It’s sad when a great film festival comes to an end.  The Fantasia International Film Festival typically lasts close to three weeks, so all I can say is “Let the forty-nine week countdown to Fantasia 2021 begin!”  This is the third and final installment of my series examining films that played at this year’s festival.  Over the weeks to come, I will update you as each of these films receives its wider release so you can find it in theaters or on VOD and streaming services. 

A solid genre film festival needs a truly great horror film on its slate.  The Dark and the Wicked from writer-director Bryan Bertino filled that need at Fantasia 2020.  Bertino was the writer and director of the 2008 horror hit The Strangers and wrote the screenplay for its 2018 sequel.  With The Dark and the Wicked, Bertino is back behind the camera to great effect.

Louise and Michael have returned to their hometown.  Their father is terminally ill.  Their mother asked them to stay away.  A combination of guilt and loyalty brings them back to the farm that was their childhood home.  The brother and sister assumed their mother didn’t want to be a bother.  They never considered that their mother was concerned for their safety.

As soon as Louise and Michael arrive, they know that something is “off” with their mother.  They chalk it up to a simple case of exhaustion.  Their mother has been serving as their father’s caregiver during his final illness.  Not long after they arrive, they discover that mother is being plagued by something much more sinister than loss of sleep.  What’s really going on at the family farm in The Dark and the Wicked?  I won’t tell here.  You need to see the film.

The Dark and the Wicked makes excellent use of some common horror devices.  What is real and what is imagined?  Did that just happen or was it a dream?  Am I having a mental breakdown or am I experiencing something supernatural?    

The film develops a steady sense of dread while sprinkling in some well-crafted jump scares.  I watched The Dark and the Wicked on a big screen television in the dark with headphones on and found myself looking over my shoulder more than once.  I’m not a believer that a horror film has to be really scary to be enjoyable, but The Dark and the Wicked is truly frightening. 

Hunted is another nightmare, but it’s not supernatural in origin.  It shows us the evil that human beings are capable of without the assistance of the paranormal.  It’s all the more frightening because of how very plausible it seems.  Hunted is a cat-and-mouse thriller written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud, the co-writer and co-director of the 2007 animated film Persepolis

Eve is in town on business.  She decides to go to a bar to unwind after a stressful day.  She’s rescued from an annoying drunk by a seemingly nice guy.  They spend the evening dancing and drinking, and Eve ends up … in the trunk of his car, bound and gagged.  (Not exactly what you were expecting, right?)

When her abductor and his accomplice run off the road and roll their car, Eve escapes from the trunk and bolts into the woods with her hands still bound and tape over her mouth.  As her kidnappers climb out of the wreckage, they realize that Eve has seen their faces.  They can’t let her go, so they race into the woods, intent on silencing her … permanently.

Although the premise may not sound very original, Hunted is executed with technique and style to burn.  The performances, the cinematography and the editing combine to create a compelling edge-of-your-seat thriller.  Hunted expects its audience to have considerable thriller-watching experience and takes great glee in zigging where you think it will zag.

Although the film is ultra-violent with lots of effective practical gore effects, it never descends into the bleak misery of so many modern horror films.  Hunted has a very self-aware sense of humor.  The script is clever with its misdirections.  I found myself gleefully laughing out loud on a couple of occasions at the audacity of the filmmaker’s choices.  If you like a good thriller, Hunted is more than up to the task.    

The Paper Tigers might be the film at Fantasia 2020 that I most wish I could’ve seen with a live audience.  This martial arts comedy is a heart-warming crowd-pleaser.  It boggles my mind that it’s the feature directorial debut for its writer-director Quoc Bao Tran because it’s such an assured piece of filmmaking.

Danny, Hing and Jim were childhood friends who bonded over their love of martial arts.  They trained together under their Sifu, Master Cheung.  They planned to compete together on the martial arts circuit and live their lives as masters of their sport.  But life had other plans.

Thirty years later, when their Sifu dies under mysterious circumstances, his funeral thrusts the three friends into an impromptu reunion.  As they learn more about their master’s death, they begin to suspect he’s been murdered.  Soon they find themselves on a quest to find the truth and confront the person responsible.

The humor and the heart of The Paper Tigers lie in its exploration of friendship and aging.  These three men have the earnestness of their teenaged selves, but at nearly fifty years of age, the body may not be able to do what the mind tells it to.  Foot chases are abandoned due to exhaustion.  Fight scenes are interrupted by pulled muscles and bodily breakdowns.  It’s a hilarious reminder of the shadow of impending middle age that looms over all of us.

The entire cast is tremendous, but Ron Yuan steals the show as Hing.  He’s overweight and wears a knee brace after being hurt on the job, but he has the heart of a lion for his friends and his Sifu.  He charges into his fight scenes like Charlie Brown recklessly racing to kick the football that we know Lucy will only yank away at the last moment.

Matthew Page’s performance is a close second to Yuan’s.  He plays Carter, the high school nemesis of our three heroes.  It seems as if he has kept himself in peak condition for thirty years just so he can humiliate his former classmates now that they finally need his help.  His bickering with the three leads reveals the insecure high school student hiding inside his buff adult body.

The Paper Tigers deserves to find a wide audience.  Bring your family and friends along for the drive.  Whether it’s a drive-in, a traditional theater or VOD, I hope it’s a financial success so Quoc Bao Tran can bring us another film.  Soon.