Tag: Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest 2020 - How to Deter a Robber Review 1

Fantastic Fest 2020 – How to Deter a Robber Review

Tucked away under the Christmas tree, behind the horror films, the crime dramas and the dark comedies is How to Deter a Robber, a sweet story about some teens who face off against some burglars.

Madison (Vanessa Marano) is your average bright eyed teen who bickers with her mom and thinks the world is unfair. She just needs to finish that college admissions essay, but her mom doesn’t take her seriously, and she’d rather just hang out with her boyfriend, Jimmy (Benjamin Papac). Her family has gathered for the holidays, and after a frustrating family dinner, Madison and Jimmy decide to decompress. While glancing across to the neighbours house, they see a light switch on and off and jokingly suspect a burglar or a ghost. The two break into the house, and borrow some skincare and a Ouija board, then fall asleep. They wake up to the house completely burglarized and wind up the prime suspects, unable to leave the country and are marooned Madison’s family home with her uncle. Ready for anything, the pair prep themselves to deter any would be thieves looking for their next score.

How to Deter a Robber (2020)

This cute addition into holiday comedy-thrillers is welcome. It’s the first feature from writer/ director, Maria Bissell and she accomplishes a lot. She’s created a warm coming of age tale that targets the teenage demographic while being fun holiday tale able to make space for itself in the crowded off-beat holiday film space. It’s genuinely funny and stacks the gags and laughs using written jokes, physical bits and camera gags. The editing style is reminiscent of Edgar Wright style sound design bits which drags you into the world of dark comedy.

Marano is great in the lead. Her line delivery is stellar and she portrays the bratty teen with everything handed to her in a way that keeps the character likeable enough to root for. Papac is perfect as the window dressing doing just enough to matter. Chris Mulkey as Uncle Andy brings the necessary warmth to the character that was lacking from the other parental figures showcased. He doesn’t care for kids these days, and doesn’t think you need a cell phone. You get up at 6:00am in his house, but he’ll still show you his cool antiques and reminisce about when you were younger. It’s the chemistry between Marano and the men in the film that make the movie really work.

How to Deter a Robber (2020)

The story of the burglars falls to the wayside in more ways than one. Firstly, the good bid. It’s a story about Madison learning to appreciate her life and her family, and facing her first adversity with the help of her uncle and finally understanding more about the world. The less good bit is that the burglars are kind of boring and don’t raise the stakes. The burglars are somewhat of a myth. The audience doesn’t know if they’re real, if they’re dangerous, or if they’re really just a Hodag. As a result, the scenes of doomsday prepping and family bonding are funny, but that’s really it. Any element of stakes or fear humming in the background and ultimately interrupting the prepping would have made those parts more engaging, but they, instead felt like poorly places fluff.

How to Deter a Robber is a total blast. It’s a refreshing dark comedy that boasts the influence of Home Alone and Sean of the Dead and feels fresh and brand new enough to target the next generation. The gags are well staged and shot, and the whole movie smells like cinnamon, gunpowder and bayberry so you can absolutely slap on a scarf and brace for some well-earned holiday laughs. 

Fantastic Fest 2020 - The Boy Behind the Door Review 1

Fantastic Fest 2020 – The Boy Behind the Door Review

Stories of friendship don’t usually evoke thoughts of dark thrillers, but The Boy Behind the Door, a pitch black film reliant on suspense, is one of the more pure explorations of the relationships we have with the people we choose.

Bobby and Kevin are best buds. Playing with their baseball one day, the two are kidnapped. Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) wakes up in the trunk of a car and uses everything around him to escape. On his way out, he hears Kevin (Ezra Dewey) shouting for help. The two are on opposite sides of a locked door, and Bobby can’t leave his best friend behind.

Not for the faint of heart, this one tackles the kidnapping of two young boys, suggesting what horrors are associated with such an act. It does the service showing great restraint, never portraying the horrors the boys could face, understanding that the mere suggestion is powerful enough. It opts to, instead, skip right to the tension of the escape attempt.

