Fantasia 2020, Part XXVI: Sanzaru

Saturday, September 26th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

SanzaruThe Japanese image of the three wise monkeys is as early as the 16th century: one monkey with hands over eyes, the next with hands over ears, the third with hands over mouth. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil; thus the monkeys’ names, Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, ‘not-seeing,’ ‘not-hearing,’ and ‘not-speaking.’ There’s a pun in Japanase on zaru, not, and saru, monkey, so collectively the trio’s simply ‘three monkeys,’ or sanzaru.

Thus the title of Sanzaru, an American horror movie that played at Fantasia. It’s one of several ghost stories from this year’s festival: one of several films about a house, and an old person dying, and the family that returns to them. In this case, though, the point-of-view character is the patient’s nurse. Dena Regan (Jayne Taini) is an old woman dying in her Texas estate, and a Filipino nurse named Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) has moved in to care for her. Along with Evelyn comes her young nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz); also present on the estate is Dena’s son Clem (Justin Arnold), and as well Dena’s daughter Susan (Tomorrow Shea) visits for a minor part in the story. Things go missing; Clem sinks further and further into depression; Dena’s mind deteriorates; old secrets come to life. And there are presences in the house from beyond the grave.

We know from early on that there are ghosts; we get their perspective in an early scene. We know that one of them is named Mr. Sanzaru, but the relevance of the name doesn’t become clear until much later in the movie. And it is then we understand or fully feel the themes of the story: the importance of knowing and confronting wrong things, not just to stop wrong things from happening but to be able to move on from them.

The number of ghost stories at Fantasia 2020 gave me the chance to see how similar material takes different shapes in different stories; to see how the genre works. Every story has a specific tone, partly a mechanical function of pacing and lighting and editing rhythms, and partly from the character of the specific haunted location. But different stories have different themes, different things on their mind. Sanzaru’s interest is in secrets and how they come out; in how dark things in the past, left to fester, can limit the future.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXV: The Born of Woman 2020 Showcase

Friday, September 25th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

BlocksBy Day 10 of Fantasia I’d started to skip the panels and special presentations. They all looked interesting to greater or lesser degrees, but while the movies were only available while the festival was still going on, the panels would stay up afterward. Still, Day 10 was an exception, with my schedule free for a panel I was particularly interested in: “New York State Of Horror,” hosted by author Michael Gingold. It took a look at how and when New York City became a setting for horror films — something unusual in the early decades of filmmaking, when horror was typically set in ancient European locales. King Kong (1933) was an obvious exception, but Gingold observed that Rosemary’s Baby was the real trail-blazer for New York horror stories in film, followed in the 70s and 80s by more tales of urban terror. It was a good discussion, with contributions from directors Bill Lustig and Larry Fessenden (Depraved). You can find it here.

Following that came the 2020 edition of the “Born of Woman Showcase,” a collection of short genre films by women filmmakers. Previous editions had presented exceptional work, to the point I’ve come to see these showcases as highlights of Fantasia. This year had nine movies, ranging from science-fiction to crime to horror.

The first film was from the United States: “Come Fuck My Robot” was directed by Mercedes Bryce Morgan, and written by Morgan with Reuben Guberek, Katrina Kudlick, and Hunter Peterson, “based,” as the credits say, “on the original Craigslist ad.” A nervous virginal young man (Nicholas Alexander) answers an ad from an oddball engineer (Ian Abramson) who’s seeking a male to have sex with a robot the engineer’s created (Catherine Tapling). Absolutely nothing about the scenario unfolds as either expected. A charming, funny story about identity and consent, and about AI and gender, it’s well-acted and comedically well-timed.

Next, also from the US, was “Blocks.” Written and directed by Bridget Moloney, it follows Ashleigh (Claire Coffee), a mother of young children, who begins vomiting Lego blocks. We see her going about her daily life with her husband (Mark Webber) and friends and her friends’ kids as the vomiting becomes more common and the number of blocks grows accordingly. Anchored in a very realistic depiction of Ashleigh’s everyday life, in which the block-vomiting is the one irreal aspect, the movie works because it’s observation of Ashleigh is so sharp — whether she’s chatting with her friend about sex toys or going to other childrens’ parties or reading to her kids about intersectionality. In other words, there’s a life to her beyond the status of ‘mother,’ which helps prepare us for the conclusion of the film and what she does with the blocks, an understated but effective choice.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXIV: Milocrorze – A Love Story

Thursday, September 24th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Milocrorze‘Weird’ is less of a concrete descriptor than might at first appear. There are multiple subcategories of weird, and different things called weird can produce very different experiences. This is especially so when a work of weirdness mixes different weird things.

