Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Alien On Stage

A delightful love letter to community and enthusiasm.

Synopsis: A very amateur dramatics group of Dorset Bus Drivers spent a year creating a serious stage adaptation of the sci-fi, horror film, Alien. With wobbly sets, awkward acting and special effects requiring more luck than judgement.

First, a confession: I have never seen the appeal of the British Christmas tradition of pantomime. However, if more pantomimes were to follow the lead of Paranoid Dramatics and stage recreations of films like Alien I would be much more on board. While the group’s efforts are perhaps not quite as appreciated in their Dorset home town, a chance meeting with a pair of excitable directors from London soon heralds a trip to the West End.

There is little in the way of stylistic flair within the documentary and the sound is variable in places, especially when the film has to contend with busy streets and overlapping voices. Aside from a few clips from Alien itself, the film knows that its heart lies in the interactions between the group so directs all of the focus on them, allowing the space for the naturally funny group to take centre stage.

What the team achieve within their limited means is truly incredible. Ray the nonchalant set designer (a man who wants to ‘do things right’ but otherwise doesn’t want any of the limelight) and Peter the creature designer particularly stand out given their attention to detail in recreating the stage show’s most memorable moments. The cast and crew all share a deadpan sensibility, but there is a warmth to it too.

To paraphrase from the film itself, the success of the production rests on the right piece of art being met by the right audience and that is almost certainly true of the documentary too. It is impossible to get through this without a grin, or even a few happy tears as the team’s performance progresses.

A hugely endearing and joyful portrait of DIY ingenuity, dedication and teamwork with a streak of fun running all the way through.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Alien On Stage screens as part of Fantasia Festival. The film is available on demand. Ticket information is available on the webpage.

NYAFF 2021: Midnight

Oh-Seung Kwon’s debut feature film is a bracing thriller that wears its frustrations about the treatment of women and those with disabilities on its sleeve.

Synopsis: When a young deaf woman nearly rescues the prey of a serial killer late one night, a harrowing game of cat and mouse is set in motion. 

Whenever there is a film that features a disabled protagonist, there is always that frustration that they are not being played by a performer with the same disability. The desire to represent disabilities without making space for disabled performers is problematic, whichever way you cut it. However, as KSL was only made an official language in 2015, there are still potential barriers to disabled actors featuring in films. The film tackles the issues surrounding how disabled people, especially women, can be side-lined, ignored and how that treatment, rather than their disability makes them vulnerable. This does not make it any less frustrating, but at the very least it feels like the film is looking to open up a conversation.

Ki-joo Jin plays Kyung Mi, a woman working as a sign language customer service representative. She is introduced in a tracking shot, moving from the loud, busy call centre into her quiet corner. She is established early on as a woman who is fed up of being patronised and set aside, keen to escape and travel alongside her mother (Hae-yeon Kil). A scene in which she aggressively signs at clueless, boorish business colleagues who willingly misinterpret her showcases her obvious frustration. Meanwhile, a serial killer is targeting women walking alone at night. Kyung Mi is witness to an attack on another girl, sparking a series of events that leads to her having to fight for her life.

Wi Ha-Joon is utterly terrifying as Do Shik – brutal, predatory but able to switch to benign, even vulnerable when the occasion calls for it. Much of the film rests on his ability to be the monster hidden in plain sight as the police and general public fall for his every manipulation. The film feels increasingly satirical as it moves on and Do Shik appears unstoppable in ways that stretch credibility, as a more grounded version of Lucky, that focuses on the never-ending threat of male violence against women and how women come to navigate this in different ways.

This is an enormously physical film and some may grow weary with numerous lengthy foot chases, although the photography of these sequences more than justifies it, swooping through the streets. That it delivers on both the fast-paced action pieces while also weaving in its frustrations and social commentary is to be celebrated. It is easily one of the more stressful film-watching experiences I’ve had in some time.

