended up taking years to finally get it done and we made every mistake in the book. We had to re-record every piece of dialogue in the entire movie! [Laughs.] But it's those mistakes that make you a better filmmaker. Now I understand sound. Now I understand editing.

Guillén: After watching the streaming link of Bite you provided, I rented The Drownsman on VUDU. You have a keen ability to rework tropes. The Drownsman brought back the idea of a Freddy Kreuger-like supernatural villain. Bite certainly has touches of body horror reminiscent of David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). At what point can you take an idea that's been worked before but somehow make it your own?

Archibald: It's so hard to come up with original ideas. I never really got that until this year because there have been a lot of comparisons between The Fly and Bite.

Guillén: I hope that doesn't bother you? It's meant as a compliment.

Archibald: No, no, no. I feel humbled by the fact that it's being related to such an awesome movie—if anything, it feels a little intimidating—but, no, I'm super-happy with it. I love horror movies and there are so many great ideas that go one way, but you think, "What if they went a different way?" The idea for Bite wasn't to try to do anything like The Fly. With The Drownsman, however, it was intentional. There were these movies that I had grown up that I had loved watching that had that supernatural bad guy that breaks all the rules. That's fun! We set out to make the character of the Drownsman one of those guys, for sure. We wanted The Drownsman to be a throwback. You just don't see movies with those characters anymore; villains that you can make toys from! Ry Barrett, who played The Drownsman, was in Desperate Souls, the first movie we ever made. He was my best-looking friend and I told him, "You look like an actor; c'mon!" We've been making movies together ever since.

Guillén: I'm intrigued that both The Drownsman and Bite feature female-centric ensembles. Can you speak to that?

Archibald: The story dictates it. With Bite, I wanted to write the story about a woman who isn't ready to be a mother; but, she's bitten by this thing and—as she transforms—she's forced towards her natural instincts. Her mothering instincts start coming through. I was excited to work with Elma Begovic, who plays the lead Casey in Bite, as I enjoyed working with Michelle Mylett who played Madison in The Drownsman. We write scripts and send them in and work with the studios to see what's going to work and what they like or don't. Some of our scripts are male-centric as well, so I don't think it's on purpose that The Drownsman and Bite have female-centric casts. I've been asked that many times. Basically, we love strong female characters. I just read an article where they interviewed several of the actresses in my films [Jeff Fountain's CGE piece "Black Fawn Films: Women Who Kick Ass"]. Gender equality is such a major issue in every industry pretty much, but this article brought it to the forefront and had some great things to say. There's nothing better than a bad-ass girl kicking ass. I don't think I would naturally write female characters who just run around in bikinis. I never look at women that way, so I would never write them that way.

Guillén: Your lead character Casey is refreshingly complex. She's due to be married, but she's not really ready or committed to the idea, so while vacationing in Costa Rica she acts out and fools around with another guy and even carelessly loses her engagement ring in the process. That sexual abandon and excess becomes the segue to her being "stung", with all its horrifying repercussions, and moral insinuation.

Archibald: There are some characters who are extreme in Bite, like we have one scene with the mother before things get out of control.

Guillén: She deserved everything she got.

Archibald: But that's it, we were like, "Good. Let's just make her horrible." Let's not beat around the bush here. We've got this fun scene: let's make her horrible. People who are going to watch this are going to say, "I can't wait to see her get her's."

Guillén: I genuinely enjoyed Denise Yuen's performance as Kirsten, Casey's good friend. She was likeable. Where we could say we wanted the mother to get her comeuppance, I really didn't want anything to happen to Kirsten.

Archibald: That's important. People aren't good or bad. People are generally right in the middle, y'know? Nobody's perfect. People make mistakes. But it's more relatable when it's someone that's real. Casey screwed up, but she's not a bad person. That's the key with making a character like her's. You want to go far enough to make them real but not so far that the audience goes, "I don't like her. No. I don't care about her. I want her to die."

Guillén: Many years ago Kiyoshi Kurosawa attended the screening of his film Doppelganger (2003) at the San Francisco International Film Festival. In that film, the protagonist's doppelganger breaks the law, causes a lot of trouble, even murder, and gets away with it. During the Q&A after the film, someone wanted to know where the police were? How this guy could get away with all this? Kurosawa seemed very bemused and admitted his movie was never meant to be "real." Movies are not real, he argued, even if they try to appear real. His movie was set in an alternate world, in which there were no cops, precisely so that the doppelganger could create chaos. That was the core of his film. Ever since then, I've paid attention to what directors leave out of their narrative worlds and the conventions they ask audiences to accept.

In Bite, as Casey transforms, she turns her apartment into a webbed nest of eggs. There's a brief complaint about the smell; but, then that's never brought up again and I got the feeling that in your movie's world, there were no neighbors. That's why nobody else was complaining about the stench and why the nest just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Can you speak about that?

Archibald: Yeah, sure. Some people have watched Bite and reviewed it as a horror comedy, while others have watched it and said, "It's a serious film." We were aiming for the middle. When you make some movies that are a little more fun, there's more leeway with your audience. If Casey had just gone to the doctor right away, it'd be a different film, she'd be in the hospital. That's not the film we wanted to make. We tried to play it in a way that these series of events happened so quickly that her instincts took over before she could actually end up in a hospital. Another example, when they walk into the room, anyone who would open that door would go, "Hell no, I'm not going in there" and back away.  But our characters have to go in. Otherwise we don't have a movie.

