Thursday, July 28, 2016


For its 20th edition, the Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia) presented leading genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro with its prestigious Cheval Noir Award, which del Toro accepted in person in his first-ever Montreal appearance.

As contextualized on the festival's website: "A childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico ripe with ghosts (real and imagined), comic books, Edgar Allan Poe stories, Santo mash-ups and classic Universal monster movies has led to one of the most fertile careers in genre films for 51-year-old master of the dark fantastique, Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro first introduced us to his cinematic uniqueness with the newfangled vampire movie Cronos in 1993, and he has bounced back and forth between big studio films (the Hellboy duo, Pacific Rim) and more personalized independent features (The Devil's Backbone and the Oscar®-winning Pan's Labyrinth) ever since. Common themes and images weave their ways through all of del Toro's movies, and his personal stamp can be found on every frame."

Del Toro hosted the Canadian premiere of Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015), a fascinating documentary on the history of movie monster makers, in which he is featured prominently. As was to be expected, he could not accommodate individual requests for interview, but generously provided an afternoon press conference and an expanded Q&A "master class" after the screening of Creature Designers. Seizing those two opportunites, I asked the following.

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Michael Guillén: Guillermo, welcome to Fantasia.

Guillermo del Toro: Thank you! I'm very happy to be here.

Guillén: I've been thoroughly enjoying The Strain on television. I'm interested in what the difference has been for you to present The Strain on television rather than as a feature film? And could you speak about the character of The Master and the creation of the Master for the television series?

Del Toro: After the first season, The Strain is Carlton Cuse. It's Carlton's baby. Having co-written the books with Chuck Hogan, I'm too close to the books. I suffer a lot when there's a change and there have been a lot of changes. They kill people that we don't kill in the book—they kill them in the second season—and people that we killed in the first book live forever. So, you know? There are many many changes. What I think is interesting is we went through adapting The Strain for comics, for Dark Horse, and it was a seamless experience. On TV you learn quick that the dynamics of a TV show are very different.

The great thing about The Master for me is that he changes bodies. And that you don't have a single actor playing him. The first time The Master is shown on the screen was not well-lit. I was doing my day job—I was shooting—and I was not on the set that day. I don't like the way it's lit. I think it's lit flat. There's no make-up that can look great. The next episode, I was there and I made sure that The Master was lit nicely. What I love about him—and it's revealed season by season, and in the books—is that he's a creature of pure hunger. Now, the TV show and the books sort of divert enough for the second season, and I think the series is going to have a different finale than the books.

I remember Mike Mignola telling me during Hellboy how weird it was for him because it was not his Hellboy. His Hellboy would never have fallen in love with Liz. Now I understand what he meant. It does feel strange to see something you did transform.

Guillén: You've asserted your belief in monsters and their capacity to save your soul; but—in consideration of last night's massacre in Nice and the 84 dead there—how does the imagination in monsters in any way address or redress the monstrosity of human nature?

Del Toro: In all my movies I always think about real monsters that are human. If you watch my movies—Crimson's Peak, Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth—the monsters are the humans; not really the monsters. That's real, saddening. We live in a brutal world. We address it by making the monsters creatures that serve a more symbolic function and that illuminate the human tale. Do you know what I'm saying?

Guillén: Yes.

Del Toro: As I say verbatim in Crimson's Peak: "It's not a ghost story. It's a story with a ghost in it." The ghost illuminates the human condition. The Faun and the Paleman illuminate the human condition in Pan's Labyrinth. But the scariest thing in Pan's Labyrinth is not the Faun or the Paleman; it's the Captain, y'know?

I don't address it. You talk about what you feel, like any other artist. The only important thing in art is to be yourself. Don't try to be anybody else. You can imitate, when you're young, but you should not try to impose a different range of your voice. That's why I don't try my hand at anything other than what I do. I'm not trying to do a drama about a violin player—I don't give a fuck!—to me reality can only be reached through these things. I address reality through them.

