Toronto After Dark: Shut In, The Interior, and More

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Phase 4 Films

Phase 4 Films

The 10th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival is in full swing, and this year’s fest offers nine nights of genre fare designed to terrify and entertain audiences. There are nineteen feature films playing alongside nearly thirty shorts, and we’ve seen and enjoyed several of them already.

Let’s take a look at the films playing the middle three nights – Shut In, The Hollow One, The Demolisher, The Diabolical, The Interior, Backtrack and Gridlocked.

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Shut In

Home invasion films come in various flavors from the vicious (Kidnapped) to the fun (You’re Next), but the key to their success oftentimes comes down to the degree of intelligence displayed at both ends of the knife blade. Smart intruders are more of a threat, and smart protagonists make it all more interesting. Shut In, the newest entry in the sub-genre, knows this and delivers the goods with wit, brains, and intriguing story turns. It’s Home Alone for people who think there should be a far stiffer penalty for breaking and entering.

Anna (Beth Riesgraf) hasn’t left her home in nearly a decade. Her father’s death ten years ago left her crippled with agoraphobia, and even stepping onto her front porch is enough to debilitate her. She’s kept busy though caring for her sick older brother, but when he finally succumbs she’s left unsure as to her next move. Her hand is forced after a trio of young men arrive with plans to steal what they’ve heard is a fortune stashed away in the house. Unable to escape, Anna’s only hope is to fight back using her will to survive and an intimate knowledge of the house’s secrets.

The setup to director Adam Schindler’s feature debut (from a script by T.J. Cimfel and David White) makes great use of a characteristic – agoraphobia – that thankfully has yet to reach a saturation point. Copycat handled it with real thrills and suspense back in ’95 while this year’s Big Sky was less successful, but Shut In trumps both with an intense lead performance, fun story progression, and a terrifically realized single location.

Riesgraf has our attention from the beginning as a wounded soul with a heavy burden. It’s one that appears to shared with her brother, but his death leaves the weight solely on her shoulders leaving her visibly weary and down. She perks up when pressed though – both romantically to the kind words of a delivery man (Rory Culkin) and aggressively to the men threatening her life and well-being.

One of the trio is brought to frightening life by the normally chill and comedic Martin Starr, but as he showed in last year’s Amira & Sam he’s a lot more than just a funnyman. His character here shows real menace in his intentions and a casual indifference to the suffering he causes, but he never loses control or focus. He’s an intelligent monster. Happily, he still finds time to offer up some dryly humorous observations as the day’s events take continually unplanned turns.

Shut In is a highly competent, suspenseful, and fun thriller that never overstays its welcome.

Shut In plays 10/18 at 415p.

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The Hollow One

So many horror films follow similar, generic setups and frameworks that it usually comes down to how well the familiar is executed rather than how fresh it all feels, so it’s exciting when a genre film makes the creative effort to build something new. The Hollow One does just that, but its building blocks too frequently become stumbling blocks along the way.

Rachel (Kate Alden) is almost ready to strike out on her own, but for now she lives at home with her parents and younger sister, Anna (Chelsea Farthing). They’re a happy family, but her father’s curiosity about his wife’s secretive past leads to him opening a door that he’ll wish had remained closed. The private detective he hired sends him a strange, metallic artifact associated with the life Rachel’s mom left behind a long time ago, but when tragedy strikes leaving her mom dead and her dad a disturbed wreck the girls are forced to move away.

Two years later they return to an eerily quiet town, a handful of bloody locals, and a mysterious force in search of the impossible.

Writer/director Nathan Hendrickson cut his teeth in video games like F.E.A.R. 2, Condemned, and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and that experience comes through in the film’s approach to the visuals surrounding its title villain. Coincidentally though, there’s also something of a cut-scene feel to the being as it appears, looks incredibly cool, and fails to fully interact with our protagonists.

Mind control, cursed objects, and an unusual evil come together with a goal that’s slowly teased out as the bodies hit the floor. The visuals and sound design – the other-worldly voice modulation feels powerful – are strong throughout and create an aura of the unreal well before we’re told what’s actually happening here. That delay in clarity works against the film though as opposed to building the suspense and mystery because the journey towards revelation feels padded with filler and bad decisions.

