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2017 in Review: Pixie’s Horror Picks

Published January 8, 2018 by vfdpixie

 

 

It seems like a blur, but another year has passed. Quite a few horror films made their mark in 2017; some were out of the gate hits while others were divisive. All of them created a buzz and garnered a bit more respect for our beloved horror genre. Here are my top picks from the past year.

Being a programmer for Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival, I have a soft spot for indie film. There were a few that I saw at Toronto After Dark and BITS that I must mention for their unique subject matter and execution despite low budgets.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival

Lowlife drew me into the multiple narratives leading up to an insane climax. The charm of this film is its heart and filmmaker Ryan Prows made sure there was plenty to go around. The well written left-field characters amidst the constantly botched criminal antics will make you root for them ten times over. It’s definitely a sleeper hit in my eyes. Read my review on Cinema Axis here.

A total left-fielder at TADFF for me was Beyond Skyline.  This sequel came out of the shadow of its lukewarm and not well received predecessor Skyline to blast it out of the water.  Where the first film followed people in a condo as the world falls under an alien attack, Beyond Skyline picks up from Skyline’s cliffhanger ending. The unlikely redemption lies with Frank Grillo’s action star swagger, a genuinely funny script, great aliens combined with practical and CGI effects, and some kick ass action from The Raid’s Iko Uwais.

Two more After Dark films that still resonate for me are Rabbit and The Endless. Following a twin’s quest to find her missing and thought dead sister leads her into a world of madness, science and an undeniable connection to her sibling. With breathtaking cinematography and scoring that will chill you to the bone, director Luke Shanahan’s Rabbit is visceral and confounding. I reviewed it here.

The Endless also takes you on a journey, one that brings two brothers back to a cult they escaped years ago. Each one recalls a different experience of the commune they once called home, and things become more intoxicating and confusing as realities and perceptions blur. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson come back after their indie hits Resolution and Spring with a strong effort that left fans wanting more from this mind-bending film.

Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival

My programming rights give me access to incredible indie gems, the filmmakers and cast, and I’m privileged help put on a film festival that gives genre film fans a chance to see some great Canadian talent. This year was one of Blood in the Snow’s best, taking place at the gorgeous Royal Cinema, and all the titles left audiences talking well after the festival was over. You can find the 2017 lineup at bloodinthesnow.ca and check out the feature film award winners for BITS 6th year:

Darken, a dystopian fantasy with strong female leads was our closing night film and won for Best Poster, Best Cinematography, Best Music Score and the lovely Audrey Cummings took home the Best Director prize.

The winner for Best Feature film and Best Screenplay was Buckout Road directed by Matthew Currie Holmes. Based on a notoriously haunted road in New York state, this film was a fun blend of urban legends with great star power including Canadian acting vets Colm Feore, Henry Czerny and Hollywood mainstay Danny Glover.

Fake Blood, a documentary style feature follows two filmmakers who want to explore the effects of violence in film on audiences, eventually coming face to face with some real danger when they flirt with the criminal element. Rob Grant and Mike Kovacs took home the award for Best Editing. It’s a truly disturbing film that kept the audience wondering what was real long after the screening.

Best Actor went to Jeff Sinasac, a long-time actor in the GTA who revealed more of his talents by not only starring in but also directing his film Red Spring, a tense post-apocalyptic vampire survivalist film; while the acclaimed Suzanne Clément took home the Best Actress for The Child Remains, a chilling tale directed by Michael Melski based on the horrific true story of the Butterbox Babies.

Best Special FX went to Kill Order (Meza) and followed a young man who must deal with his superhuman powers, a sinister plot and plenty of danger. A martial arts spectacle filmed right here in Toronto, director James Mark created a real crowd pleaser with tons of stunts and action.

Best Acting Ensemble went to Ryan M. Andrews’ The Art of Obsession. This film, starring our Vanguard winner Ry Barrett, went deep into the mind of a writer and his process; haunted by his muse and his work. It’s a departure from the usual psychological horror and one that will resonate with those who are passionate about what they create.

Pleasant Surprises, The Grotesque, and a Timely Game Changer

There were two films that surprised me by how much I liked them. The first was Rue Morgue’s presentation of The Evil Within. Directed by the late Andrew Getty, a member of one of the richest families in America, the film took a long time to finish due to his untimely death. Frederick Koehler stars as Dennis, a mentally challenged young man who is gifted a mirror he’s seen in his nightmares. It holds a powerful evil and manifests itself as sinister and smarter reflection of himself, taunting Dennis and putting those around him in danger. Koehler outdoes himself playing the two roles, and the mixture of nightmare scenes and long-time horror actor Michael Berryman as the mirror’s evil demon makes this film a one of a kind gem. Thanks to the determination of those involved with the production despite the loss of the director, the film finally got it’s release last year. Rue Morgue issue #177 delves into the trials and tribulations of the film’s journey and is well worth the read.