Guillén: I love listening to you because you're so funny....

Del Toro: It's the accent.

Guillén: ...which makes me curious about humor and terror and how you use humor to supplement and articulate terror?

Del Toro: Well, I think they are very close, you see? For example, the audience that saw Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, 30 years later those movies were funny to a separate generation. I have watched some horror movies from the '70s with an audience and people laugh. I realized that horror and terror are always on the verge of being funny—sometimes they're funny the first time—but that's my line: you always have to go close to ridicule. Because, if you don't risk it, the image doesn't have the power. You can fail or succeed. It depends on who you're connecting with.

To make a movie voluntarily scary and funny like Joe Dante, that's a separate art. It's truly an art. It requires that that is your voice. That is what you do well. I'm not good at that. I don't do that often. I love humor and I put humor in most of my movies—even something like Crimson's Peak has moments of humor in it—but, it's always close. If you watch The Exorcist, there are moments that are so enormously risky and yet they provoke horror. If you think about a prat fall by Chaplin, if that prat fall happened and his head cracked open and half an inch of brain popped out of his head, it ends up being not funny anymore. It's so close.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


The team aesthetic of the Black Fawn production group impressed me (and inspired me to develop my own creative team) when—at last year’s edition of Fantasia—I had the opportunity to talk to Chad Archibald about his entry BITE, whose gooey allure I was able to program into San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. As a business and creative strategy, the Black Fawn stable of talent work on and promote each others’ films so that each, in turn, can have their moment in the spotlight. At this year’s 20th edition of Fantasia, it’s Jeff Maher’s turn with the World Premiere of his directorial feature debut Bed of the Dead (2016). Maher served as cinematographer on BITE, Antisocial and Hellmouth, and has co-written Bed of the Dead with Cody Calahan, who earlier directed and co-wrote Antisocial (and its sequel), as well as co-writing The Drownsman.

Walking the talk of Black Fawn’s team aesthetic, it amused me to no end to see Chad Archibald in Bed of the Dead’s opening sequence in a cameo performance as a carpenter who takes wood from an accursed gallows tree, which he planes down to craft into a bed. The dispirited souls of all those who have been hung from the limbs of this tree inhabit the bed with its ornately sculptured headboard and wreak havoc on four swingers hoping to have a little fun at a sex club where the bed has ended up.

One of my mother’s favorite guilt trips was always to say, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” Bed of the Dead tweaks that truism: “You’ve made your bed; now die in it.”

Black Fawn makes no pretense at elevated genre. They’re creating content for balls-out gorehounds and cleverly re-work and assemble tropes they know will satisfy their audiences. Hunky dudes are going to get eviscerated and lovely young women will be bathed in blood. That’s what Black Fawn promises and that’s what Black Fawn delivers. After all, as Stephen Sondheim has penned, “Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?” Onto the expected sequence of being dragged under the bed or, for that matter, dragged onto the ceiling, Maher and Calahan have written some commendable flourishes worth noting, however. Two in particular.

First, the fabric of space and time is bent by cell phone texting. To hell with the roaming charges, police investigator Virgil (Colin Price) is trying to determine how five victims of a fire ended up in such a fate. The audience is told straight off that everyone is going to die and so, spectatorially, it’s a process of appreciating the choreographed kills. But when Virgil contacts one of the young women—“final girl”, in effect—fate seems less formidable.

More importantly, and with a deeper cogency, Virgil represents every white police officer who has killed an innocent black teenager. It seems obvious that nothing is more horrifying than real life, especially these days in the United States of America where the Black Lives Matter movement has brought into searing focus an institutionalized racism enforced by an increasingly militarized police force. Leave it to Canadian filmmakers to incorporate this American social issue into a genre format and this reviewer thanks them for their bravery in approaching the subject, albeit indirectly.