A tense, gripping experience with something to say, Midnight is an exhilarating debut, packed with great performances.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Midnight is available to watch virtually as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2021 from August 7th. Screenings are geo-blocked to the US.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

This expansive documentary still leaves some ground to explore in this loving look at folk horror.

Synopsis: WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED explores the folk horror phenomenon from its beginnings in a trilogy of films – Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s and its culturally specific manifestations in American, Asian, Australian and European horror, to the genre’s revival over the last decade. Touching on over 200 films and featuring over 50 interviewees, WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED investigates the many ways that we alternately celebrate, conceal and manipulate our own histories in an attempt to find spiritual resonance in our surroundings.

Folk horror feels like a term that has been around forever, but as highlighted early on within Woodlands the terminology itself is fairly new in comparison to the films that have come to define it. The term itself remains slightly woolly despite the attempts to narrow what ‘folk’ is and some of the films included for their ‘folky’ elements may well raise an eyebrow, even when contributors state their case clearly and eloquently.

With a runtime of over three hours, it still feels like the documentary has more to offer. The numerous contributors sometimes get lost in the shuffle and the need to put visual elements front and centre while someone speaks in the background occasionally make it difficult to track who is saying what. That is a fairly mild complaint however, given the vast array of knowledge on display. While poetry recitations from Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy are a nice touch, given the pair’s contributions to some of the most iconic folk horror titles, there are moments where it feels like filler, or even interval, transitional elements that draw out the sections a little longer.

The involvement of Severin Films echoes their Tales of the Uncanny that focused on the anthology horror and the pace of reference points is similar here. Even armed with pen and paper, you would struggle to capture everything featured here. Along with the ‘unholy trinity’ that everyone is familiar with, the documentary showcases deeper cuts, with time carved out for exploration of Black folklore and the detailing of folk narratives from other countries too. This diversion from the traditionally very white spaces that folk horror tends to present is a welcome one, although it does feel like there is almost a further documentary dedicated only to that. That folklore ideas and traditions find similar themes across geographies is an interesting one, with changes to exact elements functioning to ‘make it local’.

Perhaps the best cover-all explanation of what ‘folk horror’ is comes from the statement that it is ‘something surviving in spite of the dominant culture’. The social and cultural history of folk horror rests on times of conservatism and upheaval, so this documentary feels incredibly well-timed in terms of exploring how films may begin to reflect the times in which they are being made by reflecting insular cultures and rituals. The tantalising glimpses of some films within the documentary’s collage sections give a hint of those that are perhaps not quite as well-known or regarded within the canon, but could be, given enough eyes on them.

Despite a long runtime, Woodlands never runs out of things to say and there is perhaps an argument for a longer, even two-part version that allows for further exploration of some elements. Kier-La Janisse brings her expansive, knowledgeable eye honed in books like House of Psychotic Women to the screen in a way that feels satisfying, even if not the final word.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror screens as part of Fantasia Festival. The film is available on demand. Ticket information is available on the webpage.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021: Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes

A clever, inventive take on the time-loop movie.

Synopsis: A cafe owner discovers that the TV in his cafe suddenly shows images from the future, but only two minutes into the future.

The science-fiction time-loop movie seems to never run out of fresh takes, translating into horror, romance or action genres with ease. Others utilising the gimmick tend to choose a time period that allows them to set a rhythm and also allows for the manipulation of only certain scenes as viewers become more familiar with the patterns. Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes, as the title suggests, bravely dispenses with this, restricting its loop at just two minutes.

There is an impressive level of control exerted over the stream of near-constant moving parts, perfectly choreographed with a level of detail that is awe-inspiring, given their limited means and space. On the other hand, this contributes to the need to call a halt to proceedings at times to make sure everyone is still on board with the film’s logic and also give everyone a bit of a break. It tries to keep it relatively light-hearted, but some of the pauses to go over concepts like the Droste effect run a little long and as the detail progresses, I’m not sure it provides any greater clarity.

