HELLBENDER (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Izzy and her mother live an isolated but relatively happy life in the lush mountains, their reclusiveness supposedly because Izzy has a rare autoimmune disease. As Izzy soon learns, however, her mother has kept her squirrelled away from the world because they are both “Hellbenders”, defined as a hybrid of witches, demons and predatory animals. While her mother tells herself she has her powers under control, when Izzy learns that she too has these abilities, a mother-daughter power struggle collides with a supernatural coming of age story that at its heart is also a powerful tale of the maternal bond and that old chestnut, the circle of life. A film embossed with all the ferocity and heart and passion and craft of the most powerful of art, Hellbender is a reminder that when film like this is revealed as possible, we never should settle for less.

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GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

A visually immersive experience as much as a compelling narrative populated by some truly unforgettable characters, it’s lush 16mm photography adds a textural quality that only deepens the sense of intoxication that riddles the film – as a world building exercise, Giving Birth to a Butterfly pulls you in, and refuses to let go. Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a poem, a love song, a cry to be heard and a breaking free, all in one.

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THE RIGHTEOUS (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

A brazenly ambitious horror film about grief and belief, actor Mark O’Brien dominates both in front and behind the camera in the additional roles of writer and director in one of the year’s most unforgettable horror films, The Righteous. Shot in crisp, high contrast black-and-white, the tale of an ex-priest forced to face his demons hinges largely around a series of intensely focused one-on-one conversations. Yet so steady is the writing and so solid are the bulk of the performances that this is all this film really needs, so much so that when it strays from that path the impact of what in other films would be jump scare highlights, here they seem somehow out of place. Thankfully, however, O’Brien knows to trust his cast and trust his words, and the showier horror set pieces are kept to a minimum, leaving the real terror of The Righteous buried in the words of its key protagonists.

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MARTYRS LANE (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

While on one level this is a ghost story about a child who fears her mother does not love her, it is more broadly a vision of a nightmare world where adults are unable to speak openly and honestly with children – and the consequences are chilling. Passionately rejecting the far-too-common tendency to reduce children to ciphers for innocence or symbolic tools in the telling of stories about adults, in Martyrs Lane Ruth Platt pulls back the curtain into the complexity and sophistication of the childhood experience with breathtaking imagination, extraordinary filmmaking, and a heartfelt, sincere respect for children themselves.

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GLASSHOUSE (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse from South Africa is a masterclass in how small-scale fantastic allegory and its world-building potential can provide fertile ground with which to examine the stain of colonialism itself on that country’s cultural imagination. The film centers on a mother, her three daughters and her son, who have protected themselves from an airborne contagion which has ravaged society, causing a dementia-like condition in those who inhale the infected air. Although never articulating colonialism as a central thematic focus of the film, its presence is thus escapable, and Glasshouse excels in its understanding of how the mechanics of genre cinema itself allow them to strip back the specifics of history itself to get at its heart.

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WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Low-key, dark, and emphatically superb, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair flirts with the internet horror of films like the recent Zoom indie smash Host, but where that film stayed impressively loyal to its central formal conceit, Schoenbrun dazzles with this unrestrained foray well beyond the boundaries of any particular horror subgenre and into much more abstract terrain. Swirling around the plug hole of a digital abyss, we’re never sure what lies down the drain even after the film has ended, making it the rarest of gifts; a horror movie that becomes more disturbing the more you think about it, long after it has ended.

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A DARK FOE – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

A Dark Foe follows FBI Agent Tony Cruz whose obsessive dedication to his work life is thwarted by childhood trauma and a chronic case of nyctophobia (fear of the dark). Haunted by the murder of his mother and the abduction of his sister when she was only a child, as revealed early in the film, as an adult his paths cross with the man responsible for his own tragic losses, which are simultaneously linked to a stream of vicious serial killings and a sex trafficking ring.

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BLOOD RED SKY – Review by Maitland McDonagh

So, here’s the high-concept pitch: Imagine Snakes on a Plane, only instead of snakes, the lethal pests are vampires and Samuel L. Jackson isn’t on board to declare, “I have had it with these motherfucking vampires on this motherfucking plane!” The surprise is that, unlike many movies whose bold strokes trump attention to detail, Blood Red Sky is both pretty bloody entertaining and surprisingly emotionally satisfying.

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MEANDER – Review by Maitland McDonagh

Comparisons to 1997’s Cube and its sequels are inevitable. The first film earned its notoriety by giving claustrophobic viewers nightmares and everyone else bragging rights for not squirming long after the credits rolled and Meander operates by the same playbook. But Meander is more visceral from the outset. Writer and director Mathieu Turi has built in some nasty surprises that keep it from becoming tediously repetitive–just consistently dark

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