Sunday 30 October 2011
Here's a sneak peek at the last batch of horror films from my month long bender (which will fall far short of last year's number due to Toronto After Dark switching back to October):
The Deaths Of Ian Stone (2007 - Dario Piana) - Though I haven't seen many of the "8 Films To Die For" series (otherwise known as the "After Dark Horrorfest" which shows its independent films over an eight day span in nationwide theatres), I haven't heard a whole lot of positive response to any of the films even though last year's fest was the fifth one. However, the concept for "The Deaths Of Ian Stone" sounded too good to pass up: the titular character dies every night only to wake up in a completely different life. Promising stuff that could go one of any number of directions. Unfortunately it chose one that abandons its premise early on for life sucking ghostly monsters that can take human form. Worse than that though, its main character is just simply unlikeable. Even worse, he's just boring. As is the set of CGI-heavy effects of people turning into these black death spirit thingies. When he suddenly wakes up in a new life, Ian Stone has no recollection of his previous one so it just changes the situations within which this bland unsympathetic character exists. How exciting is that? Whatever rules the story had are shuffled to the side and it becomes generic in its rush to redeem Stone. If this is representative of the "8 Films to Die For" series, I can see why I haven't seen overwhelming response to it (though you'll see shortly, it isn't completely representative).
The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932 - Charles Brabin) - Now here's an interesting artifact of the early 30s...Filled with great set design, interesting shot selections and a whole lot more torture than you might expect, the film also engages in some of the worst casual racism that side of "Breakfast At Tiffany's". It's not just the indiscriminate references to "the yellow man" (after all, Fu Manchu throws it right back at them with his hopes to eradicate "the white man"), but the thought that Asians think of nothing else but to rule the world. While the British wish only to find Genghis Khan's old artifacts to preserve them in a museum (even though they break into his old chambers with nary a thought to its preservation), Fu Manchu and his "hordes" want them so that they can convince the rest of Asia to follow them into world domination. When the Brits discover that this is the plan, they double their efforts to get there first. They do, but Fu Manchu has several devious plans up his sleeve to get them back. Possibly the worst moment of all was the patronizing comment from the wealthy English archaeologist to a Chinese waiter congratulating him for not aspiring to anything more than what he was and avoiding the fields of medicine, science and exploration. Perhaps I was reading the film wrong, but aside from some of the great visuals the story didn't have much else to hold it together, so I had to focus on something...
Private Parts (1972 - Paul Bartel) - This randomly selected title was quite the fine little surprise. Directed by Bartel (probably best known for "Eating Raoul"), it focuses on horrors of a more psychological nature - specifically those that arise from one's sexual urges. Young Cheryl is a runaway and ends up at her Aunt Martha's hotel looking to bum room and board for as long as she can. Her combination of naivete and curiosity about using her sex appeal is a concern to Martha (played by the great Lucille Benson - look her up, you'll know her) who will not stand for any of those "painted women" in her hotel. She also likes to frequent funerals in order to see the spirits of the dead rising heavenward. As much as Cheryl tells Martha not to worry, she can't help flirting with handymen until her attention focuses on George the photographer. He's a rather strange bird who has his own ideas about sex (confused as they may be) and one hell of an interesting photo studio. Cheryl works herself into rather dangerous predicaments while Martha attempts to keep her building pure. Battle lines become drawn and the final confrontation gets set. Like many of the horror films from the 70s, though, the curve balls are always ready to be thrown. Not just at the end either - you never quite know where things are headed at any point in the story. Bartel does a great job of pacing things out and keeping you always a bit off centre. If the acting is slightly dodgy at times, it's never overly distracting and doesn't take away from one of the more interesting horrors of the early 70s.
