Festival Daily

By Jason Lapeyre

The horror genre cuts a deep and bloody swath through the Festival lineup this year, and not just in the Midnight Madness programme.  Filmmakers as diverse as Bruce McDonald and Barbet Schroeder give us their take on horror with the films Pontypool and Inju, la bête dans l’ombre (based on a novel by infamous Japanese horror author Edogawa Rampo). Also, young directors like Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire) and Antti-Jussi Annila (Jade Warrior), among others, are pushing horror into new territory while sticking to the basics of the genre – gore, darkness and fear. Horror has always been something of a bastard genre in the film world, associated with low culture, low budgets and high body counts. But for the same reasons, it’s one of the most resilient, making it an aspiring filmmaker’s best friend. Horror never goes out of fashion, its audience is large and faithful, and it doesn’t need marquee names to be successful. David Cronenberg, John Sayles and James Cameron know exactly what I’m talking about, having all gotten their start in the “trashy” world of horror.

Not all directors are fans of the genre, however. “I didn’t want to make a scary film,” says Antti-Jussi Annila. “I’m not actually a horror film fan, and before Sauna I never thought I would do a horror film.” When Annila’s producers told him they wanted him to direct a horror movie about a sauna, he thought they wanted him to make a horror-comedy, and turned them down. Then he did some research. “Old Finnish people, before Christianity, believed that the sauna was the place to wash your sins away so you can go on living without the bad things you have done. And I’ve always wanted to do a film about sin and forgiveness.” Sauna tells the story of two brothers, Finnish soldiers who are assigned the task of mapping a new post-war border with Russia in the sixteenth century. They arrive at a strange town in the middle of a swamp built next to an ancient sauna, and upon entering the baths are forced to confront the horror of their own actions, given a terrifying physical form. “I think the horror lies not in what you see and hear,” says Annila. “It lies in real characters; it lies in those things that you don’t see and hear.” Nevertheless, viewers of Sauna may need a couple of days to shake off the final few things they see and hear in Annila’s film.

Both McDonald and Du Welz, on the other hand, were fright fans growing up. “Yes, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Host, Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” says McDonald, listing off some of his favourites. But it wasn’t a burning desire to make a horror movie that drew him to Pontypool. “I was attracted to the brilliant concepts and writing of Tony Burgess,” he says. Burgess’s novel Pontypool Changes Everything is a zombie story with lofty aspirations, a tale of undead cannibalistic mayhem where the zombie infection is spread through language, and hearing a conversation can turn you into a flesh-eating maniac. Marrying haunting dread with a semiotic investigation, Pontypool breaks free of traditional horror elements to explore a more realistic kind of fear – a fear of other people. 

Fabrice Du Welz, whom Midnight Madness fans probably remember from his 2004 film Calvaire, is part of a new wave of French horror filmmakers who grew up loving genre classics of the 1980s – films by John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper, and even Lucio Fulci’s Italian zombie movies. “My first love was horror,” Du Welz says. “I always wanted to make horror films.” He’s careful, however, to make a disclaimer about his latest effort, Vinyan. “It’s not Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s a ghost story more than pure horror. I see on the net, in forums, that there is this expectation for Vinyan, so I’d like to say that it’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror.” Even so, the impetus for the film came from the director’s roots. “A few years ago, I tried to remake Child’s Play, but it wasn’t possible to get the rights. I kept the idea of a couple having a monstrous child, and after the tsunami hit [the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake], I decided to set my story in post-apocalyptic Thailand.” A couple lose their son in the disaster and are unable to come to terms with his death. They follow a trail of vague clues indicating that he may still be alive, which leads them into the lawless Thai jungle. From there, it’s a non-stop direct flight into the mouth of madness, a journey that Du Welz, along with his cinematographer and sound designer, tries to recreate through character and formal experimentation. “It has a very realistic start, and slowly the story goes to a very expressionist, very strange world,” says Du Welz. “I really tried to impact the audience with sound and image on that very simple basis, the loss of a child.”

So the horror movies at the Festival this year are not cut-and-dried examples of the genre. They push and pull it in new ways, exploring ideas of language and loss and transgression and sin. For Du Welz, however, the transgression harkens back to what appealed to him about horror in the first place. “It’s the last way to be a punk. It shocks you and it pushes you to the limits. It’s the way I resist what shocks me about society.” McDonald, on the other hand, has a simpler explanation for the genre’s enduring appeal: “They make good date movies,” he says. Who doesn’t need a hand to hold on to while experiencing a little transgression?

Sept. 6, 8:00pm, AMC 6
Sept. 9, 4:30pm, Varsity 7
Sept. 12, 5:00pm, Varsity 8

Sept. 6, 12:30pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4
Sept. 11, 9:15am, Scotiabank Theatre 2

Sept. 6, 3:15pm, Scotiabank Theatre 2  
Sept. 12, 8:30pm, AMC 7