Fantasia 2019, Day 8, Part 3: Knives and Skin

Friday, August 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Knives and SkinMy last film of July 18 was in the big Hall Theatre. Knives and Skin was written and directed by Jennifer Reeder, and begins as a girl dies a violent death in a small midwestern town. In the wake of her disappearance secrets begin to come to light, and tensions rise among both her classmates and the adults. The movie proceeds to explore the town and its inhabitants in a series of sometimes-linked vignettes.

I have to say up front that I had a wildly different reaction to this film than the rest of the theatre did. The crowd was, by and large, audibly positive. This is a movie that has clear feminist principles, and is very direct about putting them on the screen. To judge not just from the reaction during the screening but the question-and-answer period after, many viewers responded to that, and good for them. Personally I didn’t care for the movie. I am going to explain why, but it’s important to note that this is a film that has the potential to work much better for people who are not me.

At its core, I felt that the dramatic structure of the film did not work. The various scenes did not seem to work as an ensemble, and individual characters did not have stories that felt fully developed. Much of the more interesting events that did happen had no obvious connection with the disappearance and death of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). The movie felt to me like a series of short films, or ideas for short films, that did not cohere.

For example, near the end of the film the high schoolers who we’ve more-or-less followed through the film hear that one of their friends is on top of the school and might be about to jump. A group of a half-dozen or so teens gather out front of the school. It turns out that the youth on the roof isn’t going to jump, he just liked the view because it’s one of the few places he could see the road out of town. This is a problem for a number of reasons, but the first one is that a longing to get out of the town has not really been touched on or explored earlier in the film. It’s a perfectly credible motivation, but with no set-up or development it feels oddly gratuitous.

Then you wonder why, if this young man liked looking at the road out of town, nobody noticed the youth going up to the roof on any previous occasion. This brings up another problem: this town does not feel like a community of people who’ve known each other all their lives. People are too easily surprised by each other, or know too little about each other.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 8, Part 2: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Arrow VideoBefore my second film of July 18, a surreal science-fiction movie from the director of Crumbs, I had time to catch a panel discussion. Returning Life to the Departed: Adventures in Genre Cinema Restoration was moderated by Heather Buckley, producer of films and of DVD supplements, who introduced David Gregory of Severin Films (also director of Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, which Buckley produced), Joe Rubin of Vinegar Syndrome, and, by Skype, James White of Arrow Films. All those companies preserve, restore, and reissue vintage genre, exploitation, and cult movies.

I’m not going to go through the entire panel because it was filmed, and you can find it on Fantasia’s Facebook page. I do want to note a few highlights. Buckley asked the panel at one point how their restoration process evolved and how they did what they did, and Gregory made the point that there was no one way to restore a film as it had to depend on what materials of the original are available. Sometimes those materials might be so bad that the film might look like it wasn’t worth putting out (he cited The House on Straw Hill), but the flip side is that those materials will only get worse until the film is lost (for Straw Hill he talked about cobbling together a version from two prints and a mold- and water-damaged negative). The ideal was to work from the original camera negative or something that had been protected in a lab. Rubin agreed, but noted for exploitation films the negative often doesn’t exist. Every project will have its own issues and shortcomings and things the restorer will have never had to deal with before. He talked about how low-budget movies did not usually get to have a timer sit with the cinematographer or director when the first prints were made to make sure the film looked right. Gregory noted that often the director or cinematographer will often say that a restored film is the best that film has ever looked.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 6, Part 2: Blood & Flesh — The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson and Dracula Vs. Frankenstein

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Blood & FleshI expected my last film of July 16 would be a documentary called Blood & Flesh – The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson. You may not have heard of Adamson. I hadn’t. He was an exploitation filmmaker in the 1960s and 70s, responsible for titles like Satan’s Sadists, The Naughty Stewardesses, and Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, as well as not one but two separate films titled Psycho a Go-Go (Technically, one was Psycho à Go-Go; note accent). Introducing the documentary, Fantasia co-Director Mitch Davis described Adamson as more of a hustler than a filmmaker, then called up director David Gregory to briefly explain the film’s genesis. Gregory said it began as a special feature for a Blu-ray release, but the more he investigated Adamson, the more he realised the material was worth digging into more deeply. Thus, it’s now a feature, covering Adamson’s life, the films he made, and his awful death.

(Before the documentary played, we saw “When Larry Met Stanley,” a six-minute short directed by Katy Jensen and Mike Leans. It features Larry Cohen, an independent B-movie director, recounting directly to the camera an anecdote about the time he met Stanley Kubrick, when Kubrick was just starting out as a director. It’s a cute story, and Cohen, who passed away earlier this year, tells it well.)

