TORONTO AFTER DARK: THE WRAP-UP

And so, another Toronto After Dark Film Festival has come and gone. Celebrating ten years of genre cinema, both homegrown and international, it’s safe to say this was probably one of the festival’s most successful years with multiple “sold outs” screenings across the board.

Personally, I didn’t get to see as many films as I had hoped, so for those who were able to make it out each and every night… you have my respect and envy. But I saw enough of After Dark’s offerings ( including the opening gala, TALES OF HALLOWEEN, which was reviewed right here ) that it warrants some thoughts and opinions for public consumption. So let’s take a look, shall we?

the_hallow_posterTHE HALLOW: Synopsis – “After a young family move from the big city to a peaceful Irish woodland cottage they find themselves in a desperate fight for survival in a prolonged confrontation with some vicious creatures lurking in the forest.

Beautifully shot, with the visual aesthetic of the darkest of fairy tales, THE HALLOW is a masterclass in building tension. A slow-and steady escalation towards intense confrontation between the family and the long-time residents of the dark and foreboding winds that makes up the last half of the film, which kicks into “siege mode” hard and fast. It also works because the supernatural elements are contrasted with primal, universal fears – children in peril (and the parental fear of failing to protect them), isolation in foreign territory and the disintegration of the family unit – grounding the story and its characters in the real world. Great performances by Joseph Mawle & Bojana Novakovic, as the besieged couple & newly-minted parents, also anchor the film as truly sympathetic characters in a very-bad situation.  Then there are also the creatures of The Hallow and dear lord, they are glorious! As with any creature feature, the stand-or-fall ratio depends on how the monsters come across, and THE HALLOW succeeds – no, exceeds – those expectations. Created through practical effects and designed by concept designer, Ivan Manzella (Prometheus, Edge Of Tomorrow), the “Fair Folke” are equal parts folkloric menace and bio-eco horror, rendered with old-school mastery and shot beautifully. They are menacing, nightmarish and wholly original.

This is director Corin Hardy’s debut behind the camera, and if it’s any indication of what to expect, Hardy’s got a very bright (or dark – depending on your penchant for horror-film analogies) future ahead. Directed with confidence, shot beautifully and expertly paced, THE HALLOW deserves to be seen in wide relase, as it puts most mainstream horror output to shame. Endorsed with the highest and most enthusiatic of recommendations.

Christmas-Horror-Story-poster-newCHRISTMAS HORROR STORY: Synopsis – “Yule-themed horror tale about all hell breaking loose in the small town of Bailey Downs on Christmas Eve, including Santa having to fight off an outbreak of zombie elves!”

The second of this year’s “holiday anthologies”, CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY takes the polar end of the holiday spectrum, with four stories set in the Yuletide season. Strangely enough, it’s also the darker of the two. Where TALES has been called by some a “GOOSEBUMPS for adults” (and I only wish I had come up with the analogy myself), CHRISTMAS has much more in common with the black-and-white pulp terrors of Warren Publishing’s pulp CREEPY and EERIE magazines: it’s got a bit of a mean streak to it, albeit a delightful one.

CHRISTMAS relates the events that occur one Christmas night in the small burg of Bailey Downs (ten bonus points for the CanCon horror fan who recognizes that name – for everyone else, Google it ). Four separate stories, joined together a “host” of sorts in the form of William Shatner as the town’s local DJ, the episodes range from a haunting in the local private school, a family outing for a Christmas Tree that yields much more – and worse , a family stalked by the season’s vengeful “anti-Claus”, Krampus and Santa Claus fending off an elf-zombie apocalypse at the North Pole. Each installment would work incredibly well on its own, with the “Christmas Tree” and “Santa” episodes being especially noteworthy, despite being on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. “Tree” is a dark, slow-building piece that surprisingly shares much in common with the above-mentioned THE HALLOW, bleniding family drama and folkloric horror. “Santa” is a giddily violent riot, with Ol’ St. Nick laying the smackdown on the foul-mouthed, flesh-hungry elves in a Raimiesque splatstick extravaganza. While the stories are joined by the most threadbare of narrative threads – a character here, a reference there – the crossover was, according to the filmmakers, a matter of fiscal neccesity rather than a creative choice. Which makes it all the more amazing when it all comes together in the film’s climactic confrontation between… you know what? I’ve said too much already. Let me leave it at this: it takes a lot to surprise me. This one had me literally clapping out loud.  A lot of fun, and a worthy add to your holiday movie collection

TheHollowOne_Poster_2_newTHE HOLLOW ONE: Synopsis – “an artifact unleashes a demonic force upon the people of a small farm town. With most of the townspeople possessed, two young sisters find themselves in a race against time to try and stop the sinister force before its evil purpose is achieved.”

Another directorial debut, this time by Nathan Hendrickson, THE HOLLOW ONE is an ambitious blend of rural family drama and grand cosmic horror. While many have already made comparisons to Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER, most notably for the puzzle-like apparatus at the heart of the story that summons the titular evil, the film owes a much stronger debt to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Nigel Keane (who also inspired John Carpenter’s brilliant metaphysical horror masterpiece, PRINCE OF DARKNESS). The Hollow One itself is a truly alien being of ancient age and unfathomable purposes, and placing such an unknowable force in the American heartland gives the film an eerie and original feel. It’s also one of the more visually interesting movie monsters to appear in a very long time, which always gets a win in my books. Performances are good, tension is consistently raised and although the film occasionally trips itself up in the “otherwise smart characters making really bad decisions” trap, it’s a minor quibble. Despite its low-budget and related production values, THE HOLLOW ONE has ambition to spare, with the hints of a much greater and expanisve mythology lurking in the background and that’s rare in this day and age with so many low-budget filmmakers trying to break in with “Zombie Apocalypse Movie #342”. At the post-screening Q&A, Hendrickson hinted that he would like to tell more stories in the universe he’s built for this first film.  Here’s hoping that comes to fruition, as THE HOLLOW ONE shows incredible potential, both for its director and its future as an expanding mythos.

backtrack-posterBACKTRACK: Synopsis – “After a series of unnerving ghostly encounters in the city, a troubled psychotherapist returns to his rural home town to try and solve the dark mysteries that date back to his childhood.”

Of all the films I caught this year, the Australian host story/murder mystery BACKTRACK was the most underwhelming of the bunch. Shame, really, because all the moving parts work just fine. It’s a good-looking film, with atmosphere and shadow aplenty. We have great work from Adrian Brody ( as the film’s haunted protagonist, who also pulls of an impeccable Australian accent) and Robin McLeavy (in a complete 180 from her work as the psychotic Lola in THE LOVED ONES, as a local cop drawn into Brody’s hunt for answers). We have well-played out scares, of both the slow-and-creepy and “jump scare” varieties. There’s really no reason this shouldn’t have worked.

It’s just that we’ve seen this story before, most notably in WHAT LIES BENEATH and (my personal favourite) STIR OF ECHOES: a person, haunted by the past, is chosen by vengeful/wronged/lost spirits to undertake a mission of redemption/forgiveness/revenge. The plot twists and turns to keep you guessing, but even those convoluted contrivances and red herrings only end up leading us to familiar territory. While the route may be different, the destination is all too familiar.

It’s not horrible nor exceptional. In the end, BACKTRACK rests in the grey zone of “passable entertainment” and will probably find its audience with those looking for a good night out for some chills and thrills. For the more seasoned horror/suspense moviegoer, though, it’s deja-vu all over again..

Patchwork PosterPATCHWORK: Synopsis – “ A re-animated corpse, made from the stitched together body parts of three murdered young women. On waking after the operation, The Creature decides to go on a quest to find the girls’ killer and avenge their deaths with both bloody and darkly humorous results.”

If there’s a “Sleeper Hit” award for After Dark, PATCHWORK wins it, hands-down. With less visibility or advance buzz than some of the fest’s “big ticket” films, I had zero expectations or preconceptions going in. And I loved it. A violent, laugh-out-loud funny and very bold feminist take on Frankenstein, PATCHWORK delivers a consistently funny script, a cast of incredibly gifted actors with great comic timing and a hit-list of gore gags across the board. Once the three victims learn how to work their new body together, they go on a killing spree that takes out every man who ever done them wrong – and may have done them in. Ex-boyfriends, date-rapey fratboys, etc. – all gruesomely and humorously eliminated by the three-in-one avenging angel.

