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Fantasia 2023: Blackout, Booger, Stay Online

This year’s Fantasia International Film Festival is well underway, having kicked off on July 21 and lasting through August 9. The world-famous genre-driven gathering in Montreal has been running for 27 years, debuting future sci-fi, horror, action, and all-of-the-above favorites. Yours truly will be covering the fest’s major premieres this year remotely, though I can practically hear the audience's famous howls of delight watching some of these films. 

Fantasia kicked off its 2023 edition with “Blackout,” the latest from revered horror veteran Larry Fessenden, who brings the horror genre another distinct take on a creature feature (after the likes of “Wendigo” and the Frankenstein-inspired “Depraved”). Here, he has a wolfman played with grit and shame by a heartbreaking Alex Hurt, son of the late William. Hurt’s Charley is a painter whose life is reflected in his work. But it’s not just the pastoral brook for a painting he gave his estranged and then deceased father; it’s also the screaming faces of his victims, the subjects of his carnage when he goes out at the full moon and becomes a tried-and-true werewolf. As a vagabond painter with a drinking problem, he says he blacks out in these circumstances and wakes up confused, in the middle of nowhere, with blood on his clothes. 

The film’s tone is mournful and moody, folded into a story of coming home and not knowing who you are. When Charley becomes aware of what he has done, he has a great deal of shame and terror about it; he wants to be put down. This inner sadness piles on his lost relationship with his lover Sharon (Addison Timlin), his fractured bond with his father, and a corrupt plot from a big wig named Hammond (Marshall Bell) to open a gaudy resort called Hilltop. “Blackout” swirls with these emotional problems along with the whole werewolf thing, which has riled the town in conspiracy and hate (some of the locals assume with no evidence that it’s the work of a man named Miguel [Rigo Garay]). The film’s first half is filled with scenes where dialogue-heavy conversation between two characters lazily takes us back to the past. These visually staid scenes usually consist of two people bantering, and their weak rhythm is broken up by werewolf carnage. 

“Blackout” is artful and compelling where it counts most, including a tremendous transformation scene that depicts Charley's changes as if they were his paintings. The film has appealing big heart even when its violence comes off as more comical or cheesy, with characters sometimes falling into deadly slapstick or clumsily letting the wolf get away. But Fessenden is not precious about these details. As much as some of the movie’s wolf-iest scenes (attacking people, scaring them) might invite a viewer to scoff, they aren’t the main point and can nearly be taken as good gory fun. Even when the movie is little more than Fessenden riffing on the human side of a werewolf story, "Blackout" has a compelling, truly disarming earnestness for its deeply wounded soul to be recognized under its shaggy dog cover.

Fantasia has a firm cat-loving position compared to most festivals, including how attendees will always meow with delight before a movie starts. One can readily imagine the meows of satisfaction from “Booger,” which prominently features a black cat as the means for its curiously weird comedy and body horror.  

The character study is by writer/director Mary Dauterman, and it focuses on a New Yorker named Anna (Grace Glowicki). Anna experiences cat-like symptoms while struggling with grief over her recently departed best friend Izzy (Sofia Dobrushin, seen in brief phone vids). Her love for Izzy is contained in the mischievous black cat they found together, Booger, who disappears shortly after Anna returns from the funeral. On Booger’s way out, he leaves a big bite mark on her hand, which gets nastier and nastier, even when she gets a band-aid from Izzy’s mother (played sweetly by Marcia DeBonis). It’s not long before Anna starts sleeping in contortionist-like positions, listening for birds with super-hearing and growing hair from that nasty cut. 

The story here is too slack, even for 75 minutes of movie. “Booger” faces a tough dramatic conundrum that it doesn’t try to outsmart, that of putting us with an emotionally numbed character who refuses to “feel feelings” (as voiced by her boyfriend Max, played by Garrick Bernard) and making us feel deeply for them in the process. It’s an emotional stasis for Anna that doesn’t become more dramatically interesting as various parts of her life slowly start to fall apart, scene after scene. Thankfully, Glowicki is game for such a primal performance, and she can be fun to watch as Anna loses control in various ways. 

Rather, “Booger” showcases Dauterman’s budding senses as a filmmaker. If the movie seems weakened by the common horror metaphor for grief, the body horror of “Booger” invites us into its grimy world. As Anna’s cat-like mannerisms kick in, Dauterman offers an array of fitfully trippy dream sequences comprising jarring cuts, foggy lenses, striking light color schemes, and impressive cat-adjacent prosthetics. It’s solid gross-out cat stuff that includes—and is as visceral as—a giant hairball. “Booger” could stand to have more going on as a character study, but the movie does have promise for Dauterman's animalistic cinema. 

As part of its reputation for introducing the world to the latest gems of genre cinema, Fantasia has created something of a niche for showing screen-life movies, thrillers that unfold more or less on a computer’s desktop. In the past, Fantasia has premiered “Unfriended” movies and the more politically driven "Profile." The festival continues that with the sentimental "Stay Online," which just won the festival's jury award for Best First Film. "Stay Online" uses the visual conceit to tell a harrowing story about the war in Ukraine, told from the perspective of a borrowed laptop. 

Directed by Eva Strelnikova, “Stay Online” focuses on the efforts of Kate (Liza Zaitseva)—who has volunteered to reboot laptops donated to the war effort—as she tries to reunite the computer’s owner with his young son. All the while, explosions rock the apartment she is hiding in, and her brother, accessed via video call, reports from battle zones while making sure his sister is OK. Anton Skrypets, also a co-writer and creator, plays an American who is helping in Ukraine but is dangerously close to everything. 

Many stories usually told in this fashion use their tech savviness as part of its clever plotting, with the characters finding out information through back channels, logs, etc. The filmmaking, in turn, can also become clever. “Stay Online” is not so much interested in that, which can make it a bit mild in terms of being a thriller, like when it breaks the computer’s gaze to show Kate's most intense moments of acting, her sadness, fear, and growing trauma as she witnesses this unfold from her laptop screen.It’s just one of many routes in which the film wants its importance and timeliness to be understood more than anything. Which is, of course, understandable. But its reason for existing overrides its flaws or missteps—"Stay Online" is a mournful, hopeful, and engaging tribute to the resilience of the Ukrainian people. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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