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…

HORROR-RAMA TORONTO: The Post-Mortem

The past week or so has been a busy one, to say the least. On top of starting a new job (hooray for gainful employment), there’s also been a number of screenings at Toronto After Dark ( and yes, I will be sharing my thoughts on said films very soon. Honest ) . But first, let’s talk about the other genre gathering that just happened this weekend.

Let’s talk about Horror-Rama Toronto.

This was year two for the upstart horror convention, spearheaded by Shock Till You Drop’s new editor-in-chief, Chris Alexander, and Suspect Video‘s head honcho, Luis Ceriz, and it can be summed up succinctly: growth.

More space ( in downtown Toronto’s The Hyatt Regency ), more guests, more panels, more vendors… just more all around. A sizable leap from last year’s inaugural show, but keeping the cozy ambience. And it’s a nice change of pace. I’ve done my share of the larger conventions across Canada – on both sides of the curtains, as well – so to go to a con where socializing with fellow congoers with room to spare and no need for yelling… it’s actually very welcome.

There’s definitely more than enough room for the American-style “hotel con” here in Toronto, especially one that caters to a group that… let’s be honest… tends to get the sharp end of the bloody stick at the larger conventions.

I hope this year was a success. I hope it continues to grow with each year. And I know I’ll be back again next year.

For now, enjoy some photographic highlights from this year’s show. And thanks to Chris Alexander and Luis Ceriz for letting me play in the sandbox for the weekend.

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Three familiar faces, welcoming guests to the show. I swear I saw one of them move…

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Where wolf? There! There wolf!

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It was a rough weekend. Rougher for some more than others.

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So many vendors. SO many movies. Seriously, between VHS, DVD, rare import, there was literally something for every taste.

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MonsterMatt Patterson, artist and full-grown “monster kid”, selling his works at his table.

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Convention organizer and weekend MC, Chris Alexander holds court.

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George Mihalka, director of the Canadian slasher cult classic, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and all around awesome guy.

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Con guest, and horror icon, Michael Berryman meets a fan.

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Steve Niles, comic writer extraordinaire, with the book (fittingly so ) that put him on the map and revitalized the horror comics industry. That’s not hype, folks. That’s just science.

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Tristan Risk (AMERICAN MARY, THE EDITOR) with Holy Scar, up to no good at the booth…naturally.

Next time: Highlights and recommendations from the tenth annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Honest.

THE OCTOBER SOCIETY’S TALES OF HALLOWEEN (Toronto After Dark)

Thursday saw the launch of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, now celebrating its tenth year of highlighting the latest in cinematic genre fare. And if the filled-to-capacity gathering for last night’s opening gala is any indication, it looks like this might be one of their biggest years yet.

As such, it couldn’t be more fitting that the opening gala of this October institution was custom made for this holiday season. I’m talking about the Halloween-themed anthology, TALES OF HALLOWEEN. A loosely-connected (and I mean by the slimmest of threads) collection of stories set on one Halloween night, TALES was concocted by the filmmakers’ collective, deliciously dubbed The October Society, and spearheaded by producers/directors Mike Mendez and Axelle Carolyn.

Now, I feel it’s important to get this out of the way: there will be inevitable comparisons to Mike Dougherty‘s now-seasonal-perennial TRICK ‘R TREAT. Yes, both are anthologies set during All Hallows’ Eve, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Whereas TRICK was a singular vision connected through multiple plotlines written and directed by Dougherty, TALES has ten separate tales from ten different filmmakers, each one different in tone and style from each other, resulting in a much more eclectic mix.  The story parameters given to each director were simple and open-ended: one Halloween night in the suburbs, bad things happen.

Among my personal favourites? The list begins below:

TRICK (Adam Gierasch): two young couples are menaced by a gang of murderous trick-or-treaters. Clever, brutal with a sick and vicious punchline.

BAD SEED (Neil Marshall): A killer jack-o-lantern runs amuck, and it’s up to one tough cop to put an end to its rampage. What makes it work is how Marshall plays out this goofy concept with po-faced 80s B-movie straightness.

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GRIMM GRINNING GHOST (Axelle Carolyn): a pitch-perfect campfire ghost story. As an aside, Carolyn excels at this kind of slow-burn creepshow (watch her film, SOULMATE, to see what I mean) and GHOST mines a lot of tension in its short running time, ending with a satisfying (and spooky) payoff.

FRIDAY THE 31st (Mike Mendez): A flat-out gonzo slasher parody that evokes the early gore-splattered films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. One of the big crowd-pleasers with the After Dark audience, and with good reason. It’s bloody hilarious.

THE RANSOM OF RUSTY REX (Ryan Schifrin): a kidnapped trick-or-treater who’s not what he appears to be proves to be an unholy handful for his two kidnappers. A clever concept loosely based on the O. Henry story “The Ransom of Red Chief”, bolstered by the performances of Sam Witwer, Jose Cantillo and John Landis. Another winner with the opening night crowd.

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THE WEAK AND THE WICKED (Paul Solet): This one’s a little tougher to nail down. I’m going to call it an “urban supernatural western”. With teenagers. The real “wild card” of the bunch and, letting it stew since first seeing it, it’s becoming one of my favourites of the ten.

Which brings us to the film’s cast. Did I mention the cast? Because Sweet Baby Jeezus … it’s a who’s who of cult and genre cinema history including… *deep breath*… Barry Bostwick, Lin Shaye, Dana Gould, Tiffany Shepis, John Savage, Caroline Williams, Robert Rusler, Joe Dante, Adam Green, Adam Pascal,  Mick Garris,  Stuart Gordon, Barbara Crampton and Adrienne Barbeau.  And that’s just for starters.

Like I said, anthologies are a hit-and-miss kind of deal. Some stories stick it on the landing, some never get their footing. But with ten short blasts of horror crammed into ninety-or-so minutes, there’s bound to be something here for a wide array of tastes and preferences. Above all that, though, you can feel the love that went into making TALES (trite, I know, but hear me out). The cast of genre luminaries, the EC Comics vibe and the old-school practical effects make it more than just a fitting tribute to Halloween, but a love letter to (and from) the generation of monster kids – my generation -who grew up reading Fangoria and gathering with like-minded individuals for VHS-fueled horror movie marathons.

It’s also just a lot of fun. Probably the most fun I’ve had with a horror anthology since my young and unsullied eyes first took in CREEPSHOW all those years ago.  So here’s hoping this “October Society” thing becomes an annual deal. Because I would gladly support that.

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TALES OF HALLOWEEN is now available for your seasonal viewing on VOD, including iTunes.

NEXT TIME: A one-two shot of After Dark fare, with A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY and THE HALLOW.

TORONTO AFTER DARK: TEN YEARS, TEN FIRST FILMS

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The venerable Toronto After Dark Film Festival is celebrating ten years of cinematic mayhem this October 15th to the 23rd. That’s a full decade of sex, violence, monsters and all the other things that make the world go round. And this year’s line-up is already shaping up to be one of its best yet, with the first wave of films just announced online. Here’s the rundown, straight from the source:

DEATHGASM (New Zealand) Toronto Premiere & Closing Gala Film
In the latest crowd-pleasing horror-comedy from New Zealand that’s taken the festival circuit by storm since its debut at SXSW, a group of metalhead outcasts unwittingly unleash a horde of vicious demons upon their sleepy suburban neighbourhood. Now they’ll have to engage in an epic duel of blood and metal with Satan’s hordes if they’re to win back their town. Trailer Poster

TALES OF HALLOWEEN (USA) Toronto Premiere & Opening Gala Film
Acclaimed filmmakers Neil Marshall (THE DESCENT), Lucky McKee (MAY), Darren Lynn Bousman (REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA), Paul Solet (GRACE) and many more team up to deliver 10 wickedly entertaining tales of terror all set on the same hellish Halloween night. The huge cast of fan favourites joining into deliver thrills and chills galore include John Landis, Adrienne Barbeau, Joe Dante, Barbara Crampton, Lin Shaye and Barry Bostwick! Trailer Poster

LAZER TEAM (USA) Canadian Premiere
Web series gods Rooster Teeth hit it out of the park with their feature film debut, a crowd-pleasing sci-fi action comedy. When Earth is threatened by an advanced alien race, the planet’s only hope lies in four morons, the self-proclaimed “Lazer Team” and some high tech weaponry that’s never been tested before! Trailer Poster

NINA FOREVER (U.K.) Toronto Premiere
Winning rave reviews on the fest circuit, this twisted, messed-up, dark horror comedy from Britain is about a young man trying to start a new relationship with a supermarket co-worker while all the time being stalked by his very jealous, very dead, ex-girlfriend.Trailer Poster

A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (Canada) Toronto Premiere
A delightfully creepy, Yule-themed horror tale from the same talented team behind the GINGER SNAPS movies. Living icon William Shatner stars as local radio DJ Dan working the Christmas Eve graveyard shift, when all hell breaks loose around him in the snow-covered town of Bailey Downs. Santa’s having the most terrible night of them all, having to fight off an outbreak of zombie elves heralding the arrival of his evil nemesis, the monstrous Krampus!  Trailer Poster

TAG (Japan) Toronto Premiere
From the warped mind of acclaimed Japanese director Sion Sono (SUICIDE CLUB, LOVE EXPOSURE, WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL)  comes a shocking, satirical, horror-action-thriller about three Japanese schoolgirls in the race of their lives as they try to outrun a mysterious malevolent force that’s brutally killing every girl around them. TrailerPoster

LOVE & PEACE (Japan) Toronto Premiere
A wildly imaginative Japanese fantasy/monster movie mashup about a down-trodden office worker who aspires to be a rock star and his pet turtle who wants to grow up to be a giant city-destroying creature like Godzilla! Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind cinematic delight from the eccentric mind of director Sion Sono (SUICIDE CLUB, LOVE EXPOSURE, WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL) that’s rightfully winning Audience Awards! Trailer Poster

THE DEMOLISHER (Canada) Toronto Premiere
A hypnotic, dark, award-winning thriller about a mentally unstable vigilante, The Demolisher, who deals with his personal frustrations by donning a suit of body armour and prowling the streets at night, delivering brutal justice to those he feels deserve it. The film’s atmospheric nocturnal city landscape is superbly enhanced by a fantastic synth score from Glen Nicholls aka Future Funk Squad! Trailer Poster

SYNCHRONICITY (USA) Toronto Premiere
From Jacob Gentry (Sundance hit THE SIGNAL) comes another smart, dark, sci-fi thriller, this time heavily influenced by the noir ambiance of BLADE RUNNER. A brilliant young scientist tries to crack the secret of time travel whilst thwarting the advances of a sinister corporate leader (portrayed by fan fave villain Michael Ironside), while falling for a mysterious woman whose suddenly appeared in his life. Trailer Poster Coming SoonTBA

PATCHWORK (USA) International Premiere
A delightfully dark, Frankenstein-themed horror comedy about a re-animated corpse, made from the stitched together body parts of three murdered young women, that decides to go on a bloody quest to find their killer and avenge their deaths! Trailer Poster

Thoughts & Scribbles will be covering this year’s big anniversary with reviews, interviews…the whole shebang. So keep your eyes peeled (well, not literally – it IS a long wait to October) for all the coverage that one single blogger can handle all on his lonesome.

Till then, you might wanna skooch on over to TADFF’s nice-and-official-like website for all the information – tickets, schedules, etc – you’re going to need to make your itinerary rock-solid.