They’re coming to get you: an army of COVID movies, swarming film festivals with the unstoppable momentum of a legion of the undead. Movies made during the 2020 quarantine have a few key tells. Are the actors separated by screens, as in Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons? Or are they outside and six feet apart from one another, like in Zoe Lister-Jones’ How It Ends? And those are just the movies that decline to mention the state of the world. As I noted back in March, SXSW was full of films that used the pandemic as a plot point. To be honest, most of them sounded like a drag.
Compared to that festival, this year’s Fantasia has been light on pandemic-themed content—and better off for it. So it was a surprise to click on a screener of director Rob Jabbaz’s buzzy, ultraviolent Taiwanese horror film The Sadness and be greeted within the first five minutes by a scene of a harried doctor begging a YouTube host not to politicize a virus, only to be dismissed with a huffy, “It’s no worse than a case of the flu.” The Sadness doesn’t feel like a “COVID movie.” That may be because, according to Jabbaz, at the time they were filming “the spread of the virus actually wasn’t really a big concern in Taiwan.” Or it could just be that any political commentary is overshadowed by the tidal wave of depravity and gore that follows.
The (sick) joke of The Sadness is that this innocuous, flu-like virus spontaneously mutates into something akin to airborne rabies, turning everyone who catches it into a “homicidal sadistic monster” driven by bloodlust and base instinct. It’s easy to ignore a pandemic when its symptoms are relatively mild. But if it’s leading to geysers of blood soaking commuters and piles of disemboweled bodies lining the sidewalks... well, you have to admit the virus is real then, don’t you?
The plot is simple, opening on attractive young couple Kat (Regina) and Jim (Berant Zhu) as they go through their morning routine on what appears to be an ordinary day. Then an old woman with blood-red eyes wanders into Jim’s regular breakfast spot, pours boiling fryer oil over the cashier’s head, and we’re off to the races. The sheer volume of blood and guts in this film—one scene sees a man having a bone saw plunged into his abdomen, screaming as he’s splattered with chunks of his own internal organs—cannot be overstated.
The Sadness isn’t technically a zombie movie. The infected retain the ability to talk, think, and reason. They kill and rape and gouge out strangers’ eyeballs with their thumbs simply because they feel an overwhelming compulsion to do so. And that makes it even scarier, because that implies that the the guy sitting across from you on the subway is but a brain injury away from turning into Bill Paxton in Near Dark.
Combined with the pervasive threat of sexual violence, the sheer intensity and volume of splatter makes The Sadness a film that’s strictly for the gorehound set. Compared to the infamous Hong Kong Category III movies to which it’s paying tribute, however, it’s relatively digestible, and the practical makeup effects from local team IF SFX Art Maker are impressively gnarly. Jabbaz shows a flair for satire as well, painting doctors, politicians, the internet, and human beings in general with a mischievous yet cruel brush. If there’s a moment of respite in The Sadness, you can bet it won’t last for very long.
One of the film’s more disturbing characters is known only as “The Businessman” (Tsu-Chiang Wang), a middle-aged man who harasses Kat on the train, goes into a rant about political correctness when she politely brushes him off, and promptly transforms into a slobbering, red-eyed maniac. His hatred of women no longer subtext, he’s the type of character that makes audiences cheer when he finally gets what’s coming to him. The Sadness flopped at the box office when it was released in Taiwan back in January (too soon, perhaps?), but it’s exactly the kind of film could have the right audience swinging from the proverbial rafters at a midnight screening.
There’s no threat of anyone climbing the walls at a screening of The Last Thing Mary Saw, which was picked up by Shudder shortly before its world premiere at Fantasia. Director Edoardo Vitaletti makes his feature debut withthis subdued horror-drama set in 1840s New York, opening on an image of a young woman, hands tied behind her back and a bloody bandage covering her eyes, sitting in front of a tribunal of somber, black-clad men who command her to recite the Lord’s Prayer. She does, and the two guards standing on either side of the judges’ bench lower their rifles. How did pious farm girl Mary (Stefanie Scot) find herself in this predicament?
As we find out, it’s because she’s in love with her family’s maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman, the titular Orphan, now 24 and working in indies like this one). With the help of a farmhand who serves as a lookout during their nightly rendezvous, the girls have been carrying on a clandestine affair for quite some time. But Mary comes from the type of stiff-backed Calvinists who consider enjoying your food to be sinfully decadent. So once Mary’s grandmother (Judith Roberts) begins to suspect the girls are up to something “unnatural,” a bleak ending to this particular tale is all but assured.
Pairing a period setting and light supernatural elements with themes of religion as a tool of subjugation, writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti courts comparisons to Robert Eggers’ game-changing The Witch. (In its story of two women falling in love and being persecuted by their small, religious community, it also superficially, coincidentally recalls the closing entry in this summer’s Fear Street trilogy.) But Vitaletti’s film doesn’t have as much to say as Eggers’ did, and it falls short in terms of imagining a path to liberation for these doomed lovers. Considering its opening scene, it’s not a spoiler to say that things do not turn out well for young Mary. A sense of predestination burdens this already slow film, turning it into a well-crafted, atmospheric death march. At least Thomasin had the option of selling her soul to the Devil.
As different as they otherwise are, The Sadness and The Last Thing Mary Saw share a pessimistic worldview. Neither have much faith in humanity, and although they prioritize different things—outrageous gore in The Sadness, haunting atmosphere in The Last Thing Mary Saw—both derive their horror from a growing certainty that everything will not, in fact, be all right in the end. It’s a feeling that has sat in the pit of many stomachs over the past 18 months, and horror movies, at their best, provide us with a way of emotionally processing the things that scare us in real life. In this case, it’s a matter of whether you prefer your catharsis hot or cold.
We’ve got one more dispatch on the way from the Fantasia Film Festival, closing out this three-week affair with a new film from the prolific Takashi Miike and a lifelong passion project from legendary VFX artist Phil Tippett.