The Toronto After Dark Film Festival will make its return to its first love, the newly renovated Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for nine nights this October. The complete makeover includes better seating, a top notch digital projector and a much improved sound system. Also I really appreciated that the film intros were projected onto the screen so balcony dwellers don’t miss out on any of the action.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this homecoming than Toronto After Dark’s first Summer Screening Nights. It makes the wait for the actual Film Festival that much more bearable, as well as wisely keeping TAD in genre fans’ collective consciousness all summer long. Audiences got treated to two nights of four feature films. While they’re all dabbling within the horror genre, each film had its own unique flavour. To kick-off the festivities, Festival Director and Founder, Adam Lopez played one of his personal favourites, Director Peter Cornwell’s (The Haunting in Connecticut) 2003 Claymation short, Ward 13. This delightfully kooky, action-packed ride is not to be missed. If the strong audience turnout for these double bills (final showing was a sell-out) is any indication, this is a start to a more than welcome summer tradition.
Disclaimer: I will only be reviewing three of the four titles since one of them just happened to be V/H/S. While I had nothing to do with the making of the film, it would be in very poor taste to review it as a Contributing Writer on this site. Being a horror devotee like yourself, it sucks not to be able to share my thoughts with you. Oh well, it is what it is.
JUAN OF THE DEAD
Juan of the Dead will go down in the history books as Cuba’s first foray into horror. Writer/Director Alejandro Brugués doesn’t take this honour lightly. Genuine enthusiasm pours out of this charming horror/comedy’s every frame. There are more than enough flabbergasting moments of dark humour littered throughout that left me dumbfounded trying to figure out how the filmmakers managed to convince the Cuban government to not only green-light the project but actually invest money into it.
Juan is a middle-aged man who spends his time under the radar. Along with his best friend Lazaro, he’s perfectly content living a completely care-free, directionless existence. Unfortunately his tranquility is threatened by a zombie apocalypse in which for the first time in his life he must take action. It’s no accident that the film’s title is inspired by Shaun of the Dead. Both films share similar characteristics, most of all having their respective country’s culture and personality as the foundation. Juan of the Dead is a Cuban production and while it satirically pokes fun, there is no doubting the filmmakers are proud of this distinction. The Havana backdrop adds a fantastic scope to the picture. There’s no better example of the heightened production value than the impressive hoards of zombie extras that take over some of the most iconic Cuban landmarks. In a time where the cinema seems to feature only CGI-enhanced crowds, it’s kind of jarring to see the real thing again. Even though the visual effects are of lower tier, you admire the ambition of such imagery.
The film isn’t perfect though. The story is sloppily-told and pacing is an issue on occasion. Ultimately, Juan of the Dead’s sincerity, sense of humour and charm won me over. Like The Dead before it, a change of scenery is more than enough to give a tired sub-genre a much-needed kick in the ass.
P.S. The film gets extra points for hilariously presenting zombies fast asleep which correct me if I’m wrong, is a cinematic first.
On the surface, Writer/Director Nicholas McCarthy’s feature-length debut, The Pact (based on his short of the same name) comes across sounding like your standard supernatural thriller. While trying to come to terms with the recent death of her mother and the mysterious disappearance of her sister, Annie encounters a disturbing presence in her childhood home. Aside from the effectively chilling opening scene, The Pact soon settles into the familiar touchstones of the sub-genre; brooding tone, slow pace and all. I was unengaged with the film during this period but once the mystery began to reveal itself, McCarthy cranks up the tension barometer and never lets up.
During his video introduction, McCarthy acknowledged the works of John Carpenter and Dario Argento as a source of inspiration. These two artists are night and day stylistically; Carpenter prefers classical filmmaking over Argento’s operatic brushstrokes. McCarthy boldly infuses Giallo’s broad motifs into a subtle, old-fashioned aesthetic which by definition is an oxymoron…and it works. The violent beats appear sparingly but man, when they hit, it’s swift and forceful. One death in particular would be more than welcome in a Dario Argento film (well, when he was still any good). The Pact does contain some of Giallo’s most polarizing attributes; its affection for gaping plot holes and a blatant disregard for things such as logic. A quality I’ll admit I’ve excused Italian horror films on countless occasions because of its commitment to atmosphere and jaw-dropping imagery. I know some folks that hold it against the film. I didn’t. McCarthy had me too distracted to notice such things; a mark of a real talent.
The craftsmanship is impressive for a low budget film. It contains one beautifully-composed shot after another. The third act contains some of the most genuinely heart-pounding sequences I’ve seen all year. Just when I was getting tired of supernatural horror, indies such as Absentia and The Pact pop up, surprise and find fresh ways to reignite the genre.
Nowadays it’s trendy for a filmmaker to be begging moviegoers to fork over their hard-earned dollars to fund his or her project. Not in Joseph Kahn’s case. This music video guru (just hop onto his official site and scroll through his never-ending videography) put his own dough into his second feature, Detention (his first being the shitacular Torque). After seeing the film, I’m completely convinced Kahn had no other option. There is absolutely no way any major studio would dish out a single dime towards Detention. From now on whenever I hear the phrase “batshit crazy” uttered, this movie will instantly spring to mind. I’m even going to avoid dropping a description (to be honest, I wouldn’t even know where to start) in this review. I’d even stay clear from the weak sauce trailer. It’s downright restrained in comparison to the final product. This is the type of picture best enjoyed or despised without any prior knowledge whatsoever. It has to be seen to be believed.
This Scream by way of Scott Pilgrim, by way of The Breakfast Club, by way of etc. (and even dropping those associations is short changing it) mash-up is total insanity and I was with it every second of the way. Detention can be enjoyed as an ultra-dumb teen comedy, a savage commentary on the ADD Generation, a slasher film, a sci-fi thriller or as the ultimate pop culture spoof. It’s all those things and more.
Kahn’s music video background really comes into play here. He somehow manages to translate the ultra-stylization and breakneck, nitro-strapped pace from that format and sustain it at a feature-length. I’ll admit that watching Detention can be exhaustive but I admired the incredible effort poured into every frame, not just by the filmmakers but by the perfectly in tune ensemble. Kahn has made this film as if he somehow knew he’d never get the opportunity to make another film again. The fearless, go-for-broke quality of Detention is its most admirable quality. Hell, it makes Scott Pilgrim appear to have the snail-pacing of a Terrance Malik film.
Did I understand what was going on? Not as often as I’d like to admit. This is the first film where I really felt old and out of touch. Despite that, I was completely enraptured with its incomparable energy and newness. I’m more than certain that people’s opinion of it will be all over the map. None of them will be wrong. The only thing I can say for certain; no one will ever accuse Joseph Kahn’s Detention of being anything but one of a kind.
FYI – Detention will releasing on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on July 31st from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. It’s a blind-buy if I ever saw one.