The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: two slasher classics and a mind-bender starring Viggo Mortensen and a witch.
Directed by John Carpenter
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
John Carpenter single-handedly started the golden age of the slasher with Halloween, which holds up nearly 40 years into its critical shelf life as one of the most economical and efficient modern horror films. Though Carpenter would take great strides toward both body horror (The Thing) and satire (They Live) in the years to come, Halloween impresses for its obsessively minimalist aesthetic and cool disinterest in anything beyond its stark outline of an implacable, faceless serial killer pursuing his innocent target.
Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Laurie, the mouse to serial killer (and long lost brother, as the retconned sequel would confirm) Michael Myers’ cat. A brainy, demure sort who serves as designated babysitter on the titular holiday where her friends are busy indulging in carnal pleasures, Laurie is the only person who stands a chance against the boogeyman of Haddonfield, Ill.
As in most slashers, there’s a worrying conservative sheen to the plot, which sees Laurie’s sexually adventurous friends dispatched as a consequence of their perversions—making Myers’ knife the ultimate contraceptive device. But Carpenter’s filmmaking is just this side of sublime, toying with the spectators’ perspective in eerie point-of-view and tracking shots that align us with the film’s predator as much as his prey.
Directed by Wes Craven
The Royal (608 College Street)
It’s hard to remember this now in the wake of its many successors, but when it arrived on the horror scene in 1996, Scream was a new thing. Scripted by future Dawson’s Creek creator (and, less auspiciously, I Know What You Did Last Summer scribe) Kevin Williamson and helmed by the late A Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven, Scream is a dense, conspicuously literate experiment that single-handedly revived the moribund slasher genre while pushing it in the metafictional direction of Craven’s underrated last chapter in the Nightmare series. Seen from a distance of nearly 20 years, it reads as the definitive horror film of its decade, which shepherded a wave of pop culture that was at once ironic and plainly sincere.
Neve Campbell stars as Sidney Prescott, a meek, small-town high school senior who finds herself the target of a ghost-masked serial killer on the anniversary of her mother’s grisly unsolved murder. As if the threat of murder weren’t enough, the trickster killer taunts his prospective victims on the phone, inviting them to a high-stakes game of horror trivia that even the town’s hyper-literate genre fans tend to fail.
While it’s the winking meta-commentary on the genre’s sexist tropes that sets the film apart from most of the slashers that came before it—prefiguring Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Cabin in the Woods—Scream still holds up as a decent, straight horror film in its own right. It earns its bona fides in its famously gruesome, Drew Barrymore–starring opening set piece—a tribute to scary movie cold opens that have only the loosest ties to the main narrative, which also happens to be a masterfully directed example of the trope. If anything, Scream’s irony has been overstated: its characters’ awareness of themselves as meat in a slasher flick that shamelessly dices teen bodies makes them only more vulnerable when it’s their turn on the chopping block.
Scream screens for free as part of NOW Magazine Free Flick Mondays series.
Directed by Lisandro Alonso
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Viggo Mortensen plays a Danish general wandering through the grim desert of 19th-century Patagonia in search of his runaway daughter in Jauja (pronounced how-ha), Lisandro Alonso’s strange, captivating formalist jewel. Somewhere between a dry, ethnographic Western, an earnest riff on Heart of Darkness, and a cosmic comedy of errors, the film finds Mortensen’s hapless officer ambling through the rigidly composed frame of each shot—trudging through “this shit country,” as he puts it—on a rescue mission to retrieve his daughter from a mad Spanish soldier. All’s well enough until the journey takes a most unusual turn when he comes across a mysterious old woman, probably a witch, and her mangey dog.
Such banal descriptions don’t do much justice to the experience of watching Jauja, which reveals itself in increments and turns on a dime in the ambitious, head-scratching finale. The film admittedly isn’t for everyone: some will find both its highly composed shots and its inscrutable narrative turns stifling. But those who can tune into its weird wavelength will find one of the most assured and beguiling films of the past few years.