Month: August 2020

Fantasia Review: Minor Premise

A neuroscientist is attempting to escape from his deceased father’s shadow. In a desperate move, he uses an experimental machine on himself, causing his psyche to fracture into multiple pieces. He has to find a way to put the pieces back together or face deadly consequences.

Minor Premise has one of the most fascinating stories I have seen at Fantasia International Film Festival. The film is directed by Eric Schultz, making his feature-film directorial debut. Schultz co-wrote the film with Thomas Torrey (Fare, Savannah Sunrise) and Justin Moretto, the latter also making his feature-film debut as a writer. As the film begins, we meet Ethan, the young neuroscientist. His work seems to center on being better than his father was and getting the recognition he believes he deserves. This is what leads him to test a machine on himself that fractures his psyche. There are now 10 versions of Ethan, each one focusing on a specific facet of his personality and only having 6 minutes to be “alive” at a time. This cycle takes a toll on his mind and body, giving him a short amount of time to put his mind back together. This alone leads to a very suspenseful film, especially since only a couple of the versions of himself are helpful in trying to solve the problem. To add to the suspense, there is one version of Ethan who is actively working against the real version of himself, attempting to take over both mind and body.

The driving plot of Minor Premise is different than anything I’ve ever encountered. It presents a unique scientific goal. The consequences of trying to reach that goal are shocking, but also make sense with what Ethan is trying to achieve. One thing I really appreciate about the film is that it makes a point of stating this is not a case of dissociative personality disorder. While they refer to the different versions of Ethan as “personalities,” the fact that they make sure to explain that each personality is really just a different, specific facet of Ethan. Thrillers and horror films so often show individuals with DPD in a negative light, so making this distinction is a much needed and welcome change. It ultimately helps Minor Premise stand out while still keeping the audience at the edge of their seats.

Minor Premise has outstanding performances, but the clear stand out is Sathya Sridharan (Bikini Moon, All the Little Things We Kill) as Ethan. Sridharan completely shines in every moment he’s on screen. Not only does he play the original Ethan, but he has to play the other 9 facets of Ethan’s personality. With subtle facial expressions, physical movement, and manner of speaking, Sridharan is able to easily convey which version of Ethan he is portraying in any given moment. It’s really a fantastic performance that drives the increasing suspense of the plot. Honorable mention goes to Paton Ashbrook (Shameless) as Alli and Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks) as Malcolm, who both also excel in their roles.

Because the performances in Minor Premise are the focal point of the film, the filmmakers opted for more subtle visuals. Aside from the production design, science experiment props, and darkly creepy lighting, the one thing that makes quite an impact is the makeup. As the plot progresses, the audience sees Ethan’s physical health decline as his body cannot withstand the constant switching between personalities. The makeup effects make him look more gaunt, pale, and sickly throughout the film. It begins with subtle changes, but becomes more and more pronounced. It’s a great way to show Ethan’s time running out and adds to the suspense.

Minor Premise is a unique sci-fi thriller that plays with the mind in the most delightful way. The filmmakers clearly have a firm understanding of how to create impactful suspense from start to finish. Sridharan is the true heart and soul of this film with his absolutely stunning performance as the many versions of Ethan. The film also boasts subtle yet effective makeup to convey just how dire the situation is. It’s the kind of film that brings up interesting scientific theories and the ethics behind them. Schultz, Torrey, and Moretto show the world they are highly skilled storytellers. Minor Premise is an especially strong debut for both Schultz and Moretto, making it known we should pay attention to their future careers.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: Sanzaru

A woman is giving live-in care to an elderly woman with dementia. Due to dealing with health issues and the strain between family members, the strange happenings around the house at first go unnoticed. As the situation becomes more dire, the caretaker has to put the pieces together to save those she loves.

Writer and director Xia Magnus brings his feature-film debut to Fantasia International Film Festival. The plot of Sanzaru follows Evelyn as she begins to care for Dena, an elderly woman who has some mental and physical health issues. Evelyn and her nephew, Amos, live in Dena’s house while Dena’s son, Clem, lives in a trailer on the property. Since Evelyn is primarily alone in the house as she cares for Dena, she starts to notice that something about the house doesn’t feel quite right. We learn that everyone in the home has their secrets and some of those secrets are more dangerous than others. While increasingly sinister occurrences happen in the home, Evelyn begins to solve the puzzle of what haunts the home. It is a haunting, slow burn of a film that has some very eerie moments.