Guillén: It's the infamous "don't" factor.

Archibald: Exactly. Why are they running up the stairs? There's a back door. It's just the suspension of disbelief. That's where the craft of filmmaking comes in. Hopefully you make a film where the audience gets drawn in and they don't think about those things so much. They enjoy it as is. It's so true, though. You can watch any movie and ask, "Where are the cops? Why don't they do this? Why don't they just call 911?" Or it's the classic: "Oh, all our cell phones don't have reception." That problem's solved. It's so hard because we're living in an age where everyone's connected all the time through cell phones. We talked about that a lot with Antisocial (2013). There's not a moment when you can't get help.

Guillén: That reminds me of the one movie that I've long felt would be nearly impossible to remake: Peter Bogdonavich's Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff.

Archibald: It's funny you bring that up because so did the studio when we were making Antisocial.

Guillén: Well, the thing about Targets is that it's about a sniper in a drive-in theater and everyone's trapped in their cars and can't call for help. That would be unheard of today in a contemporary setting and who even thinks of drive-in theaters anymore anyway, let alone not having a cell phone?

Archibald: It can be interesting to play with period pieces, with films that take place in the '80s, when everyone wasn't connected. I feel like people are such wussies today, including myself. I imagine myself going back to the '70s and '80s when you had to find a land line to phone someone. Especially kids who are growing up now have had cell phones all their life, almost as soon as they've learned to talk. They can't even comprehend the idea of going on a trip and not having a phone. Or using a map to find directions.

Guillén: One of the things I've enjoyed about my time at Fantasia is that I don't have an international calling plan so—to avoid roaming charges—I just keep my iPhone in airplane mode and don't use it for anything but a camera. It actually feels comforting to be a little old style and out of touch.

Archibald: You just put it away? So nice.

Guillén: Let's talk about your make-up and practical effects. Who did them for you?

Archibald: Jason Derushie, who also did The Drownsman, worked on this with a team of assistants. For her make-up effects, Elma would get in super early before the crew or anyone. She'd show up and basically have to strip down and stand there for six hours and get covered in special make-up, and then another two to three hours to get it all off. She would be in make-up for nine hours out of 12-hour shifts. Whenever we got her on set, it would be, "Go, go, go, go, go!" She had some really long days and was such a trouper about it. She's very beautiful and it's interesting to watch the movie and see her transform into this creature at the end. It's only when they're looking back at found footage of them in Costa Rica that you remember how beautiful she is.

As for the actual set, we had buckets and buckets and buckets of goo. We had a room that was full of buckets of goo. Every day I was like, "More goo! More goo!" [Laughs.] Because it would dry out. We had a very small budget and one of our biggest challenges was, "How am I going to fill up this apartment with eggs?" What the hell would we actually get that would be like eggs? I was looking online and found this website that makes what they call spitballs. They're little pebbles that you put in water and they absorb the water and turn into little jelly balls. Kids spit them at each other. I bought a pack of them and took them into my bathroom and put them in a big bowl of water, went to sleep, and the next day they were overflowing. I ordered like 30,000 of them! We had buckets of them and put them in a mixture of coffee and maple syrup. We had endless eggs and had people filling ping pong balls with silicone, anything we could to figure out more and more how to create the illusion of all these eggs.

Guillén: Talk to me about Black Fawn. Why that name?

Archibald: A Black Fawn is a rare creature and exciting to see! It started from there. Me and Cody Calahan own Black Fawn, and then we have Jeff Maher and Chris Giroux. Jeff's just directed Bed of the Dead (2016) for us, but he's been our DP on pretty much all our films, almost. Chris has been producing with us for a long time as well. We've been in operation since 2008. Right now we have a slate of films with Breakthrough Entertainment. We signed an eight-picture deal with them over two years, which is a challenge.

Guillén: How did you negotiate such a lucrative opportunity for Black Fawn? Did you go through the market here at Fantasia?

Archibald: No, we went into the studio. They were nice enough to sit down with us, and Cody actually pitched the idea of what if Facebook started turning people into zombies? They liked it. In all honesty, the industry is looking for content, but good content. For anyone, if you have something good, you can get it found. The only real problem is creating great ideas. That's what got our foot in the door: a good idea that they loved. Did it matter to them all the stuff we'd done in the past? We obviously brought that to the table to show them before we made the movie and started working with them.

Guillén: I was given a piece of advice that you should never arrive with just one idea, but at least 15 ideas, to broaden your chances.

Archibald: Good advice. We have the eight-film deal with Breakthrough but we don't even know all the films that we're doing and people say, "Oh, it must be nice to just go out and make whatever you want"; but, for every 30 ideas that we put into treatment and really work on and try to get them in, only one goes through. Content is king. Content is currency.

Guillén: Do you depend on the studio to handle distribution for you or do you self-distribute?