People wander their farmlands with blood pouring from their heads and violent twitches wracking their bodies, but Rachel, Anna, and Rachel’s boyfriend repeatedly approach them and initially act like this is normal. If nothing else you think they’d learn to do no such thing once the people start turning violent, but no, they continue to be optimistic.

It’s especially unfortunate because The Hollow One’s third act is killer. The being’s motivation is interesting, its appearance is very cool, and the ending teases both a sequel and a dark finality, but reaching that point is the kind of nightmare you want to wake up from for all the wrong reasons.

The Hollow One plays 10/18 at 7p.

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The Demolisher

Who doesn’t love a good vigilante flick? The best ones are cathartic cinema allowing viewers the chance to see bad guys dealt a losing hand by a crusader sick and tired of watching good triumph over evil. Recent years have seen a new breed though with films featuring a quest for retribution and punishment that goes horribly awry – James Wan’s criminally-under seen thriller Death Sentence explores repercussions while the South Korean classic I See the Devil finds someone slipping into the darkness they’re trying to destroy. The new Canadian film, The Demolisher, leans closer to the latter in its intent with mixed results.

Samantha (Tianna Nori) was a police officer, but after a brutal attack at the hands of criminals leaves her physically broken and emotionally traumatized her days are now spent being cared for by far gentler appendages. Her husband, Bruce (Ry Barrett), attends her every need, but at night while she sleeps he heads out to attend to his own. Dressed in riot gear and armed to the teeth, he goes in search of criminals, and when he finds them he destroys them.

Caught up in his increasingly blind thirst for vengeance is a young woman named Marie (Jessica Vano) who innocently comes into possession of something Bruce wants back. His already shaky moral code crumbles before his single-minded obsession, and as the night creeps on a deadly game of cat and mouse plays out across the city.

Writer/director Gabriel Carrer crafts an atmospheric thriller elevated by a strong sense of visual style and an addictive score by Glen Nicholls, but the character-based narrative can’t quite keep pace. We never really get the chance to “meet” Samantha or Bruce before life’s miseries emptied them out like human egg shells, and between the brief look we’re given of her attack and the fact that he’s already damaged goods the couple is unable to connect with viewers on an emotional level. Bruce is a rage-filled faucet unable to turn off, and his actions quickly make targets of anyone and everyone (aside from Samantha) turning him into a bully at best and a murderer at worst.

The film explores the cycle of violence and the impact of victim-hood, and while it puts too much faith in the character of Bruce it finds more solid footing in its atmosphere and tone. Long stretches of silence accompanied only by beautifully-shot images of the urban landscape help set a mood and a feeling confirmed by the look in Barrett’s eyes – a look he aims our way at times. Whatever his motivations, he’s become a villain. The film would benefit from allowing viewers to see some of that transition, but instead we’re introduced to a bad guy with sad origin story. Marie fares better as rather than simply be the “final girl” stalked by a killer she’s also presented as someone who’s faced violence in her own life. Her past adds depth to her present, and she becomes the beating heart of our concern.

There is violence in The Demolisher, but the focus is more on its lingering effects than on its gratuitous display. Instead, the film’s most affecting and powerful moments are those more concerned with the pain that comes in the silences after.

The Demolisher plays 10/18 at 930p.

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The Diabolical

Haunted house films usually start with a family moving into a new/old home only to discover something paranormal got there first, but what if the movie started much later? What if the family had simply grown accustomed to the spectral squatters?

Madison (Ali Larter) lives in a home with her two young children, but they’re not alone. Something else is there, something that visits at night causing minor disturbances and small acts of destruction. She would have moved out long ago, but her financial situation forbids it – she’s being foreclosed upon, and an act of violence by her son has brought with it the threat of a lawsuit. She enlists the aid of her scientist boyfriend, Nikolai (Arjun Gupta), and together they make an unexpected discovery.