What makes it especially interesting are intercut scenes in which the audience hears Evelyn’s deceased mother speaking to someone named “Sanzaru.” It is these moments that make Sanzaru unique among other films like it while also allowing the audience insight into what’s happening before the main characters do. The film also does a fantastic job of showing the dangerous effects of secrets. Almost everyone in the home has a dark secret they are keeping hidden, and Magnus does a wonderful job of conveying how those secrets can fester and affect later generations.

The cast of Sanzaru gives understated yet powerful performances. Aina Dumlao (Ballers, McGyver) plays Evelyn. Dumlao is great at making Evelyn come across as a very reserved woman, but also dedicated to her job. It’s her dedication and capabilities that make the audience believe she can solve the mystery inside the house. Justin Arnold (Sister Aimee, Lawless Range) plays Clem. Clem struggles after returning from the military, but he has deep and dark secrets that tear him up even more. Arnold portrays Clem in a way that makes the character dark and mysterious, but also makes him entirely sympathetic. Both Dumlao and Arnold also have great on-screen chemistry together.

One of the things I enjoy most about Sanzaru is the unique depiction of ghosts. During the intercut scenes I previously mentioned with the voice of Evelyn’s mother, all we see is a glowing ball of light in the center of the screen. Eventually, those scenes bleed into the real world and the house where Evelyn cares for Dena. There is a brilliant use of light and shadow to convey spirits of those who have passed and also denotes whether these spirits are friend or foe. This not only adds visual interest to the film, but it also helps elevate the suspense in the climax of the film.

Sanzaru is an eerie and unique tale of a family haunted by ghosts and secrets. Magnus makes a strong debut for his first feature film. It’s clear he is one to watch in the future. The plot is a relatively simple, slow-burn, but Magnus adds depth and interest to make his film memorable. Strong performances and haunting visuals help bring everything together. The film is a great study on subdued horror and the generational consequences some secrets leave behind.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fantasia Review: The Dark and the Wicked

On a secluded goat farm, a man is slowly dying. After being under the care of his wife, it seems as though he is running out of time. When his two adult children come to say their goodbyes, they become plagued with waking nightmares as something evil comes for them all.

Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences yet another hit by writer and director Bryan Bertino (The Monster, The Strangers). The Dark and the Wicked tells a terrifying tale of something evil targeting a family. The film begins by introducing us to a woman caring for her ailing husband. It’s immediately clear something isn’t quite right. When her two adult children arrive to pay their respects before their father passes, the evil quickly becomes more active. Bertino is great and constantly implies the evil entity is lurking in the shadows, making for a terrifying movie-watching experience. He plays with the fear of the unknown as much as the fear of evil and death. The audience can’t trust their own eyes and it’s never obvious what is real and what is a sinister hallucination.

Bertino also excels at not only having traditional frights in his film, but also having complex family dynamics. In The Dark and the Wicked, there is immediate and obvious strain among the family members. The mother makes it known she didn’t want her children to come. Both the son and the daughter obviously haven’t been home in a while. There is also tension between the siblings. Every bit of family drama and deep-rooted issue boil over as the evil entity manipulates their emotions. It gets to the point where the family members can’t trust their own eyes and are led to the brink of insanity.

The Dark and the Wicked has a wonderful cast who give emotionally charged performances. Marin Ireland (The Umbrella Academy, Piercing) plays the daughter, Louise. Ireland’s performance is absolutely brilliant. There is clearly a lot of emotional strife within her family relationships, but a sense of duty and guilt drive Louise to stick around, even when it’s clear she’s in danger. Michael Abbott Jr. (Loving, Mud) plays Louise’s brother, Michael. It’s obvious that Michael feels a similar sense of duty, but his loyalties are pulled in two different directions because of his wife and kids. Abbott is great at conveying how his practical nature and love of his family make it more difficult for him to accept what’s happening on the farm. Both Ireland and Abbott act very well together, embodying that often times tumultuous relationship between siblings.

Bertino films are known for being very minimal when it comes to effects, yet they still have great visuals. Luckily, The Dark and the Wicked is no different in that regard. The stunning cinematography sets the tone. It showcases the beautiful sets while also drawing your eye to the things that don’t belong. The evil entity after this family never shows its true face. As a result, most of the more frightening scenes rely heavily on barely seen things in the shadows. The entity also plays with the minds of the characters and audience by constantly making it unclear what is real and what is a waking nightmare. It all results in terrifying look and feel sending chills down your spine.