Archibald: I've done a lot of films over the years and have always worked closely with sales teams and whatnot. I also own Black Fawn Distribution, which was created (again) because we had gone through the wringer with so many films and had been screwed by distributors in the industry. We'd give our movie to people and they'd sell it across a country and we'd never see a cent from it, which is so common these days. Back in the day, like when we sold Desperate Souls, we sold it to Lionsgate and Alliance Atlantis. I couldn't give this film away, it was so bad, but we made a ton of money off of it because every film is guaranteed to have those sales to outlets like Blockbuster. You just have to put a cool cover on it and get it out there. But there were a lot fewer movies being made back then. Since the industry's gotten so saturated, distributors have closed down. I ran statistics and there are only about 13% of the distributors left that were around in 2000 that are still around. All the rest have either been bought up or gone bankrupt and closed down.

Guillén: Who distributes for you in the U.S.?

Archibald: Breakthrough is our sales agent there as well. Tim Brown organizes everything. We make the films, hand them over to Breakthrough, they go to all the markets, and sell them.

Guillén: Do they also serve as aggegator to get your films on streaming platforms?

Archibald: Yeah, the distributor usually does that. For example, with The Drownsman—which sold to Anchor Bay, U.S. and Canada—they put it on iTunes and Blu-Ray / DVD.

Guillén: How important, then, is a theatrical run for you?

Archibald: In all honesty, it's very hard outside of festivals without a huge advertising budget for a small film to do well in theaters. We go through the festival circuit and that's how we get a film out and it gives people an opportunity to see it on a big screen as well. We've traveled all over the world going to festivals and pushing our films that way. We've done short runs in theaters in Toronto. With Neverlost we actually traveled right across Canada. Cody and I went to Vancouver and from Vancouver to Montreal and just rented out Cineplex Odeons for one night.

Guillén: That must have been hard.

Archibald: It was very difficult to get people in seats. Some places were fantastic and some places were total bombs. Filmmaking is a difficult industry to survive in, especially as an indie filmmaker. It's very saturated; but, making films is like a drug. I love being on set. I love what I do. Every day I wake up, there are times when I'm like, "I can't wait for Monday."

 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—THE DARK BELOW

The Dark Below (2015, USA, dir. Douglas Schulze)—With only one line of dialogue (“Love is cold”), Douglas Schulze delivers a harrowing aria of feminine survival through evocative visual storytelling reminiscent of the slo-mo prologues of recent Lars von Trier films, with flourishes of Stanley Kubrick for added citational texture. Rachel (Lauren Mae Shafer) is overpowered and abducted by a man (David G.B. Brown) who immobilizes her with injected drugs while he suits her up in ice diving gear, and drops her into a hole he’s hacked out of a frozen lake. With sadistic precision, he clearly intends for her to die slowly and torturously. As the ice seals above her, Rachel has to figure out how to survive, while piecing together the shocking revelations that have, perhaps predictably, brought her to this life-threatening situation. Struggling not to succumb to frostbite and numbing hypothermia, the arduous physicality of Shafer’s performance is impressive.

Without giving away the film’s reveals, The Dark Below harkens back—as Ian Olney has laid out in his essay “Dead Zone: Genre, Gender, and the ‘Lost Decade’ of Horror Cinema, 1946-1956” (published in Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces Of A Lost Decade. Eds. Mario Degiglio-Bellemare, Charlie Ellbé, and Kristopher Woofter, Lexington Books)—to a precedent of post-war movies of the 1940s that “tell women’s stories that are addressed to women. It is masculinity that is shown to be monstrous. Female protagonists must match wits with male villains—typically patriarchal authority figures like fathers, husbands, or guardians—who plot to deceive, entrap or murder them.” (2015:50-51)

The Dark Below becomes, then, a hyper-stylized melodramatic allegory of the conflict between the woman as protagonist and the man as antagonistic monster. As Olney continues: “Postwar horror films do not simply feature female protagonists doing battle with male villains, however; they also frequently invite us, via a variety of cinematic devices to identify with their heroines, to adopt a female gaze.” (2015:51)

Cinematographer Robert Skates accomplishes this in The Dark Below by submerging us into the water and under the ice with Rachel so that we intimately share her frantic desperation. Further, David Bateman’s intense orchestral and choral compositions underscore Rachel’s panic, while Jonathan D'Ambrosio provides an edited point of view through Rachel’s flashbacks and revelations. Determined to survive, Rachel is motivated by revenge, which has never been served icier than in this experimental thriller that formally challenges the conventional boundaries of genre. Fantasia correctly asserts: “You haven’t seen anything like it.”

One final alignment with Olney’s thesis is that—even as the female protagonist is valorized for confronting the monstrous-masculine, she does not do this alone. Instead, she fights the male monster with the help of another woman, as it is “only in collective feminist action” that there might be hope for success. (2015:55-56)

This is where Veronica Cartwright, who plays Rachel’s mother, squares off to the aggressor with a gaze as fierce and protective as a lioness. This casting coup has assured the film credence and pedigree, as Cartwright—a genre icon in her own right since as early as Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), through Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), onto TV’s The X-Files (1998-99)—has proven her unerring eye for choosing intelligent properties, no less here in The Dark Below. As Rachel’s mother, she and Rachel, and Rachel’s daughter form the collective feminism that will never stop glancing over their shoulders, fearful of masculine threat. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

 
The Dark Below from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Monday, July 27, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—SHE WHO MUST BURN

