The Toronto International Film Festival may be closely aligned with Oscar season, but the Canadian festival entertains a very different crowd after dark. For over 30 years, the Midnight Madness section has premiered a range of legendary genre movies, from “Cabin Fever” to “The Raid,” and garnered a raucous fan base that packs the Ryerson Theatre each year. With a single new title screening across each of the 10 nights, this tightly curated section also provides a slim overview of the many forms that genre filmmaking can take, and the 2018 edition is no exception.
The lineup includes both high-profile studio properties, with Shane Black’s “The Predator” opening the section and David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” premiering there a few nights later, as well as the latest experimental character study from “The Duke of Burgundy” director “In Fabric.” There’s also a martial arts movie from India (the first time the country has been represented in the section), an Australian horror movie with Monica Bellucci, and a debut feature from a documentary filmmaker about the American frontier. In other words, many different sensibilities in one package.
“I wanted to really begin to expand and challenge the conventional expectations of what a midnight film is,” said Peter Kuplowsky, who enters his second year as the section’s programmer. “I really consider midnight cinema to be one of subversion and transgressions. That’s always at the top of my mind — how can I upset expectations of what a midnight film can be?” He talked through the lineup to elaborate.
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Not only does the Midnight Madness section host two studio movies this year, but they’re both reflect attempts to inject fresh appeal into treasured genre properties. Kuplowsky stressed that “The Predator” and “Halloween” weren’t reboots of their respective properties, instead referring to them as “long-gap sequels” because of the way they build off earlier entries. “Both of them are very much continuations of the mythos that began with the original films,” Kuplowsky said, “but they’re also very much imbued with the sensibilities of their filmmakers.”
With “The Predator,” Black directs the latest installment in a series that began over 30 years ago, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle fighting a militant alien (it also featured Black himself, in a supporting role). The new installment features Keegan-Michael Key and Olivia Munn among its cast and a script by Black and Fred Decker, who previously teamed up on “The Monster Squad” back in 1987. Kuplowsky said that history comes through here.
“Imagine an R-rated gory version of ‘The Monster Squad’ with less literal children and more man-children,” he said. “It takes it to a level of a thrilling action.” He said the movie, which builds on Black’s playful comedic instincts last glimpsed in “The Nice Guys,” should please fans for the way it treats the menacing extraterrestrial as the real star of the show. “The creature is of a similar level of iconography to a different generation as the old Universal monster movies,” he said.
With “Halloween,” Kuplowsky said he wanted to assure fans that the spirit of the original John Carpenter slasher film was intact. “The hype train is going to start with just how great this movie is,” he said, and noted the significance of the screenplay, co-written by director David Gordon Green, Jeff Fradley, and Danny McBride — names better known for comedies like “Pineapple Express” than horror. “When they were first assigned to the film in the wake of ‘Get Out,’ I said I believed this would start a movement of comedians writing straight horror because they tend to like the genre a lot and understand it structurally,” Kuplowsky said. “They understand the original work and apply those standards judiciously. The series has so many permutations. The film will surprise audiences but as a fan of the original it sublimely satisfied me.”
Unlike “The Predator,” “Halloween” ignores the nine subpar sequels to the movie and functions as a direct sequel to the 1978 original, with Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as an older woman facing off with the psychotic Michael decades after the first showdown. “The franchise is rooted in the imagery of a woman being terrorized, and the movie is very socially relevant,” he said. “It really feels like a movie that handles the cross-generational trauma that women have experienced and tries to weaponize it.”
More Badass Women — But Not Enough
Kuplowsky said there are two types of midnight movies — feel-bad and feel-good ones — with the latter one typically involving wild hand-to-hand combat. (Thus, “The Raid.”) Last year, he filled that slot with the brutal cartoonish battles of “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” and this time the honor falls to “The Man Who Feels No Pain,” an Indian martial arts movie directed by first-timer Vasan Bala, which stars Indian television actress Radhika Madan. “She’s really badass in the movie,” Kuplowsky said. “The pitch to me was that the filmmaker was channeling the spirit of [‘Kung-Fu Hustle’ director] Stephen Chow, and it is a really outrageous comedy.”
The section only features on movie directed by a woman, documentarian Emma Tammi’s narrative debut “The Wind,” and Kuplowsky acknowledged the shortcoming. “Am I happy with the statistic? No. I want to do more and I want to do better with more films directed by women and people of color,” he said. “It starts with them being represented in film festivals to signal to the industry. Gatekeepers at the festival want to see more films with these voices.”
He said he had been tracking the number of movies directed by women and people of color under consideration for this year’s lineup and planned to discuss the challenge at a genre-focused panel at this year’s festival. Nevertheless, he singled out Tammi’s “The Wind” as a movie likely to generate sales interest during the festival. “It’s a very American folklore horror film exploring the Frontier era,” he said. “It has the requisite scares an audience is looking for while also delivering a good drama.”
Strickland Gets Weird Again
Peter Strickland has been a hit on the film festival circuit in recent years, starting with his giallo-inspired “Barbarian Sound Studio” and continuing with his Victorian S&M romp “The Duke of Burgundy.” With “In Fabric,” Kuplowsky said the filmmaker combines the sensibilities of both movies to tell the story of a haunted dress.
“It splits the difference, he said, “employing the campy and cult aesthetics of ‘Berberian’ with the swelling eroticism of ‘Burgundy.’” While Strickland’s previous films played TIFF, this marks the first time he’ll screen in the midnight section.
Bellucci Gone Wild
One of the wackier-sounding titles in this year’s lineup is “Nekrotronic,” a budgetary step up for Australian director Kiah Roache-Turner who previously turned up at the festival with “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.” In “Nekrotronic,” the filmmaker leveraged major resources from the Australian Film Commission to craft the zany story of a magical beings that chase demons on the internet. Bellucci plays the queen of the demons.
“‘Wyrmwood’ had a very lo-fi zombie story with a lot of innovative ideas,” Kuplowsky said. “The Australian film industry has really stepped up to support this — it has so many convoluted ways to kill ghosts, including literally 3D-printing them and blowing them up.” As for Bellucci, who last surfaced as herself in a dream sequence from Showtime’s “Twin Peaks,” Kuplowsky said, “She is so game for this.”
Topicality Sneaks In
The Midnight Madness section tends to have a fun aura, but some movies can get heavy. This year, that slot may fall to “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek,” writer-director Henry Dunham’s first feature, which revolves around the aftermath of a police shooting. “It’s tackling a rather controversial subject matter,” Kuplowsky said. “I can see it being certainly one of the more talked-about films in the section and having some market play.” Still, don’t expect your average midnight movie.
“Reading up on the film, I wasn’t entirely sure it was the best fit for midnight,” Kuplowsky said. “It’s very much a chamber drama, but I thought the dialogue crackled like a David Mamet play.” Nevertheless, he compared the cinematography to the classic noir of John Alton (“He Walked By Night”) and said he expected audiences to be surprised. “Even though it’s not a typical thrill ride, I found it so engaging and so tense,” he said. “It’s such a pure distillation of a noir genre film that I felt it was important for the section.”
One thing you won’t see at this year’s Midnight Madness: the walking dead. While zombies have surfaced in the section many times over the years, with even George Romero making his way to TIFF to screen “Diary of the Dead” and “Survival of the Dead,” in recent editions zombie movies have migrated to other parts of the festival. “I find myself very resistant to play zombie movies at midnight,” Kuplowsky said. “That genre has been fully adopted by the mainstream.”