The Dark and the Wicked is yet another achievement by Bertino that balances supernatural terror with character-driven drama. There are many truly frightening moments and the plot is compelling from start to finish. Between the subtly haunting visuals and the emotional performances from the entire cast, it’s impossible to deny the success of this film. It is the kind of film that is a punch to the gut, but in the best way possible. I have no doubt this will be on many “best of the year” lists for 2020.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Fantasia Review: The Block Island Sound

There is something off the coast of Block Island. It takes hold of members of one family. Those uneffected race to find the truth about what’s causing their loved ones’ strange behavior before it’s too late.

I can firmly say one of my favorite films at Fantasia International Film Festival is The Block Island Sound. Written and directed by Kevin and Matthew McManus (Funeral Kings, American Vandal), the film combines elements of aquatic and cosmic horror to create something truly wonderful. The film first introduces us to Tom Lynch, a father and grandfather who has been acting strangely recently. Shortly after his daughter and granddaughter come to the island to investigate strange occurrences with the local wildlife, he disappears. When the same strange behaviors start to happen to Tom’s son, it becomes clear there is some outside force making this happen. The McManus brothers do a brilliant job of subverting expectations and creating suspense out of the unknown. It creates a wonderful and frightening mystery with many twists and turns.

There is a lot to love about this film. The Block Island Sound has elements of both aquatic horror and cosmic horror, which seems to be increasingly popular recently. This combination works very well and allows for the McManus brothers to keep the audience guessing. The film also focuses a lot on the various members of the Lynch family. Great care is taken to properly develop these characters and show the various dynamics of the family unit. It makes viewers care a great deal more about what will happen to the Lynches, which only adds to the suspense.

With how important the family members are to the plot, it’s no wonder The Block Island Sound has such a fantastic cast. Neville Archambault (13 Cameras, Solomon Grundy) plays Tom Lynch. Archambault delivers quite a disturbing performance that at first makes Tom appear to be losing his sanity, but quickly veers into a more disturbing realm. Chris Sheffield (The Maze Runner, The Last Ship) plays Tom’s son, Harry. Harry has a bit of a temper, but he clearly loves his family. When the strange occurrences begin to change Harry, Sheffield delivers a wonderful, gut-wrenching performance. Michaela McManus (Law & Order: SVU, Into the Grizzly Maze) plays Harry’s sister, Audry. McManus conveys how practical and level-headed Audry is. Even when things take a turn for the worse, her calm and maternal instincts make her the most capable person to handle whatever comes her way. Sheffield and McManus also act very well together, perfectly portraying siblings who have a love-hate relationship with each other.

There is a balance of what is shown and what is hidden that is beautiful in The Block Island Sound. For the most part, we only see the environmental effects of whatever is happening on Block Island. Bodies of dead fish and birds that have mysteriously died on the shores of the island make up most of the physical presence of the strange happenings. Subtle makeup also creates a haunting look on both Tom and Harry to show how they are physically affected by whatever is causing their strange behavior. The source of the strange happenings is kept hidden, allowing the audience’s imagination to run wild. Instead, the source is made known by a strange sound that clearly triggers Tom and Harry to act strangely (hence the title, The Block Island Sound). Gorgeous cinematography helps to emphasize the beauty and strangeness of Block Island. It all harmonizes to incite anxiety and fear in the audience.

The Block Island Sound brings together the best parts of cosmic and aquatic horror to deliver a hauntingly wonderful film. The McManus brothers created a film that brings depth to the plot by focusing on the family as much as it focuses on the more frightening elements. The entire cast delivers brilliant performances that only add to the well-written characters. The Block Island Sound is definitely one of my favorite films of the year, so far, and it’s a film that will haunt you long after it’s over.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Fantasia Review: Alone

A widow packs up her belongings to get away and start a new life. While driving through the Pacific Northwest, she encounters a strange man again and again. This man kidnaps the widow, forcing her to fight for her life.