She Who Must Burn (2014, Canada, dir. Larry Kent)—In his introduction to the World Premiere of Larry Kent’s She Who Must Burn (2014), Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis claimed Kent as a national treasure, and described him as the Godfather of Canadian underground film and its first independent filmmaker of confrontational countercultural films. For over 50 years Larry Kent’s movies have given a regional voice to political outlooks that have—as Paul Corupe concurs in his program capsule—“infuriated uptight Canadian cultural guardians.” Theaters had their doors padlocked by censors attempting to keep audiences from watching his 1962 film The Bitter Ash, and when his 1969 film High screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, then executive director Shirley Temple Black resigned in protest. David Cronenberg has credited Kent as a major influence in his youth. At 82, Kent shows no signs of letting up and returns to Fantasia with what Davis suggests might be his most confrontational film to date.

In full disclosure, She Who Must Burn is a project that Kent has been talking to me about for years. He first pitched a treatment of the story over lunch two years back, and I’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult it has been for him to achieve institutional financing after his crowd sourcing campaigns failed. He would be the first to admit that—were it not for the efforts of Executive Producer Pericles (“Perry”) Creticos (who served as producer on Kent’s 2005 film The Hamster Cage), and the loyal support of his Vancouver associates Shane Twerdun (who helped produce, co-write, and acted one of the main leads) and Andrew Dunbar (also a producer and actor in the film)—She Who Must Burn would never have been made. Include among his supporting contributors filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, who moodily scored the film for Kent.

With its revealing title and even more revealing poster, She Who Must Burn upsets narrative conventions by letting you know straight off what’s going to happen, such that focus lies more in the film’s percolating issues and how they build to achieve suspense. It's a masterwork of signposting and negotiating suspense through anticipation.  An exercise in genre, She Who Must Burn would probably best be categorized as arthouse horror, but exceeds that categorization for skillfully addressing the fact that nothing is quite as horrifying as reality itself. Though a Canadian entry, the sense of the film is an American critique of the fanatical right wing Christian constituencies attempting to destroy democracy’s separation of church and state under the guise of religious belief, emboldened by the fervor of conversion. Who isn’t horrified every morning in the U.S. reading front page articles of fanatics killing presumed “non-believers” in the name of a vengeful God?

In Kent’s harrowing tale, Angela (Sarah Smyth), a counselor at a Planned Parenthood clinic and common law partner of deputy sheriff Mac (Andrew Moxham) infuriates the local pastor Jeremiah Baarker (Shane Twerdun) who believes it is his God-given duty to rape his wife Margaret (Jewel Staite) to fulfill a divine decree to procreate. When he discovers Margaret has taken Angela’s advice to be on birth control, the good pastor goes berserk and beats her viciously. Margaret seeks shelter from Angela who arranges for her to be taken to a safe hiding place. Refusing to reveal his wife’s location, Pastor Baarker and his fanatical cohorts threaten Sarah and her clinic with violent retribution.

As the obsequious, religiously-deranged Jeremiah Baarker, Twerdun does a 180° turn from his previous performance in Kent’s Exley (2011), thereby revealing his significant acting range. Kent, in fact, is well-known for his masterful handling of actors and the ensemble in She Who Must Burn uniformly deliver honest, meticulously paced performances, from the put-upon Angela who seeks to help troubled women with sensible, medical advice to Baarker’s kin Rebecca (Missy Cross) who suffers from postpartum depression, speaks in angry tongues, and receives a vision that God wants Angela to be burned alive. There’s not a false note in any of these performances, nor in Kent’s handling of this controversial subject. One of the members of the pastor’s congregation objects to what the pastor is asking him to do. “I’ve been a religious person all my life,” he says, “and this is not that.” Thus Kent is not trying to set up a kneejerk enmity between Christians and non-Christians, far from it; he is focusing on the danger of fanatical evangelists to the Christian faith, as well as secular democracy.

With the local sheriff unwilling (or unable) to stop the rising tide of violence, and Kent’s admitted atheist position disallowing him to lean on a supernatural solution to his story, Kent instead provocatively suggests a kind of secular martyrdom of health care practitioners dying for their beliefs (not so distant from the midwives and herbalists sentenced and burned alive during the Inquisition witch hunts). What emerges as the most horrifying element of his film is its continuing relevance regarding women having the right to determine the fate of their own bodies, and there’s no question but that She Who Must Burn will agitate militant anti-abortionists and Bible belt patriarchs, particularly in the U.S. All the more reason that this movie should be seen far and wide to remind Americans that civil liberties are under determined assault. World Premiere. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

 
She Who Must Burn - Teaser from Elad Tzadok on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—TALES OF HALLOWEEN

Tales of Halloween (2015, USA, Multiple Directors)—Eleven filmmakers (who call themselves the “October Society”), 10 tales, and 80+ actors made the Fantasia World Premiere of horror anthology Tales of Halloween (2015) a veritable bag of treats. There is so much to snack on here. For starters, Tales of Halloween imaginatively captures the nostalgia for a holiday that’s lost traction in recent years. It only took one urban myth of a razor blade hidden in an apple to ruin it for everybody. Nowadays, to be safe, parents take their children to circumscribed, chaperoned Halloween events held in school or church parking lots, if the kids aren’t already hopelessly distracted by their cell phones and tablets and can’t be bothered. Three years running, I’ve sat patiently in my living room with a bowl full of candies waiting for the doorbell to ring and not a single kid has shown up, let alone in costume. One year, I even made homemade popcorn balls because—when I was a kid and going through my bag full of treasure on the kitchen table—popcorn balls were always the best, among bite-size pieces of Snickers, Tootsie Rolls and Butterfingers. That was the year I overdosed on popcorn balls and sadly realized Halloween was a holiday that had seen its day. Kudos to Epic Pictures Group and all of the talent involved in this anthology for limning my memories with the smiles of childhood.

