Canada’s underground, horror-and-suspense alternative to the Toronto International Film Festival, Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, cares less about the red carpet than it does about the many shades of red found in a film’s goriest scenes, yet the festival’s attention to cinematic technique, artistic form, and visual appeal is just as paramount. Blood-soaked, tension-filled, or humor-spiked, many of the films in the Fantasia program this year, screening July 18 to August 7, are as concerned about art direction and inventive cinematography as they are about shock and spatter. ARTINFO Canada whittled down the festival’s numerous worthy selections to 10 with the most visual mettle.
“Shield of Straw,” (2013) the festival’s opening film and an official Cannes selection, bears famed Japanese director Takashi Miike’s (“Ichi the Killer,” “Visitor Q”) signature style: dark, with moments of high-contrast color and glaring daylight, action-packed yet broodingly mysterious. Oh, and ultra-violent. The story follows a police task force and illicit bounty hunters as they trace a serial child killer across Japan while the media madly speculates. Not content to settle for good versus evil, the film instead dwells in moral grey areas and the cinematic glories of gun fighty. Miike’s 2012 film “Lesson of the Evil” (2012) also plays at Fantasia, offering an easy opportunity to compare and contrast the auteur’s (blood-spattered) style.
“It’s Me, It’s Me,” (2012) directed by Satoshi Miki, known best for his comedies, and adapted from Tomoyuki Hoshino’s acclaimed novel, is as off-kilter in its aesthetic as in its strange story. A bitter 20-something former photographer working in an electronics store decides, on a whim, to scam a stranger’s mother, a move that leads to a series of surreal events, mistaken identities, and doppelgangers straight out of a David Lynch film. Miki naturally opts for more visual gags and quick cuts than Lynch, but in doing so makes the turn from comedy to waking nightmare even more profound and unsettling in its portrayal of lost identity.
“The Conjuring” (2013) captures an era of recent American history that coincides nicely with horror-film history (think “The Amityville Horror” and “The Exorcist”). Directed by “Saw”-creator James Wan and based on a true story of two paranormal investigators, a husband-and-wife team played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, the film uses archival-style footage, cinéma vérité techniques, and a palette of shadowy, dulled hues to recreate the town of Harrisville, the demon-infested farmhouse at the heart of the story, and the beleaguered family trying to live there. Director of photography John Leonetti knows the angles of horror well and isn’t afraid to use them.
“Animals,” (2012) an award-winning first feature from Spanish filmmaker Marçal Forés, appears at first to be a sweet, somewhat dreamy coming-of-age film, complete with dappled sunlight in a secret forest glen and tentative teenage coupling. However, in the spirit of many a good horror film, it turns expected, everyday teenage angst and sexual frustration into an anxiety-ridden struggle to stay alive against a force of evil. In the case of “Animals,” evil takes the form of an animatronic teddy bear, best friend to 17-year-old Pol — a rare instance of creepily uncanny CGI effects fitting right in to a film’s aesthetic.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” (2012) departs from Fantasia’s focus on horror and suspense to instead present dramatic tension based on relationships, familial love, and death threatened by illness rather than homicidal tendencies. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen counters the grief pervading his film with wide shots of summer days in the Flemish countryside and intimate angles on gatherings of friends happy to be together to play bluegrass music, talk about each other’s tattoos, and laugh the night away. Non-linear, time-shifting storytelling gives the film freedom from becoming mired in tragedy, giving it space to breathe and even to lift spirits.
“V/H/S 2” (2013) takes us right back into the horror genre and, by all accounts, exceeds the original, combining first-person head-mounted camera angles with found footage and the vision of five different directors building four different stories: Eduardo Sánchez (“The Blair Witch Project”), Adam Wingard, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, and Jason Eisener. The film as a whole looks like a more professional version of anyone’s home videos, which is exactly why it frightens, adding elements of the supernatural and horrific to the banal. Similarly, South Korean anthology film “Horror Stories” showcases six short films that embody the latest in that country’s horror aesthetic.
“The Burning Buddha Man,” (2013) by young Japanese director Ujicha, while notable for its unsettling, other-worldly story of murder and betrayal, more profoundly strikes the viewer with its artistry: the film is constructed using the animation technique of “gekimation,” hand-drawn paper cutouts that are shot frame-by-frame in traditional animation style. The result: an utterly unique and bizarre creation.
“The Machine” (2013) gets sci-fi right, with its superficially shiny, near-future contemporary setting, plagued by renewed Cold-War fears and buoyed by hope in scientific discovery. British director Caradog James creates a smooth, cool world of minimal design and overcast daylight, to tell the story of a war machine surreptitiously built to possess human consciousness.
“L’amour Braque” (1985) proves why Polish director Andrzej Żuławski is the recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Lifetime Achievement Award this year. The film’s fast-paced, color-saturated action scenes are treated with as much attention to detail as the grimy Parisian backdrop to this surprisingly poetic story (it is, after all, a re-imagining Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”) of bank heists and profane acts. The director’s frenzied and drug-addled 1996 film “Szamanka,” also at the festival, is just as worthy of viewing — and, an added bonus, Żuławski will be at that screening to receive his award.
“Les Gouffres,” (2012) the newest film from innovative French director Antoine Barraud, explores natural human fears through supernatural elements. Set in an unnamed land claimed by mist and shadows, mountains and trees, the film travels through a couple’s familiar day-to-day existence and twists into something fearful, where dark chasms and caves menacingly threaten to envelope the once-familiar world.