FILM REVIEW: SMALL GAUGE TRAUMA (FANTASIA 2018)
As the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival comes to a close, it certainly brought us all manner of genre treats. As is the case with most film festivals, the shorts program is often the strongest, and fastest selling ticket in town. Few fests do the shorts programs as much justice as Fantasia does, especially with it’s Small Gauge Trauma program. Featuring nine films from four countries, Small Gauge Trauma gave us a total of 117 minutes of film that did not disappoint. This year shined a spotlight on female driven narratives, highlighting all the yonic themes and imagery your dark cold hearts desire! Since it would be a tragedy to spoil these little gems for you, I’d like to just briefly discuss each film, without giving too much away.
THE INVADERS opens with a young American Muslim woman named Jayla (played by Isra Elsalihie) running at full steam through the streets. It’s clear that she’s being chased, but it’s unclear by what or whom. She makes it home and calls her mother in a serious panic. This is also when a number of supernatural things start to happen. The walls begin to shake, the lights flicker, and the corridors fill with smoke. As the nature of the threat begins to be revealed, it’s possible that the horrors she’s experiencing may be more human than we were originally led to believe. The film packs quite a punch in its brief run-time, and shows us a glimpse into a potentially very near future that may not be as distant as we hope it to be. It was a strong opening to a shorts package that wouldn’t offer much in the way of comic relief.
The next film in the program offers us a reflective and poignant view of what it’s like to be deceased. Although quite brief, THE DEAD MAN SPEAKS provides us with an insight into the plight of the spirits that roam the earth. The film acts more like a city symphony, showing us all the places the spirits like to hang out while fighting the constant boredom of being dead. The film reminds us that although death is eternal, it is much more favorable to be among the living.
AURORE was the most unsettling and probably my favorite film of the bunch, boasting exceptional SFX and a gripping narrative. It’s French and hyper-sexual, but that’s not really the focus here. This uncomfortable bio-horror effort shows us the sexual awakening of a young girl named Aurore. During an encounter with her boyfriend, her fingers seamlessly slip into the young mans body, touching his heart. It’s not bloody or savage, but her fingers move in and out of his body, seemingly, without harm. As the couple explores this phenomenon, the film takes the term “fingering” to a whole new level. Needles to say this newfound ability isn’t without its consequences, and the filmmaker does a masterful job of blending practical and digital effects in order to make the audience squirm. I was uncomfortable, and I loved every minute of it!
DAMAGE CONTROL – USA – 8 minutes (Dir. Ryan Oksenberg)DAMAGE CONTROL kicks off with a young man driving his young wife to the site of his future dream home. Currently the property is in disarray as a series of dilapidated structures litter the property. The man explains his dream home to his wife, while she can barely be bothered to look up from her phone. The man begins to see a woman sneakily wandering around the property. We never get a good look at the woman, and we’re not even sure she’s real. His wife gets an emergency phone call and excuses herself, while the vagrant woman inside one of the buildings corners the man. It becomes apparent that this woman isn’t some random vagrant at all, and she seeks retribution. But for what? DAMAGE CONTROL was one of the more tense, albeit frustrating, entries in the series. Specifically, because not much was offered in terms of an explanation.
This film was probably the most straightforward horror entry of the bunch. DEVIL WOMAN follows a group of eco-warrior women, trying to stop a road from being built through a patch of forest that they are occupying. Some of the women are militant in their approach, with the exception of one woman who is there for purely scientific reasons. While doing some exploring, our scientist sticks her hand into a deep dark hole in a tree and gets bit by something. What happens next, I can only assume to be the Aussie equivalent of a werewolf story. A couple of male locals sneak into the female camp at night to scare them off, but things don’t really go as planned…for anyone. DEVIL WOMAN delivers some fantastic makeup FX and addresses some very real issues affecting wildlife in Australia in the breath.
