FANTASIA 2001: MORIARTY Scares Up Reviews For ST. JOHN
Published at: July 30, 2001, 1:30 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I’m not taking full advantage of my opportunity here in Montreal. I slept as long as I could on Friday, trying to just store the sleep up if possible, and managed to shake off two wake up calls and an alarm before I answered the phone and found myself talking to Julien, one of the programmers of the festival. He asked me if I was still interested in interviewing Bruce Law. Turns out Bruce was sitting in the hotel bar waiting for me, based on our brief conversation the night before. Oh, shit.
Realizing that the last thing in this world I need is a Hong Kong stuntman mad at me, I raced through my shower, threw some clothes on, and sprinted to the bar, where everyone was just on the verge of being fed up with waiting. I sat down with Bruce and his interpreter for an interview that I’ll be writing up when I get back to LA, where I’ll be able to use the photos Bruce dumped into my hard drive. It was a lot of fun, and it’s always nice to be able to report that someone is as good in a conversation as they are at their job. When I finished with the interview, I headed back upstairs, where I just had time to grab my stuff and head over to the theater for the Friday night festivities.
I was hungry, though, so I picked up one of Montreal’s particular culinary oddities on the way, a smoked meat sandwich, and tucked it into my backpack to smuggle into the theater. I decided to wait to see what kind of film was up first before I dug in, since I didn’t really want to be sitting in the dark trying to tangle with smoked meat while watching nonstop gore, a distinct possibility at this festival. I was happy to see that the Imperial was only half full when I arrived, meaning I had room to sit off to one side and not bother anyone as I ate.
The Imperial... I can’t believe I haven’t described the Imperial yet. It’s a great old movie palace complete with balcony that’s in excellent shape with a kick-ass sound system. There’s a fair amount of ornate woodwork around the place, and it looks like the exact sort of theater where you’d want DEMONS to actually happen. I settled in near the back on the left side and was pleased when the first feature was announced as ST. JOHN’S WORT. Several people had mentioned to me how much they had enjoyed it, and I sat back as the lights went down, ready for anything.
Japanese horror seems to be on an upswing right now, and although there’s a fair number of pedestrian slasher flicks just like here in the U.S., there have been some inventive films that have been released in the last few years. Probably best known is the RING series, and I enjoyed those films for what they were, creepy ghost stories with a distinctly eastern feel. The Fantasia program calls ST. JOHN’S WORT the Japanese answer to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but I think that actually sells the film short. It’s far more stylishly shot than BWP was, and it’s more of a classically styled suspense picture, with not one but two distinct payoffs offered.
The film is shot on video, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. The use of color is inventive and challenging, a real breakthrough for filmmakers shooting in this format. From the very beginning of the movie, director Shimoyama Ten is in firm control of his image, and this is a film that is very much about what you see and how you see it. The setup for the film is vintage gothic; a young girl inherits a spooky house with a mystery attached. In this case, it’s Nami, a shy young Japanese girl, who inherits the house where her father lived, a man she never knew. He was a famous artist, a recluse, and quite possibly mad. His paintings have a demented, evil power to them, and part of the mystery of the house is the source of that terrible power. Nami is working with a group of friends on a video game project at the start of the film, and she asks the project leader Kohei to visit the house with her so she can take a look around.
The film is a mood piece more than anything else, and there’s a long stretch where it’s very effective. As the mystery unravels, the film becomes less interesting, but it never hops the tracks completely. Based on both a novel and a video game, ST. JOHN’S WORT definitely plays with convention in a way that any video game lover will appreciate, offering alternate endings and giving someone an extra life at just the right moment. The performances are all good, with a young, energetic cast giving it all they’ve got. If you’re a fan of any of the new wave of Japanese horror films, you owe it to yourself to check ST. JOHN’S WORT out. It won’t redefine the genre for you, but it certainly upholds it with style.
Oh... and the smoked meat sandwich was pretty damn good.
After a break, the theater filled up completely for the evening’s second film, and programmer Mitch Davis took the stage to enthusiastically introduce Larry Fessenden’s WENDIGO. Having seen it now, I can understand Mitch’s wild enthusiasm for it. This is a smart, adult feature that stands head and shoulders above most genre offerings in its naturalistic approach to its characters and its subject matter, a supernatural STRAW DOGS that deserves a wide audience when it is released in the US in February 2002.
The start of the film evokes the start of Kubrick’s THE SHINING, with the sight of a family in a car, driving through a snowy wilderness. Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber are Kim and George, and Erik Per Sullivan (Dewey on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE) is their son Miles. He’s seated in the back, lost in his fantasy wrestling match between a pair of action figures, a Shogun Warrior and the Wolf Man. There’s a dreamy, languid quality to these opening moments, shattered when George runs into a deer that darts out into the road in front of them. It’s sudden, shocking, and the car is sent into a skid that takes it off the road. George gets out of the car to investigate and sees that the animal is still alive, still twitching. Before he can decide what to do about it, three hunters with rifles come running up, and a confrontation unfolds. One of the hunters, Otis (played with a nice sense of restraint by John Speredakos) goes ballistic when he realizes the antler on the buck is cracked. Kim, in turn, freaks out when Otis finishes the deer off with a pistol not ten feet from their car, in plain view of Miles. It’s clear from the start that we’re dealing with two radically different world views here, and the collision causes instant friction.
