The Threat of Visual Menace: Stomach-Churning Dangers at Fantasia 2021

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Letterboxd editor-at-large Dominic Corry finds his stomach for gruesome movies does almost have a limit, thanks to stop motion legend Phil Tippett, plus more gory, saucy and tense delights from the 25th Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia can be relied upon to keep you on your toes. The festival’s defining proclivity for genre films that push the boundaries means anything they play comes with an element of danger. You never know what kind of imagery these movies are going to throw at you. It’s a good thing. 

That threat of potential visual menace definitely informed my viewing of Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse, a film aesthetically and structurally indebted to Sofia Coppolla’s The Beguiled, but with enough of its own thing happening to warrant attention.

In a future ravaged by a memory-erasing plague, a woman and her three daughters lead a relatively tranquil existence inside a sprawling, isolated conservatory. The adults take turns shooting dazed plague carriers who wander into their enclave, and when an apparently immune man shows up, there is debate over whether or not he is their long-lost brother. His presence inevitably stirs things up as the women realize they may not be able to trust their own recollections.

The judiciously-applied flashes of gore prevent this South African film from feeling too derivative, even if the hazy white light and pastoral splendor repeatedly evoke Coppola’s work. There’s great work all around from the emerging cast, especially Anja Taljard as the put-upon middle sister, a dystopian Jan Brady if ever there was one. 

“Feels awfully familiar at first, but gets more compelling as it goes on,” writes Daniel. Brittni responded to the film’s woozy, apocalyptic, YA-romance vibes: “This movie was somehow so horny all the time? And there wasn't even much sexy content.”

A more overt sense of danger casts an ever-present shadow over What Josiah Saw, a grimy, underlit descent into Southern Gothic driven by distressing familial intimacies. Nick Stahl (so authentically troubled on screen it makes you worried for the actor), Kelli Garner and Scott Haze are extremely well cast as estranged siblings forced to reunite with their titular Pa (Robert Patrick, who can do this sort of thing is his sleep, but still manages to add layers to his abusive patriarch) to address selling the family farm to a fracking concern. 

There are secrets upon secrets here, and not just involving the dead mother. The episodic narrative initially explores each sibling’s circumstances in markedly separate diversions that bring in a surprising variety of genre elements, some of the supernatural kind, and some representing a more bland kind of evil. 

So dark it makes the likes of Frailty seem positively cheery in comparison, What Josiah Saw features a strong, unexpected dramatic supporting turn from Veep’s Tony Hale and an all-too-brief appearance by the ever-awesome Jake Weber. 

The extreme violence arrives early and rarely abates in the brutal revenge thriller Bull, one of several films of its kind to take tonal cues from Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, with which it shares a leading man, Neil Maskell, making the comparisons harder to avoid. 

Wheatley’s seminal 2011 work provides British underworld films with easy access to a kind of working class mysticism, and Bull taps into that better than most, even if it can never quite escape from its predecessor’s shadow. Maskell’s in great form, however, doing arguably his best work since Kill List as the title character, a stabby embodiment of (very) bloody vengeance. Malcolm is on to something when he writes that the film “stretches the anti-hero elastic beyond anything I’ve even seen before… I’m gonna need a really long walk after this.”

Mikhael Bassilli and Luc Walpoth’s Baby Money is a taut, character-centric take on the oft-accessed Desperate Hours paradigm, tracking what happens when a home invasion goes nastily awry and the survivors (one more ready to murder than the other) hole up with a nurse (Taja V. Simpson) and her teenage son (Vernon Taylor III), who has cerebral palsy. The tension escalates as they attempt to reunite with their getaway driver (Danay Garcia), who is eight months pregnant to one of the home invaders. 

Baby Money treads in familiar territory but gains power from its sharp turns, economical direction and the focus on two female characters (the nurse and the driver) and their attempts to not rely upon the useless men in their lives.

My hands were constantly hovering just below my face, ever-ready to cover my eyes while I watched Phil Tippett’s Mad God, unquestionably my most anticipated film of Fantasia, and one that made me legitimately afraid of what I might behold. An anxiety-inducing wonder, the eye-popping (mostly) stop motion animated odyssey presents a wide variety of startling imagery, some of it simply too grisly and surgical in nature for me. Although I absolutely loved it overall, and was tickled by the sheer invention on display, there were small sections I definitely couldn’t stomach. 

The visual-effects legend and stop-motion-animation enthusiast’s 33-years-in-the-making passion project is a dialogue-free, almost plotless affair that follows a masked figure who descends into a bizarre wasteland, industrial and organic in equal measure, populated by all sorts of ornate, grotesque and ornately grotesque organisms and environments, all of it beautifully informed by the rare, intoxicating tangibility of stop motion animation.

A lot of fun is had with scale, and there are cameos from creations Tippett animated in Robocop and Starship Troopers. He also chucks Robby the Robot in there and I think I even spotted Alfred E. Neuman at one point. But the majority of the hairy, maggoty, skin-bag monstrosities that populate the film are creatures for which the word “bulbous” was seemingly invented. It’s gleefully gruesome stuff. 

Like many contemporary genre filmmakers, Tippett was inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s iconic stop-motion creature work, but he’s arguably the only Harryhausen disciple to follow through on the playful cruelty that peppers the stop-motion master’s most memorable sequences, taking it here to an unnatural extreme. Indeed, Mad God sometimes feels like a freewheeling exploration of the pitch black comedic/sadistic sensibility Tippett displayed in his memorable “failed prototypes” sequence in Robocop 2. Or to go back even further, a feature-length adaptation of his iconic holographic-chess sequence from Star Wars.
 
It’s an uncompromising, disturbing vision that will delight some and repel others. In other words, prime Fantasia.

Read more of our Fantasia coverage:

Kambole Campbell on Fantasia 2021 animation
Alicia Haddick on Japanese films and a career achievement celebration of Shunji Iwai
Gemma Gracewood on female-led films at Fantasia 2021
Aaron Yap on chillers, thrillers and horrors
Dominic Corry’s chat with Cinema Lucida section programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer
Mitchell Beaupre on campy terror and exciting sci-fi at the 25th Fantasia