OK, let me take a deep breath before getting into this one. ENTROPIA was an unbelievably wild ride that will leave audiences wincing in disgust and delight. It’s absolutely batshit crazy, disgusting, and I absolutely LOVED it! It was easily one of the best of the program, and one of the best short films I’ve seen all year. It falls into the camp of “absurdist” cinema, and to me felt like it could exist in a universe alongside THE GREASY STRANGLER. The film follows an older woman turning to witchcraft in order to preserve her youth. The film opens like a bad 80’s made-for-TV movie complete with silly background music and a 4:3 aspect ratio. I say these things with the utmost respect, because it’s an aesthetic that is rarely pulled off as expertly as it is here. Our witch is the only character in the film (played masterfully by Sissy O’Hara) and she narrates her deeds to the fullest. She uses all of her feminine magic to try to bring her back to her more youthful days. And how does she do this? How about by stitching butterflies caked in KY Jelly into her vagina. How about by consuming the menstrual blood of strangers in every way imaginable. Yeah, that’s how. It’s sick, disturbing, and it’s all done with a glee and absurdity few filmmakers are brave enough to even attempt. This was a film I won’t soon forget, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. As is the case with most Small Gauge Trauma films this is NOT for the faint of heart. No detail is spared. I repeat, NOT for the faint of heart.
RILEY WAS HERE offers us a glimpse into addiction, love, and loss. A man arrives at a disheveled house holding a card with a number on the front and a picture of a syringe on the back. At first it simply looks like a junkie trying to score. A woman greets him at the door with the personality of a houseplant. Her cold demeanor should be the first sign that things are not as they seem. Upon entering the house, ground rules are established and the woman begins to offer her services. It’s not cheap, and his reasons for being there are unclear at first. I don’t want to give away too much, as the reveal to the story is everything. It’s sort of a post-apocalyptic drug allegory, where zombie-ism can be used as a high for those brave enough to try it out. In regards to these two people specifically, the motivation to partake comes from extremely dark places. It’s sad and grim, yet gives us insight into the grieving process for two very broken people.
THE DAY MY MOTHER BECAME A MONSTER France – 23 minutes (Dir. Josephine Darcy Hopkins)
The title of this one can be taken very literally, although there is quite a bit of symbolism regarding a fractured family unit. The story follows a mother and daughter who share a strong bond. The daughter has unconditional love for her mother, as most young children do. Things take a turn when the young girls father messages to say he’ll be visiting soon. This seems to put the mother in a rather fragile state, leading us to believe her relationship with the father is extremely tense. The excitement for this upcoming daddy-daughter get together consumes the child’s focus, which in turn puts her mom on the defensive. I thought the “becoming a monster” bit might be metaphorical, until it clearly isn’t. While at work as a vet tech the mother is cut on a turtle and this is when her degradation quickly escalates. She begins to transform into something, some kind of thing that would make Jeff Goldblum’s Brundle Fly blush. The woman and her daughter try to navigate these changes; all while the young girl is completely consumed with the upcoming return of her father. The film explores themes of love and abandonment under the guise of an in-your-face creature feature.
The final film in the series is by far the most comedic, and possibly the only film that plays solely for laughs. It opens with a young bride, her best man, and a priest discussing the plans for her wedding day. The priest is played by French extreme cinema legend Phillipe Nahon, who takes on this role with all the manic glee you’d expect. Shortly after the details of the wedding are sorted out, the town is plunged into a zombie apocalypse of biblical proportions. The best man and priest have to fight their way to the bride, with only a shotgun and chainsaw from the wedding registry to aid them. As the duo struggles to stay plugged in (quite literally for the chainsaw), all manner of zombie carnage takes place with no less than two practical head explosions by my count. BESOIN DEAD doesn’t aim to make any political statements, and it isn’t short on laughs or gore. The inevitable comparisons to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, EVIL DEAD II, and ZOMBIELAND should be considered high praise for the director, as that is pretty exclusive company to be able to keep.
This year’s Small Gauge Trauma brought with it some of the best and brightest horror shorts I’ve seen all year, and for some of them, ever. It’s a program that has a reputation for being the best of the best, and this year proved to be no exception. While short films are often the strongest entries, they frequently fall through the cracks outside of the festival circuit. Many of these are worth making note of, as they often highlight the best emerging talent from around the world. If they have a successful festival run these films are usually uploaded to Vimeo or Youtube, so I would keep your eyes open for that. In the meantime, check out some film festivals in your area, as I’m sure many of these will be coming soon to a screen near you.