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Fantasia International Film Festival 2023 Preview: 20 Films to Look Forward To

July 11, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Where the Devil Roams Fantasia International Film Festival Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

When it comes to the film festival circuit, Fantasia International Film Festival is one of the biggest and most important of the year for lovers of genre cinema. Taking place in Montreal from July 20th through August 9th, Fantasia is a place where many films now considered to be modern fan favorites from Ready Or Not and Perfect Blue to Ringu, Trick ‘r Treat, and Inglourious Basterds have screened. Fantasia provides a place for genre giants to give audiences their first taste of what’s to come alongside new, independent and international voices looking to break out.

The festival is going as big as ever with their 2023 offerings, with 120 feature films and 200 shorts set to be screened. The festival will be screening films starring the likes of Nicolas Cage and David Dastmalchian as well as from countries all around the world. There’s a lot of films to keep an eye on and even for people who might not be able to make it, it’s a festival that fans of horror, action, sci-fi, and more will want to keep an eye on in order to know what movies to look out for. I’ll be providing coverage of Fantasia for 411 this year and before that happens, I wanted to kick things off with a look at the top 20 (plus a few quick extra mentions) films to look forward to out of the festival.

Honorable Mentions

My Animal
Tokyo Revengers 2 Part 1 & Part 2
The Sacrifice Game
Vincent Must Die

#20: A Disturbance In the Force

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

There are few subjects of geek fascination quite like The Star Wars Holiday Special. That infamous ABC special is the The Room, Manos: The Hands of Fate or Troll 2 for Star Wars fans, a hilariously bad and poorly-conceived notion that has become an indelible (and even lovable) part of the franchise despite George Lucas’ best efforts. It’s the kind of project that went wrong in so many ways, it’s actually rather surprising that there hasn’t been a full documentary on its making before now. Enter directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, who have sought to tell the story of how it all turned out so gut-bustingly awful. I’m a sucker for a good behind-the-scenes documentary retrospective, and that’s what Disturbance in the Force is promising including interviews with the special’s director and writer and more. And even if a behind-the-scenes on the Holiday Special isn’t quite your thing, the synopsis also promises a look at the era snapshot that was 1970s variety TV. Star Wars is an enduring franchise, and this has the potential to be a delightful chance to look at one of the corners it’s tried to tuck away.

#19: T Blockers

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Look, when a film’s preview compares its director to Gregg Araki and John Waters, you have my interest. Alice Maio Mackay’s past films So Vam and Bad Girl Boogey have certainly lived up to that reputation with a DIY style and defiantly punk queer attitude. They’ve also shown that Mackay has a ridiculous amount of potential at her young age, with making leaps and bounds from her first film to her second. T Blockers is her third film, which looks to continue her path upward. Set in small-town Australia, it follows a young trans filmmaker played by Lauren Last who is searching for a lost film when the community explodes into violence thanks to an earthquake that frees a horde of ancient parasites. Described as “equal parts gross-out comic horror and heartwarming coming-of-age story,” T-Blockers has every bit of potential to further cement Mackay as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

#18: Mayhem!

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Xavier Gens is a filmmaker best known for his work in the horror genre, most notably the 2007 New French Extremity film Frontier(s). But he’s also ventured into action as a director on episodes of Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery’s Gangs Of Londonand other projects. Mayhem (aka Farang) returns him to that genre with a story about an ex-con (Nassim Lyes) who lives in Thailand with his wife and daughter and must fight to protect his family from a local gangster after a deal between them goes bad. Action has a proud history at Fantasia with wild, visceral entries arriving each year. Mayhem! looks to deliver with hard-hitting fight sequences, headshots and plenty of underworld bag guys for Lyes’ Sam to take out in the road to recovering his family. It’s hard to go wrong with a film that includes hallway fights, a billiard ball fistload and knife fights conducted by a former MMA fighter and kickboxing champion. Gens at the helm makes the odds of this being an entertaining actionfest even harder to bet against.

