15 Years of Fantastic Discoveries: 1996-1999

In 2011, The Fantasia International Film Festival celebrates its 15th Anniversary. It’s been a wild ride full of amazing, eye-scorching, boundary-busting cinema, and we’ve had some of the genre’s leading lights with us along the way. For the months leading up to this summer’s anniversary edition, we’ll be posting festival overviews highlighting each year’s premieres, special guests and thematic retrospectives, accompanied by rare event photos (it’s kind of scary how much some of us have changed in 15 years – yikes!). So come take a trip back to a time when a trio of old friends decided to take a chance on genre cinema audiences in Montreal – and created a mammoth event that has since ecome an integral part of our city’s cultural landscape.


Martin Savageau, Andre Dubois and Pierre Corbeil with Ultraman


- FANTASIA 1996 -

In 1996 Martin Sauvageau, André Dubois and Pierre Corbeil decided to organize a film festival dedicated to Asian genre cinema. They received the invaluable collaboration of several people including Julien Fonfrede, E. Jean Guerin, Hiromi Aihara and John Jordan, and were influenced collectively by a combination of lifelong genre film love and the inspirational push provided by the short-lived but much beloved Montreal Festival International de Cinema Fantastique (1992-1993).

City on Fire

Lasting an unheard-of straight month, the inaugural edition of the Fantasia Film Festival ran from July 12- August 11. It was kick-started predominantly with a gigantic retrospective of 40 feature films from Hong Kong from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s. That golden age of HK cinema produced the strongest and most distinctive work from filmmakers and performers who were mostly unknown to western audiences – certainly none of Montreal’s film festivals seemed interested in showcasing this extraordinary wave of talent – who have since become household names around the world.

The festival screened spotlights on phenomenal performers like Chow Yun Fat – incontestably one of the very best actors of his generation – including A Better Tomorrow 2, City on Fire, Once A Thief, Full Contact, God of Gamblers, God of Gamblers’ Return, Peace Hotel, Prison on Fire 1+2. Also showcased was martial arts sensation (and true heir to Bruce Lee’s legacy) Jet Li, with the films Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, High Risk, The Tai Chi Master and My Father is a Hero (which opened the festival and screened to a sold out room). From master comedian Stephen Chow we saw A Chinese Odyssey 1+2, From Beijing With Love, Love on Delivery and Out of the Dark. The festival also  premiered films from now-legendary directors such as Tsui Hark, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Johnny To and Yuen Woo-Ping. Other show-stoppers included out-of-this-world midnight screenings of titles like the delirious Story of Ricky, the notorious Untold Story and the bodacious Sex and Zen, each of which unspooled in front of rabid and bedazzled packed houses.

Robot Carnival

André Dubois with Godzilla

Along with the 40 Hong Kong films, 20 titles from Japan completed the programming with major anime features like The Castle of Cagliostro from master director Hayao Miyazaki, Omnibus film Memories from several directors, among them Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame, Patlabor 2 from Mamoru Oshii (Director of Ghost in the Shell), Robot Carnival and Wings of Honnemaise. On the giant monster front, Fantasia unveiled Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe and rare prints of Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.

These films received an extremely enthusiastic response from the Fantasia audience, with many of them having several sold out screenings – and this in a 940-seat movie theatre! This outlandishly strong success gave organizers the confidence to come back the following year with an even bigger show, and the rest, as they say, is Fantasia history!

- FANTASIA 1997 -

1997 was a watershed year for Fantasia, with the festival expanding its boundaries in enormous leaps and bounds to become a full-on reflection of the international fantastic filmmaking world. Mitch Davis, Karim Hussain and Julien Fonfrede were brought on board as official key programmers, joining the founding programming team of Pierre Corbeil, Martin Sauvageau and André Dubois.  Davis has been a core programmer at the festival ever since, and is now the festival’s Co-Director.

Fantasia ’97, as it was billed, took Montreal by storm from July 11-August 10 – a straight month of filmic mania!  Attendance numbers were enormous, with nearly two thirds of the screenings packing out the 940-seat Imperial cinema. The lineup featured numerous cutting edge discoveries and revelations, along with highlights from the last several years of international genre filmmaking that had yet to be screened in Quebec:

Perfect Blue

The world premiere of Satoshi Kon’s landmark feature debut Perfect Blue.

The International premiere of Takashi Miike’s Fudoh, which marked the first time a film from the now-iconic arthouse enfant terrible had ever been shown to an audience in this part of the world.

Karim Hussain and Jim Van Bebber

A special screening of a workprint of Jim Van Bebber’s years-in-the-making Charlie’s Family (the screening won an audience award and rekindled worldwide interest in the film, leading to a new wave of media attention and opening the door to new investors, which saw the film being completed under the title The Manson Family).

