Last year at Fantasia I reviewed a movie called Climate of the Hunter, directed and co-written by Mickey Reece, an underground filmmaker who’s made over two dozen features. Reece is back this year with Agnes, a strange take on exorcism and nunsploitation films, which like Climate he co-wrote with John Selvidge. It’s a bit like Climate in that it takes horror-movie conventions and upends them; I think it’s overall more successful, though I’m not sure it works overall.
Agnes opens at a convent where a young nun, Agnes (Hayley McFarland), has apparently become possessed by a demon. To take care of the matter the Catholic hierarchy sends a veteran priest, Father Donaghue (Ben Hall, in Climate last year and also at Fantasia this year with a role in What Josiah Saw) and a bright-eyed idealistic younger acolyte named Benjamin (Jake Horowitz). Things do not proceed as planned. And then comes the midpoint of the movie, and the story jumps ahead in time, and the plot of the first half is largely abandoned to follow a secondary character from the convent, Mary (Molly C. Quinn), who is now trying to make her way in the world despite all the things she’s seen and the doubts she now has about her God.
The two halves of the picture have different tones. The first half, surprisingly, has more comedy. Father Donaghue is funny and charismatic. The nuns are eccentric, but human, and Mary Buss as the Mother Superior in particular is both of those things as the problem of Agnes continues to resist easy exorcism. And then in the second half Mary in the outside world faces a colder reality. Not only is there not much obvious genre content, there also isn’t any obvious sense of the divine or of otherworldly powers.
In 2015, Douglas Draa resurrectedWeirdbook with issue #31 (the weird fiction magazine had been dormant since 1997). Fast forward to 2021, and issue #44 is now available. In addition to the core issues, there are themed anthologies spawning. Annual #1Witches came out in 2017; and Annual #2: Cthulhu appeared in 2019 (discussed on Black Gate).
This year, for Annual #3, Weirdbook challenged authors to come up with memorable takes on zombies. The result is this fantastic collection of 34 new stories. Draa looked for tales that were fun, entertaining and scary. He also wanted fresh meat (i.e., he didn’t want to serve up a bunch of Romeroesque, plague zombies). …
Everyone likes crossovers and mash-ups, right? If you’re a fan of two heroes in the same genre, then of course you’d like to see a story in which they meet and confront a challenge together. That is the commercial calculation for crossovers in every medium, whether it’s comics, games, TV shows, or movies. It’s assumed a crossover or mash-up is a sure thing that will draw in the fans of both franchises. It’s a no-brainer.
In principle, maybe, but not in practice. In practice, the story or personality elements that create the appeal of one character don’t always fit comfortably with the elements of another. Zorro and the Three Musketeers, for example: all cheerful swashbucklers, but the musketeers are a disparate bunch that rely on teamwork, while Zorro is fundamentally a loner, so mashing them together in a coherent and credible plot is a task that shouldn’t be underestimated, calling for a top-notch screenwriter. Or what if you put together two characters like Yojimbo and Zatoichi, each of whom usually functions as the fulcrum of the plot? What do you do with two fulcrums? Solving these problems can be a high bar to get over, and sometimes a low-budget genre picture just isn’t up to it.
Though one has to admit, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman actually pulls it off.
“Cloud” is a 29-minute film from France, directed by Joséphine Darcy Hopkins and written by Hopkins with Jean-Jacques Kahn. Hopkins is part of Les Films de la Mouche, a collective that (per ScreenAnarchy) aims to “mix very personal obsessions with ‘genre grammar.’” That’s visible here, in a story about a radioactive cloud descending on a small town, which prompts 15-year-old Eugénie (Cypriane Gardin) to run away with her friend Capucine (Solène Rigot) and Capucine’s ailing mother (Catherine Salée). The movie takes some unpredictable twists, and spends much of its time as an unusual character-centred buddy movie. It looks very nice, with some lovely natural backgrounds in a forest at night and among the mountains by day; the threat of the cloud is sometimes distant, but never entirely absent, flavouring the story with a science-fictional overtone. I thought the ending was a touch too ambiguous, but then again it’s difficult to see a better resolution.
