Since I started attending Sundance and TIFF, I always look forward to digging into the Midnight Madness programs—it’s often where the gems are found, and, well, I’m something of a horror junkie. This year’s MM at TIFF was a little odd in that two of the biggest premieres of the entire festival happened to be contained within it but felt more like Gala Presentations than Midnight ones: Shane Black’s “The Predator” and David Gordon Green’s “Halloween.” It left for a program that felt a little thinner overall with honest-to-God surprises, although there was definitely one that I didn’t see coming and you need to seek out as soon as you can, along with new works from Gaspar Noe and Peter Strickland.
The best of the bunch is Henry Dunham’s marvelous debut “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek,” a film that really reminded me of ‘80s and ‘90s David Mamet in the way it examines alpha males, but that also has a thing or two to say about gun violence in the late ‘10s. With its inherently interesting mystery, tough-talking dialogue, and wonderful use of space, Dunham has made the kind of film that people are most likely to find on VOD and DVD and recommend to their friends. Put it on your watchlist before your buddy tells you to.
The always-solid James Badge Dale (also at TIFF in “Hold the Dark”) stars as Gannon, an ex-cop who is now a member of a militia group in Michigan. You know the kind of group—one that has a bunker of weapons and gadgets, waiting for the day that the “system” descends upon us all. Don't worry. One of Dunham’s smartest moves is that he doesn’t sketch the group as a series of Confederate Flag-waving lunatics. These are men who, for reasons that will become clear, feel betrayed by a system to such a degree that they’re planning for the day it will betray us all. (Although Dunham is also extremely careful to not make these violent men too sympathetic. It’s a fine line he deftly walks.)
Anyway, all of “Sparrow Creek” takes place in the militia warehouse on one night. Earlier in the evening, someone descended upon the funeral of a cop and opened fire with an AR-15. The men gather to figure out what will happen next when they discover one of their AR-15s is missing, and everyone who had access to them is in that room. Someone there is a cop killer. Given he’s an ex-cop, Gannon leads the interrogations, and “Sparrow” gets more and more interesting in the way it dissects alpha male violence and our country’s obsession with guns. Dale is great, but it’s an ensemble piece in which every part works and it’s so rewarding to see character actors like Chris Mulkey and Patrick Fischler get roles in a movie this good. Make a point to find this one when you can.
Also taking place in one setting on one night—although similarities pretty much stop there—is Gaspar Noe’s divisive “Climax,” which premiered at Cannes and jumped to MM in Toronto. The MM placement is a little odd in that “Climax” isn’t really a horror movie—it’s less horrific than some of Noe’s other works, for sure—but it does feel like something that works best if you watched it in the middle of the night. This is not a movie for daylight. Having been conflicted about some of Noe’s recent works, I was surprised how much I liked about this one, a piece of filmmaking that seeks to replicate the non-stop energy of its subjects through its visual language. The music bumps too.
Loosely inspired by real-life events, the pitch of “Climax” is incredibly simple—a dance troupe at a party drinks a bunch of sangria laced with LSD, chaos ensues. The pre-LSD half of “Climax” is actually stronger, anchored by an amazing dance sequence that proves that Noe should probably make the next “Step Up” movie. Actually, Noe constructs his entire film like a series of dance numbers. There are the “solos” of the introductory interview videos of the cast, made up almost entirely of real dancers, and then the “duets” of two-person dialogue scenes that flesh out their fears and passions. And then the LSD kicks in and it’s time for an insane group number. Less pretentious than a lot of recent Noe, I found “Climax” effective, although it’s the kind of thing for which mileage will greatly vary. After all, being trapped in a building with tripping young people isn’t for everyone.
Peter Strickland very purposefully makes films that aren’t for everyone too, although he achieved something close to crossover success with his excellent “The Duke of Burgundy,” which also premiered at TIFF. He returns with the ambitious but messy “In Fabric,” a film with individually fascinating moments and ideas that seems almost defiantly unwilling to cohere into a satisfactory whole.
More experimental than “Burgundy” or “Berberian Sound Studio,” “In Fabric” transforms the sensuous, passionate way that some people respond to fashion into a ghost story about, well, a cursed dress. Yes, there are some marvelously cheesy, ‘70s European horror images on display here that should totally be this Argento lover's thing, even shots of the red dress eerily moving toward people like a slasher, but “In Fabric” is an example of a talented director with a ton of ideas but no idea how to shape them. The TIFF guide compares it to “Lost Highway,” a movie I personally love, but the chaos of that film is way more tightly controlled than Strickland’s here. I guess I understand what people why people think Lynch is messing with audiences and makes things up as he goes along, as that’s what I see in “In Fabric.”
A similar lack of cohesion drags down Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein’s “Freaks,” a film I have to give some credit for being willing to get as crazy as its title but that drove me nearly insane as well. To say that “Freaks” is working in a deeply allegorical level would be an understatement. It plays out almost like its child protagonist is making it up as she goes along, and it veers way too often into being downright incoherent both thematically and narratively. Nothing is less scary than a movie that makes no sense.
Chloe (Lexy Kolker) is seven and her life is very strange. She lives in a house with boarded-up windows and heavy locks, under the watch of her anxious father (Emile Hirsch). Is he abusive? Did he kidnap her? What is happening outside? From the onset, “Freaks” attempts to keep you off-kilter, unsure of what you’re even watching, perhaps even trying to replicate the way a seven-year-old sees the world, in exaggerated bursts of violence and beauty. It’s constantly shifting focus and story to the point that it totally lost me long before it was over. Given the lack of traditional storytelling here, I’m eager to see what these filmmakers do next, but I’d wait for that venture before seeing “Freaks.”