The second film that surprised me was Darren Aronofsky’s’ mother! It screened at TIFF 2017 and I was prepared to find something to dislike about it since it was so polarizing and a lot of my film critic cronies hated it. While I respect their opinions, I ended up loving it and sat through it another time at home, only to love it even more (and not because Mr. Stephen McHattie is in it…well ok, there’s that, but it’s now one of my favorite films to date). Once again, my full review can be found here.

My only other TIFF 2017 selection that made the list was The Crescent. Hailing from the east coast, this hypnotic psychological thriller about a young mother coming to terms with her grief and the safety of her son in a strange town, in my eyes, didn’t get enough love. The use of art and the scoring by the film’s director Seth A. Smith created a brilliantly eerie atmosphere highlighting isolation and tension. Read my review here.

Shudder Canada has continually impressed me with the unique content they offer horror fans who want to escape the mainstream. One of their films that had a limited screening in Toronto was Kuso. After an earthquake befuddles L.A., several characters and their stories intersect as they try to navigate through their afflicted city. There are a ton of vile moments, along with scathing social commentary and bleak humor. It’s a trying yet exhilarating film filled with music, art and the grotesque by first time director Flying Lotus aka Steven Ellison, better know for his musical and D.J. talents. Be forewarned that it’s not the usual gore and not for the squeamish, and it is most likely not for everyone, but a must-see anyway. Read my full review here.

My favourite film of 2017 is Get Out for so many reasons. I’m going off on a tangent for a moment. In my research for pieces that will be included in an upcoming book on racism in American film, I learned African-Americans were underestimated for their love of westerns. When producers and movie house owners learned that African-Americans did indeed enjoy stories of life on the open range (in fact there is a long history of African-Americans working as cowboys), saving a damsel in distress and immortalizing cowboy action in song, they capitalized on that desire and made Black westerns. While short-lived (spanning from the 1920s-40s), it showed that demand ruled and the creators of media listened. Fast forward to modern-day, where actor and comedian Jordan Peele wrote and directed his first horror film starring a Black actor about the Black experience. It was clever, scathing, and always on point. And the masses, both Black and white (for the most part) loved it. Once again, African-Americans proved that they loved and wanted content in genre films. Instead of leaving it up to the powers that be, Peele took it into his own hands and created that content, opening doors for more people of colour to join in the wave of genre filmmakers. We owe so much to Peele and Get Out, and while there is still so much room for improvement and inclusivity within the film industry, I honestly hope the momentum continues. Read my thoughts on this game changing film here.

For 2018, I hope horror continues to create conversations and include fans of all genders and colours. All the best to you in this shiny new year!

See Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl Exclusively on Shudder

Published May 4, 2017 by vfdpixie

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016, 1 hr, 16 mins)

With all the generic horrors out there, I’m always thrilled to see what terrors Shudder Canada has to offer. This time, they’ve brought us director and writer A.D. Calvo who takes us back in time to combine a lonely teenage girl, unrequited love, creepy gothic horror and a retro vibe for his latest film Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl.

Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is sent by her unfeeling mother to look after her agoraphobic aunt Dora (Susan Kellerman) in the hopes that they will inherit her fortune. In a large, rambling house, Adele must follow neatly written instructions left by her aunt who never emerges from her bedroom. Her duties include:  preparing very specific meals of sardines, crackers and tea, keeping quiet in the house, and she is banned from having any visitors to the house whatsoever. A tall order for a young woman almost out of her teenage years, but Adele seems to be a bit of a misfit and introvert with no friends. When she meets the beautiful and mysterious Beth (Quinn Shephard) in town, they strike up a friendship and become very close. As Adele loses herself in the glow of Beth’s friendship, her attention shifts from her aunt’s well-being to romantic feelings towards her newfound friend and she makes choices that will lead her down a dangerous path.

Not being familiar with the several horror/fantasy movies Calvo has under his belt, I was pleasantly surprised with Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl as my introduction to his work. This Sitges and Fantastic Fest 2016 selection brings a gothic, romantic feel that made me think of classic horror writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. I enjoyed the quiet suspense of this film and felt for Adele and her predicament, but also raised an eyebrow at her childish self-centeredness. Her adoration of Beth and attempts to mimic her cool sophistication and careless attitude shows her desperation to find a connection since she’s mistreated by her aunt and mother. It’s a gothic horror romance and coming of age story all in one.

