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TIFF 2012: Midnight Madness Preview
Psychopathic gangsters, '80s-era comic book heros, an exorcism comedy, and more

  image from The ABCs of Death

With the Toronto International Film Festival edging ever closer, a whole slew of new films were announced this morning, including the ever-popular Midnight Madness slate. Here’s what I can tell you about the ten MM titles:

The fest opener, Dredd, is a long-in-the-coming passion project from author/screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), and it’s the first ever MM film to be shot in 3-D. Personally, I had no need of another take on the ’80s comic book hero Judge Dredd — the ultra-crappy Sylvester Stallone movie having been more than enough — but I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. Garland has never gone in for idiotic cash-grab projects, and the movie was greeted with a surprisingly enthusiastic reception at the recent San Diego Comic Con. It stars Karl Urban as a futuristic law enforcer — one endowed with the authority of judge, jury, and executioner — tasked with ridding Mega City One of a dangerous drug called “slo-mo,” which enables users to experience reality at a fraction of the normal speed. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) has reportedly come up with some neat-o visuals for the slo-mo sequences.

In 2008, Irish playwright Martin McDonough made the leap into filmmaking with the excellent In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell. Now he’s back with a film that sounds very similar to his hilariously bloody 2001 stage play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, about an ex-IRA psychopath wreaking vengeance over the death of a beloved cat. Seven Psychopaths stars Farrell and Sam Rockwell as two L.A. friends who steal a dog owned by a psychopathic gangster played by Woody Harrelson. Things, as they say, do not go according to plan. This already sounds like black comedy heaven to me, so co-stars Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, and Abbie Cornish are just icing on the cake.

Ryuhei Kitamura, the director of Versus and The Midnight Meat Train, returns with No One Lives about a young couple held hostage by a gang of thugs in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. All I know about the film is what it says in the press notes: “When the captive girl is killed, the tables are unexpectedly turned, and the gang finds itself outsmarted by an urbane and seasoned killer determined to ensure that no one lives.”

Aftershock, starring Eli Roth and Selena Gomez (!), is the English-language debut of 28-year-old Chilean director Nicolas Lopez, whose last two films — neither of which travelled very far outside Chile — were the country’s highest-grossing films in 2010 and 2011. The subject of a fierce bidding war earlier this year, the $10-million budgeted film is about an island that suffers a massive earthquake, then suffers the wrath of a bunch of escaped mental asylum inmates. Fun! (And reportedly very gory.)

One of the more mysterious items on the MM roster is The Bay, which is being billed as the horror debut of Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man). Few know much about the movie, but it appears to be some sort of homage to Jaws. It’s about a little Maryland town called Chesapeake Bay, where water toxicity levels lead to creature-feature havoc. Levinson has been on a career downswing of late, so doing a low-budget ($2-million) genre movie with no stars isn’t a bad idea at all. Still, his previous foray into genre, Sphere, wasn’t remotely good, so try to keep your excitement in check.

According to MM programmer Colin Geddes, the screening of The ABCs of Death will see more directors gather on one MM stage than ever before. This isn’t surprising considering the film has 26 directors, one for each letter of the alphabet. Masterminded by those plucky folks at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, the abecedarian film sees up-and-coming genre directors like Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Ti West (The Innkeepers), Adam Wingard (You’re Next), and Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun), devising ultra-short films built around various methods of dying. Essentially, it’s a film version of Edward Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”

Though not announced as such, Mexican MM title Come Out and Play is clearly a remake of the great but little-known 1976 horror film Who Can Kill a Child? by Spanish director Narciso Ibáñaz Serrador. Both films are about a young married couple vacationing on a remote island — an island where all of the adults seem to have disappeared and the only sound in the streets is the laughter of small children. I don’t know what to think about this, as Serrador’s film is so good it hardly needs remaking. Still, it’s a genius plot, and I can totally understand the desire to try it again.

The remaining MM slate is made up of Hellbenders 3-D, an exorcism comedy by director J.T. Petty (The Burrowers); Rob Zombie’s latest, The Lords of Salem, about a disc jockey who unwittingly reignites Salem’s violent past; and John Dies at the End, Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of the apparently indescribable cult horror novel by David Wong. It features Paul Giamatti in a supporting role.

Finally, MM fans shouldn’t ignore U.K. director Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, which has been slotted into TIFF’s Vanguard section. It’s a black comedy about a trip through the British Isles that turns into a killing spree, and it got a great response when it screened at Cannes earlier this year. (Wheatley directed the cult hits Down Terrace and Kill List, and he’s becoming a major fan-favourite.) Also in the Vanguard section, Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, which was a big word-of-mouth hit at the recent Sundance Film Festival. It’s about ardent (insane?) fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, who believe the movie contains secret messages about genocide and government conspiracies.

____

Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.

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