The 2016 edition of Fantasia marked its twentieth anniversary as a leading light in the world of genre cinema. Since its inception in 1996 Fantasia has made its mark not only with discoveries (J-Horror, Takashi Miike, Sion Sono, internet horror, to name a few) but timely retrospectives, audience pleasers, formally complex films that challenge genre and genre fans, and, since 2012, the Frontières International Co-Production Market, a film market aimed at genre cinema. Lasting around three weeks, Fantasia is an endurance test even for the film-festival junkie, but the vibrancy of the host city, Montreal, makes it a challenge with ample filmic and social rewards. Perhaps what sets Fantasia apart from other well-heeled festivals is the rippling enthusiasm that extends from the programmers to the audience members. At times the buzz in the 700-seat Hall Building theatre prior to the lights going down feels like a rock concert. Everyone from the volunteers to the staff and programmers make each guest feel respected and cared for – and in some cases, loved. There is also a precious egalitarianism in the rank and file of Fantasia, with every film, from the unfancied short to the first-time feature to the feted grand-gala feature, promoted for maximum exposure. The short film and the documentary are two genres that are awarded particularly tender care. Short films are often shown before appropriate features and given their due in countless short-film programmes, including the flagship “Small Gauge Trauma” programme, Mitch Davis’s baby, which is always one of the festival’s most anticipated film blocks. This year, long-time programmer Davis added – after much consternation and Facebook consultation – a short block aimed at promoting female directors: “Born of Woman”. There were countless other short-film blocks, including “Fragments of Asia”, which included a surprise screening of a Miike short, “Celluloid Experiments”, “My First Fantasia” (free animation blocks for kids), “International Science Fiction Short Film Showcase”, Marc Lamothe’s specially curated “DJ XL5’s Zappin’ Party” (one of the many Fantasia elements unique to Quebec), and many programmes devoted to local filmmakers. Let’s just say that short films are not overlooked at Fantasia.
To celebrate their twentieth edition, the organisers had a few special events – such as an exhibit of the unmistakable art that has graced T-shirts and posters for twenty years – but kept the focus on the films and the guests. Two of the marquee guest names reflect the festival’s past and present: Takashi Miike (the past) and Guillermo Del Toro (the present). Both were honoured with prizes, Del Toro the Cheval Noir Award and Miike the Lifetime Achievement Award. Miike and Fantasia go back a long way, as he had his North American premiere at Fantasia in 1997 with Fudoh: The Next Generation (Gokudô sengokushi: Fudô, 1996) and has since appeared with over 30 films (shorts, features, TV programmes included). An illustrated history of Miike at Fantasia has been copiously archived by colleagues Randolph Jordan and Peter Rist for the online film journal Offscreen.  Del Toro visited Fantasia on a career high, with multiple projects brewing. Along with such excellent recent films as the über Kaiju love-in Pacific Rim (2013) (which has spawned a video game, naturally) and the precious neo-Gothic Crimson Peak (2015), he has several features in pre-production or announced, an ongoing horror/science fiction TV show, The Strain (2014–), and a travelling exhibit, which opened on 21 July 2016 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters”. At Fantasia proper, Del Toro introduced a documentary on a subject dear to his heart, Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (Le complexe de Frankenstein, Gilles Penso/Alexandre Poncet, 2015), which he followed with a Master Class.
Miike was represented by two films that, while not from the director’s top-drawer, have enough visual panache and outré content to appease the faithful: Terraformars (2016) and As the Gods Will (Kamisama no iu tôri, 2014). Terraformars is a space opera about a twenty-sixth-century Mars ruled by genetically modified seven-foot tall anthropomorphic cockroach monsters, with a tendency to decapitate humans. That description alone was enough to have Fantasians lining up around the block! The better of the two films is As the Gods Will, a gory, special-effects-heavy allegory (?) that pits teenage students against sadistic god-like toys that force them into bizarre death traps. If you will, Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru, Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) meets Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) meets The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) meets Saw (James Wan, 2004) with a hint of Sion Sono’s Tag (Riaru onigokko, 2015). All of the monsters are based on old traditional toys: a Daruma doll, a huge wooden cat, a set of Russian dolls and so on. It is tempting to read this in the vein of modernity-vs.-tradition satire, with Japanese tech-driven youths pitted against traditional-style monster toys.
