After the Bang, My Love: The Passing of a Horror Fan, and Mine

Last weekend, Kaarina Wilson passed away.

I haven’t really talked much about her, though I have definitely referred to her on Mythic Bios a few times. She’s even commented on this Blog a few times, once with regards to a poem I wrote for her called For Red, and another time encouraging my writing.

She always supported my writing, and continuing to improve myself. She was the only one of my friends and partners that came to my Graduate School Convocation back in 2012, almost a lifetime ago now. Kaarina saw me through that difficult part of my life where I was running out of money and dealing with the Damoclean nightmare that became my Master’s Thesis, and the end of Grad School. It wasn’t easy, for either of us. She was the first person I ever lived with, and the first person from whose place I had to move out.

Kaarina was also one of the first people in my life to tell me that I should not only keep a Blog, but I should write on geeky subjects. Her favourite genre in particular was horror.

While she introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut — or Grampa as she called him — and the black comic, almost banal terror of Cat’s Cradle with its Ice-Nine in the sky, and Mother Night‘s warning that you will become what you pretend to be there were two other extremely important contributions Kaarina provided to return me back into horror properly: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, and the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Up until this point, I had mostly read H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore — fear of the unknown, interpersonal character development and the strange being commonplace and the normal being bizarre, and a cynical world still made cerebral and wondrous respectively — but it was Clive Barker that taught me that what you fear can be inexorably linked to what you ultimately desire.

But while I went on to read more Barker, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival showed me just what independent films — both horror and weird — could truly accomplish. Alongside Kaarina in 2010, the year we started dating and when the After Dark used to be in the summer and where Hot Docs currently resides — we watched ridiculous films with heart like RoboGeisha, and twisted things like The Human Centipede. Some of my best memories was getting off at Bathurst Station and meeting her there, and she was often late, while eating some chicken shawarma wraps and freshly squeezed orange juice watching the latest volley of insane films. I think it was from Kaarina exposing me to these forms of literature in the horrific and the sublime that showed me not to take things so seriously anymore and, in doing so, to remember what creative play was, and to genuinely enjoy watching entertainment again.

It was an interesting time when we met. Rental stores were already being phased out. Not long after my first year with her, Blockbuster’s physical stores died, though it took a few years for Suspect Video to share their fate. But we saw it coming. We felt change coming.

Kaarina had always suffered from four autoimmune diseases, something she made no bones about when we first met at a bar gathering in 2009. She had scleroderma, which is a chronic disease that hardens the connective tissue throughout the body, along with primary biliary cirrhosis, which is a slow destruction of the bile ducts in one’s liver, and Sjögren’s syndrome, which often accompanies other autoimmune disorders but has symptoms of dry eyes and mouth. She also had Raynaud’s disease, which narrows the blood vessels in extremities: usually in the fingers and toes.

One of the few times we spent the night together, she showed me the sore developing her finger which caused her horrible pain. Often, she would talk about having it amputated. Once, when I went to the hospital near the ROM to pick her up we came across a patient who had multiple amputations, and she told me that she expected this in her future.

That future didn’t happen, thankfully, but the fear was always there. When she would get sick, her immune system would attack the illness and her: which is what autoimmune disorders often are in and of themselves. At the very least, she was far more vulnerable to infections — including Staph infections — than most, and she never had flu shots as they would most likely compromise her immune system further.

I didn’t want to see it. I knew it was a reality, her reality, but I thought with more time and so much more time there would be further treatments, that she just had to hold on. We just had to hold on.

I also didn’t have a lot of time, though in a different way. I was running out of money and funding for Grad School and OSAP. My bursaries, scholarships, and loans only went so far. Every day, even before I met Kaarina, I knew I was on borrowed time: that this period of freedom and independence, unless something spectacular happened, wouldn’t last forever.

And it didn’t.

It’s like those old horror films, zombie movies in particular, where two survivors are hiding in a place besieged by the undead and trying not to get bit, while one of them has already gotten infected and is more real about it — is more pragmatic amidst horrible emotional turmoil — while the other is in intense denial, that they just need to hold on a little longer, and it would work out.

Kaarina liked zombie movies. Not the newfangled zombie runners, or rage-monsters created from 28 Days Later, but the undead — the ghouls — that came from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. She always said that she preferred slow, encroaching, inevitable horror and death to the fast and furious show-off gore of other films. You can, obviously, see the parallel. Horror, after all, makes you face your own mortality and find some catharsis in the thing. I could make a pretty good argument, if I wanted to, that the horror cinematic genre has elements of what the ancients would have considered tragedy, if not outright tragedy in and of itself.

There is something about a zombie horde as a mindless, relentless scourge that consumes everything in its path — something so unstoppable, so senseless, so … fucking stupid despite the fact that Romero’s ghouls can use tools — that spoke a lot to Kaarina, and her continuing struggle with her own body, and sometimes her mind.

Zombies weren’t the only thing that Kaarina enjoyed. She always had a focus on doppelgängers: on doubles of people, mirror parallels, and the uncanny valley that they inhabit in the minds of those that they see them. When she was studying Journalism at Ryerson, she was taking a course in Gothic Literature, possibly the only thing she enjoyed in that program. And while this allowed me the opportunity to read some of her required reading such as Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” it also gave me the opportunity to help her with her assignments. While I couldn’t always contribute financially, I had the skills and the ability to read over her work, offer reviews, and even help her formulate those ideas. Her last assignment in that course was about doppelgängers and their thematic function: why they exist, and what they represent.

Throughout Kaarina’s life, and from my understanding of it and experience with it, there were two sides to her. They even had two names. Most people, including her friends, called her Karen. Karen was often the persona that was matter of fact and had the party manners. She took things gracefully, even when she could be cold and distant. Kaarina, on the other hand, was the more creative and intuitive part of her, the sensitive part that cried a lot, and would freeze into place when she was particularly upset or scared, or rage at the unfairness of everything. Karen, in my mind, would question you, always. And when she got angry would methodically and with some detail explain everything you did wrong, while Kaarina would shout and scream and was far more visceral. The dichotomy of these aspects of her were not mutually exclusive, and they did not develop in a vacuum. Both were very real. In fact, I would say dichotomy was a major part of her life. She even had heterochromia: two different coloured eyes.