What could have come across as a patchwork affair has, instead, been thoughtfully reined into a tightly structured mise en scène—suburban twilight through nightfall in Anywhere, America—with crossover casting providing an interstitial cohesion, as characters from one story show up in another (let alone that each filmmaker makes cameos in each others’ segments). Technical marks—set design, costuming, period detail, lighting, sound—are pleasingly even and consistent. The final result: a fun evening pulled together by a winning collaboration between the best and brightest of L.A.’s genre filmmaking community.

Taking my cue from the kickoff segment “Sweet Tooth” (a cautionary tale to not eat all your candy at once), and to keep this review brief, I’ll single out two of my favorite segments, though all warrant due praise. Mike Mendez (who thrilled me with Big Ass Spider a couple of Fantasias back) offers a hilarious mash-up of Leatherface and alien visitation. Even with chainsaw in hand, Leatherface is no match for a trick-or-treating stop action animated creature from another planet And the popcorn ball of this bag of treats? Neil Marshall’s “Bad Seed” where a genetically-modified pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern comes to life and wreaks murderous revenge. This mash-up mocks police procedurals with (literally) biting wit.

The brainchild of Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate), fellow October Society contributors include Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo: The Genetic Opera; Saw II), Mike Mendez (Big Ass Spider), Paul Soulet (Grace), Adam Gierasch (Night of the Demons), Neil Marshall (The Descent; Centurion), Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red), Andrew Kasch (Never Sleep Again), Lucky McKee (May), John Skipp (splatterpunk actor turned director), and Ryan Schifrin (Abominable). Schifrin deserves an added shout-out for convincing his father Lalo Schifrin (famous for the Mission Impossible theme) to compose an eerie piece for the film.

In front of the camera are the likes of everyone you’ve ever enjoyed being victimized or victimizing others (including, to name just a few, Joe Dante, John Landis, Stuart Gordon, Barry Bostwick, Lin Shaye, Noah Segan, James Duval, Booboo Stewart, Barbara Crampton, John Savage, and—in an especially inspired piece of casting—Adrienne Barbeau reprising her role as the radio DJ from John Carpenter’s The Fog). Out of sheer fear, I leave the rest of this wicked, smart and fun bag of tricks and treats to Sweet Tooth. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

Friday, July 24, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—CASH ONLY

Cash Only (2015, USA, dir: Malik Bader)—Virile, yet vulnerable, Nickola Shreli bears the full weight of this intense crime thriller on his broad shoulders, both in his performance as Elvis Martini and as the film’s scriptwriter. Elvis is written into nearly every scene, which gets no complaints out of me; he’s that riveting and charismatic a character (and actor). Boasting one of the lowest budgets in Fantasia’s line-up, Cash Only (2015) gets high marks for stretching those bucks and delivering an authentic, intimate look at the Albanian-American experience in Macomb County’s Metro Detroit, which statistically has the highest percentage of ethnic Albanians not in Europe. Though not necessarily a pretty purview, it’s surprisingly compassionate, and brings the struggles of this challenged diasporic community square to heart, even at its most hardboiled and ferocious.

Everyone owes someone something in Elvis Martini’s Detroit; he, most of all. The bank’s about to foreclose on the building he owns and operates; his daughter plaintively wonders when her father will be able to afford the tuition that will allow her to return to a private Catholic school to be with her friends; but his tenants keep “working the system” and won’t pay their rent; and—aside from the bank—he owes big money to an unflinching loan shark. Above all, he owes himself some measure of forgiveness for accidentally killing his wife and that’s the debt that seems insurmountable, and one that remains the wounded core of his masculinity. When he’s forced to evict a prostitute tenant from her apartment, he discovers a stash of cash to momentarily set expenses right, only to discover the money is stolen from a mobster named Dino (Stivi Paskoski), one of Detroit’s worst denizens, and Dino will do anything to get his money back. Paskoski’s performance is terrifyingly ruthless. Subtext insinuates Dino’s Serbian, but Cash Only sagely avoids distracting its tense momentum in that geopolitical direction, and keeps its focus on the explosive stand-off between its desperate characters.

Director Malik Bader also provides comic relief as addled pot-grower Kush (who has no friends but an inflatable doll) and deserves well-earned props for eliciting restrained performances from an ensemble bursting at the seams with testosterone. Bader ratchets it down to a perfect, believable pitch. Inspired by Bader’s previous film Street Thief (2006), Shreli contacted Bader cold by email and pitched his script. Three years later, the result is street-smart, credible and—as Matthew Kiernan asserts in his program capsule—“brings something fresh and unique to the genre that hasn’t been seen in a while.” Fans of the early work of Nicolas Winding Refn will appreciate the raw violence on display. I’m already anticipating more dramas from the Bader / Shreli team. World Premiere. IMDb.

