Now that Don LaFontaine is narrating trailers for the big guy in heaven, I would like to nominate actor Stephen McHattie as the logical successor to the phrase, “In a World, where…” Bruce McDonald’s latest film takes the omnipresent zombie subgenre and turns it on its ear (literally). Yes, ladies and gents, this is the first ‘talk radio’ zombie picture, a film in which so little is actually shown on screen, the viewer is left questioning (for much of the films runtime) whether or not the attacks are even real. Violence and intestine pulling gore are replaced with a plethora of science fiction and social ideas which are very much to the pictures benefit. Like Vincenzo Natali’s single room sci-fi/horror picture Cube, keeping the visuals to a minimum lets the minds eye soar with the strange questions and possibilities raised here. What communication mechanisms case raving mobs to spontaneously form? What is the difference between hearing and understanding? Is language itself a virus? Can talk radio save the world or is it really the pestilence? That the titular Pontypool (besides being a small Ontario town, is itself an interesting linguistic confection) wears its brains on its sleeve, in no way makes it less of a thriller, or for that matter, a great actor showcase (McHattie tears up the screen). Bruce McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess surprisingly inject a lot of playfulness along the way. As genre flicks go, Pontypool is the full package deal.
Morning radio personality Grant Mazzy is having a bad month. His career from Toronto radio personality has been diminished to broadcasting small town radio from the basement of a church; a task he makes bearable by thinly veiled sarcasm and small town mockery. His producer wants him to talk about school closings and traffic hick-ups. He wants drama a controversy. With a three person crew running Pontypool’s “The Beacon,” there is already a fair bit of tension in the room. The level rises significantly when reports start coming in of some sort of mob attacks. The traffic reporter confirms that there is indeed a mob attacking the local psychiatrists office, and there is much blood and murder on the scene. Not your average day in Pontypool. While Grant, more than a bit of an egotist, at first thinks the locals are playing a practical joke, when calls from the BBC start coming in asking for details (they think it is a French separatist terrorist attack), he begins to believe that he is nearly at ground zero of a major story. Determined to keep broadcasting even when the infected come up to the front door, The Beacon is pretty much the radio broadcast that the characters in every other zombie flick tune into for a little it of exposition. But what if the language itself is spreading the disease?
When the camera pans across a random desk in The Beacon’s recording studio, where a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is prominently displayed, that is the clincher. The film is going to bounce a few ideas regarding science and philosophy of communication amongst the zombie apocalypse. A lot of the headier stuff comes from a certain psychiatrist who pops in and out of the radio station, Guerrilla style, not unlike Robert DeNiro in Brazil. Some may see this as a bit of a handicap to the film, but things are as much about babble (note the mangled ‘rural Ontario’ French) as they are about communication. The mumbled pontifications (pontifications? Pontypool?) of Dr. Mendez, probably a fan of the The Leiden School, who believes that languages are a form of benign parasite in the brain (this being a horror picture, what if they weren’t so benign). Seeing someone start to lose their ability to speak, in the form of a babbling breakdown, is as creepy as losing sight, hearing or going numb, and this is milked quite effectively here. As the film runs its course, the balance of engaging ideas, chills, thrills and even laughs make this one of the more effective genre-mashing films (and it is Canadian no less) to come along in a while. Highly recommended.
**Note: When this movie winds its way into the cinema, be sure to stay until the end credits for a fun non-sequitur credit cookie. Something which I am nearly sure takes place in the Metaverse, Neil Stephenson’s full-immersion virtual reality world.**
One of the great joys of attending a film festival is that every so often you get to see a movie that comes out of nowhere and blows all other movies out of the water. Sauna for me is one of those movies. I had almost no expectations going in. I still have not seen Antti-Jussi Annila’s first movie, Jade Warrior and I never got around to watching the trailer. All I was going with was the writeup on the TIFF site. I have to say this right now, Sauna is one of my favourite movies of the year and is will be in my list of top horror movies for a long time. It is not some simple slasher horror flick but is in fact a challenging thinking person’s horror movie.