The focus of her final paper had been on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film I woke up late at night with a fever to sit with her on the couch in our apartment under the stairs and watch. And later, long after the money ran out, and patience turned into exhaustion, and I moved back in with my parents with my boxes following, and hospitals became an even more daily occurrence of her life Jordan Peele’s Us that, according to Fangoria, was the first or most definitive horror film that utilized the doppelgänger as the central monster.

I bought that film for her. I also got her a subscription to both Fangoria Magazine and Shudder. I recall getting her Shudder when she was in a medically-induced coma after a procedure to shred the damaged parts of her lungs, curating a collection for her, hoping that she would wake up and eventually be able to watch the entire thing: a shadow of the shared experience we had in watching some of these films at the After Dark together. I didn’t see her often after I moved out, and a lot of our own struggles with each other, and ourselves. These gestures seemed just so small by comparison, even though I hoped they would make that difference when I would finally see her again.

Kaarina’s contributions, and her utter exasperation in me not doing any writing during our time together, led me to creating Mythic Bios, led me to writing for Sequart, and even the stint for GeekPr0n, and covering the Toronto After Dark. I went from buying single passes to particular films at the After Dark, to sharing a Press Pass among GeekPr0n staff, to eventually just getting a full Pass like she always did: to enjoy those films on my own again. Part of it was to try to find a sense of meaning as I moved back into my parents’ place and rejecting academia, while some was a combination of homage and defiance towards Kaarina herself: to show her I had learned from her, to illustrate that I would all the thing she pushed me to do when we lived together on my own outside of the place we used to share.

A lot of things happened after I moved out in 2012. I got published in a print and ebook anthology about Hell. I wrote for two online publications. And I went to the After Dark on my own, and it became more than our place. It became my place as well. But never once, during that entire time, did I forget Kaarina, or the impetus she gave me to keep going. To keep experimenting. To keep seeing what I could do.

The last film she and I watched together on our own was in 2017, at the Carlton Cinema. It was the anthology XX: a film directed, written, and starring all women. After the film, Jovanka Vuckovic — one of the central writers and directors in the film, who I met through covering her at GeekPr0n — noticed that the central theme in the whole film, through the blood, and pain, and loss was about family. And, looking back, it makes sense that that would be the last movie we saw on a date because, despite everything, I never doubted — not once through everything that happened, perhaps because of everything that happened — that Kaarina and I loved each other.

I was going to visit Kaarina in the hospital the Sunday after the Pandemic was formally declared. I couldn’t make it. I wanted us to have a remote Movie Night, Bed-Time as she called it — where we would watch The Addams Family or The Twilight Zone together — but it never happened. It seems, in a way, the two central horror themes of Kaarina’s fascination unfolded before, and after, her death. Disease and the slow crawl of fear has enveloped the world, and in doing so we are seeing two sides of the same reality become starkly contrasted with each other: social inequality and justice, hope and dread, truth and lies, and life and death all unfolding around us, and with little ambiguity.

There is an uncertainty in the world now, more than ever. There is a loss of understanding in my own, without her in it. The fact that I saw it coming doesn’t make it better. It just felt like a rehearsal for this time. It was just like watching that zombie horde come creeping towards you, and now it is facing myself in the mirror scared of the feelings I am continuing to find while viscerally, morbidly, messily fascinated with exploring their guts.

Horror and weirdness lost a great fan last week. I lost an amazing lover and friend. I lost one of my greatest fans, and supporters. I want her to be honoured in the places that she loved the most.

Rest in peace, Kaarina. You always liked to quote Hitchcock, again, when he said “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.”

I hope that after your bang, when it came, all that is left now, for you, is its catharsis.

TADFF 15 Review: Deathgasm

Deathgasm is hardcore. There is no other way of putting it. Even from its very beginnings, according to the Toronto After Dark’s Q and A with its director Jason Lei Howden and producer Sarah Howden, the film proved just how powerful it could be through a one sentence prompt and treatment that would ultimately allow it to win the Make My Horror Movie contest in 2013 and win the production money that it needed to scream into existence.

It is so loud and clear with what it is that you don’t even have to be a metal expert to enjoy what you see. After a beautiful animated sequence, Deathgasm shows itself to be a story about a group of teenage friends in a conservative town that essentially unlock a demonic power through acquiring and playing sheets of music. These sheets are being hunted by a cult and then by the demonically-possessed citizens of the teenagers’ home town.

Deathgasm Demon

You get what you can expect when you look at how the horror genre has influenced the growth of metal: tons of gore, angst, screaming, demonic zombie destruction, and lots of penises. Certainly the prosthetics and special effects are impressively twisted: especially when you consider that they are all mostly borrowed props. For instance, the audience in the Q and A were told that the penises were taken from Spartacus of all places.

Deathgasm Zakk and Brodie

But this is just the blood and gore that stains the raging metalhead bad ass. In a movie that plays with the age-old theme of anarchy and vulgar defiance against conformity and hypocrisy, you also get some interesting characters for your time. Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) and Zakk (James Blake) play well off and against each other. Zakk himself is a bit of an asshole but somehow manages to also be a friend and even something of an anti-hero: though as you become more aware of the plot, you will begin to see where he is going with all this. And Brodie comes into his own from being in Zakk’s shadow: claiming the song that he used to unleash hell in a fit of angst.

Deathgasm Brodie and Medina

Even the female lead in the film Medina (Kimberly Crossman) has her own excellent character development. She starts off as something of a popular girl at school but already demonstrates that she is kind, real, and open-minded. You actually get invested with seeing her and Brodie’s relationship and how it’s completely reciprocal. It even gets to the point where she rescues the rest of their band with an ax-pun of which Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be proud.

