Sixteen days ago, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival drew to a close with a resounding gasp. The Babadook ended the genre-themed film festival with outstanding strength, uniting many in the belief that this was one of the festivals strongest years to date. While that may be true, it simply isn’t quite good enough. This year, the festival had some truly standout films that blew audiences away. At the same time, the festival lows were shocking to say the least.
Opening the festival with a laugh and a shriek was the New Zealand flick Housebound. This was, without a doubt, one of the most well-balanced horror comedies in years. Beautifully written, this Kiwi production takes dry wit and simple scares to new highs. Unpredictable, Housebound zigs when you think it’ll zag, taking you to places just adjacent to where you expected to go. The tension is palpable, yet beautifully broken with a well-timed and flawlessly crafted laugh. This is the redeemer of horror comedies, in line with the perfect balance of films like Shaun of the Dead. It’s a simple recipe expertly crafted, and was the perfect film to open the 9th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
Equally as strong was the intimate yet objective Why Horror? A personal look at what makes horror appealing, and why we love it, Nicholas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay’s film certainly stood out amongst the roster of genre fare for obvious reasons: it’s a documentary. An introspective dissection of why some of us are compelled by the genre, and what makes it so much more significant than the masses may believe, journalist Tal Zimmerman takes us on a personal, scientific, and scholarly journey into the various “whys” of horror.
Very much the Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey for horror cinema, Why Horror? will likely appeal more to the layman than the horror aficionado. It won’t enlighten those of us who are dyed-in-the-wool fans, but it will offer a new perspective. And for those who think horror is no more than schlock and gore, it will certainly open eyes and minds. It’s an honest, earnest and thoroughly well made documentary.
The Babadook closed the festival, and what a way to make an exit! The story of a monster that goes bump in the night slowly infects a single, lonely mother, driving her and her child to the brink of insanity. A simple premise masterfully executed by first-time feature film director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is the first truly chilling, bone-rattling horror film I’ve seen in years.
To begin, the film is brilliantly cast. Essie Davis stars as Amelia, mother to the tempestuous and exuberant Samuel (played by the remarkable Noah Wiseman). Davis’ performance is, in a word, surreal. While the script is, at least up until the final act, perfection, the film would cease to be without her outstanding presence.
The script is brought to life with the help of outstanding sound design. The gasping “Baba-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!” that resounds in the night is as much a character as Samuel or Amelia. You hear every scratch, every scrape and howl in your spine. It crawls into your skin, and inches through the top of your head.
In short, The Babadook is one of the best programming decisions in Toronto After Dark history.
But with the sweet comes the sour. Two of the greatest disappointments this year were Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s werewolf film, Late Phases, and the inexplicable indie flick, Refuge. Both films featured wafer thin plots accompanied by poor sound design, and stood out like sore thumbs amidst an otherwise solid roster.
Late Phases, Bogliano’s English language debut, was bewildering. This is a drastic departure following the success of Here Comes The Devil, a film that was both thematically and technically on point. Nick Damici does a phenomenal job in the lead as blind, curmudgeon war veteran, Ambrose, but his efforts aren’t enough. Plot holes abound, and inadvertent Red Herrings are strewn around haphazardly and without forethought. Most jarring is the shoddy sound design. Vocal tracks are poorly edited, while random ambient noise flops into the foreground, muddling plot and direction.
The special effects are entertaining, however, offering a fair amount of playful splatter. But the poorly conceived characters and carelessly executed plot is enough to derail the film almost entirely.
Then we have Refuge, a film that should have been rejected on first viewing. Writer/ Director Andrew Robertson dubbed the film a “post-apocalyptic thriller”. He got one thing right – It’s post-apocalyptic. But thrilling, this is not. This is the film people turn to for an example of rote. It is as by-the-book as a film can be, without flare, imagination, or creativity. He attempts to take the serious tone and palette of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and splice it with The Walking Dead. Not the graphic novel, but rather the soap opera that has come of the television series.
Everything we learn about our main characters comes through ham-fisted exposition, without providing the audience with the time or the atmosphere to care about them. What’s worse is the villains are practically cartoons; poorly conceived and ill formed, they’re little more than menacing nuisances.
Between the outstanding (The Babadook) and the atrocious (Refuge) lies what’s to be expected from any film festival – the middle ground. Films such as Wyrmwood and Suburban Gothic were touted as being the best things since sliced bread. They’re certainly solid efforts, but hardly outstanding.
Wyrmwood, the feature film debut from Australian writing/directing sibling team Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner, has been widely publicized as being an action-packed, mile-a-minute zombie thriller. This is true. It starts at a furious pace, and doesn’t stop. “So,” I wondered to myself in the theater, “why am I bored?” I couldn’t figure it out, but the film was putting me to sleep, and it wasn’t due to fatigue.
On further thought, it seems Wyrmwood’s greatest shortcoming is pacing. Sure, it moves a mile a minute. Absolutely, it starts fast and keeps right on going, without letting up. And therein lies the problem: the film starts at 11 and never lets up! As a result, it becomes one big plateau, with no peaks and valleys to really guide its audience and keep us engaged.
Truly, it’s a shame. The dialogue is funny, the characters are well structured and well written, the performances are a riot, and the action is a ton of fun. A few more revisions of the script could have yielded a more balanced finished product, and a more successful film, overall.
From Richard Bates Jr. (Excision) and Mark Bruner, we have Suburban Gothic. A quirky, funny ghost story, Gothic is a fun time with some standout one-liners. It’s certainly a film to be seen in a group, and will at the very least give you the odd chuckle. However, it seems to be overly preoccupied with its appearance and cameos. You find yourself waiting to see who’s going to pop up next – where’s Jeffery Combs’ moment? Who does John Waters play? It’s a cute film, and a solid effort, but it gets carried away with an air of self-importance that distracts from taking the leap of faith and fully engaging with the material.
The so-so films are to be expected at any festival. Much of the time, such things boil down to subjectivity, and personal taste alone. After all, you can’t please everyone. But what stands out most from this year’s Toronto After Dark is the glaring difference between the highest quality films, and the lowest. The good films surpassed expectations. They were of the caliber that is to be expected from an internationally renowned film festival. Refuge and Late Phases, on the other hand, were not. It’s this glaring disparity that feels puzzling.
Perhaps it’s simply the difficulty of choosing from what’s available. After all, it’s not every year that you find The Battery, or Resolution. Perhaps Toronto After Dark’s programmers need to be a bit more discerning in their decision-making. Whatever the cause, Toronto After Dark is progressively drawing more attention, and as such, is being held to higher standards and greater expectations. Hopefully the 10th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival in 2015 bridges that gap in quality.