Movies · Reviews

Toronto After Dark: Tales of Halloween, Night of the Living Deb and More

By  · Published on October 15th, 2015

Tonight marks the opening of the 10th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival, 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 first three nights – Tales of Halloween, The Hallow, Synchronicity, Lazer Team, Night of the Living Deb, and A Christmas Horror Story.

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Tales of Halloween

Horror anthology films are making something of a comeback, and that’s great news even assuming that they’ll be a mixed bag when it comes to quality. One of the year’s most anticipated, Tales of Halloween, features ten tales from eleven writers/directors who’ve come together as an ensemble known as The October Society. There are highs and lows to be found, but happily there are far more of the former than the latter thanks to no shortage of gory delights, fun twists and cameos by the likes of John Landis, Joe Dante, and Adrienne Barbeau (as a radio DJ who neglects to mention the strange fog bank rolling into town).

For better or worse, it’s worth noting going in that the segments almost across the board aim to be far more comedic than horrific. Terrible things are unfolding onscreen to be sure, but more often than not the filmmakers steer towards laughter rather than terror or scares. Those hoping for straight horror will be disappointed, but fans of Tales From the Crypt and Creepshow will find more than enough to enjoy here.

One of the best is also the film’s darkest. Adam Gierasch’s “Trick” sees two couples sharing drinks and door duty as cute little kids come knocking for candy, but the night takes a turn when some of the children come looking for more than sugary treats. It goes to some mean and grisly places before revealing the even more sinister motivation behind it all. There are still a few laughs along the way, but don’t expect a funny punch of an ending. Axelle Carolyn, who also spear-headed the anthology, delivers the cautionary tale of the “Grimm Grinning Ghost,” about a young woman (Alexandra Essoe) targeted by Bloody Mary-like urban legend. There are a couple of truly creepy moments here aided by attractive camera work and a knowing visual style, and while it plays with expectations a bit it manages to end with a well-timed shock.

Two others bring big laughs with creative spins on familiar horror yarns. Mike Mendez’s “Friday the 31st” finds a young woman on the run from a masked, backwoods killer who’s already slain all of her friends. The setup is familiar to slasher fans, but it quickly shifts gears in a fun and unpredictable direction. Neil Marshall closes out the film with “Bad Seed,” a tale of a Jack-o-lantern gone bad, and while Joe Dante cameos it’s Kristina Klebe and her seed-filled nemesis who steal the show. The monster here is fun and creatively-designed, the ending leaves you wanting more and Klebe’s hard-ass cop is one you’ll want to see in action again.

Tales of Halloween is good fun, but it’s difficult not to wish that more of the stories had aimed for darker, more terrifying and affecting goals. Still, the EC Comics attitude finds a new home with Carolyn and her crew, and with any luck the film will spawn a new Halloween tradition of fun, gory, spooky anthology films highlighted by short, messy bursts of genre talent. (Read my full review)

Tales of Halloween plays 10/15 at 7p.

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The Hallow

Adam Hitchens is an environmental scientist from England hired by a logging company to survey a forest in rural Ireland. He and his family – a wife named Clare and their newborn infant – move to a remote stone house on the edge of the woods, but the welcoming committee doesn’t quite live up to it name. Locals aren’t actually all that keen on the newcomers and let Adam know in no uncertain terms that he and his family need to leave. They’re outsiders, but more than that they threaten the natural balance of the forest. Adam ignores their aggressive warnings but soon discovers that the forest doesn’t need the locals to fight its battles – it has warriors of its own.

An ancient race lives amid the trees and beneath the earth, and when Adam begins treading into their territory they repay the favor. They also take a liking to the child, and soon Adam and Clare are fighting for far more than their lives.

Director/co-writer Corin Hardy’s feature debut jumps into the genre with both feet and a mash-up of men, myth, and monsters. The film takes its time with the setup, for better or worse, and allows the threat of violence to grow before exploding across the Irish landscape. Local men tease the very real possibility of a Straw Dogs-like scenario even as we get creepy, icky hints of something supernatural hiding just beyond the shadows.

