Scream and scream again reboots are horror’s bleeding edge

In horror, as in most genres, everything old is new again. Thanks to a combination of millennial nostalgia and economic.


In horror, as in most genres, everything old is new again.

Thanks to a combination of millennial nostalgia and economic panic, plenty of horror movies have been relaunched or rebooted in recent years. Halloween, Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (rebooted twice, once in 3D!) it’s all coming back around. We’re even seeing it in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program this year, which brings back the beasties from The Blair Witch Project, Ringu and The Grudge to (hopefully) freak out a new generation of fans.

Sometimes the old stuff gets reworked into something new, like the Netflix series Stranger Things that had people buzzing earlier this summer. That show, written and directed by the Duffer brothers, mashed up the 80s novels of Stephen King with the visual sensibility of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and tracked it with music shamelessly derived from the scores of John Carpenter.

Subscribers ate it up even if it never quite transcended its referential origins.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why subscribers ate it up. It was exactly what they wanted.

Horror movies have always been ahead of the curve on this evolutionary approach to storytelling. It’s a genre that’s driven by recombining its own DNA over and over again – mixing up its monsters, switching narrative gears, finding new scares in old concepts. And if you’ve been going to TIFF’s Midnight Madness screenings, well, you know that’s always been a part of the experience.

The first TIFF movie I ever saw was a Midnight Madness screening. It was 1988, and I was at the Bloor Cinema for the world premiere of Hellbound: Hellraiser II.

It brought the house down.

Blair Witch directed by Adam Wingard, written by Simon Barrett, with James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez and Brandon Scott. 89 minutes. Sep 11, midnight, Ryerson Sep 15, 4:45 pm, Scotiabank 2.

That happens all the time at TIFF now, but back then it was positively shocking. Toronto’s Festival Of Festivals was still a little on the stuffy side, what with its declared mission to curate the finest cinema from the global festival circuit. Midnight Madness was a place for the stranger stuff that was scratching at the door looking for a space of its own.

The program hadn’t quite codified into the extreme-everything celebration of horror and action it is today in fact, horror was in short supply that year. Hellbound and Frank Henenlotter’s splatterific Brain Damage were the sole entries, overshadowed by music films (The Metal Years, Tom Waits: Big Time and the Eurythmics concert movie Brand New Day) and Obie Benz’s giddy Heavy Petting, a light-hearted documentary in which the likes of David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Spalding Gray reminisce about their early sexual experiences.

I attended a few other Midnight screenings that year. They went well, but not as well as Hellbound. Entirely by accident, programmer Noah Cowan had stumbled onto the thing Midnight Madness audiences love the most: a sequel to a beloved property that went even further than the original.

With its escalation of Clive Barker’s bloody BDSM aesthetic and a climax that featured the human heavy transformed into a demonic Cenobite steered by a penis-shaped tentacle rammed into the back of his skull – Hellbound was a movie determined to give Hellraiser fans everything they ever wanted. And the crowd went wild.

“We created a bit of a monster with that audience,” confesses Colin Geddes, who joined TIFF as the Midnight Madness co-programmer in 1997 and took over the series in 1998. “So now this audience has grown up with these expectations.”

What sort of expectations? That the films will have some serious gore, or a spectacular fight scene, or something so weird it couldn’t be found in any other program. Geddes describes his responsibility as finding “the best in weird cinema from around the world” for the raucous crowd that jams into the Ryerson Theatre every night of the festival. And for the most part, he delivers.

Sadako Vs. Kayako written and directed by Koji Shiraishi, with Mizuki Yamamoto, Tina Tamashiro and Aimi Satsukawa. 98 minutes. Sep 17, midnight, Ryerson Sep 18, 5:30 pm, Scotiabank 14.

Midnight Madness found its groove in 1990, when it screened Dario Argento and George A. Romero’s Two Evil Eyes Richard Stanley’s Hardware Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, The Iron Man and Meet The Feebles, a bizarre puppet comedy by some Kiwi maniac named Peter Jackson. I was there for those, too. It was a hell of a ride.

I’ve been going back for that ride ever since, watching the Midnight Madness program evolve and mutate along the way. Hong Kong action movies are a fixture, and there’s the occasional mockumentary, like 1992’s Man Bites Dog and 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (speaking of movies that brought the house down).

The music movies have fallen by the wayside, but in exchange we’ve seen a rise in quirky thrillers like 2012’s Seven Psychopaths which, thanks to stars Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, gave the program its first all-star red carpet. It won’t be the last: this year’s opener, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, stars Oscar-winner Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer.

Midnight Madness brought the French extreme horror wave to town with High Tension in 2003, Inside and Frontier(s) in 2007 steeped us in Japanese ghost horror (The Grudge, 2003) and even launched the Saw series (2004). It made us take Jean-Claude Van Damme seriously (briefly) with JCVD in 2008, and gave George A. Romero a hero’s welcome at every opportunity (Two Evil Eyes, 1990 Diary Of The Dead, 2007 Survival Of The Dead, 2009).

The program has offered genre fans everything they could ask for and, not by accident, charts the evolution of horror over the past three decades. Straight-up shockers like Bernard Rose’s Candyman (MM 1992) and Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch (MM 1994) have receded. These days, horror is like the alien menace in John Carpenter’s The Thing, infiltrating the host bodies of other genres and erupting when we least expect it.

Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (MM 2011) plays as a gritty gangster thriller until it kicks open a door to the world of The Wicker Man The Guest (MM 2014), from the team of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, is a loving Carpenter riff that teases the informed viewer by withholding the exact nature of its riffing until the climax.

That sort of filmmaking, Geddes believes, is “best when it’s subversive when you go in expecting one thing and it becomes something else – that moment in The Guest when the military gets the call and you think, ‘Now I know what kind of movie this is.'”

These films may not have set the box office on fire, but Midnight Madness audiences embraced them gleefully. We understood what they were doing, and how they were doing it.

Like that Frankenstein guy or maybe H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West – we love to see dormant properties brought screaming back to life. And this year Geddes is screening two films that feed that cultural hunger: Blair Witch, a sequel to the revolutionary 1999 found-footage blockbuster, and Sadako V. Kayako, which brings the J-horror demons from the Ring and Grudge franchises together for a battle royale.

“This film is more fun than it has any right to be,” Geddes laughs. “The VHS tape is found in a thrift store. The Ring curse has been forgotten in a corner of abandoned analog technology.”

As for Blair Witch, well, Geddes will only say, “It’s a direct sequel, and the concept is not a found-footage film.” But that’s okay I didn’t want him to tell me anything else. Barrett and Wingard – the team that made You’re Next (MM 2011) and The Guest have already shown me they’re willing to use my expectations against me and deliver the movie they want to make instead of the one I think I want.

That’s the trick of programming Midnight Madness, too, Geddes says. He needs to give the audience what they need. He’s their dealer, supplying 10 nights of the pure stuff every September.

“They demand a certain level of genre cinema,” he says. “I’m always trying to cater to that. I never want to give them anything that’s dumbed down or lowest-common-denominator junk.”

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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