 

FANTASIA 2015—JERUZALEM

JeruZalem (2015, Israel, dirs. Doron Paz, Yoav Paz)—Hell hath no fury like a malfunctioning pair of Google glasses. There have only been three Israeli entries in all the years of Fantasia’s programming, and the Paz Brothers’ JeruZalem (2015) is, allegedly, Israel’s first true horror entry. Apparently young Israeli filmmakers are itchy to develop genre filmmaking in their homeland to escape traditional dysfunctional family dramas and war-torn narratives. Does this presage a boom for genre filmmaking in Israel? If so, will we have to bear the reinvention of the wheel and a rash of knock-offs before gaining any true traction?

It’s anticipated that each country has its own cultural legends to enhance boilerplate scripts, and JeruZalem’s assertion that one of the entrances to Hell lies beneath the Holy City is a promising premise, though more accurately the film’s true Hell lies behind an annoying choice to rework the already mined-to-death “found footage” trope by way of a woefully misguided decision to film the entire movie through the point of view of a lead character’s Google glasses. Ugh. Sure, this affords effective comic relief now and again (particularly through face recognition software that struggles to identify demons in the dark), but I came to scream not giggle, and have lost all patience with jiggling hand-held camera work rationalized as cinema verite. It doesn’t make it more “real”, kids, it makes it unwatchable. The Paz Brothers assert that they want audiences “to see up close what the resurrection may actually look like” but most of the time is spent running into stone walls in the dark with streaking lights and blurred focus and malfunction warnings from the POV Google glasses. Maybe that’s a techie’s version of the Apocalyse? Malfunctioning Google glasses? To each their own Hell?

Casting is predictable. Privileged young beauties, male and female, making stupid decisions. Even the harbinger—one of my favorite stock characters in horror films—is turned into a clownish overweight King David wannabe. JeruZalem becomes yet one more entry in a recent trend in “cyber-decoupage” that stacks online social network platforms, text messaging, facial recognition software,  SKYPE, you name it, to approximate contemporary communication practices. But these rich American Jewish girls who vacation in Jerusalem for Yom Kippur just to get laid by locals in hostels deserve every pitchfork coming to them.  It's hard to care about what happens to them when their behavior is fundamentally unattractive.

The hastened exit from the auditorium by the film’s World Premiere audience was revealing. Very few wanted to hear any excuses or rationalizations for this disappointing and cliché enterprise. I doubt that duplicitously gaining access to Jerusalem’s holiest centers of worship to shoot a horror film guerrilla style is going to do much to advance mainstream acceptance of genre filmmaking in Israel. World Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.

 

FANTASIA 2015—SYNCHRONICITY

Synchronicity (2015, USA, Jacob Gentry)—With its stylish evocation of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), homage becomes—for genre fans, at least—a form of time travel. However, Synchronicity is less a replicant than its own atmospheric application of noir aesthetics to a sci-fi narrative about time looping through parallel universes. Although we’ve seen this premise before with such films as Timecrimes (2007), Looper (2012) and Time Lapse (2014)—and the requisite effort to bring compromised timelines back into alignment—Synchronicity admirably maximizes the bang for its buck and delivers an elegantly-mounted puzzler with swank art direction by Jenn Moye that looks like it was created with a considerably heftier budget, bolstered by Ben Lovett’s melancholic score that recalls Vangelis without losing its own significant character.

Jacob Gentry, who contributed direction to the braided narrative The Signal (2007), goes solo and—taking a further cue from Code 46 (2003)—ingeniously utilizes the Atlanta architecture of John C. Portman, Jr., whose neofuturistic designs work perfectly as the urban backdrop for this story of physicist Jim Beale (Chad McKnight) who has invented a time machine that uses wormholes to navigate the time-space continuum. The story shades noir when Beale becomes a chump for femme fatale Abby (Brianne Davis) who uses her wiles to woo secrets from him about his invention to satisfy the corporate greed of venture capitalist Klaus Meisner (in a menacing, measured performance by genre alum Michael Ironside).

McKnight’s disheveled masculinity generates erotic tension set against the seductive precision of Davis. A bigger budget and potentially longer shooting schedule might have afforded the opportunity to explore slight variances in McKnight’s characterization of Beale, which could have strengthened the concept of multiple dimensions by subtly differentiating them; but, even absent such subtlety, McKnight’s performance remains compelling. As the physicist traveling into the past to prevent the theft of his invention, love becomes Beale’s predominant motivation to repeatedly cross time lines seeking alternate results while hazarding unforeseen consequences. The same could be said of the Abby character who is, at turns, a femme fatale and, then again, “just a girl.” Why she chooses to love Beale in one timeline over another is left unfortunately vague.

The central image of the dahlia—an apparent noir citation, either by way of The Blue Dahlia (1946) or the Black Dahlia murders of L.A. (take your pick)—aligns visually in its unfurling structure with the wormhole itself and serves as the catalyst for the film's time jumping. Synchronicity exceeds budget limitations to deliver an intelligent script, focused performances that offset challenges in scriptural continuity, and glossy, good-looking production values that convincingly ensorcel the viewer with its moody, unpredictable universe(s). World Premiere. IMDb.