Along with the short came Glasshouse, a post-apocalyptic tale from South Africa and director Kelsey Egan, who co-wrote with Emma De Wet. It’s set some time in the future, when Earth’s atmosphere’s been contaminated by a plague called the Shred, which destroys human memories. One small family — consisting of an old matriarch (Adrienne Pearce), three sisters, and a brain-blasted brother (Brent Vermeulen) — all live together holed up in an expansive greenhouse, a self-sufficient ecosystem where the plants create clean air (don’t ask where the family’s protein comes from, because I don’t know and the film isn’t really interested in that kind of detail). A mysterious stranger (Hilton Pelser) enters the house from outside, his memories apparently more-or-less intact, disrupting the family dynamic and unearthing old secrets. The oldest sister, Bee (Jessica Alexander) is drawn to him; the mother is more suspicious.
The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet (Tor, April and August 2021). Cover art by Shutterstock
As days get shorter and nights get longer, my reading ambitions begin to grow. Recently I’ve been on the hunt for a more substantial reading project, and I think I’ve found it in J.S. Dewes debut series The Divide. The opening book The Last Watch received plenty of breathless notices; in her mid-year wrap-up of The Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the Year, Sadie Gennis at Vulture called it “one of the most stunning sci-fi series debuts of recent years… [a] nail-biting space epic,” and Booklist proclaimed it “a bravura debut that blends great action with compelling characters.”
The first volume was released in April, and sequel The Exiled Fleet followed hot on its heels four months later. Dewes has announced a third volume on her website, to be released next year. An epic space opera with more volumes in the pipeline is just what I had in mind for a fall reading project. Here’s a sample from Matt Matkowski’s enthusiastic review of the audiobook version of The Last Watch at Booklist.
“Katu” is a 16-minute short from Sweden’s Oskar Johansson. It opens, as a title card tells us, five years after humanity lost its language. More precisely, after mysterious visitors took language from us; human beings can now only mutter syllables unintelligible to each other (in a nice touch, the nonsense words spoken onscreen are ‘translated’ by subtitles in an alien alphabet). In a large house a man and woman live. One night there is a knock at the door. They have a human visitor, and must struggle to find out what he wants before the alien language-thieves come. This is a moody piece, which feels like a part of a larger story. The glimpses of odd rites are difficult to parse, but the frustration of people not understanding each other is clear. Visually it’s dark and shadowy and effective, to the point that while I did not always understand the story I wanted to see more.
Bundled with it was The Righteous, one of the best feature films I’ve seen this year. Written and directed by Mark O’Brien, it stars Henry Czerny as Frederic Mason, an older man who years ago left the church to marry Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). The movie mostly takes place around their rural home, when, in the aftermath of the death of their adopted daughter, a young man (O’Brien) stumbles from the woods with a damaged ankle. He becomes a long-term guest as he heals, but there’s a sinister aspect to him, and slowly the truth comes out — about him, and about Fredric.
This is a black-and-white horror movie, and it strikes you immediately with its visual power. The lighting and chiaroscuro effects are stunning, not only attractive and not only atmospheric but symbolic: illumination and shadow feel as though they represent spiritual realities. The promotional material for the film uses Bergman as a point of reference, which is clearly visible in the film’s emotional tone as well.
I have heard it said that a number of the central ideas in James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series were first developed for a tabletop RPG campaign (a series of adventures that usually tell a coherent story arc). I have been unable to validate this, but one find any number of chats positing the game they were playing. And the Foreword for The Expanse RPG does say “for a long run, it was a roleplaying game campaign.” Which RPG, I have not heard definitively stated.
