For a little over ten years, Canada's Fantasia International Film Festival has been on the cutting edge of up and coming genre greatness. They discovered such macabre masters as Takashi Miike and introduced J-Horror and other world shock cinema to a desperate for something different Western mentality. Offering the unusual, the brazen, and the unique, the festival specializes in both full-length features and an amazing array of short films. At last years celebration alone, over 100 of these truncated talent showcases were presented. Now, in conjunction with Synapse Films, the festival is offering up Small Gauge Traumas, a collection of its most novel and creative contributions. And believe it or not, it's one of the best DVD packages of the year.
Featuring entries from all over the world, and clocking in at over three hours, the 13 short films featured here all stay relatively close to their macabre/speculative fiction roots. Using a combination of film, video and animation mediums, the concepts contained herein are as varied as their incredibly divergent styles. Individually, we have the following storylines to work with:
Abuelitos (Grandfathers) (1999) – at a surreal nursing home, elderly patients are kept alive via a very gruesome diet.
Chambre Jaune (Yellow Room (2002)– an unseen killer stalks an unwitting victim.
Flat-N-Fluffy (2001) – a stoner and his Russian radical pal accidentally kill a neighbor's dog.
Gorgonas (2004) – a pop band becomes the mythological monsters that turn all who view them into stone.
I'll See You In My Dreams (2004) – a local village is overrun by zombies, and one brave marauder is out to stop them, including his jealous living dead spouse.
Infini (2002) – in a solitary room, a man pieces together the memories of the dying.
L'ilya (2000) – a young lady, who records suicides as part of her performance art, begins to be troubled by the stories she hears during these self-inflicted deaths.
Love from Mother Only (2003) – a slutty Satanist whore becomes possessed, and forces her lover to kill his domineering mother.
Miss Greeny (1997) – a brief introduction to a shape shifting blob.
Ruta Destroy (2002) – a group of doped up druggies sing songs to their addiction-driven lifestyle.
The Separation (2003) – a pair of conjoined twins are surgically separated, much to one's despair.
Sister Lulu (2001) – a disgruntled nun at a cruel convent makes a deal to escape.
Tea Break (2004) – a worker on a decapitation assembly line takes a much needed pause from his work.
Instead of presenting an overview of the films offered, this review will rate them independently. Clearly, the level of artistry here is amazing. Unlike similar offerings from Fangoria and standard short film distributors, the individuals behind Fantasia want to make sure that this collection of mini-movies really stands out. And aside from a couple of minor missteps, and a single Eastern entry that's far too long for its inconsequential story, what we have here is pure, potent cine-magic. Even if you hate the concept of abbreviated genre narratives, you should find something to like – nay, LOVE – about this stellar selection. Let's being with:
Abuelitos (Grandfathers) (Score: ****1/2)
Director: Paco Plaza
Grim, disturbing and undeniably effective, this allegory to youth and aging makes little sense, but leaves an incredibly lasting impression. Everything here is vile and nauseating, from the red-rimmed eyes of the obviously suffering patients to the yellow, viscous gruel they choke down in queasy gulps. Reminiscent in style to the music video work of Chris Cunningham (especially Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy") there may not be much more to the visuals than a glorified geriatric geek show. But director Plaza's presentation has so much vision, it's hard to deny the end result.
Chambre Jaune (Score: ****)
Director: Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Don't be surprised if, while watching Chambre Jaune, you feel like you've stumbled upon some long lost home movies by Dario Argento. All the famed Italian director's giallo iconography is here – the lone killer, the black-gloved hands, the attention to the tiniest details of dread, the odd fixation with trinkets and figurines, the hyper-saturated hues, the gleaming blade of a straight razor. As a matter of fact, if it wasn't for Cattet and Forzani's experimental approach (not a narrative so much as a collection of scenes that sort of tell a story) we'd swear the Mediterranean master was behind this effort. An excellent example of how a homage can elevate an otherwise standard slasher story.