Blood & Flesh opens at the end, with Adamson’s murder. It then goes back to work its way back through Adamson’s life. He was the son of a B-movie actress and B-movie director, and got his start in film working with his father. He later teamed with producer Sam Sherman to set up Independent-International Pictures, turning out grindhouse schlock through the 60s and 70s, chasing whatever was in the zeitgeist — biker films like Satan’s Sadists, blaxploitation like Black Samurai, softcore sexploitation like Naughty Stewardesses.

He withdrew from film as the industry changed in the late 70s, emerging briefly to make never-released “documentaries” about alien visitations, which he apparently believed in. Then, in 1995, he went missing. His body was soon found. He had been murdered by his live-in handyman. The case was briefly a media sensation, apparently a case of life imitating art: the director of cheap horror films brutally killed.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 6, Part 1: Ad Astra Book Launch, and Nao Yoshigai x 4: Of Blooming Flowers and Dead Skin

Monday, August 19th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Ad AstraOn July 16 I started my day at Fantasia with a book launch. Michael Gingold’s book Ad Astra is coming out this fall, but attendees of his multimedia presentation had the chance to buy it earlier. It’s a follow-up to 2018’s Ad Nauseam: Newsprint Nightmares From the 1980s and its sequel to come in September, Ad Nauseam II: Newsprint Nightmares From the 1990s and 2000s. Those books were collections of classic newspaper ads for horror movies, while Ad Astra is subtitled 20 Years of Newspaper Ads for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films.

Gingold, a former editor-in-chief of Fangoria, said he’d collected ads since he was 12 years old, and the book thus covered films from the original Star Wars through to A Phantom Menace. He showed some of the images included in the book while discussing trends in newspaper ads — and in movies, noting that science fiction began to perform reliably at the box office in these years with Moonraker the most popular James Bond film up to the time of its release in 1979, while in the summer of 1980 The Empire Strikes Back and Friday the 13th were the only real financial successes. Gingold went on to say he had a sympathy for smaller films, such as Mighty Peking Man, a Shaw Brothers movie first released in North America as Goliathon.

He observed that while we debate ‘special editions’ of films today, the idea perhaps began with the 1980 version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Among the ads he showed was the one for Dune packed with expository text; and variant ads for films like Excalibur and Flash Gordon. Some films had seasonal ads, as Superman II did for July 4 or ET for Christmas. On the other hand, other films (like Howard the Duck) had to change their ads in an attempt to rebrand the film. Review ads began to emerge (prompting an ad for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure that mocked the format), as did ads featuring tag lines or actor’s name — a whole sub-genre of ads for Arnold Schwarzenegger movies placed the name “Schwarzenegger” in all-caps at the top of the ad. Gingold also noted that he included in the book some of his favourite quotes from his favourite dyspeptic movie critic Rex Reed; such as, for example, Reed’s line that The NeverEnding Story was “worse than girl scout cookies.”

From the book launch in Concordia’s York Amphitheatre I crossed the street to the De Sève Theatre. There, I watched a program of short films by experimental director Nao Yoshigai. Yoshigai’s a dancer and choreographer as well as filmmaker, and her work has already met with considerable acclaim; her piece “Grand Bouquet” was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Fantasia’s program, Nao Yoshigai x 4: Of Blooming Flowers and Dead Skin gathered four of her shorts together, culminating with “Grand Bouquet.”

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Fantasia 2019, Day 5, Part 4: SHe

Sunday, August 18th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

SHeThe fourth and last movie I saw on July 16 was the most experimental movie I’d seen at Fantasia, not only this year but possibly in all the time I’ve been going to the festival. Before that feature, though, was a short almost as strange.

“Bavure” was directed and written by Donato Sansone. An animator’s hand mixes paints, makes an image, then remakes it, then remakes that, and so on through an increasingly cosmic story. A woman is made pregnant, a child comes out, and becomes an astronaut, and meets aliens, and on to a bleak climax. ‘Bavure’ means smear, or mistake, and the imagery of an animator remaking a smear of paints into a series of images fits. The animation technique’s a striking and effective way to move from image to image, the story’s cute, and at 5 minutes the film doesn’t outlast its welcome.

Next was the feature. It was called SHe, a movie directed, written, and edited by Zhou Shengwei. A work of stop-motion animation, Zhou made 268 models for the film himself, and took 58,000 photos over the course of 6 years to make it.

