'Lowlife,' 'Killing Ground,' 'Tragedy Girls' and 'A Day' bring criminal capers to Fantasia 2017

ScreenerBlog

The work week may be almost over, but Fantasia 2017 is still going strong. As we roll into the Montreal-based fest’s second weekend, let’s take a look at a third batch of Fantasia’s wide range of programming.

Having its world premiere tonight is Ryan Prows’ debut feature Lowlife, which along with Nattawut Poonpiriya’s high school heist Bad Genius represents (in my view) the best of what Fantasia has to offer. Engaging in typical film fest chatter about Lowlife, the comparison that came up most frequently was Pulp Fiction. It’s not a perfect comparison—and certainly enough movies have been called “the next Pulp Fiction” over the years that a healthy dose of skepticism is required whenever the next “next Pulp Fiction” comes along—but Prows and his co-writers (five of ‘em!) do nail a Tarantino-esque blend of violence, comedy, shifting timelines and characters who manage to be both reprehensible and sympathetic.

Falling solely in the “reprehensible” category is crime kingpin “Bear” (Mark Burnham), who with the help of an ICE agent enforcer kidnaps Mexican immigrants and sells their organs on the black market. (If you’re a pretty woman, you get to keep your organs but are forced into prostitution.) The first scene is bloody and brutal, verging into body horror territory, as we see Bear dispassionately carve up a body for its parts.

And then we shift… and there’s a Luchador. “El Monstruo,” (Ricardo Adam Zarate) to be exact, who’s supposed to be a champion for the Mexican people but instead works for Bear as an enforcer. It’s shameful, but what can he do? He’s married to Bear’s adoptive daughter, Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), who’s pregnant with the next El Monstruo—and “the legacy,” El Monstruo insists, “is all.” The introduction of a dim-witted Luchador prone to grand speeches and bouts of blackout rage is our first clue that Lowlife is weirder—and a lot more balls-to-the-wall entertaining—than that first scene promised.

Things only escalate from there, as Prows weaves his increasingly funny, surprising story around a cast of characters whom society tends to dismiss as, well, lowlifes. In addition to El Monstruo and the heroin-addicted Kaylee, there’s recovering alcoholic motel owner Crystal, whose performance by Nicki Micheaux is one of the standouts of the fest. And there’s the introduction of another character who… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice to say his introduction around the third of the way through the movie takes proceedings from “huh, this is interesting” to “this movie is bizarre and ballsy as hell, and I love it.” (Watch out for a tattoo.)

Also employing a non-linear timeline—but decidedly less funny than Lowlife—is writer/director Damien Power’s Killing Ground, released in the United States by IFC Films today. An Australian horror film about a camping trip gone seriously, seriously wrong, it’s not as brutal or uncomfortable as recent Aussie horror release Hounds of Love… which might actually be a good thing, because Hounds was a very, very rough watch. Here, young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) go on a New Year’s camping trip. They’re initially disappointed that another family’s put down stakes in their camping site of choice already, but the family’s never around, so it’s not a big deal. Except… why isn’t the family around, anyway? Power gussies up a fairly standard “danger afoot at a remote camping site” story with a timeline that shifts back and forth between what happened to the family and what happens to Sam and Ian after they begin to clue into the fact that something’s not right. It’s not a gimmick that adds a ton of substance, but I didn’t mind it. It’s in the third act, when things really start going down, that Killing Ground picks up. The evolving relationship between Ian and Sam, two people who have very different reactions to traumatic experiences, is particularly interesting, and not the sort of thing you tend to see in a horror movie besides. And Power approaches the violence of his story well, effectively expressing the horror of what happens without going into exploitative torture porn territory.

We’re back into crime comedy territory with Tragedy Girls, starring Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse) and Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) as a pair of teenage BFFs who also happen to be aspiring serial killers. A satirical take on slasher conventions, Tragedy Girls—directed and co-written by Tyler MacInyre—takes aim at subjects ranging from social media to the standard horror movie victimization (and sexualization) of teenage girls. Witty, sharp, and boasting the friendship of its two main characters as its beating (bloody) heart, this Mean Girls-meets-Michael Myers mashup should appeal to fans of films like Jennifer’s Body, Heathers and Ginger Snaps.

Finally, Fantasia hosts the international premiere of South Korean writer/director Sun-ho Cho’s A Day. From the start, you think you know what you’re getting with this one. Jun-young (Kim Ayung-Min) is a famous doctor rushing to make it home from a work trip in time for his daughter Eun-jung’s (Jo Eun-hyung) birthday. But there’s a car accident, and Eun-jung dies. Reset. Commence Groundhog Day scenario: Jun-young lives that same day over and over, each time trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent the car crash that takes Eun-jung’s life. We’ve all see Groundhog Day, so we all think we know where this goes: Jun-young keeps trying and trying, and there’s a personal revelation in there somewhere, and eventually he manages to save his daughter and the loop closes. Roll credits. Except, to Cho’s credit, A Day keeps going to unexpected places. The ending’s a bit of a cop-out, and there’s one plot point in particular that throws logic to the wind. That’s the sort of thing that you have to be willing to let slide in a movie about time travel-adjacent shenanigans, I guess. Despite these third-act fumbles, A Day is worth catching for the way it puts a new spin on a tried-and-true formula.