Mon Ami (2012)

(Narrative Feature)
Director: Rob Grant
Screenplay: Rob Grant
Cast: Mike Kovac, Scott Wallis, Justin Sproule, Chelsey Reist, Teagan Vincze

Completed just a few days before premiering at Fantasia was Rob Grant’s Mon Ami. It’s an inventive and bloody kidnapping-gone-awry tale disguised as an outrageous buddy comedy. As the director describes, it’s “Dumb and Dumber meets Fargo”. Grant avoids outright parody in lieu of the dark humor of films like Shaun of the Dead and Severance. The director and cast were in attendance to introduce the film, one that was an obvious crowd-pleaser.

I wasn’t hooked initially, but Mon Ami soon won me over with inspired performances by the charismatic leads Mike Kovac and Scott Wallis. The two play a couple of lifelong chums hoping to score some easy cash and escape their dead end jobs. The two hatch a plan to kidnap and ransom the daughter (Chelsey Reist) of their wealthy boss. Everything that can possibly go wrong does, and the two find themselves scrambling to keep the plan together.  The film is powered by escalating violence and wry humor, with surprising moments of genuine tension in between rapid fire laughs. Moments of palpable tension helped keep things from becoming too juvenile. Grant and his crew deserve kudos for pulling off an entertaining and competent film made with mere pocket change.

A Night of Nightmares (2012)

(Narrative Feature)
Director: Buddy Giovinazzo
Screenplay: Buddy Giovinazzo, Greg Chandler
Cast: Marc Senter, Elissa Dowling, Richard Portnow, Margaux Lancaster, James Warfield

A top priority for me was the unveiling of controversial director Buddy Giovinazzo’s A Night of Nightmares. The film, starring Marc Senter (The Lost, Red, White & Blue) and Elissa Dowling (The Theater Bizarre, Abolition), completed post-production just a few days before the premiere with the director in attendance. Embraced by horror fans, Giovinazzo’s dramatic work is known for gritty realism and a bleak outlook. His newest offering is his first film with a definite supernatural component, and the balance of humor and dread worked exceptionally well. It’s certainly a different beast compared to Giovinazzo’s previous efforts, but his fingerprints are all over it in the dialogue and other nuances.

A character-driven piece, Giovinazzo’s trademark pressure-release humor is ever present. At its core, A Night of Nightmares is a love story that just happens to contain a little paranormal activity. Senter plays music blogger Mark Lighthouse, traveling to a house in the middle of the woods to interview singer-songwriter Ginger (Dowling) for his blog. The two are in for a long night of terror when inexplicable events occur in Ginger’s house. Trapped in the middle of nowhere – both their cars inoperable, and objects moving around on their own – the two work together to solve the ghostly dilemma. An interesting dichotomy develops between the pragmatic Mark, and Ginger, the “believer”, who has embraced occult explanations for the events plaguing the house. The two begin falling for each other amidst the ambiguously established haunting. The film has great momentum, a clever script, unique scares, and you never quite know what’s happening until the very surprising end.

The Cat (2011)

(Narrative Feature)
Director: Byeon Seung-wook
Screenplay: Jang Yoon-mi
Cast: Park Min-young, Kim Dong-Wook, Kim Yo-ran

The Cat is a South Korean ghost story in the vein of The Ring or Ju-On: The Grudge. The stark film puts a unique spin on the genre with its story of animal and human relationships. In doing so, it avoids the oblivion of by-the-numbers Asian ghost movies. In the film, cats are catalysts (pun intended) for spiritual vengeance from beyond the grave. So-Yeon (Park Min-young) is a pet groomer tasked with looking after a recently deceased client’s cat named “Silky”. The circumstances surrounding the client’s death in an elevator arouses the suspicion of police, but no evidence supports foul play. So-Yeon – a young woman who struggles with claustrophobia – notices bizarre behavior exhibited by Silky and a number of other cats found abandoned in a nearby park. It seems that the owners of these cats, adopted from a decrepit animal shelter, have been visited by a terrifying apparition that is somehow linked to the animals.

