Sunday, 19 October 2014

The ABCs of Death 2

Initially, the concept for The ABCs of Death was equal parts interesting and worrisome. Horror anthologies were enjoying a renaissance and what better way to celebrate new and emerging horror auteurs than by bringing twenty-six of them together to produce one monster anthology. But who in their right mind is going to sit through twenty-six short films in a row? (I did. I found the experience to be a bit tiresome and generally unrewarding. On the whole, the first ABCs was hit-and-miss.)

Much in the same way that learning the alphabet takes a great deal of time and effort, watching all of The ABCs of Death requires, from most people, a few sittings. And, for a lot of viewers, it didn't prove to be worth the effort. A brief chat with one of the directors echoed this sentiment: for some of the filmmakers, committing to the sequel was a bit of a gamble because the first one wasn't great. Another director admitted that he expressly used the opportunity to remake and improve upon a segment from the first film that he (and I) didn't like.

So it was with no small amount of anxiousness that the Toronto After Dark crowd settled in to watch a second go-round of alphebetized horror. And you know what? Everyone pretty much nailed it. (I was pleased to see more word-play this time with K is for Knell and S is for P-P-P-Scary.)

Where some of the segments in the first film had a kind of phoned-in quality to them, all of the shorts that make up ABC2 meet or exceed a higher standard of quality. While there's still some variance in terms of production values and storytelling, ABC2 is overall more enjoyable and more accessible than the first one.

It may seem overly revisionist to suggest the first ABCs laid the groundwork for the sequel, but the first film's relative failure prepared everyone for ABC2. Having already sat through one long and middling anthology, the audience was better prepared to watch a second one, and ABCs' luke-warm reception set a benchmark for the sequel's filmmakers. (Standouts from the first movie include D is for Dogfight and Q is for Quack).

Admittedly, I'm not familiar with all the names that appear in ABC2, but, like last time, the movie has encouraged me to look up the filmmakers whose shorts I really liked. The only problem is trying to remember them all.

It's been proven elsewhere that people are more likely to remember the first and last items in a sequence or list over the ones in the middle. Herein lies the issue with high-volume anthologies; you forget about half of them almost immediately (think about the trailers that precede a film, you remember a couple and forget the rest). Standing around with my friends afterwards, we spent some time trying to recall all our favourites that weren't A is for Amateur and Z is for Zygote. If we couldn't remember the letter, we might get the details of the story, or vice versa. (I really liked B is for Badger and W is for Wish, and the one about bath salts was great.)

On the whole, ABC2 is a much better film than the first but I'm still not sure if anyone outside a film festival audience will sit through twenty-six short films in a row. Regardless, the format lends itself well to short bursts of indulgence and this time round there's more to keep the viewer interested and watching.


With the addition of Housebound, I've now seen exactly three-and-a-half New Zealander horror movies (Dead Alive and Black Sheep count as one each, The Frighteners as .5).

After being charged with robbery, Kylie is placed under house arrest and must return home to live with her estranged mother and stepfather. It's a horrible fate for Kylie, made worse by the possibility that the house may be haunted. With nothing better to do, she launches an investigation which only causes further agony for her and her family.

I remember seeing the trailer for Housebound some months ago. I thought it looked good but I was frustrated by something: to me it seemed like whoever cut the trailer didn't know it was supposed to be a comedy. It was the music that did it—too loud and too serious. When the movie began I was again struck by the same feeling of dissonance. It got me worried. Would the whole movie be slightly “off” to me?


I'm not sure what happened. Possibly, I pulled my head out of my ass and accepted the director's vision. Normally, black comedies and horror comedies offset the dark subject matter through look and feel. Comedies tend to be bright and noisy, and horror comedies follow this aesthetic. Housebound doesn't always adhere to this “rule,” so I initially had a hard time connecting with the film. And then I got over it and gave over to a movie that proved to be funny and surprising in the best way. It's also gross, upsetting, and gut-wrenching.

Although the movie is full of surprises, it's also a bit predictable. Normally, I'd find fault with predictability, but not here. Knowing what was going to happen didn't lessen the impact of some scenes or diminish my enjoyment of the film overall. Rather, because the story is engaging and the characters are likeable, I was worried for their well being and upset by the outcome of certain (predictable) events.