The Abandoned (2006 - Nacho Cerda) - While at the Toronto After Dark festival this year, the title of this film came up a couple of times - mostly due to the fact that one of its writers (Karim Hussain) was quite involved in the anthology "The Theatre Bizarre" that played the fest. By sheer coincidence (or was it...), I happened to stumble across the DVD of it at a charity sale in our office building a few days after hearing about its underrated status. So I snagged it for a couple of bucks and tossed it in the player. It was only then that I discovered that it was another of the "8 Films To Die For" series (though from a different year than the aforementioned "The Deaths Of Ian Stone"). The disillusionment set in, but I decided to press forward. Fortunately, it didn't take long to assuage my nervousness. First, it's a gorgeous looking film whose predominant greens and blues still cover a broad spectrum. Secondly, it is creepy as all get out. It centres around Marie - a 40-ish successful business woman who has returned to Russia to learn more of her roots after being abandoned by her parents as a baby. She travels to the old house of her parents and finds that not only can she not leave, but that her twin brother has also come to the same spot. As they encounter ghostly presences of themselves and piece together what happened years ago, they wonder if they have been summoned back in order to be finished off in the manner they should have been years ago. Even though there are few characters here, it is highly effective in pulling you deeper into Marie's predicament and dreading each new entry into a darkly lit place with a flashlight. After remembering that the "8 Films To Die For" also ran "Reincarnation" (the terrific film by "Ju-On: The Grudge" director Takashi Shimizu) and discovering that "The Broken" (a rather spiffy little thriller by Sean Ellis) was also part of it, I may just be turned around on the idea. But then I think of "The Deaths Of Ian Stone" and I reconsider all over again...
"Father's Day" is pretty much the perfect exploitation film. It will offend many with its graphic images and content (both bloody and sexual) while it embraces the anything-goes aesthetics of many of the films from the 1970s that range from impressively realistic gore to ridiculous use of stock footage. Its plot begins with a search for a serial killer and from there mutates with a speed and force rarely seen outside the viruses found in bad sci-fi movies. Strippers, priests, male prostitutes, bears, chainsaws, hallucinogens, demons, a visit to Hell and probably even a kitchen sink or two are smashed together, blended until each has been reduced to gooey chunks and then splattered back up on screen with a joyful exuberance. It's sick, gory, disgustingly gross and very, very funny.
However, let me be very clear up front: The opening 10 minutes of the film is extremely nasty stuff and enough to thoroughly repulse just about anyone but the purest of gorehounds. A rapist of fathers (it's explained that he doesn't like woman, but never stated why he only goes after the Dads) is on the loose and we join him in the middle of a particularly, um, gruesome violation of another human. Having seen the faux-trailer for the film last year (which led the Canadian filmmaking team Astron-6 to make a full version of the film for the folks at Troma), it wasn't really a surprise - that trailer is full-on Grindhouse at its ickiest - but that first section began to validate my fears that the movie was going to be completely in that same vein. A strange thing happens after a few minutes of this type of gore though - it's pitched so way over the top that you can't actually take any of it seriously and it becomes more of a parody than anything else (though a disgustingly Lurid one).
Of course, nothing remains very stable in this movie for long. Even though a team of three band together to stop the evil Fuckman (yes, occasionally they stoop to juvenile humour), the father raping aspects of the plot mostly disappear. Not only was this rather welcomed, but it also fits right into the standard templates of the exploitation films - how many were actually faithful to their original concepts by the time they had run their course? There's still loads more bloodshed and what you might call "vivid" images, but once the humour kicks in it all meshes into somewhat of a thank-you card to these grindhouse style films. The actors (most of them members of the Astron-6 team) occasionally go for big emotional moments or speak in halting ways just like the "bad" acting that is associated with the genre, but it's obviously on purpose and isn't used to the extent that it becomes tiring or a single joke. They actually stay in their characters, have subtle well-timed comedic moments and never wink directly at the audience. Combined with the visual riffs on the genre (obvious rear projection footage during an explosion, etc.) and a willingness to change the plot almost on a whim, the film starts to pile laughs on top of absurdities on top of laughs on top of absurdities.
Which is why a description of the plot is relatively pointless. If you want to hear about where the story goes before deciding whether you want to see the film, you're approaching this particular movie all wrong. The Astron-6 folks have put together a loving tribute to 70s exploitation films that careens with controlled abandon across the genre's tropes, styles and limitations while never losing sense of the fun. Or the goo.
