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What binge-watching bloody movies at TIFF taught us about the modern horror genre

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Lessons learned from a week of gore, mayhem, and genteel arthouse suspense

Courtesy of TIFF

Tasha Robinson and Bryan Bishop just spent more than a week at the Toronto International Film Festival, mainlining as many movies as they could manage. Here’s one set of reactions, based on a miniature horror festival they programmed for themselves at TIFF.

Tasha: TIFF traditionally has a wide slate of programming. Some of the year’s biggest upcoming prestige pictures premiere there, but they play alongside indies looking for distribution, international releases looking for attention, and the Midnight Madness slate of would-be cult hits. TIFF is one of those film festivals where you and three friends can each program your own viewing experience: you can all see the same number of movies, and you can each have a radically different experience. This year, if I wanted to specialize, I could have stuck entirely to inspirationally minded would-be Oscar contenders, or quirky magical-realist romantic indies, or hyper-stylized, hyper-violent action films. Instead, this year I saw a lot of horror movies, though not as many as you did, Bryan. And even working together, we didn’t quite catch all the horror films on offer. Am I wrong in feeling like there was a wider horror slate at TIFF this year?

Bryan: It certainly felt that way, didn’t it? My notes from the 2016 festival show a diverse set of unique horror films, but in the intervening year, many have faded from memory, overshadowed by the larger names that took up the attention. I’m thinking of movies like Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, The Belko Experiment, or the grueling Raw; movies that sucked up a lot of the oxygen, even though I didn’t enjoy some of them as much as I enjoyed smaller features like Osgood Perkins’ eerie I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. But outside that dynamic, there were undoubtedly more horror films this year. The count wasn’t even close. And aside from Sergio G. Sánchez’s Marrowbone, most of these films would be considered indies or foreign films that may never even make their way to a US theatrical release. This year, TIFF was an opportunity to see a lot of varied genre work in the one place it’s becoming harder and harder to see: the theater.

Courtesy of TIFF

Tasha: And the variations ran the gamut from polished, expensive, prestige-y suspense to full-on gross-out gore. Watching so many horror films in such close proximity, though, I started to pick up some lessons that don’t fully come into focus when I’m just watching a single movie. So, I thought we should talk through some of the lessons we learned about horror at TIFF this year.

I’ll start with this: if you’re going to do jump scares, they should at least have a payoff. I’m reaching a point where I think the jump scare is the lamest, limpest form of horror. It is to real suspense what a day-old Big Mac on the warming chute is to real food. Anybody can make an audience flinch by ramping up the scary music and then having something lunge abruptly at the screen.

Here’s what brought it into sharp relief for me. Pyewacket, Adam MacDonald’s indie-horror follow-up to 2014’s Backcountry, follows Leah (Nicole Muñoz), a goth girl whose father recently died. When her mother sells their house and uproots her, she gets so angry that she summons a demon to kill her mother, and then has to deal with the fallout. Pyewacket is a slow-burn story that frustrated me in a lot of ways, but the primary one was the sheer cheapness of one of its jump scares, where a huge build-up comes to absolutely nothing except a loud sound effect designed to make viewers flinch at a perfectly ordinary cut to a perfectly ordinary scene. You were sitting next to me in the theater when I gave the movie the bird over that scene, so you know what I was feeling there. The sense of being narratively cheated and manipulated completely undercuts any scares in a movie. MacDonald went full boy-who-cried-wolf on me, and the scare that went nowhere actually kept me from feeling any tension for the rest of the film. My ramped-up adrenaline glands basically said “Eh, what’s the point?” and went to sleep.

Bryan: I don’t want to say your dual-fisted salute was my favorite moment of Pyewacket, but it was definitely a highlight. Here’s one way in which we differ, though: I am absolutely delighted by jump scares. Yes, they can be cheap. And yes, they’re purely an experiential construct that adds nothing to the narrative of a film. But great horror movies usually use all the audiovisual tools at their disposal, and I have zero gripes with a perfectly executed jump-scare. (I think of the that long hospital hallway shot in The Exorcist III, or even that one particular “Nope, she’s not dead!” moment from J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage.)

