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TIFF 2016: “Free Fire,” “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” “Sadako vs. Kayako”

Unlike many festival experiences I’ve had in the past, I didn’t get to many horror films at this year’s TIFF. It’s not that the Midnight Madness line-up was inferior, but more a product of how strong the other programs were, often necessitating tough decisions that left a number of genre films on my “I Wish I Had Seen That” list, including “Raw,” “The Girl with All the Gifts” and “Headshot.” I did make it to four Midnight Madness film, including “Blair Witch,” which I already reviewed separately. Let’s talk about the other three, which couldn’t be more different in tone or style, indicative of the diversity in this typically strong program.

The most high-profile film in Midnight Madness outside of Adam Wingard’s found footage reboot was the opening night entry for the program, Ben Wheatley’s minimalist “Free Fire,” a movie that’s just fun enough to find a loyal cult following but not fun enough to break out of that and find mainstream success. Only a year after “High-Rise” had its world premiere in Toronto, Wheatley returns to the fest with a darker, tighter, simpler affair—one of those ‘70s B-movies with bad guys, badder guys and a whole lot of firepower. The cast is fun and the concept is clever, but flat dialogue and the sense that it’s more set-up than follow-through hold Wheatley’s film back from complete success.

The concept of “Free Fire” is so beautiful in its simplicity that it can be summed up in four words: “Gun Deal Gone Wrong.” Justine (Brie Larson, who looks so perfect in ‘70s fashion/hair that one hopes she makes a film set in the era again soon) brokers a gun deal between a couple of IRA tough guys (Cillian Murphy & Michael Smiley) and some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley & Armie Hammer, a surprising TIFF regular in three major films—this one, “Nocturnal Animals” and “Birth of a Nation”). When a lackey on one side (the great Jack Reynor) recognizes a lackey on the other side (the also-great Sam Riley) as the chap with whom he got into a fight at the bar the night before, all Hell breaks loose. Wheatley’s style is visceral—bullets don’t just kill people, they injure them badly first—and he basically pins his characters to the floor, behind cover and then lets the chaos ensue. The cast is remarkably up for the challenge, giving physical performances as the bullets fly and the stakes get higher and higher. After sides are drawn, the film loses some steam—just as it should be getting more intense—but people like Hammer, Murphy, Larson and Copley provide momentum just through their sheer commitment to the project.

Equally committed to an even crazier concept are Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, who are basically the only two people in André Øvredal’s effective “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” also playing this year’s Chicago International Film Festival before it builds what I suspect will be a loyal cult following. Morgues are inherently creepy, and this one has a special guest.

“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” opens with cops investigating the scene of a brutal series of murders. A whole family is dead and there’s a naked woman half-buried in the basement. Immediately, something doesn’t look right. While everyone else is a bloody mess, the beautiful woman doesn’t have a scratch on her. She’s clearly dead, but how? And who is she? The cops take her to the local morgue, where we meet a father-and-son team of coroners played by Hirsch and Cox. As they start to examine the Jane Doe, an increasing number of oddities are discovered. Her tongue was cut in half. Her insides look like she was tortured, but her outside is spotless. And then things get really weird.

The director of “Troll Hunter” knows that his film will be most effective when it keeps things simple, and so he maintains that for the first hour. As our engaging pair become increasingly convinced that the woman on their table is not, shall we say, normal, they also start hearing and seeing things around the morgue. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is at its best when it’s basically a haunted house tale, but this house happens to have dead bodies in the basement. The final act gets a little too goofy for its own good, but the movie had worked my nerves enough by that point to forgive it not quite sticking the landing.

Kôji Shiraishi’s “Sadako vs. Kayako” is both better than it has any reason to be and also not quite fun enough to break out of the fan base of its iconic J-horror creations. What started as a joke in a commercial has now become a feature film in the vein of “Alien vs. Predator” and “Freddy vs. Jason,” featuring the stars of the “Ju-on” and “Ringu” franchise going black-hair-to-black-hair.

The first act of “SvK” actually seems like it’s setting up a film that will cleverly play off urban legends—something both franchises, and most of J-horror for that matter, had in common. In fact, protagonists Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) are in an urban legends class taught by Morishige (Masahiro Kômoto), a man obsessed with trying to find the “cursed tape,” which his students happen to cleverly stumble upon in a pawn shop. In a neat twist, one of them is too busy checking her phone while the tape is playing the first time, leaving the other convinced that only she will face the wrath of Sadako in two days. How can you stop a supernatural behemoth like Sadako? With an equally powerful ghost, and that can only mean Kadako. When Shiraishi’s movie really gets going, it can be pretty fun, especially when its tongue-in-cheek quality recognizes its ridiculousness. Given how it came to life, there’s no real reason for this movie to work at all, and yet it will be a fun rental for anyone old enough to remember when “Ringu” and “Ju-on” were phenomena. And it’s certainly more enjoyable and clever than most reboots of horror franchises long-thought finished, including one at this very fest.

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