Deathgasm Medina the Slayer

The villains have excellent moments and conflicting agendas and these, along with Brodie, Medina, and Zakk make up for some of the more stereotypical characters that populate the movie. There is just this emotional complexity amid the gore that makes it all the more alive: its dark humour and irreverence for even the hellish powers animating the story far more than any demon ever could. Also, given that this is a metal movie the soundtrack, much of it made by Skullfist, is excellent. In fact, Howden made people aware that they will be releasing Deathgasm‘s music in a double vinyl record.

In the end, Deathgasm is a glorious, musical, blood-splattered journey into hell and the pointlessness of life and the bad-assness of what you can achieve when you stop caring about the things that don’t matter and begin loving the things that ultimately do. Also, you get to watch really bad people get their moral comeuppance in some graphic and disgusting ways. Karma has never been so metal.

TADFF 15 Review: Patchwork

Imagine you are a lonely businesswoman. Or perhaps you’re a college student that wants to belong. Or maybe you are a shy, quiet woman looking to better yourself.  And then, one night, you go out to seek the things that you want … and then you wake up the next day as three minds trapped in one, awkward, cobbled together body. What do you do?

This is the premise behind Tyler MacIntyre’s horror comedy movie Patchwork. It is an obvious hearkening back to Frankenstein on a classical Universal Studios level, but films such as Re-Animator and Dark Man have also been stated as influences. However both MacIntyre and his co-writer Chris Lee Hill succeed in challenging our expectations of what this story is going to be.

For instance, we get some back story into the lives of the three women that are stitched together. We see Jennifer (Tory Stolper), Ellie (Tracey Fairaway), and Madeleine (Maria Blasucci) as three very different personalities with often divergent goals. Even the scenes that explore their lives, and the moments before their deaths, seem to be stitched together in odd and interesting places.

Tory Stolper herself, who plays the amalgamation of the three girls known as “Stitch” in both the script and the original two-minute short from which Patchwork originated, manages to create a convincing lurching gait and the physical signs of her adaptation into activities such as eating, drinking, grooming, murder, and even sex. But where, in the words of an audience member at the Toronto After Dark, Patchwork might have become a “progressive take on Frankenhooker,” it verges into something else entirely towards the end. The key is examining just who was responsible for the creation of Stitch: and who her, or their, enemy might actually be. That dark twist in a series of shallow interactions with disgusting, chauvinist men, female empowerment that is almost subverted by said realization — and segments reminiscent of Memento and the resolution of Fight Club — was well-played.

In the fact, the only quibble here is that the audience becomes aware of the twist before the characters do: though it can be argued that this only serves to potentially make viewers more eager to see how they will deal with that revelation … and it doesn’t disappoint.

And somehow, through all the quirky humour, human caricatures, chicken fillets, righteous and recreational murder sprees, and gore porn Patchwork does have something of a happy ending. It is, in the words of MacIntyre, like looking at the beginnings of a female superhero’s origin story. After all, sometimes monsters are just people who haven’t found themselves yet outside of society and all they need to become comfortable with themselves, what they want, and who they want in their lives.

TADFF 15 Review: Tales of Halloween

Imagine The Ray Bradbury Theater mixed with Tales From the Crypt and what you’ll get — at least in spirit — is Tales of Halloween. Yet while Axelle Carolyn is the creator of this collection of vignettes, she is only one of eleven popular horror directors — such as Lucky McKee and Darren Lynn Bousman, among others — to have included a short film in the overall structure of the piece.

It’s difficult to actually review a collection of supposedly interlocking films, so perhaps the best way is to look at the overall structure of Tales of Halloween. While Corin Hardy mentions Ray Harryhausen as one of his influences in creating the monsters in The Hallow, you can really see the shadows of Harryhausen’s animation in the miniature land panoramic view introduction to Tales and in Mike Mendez’s “Friday the 31st” and Neil Marshall’s “Bad Seed” vignettes with the cute alien and mutant pumpkin respectively.

But aside from some attempts to unite all the narratives, mainly in “Bad Seed,” most of the stories seem pretty well independent. In that, perhaps the collection as an overall and cohesive story structure fails. However, each vignette can be seen to stand as confections and diabolical plots in their own right. Certainly Dave Parker’s “Sweet Tooth” and Axelle Carolyn’s “Grim Grinning Ghost” create some nice standalone urban myths, along with demonic children facing and doling out justice in both Adam Giegrasch’s “Trick” and Paul Solet’s “The Weak and the Wicked” stand out as particularly strong and memorable stories.

Tone can usually be a casualty of creative collaboration. Whereas The Hallow seemed to be deciding what genre and tropes it was made of out, Tales of Halloween — depending on what tale you were viewing — veers wildly between the mundane, the silly, and the outright murderous and horrifying. Even the fact that each tale is supposed to take place in the same American town doesn’t always show through until “Bad Seed.”

Even so, there is something nostalgic in these vignettes that hearken back to candies, and games, and movies. Certainly, Adrienne Barbeau’s dark and delightfully full and villainous voice as a DJ on the radio narrating each vignette also adds to this spirit. Mainly, Tales of Halloween is a lot like the ghastly Sweet Tooth’s grab bag: sometimes you find delicious morsels, and other times you just find guts … until you realize that both are valid snack choices.

What Does It Want to Be? A TADFF 15 Review of The Hallow

There are many different interpretations of faeries. Corin Hardy, director of The Hallow, seems aware of this fact: particularly with regards to how the Fae relates to Nature, being the Other in relation to humanity, and always bordering on the formless. Anyone who has read the original fairytales, the oral cautionary folklore of the past, understands just how dark and alien faeries can be.

The premise of the film is fascinating: in that Adam Hitchens, a British conservationist, his wife Claire, and their infant son move to an old forest in Ireland. They move there so that Adam can survey and eventually allow for construction in the area. The problem, of course, is simple: faeries or, as they called in the mythology of the film, the Hallow dwell in the forest … and they do not take kindly to having their territory intruded upon.

