Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: The Babadook

 

 

Ba Ba-ba DOOK DOOK DOOK!!

Silly made up sounds to fit a children’s verse or shudder-inducing syllables to remind you of the darkness that exists in all our souls? In the case of first-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s critically praised creeper The Babadook, it’s not an either / or situation. The cute can definitely coexist with the terrifying.

Young Samuel typically celebrates his birthday in tandem with his cousin even though the date isn’t right. His mother Amelia likes to avoid discussing his actual date of birth since it was the rather auspicious occasion of the car crash that took his father’s life (as he drove Amelia to the hospital to give birth). As he closes in on turning 7 years old, Amelia seems to be having a harder and harder time coping with single parenthood. Samuel is a handful as his imagination gets the better of him on a regular basis – his certainty that monsters are after him, his magic tricks and his creative construction of weaponry are all putting Amelia right on the edge. One night she finds a storybook called The Babadook that she’s never seen before and they decide to read it together. It illustrates a tall, top hat-wearing, cloaked in black man-beast called The Babadook who will come a calling and knock three times. And Once you let him in…he never leaves.

The book seems to leave quite the impression on Samuel as he starts worrying about the dagger-fingered Babadook and warns his mother repeatedly about it – especially after something knocks on their door one evening. Amelia’s sleep patterns start getting messed up, Samuel appears to be harder and harder to control and she starts having issues at work. She’s a complete wreck and begins pushing away those that can and want to help her – she is caught up in a crushing concern for her son while also being way past the frustration point with him. The house starts closing in on her…

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Occultober – Day 28 – The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror
There’s something about those 70s horror films – the steady creep, the look and feel of their surroundings and, as exemplified by the original The Amityville Horror, the pace. This particular film grabs you early and then ever so gradually reels you in with only a very few slow spots (e.g. that sex scene between James Brolin and Margot Kidder went on a bit longer than I was comfortable with…). And to be honest, not much happens for most of the movie…But it still manages to keep you just a little bit nervous throughout and always waiting for the next incident. It’s that compounded and built-up dread that is almost its own reward and forces an engagement with the story and characters. It also hopefully pays off towards the end…In this case, the ending sort of gets away from the film a bit and it sputters just when it should be vrooming, but when a movie can build the tension this well (and throw in a bleeding stairway too), that can be forgiven.

After its release, the movie became the largest grossing independent film ever and held the record for a good 4-5 years afterwards. Short of the lovely job it does in building up that fear throughout, the reasons are pretty obvious. The film (and its book) purport to be about a “true story” of a family living in a possessed house which tries to make them leave (“GET OUT!!”). The occult was certainly a trendy thing at the time and with a storyline that feels so relatable (big rambling old houses do seem rather spooky…), you can understand how word of mouth spread as many people wondered if their own house’s bumps and creaks during the night may be similarly attributable to restless spirits and demons.

I put off seeing this box office winner until just recently as I had always assumed it would be a fairly tedious affair with much mumbo-jumbo. Instead it’s quite intriguing…And though there certainly is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo spewed (with a whole lot of gusto from both Rod Steiger and Helen Shaver), just like many of the occult practices and beliefs, it’s all in service of tightening its grip on its audience. Not so great if that’s done to suck in unsuspecting people to believe in demonic acts, but perfect for a horror movie.

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Occultober – Day 27 – Lemora: A Child’s Tale Of The Supernatural

Lemora: A Child’s Tale Of The Supernatural
The full title of the film is the key to its real meaning (and is much more accurate than the straight up horror title Lady Dracula that it is also known as). The supernatural is certainly afoot in the movie, but this is a young girl’s viewpoint and it’s her own impression as to what the temptations and changes are that she is facing as she moves towards womanhood and how they manifest themselves. Though not quite as gorgeous and creative as something like the amazing Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders was in depicting a teenage girl’s whirlwind of life changes or as scary and bloody as that same aspect is depicted in Ginger Snaps, Lemora does bring a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter feel to the story of the very sheltered and religious 13 year-old Lila.