The narrative theme of the absent father is leant a startling new visibility in Geoff Redknap’s feature debut The Unseen (2016), screening as a World Premiere at Fantasia’s 20th edition. Redknap would be the first to admit that The Unseen, which he wrote as well as directed, was greenlit due to his well-earned cred as a master special effects and make-up artist (on such films as Deadpool, Watchmen, The Cabin in the Woods, the Final Destination and X-Men series, and such TV series as Fear the Walking Dead, Masters of Horror and—as Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis phrased it—“back in the day” X-Files. Quite the resume!

Adding to that impressive roster of credits, Redknap offers a brooding subdued re-visioning of the Invisible Man story. Mill worker Bob Langmore (in a taciturn performance by Aden Young, who has cornered the market on troubled masculinities, most recently on the TV series Rectify) is beleaguered by debt and regret. He abandoned his wife Darlene (Camille Sutherland) and daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) eight years earlier. Eva is acting out and Darlene, unable to handle her, calls Bob for help. “She needs her father,” she pleads. Langmore comes out of his self-imposed isolation to do his part.

What first appears as an oft-told tale of parental estrangement and a struggle for reconciliation takes a shocking turn when it is revealed that Bob suffers from a hereditary illness that is causing him to vanish, chunk by chunk. Redknap has rounded up some of the best make-up, special effects and animatronic specialists to depict this malady, first hinted at when Bob stands in front of a television set and its blue light is seen shining through his body.

Folded into this taut narrative is an incisive critique of the harvesting of wild bear organs for Asian herbal cures and the shady characters who traffic same, with whom Langmore becomes inadvertently involved. But most compelling is the idea that we each must come to terms with the self-isolation we impose upon ourselves in response to an emotional suspicion that we have been abandoned by the generations before us. The Unseen suggests that blood is, indeed, thicker than water and that we are informed and guided by our fathers before us and their fathers before them by the articulation of abiding presence, even when—by all visible accounts—we seemingly stand alone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


After a 10-year hiatus from filmmaking, Steven Shainberg returns to the fray with a disturbingly original study of abduction, Rupture (2016), a genre exercise boasting its World Premiere in Fantasia’s 20th edition. It’s a bit unsettling to consider that it’s been a full decade since I spoke with Shainberg for Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006): I was just starting out as a film journalist while he was, presumably, just about to discover how difficult it is these days to get a film financed. Kudos to the film’s production team—including Andrew Lazar and Bruno Rosato, accompanying Shainberg at Fantasia—whose tenacity helped Shainberg realize his unique vision. Shainberg should not be absent from the scene as long as he has been.

As Renee, Noomi Rapace comes off as an everyday single mother raising her young son Evan (in a fresh-faced turn by Percy Hynes White). At odds with her ex, she tries to shake off her troubled marriage by accepting an invitation to skydive. En route, she is abducted and taken to a remote undisclosed facility where she is subjected to bizarre tests that capitalize on her arachnophobia. Where is she? Who are her abductors? What do they want? Why is bringing subjects to the brink of terror so essential for their genetic research?

Though the edges of the script Shainberg has crafted with Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) are, perhaps, tucked in a bit too neatly—folding vagueness in upon itself like origami to achieve form—there’s no question that considerable thought has been exercised in keeping events as mysterious as possible until the narrative’s reveal. This responsible effort elevates Rupture with an art house intensity that offers the viewer a rewarding engagement with the film’s aesthetic tone and rhythm. The latter, especially, drives the film forward with a tantalizing momentum that allows you to know only as much as you are meant to know. Clear answers remain apples out of reach.

Rupture's narrative uncertainty is augmented by a lurid and lustrous palette of deep reds and purples effected by cinematographer Karim Hussain (who worked on my favorite horror film of last year, We Are Still Here). Hussain is rapidly rising through the ranks, and rightfully so, as one of the most adventurous and imaginative DPs in the business. Combined with Jeremy Reed's immersive production design, Sean Breaugh’s art direction and Shayne Fox’s labyrinthine set design, replete with honeycomb motifs throughout (and a tip of the hat to Kubrick’s The Shining), Shainberg’s production team has created a claustrophobic crawl through what is gradually perceived as a hive. From thereon, the film avidly embraces its sci-fi underpinnings as Renee intuits her role in a new world order.