Much of the film’s success lies in the chemistry between its three female leads, only seen onscreen together in their “hive-mind” pow-wows – an accidental shared consciousness created by making one body out of their three corpses. Tory Stolper (strait-laced Jennifer) , Tracey Fairaway (party girl Renee)  and Maria Blasucci (mousey loner Madeline)  are all exceptionally talented and create a great dynamic together ( I overheard someone else at the screening call it the horror version of Pixar’s INSIDE OUT, and I’m using it here because dear God, it’s SO spot-on).  It’s Stolper, though, as the physical “body” itself who merits special attention with her brilliant physical comedy and timing, especially in the early stages of their “awakening”. Evolving from spastic and twitchy shambling corpse to confident and swaggering engine of destruction, Stolper’s performance has been compared to Bruce Campbell‘s splatstick brilliance in EVIL DEAD 2. And that’s high and accurate praise indeed. Also features a fun, understated performance by James Phelps (One half of HARRY POTTER’s Weasely Twins), a med grad student who becomes The Creature’s makeshift medic and unwitting love interest ( their sex scene – funny, gory and necrophiliac as all get-out –  is one of the film’s absurdly brilliant highlights.).

I have yet to see an announcement for PATCHWORK’s release, theatrical or otherwise, but it is still touring on the festival circuit.  Here’s hoping there’s news soon, as it’s a clever, smartly-written and flat-out funny flick that deserves a bigger following.

deathgasm_ver2_xxlgDEATHGASM:  Synopsis – “a group of metalhead outcasts unwittingly unleash a horde of vicious demons upon their sleepy suburban neighbourhood. To win back the town they face an epic duel of blood, music and metal with Satan’s hordes!

And here we are, the closing gala and the final film of After Dark 2015. Did they save the best for last? By and large, yes. Yes, they did. I’m sure you’ve read other reviews on the big horror websites. I’m sure you’ve seen the gushing praise on social media.

And it’s all warranted. Every last word.

DEATHGASM is a flat-out, balls to the wall gorefest, with outrageous kills, crackerjack pacing and zero f*cks to give about social acceptability. Death by dildo, blood-farts, castration by Weed-Whacker, decapitations, two-fisted chainsaw combat… all lovingly rendered in a gleefully cartoonish manner that will bring back fond memories of DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAIN DEAD) for folks in my age bracket. It’s also incredibly funny, and kind of sweet, with the heavy metal bromance between best friends Brodie (Milo Cawthorne, with more than a passing resemblance to Jason Mewes) and Zakk (James Blake, equal parts Heath Ledger and Glenn Danzig) at the heart of the film. It’s Kimberly Crossmah, as high school object of affection and burgeoning metalhead, Medina, who steals the show. Medina is smart, quick with an axe and even quicker with her wit, as she gets in some of the best lines in the film. Growing up as a horror and metal fan in my teenage years, DEATHGASM is the kind of film 16-year old me would have given a limb or eyeball to see. And it’s totally been worth the wait.

Director Jason Lei Howard knocks it out of the park with his first film the very definition of “crowd-pleaser”, endorsed by the enthusiastic laughter and roars of approval at the film’s most spectacular gore gags from Friday night’s audience. A truly good time and a fitting closer for one of Toronto’s longest-lasting (and rowdiest) film festivals.

So there you have it: How I Spent My Time In The Dark. And it doesn’t even cover the films I WISHED I had seen, including NINA FOREVER and THE DEMOLISHER, all of which generated considerable heat from the festival’s crowd.
Perhaps next year, I’ll gain the reserves and the time to see absolutely everything. But for now, I’ll take my little victories where I can.

Congratulations, Toronto After Dark, on ten years of genre cinema love and continuing to grow as one of the best movie-going experiences the city has to offer. Long may you reign.

And now, rest. Until next time…

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