October always brings about a slew of spooky movies and attractions, so it’s only fitting that the 12th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival kicks off this week. Running from Thursday, October 12th to Friday, October 20th, it’s a highlight of the calendar year for local genre aficionados. Bringing the best in homegrown, American, and international genre fare to local audiences, Toronto After Dark is more than just severed limbs and severed arteries.
In our first dispatch from this year’s festival (which kicks off tonight at the Scotiabank Theatre) we look at six films from this year’s line up – 5 from the early days of the festival and the festival’s closing night gala presentation.
My Friend Dahmer
Opening Night Gala
Musician and former Disney Channel kiddie star Ross Lynch delivers a career making and transformative performance as one of America’s most notorious serial killers in writer-director Mark Meyers’ purposefully unnerving, but uniquely empathetic adaptation of Derf Backderf graphic autobiography My Friend Dahmer.
Lynch stars as Jeffery Dahmer across the soon-to-be mass murderer’s final years of high school. An outcast with an obsession for roadkill, a perpetually worried father (Dallas Roberts), and a scatterbrained, hard nosed, pill popping mother (a wonderful Anne Heche), young Jeffery uneasily integrates himself into a group of teenage friends who see the young man’s quirks as endearing and sometimes hilarious.
Meyers (How He Fell in Love) frames Dahmer’s story as a series of loosely connected anecdotes along a finite timeline and moments meant to call viewers’ attentions to some warning signs while wisely obfuscating questions that could lead to impossible answers. The late 70s period trappings are captured in a lovingly pastoral light that serves to nicely underline the suburban malaise instead of distracting from it.
Alex Wolff – himself a former Disney star – turns in an equally noteworthy and nuanced performance as Derf (our audience surrogate), but the film belongs to Lynch, whose blend of longing and dead eyed creepiness will haunt viewers more than if My Friend Dahmer were framed as stock serial killer origin story.
Rating (out of five stars): 4 stars
Screens (all screenings at Scotiabank Theatre):
Thursday, October 12 – 7:00 pm
Saturday, October 14 – 11:59pm
Sixty Minutes to Midnight
If Canadian filmmaker Neil Mackay’s highly entertaining action thriller Sixty Minute to Midnight had been made in the 1980s with a (slightly) bigger budget, it would have starred Rutger Hauer as the hero and David Strathairn as the smarmy villain, and it would have been a stone cold classic. I mean that as a huge compliment because despite it’s throwback appearance, director-editor-and cinematographer Mackay’s film remains a hoot to watch.
Genre stalwart Robert Nolan stars as Jack Darcy, a divorced, alcoholic Vietnam vet and war photographer turned West Texas construction worker. His plans to pass out on his couch to wallow in his own misery instead of celebrating the new millennium on December 31st, 1999 are thwarted when a bunch of military assassins attempt to trap and kill Jack as part of a sicko game show that kicks off its broadcast at 11pm. If Jack survives for one hour against trained Marines and Navy SEALS, he’ll be left alone and win a million dollars.
Stylish, but never overblown Mackay’s largely single location siege picture benefits greatly from a tight script courtesy of Terry McDonald (who also co-stars as the villainous game show host). A subtly pointed look at pre-9/11 American decline, loss, PTSD, and even how hard it is to quit smoking, Sixty Minutes to Midnight gives its leading man more to chew on than most heroic roles of this nature.
Sure, the idea of a downtrodden nobody forced into a situation such as this isn’t anything new, but as far as Most Dangerous Game riffs go, this Carpenter-esque entry slots nicely alongside The Running Man and the perennially underrated Series 7.
Stars (out of five stars): 4 stars
Thursday, October 12 – 9:45 pm (director, cast, and crew in attendance)
Cult of Chucky
Franchise auteur Don Mancini resurrects everyone’s favourite innocuous looking doll with the soul of a serial killer for the strongly directed Cult of Chucky.
Picking up where the previous installment left off, troubled and wheelchair bound Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) is about to be transferred from a maximum security mental hospital to a medium security facility after she admits that Chucky isn’t real and that she was somehow responsible for the last string of the Good Guy doll’s murders. Not-so-huge-of-a-spoiler-alert: Chucky was real the whole time and he has all new designs on how to make life for Nica and her fellow patients a living nightmare. Meanwhile, Chucky’s first target Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) continues a tireless quest to stop the unkillable doll’s reign of infamy once and for all.
Mancini – who has been with the franchise since its inception – might be throwing out about five too many red herrings here, but the general conceit of Cult of Chucky is so delightfully simple that it’s amazing no one thought of it sooner. Sure, it’s just a Ten Little Indians plot where one of the suspects is Chucky (again voiced by Fiona’s dad, Brad Dourif), but it works.