Director Alistair Legrand (who also co-wrote the film with Luke Harvis) sets up a familiar premise that benefits from the immediate twist in the family’s awareness of their ghostly visitors. It’s a fresh wrinkle, but it’s also nearly squandered by some of what follows. Thankfully though, it’s not the last unconventional turn that Legrand and company have up their sleeve.

The elaborate explanations to come only work as well as they do in part because of the cast’s conviction. Larter in particular brings fire and heart to the role of a beleaguered mother facing the incredible, and it’s her belief that makes it easier for the rest of us. That said, it’s some uninspired going until the third act as the film moves through generic haunted house scares before revealing what’s behind it all.

The script moves what starts as a tale about ghosts in unusual directions as a way to both explain the phenomena and create new threats. The specifics of it are a bit bold and not always successful, but it’s an appreciated effort and serves to balance out the generic horror beats on the visual front.

It’s also guaranteed to lose some viewers along the way, but hopefully some of the people clamoring for more original horror will give The Diabolical a chance for doing just that.

The Diabolical plays 10/19 at 7p.

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The Interior

Movies usually announce themselves early to give viewers some kind of idea of what’s to come. Plot turns can take the story in different directions of course, but the tone typically stays consistent. Writer/director Trevor Juras’ feature debut, The Interior, isn’t interested in “usually” or “typically” though, and instead it sets up an unappealing slacker comedy before shifting gears nearly thirty minutes in to deliver a melancholic, haunting, and intensely terrifying trip into madness.

James (Patrick McFadden) is in something of a rut, and it’s contributing to his apathy and depression at work and home. A disconcerting diagnosis from his doctor convinces him it’s time for a change, so leaving his job, his girlfriend, and Toronto behind he heads out into the wilderness of British Columbia for some alone time. Camping unprepared and stuck with only the forest and his imagination for company, James’ sanity comes into question. Unnatural sounds echo through the night, someone or something stands outside his tent, and he quickly descends into a nightmare of pitch-black paranoia.

The first act is an odd misfire as it teases James’ illness without specifics while playing everything else with heavy dollops of broad comedy. A couple beats land, but most of it just feels like lazy stabs at laughs that aren’t coming. He daydreams, argues with people, records a rap track – it meanders its way around without notable purpose or effect. Finally, nearly a half hour in, he heads to the woods accompanied by the title onscreen, and the focus narrows to a man trapped with his own paranoia, fears, and loneliness.

If there’s a film that better uses the pitch black darkness then I’ve never seen it. Juras and cinematographer Othello J. Ubalde capture the forest’s beauty and lush volume during the day, but its far more ominous nighttime traits are on display too with some truly terrifying sequences. The film features the scariest tent-based scenes this side of Willow Creek, and it only gets more unsettling when James heads into the dark with only a flashlight to illuminate his surroundings.

Scares aside the film also explores James’ depression through his self-isolation as he hears and sees things which may or may not really be there. He’s facing his own mortality increasing dread, and he’s taking us along for the frightening and sad journey.

The Interior won’t work for everyone – and that first act probably won’t work for anyone – but viewers who make it into the woods will find a satisfying and affecting end.

The Interior plays 10/19 at 930p.

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Backtrack

A psychologist (Adrien Brody) discovers that the people he’s been helping are actually ghosts, and the only hope he has of restoring life back to normal involves delving back into his own past.

I haven’t seen this one yet. Brody’s genre dabblings have been something of a mixed bag (Giallo, Predators), and writer/director Michael Petroni’s are no better (The Rite, Queen of the Damned), so this collaboration can go either way. The premise holds promise though, so we hope to check it out soon.

Backtrack plays 10/20 at 7p.

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Gridlocked

David Hendrix (Dominic Purcell) is a hard-ass cop ordered to take it easy after being wounded on the job. When a punk actor named Brody Walker is arrested for being a punk part of his sentencing includes tagging along with Hendrix under the guise of community service. They’re like oil and water, but when a homegrown terrorist group attacks a police substation the unlikely pair are forced to work together to defeat the bad guys.

I haven’t seen this one yet, but it looks like a WWE-produced riff on the James Woods/Michael J. Fox action/comedy The Hard Way. Make of that what you will.

Gridlocked plays 10/20 at 930p.

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Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs October 15th-23rd

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