The creature feature aspect works well as horror films too frequently shy away from actual monsters – it’s cheaper to feature a human threat or, even better, an invisible ghost. The Hallow makes good, fun use of mixing CG and practical effects for the monsters, and the result is tangible antagonists filling the screen from all directions. The third act finds some strong production design too as we move closer into their world.

One of the downfalls to the long, slow setup though is more time spent with protagonists making incredibly poor decisions. They’re sometimes necessary to trigger events that fuel the rest of a film, but here the couple repeatedly make such questionable choices as almost have us rooting against them. Hardy is also a bit too reliant on jump scares – the cheapest kind – which is unfortunate because he crafts a finely-tuned and creepy atmosphere that’s spooky enough.

The Hallow takes some time to find solid footing and pull us in, but the promise of dark dangers is ultimately fulfilled. Watch it with the lights off and the windows closed.

The Hallow plays 10/15 at 945p and 10/17 at midnight.

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POP Films


Writer/director Jacob Gentry’s new feature – his first since taking part in 2007’s excellent and fun The Signal – is a twisty tale of time travel, love and corporate overreach. There are elements to like here, but like a broken timepiece that gets it right twice a day it misses the mark far more frequently. It’s Gumby sci-fi – so focused on being bendy and fun that its attempts at more serious tangents immediately reveal the cracks.

Jim Beale is on the cutting edge of an impossible discovery, and along with his assistants he’s just made history by opening a portal into the future. His experiments need a particular element to proceed, and that means he has to invite a billionaire CEO named Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside) into the fold. Jim also meets Abby, a young woman whose interests are as smoky and dimly-lit as every room in town. As he struggles to recreate the experiment he finds himself losing control of his discovery and his heart – Klaus is after controlling interest in Jim’s accomplishments and Abby has left him deeply smitten. As the clock ticks down to their next and possibly last chance at opening a wormhole, he races to prevent the loss of everything he holds sacred.

The time travel twists of the tale are fairly well-crafted, and while Jim becomes a part of the experiment in a desperate bid to save his future the resulting chaos of near-misses and close calls adds an energy to the otherwise relaxed atmosphere. Events play out while future ones unfold in the background before we even know to expect them, and sharp editing keeps the focus on the now even as we’re teased by what’s yet to come. That relaxed calm though is the film’s biggest downfall. Jim has created something incredible here, something that could change everything we know about our universe – but he shows almost no urgency. The speed with which he falls for Abby is false on its face as the two actors share little chemistry – more of a dialogue issue than a performance one – and we’re shown no reason as to why he would give himself over to her so completely and quickly.

Performances are fine – A.J. Bowen in particular delivers with some terrifically dry humor – but they all seem encouraged to play their characters as if none of this was really all that important. There’s nothing wrong with a casual and loose sci-fi tale, but the script wants us to take so much of this seriously that the happy-go-lucky, overly precious dialogue and subsequent performances can’t quite carry that weight. Gentry also wears his Blade Runner influences on his sleeve with his use of shifting lighting and occasionally Vangelis-sounding score. It all works well to create a mood and atmosphere that carries the film into noir-ish territory.

Synchronicity remains an engaging-enough watch thanks to some smart interplay between the present and the future, but its inability to balance tone makes it far slighter than it wants to be. (Read my full review)

Synchronicity plays 10/16 at 7p.

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Lazer Team

Four friends, losers by any rational standards, come into possession of high-tech, alien weaponry and immediately start to have fun. The government is forced to work with the guys after the dangerous materials bond with the irresponsible quartet, but the good times come to an end when a being far more familiar with space-age combat arrives on Earth leaving the guys as humanity’s only defense.

I haven’t seen this one, and therefore have no real thoughts on it, but it’s from Rooster Teeth – the folks behind the very funny, Halo-set animatic series Red vs Blue – and that’s enough to make it a comedy worth seeking out.

Lazer Team plays 10/16 at 930p and 1145p.

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Night of the Living Deb

Deb (Maria Thayer) is a fun-loving but insecure young woman looking for love in Portland, Maine. Her first mistake is trying to pick up a guy in a bar, and that’s quickly followed by the realization that he’s there with his fiancee. Against all odds though she wakes up the next morning in Ryan’s (Michael Cassidy) bed, and while she has no memory of the night before all signs point to this being a successful connection.