Thus Milocrorze – A Love Story (Mirokurôze, ミロクローゼ), a 2011 film written and directed by video and performance artist Yoshimasa Ishibashi. The winner of Fantasia’s awards for best director and most innovative feature film in the year it premiered, it was revived for this year’s festival, where I saw it for the first time. It is not like most other films, for both better and worse.

It begins by following a boy named Ovreneli Vreneligare who lives in a brightly-coloured eye-popping wonderland with a talking cat, and who falls in love with a woman named Milocrorze (Maiko). He hatches a plan to seduce her, it briefly works, and then things go astray. This leads to a dramatic shift in tone, as the movie leaves him to follow a TV huckster named Besson Kumagai claiming to give young men infallible relationship advice; the first of three roles played by Takayuki Yamada, Kumagai’s a 70’s lounge lizard who bursts into dance routines at odd moments. While dancing behind the wheel of a car, he blows into a group of people, and then we leave Kumagai and start following one of them.

Specifically, we follow a wandering samurai named Tamon (Yamada) who is seeking his lost true love. This becomes the longest part of the film, as we follow Tamon in and out of flashbacks (and through a tattoo studio featuring renowned director Seijun Suzuki in an extended cameo part) to a climactic fight sequence in a brothel and gambling den. Then we return to Ovreneli Vreneligare, now an adult played by Yamada, as he finds Milocrorze again.

You can look at the connections between these stories in a number of ways, but the first thing that has to be said is that the movie is consistently pleasurable to look at, in at least three different tones. Ovreneli Vreneligare’s candy-coloured dreamland is the most striking. The hyperactive modern world of Kumagai is a needed burst of energy. Then that’s followed by the melodramatic, weirdly-lit, deeply artificial world of Tamon, centred around its extended fight scene that drops in and out of slow and fast motion. There’s always something happening in this movie.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXIII: The Dark and the Wicked

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Dark and the WickedOne of the fascinating things about art is the way it speaks to its exact moment. That’s even more fascinating with film, which has such a long gestation time; write a movie, shoot the movie, then edit the movie and work on it in postproduction, and it’ll come out years after it was conceived. Which is why it was fascinating to see so many films at this year’s Fantasia that revolved around haunted houses. Occasionally the haunted building might be something like a school (as in Detention), but there were a lot of stories this year about people trapped in a structure, often with family, perhaps in a family home they’d returned to. Which strikes me as resonating with many situations I’ve heard about these past few months. The first movie I saw on Day 9 of the festival, The Block Island Sound, was an example of this trend. So was the second.

The Dark and the Wicked was written and directed by Bryan Bertino, and set on an isolated farm in Texas (Bertino’s own family home, in fact) where an old man (Michael Zagst) is dying. His wife (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) tries to tend him, with the assistance of a visiting nurse (Lynn Andrews). But he’s going to die soon, and his adult children Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) have returned to be with him. Only to find some other supernatural force also lurks in the dark farm. Horrible things happen. An old priest (Xander Berkeley) comes by to offer assistance, but is rejected. Louise and Michael will have to find the power to deal with the darkness on their own. If they can even understand what they’re dealing with.

The first thing to understand about this movie is that it is purely a horror movie. It’s not horror mediated by some other aspect (like the dark-fantasy fairy-tale feel of Detention, or the family drama of The Block Island Sound). This is a movie about a place that has become the locus for clearly supernatural evil, and the story and look of the film follow from that. It’s drenched in lovely dark shadows. Natural vistas have an element of the sublime in the last light of the sun, but are empty of human life. We watch the characters flail about in this landscape, and know there will be no happy endings here.

