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Fantasia 2021 Roundup: Hellbender, All the Moons & more

Fantasia Festival 2021

This year’s Fantasia Festival offered a solid selection of horror, low-fi science fiction, and quietly paced drama.

It remains unclear if movies really are back, baby, but the festival circuit continues undaunted. Montreal’s Fantasia Festival leans towards the esoteric and the out there, and this year’s selection in particular offered a strong lineup of quirky comedies, artsy horror and low-key drama. Here’s but a small sampling of some of the more notable features:

Perhaps the most promising feature is Hellbender, a genuine group effort by the Adams Family, directed by dad John Adams, co-written by mom Toby Poser and daughter Zelda Adams, and starring Toby, Zelda, and other daughter Lulu Adams. Zelda plays Izzy, a lonely teenager raised in isolation by her mother, who’s convinced her that she is gravely ill with a disorder that prevents her from getting too close to other people. They spend their days alone together, either exploring the woods around their house, or playing catchy grunge rock tunes in a two person band, even wearing costumes despite not having an audience. It’s an idyllic existence, until Izzy starts asking too many questions and pushing too many boundaries, and must learn the truth about her existence.

Zelda Adams in Hellbender (Fantasia Festival)

Though the twist as to why Izzy is kept so far apart from civilization is revealed about halfway through the film (and it turns out to be for other people’s safety, not hers), I’m averse to revealing it here, because Hellbender is such a fun, fascinating film that I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s a dark celebration of feminine power and the boundless mystery of nature, but also a creepy meditation about the sinister side of mother-daughter relationships. For a homegrown effort so low budget that 16 year-old Zelda Adams controlled the overhead drone shots herself, it’s surprisingly polished, relying largely on natural light and shadow for bleak and spooky effect. Toby Poser, as a sort of witchy alternarock earth mother, is a wonderful screen presence, gentle and reserved, but with a core darkness that lets you know not to cross her. The two Adams daughters, Zelda as shy, sheltered Izzy and Lulu as Amber, the sassy, precocious friend she makes, play off each other excellently as different, very believable teenage girl archetypes. 

It’s just a marvelous effort that shows what happens when ambition and genuine skill take precedence over large, flashy budgets. “If you break my heart, I’ll devour you,” one character says to another, in what might be so far one of the most unsettling lines of film dialogue uttered this year. Shudder swept up Hellbender, and if it doesn’t become a sleeper hit then the taste of the average horror movie fan should be taken into question.

Next up is the beautifully eerie All the Moons, Igor Legarreta’s unique take on vampirism with a slow, low-key pace that might turn off some horror fans, but reward those with a little patience. Set in 19th century Spain, it concerns Amaia (Haizeas Carneros), a young orphaned girl who, after she’s killed in an explosion, is revived and adopted by a vampire woman (Itziar Ituño). The two are eventually separated, however, and Amaia is left on her own for several years, figuring out both the literal landscape, and the landscape of being a vampire.

Haizeas Carneros in All the Moons (Fantasia Festival)

She’s eventually taken in by a farmer (Josean Bengoetxea), and the film becomes less about vampirism than a meditation on how we manage to keep living in the face of death and destruction. If you need your vampire movies to be heavy on scares and gore, then All the Moons isn’t for you. However, if you’re looking for something a little more thoughtful, it comes with a hearty recommendation. All the Moons isn’t just smart and philosophical, it’s lovely to look at too, with rural landscapes that provide a peaceful contrast to the horror of the first quarter of the film. Anchoring it is Haizeas Carneros as the child vampire Amaia, expressive while saying very little. Like Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire, there’s something both repulsive and tragic about an eternal child, who absorbs everything about the world while remaining doll-like forever. Carneros plays this well, in a memorable performance in a genre that often lacks from actors making a genuine effort.

Following that is the charming Japanese sci-fi comedy Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, of which the Spool’s editor in chief Clint Worthington also thought very highly. There isn’t much to the plot, other than Kato (Kazunari Tosa), a cafe owner, stumbling across an inexplicable rip in the time-space continuum that allows him not just to see two minutes into the future, but to communicate with himself in that timeline. While Kato is mostly just baffled (and maybe a little frightened) at this discovery, his friends are mostly delighted, and use it to play pranks on each other. All are reluctant to change what happens in the future (even if that future is a mere two minutes away), however, as the usual questions of time travel — what is free will in this situation, is it possible to exist in dual timelines, etc. — arise, and danger may be on the horizon.

Kazunari Tosa in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (Fantasia Festival)

Seamlessly filmed to look as if it’s one continuous take, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is largely the effort of a theater group, and its enthusiasm is infectious. As with Hellbender, despite their very different looks and styles, the effort put into making it engaging is more apparent than some movies with many times the budget. It doesn’t say anything too deep about the nature of time travel, but it’s not trying to either. It’s just lighthearted fun, and feels like what it is, a bunch of friends getting together in front of a camera and goofing off.