The film’s a staggering work of imagination. None of the characters are remotely human. They are, in fact, based on shoes. In a world of strange creatures assembled from everyday objects, entities based off of men’s shoes oppress entities based off of women’s shoes. One of the latter escapes and has a daughter, but the mother has to find a way to get the resources to feed the child. Only by adopting a disguise as a man’s shoe and entering into the dreadful danger of a pseudo-capitalist workplace can the two survive. But strange things happen in the workplace: the lady-shoe does not fit in, but turns out to have abilities the other worker-shoes don’t, attracting the attention of the boss of the shoes — who then draws her into an even stranger behind-the-scenes world where the tables start to turn.

At least that’s how I understand the basic plot. The film has no dialogue (vocal sounds come from Lv Fuyang), and the lack of human features on the characters give the audience some space to find their own meanings for things. The body language of these creatures is I think relatively clear, but it still requires some focus to follow events. Or it did for me; perhaps that’s a function of how I parse images as opposed to words.

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Gozdilla, King of the Criterions

Sunday, August 18th, 2019 | Posted by Thomas Parker

(1) Criterion 1000-small

October 29th, 2019, will be a very bad day for secret mad-money stashes, vacation change jars, and even kids’ college funds, but it will be a great (shall I say monstrously great?) day for kaiju lovers everywhere. Why? Because on that day, the prestigious Criterion Collection will release a colossal blu-ray set containing all fifteen Godzilla films from the Showa Era (the Showa Era being the years of Emperor Hirohito’s reign, from 1926 to 1989.) Never before have all of these films been collected together in a uniform edition of the highest technical quality… but now they will be, just in time for rubber-suit monster enthusiasts to have the greatest Halloween film festival ever.

Criterion numbers its releases, and in recent months speculation has been mounting — what would the company choose to follow number 999? (John Sayles’ fine period drama, Matewan.) Would it be a foreign film or an American one? A silent movie or one from the sound era? A polished studio masterpiece or a raw, rebellious indie? My money was on Sam Peckinpah’s apocalyptic western, The Wild Bunch, but on July 25th the suspense ended with Criterion’s announcement that number 1000 would not be a single film at all, but instead would be an unprecedented set. Godzilla: the Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975 promises to be a must-have for all Criterion completists and for every fan of the King of the Monsters.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 5, Part 3: Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby

Saturday, August 17th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Look What's Happened to Rosemary's BabyIt’s relatively unusual for me to watch a movie that I know going in is not good. But every so often, and usually at Fantasia, something bizarre comes along that looks bad but also in its way promising. So it was that for my third film of July 16 I settled in at the De Sève Theatre for a screening of the rare 1976 TV-movie sequel to Rosemary’s Baby: an opus directed by Sam O’Steen titled Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby. Star Stephen McHattie was in attendance, and would stick around to take our questions after the film.

(I had actually seen Rosemary’s Baby for the first time in preparation, and I was surprised how much I did not care for it. It was well-shot, and Rosemary’s isolation was captured well in the second half of the film. But it was difficult to believe in that isolation after we’d already seen her at a Christmas party with her friends. Atmosphere stubbornly resisted being evoked. The gothic material almost uniformly fell flat, and the Satanist coven came off as an unthreatening group of busybodies. I did not understand what was supposed to be scary in this movie, or what beyond craft was supposed to make it a classic. Disappointed as I was, I think now this viewing unwittingly set me up to be receptive to Look What’s Happened as a kind of unwitting satire, ruthlessly if unintentionally pointing out the weaknesses and absurdities of the original.)

The movie was introduced by Phlippe Spurrell of Montreal’s Cinéclub Film Society. He noted that the 35mm print came from the personal collection of Fantasia co-director Mitch Davis, and 7 or 8 hours had gone into the inspection, cleaning, and mounting of the film on a single reel. He warned us that some material was faded, but promised us surprises (which turned out to be period commercials inserted into the original commercial breaks of the film, for things like K-Tel albums and “newfangled Pringle’s Potato Chips”). Spurrell observed that O’Steen was the editor of Rosemary’s Baby, and John A. Alonzo was director of photography for both films. Ira Levin, writer of the original novel, was not involved, nor was Roman Polanski (who had scripted his adaptation as well as directed). Instead Look What’s Happened was written by Anthony Wilson, veteran TV writer and creator of shows like Banacek and one of the developers of the Planet of the Apes TV spin-off. (He also wrote what I thought was a fine episode of the original Twilight Zone, “Come Wander With Me.”)

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Fantasia 2019, Day 5, Part 2: The Prey

Friday, August 16th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The PreyFor my second movie of July 15 I went to the Fantasia screening room to watch the Cambodian film The Prey. Directed by Jimmy Henderson from a script by Henderson with Michael Hodgson and Kai Miller, this is a film that traces its narrative lineage back to Richard Connell’s immortal “The Most Dangerous Game.” In this case, the game’s played in the wilds of Cambodia, and the rules turn out to be surprisingly complex — and the number of players surprisingly large.

