With another year of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in the books, here’s our round up of the remaining films we were able to catch at this year’s celebration of genre films. Here’s looking forward to next year!
When I think of “body sushi”, I envision a loud, clamouring room, filled with Sake sipping business men on a drunken night of indulgence. The Japanese call it Nyotaimori—which literally translates to ‘female body presentation’. It’s an act in which a beautiful young woman lays dead-still for hours while patrons knock back sushi rolls and Sashimi neatly set all over her naked body. Kern Saxton’s feature film debut Sushi Girl may take place in a room full of drunken dudes, but the only pleasures this gruesome psychological thriller brings are sick kicks aimed squarely at an audience thirsty for guns and gore. Saxton’s earnest camera work and stylish story keeps Sushi Girl from buckling under its potentially depthless premise and thankfully this movie brings more to the table than just a gorgeous girl laden in raw tuna.
The ghoul-like Duke (Tony Todd) assembles a group of old friends to his new dig: a dilapidated shit-hole restaurant with a Japanese-style dining room. Duke’s first dinner party guest is the frantic and outspoken smart ass Martin (Mark Hamill). Subtle hints slowly reveal that lurking beneath Martin’s coy exterior rests a sharp tongue and sadistic humour. This would make Martin no different than the two other snakes Duke eventually throws in this death pit. The barbarous Max (Andy Mackenzie) and care-free, rich boy cokehead Francis (James Duval) are gathered here to ‘celebrate’ their old heist team member Fish’s (Noah Hathaway) prison release. As the crooks try to torture locations of missing loot out of Fish, Sushi Girl plays out as a compelling ‘whodunnit’, horrifically unravelling before the mysterious sushi girl forced to sit at bay on their table.
Co-written by Saxton and Millionaire Matchmaker COO and reality TV star Destin Pfaff, Sushi Girl’s thoughtfully groomed gallery of cut-throat killers is this duo’s first obvious nod to Reservoir Dogs. Taking place in a derelict building, recounting flashbacks of their failed heist and acts of heinous torture align this film with Tarantino’s ambitions– but what elevates this above cheap imitation is its equally unforgettable band of thieves. Saxton and Pfaff practically lift Todd out of the Candyman trilogy and plop him down to embrace his shadowy menace; Mackenzie’s fucked up ‘wool hat boy’ mentality makes him a shoo-in for Rob Zombies Firefly family and Hathaway looks as if Atreyu grew up on a steady diet of Cocaine. Can’t forget Duval too- who looks just as dead eyed-clueless as his Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko.
But it’s Hamill’s flamboyant Martin who stands out the most, giving his best performance since playing a doe-eyed boy from Tatooine. Better yet, Saxton and Pfaff put one of the most intriguing spins on the ‘heist gone wrong’ film I’ve ever seen: Martin is not only obviously queer, but a complete fucking bad ass. He wields guns with the boys, holds his ground and strikes back when repeatedly called a ‘faggot’ by Max and even delivers a savage torture session comparable to Mr. Blonde’s infamously disturbed play date with a tied up cop in Reservoir Dogs. Sushi Girl sees Hamill throwing us for a grand size performance which might just be the highest point in his 30 year career.
Sushi Girl’s only suffering is a weak ending that makes for an honest attempt at a twist that just barely falls short of being anything truly shocking. Still, the copious amount of bullets that fly in this film, coupled with its agonizing and prolonged torture scene—have you ever seen someone smacked across the face with a sock filled with broken glass?!—make this impressively scripted noir-horror show an affable offering to Tarantino’s church of homage, boobs and blood. - Brandon Bastaldo
Positioned somewhere just slightly right of the politics of the cult hit Attack the Block, this intensely claustrophobic Irish import from director Ciaran Foy starts off grimly and never looks back.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) can only watch as he gets trapped on an elevator in his condemned apartment building as his pregnant wife is brutally assaulted by a gang of almost feral hoodies. After losing his wife, but saving the child, Tommy has to deal with an almost crippling case of agoraphobia that leads to panic attacks every time he steps outside of his flat. The building is about to come down once and for all, but when he misses his bus out of town, he’s forced to protect his young daughter from the marauders who want to steal her and make the child one of their own.