It doesn’t help that the house George and Kim are staying in is the house Otis grew up in, a house that was sold out from under him by his sister. He takes random shots at the house, and George and Kim find bullet holes in windows, slugs buried in walls. He also spies on them at night while they’re making love. In this early movement, it would be easy to think this is just another city folks versus the hicks film, but Fessenden is after something deeper, something more universal than that. This isn’t George or Kim’s movie. Instead, we witness it through the eyes of Miles. This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen at capturing the way children interpret the world around them, and that’s due in large part to the simple, unadorned work of Erik Per Sullivan. He’s a natural presence, and he never oversells his big moments. He has a remarkable, easy chemistry with both actors playing his parents, and by putting him at the center of the film, Fessenden frees himself up to explore the way a shadow looks on a wall at night or the way things from our days make their way into our dreams and our nightmares.
When the family takes a trip into town for some supplies, Miles has an encounter in a store with an old Indian man who gives him a strange, handcarved statue of a Wendigo, a vengeful spirit. "Just because people don’t believe in spirits anymore doesn’t mean they aren’t there," he tells the boy, and Miles begins to carry the totem with him everywhere. The threats to his happiness are from inside the family as much as they are from outside, as George wrestles with his role as a father, trying to understand his son and genuinely listen to him. It’s great work by Jake Weber, who looks like the American Tim Roth to an almost spooky degree. Until now, I haven’t really taken note of Weber, but this is the kind of work that proves an actor is something special. It’s not a flashy role, but Weber makes it memorable and real. He and Clarkson are totally believable together, and their fights are as honest as their happy moments. There’s weight and history to this marriage, and Miles is the logical result, a kid born out of real love.
An afternoon of sledding kicks off the film’s final movement, and there’s both tragedy and horror in store for the family and for the locals, Otis in particular. I was impressed by the way Fessenden refused to give any easy answers about the spirit of vengeance in this film. Is it karma? Is it something that Miles summons? Or is it simply dumb luck that touches all of us at some point or another? The film is beautifully photographed, and at no point does there appear to be any limitations on Fessenden’s imagination due to budget. This is the kind of genre film that deserves real attention when it is released next year, and I hope to bring you more news and interviews regarding the film closer to its actual release.
If ST. JOHN’S WORT and RING represent the good end of the scale in new Japanese horror, then A LIVING HELL represents the other end of the scale. The film steals liberally from such source material as PSYCHO and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in telling the story of a creepy old woman and an even creepier 22 year old girl who come to live with a family, long lost relatives who show up in a time of need. Yasuto, wheelchair bound only by his own mind, is the one member of the family who believes there’s something wrong with these two new houseguests, and for a good stretch of the film, they torture him during the day while everyone else is out, leading the rest of the family to call Yasuto a liar when he complains about their cruelty. There are effective moments here and there in the film, but the acting really goes over the top once the mystery starts to come together, and there’s an extended sequence towards the end that had me laughing in all the wrong ways. Yasuto’s such a whiny character that you almost start rooting against him, and I wished the composer of the film’s score had showed up in the movie to get killed by someone just so that same repetitious series of notes would stop blaring over and over. There are some thematic similarities between this film and ST. JOHN’S WORT, particularly in the way the mysteries are resolved, but one of them tries to make the most of atmosphere while the other tries to play as a campy, souped-up horror ride. Shugo Fuji has studied American horror films closely, and it’s a shame he didn’t take his lessons and apply them to a stronger story with a more sympathetic lead.
A huge group of us hiked over to Chinatown after the film let out, negotiating the astonishing street traffic due in large part to the FrancoFollies music festival which is also in full swing right now. We had to make our way around the edge of a park where we walked through copious waves of marijuana smoke and stepped over people passed out in their own vomit. Ahhh... good times. We broke into two groups once we reached Chinatown, still leaving us with 15 people in one restaurant where we enjoyed an enormous meal and several hours of spirited conversation that gave way (after another mighty hike) to an hour or two on the back terrace of a restaurant/bar, where I was able to chat with Larry Fessenden for a long time. One of the joys of Fantasia is how accessible the filmmakers really are. No publicists forcing you into fifteen minute slots, no rushed conversations with other journalists breathing down your neck. Here, you’re free to buy a filmmaker a beer or four and just talk about movies in general, about their influences, about what you feel does and doesn’t work in a film. I also spent a fair amount of time talking to Andrew Parkinson, whose DEAD CREATURES is actually growing on me the more I think about it. He and I were walking back to the Delta at about 3:30 in the morning when a giant fistfight broke out, one of the punches missing my head by less than a foot. I figured I’d used up my luck for the day, so I retired to my room where I made notes for this article and drifted off to sleep, still buzzing from all the input of the day.