Saturday, 1 November 2014
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.
The town of Texarkana (which straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas) still lives with the past - not just those killings from 1946, but also with the movie made about them. They have yearly screenings of the film which pull in most of the townspeople, but there are also those that would rather put it all behind them. In neither camp is high school senior Jami who, even though she describes herself as unpopular, finds herself at that Drive-In on a date with one of the star athletes of the town. She isn't a fan of the original movie so they go to a secluded spot and just as romance is kicking in, they are interrupted quite rudely and violently by a hooded figure. Jami is spared and escapes, but it appears that the attacks have started up again. Further victims follow, but Jami is determined to help track down the killer this time (since the original was never solved). What follows is part classic well-paced creepy slasher and part "re-imagining" of what a sequel can be...
It doesn't follow the story of the 1976 film, but instead incorporates that film (and clips from it) into this continuation of the real-world events of 1946. The word "meta" will be used to describe it and though that's somewhat accurate, don't let it scare you off. It's original in its approach and will even keep you somewhat guessing as to the various suspects, timings of killings, etc. Its cast is excellent too - Addison Timlin does an excellent job as the re-imagined Final Girl with her own issues and a veteran troupe of actors provide her damn fine support (Veronica Cartwright, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter, Gary Cole). And I'll say it again - it's a feast for the eyes. It pleases aesthetically, but also encourages you to actively engage with its visuals, colours and foreground/background object placements. I love surprises.
Thursday, 30 October 2014
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...
And what a claustrophobic house it is. Dark, gloomy and somewhat colourless (the red Babadook book easily stands out), the house seems to shrink as the movie goes on - shadows become denser as they surround people and objects, spaces feel more cramped and camera angles leave no escape for Amelia. Essie Davis is absolutely fierce at times and summons all manner of terror and rage while expertly capturing the frustrated, hopeless, sleep-deprived nature of a parent "trapped" by forces beyond their control. Samuel is one of those forces, but so is her own internal struggle to see beyond the he's-driving-me-crazy moments in front of her. The film and its monstrous, looming ghostly figure are the perfect representation of the feelings of a lone parent - never sure about their decisions, not being of sound mind, torn between protection of their child at all cost and a desire to get the hell away...When a night's sleep feels like it all happened in a 5 second time span, you tend to open yourself to dark ideas...
The film seems to revel in practical effects and lighting and it creates almost unbearable dread. If there was one criticism I heard about the film, it was that its gradual build-up and finger-clenching tension never quite resolve in a final scare-burst. Though I understand that desire since that creep factor is handled so well, it's actually quite appropriate that things don't end with an expected result. After all, what is parenting but one long unresolved set of choices along an analog spectrum of possibilities. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize the darker impulses, but you have to resist them and lock them up inside. A frightening prospect.
Sunday, 26 October 2014
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.
That lone survivor of the previous film Martin continues to have a really bad stretch - after having accidentally killed his girlfriend and cutting off his own arm to avoid a fresh zombie bite from infecting him, he ends up in hospital under suspicion of murdering all his friends and with the wrong arm reattached. Once escaping, he seeks the help of the Zombie Squad: an elite team of Americans prepared to take on zombie infestations. Turns out, the squad isn't exactly professional and consists of three movie geeks who can't wait to fly to Norway to engage in a real zombie fight. Martin Starr leads the team and though they are certainly not what they advertised, they end up being both effective and quite interesting. The film does very little with the fact that one of the women on the team is a Star Wars nerd, but it's forgiveable because they are quite likeable and show no signs of simply being zombie fodder.
The American team obviously gives the movie a good reason for having about half of its dialogue in English (I'm sure the words "wider audience" could have been squeezed into that elevator pitch), but it feels pretty natural. If it's a compromise to reach a bigger audience, it's one of the few...Everything else is amped up - the number of attacks, the gore, the pace, the creativity of dispatching zombies, etc. It also purposely tries to be a bit more offensive with mixed results. Some jokes are funny (if the zombie apocalypse comes and you are wheelchair bound, don't look for any help...) but others are awkward (the one gay character is treated somewhat like a North American 80s movie would treat him). The Nazis are a bit more interesting this time as well - the evil, evil, evil Herzog still leads the contingent, but he seems much more of a character this time out (yes, zombies can apparently have personalities and memories too) and is joined by an almost-as-evil Nazi scientist. The film layers in a whole variety of original ideas and successfully delivers surprises right until the end.
Somewhat like its own protagonist does with the Russian zombies, Dead Snow 2 recklessly tries to re-awaken its genre. It does a hell of a job.
Sunday, 19 October 2014
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.
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.
Apart from the 'P' segment, the final half of the film is consistently strong mixing in a zombie courtroom, some torture porn karma and a reminder of the evil that children's musical instruments can cause. Of particular note are 3 segments that bordered on perfection. Juan Martinez Moreno's S is for Split takes a harmless call home, works it towards a particularly malevolent outcome then spins it to something wholly unexpected. As fun as Moreno's Game Of Werewolves was (an After Dark closing night selection a few years ago), this is a step up in filmmaking. Continuing his own high-quality streak and wonderful 80s practical effects, Steve Kostanski (of Astron-6 fame) brings us W is for Wish and uses it to explore what the world of a Saturday morning toy commercial's characters might inhabit. And finally, Z is for Zygote takes to the extreme the old-fashioned idea that a woman must remain a perpetually youthful looking baby factory - and does so while being funny and really damn disturbing at the same time.
In all, ABCs Of Death 2 showcases a wide variety of talent and creativity. If this is a harbinger of what we may see in the horror genre in the next few years, we could be in for another renaissance. In other words:
Friday, 17 October 2014
What defines a "crowd pleaser"? Is it a movie with a perfect mix of numerous genres and styles? Lots of laughs? Characters that become endearing to the audience? A happy ending? Depending on the audience, atmosphere and expectations, those elements may or may not work at any given moment, so you have to look at a movie in the context of the people you see it with. So taking last night's opening night crowd into consideration, you could easily say that Housebound pleased the vast majority of them quite extensively. I spoke to a variety of people afterwards and didn't hear a single negative thing about it. Not a bad word. Not even a shrug.
That's not to say it's perfect...There are some very familiar moments at the beginning of the film and a few "surprises" that are telegraphed. But those recognizable beats start to slide into a fine rhythm and before you know it, the movie has found a solid groove and has the audience locked into it. Even during some of its early scenes, the story and its strongly-realized characters still inject some humourous and interesting turns to keep you interested. After an attempted ATM robbery gone wrong, an angry 20-something woman named Kylie is put under house-arrest at her mother's place and begins to experience some of the house hauntings her Mom has talked about for years (and boy can this woman talk...and talk...and talk...). The security guard entrusted with checking up on her (the electronic bracelet on her ankle keeps her honest) doesn't help matters by immediately trying to record the psychic energy of the house. So Kylie is trapped in a house surrounded by a babbling mother, a naive guard and some kind of rather annoying presence.
The setup is a nice novel one, but it excels in two very key areas: comedic timing and characters. Though not a full out laugh-fest, the film makes the most out of mundane situations (a restroom break), mundane objects (you may approach your cheese grater with a bit more trepidation in the future) and oft-used plot points (old psychiatric hospitals, things on the other side of a wall and mother/daughter relationships are all spun in slightly different directions) by simply hitting the funny notes at precisely the right times with the right accents. A dry reply, a well-placed sound affect or just an expression is all it takes in certain parts of this movie to deliver very satisfying laughter. Speaking of timing, the scares are executed nicely with several jumps well-earned and moments of mounting tension scattered throughout.
Housebound is also populated by some great characters brought to life by a talented cast. In particular, Rima Te Wiata as Kylie's Mom Miriam perfectly captures everything both adorable and aggravating about your parents. She also has such a great, pleasant and expressive face that it brings to life even the most basic of scenes. Morgana O'Reilly plays the badass angry daughter with fiery energy and keeps every interaction with just about anybody at a DEFCON threat level of at least 4 or 5. The supporting players do just about everything asked of them as well with nary a miss in tone or line reading. These are not perfect people, but they sure end up being both likeable and interesting. And that's sure to please just about any crowd.
Monday, 13 October 2014
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
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...
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.
Saturday October 18th
Shorts After Dark - Each of the feature length films has a Canadian short film playing before it and the quality level is usually quite high (which says a great deal for our filmmakers and the selection committee), but each year the festival also devotes an entire screening to shorts from across the globe. So you'll get a good solid 90 minutes or so of internationally spiced horror and genre that has been culled from a wide set of submissions. I've rarely been disappointed in these collections, so don't skimp on the festival - go see the shorts!
Zombeavers - The Saturday evening of the festival is always reserved for a pair of zombie films since it immediately follows the annual zombie walk through the city. This makes for a helluvan interesting crowd in attendance, but can lead to some dicey movies. There's usually at least one good zombie film per year, but since the festival shows two...Well, let's just say there are no guarantees. Will Zombeavers manage to keep the brain-hungry hoardes satisfied? It's a 50-50 shot, but with an entertaining audience, it's worth a shot.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead - The screening of the first Dead Snow (easiest elevator pitch ever: "Nazi Zombies") went over like gangbusters and I've no doubt this follow-on film will too. With the same director at the helm and the saga continuing pretty much from where it left off, the new film reportedly ups all the gore, humour and surprises. Though I mentioned above that I'm usually concerned about "horror comedies", I'm less so in this case. They've shown they can hit the right mix.