Or at least that is what it seems. Hardy creates an interesting take on faerie mythology that feeds well the film’s narrative: at least upon first glance. Through Adam’s own stubbornly scientific observations, viewers see the Hallow as a form of fungus that takes over its hosts: a life form that is highly photosensitive and possesses a great aversion to cold iron. They also create changelings: substitutions of stolen babies when they want to infiltrate a human settlement. It is also very clever how, as what seems to be a hive-mind fungus, the Hallow already has a presence in their wooden house: a ubiquitous threat making the audience aware of that tenuous line between Nature and human society.

However, how the Hallow interacts with the protagonists is where it all begins to fall flat. Even though, at the beginning, someone with a knowledge of faerie lore might wince at Claire taking off the iron bars around the windows of their new home, the nature of the Hallow itself — or themselves — just doesn’t possess any continuity. One moment it seems as though it wants to consume the family; at another it toys with them; and then it wants to spread beyond the forest even though it could have done so many times over for years.

The Hallow as a creature defines its own film structure. It seems stuck in a place between body horror, creature featuring, haunted housing, psychological, and zombie survival horror. Its as though, like its Fae monstrosities, it doesn’t know what it is, or whether or what kind of individuality it possesses. Even Adam and his dog, both of whom are infected by the Hallow fungi, seem to struggle with its mutations slightly but still ultimately fight against it. It just takes away from the actual horror element despite the excellently malformed Hallow creatures, the engrossing scenic view of the forest environment that could easily have been lost to time, and the very real terror a mother feels when her child is danger.

There were a lot of themes that could have been explored in more detail such as a loss or questioning of identity, or even specifics about the incredibly elaborate book of fairytales that the farmer Colm Donnell left the family to warn them out of the forest. The ending just bludgeons for a sequel that lacks even the mystique of its forest environment seemingly last to humanity and time, and the following jump scare just feels a little cheap. But the environment was played with well and there was some kind of closure and humanity for the characters involved.

Before the Toronto After Dark’s showing of the film, the audience was treated to a video made by Corin Hardy: telling them that they should have brought with them cold iron, a flashlight, and goggles. And it is by using these tools that the audience might see that while some trails in the forest of The Hallow might be predictable, Hardy does manage to build on and create a mythos: just as long as he protects that vision and keeps that light right in front of him.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown At TADFF 2014

I’ll admit it: when I first came to this film I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know about the 1946 Texarkana Moonlight Murders or the first 1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown film. I learned a lot about the Phantom serial killer from the Toronto After Dark introductions and Question and Answer period with the 2014 film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

It was made clear by Gomez-Rejon himself that The Town That Dreaded Sundown was not strictly a sequel to Charles B. Pierce’s film of the same name. And while I might go as far as to say it is something of a spiritual successor, perhaps the best way to look at it is something of a meta-sequel: not only to Pierce’s film, but the literature of rumours bordering on legend that has surrounded the Moonlight Murders ever since.

The Phantom liked to attack and kill couples.
The Phantom liked to attack and kill couples.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for elements of history to become something of a legend, or form even the core of a myth: especially when many of the facts still pose a mystery. Jami Lerner, the protagonist of the 2014 film, said something to the effect that this is a story about two towns: or two cities. Texarkana is a town created between the American states of Texas and Arkansas. But then you have the Texarkana that exists in reality and the one depicted in Pierce’s film. And that isn’t even taking into account the Texarkana of small town daylight and morality coexisting next to the Texarkana of moonlight murder, guilt, and collective fear.

You could make a case that Texarkana, as portrayed in Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is at least four towns if not more: the one from our present reality, the one from the past when the murders happened, the one from Pierce’s movie, and the one being depicted in its latest film narrative. I already knew that there was a mythos being built in this film, but what I didn’t realize was that it was created from reality: crafting from it something of a multifaceted nightmare.

This is a film that, on the surface, appears to be a slasher movie — where sex equals death — with urban legend leanings but underneath the gore and violence it is a psychological thriller steeped in the social and cultural effects that a series of murders had on a town’s collective consciousness and that age-old sense of unsolved mystery. It doesn’t attempt to solve or resolve any of the facts from the Moonlight Murders or even the identity of the Phantom from Pierce’s film. It is not a continuation to the latter’s film and it doesn’t pretend to reveal the truth of the past.

In this 2014 film, the Phantom was compared to the Bogeyman.
In this 2014 film, the Phantom was compared to the Bogeyman.

What this film does do, in my opinion, is that it taps into that place where a murderer becomes a myth — and a masked icon on the level of Guy Fawkes — and that myth is less the story of a man who was never found, but rather that of an entire town. As far as Gomez-Rejon’s Phantom is concerned and in the words of another character, everyone in that town “has blood on their hands” and it all has to do with a person named Mary. You get to watch Lerner as she is charged by the Phantom himself to “make everyone remember” what really happened and experience her journalistic journey into old newspaper clippings, hearsay, and meta-narrative: with the threat of the Phantom continuing his killings and terrorism of her as impetus.

Gomez-Rejon is a master of illustrating the resonances of history and fear through the eerie re-enactments of the murders that the Phantom perpetrated both in real life and in the first movie created about him: including one final murder that didn’t make it into the mainstream arts and media coverage. You can see that he has done his research and, like every good storyteller, understands that sometimes the best story is that which has a grain of truth in it while understanding that he has to say something new in order to maintain that balance.

A film's re-enactment of a murder scene taken from an older movie and inspired by real life murders.
A film’s re-enactment of a murder scene taken from an older movie and inspired by real life murders.

I have to say that this is actually one of my favourite films from the entire festival. It was a nice counterpoint to The Drownsman in that while the latter film attempts to create a new mythos, The Town That Dreaded Sundown not only taps into an older mythos but adds to it and says something very intelligent about fear while maintaining the emotional depth of actual human characters. In addition to having characters that can you relate to with very human reactions that you can sympathize with, this isn’t a film about spectacle and novelty. It reminds you that people actually suffered and died through senseless murders: and while there are those who will exploit this legacy for their own purposes, there are others will continue to seek its truth out. It may well be similar to the reason why Texarkana still shows the first Town That Dreaded Sundown to this very day: out of a sense of respect for the trauma that made a part of history.