Smart with its questions, less so with its answers, Rupture will cater to an audience somewhere between diehard genre fans and arthouse enthusiasts.

Friday, July 15, 2016


What first attracted me to the Fantasia International Film Festival was its unbridled passion for genre—not only horror, sci-fi, and martial arts—but, all genres. I’ve seen remarkable police procedurals, psychological thrillers, race car adventures, epic disasters and ride alone westerns emerge out of Fantasia’s annual program to traffic the international genre circuit and, often—as with last year’s Goodnight, Mommy—advance to Oscar consideration.

For their 20th edition, Fantasia opened with two World Premieres—Daniel Grou [Prodz]’s King Dave (2016) and John Stockwell’s Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016). My flight into Montreal arrived a bit too late to take advantage of either of those, though I did manage to rush down to the J.A. DeSeve to catch the Canadian premiere of JT Mollner’s debut feature Outlaws and Angels (2016), which premiered earlier this year in the Midnight Section at Sundance.

For me, it was perfect to start the festival out with what San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleague Dennis Harvey deemed “a Grand Guignol nod to spaghetti Westerns.” Something of a family affair, the film’s female lead Francesca Eastwood is not only Clint’s daughter, but also Frances Fisher’s (Fisher plays an ill-fated cameo as Esther). It’s all in the eyes, isn’t it? Francesca’s baby blues take after her mom, but here and again they narrow to the steely vengeance of her dad’s iconic countenance in Sergio Leone’s cult westerns.

The outlaws of the film’s title identify themselves early on as they kill innocent passers-by shooting their way out of a bank heist while wearing white hooded masks (that reminded me of Karen O’s concert persona where she painted on a face over a white hood), though real-life outlaw and highway robber William (“Brazen Bill”) Brazelton is allegedly the true inspiration for their get-up. A posse takes after the robbers, headed by bounty hunter Josiah (Luke Wilson) whose character provides a pensive, philosophical voiceover on the loss of innocence and the origins of violence.

And this movie is violent, no bones about it, and equally perverse. As women get slapped around, the kneejerk response is to deem Outlaws and Angels misogynistic, even as Eastwood’s character Flo surfaces as the narrative’s switchback protagonist. Mollner purposely treads a fine line and pushes boundaries here. When the robber gang lands at the remote home of the Tildon family, the film enters suggestive softcore territory as the story becomes a prolonged rape fantasy. That indiscretion is indulged through the casting of Chad Michael Murray as gangleader Henry. Murray harkens to the physical beauty of Franco Nero and Terrence Stamp in their own turns as spaghetti western anti-heroes. Stripped down, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept his forlorn position that he’s just too old to be an outlaw.

My favorite performance, however, was Teri Polo as Flo’s Bible-thumping mother Ada whose reliance on Jesus as savior demarcates her unhinged denial of all the glossed-over darkness swirling between her husband and her daughters. Each time she’s forced to consciousness, she lets out a banshee wail both pathetic and comic. As she succumbs to the probing fingers of one of the outlaws, she reveals a woman deeply conflicted about her own sexual needs.

Comparisons to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight are unavoidable, right down to the shift from panoramic landscapes to widescreen interiors and—even though Outlaws and Angels is arguably a lesser film—Mollner stamps his own promising signature on every derivative turn and it will be interesting to see what he does in the future freed from the grip of homage. The lensing by Matthew Irving is allegiant to the genre, costuming by Liz Pecos is grimy and believable, but the score by Colin Stetson is distractingly indecisive: one moment electronic, the next all piano arpeggios. All in all, a bloody violent ride, now available for streaming on multiple platforms.