In addition to the usual reviews and comments you would find on a horror movie blog, this is also a document of the wonderfully vast horror movie section of the video store I worked at in my youth.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Beware The Handsome Stranger.

TIFF's Midnight Madness programme closed out last Saturday with the Canadian premiere of Adam Wingard's newest The Guest.

A mysterious stranger named David (Dan Stevens) shows up at the Peterson family residence saying that he served with their dead son. Is he is as charming and helpful as he appears, or is there something more sinister lying under his spit-shined demeanor?

The Guest was a terrific thriller with a wonderful eighties-style sensibility. I would recommend knowing as little as possible going in because it's best to just let the story unfold. There was real skill involved in how its simmering pace rapidly gave way to an explosive climax.

There were a trio of really strong elements to the piece that worked together in harmony, the first of which was the cast. Dan Stevens is phenomenal as the title character. I don't watch Downton Abbey, but this guy was charismatic as hell. Like many British actors before him, he was able to emanate charm and menace, all with just a glance. The female lead Maika Monroe, in her second appearance at Midnight this year, is also dynamite as Anna, the only member of the Peterson family who is distrustful of their new visitor.

Dan Stevens as David in The Guest.

The other two items of excellence were the visual palette and the fantastic soundtrack. The Guest is incredibly slick and definitely features the most ambitious set pieces Wingard has done to date. And not only content with an awesome synth-based score from Steve Moore – who also had music duties on the earlier Midnight selection Cub – the film also features a wonderful array of songs from artists such as Love & Rockets, Sisters of Mercy and Clan of Xymox.

At the Q&A following the screening, Wingard related the tale of being inspired to make The Guest after watching a VHS double bill of Halloween and The Terminator. He then went to his partner Simon Barrett who dusted off an abandoned drama script of his about PTSD and followed this new angle. While The Guest doesn't share much in terms of content with those two aforementioned films, there were definite similarities in tone.

Director Adam Wingard, writer Simon Barrett & stars Brendan Meyer, Maika Monroe & Dan Stevens.

The Guest was a real treat and fully deserving of all the positive buzz it received out of its premiere at Sundance. The well-oiled creative machine of Wingard & Barrett is now chugging along at full speed with no signs of slowing down and I, for one, couldn't be happier for them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Canadian Giallo.

Midnight Madness got a welcome dose of CanCon last Friday with the world premiere of irreverent collective Astron 6's newest effort, The Editor.

An over-the-hill film editor (Adam Brooks) becomes the prime suspect in a series of brutal murders on the set of the schlocky horror flick he is working on.

Just over two years ago, The Editor was nothing but a poster created for the art installation If They Came From Within. Then, after a successful Indiegogo campaign and a lengthy post-production process, the guys from Astron 6 found themselves onstage at The Ryerson in front of a frenzied crowd.

Astron 6 has always had a retro sensibility, but meshing their style with the gialli worked even better than I expected. They not only nailed the look of the genre, down to the colours and lighting, but also the way these films were often shot, in terms of camera movement, focus and framing. The film was also, in true Italian fashion, shot in MOS to be dubbed later. The Editor even goes so far as to recreate moments from some of the greats.

And if Astron 6's commitment to authenticity wasn't already enough, they also enlisted Goblin member Claudio Simonetti to contribute to the score. His masterful touch, in addition to the usual flourishes from Brain Wiacek & Jeremy Gillespie, brings a soundscape that transcends mere fabrication.

This is, however, where the similarities to the gialli end, as the material is never played for anything but laughs. It obviously worked because I can't remember one scene where I didn't get a least one chuckle, whether it be from a visual or audio cue, or a line of dialogue. It's also splattered with Astron in-jokes which always remind you that these guys were having as much fun making this, as we were watching it. It was truly absurd and never let up, whether it be characters noticing the cigarette burns at the corner of the frame or random naked ladies stretching or playing patty-cake in the background.

And speaking of ladies, The Editor has no shortage of lovely talent in this. Sheila Campbell is great as Margarit – in an inspired reference to Cinzia Monreale of Lucio Fulci's classic The Beyond – and you can be sure no one is happier than me that Tristan Risk made an appearance. Paz de la Huerta is... well, I think Astron member & star Adam Brooks put it best during the Q&A when he said; “Paz is Paz.” My favourite though, had to be Samantha Hill as the editor's assistant. She absolutely lit up the screen during her scenes.

Astron 6 (Matt Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Jeremy Gillespie, Steve Kostanski & Adam Brooks)

At over one-hundred minutes, The Editor should feel long, but I can't recall anything that didn't deserve to be in its running time. It's a true love letter to the genre drenched in the goofy and illogical shenanigrams that we've come to know and love from Astron 6.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

If You Go Out In The Woods Today...

One of the wild cards in this year's Midnight programme was Belgian director Jonas Govaerts' debut Cub.

On a weekend getaway with Cub Scout troop, Sam (Maurice Luijten) encounters a feral boy in the woods. But is he a friend or foe?

Cub is a fairly accomplished debut with a flawless aesthetic. Govaerts gets the most out of his forested locale, packing a grittiness that recalls the works of his Euro-horror brethren Alex Aja and Fabrice Du Welz, so much that the film even opens with a sequence mirroring the former's 2003 flick High Tension.

I liked that the film started off as a quirky, coming-of-age kids tale that grew darker as the film progressed. Even as our fair adventurers succumbed to all manner of inventive booby traps set in the woods, the piece didn't fully let go of its comedic undertone until the very end.

Much like It Follows from earlier this week, Cub featured a fantastic score, this one orchestrated by Steve Moore, one-half of the space rock duo, Zombi. His synth-based tracks gelled with the movie perfectly, adding so much to the proceedings.

The lead, young Maurice Luijten, was very strong, handling a very demanding role with ease. His counterpart, the feral child Kai, was the highlight of the film though. His appearance, accented by a half-mask made of tree bark was so well designed that even if you take nothing else away from the film, you'll always remember that image.

Maurice Luijten as Sam in Cub

It was a great idea for the organizers to hand out said masks before the screening, and an even better one to have an eleven-year-old creeping around the theater aisles during the proceedings. I completely endorse this William Castle-style element to the programme. Midnight audiences are there to have a good time, so why not embrace it?

I think the only thing I didn't care for was the ending, and even then it was more to do with content rather than execution. I guess I should know by now that European thematic sensibilities are inherently more grim than those across the pond. Although, it did seem like the film was holding back throughout, so perhaps that made the ending more shocking to me as a result.

Director Jonas Govaerts & producers Peter De Maegd & Louis Tisne with Kai (Willem Halfyard)

Cub looked great, had solid performances from its young cast and at under ninety-minutes was decidedly well paced. It's not going to knock anyone's socks off, but it does provide further proof that this corner of the world continues to produce fine genre content.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Apocalyse, Dead Ahead!

Perhaps my most anticipated film of this year's Midnight line-up was Jaume Balagueró's conclusion to the [REC] series, Apocalypse.

Soon after Angela (Manuela Velasco) is rescued from the apartment complex and quarantined in a laboratory set up inside an oil tanker, the outbreak begins anew.

For [REC]4, Balagueró abandoned the found footage narrative and the result is both a blessing and a curse. It had to be done as, save for a few exceptions, this format has run its course, but I felt that with that element gone, a lot of the series' identity went with it. There was a level of intimacy in the first two pictures, that was, for the most part, not present here. The locale of the oil tanker was just as claustrophobic as the tenement building, but something in the change of how the story was presented lessened the effect.

Balagueró attempted to mesh two genre favourites (The Thing and Alien) into his film with limited success. I certainly got a sense of the former when all the rag-tag crew were being introduced in the first act, but most of them lacked the wonderful character flourishes that distinguished them in John Carpenter's masterpiece. The reference to the last chunk of Alien, where the last remaining members were rushing against the ship's self-destruct, worked considerably better and enhanced the tension of the movie's climax.

Angela (Manuela Velasco) continues to fight for her life in [REC]4.

[REC] also felt more like an action film than a horror film, as well. I'd have no problem with that, but that's not really what I've come to expect from the this series. I mean, the sight of an snarling infected person running full-tilt at me is always going to get my back up, but the inspired “engineering” of the scare set pieces seemed to be in shorter supply here. I was also disappointed that the supernatural element alluded to in the second film – which made up some of [REC]2's best moments – was all but abandoned.