Flat-N-Fluffy (Score: ***)
Director: Benoit Boucher
As cartoon gross-outs go, the dead dog delights of Flat-N-Fluffy are rather limited. Crudely constructed and poorly animated, we still find enough laughs in the material to forgive director Boucher his obvious artistic confines. While the main humor comes from seeing gallons of blood spray from a continuously crushed canine's corpse, there is also some clever dialogue here.
Gorgonas (Score: *****)
Director: Salvador Sanz
Brilliant doesn't begin to describe this amazing animated spectacle. Laced with imagery that is hard to forget and constructed so carefully that everything falls into place in a pristine, clockwork manner, director Sanz has delivered a masterpiece of pen and ink eeriness. The storyline is a little tenuous at first – the whole pop group/mythical monsters angle takes a second or two to get use to – but once we buy into the premise, the rest is all nuanced narrative bliss. One of the three of four films here that could easily make the transition to a full length feature, Gorgonas is a valid enough reason on its own to buy this DVD collection.
I'll See You In My Dreams (Score: *****)
Director: Miguel Ángel Vivas
As difficult as it is to come up with something new in the realm of zombie-based cinema, I'll See You In My Dreams delivers a shockingly effective horror/humor outing. Like a Sam Raimi/Coen Brothers take on Lucio Fulci, this lively living dead thriller is so smartly scripted and masterfully directed that you barely miss the blood and guts. Yes, there is gore here, but that's not director Vivas' main interest. Instead, he is manipulating tone and experimenting with expectations to make his own mark in the cannibal corpse compendium. He succeeds smashingly.
Infini (Score: ****)
Director: Guillaume Fortin
The notion of one's life flashing before their eyes is taken literary in this dark, moody entry. Wordless, except for the constant chatter of the medical personal working on a dying addict, the whole idea that one's existence can be summed up in a series of Super 8 movies is mindbending, and director Fortin's control of this material is excellent. It makes for a very memorable, even moving, entry.
L'ilya (Score: **1/2)
Director: Tomoya Sato
Overlong (nearly 40 minutes) and asking more questions than it ever proposes to answer, L'ilya is reminiscent of that far more effective film released by Troma a while back – the German self-murder mockumentary Suicide). However, the Japanese are not about to let gratuitous elements like blood and gore gunk up their mannered mediation on death and dying. So we sit waiting for something sensible, or even symbolic, to come from this turgid tale, but all we get are hints and innuendo. Similar to Suicide Club, there is obviously a deeper meaning to self-inflicted death in the Eastern culture than we have here in the West. Without the translation, L'ilya barely holds together.
Love from Mother Only (Score: ***1/2)
Director: Dennison Ramalho
After a fascinating set-up that's all Devils and demonic possession, Love from Mother Only sort of stumbles midway through. It does regain it's footing in the end, and delivers a series of sensationally shocking metaphors, but the entire story never really adds up to the Satanic spectacle we've been prepared for. Still, Ramalho is not afraid to mark his sequences with gore, nudity and mindless religious imagery, and the performances here are impassioned. It's just too bad that there's not much logic to the story. We would gladly follow this lamentable lover's spat, if only we had a hint of where it is going. Without one, we're more or less lost.
Miss Greeny (Score: *)
Director: Tenkwaku Naniwa
A green bit of goo in a dress slowly melts. Big deal. They say Naniwa is an acclaimed cult artist. Miss Greeny offers little proof that such a talent tag is warranted.
Ruta Destroy (Score: ****1/2)
Director: Diego Abad
Imagine Trainspotting with showtunes, or Requiem for a Dream with its own melodious narrative breaks and you've got some idea of director Abad's amazingly mischievous music video. The story is rather simple – a group of junkie friends looking for thrills…and pills – but the execution is out of this world. Abad doesn't bother with professional vocalists. He lets his mostly tone-deaf actors sing-speak their songs, and the result is as hilarious as it is harrowing. The sentiments here are all hedonistic and alienated, making for one of the most accurate accounts of aimless youth culture ever captured on film.