Sauna opens up to a brutal murder being performed by Finnish soldier Eerik Spore and being witnessed by his cartographer brother Knut. Eerik tells Knut that that the man went for an axe and that he had no choice. From there we flash back to the events that lead up to the murder. The Spore brothers have been sent by Sweden in the 16th century to meet up with the Russians in order to create the new border between Russia and Sweden after a 25 year war. From my limited knowledge and what was explained during the movie the war was caused due to a split in the church. On the way there they stay at a small cottage where Eerik discovers that the peasants actually follow the Russian religion and the father is murdered and the young daughter is locked in a cellar to starve.
After the brothers meet up with the Russians Eerik convinces everyone that they need to split a large swamp by placing the markers down as per his orders when in truth he simply wants to evade pursuers who are likely following him and his brother because of the murder. On their journey through the swamp Knut starts to see visions of what may or may not be the ghost of the girl who may or may not still be alive in the cellar. His brother is able to calm him down and convinces him not to run back to cellar to free the girl. It is around this point that we learn the Eerik has killed 73 people during the war and feels no remorse for it. After traveling a bit farther into the swamp the brothers and the Russians discover a small village with 73 older men, women and one child living. Next to the village is a small Sauna.
The rest of the movie takes place in the village and sauna where Annila provides us with more than enough atmosphere and scares to please any horror fan. He is also able to bring forth a dissertation on just how at some point past sins can build up to a point where the consequences can’t help but harm the perpetrator and those around him. This is a dark deep movie that will surely divide audiences as it does not take the easy road to tell it’s story. In the end though after some serious scares we are left with a dark nihilistic look at sin and consequences that is deeply compelling. If you are willing to be challenged by your horror movies I can’t recommend Sauna enough.
Be sure to check out Kurt’s review of Sauna.
If I see a better flat out horror film than AJ Annila‘s wonderfully twisted Sauna in 2008, I’ll eat my shirt. This film is a major growth from his ambitious, yet fatally flawed 2006 genre fusion urban drama and wuxia epic, Jade Warrior. Where that film was rigid and strained, this one soars into the dark places of the minds of men effortlessly flowing to its soon-to-be iconic conclusion. It is fitting that Finland is half way between America and Japan, because Sauna takes the stylings and tropes of best of American Art-Horror and J-Horror and froths them together into something that is mesmerizing and uniquely Scandinavian. The result, a period film which is impossible to actually identify the period, lies somewhere in the neighborhood of Edgar Allen Poe and the opening credits for Lars Von Trier‘s The Kingdom. Those enthusiastic for Fabrice Du Weltz‘s Calvaire (an film that polarized viewers as much as I expect Sauna will) or John Frankenheimer‘s Seconds are going to be in a state of bliss while this film unleashes its own brand of existential quagmire.
The story is set in the late 16th Century and follows the two Spore brothers, a soldier and a cartographer, charged with marking the border and mapping the terrain between Sweden and Russia after a 25 year war (Over the then fracturing Christian church, but I am no expert). The opening credits and imagery not so subtly suggest that these borders are indeed rivers formed from blood. Blood that will not ever be washed away. Blood that is beyond forgiveness or redemption. This is not an old testament eye-for-an-eye suggestion, but rather older, more pagan notion of morality. Erik, the elder, is a career warrior who has fought all is life, and it is immediately clear, has no way of adjusting to peace. His way of dealing with his own demons and struggles is violence first, questions never. His spectacles give him the veneer of sophistication and civility, Spore is a borderline psychopath, a monster for his times. His younger brother Knut avoided the war in scholarship. Knut far more sensitive, justifiably nervous of his brothers harsh methods, and out of his element in the northern no-man’s land forests. That his compass breaks early in the film is one of many symbols that even the ostensibly ‘good’ natured character in the film is compromised in this unhealthy setting. This is further hilighted in the opening moments of the film, where in a small village where at the good graces of the local peasants. Upon seeing an artifact that he does not approve of, Erik fires off in a rage, killing their farmer host. In an attempt to save the farmers young, blonde-locked daughter from Erik (and admittedly his own) lust, Knut locks her in the root cellar. Upon leaving the village shortly thereafter, the girl is not released from the cellar. The guilt from this action polarizes the brothers and sets the stage for the tell-tale heart tensions between the brothers.
