Although the Toronto International Film Festival isn’t strictly a genre fest, when it comes to horror, sci-fi, and all the other films that huddle under that cinematic umbrella, its laurels are still highly coveted. The shine of TIFF’s overall prestige rubs off on Midnight Madness, which every year debuts an impressive genre slate. Programmer Peter Kuplowsky has been with TIFF since 2011, and came up under the legendary Colin Geddes, who helmed TIFF’s genre programming for an impressive 19 years. Kuplowsky took over in 2017, and has presided over the world premieres of such films as The Disaster Artist, David Gordon Green’s Halloween, and Richard Stanley’s return to filmmaking, Color Out Of Space. (He’s also the man who brought Wakaliwood to Canada, a lower-profile but equally heroic feat.)
Like most of the other TIFF programs this year, Midnight Madness has been slimmed down—its slate is just three films. When it comes to genre fare, the agonies and ecstasies of going virtual are compounded. On the one hand, those of us who have to caffeinate up to our eyeballs just to stay awake during a midnight movie can press play on a screener while the sun is still shining. But on the other, midnight audiences are the rowdiest (and most fun) filmgoers out there, and a particularly good horror movie can be more like a tent revival with an enthusiastic festival crowd.
Honestly, I wish I had seen Violation (Grade: B) in a theater just so I could talk to someone about it on the walk home, purging some of its images from my mind in the process. Instead, I had a terrible dream after watching this film late at night. That isn’t unusual for me—I’ve had recurring nightmares since I was a child. But this was an especially vivid one, inspired by the brutal arthouse nihilism of this provocative take on the rape-revenge film. In fact, if Violation is the last movie of its type ever to be produced, it would serve as an appropriate coda for this much-maligned and misunderstood subgenre.
The basic question when approaching a film of this type is: Does it focus more on the rape or the revenge? Back in the ’70s, when films like Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave popularized the subgenre, the perceived demands of raincoat-clad audiences meant that the former was frequently foregrounded, to upsetting effect. But the rape-revenge formula has also experienced something of a renaissance in the past few years. As epitomized by Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2018), these new films have taken the opposite track, including sexual violence only as much as its necessary for the plot while luxuriating in blood, guts, and catharsis for the remainder of their running times.
Violation takes that approach to its logical extreme. There’s extended male full-frontal nudity, but the camera skirts around the edges of the sexual assault with extreme close-ups on eyes and hands. That scene only lasts for a minute or so, but the camera lingers on long, unblinking wide shots passively observing Miriam (co-writer and co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer) as she graphically executes a meticulously thought-out plan to not only kill her attacker but also wipe away all traces of his physical existence, complicating the catharsis element at each nauseating step. (A wall bracket, a soup pot, and empty bottles of laundry detergent all come into play.) Miriam isn’t a total sociopath, but her actions are fueled by a blinding hate that may or may not be warranted, depending on how you lift the veils of ambiguity Sims-Fewer and co-director Dusty Mancinelli drape onto Miriam’s betrayal by someone she trusts. The result is ambiguous, asking difficult questions about consent, justice, and whether some things are too horrible to even fantasize about. Because what are films but fantasies brought to life?
Watching a movie like Violation, you get the discomfiting feeling that the filmmaker is simultaneously confessing their darkest secrets and condemning you for listening. It’s a very Lars von Trier emotion to impose on the audience, albeit coming this time from a misandrist place rather than a misogynistic one. And like a von Trier film, Violation is shot with a heightened, almost operatic sense of style that initially comes across as overwrought, although the film’s content does eventually rise to match its ostentatious form. Beware, all those sensitive to graphic violence and animal cruelty, though the end credits do insist that “no animals were harmed” in the making of the film. Does that include human animals? This movie is savage enough to make you wonder.
Violation is what one might call a “challenging” film, whether as a euphemism or a sincere compliment. Shadow In The Cloud (Grade: B), on the other hand, is pure popcorn entertainment, superimposing the dynamic synths and narrative efficiency of a John Carpenter movie onto the burnished metal and green fatigues of a World War II adventure. This one stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Maude Garrett, a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer who’s been charged with protecting a highly classified piece of cargo aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress military plane departing from New Zealand.
Maude is nobody’s fool—steadfast, driven, and tough as she needs to be to get by as a female soldier in the 1940s. But the male crew of the plane sees her as nothing more than a liability and a sex object, laughing at her attempts to establish authority and menacing her with sexual threats even before they force her into a ball turret dangling on the underside of the plane. From within these claustrophobic confines, director Roseanne Liang throws threat after threat at Maude and the crew, from Japanese fighter planes to one of the original variety of gremlins—here, a CGI bat/monkey/rat hybrid.
A preposterous development midway through the film threatens to derail both the plot and the rah-rah female empowerment message. (I feel obligated here to note that the script was co-written by the infamous Max Landis, and was rewritten several times after revelations of his sexual misconduct come to light.) But if you can save the questions for after the movie’s over and concentrate on the pulpy derring-do, it doesn’t ruin the fun.
Shelving one’s more nitpicking tendencies is also essential for proper enjoyment of TIFF’s third Midnight Madness selection for 2020, Get The Hell Out (Grade: C+). The nuances of director I-Fan Wang’s commentary on Taiwanese politics in this high-octane horror satire were almost certainly lost on this ignorant American. (That being said, learning that Taiwan’s parliament is known for theatrical brawling during legislative sessions clarified a lot of things.) The film’s short attention span and flashy stylistic excess reminded me a lot of Japanese television, and Wang weaves in culturally specific references and cameos from Taiwanese internet celebrities throughout. But corruption and craven self-interest are universal, as are the main attraction: zombies!
The story revolves around Hsiung (Megan Lai), a politician forced to resign from her post after the on-camera fist fight that opens the film. Desperate to retain control however she can, she persuades Wang (Bruce Ho), the hapless security guard whose crush on Hsuing can be seen from space, to run in her stead. He wins, and is installed as the disgraced representative’s puppet, complete with a headset to dictate his actions. But none of that matters when the President of Taiwan rips an officer’s face off during a customary brawl, and the zombie apocalypse begins. (The absurdity of the legislators’ response is oddly reassuring—there’s at least one other place where the idiots are in charge.) So while the specifics may be lost on Westerners, if you go with the flow, Get The Hell Out’s broad strokes are great fun.