The film offers few surprises as far as ghost stories, and the ending is predictable. However, the film has a hugely affecting emotional core in offering commentary on the culture of pet ownership, the animal industry, and the tendency for animal owners to throw away their pets when things don’t go smoothly. Animal lovers should be warned: this film contains harrowing scenes of animals in peril, and though none were harmed in the making, it’s a heartbreaking look at the reality of systematically abandoned and abused animals. Bolstered by some truly creepy ghosts, solid practical makeup effects, and claustrophobic set pieces, you could do worse if you’re looking to get your Asian ghost fix.

V/H/S (2012)

(Narrative Feature)
Director(s): David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West
Cast: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Adam Wingard, Hannah Fierman, Mike Donlan

One of the festival’s main attractions, V/H/S, is a found footage anthology created by a collection of rising stars in horror cinema. The popularity was evident by the nearly sold out crowd of the rather large Concordia Hall Theater. V/H/S came in riding a successful stint at Sundance, and there was a pronounced buzz from the crowd. Segments are directed by the likes of filmmakers Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, David Bruckner, Ti West, and the film collective Radio Silence, each putting their own spin on the popular found footage sub-genre.

The concept consists of a group of criminals hired to retrieve a rare VHS tape from a rundown house in the middle of nowhere. The petty criminals are each forced to watch the terrifying contents of the tapes that subsequently comprise the film. Each director embraced the challenge in different ways, but all utilized the urgency of raw looking “shaky cam” action which complements the frantic feel of the storylines. Not all the segments are completely successful, but the film delivers exactly what it promises. There are reports of people fainting during prior screenings, but I take that kind of information with a grain of salt. The segments offer everything from plays on vampire to slasher to demonic possession mythoi. Some segments thrived in the style, but others fell a bit short on telling a satisfying story. Still, it’s a terrifying collection, nonetheless, and sure to be a midnight cult favorite.

Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (2011)

(Feature Animation)
Director: Takayuki Hirao
Screenplay: Akihiro Yoshida, Takayuki Hirao, Junji Ito
Cast: Mirai Kataoka, Takuma Negishi, Ami Taniguchi, Masami Seeki

As a huge animation fan, I was obliged to check out Japanese horror anime Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack. The film is based on a tremendous comic by Manga legend Junji Ito (Uzumaki, Tomie). Though the film skims over Ito’s ambitious horror comic, it capitalizes on the core of the story.

While on vacation with her friends in Okinawa, Kaori witnesses an invasion of monstrous walking fish, a horde of creatures that attack like a force of nature. Similar attacks happen all over Japan, with horrible creatures rising from the sea and leaving nothing but abject destruction in their wake. Kaori meets Mr. Shirakawa, a freelance reporter, and the two embark on a mission to locate Kaori’s fiancé Tadashi. Along the way they encounter something much worse than killer fish. The dialogue is pretty awful, but it doesn’t matter because Gyo is populated with enough grotesque hybrid fish monsters and genuine weirdness that it all evens out. Its biggest asset is that it’s a testament to the strength of the Japanese in weathering massively destructive forces of war, earthquakes, and tsunami’s, a theme on which the story is obviously based.

The Mechanical Bride (2012)

76 mins
Director: Allison de Fren
Screenplay: Allison de Fren
Cast: Julie Newmar

I finished up my brief visit to Fantasia with the ultra creepy, but amazingly insightful documentary The Mechanical Bride. The film, directed by first-timer Allison de Fren, is an exploration of living dolls, life-like sex dolls that have become extremely popular over the years. With innovations in the robotics industries, these once crude dolls have become surprisingly sophisticated. The director traces the trend where it’s had the most impact: in Japanese, German, and American culture. The director delves into the lives of robot fetishists, the technological wizards who design the dolls, and the manufacturers who cater to the desires of a wide variety of people.

Narrated by Julie Newmar – who has portrayed a life-like robot on television – the documentary is both a historical document of the technology used in creating the dolls, as well as an intimate portrait of the clients who form relationships with the dolls. It’s presented in an even-handed manner, not for the purposes of poking fun or passing judgment. In the end, it’s a very human story.

Reviews by Chris Hallock