It's hard to discuss Housebound without ruining what it is that makes the movie so great. Suffice it to say, the mystery that surrounds the haunting is less straightforward than is usually the case with these kinds of films. Housebound isn't just a haunted house movie, it's a family drama, a murder mystery, and a cautionary tale couched within a haunted house movie.

Housebound opened this year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival, setting a high bar for all the films to follow. The film was introduced by TAD's founder, Adam Lopez, who explained to the audience how all the festival programmers unanimously agreed on Housebound, something that almost never happens when trying to decide on which films to screen. Echoing the programmers' enthusiasm for Housebound, distributors were also looking to bring the movie to a wider audience—a deal that almost killed TAD's chances of screening it.

It all worked out in the end, as does the story in the film. It's refreshing to watch a movie that finishes well, that has the ending it deserves. And in much the same way that Kylie enjoys a feeling of closure and accomplishment, so do I in knowing that Housebound will reach a wider audience.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Toronto After Dark: Top 5 Picks

Something to be thankful for this year (and every year) is Toronto After Dark, the city's premiere genre film festival. A fan-based film fest, TAD offers nine nights of outstanding horror, action, and scifi cinematic entertainment.

This year I'm tasked with having to pick a top five prior to seeing all the films. Will my list hold up or will an underdog outshine them all? Last year's bright star was Found, an as-low-budget-and-indie-as-it-gets horror movie from first-time director Scott Schirmer. What delightful gem will we find this year?

My picks, in no particular order:

Why Horror?

Horror nerd and general dork-at-large that I am, I make a hobby of reading academic horror lit. I also dig a good documentary so I'm looking forward to this Canadian-made doc about horror's appeal.

Open Windows

This is on my list for no other reason than the fact that I really like Elijah Wood. Honestly.

Suburban Gothic

I also really like Matthew Grey Gubler. And ridiculous horror comedies about ghost hunting that also feature Jeffery Coombs (I have a signed The Frighteners DVD, thankyouverymuch).


I've been waiting over a year to see this movie. I first heard about it at a Fan Expo panel and have been looking forward to it ever since. (Find me at the festival to hear a funny story about Tony Burgess.)

The Babadook

It's supposed to be scary and I haven't had a good scare in a while, so... Yeah. I just hope all the hype hasn't raised expectations too high.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Low-Budget Film Fest: Post-Apocalypse Edition

Well duh.

It's time for another go-round of great low-budget genre fare. To be clear, these films aren't listed in any particular order. It's just a list of fun films made on the cheap; films that prove you don't need unlimited access to unlimited funds in order to produce something special.

Six String Samurai

Buddy, who is equal parts guitar hero and samurai, must navigate a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of rockers and weirdos on his way to Lost Vegas where he hopes to be crowned King of Rock. This film is kind of nuts and has a lot of fun with its quasi-musical concept. 

Death Race 2000

Think Rollerball or Running Man but instead of a perverted form of hockey you have cars, and instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a unitard you have David Carradine ensconced in leather.

Bounty Killer

Drifer and Mary Death are the best bounty killers, hunting down white collar criminals and putting an end to corporate greed. Normally, they work alone but they're going to have to work together if they're to take out Second Sun, the biggest and worst corporation around. Hard to believe this movie cost as little as [undisclosed sum, but less than $3M] given how good it looks. Adapted from the comic book.


I like to describe this movie as a zompocalypse film but with vampires instead of zombies. A vampocalypse, I suppose. Only that might suggest a something along the lines of Daybreakers, which is a great movie but nothing like Stakeland. The point is, Stakeland takes the zompocalypse formula and plugs in vampires and it's amazing how well it works. Did I mention I don't like zompocalypse movies? Well, I don't.


Okay, so this one is a zompocalypse. Sort of. The certain words in the English language become a vector for a suicidal cannibalism virus. The brilliant thing about this movie is that all the action is set inside a small town (Pontypool, which is a real place) radio station. Based on the book, It Begins in Pontypool by Tony Burgess.

Last Night

We follow a handful of normal, everyday folk as they live out the last hours of their lives. It's not particularly scary or thrilling, but what it lacks in action it more than makes up for in drama. Watch for a cameo by David Cronenberg!

End of the Line

My co-host on TheAvod, Count Vardulon, doesn't like this movie. But I do, and so do a bunch of other people. A group of folk are trapped in the subway while the Rapture is happening at street-level.

