Beast Mode: Spotlight on Chillers, Thrillers and Horrors at Fantasia 2021

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Aaron Yap wades into a thick gloop of anxiety while surveying the menu of thrillers and horrors at the 25th Fantasia Film Festival

As I sit down to write this diary entry, New Zealand has just been plunged, overnight, into a week-long lockdown at Level 4—the most severe level we have—following the discovery of one community Covid case. And I write with the grimly ironic realization that all the Fantasia films I’ve gravitated to and blindly lapped up this year have generally mirrored the sickly, doom-laden tenor of the current world. 

Spots of levity aside—I was charmed by the goofy, peppy likes of Tiong Bahru Social Club and especially, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes—my selections seemed to have darkened into a thick gloop of anxiety-packed viewing the deeper into the festival I got. 

While Covid movies have been a mainstay at film festivals these past eighteen months or so, watching these horrors and thrillers in quick succession felt like descending into a new kind of special hell: agitated, urgent, and thoroughly conscious of a society viciously kneecapped by a global pandemic.

In endearing Fantasia fashion, they managed to express apocalypse-sized emotions with nifty ideas, low-budget invention and/or singular, offbeat sensibilities.

Both Seth A. Smith’s Tin Can and Robert Jabbaz’s The Sadness are out-and-out, full-blooded outbreak movies. Smith’s film is chilly and droney, imagining a near future where a lethal fungal infection has ripped across the globe. It’s told mostly through the perspective of a parasitologist (Anna Hopkins) who, following an abduction, awakes to find herself entombed in a weird chamber and hooked up to an assortment of tubes (shades of Netflix’s Oxygen). 

Brief flashbacks fill out the story, but the film, rigorously committed to its unsettling sound and production design, is more painstakingly sustained nightmare mood than coherent narrative. If your interests exist on a spectrum that includes Primer, Dark Star, early Cronenberg body-horror and single location thrillers, Tin Can should hit a few spots. It feels like something Pyramid Head would watch on a loop, if that makes any sense.

The Sadness is no less pronounced in its pandemic-mining sadism. This Taiwanese zombie shocker is fictional Covid-era cinema in beast mode. The plot is fairly negligible (young couple’s day ruined by an uprising of rabid, homicidal zombies), and padded out with some blunt critiquing of botched governmental intervention. But at its most ferocious and mean-spirited, the film combusts with politically-driven rage, genuinely pure in its terror, like some long-lost Category III knockout. As Sean writes: “A genuinely scary and viscerally impactful film, the fact that this rings so true right now is absolutely depressing.” 

The funereal, contemplative pall of The Righteous provided a much-needed breather. But this chamber flick—a “chilling micro-budget rumination on the wages of sin,” says Clint—sorts through the cathartic fallout of grief with a deterministic inevitability that ensures solace is all-but-fleeting. It features a deeply felt performance from Henry Czerny, who plays a former priest coming to grips with the sudden death of his adopted daughter when an enigmatic stranger (debuting writer-director, and Czerny’s Ready or Not co-star, Mark O’Brien) arrives at his doorstep, wounded and seeking assistance. Shot in haunting Bergman-esque monochrome, the film is frequently absorbing, tightening its clutch as O’Brien tests Czerny’s guilt-ridden soul and depleting faith with the ambiguous, teasingly sinister motivations of his character. Plenty of ambition here to burn, and O’Brien is certainly someone to watch.

Grief too permeates the analog rabbit holes of Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a  murky tech-noir David describes asHalloween III directed by Brian De Palma”. Not entirely inaccurate, but the film is unfortunately not as incredible as that sounds, and perhaps spiritually nearer in the zone of recent nebulously plotted indies like Censor and Come True. The fuzzy creepiness of the titular intrusion, stumbled upon by Harry Shum Jr.’s surly, slowly unravelling video archivist, goes a long way to imbuing the central investigative mystery with lashings of paranoid conspiratorial dread. But Broadcast Signal Intrusion is definitely “the destination, not pay-off”-type fare, so manage your expectations.

A quick shout-out to a few gems that yanked me out of my lugubrious viewing rut. Though I wouldn’t call these particularly “happy” movies, their journeys into dark coming-of-age fantastique, dripping with loneliness, longing and death, are tempered with a helping of optimism and sad-eyed wonder that make them easier to swallow.

Hellbender is a terrifically fun, crisp blast of homespun horror, blending teenage witchcraft with hellraising rehearsal room jams. The whole thing positively radiates the earthy, idiosyncratic warmth of the filmmaking clan behind its creation. 

Featuring some of the wisest, most unaffected child performances of the year, All the Moons and Martyrs Lane both find poetic ways to invigorate, if not completely reinvent, familiar vampire and ghost lore. The former, a lyrical, sweeping, exquisitely lensed Basque-language fable, follows a blood-craving orphan (Haizea Carneros) through the years as she wrestles with her immortality. 

Playing like a Brit kitchen-sink variation of Robert Mulligan’s The Other with a little The Monkey Paw thrown in, the latter centers around the intriguing bond between a ten-year-old girl named Leah (Kiera Thompson) and her new, night-visiting friend Rachel (Sienna Sayer), who may or may not be of this world. The answer doesn’t exactly surprise, but writer/director Ruth Platt’s fine balance of trad supernatural spookery and grounded, stirring character moments make Martyrs Lane a quietly effective little chiller.

Read more of our Fantasia coverage:

Kambole Campbell on animation
Alicia Haddick on Japanese films and a career achievement celebration of Shunji Iwai
Gemma Gracewood on female-led films at Fantasia
Dominic Corry’s chat with Cinema Lucida section programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer