Wednesday 31 October 2007

October Horror - Random Comments On "The 31 Flicks That Give You The Willies"

Over at Shoot The Projectionist, Ed Hardy Jr. has the final ranked list of the 31 Flicks That Give You The Willies. Just like any list it has its ups and downs for every individual taste, but it's a cool set of films and it was great fun voting.

A few random thoughts:

  • It's a bummer that no Kiyoshi Kurosawa is represented in the final list. "Pulse" and "Cure" are two of the most unsettling movies ever.
  • "Night Of The Hunter" is such a great film...I didn't vote for it here because it's never seemed to fit into the horror genre for me, but I have to agree about that Shelly Winters scene under the water being one of the spookiest things you'll ever see.
  • Though I chose "Ringu" on my list instead of the remake, I don't necessarily have a problem with Verbinski's version being there. It's overly complicated and makes the video at the heart of things too long, but it delivers some great scares (I found the opening scene more effective actually).
  • I've got to see Cronenberg's "The Brood" now...That's a hugely creepy screenshot in the final list.
  • Ed doesn't get "The Birds". Nor do several other commenters. I understand how some people see the film as being slow (it is for a big part of it), but when those little winged bastards are nipping at the kids or tearing away at Tippi in that room...Seriously, that doesn't throw you folks at all?
  • On the flip side, I don't quite get "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". Oh sure, the concept is disturbing but I never really felt a sense of dread because of the ridiculousness of the characters. C'mon, Leatherface is a doofus.
  • I just watched "The Changeling" again last night - damn, that should really be on the list as it's one of the best ghost stories I've seen. The screenshots below don't do it justice (a great deal of the anticipation is set up via the music, sound and camera movement), but I wanted to show 'em anyway:

It's been a fun month...I've actually built up an even bigger list of must see horror movies now, so I'll be continuing to watch 'em throughout the year (though perhaps balancing them with a few other genres).

Monday 29 October 2007

Toronto After Dark - That's A Wrap!

A few notes on this year's festival:

  • Favourite Film - I keep waffling between the two, so I'll make it a tie: "Murder Party" for being a barrel of fun and "Alone" for scaring the begeezus out of a theatre full of people.
  • Favourite Short - I have to give it to "Terror on 3918" which I actually wrote about last June when I saw it at the Worldwide Short Film Festival. The spaceship of the future seems to resemble the inside of a run-of-the-mill apartment and the laughs come from the absurdity of the ship, the very effective use of sound effects to make the everyday objects seem to be controlling things and the actors playing the whole thing straight.
  • Best crowd reactions - 1) the first kill during "Automaton Transfusion" - the zombies in the audience were thirsting for blood, 2) the nervous laughter leading up to the scares in "Alone" as well as the release laughter afterwards, 3) the applause for the huge round house kicks seen in "The Rebel".
  • The volunteers - Superb and friendly.
  • The audience - The zombie films, "Alone" and "Murder Party" were all jam-packed and many other screenings had very sizeable crowds. It was all about having fun and the attendees were pretty relaxed and ready for anything. I also got to meet a couple of fellow bloggers for the first time (Hey Shannon!) and enjoyed the film discussion.
  • Jaw dropping moments - 1) "Aachi & Ssipak" was pretty much one ridiculous moment after another - but in a good way, 2) the 8 Arrows Of Truth in "Audience Of One", 3) every frame of "Poultrygeist" - but in not as good a way.
  • Things missed - I heard really good things about all 3 of the features I missed - "Mulberry Street", "In The Name Of The King" and "Wolfhound". Would have been nice to catch them too (though I'm still not convinced about Uwe...). I also would have liked to see the "Cutting Edge Horror" set of shorts. I missed both the opening and closing night parties as well - maybe next year...
  • Ideas that should be continued next year - The "Pub After Dark", though I didn't get there much.
  • I'm off boiled eggs for awhile - "Poultrygeist" had more than its share of disgusting moments, but that egg with the green and purple veins that gets eaten by the guy playing Jared...What's the icon for "wretch"?
  • Poor doggies - Dogs just didn't fare well at this year's festival. In "Blood Car", "Alone" and "Simon Says" dogs all met rather disturbing ends. Even in festival closer "Murder Party", a dog chomps down on a bag of crank before then chomping down on a guy's face.

To quote the Toronto After Dark web site, it was a Bloody Good Time!

Toronto After Dark - "Murder Party"

It would probably make more sense to bundle the review of "Murder Party" with its cousin "Blood Car" since both of them are American independent inexpensively made horror films with dark humour. Not to mention the fact that the two films will be touring North America together for screenings in different cities later this year. But I'm happy to do it as a stand alone. The final film of the week long Toronto After Dark Film Festival may be my favourite of the whole bunch.

It's inventive, sharply scripted and very well acted as it zips along through a rather disconcerting set of events for our poor hero. Walking home from his job as a parking ticket cop, he finds an invitation to attend a Murder Party that evening. Since it's Halloween and it appears that he has nothing better to do, he builds himself a knight's costume out of cardboard and heads out for his evening's entertainment.

It turns out the party is an atypical one...Besides the hosts (5 disaffected artists), he's the only attendee and, of course, the intended victim of the murder which is to be used for the sake of art - and the sake of getting some grant money. The film ends up being a very pointed satire (much more effective than something like "Art School Confidential") of the art scene and the "hipper than thou" members of it. Actor Chris Sharp was in attendance for a Q&A afterwards and confirmed that he and the other actors, writers and crew knew that scene very well...

There are a number of great little moments in the film...In one, our costumed knight finds himself in a closet filled with various pieces of equipment after escaping his abductors. While they wait for him outside, you see him looking around at all the tubing, fire extinguishers, etc. and you expect that he might build some nifty contraption that will enable him to get away. Instead, he throws open the door with an armful of the junk in the closet and then...throws it on the floor and tries to run away. Of course he's immediately recaptured and chained to the chair this time. During another escape, he stops for a quick bathroom break on the roof. While in the middle of relieving himself, one of the potential killers spots him and moves toward him. His reaction and attempt to quickly finish up is very funny.

All of these moments are very well staged and flow nicely within the story. And there just aren't any awkward moments. The film does slow down somewhat in the middle when another artist brings in some truth serum for everyone, but it never feels like they didn't know where to go next. There's even a few early setups of jokes that pay off later in the film, so it's evidence that they really thought things through.

The trailer doesn't really do the film justice in that it looks like it was shot for $1.99. In fact, you get used to the look pretty quickly and the camera work is perfectly suitable for the events. Part of the fun of the film is knowing that these guys did things on a shoestring budget and had to get creative. Even the effects work out quite well. They're pretty small at the outset, but grow as the story progresses and things eventually get bloody. Very bloody. And it works.

Given the end result, I have to think that the entire crew must've worked very hard, for very little money and in the end had a great time putting this together. It's already released on DVD in the U.S. from what I understand and Chris mentioned that they are already working on several potential follow-up projects. I can't wait...

The film was preceded by a double shot of Canadian short features:

Sweet Strangers

Can Chocolate Man save the day? He seems to be the only hope when a monster shows up to terrorize two friends. Only 4 minutes, but very funny and covers a lot of ground in that time.

The Tragic Story Of Nling

The denizens of a small island called Nling create a large walled cylinder into which they dump their garbage. They eventually dump their human refuse in there too, but supply them with alcohol to keep them happy. Until one day the alcohol stops coming...An interesting tale made even better by the style of animation: each frame was printed out on paper, cut out and then captured via scanner.

Toronto After Dark - "The Rebel"

Set during the 1920s occupation of Vietnam by the French, "The Rebel" has a familiar story at its core. But when the familiar is executed this well, it can deliver a terrific movie-going experience - as evidenced by the spontaneous applause that happened several times during the Toronto After Dark screening.

In order to combat the rebels who are against the French controlling forces, local enforcement has been hired to find and quell any opposition. Three friends are all part of this "secret" team and though they may be considered to be traitors among their own people, they each have their own reasons for helping the French. However, after taking out one potential assassin (a young boy), Le Van Cuong reconsiders his reasons. Aided further by witnessing the unwarranted torture of a female prisoner, he decides to leave and essentially becomes one of the rebels.

As mentioned, there are a few familiar story points here bordering on cliche - the long term friends (who call each other brothers) suddenly found on opposite ends of a larger battle, the burgeoning romance between the new rebel and the long serving young woman, the evil French master of a prisoner camp who is sadistic, the sweeping music, etc. But when the story telling is this economical and moves the plot along with characters you actually like, you can easily forgive any shortcomings in originality. The journey is kept interesting and exciting by not derailing the proceedings - even the romantic storyline is kept reasonably at bay in order move towards closure of the final showdown everyone knows is coming.

And it gives room for the fights...The martial arts action in the film is glorious. Each fight follows naturally from the plot and they are fast, furious, exciting and done with little to no wires whatsoever. The After Dark audience, which you would expect have seen a martial arts fight or two in their time, cheered and clapped during several of these lengthy sequences. Johnny Nguyen (stuntman extraordinaire - he did the stunts in the Spiderman films) as our hero and Danny Nguyen are powerhouse fighters with incredibly quick moves and the fights between them are the best I've seen in a long time. Thanh Van Ngo, as the aforementioned young woman, does her own share of terrific work by beating the crap out of a whole slew of guys. The final sequence at the stopped train is just pure enjoyment...

The only real downside was the poor quality print that the festival folks were forced to use. The plan was to use a good quality print which was winging its way to Toronto - until it was stopped and held at the border. Organizers had to resort to a lesser quality print that had occasional jittery video, a number of sound problems and was actually missing the entire set of end credits. But fortunately, none of these issues lasted very long and did not take away from the experience. Congrats to the festival staff for having a backup plan in place.

So it was a great and well-attended showing in the end. "The Rebel" is touted as the most expensive film production in Vietnamese history. They spent their money wisely.

The film was preceded by a Canadian short feature:

The Bullet

A sheriff and his helpers ar eprepping to lynch another man when a mysterious stranger shows up. What does he want and why does he seem to care more about the sheriff than the man with the rope around his neck? All will be revealed...

Sunday 28 October 2007

Toronto After Dark - "Alone" and "Nightmare Detective"

I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to throwing around generalizations about film genres. It's hard not to because sometimes it can help you to express your point. So of late I've been falling back on "Asian Horror" to express my preference for horror films that have creeping dread, a sense of foreboding and instill fear via their atmosphere and subtle effects. Both Thailand's "Alone" and Japan's "Nightmare Detective" share some of these traits, but are also vastly different films. It just goes to show that generalizations are typically only good up to a certain point. Though, uh, not as a rule...


You know a scary film is working its magic when an entire theatre audience (and a packed one at that) begins to giggle nervously at the beginning of new scenes. A woman alone in a bathtub? "Oh boy, something's gonna happen here!" She's walking alone into an elevator? "Now what'll show up?" So they know something is coming, everyone is anticipating it and they can't wait...

"Alone" is an incredibly effective piece of filmmaking. Perhaps Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom's follow-up to 2004's well received "Shutter" is not the most original piece of cinema you'll see, but it succeeds in just about every way in scaring and entertaining the audience.

The film mixes slow creepy sections with a number of sudden jump scares. Though some films pack in the jumps without any context, "Alone" deserves each and every one through its powerfully built up suspense. You know it's coming, you almost even know exactly when it's coming - and you jump anyway.

Pim and Ploy are two conjoined sisters who are separated in their youth. Only one survives and the film begins in her present day comfortable married life. After returning home to see her dying mother, the spirit of her dead sister begins following and haunting her. Through flashbacks we learn more about the relationship between the two girls which had always been very loving - until a boy came along and changed things. The boy falls in love with one of them and this leads to friction, arguments and eventually the separation.

The key to the film is the framing of each scene. You keep expecting to see the ghostly twin appear in the many mirrors, car windows or door openings that pop up throughout. These open spaces reinforce the "aloneness" of the remaining twin and it's also a perfect way to build the anticipation for the next appearance. And the film delivers on every long build up of tension by providing the big release moment of fright.

So all those giggles of nervous energy get transformed into screams and then laughter as the audience relaxes back in preparation for another buildup. And from the crowd's reactions, they wouldn't have had it any other way.

Nightmare Detective

As new detective Keiko Kirishima (played by the absolutely lovely Japanese pop star Hitomi) begins to investigate a series of suicides, it appears that they may somehow be related. Each of the dead people were apparently last talking to the same person on their cell phones before they took their lives (having dialed '0'). We discover that these people have been influenced into killing themselves by a single person who has the ability to enter their dreams.

Kirishima recruits the services of a young loner who shares that same ability to enter people's dreams. In his case he sells his services to try to help others get rid of their nightmares, but he is at the end of his own rope. He is unable to continue the back and forth travel between reality and dreams and has built up a hatred of people in general. Between the two of them they realize that someone will have to place that call to '0' and it will likely be Kirishima.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto (from "Tetsuo, The Iron Man" fame) brings to the film his unique view of humankind, technology and death. He is often compared to both David Lynch and David Cronenberg as they all share a warped, surrealistic view of life. This time, Tsukamoto leaves most of his nightmarish visions to the nightmare world - but he still leaves a mark.

The suicides are brutal in nature, bloody and messy - typically involving someone stabbing themselves repeatedly while asleep. And then there's the nightmares themselves...Filled with headache inducing sound and fury, the dreams early in the film don't ever really show what is so terrifying, but they certainly indicate it. The victims are usually alone, scared and apparently being stalked. The thunderous sounds that accompany the approach are frightening enough, but to then cut back to reality and see someone opening up their own throat is an altogether different kind of unnerving event. I must admit that my over-tiredness caught up with me a few times and the repeating "sound and fury" of some of the dreams zoned me out a bit. That just made it all the worse when I snapped back.

An oddly hopeful ending does nothing to erase the deeply unsettling world Tsukamoto has put before us. The dreamworlds are bad enough, but the characters' reality didn't seem much better. Japan has a difficult problem with high suicide rates, but imagine how much worse it could be if it was easy enough to make someone say "I never knew I wanted to kill myself".

Now that's scary.

Each film was preceded by a Canadian short feature:

God's Little Girl

An interesting premise of a woman grappling with the reasons for the death of her one year old and what God really wants from her. Does she need to behave in a really bad manner in order to prevent God from taking her too soon? And how would she ensure that whatever bad things she did weren't somehow for the common good in the end? A bit long, but an interesting spin on an old theme (questions of faith arising from the loss of a young child).

Key Lime Pie

One of the best shorts of the fest. Great black and white animation (with a dash of key lime) depict one man's obsession with Key Lime Pie. Can Death tempt him with one last slice?

Toronto After Dark - "The Tripper" and "Simon Says"

The Slasher film is an old staple of the Horror genre by this point, so what would an after dark film festival be without a couple of examples? This past week, Toronto After Dark screened both David Arquette's directorial debut "The Tripper" and the Crispin Glover vehicle "Simon Says" (directed by William Dear). And like many slasher films, they each use many of the conventions of the style and tend to fall into some of its pitfalls. Both films do at least try to bring some twists to the genre and contain a couple of surprises, but sometimes you really need to see results instead of just effort.

The Tripper

A group of young people take their old, drug-filled, blue van deep into the woods for a weekend of nature and partying.

And go figure, many of them don't make it back...

The young people in question are "hippies" attending a weekend long musicfest in the forest with countless others. The rumours of deaths from previous years' shows don't seem to concern anyone except for the town sheriff. On top of trying to provide the additional security, he's caught between the hippies, the good ol' mountain boys, the mayor, the concert promoter and the crazy old man with a history.

The sheriff, played with deadpan perfection by Thomas Jane, is actually the only character about which to give a damn in the entire film. Everyone else is simply unlikeable and completely selfish. I know it's a slasher movie and most people will end up dead, but can we at least feel maybe a twinge of regret when one of the characters gets dispatched? If not, at least perhaps make their screen time be less of a painful experience. Jane's sheriff gets off a few choice lines at each of their expense, so perhaps there was some good to come out their appearances.

But this is a slasher movie after all (at least at its heart) - expectations of serious character development should be left at the door. So what of the terror and mayhem? Well, mayhem certainly occurs, but I don't really remember feeling a moment of terror, tension or even dread. I can't help but think it's because the movie is trying to be far too many things at once - comedic, politically aware, surreal, gory, environmentally conscious, politically incorrect, etc. It's a lot of hats to wear and none of them quite fit.

Getting back to the premise of the film, it does have its moments. The killer wears a Ronald Reagan mask and wipes out just about anyone he comes across in the woods (the film mistreats all political affiliations evenly - both by making fun of them and by slicing and dicing them). Though the killer casts a fine shadow as Reagan wielding an ax, he also speaks in Reagan-isms which, not surprisingly, are not overly funny anymore. And when he starts wiping out a large throng of the hippies with total abandon, it just deteriorates - there's still no suspense and even the killing methods aren't interesting at this point (he's just hacking away with the ax).

I give the film some points for attempting something a bit out of the ordinary at times, but its different parts never come together into anything more than a time wasting sequence of loosely tied together bits and popular culture tie-ins (Paul Reubens is somewhat wasted, but it was nice to see Fishbone again).

Simon Says

A group of young people take their old, drug-filled, blue van deep into the woods for a weekend of nature and partying.

Sound like a familiar premise? It's not the only common link between these movies. "Simon Says" is also infected with a young cast of completely unlikeable friends who are given nothing interesting to say or do. I couldn't even see why any of these 5 main characters would even talk to any of the other 4. They are mean, petty, selfish and simply people I would go out of my way to avoid. Let's see, there was the jock, the stoner, the bitch and the slut. Even the obvious choice of The Final Girl (the extremely attractive Margo Harshman) is a pain in the rear. After this, "The Tripper" and "Automaton Transfusion", I've lost all hope in the young people of today...Apparently they all suck.

Fortunately, all is not completely lost - even though you're stuck with a cast you want to see terminated as quickly as possible, you've also got Crispin Glover. He plays a pair of deranged twin brothers (or is it just one?) and he doesn't just chew up the scenery - he devours it, spits it back out and then consumes its bloody entrails. And that's OK because he provides a number of amusing moments. He also seems to have booby trapped the entire woods with a variety of machines that just happen to be positioned ever so perfectly to intercept fleeing college age people. There are some inventive deaths (the "pick ax to the back in order to get dragged across the woods" is a new one), but they also get pretty silly - when you see hundreds of flying pick axes (CGI ones at that) get hurled via these home made contraptions your willingness to suspend belief wanes.

So the movie oscillates between some good and many not so good parts and proves to be an ultimately frustrating experience. It does end somewhat unexpectedly though. After a lengthy capture sequence of The Final Girl, we do get to see her show some intelligence and strength. And the very last scene provides the most disturbing moment of the whole film.

So in the end, although both of the films tried in spots to approach the genre from interesting directions, neither of them really succeeded very well. Each film did actually have its set of fans in the audience - bursts of applause and occasional hoots occurred during certain moments or kills. But for me, the real chills came when we crossed the Pacific Ocean for totally different takes on horror from Japan and Thailand.

Each film was preceded by a Canadian short feature:


An old man sits across from a pig's head attached to a staff. He talks to it like they have a personal history and gradually begins to get angry. It unsettling, but you begin to wonder if it's just trying to be odd for odd's sake. And then you get to the ending and it comes together. Very nicely in fact. And then another little clip after the titles that puts the final stamp on it.

Mime Massacre

Ever wanted to take care of business when surrounded by mimes? Well the guy in this short certainly does - and it's pretty cathartic. But what if you didn't really mean for it to happen? Solid, fun short that gets bonus points for having little things going on in the background.

Saturday 27 October 2007

October Horror - The 31 Flicks That Give Me The Willies

Shoot The Projectionist has the final list of 180 films that received at least 3 votes each from early ballots for the favourite Horror films of all time.

It's a terrific list filled with great films and I'm happy to see that it's longer and more diverse than I expected. I've seen about two thirds of them, so I obviously have some work to do. Most of my initial picks made the final list (27 of 31), so I guess I'm not overly original in my choices. Oh well.

The 4 I chose that didn't make it were:

  • "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" (1971) - Not so much a film that scares me, but a hugely entertaining one that I just couldn't leave off the list. Dr. Phibes uses the biblical plagues as reference points for getting revenge on the 9 doctors he holds responsible for his wife's death. Vincent Price rules here and it led me directly to his Edgar Allen Poe films - so that alone is reason enough to put it on my list.
  • "Cure" (1997) - Probably regarded less as a horror film and more as a mystery thriller in the vein of Seven (which made the final list), this is a terrifically creepy and disturbing tale of a killer who seems to hypnotize others into committing murders. Along with "Pulse", Kiyoshi Kurosawa's finest film.
  • "The Fury" (1978) - My favourite of Brian DePalma's horror films. Young people with strong psychic abilities are kidnapped by the government and are trained to become weapons of war. There's just something about the way the plot flows that engaged me more than his other films.

  • "Shallow Ground" (2004) - I'm not sure I've ever seen a forest look this good on film. The rich greens and cool colours make a perfect background for the blood that appears - and there's definitely lots of blood...

And then there's a whole bunch I had bubbling under. I'm still wondering if I should've included some of these instead:

  • "Acacia" (2003) - Very well made and disturbing portrait of a family's disintegration after a terrible tragedy involving the young boy they have adopted.
  • "Creepshow" (1982) - I just saw this recently and had a blast with it. It's funny, scary, creepy, cheesy and has Ed Harris dancing to disco music - badly. What more can you ask for?
  • "Cronos" (1993) - I wasn't actually that fond of this film after seeing it...It's well made for sure, but seemed to suffer some of the same "dryness" as did Del Toro's other horror film "The Devil's Backbone". But as I read some other people's comments about the film recently, it occurred to me that 1) the film really stuck with me, 2) if I didn't like it that much it's because it REALLY CREEPED ME OUT and 3) it's a truly inventive take on the vampire mythology.
  • "Dawn Of The Dead" (2004) - Romero's original wins out for me, but not by that much. Yes, the zombies run in this one, but that just makes it a different and at times breathless ride.
  • "Don't Look Now" (1973) - Just the opening and closing scenes of this film alone are a pleasure to watch because of the way they are edited and composed. The little girl with the red coat is a lasting image.
  • "The Exorcist" (1973) - It's not my favourite but it cannot be denied...
  • "Eyes Without A Face" (1959) - Don't tell me black and white films can't chill you to the bone.
  • "Frailty" (2001) - I'm still wondering if I should've included Bill Paxton's directorial debut. Paxton himself stars as the father who believes he sees demons and recruits his sons to help him battle them. He turns in a great performance along with creating a sinister feeling throughout the film.
  • "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996) - Since I had heard about the sudden shift in direction this film takes midway through, I was ready for it and it didn't bother me. As a matter of fact, I thought it fit together really well and made for a rather fun gory time.

  • "House On Haunted Hill" (1959) - I didn't expect much out of this old William Castle flick, but when that old lady just showed up from the side of the screen I realized that there was more to this than a cheaply made B-thriller.
  • "Infection" (2004) - Colour is an important part of the story here in another Asian Horror film that delievered far more than I expected.
  • "Near Dark" (1987) - Another superior and original take on the vampire myth. It's not an overly scary trip, but fun filled and exciting.
  • "Phantasm" (1979) - I have great memories of watching this late at night with my brother and both of us thinking that flying killer spheres were the coolest thing ever...
  • "Prince Of Darkness" (1987) / "In The Mouth Of Madness" (1994) - I'm lumping these two Carpenter films together because I think each of them may have a chance to make my top 31 list if I see them again (I've only seen each of them once).
  • "Theater Of Blood" (1973) - Almost as good as The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Replace the doctors with theatre critics and the methods of death to be Shakespearian instead of Biblical.

Top 31

Here are my final choices from that whittled down list. It's really a mix between those films that truly give me 1) the willies, the shakes and the heebeegeebees and 2) big entertainment value. Not a perfect set of criteria by any stretch. One of my favourite films regardless of genre ("Night Of The Hunter") is on the final voting list, yet I'm not picking it. I love it to death, but it just doesn't feel right for me to put it on this list. The picks are really closer to being based on "What would I really like to watch RIGHT NOW." It's all about gut feel...Disgusting, slimy, stinking guts...

1. Halloween (1978) - The grand daddy of 'em all. I remember seeing this for the first time when I was 13 or 14 at a high school movie night and it scared the entire auditorium. It was also an early touchstone for me to realize that movies could be shot in different and interestng ways. And the scene where Jaimie Lee is hiding in the closet is one of the most tension filled moments ever put on celluloid.

2. Ju-On - The Grudge (2003) - The first time I watched this I realized half way through that I was curled up into a little ball on the couch...Gradually the film works on you using its sound field, subtle effects and disorienting timeline. So far I like all 4 Japanese films and even the two U.S. remakes. The ghostly encounters are becoming less and less consistent, but it's all about the atmosphere.

3. Pulse (2001) - One of the best creepy films ever...Kiyoshi Kurosawa's commentary on human disconnectedness is a dark, relentlessly depressing and hopeless vision of the future. With subtle audio effects (even occasional complete dropouts of sound) and subtleties lurking in the background, he's created an environment I can't shake until days after I've seen the film.

4. The Shining (1980) - Another film that sears its images into your brain. The twins, the waves of blood pouring from the elevator, the old woman in the bathroom, the frozen face of Jack...

5. Deep Red (1975) - I love "Suspiria", but this may be my favourite Dario Argento film. The tension and atmosphere are just excellent and there are some great set pieces.

6. Aliens (1986) - I've never felt so creeped out and tense while walking out of a theatre. I remember the night actually - it was a warm summer evening at a small theatre in Northern Vermont. We were the last ones out, walking across an empty lot to our car, picking up the pace as we went...The last section of that film had me white knuckled.

7. Suspiria (1977) - From that great opening scene in the airport to the last few tense moments in the witches coven, this is gorgeous to look at with perfect suspenseful music. This film just simply works for me.

8. Audition (2000) - I've never winced so much as when I watched that end torture scene for the first time.

9. The Changeling (1980) - One of the best ghost stories around...As several have mentioned, a bouncing ball can be really scary.

10. Kwaidan (1965) - This anthology of 4 Japanese ghost stories must have been a huge influence on the recent J-Horror films. Again, part of the spookiness in these tales is determined by how sound is used to create feelings of unease. It's a beautiful film to look at too.

11. Dawn Of The Dead (1978) - The acting in the film is a sore spot with me, but it's a horrific situation that even has room for satire.

12. Ringu (1998) - If that 30 seconds of the video which dooms its viewer isn't seriously spooky, the rest of the film doesn't work quite as well. Fortunately it is. And the final crawl out of the TV is just terrifying.

13. Scream (1986) - Though it may have spawned an awful lot of imitators who thought they were more clever than they were, "Scream" actually is terribly clever. And funny. And damn scary.

14. Candyman (1992) - I have little tolerance for real belief in supernatural things when there is no evidence to support them - Occam's Razor should apply in these cases. Why believe in something completely fantastical and almost impossible to prove, when a much simpler solution is readily available? Having said all that, I just couldn't bring myself to actually go to a mirror and say "Candyman" 5 times after seeing this film.

15. Black Sabbath (1963) - The third and final story alone, with its gorgeous colours and creepy corpse, is enough to recommend the film. And there's two more.

16. Carnival Of Souls (1962) - Proof positive that limitations in budget don't have to limit your imagination.

17. Session 9 (2001) - An abandoned insane asylum sure sounds like a perfect place to set a horror story, doesn't it? Turns out it is.

18. Ginger Snaps (2000) - On the night of her first period, the elder of two outcast sisters gets bitten by a werewolf. How's that for a metaphor for passage into womanhood? It also hapens to be a very scary movie...

19. Uzumaki (2000) - The denizens of a small village find themselves either fascinated or terrified of spirals (some turn into snails, some kill themselves at the thought of having spirals in their ear canals, etc.) and they all seem to be going crazy. The film nicely ties in its manga roots by including little spirals in subtle ways and in corners of the frame.

20. Peeping Tom (1960) - Director Michael Powell's career was thrown off the rails when he released this tale of a cameraman who is obsessed with people's facial expressions of terror. So fascinated is he by these expressions, he kills people with his camera to capture the moment of pure terror before death (he uses a sharp blade attached to his camera's tripod). Though condemned as morally evil, this is a fantastic movie of one man's inability to deal with reality as he wrestles with the abuses he suffered from his father.

21. Onibaba (1964) - More classic Japanese horror. Slow moving, but it implies such a gruesome existence and contains some images that will instantly lodge in your brain forever.

22. The Birds (1963) - The film is much slower than I remember it when I was younger, but the big scenes still loom large. Especially when Tippi is caught in the room.

23. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) - Scary more from a conceptual point of view, this 50s sci-fi horror can be taken either as a warning against communists or a damnation of McCarthy. Quite the feat.

24. Cat People (1942) - Simone Simon is gorgeous, the lighting is incredible and I may never swim alone in a pool again.

25. The Vanishing (1988) - It's all about the ending - and what an ending.

26. The Pit And The Pendulum (1961) - My favourite of Roger Corman and Vincent Price's Edgar Allen Poe films.

27. Vampyr (1932) - You absolutely have to love a film that shows the dead body's point of view from the coffin as it's being carried to the graveyard. Early surrealistic telling of the vampire myth by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

28. Repulsion (1965) - Probably the best realization of descent into madness as I've ever seen on film.

29. Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) - Gothic set design doesn't come much better than this.

30. Jeepers Creepers (2001) - The opening half of this film is terribly disturbing as it considers the possibility of a serial killer living out in the middle of nowhere with free reign to gather up his numerous victims...It turns to a more fantastical second half (which is still good), but it doesn't lessen the impact of that first part.

