FANTASIA 2017: Capone checks out the serial killer profile POOR AGNES and the cursed video game of SEQUENCE BREAK!!!
Published at: July 20, 2017, 5:52 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone back in Montreal once again covering a few days in the life of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, unquestionably the finest genre festival on this half of the globe. The event goes on for three weeks, and believe me, if I could be here the entire time, I would be. The offerings every year are tremendous and represent the best genre works—horror, sci-fi, action, and other extreme and oddball offerings—from all over the world. I’ll be here for five days’ worth of screenings, so let’s jump in with a couple of titles. Enjoy…
If you’ve ever watched a film about a male serial killer kidnapping and torturing or otherwise tormenting women, it probably made you deeply uncomfortable—perhaps even repulsed—as it likely was designed to do. So imagine flipping the script—and gender—of the victim and perpetrator. In theory, it should make you equally uncomfortable, especially when the killer decides to turn her next victim into a prisoner, allowing him to eat only if the man stabs himself every time he takes a bite of food. She also forces him to have sex with her and makes him become her unwilling accomplice to future killings. POOR AGNES, the remarkable new film from Navin Ramaswaran (CHASING VALENTINE, LATE NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE), makes this seemingly simple role reversal, and the results are explosive and eye opening.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lora Bruke (who plays Agnes) in anything before, but I can’t imagine forgetting her after seeing this movie. Resembling a young Diane Kruger at times, Burke plays Agnes as a multi-dimension woman with a twisted confidence about her skill at killing and ability to get away with it because no one would suspect a cute blonde with pretty eyes to be a cold-hearted murderer in a rural community (the film was shot in Thunder Bay, Ontario). When private investigator Mike (Robert Notman) comes knocking looking for information about one of her early victims from years ago, she ends up seducing her and immediately taking him prisoner.
Sensing something a little different and more interesting in Mike than many of her male victims (it appears she uses online dating sites to draw out many of her targets), she decides to keep him alive for a while, and the two engage in a warped, “abusive wife” scenario where nothing he does or says is quite right. There comes a point where gradually Mike becomes more of a willing player in his role, but it’s clear by that point, his brain is slightly broken from little sleep and constant pain. At times, Agnes reveals bits and pieces about her past and where she developed a skill for murder, but POOR AGNES is not meant to be a psychological deconstruction of a serial killer; it’s mission is to show brutality in all of its shapes and sizes.
Late in the film, we see Agnes draw in a new victim using a seductive cunning that few men could resist and turns the tables so quickly, it shakes you. As much as POOR AGNES could have been overplayed or even done as camp, director Ramaswaran and writer James Gordon Ross keep things fairly straight forward and rooted in a version of reality. The nature of the Agnes-Mike relationship is never quite stable, and it’s that volatility that keeps it interesting and nightmarishly tense. Blessedly, there’s not attempt to soft pedal the violence or nature of Agnes’s offenses. She’s as brutal and unrelenting as her male counterparts, perhaps even more so. POOR AGNES is a small masterpiece with big ideas. The horror is built on a foundation of familiarity. We know people like the public face of Agnes, and now we’re destined to look at them sideways from this point forward. Lora Burke is a fearsome force of nature, and, POOR AGNES is destined to become a much-talked-about work of aggressively disturbing filmmaking.
One of my favorite indie horror works from last year was BEYOND THE GATES, starring Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson. I’ll admit, I fell for the retro vibe of a cursed board game and mostly practical effects that looked great (but not too great) on screen. Drinking from the same well as that film comes SEQUENCE BREAK, the feature writing-directing debut from Skipper, that plays with the idea that the things that we loved from our past (in this case, arcade-style video games) and going to lead to our destruction.
Williamson (also from JOHN DIES AT THE END) plays Oz, a videogame repair guy and a bit of a lone wolf, who has just discovered that the company he works for is being shutdown—the one thing that brings him joy in his otherwise empty life is about to vanish. And just before he sinks into a deep funk, in walks Tess (Fabianne Theresa (Williamson’s JOHN DIES co-star, also from SOUTHBOUND), who says she’s there to buy a game for a relative, but is really there just to get one last chance to play a few of these old-school wonders. And just like that, Oz has found his soul mate.
As this love affair is taking off, one of the games in the shop is calling to anyone within range with a proclivity toward cabinet video games. A disheveled lunatic (John Dinan) breaks into the shop just to be near the unnamed game that glows green and drips goo from its electronic. When Oz finally plays it, it gets infects his brain, while the joystick and buttons become squishy, erogenous zones that seem to moan when he fondles them (don’t think for a second I’m making this up). Whatever the game has done to his head leaves him uncertain and abrasive toward Tess, which he chalks up as him being bad with people and keeping so many late night trying to restore the games in the shop before everything closes.
I was never quite sure what the end game of SEQUENCE BREAK really was. Things are kept a bit nebulous about the stakes. The madman stalking the game is full of end-of-days talk, but it’s tough to know what all of the creepy lights and squishy game controls were really doing to those who play the game or what the overall threat was to the rest of the universe. Eventually Oz must play in the hopes of not only saving his lady love but presumably the rest of us hacks as well. There’s a sweet, retro soundtrack that actually pumps a lot of energy into this story, and the two leads are quite good together, playing off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses as people.
I’ll admit, at a certain point, I started to care more about the geeky love story than the death and destruction part of SEQUENCE BREAK, but I did like that the end of the story is a bit fuzzy in terms of what exactly has happened and who survived the battle of man vs. other-worldly machine. It’s also easy to fall for the trippy, old-school graphics of the game, which reveal themselves to be a gateway to…somewhere else, somewhere a lot less pleasant than here.
The real touchstone for a lot of this film is the electronic body horror of VIDEODROME, who permeates so much of what we see and make up some of the film’s best moments. Although this work lacks that film’s perverse nature, so much bubbling up under the surface here is similar, and that’s a good thing because not enough people are this overtly inspired by Cronenberg. SEQUENCE BREAK is a solid first effort that probably could have used a little firming up in the script stage, but what’s on screen still works, has a lot of charm, and shows a great deal of potential for Skipper as a filmmaker.