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Fantasia 2018: Just a Breath Away, Nightmare Cinema

No one had warned me that the crowd at Fantasia likes to meow. I quickly found this out, however, before the first film had even started: the lights went down, and suddenly a surround sound of meows emerged from the crowd. Then there were a few dog barks, and finally some shushes. It all ended with a reverential silence. The show was about to start. I was reminded of how 21-year Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis, in his opening statement before “Just a Breath Away,” described the dedication of the Fantasia audience: they have “a continued curiosity, madness, and passion.” 

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My feelings certainly went from curiosity to madness watching the frustrating “Just a Breath Away,” which had its North American Premiere tonight under the title "Dans la brume." This film from director Daniel Roby weakly imagines an apocalypse in which modern-day Paris has become swarmed by a tsunami of toxic smoke, leaving a slew of bodies in its way, but only rising a certain amount of feet in the air. Only a small batch of people have survived: macho motorcycle riding guy Mathieu (Romain Duris) and the wife he’s become separated from, Anna (Olga Kurylenko). During the sudden event, they were able to steal away to the top floor apartment of her building, which is owned by a sweet old married couple. But Mathieu and Anna are not able to get the most important person in their lives: their daughter Sarah, who is still in Anna's apartment in a medical bubble because of a rare disease. The rest of the movie is their rescue mission, while her bubble needs battery changes every so often. 

The script, by Jimmy Bemon, Mathieu Delozier and Guillaume Lemans, is lazily constructed from two ideas you rarely see tackled in movies on their own: an apocalyptic mist, and a girl in a bubble. It's not impossible for them to work in the same plot, but the movie under-bakes both of these elements, making it all the more obvious they have little purpose except to create a personal conflict out of a massive epidemic. As Duris and Kurylenko later go through the fog, wondering what’s out there, we can’t help but feel that director Daniel Roby shares their cluelessness. But Roby's indifference to the possibility of his fog proves deadly to a sense of thrills. 

"Just a Breath Away" is an amateur's take on the disaster movie. It's hip to what broad themes or kinds of sequences fill the subgenre, like a sharp focus on protecting family, or the idea of constantly putting characters right back into the mess. But Roby uses this for repetitive passages, with approximately five scenes banking on the tension of characters scurrying through the fog, low on oxygen tanks or straight-up holding their breath. And if you compare "Just a Breath Away" to previous family-driven post-apocalyptic movie, “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski looks like a hell of a visionary, and, to put it politely, Roby does not. The similarities between those movies, though they were probably made around the same time, are as unfortunate as they are unflattering.  

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But, a little credit where a little credit is due. There are a few stirring apocalyptic visions, like seeing an “S.O.S.” banner draped over the Notre Dame cathedral, if only to tease viewers of a more interesting movie happening during the apocalypse. And while I spent much of the movie disagreeing with what Roby thinks constitutes authentic drama, or annoyed by the many times he tries to build tension out of making his actors hold their breath, the movie does have a twist at the very end that I can't believe I didn't see coming. 

The peak of last night’s Fantasia festivities was a celebration of Joe Dante, a giant in the world of horror directing, especially in the genre space he has carved for himself over the decades. He was here for two big reasons: to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, which also came up with a standing ovation from the Fantasia crowd. But this was also an opportunity to have the world premiere of “Nightmare Cinema,” a horror anthology that Dante participated in along with directors Alejandro Brugues, Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade and Mick Garris

A collection of five shorts, "Nightmare Cinema" is based around five characters who are individually drawn to an empty movie theater, and then watch a film about their lives play on the screen in front of them. As for us, “Nightmare Cinema” asks a lot of its viewers: bring a whole lot of nostalgia, but bury those expectations, and bear with us during many slow passages. It doesn't have the scarring, revealing nature of a nightmare, so much as the inconsequential air of a daydream. 

“Nightmare Cinema” might boast one of the more reputable omnibus rosters of late, with Dante being just one of the names who could make almost any project exciting. But the movie is no grandiose or even noteworthy testament to anyone’s talent, functioning like an assortment of one-note slow-burns that all overstay their welcome. It’s definitely the imagery you’d expect from some of these filmmakers, like how Borgues (“Juan of the Dead”) invents new over-the-top kills for a slasher movie, or how Kitamura (“Midnight Meat Train”) gives audiences a super gory climax that features an army of demon children, in what might be the best short of the batch. David Slade contributes a dour black & white short that gets some depth from a dedicated Elizabeth Reaser performance, as she plays a mother losing her sense of reality. Dante’s contribution, of which I thought was originally the one by Kitamura, toys with body horror in the unnatural world of plastic surgery. 

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But it all feels like a tired exercise. Even when the stories flip their perspectives, or pile on their emotional demons, or just try to build up an old fashioned jump scare, the enterprise comes up short. It’s oddly annoying too, how the shorts can overlap thematically and aesthetically, but without meaning anything: many of the mini-films by these guys are about women's experiences, or feature characters trapped in a certain medical state with no one to help them. And all of these shorts are ruthless with their scores, and have some cheap fades to black. Couldn’t these directors have shared their notes? 

Listening to the Fantasia crowd, it was the anthology's respective and gratuitous moments of blood and guts, of which there were indeed a few, that ended up being its biggest crowd pleaser. They seemed to explode anytime someone onscreen did. It was a fitting echo for the bookending of the film—perhaps a trivial horror riff like “Nightmare Cinema” should only be shown in theaters. And preferably with a crowd that relishes a gory kill just as much as a loud meow.

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