In all honesty, for someone who generally doesn’t like horror without supernatural elements I couldn’t recommend this film any higher: a movie about two towns … and more than one form of ghost.

Remember The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Remember The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

From The Darkness Of The 2014 TADFF: Why Horror?

It’s only fitting that the last film I viewed for the 2014 Toronto After Dark dealt with the first question that exists in every horror movie viewer’s mind in some way or form: why horror?

This documentary’s debut at the festival was an event in and of itself. It got an introduction from Rue Morgue managing editor David Alexander along with the team of writer, journalist, actor and film-maker Tal Zimerman and directors Rob Lindsay and Nicolas Kleiman. Why Horror? itself focused on Tal Zimerman, an utter horror fanatic and his interviews with many prominent figures in the horror film genre along with psychological experts and scholars examining the nature of horror in human life and how that translates over into why people like horror films.

This man really likes his horror.
This man really likes his horror.

Why Horror? spans a lot of territory and cultural background in Toronto, Tokyo, Mexico City, Xochimilco, London, New York, Vancouver, and Waterloo. We got some fascinating insights into Zimerman’s childhood, with his very understanding family (and long suffering but good sport of a mother), as he experimented with makeup effects creation on his brothers along with seeing his young son play with gruesome action figures while watching Godzilla films.

We got to see if people’s brains functioned differently through immersing themselves in horror movies through some tests that Zimerman (and at one point his mother who generally avoids horror movies) underwent and we got some history lessons as to how humans in different places used art and folktales to deal with themes of horror before the creation of film. And yes, the beautifully grisly paintings of the artist Goya is definitely used as an example of the former.

Some familiar interview subjects indeed.
Some familiar interview subjects indeed.

But there were a few things in particular that caught my eye in the midst of conversations with George A. Romero, John Carpenter, and witnessing events like the Mexican Day of the Dead.

For instance, there was a discussion with some interview subjects about gender in horror. It was something of a mixed balance. On one hand you had actual dialogue with female participants in the horror genre such as the actress Barbara Crampton and directors Jen and Sylvia Soska. These conversations, if nothing else, cement the fact that women not only watch and enjoy horror, but they are definitely a part of it: and they have been a part of the horror film genre for quite some time. Indeed, there was even a fascinating segment of the documentary where women in Japanese horror are discussed: particularly in how female ghosts can embody the resentment and hatred of a life of, at least traditionally, enforced passivity bleeding into a need for vengeance even beyond the grave.

Yet on the other hand, much of the documentary was very male-centric in scope. In some ways perhaps it can’t be helped considering that the main interviewer, instigator and focus of the Why Horror? documentary is Tal Zimerman and, as such, there is a definite emphasis on how horror affected his developing years as a young male and, by extension, those of other men in the field. Perhaps that’s what led to discussions with subjects about how horror film supposedly elicits fear and sexual arousal in women. There is even a study of sorts in the film focusing on how women, again supposedly, are either impressed with a man’s stoicism in watching such a movie with them or seeking comfort in them as a protector-figure out of fear. There are definitely some gender stereotypes in some of these segments, though it does tend to highlight the presence of the ultimate assumption: that horror is a male-dominated field.

It also brings home the fact that even if horror is a universal human feeling, both perspectives of fear and lived experiences are determined by one’s cultural standards.

Indeed, I think that these segments bring up a lot of questions and thought in the viewer and they lead to other places. After all, there is the title of the documentary to consider here. Why does horror as a film genre or as any kind of genre even exist?

Each interview subject had a fascinating insight into the matter: ranging from horror films functioning as initiation rituals that we no longer have in modern society, to a mode that facilitates the safe catharsis of fear and potentially latent sadism, all the way to being a place that allows us to engage with the inevitability of our own mortality and death: of knowing and coming to terms with the trauma of death that is ultimately inherent in our lives as human beings. Really, fear itself is a force that makes us feel more alive and depictions of danger and death make us more aware of what we are not: and perhaps providing a little more closure from that truth.

One other thing that really got to me personally was another question that got posed throughout the film: what was your first horror movie? I actually had to think about this quite a bit myself based on everything I’d seen in the documentary. My first horror film was actually Gremlins. I remember being very fascinated with the story behind them, the different personalities that developed and multiplied, and being immersed into that campy 1980s night world of very specific world-building rules while wondering how Gizmo got to a point where he never tried to eat after midnight.

I wonder what happens when you review movies after midnight.
I wonder what happens when you review movies after midnight.

But I also know that some don’t consider Gremlins, or its strange sequel, to be a proper horror film: whatever that is. I think, in terms of the “coming of age” discussions that spanned throughout Why Horror? my first ever film was actually Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight. It was at that point in my youth that I actually first witnessed sex, questionable morality, and profanity combined with the monstrous, the supernatural, and the gory. I remember almost having a panic attack over seeing it: but in retrospect it was more from my own father’s negative reaction to the swearing and graphic themes than it was to the film itself. I think that it was at that point, in my life, that I “awoke” in a fashion: and it’s apparently commonplace for that to happen with adolescents and horror movies.

I suppose Why Horror? is on to something when it seems to hint on the fact that your first horror films say something about you. I’ve always been fascinated with horror from a very early age. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all human story and myth ultimately comes from trauma — from the basic trauma of realizing your own vulnerability and mortality — and that this realization will alter your consciousness and help you integrate with the rest of this strange, uncertain, arbitrary world of why. Perhaps horror is the original darkness from where we got all of our stories out sheer necessity.

Even though I’d be hard pressed at this time to attempt to describe the narrative organization of Why Horror? I would say that Zimerman begins a fascinating journey into the origin of horror as stories. In the Question and Answer period after the documentary, someone from the audience asked Zimerman if he predict horror’s future. This actually prompted Zimerman to bring up the presence of horror stories online in the form of creepypastas: how they seem to have gone back to a new kind of oral storytelling (which the scholar Walter Ong might see as products of “secondary orality”) or an online urban mythical structure. I believe he expressed an interest in perhaps making a documentary on creepypastas one day.

