In Damon Packard’s bizarre Hollywood neo-noir, Fatal Pulse aka Night Pulse aka Untitled 90s Yuppie Thriller, William Friedkin shows up at one point (well, William Friedkin as played by actor Steve Cattani) to preach about auteur theory and the importance of individual cinematic visions at a dinner party hosted by a jaded corporate executive. “I’m not one of those people to throw in the towel,” he states, “That the age of the maverick director is somehow gone in the name of the almighty dollar.”
It’s a sentiment that could speak for the entirety of this weekend’s What The Film Festival, where Fatal Pulse screens as the closing film. Now in its fifth year, WTF has grown into Toronto’s premiere cinematic celebration of the eccentric and offbeat, featuring an array of titles all with their own distinct personal and artistic sensibilities. Expanded to a three-day event at the Royal Cinema, including a Saturday-night party and vendor market at the Super Wonder Gallery, festival director and TIFF Midnight Madness Programmer Peter Kuplowsky has put together a mind-melting lineup of titles this year that film fans won’t want to miss. Because you’re certainly not going to find this kind of experience at the multiplex.
WTF kicks off tonight with a major event – the Toronto premiere of A Bread Factory: Parts 1 & 2, the critically-acclaimed new film from Patrick Wang, one of the American indie world’s most exciting new voices. Wang’s first film, 2011’s In the Family, was a revelatory and clear-eyed drama about a father fighting for custody of the son he shared with his recently deceased partner. With his new work, he goes in a different direction, crafting a two-part four-hour epic about life in small-town Checkford, U.S.A. and its long-running community arts space which is in danger of closing.
Shot on grainy super-16 film and juggling an expansive cast of characters (played by the likes of Tyne Daly, James Marsters, Janeane Garofalo and many more), A Bread Factory is a major cinematic accomplishment, channeling the American mosaics of Robert Altman and the whimsical diversions of Jacques Rivette in equal measure. It also stands as a grand statement on art and its relationship to communities, making it the ideal opener for this eclectic festival. Plus it’s got a wicked sense of humour, starting off subtly in Part 1 and launching into full-on surreal hilarity in Part 2.
Saturday begins with an all-you-can-eat cereal party while highlights from the strange early-‘90s Canadian children’s show “Cowboy Who?” play on the big screen, followed by a panel interview with the creators. And then it’s back to features with Oklahoma-based director Mickey Reece’s poetically titled Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart. Reece is a true DIY workhorse, averaging at least two films per year for the last decade, and his latest reaches new artistic and aesthetic heights. Taking cues from ‘70s gothic chillers, Strike finds newlyweds David and Madeline purchasing a historic hotel straight out of the haunted property real estate listings and then promptly experiencing strange things once Madeline’s estranged mother Dianne comes to visit.
Reece leans into camp pretty hard here, creating an environment that I’m sure John Waters would love, full of stilted line readings and awkward silences. But he also manages some moments of genuine disturbance, using creepy shadow-filled compositions and unnerving dream sequences to keep us unsettled while we wonder what the hell is going on.
Following this unique horror show, Saturday night brings what could be a new successor to the throne of Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen with the Toronto premiere of Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear. Made by physics professor Douglas Burke over an 11-year period, there was no press screener available for review, but we do know that this story of a 13-year old boy paralyzed by his fear of surfing has been steadily building a so-bad-it’s-good reputation ever since its self-funded theatrical release in Los Angeles last year. If last October’s screening of Neil Breen’s Twisted Pair was any indication, Surfer is definitely something you’ll want to experience with a crowd.
The final day of WTF showcases a couple of older, forgotten cult oddities that have been restored by cult labels Vinegar Syndrome (who serve as lead festival sponsor) and the American Genre Film Archive, respectively. First up is Brett Piper’s no-budget ‘80s sci-fi epic Battle For the Lost Planet, which features a ton of lo-fi stop-motion F/X work, an alien race consisting of a bunch of dudes with badly fitting masks on, and a sleazy hero who seems to be channeling Vincent Gallo before Vincent Gallo. The direct-to-video market was full of schlock like this back in the day but effects pioneer Piper’s breakthrough, which spawned a sequel, also sports an intriguing self-aware sense of humour that makes it hard to write off.
Coming back down to earth, Sarah Jacobson’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore finally sees the light of day a good 20 years after shaking up the underground film scene and snagging a slot at Sundance. A scrappy, Super-8 shot labor of love about a high school senior navigating her burgeoning sex life and chaotic circle of friends while working at a rundown movie theatre, Mary Jane shares some common ground with the down-and-dirty punk style of ‘90s indie stalwarts like Gregg Araki or Richard Linklater, but with a still fresh and in-your-face feminist attitude all it’s own. Preceded by a screening of her radical earlier short film, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, it’s great to see Jacobson get some much-deserved belated acclaim, especially since she tragically died of cancer at age 32, never getting to fulfill the promise that she so dynamically showed in just one short and one feature film. Her work comes off more relevant these days than ever.
Finally, to close out this year’s edition of WTF, we return to the aforementioned Fatal Pulse aka Night Pulse aka Untitled 90s Yuppie Thriller (yes, that’s actually the title), a mind-melting cinematic freak-out if there ever was one. Enigmatic director Damon Packard has been around for a few decades now, making some waves in the cult cinema world for 2002’s indescribable Reflections of Evil, but this latest film feels like his magnum opus. Transporting us back to Hollywood circa 1991, an era when the titular yuppie thriller was all the rage, Packard weaves a crazy tale of a James Spader-looking corporate mogul (who complains about James Spader ripping off his look) dealing with a deadbeat brother-in-law who won’t get off his couch amongst a host of other over-the-top characters involved in competing conspiracies and murder plots.
Constantly referencing and repurposing clips from movies of the era (a conversation about The Hand That Rocks the Cradle that leads to the great line, “there is a hand rocking the cradle… it’s rocking my cradle,” is a personal favourite) and trotting out celebrity characters like Julia Roberts, Janet Jackson, and, of course, Billy Friedkin, Fatal Pulse comes off like some deranged Variety article interpreted by a madman, which is really the highest compliment I can give. There’s also more going on here than you might initially suspect, with Packard engaging with the politics of the era and even making some prescient points about the nature of the entertainment industry and the corporate takeover of modern society.
If you thought David Lynch’s Inland Empire was a trip, you’ve got to see Packard’s visually striking vision of an L.A. gone mad. It’ll send you out into the night in a delirious daze; the perfect way to cap off another year of WTF.