Synchronicity from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—(T)ERROR

(T)error (2015, USA, dirs. Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe)—Surveillance (as previously noted in my entries for Slumlord and Observance) continues to be a trending theme in narrative horror films, but can there possibly be anything more terrifying than the real thing, especially when conducted by a government agency like the FBI in the name of homeland security? David Felix Sutcliffe is no stranger to the subject. As noted in his IMDb bio, Sutcliffe “is an independent documentary filmmaker whose work explores issues of national security and civil liberties in the post-9/11 era. In 2013, he was included in Filmmaker Magazine's annual list of ‘25 New Faces of Independent Film.’ His 2011 film, Adama, was broadcast on PBS, and featured the story of a 16-year-old Muslim girl growing up in Harlem who was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of being a ‘potential suicide bomber.’ His follow-up film (T)error, co-directed with acclaimed photojournalist Lyric R. Cabral, … debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival where it won a special jury prize for Break Out First Feature. Along with (T)error co-director Cabral, Sutcliffe was honored by the Tribeca Film Institute with the 2013 Creative Promise Award.” The film also received the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury award at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

With such credentials in place, I’ll accept Sutcliffe’s synopsis on his own terms: “(T)error is the first documentary to place filmmakers on the ground during an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation. Through the perspective of ‘Shariff’, a 63-year-old Black revolutionary turned informant, viewers get an unfettered glimpse of the government’s counterterrorism tactics and the murky justifications behind them. Taut, stark and controversial, (T)error illuminates the fragile relationships between individual and surveillance state in modern America, and asks who is watching the watchers.”

It, perhaps, goes without saying but often it’s filmmakers who are watching the watchers (think CitizenFour, whose director Laura Poitras served as a creative consultant on this project). A documentary as highly-lauded as (T)error has been on festival track is cause for hope that the FBI will eventually be held accountable for the errors made in their war on terror (as cleverly conflated in the film’s title). As Sean P. Means nails it at the Salt Lake Tribune: “It's the sort of movie around which congressional investigations are, or at least should be, built.” On a grass roots level, the filmmakers’ concerted effort to mobilize audience engagement has resulted in their association with Project C.L.E.A.R., which is well worth checking out. Official website. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Ariel Esteban Cayer is equally articulate in his program capsule for Fantasia: “The intimate, unprecedented portrait of a covert FBI informant, Cabral and Sutcliffe’s debut film (T)error is a tense and upsetting documentary tour-de-force. Connecting the dots of the FBI’s long history of domestic operations, from COINTELPRO’s war against the Civil Rights and black nationalist groups of the 1970s to the current, post-9/11 regime of preemptive strikes and rampant domestic espionage, (T)error … unfolds like a psychological thriller, and amounts to a stark, bold perspective on the never-ending War on Terror (both real and manufactured); an up-close look into the FBI’s deceptive methods for assuring national security at the expense of privacy, freedom of belief, and the individual lives shattered in their wake.”

Kudos to Fantasia for including a hard-hitting investigative documentary like (T)error in their line-up, which serves as an obvious reminder that genre films bear a vital importance for inflecting the dread and anxiety felt by individuals towards social forces over which they have no control. Horror films are often mistakenly reduced to mere entertainment and diversion, when in fact they bear a cultural value in the public sector for expressing justified dread seeking articulation and redress.

 

FANTASIA 2015—ANGUISH

Anguish (2015, USA, dir. Sonny Mallhi)—The most visceral achievement of Sonny Mallhi’s directorial debut Anguish (2015) is its nerve-wracking sound design, imaginatively executed by Sonic Magic, a near textbook example of the vital importance of sound for a horror film to have full impact. But that’s just one accomplishment among many in the World Premiere of Mallhi’s fresh, riveting approach towards the now-cliché exorcism film.

What starts out as a study of mental illness among adolescents slowly morphs into a jarring tale of spiritual possession. Please notice I did not say demonic possession, because that’s the pivotal difference in Mallhi’s filmic strategy, whose research into the subject revealed therapeutic systems of spirit release, in contrast to patristic Catholic approaches of ritual exorcism that often causes harm (if not death) to the possessed individual, precisely for maligning and mishandling the possessing spirit as demonic.

Allegedly based on true events, and actual statistics of the number of adolescents suffering from mental illness, Mallhi—producer of The Strangers (2008) and At the Devil’s Door (2014)—takes over the helm to create not only a harrowing but admirably compassionate tale of 16-year-old Tess (in a powerhouse performance by Ryan Simpkins, 15 at the time of filming) who has been struggling with a personality disorder since the age of 5 that has confounded all the medical specialists approached by her mother Jessica (Annika Marks), who, alone, is barely coping as hospital bills mount while her husband is deployed to the Mideast. Jessica hopes that moving to a small town in a pastoral setting might calm things down, unaware that a recent tragedy has left Sarah (Karina Logue), the local book shop owner, bereft of her daughter Lucy (Amberley Gridley) in a sudden, horrific accident. World Premiere. IMDb.