Wednesday 26 October 2011
If there was one piece of hype that was circulating during this year's Toronto After Dark festival, it was that the relatively low-budget horror film "Absentia" would shake us all, was easily the scariest thing we would see all week, possibly all year and that we should prepare ourselves...And if there was one thing that the crowd (at least those that I talked to afterwards) mostly agreed on after seeing the film was that the hype had improperly set everyone's expectations. The film didn't actually scare the pants off anyone or make them jump out of their seats to the rafters as advertised (except for one early scare that was executed brilliantly and made several people actually cry out). However, it did end up being the kind of real horror movie that lets its concepts sit and stew with you and provide fodder for the deep dark corners of your mind to pick up and play with when you aren't paying attention. This applies not only to the specific horror on screen but to a larger thematic look at the idea of being abandoned. So though there was a great deal of consensus that the film wasn't as outright scary as expected, there also seemed to be almost as much agreement that it was an excellent dramatic depiction of deeply felt horror.
The title comes from the decision to call someone dead after they have been "in absentia" for a period of time. Essentially, if after 7 years (in this case) a missing person hasn't shown up anywhere and it's just like they dropped off the face of the Earth, then they can be declared legally dead. The film opens as Tricia struggles with just such a decision so she can close the final chapter of her husband's own disappearance 7 years ago. Her younger sister Callie has come to visit in order to help her with the final "death in absentia" paperwork and some packing before she moves out of the house to start a new life. Considering Tricia is pregnant, she should really be ready to move on, but the final submission of the papers and acceptance of her husband's death (even if their marriage wasn't completely successful) is a big step. So big, in fact, that she begins to see a ghostly version of him at almost every turn - his hollowed out eye sockets still fixing on her in an accusatory manner. Are these simple manifestations of her attempts at closure or is his spirit really trying to break through back to her? The answer might lie in a nearby walkway tunnel that seems to be a focal point for several disappearances.
This initial section provides the majority of the film's spookiness via these apparitions and it leaves the viewer in a distinct state of tension as Tricia waits for the final death certificate and packs up the house. As mentioned above, one particular moment delivered a solid jolt to the audience - but not simply as a loud jump scare. After several of the apparitions had already built up a level of dread, one particular reveal gave a solid punch to the gut due to both surprise and a deep concern for the character. The crowd's reaction of laughter afterwards was a mix of release as well as a group admittance that "they got us" and it's one of the great things about watching horror with a packed audience. If you build up to those moments via character and tension, you can pull the audience even further into the story. This is why the crowd stayed involved with the film even though it eventually moved away from the spooky apparitions and focused the horror on things both more personal and more concrete. Particularly after a specific event happens that throws Tricia's life into turmoil yet again.
Tricia and Callie talk about the main theme of the movie in several scenes and from different angles - not just from the point of view of being abandoned by someone, but also feeling the temptation to just walk away from a situation yourself. In other words: to leave it all behind, drop your problems and abandon the people currently in your life that feel like a burden. Callie left home as a teenager and has roamed from one location to another getting into trouble and falling into drugs (yet another form of escape). She has found religion, but even it isn't always there to help her. Tricia takes a more buddhist slant and meditates to calm herself and prevent her own desire to flee. The different ways that the film brings in the characters' feelings of abandonment and their desire to do the same to others is its main strength. How horrific would it be to lose your spouse without knowing why? Or even worse, your child? And how crushing would it be if there was hope they had returned only for it to be quashed yet again? It becomes easy to sympathize with the desire to pack it all in yourself at those points. It's made even easier in this case due to the very strong performances by Courtney Bell and Katie Parker in the lead roles. They interact wonderfully well together whether it's love life discussions or nasty fights. They make the characters wholly believable and so when they are in jeopardy (real or imagined), you easily slip into their shoes with them. When a horror film can do this, it removes the necessity for the big special effect or the crashing scare. As evidence, two particular scenes had the crowd curling up in their seats just a little bit more than they already were. One involved a bathroom with a billowing shower curtain and another a very slow zoom into pitch black darkness while a character's face remained just in frame to the side. If neither scene really "paid off", the horror you felt for the characters in the moment was very real.
Tuesday 25 October 2011
I've had my eye on Toronto After Dark the last few days (and the next few as well), so the output has been a bit slower. Some good solid movies in this batch...