Well, aside from the fact that he’s still engaged and trying to find a way to get rid of her. Oh, and the zombie apocalypse that struck in the night while they were sleeping.

A zombie comedy – or, zom-com, as the kids will probably want to call it – seems like a long overdue mash-up, so credit co-writer/director Kyle Rankin for taking the plunge. I kid of course as it’s a well-worn sub-genre with the likes of Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Cockneys vs Zombies, Dead Snow 2, Big Tits Zombie, Night of the Creeps, Zombieland, and many others treading similarly comedic and gory grounds. The point being that it takes a certain something special to stand apart from the crowd, and Night of the Living Deb doesn’t quite have it.

The core story of a blossoming romance set against a zombie outbreak has potential, but it stumbles with a couple who struggle to earn our affection. Deb is borderline annoying, and while it could initially be attributed to her shyness or nervousness around Ryan it simply never lets up. She’s constantly “on” and aggressively so to the point that you almost wish a zombie would loose her tongue with its teeth. Thayer herself shows strong comedic chops, but she should have been allowed to reel it in some to let the character breathe. Ryan is disaffecting for almost the opposite reason in that he’s sedate through the entire film. Cassidy plays him entirely too relaxed for what’s happening around them, and he’s left with a character who teases something resembling blandness. The film has a secret weapon in the mad genius of Ray Wise, as Ryan’s father, but as with any film he’s in he’s just not onscreen nearly enough.

More at fault than the actors the is the film’s tone that leans way too heavy on the broad comedy to the point that the danger feels non-threatening, the deaths unimportant, and the plot of disinterest even to the filmmakers. This would admittedly be a non-issue if the humor was consistently funny, but that’s just not the case. Several bits do bring the laughs – a cerebral palsy gag lands beautifully, against both the odds and good taste – but too often we’re left drowning in an ocean of misfires awaiting the next funny flotation device.

There are fun beats to be found in Night of the Living Deb, but its conceit feels like a film that began with its playful title and never went too far beyond that idea.

Night of the Living Deb plays 10/17 at 7p.

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A Christmas Horror Story

For most moviegoers Christmas-themed films are usually focused on joy, love and miracles, but horror fans know the holiday can also lead to terror, bloodshed and human bodies being torn open like presents wrapped in flesh. From the highs of The Children (’08) and Black Christmas (’74) to the lows of Santa’s Slay and the Black Christmas remake, the holiday has become fantastic fodder for terrifically naughty behavior, and now that trend continues with a new anthology film.

A family heads to a relative’s home in search of a holiday hand-out but discover a monstrous and muscle-bound Krampus instead. Teenagers sneak into a school where a bloody murder occurred one year prior. A couple and their young son trespass into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, but something evil finds them first. Workplace violence strikes Santa’s workshop when an infection turns cheerful elves into flesh-craving zombies.

The connective tissue holding the stories in place features the town of Bailey Downs’ own DJ Dan (William Shatner) sharing his holiday thoughts and merry tunes with anyone in earshot, and as we move back and forth between tales his hopeful, eggnog-filled banter remains a constant.

The film is a collective effort – directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan, and written by James Kee, Sarah Larsen, Doug Taylor and Pascal Trottier – and follows the Trick ‘r Treat-style of telling its stories simultaneously instead of sequentially. It works best later on as each tale is hitting its final groove, but the early going is made difficult by having to see multiple setups before anything of interest happens.

The exception here is also the film’s best tale. Santa notices something is amiss with one of his elves, but before he can rub his nose the little guy dies, rises and begins an epidemic of zombified elves. (Had they not booted Hermey the wannabe dentist elf years ago he could have saved lives by removing the zombies’ teeth.) He’s forced into a life or death battle and paints the North Pole red with elf blood, but while the end reveal is the film’s highlight it’s allowed to go on far too long which slowly saps its strength.

Like just about every anthology film ever made, A Christmas Horror Story is a mixed bag – of gifts and coal you could say – but as a whole it lands as a mediocre affair. See it for Shatner and the Santa vs zombie elves segment, but be sure to get a gift receipt. (Read my full review)

A Christmas Horror Story plays 10/17 at 930p.

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

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.