The cumulative effect of the explanation pieces does disrupt the flow to some degree, but when the film picks up again it does so with a great deal of skill, energy and a knack for hitting both its punchlines and more serious moments. Along with the sci-fi logic and artistic theory comes a side of philosophical ponderings. The ripple effects of knowing even a small amount of what happens in the future become immediately apparent to the characters, changing their initial fun to something more meaningful. Though it never becomes too weighty, there are effective moments in which themes of sincerity and decision-making are explored.

Shooting on iPhone allows for a fluidity of movement and it is movement that often encroaches on the performer’s space as they move from room to room. Kazunari Tosa as Kato, the cafe owner who is the original source of the loop, is excellent, bringing a real everyman quality to his performance that matches the initial apprehension as well as the later veering between fun and uncertainty. Aya (Riko Fujitani) provides a more energetic counterpoint to him, leading to drawing more of the characters in, with the chemistry strong across the board.

Junta Yamaguchi’s debut feature is a remarkable example of what can be achieved with some focus, a charming cast and a smart, economic take on big concepts. Stay tuned throughout the credits for snippets of the making of, which I could easily watch a feature of too.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes screens as part of Fantasia Festival. The film is available on demand. Ticket information is available on the webpage.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021

Fantasia’s 25th Edition promises a varied selection of genre cinema using a hybrid model of virtual, on-demand (geo-blocked to Canada) and in-person screenings from 5th – 25th August.

Fantasia Film Festival’s ability to pivot online during 2020 without compromising the standards and variety of content is something to be celebrated. For 2021, their landmark 25th edition, their hybrid model allows for viewers in Canada to experience many titles, both on-demand and scheduled as well as in-person screenings and events.

From the in-person screenings, offerings like David Bruckner’s The Night House, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury’s The Deep House, Sion Sono’s Prisoners Of The Ghostland, ultraviolent pandemic shocker The Sadness and a special screening of James Gunn’s Suicide Squad are just a few of the titles in store.

The scheduled screenings have a host of treats in store, including Welsh-language feature The Feast, opening premiere Brain Freeze, the much-hyped We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and documentary Straight to VHS, showcasing the variety of genre films available.

If you are unable to make the scheduled screenings, there is plenty on offer in the on-demand section. Documentaries like the excellent Polystyrene: I Am A Cliche, the much-lauded Alien On Stage and three-hour-long folk-horror deep dive Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched promise to entertain and expand understanding. Time-loop movie Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes looks to be an inventive One Cut of the Dead-style take on a well-worn sci-fi concept. Elsewhere, manipulated media horror featuring effects by Dan Martin, Broadcast Signal Intrusion and Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break includes a cast of appreciated UK comedy performers.

The festival’s focus on Japanese cinema brings 33 feature films to the line-up, ranging from animation (Junk Head), action (Office Royale), franchises (Kakegurui and Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette) and even filmed performances (Kabuki Art). Takeshi Miike’s The Great Yokai War – Guardians closes the festival.

You can find out more about Fantasia Festival at their webpage. I’ll be bringing you as many reviews as I can manage during the festival, so stay tuned for plenty of posts throughout August.

The Boy Behind The Door

A nerve-wracking and emotional thriller that relies heavily on its talented young performers.

Synopsis: After Bobby and his best friend Kevin are kidnapped and taken to a strange house in the middle of nowhere, Bobby manages to escape. But as he starts to make a break for it, he hears Kevin’s screams for help and realizes he can’t leave his friend behind.

The first scene of The Boy Behind The Door starts with a suspenseful drive down dark roads, punctuated by the shock of seeing the boys after their kidnapping. The sudden snap back to six hours earlier where they are seen out together is all the more jarring. The concern with using that particular device is their kidnapping is a forgone conclusion and the central aspect of the film so stepping away from it so early on seems like a curious decision. However, this is a short-lived step out of chronology used only for us to see the boys in happier times so it enhances rather than detracts from the overall tension.

Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey) are friends who play baseball together, thrown into a nightmare when the pair are attacked and taken to a secluded house. While Bobby manages to escape, Kevin remains imprisoned, prompting Bobby to remain at the property in an attempt to save his friend.

There are numerous sequences that feel incredibly uncomfortable to watch due to the young age of the main characters. Lonnie Chavis is incredible as Bobby, who is smart, resourceful but still always very much a child. Rather than relying on adults making panicked, often silly decisions, Bobby knows what he needs to do, but lacks the physical strength to do them, which adds to the frustration in watching him make all the right moves but still be scuppered. Chavis’ performance is so nuanced that actors twice his age would struggle with some of the things asked of him. Ezra Dewey, by virtue of his character’s plight is mostly confined, but delivers an extremely emotive performance that keeps the stakes high.

The action of the film doesn’t stray far from the house, but the use of light effectively manipulates the passage of time as Bobby wanders the house. Slithers of light from windows decrease as the film runs on, making the house feel increasingly maze-like. That contrast in the light of their earlier freedom makes the house feel oppressive while also allowing Bobby to navigate the space, hiding where necessary. The motivations and backgrounds of the kidnappers are presented in shallow detail as for the most part we are in Bobby and Kevin’s worlds for the duration of the film, with the adults presented in terms of how they see them, rather than a broad understanding. This does mean things feel a little simplistic, but the threat remains all the same.

Curiously, there are numerous unsubtle nods to The Shining that don’t appear to be tied to the plot thematically. That could easily just be the result of the film-makers wanting to echo the films that scare them most and the nods are well-executed so it is more of a momentary head-scratcher rather than anything too distracting. Some further issues lie in the film’s conclusion, although, in the film’s defence, it is difficult to consider a different outcome.

Managing to present incredibly grim material without feeling exploitative, The Boy Behind The Door is a solid, tense chamber piece with moving performances from its young cast.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Boy Behind The Door is available on Shudder US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand from July 29th.

Synchronicity Book Review

Michaelbrent Collings delivers an action-packed sci-fi with horror elements in Synchronicity.

Synopsis: Tyler “Book” Malcolm has lived a life on the run. Off the grid, out of sight of the authorities. Hoping to escape a terrifying secret; to outrun what he has seen and what he has done. Kane is an assassin who, with the help of the Machine, possesses the ability to assume the identity of anyone he wishes. He can strike without warning, and kill without mercy. Stronger than a dozen men, faster than sight itself, he can be anywhere, anytime. When Book catches Kane’s eye, he discovers the world is even more dangerous than he knew. Book must ally himself with people who, like him, know that Kane is on the verge of remaking the world in his image. But how do you know who to trust, when the man who wants you dead can be anyone he pleases?

There is no shortage of inventive science fiction ideas and Synchronicity is another that uses the prospect of technology and its misuse to explore human nature. The Machine, or the SINC, allows users to jump into other bodies, assume their skill sets and leave before any consequences take hold. The morally slippery nature of almost everyone featured allows for the technology and its implications to take centre stage.

Some of the initial introductions to exactly what the SINC is and what it does feel a little fuzzy in the absence of a more visual representation and I have to admit, it took a few read overs until I felt confident that I understood it. Still, that tends to indicate that someone has put care and attention into the logic of their fiction, which is always appreciated. An elegant metaphor of the ‘jumps’ as skimming stones across a river, taking on some water, without being submerged entirely in it helps cement the concept.

Regular readers will recognise some of Collings’ favourite elements – big set piece, multiple person fights and plenty of gory detail. Some of the character interactions do feel a little shallow as the story is far more concerned with getting into the action rather than dwelling on feelings. This makes some of the developments feel inevitable and a little thin. Power becomes the book’s prominent concern, with the difference in how people handle that power becoming a focal point that drives the characters. Villain Kane is driven by a lust for power, fed by ‘Acquiring’ more people and evolving into something more and less than human as he progresses. Our main protagonist, Book, provides quips even in the most fraught situations which is initially frustrating, but there is enough development that, happily, becomes less and less of a defining feature.

