It’s that time of the year again. The Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 commences on July 20 and will wrap up by August 9, celebrating its 27th edition in Montreal, Quebec. This year’s installment is especially a treat for horror aficionados, and fans of all things bizarre, unsettling, and things that are best left unuttered. While it is borderline impossible to intimately engage with the 100+ features premiering this year, along with the strong lineup of shorts, here is a list of 10 films that are a must-see at the festival this year.
1. Red Rooms
Every Fantasia opener is a treat to the senses without fail, just like last year’s profound, transformative ‘Polaris’. This year’s selection, ‘Red Rooms’, already looks extremely interesting. As the title suggests, Pascal Plante’s film zooms in on the ‘red rooms’ in the Dark Web and the horrifying acts that unfurl in these spaces.
A high-profile serial killer, Ludovic Chevalier (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), is accused of brutally murdering and streaming the deaths of three women, which piques the interest of Kelly-Anne (Juliette Gariépy). ‘Red Rooms’ seems to be exploring the blurred lines between reality and fiction when one is consumed with the need to experience snuff as a vicarious experience, and the heavy price that often comes with such an unchartered obsession.
2. Lovely, Dark, & Deep
Director Teresa Sutherland takes this lovely phrase from Robert Frost’s iconic poem and turns it into something seemingly most unsettling in her feature debut, ‘Lovely, Dark & Deep’. Georgina Campbell (of ‘Barbarian’ fame) stars as the mysterious Lennon, who assumes an exciting position as a park ranger in the middle of nowhere, expecting this idyllic retreat to be deeply healing and rewarding.
However, the woods pull her into its treacherous heart, urging her to untangle the web of mystery pertaining to disappearances in the area, along with puzzles of her own past. The film seems to embody folk and cosmic horror into its vein, making it a must-see for those who adore slow-burn, atmospheric scares that are both rooted in reality and terrifyingly psychological.
3. Shin Kamen Rider
No must-see festival movie list is complete without at least one kaiju flick, and Hideaki Anno’s ‘Shin Kamen Rider’ easily takes the spotlight this year. Shin Kamen Rider follows student and motorcycle enthusiast Takeshi Hongo, who is suddenly kidnapped by an organization named SHOCKER.
An evil corporation like SHOCKER wants the usual — world domination — but aims to achieve it with the aid of a hydridized army filled with mutants, cyborgs, and so on. Takeshi is ideal as a test subject due to his athletic predispositions, but he is soon rescued and decides to use his now-enhanced powers to help save the world. ‘Kamen Rider’, as a franchise is a classic, just like Anno’s ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, which induces a once-in-a-lifetime experience of deep, guttural emotions fueled by pain and trauma.
4. Empire V
The vampire genre is pretty tired and overwrought at the moment, and any film that seeks to challenge and destabilize established tropes is welcome to do so. Victor Ginzburg’s ‘Empire V’ sets itself in Moscow and follows Roman (Pavel Tabakov), who gets a weird invitation to join the elite in a rather ‘Eyes Wide Shut’-esque fashion and is forced to undergo a transformation as a vampire.
Now dubbed as Rama, Roman joins the vampire echelons, who have a hold over humanity as they lust after money instead of blood veins, and Roman needs to find a way to find his calling without inciting the wrath of his new mentors. However, as Roman edges closer to the truth, the vampire world is thrown into chaos and hierarchies are about to change.
Everyone loves a tense nail-biter of a film, and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s ‘#Manhole’ presents itself as a dizzying venture into the underbellies of societal strata. Shunsuke, a salesperson at a real estate firm who’s set to marry soon, tumbles into a manhole after a drunken night of revelry. The hole is dark and dirty, of course, and no amount of screaming for help can alleviate the situation, especially after he hurts his leg badly after the fall.
Calling friends and the police leads to no glimmers of hope, forcing him to turn to social media, where he concocts a new identity in hopes of being rescued. But surely, identity fabrication has a deadly consequence in our current world, especially one that is quick to discard empathy in the face of momentary trending topics and vicarious gratification. Will Skunsuke escape this deadly predicament?
6. Pett Kata Shaw
Nuhash Humayun’s horror short ‘Moshari’ was a sensation at Fantasia last year, and this time, he has returned with an anthology of short films that tackle uncomfortable social concepts that are colored by local Bangladeshi folk tales. The title, ‘Pett Kata Shaw’, refers to a letter in the Bengali alphabet, but it also carries ominous connotations that edge towards topics that are gruesome and unsettling.
Humayun weaves horror shorts about creepy confectioners in the dead of the night, superstitious villagers, and nighttime disappearances while imbibing facets from Bengali folklore where spirits can be especially unforgiving when a line is crossed. This is an anthology that will most probably sport a distinct cultural vignette, and it will be interesting to see how Humayun uses that to weave stories that feel innately universal.
Time for some steampunk anime, folks! This fantastical tale combines retro and noir elements during the Taisho era in Japan, where a detective named Sotaro and his sidekick Saki take on cases without keeping the risks in mind. After a wave of strange disappearances occurs, the duo is hired to solve this labyrinthine mystery, which leads them to truths that are best left uncovered.
After some time, Saki goes missing as well, making the case a lot more personal for Sotaro, who needs to pluck up the courage to venture into the dark alone. Shigeyoshi Tsukahara paints Kurayukaba in moody, nostalgic tones, using fluid animations to bring a thrilling steampunk detective mystery to life. In my eyes, it’s a must-see.
8. Sympathy for the Devil
When a Nicolas Cage movie premieres at Fantasia, you must see it, no matter what. Cage’s previous debut history includes the transcendental ‘Mandy’, and this year, he is back in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, courtesy of director Yuval Adler.
A crime thriller through and through, the film is set in Las Vegas’ neon-drenched streets, where a driver (Joel Kinnaman) finds himself going through a lot. While on his way to the hospital, his cab is intercepted by a menacing passenger (Cage) with a gun, ‘Collateral’-style, and the situation escalates quickly before the sun rises again. While Cage excels in roles of every variety, there’s something special about him re-entering his villain era (Castor Troy in Face-Off, anyone?), where one can expect his actions to be more nuanced than what it appears to be true at first glance.
The implications of the sudden rise of A.I. and its usage to displace human jobs, hopes, and dreams are not lost on anyone at the moment, and ‘Romi’ capitalizes on this sentiment in this feature-length film that began as a short. Maddie (Alexa Barajas) has recently been in an accident, and her politically-influential mother sends her to a fully A.I. operated safehouse to keep her daughter out of the news to avoid a scandal.
This A.I., ROMI, is a tad bit unsettling, and despite being surrounded by friendly faces from time to time, Maddie finds herself increasingly paranoid and on edge. She is hell-bent on surviving this rough patch but is instead faced with several moral dilemmas hedged between terrifying scenarios, and Maddie has to find a way to uncover the truth before, you guessed it, it’s too late.
Xavier Gens is back, babe, whose previous Fantasia gem ‘Frontier(s)’ took the horror genre by storm. This time, Gens returned with an action thriller named ‘Mayhem!’ (also known as Farang), which follows Sam (Nassim Lyes), who only has a few months left on his prison sentence.
During this time, Sam enters a work furlough program that gives him a taste of the unbridled freedom that’s to come, but things drastically go wrong, forcing him to escape to Thailand. Years later, Sam seeks to be happy with his family, but he needs to fight for this hard-earned sense of liberty and face dangerous local gangs and thugs in the process. ‘Mayhem!’ sounds brutal and unforgiving, and in Gens’s capable hands, it is bound to evolve into a lean, mean thriller with a lot of layers.