Assault on Precinct 13

Okay, this isn't really an apocalypse/post-apocalypse movie, but it may as well be the end of the world for the few people holed up inside at police station. Precinct 13 is closing, and the few cops and administrators left have to face down a gang laying siege to the building. The frontier-esque atmosphere of Assault shares a great deal in common with a lot of PA films, including themes of trust, abandonment of/by authority, and survival in a hostile environment.

La Jetee

To be honest, I don't know how much this cost, but I'm assuming (like a fool) that it wasn't a whole lot. Survivors of a nuclear war are hard at work inventing time travel. And they succeed! But with disastrous results for the human subject. If this sounds a bit like 12 Monkeys, that's because Terry Gilliam drew a lot of inspiration from this French classic.

Honourable mention:

Escape from New York

In which we are introduced to badass "hero" Snake Plisken. New York's a prison and newly arrested Snake is tasked with retrieving some valuable property from inside in exchange for a pardon.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Astron-6's Adam Brooks

Astron-6 is, as they say on their website, "the rest in genre cinema." Some years ago, five filmmakers from Winnipeg, Matthew Kennedy, Connor Sweeny, Adam Brooks, Jeremy Gillespie, and Steven Kostanski, forged a pact that would eventually assure them a place in the Canadian genre/cult cinema hall of fame. Their low-tech/low-budget/high(ish)-concept movies delight festival audiences and revel in a unique blend of genre nostalgia and absurdity.

I ran into Adam Brooks outside the Ryerson theatre at TIFF. I remember it well; I was standing next to a garbage bin and it was very late. The Editor had just blown away the Midnight Madness crowd, most of whom were now outside excitedly chatting with and taking pictures of the Astron-6 guys. I made an appointment to speak with Adam after the festival season to ask him a few questions about movies and whatnot.

Zombots!: How has the festival circuit been treating you? The Editor played well at TIFF and then you were in Austin for Fantastic Fest. 
Adam Brooks: I just got back from VIFF, the response has been incredible!

Z: How did The Editor come about? As I understand it, the story was made up for an *exhibit showcasing movie posters for fake Canadian horror movies, but I might be wrong about that. 
AB: I was losing my mind editing Father's Day, and joking around with Matt about the premise of an editor who is losing his mind and maybe killing everyone. Matt, having recently rewatched House by the Cemetery started improvising lines in the familiar cadence of dubbed Italian cinema, and the idea was born.  Shortly after that [Rue Morgue's editor-in-chief] Dave Alexander asked me if we might have something to contribute to his art show in which he teamed filmmakers with poster artists to create posters for non-existent Canadian horror films. I immediately saw this as an opportunity to get a free poster for a future project and the rest is history.

Z: Take us back to the beginning. You guys started out making short films in Winnipeg and then what? What brought you together to form Astron 6?
AB: The five of us were friends. We decided to assemble like Voltron and viola - Astron-6.

Z: Follow up question: What exactly is Astron 6? There are only five of you.
AB: The sixth member is you, the viewer.

Z: Let's talk a bit about Father's Day. I heard that was quite an experience, working with Lloyd Kaufman.
AB: Who?

Z: About Manborg, that was something else altogether. A completely different kind of movie from Father's Day.
AB: I agree. Manborg came first. It's really Steve's baby. We shot it almost entirely in his garage with no money on a standard-def DVX video camera. It is to early 90's vhs/sci-fi/action what Father's Day is to 70's grindhouse films.

Z: Across these three features, we see three different homages or send-ups to different styles of  filmmaking, but all a united by a similar look and feel—I'd describe it as a kind of nostalgia,  a fondness for genre film from an earlier time. Was that always the plan? Your short films  showcase this same aesthetic.
AB: Yes, it was always the plan, and seven years ago it felt new and exciting but I think this kind of nostalgia is old news now and I look forward to doing something else.

Z: I'm particularly fond of Lazer Ghosts 2: Return to Laser Cove.
AB: Glad you dig it!

Z: Last question: Can you give us a hint about what's next for you?
AB: Whatever project we can get financed is what's next. That's the hard part you see - the money. Whatever it is, I'm excited to try something new!

Z: Last last question: Does Steve only have that one shirt? Every time I see him, he's wearing red plaid.
AB: Yes Steve only has one shirt and he's very sensitive about it so be nice! He spends all his clothing allowance on FX supplies.

