Sequence Break [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson starred together in Beyond the Gates, a massively entertaining old school horror flick centered around nostalgia for VHS board games. They reunite for Sequence Break — the former as writer/director, the latter as leading man. Like their previous collaboration, it also has a heavy nostalgia factor. At the center of this visually arresting chiller is a mysterious arcade game.

Oz (Williamson) repairs old machines at a videogame shop. One evening, he discovers a circuit board that he’s never seen around before. Out of curiosity, he hooks it up to a game cabinet and starts playing. Immediately afterward, Oz starts having bizarre hallucinations. The game keeps luring him back, which gets in the way of his new relationship with fellow arcade enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Therese). Eventually, it becomes clear that the game is evil and must be defeated. The only way to do this is to have a “sequence break,” an act in which the player essentially violates the order of the game.

Sequence Break is like Tron meets David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. As with Disney’s ’80s cult favorite, it’s about a man fighting a videogame. And like the video equipment in Cronenberg’s landmark film, the game Oz plays comes alive, with a sexual element emerging. The joystick becomes fleshy and oozy in his hand as he caresses it. His finger plunges erotically into the button, while orgasmic noises are heard emanating from the machine. The inner workings of the game pulsate as he plays. We sense that it is luring him in both hypnotically and erotically. It’s a delightfully provocative depiction of the addictive nature of videogames.

To spoil anything else that happens would be unfair. What’s important is that Williamson and Therese give solid performances that bring some humanity to the otherworldly events. As director, Skipper employs all manner of visual tricks to create an ambiance of danger. Lighting effects, editing techniques, onscreen gaming graphics, and some creatively rendered shots of things bursting out of the machine and onto (or into) Oz combine to craft a film that’s entertaining for its unpredictable nature. The grand finale, in particular, goes into deliriously weird territory, in the best possible way.

At 75 minutes, the film could have used a little more story development; the “rules” of how the game works its dark magic and how, specifically, Oz attempts to beat it are never quite clear. Clarifying those things more would have kicked it all up another notch. That aside, Sequence Break is the kind of imaginative, risk-taking horror that’s always thrilling to behold.

For more on the Fantasia International Film Festival and the titles screening this year, visit their official website.

Follow Mike McGranaghan on Twitter: @aisleseat

Replace [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

It’s a cliche to say that a thriller gets under your skin, but that turn of phrase is wholly appropriate when discussing Replace. Norbert Keil’s film (co-written with Hardware‘s Richard Stanley) is about a beautiful young woman named Kira, played by Rebecca Forsythe. She has intermittent episodes of amnesia, as well as an unexplained disorder that causes her skin to rot. Kira visits Dr. Crober (Barbara Crampton), a skin-care specialist who vows to get to the bottom of things.

Unfortunately, Kira’s problem gets worse, not better. It starts at her hands before spreading to her face, back, and chest. She accidentally discovers that placing skin from another body over her affected areas can help them heal. The manner in which she obtains healthy skin and the revelation about what has caused her ailment are truly the stuff of horror.

Replace is a story about the perils of vanity. Kira is so obsessed with her beauty that she starts to take unconscionable steps toward maintaining it. The rotting skin bothers her not because it’s indicative of a health issue, but because she dislikes the way it makes her look. This is a rare horror movie in which the protagonist is also, in many respects, her own villain. Her behavior in the face of this condition, and not the condition itself, is the thing that could ultimately bring about her doom.

Keil uses sleek, atmospheric visuals and some intentionally jumbled flashbacks (i.e. Kira’s vague memories) to create the eerie mood in which the story unfolds. The dreamlike vibe makes Replace just a tad confusing in spots, although if you stick with it, everything makes sense in the end.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it doesn’t travel a predictable route. Scenes of the character peeling off her own skin, or the skin of others, definitely have a strong visceral effect, just as you would expect in horror fare. The second half, however, goes into some surprisingly emotional territory, as Kira’s love for her neighbor Sophia (Lucie Aron) grows, and as she uncovers some startling secrets about her life. Replace definitely provides chills, yet it’s the way the story explores the internal damage Kira suffers from that really makes it resonate.

Rebecca Forsythe is outstanding, as is Barbara Crampton, who continues a recent hot streak of innovative genre films that also includes Abner Pastoll’s Road Games, Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here, and Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates. To say much about Dr. Crober here would be a spoiler, so let’s just say that Crampton brings the exact right touch to a character who is, for her own reasons, just as obsessed with beauty as Kira.

Replace is stylish and substantive, making you shudder on a regular basis while also offering an insightful statement about how being too consumed with one’s own appearance can be a big step on the road to hell.

For more information on the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival and the titles screening this year, please visit their official website.

The Honor Farm [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

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The Honor Farm is a coming-of-age tale told in the horror format. Lucy (Olivia Applegate) is excited for prom. She intends to lose her virginity to her boyfriend on this most magical of nights. When he gets sloppy drunk and makes a fool of himself, Lucy and friend Annie (Katie Folger) accept a random invitation from some punk girls to go into the woods, do some mushrooms with their guy friends, then seek out an old prison work farm that is allegedly a popular place to carry out Satanic rituals. The experience ends up changing her life.

Director Karen Skloss amps up the psychedelia with some trippy visuals and editing techniques so that you aren’t entirely sure for a while whether the horrific things Lucy sees at the work farm are real or merely a ‘shroom-induced hallucination.The approach is very effective, especially once the gang stumbles across what appears to be a human sacrifice about to take place.

Applegate gives a nice, nuanced performance as the good girl who impulsively decides to take a one-time walk on the wild side, only to be surprised by what it offers. The Honor Farm has a sharp, satiric suggestion that prom is a ritual not unlike a Satanic rite — pointlessly messy and really just kind of evil. The story’s ending is subtle, but if you pay close attention, you’ll find a message about non-conformity to high school expectations and traditions that would make John Hughes proud.

Running just 75 minutes (including end credits), The Honor Farm could have fleshed out its ideas even more. Still, this is a stylish, well-acted, and unique take on what it means to face that time in your life when you’re right on the cusp of adulthood and frightened by what the transition might entail, but also eager to take that scary leap into the unknown.

For more on the Fantasia International Film Festival and the movies screening this year, please visit their official website.