Leave the Popcorn in the Cupboard: Campy Terror & Exciting Sci-Fi at Fantasia 2021

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Mitchell Beaupre visits haunted houses, meets super-powered clones, and boxers who can glimpse the future at the 25th Fantasia International Film Festival. 

My journey through the program of Canada’s hub for all things genre was an international one indeed, beginning in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the sword fighting styles of Vicente Amorim’s Yakuza Princess, and ending in Hong Kong, courtesy of Kin Long Chan’s moody crime drama-cum-tale of unlikely friendship Hand Rolled Cigarette

The course between the two included stops in South Africa, the United States, Wales, South Korea, Spain, and more. The festival presented an exciting mix of fresh voices and seasoned veterans, including action legend Benny Chan’s final film, Raging Fire, made before the director passed away from nasopharyngeal cancer in August of 2020, almost exactly a year before the film premiered in China on July 28th. Raging Fire is playing in theaters now in many territories, including in the US. 

Alongside Raging Fire in theaters right now, you can find David Bruckner’s The Night House, one of the highlights of my Fantasia experience. Having premiered at Sundance all the way back in the before times (January 2020), the new feature from the director of The Signal and The Ritual was well worth the wait for wider audiences. 

Rebecca Hall stars as school teacher Beth, who, while grappling with the unexpected loss of her husband, starts to experience strange happenings in their isolated lakeside home which he had built for them. Haunted houses as metaphors for mourning is a well that’s been plumbed plenty before in the world of horror, yet Bruckner manages to make this trope come alive again, sinking into the audience’s skin in a way that places you firmly within Beth’s perspective. That’s one hell of a terrifying place to be. 

Bruckner immerses us into this home for every unnerving moment that we share with Beth, as a stereo turning on in the middle of the night, or the ghostly image of her husband in the lake outside, guarantees to send a chill down your spine. The filmmaker has honed his skills through his previous genre efforts, arriving at a point now where he knows precisely which dials to turn and how much to turn them for maximum impact. 

Even more impressive, however, are the ways in which he breaks new ground, largely coming in his utilization of the architecture of the house itself. If you’ve ever walked around your home in the middle of the night and thought you saw someone lurking in a corner, only to find out that it was a coat rack or a bookshelf you’ve had in that spot for years, Bruckner sees you, and he wants to exploit that anxiety to ensure you’ll never trust your home again. 

Using specific lighting and camera angles, the film distorts the home around Beth in a way that forces us to lean in, only to regret it when a structure moves and leaves us sweating. The Night House is sure to be effective in theaters, with the sound design surrounding you in all its brutal glory, but watching it alone at 2:00am ensured that I wasn’t going to sleep right for weeks. 

While The Night House made me never want to be inside my home again, Kwon Oh-seung’s debut feature, Midnight, had me second guessing the prospect of walking out the door into the cruel world. As a calculated serial killer, Do-shik (Wi Ha-jun), lurks the streets at night, several strangers unknowingly enter into his hunting zone, including Kyung-mi (Jin Ki-joo), and her mother (Gil Hae-yeon), both of whom are deaf. Learning of their disability adds a new level to the game that Do-shik likes to play with his intended victims, yet it also results in him underestimating their capacity to stand up for themselves, as he and Kyung-mi begin an all-night battle that only one of them can make it out of.

This South Korean thriller certainly feels of a piece with a run of genre films we’ve seen in recent years that utilize sensory-based disabilities to unique effect (Don’t Breathe, A Quiet Place, See For Me), but Midnight goes a step further by directly confronting the ways in which Kyung-mi and her mother’s disability leaves them vulnerable in a society that will always default to centering the words of a hearing person over a deaf one, even when that hearing person is a serial murderer. 

As the game of cat-and-mouse between these two wages through the night, we are constantly reminded how Kyung-mi’s disability itself doesn’t make her more vulnerable to Do-shik’s attacks, as she proves more than capable of holding her own against the man. However, it’s society’s neglect of the disabled, and the ways in which the disabled are forced to accommodate an abled world, rather than the opposite, that put her in more danger over and over again. 

Utilizing genre trappings to make a statement on something larger is a trick found all over this year’s Fantasia, as can be seen in Lee Haven Jones’s feature debut, The Feast. Set in the Welsh countryside, a wealthy family gets more than they bargained for when they allow a mysterious stranger (Annes Elwy) into their home to be their server for a dinner party. As the night unfolds, Jones and the film’s screenwriter, Roger Williams, navigate a crosspoint between Yorgos Lanthimos and The Wicker Mans Robin Hardy, mining class commentary with an added dose of environmental horror. Proud Welshmen, Jones and Williams present the film entirely in Cymraeg, placing it in a category with very few other films before it, adding another reason to check out this nauseatingly effective terror. This is definitely not a film to have a snack during. 

You might also want to leave the popcorn in the cupboard when you settle in for Tombs of the Blind Dead, one of several exciting restorations that Fantasia has on offer this year. Amando De Ossorio’s Spanish-Portuguese horror from 1972 came in the wake of George A. Romero’s landmark 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, and took a wonderfully campy, wholly unique spin to the zombie genre that was kicking off. 

A trio rife with awkward sexual tension, Virginia (Maria Elena Arpon), Roger (Cesar Burner), and Betty (Lone Fleming), unknowingly stumble upon an eerie, abandoned town that holds a host of unsettling secrets. The locals know to avoid Berzano, as the zombified remains of the Templar Knights emerge at night, and demand human flesh. The restoration print is gorgeous to behold, making the thrills and chills all the more exciting. Other restorations at the festival include Mill of the Stone Women and April Story

Fantasia is home to a wide array of low-budget indie genre films, but the festival isn’t afraid to step up for some bigger special effects extravaganzas as well. A $14 million budget might be short change for the latest Marvel blockbuster, but Lee Yong-ju put every one of those dollars on the screen in Seobok, a science-fiction action thriller starring Train to Busan’s Gong Yoo. 

A mixture of Minority Report and Firestarter, Gong plays former secret service agent Min Ki-hun, who is tasked with protecting Seobok (Park Bo-gum), the world’s first ever human clone. Suffice to say, the detail isn’t as easy as he would like it to be, as a conspiracy complicates the mission, and forces Seobok to unleash his very special set of skills to keep the two of them safe. Seabok dives into age-old sci-fi questions regarding the ethics of cloning, and what it means to be human. Most of all, though, it’s just a damn good time at the movies. 

This is something that can be said for so many films throughout Fantasia, well beyond the ones I’ve singled out here. Sin Hang Chiu’s One Second Champion is a delightful father-son dark comedy about a boxer who can see into the future… but only one second ahead. Renata Pinheiro’s King Car combines the oddball sensibilities of Rubber director Quentin Dupieux with a plot described as being influenced by J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg’s Crash. The Bourne Identity gets an adrenaline-pumping South African riff from Travis Taute courtesy of Indemnity

Whether you’re looking for visceral, nightmare-inducing scares, pure escapist fun, or something in between, Fantasia’s 25th has had more than enough on offer for every fan of genre cinema. 

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
Aaron Yap on chillers, thrillers and horrors
Dominic Corry’s chat with Cinema Lucida section programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer