The Highs and Lows of Toronto After Dark 2014

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.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival - HouseboundOpening 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. Would you like to know more…?

Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

 

 

Easily the biggest surprise and possibly my overall favourite film of this year’s Toronto After Dark film festival was Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (director of several American Horror Story episodes) take on the 1976 early slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Though that little film from 1976 has its supporters and certainly has some choice moments, it seemed like an odd pick for a revisit. The original as directed by Charles B. Pierce (director and star of the head-shakingly bad Boggy Creek II – And The Legend Continues – best known for being one of MST3K’s victims) is an awkward melange of horror/docudrama/slapstick comedy that tries to tell the actual events of a masked serial killer who terrorized Texarkana in 1946. And yet…There were some well-realized moments of genuine horror and interesting filmmaking. For his first feature, Gomez-Rejon seems to have focused on those positive aspects and has built a compelling, moody, surprising and absolutely gorgeous film.

Of particular note is the way he composes his frames. More than once during the film, I found my eyes roaming about the square footage on screen, trying to pick up all the little details and contrasting different colour combinations. I’m sure I missed some clues lurking in the background, but the simple pleasure of being pulled into this lovingly created canvas and wanting to savour each little corner, shadow and object was more than enough. If that sounds like a bit of an overstatement, it’s partly due to having very few expectations regarding not only the story but the level of filmmaking. It’s not that I thought the movie was going to be bad (the trailer is quite handsome actually), but from its opening tracking shot that pans down from a Drive-In screen playing the original film (and which continued through the parking lot filled with many of the films primary characters) it was obvious that Gomez-Rejon had very strong stylistic ideas for the film – all of which actually help move the story forward and engage the audience.

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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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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: Time Lapse

 

Opening with a shot of swirling red paint, which then has tiny flecks of white thrown into the mixture to disturb the surface and complicate the image, Bradley King and B.P. Cooper’s Time Lapse shows just how bloody far you can go with a tiny budget, a great prop and two locations. The script here is a beauty, that finds new ways to look at time travel causality (or rather the dangers of perceived causality) along with the good old genre standby of the ‘big bag of money’ landing in your lap. To prove they are the real deal, the film also diligently delves into trust-issues that develop amongst friends when a morally questionable opportunity in life presents itself.

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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Predestination

 

Never do yesterday what you should do tomorrow, reads a sign in the early minutes of The Spierig Brothers’ delightfully loopy new film. Another reads, If at last you don’t succeed never try again. There are many of these twisted bon-mots lifted verbatim from Robert Heinlein’s short story, “All You Zombies” and scattered throughout its film adaptation, Predestination. Here is the thing about time travel movies: much time is in fact spent waiting around for things to catch up, even if it is only for that moment when Doc Brown sends his dog Einstein 60 seconds into the future. It leaves plenty of time to read the signs.

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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: Hellmouth

 

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen McHattie is always a pleasure to see up on the big screen. From supporting roles in Hollywood films like The Fountain, Watchmen and A History of Violence, to central performances in indie Canadian productions like the criminally underrated Pontypool, and now John Geddes’ Hellmouth. At 67, there are entire lifetimes written on his face, even as the rest of him remains lean and spry. McHattie is a conundrum, seemingly young and ancient at the same time, and is perfect here as the reluctant Charlie Baker, caretaker of his own personal abyss. Given more than three quarters of the script to himself in the film, his quivering yet authoritative gravelly voice is beyond reproach. If all of the artifice in the green screen CGI around him, is not entirely as engrossing as the man standing in front of it, it mostly is in service of the lead character, and that is miracle enough these days.

“Keep this box within 10 feet of you, at all times.” An instruction that several characters keep giving Charlie Baker, but it is more of a state of mind than a direct order. Having worked all of his life as a grave digger and maintenance man in a remote (and digital-backlot stylized) cemetery, Baker is minutes from retirement and still worried about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s regarding the local vandals might be moving around the tombstones in the cemetery. The ensuing countdown is wrought with both humiliation and diffidence that the film might be also called “About Soavi” (that is, for fans of Dellamorte Dellamore). The box is given to him by his overbearing employer, as he browbeats Baker into ‘one more job.’ As much as it is a literal object, the box is his lonely trapped career, his spent life and impending death.

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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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Toronto After Dark 2014 Review: Housebound

 

As horror comedies go, I cannot think of a better one in the past 5 years than Kiwi directed Housebound. Not only is the film impressively shot and written, but the overall attention to production design and geography is a marvel. The film’s primary location, an old suburban mansion (evocative of the manor-home in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive) we get to explore from the inside out as characters are often crawling through the walls and ceilings, as well as snooping around the property outside. It is a safe bet that somewhere director Gerard Johnstone has a sheaf of graph papers with all the measurements. For a first time filmmaker, to direct with this kind of confidence in both the film language, twisty plotting, well timed character reveals, and a love of call-backs, is a sure sign of a major up and coming talent. He even nails some tricky emotional beats late in the film which give the otherwise manic film, a bit of heart.

Bad girl, Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is first seen knocking off an ATM vestibule with her less than competent partner and some home made explosives. The botched job (and lengthy petty crime rap-sheet) lands her in a prolonged house arrest with her busy-body prattling mother and her spacey step-father. After the security company straps the electronic bracelet to her ankle, she cannot leave the house for any reason without risking landing in prison. Kylie is used to running away from her problems, but here she is stuck, with only a couple TV channels, and god-forbid, dial-up internet, so this is flat out torture, which she is more than happy to take out her pain on everyone around her.

A great set up, both for a haunted house movie and a riff on Rear Window. Admittedly the latter was done before with the mildly shitty Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia, but Housebound is playing far more on the plate of character-based territory of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, with a dollop of Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs and a soupçon of The Innkeepers. That Johnstone is well versed in the cues and beats of these types of films, and is willing to exploit them for laughs and legit horror makes things also run in the same ultra-fun circles as Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. The difference is that Raimi was a master-craftsman when he made that 2009 film as kind of a lark executed with precise editing skill, where this is Johnstone busting right out of the gate fully formed. To wit: the tension and comedy mileage he gets out of a character simply taking a piss (or holding a tape recorder) and you will know what I mean.

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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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