Tasha: I have no problem with a great jump scare that has a payoff, like the two you’re referencing here, or with one that has an eventual payoff. There’s a classic one in Alien, where Harry Dean Stanton thinks he’s stalking the alien, but it’s just his ship’s cat — but the jump scare there has a twist, because it makes him drop his guard, and the scene does eventually go somewhere terrifying. I’m just saying, don’t substitute empty jump scares for actual action.

The Ritual
Courtesy of TIFF

Bryan: True, a movie does eventually need to go somewhere. Another film I thought suffered from that Pyewacket problem was David Bruckner’s The Ritual. Much like The Descent, it’s about a group of friends who go on an adventure while one wrestles with a form of survivor’s guilt — and then really bad things happen. The first two-thirds of the film were wonderfully creepy. The group gets lost in the woods, the atmosphere is unnerving, and there are plenty of Blair Witch-esque scares. (It’s better than Wingard’s Blair Witch, come to think of it.) As they get picked off one by one, it becomes clear that there’s some sort of real entity lurking in the trees just out of sight. The Ritual isn’t groundbreaking, but some formulas work for a reason.

In the third act, though, the film takes this bizarre turn into exploring the mythology of the creature, and (spoiler alert!) a cult that worships it. In a single scene, the film exchanges all the uneasy mystery for a group of weirdos that look like the mutants from The Hills Have Eyes. Now, I’m not saying a film can’t make a turn like this, but it struck me as a fundamental misread of why certain things in horror movies are scary. It’s often not because of the complex backstory or the convoluted mythology. We never really know how Pazuzu ended up in Georgetown to possess Regan in The Exorcist. It’s because an unanswered question becomes an opportunity for the audience to add any of their own secret, shivering fears. It’s actually one of the big secrets to being scary: don’t explain too much to the audience, because whatever the viewers read into a scene will almost always be more attuned to our own personal sense of dread. Did you run into any other movies that felt the need to give too much away — and fell flat as a result?

Les Affames
Courtesy of TIFF

Tasha: Not really! I think that’s a lesson a lot of horror creators have internalized: explaining where your monster came from just means you have to explain eight more things about it. Which is fine if your horror story has a scientific basis, or an arc where the characters are going to try to understand a creature or event in order to defeat it. But if you’re making a story about facing and fighting the unknown — if it’s about surviving a situation, not fixing it — you maybe don’t even need to address the mystery. I actually saw two films that handled this really well. Les Affames (which won TIFF’s Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film) is a zombie horror story that never even addresses where the zombie plague came from. It’s affecting in a way most zombie stories aren’t because the zombies are still clearly living, breathing people, who cry out when bludgeoned and cling to some of the relics of their former lives. But the film just drops straight into what feels like a Walking Dead episode, with various survivors losing people they care about, then scrambling to band together while not trusting each other much. The filmmakers assume people know all the zombie tropes already, and don’t need to be told what a mysterious, covered bite wound means, or why some people make the wrong decisions when facing infected people they know. I’m not sure Les Affames does enough to distinguish itself from other zombie stories, but it’s effective and moving, because it’s so lean, efficient, and at times eerie, and the fact that it wastes no time on backstory means there’s more time for on-screen character development.

The same goes for one of my festival favorites, Mom and Dad, a horror-comedy where a sudden, unexplained event gives parents a sudden overwhelming, irresistible desire to murder their children. I interviewed writer-director Brian Taylor (of Neveldine and Taylor, the duo behind the Crank movies and Ghost Rider 2) about the film, and he specifically said the event was inspired by Night of the Living Dead, where no one really knows what caused zombies, but everyone still has to deal with them. Mom and Dad also reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening in that regard, but it’s a much better and more enjoyable movie, again because it doesn’t waste time on characters trying to suss out what’s going on and why. Instead, the stars (Nicolas Cage in a gloriously demented performance, and Selma Blair matching him beat for beat) take a moment to look back at how their ungrateful, annoying kids have stolen their youthful coolness and replaced it with unsatisfying adulthood. It’s a wild, crazy, hyper-violent joyride of a film, but it’s rooted in the real, recognizable human feelings of antipathy and resentment that people might not want to acknowledge feeling about their kids.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Courtesy of TIFF

