Late summer and fall always mean one thing in the film world:  festivals.  From Fantastic Fest in Austin to the Toronto International Film Festival to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, this time of year is usually brimming with high-profile festival premieres and the unveiling of the next crop of Oscar hopefuls.

COVID-19 had other plans.  Many festivals cancelled outright.  However, some festivals are taking advantage of cutting-edge technology to stage their annual events online.  One such showcase is the Fantasia International Film Festival based out of Montreal, Canada. 

The curation at Fantasia is always top-notch.  The physical festival usually takes place in July each year and lasts nearly three weeks.  Their 2020 edition is a twelve-day online celebration of comedy, crime thrillers, documentary, horror, and science fiction releases that will be hitting theaters, streaming platforms, and VOD outlets in the months to come.  For the next few episodes of The Screen Scene, I will be reviewing a bumper crop of titles playing in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival. 

Georgia was a hotbed of film production before COVID reared its ugly head, and it will no doubt continue to be one of the biggest global producers of entertainment when the virus finally begins to fade.  So, all of you aspiring filmmakers out there won’t want to miss The Clapboard Jungle, an indie documentary by writer/director/producer Justin McConnell.  It’s an inspiring cautionary tale about what it takes to survive in the independent film business.

McConnell has an entire slate of films in various states of pre-production.  He just has one problem:  he needs to raise the funds to make the films or, at the very least, one of the films.  He attends film festival markets and industry meet-and-greets, looking for the financial backers who will help him to get the cameras rolling on his projects.

While The Clapboard Jungle documents Justin’s personal path through the indie film world, it also features dozens of interviews about the film business that he’s conducted with established filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Mick Garris as well as artists who only have a film or two under their belts.  Does Justin achieve fame and fortune?  Does he abandon his dream for a steady day job?  Anyone interested in pursuing a living as a visual storyteller needs to see this film to grasp the reality of the challenges that lie ahead. 

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a horror film set in 1973, but the small town in which the narrative takes place is unlike any other American town in the 1970’s.  Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village, the citizens of this rural community choose to live by “the old ways” without any technology or interference from the outside world.  From all appearances, it may as well be 1630’s New England as depicted in Robert Eggers’ 2015 horror film The Witch.

Agatha Earnshaw lives apart from her fellow villagers and keeps to herself.  Agatha’s land provides an abundance of crops while all the other farms in the community are barren.  Rumors abound that Agatha has made a pact with the devil, and witchcraft is the source of her success. 

Although Agatha claims to live alone, a few of the male villagers have seen her with a beautiful young woman they believe to be her daughter.  Each of the men is visibly affected by their encounter with the bewitching young woman.  The community begins to suspect that Agatha’s daughter is the cause of their hardship.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw proves to be a slow burn horror film that builds a steady sense of suspense as it progresses.  The production design evokes 17th century Salem, Massachusetts and sets the stage for a 20th century witch hunt.  Although it can be graphically violent at times, this is not a slasher film nor is it a possession film like The Exorcist.  It’s atmospheric, creepy and will make for a good Halloween watch when it’s released on October 6th.

For lovers of crime films, Fantasia 2020 screened the new Hong Kong thriller A Witness Out of the Blue.  In the aftermath of a jewelry heist, the four perpetrators become separated.  Someone has the duffle bag filled with millions in jewels.  When the members of the gang begin to turn up murdered, a local detective and his partner try to identify the murderer and recover the stolen jewels.

Like most Hong Kong crime films, A Witness Out of the Blue blends action, comedy and romance into a single narrative.  Actor Louis Koo gives an engaging performance as Mr. Lee, the head of the robbery crew who hides out in the boarding house of a young woman who is slowly losing her sight.  Koo smoothly transitions from menace to compassion and back again.  He’s the anchor of the film.

A Witness Out of the Blue takes a unique approach to a well-worn crime cliché:  the robbery gone wrong.  Sometimes I have a tendency to give too many “originality points” when I find a fresh take on an old idea, but I think this film is worth your time.   

Next week I’ll take a look at three more titles from Fantasia 2020.  I will also keep you updated in the months to come as these films hit theaters and streaming services.  Until then, put them on your watch list.