Pin (1988 - Sandor Stern) - "Pin" is not your ordinary doll/horror movie. Partially because "he" is a medical mannequin (used as a teaching device) instead of a child's toy, but also because the film relies much more heavily on the psychological horror aspects of a young boy's development into an adult than any Chucky style attack. As young kids, Leon and his little sister Ursula are transfixed by Pin when their father uses it as a ventriloquist's dummy and teaches them certain lessons. Ursula realizes Pin is only a dummy at a young age, but Leon continues to think that Pin is an actual living being and part of their family. As he matures and can't count on his parent's support or help in typical growing up matters, he goes to Pin without his father being present (disobeying a strict order) and communicates with him. His father (another dose of Terry O'Quinn - that's two for the month!) decides to remove Pin from the house, but after a car accident leaves Leon and Ursula as orphaned teens, Pin becomes more and more of an influence to Leon's life. It's not filled with jump scares nor will it make you shiver in your seat, but it's something that aims at the horror of a broken individual. It's hampered occasionally by some inadequate acting in several roles (though David Hewlett as the older Leon is quite good), but it worked far better than I expected it would.
Amer (2009 - Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani) - Gobs of style. Style piled on style over style - with style on the side. Cattet and Forzani's tribute to the cinematography and atmosphere of Italian giallos mostly dispenses with dialogue and even, to a certain extent story. It's premise focuses mainly on the sexual awakening of the same woman in three different stages - confusion (child), curiosity (teenager) & desire (adult) - with witches, murder and a variety of other real and surreal occurrences thrown in for good measure. It's quick cutting, very arty and may drive some people for the Tylenol (or the remote), but I loved it. It creates very specific moods for each of the three stages and though there appears to be very little resolution in what occurs, the trip through it all kept me completely engaged because of the tension of truly not knowing where any of the stories were going and how they would present the next images. The colour (particularly in the opening section) is glorious and pretty much every shot is unconventional. Certainly self-conscious, but still quite the beautiful thing to see - in particular if you like rampant usage of close-ups of people's eyes. Unnerving at times and a wonderful example of someone who wants to play and experiment in a given style.
Burnt Offerings (1976 - Dan Curtis) - In between making his two made-for-TV horror anthologies ("Trilogy Of Terror" and the recently viewed "Dead Of Night") director Dan Curtis snuck in this tidy slow-burn feature about a family that moves into an old mansion as caretakers for the summer. Oliver Reed and Karen Black play the parents and neither bring a whole lot of subtlety to their roles - which is perfect for a film like this. The owners of the house ask only that the couple leave a tray of food once a day for their elderly mother who lives in the room upstairs. "The house takes care of itself" they say and this becomes apparent as it slowly seems to rejuvenate as the family slowly falls apart. The father is haunted by memories of his own father's funeral (and a really creepy hearse driver) while Mom becomes strangely devoted to the unseen old lady upstairs as well as her daily house cleaning tasks. Their aunt (played by Bette Davis) is also with them and as her health starts to fail, she drives a further wedge between the couple. Her health woes certainly can't be due to malnutrition, though, since the sicker she gets, the more Davis chews the scenery. Again though, it's essentially in service to the film and its possessed house - the longer they stay, the more of themselves they give away. It doesn't all work, but it provides a perfect resolution and ends up being quite satisfying. And Karen Black always kinda creeps me out in these roles - you just never know how her characters are going to react.
The Ruins (2008 - Carter Smith) - There were moments early on during "The Ruins" where I thought I had made a tragic error - I had heard this was one of the better recent Hollywood horrors, but during the character introductions I felt that I had seen these beautiful young people a hundred times before and therefore thought I knew exactly what I was about to see. Fortunately, I was quite wrong in my cynical assumptions. Instead of simply getting lost inside a set of old ruins while each dull character gets killed off by old supernatural ghosts, the story sets up a more horrific natural threat - the vines that grow on and surround the off the map pyramid-like structure the characters have come to visit after their week of partying in Mexico. It sounds a bit silly (and certainly is at times - particularly those flowers that mimic sounds), but along with the additional issue of being stranded on the ruins in the jungle surrounded by locals who won't let them leave (in order not to allow the plant lifeform to spread elsewhere), it sets up a fine scenario that lets you play "what would I do?" while the characters work through their own options. One of the most terrifying aspects are those locals - not because of any of their specific actions, but it's their inaction that is frightening. Instead of helping or even simply killing these trespassers, they have forced everyone who has come into contact with the plant to remain on the ruins knowing full well that the vines will take care of the problem for them. There's some needless gore in a few sequences, but overall it mostly avoids the obvious and spins out an effective tale of terror.