One of the most thrilling films to come out of Fantasia International Film Festival is Alone. Written by Mattias Olsson (Gone, Iris) and directed by John Hyams (Z Nation, Black Summer), the film follows recently widowed Jessica. To get away from the difficult memories of her husband, Jessica packs up and leaves the city. What begins as a close call on the road with a stranger quickly turns sinister when she keeps running into the same man on her drive. From the moment these two characters encounter each other there is immediate tension. As their encounters become more frequent and strange, the suspense grows to a fever pitch, leading to Jessica’s kidnapping. The plot is a classic tale of survival. It doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the survival subgenre, but it is still incredibly entertaining to watch and will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

There are two aspects of the plot that make quite an impact. The first is how the loss of Jessica’s husband seems to have better prepared her for escaping her kidnapper. Her husband’s death helped her realize to she wants to live, which makes her fight even harder to escape her captor and survive. The second aspect is showing how well serial killers divide their lives. The audience gets a small glimpse into the man’s home life away from his more murderous tendencies. It gives the film an authenticity because, as most true crime enthusiasts know, serial killers have a knack for leading double lives.

Alone includes great and memorable performances from the cast. Jules Willcox (Bloodline, Dirty John) plays Jessica. This character has suffered a tragic loss and is feeling grief, confusion, sadness, and guilt. Willcox conveys these complex emotions in Jessica while also showing her sheer will to live. Marc Menchaca (Homeland, Ozark) plays the man who kidnaps Jessica. This man gives off red flags right away. From his handlebar mustache and 80’s serial killer glasses to his forcefully polite demeanor, Menchaca makes it clear that this man is dangerous. The deadly dynamic between these two is enthralling to watch and makes for a wild ride. Honorable mention goes to Anthony Heald (The Silence of the Lambs, Deep Rising) as a helpful bystander named Robert.

The film relies on the gorgeous setting and minimal practical effects to create the lifelike feel of Alone. The Pacific Northwest is a gorgeous place, so not much had to be done to make sets come alive. Especially in the second half of the film, the dense green forest manages to be stunning while also giving the sense of closing in around Jessica. As for the practical effects, most of the effects are simple makeup looks to create bruising and minor wounds. There is one practical effect that is small, yet it is so shocking and painful to watch that audiences everywhere will cringe.

Alone is a white-knuckle thriller overflowing with suspense as a woman fights for her survival. It might not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a tense watch audiences are sure to love. Olsson and Hyams make a great filmmaking team with their film that will appeal to a variety of film lovers, especially serial killer fans. The performances are great from both Willcox and Menchaca and the subtle effects manage to make quite an impact. This is a film you won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: Kriya

A beautiful woman picks up a DJ from a bar one night. She takes him back to her family home, where they discover the woman’s father has died. Through the rest of the night as the family mourns and goes through their rituals, the DJ is dragged down a strange path of magic and evil.

Coming all the way from India, Fantasia International Film Festival brings Kriya to Canadian audiences. Writer and director Sidharth Srinivasan (Divine Vision, Soul of Sand) delivers an unsettling supernatural thriller. The film opens in a nightclub where we meet the DJ, Neel, and a beautiful woman named Sitara. She lures Neel back to her large, albeit decrepit family home where the rest of Sitara’s family has already begun mourning her father. Despite a cold reception from Sitara’s mother, Neel keeps succumbing to Sitara’s wishes and staying to help with the burial rituals. Throughout the course of this single night, Neel experiences increasingly bizarre supernatural occurrences. Everything lends to a constant state of dread that only gets worse and worse leading up to the shocking final moments of the film.

Kriya is fascinating for those not familiar with Indian customs, but that lack of knowledge could also be a detriment. I personally always love learning about different cultures, even through the lense of horror films. Yet, when it comes to the plot of Kriya, it feels like audience members might not get what is off about these funerary practices. By not understanding the warning signs, some of the suspense and terror the filmmaker intended to convey is lessened. It is still a fascinating watch, but it might leave some viewers feeling as if they weren’t in on the secret behind the film. It’s also hard to believe, no matter how polite Neel wanted to be, that he wouldn’t just leave. He just met Sitara and owes her nothing so it seems unlikely he would stick around, even with the promise of sex.

Each cast member brings depth and layers to their character, but two stand out. The first is Noble Luke making his debut as Neel. Luke is great at making Neel come across as a kind and caring man. Yet the final act of the film is when we really get to see what Luke can do and he delivers quite a memorable performance. Navjot Randhawa (Mehsampur, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs) plays the alluring Sitara. Sitara uses her good looks to get her way with Neel, but Randhawa shows a more malevolent side of the character that is always just beneath the surface and eventually comes out for all to see. Both Randhawa and Luke have great chemistry on screen, even when the night takes a strange and terrifying turn.

