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“WHY HORROR?” (Toronto After Dark Review)

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Full disclosure: this writer is actually in — albeit briefly —Toronto journo and ardent horror fan Tal Zimerman’s new globe-trotting doc WHY HORROR? which might muddy my critical perception. Or not. The film, which is having its Canadian premiere at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival tonight (reportedly a sold out show, but you can try your last minute luck by storming the Scotiabank Theatre gates), sports a who’s who of terror’s most celebrated talking heads, from John Carpenter to George A. Romero to Alexandre Aja to Steve Niles, all collected in an on-camera investigation into why people watch horror films. 

Now, the cynic might say that the titular question is answered by the very presence of that veteran cast of characters. Why horror? Because it pays the bills. Because grossing people out or scaring them makes money and keeps them employed, ever-trading on their names and occasional box office hits to stay in the game. But Zimerman’s quest is anything but cynical, rather it’s charming and sincere. As directed by Nicolas Kleiman, Toronto-based Tal uses WHY HORROR? to first and foremost sate his own confusion as to why he personally adores all things cinematically sinister, especially considering his own gentle demeanor and newly minted fatherhood. It’s also the question that his peers have been putting to him since he was a little boy and, according to the doc’s opening narration, the time was right to make a film like this.

So with that, WHY HORROR? is first and foremost a personal journey, one that takes Zimerman around the world (á la Sam Dunn’s similarly first-person investigative doc METAL: A HEADBANGER’S JOURNEY and its sequel, GLOBAL METAL). So to actively criticize the film, would be to criticize its star. Thankfully, Zimerman comes off as engaging, an ideal guide into fan culture and a textbook example of the dichotomy between those who thrill to ultra-violence and yet, to quote a famous flick, otherwise “wouldn’t harm a fly.” With his heavy beard, frizzy, thinning hair and thick glasses, Zimerman has a signature visual presence (which lends itself to amusing sequences in which he’s an animated flash character) and makes him stand-out in the crowd while geeking out in international video stores, stuffing rare Japanese VHS into his carry-on luggage and knocking his knees in the presence of his horror heroes. He’s one of us, gooble-gobble, and his easy charm hooks you instantly.

As a documentary into the psychology of and culture surrounding the horror film, however, WHY HORROR? likely won’t alter hardcore fans’ perceptions or necessarily illuminate them any more than any special feature interview on an average Blu-ray does. Generally, those of us who have locked onto this stuff since childhood, either are already acutely aware of our reasons for digging weird movies or we simply don’t care, we just roll with it and let it affect us on a visceral, primal level. So WHY HORROR? works best on the surface as an entry point into the genre for those not already lifelong members of the creepy choir.

But, again, what makes WHY HORROR? truly appealing and unique as a film is Zimerman himself. This is his show all the way. The best parts of the picture see our guide hanging out in Toronto’s SUSPECT video with Toronto International Film Festival programmer Jesse Wente, Tal’s childhood friend and only youthful ally in their shared love of splatter, just remembering the trials and tribulations of being the token freaks and smut peddlers in their school. It’s hilarious and heart-warming stuff that I personally connected to. Even better, and most profound, are the ample scenes with Zimerman and his parents, especially his mom, who is a sonic boom of energy, sitting around remembering what a panic young Tal was (complete with clips of his bar mitzvah, in which the excited youth breathlessly raves about monster movies to his freaked out kin). The relationship between mother and son is heartwarming and often hilarious, especially in the sequence where the two subject themselves to a science experiment, a sort of “Ludivico” situation that monitors their brain waves when exposed to revolting imagery.

All in all WHY HORROR? is ambitious, lively and packed with film clips (literally all the good stuff shows up here). But really, Zimerman’s question is answered not by any filmmaker, game designer, artist or magazine editor on-screen, but rather by his own brood. Never discouraged in his love of all things odd, his family instead nurtured that passion, letting it grow within a safe environment, enabled primarily by a strong woman who understood the powers of the imagination in assuaging the real horrors that surround us daily and perhaps somewhat indulging her own secret interest in this junk via her beloved boy in the process. WHY HORROR, Tal? Just ask mom…

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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