Sunday October 19th
The Drownsman - A young woman's fear of drowning manifests itself into a killer called The Drownsman in this Canadian thriller. If the film plays up the psychological aspects and doesn't focus solely on (as the description states) "a new unstoppable force of a killer", it could be interesting. Granted, it could be interesting as a straight up slasher as well, but the chances aren't as good. Either way, I'm happy to support Canadian horror/genre film, so fingers crossed.
Wolves - Let's be honest...That's not a great title for a werewolf film, now is it? Hopefully there's a bit more originality in the script (by David Hayter - writer of the first 2 X-Men movies) and action scenes which are promised to be "non-stop". It stars two known entities in Lucas Till (X-Men: Days Of Future Past) and Jason Momoa (Game Of Thrones) so that might drive some ticket sales.
Late Phases - Sunday gives us 2 werewolf movies in a row as Late Phases puts Nick Damici up against a beast ravaging a retirement community. It's a better title than the other werewolf movie, so I'll give it points for that and assume it has something new to offer as well.
Monday October 20th
Open Windows - Though starring Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey, the main draw to Open Windows for me is director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial). His Q&As are known to be almost as entertaining as his films, so let's hope he makes it to Toronto for this screening of his "cyber-thriller". Yeah, I had a hard time writing "cyber-thriller", but I have to think that Vigalondo could do something interesting, dark and not obvious in this arena.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter - This story of a Japanese woman who totally believes that the movie Fargo was a true story has itself confused about as many people as Fargo did itself. Though there apparently was a real Japanese woman who did end up dying in Minnesota (about a decade ago), the veracity of the details about her searching for the buried money from the film are, ahem, somewhat in question. Now this "true story" of a woman who believed a "true story" was a true story has been turned into a movie. And a Sundance award winner at that (for Musical Score). The only thing I believe is that I'll be there to see it.
Tuesday October 21st
Predestination - Ethan Hawke stars in this too-easily-compared-to-Looper-and-Minority-Report sci-fi tale of a cop who is tasked with stopping crimes before they happen. It's still a great premise that could easily lead to more interesting spins on it, so let's hope we get something unique.
Time Lapse - More sci-fi (TAD has quite nicely tried to make theme nights wherever possible) covering yet another concept that has been around the block a few times - a camera that shows photos of people's futures causes alterations in timelines. Again, one can only hope that the great concept inspires a novel approach to it.
Wednesday October 22nd
Refuge - And speaking of well-worn concepts, how's about some post-apocalyptic goodness? Another double dose theme night kicks off with what sounds like a fairly generic description (scavengers threaten a family in a gloomy post-war landscape). My guess is that this will live or die on the strength of its characters.
Wyrmwood - OK, so the short little blurbs for film festival screenings almost always over-promise, but how can you resist "insane, action-packed, post-apocalyptic, zombie slaying road movie from Australia!". Yeah, neither can I...Word on the street is that it's a keeper.
Thursday October 23rd
The Town That Dreaded Sundown - Having just recently watched the original 1976 film which "documented" the actual slayings that occurred in Texarkana in the mid-1940s, I'm curious how this "reinvention" of the story will pan out. The original was a weird synthesis of slasher/docudrama/slapstick, so hopefully this one picks a few less genres to inhabit...
Why Horror? - Though I've never been a big fan of Rue Morgue overall, I give them credit for attempting a documentary which looks at why many of us enjoy horror films. There's plenty of ground to cover and plenty of big names to interview (they've apparently pulled in a good number of them), so for a genre that has such a variety of sub-genres and approaches to the form, it has potential. My concern is based on whether Rue Morgue will shrink the scope of "horror" to tackle mostly the gorier aspects of it (something I don't shy away from, but find is only one of many possible characteristics of horror).
Friday October 24th
Let Us Prey - Liam Cunningham (another Game Of Thrones alum) plays a stranger who arrives at a dead end police station and becomes involved in a stand-off with demonic forces. Hard to judge, but last year's closing night double feature was pretty damn solid, so let's assume they held on to this specifically for the final Friday night .
The Babadook - The closing film of the fest is one of the more anticipated in recent memory as the scuttlebutt says it's quite fantastic. After reading a children's pop-up book, a mother and her son are haunted by the presence they seem to have just set free. Seems pretty straightforward, but I'm hoping for a creepy on-the-edge-of-your-seat barnburner. I hope I'm not over-hyping this Aussie flick, but I have a good feeling about it.
I'm excited every year as I approach opening night of Toronto After Dark because I know the fun that awaits: goofy/fun/scary/thrilling movies (and yes, a few that are none of those things), great conversation & arguments about those movies and always at least a couple of memorable moments outside the films themselves. Starting Thursday, it'll just be a question of when they will occur.