However, now that I've sounded off about what [REC]4 wasn't, I'll talk about what it was. Still a lot of fun. This series has always been about Angela, and I was glad Balagueró was able to play out her story to fruition. Horror does not have nearly as many iconic heroines as it once did, so she damn well deserved another go-round! It was awesome that Manuela Velasco was at the Midnight screening to watch the movie with us.

Director Jaume Balagueró & star Manuela Velasco.

Though not the resounding crescendo I was hoping for, [REC]4 was far from a pointless add-on. We've been on this nerve-shredding journey with Angela for seven years now and it deserved a conclusion.

*Q&A courtesy of Robert Mitchell

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Unsafe Sex.

My Midnight Madness experience continued with David Robert Mitchell's new film It Follows.

After having sex, Jay (Maika Monroe) begins being haunted by a malevolent spirit. Fortunately, she can save herself by passing it onto someone else the same way she received it.

When I was kid, whenever I heard my own heartbeat – usually when I was in bed with a pillow over my face – I would imagine those thundering beats were the footsteps of “Death” on his way to claim me. I would never know how far away he was, but sooner or later he'd catch up to me and I'd be done for. I was reminded of this childhood memory while watching It Follows.

Horror is a genre that, for sometime now, has not fostered originality, but somehow, thankfully, Mitchell managed to bring this one into the world. We only get one or two horror films like It Follows a year, if we're lucky, and what I find truly remarkable is that you can explain the premise in a few words – “it's about a haunted STD” – and not only marvel at the idea itself, but also how no one had thought of something so simplistic before.

Maika Monroe as Jay in It Follows.

Beyond the premise, the mechanics of which was well thought out and not overexplained – a choice of which does not become somewhat problematic until very late in the film – there are a lot of things that make this piece stand out. The cinematography was excellent and really showcased the more dark and drizzly landscapes of both urban and suburban Detroit. There was also a timeless quality to the film. Apart from an E-reader carried around by one of the supporting characters there was really no indication as to what decade it was supposed to take place in, especially since all other media absorbed by the characters – on television and at the cinema – was of the vintage variety.

Monroe is very strong as the embattled protagonist, Jay. Much like Amber Heard's turn in All The Boys Love Mandy Lane eight years ago at Midnight Madness, Monroe is a real breakout here, with not one but two films (Adam Wingard's The Guest being the other) in 2014's Midnight line-up. However, as good as Monroe was, the real star of It Follows was the soundtrack provided by California-based musician Disasterpiece. He had worked primarily on video game scores, most notably the indie darling Fez, until Mitchell reached out to him. The result was tremendous, adding so much substance that its inclusion elevated the film from being solely a weird cautionary fable to full-on horror flick.

Director David Robert Mitchell & star Maika Monroe.

Though the third act is not quite as strong, revelling more in visuals rather than logic to drive the story, the delicious premise and spectacular score are more than enough to glaze over those shortcomings. For all those jaded horror fans out there that think modern horror is nothing but recycled garbage, I urge you to give It Follows a whirl.

*Q&A photo courtesy of Robert Mitchell.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Going Full Walrus.

The highest profile event of TIFF's Midnight Madness this year was the world premiere of Kevin Smith's new film, Tusk.

While travelling in Manitoba, an acerbic podcaster (Justin Long) becomes the captive of an eccentric old man (Michael Parks) with a particularly bizarre obsession.

So yes, Tusk is about a man who wants to turn another man into a walrus. And yes, this movie not only delivers on that promise, it is as messed up as you would imagine. The movie was birthed from an episode of Smith's own podcast, where he talked about an online ad from the UK in which someone was offering free room and board if they were to dress up as a walrus. Smith pretty much talked out an outline for a possible film on the air, and then asked his listeners to vote on whether he should make it. Audience tweets using #walrusyes then drove Smith to make good on his promise, and just over a year later, he was standing on the stage of The Ryerson introducing it.

These actions only speak of Smith's growth as a filmmaker. Or, if not growth, at least evolution. After many years in the studio system and self admittedly “burning his career to the ground three years ago”, he has gone back to making the movies he wants to make. If Red State was Smith spreading his wings creatively, then Tusk represents him stepping off the ledge to the freedom of open air.

