Montreal’s Fantasia Festival has become one of the most essential festivals in the world for genre fans. Typically unfolding over weeks, this year’s event went hybrid, presenting films virtually to fans of the festival while also hosting limited-capacity events in person in the wonderful Canadian city. What didn’t change this year was the quality of the line-up. While a lot of festivals in 2020 have had to shutter almost entirely, the team behind Fantasia presented a fascinating array of genre offerings, including world premieres from major directors and virtual appearances from cast and crew. Somehow, Fantasia still produced buzz in 2020, emblematic of a festival that always fought against the norm and refused to allow genre voices to be silenced. With dozens of films premiering over roughly two weeks, there was a little bit of something for everyone. Here are 12 to pay attention to when they find their way to your neck of the woods, physically or digitally.
12 Hour Shift (2020)
Brea Grant wrote and directed this pitch-black comedy with a gruesome sense of humor that will appeal to gorehounds. The wonderful Angela Bettis (May) plays Mandy, a night nurse at an Arkansas hospital who has a few demons of her own, including a minor drug addiction and her participation in a black market organ-trafficking racket. She takes the profitable organs from the recently deceased and passes them along to her cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth) to move up the criminal food chain, but a shipment goes missing one night, leading to utter chaos. As Regina comes to the hospital in search of a replacement kidney, tension rises, thanks in part to the arrival of a criminal (David Arquette) and someone from Mandy’s past. It’s really a comedy of errors that just happens to include murder and organ theft. Alternately grisly and humorous, Grant’s film works because of how much Bettis grounds it in world-weary exhaustion as mistakes pile up. It feels oddly relatable in 2020.
12 Hour Shift will open on October 2, 2020.
Bleed with Me (2020)
A tense chamber piece, writer/director Amelia Moses’s latest film slowly works its way under your skin, allowing you to question what exactly is happening as much as its paranoid protagonist. Rowan (Lee Marshall) is awkward and shy as she joins her more outgoing friend Emily (Lauren Beatty) and Emily’s boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros) on a retreat to a remote cabin — yes, you’d think cabin in the woods movies had gone out of style by 2020, but this one works. Before long, Rowan starts to wonder if she’s way more than just a third wheel. She wakes up with slash marks on her arm and legitimately questions if Emily might be behind the bloodletting. Marshall is excellent at conveying the blend of fear and confusion rising within Rowan and making that feel palpable to the audience.
Chasing Dream (2019)
Beloved director Johnnie To is more well-known for his highly acclaimed crime epics like Triad Election (Certified Fresh at 96%) and Vengeance (Fresh at 91%), but his latest blends styles that his fans may not be accustomed to seeing. It’s such a daring piece of moviemaking that tells a story that feels like a hybrid of Rocky and A Star is Born, embedded with a love for movie musicals at the same time. Yes, it’s another one of those. Jacky Heung plays an MMA fighter who makes ends meet by working as an enforcer for a crime syndicate. One night, he encounters a homeless singer named Cuckoo (the wonderful Keru Wang), and he helps her rise in the ranks of a national singing competition called “Perfect Diva.” Filled with striking imagery and perfect pacing, Chasing Dream is just a fun, old-fashioned movie made by one of the world’s most perfectionist craftsmen. And, to top it off, it has a ridiculously fun musical number right when one least expects it. More movies should have random musical numbers.
The Columnist (De Kuthoer) (2020)
Dutch director Ivo van Aart’s latest pitch-black comedy struggles to find its tone and kind of writes itself into a corner, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for simply because of the central performance by the great Katja Herbers. The star of CBS’s excellent Evil plays a columnist named Femke who is routinely assaulted online by trolls and detractors, who call her horrible names and even issue threats on her safety. One day, when Femke discovers that one of her trolls is her neighbor, she decides she’s had enough, and takes violent action. The problem with killing one troll is that another just takes its place. Blending satire and horror, The Columnist reaches for timeliness with our current online nightmare, but it’s Herbers who holds it all together as best she can. She’s able to convincingly portray a woman pushed so far that she turns into a serial killer without resorting to histrionics or melodrama.
The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
Bryan Bertino, the writer and director of The Strangers and The Monster, has returned to destroy domesticity yet again with one of the darkest, most brutal films in years. Some horror movies promise to offer a glimpse at true malevolence but resort to cheap tricks or jump scares. Not Bertino. He has made a film that’s incredibly hard to shake once it’s over, a movie that gets under your skin and makes you sleep with the lights on. It’s the simple story of a man who is slowly dying on a secluded farm. His children (Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr.) come to say goodbye and care for him in his final days, only to discover that there is something sinister in the house around their parents. A story of pure, unleashed evil with fascinating subtext about religion and grief buried in it, The Dark and the Wicked will be one of the most discussed horror films of 2020.
RLJE Films will release The Dark and the Wicked on November 6, 2020, and it will land on Shudder in 2021.
Not everything at Fantasia could be called horror, as they often premiere fantasy, animated, and sci-fi films as well. This falls into the final category, a lo-fi vision of the future that comments on the gig economy and income inequality of today. Noah Hutton’s film was scheduled to premiere at SXSW before the end of festivals in 2020 and has been making the virtual rounds since then. It is the kind of low-budget, high-intelligence science fiction that is certain to find an audience when it’s more widely available. Dean Imperial gives a fantastic performance as an ordinary Joe who has to get an extraordinary job when he needs money to pay for his brother’s treatments for a mysterious disease called Omnia. The job entails pulling cable through the wilderness, connecting devices meant to change the technological future of man. Of course, there are a few surprises along the journey, including rules to his job that seem designed to make him fail. Who can’t relate to feeling like the system is rigged against the people forced to work it?