The Boy Behind the Door wastes no time launching into a grizzly game of cat and mouse. Bobby, with a touch of freedom and the benefit of being undiscovered, sneaks around the house desperately seeking ways to liberate his friend. The film relies mostly on action and Bobby’s face. Chavis does a lot of heavy lifting here and he absolutely kills it. There’s a distinct lack of dialogue, and the action is the movie. The camera follows Bobby, an industrious and savvy kid who is just that, a kid. He slips, he gets scared, he explores, and he makes a mess. Chavis sells every part of this, forcing the audience to experience his every thought. We’re made to feel everything he does, driven home in the camera angles resisting showing us faces that Bobby can’t see and ignoring the ones he might ignore.

The Boy Behind the Door

The camera work and direction are absolutely stellar. Bobby makes his way around the house and the same areas are shot and reshot various ways to convey the changing emotion and stakes. Again, this isn’t a dialogue heavy movie, it’s a chase, so the acting and cinematography really have to shine, and do. There are a couple moments where the kidnapper doesn’t act consistently, unnaturally lowering the stakes, but it’s easy to ignore as Bobby’s intense tour through the house is unrelenting and suspenseful enough to let you disregard any missteps.

First time filmmakers, David Charbonier and Justin Powel, don’t try to hide their influences. I won’t spoil the fun, but the two opt to pay homage to a very different film which really works to bring the old classic into the world of the new generation.

There’s a moment where Bobby finds a car that boasts a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker. It’s a throwaway, but as the twists are revealed, you’re forced to consider if there’s a broader statement on the kidnapper underestimating the young Black boy. It’s a simple white knuckle thriller that might sit atop a deeper story on the power of the forgotten but relentless boy who will do everything to save the other victim, a position he shouldn’t have to be in at all.

That this is a first feature is a massive feat. Charbonier and Powel are no doubt ones to watch as they created a film that feels ready to take a spot beside some of the best thrillers, in the crowded sub-genre of kidnapping dramas. By exercising the restraint they did to keep this a simple tale, never bothering with too many characters, added horrors or deeper motivations, they created a truly excellent slice of cinema that will leave your knuckles glowing white.

Fantastic Fest 2020 - The Stylist Review 1

Fantastic Fest 2020 – The Stylist Review

There are lots of ways to flip the slasher on its head, making it meta, making it comedy, telling it out of order, and making the slasher the protagonist. The Stylist, which premiered at Fantastic Fest, makes the slasher the protagonist, but that’s not what makes it special. It’s special because it is incredibly femme.

The Stylist (2020)

Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a successful hairstylist with a nasty habit; she tends to kill her clients and rip their hair off by scalp to try their personas on for size. Stressed, lonely, and envious of the women who grace her chair, Claire sees in them versions of herself she is too shy to embody. When her client, Olivia (Brea Grant) begs her to do her hair for her upcoming wedding, Claire finds herself becoming increasingly enamored by Olivia and her life and Claire’s envy and affection become dangerous. As Claire becomes more obsessed with Olivia, Olivia struggles to keep her at arms length while she unravels into a big ball of hair.

This is a first feature from writer/ director Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian who adapted this from her short by the same name. Gevargizian is a stylist herself and her life experience feels splattered all over this film in more ways than one. Sure, it has Psycho in its DNA (with Claire literally wearing her victims’ skin) and smells like Single White Female, but Gevargizian’s sensibilities, if I may be so bold as to assume, are in the experiences of Claire as a woman. The story hinges on moments of Claire nervously holding her phone while typing messages that look excited filled with “yay”s and “!!!”s. Claire and Olivia speak a language reserved for women with casual use of “down and wavy.” They bond over hair, bridal things, wine and dresses. In a scene at a bachelorette party, the buzzed women clang glasses, spilling red liquid on the yellow silk dress that Claire selected after a painstaking tour through her wardrobe and it’s shot like it’s a major conflict. No, I don’t see myself in a psycho killer who hacks off scalps with hair scissors, but I see myself in the angst of a woman surrounded by the types of women you hope to be friends with, that you nervously want to impress as you sink back into latent social anxiety.

The Stylist (2020)

As a slasher, The Stylist is incredibly strong. Aside from giving us a killer protagonist, it uses multiple techniques to bring the scares. A personal favourite scare is when a killer is meticulous and casually focused about a kill, and Claire’s opening life ender is perfect. She casually stages her tools, no element of fear or angst, then purses her lips in focus while slicing through skin with a pair of hair scissors. It’s a fucking fright and sets the tone of the scares immediately, and showcases how calm Claire is during a kill versus how anxious she is doing most anything else. Angles and sound are used to make banal things like conditioning hair and selecting a bottle of wine look scary, creating a sense of unease which makes Claire’s normal life into a horror. Though the practical effects are stunning, the star of the show is the sound. That first peel back of the locks of hair from her first on screen victim is revolting and what a way to get the ball rolling. The smaller moments where sound is used well are on par with Edgar Wright should he ever make a straight slasher. 