#17: #Manhole

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Single location thrillers have a pretty decent track record, especially when it involves someone being trapped somewhere. Films like The Pool have successfully exploited the premise of a person getting trapped in a place where they can’t just find help and must try to use their limited resources to rescue themselves. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s #Manhole looks to and some elements of social media satire to that conceit with a plot in which a salesperson about to get married falls in a manhole after a drunken pre-wedding party and must try to find his way to safety. Kumakiri is working off a script by Michitaka Okada, who wrote the screenplays for thrillers like Masquerade Hotel and Death Tube. That gives the film a solid foundation to build from, and the trailer teases that there’s far more than initially meets the eye here. A twisty thriller is always a good time and the element of our lead character Shunsuke having to turn to social media for help sounds rather interesting. Even when these kinds of films go off the rails, they tend to do it in decidedly fun ways and I’m here for it.

#16: Romi

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

AI has captured attention over the last year or so, and often not for positive reasons. There’s a raw nerve running through many people regarding where artificial intelligence might go, a subject Hollywood has been long been curious about. An AI captured the box office crown in January in M3GAN, and we can only expect to see more of these kinds of films coming down the pike. Case in point: Robert Cuffley’s Romi. The thriller stars Yellowjackets’ Alexa Barajas as Maddie, a young woman who, after an accident, is sent by her politician mother to a safe house with an AI system (named — you guessed it — ROMI). Maddie starts to become unsettled in her the location, seeing an intruder and other more sinister things. Playing on the notion of being trapped in a house (we all remember that!) and a potentially unreliable narrator, this feels like one that could become a favorite for those who enjoy tech thrillers.

#15: Lovely, Dark and Deep

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Georgina Campbell was the horror star of the early fall last year as Barbarian become a hit for 20th Century Studios, and she’s returning to the genre in just a few days with Netflix’s Bird Box: Barcelona. Her next horror entry after that is Lovely, Dark and Deep, a woods-set flick from Midnight Mass staff writer Teresa Sutherland. The woods are always a great place for a horror film and invoking Robert Frost’s lonely poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in its title certainly sets the potential mood. Sutherland’s film centers on Lennon (Campbell), who becomes a park ranger at an isolated station where there have been strange disappearances. Lennon starts to investigate what happened to her missing sister when she finds herself beset by visions and soon realizes that there’s something deeper in the woods that factors into her job. This one sounds like a potent mix of folk horror, psychological thriller and mystery and we already know Campbell can carry a horror film on her back, which means this is a must-see.

#14: Pett Kata Shaw

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Speaking of folk horror, Pett Kata Shaw promises a mix of creepy folk tales. Anthology films can be a mixed bag of offerings due to the nature of telling different contained stories in one film, but they tend to be on more stable ground when they’re coming from a singular creative vision. That’s what we have here, with Nuhash Humayun serving as writer-director for four tales based on Bangladeshi folklore. They include a ghostly woman who invades a man’s apartment seeking a meal, a man investigating a coastal town where children are disappearing, a sweet shop owner who gets visited by a customer offering wishes in exchange for sweets, and a couple who visit a town that is the origin of every Bengali superstition. Humayun’s last project, the 2022 horror short Moshari, earned several festival awards and was executive produced by Jordan Peele and Riz Ahmed’s Monkeypaw Pictures. That bodes well for this collection of shorts and helps score its spot on this list.

#13: Blackout

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

It’s hard to find a good werewolf film sometimes. Lycanthropes are a tougher nut for film to crack than some of the other traditional monsters, and while there are obviously some gems (Ginger Snaps, American Werewolf In London and The Howling, to name a few) the werewolf doesn’t tend to get as many movies as vampires, ghosts, demons and other creatures of the night. The good news for werewolf lovers is that we have not one, but two loup-garou films arriving at Fantasia — My Animal (listed up in the honorable mentions) and Blackout. And better yet, Blackout comes from one of the most respected names in independent horror in Larry Fessenden. Fessenden is known for films like Wendigo and The Last Winter, and here he turns his audio drama of the same name into a tale of a cursed man trying to right his own (and other’s) wrongs in a New York town. The cast for this is impressive, with Alex Hurt playing the lead role and Marshall Bell (Starship Troopers), Addison Timlin (The Town That Dreaded Sundown), Barbara Crampton and more appearing. Blackout promises a different take on the werewolf film, and that’s something I’m always down for.