He also throws in some good old-fashioned morals that no gothic horror would be complete without.  We see this when Adele finds an underlined passage in Aunt Dora’s bible, namely Matthew 6:19-20:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”

I’m no biblical expert, but it’s clear that greed and what motivates us to be self-serving is central and justifies Aunt Dora’s paranoia. In Adele’s case, it’s not only her poor upbringing, neglect and the prospect of having some money and nice things, but also falling in love and wanting to impress Beth. Both blind her from the realities of her surroundings.  It’s a nice touch without having to spell out the storyline.

I thought the same-sex love story was refreshing and even though it came from a male director, it didn’t feel exploitative and the young but seasoned actors made the most of the tentative affair.  Shephard certainly smouldered like a teenage beauty queen as Beth and Wilhelmi played Adele with an awkward, wide-eyed innocence that drew a certain amount of sympathy. Even when Adele’s actions become morally questionable, there is a sense that she isn’t really bad, just inexperienced.

The set design and wardrobe captured the early 80’s vibe for a believable period horror, and I really enjoyed the old school hits Adele listens to, the eerie scoring, and sound design. And if you’re looking for a weird retro horror finale, you’ll definitely find it here, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable. This climax stayed true to old school horrors and had a myriad of influences from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Black Sabbath (The Drop of Water segment) that Calvo has mentioned, to the more modern I Am the Pretty Thing in the House and House of the Devil. None of these films are perfect, but like Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, they tell a compelling and interesting story.

I recommend checking out Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, but you’ll need to stick with this slow burn story. It has a lot of meat on its bones for a low budget, and there is plenty to speculate well after the film is over. Watch this bit of nostalgic horror fun with a really creepy ending on Shudder now!

Prepare Yourself for the Brutal We Are The Flesh: A Shudder Exclusive

Published April 21, 2017 by vfdpixie

 

We Are The Flesh (2016, 1 hr, 19 mins)

 

Extreme cinema has its purpose, usually to tell a story in the most shocking manner in order to get a visceral response as we watch. While some directors use it for pure shock value, others use it as a rejection of the formulaic films cranked out of the incessant Hollywood machine, and some feel that extreme representation of brutality, sexuality and gore is the only way they can express themselves and their subject matter artistically.  In We Are The Flesh (Tenemos la carne), a film that played many festivals including Cannes in 2016 and is now a Shudder Exclusive, Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter gives us all of the above and more in order to tell a meandering story about death, rebirth and god complexes.

Lucio (Diego Gamaliel) and Fauna (Maria Evoli) stumble upon an abandoned building and its sole inhabitant, an elf-like man named Marciano (Noé Hernández). He is strange and extremely volatile, spouting cryptic words about his way of life. Fauna bargains for her and her brother to stay with him in exchange for any sort of arrangement since they seek refuge from a harsh environment on the outside. That arrangement turns out to be labour in order to create a womb-like labyrinth of a cave with bits of wood, cardboard, broken furniture and endless rolls of tape. As he gets to know his two young captives locked in the building with him, he is taken with Fauna and takes to bullying her brother. In a series of extremely strange and increasingly cruel events, he forces them do his darkly incestuous bidding, and once they cross the line, they enter an infernal world of raw emotion and mysticism.

We Are The Flesh wins hands down for the title of extreme cinema. Viewers beware as this film is chockfull of writhing nudity, incest, rape, cannibalism, orgies, and even a dash of menstrual blood; letting it all hang out to tell a strange story with creationist undertones in an absurdist and grotesque manner. Adam and Eve, the devil, a God/Jesus/resurrection theme, and Mexico’s nationalistic unrest are explored but goes off the rails just as you think you can make sense of the startling action. Hernández gave a truly arresting performance as the demonic Marciano and Evoli reached deep for her portrayal of Fauna.  From his interviews, Minter sounded very supportive of his cast, but I’m not sure how he got these performances out of his actors.  If the process was anything like Isabelle Adjani’s motivation in Possession, I hope they had a therapist on set.

Only in his mid-twenties, Minter, lauded and backed by Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, has been compared to French director Gaspar Noé. While films like Noé’s Love also used extreme sexuality to tell a story, once you get past the sex, it reveals itself to be a sensitive film about a vulnerable young man searching for lost love. I actually found We Are The Flesh had more in common with Michael Rowe’s 2010 film Leap Year (Año bisiesto). This too was filled with stark and graphic sex, but like Minter Rowe uses sex, sadism and isolation as a way to convey a connection, in this instance humanity and heartache as a lonely young woman finds solace in a sadistic relationship. Leap Year is also similar to We Are The Flesh in that there is a brother and sister relationship and an overbearing older male that dictates to, or has the potential to lord over, a young woman, but that’s where the similarities end.