James S. A. Corey is the pen name of authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham. What we do know for certain is that they originally pitched The Expanse for an MMPORG (I’m assuming something akin to World of Warcraft). Failing that, they hoped to make a tabletop RPG, and then decided to write the novels, the first of which was Leviathan Wakes in 2011. The ninth and final novel of the series, Leviathan Falls, releases in November this year. The series has exploded in popularity, spawning eight stories and novellas (the last of which is will appear in March 2022), a TV series (entering the sixth and final season in December on Amazon Prime), a board game, comics, and — yes — its own tabletop RPG. Full circle in a way.
“Anita McNelson,” written and directed by Canadian Luke Whitmore, is a 15-minute suspense film about an elderly woman who finds hints that her husband is having an affair. It’s nicely shot, apparently a period film, and unfurls with minimal dialogue. It’s effective because it gets across not just the emotional situation of the characters but also a history that shapes their present situation and actions. The story’s simple but effective, though at one point it apparently depends on a conveniently-open door; and it has a final sting that at least borders on the gratuitous, as though Whitmore didn’t trust the strength of the rest of the short and had to provide a cute little bow. It’s unnecessary, because the rest of the film does work just fine.
Bundled with it was Stanleyville, a feature-length satire directed by Canadian character actor and filmmaker Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, who co-wrote with Rob Benvie. It’s his debut feature film (after three shorts), and he drew an interesting cast, notably including Julian Richings (whose extensive body of work includes last year’s Anything For Jackson as well as 2014’s Patch Town). In a question-and-answer period (available, as usual, on Fantasia’s YouTube page) Richings talked about how McCabe-Lokos’ background as a character actor informed the structure and craft in the script, which puts a set of quirky characters in a room together and sets them at each others’ throats. You can see that craft, and what comes out of the performances; how the story hits may depend more on the viewer.
The film begins with Maria (Susanne Wuest), an office worker with a family, who one day at the mall is met by a stranger (Richings) who gives her the chance to throw that life away to take part in a contest. She’ll be locked up with four other people, and they will be given a series of contests, and the one who wins the most contests will win authentic personal transcendence. And also a new SUV. The other four people are each deeply strange, but so are the contests they’re given — blow up and pop as many balloons as they can in one minute, or write a new national anthem, or build a telecommunications device. Some of the other contestants will stop at nothing. And it looks as though whoever’s behind the game is making things up as they go. And then the contestants make contact with a voice beyond the room, and there are mysteries there as well.
The Conductors (John Joseph Adams Books, March 2021). Cover art by Elizabeth Leggett. Click for bigger versions.
As we near the end of 2021 (thank God!), I’m already starting to look back at the big fantasy releases and debuts of the year. One that surprised me was Nicole Glover’s The Conductors, the opening novel in her Murder & Magic series, which follows the adventures of black detectives Hetty and Benjy Rhodes, who pry into cases white police officers deign to investigate in Reconstruction era Philadelphia.
The Conductors was published and edited by John Joseph Adams, the man who pulled my own debut novel out of the slush pile and published it in 2018, so perhaps you can forgive me if I think the man has superb taste. I’m not the only one, however. NPR praises The Conductors as “A history buff’s dream fantasy novel,” and P. Djèlí Clark calls it “a tangled mystery of murder, spellwork, and freedom amid the remnants of slavery’s lingering memories.” Here’s an excerpt from the starred review at Publishers Weekly.
Each year Fantasia dedicates one of its short film showcases to animation. The 2021 edition was playing on-demand throughout the festival, and when a hole in my schedule opened up, I was happy to plug it with this year’s Circo Animato, a selection of 13 films from 7 countries.
“Ouroboros,” from France, led off. Written and directed by Chloé Forestier, it’s a lushly-coloured three-minute piece. Like many of these shorts, it’s 2D animation with no dialogue. On a pleasant afternoon, a depressing purple goop or shade begins to swallow up a town. But, as we see, sometimes when faced with a despairing situation simple action can be a start. It’s a nice parable about breaking out of old habits; you can watch it here.