Aside from the crazy subject matter, it was the performances that really made Tusk come to life. Michael Parks was the main draw for me, and he is again in top form. He doesn't quite have anything that reaches the level of his monstrously captivating monologue in Red State, but there are multiple meaty exchanges between him with Long. Speaking of Long, he impressed me here with his commitment to a role that was, let's just say, challenging. His agent apparently advised him against it, saying “you were already the apple guy, now you want to be the walrus guy?”, but he went ahead and took the role anyway. Good on him. Then, there is obviously Guy Lapointe. I have to hand it to Smith for how long he was able to keep this particular cast member a secret for as long as he did. Lapointe is a welcome addition and keeps the comedy coming in a third act that most certainly would have deflated without his presence.

Justin Long in Tusk.

The sometime comparison to The Human Centipede was one Smith welcomed saying he considered Tusk an “open source” film, also admitting that he inserted tons of material from past episodes of his podcast into the film. I feel Tusk is a way more accomplished effort than Tom Six's shock opus because it goes for more than just the gross out. Smith is really starting to get comfortable technically and though he'll always be a storyteller that relies largely on dialogue, you can see him trying new things with the camera, not only with what he's doing with it, but what he puts in front of it. I know the image of that first close-up to shock zoom out of the big reveal won't leave my head for some time. I mean how often does a movie offer you something that you have truly never seen before?

Which leads to me to having to mention the fantastic effects by Bob Kurtzman. Smith's only direction to the gore guru was “Leatherface Walrus” and by God, did Bob deliver! It is a wonderfully grotesque piece and your eyes cannot help but be drawn to it every time it is onscreen. It makes me think that the particularly cheesy CG effect at the film's opening was put there intentionally to lull us into a false sense of security. Tusk is another title to add to the already teeming list of KNB triumphs.

Director Kevin Smith with actors Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez & Haley Joel Osment.

This “new” Kevin Smith is super exciting and his sincere and genuine affinity for the genre is even more welcome. He loves these fucked up and fuzzy corners of cinema and has now twice shown a steady hand at making them flesh.

*Q&A photo courtesy of Marc-Andre Miron.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Love Springs Eternal.

My TIFF experience (well, genre anyway) began this year with Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead's newest film Spring.

After the loss of his mother and job, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) flees to Italy where he falls in love with a local woman named Louise (Nadia Hilker) who may not be all that she appears.

A few years ago, Benson & Moorhead burst onto the scene with their highly-praised debut Resolution. It defied easy characterization, but it was clear they were full of fresh ideas. I'm glad to say that their first effort was no fluke, as this one is another accomplished tale. Whereas Resolution was essentially buddy comedy with horror elements, Spring is first and foremost a romance. The byline I've been hearing of “it's a genre version of Before Sunrise” is decidedly apt.

I was glad I knew very little about the film going in, and enjoyed letting it unfold organically. As with Resolution, its strength lies in the two leads and their immediate chemistry. Having way more to do in this film than his turn in last year's Evil Dead remake, Lou Taylor Pucci gives a wholly sincere portrayal of a man lost and on-the-run. Even more captivating is Nadia Hilker, as the mysterious Louise. She is breathtaking, speaking with an accent you can't quite place. What a find, guys! The exchanges between Pucci & Hilker were really engaging, playing off his lovestruck melancholy and her perpetual evasiveness in equal measure. The film is also buoyed by a strong supporting cast including Francesco Carneletti and Vinny Curran. I was also glad to see Jeremy Gardner in there, as well. After his effort The Battery last year, he too is an important up-and-comer, so it's good to see these three guys collaborating.

As far as storytelling goes, Benson & Moorhead are still on their game. They do their best to throw you off the scent, giving you many ideas about Louise's secret, before the big reveal. What follows is some interesting lore and, sadly all too brief, discussions about science vs. supernatural.

Visually, Spring is a huge leap forward for these filmmakers. Shooting in a small Italian village, the locale sings with historical beauty. Whether it be wave-swept cliffs, secluded caves or the outer-lying orchards, almost every frame is a marvel.

Star Nadia Hilker & Directors Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson.

Spring is a solid effort that reinforces Benson & Moorhead as fresh new voices with a talent for injecting new life into oft-trodden genres.

*Q&A photo courtesy Kurt Halfyard.