Toronto After Dark 2017

The Toronto After Dark film festival comes at the perfect time of year. On the heels of TIFF, it always helps to counteract my post-festival blues. As well it kicks off the Halloween season into high gear, with a delightful assortment of chills, kills and thrills. Whether you’re into horror, sci fi, dramas, or just the unusual; TAD will have something for you! 

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12 years in action has also led to greater recognition and ever improving content. TAD brings us some of the best new international fare, as well as highlights our Canadian rising stars. It also benefits from its TIFF connection – being able to snap up awesome films that (for whatever reason) didn’t make the Midnight Madness roster.  2017 was no exception. 9 nights gave us some amazing film-going experiences. Check out my reviews below!

  [My Friend Dahmer]  [Sixty Minutes to Midnight]  [Cult of Chucky]  [The Villainess]

[Beyond Skyline]  [Rabbit]  [Dead Shack]  [Trench 11]  [Eat Locals]  [Mayhem]

[Game of Death]  [Poor Agnes]  [Lowlife]  [The Endless]

My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer kicked things off to a powerful start.  Based on the experiences of one of young Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school classmates, it was a heartbreaking start of darkness tale. Against the angst of adolescence and the chaos of a troubled home life, Dahmer’s increasingly violent tendencies were missed until it was too late. For the faint of heart there is little to no gore in the film, despite the ghastly nature of his crimes. Instead it is a sad and slow build as a young man tries to find his way in a world that seems to reject him. It is very much a coming of age tale, with an unsettling twist.

It was easily the finest film of the festival in terms of directing, casting and acting.  Ross Lynch was amazing as Jeffrey, capturing the look and mannerisms with ease – a major departure from his previous work on Disney features. But the gold has to go to where-has-she-been-lately Anne Heche. Her performance as Dahmer’s mother had incredible manic energy, and did a lot to help drive home Jeffrey’s sense of isolation. My Friend Dahner was a fantastic festival find, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a wonderful slow burn drama.

Sixty Minutes to Midnight

Sixty Minutes to Midnight was the first Canadian feature of 2017, starring festival alum Robert Nolan. Nolan plays Jack Darcy, a tired but dedicated construction worker and army vet. He’s also a prepper and hunkers down to wait out Y2K in the safety of his home and bunker. As luck would have it, Jack is selected as the next contestant on a gruesome gameshow. Cut off from the world, Jack is hunted inside his own home by mercs with one mission – kill Jack before midnight. If Jack can survive the night, he’d be the first player ever to win the grand prize of $1 million. They don’t make it easy for Jack, but he has a few tricks up his sleeve that prove he won’t be an easy target. As the night wears on, the stakes get higher, leading to a blowout of a finale.

This was a fun film, following in the footsteps of The Running Man, and home invasion films like Straw Dogs. It’s a fairly low budget flick, but makes great use of the claustrophobic house set and relentless and seemingly limitless horde of attackers. That said, for reasons I still can’t put my finger on, the suspense never seemed to build. I don’t know if it was the pacing, or the score, or if it was the flips between drama and comedy. Something tiny in the execution was lacking, and I feel that it didn’t quite live up to its potential.

Cult of Chucky

Cult of Chucky is the seventh(!) installment in the Child’s Play horror franchise. Nica, the last survivor of Chucky’s most recent rampage, finds herself institutionalized and taking the fall for the evil doll’s crimes.  Accepting her fate as a known murderess, she is moved to a quirky mental hospital that is not as safe as it at first seems. As Chucky’s violence follows her, Nica is once again forced to fight for her life. Chucky is an unstoppable force of gleeful hate, and his victims are always struggling to be believed in what is an undeniably absurd and deadly situation.

I was underprepared for this one, having never watched any of the series. So, to give this one its due I made time to watch the first Child’s Play earlier in the day. I cannot believe it took me this long! This series is incredible, with a wicked, biting sense of humor and some of the funniest kills of the festival.  More than that though, as a series it is unique in its representation of visible and sexual minorities. Rather than used as punchlines, they are granted real personalities that add to the drama. Nica is a strong and capable young woman, willing to take on the role of savior to a group that reviles her, all from her wheelchair. Defying expectations and genre stereotypes, Child’s Play is equal parts funny, sick, dark and subversive. I loved every minute of both films, and will absolutely be going back to watch 2-6 – I’m now a devoted member of the Cult of Chucky!