One of the most enjoyable features at a festival not exactly known for whimsy was this French fantasy film from Mathias Malzieu that could accurately be summed up as “What if Jean-Pierre Jeunet remade Splash?” Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a musician who seems to be living in the past, trying to save his family’s cabaret called the Flowerburger. He leads a relatively lonely life until he literally stumbles upon the injured Lula (Marilyn Lima), who is actually more of a siren than a traditional mermaid. She has been singing men to their watery graves in the Seine, but something is different with Gaspard. He takes Lula home and tends to her wounds, but the danger in Lula’s ability to make men’s hearts explode with her song remains. A whimsical romantic fantasy that still finds a way to say something about loneliness and connection, A Mermaid in Paris is sweet and fun.
The Mortuary Collection (2019)
Anthology horror films are inherently hit-and-miss affairs, but the latest from Ryan Spindell is nearly all hits, even if they are to varying degrees. The main reason for that is Spindell’s clear affinity for old-fashioned filmmaking, crafting his stories of gruesome horror with simply fantastic practical effects that pop off the screen in ways that CGI never could. Clearly inspired by Tales from the Crypt, the stories are told by a mortician named Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown), and they all feature a cautionary angle, typically driven by gender roles. For example, a frat boy learns the very hard way that he should have kept the condom on last night instead of lying about doing so, and a husband discovers the true meaning of “’til death do us part.” Anchored by powerful, bloody visuals that elevate the clever storytelling in a way that recalls practical effects masters like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, this is one of the best horror anthologies in years.
The Oak Room (2020)
Rarely has a film that’s essentially about storytelling felt so ominous. Director Cody Calahan and writer Peter Genoway understand the power of a good story, and they build their film around the idea that a haunting tale can find its way under your skin in a way that gives words physical power. RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) plays a man who has returned home after a long absence and estrangement from his father. As dad’s former watering hole is closing for the night, the young man argues with the owner, perfectly played by Peter Outerbridge. The two clearly have a past that’s not completely defined at first, and they start to aggressively share stories of other bar encounters between two men on snowy nights. The film works its way back in on itself, leading one to question motives and exactly where it’s going. Imagine the best story you heard in a bar as closing time approached, and then twist that into a horror movie aesthetic. That’s what Calahan and Genoway offer here, and it’s very good.
PVT CHAT (2021)
Every relationship is transactional in Ben Hozie’s daring drama about two people who connect over the inherently disconnected world of webcam chats. Jack (Peter Vack) is an urban wanderer, someone who talks about tech projects he’s working on but doesn’t seem to have much drive beyond playing blackjack online and talking to cam girls. When Scarlet (instant star Julia Fox of Uncut Gems) expresses interest in his tech dreams, Jack begins an obsession with the woman on the other end of the webcam, which is amplified into physical form when he spots her on the street in Chinatown one night. Deftly walking an uncomfortable line in which it’s not too clear if we’re supposed to sympathize with a stalker, Hozie’s film is really a platform for the two performers, both of whom are vulnerable and daring on-screen in ways that make this film very much for adults only. In the end, it’s a smart movie about a world that feels increasingly disconnected even as it presents more technological ways to connect.
Special Actors (2019)
Writer/director Shin’ichirô Ueda made a huge splash in genre circles with One Cut of the Dead, which worked its way through film festivals to honest cult hit status. That film subverted expectations of the zombie genre to become a commentary on filmmaking as well as a story of the undead. His latest plays similar games with perception to comment on the form of acting through the story of Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), a young man who wants to be a performer but passes out at any sign of conflict, even if it’s fictional. Through his brother, Kazuto ends up getting work with a troupe of what could be called “social actors,” people who are hired to “act” in real life. It could be as simple as being hired by a studio to laugh at opening night of a new comedy, or a heavily scripted encounter on the street to give a man a chance to prove his courage to his new girlfriend. Kazuto’s biggest assignment involves infiltrating a cult, another group that is playing with perception and belief. And all of this meta commentary is embedded in a film that could be called a screwball comedy. This could be as big as One Cut of the Dead if there’s a way to get it to the audiences that will appreciate it.
Tiny Tim: King for a Day (2021)
Documentaries also find a home at Fantasia Fest, and the best this year was about one of the most unique personalities in the history of pop culture, the man with the unforgettable falsetto. A staple on late night talk shows, Tiny Tim was a most unexpected celebrity, but this excellent documentary conveys why people were drawn to the performer, and includes narration by someone who feels cut from a similar cloth, “Weird” Al Yankovic, who reads Tiny Tim’s letters and diary entries. Tiny Tim fell from superstardom as quickly as he rose, one of the first sudden celebrities whose fifteen minutes of fame seemed even tragically shorter, but this documentary expertly humanizes the man behind the goofy image on talk shows. It has a wonderful tonal balance, never taking itself too seriously — Tiny Tim wouldn’t have liked that — but also not shying away from the dark side of a bright personality.