Two of Sydney's most unique film festivals have merged into one unholy beast of an event.
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22 Mar 2012 - 2:59 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2012 - 2:59 PM

As the co-founder and programmer of both the Fantastic Planet and A Night of Horror film festivals, Dean Bertram has made the call to combine the events into one big celebration. It's his hope that the melded programming of sci-fi/fantasy films with hard-core, cutting-edge terror will help lead to an event of global significance. For Bertram, the next step is to rank alongside SITGES, Fantasia, Pifan and the Fantastic Fest – events at the forefront of international cult cinema. But cutting loose a brand he worked so hard to define was still a bummer.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Bertram tells SBS Film. “But the real reason we did it, as painful as it was to do it, was that around the world the best genre festivals [present] fully speculative cinema. Running the two festivals at either end of the year meant we weren't providing that complete experience, where you could go and immerse yourself in a couple of weeks of the world's best genre cinema.”

Bertram gave SBS Film an early look at a large chunk of the schedule to talk us through his programming choices and help paint a vivid picture of the merged festivals' direction. “While the brand strength will be a little sacrificed by A Night of Horror moving on, it is ultimately a better festival experience for the audience.”

What is it that makes us Human?
Fantastic Planet's most high-profile program choices tap into deeply existential themes, including Henry Barrial's lost-memory puzzler, Pig, William Eubank's study in outer-space solitude, Love, Richard Weiss' doppelganger drama, The Book, and the global festival hit Another Earth, from Mike Cahill. Included in the shorts program is Ilana Deins' We Are All Cylons, a 45-minute philosophical examination of life as a Battlestar Galactica fan.

“These films deal with what is humanity, what defines us as humans, what separates us from other levels of existence,” says Bertram. “I found this year that there were a lot of films that were dealing with these sorts of issues within the genre's context.”

Subtitled Horrors
Bertram fondly recalls SBS Films' 2011 festival preview in which I had a gentle shot at the programming committee's lack of international content. “I remember that! We actually tried to get some of those, by the way, but Sydney [Film Festival] already had them all!” he recalls, with a laugh.

The imbalance has been resoundingly redressed this year with features from Argentina (Adrian Garcia Bogliana's Penumbra), Germany (Huan Vu's The Colour/Die Fabre), and Italy (Antonio and Marco Manetti's The Arrival of Wang/L'arrivo di Wang; pictured). “The Arrival of Wang poses the questions that, if there is a threat outside of humanity to us, how would we deal with it?” Bertram explains. “Do we give it the benefit of the doubt or do we transgress those types of questions we deal with today with terrorists or enemy combatants? The answers that the film gives are very different to those that an English-language film may have offered.”

Asian Nightmares
The films representing Asian cinema in Bertram's programming constitute the most extreme examples of the continent's output. Three over-the-top cartoonish gore-fests from Japan (Deadball, Yakuza Weapon, Tomie: Unlimited) leave no room for subtle interpretation. Bertram's take is that he's only giving the audience what it wants. “It is most often the type of cinema that genre fans like to see coming out of Asia,” he supposes, “and, yes, some of the films in this strand are more extreme. But I think that the films are dealing with [the violence] in slightly different ways.” The deliberately comical splatter-FX of Yakuza Weapon and Tomie: Unlimited are inherently different to the real-world, “more adult” dramatic take of the other Asian film in the program, the riveting but gruesome Korean crime thriller, The Yellow Sea.

The Dark Heart of Australasia
Paul China will bring his skilfully-crafted thriller Crawl to Fantastic Planet (accompanied by a Q&A with producer/brother Benjamin), and Kiwi auteur Paul Campion crosses 'The Ditch' to attend the premiere of his WWII-set demonic possession thriller, The Devil's Rock. Bertram is particularly enthused by the two home-grown short film sessions that he's compiled, including the premiere of Wolf Creek actor Nathan Phillips' Post-Apocalyptic Man. “The shorts are as competitive as they have ever been, on par with anything on offer from around the world,” he enthuses. “There was a long period here where the older, more entrenched industry types were very anti-genre, but the young filmmakers coming through now really have a different attitude about genre filmmaking.”

They Live Amongst Us
Bertram understands the commercial pull of a good ol'-fashioned monster movie and has scheduled a cross section of films that feature the best of them. John Geddes' acclaimed Civil War-set zombie epic Exit Humanity will have its Australian premiere; a full evening of zombie shorts will screen; Bruce Ornsteins' campy horror comedy Vamperifica aims to make vampires fun again; and serial killer lore is explored in Astron-6's Father's Day, which took out the coveted top prize at Toronto After Dark in 2011. The beast within is explored in Justin Thomas Ostensen's psychological thriller Below Zero, starring Terminator 2 actor Edward Furlong “To keep things interesting, filmmakers have to keep twisting those traditional genre tropes,” says Bertram, who cites Sean Branney's adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's monster-opus, The Whisperer in Darkness, as a festival favourite. “These films are riffs on familiar sub-genres – Whisperer... harkens back to the monster movies of the '30s and '40s – but exhibit fresh spins, which is a credit to genre filmmakers.”

And Then There Were Four...
Finally, there are the 'Unclassifiables': films of the fantasy and horror genre but which stand alone in Bertram's 2012 schedule. Sevé Sanchez's road trip shocker Skew; Evan Kelly's woodland time-portal horror The Corridor; Bryan Lefler's Unicorn City, a gamer fantasy comedy that's emerging as the latest legitimate cult item from the US; and The Theatre Bizarre, a macabre throwback to the multi-story anthology films of the 1980s.

There has been some broadening of the Fantastic Planet brand, with a themed trivia event aligned with the program (already sold-out) and forums planned to accommodate visiting guests and local genre craftsmen are in the final stages of planning. Bertram is quietly confident his team can pull off a smooth transition to the single event format in 2012. “I'm just not as paranoid about ticket sales this year as I have been in the past,” he confides. “I'm sure we'll sell plenty.”

The Fantastic Planet Film Festival will be relaunched at Dendy Cinema Newtown on March 22. Visit the website for more information.