Xin (Gu Shangwei) is an undercover Chinese cop with Interpol trying to bust cyber-criminals in Cambodia, despite a significant language barrier. Swept up in a raid by the local police force that nets the criminals he’s hunting, he ends up on the wrong side of a warden (Vithaya Pansringarm) of an isolated prison. Along with a few other malcontents, he’s handed over to a hunting party who’ve paid the warden for a day’s amusement: the criminals will be released into the jungle, the heavily-armed hunters will track them down, whoever gets the most kills wins. But of course it doesn’t quite work out that way.

Rather than keep a narrow focus on a deadly game with one victim and one hunter, the film starts with groups of each — but as they get winnowed down, more characters enter the fray. Xin’s Interpol colleagues come looking for him. The warden and his men take a hand. And it turns out there are locals who live in the playing field. The interplay of the different factions effectively builds a considerable amount of suspense, giving the story more heft than a straightforward action story.

Which is not to say the action’s lacking. There’s a goodly amount of it, executed quite well. There’s some hand-to-hand combat, but also a lot of gunplay and general explosions. The fights are well-planned and well-choreographed, building to a suitably brutal conclusion. Effects are largely practical; there’s a low-tech ethos to this film, the firearms notwithstanding, that plays well. The fight scenes are focussed on telling the story, not on cool moves (though there are cool moves). It’s paced well, not lingering on any given situation. Characters do not wear out their welcome, and the movie does not shy away from racking up a body count very quickly. You do more-or-less know how long each character will last, but there are some surprises in how they play out their parts. It’s familiar without being generic or even all that predictable.

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Goth Chick News: AHS Shouts Out a Big, Bloody Happy Birthday to AH

Thursday, August 15th, 2019 | Posted by Sue Granquist

Goth Chick Alfred Hitchcock-small

Back in April, Ryan Murphy announced the title / theme for the ninth season of American Horror Story, “1984.” Since then, no less than a dozen teaser trailers have dropped, making it abundantly clear (if the title already didn’t) the latest season is dedicated to classic 80’s slasher films.

However, this week Murphy pulled out something a bit different. In homage to the birthday of the master of cinema suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who would have turned 120 on August 13th (a Sunday, not a Friday in case you were wondering), Murphy’s latest teaser gave a nod to Psycho while still maintaining his 80’s theme.

The teaser shows a sexy, blonde camp counselor (a favorite slasher-movie-target, second only to a slutty cheerleader) taking a shower as a knife-wielding maniac sneaks up and… Well see for yourself.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 5, Part 1: Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland

Thursday, August 15th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Bruce McDonald's DreamlandI have fond memories of Bruce McDonald’s rock n’roll road movies from the 1990s, specifically Roadkill, Highway 61 Revisited, and Hard Core Logo. It had been a while since I’d seen one of his films (one drifts away from artists, sometimes, like friends we once knew), but I began July 15 at Fantasia in the De Sève Theatre getting reacquainted with McDonald’s art by way of his new movie Dreamland, at Fantasia presented as Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland.

Written by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler, the movie takes place in a European city in which politically powerful aristocrats live in a walled palace while gangsters and assassins roam the streets below. Johnny (Stephen McHattie) is a hitman working for a small-time crime boss, Hercules (Henry Rollins, excellent and electric) who wants to send a message to a trumpet-playing jazz Maestro (also played by McHattie). If his drug addiction doesn’t kill him, the Maestro will be performing for the Countess (Juliette Lewis) who rules the city; her brother, a vampire, is getting married to an unwilling and very underage girl, kidnapped and sold to him by Hercules. Trafficking in young girls is a line Johnny always refused to cross. What will he do now?

I’ve seen reviews criticising the movie for being over-dreamy and not especially linear. I do not understand this. In many ways it struck me as a straightforward story with a few surreal elements — the setting and the vampire, in particular, as well as the dual-casting of McHattie. The plot’s solid, even workmanlike, as characters make moral choices and move the story along to the wedding that marks the big finish of the film. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, but I wouldn’t call the violent noirish crime plot especially bizarre.

I would say it’s done well. The story moves nicely, and mixes a range of genres with no obvious sense of strain. Oddly, for a film in which crime and horror elements dominate, it’s remarkably light if never exactly cheerful. It is witty, and unpredictable, and entertaining. McHattie alone makes the film worthwhile, playing both the guarded, sharp, and somehow beaten-down Johnny, and the bitter, ruthless Maestro. Scenes in which the two characters meet come off perfectly.

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