ONCE UPON A TIME AT FANTASIA…
Staff, friends and fans of the festival weigh in with their favourite Fantasia memories! In this issue: Rue Morgue’s Rodrigo Gudiño, Hobo With a Shotgun’s Jason Eisener and Rob Cotterill, Amer’s Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet, Matthew Hays of The Mirror and The Globe & Mail and genre wonder-woman Jovanka Vuckovic!
I attended Fantasia for the first time back in 1998 or 99; the year it came to Toronto. At that time Rue Morgue was just a baby publication, and what transpired over those three or so weeks ended up being a formative experience for the magazine. Like some weird act of magic, Fantasia brought out a lot of like minded people who I didn’t even know existed. I was introduced to Mitch Davis, befriended future RM contributors Joseph O’Brien and Brad Abraham, and even met Gary Pullin, who would later become Rue Morgue’s art director.
I remember the distinct feeling in the air, that feeling you get when something dangerous is about to happen. It was the kind of high we were all looking for at a time when Halloween: H20 was the big release of the summer and every horror movie poster was dominated by the floating heads of its principal cast.
Fantasia was on a collision course with all that. Here was a collection of the extreme and transgressive; cinematic rarities from all over the world finally exposed by the dusty rays of a projector. It was the kind of festival where anything could happen… and did. Nerves were wrecked by cinematic assaults like Gerard Kargl’s Angst, soothed by the arthouse horrors of Larry Fessenden’s Habit, thrilled by the long-awaited installment in the Phantasm series, only to be decimated once again by shorts like Douglas Buck’s Cutting Moments and Nacho Cerda’s Aftermath. Preconceptions withered, minds expanded. Watching films wasn’t safe again.
Fantasia doesn’t come to Toronto anymore which is why it has become an annual pilgrimage for us at Rue Morgue, a ritual where expectations are still met and often exceeded… with extreme prejudice. Later, when Mitch asked me to screen my own movies at the festival, it was a weird, fantastic moment. Without Fantasia Rue Morgue would not be the same magazine. Nor would I be the same filmmaker.
Fucking Fantasia! For me Fantasia is the best genre film festival in the world, and it holds some of my dearest memories. Memories soaked in blood, sliced by swords, choked by gore, and strewn across a cinema for all to curb stomp. Every screening at Fantasia is a special event, the crowds are rabid for films and each screening is like a rock concert.I have to share two particularly memorable moments that I had at Fantasia with you all. The first was way back, I think the first Fantasia – There was a screening of a rare film print of Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright – it was at the old imperial theatre, which had an amazing balcony.On that balcony one of the festival guests, Richard Stanley, then-programmer Karim Hussain, Mitch Davis and myself had conspired to enhance the screening.
We had acquired several feather pillow cases, and during the films climax – where post mass murder feathers are falling everywhere – we dumped our pillow contents – filling the cinemawith falling feathers, reflecting the light of the projector, the crowd roared. The second, forever burned in my brain experience that I am going to share was when Jason Eisener & myself, brought our short film, Treevenge, to its world premiere.We had finished the film the day before, and were nervous as fuck – we had never screened anything that we had made outside of Halifax, and certainly not to a veteran genre audience.
We did our best to intro the film, nervous as hell – then walked to the back of the cinema to gauge the reaction. Something happened so unexpected and extraordinary, that thing you dream of whenyou make a film – for the audience to go off, and they did – there were screams, laughs, and cheers – it was deafening – Jason and I were stunned and in awe of how this very special audience embraced our crazy little film. And from then on we knew we had to keep making films for the people that can show their love for films in such a huge way, to make films for Fantasia.
In 2001, we came to present our first short film Catharsis at Fantasia in Montreal, a town which from Belgium looked like the Eldorado for “alternative genre films”, earlier years having produced films such as Subconscious Cruelty and Divided into Zero from Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis, both programmers at the time.
In every way, the 2001 edition will remain one of the strongest film festival experiences we ever had, foremost because it was the first time we attended a 35mm showing of our film and because only a few days later, on Hélène’s birthday as well, we received a prize for the first time in our lives. Talk about an unforgettable moment, you can’t do better! But on the actual day of the showing, when we saw the ENORMOUS lineup outside the Imperial, we thought we were hallucinating: we had never seen such a big theater filled with people coming to see short films! We were shaking before going on stage. It was super impressive and we couldn’t see anything because of the lights blinding us, but we could hear our shaky voices fill the gigantic theater that is the Imperial. We were so stressed that Hélène almost tripped coming down the stage!