There is in fact a good sense of balance to the mystery and the rules by which the supernatural evil operates. The dreamlike half-understood logic of the wickedness is a specific and effective horror on its own. We have, in fact, almost no idea what that logic is. But it does exist, and the characters’ refusal to try to understand it, their reluctance to accept anything supernatural is happening, is terrifying on its own. I would say that this feel fades a bit at the end, as the effect of the supernatural crescendos and the feel of rules that limit it fades. For much of the movie, though, there is a sense that the evil cannot simply wipe the characters out at any moment; that it can be fought, and indeed that it can be understood, but that the characters are choosing not to do either.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXII: The Block Island Sound

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Block Island SoundDay 9 of Fantasia began for me with The Block Island Sound. Directed by brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus, and written by Matthew, it’s a horror movie named for a body of water off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s the rare horror story that deals with inhuman mysteries on the northeastern coast of the United States while not feeling Lovecraftian at all.

The plot revolves around a family native to Block Island, where a small community largely of fisherfolk lives year-round, tripling in size in the summer tourist season. It is not summer as the film opens, and an old fisherman named Tom Lynch (Neville Archambault) is beginning to act very strangely. Tom’s adult son Harry (Chris Sheffield), who lives with him, is getting worried. Coincidentally, when a mass of dead fish washes ashore on the island, Harry’s sister Audry (Michaela McManus), who has moved away from Block Island, is sent by her bosses at the EPA to investigate. Accompanying Audry is her subordinate Paul (Ryan O’Flanagan) and her young daughter Emily (Matilda Lawler). They stay at the family home as they investigate, and things become more and more unreal.

If the story’s about family, so’s the production; Michaela McManus is the sister of Kevin and Matthew, while in a Q&A after the film Sheffield described himself as an unofficial third McManus brother. At any rate the focus of the narrative is clearly on the Lynch family, as they reunite with plenty of long-held arguments still between them. Tom’s a hothead, who, as Audry percipiently observes, is always looking for someone to blame. Audry for her part is conscious of having left Block Island for another life, and is not especially happy to be back. And then there’s Tom, who may be slowly losing his faculties. Or may have something more disturbing afflicting him.

The movie’s not Lovecraftian, as I say, in part because it’s centred so intensely on the dynamic of the family — an emotional landscape utterly unlike anything in Lovecraft. It’s also far more class-conscious than Lovecraft, or at least conscious in a completely different way. If Audry’s vaguely like the academics who come to a small New England town to investigate some disturbing goings-on, her role in the story becomes something quite different: she’s involved, in ways Lovecraftian academics aren’t.

Worth noting that the look and feel of the film is also different from the twice-told narrative frame-structures of so much of Lovecraft. There’s an almost tactile sense to the film, a visual precision and a detailed soundscape — the washing of waves, the hush of wind — that between them convey a deep sense of place. That place has an atmosphere born not of isolation, though one does get that from the bare trees and the grey ocean, but of lives hard-lived. Tom’s home feels like the real home of a real person, living and working in a small town. The location of Block Island itself is shot such that it comes alive as a lived place, not defined in terms of its institutions so much as in the context for the lives and histories of the main characters. You believe that these people grew up here.

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Hercules: Hero and Victim, Part 1

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Hercules 1958-small

One of the greatest and probably the most famous hero in Greek mythology is Heracles, whom the Romans called Hercules, the name I first heard, thanks to certain films, when I was a kid. Some scholars call him by his original Greek name, others by the Roman version. Forgive me if I bounce back and forth between the two.

A while back, I decided to revisit three films which had a great impact on me when I was a kid, especially since I had the good fortune of seeing all three at the theater, during their first run: Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959), both starring former body-builder and Mr. America, Steve Reeves; and Ray Harryhausen’s classic, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), where Hercules was played by Nigel Green. These led me to my grade school library, where I borrowed and devoured every book on Greek and Roman mythology I could find. In high school and afterwards, I discovered such books as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bulfinch’s Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch, God, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece, by W.H.D. Rouse, as well as those by Norma Lorre Goodrich, Michael Grant, Carl Fischer, and Sir Richard Burton — not to forget Homer, Euripides, Ovid, and so many others too numerous to name.

Those books and those films, including the pepla films of the 1960s, had quite an effect on me. And lest I forgot, three other films also played a major part in my life: Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949); incidentally, Steve Reeves was originally cast to play Samson, but then, as things in Hollywood often go, Victor Mature eventually secured the role.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXI: SPL: Kill Zone

Monday, September 21st, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

SPL: Kill ZoneOne of the lovely things about covering Fantasia is the chance to see genre classics I missed the first time around, often brought back to the screen in a restored version. Again in 2020, notwithstanding its streaming-only nature, Fantasia revived a number of great films from prior years. While my own inefficiency with scheduling meant I ended up missing Johnnie To’s A Hero Never Dies, I saw many of the others, including Wilson Yip’s 2005 movie SPL: Kill Zone (also just Kill Zone, originally SPL: Sha Po Lang, 殺破狼).