That brings me to another thing that kept striking me about horror at TIFF: it’s important that audiences recognize some real human behavior in the characters. One of my biggest frustrations at the festival came from Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, where a couple (played by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) watch their children submitting to some sort of bizarre curse. It’s slow-creeping horror, based in dread, but Farrell’s character ultimately responds in a way that took me completely out of the film, and had me questioning everything about him. I lost all the built-up dread and suspense, and dropped into “Why would anyone behave that way?” mode. Did you run into that with any of TIFF’s horror movies?

Bryan: I wonder if that might be more of a Yorgos Lanthimos problem than a TIFF horror problem. But some of the films that stood out to me were definitely able to frame some familiar, timely human behavior within a horror context. One that’s continued to stand out in my mind is David Freyne’s zombie film The Cured. In that movie, a zombie plague strikes Ireland, but almost all the infected are healed and integrated back into society. The hook is that they still remember everything they did while they were flesh-eating zombies. Ellen Page plays a widowed mother who takes in her cured brother-in-law, and as normal society pushes back hard against letting these monsters back into daily life, the film is able to touch on themes of xenophobia, racism, PTSD, and even domestic terrorism.

The Cured
Courtesy of TIFF

It all works because the movie stays grounded in recognizable, personal stakes: Page’s grief over her husband’s death, or the anguish her brother-in-law feels when he’s shunned from ordinary society, and embraced only by the extremists on the pro-zombie side of the fence. In some ways, the movie is a little too resonant — it all maps cleanly to some of the major political conversations of the moment — but that’s what makes it unnerving not just as an experiential piece of filmmaking (it’s got some decent jump scares along the way), but also as an allegorical one. Genre movies, and horror specifically, are wonderful opportunities to explore larger themes and ideas within the guise of bloody entertainment. Did you run into any other films you thought really worked well in that regard?

Tasha: Mom and Dad was the big one for me in that regard. Again, it isn’t a deep movie, but it acknowledges truths I haven’t seen outside weird experiences like We Need To Talk About Kevin. There’s a feeling deep within Mom and Dad that our kids come along and suck up our youth, take it as their natural due, and then replace us. There are reasons to quietly resent even the kids you adore, but I think most people sublimate or ignore that urge. Mom and Dad acknowledges it in full, and sends it screaming to a place of glorious bloody mayhem. I loved it.

Some of the more horror-inclined action movies I saw at TIFF didn’t work for me because it really didn’t seem to be about anything other than splattering blood on the screen, often in ridiculous amounts. Coralie Fargeat’s comedically over-the-top rape-revenge thriller Revenge was a good example. It’s pretty much just an exercise in stylish visual sadism, with three men attempting to murder a rape victim to keep her quiet, and her hunting them down in a gory spree that involves gunshots, graphic gashes, and a finale where she blows a hole in her stark-naked former lover, then chases him all over a house liberally painted with their blood.

Let The Corpses Tan
Courtesy of TIFF

Another French film at TIFF, Let The Corpses Tan, struck me in the same way, though it couldn’t be more different: Revenge is a glossy, modern story with no compunctions about graphic male nudity or a man spending long minutes pawing around inside his slashed-open, heavily bleeding foot, trying to fish out the piece of glass that cut him. Let The Corpses Tan is an impressionistic retro film in the vein of 1970s European exploitation cinema, full of montages of guns, knives, and breasts. Torture, murder, and arty perversions pile up at the expense of any kind of story. For every memorable sequence — like the one where a young woman has an openly sexual fantasy about an attacker shooting off all her clothes — there are half a dozen thudding gunfights where you can barely tell who’s shooting who. Which takes me back to one of my old horror standby lessons: to really feel horror, you have to care about the characters. This is why slasher movies don’t have much of an impact on me: if the bodies piling up are largely interchangeable and anonymous, I can’t get concerned about who’s dying.

