Over the course of the month of August, the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival has been treating genre fans to a bevy of genre fare throughout the course of its three-week run. And now that Fantasia has closed its books on yet another successful year, this writer is finally playing catch-up on some overdue reviews from the festival. For my first review round-up, I’ll be discussing Rob Jabbaz’s The Sadness, the vampire-centric fairy tale All the Moons, and Hellbender from filmmaking trio John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams.
The Sadness: Truth be told, I was totally unprepared for The Sadness. In fact, there’s really nothing that could have possibly prepared me for The Sadness because once I was immersed in writer/director Rob Jabbaz’s absolutely horrifying descent into the depraved depths of humanity, I found myself in desperate need of a hug, a drink, and maybe even a Xanax once it was over. And I mean that as a compliment—truly.
In The Sadness, Taiwan has been dealing with the Alvin virus, which has been manifesting in those who get affected as something akin to a common cold. But when the virus begins mutating, suddenly those afflicted turn into mindless monsters no longer able to control their basal urges, resulting in copious amounts of blood and depraved sexual acts running rampant throughout the country, and no real cure in sight. Caught in the middle of the catastrophic chaos that is relentlessly tearing its way through the population are young couple Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kim (Regina Lei), who just want to reunite and find a way to escape the madness.
Everything about The Sadness screams “Midnight Movie in the Making,” and I must give Jabbaz his due in terms of creating one of the most uncomfortable and cringe-inducing viewing experiences I’ve had in years. The film’s effects are absolutely jaw-dropping, and I enjoyed both Zhu and Lei’s performances, but I don’t really see myself sitting through The Sadness again anytime soon. That’s not to discount Jabbaz’s efforts with his feature film debut; it’s just that The Sadness is so unforgettably relentless that the film’s disturbing and visceral imagery is forever seared into my brain, and it’s going to live in my head rent free for years to come.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
All the Moons: While it may be a bit more of a drama than it is a straight-up genre experience, I found myself wholly enchanted by co-writer/director Igor Legarreta’s vampiric fairy tale All the Moons, which features a stunning performance from Haizea Carneros. The film begins in 1876 during the Third Carlist War in Spain, where a group of nuns usher orphans they are tasked with caring for into the basement in hopes of surviving the battle waging above them. But after a huge blast leaves all but one young girl (Carneros) dead, she believes she’s being rescued by an angel when a mysterious woman (Itziar Ituño) appears, promising the orphan that she can heal her life-threatening wounds. Of course, the woman was no angel and after the girl finds herself miraculously recovered, her new caretaker tells her that she is not to go outside, but especially during the daytime. The story frames this as a precaution because of the dangers of war, but us viewers know better.
Tragedy strikes, leaving the poor orphan once again on her own, until some years later she crosses paths with a kindly cheesemaker named Candido (Josean Bengoetxea), who takes her in and gives her a name, Amaia, giving the young girl her first real taste of a traditional family structure. But because of her nature, Amaia never ages, but Candido does, and she soon comes to the full realization of just how isolating her existence is going to be throughout the ages.
Something of a melancholic rumination on life, love, and loss, Legarreta has created something very special with All the Moons and I absolutely fell head over heels with how it ended up being about so much more than just the traditional vampire lore that we’ve seen explored countless times before. As mentioned, Carneros is utterly phenomenal here, as she easily carries the film on her very capable shoulders, and I loved everything about the mood and the aesthetics of All the Moons that was perfectly captured by cinematographer Imanol Nabea, who somehow manages to make the natural world feel completely otherworldly. All the Moons may not work for most genre fans, but it sure as heck worked for me.
Movie Score: 4/5
Hellbender: It’s not unusual for horror movies to be a vessel for coming-of-age stories, but there’s something so refreshing about how family filmmakers John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams approach the experience in Hellbender that I was left completely impressed by just how they were able to create something that felt familiar and yet unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before, which is no easy feat.
Hellbender follows Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) as they live out their days in seclusion deep in the woods. Izzy has been brought up to believe that she’s ill, which is why her mom wants to keep her away from society, but the real truth is that the women come from a long line of hellbenders, supremely powerful witches, and Izzy’s mom knows just how dangerous this power can be if it goes unchecked. At first, the teen’s mom starts to ease her into the world of being a Hellbender, but once Izzy gets a taste for her powers, a battle of wills is played out between mother and daughter, where they both must find a way to meet somewhere in the middle when it comes to embracing their true nature and the raw energy they wield over others.
When it comes to the nature of their collaborations, there’s something wonderfully singular about the films from the Adams Family, where they may be utilizing familiar tropes and themes in the stories they like to tell, but they find thoughtful and intriguing new ways to approach them, ultimately creating standout projects. They did it before on The Deeper You Dig and they’ve successfully done it again on Hellbender, making this trio one of the most exciting filmmaking teams to come along in the genre world in some time. I also enjoyed how much Hellbender leaned into naturalism, where Izzy and her mom survive only on what they manage to forage from the woods, and how well their mainly one-location production works in service of the narrative as well. The film also features a handful of musical vignettes with H6LLB6ND6R, the real-life band from the Adamses, that give Hellbender this super fun punk rock feeling, and both Poser and Zelda are absolutely incredible here. Without a doubt, Hellbender is yet another cinematic revelation from this family filmmaking team, and when the film hits Shudder next year, I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Movie Score: 4/5
Go here to catch up on all of our Fantasia 2021 coverage!