If so, I definitely look forward to it.

Extract That And Fuel Us: A TADFF 2014 Review of Wyrmwood

Even though the Toronto After Dark’s Zombie Appreciation Night had passed well, let’s face, since when does a zombie ever pass away short of a bullet to the head? It’s only fitting that there was one undead straggler, one more zombie film that survived the culling and threatened to spread the infection anew at the Toronto After Dark 2014’s Post-Apocalyptic Night in the form of Wyrmwood.

This is the first full-length feature of director Kiah Roache-Turner and his brother, the film’s writer, Tristan Roache-Turner and they have characterized it as something of a mix between Dawn of the Dead and Mad Max. Furthermore, Kiah Roache-Turner refers to Wyrmwood‘s genre as zombie post-apocalyptic science fiction.

It’s an apt description for the most part, but I’d like to take it even further. Imagine a zombie film drunk on a pint or more of absinthe, the traditional green fairy drink made with — fittingly enough — some wormwood, having read one part of Revelations before bed, and possessing a distorted sense of physics and ludicrously sublime perspective of time, narrative, and shots of black comedy: with a literally murderous hangover at the end when it realizes that it’s missing some body parts from its mayhem of fun.

For me, that’s Wyrmwood in a shotgun shell. If the film narrative sensibility of Wyrmwood were a zombie infection, you could trace its spiritual points of origin from the early film shorts directed by Kiah Roache-Turner: Roadrunner and Wargames. Roadrunner contains technology that doesn’t work at the worst time and seemingly arbitrary yet fitting plot developments while Wargames has the element of a protagonist dealing with renegade soldiers. Both of these shorts have violence for punchlines and the same actor playing both protagonists and one of the central characters in Wyrmwood: Jay Gallagher.

The premise of Wyrmwood is that there is a meteor shower and people begin to get infected by a disease that, well, reanimates them. The film actually starts with the main characters killing a mass of zombies while decked out in customized makeshift armour and toting guns. It really caught my eye as I generally watch movies and read books where the military can’t handle zombies or civilians have to survive them.

Then we got into something that was almost an interview section between two characters that describe something of their lives before the outbreak and what happened. I was expecting big things from this: wondering if this movie was going to be a goofy version of what World War Z should have been: if only as something of a parody of an “oral history” from Max Brooks’ novel more than the Hollywood version of it. But even though that did not happen, there is something both banally comic and horribly tragic about these accounts: especially from the perspective of Gallagher’s character Barry.

And somehow the physics of the world changed as well: and it never gets elaborated on except for how the characters actually deal with it. I’ll tell you now: it has to do with the Roache-Turner breed of zombies. Think of some bright-eyed revenants that supposedly move more slowly in the day and lightning fast at night that contain methane that can be used as fuel sources. That’s right: in a world where electricity and gasoline no longer seem to work, you can always fuel your transportation technology by hooking it up to some zombies. But this only works during the day as, apparently, it’s the only time they breathe methane. You can thank Tristan Roache-Turner’s screenwriting idea for that one.

I will mention that sometimes the rules for these new zombies are a little inconsistent, as they slow down or speed up depending on the plot, but I definitely appreciated the fact that this was a film where zombies weren’t just a threat, but they could also be used as weapons and obstacles against rival and enemy humans. We never know if the soldier antagonists the band run into are collecting people to experiment on in order to find a zombie cure, or to harness the natural energy sources of the zombie, to even somehow gain control over the mass of undead or, really, because they are just plain dicks.

But I have to admit: there is an element of Re-Animator developing throughout the film and especially towards the end that, as someone who liked to play as necromancers in D&D when I was younger, I found entertaining to watch. And if that isn’t enough for you: you do get to see an asshole of a soldier become a warm-cooked meal for the hungrily living impaired.

So there you go. Wyrmwood is some dark slapstick slaughter that veers from the ridiculous to the dead fucking serious and its zombies and characters are, if nothing else, some good entertainment fuel.

From The Wolf’s Mouth: An Interview With David Hayter – TADFF 2014

It was just before Werewolf Night at the 2014 Toronto After Dark where GEEKPR0N met with David Hayter the writer of the first two X-Men films and Watchmen as well as the voice of Solid Snake to have a chat about his new film Wolves

GEEKPR0N: What gave you the idea to make Wolves? Where did it come from? What were your inspirations?

David Hayter: Well. So people came to me wanting to do a werewolf movie. I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do or something I could even pull off. I started to think about it, and I started to talk to people who wanted to see a good werewolf movie. And I started thinking about what had been done before and what makes a good creature film and I feel like the creature has to be used as a metaphor for something human: to tie it to us and make it feel real.

And I started thinking about the time in my life when I was going to high school in Canada actually, when I was about seventeen. And I was filled with rage and violence. And you’re dealing with sex for the first time: and, you know, all these crazy and roiling feelings, and you become almost a monster to yourself, or at least I did. But whereas in most werewolf films the goal is to destroy the creature, if the metaphor is this unformed sort of rage within yourself your goal is not to destroy that but to control it and to focus it into more positive aspects: so like protecting your family or the woman you love or whatever. I started thinking that’s kind of an interesting take on it I haven’t really seen before, so in a way it is sort of semi-autobiographical.

Cayden Wolves

GP: Yeah. You mentioned in another interview that there were some semi-autobiographical elements in Wolves. I was curious about what those may be.

DH: When I was seventeen we took a tour of Toronto Harbour for the Prom. And I got into a fight — into an argument –with a football player and he took a swing at me and I knocked him down and then I got into a fight with pretty much the rest of the football team and they had to turn the boat around. So at the beginning of the film you see [the protagonist Cayden] beating up a football player. And there is also a scene with him in a car making out with his girlfriend and where that occurred, where we shot that, was five hundred yards from my old highschool on little lane where I used to go with girls to park and make out. There was a lot that came from my life:  from my journey, strangely enough.