The Separation (Score: ****)
Director: Robert Morgan
In a style reminiscent of Adam Jones and Fred Stuhr's work on the Tool video "Sober", this depressing look at the lives of conjoined twins (both pre- and post- operative) is unforgettable in its stop motion animation magnificence. From the detailed look of the figure's mangled forms, to the Rube Goldberg oddness of their doll making machinery, there is more imagination in this single short film than in dozens of similarly styled offerings. Add in the powerful (if perplexing) ending and you've got another great addition to this classic collection.
Sister Lulu (Score: ****)
Director: Phillip John
More or less the same sick joke told by George Sluizer in his terrific thriller The Vanishing (the original version, not the lame American remake), this devilish delight succeeds because of John's exceptional direction. Keeping the camera locked on our narrator as the various events she describes unfold in quick, inventive images, we instantly see where the story is going. Yet because we are enjoying the telling, both aurally and visually, we forgive a certain level of predictability.
Tea Break (Score: ***1/2)
Director: Sam Walker
Gory, goofy and a tad anticlimactic, you still have to appreciate the darkly comic conceit at the center of this head chopping horror. Watching a big, beefy workman systematically lop off the tops of these terrified victims is fun, but it never really adds up to much. We're supposed to see how even the most horrifying task turns mundane in a mechanized setting. Unfortunately, we get the message long before the film is finished.
On the visual side, Synapse does a fine job with the individual transfers of each film. Most are offered in color correct and detailed 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen images. A few, like Miss Greeny, Flat-N-Fluffy, Gorgonas, and L'ilya are strictly 1.33:1 full screen presentations. Ruta Destroy is also 4x3, but it maintains a cinematic style by utilizing a non 16x9 letterboxed look. Over the course of three hours, you will see grain, dirt, faded images and the occasional digital artifact, but overall, these are wonderful prints of some equally impressive movies.
Mastered and mixed in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, the aural elements of Small Gauge Trauma are equally stunning. Any foreign language issue is resolved with subtitles (though a few are too LITERAL in their translations to be completely clarifying) and all musical underscoring is captured in atmosphere-enhancing brilliance. Stand out segments include Gorgonas, I'll See You In My Dreams, Ruta Destroy and Chambre Jaune.
In a marvelous move that really seals the deal here, Synapse does their best to complement each film with some manner of added content. In general, we are treated to commentaries, director/production company bios, a music video, a production featurette and a single deleted scene. It all starts, however, with a spectacular introduction from none other than Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe). In his late 70s, the top-hatted master looks and sounds magnificent. As for where the rest of the bonus features apply, here is a breakdown: Commentary - Chambre Jaune, Love from Mother Only, Flat-N-Fluffy, Infini, Ruta Destroy, The Separation, Sister Lulu, Tea Break; Director's Bio - Abuelitos, Chambre Jaune, Love from Mother Only, Flat-N-Fluffy, Gorgonas, Infini, L'ilya, Miss Greeny, Ruta Destroy, The Separation, Sister Lulu, Tea Break; Production Featurette - Gorgonas; Music Video - I'll See You In My Dreams; Production Company Bio - I'll See You In My Dreams; Deleted Scene - The Separation. Overall, these extras really spice up the showcase. Some of the discussions are difficult to understand (English is obviously the second language for Chambre Jaune's Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani) while one in particular is quite novel (Tea Break's Sam Walter present his commentary with banjo accompaniment) and they all add immensely to our understanding of the films, and the people behind them.
Had the Japanese offering L'ilya been replaced by something more substantial, and had Miss Greeny and Flat-N-Fluffy been more than mere one-note novelties, Small Gauge Trauma would easily have earned the highest possible product score – the DVD Talk Collector's Series mark. As it stands, the less than stellar entries knock down the rating to the top end of the Highly Recommended scale. There are movies here that stand alongside the best that the horror genre has to offer, and clear cut masterpieces like Gorgonas, I'll See You In My Dreams and Abuelitos will resonate longer than other direct to DVD macabre. Indeed, thanks to the fine work of Fantasia International Film Festival, more amazing works of wonder will find the audience they so desperately deserve. Clearly one of the best titles of the year, Small Gauge Trauma is a large scale delight.
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