Quantcast FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL, MONTREAL- July 17th-20th, 2008 by Ted Geoghegan

(by Ted Geoghegan)

It’s far from the largest or the most ornate, but Montreal’s FanTasia is quite possibly the most fun anyone will ever have at a film festival. Sure, if you’re lucky enough to go to Cannes or Sundance, you might catch a few great movies… but you sure as Hell aren’t going to go out for hot wings and beer with the filmmakers afterward. That’s what FanTasia offers – the opportunity to see cutting edge genre cinema, and then meet the men and women behind the magic.

Being my first journey to FanTasia (and the beautiful city of Montreal, with its shockingly high ratio of beggars), I was eager to experience all it had to offer. While unable to spend more than a few days there, I’m happy that I somehow ended up attending the most overwhelming, crazy weekend of the event. After a harrowing journey north, Fangoria editor and all-around amazing guy Michael Gingold and I, found our way to the Hall Theater. We’d just missed a screening of Yam Laranas’ The Echo, but the buzz from the crowd exiting the cinema was extremely positive. A remake of 2004’s Sigaw, Yam is currently shopping the film around for a North American distributor, but if the audience reaction to the feature is any indication, he won’t have a hard time getting it out there.

That evening, Yam joined us for drinks at The Irish Embassy, the official FanTasia bar and general meeting area for filmmakers and fans alike. Also in attendance were Dread Central’s Johnny Butane, his lovely wife Michelle, Rue Morgue’s Jovanka Vucovick, filmmaker Karim Hussein, and a handful of others. Needless to say, much drink was indulged and, fumbling through Montreal’s streets, I found my way back to my hotel, fell into a deep sleep, and dreamt of films to come.

First up was Our Town, a South Korean serial killer film that we agreed to see, based solely on its ultra-cool looking poster. The tale involved a number of women being crucified around Seoul, with a hard-boiled detective and a shadowy stranger both wrapped up in solving it. What the duo fails to realize, however, is that they are far more entangled in the proceedings than they could ever imagine.

It was a bit over-long, like most Korean films, but made up for its over-long running time with some pretty solid performances. The killer, whose identity cannot be revealed, is extremely effective and creepy. One scene, in which a man is brutally stabbed to death with a scalpel in a veterinary clinic, is shockingly vile - but one wishes the minor victim played more of a role before his epic demise.

In the end, the story becomes a bit too convoluted, with far too many plot threads and seemingly unimportant supporting characters popping up just in time to be knocked off or conveniently disappear. The finale elicits far too many questions and, as we exited the theater, a number of audience members were seen scratching their heads and mumbling, "Wait... So what was he supposed to be doing on that one scene?" or "So, who was that one guy?" Quite unfortunate, to say the least.

So, while engrossing, Our Town ends up as no more than a rather mediocre serial killer film with a few extremely good moments. Korean cinema fans will get a kick out of its more exciting moments and over-the-top orchestral score, but casual fans of horror and suspense might find themselves bored by the halfway point.

Following that, we caught The Rebel, a Vietnamese drama marketed as a non-stop action film. It concerned the French occupation of Vietnam in 1922, and a group of rebels that fought to keep it under their own control. When a Vietnamese man, loyal to French occupation, sees that he is making the wrong choice, he rescues the daughter of a rebel leader and goes on the run, becoming a wanted man, himself.

The action sequences were absolutely breathtaking, but only made up about 10% of the entire film. The rest of the time, the plot stumbled through a poorly-paced romance and numerous unintelligible discussions about governmental occupation and political agendas. For those who sought this out as a period drama, there would be little to complain about... but for fans of nonstop action, it sadly leaves something to be desires.

All the more sad, it should be noted, because the paltry ten minutes or so of martial arts action that The Rebel delivers are so fantastic, you're left begging for more.
My most anticipated film of the festival, Repo! The Genetic Opera, was later that night. After seeing the lines for it that stretched around the theater and up the sidewalk, I was beyond primed to eat up Darren Lynn Bousman's post-apocalyptic gory rock opera. I take a lot of flak for it, but I love musicals.

Sadly, the words I used to describe it upon exiting were "stupendously mediocre".
Repo! is neither good nor bad, but exists in a vague, campy area somewhere in-between that will one day be decided by its future kitsch value. The costuming and set design are absolutely stunning from beginning to end, with every shot of the film crammed with more visual treats than should be allowed by law. Unfortunately, massive swaths of the movie simply do not translate well into opera, and one gets the feeling that the movie would have worked far better as a regular musical, where the cast actually quits singing between numbers. Don't follow me? Here's my example - hearing the Three Tenors sing Puccini's Turandot is beautiful, but hearing the same talented men sing the sentence "It’s time for bed!" with identical vigor just doesn't work.
Alex Vega gives a bravura performance as Shilo, a naive, sick young girl caught up in a shadowy web of lies, deceit, and murder. Anthony Stewart Head, as her father Nathan (who moonlights as an organ-extracting "RepoMan"), is absolutely stunning, stealing every scene he's in. The supporting cast, headlined by Paul Sorvino, is unfortunately quite mismanaged. The surprisingly entertaining Paris Hilton is woefully under-used, and winds up with less than five minutes of screen time by the film's end.