#12: Restore Point

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Sci-fi noir is one of my favorite genres, and Restore Point looks like the kind of film that can hit a sweet spot for me. Hailing from Czech Republic, Robert Hloz’s dystopian sci-fi flick is set in a world where resurrection is possible, and people upload their memories to a corporate cloud to be used as a reboot point should anyone die. But when one of the founding members of the company and his wife are murdered, restoration proves to be impossible, and a detective (Andrea Mohylová) must infiltrate an extremist group opposed to restoration to get answers. She is paired with David (Matej Hádek), a copy of the dead man who doesn’t have his memories. This is the kind of high-concept science fiction that Hollywood wishes they could do right, but never seen to nail. The film has already received good reviews following a screening at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, with its style and visuals garnering positive marks along with the story from Tomislav Cecka and Zdenek Jecelin. This checks all the boxes for a potentially worthy entry into the sci-fi dystopian noir genre led by the likes of Minority Report, Blade Runner, and Strange Days.

#11: Satan Wants You

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

As someone who grew up in the 1980s, it’s weird to sometimes remember how many people don’t remember the Satanic panic era. As a kid who loved Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy and horror that was already starting to realize that Christianity and (subconsciously, in this case) heterosexuality wasn’t for me, I couldn’t forget about it if I tried. But yeah, for many it was an era that had died out in the early 1990s and something they vaguely remember at best. Satanic panic disturbingly seems to be making a comeback in the past couple of years, which makes Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams’s documentary Satan Wants You particularly relevant.

Satan Wants You looks at the beginning of the hysteria’s true launch, with Michelle Smith and Larry Pazder’s (now extremely discredited) book in which Smith claims to have remembered suffering abuse at her (not actually) Satanist parents’ hands. The film features archival footage of media appearances (Smith and Pazdar made several) and interviews with family and friends of the two along with law enforcement experts, members of the Church of Satan and more. It is a disturbingly relevant topic today and has one I’m very interested in checking out when I can.

#10: We Are Zombies

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

The closing film of Fantasia Fest will be this gory-looking zombie comedy from Roadkill Superstars, the Canadian trio of François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. Set in a world where zombies don’t have human-eating tendencies and the Coleman Corporation offers a “retirement plan” for the undead, it centers on three friends who make a living sneaking in and recovering zombies, then selling them. When their grandmother is kidnapped, they have to accept dangerous assignments that lead to carnage and (presumably) hilarity. RKSS have shown plenty of talent for blending comedy into their genre work with Turbo Kid and Summer of ’84, both of which have earned deserved high marks. The concept behind this one is smart and a great setup for some over the top splatstick, and Fantasia is always on point with their selections of closing films so this should be a gory good ride.

#9: Empire V

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Empire V has already earned itself a few headlines for being banned in its home country of Russia. The vampire film is a satire that takes aim at the Russian oligarchy, which considering the current political climate is a bold thing to do. But if it were only about its headlines, Empire V wouldn’t be ranking on this list (and certainly not this high). Instead, it’s the film’s fantastic visuals as seen in the trailer and its apparent new spin on the modern vampire tropes. Adapted from the novel by Victor Pelevin, writer-director Victor Ginzburg’s film looks to have some stunning setpieces combined with biting social satire. Vampire-centered sci-fi action can be hit or miss sometimes, but everything about this one suggests it will be the former and not the latter.

