Thrills and laughs aplenty, but it was the short-film collection that impressed the most.
An Irish “hoodie horror” about an agoraphobe who must protect his baby from feral children terrorizing a dilapidated tower block, a two-pals-in-a-cabin horror movie that upended conventions and expectations, and a surrealist take on crime thrillers about a man whose dog has been kidnapped—and then lost—by a ponytailed pet guru were among the best of the fest at this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival. But it was the exceptionally high-quality international short-film program that stole the show, and helped to make this one of Toronto After Dark’s best years ever.
Ciaran Foy’s Citadel was an admirably straight-up, balls-out horror movie that evoked such films as the unsettling French chiller Them (Ils), Bernard Rose’s mythic Candyman, and David Cronenberg’s The Brood while remaining true to its own path and confident in the power of its premise: a man forced to overcome his crippling anxieties to save his child from the same young hooligans who murdered his wife. (But why did they kill her? And why do they want the baby?) The film was direct and compelling, at times achingly tense, and refreshing in its acknowledgement that not everyone is an action hero in waiting; sometimes people plunged into nightmarish circumstances are simply scared shitless.
We picked Justin Benson’s and Aaron Moorhead’s debut feature Resolution as one of After Dark’s best bets before it had ever screened, and we were not disappointed. Hair-raising and mind-bending by turns, its depiction of a friendship under siege from within and without was funny and unsettling, and that was before the drug dealers, the asylum patients, the space cult, and the creepy girl at the window—not to mention the videotapes, photographs, film reels, records, projector slides, and cave paintings. An exploration of the role storytelling plays in our lives that all the while subverts and disrupts its own narrative, Resolution was like a creepy collaboration between Sam Raimi and Michael Haneke.
We also suspected we’d enjoy Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist film Wrong, given how much we liked its predecessor, the “telekinetic killer tire” movie Rubber. And we were right. Ostensibly the story of one guy’s quest for his stolen dog, Wrong expands on the playful surrealism on display in Rubber and takes it to delightful new levels. Dupieux has found the perfect foil in Jack Plotnick as the perpetually put-upon Dolph Springer, and William Fichtner has a field day as his Udo Kier–inflected nemesis, Master Chang. That said, this is one of those movies that either delights you or annoys you. If you can tune into its quirky wavelength, you’ll have a great time, but if Rubber didn’t rub you the right way, you’ll find plenty that’s wrong with this film too.
Despite the best efforts of festival programmers, short films tend to be overlooked by the press and the public. Toronto After Dark has always shown great support for short films and their creators, regularly pairing well-chosen shorts with feature screenings. However, this year’s international short-film program, co-presented by the monthly genre short-film showcase Little Terrors, was truly exceptional and arguably the highlight of the entire event. While it’s a challenge to pick just a few standouts, we were bowled over by the stylish Korean film Numbers, the grotesque stop-motion animation of Bobby Yeah, the heartbreaking science-fiction short HENRi, the hilarious ’80s horror spoof Vicki, and the tender, melancholy Caterwaul.
Overall, this was easily one of the strongest years for Toronto After Dark in recent memory. While every festival has its less fortunate (and sometimes mystifying) choices, the quality of this year’s offering was impressively high. Festival director Adam Lopez and his team are to be commended on their choices; we are already counting the days until Toronto After Dark 2013.
Additional reporting by Alicia Pang.