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Credit: RLJE Films

The best genre films we saw at Fantasia Fest 2021

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Aug 27, 2021, 8:20 PM EDT

Canada's Fantasia International Film Festival has long been a bastion of great genre cinema, from low-budget works of magic to bombastic action spectacles and everything in between. Though the festival looks a bit different in 2021, it still managed to assemble an astonishing arsenal of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and beyond for an experience that felt like sensory overload even in a virtual space.

At this year's festival, we saw everything from intimate vampire dramas to time loop comedies, stop-motion masterworks to stunning descents into gore-laden terror. There was a lot to see, and because we covered the festival virtually this time around, we didn't get to see everything, but what we did find was another year of feasting on incredible genre cinema from around the world. Here are the best feature films we saw at Fantasia 2021, from Nicolas Cage's latest wild adventure to Phil Tippett's decades-in-the-making passion project.

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All The Moons

I love vampire films willing to play with the central metaphor of the monster and challenge what we think we know about these creatures of the night, and I was absolutely mesmerized by All The Moons. The story of a young girl (an incredible Haizea Carneros) who evolves from collateral damage in the midst of war in 19th century Spain into something else entirely, director Igor Legaretta's film is a patient, spellbinding fairy tale that morphs the vampire legend to its own ends. Fans of Let the Right One In should not miss it.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Filmax via Fantasia Fest)

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Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

Shot with an iPhone in a single location across one extended take, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes plays unlike any other time loop concept film you've ever seen. It begins as the story of an aimless man (Kazunori Tosa) who discovers a strange link between his personal computer in his upstairs apartment and the surveillance monitor in his cafe down below, then begins to morph and grow as more and more of his friends and acquaintances discover that they're caught in a seemingly endless two-minute time loop. The deeper they dig into the mystery, the more joyful and compelling this endlessly creative little movie gets.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Indiecan Entertainment via Fantasia Fest)

Hellbender

Hellbender

I've written at length about how much I love Hellbender, the coming-of-age horror film from the Adams family of filmmakers, but certain things bear repeating. What starts as a cozy mother-daughter story about witchcraft, isolation, and shared joy begins to morph into something darker, so gradually at first that you almost don't notice. As an intimate story becomes a larger one, and the dramedy morphs into an all-out horror, you realize you've got a front row seat to a movie that's cast a terrifying spell on you. This is one of the horror movies to watch this year, and you won't be able to get it out of your head.

Coming to Shudder in 2022

(Photo credit: Shudder)

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King Car

King Car begins with an almost fable-like quality, telling the story of an idealistic young man who grows up with the strange ability to hear what the cars in his father's taxi fleet are saying. From there, thanks to a subplot involving a new car efficiency law and the boy's eccentric mechanic uncle, Renata Pinheiro's film shifts gears into something else entirely. Intricately crafted, visually distinct, and possessed by all the bewitching energy of a long moonlight drive, King Car is unlike any other sci-fi film you'll see this year.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Aroma Filmes via Fantasia Fest)

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King Knight

Richard Bates Jr.'s film about a coven leader (Matthew Gray Gubler) who realizes he may be living a lie might take a few minutes to settle its rather specific tone into your brain, but once it does it absolutely won't let you go. With an ensemble cast that includes Angela Sarafyan, Barbara Crampton, Andy Milonakis, and more, King Knight begins as a strange journey into one man's dark night of the soul, and then transports itself into the territory of pure, eccentric heartwarmer. Nothing can really prepare you for its approach, but by the end you'll feel like you've been wrapped in a witchy little hug.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: King Knight LLC.)

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Kratt

Two kids get stuck at their grandmother's rural home with no smart phones and nothing to do but chores, so why not attempt a dangerous occult ritual to summon a golem that'll do all the work for you? That's the wild hook at the center of Kratt, writer/director Rasmus Merivoo's delightful horror comedy from Estonia that just keeps recombining its ingredients in increasingly bizarre, dizzying ways for the whole of its runtime. However you think this film will play out by the end, I can almost guarantee you don't see what's coming around the next corner. It's a film that's somehow heartwarming and stomach-churning all at once.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Media Move via Fantasia Fest)