The Villainess

The Villainess is the latest of South Korea’s incredible revenge flick genre. Sook-hee has grown up in a world of crime, and just wants a quiet family life. But forces around her have other ideas, and soon her only goal is to take vengeance on those who try to take it away from her.  The tragedies that befall her seem impossible to bear, and so we see her humanity slowly stripped away as she becomes the perfect killing machine. This film is a non-stop ride, almost overwhelming in its twists and turns, betrayals and death.

The Villainess’ cinematography is ambitious and beyond anything I’ve ever seen. POV shots during fight scenes take you over, around and through the chaos. This is used to greatest effect during a tense motorcycle chase that defies what should be possible with a camera. A few lengthy sequences, including the opening minutes, are done in a first-person style that brings to mind video games and the film Hardcore Henry. This proved to be divisive with viewers who said it took away from the personal aspect of this story. I personally feel that it worked, and well represented the inhuman nature of the story’s violence.  Easily on par with I Saw The Devil or Kill Bill, this film was amazing and will definitely be getting a rewatch.

Beyond Skyline

Beyond Skyline is a unique creation, the sequel of a film that not only have I never heard of, but I was actively encouraged not to watch. Despite the odds, a sequel was made! Though it overlaps and slightly intersects with the original Skyline, it functions easily as a standalone story. Aliens have come to earth and are harvesting the population. A small group of strangers are thrown together and try to fight back against increasingly insurmountable odds. Just as things seem bleakest, they find help from a rebel played by The Raid‘s own Iko Uwais. Taking control of the alien technology, humanity has a chance for survival.

By all accounts, the original Skyline was an interesting idea and looked great, but the plot was poorly executed. But even as it was being filmed, the creators received an option for a sequel. The project was handed over to one of the VFX company Hydraulx’s staff members, which is how Liam O’Donnell found himself directing his first film. Seeing the probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for what it was, Liam decided to “go all out” with the story. The film was inspired by such greats as Predator, Die Hard, and District 9. But rather than feel like a rehash, it was a fresh take on an invasion story. The characters felt real, and the drama and comedy were perfectly measured. It was a wonder of special and practical effects, and the fight choreography was stunning. What should have been insane nonsense has somehow become one of my favourite actions films, alongside The Edge of Tomorrow. I remember at one point realizing, “I didn’t know that what I needed in my life was to see one kaiju suplex another, but there it is. And it is glorious.”

Rabbit

Rabbit is this year’s Australian entry, and provides more evidence (along with Housebound and The Babadook) that the Aussies have creepy down pat.  Maude has struck out into the world on her own, trying to distance herself from the loss of her twin sister. But frightening dreams of what may have been her sister’s last days  draw her back home to solve the mystery of her disappearance. Following the clues of the dreams, Maude finds herself the guest and captive of a mysterious group…a group that had in fact set a trap for her.

Rabbit is part drama, part psychological thriller. It plays on our fears of loss and isolation, of captivity and hopelessness. It also pulls in themes of cruel scientific curiosity, and the obligations/resentment we have toward family. It’s a very interesting mix, and very relatable even if you aren’t a twin. My one criticism is that the mystery felt drawn out a bit too much, to the point that I was no longer sure if the reveals were meant to be shocking. But it didn’t stop me from enjoying, and recommending it.  

Dead Shack

Dead Shack was the first feature of the annual Zombie Night, and is also an absolute treat. Bringing the horror-comedy, it’s a tight film about a family road trip that goes horribly wrong. A cabin in the woods proves itself too good to be true as a vacation destination for two siblings, their friend, their alcoholic dad and his alcoholic girlfriend. These are not the heroes that a small town needs, but they are the heroes that stumble into a murder plot that uses zombies as the weapon. A mysterious neighbour has been luring in travelling “bros” to use as food for her undead family. It all quickly devolves into bloody and hilarious chaos, with probably the best one-liners of the festival. I loved this movie and will watch it again next Halloween, I’m sure. Dead Shack is what you’d get if somehow Shaun Of The Dead was remade by the Trailer Park Boys – witty, goofy, gory, and uniquely Canadian.

Trench 11

Trench 11 was the next Zombie Night feature, and an interesting counterpoint to Dead Shack. Of the festival, it was the truest drama and did the best job of building real suspense. World War I is ending, and a mysterious German lab is found underground. When a team of allied specialists are sent into demolish it, the uncover a horrible experiment gone terribly right.