Fantasia is always at the forefront of genre trends and cycles, including the recent love-in with genre films that feature a retro aesthetic. Two major figures in this postmodern reinvention of genre had their first major exposure at Fantasia: the Belgian auteurs Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and American all-rounder Anna Biller. The Belgians are unique in their ability to transplant their ultra-formalistic, experimental tendencies onto their geekish, cinephiliac love of 1970s Italian giallo. Though Cattet and Forzani made their mark on the world scene with Amer (2009) and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps, 2013), they cut their teeth and honed their excessive style across an impressive body of five short films between 2001 and 2006, all of which played at Fantasia, often in their presence. Anna Biller has served in multiple creative roles in all of her films, shorts and features. Her first feature, Viva (2007), played at Fantasia in 2007. Set in 1972, it recreates the world of the sexploitation film with wit, style and panache. Biller topped Viva with her next feature, which also played Fantasia this year: The Love Witch (2016), starring Samantha Robinson as Elaine, a young, artistically inclined woman obsessed with an idealised notion of devotional love. Elaine is looking for a strong man to return her unconditional love, but, lacking the time or patience for conventional courtship, she concocts her own love potions, with tragic results. With her straight, jet-black hair and sultry dark eyes, Robinson is channelling Euro-horror greats such as Florinda Bolkan, Edwige Fenech and Barbara Bouchet. Although a character that also came to mind for her look and her role as a powerful sorceress was Ruth from Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill (Operazione paura, 1966), played by Fabienne Dali. The Love Witch was filmed on 35 mm the better to replicate the glorious Technicolor stock of the 1960s and 1970s. The sets, art design, costumes, colour palette and use of filters to soften the image combine to create a state of fever-induced dream. The performances are delivered on the cusp of camp, reeled in by the attention to aesthetic detail and the seriousness of the subtexts (female creativity, patriarchal ideals of femininity, narcissism). Biller’s greatest achievement – apart from her many technical skills, involving scoring the music, editing, producing and undertaking production design, art direction, costume design – lies in making a film that challenges viewers to decide whether Elaine’s actions and behaviour throw the feminist movement back to the dark age, or forward into a post-post-feminist age. You decide.
Another retro title that shifts across time-frames in the 1960s and 1970s with a mannered style is The Arbalest (Adam Pinney, 2016). Pinney’s approach is unique in that the retro aesthetic is structured as a fictional account of a real character, the inventor of the Kalt Cube, a play on Ernő Rubik, the inventor of the eponymous cube. The work is playful at every level: it is a film about an ‘invented’ inventor of puzzles embedded within a puzzle-like film. Foster Kalt (Mike Brune) is a Charles Foster Kane-like narcissist who steals a man’s idea for a toy and becomes rich, but remains unhappy because the woman he loves, Sylvia Frank (Tallie Medel), does not reciprocate his love. One of the things that makes the film so interesting is that, after a certain point, there is a strong possibility that the narrative actions are Kalt’s fantasy projections.
She’s Allergic to Cats (Michael Reich, 2016) is an analogue wet-dream fantasy. Reich chose to shoot his film, for the most part, to capture the look of low-resolution video art. This is partly to feed into the status of the lead character Michael Pinkney’s (played by Pinkney) as a failed video artist living in East Hollywood. However, as he explained in the Q&A, director Reich shot the film in high resolution and degraded it in post-production. While shooting in digital and then to recreate a video aesthetic in post often feels disingenuous, Reich had a valid aesthetic reason for doing this. In certain shots, at times only for a few seconds, the film slips into high definition – like Pinkney’s first sighting of his dream girl, Cora, played by daughter of Nastassja Kinski and granddaughter of Klaus Kinski, Sonja Kinski. Pinkney works as a dog groomer by day but fantasises about producing an all-cat remake of Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), a plot point which made me think of Hal Roach’s early sound all-animal comedy shorts, like The Dogway Melody (Zion Myers/Jules White,1930). This latter point may not be so off the wall if you factor in that director Reich himself worked as a dog groomer. The film is a fascinating, surreal satire on the struggles of an artist in Hollywood, a polar opposite to Nicolas Winding Refn’s glittering The Neon Demon (2016).
The retro aesthetic gets a shakedown in Pat Tremblay’s Atmo HorroX (2016), a film which will burrow itself into your head and have you asking: ‘what the hell did I just see?!’ Atmo HorroX is not your usual retro film because it is retrofitted through Tremblay’s esoteric and wide-ranging cultural touchstones and deep appreciation for kitchen-sink technology (for a sense of Tremblay as a tastemaker, read his list of the top ten weird movies ). At times the film looks and sounds messy and dirty, the colours bleeding everywhere, and lights flaring, as if the images and sounds were being sent down from another planet through a faulty satellite. Tremblay is a Montreal-resident DIY filmmaker who has managed, with very few means and resources, to make three feature films over the past ten years, his first feature showing at the Festival of New Cinema, and his last two at Fantasia. Atmo HorroX is nothing if not ambitious, a science-fiction, anti-pharmaceutical conspiracy film with no discernible dialogue, that runs 101 minutes and is structured to induce frustration, annoyance or restlessness through scenes of calculated longueur and repetition. Aliens, helped by a binocular-obsessed ‘scout’, are scouring the city in search of human victims. However, the humans seem to have their own issues, driven by a sinister pharmaceutical company to a condition of mania, somnolence or absurdist repetition. Pat Tremblay is DIY to the core. His arsenal of props and art direction is dependent on what can be found in the home. The main alien is dressed in nylons adorned with prickly nut shrubs and with hot-dog balloons protruding from the crotch area. God bless Pat Tremblay. If he didn’t exist, the aliens would have to send one down.
