SFFF Day 2 Report – Sex and the Unruly Screen

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival’s second day was unusually specific in its program, devoting itself to short films that explored “innocence being encroached upon by outside forces” and a pair of horror-thriller features set around the sex industry. It was an impressive night of screenings, but also one that certainly made demands of its audience.

The “Paradise Lost” block of shorts was long on atmosphere and scares but slim on explication. Most films chose to grab their shocks and get out rather than flesh out their worlds. Faye Jackson’s The Old Woman Who Hid Her Fear Under the Stairs (2018) recalled Bobby Miller’s The Master Cleanse (part of SFFF’s program from 2016 and now titled simply The Cleanse). The short considers the situation of its title character who extracts her sense of anxiety out of herself, hides it in a tin, and faces down some dark, ominous threat that stalks her outside her home. Jackson’s film is wonderfully constructed, full of humour and dreadful tension, and its quality therefore demands more of itself, needing to unpack its conflict and its resolution before letting its credits roll. And the same could be said of other shorts in the block. Milk (Santiago Menghini, 2018) is a chilling tale of a boy trapped between two unsettling maternal figures and choses aesthetics over explanation. Wild (Morgana McKenzie,  2018) is a pastoral fantasy about a girl’s encounter with a magical, deadly, and ultimately unresolved female figure in her uncle’s cornfield. Saturn Through the Telescope (Dídac Gimeno, 2018) follows a boy’s efforts to watch a scary movie at home and is a slickly made and energetic short, while Make a Stand (Camille Aigloz, Lucy Vallin, Michiru Baudet, Simon Anding Malandin, Diane Tran Duc, and Margo Roguelaure, 2017) is a gorgeously animated film set in pre-Columbian Mexico and that seems to tease a supernatural spectacle that never arrives. Uncertainty is a great tool of the macabre, but it’s best used as a lacuna where meaningful questions spring forth. These shorts are uniformly affective and expertly fashioned, sure to be enjoyed by viewers. My only wish is that these films more fully met their narrative challenges as well as the aesthetic ones.

The short film block has two principle outliers. The Irish film Gridlock (Ian Hunt Duffy, 2016) concerns a man searching for his missing daughter at a traffic jam on a country road. Its characters are overly broad, being quick to react and drive conflict in its plot, but Gridlock is also legitimately tense, direct about its intentions, and surprising in its ultimate reveals, nicely encapsulating the short into a satisfying whole. The stop motion Mexican film Cerulia (Sofia Carrilo, 2017) embraces its abstract nature wholeheartedly, exploring a girl’s forgotten memories upon her return to her childhood home. Evoking the work of the Brothers Quay, Fred Stuhr, and Jan Svankmajer, Carrilo’s film is built out of an antique and uncanny childhood and operates by an uneasy dream-logic that is as a dense as it is creepy.

Yann Gonzalez’s Cannes-selected thriller Knife + Heart (2018) proved to be a revelatory pastiche of giallo eccentricity. Set in the gay porn film industry of 1979 Paris and starring Vanessa Paradis as Anne, the boss of a low-budget film studio, the movie has a wonderfully sleazy and worn-in mise-en-scène, full of people and places that look ridden hard and put away wet. Gonzalez’s plot involves the murders of various members of Anne’s team by a leather clad maniac with a killer dildo, but Knife + Heart‘s giallo roots don’t end with its killer. The film nails its Italian slasher hallmarks with stylized flashbacks and memories, bizarre physical deformities, plunging necklines, implausible motivations and plot points, and a decent amount of blood. It seems ironic that Knife + Heart is sometimes criticized rather than celebrated for the same “weaknesses” that defines giallo cinema in the first place. Paradis is marvellous as Anne, boldly swinging from fiery to exhausted, from desperate to resolute. Gonzalez creates with Knife + Heart a film inspired about film, about the potential of film history and genre and about the stories and people waiting to be represented.

Daniel Goldhaber’s online Doppelgänger thriller CAM (2018) draws comparisons to the identity-knots of Hitchcock and the tech-anxiety of Black Mirror, good and deserving company to rub shoulders with. The premise is simple – Alice (Madeline Brewer in a stellar performance) is a cam girl who finds herself locked out of her account and replaced with a digital twin who pushes the boundaries of Alice’s online persona named Lola. CAM‘s digital monster ultimately gets shorter shrift than it deserves, but it matters less than you’d expect as the actual terror is found in the real world problems of Alice’s profession: the lecherously entitled, needy, and obsessive fans, the impassive and unsympathetic view of law enforcement and the justice system, the tenuous grasp on privacy and the imperfect separation of real and virtual life. The film’s on-point sensibility and pro-sex worker attitude is no doubt the result of its screenwriter Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl herself, and her long-time friend, director Daniel Goldhaber. CAM is an intriguing thriller for the Web 2.0 world and is available on Netflix for those who missed it at SFFF.

Also on Thursday’s program was the short film Suck (Anthony Sneed, 2018), an outrageous short about one man’s growing obsession with a real estate agent’s fetishized power play, and Post Mortem Mary (Joshua Long, 2018), about a girl’s efforts in post-mortem photography in 1840s Australia. Suck is a silly and funny short that is unfortunately undone by some clumsy filmmaking, while Post Mortem Mary employs stock scares in an intriguing historical context (and just won Best Short Film at the prestigious 2018 Sitges Film Festival).

With the weekend approaching, the SFFF ramps up. MMC! will have more of our daily wrap-up posts next week. In the meantime, check out my Letterboxd list to find continuing hot-takes on the 2018 SFFF’s films!

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