Written by Yip with Szeto Kam-Yuen and Jack Ng, it follows Hong Kong cop Detective Chan (Simon Yam), who’s trying to settle a personal score by taking down mobster Wong Po before Chan retires. Unfortunately for Chan, Wong’s played by Sammo Hung. Unfortunately for Wong, the man about to take over from Chan, Ma, is played by Donnie Yen. Mayhem ensues.

Although, in truth, there’s a little less mayhem than you might expect. Yip leans strongly into the melodrama of the story, holding most of the fight scenes for later in the film. Chan’s our main character for the first part of the movie, building up our sympathy for him as we see Wong’s ruthlessness — but then after the introduction of Ma, we come to see things from Ma’s perspective, and we see how Chan’s obsession with Wong leads him not just to push boundaries but to shatter them entirely.

Chan leads a small unit of cops trying to get the goods on Wong; they get their hands on video tape that seems to incriminate him in a murder, but doesn’t tell quite the story they need it to tell. So they cheat, trying to use the tape to frame Wong, even if that means taking out witnesses who know the truth. The cops are dirty, and you understand why they’re dirty, but you’re not allowed to forget that they’re dirty.

This gives the story enough heft, enough moral complexity, that the melodrama becomes more interesting and the story becomes far more than a collection of set-pieces. Add to that some strong performances: Sammo Hung’s alternately sinister and sympathetic, while Donnie Yen gives a convincing portrayal as a basically decent man trying to decide what to do in a compromised world. Watching Yen, in fact, I found it hard not to think what it would have been like to see him as Superman at around that time — a forceful but good man, one who the audience is drawn to emphasise with due to a mixture of warmth and strength. On the other hand, Hung’s playing a fat crimelord who’s actually both a mass of muscle and a skilled martial artist, a man the cops can’t legally touch but whose weakness is the wife he truly loves, and who keeps a psychopathic-but-supremely-skilled assassin as his enforcer. Which is to say I no longer need to wonder what it’d be like to see him play Wilson Fisk.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XX: Cosmic Candy

Sunday, September 20th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Cosmic CandyThere is, or was, or might have been according to some, a movement in Greek cinema that started and flourished in the first half of the second decade of the twenty-first century called the Greek Weird Wave. This movement, if it existed — and Lanthimos himself is skeptical, while others say it’s a thing of the past — was perceived to be anchored by the films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari, and characterised by surreal plot situations, precise cinematography and alienated, emotionally muted characters. (It’s quite far from prose weird fiction or even the New Weird, often lacking any element of the fantastic.) Were the Weird Wave is a thing to have ever existed, it would be very tempting to place Rinio Dragasaki’s debut feature Cosmic Candy within it.

Written by Dragasaki with Katerina Kaklamani, it follows Anna (Maria Kitsou), a youngish woman who works at a convenience store and is addicted to Cosmic Candy, a sugary substance the store’s decided to no longer carry. Anna suffers from OCD and, apparently, at least mild depression, ordering fitness equpiment online that she never opens. Then she comes home one evening to find a young girl, her neighbour Persa (Pipera Maya), hanging around her front door. Persa’s father has vanished, and despite herself Anna takes in the extroverted high-energy Persa. Anna’s own father, we learn, vanished some time ago, and the main part of the film is the bonding between Anna and Persa as Anna investigates Persa’s life. She tries to understand what’s happened to Persa’s father and where the girl can live long-term, while at the same time trying not to get fired from her job, and helping Persa prepare for her school pageant.

You can see the outline of some very familiar story structures in the foregoing, and one of the interesting aspects of Cosmic Candy is the way it uses those structures while also occasionally pushing back against them. There is overall a straightforwardness to the film, but it’s pulled into some unusual shapes by Anna’s mental and emotional states, and a mounting tendency to the surreal. Some elements of it struck me as possibly referring to cultural knowledge I did not have (specifically the significance Persa’s school play, in which she plays a figure from the 19th-century struggle for Greek Independence). But the story’s always clear, and told with a distinctive gentleness, a sympathy for all its characters. As it goes on it becomes more surreal, anchored always by subtly powerful cinematography and the alienated Anna’s muted emotional reaction: thus, perhaps, part of the Weird Wave, if such a thing exists.