Complicating things is the Russian party that they join up with to set mile-markers up to the norther river. An early scene has the Russian commander wax philosophical on the consequences of the war in terms of filth (this is actually a proposed English title for the film) as, “the mark of where two things have touched.” In this case, it is ostensible civilization intruding in the empty northern lands, pagan beliefs colliding with christian conquering, and a history of war between Kingdoms. The uneasy party comes up to the last obstacle before the river, a desolate swamp that curiously has a village in the center. While arguing who the village actually belongs to, both the Russians and Fins are drawn to the centerpiece of the village, the titular Sauna. A haunting and grim place, that in the old lore was said to wash all of ones sins away. Births, marriages, and corpses were bathed in this dark room which itself is a clean white square in the middle of a stark treed wetlands. It offers the mystical promise that forgiveness can be achieved as easily as waters over flesh, instead of the more rigorous process of mending hurts in the place where they were actually caused. As Lady MacBeth knows, and because this is a horror pictures, things are not so easily done, some sins are impossible to forgive (even for Orthodox or Lutherian Christians). The events in the village boil to a conclusion that should satisfy anyone with a lust for the true horror of the unknown and uncanny. Hardcore gore-hounds who love the quick thrills of the usual films in the genre may be baffled by Sauna’s brooding pace, set almost entirely in daylight (and aren’t the best horror films the one that bring their haunting out into the light?). But those who like a meditative journey through the dark corners of the soul (with a side order of icky poetic nihilism) will find a lot to love here. Sauna deserves a place on the pedestal alongside Solyaris, Insomnia, The Wickerman and Ringu.
Be sure to check out John’s review of Sauna.
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
North American Premiere
Synopsis: Charged with infectious youthful energy, Voy a Explotar focuses on the romantic escapades of Roman, the 15-year-old son of a respected yet corrupt Guanajuato politician, and Maru, an introverted middle-class teenager. Gerardo Naranjo’s genuine and tender treatment of the teenager’s emotions and insecurities serves as the perfect accompaniment to the chaos of Roman and Maru’s love story.
Director: Thomas Woschitz
Synopsis: Love stories from Brooklyn, Belgrade, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Marseille and Luxembourg play against a backdrop of music by Austrian indie band Naked Lunch, whose haunting songs serve to elaborate upon the stirring narratives.
Director: Uro Stojanovic
Synopsis: In the mountains of battle-scarred Serbia lies the village of Pokrp, whose men have been eradicated by generations of war. When sisters Little Boginja and Ognjenka inadvertently kill Pokrp’s sole surviving male in a futile attempt to lose their virginity, they must find a living, virile man in order to avoid a death sentence.
Director: Antti-Jussi Annila
Synopsis: In the year 1595, following the brutal war between Finland and Russia, brothers Knut and Erik are part of the commission marking the border between the two countries. In doing so, they commit a terrible sin and must survive the consequences. They can only find solace in a sauna where all sins are washed away. The film marks director Antti-Jussi Annila’s follow-up to the TIFF06 film, Jade Warrior.
Director: Bruce McDonald
Synopsis: Coming Soon
Director: Marco Pontecorvo
Synopsis: This true story of a street clown, Miloud Oukili, charts his arrival in Romania in 1992, three years after the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, and his encounter with the children who live on the streets, the so-called "boskettari." Oukili teaches them circus and clown skills in order to give them hope for a better future and a dignified life.
Director: Liu Fendou
Country: Hong Kong/China
North American Premiere
Synopsis: Recently released from prison, shameless blackmailer Yao relives the story of how he came to meet and fall in love with Li Chuan, a waitress at a quaint beachfront coffee shop. Pulling her out of her simple existence, Yao quickly lures Li Chuan into his criminal world, forcing her to join his prostitution ring in order to keep him in her life. As romance gives way to jealousy and heartache, Yao’s actions lead to fatal consequences – consequences he must desperately find peace with so many years later.