This film utilizes many stunning visuals in order to generate and maintain the sense of fear. Sitara’s family home is in a remote area and seems to be in disrepair. The production design of the crumbling walls and sparsely decorated rooms create an eerie feel. This also makes the people within those rooms the true focus of the film. It’s the production design of Unearth that creates the first feeling of unease. Then that feeling increases with the performances and the inclusion of small details in the background that reveal shocking revelations.

Kriya tells a fascinating and disturbing tale about funeral rituals and family secrets. Srinivasan does a great job of including many layers to the mystery, each one more deadly than the last. The viewing experience would likely benefit from more cultural context, but the film is still a compelling watch. From the performances to the setting, every aspect of the film comes together to create the feeling of tension and dread. It’s a dread that sticks with you even after the film ends.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Fantasia Review: Bleed With Me

A young woman is invited on a wintery cabin getaway with her friend and the friend’s boyfriend. With each passing day, the woman becomes more convinced her friend is stealing her blood in the night. Isolated and paranoid, things quickly begin to spiral out of control.

Writer and director Amelia Moses (Bloodthirsty) brings Bleed With Me to Fantasia International Film Festival audiences. The film primarily focuses on shy and reserved Rowan. She is invited to stay at a cabin with her coworker, Emily, and Emily’s boyfriend, Brendan. Things at the cabin are a bit awkward at first, especially since Brendan would prefer if Rowan hadn’t joined the couple, but alcohol helps relax the group. The initial tensions gradually escalate as strain becomes more apparent between Emily and Brendan and the trio is relatively stuck with each other in the remote, snowy cabin. Yet what truly brings the suspense to a fever pitch is Rowan becoming convinced Emily is stealing her blood.

It’s the kind of plot where the audience is constantly trying to determine whether or not Rowan is right or if she’s losing her mind. What makes it more confusing is that Rowan is established very early on as an unreliable source with mental health issues, but there is just enough doubt cast that she could be right. Moses expertly keeps the audience second guessing what they see on screen right up until the credits roll. There are definitely unanswered questions by the time the film ends that might be off-putting to some, but it fits with the tone of the mysterious plot.

The entire cast of Bleed With Me consists of three actors and all three of them are captivating to watch. Lee Marshall (Artifacts of Idealism, Turkey Drop) stars as Rowan. Marshall does a great job of making Rowan seem like a sweet, shy girl at first. As the paranoia builds, it becomes clearer that Rowan has many secrets and might not be exactly who she says she is. Lauren Beatty (Bloodthirsty, Pay the Ghost) plays Rowan’s coworker and new friend, Emily. At first, Emily seems like the polar opposite of Rowan. She’s confident, independent, and outspoken. Yet Beatty shows that Emily too has many secrets and gives the character a bit of a sinister edge. Aris Tyros (Slaxx, Little Death) plays Emily’s boyfriend, Brendan. Tyros makes Brendan such an endearing character who is kind, and supportive, and he balances out the opposing personalities of the two women. All three actors have great chemistry, but the chemistry between Marshall and Beatty is especially electric and intriguing to watch.

While the plot of Bleed With Me alone delivers quite of bit of anxiety, the setting also helps to create a suspenseful feeling. In normal circumstances, the cabin where Rowan, Emily, and Brendan stay would feel relatively spacious. Yet it ends up feeling more and more claustrophobic. Part of that is due to the snow outside, increasing that sense of isolation and part is due to the tension between the three characters. This tension fills so much of the space in the cabin that it appears to shrink. With each passing moment the walls close in and exacerbate the stress felt by all inside the cabin.

Bleed With Me drips with tension as it keeps the audience guessing who the true villain of the film is. Moses is incredibly adept at hiding the truth at every twist and turn of the plot. The suspense she creates with her writing is compounded by the remote cabin setting. All three actors deliver strong, dynamic performances with many layers and help draw the audience in. After watching the suspenseful film that is Bleed With Me, horror fans are going to want to keep an eye on what Moses does next.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fantasia Review: Unearth

Dealing with internal and external troubles, two families are at odds over what to do with their farmland. One family decides to lease their land for fracking. When the fracking unleashes something ancient, it leads to dire consequences for the generations living on the land.