Courtesy of TIFF

Bryan: I hear that. There’s a reason most slasher franchises focus on the killer continuing from movie to movie, rather than any survivors. I had that same kind of empty feeling when watching Ryuhei Kitamura’s Downrange at TIFF, actually. It’s a pretty exploitative setup: a group of kids are on a road trip to… somewhere utterly immaterial to the plot. They pull over to the side of the road after one of their tires blows out, but they soon find out that a mysterious sniper, hidden in some nearby trees, was the culprit. Said sniper then proceeds to take them out, one by one, for reasons unknown. For the first half hour, it worked for me as a purely wackadoo gorefest, but past a certain point, the characters were so thinly drawn that it became impossible to stay engaged. Conveniently, one character is a former army brat, and is able to dole out intimidating details about snipers that make this one sound terrifying. But other than that, the characters aren’t really even archetypes so much as a collection of random faces. I wound up just waiting for them to die so I could run into a different theater, where I’d hopefully run into some characters I could care about.

Thankfully, there was one film I saw during TIFF that really hit me on an emotional level while also unnerving me. Marrowbone is the feature directorial debut of Sergio G. Sánchez, who also wrote one of my favorite horror films of the last 10 years, The Orphanage. The movie centers around a group of four siblings traumatized by a violent past, and after losing their mother, they decide to keep living in their creepy family home so the outside world can’t separate them. It’s a wonderfully creepy film. The home is full of unnerving creaks and groans, and mirrors in particular are a real source of terror for the children. But the performances and the actors’ emotional connection sucked me into the film. George McKay (11.22.63) is the tortured Jack, a young man trying to be the family leader his younger siblings desperately need, even though he’s dealing with the same concerns and fears they are.

Mia Goth continues an impressive streak of recent performances as his haunted younger sister. Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton and the young Matthew Stagg complete the quartet, and watching these children struggle in real time with the ramifications of their past is outright heartbreaking at times. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) also appears as Jack’s emergent love interest, demonstrating yet again what a nuanced, empathetic actor she is. And did I mention it’s scary? Because without getting into spoilers, Marrowbone is scary as hell, and I loved it for many of the same reasons I loved The Orphanage.

Courtesy of TIFF

In a lot of ways, Marrowbone is my ideal TIFF horror film. Sánchez isn’t afraid to fall back on the basics of scary sound design and expertly crafted jump scares. But at the same time, his film has depth and resonance. It’s an emotional story that leaves the audience caring as much about what happens to its characters after the credits roll as they care about what happens to them during its running time. Not every film needs to be that way — as we’ve discussed before, part of the wonder of film festivals is the variety of stories on display — but for me, this is the kind of horror movie that resonates the most. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the movie since I saw it, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Tasha: Marrowbone was a standout TIFF experience for me, too, and it didn’t just score high on my horror roster. It held up well against all of the other 27 films I saw at the festival this year. In addition to all the qualities you’ve cited, I was impressed by the lush production design, the beautiful cinematography, and the way the film builds tension over time. I’m hoping it gets picked up for American distribution soon, because at the moment, it’s one of my favorites of the year.

And that’s another lesson of TIFF: horror has become a favorite genre among young filmmakers looking to break into cinema, because, with a good script and the right cast, it’s easier to do horror well on a shoestring budget than it is to do most genres. As a result, I think it’s gotten pretty easy to not expect too much out of our horror movies, beyond some jumps and flinches, and maybe some giggles. But it’s worth remembering that the best horror is capable of getting under the audience’s skin, and sticking with them long after they leave the theater. It’s a potentially powerful and moving genre. As we head into the horror season of October, it’s worth seeking out the best horror movies on offer, the ones that make us think as well as cringe, and that give us lasting emotions. Great horror movies are hard to find in the crowded schedules of TIFF, and even more so in a crowded field of streaming choices. But they’re well worth the effort it takes to find them.