On that level, it was intense! From a cinephile’s point of view, though, the program was pure gold! We haven’t discovered so many good things in so little time since. Akira and Once Upon a Time in China projected in 35mm on the big screen, the poetry and subversion of Jose Mojica Marins, the extremely original independent films Dead Creatures and $lasher$, the surrealist Nekojiru-So… and two films that particularly inspired the rest of our cinematographic career: Sadistic and Masochistic by Hideo Nakata, which introduced us to Roman Porno and Konuma, of which the images have long haunted us and finally inspired a sequence in Amer. Finally, the last strike was Millennium Actress and its narrative. It was the first time of our lives we had seen a film so rich and so profound that it was possible to read it differently, depending on the angle once chose to look at it. It was such a shock that we were in tears. Later, we stumbled upon [its director] Satoshi Kon! Shaken by the power of what we had just seen, we started talking to him in English, telling him everything we felt during the film. He listened closely and seemed touched but when we finished our speech, someone accompanying him told us he didn’t understand English. It was an extremely powerful and totally absurd moment we had the opportunity to have with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Thank you Fantasia!
One of the funnest memories I have of Fantasia was from their 1997 edition. They had programmed a kickass, low budget, quasi-feminist guns-and-gals flick, A Gun For Jennifer. I interviewed the director and star of the film for the Mirror for a big feature we did… A friend and I went to the screening, and as we approached the Imperial Cinema we could see a massive line-up around the block. I was so floored by how cool it was that such a huge crowd had gathered to see this little film that could. Watching the film, I was reminded about why the act of watching movies should almost always be a communal one: the crowd went nuts whenever there were long shoot-out sequences (of which there were plenty). There’s one quite drawn out shoot-’em-up sequence that must go on for over ten minutes, and after a while the Fantasia crowd began roaring their approval for the carnage. It was such a Fantasia, Up-with-wanton-violence! moment… and it was at that point that I realized the Montreal cultural landscape was shifting, and that a truly great film fest had been born. Viva Fantasia!!
The year was 1998. Toronto. Every horror fan worth his or her total blood volume was excited after seeing the posters around town. Fantasia was coming to Hogtown! The Montreal-based action, fantasy and kung fu film fest was in its third year and had expanded to include horror films, with Fangoria Editor Emeritus Tony Timpone on board as an international film programmer. Best of all, it was being hosted by one of the city’s stalwart rep theatres, The Bloor Cinema, a place I visited with furious regularity. For my part, Fantasia might as well he happening right in my living room!
Advertised were screenings for everything from the next entry in the Phantasm series (with The Tall Man himself in attendance!) to underground films including Nacho Cerdà’s Aftermath, an incendiary Spanish film that instantly shot to the top of my list of favourite shorts. Also on the menu were new horror comedies Cannibal the Musical and Killer Condom, plus a host of classics including 35mm prints of Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery (complete with vomit bags!) and Roy Frumke’s Street Trash. There was even talk about John Carpenter appearing to close out the fest with his western bloodsucker film, Vampires. Could it get any better?
I think I had my ass in a seat at the Bloor almost every day of the festival and even called in sick to my job (I was a visual effects artist back then) to catch screenings. Though it would be the first and last year of Fantasia Toronto, it was safe to say I was in love. I won some trivia prizes and met some people that would ultimately change the course of my life a few years later. Then, in 2003, we began our annual five and a half hour treks to Montreal to cover the festival for Rue Morgue Magazine. I famously got a speeding ticket every single year as a keepsake. It was an event I looked forward to; the riotous screenings, social events at the Beer Garden and later the Irish Embassy, Mitch Davis’ ever-evolving eccentric hairdos and fashions, Daniel’s kung fu light switch performances, sharing a merch table with Fab Press’ Harvey Fenton – all these things became part of the Fantasia experience for me.
Then there were the filmmakers. Always in attendance were the men and women behind some of the weirdest and wildest cinema from across the globe – many of which were more than happy to attend the post midnight screening festivities in Euro-flavoured Montreal. From surreal coffee conversations with Richard Stanley (Hardware) to tattoo parlour antics with Jorge Olguin (Sangre Eterna) to furious film arguments with Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik) and getting hit on by Sion Sono (Suicide Circle) through his interpreter every year he was there, Fantasia was a carnival of outrageous delights and discoveries for filmgoers and fans like me. So when I was asked to be on the film jury in 2009, I jumped at the chance at being a more intimate part of my favourite film festival.
Yes, there’s a special kind of magic at North America’s largest and finest international film festival. Yet, as big as the fest gets, it always feels boutiquey and personal, thanks to the familiar faces that run it. You’ll regularly find friendly people like Mitch, Karim and Kier-La standing outside of Concordia University passionately discussing film with friends and fans. They’re like a comfy, human red carpet that gets rolled out every year for the fest (even though they work tirelessly all year round). And now that I’m a filmmaker myself, you can bet your ass that Fantasia is at the top of my list of festivals I plan to screen my first short film, The Captured Bird. Attending as a filmmaker, after attending as journalist and cinephile for 13 years, is going to be indescribably special to me. But in whatever capacity I attend, I’ll always be a fan.
Here’s to 15 more years of weird, wonderful world cinema at Fantasia!
Do you have a favorite Fantasia memory? A film or an event that has stayed with you over time? Relate it in the comments!