Where Rowe creates a quiet intensity, Minter juxtaposes poetic dialogue with brutally animalistic actions that come at you full force. The characters are unfettered and wild; giving into impulse after impulse in a womb-like setting, punctuated with a barrage of sound. Actions like breathing, stirring, and sporadic and aggressive drumming pulls the viewer’s focus, making each scene that much more uncomfortable as you wince from both the visual and aural assault. There were also nods to Samuel Beckett along with colourful psychedelic and supernatural elements. Those connections still didn’t make it more accessible to me, perhaps only helping in categorizing familiar scenes.

I appreciate some extreme cinema for what it attempts to overcome in this age of banal cookie cutter genre films (as long as living creatures-human and animal- remain unharmed in real life) but ultimately I can’t say I liked We Are The Flesh. Perhaps I’m not intellectual enough to grasp the abundance of allegorical notions presented here, but there are some things that become too much of a stretch for me to consider them above their shock value.

One viewer’s interpretation of art is another viewer’s headache. Are Lucio and Fauna a new hope in a barren land? Is Marciano their god or a demon? Does an abducted soldier represent a violently dying motherland or an attempt to rid the country of political overseers? Is this an ultimately extreme art film instead of a horror?  Who’s to say, but those questions and more will come to mind as you watch Emiliano Rocha Minter’s chaotic, poetic and ultimately confusing first feature film We Are The Flesh. After this experience, he’s certainly on my radar, and I’m curious to see what he does next. Make up your own mind and see it exclusively on Shudder Canada.

Prevenge-A Shudder Canada Exclusive Coming March 24th!

Published March 20, 2017 by vfdpixie

Prevenge (2016, 1 hr 28 mins)

Alice Lowe as Ruth wreaking havoc maternity style.

When a woman carries a child, one can only imagine the range of emotions that she feels, from joy to fear to a sense of wonder at the life growing inside her. Only she knows how she feels, and only she has that special connection with her unborn child. But what if that connection is a sinister one; one of murderous intentions and revenge? This is the story that director and writer Alice Lowe brings to us in the dark horror comedy Prevenge. Making its way through the film fest circuit including TIFF 2016 and SXSW this year, you can now see it as a Shudder Canada Exclusive set to launch on March 24th.

Ruth (Alice Lowe) is a pregnant woman grieving the death of her partner. She is shell-shocked, alone, and on the surface, void of emotion. Inside, however, she listens to the nagging voice her unborn child, who forces her to become a serial killer out for vengeance. Ruth keeps a baby scrapbook, but instead of baby’s first ultrasound, there are notes and crudely drawn pictures of her targets. Her vengeance goes into overdrive as the twisted little life inside provokes her to kill these unsuspecting people who, to her, held great significance with the fate of her lost husband.

Absurd conversations and laugh out loud moments comprises this darkly clever film. With plenty of double meanings in the script, is also a thing of reflection as motives and a gross contradiction come into play. The notion that a pregnant woman about to bring a life into the world is also taking lives in most unpleasant ways toys with our sensibilities, conventions and taboos about a mother-to-be.

The nature of this pregnancy is truly parasitic. I have never been pregnant, and never will be, but the idea of being at the mercy of an organism living inside you is an awe-inspiring and scary prospect. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be ruled by something growing inside you: what to drink, what to eat and how you feel dictated every moment by a little interloper in your belly, and Ruth plays host to a rather nasty baby, or so it seems. Her telling appointment with midwife Nurse Jenny (Jo Hartley) is hilarious and chilling at the same time as she tells Ruth that her unborn daughter has all the control and “baby will tell you what to do.” Does this statement push her over the edge, or is the baby really using her as a puppet of mass destruction? We’re not quite sure what to believe about Ruth’s mental state, but it’s a truly interesting ride to say the least.

Alice Lowe is best known for her extensive comedy work, writing and acting in several British television and film projects, especially the 2012 black comedy Sightseers which she also co-wrote. She’s well versed in finding humour in the horrific, and Prevenge is that and much more. It’s a study of what someone who is grieving from loss may feel in an extreme situation, and for all the laughs the film provides, it’s also deeply emotional. Ruth has lost her partner and she is alone with a baby on the way exhibiting some not-so-normal tendencies.

According to an interview from this past February in The Guardian, Lowe reportedly wrote the script in 2 weeks and shot the film in 11 days while she was actually pregnant. For a first time director who has also written and starred in her own film, that’s no small feat, and her cast was just as effective as Lowe herself. With familiar faces like Hartley of David Brent: Life on the Road, and Kate Dickie of The Witch, you’ll enjoy seeing them take part in this darkly humorous fiasco. Pay attention to the throbbing synth scoring by Toydrum and some great cinematic moments, one of which had very distant echoes of the insane subway scene in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981).

For her directorial debut, Alice Lowe went with what she knew (well, sort of anyway). Prevenge is a study of the fears of being a new mother and the grieving process in a most surprising way. Be sure to see it when it launches exclusively on Shudder Canada this Friday!

 

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