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Some years are turning points, and for the
Toronto After Dark Film Festival, 2011 may be the year they created the
template for how to do things right. This is not to insinuate that the previous
editions have not been terrific, but this year, for a number of different
reasons, they staged their best event yet. Not bad for a festival created by
fans (and for fans).
I remember, over six years ago, running
into festival founder/director Adam Lopez at every event and preview screening
in town, eager to talk and promote his new fest that would be taking place that
October. I wished him luck, but wondered if, with Fan Expo and the Toronto Film
Festival’s Midnight Madness program, there was room in this city for yet
another genre-film showcase. I attended a screening of that year’s headliner,
BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON, and the near-capacity crowd at the
Bloor Cinema told me the answer was a resounding yes.
Just two years later, in 2008, there was
the triple-shot coup of landing LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, TOKYO GORE POLICE and
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA. Now the fest was dealing with films that sold out the
venue, with lines coiling around the block. The next year, the decision was
made to move the date to mid-August, perhaps hoping to attract more
vacationers. Last year’s lineup, which containing some great films, featured
THE LAST EXORCISM and the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE—movies that already
had major distribution and release dates soon after the fest. Also, they closed
with THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, a film rapidly becoming part of pop culture. One had
to ask if this was a new direction for the festival, that it was moving toward
TIFF territory. Even before this year’s titles were announced, some fans were
anticipating HUMAN CENTIPEDE II or [REC] 3.
But for 2011, a number of decisions allowed
TADFF to find the perfect mix. First, it moved back to October, which makes
sense because, honestly, horror belongs to October. Second, the festival moved
from its previous home at the Bloor to its new home, The Toronto Underground
Cinema. The TADFF and the Underground fit like a prefect couple. Both are
young, run by fans and share a more organic rock ’n’ roll energy. Finally, the
programming staff stayed away from the glam and found a group of films
representing diversity, but also new ideas, energy and passion. In general,
2011 has been an encouraging year for horror, and TADFF’s 2011 slate reflected
The first two came from Foresight Features,
founded by director/producers Jesse T. Cook and John Geddes. Their company
operates out of Collingwood, Ontario—a small skiing resort town a few hours
northwest of Toronto—and debuted with SCARCE in 2008. TADFF’s opening-night
gala was MONSTER BRAWL, directed by Cook, followed by Geddes’ EXIT HUMANITY,
and for both nights, there was the buzz of both a sold-out crowd and a
homecoming reunion. Befitting BRAWL’s wrestling theme, the producers staged a “work”
wherein a bad-guy wrestler type trash-talked the fest, the crowd and the film
before being put in his place by the huge Robert Maillet (300, SHERLOCK HOLMES)
and legendary wrestling manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, both of whom
to star in the film.
MONSTER BRAWL is not structured not as a
narrative but like a wrestling pay-per-view event. In this case, the combatants
are classic horror creatures, including zombies, a vampire woman, a cyclops, a
swamp thing, a witch, a werewolf and Frankenstein (or, as the film says, “Frankenstein’s
monster, if you want to be a dick about it”). Hart plays himself, while
veterans Dave Foley and Art Hindle have a good ol’ time hamming it up as the
play-by-play man and color commentator, respectively. There is even “voice of
God” narration courtesy of Lance Henriksen.
One’s enjoyment of the film depends on one’s
appreciation for pro wrestling circa the 1980s and ’90s. All the details are
there, from the between-bout sketches and promo interviews to foreign objects
and manager interference. Hindle and Foley are a riot, as are the non-sequiturs
from Henriksen throughout the matches. Try not to bust a gut when he intones
the phrase “witch bitch.” I, for one, had a hoot.
After the screening, I teamed up with
fellow Fango contributor Kelly Stewart to help shoot his festival video diary
(check it out here).
As a childhood wrestling fan, it was thrilling for me to meet Hart, one of the
sport’s greatest characters. Surprisingly, he still looks the same as he did in
his WWE heyday two decades ago! He was also disarmingly kind, and the other
filmmakers talked of his dedication to the film and his lack of ego. Of course,
we spent a lot of time talking to the Foresight guys, but more on that later.
Next up was EXIT HUMANITY, which tells the
saga of Edward Young (Mark Gibson), a Civil War soldier trying to find his way
home at the end of the conflict who finds himself dealing with a zombie
uprising. He nearly gives up after a devastating tragedy occurs, but battles
on, teaming up with another sodlier, Isaac (Adam Seybold), his sister and a
woman who may or may not be a witch (Dee Wallace). They must contend with a
power-mad general (Bill Moseley) and his cronies, which include an extremely
drunk mad doctor (Stephen McHattie from A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and PONTYPOOL).