#8: Suitable Flesh

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Suitable Flesh comes from Joe Lynch (Mayhem, Everly) and is described as a tribute to the late Stuart Gordon. That alone would be reason to be hyped for it. But when you add in the rest of the talent assembled here, the hype goes through the roof. Gordon’s films hold a place in the hearts of nearly ’80s and ’90s horror fan thanks to Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak among others. Lynch is paying tribute with a film based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep that is described as “supernatural erotic horror,” a genre that was of course right up Gordon’s alley. The film follows a psychiatrist (Heather Graham) from Miskatonic University who works with out-of-body experiences and her descent after an encounter with a young man seeking her aid (Judah Lewis) leads to his death.

Lynch is teaming up with talent from Gordon’s past including Barbara Crampton, writer Denis Paoli and executive producer Brian Yuzna (Society, The Pit and the Pendulum) which makes for a murderer’s row of talent. The film promises to speak to the treatment of mental health while still being a horrifyingly good time thanks to Lynch’s particular brand of dark humor. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one for certain.

#7: Sympathy For the Devil

Image Credit: RLJE Films

Nicolas Cage is a favorite of Fantasia, which has screened Mandy and Prisoners of the Ghostland in recent years. Cage is set to receive a career achievement award at this year’s festival as his renaissance continues, and his latest film will screen there too in Sympathy For the Devil. Cage’s comeback has been rather heartening, and it’s been a delight to see him back in films that properly deserve him. This one is a crime thriller with a simple but intense set-up, as a driver (Joel Kinnaman) is on his way to the hospital where his wife is giving birth. Before he can arrive, a man gets into his car with a gun and forces him to drive. What follows is a wild ride where Cage’s charisma looks to be on full display as the villainous passenger and Kinnaman elevating his game as his driver tries to stay alive in the cat-and-mouse game. Yuval Adler (Bethlehem) is behind the camera for this film, which has been teasing plenty of twists in its marketing campaign.

#6: Stay Online

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Much like Empire V, Stay Online comes in at a particularly pointed time due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Eva Strelnikova’s film is directly topical, a ScreenLife film (think Missing and Unfriended) which is set during the invasion and follows Kyiv volunteer Katya (Liza Zaitseva) who is fighting against the invasion. Katya is using a donated laptop and gets in contact with the original owner’s son, who has lost his parents and needs Katya to help him. The ScreenLife format isn’t one that hits right for everyone, but it is the perfect format for a film like this and gives it a first-person format that can potentially add to its authenticity. This one looks to be leaning more into drama than thriller territory, with the preview describing a “somber but honest story” that has every chance to be a powerful look at what life amid the current conflict feels like.

#5: Femme

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

This one instantly captured my attention when I saw it on the Fantasia list. A queer revenge thriller from Ng Choon Ping and Sam H. Freeman (adapted from their short film of the same name), Femme revolves around Jules, a drag artist in London (Candyman’s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who is the target of a gay bashing after a show by a group of bigots. Traumatized by the experience, he withdraws from his art until he recognizes one of his assailants (George MacKay) at a gay sauna. Jules then concocts a plan for revenge as he begins dating his assailant and infiltrates his friend circle. Femme looks to put the focus not on the notion of the trauma, but on the power of performance and the notion of fighting back. It goes without saying that this film comes along at a difficult time for drag, particularly in the US but elsewhere also, and with two actors of Stewart-Jarrett and MacKay’s caliber, this has the opportunity to be deeply cathartic (but also intense) and deliver some important statements on a number of queer themes.

#4: Late Night With the Devil

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

David Dastmalchian is having a busy year in 2023. Check that: David Dastmalchian always has a busy year. He’s one of the hardest-working character actors in the business, and yet 2023 has been stellar even by his standards. He’s co-starred in a Marvel blockbuster (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania), a very solid Hulu crime drama (Boston Strangler) and a moderate horror hit in The Boogeyman — with roles in the upcoming Oppenheimer and The Last Voyage of the Demeter still yet to release. And amid it all, he has this found footage-style 1970s-set horror film about a late-night talk show host who interviews a parapsychologist (Laura Gordon) and a teenager (Ingrid Torelli) who was the sole survivor of a Satanic church’s mass suicide. Of course, this being a found footage horror film, things get scary and demonic pretty quickly in front of a live studio audience.