GP: That’s really interesting. I actually saw an advance copy of the film, so when you started mentioning all those scenes, I just thought “Wow: this sounds very familiar.” 

DH: Yeah. I mean a lot of that stuff really happened to me and I got expelled back in the day, got yelled at by the principal and all these things. I wasn’t necessarily a wolf, but I was a fairly vicious young man: for a short period of time.

GP: Yeah. Well, I guess one part of the movie that sticks out me is the idea of what is the most vicious part of the werewolf: the animal part or the human part. If anything, the animal part is the most honest. 

DH: Yeah. That’s right. And that’s really sort of the point of the film which is wolves themselves are not inherently evil. I mean wolves are very noble creatures who mate for life, only kill for food or defence like I say in the movie. And yeah, so it’s the human side that dictates whether or not the creature is going to be evil, which, again, is something that I don’t think has been done in this genre before.

So, you know, the idea was to create a wolf who by the end is a hero and has abilities that hopefully, like in a vampire movie the audience members say “I want that,” or “you know I wish I could have that power” which you don’t typically get in movies like this: usually werewolves are just horrible, ugly, hairy lunatics.

Cayden Wolf Powers

GP: And yeah, it’s interesting that even when you look at the wolf in mythology, there are various different facets of that, but the whole idea is that the wolf is supposed to eat the sun even: while at the same the sun is supposed to come out again from the maw of the wolf. 

DH: Right. You got Romulus and Remus raised by wolves. You know, they are not an intrinsically evil creature. They are a frightening creature to have to face if you are out in the wild. But I find them very noble and very beautiful and I wanted to bring that aspect to the film.

GP: I see. You said in your San Diego Comic Con 2013 panel that you watched a lot of werewolf films to study the strengths and weaknesses of your particular wolves?

DH: Well, I feel like An American Wolf in London is the greatest werewolf film ever made. You know I think the creatures hold up to this day and the design work is just astounding and the movie itself is just a miracle. There’s the dream sequence with the Nazi wolf men who come in and shoot his family and do all these horrific things. And the design on those was so striking and spectacular and each one was different and individual and that was a great inspiration to me on how to execute the design of a wolf man.

American Werewolf In London Nazi Werewolves

And there were a number of other movies I looked at on elements for what I didn’t want in the movie: so like the long nails or the pointed up ears or the snout. These are elements which I felt altered the human body in ridiculous ways so I wanted to minimize these elements as much as possible and come up with my own.

GP: I found it interesting how you were talking about your make-up team and how they found that nice balance between the elegance and grace of a wolf and the symmetry and proportions of a human being. I think the design that best strikes me as fulfilling that is the character of Angelina. 

DH:  They made her a whole wolf body and wolf breasts. Yeah that was the goal. I wanted the first werewolf love scene to be on camera and it’s hard when you’re covering up a woman with hair to retain beauty. But wolves are beautiful and so we worked very hard to retain her femininity in the execution of that and I think that Dave and Lou Elsey, who are academy award-winning creature designers, executed that in a pretty beautiful way. But I think I wanted them to all have this beauty, with the exception of Wild Joe who’s pretty twisted, but I wanted them to have this elegance and power and beauty that I think wolves have in real life.

He wanted sleek!

GP: Certainly even in the case of Wild Joe, you can see the definite personality there and the distinction between the other ones. For instance, you can see that Wild Joe looks different from Connor.

DH: Yeah, Wild Joe has serious problems. Now the other thing we did which was very important to me was a lot of the facial effects are swept back from the face as opposed to down and pointy and swept back. And the masks are glued down where the muscles of the face are so that when they act their expressions come through. There is one point where Lucas hears something devastating, I won’t say what it is, but his face falls and you can see his expression come over him and you see it through the layers of makeup and the latex. The makeup team did that well.

Cayden Wolf Wolves

GP:  Yes, the expressions of the characters definitely came through well. There are many fans of your voice-acting: especially with regards to your role as Solid Snake in Metal Gear. So I just want to clarify. Did you actually make the wolf sounds behind the characters’ voices in Wolves

DH: I did. That’s a very good question and you’re the very first person to ask that. And yes. I do the backing growls on Lucas [Till’s] wolf dialogue and some of his snarling and growling. And there’s an incredible voice and creator actor named Dee Bradley Baker who does Connor’s — Jason Momoa’s character. And Jennifer Hale — who’s my friend and one of the top female voice actresses in the world — does Merritt [Patterson’s]. Yeah, there are a few times, and particularly, where Lucas’ girlfriend punches him in the face and he growls: and it sounds just like Solid Snake. Not only do I do that, but I play two different newscasters in the film so you hear my voice throughout.

So the wolves’ voices are made up of the actors doing their dialogue with me, Bradley, and Jennifer doing growling accents and a combination of animals that were put together. I think we used gorilla snarls for Wild Joe, a lion for Connor and actual wolf sounds for Lucas. It’s a really cool process putting together those vocals.

GP: This isn’t your first time in horror film. Last year you worked in a movie called The Devil’s Mile. At the same time, you’ve also written the first two X-Men movies, The Scorpion King, and Watchmen. What was it like switching from these other genres of film as an actor and writer to the horror genre as a director? 

DH: Well, you know, it’s funny Wolves isn’t really a horror film to me. I mean, hopefully there are scary elements to it, but I look at it more as an action film. I think one of the things I learned is if you are going to do a murder scene: more blood … like lots and lots of blood. You really can’t have enough.

And you know, it’s like everything else. From an actor’s perspective you are always trying to avoid getting the blood in your eyes and your mouth. But beyond that a story is a story. And every story I do relies on tension: whether it’s action or horror or suspense. It’s sort of all the same tools. It’s great  fun. I mean: the freedom to do a horror movie is really fun: where you can mess people up and do terrible things and sort of check your morality at the door. That’s a very cool aspect of it.

