Fantasia 2020 – festival roundup

Presented in reverse order of preference, we present ten quality films that played at this year’s Fantasia film festival, showcasing the best in new indie genre cinema – and can we just say: what a triumph in getting a virtual festival to run so smoothly in these trying times? Thumbs up to all involved! And with that said, let’s count down our selection…

10. PVT Chat

The big draw for this movie is clearly “Julia Fox from Uncut Gems plays a cam girl”, so it’s a relief to find the film actually has something to it. Peter Vack plays a borderline-fantasist wastrel addicted to online blackjack and cams, who develops a crush/obsession with Fox’s Scarlet. The loose, semi-improv feel of the performances mostly works – Fox is the best thing in it – and there’s a great scene of borderline home invasion that successfully set my teeth on edge. The ending didn’t work for me at all – I needed more judgement of the main character for sure – but the journey was an engrossing voyage through the wreckage of latter-day capitalism. Very New York.

9. The Mortuary Collection

A relatively superior anthology horror to rank alongside something like Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark or Trick r Treat. It benefits enormously by having the same director for each story; the anthologies made by stitching together disparate shorts, now those are the real disasters. The Mortuary Collection has a lovely EC Comics vibe, and Clancy Brown gives it ‘the full Angus Scrimm’ as the Mortician, too! What an actor!

8. Sleep (aka Schlaf)

A dream-themed horror, set in the pleasantly desolate forests of the Germany highlands. Mona (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdman) suffers from a sleep disorder and an obsession with a rural hotel to which she’s never been. When she tracks down the hotel it’s not long before she’s in hospital in a dissociative trance. Her initially sceptical daughter investigates what may have triggered this condition, and while poking around the ground discovers more than she expected. Just who is the mysterious figure haunting everyone’s dreams, and what has she go to do with the hotel – and what do both things have to do with Mona? Aiming for a Lynchian take on The Shining-meets-Dream Warriors, with some added crypto-Nazis for good measure. Also features a great side-performance from Martina Schöne-Radunski as the ambiguously-motivated kitchen maid. Could have been füller of Hüller, but then again can’t everything?

7. The Columnist

Fun spin on a very contemporary (if simple) theme – trolls are bad, so it might be fun to kill them, but you probably shouldn’t. Katja Herbers is great fun as the titular columnist Femke Boot, and I especially liked her fake “women’s interest” column titles – particularly “I just don’t like soup.” A cathartic blast at the modern scourge of anonymous pile-on misogyny.

6. The Block Island Sound

A very tasty biological eco-horror mystery. There’s a strange noise out on the waters near Block Island, interfering with boat radios and causing blackouts – both electrical and psychological. When a fisherman starts acting strangely towards his family and dead fish start washing up ashore, can anyone get to the bottom of things before it’s too late? This one had be gripped, and I was delighted to see that the pay-off was worth it. Also, the son’s conspiracy-minded best friend reminded me of Jeffrey Combs, which is never a bad thing. File alongside The Beach House, under “something weird out on the water”.

5. 12 Hour Shift

A dark, goody, violent farce – I really enjoyed this wonderful comedy of violence from Brea Grant. Set around an Arkansas hospital during the course of one 12-hour shift, this follows the tribulations of a gang of organ thieves as they try to meet a request while keeping a low profile (spoiler – their profile does not remain low). This was equal parts blood-drenched and hilariously ludicrous – almost like a siller-but-bloodier Coen Brothers movie. Chloe Farnworth is a real standout as a ditty rubber-faced blonde who just will not stop killing folks in her inept attempt to get her hands on a viable kidney – I adored her loose-limbed body language.

4. The Oak Room

An unexpected visitor emerges from a blizzard to burst in to a dive bar called ‘The Pool Room’, just as it is closing for the night. The barkeeper is none-best pleased – especially when he recognises the man as an old acquaintance with a debt to pay. But instead of cash, the man wants to offer a story – a story about an unexpected visitor emerges from a blizzard to burst in to a dive bar called ‘The Oak Room’, just as it is closing for the night. There are stories within stories as we ping back and forth between the two bars, on two nights, and the dark and lonely road between them. A wonderfully enigmatic thriller about who is who, what is real, and the power of narrative. This one kept me guessing to the end – and beyond.

3. The Dark and the Wicked

A great example of A24-style horror. A sister and brother return to the family farmstead, where their father is on his deathbed and their mother is withdrawn and preoccupied. But they are not the only people around – there’s the nurse, the local priest, the neighbour, and… something else. As their mother tells them at the beginning: you shouldn’t have come. Features a cookery scene that goes very wrong – the only scene at Fantasia that made me slap my hands over my eyes and cry ‘noooooo!’ This is a beautifully-shot film about grief, but it’s also the best jump-scare movie I’ve seen in a long time – it combines the aesthetics of a contemporary arthouse horror with the non-nonsense tension and raw scares of a classic Blumhouse movie. The best straight-up horror I saw at the fest.

2. Feels Good Man

A non-horror – or is it, though? The tale of Matt Furie, inventor of slacker amphibian Pepe the Frog, and how he responds when a mob of 4chan deadbeats decide to purloin his creation, initially to give voice to a general existential malaise, and then for use in an Alt-Right pro-Trump ‘meme war’ they clearly see as a punk cry for acknowledgement. Buried under all this, then, is the classic tale of hippies vs punks, except the punks are fascist end of the scale, and it’s the capitalists and mobsters who come out on top. Right up almost until the end, this was the most depressing yet hypnotic film of the festival – but hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to say it ends on a glimmer of hope. More than anything else at Fantasia, this is film for our times.

1. Survival Skills

My best of the fest. Rather than being a straight-up horror, this is more a voyage into the Modern Weird – think internet favourites like Too Many Cooks, or Unedited Footage of a Bear. Survival Skills is presented as a police training video for new recruits, together with a reassuringly paternal introduction and voiceover from Stacey Keach, no less. But as the video’s cheerily fictional ‘Officer Jim’ sets about his first year on the force, he gets drawn into a domestic violence incident, and things start to derail in unsettling, wall-breaking ways. Sorry, Officer Jim. You’ve made some well-meaning choices, but not even Stacey Keach might be able to get you through this one. Based on writer-director Quinn Armstrong’s real-life experiences working with DV cases, I thought this was a stunning film that manages to use its reality-warping ploys to explore real moral issues, and deliver a genuine emotional punch. Funny, psychotic, moving, unsettling… this had me hooked to the end. Favourite character: Jim’s girlfriend, Jenny. She had a funny dream! A ha ha ha ha… ha? Any chance you get to check out Survival Skills – take it.

Officer Jim! And Jenny! They are in love.

And that’s it! A great fest, whose films will surely continue to follow the genre and horror circuits across the rest of the year before getting the releases they deserve. So be sure to keep an eye out!

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