SFFF Day 1 Report – Four Killers and a Dog

Even before I arrived in Saskatoon, I felt like Fantastic Film Festival-action was meeting me like a herald of things to come. It had something to do with the man waiting at my flight’s gate conspicuously wearing a black eyepatch that threatened spy movie villainy. It also had something to do with the man behind me in security and his laptop that tested positive for “explosive residue.” Fortunately for me, action-thrillers weren’t slated until Day 2 of the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival and my flight proceeded without complication, bringing me to Day 1 of SFFF and a block of films featuring some disturbed title characters.

The Festival opened with Girl #2 (David Jeffery, 2016), an ironic short film that pits two college women in an unusual rivalry while trapped in a sorority house with an archetypical horror movie killer. The short’s self-conscious humour and gore was a perfectly selected amuse-bouche for the SFFF and its opening feature, Tragedy Girls (Tyler MacIntyre, 2017). MacIntyre’s blackly comic slasher film finds sociopath blogger-BFFs Sadie and McKayla (Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp) capitalizing on the presence of a psychotic killer in their sleepy town, letting them indulge in their own murderous desires while also achieving social media stardom. Slickly full of teenage jargon, hallway politics, and brazen ruthlessness, Tragedy Girls naturally draws comparisons to Heathers in spirit and Detention in look – kudos to Letterboxd reviewer “Harrison” for labelling the film “The Edge of Se7enteen.” MacIntyre’s film, a winner of top prizes at FrightFest, Macabro, and the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, sticks to the amoral rules of its constructed world and never softens in its gore, laughs, or inhumanity. What’s not so “fetch” about Tragedy Girls is its inability to make more of itself. The film satirizes fame-seeking, social media obsessives, faux-140 character profundity, and masculine definitions of identity and value, but Tragedy Girls struggles to do more than revel in its bratty transgressions, leaving it a potentially entertaining watch but much less of the cultural touchstone it ought to have been.

A more fascinating representation of the female sociopath was found in Poor Agnes (Navin Ramaswaran, 2017), a film that asks if it’s still “Stockholm Syndrome” when it happens in Northern Ontario. Lora Burke is captivating as the monstrous Agnes, a psychotic woman who sees herself as a God-like arbiter of life and death. Agnes captures Mike (Robert Notman), an investigator looking into one of her past victims, and she proceeds to torture and manipulate him into being an obedient participant in her terrible pastimes. Filmed and told in a restrained style, Poor Agnes rests on the able shoulders of Burke. Small in stature but powerful in frame, Agnes radiates an intensity that transforms those around her into lesser beings existing only by her non-intervention. She converts male arrogance and sexual desperation into weakness, using her quirky demeanour and sexual aggressiveness as a dog-whistle for the victimization of her chosen suitors. Poor Agnes is the monstrous revenge of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and it’s rather stunning. It’s easy to see why it won Best Canadian Feature at Fantasia.

The most successful of Day 1’s psycho killer films was My Friend Dahmer (Marc Myers, 2017), a portrait of the serial killer as a young man adapted from John Backderf’s graphic novel. The film portrays the senior year of high school student and future sex offender/murderer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. Ross Lynch is impressive as the alienated Dahmer, playing him with an almost caricatured slouch and a confused, ill-at-ease absence. The character arrives to the film already troubled – liquefying the flesh from roadkill, struggling with a prurient fascination over a jogging doctor, and beset with bickering and unbalanced parents (Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts). He finds some measure of solace in becoming the friend/mascot to a trio of overachieving class clowns but the relationship succumbs to Dahmer’s crumbling homelife and his compulsions toward antisocial, sometimes murderous behaviour. What is remarkable about My Friend Dahmer is Myers and Lynch’s ability to position Dahmer as tragic figure without compromising his monstrousness. We feel with Dahmer his moments of joy, humiliation, and frustration and we recognize in him the absence that confounded him then and would later label him the “Milwaukee Cannibal.” We also observe the cruelty hidden in plain view throughout Dahmer’s suburban Ohio high school – the casual bullying, the rigid social stratification, the homophobia launched at a peculiar freshman, the misery of the school yard drug-dealer abandoned at home and left playing Russian Roulette. The films lags a bit in its latter portions, reflecting Dahmer’s own friendless, alchohol-fueled drifting but also deflating some of the movie’s well-earned energy. Nevertheless, My Friend Dahmer was still able to have its audience collectively gasp in its final scenes, fearing not merely for Dahmer’s victims, but for Dahmer himself.

Marianna Palka’s Bitch (2017) maintained Day 1’s theme of madness but strayed from the serial killer subject. Its concept was intriguing – Jill Hart (played by writer-director Palka) cannot bear the constant demands of her four school-age children and the complete lack of support by her work-obsessed husband Bill (Jason Ritter), and so a failed suicide attempt and a psychotic break causes her to revert mentally into a snarling dog. Bill (who is less work-obsessed than simply obsessed with the status and lifestyle of being an executive) keeps Jill locked in the basement, considering her breakdown to be untimely and selfish. From there, Bitch becomes Bill’s story, canvassing his transformation from absent shitbag crying over his large penis size to considerate father and husband. Bitch has it bad both ways with Bill being utterly repugnant in the first half and sappily compassionate in the second half. What’s worse is that Bitch‘s most interesting aspect, Jill being reduced to an angry dog, is unfortunately sidelined. Relatively little is seen of Jill the madwoman imprisoned in the basement barking and covered in feces, and so she becomes like Chekhov’s gun. We never see her eat dog food, gnaw on a bone, properly attack someone, or even bite anyone (particularly Bill). Bitch offers a horror movie premise and carries though with none of it, preferring instead the tale of Bill becoming woke and reducing Jill to the meagre punchline of having her visitors emerge with excrement staining them. Ultimately, Bitch needs more of the snarling feminism of Lady Cujo and less of the Lifetime Channel pornography of a post-millennial Mr. Mom.

Good on the SFFF for programming Chris Jopp’s Meow (2016) with Bitch for a cats and dogs pairing. Meow is an easy to enjoy short promoting cat ownership as an answer to slasher film risks. Ilya Polyakov’s Worm (2017) was another inspired act of programming. This story of romance and necrophilia naturally fit with the themes of enabling and co-dependency at work in Poor Agnes.  Check back tomorrow for Day 2’s block of animated shorts and a trio of action-thrillers – The VillainessEuthanizer, and Bad Black.

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