31. The Others (2001) - A great entry into the haunted house genre that sucked me in all the way.

Friday 26 October 2007

Toronto After Dark - "Audience Of One"

This post is also a par of the Film + Faith Blog-a-thon happening at Strange Culture.

Selecting a documentary to screen during a horror/fantasy genre film festival may be an unexpected move, but with "Audience Of One" (directed by Mike Jacobs) this year's programming staff could very well have found the scariest film of the fest. You won't jump out of your seat, but you will see a frightening display of the immense delusional capacity of human beings.

Pastor Richard Gazowsky has a friendly sympathetic face and immediately strikes you as an intelligent communicator. His congregation in San Francisco seem to be made up of past sinners, lost souls, neighbourhood families and perhaps a few lonely older people looking for a community. He doesn't seem to preach fire and brimstone or heal diseases at a touch of his hand. He appears genuine in his love of God.

So there must be a reason to turn a camera on him...And there is. Richard is a dreamer. A big dreamer. My friend Shannon said she loved that about the guy and I can't disagree. His dream is to direct a movie based on the biblical tale of Joseph but with a "Star Wars" feel to it. To be entitled "Gravity - The Story Of Joseph", he wants to bring it to the masses, eclipse production of any previous Hollywood film and to make every scene be something the audience has never come across before. That is what you call a capital 'B' Big Dreamer.

Now how can a man who had never even seen a movie until a scant 10 years earlier (when he was 40) direct the biggest blockbuster the world has ever known? The idea is preposterous from the get go and doomed to failure - and yet the audience can't help but root for him early on. You have to be impressed that he actually gets the project off the ground, finds initial investors and recruits members of his congregation to do various creative and crew roles. It's the flip side to the scary delusional part of the film - the determined collaboration toward a common goal. Perhaps we really can do anything we put our minds to if we have faith in the end goal or person leading the way.

But now that the word "faith" has been mentioned, it brings up a concern several people had expressed going into the film (and even afterwards). Is it all really just one big reality show episode that lets us laugh at Pastor Richard to make us feel better about ourselves? And to a larger extent a putdown of his beliefs and religious views? Granted, it would be a vastly different film if Richard were a plumber or a bus driver who wanted to make a multi-million dollar film, but I found that the filmmakers never made the core of the film about his religion. It's about a good man with an idea who not only deludes himself, but pulls along hundreds of others.

It really has more in common with the great documentary "American Movie" and the single-minded pursuit of that film's main protagonist. The desire stems from a different place, but for both of them The Big Dream seems almost within reach...

...until it begins to go south.

You get the whole range of movie set catastrophes (misbehaving cameras, unskilled labour, language barriers, etc.), but you also begin to wonder a bit about Richard. He has a huge expectation of sacrifice from everyone involved (their money, their time, their safety) as well as an expectation of faith in both him and God that equals his own. His mother sees him as naive and, with sadness and regret in her eyes and voice, wonders aloud why she turned over the control of the church to him. He begins to rationalize a great deal as well - particularly when it comes to the financing of the film. Though his German backers haven't come up with any money for him yet, he continually reassures his crew and others that the $200 million is ready for them. It's a lie, but so sure is he that God will provide for him, I think he has rationalized it to himself that the end justifies his means.

His delusions really start in earnest towards the end of the film. At one point, while the city of San Francisco is getting ready to sue his production company for failure to pay rent on their studio space, he and his team have gone off to a trade show and are making decisions to buy incredibly complex mixing boards and camera equipment. After the city manage to shut down the studio, Richard goes through a period of doubt, but re-establishes his faith - and then some. Presenting to his congregation the Eight Arrows Of Truth, he lists off 8 new goals for the church. Let's just say that his scope has expanded...It's a truly jaw dropping moment. Perhaps these bigger goals are there to detract from the failure of the initial smaller one, but it appears to be the same Richard as before - a big heart and what appears to be an honest calling to the Big Dream.

"It's either God", he says at one point, "or I'm crazy."

Toronto After Dark - Cutting Edge Fantasy (Short Films)

One of the things I really enjoyed about last year's initial Toronto After Dark festival (and which continued this year) was the inclusion of short films before each screening. Many were fun or just simply good counterparts to the film about to be shown. As well, it helped local and Canadian filmmakers get a decent audience for their work.

They upped the ante a bit this year though, by including 2 screenings dedicated solely to short films. I wasn't able to make Saturday's Cutting Edge Horror set, but I did manage to make it down for Sunday's Cutting Edge Fantasy showing.

Here were some of my favourites:

Lucid Dream Exploration

This short trailer doesn't really get the effect across, but much of this film was done frame by frame on an etch-a-sketch. Somebody has spent some serious time on that damn thing...


There's something mesmerizing about this film (in its entirety below). The time lapse of hair growth on the man's face is interesting enough, but once Part 3 kicks in and the music builds against the sped up repeating film, I was caught in its spell.

Trionyx (Soft-Shelled Turtle)

Two short clips from this film about a man who has chosen the soft-shelled turtle as the animal he wants to be when attacking Godzilla.

The Un-Gone

Unfortunately no clips on the net of my favourite short of the screening. Simon Bovey's 8 minute film shows us what happens when there's a glitch in a teleporter. Not for what happens to the person reaching the other side, but what's accidentally left behind...Here's the website.

Thursday 25 October 2007

Reel Asian Film Festival - Nov. 14-18, 2007

I was lucky enough to attend the opening press conference for this year's Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on Wednesday night.

The schedule is posted online now and the opening and closing gala picks look strong:

Opening Gala

Justin Lin's Finishing The Game

Closing Gala

Mika Ninagawa's Sakuran

"Sakuran" looks gorgeous...I haven't had a chance to plough through the full list yet to plan any screenings, but look forward to learning more about the full slate.

Toronto After Dark - Zombies!, "Automaton Transfusion" and "Poultrygeist"

As Toronto After Dark Film Festival director Adam Lopez was fond of calling it, Sunday was Z-Day (that's Zed for Zombies - yes Zed, not Zee). The two back-to-back zombie film screenings preceded by a Zombie Walk through the city attracted hundreds of the undead. I'm not sure how many tourist dollars you can squeeze out of walking corpses, but I suppose at the very least it makes for good PR.