With shades of The Believers, Demons 2, and Vertigo, Foy delivers a compact and no bullshit thriller anchored by some phenomenal work from Barnard in the lead. While Foy does his best to make the audience know that these monsters are a legitimate threat (sometime a little too literally with the appearance of the stock “crazed priest” character), Barnard actually makes the viewer wonder if maybe his mind is just too damaged to realize what’s going on. When his fears turn out to be real, he becomes one of the most sympathetic horror heroes in recent memory. - Andrew Parker
My Amityville Horror
No matter your feelings on the real life Lutz family who infamously purchased a Long Island, New York house where a mass murder took place only to flip out and say there was a strange haunting going on, this sometimes wonky documentary from Eric Walter paints a more psychologically interesting film than any of the fictional counterparts in its wake.
Focusing exclusively on the life of Daniel Lutz, one of three children living in the “possessed” house with his parents George and Kathy, Walter focuses on the point of view of someone who is quite possibly full of shit, but might not know he’s wrong. Danny, a loner who hates his father and has been on his own since he was a teenager, has never told his side of the story before, and in the film’s direct interviews, it’s easy to see why. He’s still scarred by whatever happened to him, and the factual accuracy of his parent’s accounts don’t have any bearing on the broken man they turned him into. Danny is equal parts sympathetic, self-effacing, and sometimes downright intimidating. There are some experts on hand and some trips down memory lane with a private investigator and a particularly nutty medium that even Danny has trouble believing to prove and disprove his account in equal amounts.
With only Danny’s viewpoint and the deceased George and Kathy shuffled into archival footage (and the declining of Danny’s two siblings to be interviewed), we aren’t seeing a balanced look at a possible hoax from the point of view of a 7 year old boy, but the angry man he turned into; one who hates having to constantly defend himself to the point where one believes he could lash out violently. That’s not the real problem overall, but without anything to really counteract how powerful Danny is, the film at times feels somewhat repetitive and slowly paced. It’s an interesting addition to the Amityville mythos, but it ultimately doesn’t add much substance overall. - Andrew Parker
A Fantastic Fear of Everything
One of the reasons I stopped probing Wikipedia’s “Serial Killer by Country” list was because, although morbidly fascinating, reading about so many gruesome murders completely creeped me out. I guess this is why the latest Simon Pegg horror-comedy vehicle A Fantastic Fear of Everything was so relatable and enjoyable for me. Co-directed by rocker Crispian Mills and music video director Chris Hopewell, A Fantastic Fear of Everything is a Poe styled joke movie about a paranoid writer whose copious research on serial killers for a novel has made him a hilariously fun wreck to watch. Laden with groovy music and eye catching slow motion sequences, the directing duo deliver a cute film that at time gets lost but eventually manages to find its way.
Jack (Simon Pegg) is a small time author preparing to write about Victorian serial killers. His room looks like an imprisoned IRA member from Hunger’s jail cell and his long beard and uncombed red locks paint him something like a full blown OCD Howard Hughes. Constantly fearing for his life, Jack hardly ever leaves his room or house and has horrible nightmares that a masked madman will eventually get him. Offered a golden chance with to meet with a major publisher, Jack finds himself struggling to finally overcome his crippling agoraphobia. Running around with a kitchen knife super glued to his hand and eventually tied up in the basement hide out of a goofy wannabe serial killer, A Fantastic Fear of Everything proves one hell of a fearfully funny ride.
Based on Withnail and I writer and director Bruce Robinson’s novella Paranoia in the Launderette, Mills and Hopewell’s adaptation of Robinson’s ground work is formidable. From early on, you can’t ignore the movie’s great use of sound. Blaring everything from Ice Cube to Pegg’s own voice on his ‘Uzilicious’ gangster rap mixtape, one of the smarter things that this Victorian styled farce does is make its sounds stand out just as its rich visuals.
Hopewell – director of music videos for bands like Radiohead, The Killers and Franz Ferdinand – has a clear influence on what we’re seeing. When the film begins, Jack appears to be just a paranoid, dirty under wear clad man haunted by his own delusions. But through cool slow motion sequences and creative camera angles, Hopewell yanks us into Jack’s world of insanity so we can share his viewpoint of madness.