The same can be said for Ogre (of the band Skinny Puppy), who gets slightly more time in front of the camera, but is still unable to truly shine, given his limited presence. Even fan fave Bill Moseley, who delivers a passionate performance, is sidelined by his extremely abrasive singing voice - which works fine for his indie thrash albums, but certainly not here.

Also unfortunate were the songs themselves, which never manage to be catchy enough to stick in your head. Not a single song is memorable, or even remotely recollectable, when the film lets out. Many sound promising, but all sadly end before they reach a catchy chorus or enjoyable riff. I could lurch my way through nearly every song in Little Shop of Horrors after I saw it twice, yet can't recall what any song sounded like on any scene in Repo!.

Yet, the film still has a charm that can't be denied. Other critics noted that it exceeded their expectations, but usually followed their praise with "But I hate musicals and just assumed it would be awful." Perhaps for those of us who were actually excited to see a horror/musical, its composition came off as a bit of a letdown.

I cannot think of a film in recent memory that failed to reach its target demographic, yet the overall, breathtaking look of the movie somehow managed to resuscitate, and in many ways, redeem it. While it will sadly never achieve Rocky Horror status, Repo! will certainly never end up in the same loathsome category as Shock Treatment.

Perhaps another viewing is in order... which says something, itself.

After some adult beverages and much talk about Repo!, we called it another night and prepared ourselves for the following day’s line-up.

The first entry was Thailand’s 4BIA (pronounced “Phobia”), an amazingly scary ghost story anthology and easily my favorite film of the festival. Packed with tons of atmosphere and a startlingly high number of cheap scares, 4BIA literally had me squirming in my seat for its entire 120 minute running time. Coming from someone who really enjoy anthology films, I’d go on the record to say that this might be my very favorite one. It’s that effective.

The film’s first tale, Happiness, involves a young woman who addicted to text messaging. When she begins to get messages from a mysterious stranger, she is at first intrigued… but when she gets the feeling that this admirer might not be among the living, this get complicated – and extremely scary. The entire chapter is filmed without dialogue, leaving only the text messages to convey the horror… and man, is there horror.

The second chapter, Tit for Tat, is the weakest entry in the anthology. It involves a group of kids who pick on one of their schoolmates, but when their prank goes horribly wrong, they find themselves at the mercy of their fallen enemy’s black magic curse. While short on scares, it offers up some splendid Final Destination-esque gore and a few cheap shocks, but the tale’s CGI-heavy finale ends on a rather underwhelming note.

4BIA’s best chapter, In the Middle, follows four best friends on a weekend rafting getaway. The night before their big adventure, one of them playfully notes that if anything ever happened to him, he come back to haunt whoever was sleeping in the middle of their tent. Without giving away it’s multiple surprises, all I can say is that things end up nowhere near as straightforward as that simple description. In the Middle is a deft mix of comedy and horror, with the jokes surprisingly effective and the horror even moreso.

The last piece, Last Fright, involves a stewardess who is pidgeonholed into serving a ill-tempered princess on a private flight. In an act of retaliation for the princess’ rudeness, the stewardess (played by the stunning Laila Boonyasak), secretly feeds her shrimp, knowing she is allergic. Imagine her surprise when the princess dies and our little prankster is stuck on the return flight, alone with her corpse. While effective, it pales in comparison to Lonely and In the Middle… but is a fine finale to a truly amazing film.

And with that, I ended up at the meat of the festival, catching the midnight world premiere of Ryuhei Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train. A big fan of Kitamura’s since Versus, I was extremely eager to see what he’d do with Clive Barker’s classic tale. Sadly, not as much as I’d hoped.
MMT is engrossing enough to keep you going, but falters from time to time in its execution. Photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) tries to track down serial subway killer Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), but finds himself pulled deeper and deeper the hulking marauder’s subterranean world. The concept sounds fun, and every time Jones whips out his meat tenderizing hammer, you’re guaranteed a bloodbath… but the characters are so shallow, their fates seem almost meaningless.

At one point, vegetarian Leon trades in his tofu for a steak, seemingly revealing that he is somehow becoming the monster he pursues, yet the thread is dropped within seconds. His girlfriend, played by the beautiful Leslie Bibb, is so uninteresting that when Leon gives her the “If anything were to ever happen to you…” line, there was an audible groan heard throughout the audience.
Still, the film’s subway sequences are a riot, with gallons of gore splashed across the walls in every imaginable direction. A short cameo by Ted Raimi as an unfortunate subway commuter is easily the highlight of the film’s splatter setpieces and will undoubtedly become a much sought-after animated gif in the coming months.

Still, the gore can’t hold the film together and The Midnight Meat Train ends up as an only mediocre entry in Kitamura’s splendid filmography. It’s certainly worth a viewing, but don’t expect the new Hellraiser when you get around to checking it out.

Of course, the film (and my time at FanTasia) ended back at The Irish Embassy with a few more drinks. Everyone said their goodbyes and, by the time the sun crept into the sky the next morning, I was on my way home. I couldn’t catch the premiere of Jim Isaac’s Pig Hunt, but understand that I didn’t miss much.

Next year, there’s no reason that anyone who read this entire report shouldn't be up at FanTasia, the most entertaining, enjoyable film fest in the world. Give yourself a week, kick back, and enjoy some of the genre’s best entries from around the world.

It doesn’t get any better than that. - Ted Geoghegan

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