SFFF Day 1 Report – Ghosts of SFFFs Past

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival has reached its landmark tenth iteration this year and Festival Director John Allison and his team have ensured that this is the Fest’s biggest and brightest year yet by expanding it to six days, hosting a Drunken Cinema screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street, hosting another Saturday Morning All You Can Eat Cereal Cartoon Party, and bringing in as special guests director Joe Dante and actress Belinda Balaski for a three film retrospective. The SFFF kicked off with something of a soft-open with another new addition – a five film virtual reality experience held preceding the theatrical film program each weekday. Attendance was sparse on Day 1 so let this be a warning to those content to let the VR program pass them by – miss the SFFF’s Virtual Reality Experience section and you will certainly be missing out on some of the Fest’s most intriguing aspects.

The SFFF’s VR titles lean heavily into conventional horror tropes. Benjamin Nuel’s Isle of the Dead (2018) is the program’s outlier, offering instead a contemplative 360° journey into Arnold Böcklin’s 1909 painting of the same name and into the afterlife itself. Nuel’s film is literally immersive, as an urban space sinks into the ocean and the viewer experiences the world around them falling away, leaving only Böcklin’s forested island as a dark, foreboding refuge. Isle of the Dead is full of impressive content but is easily paced, almost eerily serene, and so it makes for a fine introduction to the medium. The balance of the program lands squarely in horror conventions. Daniel Contaldo and Hannah Swayze’s Lucidità (2019) portrays a young woman’s assistance of a stranded man and morphs into drug induced psychedelia and darker elements. Souichi Umezawa’s The Realm Below (2019) is a cheap and gory, but nevertheless effective descent into a strange pit where a collection of Japanese C.H.U.D.s await. Pu-Yuan Cheng’s Tag Along (2018) is a Taiwanese haunted house story that impresses with its bloody set designs and shock cuts. Keeping subtitles in view for these titles does detract somewhat from their experiences, however horror fans should find them all solid and will likely appreciate finding a new view on old content. Probably the best example of this is The Caretaker (Jacob Wasserman, Nicolas Pesce, and Adam Donald, 2018), featuring a young couple who checks into a mysterious hotel and find themselves exposed to panicked women, creepy maids, black-outs, masked guests, and occult ceremonies. The Caretaker is Nicolas Pesce’s second film at SFFF, following the 2016’s screening of the very unsettling The Eyes of My Mother (2016), and the VR short compares visually to his 2018 film Piercing, offering unnerving close-ups and, most importantly, unusual camera perspectives that encourage exploration of the space presented. We can only hope that the VR program will become a regular feature of the SFFF going forward.

The main theatrical film program for the SFFF kicked off with Cody Kennedy and Timothy Rutherford’s short The Video Store Commercial (2019) and Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman’s horror comedy Extra Ordinary (2019). The Video Store Commercial is Kennedy and Rutherford’s latest collaboration with Kevin Martin and his video store, The Lobby (based in Edmonton, Alberta). The hilarious short finds Martin shooting a commercial in the store with a small crew, only to find themselves imperilled by the spirit of a cursed cassette. Full of energy and making the most of its cassette tape monster, TVSC nicely set the table for the sweetly funny Extra Ordinary and its own misadventures in the dark arts. Ahern and Loughman’s film sets psychic driving instructor Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) against the plot of ex-rockstar Christian Winter (Will Forte). Winter plans to sacrifice a virgin in a satanic deal to revive his musical career and he sets his sights on the daughter of Martin Martin (Barry Ward), an amiable man and eligible bachelor who is haunted by his controlling and irascible dead wife. The film is endearing and charming throughout and it’s wonderful to see the overweight but kind-hearted schlub/attractive romantic interest dynamic get flipped with Rose taking the role of dowdy protagonist and Martin playing the silver(ing) fox. And for those who find Forte’s over-the-top weaseliness side-splitting (as I do), Extra Ordinary offer the ex-SNL alum plenty of opportunities to ham it up with florid celebrity pretense and face-twisting incantations. With Winter in his castle, full of dark tomes, candles, and sigils carved into the hardwood floors, it’s easy to see Extra Ordinary as the loving parody of the 2016 SFFF favourite A Dark Song (Liam Gavin, 2016)

I went into Paradise Hills (Alice Waddington, 2019) with much the same caution I had for last year’s Braid (Mitzi Peirone, 2018). I’d been doubtful of Braid but ended up utterly entranced by its hallucinatory style, its dense symbolism, and its extremely slippery narrative, yet I felt no such revelation for Paradise Hills. Waddington’s film is about a finishing school on an Edenic island with a dark, mind-bending secret and it is full of spectacle, offering a Wonderland-inspired dystopia loaded with couture refinement. Unfortunately, its clunking script routinely tells rather than shows and never puts it central character Uma (Emma Roberts) in any position of meaningful self-doubt. Paradise Hills likely has an audience who will fully embrace its unusual approach, probably those looking for some combination of a live-action Disney princess adaptation and the ostentatious costumes and unequivocal feminism of The Hunger Games, but that’s not my kind of garden party. The SFFF cleverly offered a double-shot of Milla Jovovich with Benjamin Howdeshell’s Withorwithout (2018), a tense and violent home invasion short set against a pop tune track. The contrast is enervating, even if the resolution is somewhat rote.

Day 1 wrapped up with Victor Català’s A Little Taste (2019), a witchy short that looks great and succeeds in its brief 5-minute runtime. The short anticipated Peter Strickland’s tale of retail witchcraft, In Fabric (2018). Strickland’s latest feature film was an MMC! favourite at the 2019 Chattanooga Film Festival and it was the subject of a proposal for an Arrow Video treatment. Without repeating myself, I’ll instead note how great Strickland’s extended ASMR video disguised as a feature film sounded at the SFFF’s host venue, the Broadway Theatre. Every whisper and sound effect had hair-raising potential at the screening, coming from all directions and in all textures. This is the second year in a row that the SFFF has anticipated the winner of the prestigious Méliès d’Or (Europe’s top prize for fantastic features), having scheduled Gaspar Noé’s Méliès d’Or-winning Climax (2018) last year. It’s a testament to the foresight and taste of the SFFF’s programming team and another reason to look forward to five more days of films here in Saskatoon.

And be sure to check out my Letterboxd list for the 2019 Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival for more reviews!

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