One of my favourite things about this movie is that the directors aren’t afraid to take a detour every once in a while to spice things up. Like, when Jack gazes off into his serial killer diorama and the box and the set comes to life in a stop motion cartoon segment. I really dig these deviations, as they are responsible for keeping this already unusual tale’s plot kicking.
Yet, for all the stop motion scenes and very enjoyable musical sequences this film has—watching Pegg perform a gangster rap ballad is just as mind blowing as it sounds—it seems like a Fantastic Fear of Everything has a fear of truly committing to its plot. It takes quite some time to progress with the ideas of this film and for a while it feels like Mill’s and Hopewell may be more stuck in Jack’s filthy apartment than they realize.
The movie’s main girl Sangeet (Amara Karan) is well acted and makes for a smooth on screen chemistry with Pegg’s insanity, but unfortunately Karan is only in the latter half of the film–a neglect of tremendous talent.
Maybe a conscientious commentary on the highly distracted nature of all writers, or, just an excuse to watch Pegg parade around in dirty underwear, A Fantastic Fear of Everything maybe a bit confused of its own purpose but it’s well-crafted dark humour more than atones for its misgivings. - Brandon Bastaldo
Game of Werewolves
Spanish director Juan Martinez Moreno’s second feature film Game of Werewolves attempts to form a hybrid comedy-horror film with inklings of The Shinning, but instead, Moreno only achieves the low budget badness of a Goosebumps episode. Moreno (who also wrote) says that he was inspired by older werewolf films like An American Werewolf in London and chose to use traditional make up and special effects. In an industry dominated by the cost and labour effective qualities of everything computer generated, Moreno’s earnest intentions seem endearing. But with a languid story that could only fly with the dwellers of the one horse town the movie is set in, I’d choose crappy 1990’s styled CGI over this any day.
Prefaced by an animated parable, we learn that the Marquise of the Marino family from the village of Galicia forced a traveling gypsy to have sex with her under threat of death. The Marino’s are cursed in return and the Marquise’s later born son turns into a werewolf when he is ten years old. This all happened in 1910, and 100 years later we see failed writer Tomás (Gorka Otxoa)—the of the Marino line—return to Galicia to receive what he thinks is a reward. While in Galicia, Tomás is determined to finish writing a novel. But after waking the long slumbering werewolf of Arga, Tomás and his dopey buddy Calisto (Carlos Areces) only find themselves fighting to put an end to this curse.
After stumbling through an overlong running time, it’s obvious Moreno didn’t take the time to ask himself realistic questions before he pumped out this exercise in boredom. The idea of a lame novelist held up in a creepy old town is intriguing on paper, but unlike other festival favourites like Alex Chandon’s Inbred which monopolizes on the run down visuals of an isolated no man’s land, Moreno does little more than use its rustic setting as only a muted back drop for its lacklustre plot.
I brought up Goosebumps for an important reason. Moreno tries to fill Game of Werewolves with quaint, innocent humour, like the kind you’d see in kiddie horror TV shows. We watch Tomás act like a goofball and tell silly stories about himself peeing his bed and sleeping with his parents after being scared as a teen. Cute, yes, but the incredibly bone-headed naiveté Tomás becomes endearing once he and Calisto—who walks, talks and looks like every film’s typical comedic relief—start getting chased around by growling Werewolves. The movie degenerates into a live action and unbearably prolonged Tales from the Crypt episode with 0 percent of the same whimsical morbidity.
The look of Moreno’s ‘old school’ werewolves are also a serious let down. I understand that Moreno makes this movie with fun intentions, but no matter what calibre of horror-comedy you’re trying to produce it always pays to at least make your monsters are something to look at. The werewolf in Game of Werewolves just looks like a tall guy wearing a furry suit and a dollar store Halloween mask.
An unfortunate closing to the tremendously entertaining seventh annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival, the short comings of this bummer-of-a-werewolf film make me appreciate the cheap, yet now clearly adroit, horror of TV shows like Are You Afraid Dark? - Brandon Bastaldo