Toronto is the largest film festival in North America and one of the most prestigious but it's not all high-toned dramas and serious-minded documentaries. One of the festival's best-loved sidebars is the Midnight Madness program, a celebration of zombie, vampire and Yakuza cinema now in its 25th year. The late-night screenings attract an enthusiastic, unruly following of shock, horror, action and fantasy fans eager to have their minds blown.
Some of the films on display this year have already secured distribution deals (Mike Flanagan's assured haunted-mirror shocker "Oculus" will be soon creeping up screens nationwide.) Others will find a home in the world of video on demand. But they're all audacious, edgy palate-cleansers for the fest-goer who has imbibed a few too many Belgian neorealist hand-wringers. And you just never know when you're going to stumble across The Next Big Thing. MM's 2004 breakout "Saw," launched director James Wan on the road to his latest hit "The Conjuring," which scared up $220 million this summer.
I haven't seen all 10 of the films in this year's series. Not every minute of each one, anyway. One of the privileges of fest-going is the freedom to walk out of a screening that isn't ringing your bells, and I excessed that prerogative with this year's frightfest offerings. Still, I saw enough to keep me intrigued and coming back for more. My rundown:
"All Cheerleaders Die," the start to the 2013 program, extends the feminist horror focus of its cult-favorite director, Lucky McKee ("May.") The gossamer-thin plot features a high-school documentary maker infiltrating her school's golden-girl pep squad. The title summarizes the plot, but in movies like this, death is not necessarily a permanent condition. With the aid of a supernaturally inclined Goth girl loner, the girls' squad takes revenge on the sexist bad boys on the football team, as well as whatever unlucky men happen to cross their path. The script and effects were subpar, but the film's unapologetic cheesiness and B-movie zest kept me in my seat until the final scare, a shriek-out to another well-known teen supernatural thriller.
The Hong Kong ghosts and vampires whirlwind "Rigor Mortis," is a special treat for fans of that nation's spooky 1980s undead movies (I can't be the only one, right?) This entry imagines a tenement haunted by vengeful spirits who wreak torment on the living in visually spectacular attacks that are at once eerie and jarringly violent. The cast is stocked with stalwarts of the old-school jiangishi (hopping vampire) movies, in the same way the "Expendables" flicks round up high-mileage action heroes for one more go. Keeping the project from spinning off into overkill is a wrenching performance by Nina Paw Hee-ching as a widow whose efforts to preserve her recently deceased husband go horrific. Beneath the pyrotechnics lurks the jagged, austere sadness of "Pet Sematary," or "Let the Right One In."
Japan's MM entry, "R 100," is a gonzo concoction of surreal suspense, bizarre sex play and demented hilarity. The title is a sly reference to the Japanese adult film rating R-18, implying that nobody with less than a century under his belt is ready for this one. Maybe so. Hitoshi Matsumoto's film follows a drab wage slave who enlivens his existence by signing a year-long contract with a strange escort agency. The firm dispatches dominatrixes to dish out comically harsh thrashings without warning, in public, at work, even at home. As the hapless client, Nao Ohmori underplays like a Japanese Colin Firth even as the film opens up new subplots that further multiply the lunacy. The S&M agency's instruction to its new member, "You must be submissive at all times," may be a wink at contemporary Japanese social conditions or advice to the audience about the best way to deal with the movie's sinister slapstick. For good or ill, it's a one-of-a-kind experience.
I didn't make it through Joe Begos' micro-budget indie splatterfest "Almost Human," chased from the auditorium by its cheesy production values and eye-popping overacting. The plot, something or other about alien abductees and their changed-man reappearances in Maine, didn't hook me and the plodding pace further sapped my desire to see it through to the end. I can tolerate horror films that are tough to watch because they are so harsh better than ones that are rough going because they're so amateurish.
"Oculus," mentioned earlier, was the standout of the group I viewed, a tautly paced creepshow that kept me on a steady IV drip of dread. Intertwining a yarn about a haunted mirror with a disturbing story about young adult siblings dealing with a legacy of emotional and physical abuse, it swept me into a world where I was utterly unable to predict what was hiding around the next corner. Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites deliver compelling performances as a brother and sister who seem to have fallen through the looking glass following a child trauma that left her emotionally unstable and him institutionalized. The confidently crafted film puts us through an "Inception"-like perceptual wringer forcing our identification with characters who can't trust the evidence of their senses. Is what we're witnessing genuine peril or has one of the duo suffered a full psychotic break? The film is excruciating, unexpectedly smart, and entirely unconventional. This is plenty of polished method to this Midnight Madness entry with method to spare.
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