After that is the bizarre sci-fi/romance/comedy/something or other Strawberry Mansion, audacious in its total commitment to not explaining a single thing that happens in it. Set in the near future, it stars indie mainstay Kentucker Audley (who also co-wrote and co-directed) as James Preble, an auditor for the government. He’s not auditing taxes, though, but rather dreams, though it’s unclear how one collects money on items found in dreams. While auditing the dreams of Bella Isadora (Penny Fuller), an elderly eccentric artist, James becomes drawn to a younger version of Bella (a literal manic pixie dream girl), but ends up trapped in a subconscious netherworld after a violent encounter with her son.

Penny Fuller & Kentucker Audley in Strawberry Mansion

Strawberry Mansion, presumably named for the Pepto-Bismol pink room where James’ own dreams take place, can only work if you give up any pretense of understanding what’s going on. In keeping with dream logic (or lack thereof), nothing is explained, not the purpose of James’ job, not why Bella’s son seems willing to commit murder in order to get his hands on the recordings of her dreams, and not the significance of the fast food fried chicken James seems to be obsessed with, or the sinister friend who keeps bringing it to him. With its charmingly lo-fi effects (the contraption James puts over his head in order to audit dreams looks like a child’s Halloween robot costume), you just can’t help liking it, while being utterly baffled at the same time. One has to appreciate Audley and writing-directing partner Albert Birney not carefully spelling everything out, and evidently being content with confounding their audience. It’s certainly better than treating viewers as children, and holding their hand through the whole thing.

Returning to the horror genre is Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane, a bleak domestic drama that occasionally turns into a ghost story. Young Leah (Kiera Thompson) lives in a vicarage with her kind but overworked father, a distant, emotionally fragile mother, and an older sister who takes a near-sadistic glee in tormenting her. Leah is desperate for her mother’s affection, but she’s even harried and distracted when Leah is making her First Communion, walking out of the church in the middle of the ceremony.

Aching with loneliness, Leah eventually encounters a girl her age, Rachel (Sienna Sayer), who finally gives her the attention she needs. Leah seems to initially blossom in the light of friendship, but it soon becomes apparent that Rachel’s presence is based more in malevolence than companionship. You’ll likely figure out the twist of who Rachel actually is fairly early on in the proceedings, but Martyrs Lane is still worth a watch, if for no other reason than the solid performances of young Kiera Thompson and Denise Gough as her troubled mother, who seems to want to reach out to her child, but is almost repulsed by the idea at the same time. Her treatment of Leah borders on emotional abuse, so when the cause of that behavior is eventually revealed, it comes as a relief. 

Sienna Sayer in Martyrs Lane (Fantasia Fest)

Describing it as a horror movie is a bit generous, however, as it’s only until the last five minutes or so that it plays into some of the tropes of the genre, and not in a way that feels particularly fresh. But as a family drama it’s capable and moving at times, and a stark reminder of how grief and inner pain is never truly our own burden to bear, it’s cast onto our loved ones as well, whether we want it to be or not.

Finally, in an example of a solid premise ill-served by its execution, there’s Jesse Dvorak’s Baby, Don’t Cry, a lovers on the run drama with an interesting twist that almost keeps it afloat. Zita Bai (who wrote the script) is Baby, a shy, eccentric immigrant teenager who becomes inexplicably infatuated with neighborhood dirtbag Fox (Vas Provatakis) when he robs her. After an attempted rape turned passionate tussle, the two fall into a toxic romance, and run off on a violent path together.

Vas Provatakis & Zita Bai in Baby, Don’t Cry (Fantasia Festival)

Sid and Nancy…Harley and Joker…and now we have Baby and Fox, and if you enjoy movies about self-destructive people in love and burning the world down around them in the name of that love, then you’ll likely be the audience for Baby, Don’t Cry. While Bai has a distinct voice as a screenwriter, the film doesn’t do enough to establish why the audience should be invested in these characters either straightening themselves out, or understanding that they’re wildly wrong for each other and separating. We know almost nothing about Fox, other than he’s a criminal, and it’s impossible to get a bead on what to think about Baby, because the movie is inconsistent on what kind of person she is. She’s meek and withdrawn, but also aggressive and unpredictable. She’s less her own person than someone simply mirroring what she sees other people do, which, in certain scenes, like Fox threatening one of her classmates at gunpoint, comes off as deeply creepy. Considering she’s the protagonist, Baby is frustratingly elusive, in a way that makes it challenging to care about what happens to her.

In what feels like an homage to Natural Born Killers, Baby, Don’t Cry has a solid (while not particularly original) premise, but stumbles in its character development. Still, Bai has a compelling presence (and needless to say it’s refreshing to see an Asian actor in this kind of “good girl gone bad” role), and knows that there’s a dedicated audience for her script. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just a solid “not for me.”

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.