Late Night With the Devil is the third feature film from Colin and Cameron Cairnes and got a lot of buzz coming out of SXSW, where it was praised as a smart use of found footage that doesn’t skimp on period authenticity and features a charismatic performance from Dastmalchian. It looks to bring a mix of 1970s nostalgia, loopy fun and a creepy tone that ups the tension while staying true to its format. I’ll always enjoy a found footage film if it’s done well, and Late Night With the Devil has every chance to becoming a horror fave.

#3: River

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

One of the most delightful surprises out of Fantasia two years ago was Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. Junta Yamaguchi’s film about a cafe TV that shows images two minutes in the future was an ingeniously funny and whip-smart sci-fi comedy that did a lot with very little to work with. And I was thrilled to learn that Yamaguchi is returning to the concept with River, which takes the two-minute time loop and sets it in an inn where things start looping for the same period of time. Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), a waitress at the inn, finds herself stuck in the loop along with the rest of the people inside. Yamaguchi worked wonders with this concept before, and with a more expansive premise and cast he has the chance to build on what Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes started. That promises to mean character development, plenty of humor and just enough drama to keep everything grounded. If this is anywhere near as good as Beyond, viewers will have a ton of fun with it.

#2: Where the Devil Roams

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Speaking of favorites out of Fantasia, the Adams Family have wowed audiences every time they’ve brought a film to the festival. 2018’s The Deeper You Dig put the family on the map, while Hellbender helped them break out further at the 2021 edition. Hellbender was one of my favorites out of Fantasia 2021, and so it’s probably not a surprise that their latest Where the Devil Roams is one of my most anticipated for 2023. Toby Poser, John Adams, and Zelda Adams play a traveling family of performers making their way through the carnival circuit during the Great Depression. The family also happen to be murderers and they pile up bodies until Eve (Zelda Adams) takes notice of a carny named Mr. Tibbs (Sam Rodd) who commits a violent act by use of magic. Each of the Adams Family’s films explore themes of family connections and power, and Where the Devil Roams looks to be no different. The difference here is that the family are working with a much bigger crew, and the notion of them being able to do what they do on a higher scale is tremendously exciting. This one is likely to run through all the emotions and, of their past work is any indication, while be a must-see horror film.

#1: Talk To Me

Image Credit: A24 Films

Talk To Me isn’t just the top film to look forward to at Fantasia; it’s one of my most anticipated films of the year. Garnering absolute raves when it premiered at Sundance in January, the feature directorial debut from Danny and Michael Philippou was picked up by A24 after a bidding war and is set to hit theaters in wide release on July 28th. But those in attendance at Fantasia will have the chance to see it five days early on the 23rd. Sophie Wilde stars as Mia, a teenager dealing with her mother’s death and her father being mired in depression. When she goes to stay at her best friend’s house, they begin to mess around with an embalmed ceramic hand of a psychic that you can take hold of, utter the titular phrase, and get floored by sensation of spirits entering their body. The one catch is that you can never hold onto the hand for more than 90 seconds. And of course, once that happens Mia finds herself targeted by supernatural forces.

Reviews have labeled the film as a smart and often terrifying exploration of its teen characters and the emotional trauma that they’re dealing with. It’s a story told via practical effects which are said to be spectacular. The cast of relative newcomers like Wilde, Joe Bird, Alexandra Jensen and Otis Dhanji are getting plenty of raves with Eowyn herself, Miranda Otto, there to add some gravitas. This is a film that people will be talking about as soon as they can see it, and it’s easily the biggest must-see movie at Fantasia.

And there’s my top 20 films to look forward to! But as many as it is, that’s just a small selection of what is available at this year’s edition. You can check out the full program here. I’m looking forward to covering it and discussing some of these films in the next few weeks.