The general and his crew insist they have found the cure to the undead
epidemic—and need lots of guinea pigs to be sure. Eventually, things come to a
EXIT HUMANITY is not the genre mashup that MONSTER
BRAWL is. It is after bigger fish. As any George A. Romero fan will tell you,
the great zombie films are not about the zombies, but what they represent and
the stories they are involved in. In this case, the ghouls illuminate a tale of
widespread trauma, massive inhumanity to man, insanity, large-scale death and
personal loss in the wake of the Civil War. Zombie tales are usually
apocalyptic or rock ’n’ roll, but this one deserves kudos for striking a tone
of melancholy followed finally by healing. It’s a serious film, and may lose
some along the way.
Often when filmmakers are so ambitious,
they don’t always succeed at everything. EXIT HUMANITY felt especially loud to
me; it’s possible that the theater cranked the sound that night, perhaps at the
insistence of Geddes, who complained to me the night before about the audio.
Still, I felt the film pushed too hard in this department: The score drones
nonstop throughout the film, as does Brian Cox’s narration, and often, the two
drown each other out. Considering the film’s tone, it could afford to be
quieter and more subtle instead of beating us over the head. The movie also has
pacing problems; at nearly two hours, it drags for extended periods, and sags
where it should surge.
In the end, though, I think the film brings
it back home, and its strengths, in the end, need to celebrated. Gibson is
called upon to carry the show by himself for the first third, discovering the
undead and wallowing in his madness and tragedy. This is a huge challenge for
an actor, and Gibson’s work is harrowing and believable. The film is
beautifully shot, appropriate to its epic scale, and nails the challenge of
shooting effectively in the dark. Oh, and did I mention the hand-drawn animation
sequences? Geddes has made an original, risky, gorgeous and affecting movie,
and should be commended.
After the screening, Kelly and I got to
interview the still perky and pretty Wallace, who was full of energy, humor and
pride in the film. Interviewing such a genre icon is cool, but the story of the
night was the Foresight team. These guys are basically a group of friends from
a small town who used the resources available to them, fund-raised and made two
movies that are original, entertaining and feature experienced, well-known
actors alongside talented newcomers. Neither film looks low-budget, both
evincing that Romero-esque talent for making small-budget films look like they
cost ten times as much. Besides Geddes and Cook, mention should also be made of
Jason David Brown, who not only plays three characters in MONSTER BRAWL but
built the astounding and impressively detailed sets for both films!
Finishing up Friday night was the world
premiere of FATHER’S DAY, from the Winnipeg-based collective Astron-6. These
guys specialize in making 10-minute shorts that ape 1980s VHS genre fodder, the
kind of films with no stars that take up space at the bottom of delete bins and
fire sales. This year, these twisted minds moved on to actual features
(another, MANBORG, also screened at the fest). FATHER’S DAY’s plot is set in
motion by a heavy-set killer named Chris Fuchman (the “ch” pronounced with a
hard k sound—yeah, you get it), who rapes, murders and eats fathers. This
causes Father O’Flynn, whose blind eyes glow bright white, to call upon the
vigilante Ahab to track him down. The one-eyed Ahab hooks up with his insanely
hot stripper sister, a young priest and a street hustler named Twink—whose
father was killed by Fuchman—and together, the quartet seek vengeance. The film
bathes in nudity, gratuitous violence, incest and genital mutilation like an
alcoholic set free in a brewery.
With its washed-out look, wonky sound,
synth score and grindhouse/VHS references, the film seems to be a close
cinematic cousin to HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. There are a few differences: HOBO
plays it completely straight and takes its characters seriously, trying to be
the best grindhouse film of all time, while FATHER’S DAY becomes more and more
comic as the film goes. It is a Troma film, after all, and has that company’s
quirk where the characters are in on the joke they’re playing. Depending on
where you stand on Troma, this will be either hilarious or annoying. Also,
there is the case of the last act: Just when you think the film is over, it
goes on for another 20 minutes so, taking a deep left turn off the tracks. I
actually checked my soda to see if it had been laced, asking myself, “Is this
happening? Am I actually watching this shit?” The movie becomes a surreal fever
dream that leaves over-the-top in the dust. From here, it’s less HOBO and more
like the odd and madcap TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB!
My theory is that the Astron-6 filmmakers
were wrapping up FATHER’S DAY when HOBO was released, and, realizing there was
another film with similar tone and influences, added a third act all their own.
Yet whether it be through the number of successful laughs it weans from the
many it tries or the audacity of its style and outrageousness, FATHER’S DAY wins
over viewers in spite of themselves through sheer will. No other film at
Toronto After Dark works as hard to keep you entertained and amused every
minute of its existence.
The highlight of Saturday was DEADHEADS,
directed and written by two of Michigan’s favorite sons, the Pierce Brothers.
(Michigan inside joke: I told actor Markus Taylor my father is from Michigan.
He showed me the places they shot by pointing at the back of his hand, as it is
a reasonable facsimile of a state map. That’s a hardcore Michigan thing to do.)