The vampire mythology continues to retain its hold on our collective imaginations as it works its way through film, TV shows, literature and, as many North American doorsteps will undoubtedly encounter in about a week’s time, fashion and costume design. There’s good reason – it taps into some deep seated fears of death reaching out to you anywhere, the intimate turning into the violent and your own life’s blood be drained away. Not to mention the promise of eternal life. It also comes with a whole variety of different aspects to the myth that can be added or modified to the same basic premise to allow for countless possibilities of stories to be told. Whether you like your vampires with wings, fangs or sparkles, the legend remains and the stories keep spawning from it. The latest example is Scott Leberecht’s many-years-in-the-making Midnight Son which takes yet another approach – strip the myth down to its basic elements and drop it into the real world. Akin to George Romero’s best film (IMO) Martin, but with superior acting and even more sympathetic characters, Midnight Son succeeds on just about every level as a storytelling vehicle: a genre exercise, a different spin on a well-worn legend, an examination of several themes (loneliness, self-realization) and a simple love story. It is easily the best told tale of the festival so far.
Jacob is a 24 year-old nighttime security guard at an office building. He’s pale, skinny and a fairly blank slate. His “skin condition” has forced him out of the sun since he was quite young and his apartment is sealed tightly from any external shafts of light. However, he seems to be undergoing even more health issues of late – though he eats everything in sight, he simply can no longer satiate his hunger. His sallow complexion is of concern to his doctor until one day Jacob stumbles on draining the juice from a raw meat package. He immediately notices how his system reacts to the red liquid and starts making regular visits to a local butcher for containers of animal blood (which he sneaks into work inside his coffee thermos). It’s yet another stumbling block on the road of life for Jacob and things become even more complicated when he meets Mary. She has her own problems (dead-end jobs and a blossoming coke habit), but the two have an easy rapport upon their first meeting. On their first date, they don’t even leave the apartment as Mary jumps him after stealing a rather large snort in the bathroom. This results in a nasty nose bleed that trickles into Jacob’s mouth and an even more intense realization from his body about what he really needs – human blood. Now the real challenge begins for Jacob.
The biblical names of the characters are obviously not chosen by accident (though the commonality of “Jacob” with the Twilight films is – director Leberecht mentioned that he began the script before “Twilight” was a known entity) and Jacob indeed meets many personal struggles. Though he initially finds a possible source of human blood at the back of a local hospital in the guise of an orderly, he finds that it will be at the expense of others. His job is at risk due not only to his health but because his temper and inability to control a new strength may get him in trouble. He also worries that he may have killed a woman in the parking lot outside his office building, but he can’t quite remember. Most frustratingly perhaps, is the inability for he and Mary to actually make it through a lovemaking session as his vampiric tendencies keep trying to take over. To help ground the story in a “possible” reality, Leberecht has made an excellent decision to limit the vampire characteristics to two basic elements: need for human blood and aversion to sunshine. However, the strongest part of the film is the relationship between Jacob and Mary. They converse easily and the attraction between them is wholly believable. The dialogue feels natural and helps to create characters that keep you engaged. The performances by both Zak Kilberg and Maya Parish are exceptional and they carry every moment of the story. The whole cast though – from veteran Tracey Walter to relatively young newcomer Arlen Escarpeta – is superb, so credit must land with Leberecht as well in preserving the proper tone across a story that could easily fall into using standard genre tropes.
If there are any issues with the film, they are mostly minor. A somewhat flat look to the picture occasionally dilutes the otherwise quite beautifully lensed and composed images. As well, there are several plot points that seem somewhat forced or perhaps a tad too convenient. To nitpick is to miss the point though – this is a character based story whose theme of overcoming loneliness by being true to yourself makes use of familiar genre elements. Movies like Midnight Son ensure that the myth of vampires will be as eternal as Dracula himself.
Thursday 20 October 2011
Toronto After Dark 2011 (the 6th edition of the festival) starts today and its the biggest festival yet. 18 films (with the opening film "Monster Brawl" getting two screenings on opening night) and a raft of shorts over the next 8 days easily makes it the largest in TAD history. But will it be the best.
