SFFF Day 1 Report – An Apocalypse, a Dystopia, and a Hyperreality Walk Into a Film Festival …

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival has upgraded the apparatus with its 2018 edition. That means fewer midnight screenings in favour of an extra day of programming, a 3-hour cartoon and cereal party, a snazzy new booklet, new voting ballots, some clever bumpers running before the screenings, sponsorships and promotions from Vinegar Syndrome and Shudder, and even an after party with cast and crew of Supergrid. And with turnout for Day 1 looking robust, Festival Director John Allison and his team must be feeling positive about the prospects for this year. There’s always a desire to find a theme to a given day’s program but finding a common thread between Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2018), Rock Steady Row (Trevor Stevens, 2018), Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), and their supporting short films is something of a challenge. At best, it might be said that most of these films attend to breakdowns in community and some very unlikely ways to reassemble them.

SFFF kicked off with an ending – the final film of Astron-6. Assuming that is actually true, the deliriously entertaining Chowboys (2018) is both a tragic statement of what is being lost and a glorious high by which to drop the mic. Essentially a tale about frontier cannibalism, three cowboys share stories while trying to stave off the cold around a campfire. The film is structured like some elaborate puzzle box with stories in imagined stories, full of blind turns and false actions, except Chowboys‘ content is flat-out nuts, full of hallucinations, hand-admiration, and yuletide gore. It might be like a psychotic Christopher Nolan decided to combine 3 Godfathers and Ravenous and turn it into a Kids in the Hall sketch. It’s hilarious, amazing, and disgusting – everything we expect from an Astron-6 film – and we hope there is still more to come from Canada’s bizarro filmmaking collective.

My genetic pre-disposition to hating singing and dancing teenagers had me gravely concerned about seeing John McPhail’s Anna and the Apocalypse and that trailer did me no favours. Thankfully, the film and the music are much better than the trailer suggests. (In fact, I can’t recall the trailer’s song ever actually appearing in the film!) All of the stock teen-movie characters are present – the disconnected lead who can’t wait to graduate and leave; the pining, nice guy waiting in the wings; the over-achieving social crusader; the love bird duo, the array of jock-bros, and the Grinch-like headmaster – however the film succeeds by refusing to water down the zombie onslaught and keeping the gore and mortal danger at the fore. No one is safe from being killed by a zombie’s bite in Anna and the Apocalypse and the film is not shy about its rent flesh and gushing blood. Anna‘s tone is most comparable to Shaun of the Dead but with singing and dancing occurring fairly regularly throughout, and the film’s musical sequences are almost uniformly great, enough so that a soundtrack purchase periodically comes to mind while watching the movie. If the kids had taste, Anna and the Apocalypse could be a cult favourite for a generation of high schoolers.

Rock Steady Row made my top twelve picks from the 2018 Chattanooga Film Festival for having carved an unexpected niche in my movie-going brain and I wondered if the misgivings I had with the film initially would be resolved with a second viewing. I’m happy to say that I liked Rock Steady Row even more on a second viewing, being prepared for its preposterous plot and ridiculous sensibility. About an unnamed freshman at a dystopic university who finds himself at odds with two rival fraternities vying over the campus’ bicycle market, the movie is an absurdly strange take on the Red Harvest/Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars story and on reappraisal, it’s still a film that needs time to shake off its initial wobbliness. That happens more quickly on repeat viewing and once the training wheels are off and it’s gliding along (pushed forward by Logan Huffman’s go-for-broke performance in particular), Rock Steady Row is fun on two wheels. It also compliments nicely with Anna and the Apocalypse for dance-inspired fighting and with men reassessing their priorities when confronted with the real hardships faced by their female counterparts.

The SFFF’s body horror retrospective kicked off with David Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome (1983). (Holy moly, check out that trailer!) I’d long admired Videodrome but it had never fully clicked for me until last night’s screening. Maybe it was just that I had never seen it on the big screen. Maybe I just needed to get older and less judgmental about Max Renn and Nicki Brand’s skeeviness. Or maybe I needed a world filled with Twitter handles, ISIS beheading videos, and mainstreamed Kardashian sex-tape celebrity to bring Videodrome into slightly better focus and reveal its brilliant synthesis of body horror, Taxi Driver, and Marshall McLuhan. Thank you, SFFF! I’ll never be the same.

Two other wonderful shorts screened last night. Kevin T. Landry’s Night Crosser (2018) concerned feeble Romanian vampire trying clear Canadian customs. Featuring great performances, plenty of laughs, an inspired set-up, and a delightful opening gag featuring the vampire’s shadow, Night Crosser was a mini-horror-comedy success. Not to be outdone was Jerome Sable Monstagram (2018) about a mom who seeks social media approval and fails to heed her son’s warning about an angry internet monster. Monstagram is simple, silly, and surprisingly gory and that makes it terrific.

Come back tomorrow for thoughts on the Cannes killer Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzalez, 2018) and the live-streaming thriller Cam (Daniel Goldhaber, 2018), plus nine short films, or check out my Letterboxd list covering the 2018 Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival!

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