To briefly note, other films with a retro aesthetic that played at Fantasia 2016 include the French found footage À la recherche de l'Ultra-Sex (Bruno Lavaine/Nicolas Charlet, 2015), which does for the 1970s and 1980s sex film what Craig Baldwin’s Tribulations 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) did for the Cold War-era science-fiction and conspiracy film, and Bad Blood: The Movie (Tim Reis, 2016), a throwback to the 1980s body horror film. There were two films referencing the spaghetti western: retro-horror advocate Ti West’s (The House of the Devil , The Innkeepers , The Sacrament ) In a Valley of Violence (2016), and JT Mollner’s Outlaws and Angels (2016), the latter starring Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca Eastwood; also in retro mode was Parasites (Chad Ferrin, 2016), directed in the spirit of the 1980s urban action film. And finally, Red Christmas (2016), an impressive debut feature from Australian funny man Craig Anderson, which blends the grind-house aesthetics of the 1970s holiday-horror film with that same era’s streak of social consciousness. In Red Christmas Anderson uses a powerhouse performance by Dee Wallace (who was in audience, along with Anderson and other crew and cast members) as a matriarch whose reasoned decision to abort a deformed foetus comes back to haunt her many years later when the thought-to-be aborted child returns as a lumbering ‘monster’ to claim justice on Christmas Day. Anderson manages to elicit genuine emotion and tackles the theme of abortion with surprising nuance and sensitivity, while never renouncing the gory accoutrements you would expect.
For many of the original programming team of Fantasia (like Mitch Davis and former programmer Karim Hussain) the Polish director Andrzej Żuławski embodied the passionate and crazed approach to cinema that they would cultivate over the twenty years of Fantasia’s life. They were thrilled when they were able to bestow a Lifetime Achievement Award on Żuławski in 2013 (interviewed here ) and saddened to hear of his passing three years later. As a tribute to this director dear to their hearts, Fantasia programmed a delicious mini-spotlight on Polish genre cinema, culminating in a screening of Żuławski’s troubled metaphysical science-fiction brain twister, On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie, 1988). With this film Żuławski is true to the nature of science-fiction literature, which has always privileged idea over spectacle, contrary to cinema science fiction. On the Silver Globe is hard to properly judge, given its fractured production history: it was started in the mid-1970s, but its production was halted by the communist government in 1978. Żuławski returned to it a decade later adding subjective POV tracking shots of a flâneur-like figure moving through the streets of contemporary Poland with a voice-over explaining the missing footage. What we do have is some of the most flamboyant, extravagant and disorienting imagery of any fantastic film. On the Silver Globe renounces linear narrative for religious and political parable, drawing from the Bible, the western, science fiction and horror. The conceptual scope of the film is so broad – time travel, space travel, messianic figures, alien species, found footage – that it evokes Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966), Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), while remaining wholly original. In terms of the legacy going forward, there is little doubt that On the Silver Globe influenced Aleksei German’s final and equally cryptic film, Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt' bogom, 2013).
The three other films in the Polish spotlight were Demon (Marcin Wrona, 2015), a creepy, genre-bending supernatural tale about a young groom, Peter (Itay Tiran), who on his wedding day becomes possessed by the Dybbuk of a dead bride, a young Jewish woman named Hana. Director Wrona (who tragically committed suicide less than a week after the film was completed) sets his tale on an island-village community, which underscores the growing sense of claustrophobia that hovers over the wedding party once Peter’s behaviour turns erratic. Because the film places the family in a closed-off, unsettling environment, the Dybbuk’s haunting presence invokes Poland’s troubled Holocaust history very effectively. It is hard to deny the assertion that The Lure (Córki dancingu, Agnieszka Smoczyńska, 2015) was the most wildly entertaining film of the fest: a genre-defying Polish updating of Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), re-imagined as an East European satirical musical-horror fantasy. Two Mermaid sirens, Silver and Golden, come ashore to a coastal town, recalling Jean Rollin’s coastal pirate-horror film The Demoniacs (Les démoniaques, 1974), and find work at a strip bar, singing, dancing and luring men to drink and spend money. The Lure has an infectious energy, with fantastic 1980s-style club/dance/pop music and dance choreography that remains simple but inventive. One of the sisters, Golden, played by the Jennifer Connelly look-alike Michalina Olszańska, becomes jealous when her more delicate sister, Silver (Marta Mazurek), finds a human boyfriend. Like Irena in Cat People, this elicits Golden’s dark, brutal, ‘wild female side’. The film also has interesting parallels with recent films that use female ‘otherness’ to comment on what it means to be human: cyborg, android or alien in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014), Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) and Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014).
