This year was my first volunteering at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival–as a lifelong horror and thriller fan, I’ve always wanted to help scare the crap out of people and work the festival, but the stars didn’t align until now. Consequently, I ended up seeing a ton of films this year, and I wanted to share which made me laugh, which made me think, and which made me afraid to look under my bed.
The kind of movie I’ve been waiting for: a horror film by and starring women, about a uniquely female experience–the stress and heartbreak of single motherhood. Amelia (Essie Davis) is still mourning the loss of her husband seven years ago as her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is exhibiting behavioral problems at school, and her difficulty coping with the situation is made all the more dire by The Babadook, a mysterious presence that begins to terrorize Amelia and Samuel after a picture book (supremely horrifying; I have a thing about creepy illustrations) appears on their doorstep. This is a beautifully well-done capsule story that takes place almost entirely in Amelia and Samuel’s home, and comparisons to The Shining are apt when the claustrophobia sets in and we begin to wonder if, moved by grief, isolation, and frustration, Amelia may have cracked. There’s a certain distance present in The Shining, as though it has no interest in connecting with its audience, merely to present to them a series of disturbing imagery. The Babadook, though, succeeds by being the opposite–deeply emotional, motivated by the psychological fragility of the protagonist and our desire to see her through them rather than the supernatural forces at work that attempt to break her down. A sense of anxiousness and dread pervades throughout the film, even when nothing objectively “scary” is occurring, and I spent nearly the entire film feeling nervous, tense, and consequently, kind of sweaty.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
I have a soft spot in my heart for the original Dead Snow, the first film I ever saw at Toronto After Dark back in 2009. I’ve been attending annually ever since, and I credit this film as being a great introduction to the festival since it so fully encapsulates the type of programming present every year–a little bit scary, a little bit gross, and a lot of fun. You do not need to see the first Dead Snow in order to “get” the sequel; the plot is essentially “college students journey to cabin in winter, meet Nazi zombies, chaos ensues.” The sequel, though, manages a narrative, endearing characters, and a fun mythos (I’m so proud of you, Dead Snow franchise! You’ve come a long way). The sole survivor of the original carnage manages to escape the zombie crew but gets into an automobile accident in the process. When he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers that he’s been charged with the murder of his friends… and has a new, undead arm. What follows is a fun, funny, often ridiculous but totally enthusiastic, horror comedy featuring death, rebirth, more death, more rebirth, a zombie sidekick, a hapless group of nerdy zombie aficionados, a hilariously incompetent small-town police force, a twisted love story, and the bloodiest World War II reenactment you’ve ever seen.
Full disclosure: I was ready to hate this documentary/memoir on why people are so attracted to horror films after the first 20 minutes passed and not a single female horror fan was interviewed. An animated illustration of a study that reveals men are less attracted to women who like horror movies similarly turned me off… until halfway through the film, in which an entire segment was devoted to the challenges female horror buffs and creators face. Thoughtfully articulated, the film’s male voice is quiet as it lets female directors, fans, and writers talk about how both men and women have challenged whether it’s okay for women to be into horror, the various ways the industry has deliberately excluded them, and a call for the industry and the fan community to change and accept women. In the wake of major misogyny in fan communities like GamerGate and the continued harassment of female cosplayers at conventions, it’s important to create avenues for women in horror, sci-fi, gaming, and comics to allow their voices to be heard. I’m grateful to that fact (and in this light, the animated study of why men aren’t sexually attracted to female horror fans says more about ingrained sexism and male machismo, and is made fun of rather than celebrated), but there’s a lot of other things to like about Why Horror? It’s sweet and sentimental, definitely something one wouldn’t expect when it comes to a documentary about fans of the horror genre, but it ends up becoming a story about how our fears make us human, and how horror films paradoxically assure us that everything is going to be okay.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
I’ve never seen the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown, but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (of American Horror Story fame) has created a standalone meta-sequel that pays homage to the original while crafting its own story. Based on a series of real-life unsolved murders that occurred in the 1940s in Texarkana, a Texas town on the Texan/Arkansas border, the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a cult classic beloved by horror buffs and screened at the actual Texarkana drive-in every year around Halloween. This is the premise of this new film, which insinuates itself in a world where copycat killers run amok in Texarkana 65 years after the original murders. The film’s protagonist is a likeable and relatable “final girl”, a fully developed character brought to light by Addison Timlin with intelligence and a fragility that masks a deeper courage. The slasher genre has been so maligned in the past, fraught with disastrously silly and inane shlock that devolved into self-parody after the Scream franchise. While films like the dark and tightly funny You’re Next have heralded a bit of a renaissance, great slashers are still few and far between. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is beautifully-directed and stylish, using cinematography to set a quiet and lovely ambiance that’s not often seen in this genre. I was lucky enough to catch the Q and A with Gomez-Rejon after the screening, and he stated that the town of Texarkana was welcoming, gracious, and warm to the cast and crew, and their admiration of its citizens, neighbourhoods, and wilderness is apparent in every shot.
Honourable Mention: Let Us Prey
Let Us Pray is unconcerned with subtlety, or suggestion. It’s a balls-to-the-wall police station bloodbath by way of the Book of Revelations, starring an enigmatic Liam Cunningham (who you may remember from that little-known HBO show about an Iron Throne and some games) as a silent and sardonic messenger of death who knows all your secrets. Especially the secrets involving the dead lovers in your freezer. I’ve been super happy with the amount of talented female actresses playing well-written female characters in this year’s Toronto After Dark programming, and Pollyanna McIntosh as a humourless, by-the-books cop in a police station where everyone is corrupt (running the gamut from simple adultery to the aforementioned lovers in the freezer) is an engaging badass I’d be happy to have on my side in an apocalyptic shootout any day.