Toronto After Dark 2016 Day Eight Explores the Messy Dangers Within

We take a look at The Master Cleanse and From a House on Willow Street.

Genre film festivals are often among my favorites because they focus on the kind of movies typically absent from theaters – the odd, the disturbing, the foreign. Film lovers in Toronto know what I’m talking about as they’re now on day eight of the 11th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Nine nights of features and shorts celebrating the dark and the weird, and while I’m not there physically I’m there in spirit. If you’ve been following along, you’re eyes aren’t deceiving you… I’ve skipped day seven as I haven’t seen either of the films that played. The two films playing today though are The Master Cleanse and From a House on Willow Street, and my reviews are below.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

The Master Cleanse

We all believe that a better version of ourselves exists, a version that promises greater results if only we’d make smarter choices or exercise more or eat better, but the necessary steps are easier regretted than achieved. Paul (Johnny Galecki) knows he can be better, and after losing both his girlfriend and his job he finally decides to do something about it. The urge is unfortunately fueled by a late-night infomercial, and he soon finds himself invited to a remote wooded retreat for a very special cleanse.

He’s joined by three others – Maggie (Anna Friel), a stranger who quickly stirs new feelings of romance within him, and a couple, Eric (Kyle Gallner) and Laurie (Diana Bang), who are hoping to strengthen their relationship – and together they discover just what this cleanse entails. It starts with jars of foul-smelling liquids, it includes chats with Oliver Platt and Angelica Huston, and it ends with their bodies physically divulging what ails them.

Of course, facing your troubles is no end at all.

Writer/director Bobby Miller makes his feature debut with The Master Cleanse, and the result is a memorable mix of body horror and romantic comedy. There are highs and lows to both aspects, but their greatest achievement in tandem is the subtle build into a serious exploration of our relationship with the things that hurt us.

It’s a film of discovery, so its best moments should be discovered individually, but it spoils nothing to praise the practical effects work on display here. An idea is brought to life with skill and artistry not typically captured in low budget genre fare. The design does double duty in making our darkness both believable and difficult to dismiss.

The cast does good work committing to a slightly fantastical premise, and they succeed at enhancing the dry laughs in Miller’s script. Even more important though is their ability to find the emotional pains between the giggles and the effects. It’s an absurd situation, but some of the characters’ situations find purchase in our empathy.

The Master Cleanse takes a literal approach to that absurdity, and while details grow shaky – the logic and repercussions of certain actions don’t seem to hold up – the effect is still an oddly original effort that marks Miller as a filmmaker to watch.

From a House on Willow Street

A team of kidnappers take custody of their target thinking they’ll simply sit back and collect a tidy ransom, but their perfect plan quickly unravels as everything they thought they knew about kidnapping and who they’ve kidnapped goes out the window.

Hazel (Sharni Vinson) is the mastermind behind the plan for what should be an easy and highly lucrative crime. She and her two cohorts abduct a young woman named Katherine (Carlyn Burchell) but are soon stymied by a lack of response from the woman’s family. They retrace their steps and discover the problem is that the family is no longer alive. Worse, the girl they have locked up in the other room might somehow be responsible.

Alastair Orr’s film, From a House on Willow Street, toys briefly with the premise of O. Henry’s celebrated “The Ransom of Red Chief” before exploding things well beyond simple rambunctiousness on the part of the intended victim. Our kidnappers are in well over their head, and rather than play their unfortunate situation for laughs Orr puts them through the ringer as they learn just what they’ve walked into.

The film moves between two threads – one offers exposition and flashback to explain just what exactly is going in with Katherine, while the other sees the criminals facing the rotten fruit of their illicit behaviors. Neither half truly captivates, but the backstory at least offers some interesting reveals in the woman’s history and in ties with Hazel’s own.

Less successful are the cat and mouse games back at kidnapper HQ. Dull corridors and rooms create a feeling of sameness, although some respite is found in the violence that follows. It grows beyond the simple setup of a villains realizing they’ve chosen the wrong target – a premise Vinson was previously on the opposite side of with the far stronger You’re Next – to a film with full-blown horror elements.

Ineffective CG, a lack of concern for these characters, and the overall visual darkness limit just how much entertainment will be found here, but From a House on Willow Street manages to hold the attention all the same thanks to Vinson.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

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