GP: I believe, in another interview you gave, that you thought of Wolves as a hero’s journey and there was one scene in particular that caught my eye where Cayden, John, and his wife Clara are watching The Lone Ranger on the television and I thought, “Oh god: you totally went there.”

DH: Yeah well, we needed something on the TV. I’d written that something was on the TV but we couldn’t get it. Anything you show on the TV we have to clear. And then a production assistant brought me that clip and said “I think we can get the clearance on this.” I actually had to get clearance from the Lone Ranger’s daughter and Jay Silverheels’  — Tonto’s — family, to use that clip. I wrote them a really nice letter and they let me use that clip. It’s a funny clip but it also represents the idea of “I’ll shoot if I have to, but not to kill.” And that’s the hero’s dilemma. When you’re fighting a murderous group of people how do you defeat them without sacrificing your own morality? In a weird way that is kind of what Cayden’s facing.

The Lone Ranger

GP: Exactly. I mean, in addition to the reference towards the Lone Ranger’s weapon of choice, it was a very nice bit of foreshadowing with regards to Cayden’s choices: of dealing the beast inside of him and his own sense of morality when dealing with opponents who are also beasts but have no such compunctions. I mean, what do you do in those kinds of situations?

DH: Right and what do you do when it’s a life and death situation? I mean, you don’t want to kill but sometimes it’s got to be done and even the Lone Ranger had to face that. And plus I wanted the film to be funny in places and it was a fun place to put that. It’s also sort of the show that Tollerman would watch — an old farmer out in the middle of nowhere — just putting on the old Lone Ranger show.

GP: Based on how you ended the film, is there room for a sequel?

DH: I think so. Yeah. We discussed Wolves in the city and how we would bring back some of the people. At the end teeing them up to go off to the larger world and indicating to the audience that there is a larger world with these people out there. So yeah: there’s certainly room for a sequel if people are interested.

I suppose sometimes someone just knows you.

GP: If only to go further “back east,” as you put it.

DH: Yeah. Well, we haven’t even gone into the West coast wolves. We can do a battle reminiscent of the rap battles of the nineties.

GEEKPR0N would like to take this opportunity to thank David Hayter for his time as well as the Programming Manager of the Toronto After Dark Christian Burgess for arranging this interview. Wolves will have limited release in select theatres November 14, 2014. 

Wolves Poster

TADFF 2014: Late Phases

I guess it’s only fitting that I should write this review past five in the morning given the title of the movie. Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases was the second film shown at the Toronto After Dark’s Werewolf Night and the third and last film of the day.

What can I tell you about it? Imagine the following situation, if you will: you are a blind elderly man. You find yourself in a retirement residence surrounded by people who just want to go through a nice and steady rhythm of life. You deal with younger people patronizing: wanting to help you, but not really spend time or actually listen to you. Your only friend is your seeing-eye dog Shadow. Most of the residential people you meet generally keep to themselves, but a few are friendly.

Then one night some creature, some giant beast, comes in and starts killing. And no one knows what it is or does anything about it.

Your name is Ambrose  and you are also a former soldier: an American veteran of Vietnam. And while you did some terrible things during that war, while you might have failed to protect life and, indeed, took many lives, you just can’t sit back and do nothing. This is the premise of Late Phases. Do not expect Bubba-hotep here: aside from occasionally laughing at Ambrose’s curmudgeonly smart-ass remarks, there neither fame nor comedy in this story, though the heroism is definitely real.

The first part of the film establishes Ambrose, played by Nick Damici, along with his son Will and some of the other retirees. The werewolf is introduced relatively quickly, though never fully revealed until later. There is heartbreak almost immediately. The second part of the film, roughly, covers a month in which Ambrose finds out about the full moon the night of the attack and without any hesitation believes in and knows exactly what he is dealing with. This is a refreshing element in a werewolf or supernatural film: where it takes the protagonist a while to accept that the supernatural even exists. But Ambrose, if nothing else, is no-nonsense and right to the point.

He mostly knows his enemy. And what he doesn’t know, he slowly and circumspectly, begins to find out. It is so tempting to compare Late Phases with David Hayter’s Wolves: especially as the latter was shown right after the former. Whereas Wolves takes the trope of the werewolf movie and teenage life and subverts their forms into something else, Bogliano fits into the trope of werewolf horror and adds dramatic elements of human relationships and humanity into the mix. Ambrose is an aging man who has lost his sight but retains enough of his senses and military training to fight this werewolf. And the werewolf in this film is not something misunderstood. It is an angry, hungry, twisted thing that rips off its human flesh at a full moon. And it’s human form is not that much better. In fact, I’d say that if there is one thing Wolves and Late Phases has in common it’s the idea that sometimes the human element can be even worse than the animal element in a werewolf.

It takes a far amount time to play the who-done-it and who-is-it werewolf part of the film but after Ambrose gets some silver bullets made and figures out that someone else requested some before him, Bogliano gets right into who that werewolf is. At same time, for all of Ambrose’s careful planning he is still blind and can’t perceive everything going on around him. While his lack of sight is supplemented by improved other senses, he doesn’t always know when someone is looking at him, or if they can see something he doesn’t.

Again, what I think really brings this movie into the fore is, like Wolves, another reference to The Lone Ranger. This time Ambrose talks with a gunsmith about the character and his silver bullets. They also talk about how the ranger doesn’t shoot to kill. Ambrose is unromantic and while he might want to save lives like the Ranger he is not hesitant over doing what he’s spent his whole life doing.

The film ends much like Ambrose has lived a good portion of his life. There is gore, and blood, and ubiquitous evil and animal rage, hypocrisy, and ultimately honour. You get to see a widower put on his ring, a man honouring his dog, and a soldier shooting some motherfucking werewolf monsters with silver bullets, and a rare and heartfelt message left on an answering machine for his son.

Perhaps Ambrose becomes a hero late in his life. But he does his best to save his fellow retired neighbours from a fate worse than death, and he does what he has to do. I couldn’t recommend this movie highly enough. The full moon always rises, but it won’t always be night.