The North American premiere of Todd Morris and Deborah Twiss’ incendiary A Gun For Jennifer (hosted by Twiss & Morris who, in a memorable stunt, stalked the lineup an hour before the screening pushing a gun in peoples’ faces!

Mitch Davis and Richard Stanley

Richard Stanley flew in with the sole-existing 35mm print of his director’s cut of the extraordinary Dust Devil (North American premiere – Stanley also played around and offering to anoint people with a bloody handprint on their clothing or foreheads).

Lloyd Kaufman, James Gunn and Daniel as Toxie

On the Hong Kong side, audiences were floored by such films as the Jackie Chan actioneer Drunken Master 2, Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, Ronny Yu’s  Bride with White Hair,  Wai Kai-Fai’s Too Many Ways to be Number One (North American premiere),  Corey Yuen’s Bodyguard From Beijing, Yuen Woo-Ping & Wong Jing’s Last Hero in China,  Wong Jing  & Corey Yuen’s New Legend of Shaolin, Xinyan Zhang’s Shaolin Temple,  Sammo Hung’s Once Upon a Time in China and America (North American premiere), Lee Lik-Chee’s Flirting Scholar, Daniel Lee’s Black Mask,  Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-Chee’s God of Cookery, Ah Lun’s Satan Returns, Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers 3, and Billy Tang’s  outrageous Red to Kill (which Fantasia later released on VHS via the festival’s short-lived video label).

Japanese highlights included Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist (hosted by producer Hiromi Aihara), Mamoru Oshi’s Ghost in the Shell, Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera 2 (North American premiere), Atsushi Muroga’s Score, Takashi Nakamura’s Catnapped, Hosoyama Tomoaki’s A Weather Woman and Shinya Nakajima’s Ultraman Z – Earth.
Other highlights included the North American premiere of Alberto Sciamma’s Killer Tongue and Canadian premieres of Alex Mark A.Z. Dippé’s Spawn,  Jess Franco’s comeback film Tender Flesh (hosted by Kevin Collins and Hugh Gallagher), Frank Grow’s The Love God, Lloyd Kaufman’s Tromeo and Juliet (hosted by Kaufman and screenwriter James Gunn), Electra (hosted by Julian Grant), and Chuck Parello’s Henry 2.

Day of the Beast

This was also the year that Fantasia brought Alex De la Iglesia’s incredible Day of the Beast to Montreal audiences, two years after it screened to powerhouse raves at the Toronto International Film Festival (incredibly, every Montreal film festival ignored it in the meantime).

A special tribute to Italian horror cinema was mounted, featuring screenings of Dark Waters (North American premiere, hosted by Mariano Baino), Wax Mask (International premiere, hosted by Sergio Stivaletti), Stendhal Syndrome (hosted by Sergio Stivaletti), Al Festa’s bottomlessly bizarre Fatal Frames (hosted by Loris Curci) and retro screenings of Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright, Dario Argento’s Deep Red, Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground,  a new 35mmm print of Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (hosted by Grindhouse Releasing’s Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski, the latter now an Oscar-winning editor, with titles like Hurt Locker, Spiderman and Drag Me to Hell on his resume),  and a pair of Lucio Fulci classics, Zombie and a new 35mm print of The Beyond.

Other retro titles screened were Santo vs. The Monsters (one of the craziest midnight screenings in Fantasia’s quite crazy history!), a rare print of Ishirô Honda’s The Mysterians and a gorgeous new 35mm print of Terence Fisher’s Revenge of Frankenstein.

Cutting Moments

On the short film front, the hands-down standouts were the North American premiere of Nacho Cerda’s now-legendary, then-unknown Aftermath and the Canadian premiere of Douglas Buck’s scorching Cutting Moments. Both won audience awards. Cerda later co-scripted his feature film The Abandoned (official selection: Tiff, Sitges etc) with Karim Hussain and Richard Stanley. Buck became a regular attendee at the festival over the years, ultimately moving to Montreal in 2009. He too has collaborated with Hussain on numerous projects, the most recent being the anthology horror project Theatre Bizarre.

Other short film highlights included David Alcalde’s Dr. Curry, Jim Van Bebber’s My Sweet Satan, Hideki Kimura’s L&D, Michael Gingold’s Hands Off, Sylvain Ruest’s L’Homme Vrai, Andrew Bancroft’s Planet Man, Mark Wilkinson’s The Next Big Thing and Dante Tomaselli’s original short film version of Desecration.
1997 also marked the first year that Fantasia became an international festival with media from all around the world attending. While many esteemed journalists have joined us over the years, in 1997 we were visited by many of the most important genre writers of that era, including Harvey Fenton (FAB Press/Flesh & Blood Magazine), Fangoria editor Tony Timpone (who, following his inaugural visit, became a programmer with the festival onwards from 1998),  Deep Red’s Chas Balun (who memorably declared the festival to be “the Woodstock of horror”), Shivers’ Marcele Perks, Jason J. Slater (The Darkside), Martin Coxhead (Shivers),  Michael Gingold (Fangoria), Glenn Wilcox (Graveside Entertainment),  Hugh Gallagher (Draculina),  Jim McLennan (Trash City) and Loris Curci.