She leaves her hometown after receiving a cryptic letter from a woman named Lemora asking her to come see her sick father. He had recently run off without a trace after murdering his wife and her lover. On the way there, she experiences a creepy bus trip, sees ghoulish creatures chasing them and witnesses a battle between those ghouls and a group of cloaked dracula-like beings after the bus breaks down. After passing out, she ends up at Lemora’s house and winds up being kept in a cell. She is eventually welcomed inside the proper house after being told the cell was to protect her from what was outside – not to keep her inside. Lemora, though extremely pale and with dead eyes (possibly just a side-effect of her terribly wooden acting), claims that after a ceremony the following day she will be able to see her diseased father. Lila is swept up in the witch-like Lemora’s promises, but when she catches her sucking the blood from a young boy, the jig appears to be up…

The blood-like wine, the blue moonlit nights and the danger that seems to be everywhere around her all serve as stand-ins for Lila’s confusion over her changing body and the number of choices she now has as a growing young lady. Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, who became quite the B-movie queen, is very good as the young Lila and perfectly captures that transition from innocence to awakening. The film ran afoul of many Catholic groups for its immoral attributes (a lecherous priest, implied lesbianism, Lila’s fall from grace, etc.), but seems to have found traction with many film fans. Go ahead and give in to the temptation…

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Dead Snow 2

 

 

It must’ve been the easiest elevator pitch ever…

 

“Nazi zombies…[pause for effect]…in the snow.”

 

The film I’m referring to, of course, was Dead Snow and it delivered on its premise…A field full of dead German WW II soldiers are awakened and then begin to spill the blood of a group of young adults all over fresh pristine snow. It was funny, gory and even a little bit scary. With an audience, it was a thing of beauty from the first zombie hand breaking through the cold white crust to the last open-ended moments where the sole-survivor realizes he may not yet be out of the woods. Which brings us to the sequel…

Though I guess they didn’t have to do an elevator pitch this time around (since the first film was somewhat successful), I suspect it would have gone something like this:

 

“More Nazi zombies plus Russian zombies plus more zombies, more offensive humour, more gore, more outlandish situations, more, more, more.”

 

Note there were no pauses for effect there. As a matter of fact, to give the same sensation as watching the movie, you shouldn’t have any pauses at all while you say that sentence (preferably delivering the entire pitch all in one fell swoop without taking a breath). Dead Snow 2 (subtitled “Red vs. Dead”) piles ridiculous onto ridiculous onto a mound of bodies and doesn’t wait for you to catch up with the story. It’s a pretty straightforward tale anyway: the Nazi zombies want revenge on the town that killed them and now that they have a purpose (and a tank), the only way to stop them is through a rival army of zombies. The chosen horde here is a set of Russian soldiers that had been put to death by these very same Nazis now laying waste to small Norwegian towns.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Zombeavers

 

The best thing about Zombeavers is that it isn’t much more than its title implies. It creates a toxic spill in a remote area then plops a bunch of college kids in a cabin right next to it. Voila – zombie beavers attacking young co-eds. It also stays true to its 80s horror antecedents by making most of the gore and effects practical. CGI beavers would have ruined the film entirely, whereas these stuffed critters with partial animatronic characteristics and clunky tails do the trick nicely. When they come crashing through floor boards, they almost feel like they could chew your foot off. Of course, they are also just slightly ridiculous enough to laugh at when they suddenly show up in a bathtub or at the front door. Especially with their light blue glowing eyes…

The worst thing about Zombeavers is, well, that it isn’t much more than its title implies. Now that shouldn’t be taken necessarily as a criticism…It’s just that when the film works, it works so very well. So when it doesn’t, it’s somewhat disappointing. The film handles its action sequences very well and has moments of pretty inspired humour & gore, but then there are several scenes of bland, lengthy or even pointless chatter between the characters. Given the funny outtakes at the end of the film (some of which felt a bit like those line-o-rama special features many comedies have these days) and considering Judd Apatow, David Wain and others are thanked, I couldn’t help but want a bit more ooomph to the script. In fairness, my complaints are along the lines of wanting more than I’m really entitled to or should in any way expect. But it’s to the film’s credit that at some point – I did expect more.

