Fantastic Fest '18 Capsule Reviews: CLIMAX, New Blumhouse And A Standout Lecture

We all enter the fest’s second half with a deficit of sleep and a surplus of information. The majority of films here screen twice, and by this point, everyone has recommendations. Throw in some personal intuition and a little bit of plain old luck, and you can have an even richer experience in the back half than at the beginning. This is shaping up to be the case for me this year, as so far I have seen four worthwhile new genre films and one superb, essential lecture.

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Bloodline

The Dexter-esque premise of a guidance counselor and family man who kills his students’ abusers doesn’t exactly scream originality, and the first stretch of this film does little to quell the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. Some visual flourishes and a fashionable synthwave score help keep things engaging, as do the occasional doses of pitch-black humor and gore. But as you get deeper in, it becomes clear that, against all odds, the real star here is the story.

Bloodline is not content to follow the expected beats for this kind of thing, offering several surprises that steer the plot in fun directions. Perverse family dynamics are revealed with impeccable timing, and once you’re on board with the heightened logic at play, each left turn comes organically from the characters.

Seann William Scott’s lead performance is an impressive departure for him. It’s done no favors by the inevitable comparison to Michael C. Hall’s layered work on Dexter, but Scott proves here that he’s capable of far more than playing affable lugheads. If Bloodline finds the audience it deserves, it may well kick off a welcome new phase of his career.

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Climax

Gaspar Noé embraces his role of provocateur with enthusiasm. If his filmography is insufficient evidence of that fact, just take a look at the poster above this paragraph. With Climax, he uses a simple setup—a group of dancers dosed with psychedelics—to explore many of the taboos and pet motifs that have preoccupied him for years. In other words, you should know by now what you’re getting yourself into.

There’s basically no story, and that is just fine. Some characters have little micro-arcs, but the film primarily functions on the level of sense experience. It’s a phenomenal showcase for Benoît Debie, who continues to make a case for himself as one of the best cinematographers alive. His camera becomes one of the doomed dancers in a dazzling marriage of cinematography and choreography, and the ultra-long take that fills much of the second half builds tension to almost unbearable levels.

My one complaint is that once the chaos begins, a disturbing trend emerges: all of the most shocking acts of violence are perpetrated by black characters. There’s nothing subversive or thought-provoking about it, and the most charitable reading possible is that Noé has no idea how racist it seems. Whether intentional or not, this is an unignorable stain on an otherwise great film.






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Miskatonic Institute: Ghouls to the Front – Rethinking Women’s Horror Filmmaking

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, founded by author and Fantastic Fest fixture Kier-La Janisse, puts on lectures and and masterclasses meant to educate casual fans and obsessives alike. This year, the Institute brought prolific Australian author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas to the fest to talk about the history of female contributions to horror filmmaking. This wasn’t just a wise move given the events of last year; it was a legitimate high point of the lineup.

Heller-Nicholas opened by discussing the multitude of definitions of feminism, and went on to similarly interrogate received notions of history, auteur theory, and the cinematic canon. She then explained her goal of creating an alternative road map of film history that would give a greater sense of the scope of female creativity in the horror genre.

What followed was a dizzying array of descriptions and clips from films I am now dying to see: a surrealist short from the ‘20s, a Czech sci-fi slasher, a wild manga adaptation, an anthology of ghost stories from European and indigenous Australian folklore, and dozens more.

The sheer breadth of Heller-Nicholas’ knowledge at times made me feel like a bad, lazy cinephile. But it also inspired me to do better, to enrich myself by expanding my viewing habits and film education. Her upcoming book, 1000 Women in Horror, promises to be an invaluable resource in that process. It will see publication in 2019, so look out for it.

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The Perfection

One of the silliest, trashiest new movies I’ve seen in years also happens to be kind of awesome. The Perfection follows a mysterious, unstable former cello prodigy (Allison Williams) as she reconnects with her old mentor (Steven Weber) and begins a relationship with his new protégé (Logan Browning).

This was a true rollercoaster ride. After I was lulled into thinking I could guess what was coming, certain plot developments had me feeling a bit incredulous. Then, as the twists piled up, my incredulity turned to slack-jawed wonder. The story doesn’t just stretch believability—it rips believability to shreds and then runs around screaming like a lunatic. There’s a giddy energy here that’s hard not to love. Plus, one moment of gore elicited an involuntary, full-throated shout from me. That never happens.

For all its outrageousness, The Perfection also has something important to say. Dark truths about the world of classical music (and the world at large) come wrapped in a brightly colored package, and the grisly catharsis the film offers will strike a chord with many viewers. This thing is flawed in many ways, but as an entertainment for our current cultural moment, it’s perfection.

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Knife + Heart

Giallo and pornography prove to be natural bedfellows in French director Yann Gonzalez’ sophomore feature. The year is 1979, and a masked killer with a switchblade dildo is picking off the cast of a gay porn film directed by the lonely lesbian Anne (French pop star Vanessa Paradis). As people drop like flies around her, Anne struggles to complete her shoot while trying to figure out the killer’s identity and motives.

The neo-giallo has become an improbable trend in recent years, and a number of the films produced in this vein have been quite good. But Gonzalez shows an uncommonly deep understanding of what makes the genre tick, both aesthetically and narratively. The mystery is authentically convoluted, and the visual flash adds spice without going too far over the top. An excellent score by acclaimed synthpop artist M83 renders the retro atmosphere complete. As an interesting side note, it makes sense that the director and composer would work well together, as the two men are brothers.

As remarkable as its giallo homage is, Knife + Heart is also remarkable for being queer as fuck. Romance, sex, and sex work are portrayed with no hint of shame, and the gay and bisexual characters have more, not less, humanity than their straight counterparts in Italian exploitation cinema. Their flaws and heartaches speak to universal experiences as well as to the unique challenges of life on society’s fringes.

The film has some issues with bloat and flagging momentum. This becomes yet another mark of authenticity, as these are issues common to even the best gialli of the classic era. And if we can make these sorts of allowances for the likes of Argento and Bava, it’s only fair that we do the same for an exciting talent like Gonzalez.