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Toronto After Dark 2018: ‘Extracurricular’, ‘Lifechanger’, ‘Nightmare Cinema’, and ‘You Might Be the Killer’

Extracurricular (DIR. Ray Xue)

As the Canadian pop-punk band Sum 41 once sang, “motivation, such an aggravation.”  That seemed to be Ray Xue’s complaint as well when he was directing Extracurricular, which is the only way to explain why anything in this film happened.  Long time readers may recognize the number one rule of TAD: if a film is having its world premiere here, it will be terrible.  This is not a knock against any of the parties;  the streak simply seems to continue year after year.  This year, it seemed like that streak was set to be broken.  This film was, if not enthralling, at least damned interesting for about five minutes.  Then, it began to go off the rails before falling down, down, down with no chance of survival.

Extracurricular tells the story of four young students who decide to become murderers, killing in inventive, untraceable ways.  Why?  Who cares?  What drives them?  Who knows?  What identity traits do they have that cause them to behave this way?  Well, their traits are contradictory at best and complete nonsense at worst.  They seem to be Nietzschean fascists who are also a weird sort of…pro-choice?  And occasionally when it seems like the characters have a certain sense of individuality, they change in order to fit the plot as opposed to vice versa.  This all results in a film which has no narrative flow and looks like a series of decent action scenes connected by pointless dialogue; all of it leading to a conclusion that makes the concept of nonsense seem coherent.

Without giving too much away, Extracurricular’s ending is a dangerous one in today’s political climate, and not in a provocative way.  It was likely (or at least hopefully) not Xue’s intention, but the ending makes certain suggestions about identity and police action that align more with modern right-wing politics than a horror film.

The streak of terrible Toronto After Dark world premieres continues.

– Shahbaz Khayambashi

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Nightmare Cinema (DIR. Alejandro Brugues, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Ryuhei Kitamura, David Slade)

Anthology films are great.  That may be a strange thing to begin with but, as a form, the horror anthology film rarely disappoints, because if something is bad, you just need to wait ten minutes and it might get replaced by something better.  Ultimately, it is difficult to create an anthology film that is fully awful.  Conversely, it is also quite difficult to create an anthology film that is completely flawless.  Somehow, the five directors behind Nightmare Cinema have managed to get incredibly close to the latter.

Nightmare Cinema takes place in a cinema, owned by Mickey Rourke, which shows films composed of the viewers’ worst nightmares.  The wraparound segment is essentially nonsense, only there to bring in a big name to sell the film with and to ensure that everything is wrapped up in a neat little package.  The nightmares themselves, however, are a whole different story. Alejandro Brugues’ The Thing in the Woods shows his great style for comedy in its borderline self-aware slasher, Joe Dante’s Mirare adds a touch of melodrama to a weird body horror-comedy, and Ryuhei Kitamura tries to outdo both of those directors by incorporating immoral holy people, a healthy dose of child murder and plenty of subliminal demons in Mashit.

It is the comedic leanings of the first three parts that make what comes after them so much more unsettling.  The unquestionable master stroke of this film is David Slade’s (yes, it is indeed shocking that David Slade would be the MVP here) brilliant This Way to Egress, a film so nightmarish that it seems almost unreal, as if someone filmed a dream firsthand.

And, while it may well be because it follows the other segments, the weakest link unfortunately comes at the very end with Mick Garris’ convoluted, fairly pointless Dead, a multi-hyphenated short segment which leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. It is possible that this segment would have been the centrepiece of a weak anthology horror film, but Nightmare Cinema is not an inferior flick.

– Shahbaz Khayambashi

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Lifechanger (DIR. Justin McConnell)

Writer/director Justin McConnell (Skull World, Broken Mile) continues to expand on his ambition with his latest film Lifechanger, a sci-fi/thriller that serves as a career-best for the filmmaker.

For a while, Lifechanger coasts without much of a plot, which is okay considering what the movie offers instead.  The audience is taken into the life of Drew, a shapeshifter who is constantly seeking refuge and is performed through narration provided by Bill Oberst Jr. (HEIRHell’s Kitty).  McConnell invents a ghostly, scavenging lifestyle built around being temporary and desperate, while movie goers watch in bewildered, cautionary anticipation.  McConnell also challenges himself and creates a hurdle by making Drew’s characterization very vague and without an identity.  While this is fitting considering the unique anti-hero, it also hints at a prevention for audiences to engage with the narrative.  Luckily, the writer/director holds our attention by maintaining his integrity throughout the skinwalker’s mythos;  playing by the rules but also increasing the stakes as Drew notices his transitioning abilities becoming weathered.

Additional kudos goes to Lifechanger’s leading cast who act as bodily hosts for Drew.  Each performance is special in its own way, but the actors hit a wonderful medium when keeping with the continuity and personality of their shared character.  However, Lifechanger’s subtle MVP may, in fact, be the visionary craftsmanship of the empty corpses that Drew is finished with.  The props are stomach-churning and horrifying while telling a personal story about their former presence.

And, since Lifechanger takes place around the Christmas, this is also a holiday movie – how cool is that?  All I want for Christmas is for Lifechanger to be released during the holidays, so I have a recommendation for horror fans looking for a new seasonal favourite.

– Addison Wylie 

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You Might Be the Killer (DIR. Brett Simmons)

The meta-slasher film has a long and proud tradition, going back a few decades, before becoming mainstream with the arrival of the Scream franchise. Scream, along with the parody of that parody, Scary Movie, made the meta-slasher its own established genre, paradoxically creating a new set of conventions for the genre whose raison d’etre was solely to mock conventions.  Sometimes, a film can manage to break beyond the boundaries set by these predecessors and sometimes they cannot.  You Might Be the Killer almost did.

Brett Simmons’ film starts with a phone call from Sam (The Cabin in the Woods’ Fran Kranz) to his best friend Chuck (American Reunion’s Alyson Hannigan), after he witnesses the slicing-and-dicing of his fellow camp counsellors.  Chuck, using her extensive knowledge of horror movies and an apathetic tendency to loudly discuss the gory details while surrounded by customers at her day job, helps him through this difficult time in his life as he tries to figure out the “who” and the “why” of this massacre.  This knowledgeable character is where things get a bit hairy.  This character is in league with the viewer, while within the narrative – this person cannot get boring.  Unfortunately, despite being portrayed by the completely charming Hannigan, Chuck is an occasional drag since the screenwriter occasionally gets bogged down by how clever this whole concept is.

Similarly, some little paratextual touches throughout the film also sag, whether it is the changing of the death count from scene to scene, or the repetition of the same joke.  This isn’t to say that You Might Be the Killer is an unfunny film, just that it is harmed by a tendency towards navel-gazing;  it is funny until it stops being funny.  However, when it is funny, it can be very funny.

From a narrative standpoint, the film goes a bit off the rails with a major reveal in the second act, and it never quite recovers.  However, the narrative’s loss does tend to be the comedy’s gain, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to add more conventions into conversation.

You Might Be the Killer may get on the viewer’s nerves from time to time, but audiences could do so much worse when deciding on a horror movie to pass the time.

– Shahbaz Khayambashi

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For more information on the festival, visit the official Toronto After Dark website.

Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:

Toronto After Dark: @TADFilmFest
Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam
Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie

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