Plenty of action and a nightmare vision of the corruptive influence of power in the wrong hands makes Synchronicity a compelling, satisfyingly pulpy read.

You can find out more about and purchase Synchronicity through GoodReads.

Terror of Breakspear Hall Book Review

F.R. Jameson’s haunted house tale with a difference is an engrossing one, touching on accountability, responsibility and making amends.

Synopsis: Simone and her brother are con-artists. They target the rich and corrupt, making them pay for their crimes. One night, after pursuing a mark to a casino, Simone is attacked on the street. In the aftermath, the two siblings find themselves spirited towards Breakspear Hall. A gothic mansion whose master has tried everything to keep visitors out.

The titular hall comes into sharper focus some way into the novel, having laid the groundwork for its characters in the lead up. This allows for the complexity of those characters to be developed in greater depth before introducing the more overtly supernatural elements. Those looking for a non-stop rollercoaster of spooky encounters will not find it here, but what it offers is a richer portrayal of identity and the potential for human cruelty and self-interest.

Siblings Simone and Robin spend their time fostering relationships with wealthy older people in order to secure large charitable donations. This Robin Hood-style pursuit regularly throws the pair into difficult situations and a co-dependent relationship with one another as they try to target those they feel deserve it. It is a profoundly lonely existence and one that appears to take a greater toll on Simone, an openly gay woman who finds herself constantly side-lining her own relationships in order to flirt with older men for the cause. Robin appears to enjoy himself a little more, but his past holds secrets that indicate he is trying to overcome his own demons.

Much of what we need to know about the characters has been revealed by the time we get to Breakspear. The house becomes a site of sickly fantasy, promising its inhabitants everything they want, tempting them even though it ranges from sinister to empty in terms of satisfaction. A side thread sees Jasper, a man driven entirely by anger, deliver on the book’s gorier, more cruel elements, but this sometimes feels a bit too functional in terms of drawing together the seams and having everything fall into place to add too much impact beyond the violence.

A study of troubled people drawn together by something otherworldly, Terror of Breakspear Hall, is not your typical haunted place novel, managing to conjure vivid imagery and deeply felt emotion with a hard, angry edge.

Terror of Breakspear Hall is available from Amazon.

Kandisha

The minds behind Inside and Livid present a snappy and engaging take on urban legends, revenge, class and being careful about what you wish for.

Synopsis: It’s summer break and best friends Amélie, Bintou and Morjana hang together with other neighborhood teens. Nightly, they have fun sharing scary stories and urban legends. But when Amélie is assaulted by her ex, she remembers the story of Kandisha, a powerful and vengeful demon. Afraid and upset, Amélie summons her. The next day, her ex is found dead. The legend is true and now Kandisha is on a killing spree— and it’s up to the three girls to break the curse.

Beginning with a long, slow crawl through city buildings, Kandisha eases the viewer into the inner city environment that serves as the backdrop for the rest of the action. The location of the characters and how that has dictated their lives is of great importance, so it is no surprise that the camera regularly wanders to look at the cityscape. Importantly, we are not looking at expensive areas, but more neglected ones where the girls graffiti condemned buildings, adding art in forgotten places. That this abandoned building becomes the site of the first mention of the Kandisha myth is fitting.

Class and background plays a huge role in Kandisha. Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) are not from wealthy backgrounds and there is even some tension surrounding Bintou’s move to a slightly more affluent area. Early on this signposting feels a little clumsy and definitely unsubtle, with the girls sometimes referring to one another only by their ethnicities. It is possible that this is a case of the subtitles being created from a slightly too literal translation that makes this feel more formal than the casual way it is intended, so doesn’t impact too negatively, especially as once the story picks up the performances more than make up for this.

Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury are arguably best known for their work on Inside (2007) which definitely leans to the more extreme end of the horror spectrum. While this is unlikely to test the endurance levels of many horror fans, there is still a current of cruelty that runs through it that delivers on a decent level of discomfort. Latter sections echo the formula of the Final Destination franchise, quickly cutting between potential victims, ratcheting up the tension and creating an atmosphere in which no character seems to be safe. The effects, aside from one CGI moment that doesn’t quite hit the mark, are grisly, managing to really convey the sustained physical impact of the violence enacted upon the characters.

The titular Kandisha, based on Moroccan mythology, makes for a fascinating presence. The flexibility in how she presents allows the film to play with slower burn moments that focus on her sensuality as well as the more monstrous elements. Those details are revealed well, with each new reveal becoming a focal point during the next appearance. The scene in which the girls consult with an Imam in order to rid themselves of Kandisha is impressive, layering sound and creating a genuinely disorientating atmosphere. The film does have issues with showing its hand too early which does make some scenes feel a little like they have been injected purely to up the body count, but there is enough innovation in that to prevent it feeling too purposeless.

As a portrait of female rage, spurred by being at risk and underseen giving rise to something more uncontrollable and dangerous, Kandisha succeeds. The centring of three young girls, their concerns and experiences with class strikes some high notes, especially given the talent in the cast. The violence is inventive and explosive, but occasionally overpowers the more interesting elements.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Kandisha arrives on Shudder US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand on July 22nd.

North Bend Film Festival 2021: Tailgate

There is toxic masculinity and jittery tension aplenty in this road-rage thriller from Lodewijk Crijns.

A scene from Tailgate in which a family, sat in a car look behind them

Synopsis: A cocksure, road-raging family man finds himself pursued and terrorized by the vengeful van driver he chooses to tailgate.

The cold open of Tailgate (original title Bumperkleef) instantly introduces the film’s primary antagonist, allowing us to view his methods and part of his motivation. Ed (Willem de Wolf) is in pursuit of a cyclist who has slighted him and he has more than harsh words on his mind. Using his white van and his exterminator equipment he is able to both disguise himself and divert attention from his victim to carry out his attack. This initial viciousness gives way to a different kind of tension as the film shifts focus to a family getting ready for a car trip. Dad Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger) is noticeably irritable with the delays his wife Diana (Anniek Pheifer) has caused. Heading on a trip to visit his family with daughters Milou (Roosmarijn van der Hoek) and Robine (Liz Vergeer), the family are running late. This lateness sets in motion a series of events in which Hans’ behaviour worsens as his patience slips.

The term toxic masculinity covers a range of traits and behaviours enacted by men that negatively impact both themselves and wider society – and that plays out in vivid detail here. Within Tailgate there are two strands to this – the overt violence and righteousness of Ed and the simmering temper, lack of patience and at times, snobbery from Hans. Both these characters contribute to the escalating threat of the situation. There is an awareness throughout of the rising absurdity of the situation, but this doesn’t detract from the stakes. As the chase heats up, the performances of the whole cast very much sell the peril. The younger performers in particular are in the thick of it for almost the entire runtime and are more than up to the task of portraying the fear of being in such a frenetic situation. Spitzenberger is excellent, emotionally and physically embodying Hans’ decline and in some sections, regression.

The action keeps pace and again, the film’s self-awareness that it is wringing the majority of its narrative from a simple concept sustains it. As satire, it is about as on-the-nose as you can get, but successful nonetheless. It also knows when to remove the characters from the situation to reset and allow the audience to collect their breath before heading onto the next set piece. Far from disrupting the flow, this enhances how relentless the pursuit is as even the quieter moments retain a jumpy, paranoid aura. The relative thinness of the concept does come to the fore as the film continues and some will find its movements too cyclical.

This tense satire will tick a lot of boxes for those who like their fast-paced chases with a side of societal critique.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tailgate screens as part of the North Bend Film Festival on July 15, 8:30 AM PST (DIGITAL) and July 17, 9:10 PM PST (PHYSICAL).