The Fantasia International Film Festival, as far as I can discern, gets its name from an obvious portmanteau: Part fantasy, as in the genre, and part Asia, as in Japan, China and South Korea, from which many of the program’s films proudly hail. And yet somehow throughout my stay here in Montreal I’ve managed to avoid seeing any Asian fantasy films. Well, I thought at first, perhaps the festival’s mandate has drifted away from its original vision over the years, like when a long-running Bluesfest or Jazzfest comes to be headlined mainly by rock bands. It’s just one of those things. But as the week went on and the festivities riotously continued, I began to suspect that I had the wrong idea. The character of the festival, it became clear, is ardor and zeal; people crowd out public screenings in a spirit of celebration. So that’s it, then. The emphasis in Fantasia is on fan, as in fanaticism: it’s a festival mounted by and for enthusiasts, there to revel in their love of film.
This was made clearest to me several nights ago, at a special 40th anniversary screening of Tobe Hooper’s seminal horror picture The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Concordia Hall Theatre’s 700-some tickets had been sold out for days, and, naturally, the few seats reserved for members of the press filled about as quickly as the doors could be opened, at close to 10pm. Warned that I ought to queue early to guarantee myself a seat, I arrived with a colleague about an hour in advance, and we were nevertheless among the last two let in before the room reached capacity. There was a lot of excitement in the air. Hooper himself was on hand to receive Fantasia’s official Lifetime Achievement award—which he humbly accepted to a five-minute standing ovation before the film—and the screening represented the Canadian premiere of the film’s new 4k digital restoration, itself an event of some significance.
The merits of Hooper’s film are well-established, but it’s probably worth repeating: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains an exemplary work of American independent filmmaking, retaining the full effect of its formal vigor and emotional severity four decades on. (In other words, as a horror film, it’s still among the most astonishing, exhilarating, terrifying . . . the superlatives go on.) As a movie-going experience, part of the night’s appeal was its atmosphere of levity and nonchalance, which often made it seem more like a concert or a party than the presentation of a forty-year-old film. Flasks were passed around, jokes and giggles were exchanged and, as if on cue, a crowd-wide cheer rang out whenever the chainsaw was brandished. It was a refreshing corrective to the hushed awe inspired by most screenings—a bit of a fuck you, if you will, to the cinephilic tradition of reverence. Hoot and holler freely; enjoy the film as you’d like. This is the Fantasia way.
Still, some films lend themselves better to revelry than others, and the Fantasia lineup is not without its forays into sobriety. Earlier in the festival, for instance, John McNaughton, the American director best known for the minor cult item Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, returned to the cinema with his first feature since 2001’s little-seen comedy Speaking of Sex, and this reemergence was not greeted quite so eagerly. Part of the problem may be that The Harvest, as this new film is called, builds toward a gothic-horror climax with a sluggishness that, if you were feeling charitable, might be described as “deliberately paced.” For its first hour the film simply drifts along, leadenly, in what I can only assume is a feeble attempt to build tension. A twist toward the end of the second act reveals that something more interesting has been lurking beneath the surface all along, but by that point it’s much too late: any sense of intrigue had already been exhausted, and my goodwill had long been drained.
The film’s dullness is quite surprising, given the elements in play. The Harvest stars Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton, two masters of on-screen volatility, in roles that call for them to cut loose. The script, written by a first-time screenwriter formerly associated with Troma Entertainment, feels at heart like pure pulp, lacing middle-brow Americana with a hefty dose of sleaze. And the film, assembled for only a few million dollars, is helmed by McNaughton, an old hand at budget horror whose Henry earned him Cassavetes comparisons and cost a little over $100,000. And yet despite the intensity promised by such a collaboration, The Harvest proves a rather tepid picture—a flat, tedious family drama that can’t be bothered to muster a scare. McNaughton seems largely to blame here. Though The Harvest is his first film in thirteen years, he’s kept busy over the last decade directing for network TV, and his style here, in its blandness, seems overwhelmingly televisual. More damningly still, McNaughton seems to misapprehend the value of this material; time and again he opts to emphasize what isn’t interesting while minimizing anything that is. Rarely has a filmmaker been as unwittingly committed to making a bad movie out of a potentially good one.