The cliches in the film feel intentional, and almost lean into camp. For instance, Claire hearing the women poke fun at her from inside a bathroom stall, and Olivia being a high-powered woman at a magazine all feel like female centric cliches intentionally jammed into a backwards horror movie.

The Stylist (2020)

Gevargizian’s feature is terrifying and moody and dares us to sympathize with a psycho killer whose feminine social angst feels all to relatable. I always hope to see more of myself in films, especially if it’s this gruesome.

Fantastic Fest 2020- Girl Review

Fantastic Fest 2020 – Girl Review

The gritty female fronted thriller is a fun trend that blew me away in films like Blood on Her Name. It can work to explore versions of female characters we aren’t used to seeing, messy and ready to kill. But, done wrong, it can feel like a shallow female centric film that can’t avoid a male focused narrative. That’s what happened in Girl.

Girl is the story of ‘Girl,’ (Bella Thorne) who journeys to the town where her father lives, intent on killing him after he sent a letter threatening her mother. Girl hasn’t seen her father since she was six, and he literally kicked her and her mother to the curb. Her last memory of him is him teaching her precision target hatchet throwing, so she’s brought her hatchet to do the job. She arrives at the lawless town and seeks out her father, hearing buzz of the mysterious brothers who run things there. When she arrives at her father’s place, she finds him strung up in the garage, covered in signs of torture. Someone beat her to the kill.

On her own and without the satisfaction of carrying out her mission, she slowly moseys through the town, having an unfortunate run in with those famed brothers that sets of a chain of events that reveal family secrets more sinister than she imagined.

Chad Faust wrote, directed and stars alongside Thorne and Mickey Rourke, which, unfortunately removed the opportunity for some collaborative oversight. The film is about a woman, Thorne (the titular role) but it’s never about her so much as it is about the men with whom she comes in contact. Their POV’s are more important than hers, better portrayed than hers, and much of her story is about being their victim. There’s an early shot of her rolling into town where the Sherriff (Rourke) creepily stares at her from inside his SUV while she recoils. The camera focuses far more on the comedically menacing Rourke, and never once portrays the fear a woman, on her own in a strange place on a mission to kill might feel if she was being stalked by an officer. Instead of spending time with her, feeling her damage and fear, it’s shown to us. She is beaten up by three different men before the end of the first act, with no perceivable narrative purpose.

Faust is good at making you feel uncomfortable. He shoots his own character, Charmer, in ways that made me squirm. Unfortunately, he needs some target practice. The discomfort is directed the wrong way, and only made me wince as to my fear that Charmer would hit on or beat Girl up again. The film feels to be indulging Faust or the symbolic gaze. Girl has just discovered the tortured corpse of her father (that she still calls “Daddy”) and is barely keeping awake at a laundromat, but during her creepy run in with the mouthy Charmer, she still takes time to strip and change in the middle of the space. After the two have a brutal scuffle, she gazes at him and asks, “Still want to fuck me?” and he replies “Even more.”

A more delicate hand could have made her run ins with the brothers nuanced. Later, Charmer tells her she needs a man to fight for her, right before she beats him up. It’s a nice “don’t tell me to smile,” moment but feels too disingenuous in the whole to make it land as a feminist moment.

Thorne is exceptional in this role, and its nice to see her vary her portfolio and show us what she can do. She starts off begging us to know she is gritty, grabbing beer by the bottle neck while wearing smeared eyeliner. But later in the film, when her performance relies more on powerful delivery of dialogue, she really shines. This will stand as her resume line item for these types of roles.

The action is shot well enough with some rattling fight scenes and torture devices used to build tension. The visual aesthetic works and creates and all around feel of the town in Anywhere, USA.

The twisted but simple narrative of the gritty female fronted film is a welcome addition to big and small screens, but, unfortunately, by making her the object of the victimizers instead of the subject of victimization, Girl misses the target.