Trench 11 is a wonderfully claustrophobic story, with most of the action taking place within tunnels deep beneath the earth. What starts out as an exploration mission quickly becomes a race for survival. It brings to mind the drama of the recent big budget feature Life, but actually does a better of job of personalising the fear of the soldiers (both Allied and German) as they struggle to comprehend the manufactured virus that could easily become a world-ending plague. I think this feature will fly under the radar for most, which is a shame. I hope that it gets wider recognition beyond the festival circuit – it’s a great standalone story.

Eat Locals

Eat Locals was a treat for fans of British comedy, bringing together a cast of “Hey, it’s that guy!”s from the isles. The time has come for the English conclave of vampires to assemble…and discuss such mundanities as feeding quotas, bylaws and membership. A young man finds himself dragged into the mix and staring down either violent death or an eternity with a group of immortals that can barely stand each other. To further complicate things, a para-military group also happens to be on a capture-or-destroy mission for one of these “cold bodies”.

It’s an odd duck of a film, and one that I was certain I’d love but felt a bit letdown by. It never really felt like it found its balance between comedy, horror and drama, and so each felt weaker as a result. Still it was unique, and it was cool to see such an amazing ensemble cast join together to create something so special.

Mayhem

Mayhem is exactly that – pure, delirious carnage and revenge A young legal worker finds himself thrown off of his climb up the corporate ladder, and forced to scramble his way back up to the top. But between him and his goal is a building full of rage-infected coworkers, all itching to bash some skulls. But our hero knows something that they don’t – until the countdown runs out on a government-enforced quarantine, any and all skull-bashing is protected under legal precedent set by that very firm. Armed with an equally pissed off sidekick, seething hatred for his boss and a nail gun, he starts his climb.

This movie is very nearly perfect, absolutely bonkers in its premise and execution. The kills are inventive and sick, and you cheer on the protagonist every step of the way. Mayhem is a movie for the everyman, the office drone, and for anyone suffering under corporate bureaucracy. It is the ultimate revenge fantasty, and manages to be just silly enough not to edge into the horrifying. It made some big promises, and delivered in an even bigger way.

Game of Death

Game of Death is a simple story – a group of bored trust-fund kids are spending a weekend together, and their friendship is suddenly put to the test. When drugs, swimming and sex fail to really provide enough fun, the mysterious and dusty Game Of Death catches their attention. With the carelessness of the truly privileged, they think nothing of what a name like that could imply and what it might ask of them. A board with a simple digital face, it asks them to play, and then completes the pact by taking their blood. A number of required kills is then displayed, and a countdown begins. Dismissed as silly, the game’s true power is ignored until the group starts dropping like flies. Worse still, the number of the counter is greater than the remaining number, which means the kill-or-be-killed promise of the game leaves anyone up for grabs. What could have been a story of friend-against-friend quickly becomes a bloody rampage.

Game of Death surprised me. Based on the premise I expected it to be purely goofy. But it actually contained a healthy dose of drama and morality. Its visual style is unique and compelling, with a theme and brief animated vignettes that reminded me of Natural Born Killers. It made expert use of practical effects and clever editing for its gore, and I’d like to see more from this director.

Poor Agnes

Poor Agnes tells the unique story of Agnes, a female serial killer. She lures unsuspecting men into her life and ends theirs to feed her own needs. Lacking both a moral compass and empathy, her hedonism comes from the belief that each life she takes brings her closer to God. Agnes has no empathy, but is an astute observer of human nature, which her makes her manipulations all the more successful. But things start to unravel when she becomes obsessed with one of her would-be victims. Poor Mike is kept in her basement, barely alive as she toys with him. Mike is slowly broken down, body and soul, until he become a mere extension of her whims. Agnes controls his whole world, as she slowly loses control of hers.

Poor Agnes is an amazing film, and I hope that it gets wide attention. Well paced, it is terrifying to witness, and exquisitely acted.  It is a powerful examination of identity and self-preservation. It is very much a character drama, and all of the players are well fleshed out. Agnes herself is a nearly incomprehensible force, but the occasional crack in her armor allows you to understand her…and then immediately regret it. This is going to be one of those films like Hard Candy that will impress anyone that sees it, but is not for everyone.