Also, it’s gorgeous to look at. The whitewashed, isolated hospital setting (which was shot primarily in wintry Winnipeg) lends itself to some gorgeous looking imagery and some purposefully cheeky visual shout outs to Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock. It might be just another wisecracking, tongue-in-cheek entry for the series, but it looks and moves better than many of its predecessors, and all parties involved look like they’re having a blast in Chucky’s new playground. It’s an old doll with some wonky parts and brand new batteries.
Stars (out of five stars): 3.5 stars
Friday, October 15 – 9:15 pm (director, star, Chucky doll, and select cast and crew in attendance)
Friday, October 15 – 11:59 pm
South Korean director and co-writer Byung-gil Jung’s intermittently badass, but often hopelessly confusing and overstuffed revenge thriller The Villainess is staged and performed with enough panache and elegance that the incomprehensible time-shifting plotline is thankfully secondary.
Trained from a young age to become a world class assassin, Sook-hee (a perfectly cast Ok-bin Kim) entered into an agreement that would see her work for ten years as a trained killer before being allowed to go her own way and live life however she wants. But after she begins a new career as a stage actress, a betrayal will cause her to get dragged back into her old lifestyle.
The 129 minute running time would suggest enough room for wall-to-wall thrills and plenty of plot to co-exist nicely, but really only the first twenty and final thirty minutes have the bulk of Sook-hee’s derring-do and the often dry middle portion seems to have been stitched together sloppily and incongruously from eight or nine completely different thrillers. The Villainess tries to be smart, but comes across as almost indecipherable even after a second viewing.
All that sticks here is the slickness of the direction and production design and Ok-bin Kim’s strong, unstoppable heroine. It’s barely enough to make the whole thing worth sitting through, but try to ignore whenever the plot starts to take on more than it can handle.
Stars (out of five stars): 2.5 stars
Saturday, October 14 – 6:00 pm
Those who like their thrills on the strange and psychological side would do well setting aside some time for Australian filmmaker Luke Shanahan’s debut feature, Rabbit, a deft blend of art house sheen, grindhouse sleaze, and a dash of surreal strangeness.
Haunted by memories and visions of her missing and presumed dead identical twin, medical student Maude (Adelaide Clemens) leaves her studies in Germany behind to revisit her Australian hometown in hopes of proving that her sister is being held captive somewhere. With her parents strangely unhelpful and locals offering even less, Maude – through a psychic connection with her sister – uncovers the truth behind a devious cult; one that Maude might have just unwittingly helped by coming home.
Rabbit leads to some interesting, thoughtful places and its themes of sisterly togetherness are portrayed expertly through Clemens’ nuanced dual turn. It’s hard to explain just where writer-director Shanahan is headed, but it’s worth following him down the elaborate rabbit hole he has created.
Shanahan’s slow-burn directorial style is propulsive and consistently unnerving, but like many filmmakers’ debut features, Rabbit sometimes leans too heavily on its industrial musical score and jarring edits to give the film some high spots when it was doing fine without them. Rabbit is still quite an accomplished film, and it’s going to be great when Shanahan becomes more confident in his material.
Rating (out of five stars): 3.5 stars
Sunday, October 15 – 4:00 pm
Closing Night Gala
Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp (who viewers might remember from Deadpool and X-Men: Apocalypse, respectively, as Negasonic Teenage Warhead and a young Storm) make for a devilishly delightful duo in director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre’s gleefully gory and satirical look at social media obsession, Tragedy Girls.
Sadie (Hildebrand) and McKayla (Shipp) are nearly lifelong BFF’s and budding teenage serial killers with perfect lives on the outside and black hearts on the inside. Their string of murders intensifies after they kidnap and imprison a much older and stronger serial killer (Kevin Durand) in a bid to look for tips on how to kill more effectively. When their crazed captive balks at the idea, they continue about their business, anyway, murdering fellow classmates and anyone who stands in their way so their Twitter accounts and blogs – where they play “sympathetic” commentators on all of this senseless violence – gain more traction and attention.
The script from MacIntyre and Chris Lee Hill (who previously collaborated on the equally satirical throwback slasher comedy Patchwork) is one re-write away from being exceptional, but instead there are a few too many convenient coincidences and logical gaps to hold everything together. The narrative energy starts to flag dramatically down the stretch, but even at its lowest points, Hildebrand and Shipp are so dynamic, funny, and menacing that Tragedy Girls remains compulsively watchable and fun throughout.
Rating (out of five stars): 3 stars
Friday, October 20 – 9:15 pm (director in attendance)
Friday, October 20 – 11:59 pm
For a full list of films, showtimes, tickets, and more information, visit the Toronto After Dark website, and stay tuned for more updates from this year’s festival throughout the week.