Fantasia International Film Festival continues to bring a wide range of unique films with Unearth. The film is co-directed by John C. Lyons (Schism, There Are No Goodbyes) and Dorota Swies (Schism, There Are No Goodbyes). Lyons also co-wrote the film with Kelsey Goldberg, making her feature-film debut. This film is the definition of a slow burn. The filmmakers take their time gradually building the tension. This tension comes in the form of strained familial relationships, financial struggles, and disagreements between the two main families. One of these families takes pride in working their farm. The other family is having difficulty making ends meet, which is what leads to them leasing their land for fracking. This only makes the issues between the two families even more fractious. It isn’t really until the final act of the film that they show what was buried deep underground and how it wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting families. The climax of the film really emphasizes the strain between the characters while also introducing some truly shocking moments of gore.

It’s clear Unearth is meant to be a slow burn and for the focus to be on the relationships between the individual characters. The more horrific elements are more of a side note to make the end of the film more shocking. While I found this to be enjoyable because it allowed for thorough character development so I cared more about each person’s fate, it will also likely deter many viewers. Many audiences are sure to find the film to be too slow and the shocking climax won’t be enough to make up for that. The final moments of the film also seem out of place with what we learned about what was unleashed only moments before. It leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and not the good kind.

Unearth has a great ensemble cast, including relative newcomers and some horror favorites. Horror fan-favorite Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape From New York) plays Kathryn. Kathryn is the matriarch of her farm and very set in her ways. Barbeau knows how to play a strong, powerful woman and she does not disappoint in this role. Another face horror fans will likely recognize is Marcus Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Knight and Day), who plays George. Much like Kathryn, George is the head of his family on the neighboring farm, but he differs in how he struggles with his leadership role and continually makes bad decisions. Blucas does a great job of bringing this character to life in a way that makes him flawed yet sympathetic. These two opposing characters stand out in a memorable way. Honorable mention goes to Allison McAtee (Bloomington, Calfornication) and Rachel McKeon (Jessica Jones, Gone).

While the practical effects are reserved for the climax of Unearth, they definitely pack quite a punch. I won’t go into too much detail regarding these effects because I don’t want to spoil anything. What I can tell you is that the filmmakers managed to fit quite a bit of gore in a short amount of time. Not only are these effects incredibly well done, they are quite shocking and at times truly disturbing. Some of the images from the climax of the film are guaranteed to stick with the audience long after the film ends.

Unearth is a suspenseful character study that takes its time leading up to a disturbing climax. The filmmakers clearly want to make sure the audience is invested in the characters, but it might take a bit too long to get into the horror awaiting underground. While the slow burn works fine for me, it’s sure to alienate some viewers. Luckily, the film boasts great performances and the effects during the climax hold no punches. There’s no denying that moments of this film definitely make it a memorable viewing experience.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Fantasia Review: Detention

Taiwan in 1962 was experiencing the White Terror martial law period. Two high school students awake to find themselves trapped in the abandoned high school. As they try to stay alive, the duo must also figure out how they got there while also trying to escape before it’s too late.

Fantasia International Film Festival continues its run of fantastic foreign films with Taiwan’s Detention. The film is the feature-film debut of director John Hsu and is co-written by Hsu, Shih-Keng Chien (On Children, The Victim), and Lyra Fu (A-Tsuí & Kok-Siông, Close Your Eyes Before It’s Dark). Detention is my favorite kind of foreign horror film because it not only tells a frightening story, but it also reveals a piece of Taiwan’s history that I wasn’t familiar with. The filmmakers waste no time in setting up the tense situation the characters are in. At first, we see the students in their military-like high school, but then the two students wake up alone in the darkened school. They see a number of bizarre and terrifying things as they walk the halls, trying to remember what lead to them being trapped in this situation. Between the gradual reveal of clues and the haunting things these students encounter, the film becomes a suspenseful supernatural thriller that also acts as a metaphor for the horrors of living under martial law.

The mostly young cast of Detention is incredibly talented. Gingle Wang (On Children, The Outsiders) plays the young Fang. We quickly learn that Fang is a quiet, shy girl who mostly follows the rules. Unfortunately, she lets a crush consume her so she can’t see the consequences of her actions. Wang does a fantastic job of showing the duality of Fang’s innocence and how vindictive she can truly be, while still making Fang an overall sympathetic character. Chin-Hua Tseng (The Name Engraved in Your Heart, Workers) plays Wei. Like Fang, Wei also allows a crush to cloud his better judgement, but he cares much more about others and the state of the country he lives in. Wei works with a small group of students who copy banned books, knowing if he is caught, he could be killed. Tseng strikes a perfect balance between Wei’s desire to do good and his young male infatuations.