Two mothers, two daughters, cross and exchange lives as Lucy seeks closure before passing on. This female-centric narrative offers remedial critique to the male-dominated worlds of medicine and religion who eagerly prescribe drugs and exorcism to take care of Tess’s problem. That the two mothers take it upon themselves to work this out between themselves sets the audience up for an evening at the threshold to the dead with lost spirits known and unknown passing through Tess. “I want people to look beyond their comfort zone,” Mallhi asserts, and he has achieved a discomforting, frequently terrifying, experience at the intersection of mental illness and spiritual possession. Anguish will predictably walk away as one of the horror discoveries of Fantasia.

 
Anguish from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

FANTASIA 2015—GOODNIGHT MOMMY / A HARD DAY / BØRNING

Goodnight Mommy / Ich seh, Ich seh (2014, Austria, dirs. Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala)—The horror genre has made me completely distrust corn fields. The minute Goodnight Mommy starts with nine-year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (played by the eponymous Schwarz brothers) playing hide-and-seek in the corn fields that flank their lonely country house—with woods stretching off to the distance on the other side—my skin began to crawl. The expansive landscape felt claustrophobic and insular, a trap.

Then I began to calm down as the truly adorable Elias and Lukas are shown jumping up and down on a trampoline in the rain, running through the woods, catching big beetles for their bug collection, saving a stray cat from an ossuary, and sharing whispered secrets by flashlight underneath their bedcovers. But then there’s the problem of mother. She’s returned home from the hospital with extensive facial surgery, her head wrapped in bandages, her eyes swollen and bloodshot, and she’s different than before, short on patience, stern, changing all the house rules and not for the better. Elias and Lukas begin to wonder: Is she really their mother? And set out to test her.

Produced by Ulrich Seidl, it’s to be expected that Goodnight Mommy will transform into a dark, existential struggle for identity and fundamental trust—what Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis describes “as a profoundly disturbing work of macabre beauty and black poetics, of unspeakable horror and scorching psychological hurt” —proving yet again that no one can hurt you as much as your own family. IMDb.

At Variety, Peter Debruge says Austrian newcomers Franz and Fiala have created an "elegantly stylized, thoroughly unnerving attempt to creep the heck out of arthouse horror fans" and "a home-invasion scenario where the aggressors lived there all along." David Rooney's bottom line at The Hollywood Reporter: "Even Joan Crawford didn't have these kinds of parenting problems." Both liken the film to Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997). Rooney adds that "this insidious tale of a mother-son bond gone haywire is squirm-inducing stuff" and has "cult potential stamped all over it." At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw likewise references Haneke, and includes Jessica Hausner's Hotel (2004) as a comparison. His main critique: "Perhaps a more unassuming genre director would have tightened this movie's cables a little, so that it had more tension and less revulsion. At all events, it delivers some nasty shocks."


Goodnight Mommy - Trailer from Films Distribution on Vimeo.
 
A Hard Day / Kkeutkkaji Ganda (2014, South Korea, dir. Kim Seong-hun)—As synopsized by Fantasia: “Homicide detective Ko Gun-su is having a hard day. His mother has just died, and he and his colleagues are being investigated by the internal affairs over bribery charges. Then on his way to his mother's funeral, he drives recklessly and commits a fatal hit and run. He tries to cover-up the accident by hiding the man's corpse in his deceased mother's coffin. But someone has been watching all along, and Gun-su gets a mysterious call from a person claiming that he was the sole witness to the crime, who now begins to blackmail him." Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

In his program capsule, Nicolas Archambault promises that A Hard Day "contains everything that contemporary Korean cinema is reputed for, including intense chase scenes, strikingly realistic tussles, biting dark humor, corrupt anti-heroes and glorious production values. No wonder this instant classic received a standing ovation from the notoriously difficult Cannes crowd. If the film is largely carried upon the shoulders of actors Lee Sun-kyun (Our Sunhi, 2013) and Cho Jin-woong (Hwayi: A Monster Boy, 2013), dead-set in an intense duel, it is Kim Seong-hun's impeccable direction and bullet-speed script that steal the show, marking him as one of the most promising emerging Korean filmmakers."

At Variety, Maggie Lee states that Seong-hun handles "a taut yet elaborately plotted narrative with poise, control and near-faultless technical execution." At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton claims A Hard Day provided Cannes "a masterclass in throat-squeezing, stomach-knotting suspense" and a narrative "full of smart surprises and darkly funny lurches." Catching the film at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, Tony An enthuses at Ynot At the Movies: "The film's sense of humor is simply irresistible."

I haven’t much more to add other than that this is all absolutely true. A thoroughly rousing, crowd-pleasing cat-and-mouse chase that will leave you gasping and laughing in the same breath, if you haven’t already fallen off the edge of your seat.



Børning (2014, Norway, dir. Hallvard Bræin)—Another film to buckle in for (it’s the law, afterall) is this formulaic car race that guffaws its way across the length of Norway, offering some spectacular views of the countryside underneath the roar of engines and screeching wheels. Fantasia claims Børning is "faster than Cannonball Run and funnier than Smokey and the Bandit", and it certainly boasts its share of speed and telegraphed jokes, sleek cars and hot babes, but I really wish there would have been a hunk or two to distract me from the obvious and the cloying sentimentality of a father trying to communicate with his estranged daughter. North American Premiere. IMDb. Facebook.