Unfortunately I missed the zombie walk event, but from the throngs of blood splattered folks waiting outside the theatre to queue up for the first of the zombie flicks, it must've been a lot of good clean fun.

And now for the messy variety...

Automaton Transfusion

There was a great atmosphere in the Bloor Cinema as we awaited this first film by director/writer Steven C. Miller. It looked to be sold out and probably every other person had some kind of zombie makeup or prop to get into the spirit. Choruses of "Brains! Brains!" rang out in anticipation.

Previous to the film beginning, Adam Lopez mentioned that this was the first part of a planned trilogy and warned that the film has an abrupt end with a cliffhanger. So does the story warrant 3 straight films out of the box from a novice filmmaker?

Well, it all starts in familiar territory. We meet the teenagers who will become fodder for the zombies: the cheerleaders, the fat geek, the spoiled rich jock...Just a whole bunch of really unlikeable people. I know we're not supposed to invest a great deal of emotion into many of these characters since they will die nasty deaths, but I do wish some additional thought would be brought to bear for the initial period of time we are forced to spend with them. If the intent was for me to want to see them get killed, then the filmmakers succeeded. Unfortunately I not only hated some of these characters, but I disliked entire scenes they were in and hoped they would just stop talking. That can't really be what you want from your film...

So let's focus on the scenes when no one is talking. Those would be the scenes when everyone is screaming. Though the movie is indeed "energetically directed" especially through the zombie attacks, it's just too much...Too much shaky camera action, too much booming pending doom music cues and too much screaming while heavy metal clanged on the soundtrack - and typically all at once. You know how your picture looks like when you speed up a DVD to 4x? That's what a good deal of this film looked like. It's an exhausting assault on the senses. At times and in small doses it can be effective, but I felt it took away from what could have been a more interesting set of zombie attacks.

It did seem to take a somewhat different route than perhaps what some of the fans in the crowd expected. In particular, one zombified fan sitting next to me threw his hands up in what appeared to be frustration about 10-15 times during the film. I could only guess that he was upset that a specific event did not occur when it was supposed to (e.g. nudity did not happen when it normally does; lingering shots of entrails did not occur when they should have; etc.). I'm not sure why the filmmakers should need to follow the conventions that closely in order to please certain fans, so for not doing that I applaud them.

The plot really starts towards the end of the film when we learn about the origin of the zombies. Earlier, they had just shown up one day, caused havoc and chased the townspeople. But these new plot elements may point towards some interesting avenues the story may take in the sequels.

I just don't know if I care.

Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead

Pound for pound the most disgusting, over the top, politically incorrect, bad pun-filled, potty mouthed experience ever. "Juvenile" is probably the best term for Lloyd Kaufman's new film which brought Zombie Day to an end. It did however provide all the nourishment the hungry zombies in the audience were looking for as hoots, hollers and cheers filled the packed room.

Kaufman's film is a satire of the fast food industry, but also pulls in all number of ethnic stereotypes and political references in an attempt to throw as many satiric elements out there as possible. Subtlety NOT being Lloyd Kaufman's middle name, it's not always effective. In particular, the political jokes fall flat as they were typically of the obvious variety. And though stereotypes can indeed be used to good effect for satirical purposes, it loses its impact when overused. On the plus side, at least he doesn't play favourites with who might get offended - conservatives, liberals, heterosexuals, homosexuals, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, meat-lovers, vegans, etc. all get barbs thrown at them. Repeatedly.

The story centers around the opening of a new fast food chicken restaurant that was built on a sacred Indian burial ground. Young Arbie happens across the demonstration with no real investment, but sees amongst the protestors his old girlfriend Wendy - now in the arms of another woman named Mickey (yes, there is indeed a common theme to the naming of the characters). After some back and forth verbal sparring and a song (did I mention the film is also partially a musical?), Arbie decides to get a job at the restaurant just to taunt Wendy. He meets fellow employees Denny, Carl Jr. and Paco Bell.

Don't worry about the rest of the plot - just know that many people eat bad things, spew great amounts of green, red and brown fluids from MANY different orifices and that zombie chickens rip people to shreds (as one female zombie chicken prepares to eat the face she has just peeled off another customer she says "I know it's not good for me, but I just love the skin!"). Though occasionally amusing, I tired quickly of the high school boy humour, the "dirty word" humour, the plentiful scatalogical references and the bountiful fluids being spilled. But if you didn't like a scene (say perhaps you would have preferred a different orifice be the focus of a particular moment), you really didn't have to wait long to see something else. Of course, be careful what you wish for...The songs weren't overly memorable either, though this particular one does lodge in your brain (Warning! The video contains graphically disgusting scenes...):

Having said all that above, there was a sense of fun about the film. Very much an anything goes approach that sat well with most of the audience. And when the audience is having fun (even if everyone at once turns away from the screen with groans of disgust), you can't help but catch some of it. The two leads in the film (Arbie and Wendy) are relative newcomers and were actually quite good at shifting between song, slapstick, dry humour and whatever depravity was asked of them. And the movie is not without its clever bits - whether it's a snippet of song's lyrics, a passing pop culture reference or a background joke or sign. Of course, those good bits are usually trampled over by what follows, but I can't help but hand it to Kaufman...In a post film Q&A, he spoke a bit about the troubles he faces in getting investment and distribution for his films. Not surprising, but still remarkable in that he presses forward with what appears to be good humour and warmth.

So even though neither zombie film quite did it for me, the evening was still wholly entertaining.

Each of the zombie films was preceded by a Canadian zombie short - both quite well done and funny:

Zombie Jesus

A young woman revisits her hometown to see her estranged Dad who is the local pastor. Her timing kind of stinks though since Jesus has just risen - as a zombie. He's taken most of the congregation with him, but the woman still thinks she should try to communicate with her Dad - zombie or no. Some of the zombie footage was actually taken at last year's Zombie Walk.