- FANTASIA 1998 –

1998 marked the first year that then-Fangoria editor Tony Timpone came on board as a key member of the Fantasia programming team (a position he continues to this day), joining the team of Pierre Corbeil, Mitch Davis, Andre Dubois, Julien Fonfrede, Karim Hussain, Martin Sauvageau and associate programmer Hiromi Aihara.


A  key highlight of the International lineup was a spotlight on the new wave of Spanish genre cinema, with North American Premieres of Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s Airbag, 99.9 (hosted by director Agustin Villaronga), Dame Algo (hosted by director Héctor Carré) and the world premiere of Nacho Cerda’s wildly anticipated follow-up to AftermathGenesis (hosted by Cerda).

Angus Scrimm & Richard Stanley

Canadian premieres in the International section included Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (which marked the first time that a film by Aronofsky was screened in Canada), Larry Fessenden’s Habit (hosted by the director – the first of his many visits to the festival), Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s riotous Cannibal the Musical, Martin Walz’ Killer Condom (featuring FX by German underground legend Jorg Buttgereit), Steve Wang’s Drive (with the director present) and Progeny with director Brian Yuzna and actress Jillian McWhirter in person to present this, as well as the World Premiere of Yuzna’s  film The Dentist 2. Director Don Coscarelli and cult icon Angus Scrimm graced the stage of the Imperial to host the World Premiere of Phantasm: Oblivion.

Tony Timpone with John Carpenter

Russell Mulcahy hosted the North American premiere of Talos the Mummy (later retitled as Tales of the Mummy), Pupi Avati’s Arcane Enchanter made its first appearance on North American soil, and the mighty John Carpenter himself appeared as guest of honour, closing out the festival with the North American Premiere of his film Vampires.

Fantasia alumni Jim Van Bebber and Richard Stanley returned to present their personal prints of Deadbeat at Dawn and the director’s cut of Hardware, respectively, capping an incredible selection of retro screenings that included Hammer’s archival print of The Devil Rides Out (hosted by Bill Lustig), Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, Gerald Kargl’s incredible Angst, Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs, Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery and a rare 35mm print of the director’s cut of Street Trash (hosted by Roy Frumkes, and preceded with the original 16mm short film version of the film), not to mention rowdy midnight screenings of Hercule Contre les Vampires and Santo et le Tresor de Dracula. Standout short films included Allessandro Ingargiola’s The Two Red Dolls, Douglas Buck’s Home (hosted by Buck) and Jim Van Bebber’s Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin.

The Gingko Bed

On the made-in-Canada front, Maurice Devereaux appeared with his cast to present the years-in-the-making Lady of the Lake, and Toronto-based filmmaker Julian Grant hosted the World Premiere of his film Airborne. Grant would have a multi-faceted role in this year’s edition of the festival: In 1998 Fantasia held a satellite event Toronto, at the Bloor cinema, sharing several films and guests with the Montreal edition. Julian Grant (Electra, Fantasia 1997) initiated the idea, and enlisted the help of Colin Geddes, the well known promoter of Hong Kong cinema in Toronto (and now Midnight Madness programmer at TIFF) to coordinate logistics related to the event. Programmers Mitch Davis and Karim Hussain making regular trips with guests between the two cities during the month-long festival. Fantasia Toronto was very well attended, with an audience of 35,000 spectators – but ultimately running two simultaneous events proved too much of a strain on existing resources for the initiative to continue.

Chiu Cheuk (The Blade) signs autographs

On the Asian front, Fantasia hosted its first-ever Korean film – Je-gyu Kang’s The Gingko Bed – as well as two new anime features based on Osamu Tezuka’s famous mangas Blackjack and Jungle Emperor Leo, Shunji Iwai came in to host the North American premiere of Swallowtail Butterfly and Takashi Ishii appeared in person to host a triptych of special screenings: the Montreal premiere of Gonin, the Canadian premiere of Gonin 2, and the North American premiere of Black Angel. One of the more sobering and memorable screenings of this year’s edition saw Chinese director T.F. Mous appear in person to present his infamous 1988 film Men Behind the Sun.