I'll admit, even though this is my favourite fest of the year (the audience is a blast, I've made oodles of friends and each fest brings in a couple of films that usually make my top 10 for the year), I was a TAD concerned when the initial 8 films were announced...The zombie films looked a bit uninspired, there was a post-apocalyptic film, a sci-fi anime on its way to DVD, a Troma film (my unabashed hatred of their "Mother's Day" certainly doesn't put me in the mood for the screening of "Father's Day") and the opener looked, well, flat. However, by the time a few friends talked me down off the ledge and the remaining films were announced, I was primed, excited and ready for the fest. The anime film has several people quite excited, the Troma film is apparently not at all like "Mother's Day" and the festival always allows for fun to be had. So, to sum up, I'm just as psyched for the festival to start as I always am. Maybe more.
Here's a few of my top picks from the full lineup:
The Innkeepers (Ti West)
I swear, I don't even really know what the movie is about and it's number one on my list (I had even expressed hope before the lineup was announced that it would be included). West's previous film was the wonderful "House Of The Devil" that took the slow and steady tension builds of the 70s and rode them all the way through a rather silly (though still kinda fun) ending. The very, very end of the film also harked back to some of the bleeker 70s films, so I'm very much on board with whatever he does next. Early reviews from other festivals have been very strong, so this sounds like a great way to close the festival (screens on Thursday Oct. 27th at 9:45PM).
The Woman (Lucky McKee)
Most people will have heard about this film due to some ruckus (still not sure if it was genuine or not) that it caused at Sundance. My interest, once again, stems from the director - McKee's "May" was one of the more original horrors from a few years ago and if nothing from him since has quite matched it, everything has something of interest and usually with an unsettling tone that keeps you engaged (screens on Thursday Oct. 27th at 7:00PM).
The Corridor (Evan Kelly)
OK, a cabin in the woods movie at this stage shouldn't get me too excited, but when the words "palpable dread" are used to describe it, I can't help myself. Also, it's a Canadian film and I'm coming off of the Toronto International Film Festival with a renewed strong opinion of what my country has been releasing of late (screens on Wednesday Oct. 26th at 7:00PM).
A Lonely Place To Die (Julian Gibley)
I'm going on the strength of word of mouth for this one - just about anybody I talked to who went to ActionFest in North Caroline earlier this year has blathered almost rhapsodically about how fantastic this thriller is. You could see how intense a movie about cliff climbers being the targets of deadly snipers might be, so count me in (screens on Monday Oct. 24th at 9:45PM).
Absentia (Mike Flanagan)
OK, on the surface this looks a bit like any other recent Hollywood supernatural ghost story, but I've every reason to believe that it will separate itself from that lackluster pack. For one thing, as a low-budget independent, there's ample room to avoid the pitfalls and hopefully be creative with how they will bring some atmosphere to the tale. Also, some early reviews mention that it suffers none of the stereotypes or poor acting that many of its cousins do (screens on Monday Oct. 24th at 7:00PM).
The Theatre Bizarre (Tom Savini, Richard Stanley, Douglas Buck, Karim Hussain, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Jeremy Kasten)
I can't help it - I really enjoy anthology movies. I should have no reason to think that this particular one will match the quality of the old Hammer and Amicus vehicles or even some of the mid-70s one off films, but there's almost always a few good ideas and memorable moments (come on, who can forget the tiny evil doll from "Trilogy Of Terror"?) so I remain hopeful (screens on Sunday Oct. 23rd at 7:00PM).
Love (William Eubanks)
On the opposite end of indie horror, sometimes indie sci-fi can be a dangerous place to lurk - if they can manage to refrain from attempting too many special effects, they typically (in my experience) get derailed by the "big" ideas and can't find their way to a point. It's entirely possible that "Love" may suffer a similar fate, but the story has enough to make it worth the effort to find out: its main protagonist is left all alone on a space station when humanity is destroyed on Earth and while he begins to adjust to a long, lonely life ahead, he finds a secret that may change all his previous ideas about what exactly life is. OK, I'm intrigued (screens on Sunday Oct. 23rd at 4:00PM).
I'm betting that there will be some gems in the rest of the field as well. If not, it's almost as much fun discussing where things went wrong in the Pub After Dark. Though the festival shifts to the Toronto Underground this year (while the beloved Bloor Cinema gets some renovations), it won't impact the eagerness of the crowd to have fun. If it does, Manborg will set them straight...