Eat The Parents

A young woman's parents are on their way over to meet her new boyfriend. She's had bad luck in the past with introducing her gentlemen friends into the family, so she's really trying to make this work. Unfortunately, her boyfriend dies before they get there. Fortunately, he has just brought home an ancient stick capable of raising the dead. Understandably, complications arise after she uses it...

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Toronto After Dark - "Aachi & Ssipak" and "Blood Car"

It's probably not often that you run across common ground between whacked out Korean animation and a North American Indie horror film by a first time director. But when you do (in this case during Saturday's screenings at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival), it should be recognized...Both "Aachi & Ssipak" and "Blood Car" use an energy depleted world as their jumping off points for "what would humankind do?" scenarios. The former certainly has the more drastic view of how things could change, but both are funny, purposely crude and splatter numerous bodily fluids whenever possible.

And isn't that what you're looking for in your futuristic scenario movies?

Aachi & Ssipak

Todd Brown from Twitch gave a great intro to the film and wondered aloud "why aren't there more animated films coming from Korea?" Considering the amount of animation being produced there (for TV shows like the Simpsons, etc.), you would think that would drive further creative outlets. There's certainly enough inventiveness and originality at play in this film to have been an outlet for many an animator...

The story? OK, let me take a deep breath here...Set in some distant future where normal sources of energy have been depleted, society has changed to embrace a new source that scientists have tapped - human feces. In order to encourage the population to defecate more and use the feces for the greater good, the government not only runs all sorts of marketing ads, but also provide a reward every time someone "donates". Individual blue Juicybars (which look like frozen popsicles) are delivered immediately and are not only tasty but contain addictive narcotics. And thus an underground black market has been created. The biggest of the gangs involved is called the Diaper Gang - a group of small, blue mutants who are completely addicted to the bars. They pull off a daring theft of a truck load of the bars by wiping out its police escort, but then are foiled in their attempts at getting the loot back to their base by a one man wrecking crew cyborg created by a government mad scientist.

And that's the opening 5 minutes...

Here's the trailer (the censoring bleeps aren't in the film, though I think it makes the trailer funnier):

The film is filled with pop culture and movie references. The terrific mine shaft chase is straight out of "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom", while references to "Misery", "Robocop" and even Paris Hilton crop up. Some of this stuff is a bit much (and really, Paris Hilton has never been funny as a reference point), but don't worry - the pace of this movie never relents so you'll find something new pretty quickly. It's actually quite exhausting, but not necessarily in a bad way.

It's also violent, gory and totally shameless in being disgusting. I could've certainly done without some of the more scatalogically inclined bits of humour and the entire subplot of the anal porn king was, at best, uncomfortable...But the film never pretends to think of itself as clever with its potty humour - it is what it is. And then it's on to something else. There are also a number of satirical elements to the film - especially when terms like "Axis Of Evil" are thrown into the mix - and you can see a kernel of truth in situations like the government expecting more defecations from its population for the good of the state.

Though the characters Aachi and Ssipak are integral to the way the story plays out, it's interesting that the film is named after them. They aren't really that much more sympathetic than anyone else in the film and many scenes take place without them even being involved.

But I guess there must be a rule of marketing that states "Avoid the words feces or defecation in your film title". Probably sage advice.

Blood Car

Though it's hard to imagine one could ever say that any film was similar to the whacked out "Aachi and Ssipak", "Blood Car" does indeed share a common beginning point. Sometime in the future (though possibly only two weeks from now states the opening prologue), the fuel shortage has risen gas prices to over $32 a gallon. No one drives anymore, people bring picnic blankets to drive-ins and teenagers have to resort to having sex in car graveyards.

Archie, a kindergarten teacher and vegan, has taken it upon himself to try to invent a new engine that will work on wheatgrass juice. He is concerned about the environment (as he shows by the ever present slogans on his T-shirts) and thinks an engine of this type would solve a great deal of the world's problems. Success eludes him though, until one night he accidentally cuts himself and manages to drip some blood into his fuel mixture. The engine jumps to life and he realizes that blood is the secret.

Lots of blood.

Here's the trailer:

Black humour is the order of the day in this low budget first feature by writer / director / producer Alex Orr and he never shies away from it (particularly an ending that may even offend those who loved all the carnage). Archie's requirement to keep his car running becomes increasingly important to him once he meets Denise. She owns the local meat stand (opposite the local vegetable and wheatgrass juice stand) and loves to ride in cars. She is also more than willing to provide a wide range of "services" to Archie for continued use of the car. Hence his need to find more blood.

This leads to further and further acts of desperation on Archie's part. To feed the car, he starts by shooting small animals in his neighbourhood and eventually escalates to humans - first a neighbour he finds dead and then some of his own killing. He has additionally incorporated rotating blades in the trunk of the car in order to chop up fresh resources to provide blood directly to the motor. Kind of like a really big juicer. All the while, guys in suits are monitoring his every movement...This setup leads to many gross out, yet very funny moments. The film (also like the above Aachi & Ssipak) purposely attempts to offend at many turns and succeeded at getting any number of groans from the otherwise quite happy late night audience (it was an 11:30PM screening).

Along with a few missed opportunities at getting more laughs, there are some awkward scenes that stretch a bit long and could've used some tighter editing. Anna Chlumsky, in her first feature film in about a decade, also seems a bit out of place and not overly well used. But these are minor complaints to the obvious fun at work here.

There's an additional amusing moment I found that may or may not have been intentional...As our hero Archie comes over the rise on his bike wielding an ax at one point in the movie, we hear "The Barber Of Seville". The great 1979 film "Breaking Away" and the classic to top just about all other classic cartoons "Rabbit Of Seville" both use this music and this one scene evoked both of these favourites at once. I don't know if Orr had any thoughts about paying tribute to either of these other films, but it put a big smile on my face...

Each film was preceded by a Canadian short feature:


The question of what is reality is played with in this nicely done short. What appears to be a glitch in the virtual world dumps a young man into a completely foreign mostly mechanized world run by little white penguin like cyclops blobs. But even this reality may not be what it seems.

Please Stand By

Lobsters are attacking. They appear to be slowly picking people off one by one. If that isn't bad enough, our young hero's girlfriend won't call him back.