Technically Cosmic Candy can be said to be a genre story in that there’s a mystery, and a tale of crime seen edge-on. Mostly, though, it’s a story of a mismatched couple coming to bond and shape each other’s world. As such it’s perfectly solid; you see why the two characters are drawn to each other despite their basic differences in temperament, and the adventures and exploits they pull each other into are well-planned and build well — if it’s clear that Persa’s play will always be the climax of the film, an extended road trip the two of them take in search of another of her family members nicely diverts the tale for just long enough, giving us a less expected dimension.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XIX: The Wapikoni Showcase

Saturday, September 19th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

KakatshatWapikoni Mobile is a non-profit organisation based in Montreal that sends mobile film studios to work with the youth of Indigenous communities, teaching them the skills to make movies and giving them the support to produce short films. Almost 200 Wapikoni shorts have won awards or special mentions in film festivals around the world, and many have appeared in previous editions of Fantasia. With the studios on hiatus due to the pandemic, this year the festival screened a collection of 17 movies selected by Wapikoni in a showcase of work created through the program.

I watched the showcase, and was impressed. Every movie had something to recommend it, and most of them had quite a lot. (Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find acting credits for most of the films; but as least I’ve been able to include links to some.)

The first of the films was one of the best, and possibly the most haunting film I saw at the festival all year. The 8-minute “Kakatshat,” by Eve Ringuette, starts in the 19th century with a curse from an abandoned old woman (played, I believe, by Thérèse Vollant), then moves forward to show the curse’s working-out. It’s stunningly well-shot, and, quiet and eerie, captures a profound atmosphere.

Next came “The Guest,” by Nicholas Rodgers. It’s a folkloric five-minute-long story about a man (Philippe Mathon) who takes a small omnivorous furry creature into his house only to find it has more of an appetite than he realised. It’s made in a distinctive kind of stop-motion that gives it a surreal touch; you can see it here. The next movie was also from Rogers, “RUN,” in which a man who’s committed a violent crime treks into a nighttime forest and finds there more than he expected. It’s a solid piece of horror that does some very nice work with soundscapes, and it’s available here.

Next came “Among The Forest,” by Oqim Nicholas. A youth journeys into the woods, pondering a horrible life left behind, and his internal monologue builds to a powerful ending. The writing gives us some particularly nice character work. “TRANSMISSION 01: 34-OD” by Jim Matlock is an experimental video that uses distorted sound and images to fashion a plea for change in the world, creating nice collage effects along the way.

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Goth Chick News: The (Trend-Setting) House on Haunted Hill

Thursday, September 17th, 2020 | Posted by Sue Granquist

House on Haunted Hill-small

House on Haunted Hill (Allied Artists, 1959)

In 2019 (aka “the Time Before”) one of the quintessential horror movies of our time celebrated its 60th birthday. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Alan Marshal and Julia Mitchum was not only critically acclaimed in its own time, but still has an 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes today. Filmed for $200K over the course of 14 days in 1958, the film has netted over $1.5M and counting, thanks to video rentals and streaming. Ironically, its 40th anniversary remake in 1999, starring Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen cost $37M to make and has only netted $43M to date worldwide, making the original House proportionally the clear winner with fans.

What you may not know is the many ground-breaking elements of the film which still influence entertainment and promotion today. To start, director William Castle was the original master of guerilla marketing. His technique first appeared with his movie Macabre (1958) but due to its success, it was replicated with House a year later. Mr. Castle offered $1,000 Lloyd’s of London insurance policies for those brave enough to watch his horror film. However, if anyone with the policy by the died of fright during the movie, that person’s next of kin would be paid $1,000. In addition to this, Castle had select theater owners station nurses in their lobbies and park hearses outside. Castle himself said it was a shame no one actually expired during his movies as it would have been exceptional publicity. Today, directors such as J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World; Fallen Kingdom) have taken such gimmicks even further to promote their films. Just Google the name of the movie and “guerilla marketing” to see the examples.

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