Another thing about Zombeavers is that it sometimes is actually a bit more than its title implies. Think you know who’s going to get it next? Think the kills will all be based on levels of morality? Think you know how the beaver bite transforms its victim? Probably not…Not that the movie rolls out loads of surprises, but just enough so you aren’t completely sure of what the next scene may bring. One might even say that there’s just enough subversion of this type of genre to raise the eyebrows of those looking for simply a genre-throwback. On top of that, the cast does quite well with the material and only falter during some of those slower spots (though those moments could easily be “blamed” on pacing issues or editing). All three of the leading ladies (Cortney Palm, Rachel Melvin & Lexi Atkins) acquit themselves quite nicely through tears, screams, laughs and loads of prosthetics.

In the end, it’s a movie about beavers who become zombies. That alone should be enough, but you get more (including a great final “stinger”). So go enjoy Zombeavers.

Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: ABCs Of Death 2

 

A Better Compilation? Definitely!

Appreciate Being Chilled, Distressed & Entertained?

A Barrel Containing Demonic Enticing Fun.

 

However you want to say it, ABCs Of Death 2 easily outpaces its predecessor in pulling together 26 stories (from 26 different directors/director teams) marked with mishaps and killings. When I saw the first in this series (let’s assume right now that number 3 will be in the works soon if not already), it was easy enough to count the solid segments on one hand. With their follow-up, the producers have gathered a completely new group of directors (many of whom have had films at previous After Dark festivals) and reversed the trend. I can only think of 4-5 stories that didn’t work for me or had major issues. If your 125 minute anthology film is firing on all cylinders for 80% of its runtime, that’s a damn good ratio.

The lesser stories certainly stand out…P is for P-P-P-P Scary may have been trying for something different, but seemed out of place, unfocused and intentionally somewhat annoying. L is for Legacy suffered hugely from easily the worst acting and special effects of the entire omnibus. A shame since you don’t see a great deal of genre fare from Africa (at least not in any potentially wide released film). There was an attempt to try things from a different angle as the story uses an African myth of the supernatural avenging the wrongly accused, but its execution is simply poor. And I is for Invincible failed to do anything interesting with its tale of a family trying to get rid of their rich matriarch.

These lesser segments impact the flow of the film somewhat, but even so, they are spread out and never drag things down. At 4-5 minutes a segment, this enables the 2 hour film to move at a pretty brisk pace. It all starts well with an amateur assassinator’s idealized view of himself and a pompous British personality getting bested by mutated badgers. It’s at this point that the audience started to settle into their seats and realize that talk of the sequel being an improvement was bearing itself out. The mix of styles starts to show here too – while ‘B’ is a stripped down “single shot” from a TV cameraman, both ‘A’ and ‘C’ have top notch production values and special effects. D is for Deloused is a grotesque, but fascinating stop-motion animation (very similar to a Tool video) and Bill Plympton uses the letter ‘H’ to contribute a manic wordless hand-drawn view of the deleterious effects that can arise from the head games couples play. A high point of the film is its actual centre: a slo-mo mountain of a man terrorizing a sidewalk in M is for Mastigate and Larry Fessenden’s marvelous convergence of events in N is for Nexus.

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Occultober – Day 16 – House Of The Devil

House Of The Devil
As with yesterday’s look at Suspiria, Ti West’s break out film could be viewed as an exercise in style. Pure 70s horror film style. From its opening freeze-frame credits through the loooooong build-up of tension, the movie quite deliberately calls to mind the aesthetic of many occult thrillers and slow burn horror films of the Me Decade. But it’s more than that…

Many fans of the film put an asterisk on their love for it – ie. “It’s great…*except for the last 20 minutes”. The complaint is that the movie throws away its devotion to the 70s films (the grain seems less and the colours seem richer in this last section) and goes for the gusto with a sudden switch to more gory scenes and a straight up reading of the title. I would argue that West quenches the thirst derived from stretching the tension and does so in a novel and eye-popping fashion. If the sacrificial ceremony isn’t wholly unexpected, it certainly is handled with aplomb (and how great was the casting of Tom Noonan?) and the film ends with a perfect dark, devil-worshipping, oh-you-thought-you-were-safe moment that also recalls occult and horror films of the past. But again, the movie is more than that…

The real strength of House Of The Devil is its characters – in particular its main character Samantha. You could apply most of the standard qualities of horror movie final girls to her – plucky, cute, virginal (if you’re going to target someone for a sacrifice…) – but the best quality of her character is that you can feel empathy for her. So as the dread starts in (especially around the time she is bopping around the house to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another”), you begin to feel anxious for her. And so you become invested in the outcome of the film.