As usual, the Hong Kong section was packed to the gills with now-essential Eastern cinema: the then-unknown Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By; Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (produced by Jackie Chan); two of John Woo’s most famous films, Hard Boiled and the mythical long version of The Killer (presented for the first time outside Asia); a Jet Li quadruple-bill featuring The Hitman, The Kung Fu Cult Master, Martial Arts of Shaolin and Born to Defence; Stephen Chow’s Lawyer Lawyer and The Magnificent Scoundrels; Ringo Lam’s Full Alert (starring HK giant Lau Ching-Wan); Naked Killer and Run and Kill (two of the most notorious category III films ever produced in Hong Kong); and additional martial arts classics including the restored 25th a nniversary print of  Enter the Dragon Eastern Condors, Sammo Hung’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind and Prodigal Son, and Wang Yu’s Master of the Flying Guillotine. From Johnnie To and Wai-Ka-Fai’s Milky Way production company came The Odd One Dies, The Longest Night and Intruder, while HK martial arts maestro Chiu Man Cheuk hosted a special screening of Tsui Hark’s The Blade as well as the North American Premiere of The Black Sheep Affair (wowing the audience with a kung fu demo onstage before the film!)



- FANTASIA 1999 -


In 1999 Fantasia expanded to utilize the then-new high-concept Ex-Centris complex in addition to the glorious Imperial Cinema. The festival was host to some important premieres in 1999, including the North American premiere of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and the International premiere of Ring 2, with director Nakata in person. It was the first time he’d seen the films with a non-Asian audience, and the overwhelming crowd response prompted Dreamworks to pick up the franchise.

Hideo Nakata introduces 'Ringu'

Other major coups included the international premiere of Masayuki Ochiai’s Hypnosis and the North American premiere of Kim Ji-Woon’s The Quiet Family (the inspiration for Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris). This was the first time a Kim Ji-Woon film played in Canada, and he has since gone on to be an incredibly important Asian genre director, helming A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil, and The Good, The Bad + The Weird, among others. FromJapan, director Shusuke Kaneko  appeared in person to present his film Gamera 3.

Johnnie To

Further premieres included Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet; Geoffrey (Romper Stomper) Wright’s Metal SkinSex: The Annabel Chong Story with its star, controversial sex performer Annabel Chong – aka women’s studies grad Grace Quek – in person; Heaven (Scott Reynolds’ follow-up to The Ugly); a pre-Splice Vincenzo Natali in person with his short film Elevated; Les Bernstein’s indie noir Night Train (featuring  character actor John Voldstad, better known as one of the brothers Darryl from Newhart, in a rare starring role) with both Voldstad and Bernstein in person; the criminally underseen The Eternal with director Michael Almereyda in person;  and  Austinite Arthur Bradford in person with his feel-good documentary How’s Your News. In the more transgressive department, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s student film Kichiku was a shocking piece of terrorist art, Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis premiered his own disturbing short film Divided Into Zero and anime was turned on its head with Hiroshi Harada’s Midori: The Girl in the Freakshow (based on the manga by Suehiro Maruo and introduced by a live dance number!).

In a Glass Cage

Anthony Timpson and Jorg Buttgereit

But the big special guest of 1999 was director/producer Johnnie To, a longtime idol to the festival programmers, who appeared in person to introduce screenings of Expect the Unexpected, Lifeline, A Hero Never Dies, and Where a Good Man Goes, as well as to head up a critical forum on the state of Hong Kong Cinema. It was on the recommendation of Johnnie To that HK screen giant Lau Ching Wan accepted an invitation to attend Fantasia the following year.

The festival at this time was also still boasting a robust retrospective section, with screenings of Dr. Butcher  MD, Massacre at Central High, Nekromantik and Schramm (with cult underground German horror director Jorg Buttgereit in person), In a Glass Cage (1986), Mark of the Devil (1969), Rudy Ray Moore in person with his 70s blaxploitation staples Dolemite and Detroit 9000 (preceded by a live comedy routine), Joys of Torture (1968), Wife to be Sacrificed (1974), School of the Holy Beast (1974), Mighty Peking Man (1977) and Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972). In many cases these films were still unknown in North America, and their screenings at Fantasia prompted DVD distribution deals stateside.



Stay tuned to the next issue of Spectacular Optical for Festival Overviews of Fantasia 2000-2004!

Photos: Pierre Roussel

About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, Owner/Artistic Director of Spectacular Optical Publications and founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver, was the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) and contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington, 2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (PS Press, 2017). She co-edited and published the anthology books KID POWER! (Spectacular Optical, 2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (Spectacular Optical, 2015) and Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017), and is co-editing Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television for release in late 2017. She is currently writing A Song From the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time: Children’s Programming and the Counterculture, 1965-1985, monographs about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter and Patricia Birch’s Grease 2, and is in development on a TV series based on her book House of Psychotic Women with Rook Films.


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