Lowlife

Lowlife’s El Monstro is more than a man. He is the next carrier of the El Monstro name, a proud Mexican folk hero. Bearing his father’s luchador mask with pride, he prepares to welcome his infant son into the world, as the future of the El Monstro life. But times are tough, and the current El Monstro has instead fallen low in life. Instead of protecting the weak and helpless, he makes ends meet by working for a gangster and human trafficker know as Teddy Bear. Teddy’s adopted daughter is pregnant with El Monstro’s child, which gives him power over the couple. Slowly drawn into the story are a motel owner, some more-than-they-appear mooks, and the El Monstro legacy itself. What appear at first to be an unrelated string of bizarre occurrences instead coalesces into a story of freedom, redemption, and the unredeemable.

The buzz around this film ahead of its showing was that “it’s super weird, but actually really good.” That’s not a lot to go on, but now having seen it, it makes perfect sense.  I don’t want to say much more, it’s really something that has to be experienced with as little context as possible. With its non-chronological timeline and larger than life characters, Lowlife feels like a spiritual successor to Pulp Fiction. Every character in the film is a lowlife, with all of them making just awful decisions at every step of the way. It constantly edges right up to the horrific, and then drops in a joke of the blackest humor, which keeps the audience going. Lowlife‘s strength is that instead of presenting a morality tale, it instead just wants to tell you a bonkers story.

The Endless

The Endless is the latest feature by the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Two brothers are trying (and to some extent failing) to adapt to life in the outside world, after having escaped from a death cult as youths. Their attempts to move on are thwarted though when they receive a mysterious message from members of the commune.  Their memories of time with the cult vary widely, with one brother remembering only control and fear, while for the other it provided an idyllic background to their childhood.  Against all common sense, they decide that a short visit (the death cult!) might be safe enough, and could potentially help them move on. But arriving after their years-long absence to find everyone else exactly the same only raises more questions. Add in some spooky happenings, and a lot of ominous Ascension talk, and you’ll be screaming at the screen for them to get out!

It was directed, written by and stars Benson and Moorhead as the brothers. That’s a tall order, but they are both triple-threats and manage to carry the feature. Their squabbles and teamwork feel real, and they make a fantastic duo as the centrepiece of a mystery. They are also expert world-builders (quadruple-threats?). In their Q&A they discussed influences, which were interestingly more literary than cinematic. They referenced Lovecraft, Moore, Gaiman, and Stephen King – all favourites of mine, so it pretty naturally spoke to me. Their previous films (Resolution and Spring) are spoken of very highly, by fellow TAD goers whose opinion I trust. Having now seen The Endless I know that I will be going back to see what came before, and will definitely be watching out for whatever comes next.

Final Festival Thoughts / Recommendations

  • Buy an all-access pass to this festival. It might seem intimidating at first, but it’s a great opportunity to broaden your horizons. Buying tickets to just the shows you’re guaranteed to like can close you off to some cool stuff. Committing yourself to a pass means you’re more likely to attend films that you wouldn’t originally see – you might discover a new favourite director or even genre! The other benefit is saving your seat for shows that will sell out quickly!
  • Dress in layers. October weather is unpredictable and usually there’s a chill in the area. But the theatre lines can be quite stuffy, so be able to layer down as necessary.
  • Familiarize yourself with the schedule, but don’t read too much about the films ahead of time. I rarely even watch the trailers – I want to go into each experience as fresh as possible, leaving myself open to be surprised.
  • Bring some friends! Horror and Comedy films have one sure thing in common – they are always more fun to watch with a crowd. Bring a companion to have discussion with afterward.
  • Plan your meals. Two shows a night means relatively little time between screenings. Getting a good seat usually means leaving the first showing and running right back into line for the next. That leaves little time to grab food/drinks, and certainly no time to actually leave the theatre. If you know you’ll be hungry, grab food and snacks before you go into the first screening.
  • Be excellent to each other. Awesome movies often inspire a big reaction to awesome scenes – think wild cheering during the best kills! But otherwise be sure to keep chatter for the end. Don’t be that guy and ruin someone else’s experience because you’d rather talk through the movie. If you have to talk during movies, then maybe public screenings aren’t for you.
  • Thank your volunteers! Year after year, familiar faces are there to help direct the lines, pass out/collect ballots, and make sure that everything runs smoothly. They are dedicated and help keep TAD one of Toronto’s best film festival experiences.