From start to finish, the team behind Detention took great care to create something with visual interest. At first, the set and the costumes help to tell the story of the time period. The audience quickly picks up on the strict, government-controlled life the students live. It also helps to establish the danger the students are in from real-world factors. When the students wake up in the abandoned school, it is almost like an alternate reality. The school is derelict and contains clues to what happened to the kids in real life. Between the creepy set design and a combination of disturbing practical and CGI effects, Detention transports audiences to another world that mirrors what’s happening in the real world.

Detention creates a stunning metaphor to express the real-life horrors of Taiwan in the 60’s. Hsu, Chien, and Fu weave together a tale that is as frightening as it is heartbreaking. It feels somewhat reminiscent of Sucker Punch, albeit slightly more competent and with more historical relevance. The film boasts great performances from the entire cast, gorgeous visuals, and also teaches audiences a bit of Taiwanese history they likely weren’t aware of. It’s a sad, beautiful film that delivers as many chills as it does heart.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw

In a secluded community, one woman has kept her daughter a secret for 17 years. In that time, the woman’s farm has been the only successful one, making the other villagers think she practices witchcraft. When the daughter witnesses a villager mistreat her mother, she decides that she’s done hiding.

Bringing a bit of witchcraft to Fantasia International Film Festival is The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. This is the sophomore feature of Canadian writer and director Thomas Robert Lee (Empyrean). The film takes place in 1973, but the characters we follow live their lives as if it’s 1873. This remote Irish community choses to forego modern advancements to live a simpler life. Unfortunately for most of the villagers, the 17 years after a strange eclipse has left them with almost no crops. Except one woman, Agatha, who lives further away from the village on her own always has a great harvest.

It’s immediately clear there is a lot of tension between Agatha and the rest of the village. They are not only envious of her harvest, but they assume she has been successful because of witchcraft. Tensions only rise as Agatha has to hide her daughter, Audrey, for 17 years. It generates a constant sense of danger and a fear of the unknown. Why does Agatha hide Audrey? What would happen if the town knew about her? The moment Audrey decides she isn’t going to hide anymore, the village slowly descends into madness and bloodshed.

For the most part, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a mystical, compelling film. I believe the one issue the plot continually bumps into is time. The most obvious issue with time is that the film takes place in 1973. While this community seems to be modeled after the Amish, as they refuse modern advances in technology and medicine, it doesn’t necessarily seem important to the plot. There are only a few minor references to the time period after it is established in the beginning. These references are so fleeting it doesn’t add to the film, although it doesn’t detract either. There is also a much larger passage of time in the course of the film than there appears to be. From the time Audrey decides she has had enough to the end of the film, it only seems to be a few days. Yet one character at one point mentions it has been weeks. It’s a small detail, but Audrey’s wrath seems so quick until the many weeks are mentioned, effectively slowing that wrath to a crawl.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw has an array of fantastic performances from start to finish. Making her feature-film debut is Jessica Reynolds (My Left Nut) as Audrey. From the moment we meet Audrey, it’s apparent that she isn’t content with her life hidden in the shadows and letting people walk all over her mother. Reynolds has a great ethereal presence that she can quickly turn sinister that works perfectly for the role. Another outstanding performance comes from Jared Abrahamson (American Animals, Fear the Walking Dead) as Colm. When we first meet Colm, he has just lost his son and he lashes out at Agatha. Yet, while our fist impression of Colm is negative, Abrahamson does a great job of bringing depth to the character and showing the good heart underneath the rough exterior.

Everything from the production design to the cinematography is stunning. The production design team and the costume design team behind The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw expertly transport the audience to a different time. The homesteads of the small village are gorgeous. The costumes have a utility to them that matches the rough lives these people lead while still being beautiful. In general the film has a monotone color palette that matches how stark the land and their lives are, but there are still many moments of beauty in the cinematography and how each shot is framed. That starkness is punctuated by a few shocking, gory, vibrantly bloody practical effects.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a haunting film that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat with each increasingly horrific event. Lee effectively makes it known that he is a filmmaker to keep an eye on. His film drips with tension and plays into the fears and desires of the residents in this isolated village. There isn’t a great sense of time throughout the film, but the bewitching visuals and captivating performances are what audiences will remember after watching the film. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is sure to cast a spell on you.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10