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Mad God

Legendary visual wizard Phil Tippett, whose credits cover everything from Star Wars to Jurassic Park, has been slowly building his stop-motion masterpiece for decades, and Mad God is a film that is emphatically worth the wait. Though the film does have a plot involving a potentially doomed mission into the bowels of a horrifying fantasy world, Mad God is ultimately more of an experience than a narrative, as Tippett guides the audience through frame after frame of stunning, dumbfounding imagery. There are frames of this film that will linger in my brain for years now that I've seen it, and that's to say nothing of the overall experience of taking the complete work in. Mad God is a towering achievement by one of the great cinematic minds of his generation.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Tippett Studio)

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Martyrs Lane

In a house ruled by a straining combination of grief and faith, a 10-year-old girl (Kiera Thompson) is left to search for meaning in the aging vicarage she calls home, and believes she's found it in the strange young visitor (Sienna Sayer) who creeps to her bedroom window every night. A chilling, moving hybrid of ghost story and fairy tale, Ruth Platt's film about the search for meaning amid seemingly endless darkness will linger with you long after the credits roll, leaving ghostly echoes in your mind.

Coming to Shudder Sept. 9

(Photo credit: Shudder via Fantasia Fest)

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On the 3rd Day

Combining an effective creature feature with a haunting memory loss thriller, Daniel De la Vega's On the 3rd Day succeeds in no small part because of the gripping lead performance of Mariana Anghileri. As a woman struggling to find the truth after a car accident left both her son and her memories missing, Anghileri's vulnerability and raw power anchor this film in a sense of constant emotional dread. Throw in some compelling creature designs and hints at a larger world lurking beyond its intimate terrors, and On the 3rd Day feels like a worthy addition to 2021's horror slate.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Del Toro Films via Fantastia Fest)

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Prisoners of the Ghostland

There's a lot going on in Prisoners of the Ghostland even beyond the commanding central performance of Nicolas Cage, which would honestly be enough to sell the movie on its own. Director Sion Sono's film somehow combines everything from American Westerns to samurai films to the post-apocalyptic fury of George Miller into an aesthetic that feels like something between a living manga story and a gritty '70s sci-fi odyssey, and somehow it all works. It's the kind of movie that hits you right between the eyes, leaving you seeing stars for days.

In theaters and on VOD Sept. 17

(Photo credit: RLJE Films)

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Strawberry Mansion

Do you ever wish Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was even stranger and more life-affirming? Then you need to see Strawberry Mansion, a sci-fi odyssey from directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Set in a world where dreams are recorded, seeded with advertising, and audited like taxes, the film follows a dream auditor (Audley) who ventures out to the house of a mysterious old woman, who claims to be able to show him the truth of not just his job, but the whole ecosystem that surrounds it. What follows is a gorgeous exercise in handmade filmmaking, with unforgettable visuals, an emotionally resonant central story, and a vibrancy that transcends its low budget. This feels destined to be a cult classic.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Submarine Entertainment via Fantasia Fest)

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The Last Thing Mary Saw

One of those horror films that's brave enough to telegraph its consequences so it can prove to you that you have no idea what's coming, The Last Thing Mary Saw is an immersive period chiller from director Edoardo Vitaletti. Led by the searing chemistry of stars Stefanie Scott and Isabelle Fuhrman, the film is a descent in a dark maelstrom of faith, sin, and courage in the faith of dogmatic brutality. It also never spoon feeds its audience, creating a deep sense of unease that persists right up to its conclusion.

Coming to Shudder in 2022

(Photo credit: Shudder via Fantasia Fest)

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The Sadness

Far and away the most brutal film I saw during Fantasia, Rob Jabbaz's The Sadness marries a pandemic narrative steeped in social commentary to a zombie movie aesthetic, then dials it all up to 11 for an unforgettable onslaught of horror. Telling the parallel stories of two young people as they try to navigate a day of terror amid an outbreak of sadistic violence, The Sadness starts with some of the most brutal imagery you've ever seen, then reveals over the course of 90 minutes that however demented you think it was a second ago, it doesn't compare to what's arriving next. This is a watch-on-an-empty-stomach and take-a-shower-afterwards, pulse-pounding assault on the senses, and one of the most searing horror experiences in recent memory.

Release date TBA

(Photo credit: Machi XCelsior Studios via Fantasia Fest)