Bangkok prisons, slasher summer camps, lost highways, yakuza enclaves, and wicked woods. Staycations have never looked better!
TIFF’s Midnight Madness finished its 2015 run early Sunday morning to thunderous applause—but the back half of the series vividly illustrated the perils of leaving your cozy couch for, well, anywhere.
None of the MM entries exemplified this more than Southbound, an under-the-radar omnibus horror film directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence, and David Bruckner. The movie looks at a succession of travellers who get stranded on the same stretch of highway and find themselves battling deranged gunmen, flying wraiths, pits of tentacles, Satanic cultists, and evil emergency operators, all to the dulcet tones of radio DJ (and ubiquitous indie horror maven) Larry Fessenden. Horror anthologies are usually uneven affairs, but Southbound’s interlocking stories support and propel each other and provide some genuine scares and surprises. The overriding message: Stay home.
By contrast, the message embedded in Yakuza Apocalypse, the latest film from master of mayhem Takashi Miike, is “stay foolish,” the last words of advice from dying gangster Kamiura to his young protégé Kageyama—right before biting him on the neck. Yes, the yakuza in Takashi’s genre-bending free-for-all are no longer the noble warriors of old, but vampires literally sucking the blood out of the locals. Kamiura’s bite transfers his considerable powers to Kageyama, just as the titular event is about to descend upon them in the form of a coffin-toting witch-hunter, an anime geek-turned-martial-arts whirlwind, a repulsive, beaked water demon and, um, someone or something in a furry, felt frog suit. If it sounds like a chaotic mishmash that would try your patience, it is. If it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, it is. There’s no other way to say it: If this is the kind of thing you love, you will love this thing. If not, you might prefer something with a more coherent plot that still delivers the hard-hitting goods.
Something like…SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, a semi-sequel to 2005’s SPL (Saat Po Long, known in North America by the deceptively generic title Kill Zone), in which Thai prison guard Tony Jaa—in arguably his best performance since his astonishing debut in Ong Bak—must find a bone marrow donor for his dying daughter. Little does he realize that the perfect match is a Cantonese cop imprisoned in his very own jail (the outstanding Wu Jing, channelling peak Jackie Chan), whose cover was blown after his infiltration of an organ trafficking ring went spectacularly off the rails. At one point, the words “A Better Tomorrow” are prominently placed onscreen, hinting that director Soi Cheang is paying homage to the John Woo classic. While several of the set pieces are impressive (including a ferocious gunfight in an airport lounge and a massive brawl in the Thai prison, which has Wu dodging flying fists and bullets while trying to receive a signal on a cellphone), the escalating melodrama of the twisting, turning plot and some thuddingly obvious symbolism pull the film back from greatness. Some trimming and tightening might well win the film a larger international audience.
The final Midnight Madness film was the horror-comedy crowdpleaser The Final Girls, directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and starring American Horror Story‘s Taissa Farmiga as Max, the daughter of a deceased movie scream queen (an utterly charming Malin Akerman). For reasons that make no sense and do not matter, Max and several of her friends end up trapped in her mother’s greatest hit, a cult slasher titled Camp Bloodbath, which makes Birdemic look like The Cherry Orchard. Once there, they realize that the key to escape may be to screw with the film’s retrograde rules regarding women and sex, and to bait masked killer Billy into an elaborate series of traps that harken back to the first Nightmare on Elm Street. Of course, things don’t go as planned and the body count regardlessly rises, forcing Max and her mother’s “shy girl with a clipboard” character Nancy into a climactic confrontation with the machete-wielding murderer. While The Final Girls lacks the dark edge of the best Scream films and the arch cleverness of The Cabin in the Woods, it is funny and suspenseful, parodying the genre with affection and imbuing its characters with much-appreciated heart and soul.
Oddly, one of the very best Midnight Madness films this year wasn’t part of the actual programme. This year’s Special Presentations series hosted the Sundance sensation The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers, about a Puritan-era family exiled from their settlement—seemingly for being too Christian—and forced to set up a farm on the edge of a not-exactly-uninhabited forest. Whomever or whatever lurks there insinuates itself on the already-tense and fractious household and turns them against each other with terrifying ease. Stately, austere and suffused with dread, The Witch is perhaps not fun enough for Midnight Madness (it is, in fact, no fun whatsoever), and is sure to be too slow for the jump-and-jolt crowd. For the rest of us, it achieves an extraordinary intensity, and several grotesque and unsettling turns will shock even the most jaded viewers. The future of horror may well be in the past, and the horrors we thought were of the past may be nearer than we think.
Oh, and don’t go in the woods. And maybe don’t talk to the goat.