The last days of autumn are leaving Saskatoon and the sharp, cold grip of winter is in the air. It makes for a slightly uncomfortable walk to and from the Broadway Theatre, but perhaps that’s a fitting atmosphere for the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival’s program of highly honoured films. Those looking for name recognition in its stars or those resistant to reading subtitles are missing out on some of the best genre films of the last year or two. Day 1 of SFFF may prove to have been its strongest, with a brilliant collection of award-winning horror films. Domestic spaces loom prominently in this first block of films, suggesting little safe territory moving forward into the Festival.
SFFF opened with Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016), recently announced as the UK’s nominee for the foreign language Oscar. Set in 1988 Iran, Under the Shadow concerns a frustrated mother and her young daughter who struggle with an evil spirit that bedevils their Tehran apartment. Anvari’s frightening ghost story sets itself in the wake of Iran’s cultural revolution and amid the country’s relentless war with Iraq, and it elaborates on the period’s isolation and fear through its supernatural terror. Narges Rashdi is excellent in her role as a progressive woman weighed down by her resentments over the cultural climate of 1980s Iran and with her doctor husband who is drafted to the war front. Under the Shadow is a familiar ghost story that could easily be seen as this year’s redux of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) but its unfamiliar setting provides novelty and depth beyond its plot of “mom protects child from ghost,” portraying a politically aware clash between a rejected rationality and liberalism on the one hand and an ancient, dominating power on the other. With the film picked up by Netflix, it will hopefully find its deserving audience and its place as a modern horror classic.
It’s probably best to say less about Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother (2016), not because it’s undeserving of discussion, but because it’s a film that deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. Set in a secluded farmhouse, the film follows Francisca (Kika Magalães) from a young girl under her parents watchful, if unusual care, and into an emotionally fraught adulthood of loneliness and sociopathy. Pesce takes the familiar horror tropes of the psychotic rural farm family, presses it through a feminine perspective, and then examines it from inside the farmhouse. Magalães plays Francisca with a graceful absence and the film’s crisp, milky monochrome gives it a visual sensuality despite the extravagant gruesomeness and cruelty depicted. The Eyes of My Mother will certainly alienate many potential viewers (I made special note of the gentleman sitting in front of me who was unable to remove his hand from his face for the entirety of the picture), but it remains an unsettling and rewarding achievement for those willing to withstand its brutality.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film Creepy (2016) seems like a less obtuse take on his 1997 crime film Cure. Like Cure, Creepy‘s protagonist is a criminal psychologist, this one (played by Hideyoshi Nishijima) investigating a cold case involving the unexplained disappearance of a random family. His suspicions concerning the case converge upon his new nextdoor neighbour (played by Teruyuki Kagawa at his most creepy) and his daughter who remarks to him privately, “That man in my house is not my father … He’s a total stranger.” Creepy is a typical Kurosawa-esque labyrinth of paranoia and dread that distinguishes itself in its near subliminal flourishes of lighting and sound, descending into near darkness and an oppressively heavy sound design as the investigation approaches insight only to ascend back into a natural context once again. This suburban tale of psychosis proved to be another winner.
Interestingly, those short films supporting this theme of domestic horror proved the most successful. Alexander von Hofmann’s Harvey’s Dream (2016), based on the short story by Stephen King, stood out as the best short from the inaugural day of SFFF. This simple film depicts a retiree’s recounting of a nightmare to his wife with an unusual prescience. The short film is a Rosetta Stone of over-determination, but it remains effectively tense throughout and avoids showing its hand unnecessarily. Justin Harding’s Kookie (2016) offers something uneasily straddling horror and comedy with a young cookie thief faced with a paranormal curse. It’s largely successful, earning some goodwill by the appearance of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), and easily surpasses Lionel Compte’s Bunker Game (2016), a captive-story-with-a-twist that never really gets off the ground, and Izzy Lee’s Innsmouth (2016), which earns a monstrous laugh from a single shot of Cthulhu-like unsexiness but little else.
Bobby Miller’s The Master Cleanse closed day 1 of SFFF and the monster comedy provided a refreshing conclusion to an evening of tense and disturbing features. Johnny Galecki plays (surprise!) another sad sack project, this one nursing the disappointment of a lost job and the rejection of a former fiancée. He joins a retreat under the promise of spiritual rejuvenation and expurgates from himself a slimy, mewling monster born of his own failings. Galecki is expectedly effective in his sad puppy role, but The Master Cleanse also features strong performances by Angelica Huston, Oliver Platt, Kevin J. O’Connor, Kyle Gallner, and Anna Friel, even if their roles, like film, feels underwritten and not entirely explored. At 80 minutes, Miller’s film seems to end before either the monstrous potential of its wonderful creatures is revealed or the emotional clarity of the retreat’s participants are achieved. Still, The Master Cleanse is an enjoyable film with an original concept, and creates some endearing monsters though impressive puppetry and practical effects that more than charms its viewers.
Tomorrow, I’ll review Geoff Redknap’s The Unseen (2016), Marcin Wrona’s Demon (2015), Richard Bates Jr.’s Trash Fire (2016), and SFFF’s block of short films!