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Fantasia Festival: Agnes

“Shall we go see about your poor lost lamb?”

When Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is suddenly possessed by demons, the nuns at Santa Teresa look to Father Black (Ben Hall) and Father Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) for help. Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn) witnesses the attempts at exorcism and something about the experience and an encounter she has with Agnes changes her. Mary sheds her nun’s habit and goes back to secular life. But is she ready for it?

Written by Mickey Reece, who also directed, and John Selvidge, Agnes is a modern take on the classic story of religious life and exorcism. It’s light on horror elements focusing more on the drama surrounding Sister Mary. The film feels disjointed at times and I couldn’t help but feel like titling the story Agnes is misleading. Agnes is merely a supporting player in what ends up being Mary’s story. Molly C. Quinn is brilliant as the lead. Her eyes express the character’s pain and she has this angelic countenance that makes her perfect for playing a religious neophyte and a lost soul. The film offers some really fantastic cinematography which adds to its decidedly modern feel. This would pair nicely with Agnes of God (1985) as a double bill.

Rita Scranton, Zandy Hartig, Cait Brasel, Mary Buss, Molly Quinn, Azrial Greene-Pina, Cheryl McConnell, and Rachel True as the Sisters of Santa Teresa 
Photographer: Stephan Sutor 

Agnes had its international premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.

Sundance: The Blazing World

Loosely inspired by  Margaret Cavendish’s novel, The Blazing World examines the long-term effects of trauma through a psychedelic lens. Margaret (Carlson Young), her mother Alice (Vinessa Shaw) and father Tom (Dermot Mulroney), are haunted by the early death of Margaret’s twin sister Elizabeth. Each deals with the trauma in their own self-destructive way. Margaret is suicidal and enters a dark place in her mind where she is followed by a mysterious man, Lained (Udo Kier), who lures her into an alternate world, a visualization of her trauma, where she must face multiple challenges in order to survive.

The Blazing World is an impressive directorial debut by actress Carlson Young who stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Pierce Brown. It’s a visual masterpiece and even if you are not sure what’s going on in the plot you’ll be dazzled by the intense and colorful imagery. The set design, color schemes and costumes are pure eye candy.  I particularly enjoyed Udo Kier’s performance as the creepy Lained. 

Some have criticized the film because how it approaches female trauma and its many film references. Trauma is unique to each individual and will not fill a mold based off of societal expectations. Also I really loved how this film seemed to be inspired by cinema. According to Young the film is heavily inspired by German Horror. I found references to Fritz Lang’s Destiny which really piqued my interest.

 

The Blazing World premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their Next series.

Spiral

Review by Ally Russell

When same-sex couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) move to a small suburban town with their 16-year-old daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), they hope the new home will give them a chance to relax and resolve some underlying family drama. However, their dreams of a quiet life spiral downward as the family is plunged into a toxic and paranoia-inducing environment that is rife with homophobia and the occult.

We follow the story through Malik’s eyes—a character with whom we immediately empathize as flashbacks reveal that he was the victim of a hate crime. This crime has left Malik vulnerable and on a daily diet of medication, but it doesn’t define him. He is also the peacekeeper in his home, and instead of the tired evil step-parent trope, we’re treated to a warm stepfather-stepdaughter relationship between Malik and Kayla, whom he affectionately calls Booger. However, as the short winter days turn to long nights in a cold and unfamiliar landscape, Malik’s sanity is compromised and his sense of time warped.

Whenever a film presents sinister neighbors as villains, I immediately think of Rosemary’s Baby—a film that expertly explores the theme of living and being at home amongst people who make you uncomfortable. Spiral (directed by Kurtis David Harder) may not dissect the subject of strange neighbors with as much precision, but the same way that Rosemary’s Baby made viewers want to abandon urban apartment buildings, Spiral will make viewers question the safety of the suburbs.

For viewers looking for that Get Out (2017) ambiance, Spiral mostly delivers on that mood. In addition to the microaggressions that Black characters are often forced to silently endure, Malik has the added weight of tackling homophobia in his new community and in his home. This Get Out atmosphere is most prominently felt when we are confronted with Malik’s work as a ghost writer—a job that requires him to listen to a doctor espouse hateful views about gay conversion therapy and the importance of the “traditional family unit” via grainy VHS tapes. While these scenes effectively convey homophobia as a driver for the horror elements in the film, I do wonder if the LGBTQIAA community is exhausted with watching this kind of trauma unfold on screen.

The film is compelling and creepy, but it’s not perfect. Additional details about the significance of the occult symbols and ritual practices would have yielded a more complete story and left me with fewer questions. However, the film does an excellent job of adeptly highlighting one unequivocal fact: humans will always find something to fear.

Spiral is a dark and brooding horror film that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate some of its more subtle storytelling, but with each watch, viewers will unearth information that they may not have noticed before.

Spiral is available on Shudder.

AllyRussellAbout the writer: Ally Russell has a ghastly passion for horror writing. She has created podcasts episodes and written content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, Scary Out There, and has written for Night Worms and reviewed horror films for Out of the Past and QuelleMovies.com. She also hosts the FlashFrights podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. Ally holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. When her childhood dreams of becoming a full-time witch didn’t work out, she settled for a career in publishing. She lives in Boston but hails from Pittsburgh—ground zero for the zombie apocalypse. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

Raquel’s thoughts: Get Out meets Rosemary’s Baby, Spiral demonstrates the horrors of othering in a way that is both modern and classic.

Fantasia Festival: The Block Island Sound

Birds are falling from the sky. Fish are floating dead in the water. Electronic devices suddenly stop working. And local fisherman Tom (Neville Archambault)  is having regular blackouts. What is this mysterious force that is causing chaos on Block Island?

Tom’s son Harry (Chris Sheffield) and daughter Audry (Michaela McManus) try to help their dad whose drinking and hallucinations are getting increasingly out of control. Harry’s friend Dale (Jim Cummings) thinks it’s all a government conspiracy and everyone else just thinks Tom has a drinking problem. As Audry begins to investigate, Harry is slowly being taken over by this force and the ghost of his dad guides him further into danger.

Written, co-produced and directed by Kevin and Matthew McManus , The Block Island Sound is a seaside thriller that offers viewers plenty of mystery and a satisfyingly slow build. I wasn’t sure where the story was taking me but I was definitely along for the ride. This film reminded me a little of the seaside horror genre film The Beach House which I reviewed recently but I found The Block Island Sound even more riveting. I appreciate that the film doesn’t offer any answers but does question the role of electronic devices in our lives and how they affect not only our minds but our bodies.

The Block Island Sound premiered at the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.

Fantasia Festival: Diabla

When 17-year-old Nayeli (Ruth Ramos) is raped by the neighborhood gringo Rayan (Cesar Mijangos), she seeks help from her brother Uri (Daniel Fuentes Lobo). Uri sides with his friend rather than his sister calling her a whore. Spurned by her brother, she visits the local coven of witches to enact her revenge. Not only is Rayan about to pay the price for his violent act against Nayeli but Uri will have to watch it all go down.

Directed by  Ashley George and set in present day Mexico, Diabla packs a punch in a mere 17 minutes and will linger in your mind long after the film is over.  For female viewers especially, Diabla will serve as a visual representation of all of the revenge fantasies that we have for the men in our lives who have hurt us in one form or another. In this way, Diabla is highly gratifying even when it shocks and disturbs.

Ashley George’s impressive short horror film speaks directly to women who have been hurt physically and emotionally by men.

Diabla is part of the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.

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