And that’s why this movie works like gangbusters.

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Occultober – Day 15 – Suspiria

Suspiria
When most people think of Dario Argento’s delirious candy-coloured 1977 masterpiece, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t normally the occult. It isn’t the witches hiding within the European dance school, the specific powers held by The Mother Of Sighs (aka Mater Suspiriorum) or even the possibility that those powers were assumed by the young American student who defeats the coven leader in the end.

No, what most people immediately bring to mind is the gorgeous style of the film: the Lite-Brite infused cinematography, the tension of the great prog-rock soundtrack by Goblin (essentially Argento’s “house band” for several films) and the onset of a slow burn of an LSD trip. It’s the kind of movie that is praised for each of its film frames possessing the ability to be framed separately as a piece of art. People rhapsodize about its numerous set pieces – like the early hanging that crashes through a glass ceiling or the discovery of the coven towards the end of the film – as well as its many finely crafted images that stick with you (a set of eyes at the window, an invisible shape framed by lightning, etc.). None of it seems to make much sense, but it doesn’t have to…

First of all, the nonsensical nature of the movie just adds to the creep factor. From that first blast of wind as the American student leaves the airport all the way to the last burning embers of the school, there’s an unsettling feeling to this movie. Each new Skittles coloured scene and every “why is there a room filled with barbed wire?” moment just adds to that sense that something is obviously askew here. Which gets us back to that coven of witches…

The supernatural is at play throughout the whole film – it controls the students, commands guide dogs and allows just about anything to happen. And that’s what a good supernatural/occult thriller should do – make you slightly uncomfortable and unsure about everything around you. The genius of Suspiria isn’t its narrative or tale of sorceresses. It’s the ability to make you look at those still frames and, even if just for a second, worry that The Mother Of Sighs might come right out and get you.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 – A Preview

 

As I’ve mentioned before, the Toronto After Dark film festival is quite close to my heart…I was there at its birth in 2006 and have attended every single one of its birthday parties since – whether it was in the old or new Bloor Cinemas, the Toronto Underground or in its recent digs at the Scotiabank. Every year has had its share of great and good films (and yes, a few not so great ones too) as well as memorable moments like the Funky Forest screening, the storm that blew out a projector, the Black Dynamite screening, the after after-parties, closing down Pauper’s Pub every night, and some damn fine Q&As by directors who are genuinely excited to be there.

Even though just about every film festival that has ever existed says “this will be our biggest year ever!”, all signs certainly point to this being a big one in the history of Toronto After Dark. With just a few days to go before the festival kicks off (it runs from Oct. 16-24 and screens 19 feature length films and 28 shorts), there are already 3 sell-outs and, according to their web site, apparently another 3 about to sell out. Good news for the fest to be sure, but not too surprising when you look at their lineup (all trailers can be viewed from the festival’s schedule page):

 

Thursday October 16th

TAD2014Housebound

 

Housebound – This opening night film from New Zealand promises a haunted house set of thrills. Apparently it can back up that claim with an award from another festival as well as numerous good reviews floating around. I haven’t seen a really good haunted house movie in a while, so I’m pretty psyched for this opener and expect the fest will kick off with a rollicking crowd pleaser.

Suburban Gothic – Described as a “ghost-hunting horror comedy”, this could go either way – specifically because of the two words “horror” and “comedy” being put together. Oh sure there have been plenty of good ones, but if the director and cast can’t hit the proper tones, it can all fall apart. The cast looks pretty solid, and since TAD has been pretty good at kicking their festival off strongly, I’ll stay on the optimistic side for this evening.

 

Friday October 17th

Hellmouth – A portal to hell horror starring Stephen McHattie? Sign me up! Written by Tony Burgess of Pontypool fame? I’m doubly excited! Wait…Didn’t Burgess also write last year’s abysmal (at least in my opinion) Septic Man? OK, let’s call it even and just say I’m singly excited…

 

TAD2014ABCsOfDeath2

 

ABCs Of Death 2 – I’m a big fan of horror anthology films, so the first ABCs Of Death sounded like manna from heaven. Turned out to be a mixed bag of Halloween treats – mostly of that crappy candy corn variety. To be fair, there were several really strong stories and rumour has it that this second installment has much more quality control on it and an even more interesting list of directors.

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