I feel like I've remarked "strange year" before just about every major event since 2020. At last year's TIFF, I reflected on returning to an in-person festival after the strangeness of remote. This time, a festival still recovering from an ongoing pandemic faced strikes limiting the attendance of writers and actors and blanketing the event in a palpable tone difficult to name. This year was different, for sure, but maybe "different" makes each year the same. I'll spare you a leafing through ancient philosophers' takes on the concept of "change."
Despite the presumed hiccups, I was excited to roll into this year's festival. Things being on a bit steadier ground meant that many international press pals would be in attendance this year. This meant the joy of running into those you just recognize from a profile photo or the ones you only see the odd time you travel to the same festival. Waiting outside theaters to see a familiar face framed by a purple lanyard with whom to discuss, "What did you think of Dream Scenario?"
Dream Scenario, the Nicolas Cage-led flick from Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself), isn't horror, per se, but it intentionally dances with the genre. Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a professor who loses complete control of his reputation when he shows up in people's dreams. Like the world's meekest Freddy Krueger, Paul is, at first, an oddity in dreams until he becomes a haunt, murdering people in dream sequences. The film shares cinematographer Benjamin Loeb with Mandy and After Yang, which tracks when you're whisked away by how the dreamlike scenes blend with those based in reality. It played as part of the "Platform" program but came with reminders of its horror adjacency, produced by Ari Aster and introduced by the Midnight Madness programmer. Its interesting themes of celebrity and meme culture made Cage a natural fit, and its back half spin on the themes made for robust theater crowd banter.
My first midnight screening of the fest came by way of Moritz Mohr's Boy Kills World. Bill Skarsgård leads as the titular boy in this gruesome action movie reminiscent of graphic novels and video games. Genre faves like Jessica Rothe, Andrew Koji, Yayan Ruhian, and Famke Janssen all show up in time to get coated in blood, the whole feature being a messy riot of kicking, punching, and exuberant delivery by the dynamic Skarsgård. Of the bunch, this stood out as the most "midnighter" of them all, which then made sense to have it framed by beach balls bouncing around the audience, cheers, and macarons handed to us on the way out (you'll understand when you see it).
It's an interesting companion to the fest's other kick-punch movie, Kill, an Indian flick from Nikhil Nagesh Bhat. This one takes place on a train and utilizes a dynamic train car to house different scenes with changing geography. The setup is mostly simple: some baddies invade a train that happens to be transporting some powerful people and some ex-military, and thus violence ensues. The pitch is probably "John Wick meets Snowpiercer," but it's much more stripped than that, mostly focusing on its two-part collection of fight scenes, the second half tinted much darker red. Also, the second half has some brains.
But then there was also the truer horror of the program, which came by way of When Evil Lurks. Demián Rugna, the man who brought us Terrified (and a segment in Satanic Hispanics), has created this haunting follow-up filled with the expected amount of his signature horrific tableaus. Much like his last feature, the suggestions of a spreading evil are ever present via terrifying scenes that will have you begging the characters to change course.
Another haunt came in the form of Jason Yu's Sleep. As a of Bong Joon Ho, Yu referred to his protégé's work as "the most unique horror film and the smartest debut film I've seen in 10 years." Sleep answers the call for those looking for a spin on the escalating spook. It centers on a young married couple who experience strange bumps in the night caused by the husband's sleepwalking. When the late-night behavior turns violent, he and his wife turn to any remedy with promise, his wife suspecting more supernatural causes when the scientific answers yield no results. Sleep is the most interesting when it explores how the stresses of career, young parenthood, and a thin-walled apartment that strips them of privacy could lead to ailments that might cause odd nocturnal behavior. It's the scariest when it wonders if those are the real causes.
Sitting between the riotous violent films and the spookiest haunts is Hell of a Summer, a debut from the young Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk. The two whippersnappers, the former of Stranger Things and It fame, brought their first feature to the fest— a knowing horror comedy about a summer camp slasher. The pair seems inspired by the likes of not just Friday the 13th and other camp slashers but also Scream with their in-jokes and killer identity twists. The star of the show is Bryk's comedic timing; he gets the most laughs, with the cast introductions getting the most audience cheers.
And so another TIFF came to an end. All that's left of it is some swag sunglasses, a QR code for an upcoming Boy Kills World mobile game, and some new online connections with whom to continue to banter about which films we insist our friends see "when they eventually come out." That and the lingering fear of what evils might be lurking in the corner of my room.