Zombies, VHS Games, Heists & Thrills at Germany's Fantasy Filmfest
by Alex Billington
August 30, 2016
Over the past week and a half I've been attending a few screenings of films as part of the Fantasy Filmfest in Berlin (where I now live). Inspired by and operated similar to Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX and Fantasia in Montreal, the Fantasy Filmfest is a horror/sci-fi/genre festival in Germany (taking place in multiple cities over these past few weeks). Their catchy tagline is "Fear Good Movies" and their line-up of films this year is impressive, including some of my favorites from other fests like: Swiss Army Man, Under the Shadow, Train to Busan, Yoga Hosers, and War on Everyone. I caught four films over the last few weeks, two of them worth recommending. Overall, I'm glad I heard about this fest (from a fellow movie lover in Germany) - I always enjoy seeing some of the latest genre films, especially since there's so many out there every year.
This is the 30th year of the Fantasy Filmfest, which first launched in 1987 in Germany. From the program's introduction: "Over time, a lot of genre classics were discovered here, some of them becoming cult favo- rites. Our audience has spent many days and many more hours of joy and suffering together, laughing, screaming and celebrating their favorite kinds of film." The screenings always started on time, most of them were in English (not dubbed), and overall everything ran smooth. For more details check out their website. I decided to write up some quick capsule reviews of the four films I saw during the festival - find them below.
The Girl with All the Gifts (directed by Colm McCarthy) - This is the best zombie movie in years, hands down. I often feel like I'm tired of seeing the same old zombie movie, but this one is different, and it's refreshingly unique and bold in its originality. This is a big step forward in zombie movies, by telling a story about "what happens next" after they've taken over - not about that event. It's about a young girl (played by Sennia Nanua who definitely deserves attention after this) who is a zombie, but seems immune or at least has the ability to be human for the most part. They're trying to figure out how to create a vaccine, until that facility gets overrun. The movie is intense and vibrant, the script is streamlined and moves swiftly without providing all the answers, but still keeps you engaged. There's plenty of biting and blood, but there's also good twists and turns. I actually prefer this zombie flick more than Train to Busan, which others are raving about. Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton also star, but it's all about Sennia Nanua.
To Steal from a Thief (directed by Daniel Calparsoro) - A bank robbery heist movie from Spain in the same vein as Inside Man. This one starts out great, but then ends up being fairly forgettable. There is not much of a setup - within minutes the masked robbers are storming into the bank in Valencia, and they have an intricate plan in place designed to fool everyone (including the police) and escape with sensitive data from a safety deposit box. However, heavy rain outside floods their escape route and they have to figure out a flimsy backup plan. One of the biggest problems is that it never feels like the threat of these robbers is real, there are no stakes, perhaps because of a budget issue or perhaps because the script isn't that strong. I really wanted to enjoy this one more than I did, but by the end I was just waiting for it to be over and the conclusion isn't that satisfying anyway. I recommend just rewatching Inside Man instead.
Desierto (directed by Jonás Cuarón) - A cat-and-mouse thriller set on the US-Mexico border (which we also reviewed last year). Gael García Bernal plays a kind-hearted Mexican man trying to cross the border and get back safely to his family, Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a heartless vigilante American who likes to hunt down illegal border crossers and kill them. This film seemed like Jonás Cuarón's attempt to prove that he is capable of making a feature film, and otherwise doesn't really add much to the discussion nor is it very memorable in any way. Cuarón (son of filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón) does indeed prove that he is a talented filmmaker and can tell a story, there's just nothing about this that stands out. We already know most of these people crossing are just seeking a better life, and we already know there are shitty Americans who will angrily kill them. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has a dog which he uses to actually kill a few of them, but I could tell the dog was very friendly in real life, and it was quite distracting. Solid filmmaking, boring film.
Beyond the Gates (directed by Jackson Stewart) - Now this is a fun one especially for fans of B-movie horror. This low-budget throwback to the days of VHS is about two brothers who find an old VHS horror board game (called "Beyond the Gates") while cleaning up their dad's video store. 80's horror icon Barbara Crampton appears on screen when they pop in the VHS, but they soon discover the game involves actually killing people in the real-world to progress. It's goofy, rather harmless, and super low-budget (not in a good way), but I still enjoyed it. I wish there was more gore, and the dynamic between the three leads (Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant) is a bit cheesy, but there's a charming old school vibe to it that makes up for some of its flaws. This will definitely make you want to bust out your old VHS movies and find a working VHS player at the local flea market and relive the good ole days of cinema on tape.
The two of these that I would recommend seeing are The Girl with All the Gifts and Beyond the Gates. If you live in Germany (or are visiting the country while the fest is taking place) and love genre films (horror, sci-fi, thrillers) then make sure you check out the Fantasy Filmfest. The films screen on different days in all of the major cities in the country: Berlin, Munich, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, and Hamburg. I'm already looking forward to seeing what they bring next year, as there is bound to be something good to see that I haven't caught up with yet. Other films playing this year include: Abattoir, Antibirth, Carnage Park, Creepy, Don't Kill It, The Eyes of My Mother, The Greasy Strangler, Imperium, Level Up, The Ones Below, Shelley, Terra Formars, Trash Fire, and We Are the Flesh. For more info, visit the festival's official website.