The film is basically a buddy/road-trip comedy about two new friends, Mike and
Brent, who travel cross-country so that Mike can tell his ex how he feels about
her. By the way, Mike and Brent are zombies. They walk and talk and think just
fine as they escape a recently quashed undead uprising and try to stay
inconspicuous during their quest. Government interference and hilarity ensue.
Michael McKiddy and Ross Kidder have fine chemistry as the straight man (Mike)
and wild joker (Brent), and Taylor as the lovable monosyllabic ghoul Cheese
bids to be this generation’s Bub.
Someone once commented that horror and
comedy are deceptively hard genres to get right, yet everybody thinks it looks
easy. The trick is being a little original and finding the right balance of
character and feeling. DEADHEADS succeeds in this regard; it has an overall
light tone but plays the right notes, being ridiculous and poignant at all the
appropriate moments. In a genre that has been done beyond death, this film has
a fresh take and deserves an audience.
On Tuesday, there was the highly
anticipated THE DIVIDE, an apocalyptic thriller from FRONTIER(S) director
Xavier Gens. (Fun fact: This is one of three fest films to be shot in
Winnipeg!) It tells the story of a group of survivors holed up in the basement
of a high-rise apartment in the wake of a citywide bombing. Among them are the
intense and crusty super (Michael Biehn), a trio of brothers (Ashton Holmes,
Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Eklund), a young couple (Ivan Gonzalez and Lauren
German) and a 40ish mother (Rosanna Arquette) with her child. It’s fairly
predictable that things break down pretty quickly; the idea of societal
collapse in the face of disaster is a pretty old chestnut going back to LORD OF
THE FLIES. What gives this film its juice, besides the uniformly excellent
ensemble cast, is the detail and ambiguity of its protagonists. The film is
chock full of subtle surprises. Nothing is completely explained, and the viewer
is left to fill in the blanks of what happened before and what is going on
inside the characters’ heads. Also, the film allows the passage of time to
become a factor. It may not be power games and lack of consequences that causes
some of these folks to go mad, but boredom, cabin fever and hopelessness. This
was my personal favorite of the six films I saw at the fest.
As stated before, the acting is topnotch.
It’s a given that Biehn will do outstanding work, and you’re never sure about
his character, as he is at once menacing, volatile, dangerous and heroic. In
post-screening interviews, Biehn hailed THE DIVIDE as the most satisfying
acting experience of his career, and praised Gens for creating a collaborative
atmosphere among the actors. His work here belies a lot of character study.
Arquette may have one of the most grueling roles and attacks it fearlessly,
reminding me of an older version of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s part in LAST EXIT TO
BROOKLYN. The film is also a game-changer for HEROES star Ventimiglia and
Eklund, whose work here is shattering, giving us glimpses of the darkest
corners of the psyche. Eklund, in particular, walks a tightrope of madness like
few I have seen in recent years, burning a hole in the screen while giving his
nutbar a touch of sadness and self-loathing.
As a reporter covering the festival, it was
thrilling to interview Biehn, who is something of a genre god, having been
prominent in James Cameron’s three best films and nearly walking away with
TOMBSTONE—no easy feat. Biehn seemed a little tired, yet was gracious with his
time and answers.
That speaks for many artists who came out
to the festival. It wasn’t about star turns and red carpets, nor about
promoting the horror lifestyle. It was about the thrill of the filmmaking and
the stories themselves, the pride in the work and the sheer joy of watching the
films with an audience. It was a bit of a fanboy dream to interview Hart,
Wallace and Biehn, though my lasting impression for TADFF 2011 is of the
artists I met who were just breaking through. I think about the Foresight guys,
a bunch of friends putting Collingwood on the genre map. Or Ventimiglia and
Eklund giving the performances of their careers. Or DEADHEADS co-director Brett
Pierce, so thrilled at the festival experience and the reception his film was
getting, and me learning that he shot the film on breaks from his day job at
Barnes & Noble. When I approached the DEADHEADS crew to say I was here to
interview them for FANGORIA, their excitement made me feel like a star.
Like Pierce, I don’t cover fests for a
living (yet). Life commitments and a day job, as well as eventual lack of
physical stamina, got in the way of seeing all the films I wanted to, so I
missed seeing intriguing and exciting new movies like THE THEATRE BIZARRE, VS,
THE WOMAN and THE INNKEEPERS. Yet any person’s experience of any festival is a
bit like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. Add to the choices the Pub
After Dark parties open to the public after the screenings; they’ve been going
on since the fest’s beginning, but this year saw, for the first time, almost
all of the filmmakers and some of the actors making the trip. So you too could
have been having drinks and rubbing shoulders with any of the folks discussed
above. The festival really hit home this year, delivering its promise to itself
to emphasize a diverse lineup, a love of the genre and fan accessibility. In my
past Septembers, I have run into filmgoers from TIFF who have come from far
around to make a vacation out of the film festival. With 2011, Toronto After
Dark has found its groove and is worth the travel. Toronto After Dark 2012
takes place October 18-26, 2012. Make your travel plans accordingly.
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