Shocks and shudders abound during Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) hybrid event September 9–18, 2021, with in-person cinema screenings in Toronto and digital screenings available to viewers across Canada. Among the incredible international line-up of horror, science fiction, thriller, and other genre-cinema styles are the following six stand-outs, which Horror Fuel highly recommends. My comments follow in italics after descriptions adapted from TIFF’s official program and website.
“Blaine Thurier’s sultry, perma-stoned, ultra-modern spin on the vampire genre evokes cult-horror figures like George A. Romero and Stuart Gordon.”
Fusing the grittiness of George Romero’s Martin with the sly theatricality of Stuart Gordon’s early films (Re-Animator, From Beyond), Blaine Thurier’s Kicking Blood reimagines vampire mythology by transplanting it to the bohemian world Thurier has satirized since he began making films. Instead of the usual desiccated, tormented aristocrats with impossibly innocent victims, Thurier’s undead are hipster scavengers and swingers, their victims luckless hangers-on and drunks.
Vampire Anna (Alanna Bale) is disappointed with eternal life. She’s less guilt-stricken than tired — tired of the people she preys on, tired of having to say goodbye to people she likes. Her one mortal friend, Bernice (Rosemary Dunsmore), is deathly ill, and a chance encounter with suicidal alcoholic Robbie (Luke Bilyk) has only exacerbated her weariness. Her fellow bloodsuckers see humans as food with an annoying tendency to talk back, but Anna is perplexed and even inspired by human foibles — specifically Robbie’s determination to kick booze and Bernice’s determination to live and die on her own terms.
Director Thurier’s Canadian vampire feature promises to be thick with atmosphere and to have some enthralling takes on vampire cinema lore.
Mlungu Wam (Good Madam)
Residues of apartheid-era domestic servitude confront legacies of colonial land theft in South African auteur Jenna Cato Bass’s daring horror-satire.
Jenna Cato Bass (whose films High Fantasy and Flatland both played the Festival) transforms the legacies of South Africa’s colonial land theft and Black domestic service to white bosses into a gutsy psychological thriller. Co-written with Babalwa Baartman, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) grapples with the daily violence that haunts the nation’s most pressing political issues, long after the end of apartheid.
Following the death of her grandmother — the woman who raised her — Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter are forced to move in with Tsidi’s estranged mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), who has lived and worked in the wealthy suburbs of Cape Town for most of Tsidi’s life. There, Tsidi finds the sprawling manicured property from her faint childhood memories, owned by Diane (Jennifer Boraine), Mavis’s ailing and mysterious white “Madam.” With the house feeling more eerie than she remembers, and with Mavis more enthralled by Diane than seems right for South Africa’s fabled days of democracy, Tsidi pushes past tangled resentments to try and convince Mavis that she deserves better. When that doesn’t work, Tsidi even considers broaching the subject with her brother, who, unlike her, was taken in and raised with Diane’s children. Finally, Mavis explains: if Diane dies, there is nowhere for them to go. The good Madam’s house is the only home she — and now Tsidi — have.
Political horror and familial horror seem to be the main thrusts of Bass’s horror outing, both of which call for good drama to make them work, so expect plenty of that, as well.
A trio of mercenaries navigate a mysterious region of Senegal, in Jean Luc Herbulot’s cool and kinetic genre-shifting thriller.
Amidst Guinea-Bissau’s coup d’état of 2003, Bangui’s Hyenas, an elite trio of mercenaries, skillfully extract a drug dealer and his bricks — both gold and narcotic — from the chaos and make tracks for Dakar, Senegal. But when their escape plan is unexpectedly waylaid, the Hyenas find themselves and their bounty stranded in the Sine-Saloum Delta, a coastal river realm speckled with insulated island communities and steeped in myth and mystery. Believing they can keep a low profile at a nearby holiday encampment, they attempt to blend in with the tourists but are soon at risk of exposure with the arrival of both a suspicious police captain and an enigmatic Signing deaf woman who harbours secrets of her own.
Writer-director Jean Luc Herbulot ignites the fuse of his inspired genre-shifting thriller from there, burning through exquisite episodes of suspense before exploding into full-blown action-horror. As with Herbulot’s Netflix series Sakho & Mangane, which stylishly wove a supernatural thread through a gripping police procedural, ’s own twisting trajectory compellingly invokes African-Caribbean folklore and mysticism as it refashions cues from western genre hybrids like From Dusk Till Dawn and Predator into its unique cultural context. The results are infectiously cool and an exhilarating introduction to a fascinating mythos full of creepy curses, sinister spirits, and an instantly iconic ensemble of horror heroes: Chaka (Yann Gael), Rafa (Roger Sallah), Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), and Minuit (Mentor Ba) — the last of whom is a sorcerer who forgoes “boomsticks” for magic gris-gris.
Folk horror, supernatural horror, action horror, and more? All of this and an unusual locale for fright-fare cinema place Saloum on our list of anticipated TIFF terror tales.
Keira Knightley and Lily-Rose Depp star in Camille Griffin’s feature directorial debut, about a family’s eventful Christmas dinner in the country.
A cozy house in the English countryside. The tree has been lovingly decorated. A grand feast is being prepared. Over the sound system, Michael Bublé croons about holiday sweaters. Nell (Oscar nominee Keira Knightley), Simon (Matthew Goode), and their boy Art (Roman Griffin Davis, star of the TIFF ’19 Grolsch People’s Choice Award winner Jojo Rabbit) are ready to welcome friends and family for what promises to be a perfect Christmas gathering. Perfect except for one thing: everyone is going to die.
A pitch-black comedy rooted in brilliantly conceived characters and wry observations about class and social order, writer-director Camille Griffin’s feature debut merges that most wonderful night of the year with the end of the world as we know it. A poisonous cloud is descending upon the United Kingdom. An extinction event is imminent. YouTube videos display images of people bleeding from the eyes and ears. And yet, even in this hour of ultimate dread, happy announcements are made, disagreements erupt, people dance, and ordinary foibles ensue.
It’s never too early for Christmas horror, and the holiday is always ripe for dark comedy, so Griffin should give viewers plenty to chew on, with a strong cast to carry the proceedings.
You Are Not My Mother
An eerie Irish folk horror wherein a teenage girl’s mother goes missing only to return with an increasingly uncanny change in personality.
Something strange has happened to Angela (Carolyn Bracken). Of this her teenage daughter Char (Hazel Doupe) is certain. Ever since her single mother returned home following an inexplicable absence, Char has observed subtle changes in posture, personality, and appetite. The differences are welcome at first — prior to her disappearance Angela had been bedridden and quick to shirk parental responsibilities to her brother or mother. But as Angela’s behaviour grows increasingly wayward, Char’s scrutiny quicklys turns to dread as a disturbing and titular possibility emerges.
So ensues an anxious horror scenario, one that sensitively evokes the devastating dissonance that can occur when caring for a family member coping with mental illness. Bracken is a transfixing presence as Angela, fully embodying an erratic persona that is becoming less and less recognizable to the terrific Doupe, whose lonely Char navigates a simultaneous fear and love for her mother with a disarming vulnerability. Before long, suppressed family secrets begin to arise, and the premise only gets eerier from there as writer-director Kate Dolan applies supernatural intervention rooted in the more sinister swathes of Irish folklore.
Ireland is well known for turning out some marvelous horror cinema — Sea Fever, Caveat, and The Hole in the Ground are but a few recent examples — and Dolan’s supernatural doppelgänger feature looks to continue that strong tradition.
Investigating reports of demonic possessions in a remote village, a skeptical military officer finds his beliefs tested by an enigmatic exorcist.
In Kurdistan, nestled among the mountains of northwestern Iran, the village of Zalava is cursed by an ancient fear that demons secretly fester in its midst. The locals are so seized by this superstition that they frequently resort to bloodletting those suspected of possession with their rifles in a crude, often deadly means of amateur exorcism.
When Masoud, a stoic Gendarmerie sergeant, portrayed with an indelible coolness by Navid Pourfaraj, attempts to circumvent these rituals by forcibly confiscating the community’s firearms, his actions lead to a shocking death. The incident incenses the townsfolk, but it also draws out Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), a shaman who claims that he can provide the people of Zalava with a permanent solution to their supernatural plague. Now Masoud must decide between holding on to his pragmatic skepticism or trusting this alleged expert in order to quell a rabble whose anxious paranoia is well on its way to becoming a full-on mob mania.
Horror cinema from countries not known for their fear-fare output is often intriguing stuff, charged with political or religious ideas that can make them feel both more eerily mysterious and immediately relatable at the same time. This 1970s-set chiller seems to be set to tick those boxes.
Several other slices of scare-fare cinema are on tap for TIFF, including the body horror psychodrama A Banquet, Edgar Wright’s Swinging Sixties psychotronic horror thriller Last Night in Soho, and Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or–winning follow-up to Raw. For more information, visit https://www.tiff.net/.
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