On the surface, Fantasia is all about entertainment and pushing boundaries, but sometimes it takes viewers into a dark and sobering place, offering a complex view of human nature, which is the case with the fourth film in the Polish spotlight, I, Olga Hepnarova (Já, Olga Hepnarová, Petr Kazda/Tomáš Weinreb, 2016) and its companion piece, the Austrian-German Agonie (David Clay Diaz, 2016). Both films present fictional accounts of real-life murders committed by troubled contemporary East European youths. I, Olga Hepnarova stars the dark-haired mermaid from The Lure, Michalina Olszańska, in an about-turn performance as a 22-year-old lesbian, Olga Hepnarová, who committed mass murder on 10 July 1973 as a calculated response to a life of emotional and physical abuse suffered at the hands of her parents, authority figures and peers in communist-era Czechoslovakia. Backed up against the wall, Hepnarová feels trapped in an either/or scenario, and writes the following letter before driving a truck along a crowded Prague pavement, killing eight and injuring many more: “I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people … I have a choice – to kill myself or to kill others. I choose to avenge my haters. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide victim. Society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death.” The film approaches its subject with an austere and minimalist aesthetic – static shots, long takes, monochrome black and white, diegetic music – which culminates in a non-judgmental portrait of a tragic, splintered soul whose legacy includes being the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.
Diaz’s Agonie opens with the grisly facts of a murder: a young man murders his girlfriend with a kitchen knife, dismembers the corpse and deposits the body parts in different skips around the city. With these facts duly noted, Diaz proceeds to intercut between two young men, ostensibly suspects, a conservative-looking Christian (Samuel Schneider), studying to be a judge, and a punkish-looking Alex (Alexander Srtschin), fresh out of military training and looking for direction and release from a regimented life. Like I, Olga Hepnarova, Agonie owes much of its impact to a controlled exercise in style. Agonie is a taut, well-directed psychological drama with the violent murder serving as a pretext for a dual character study in youth anomie. Although the film is based on the true story of a 24-year-old man who, without motive or provocation, killed and dismembered his girlfriend, Diaz directs it so as to make it a more generalised, metaphorical depiction of life circumstances weighing down contemporary young people: indifferent or distracted parents, worries about jobs and economic prospects, sexual identity, peer pressure, and possible mental-health issues. The film is shot in a reserved, realistic manner, with long takes, static framing or subtle camera movements, and judicious use of music. The film isn’t interested in suspense – it tells us right at the start about the murder – but in the minutiae of detail across the lives of the two lead protagonists, 24-year-old Christian and 20-something Alex. The film’s only concession to suspense lies in the audience having to figure out which of the two characters will be the eventual murderer. But most viewers will have little trouble working that out. What is fascinating is the way that Diaz structures the film so that it alternates between the two characters, using a deceptively simple, parallel-cutting style, moving equally from one life to the other in an almost mundane rhythmic fashion. The two characters, from different classes, are unalike in most respects. Their worlds never meet, and yet Diaz’s style ‘equalises’ them and the effect of this is to ‘trap’ the two dissimilar men in the same stifling world. With Agonie Diaz has woven a powerful cautionary tale about contemporary youth who feel disconnected from the usual safety nets society offers (education, entertainment, family, authority figures). The film is disquieting because Diaz does not offer any precise causes of the youthful dissatisfaction or explain why the young adults are perennially courting violence.
Given that the demographics of Fantasia are younger than that of any other film festival in Montreal, this is a vision which should resonate with its audiences. In fact, it should resonate with everyone, regardless of age.
- Rist, P. and Jordan, R. (2017) “Takashi Miike: Fantasia Filmography”, Offscreen, 21 (3), https://offscreen.com/view/takashi-miike-fantasia-filmography
- Tremblay, P. (2011) “Pat Tremblay’s Top 10 (+) Weird Movies”, 366 Weird Movies, 5 September, https://366weirdmovies.com/pat-tremblays-top-10-weird-movies/
- Totaro, D. (2013) “An Interview with Andrzej Zulawski and Daniel Bird”, Offscreen, 18 (5), https://offscreen.com/view/an-interview-with-andrzej-zulawski-and-daniel-bird