Many thanks to Adam for this interview. And thanks and to the rest of the guys for so many hours of entertainment. The short films can all be watched on the Astron-6 website

*If They Came From Within: An Alternative History of Canadian Horror Movies

Saturday, 4 October 2014

October Horror

It's Halloween month so that means lots of horror happenings around the city.

It could happen.

Oct 3 -21 Wes Craven's Dreams, Screams, and Nightmares

A retrospective on Wes Craven's oeuvre. Screenings at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Oct 3 - 12 Kite

A live-action adaptation of the controversial and acclaimed anime of the same name. Screening at the *Royal Cinema.

Oct 3 - 9 Inner Demons

A mockumentary made in the style of a reality TV show about interventions. In this "episode," the subject is a girl suffering from drug addictions. Or is it possession? Screens at Yonge-Dundas.

Oct 8 - The Black Museum

Toronto's monthly horror lecture series presents Playtime is Over: Killer Dolls in Horror. The Royal Cinema, 9pm.

Oct 10 - 31 Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto

Muddy York Walking Tours has nightly ghost walks through downtown. Tours start at 7pm outside the ROM.

Oct 17 - Screamers

Wonderland stays open late between October 17 and November 1. Thrilling rides and haunted houses.

Oct 25 - Zombie Walk

And Halloween Parade! Registration is still open. Walk begins at 3pm at Nathan Phillips Square.

Beginning Oct 31 - Evil Dead the Musical

It's exactly what it sounds like (read: awesome). At the Randolph Theatre. Ends November 9.

Beginning Oct 31 - Stanley Kubric Exhibition and Film Series

An exhibit of props and miniatures from Kubric's films. The exhibition and film series at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Ends January 25.

*The Royal has a great Halloween programme, including Monster Squad, Beetlejuice, and Night of the Creeps.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Toronto After Dark 2014: Second Ten

The good people at TAD have released the second wave of programming for this year's film festival.

Housebound (New Zealand) Opening Gala

I know I know this movie. Yes! I watched the trailer months ago and thought it looked hilarious. A woman under house arrest has to serve her term under her mother's roof. That'd be find if the house weren't haunted. Peter Jackson seems to like it, as do a lot of other festival audiences. Looking forward to this one.

Wyrmwood (Australia) Canadian Premiere

I'm kind of over zombie movies. This one's supposed to be a sort of road movie set in the zompocalyspe. I'm hoping my love of post-apocalyptic road movies cancels out my disinterest in zombie movies. Also, this film appears to feature a delightful Lord Humungus reference which I can totally get behind.

Why Horror? (Canada) Canadian Premiere

I think some people I know make an appearance, however briefly, in this documentary about horror and why we love to be scared. I'll be watching with a keen eye!

Let Us Prey (Ireland/UK)

Wow, this looks violent and gory. I can't really say what this is about because the trailer is short on details as is the official synopsis. Sort of a supernatural take on Assault on Precinct 13. I'm also reminded of Storm of the Century, so will the survivors have to make a terrible choice?

The Town that Dreaded Sundown (USA) Special Presentation

You might know of this movie because it was mentioned in Scream. Or maybe you've actually seen the original 1976 movie. Picking up sixty-five years after a killer terrorized Texarkana, the town is again fearing sundown as people start dying. A copycat seems likely, but it might also be something else...

Late Phases (USA)

Another werewolf movie in the TAD lineup, only this one looks to be more in line with "traditional" werewolf tropes. No teenwolves here. Retired werewolves, maybe. Ambrose, a veteran, moves into a retirement community that appears to suffer monthly animal attacks. Not interested in letting sleeping dogs lie, Ambrose is on the hunt for the truth about the attacks.

Refuge (USA) Canadian Premiere

This looks a bit like a post-apocalyptic siege movie. It's won a coupe of awards, so that's good news. It also kind of reminds me of Crossed, which might be kind of worrisome. We'll just have to see.

The Drownsman (Canada)

Another one that sounds vaguely familiar. It's kind of like a killer urban legend. After nearly downing, a woman is haunted by the Drownsman. I wish I could remember where I heard about this. It's driving me crazy!

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (USA)

This one won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, so it must be good. A Japanese woman believes a sack full of cash is buried somewhere in Minnesota, just waiting to be discovered. She uses clues from the movie Fargo as her map. I love Fargo, so I'm keen to see how well this movie pays tribute to the source material.