The 2019 version of Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival was an interesting one, especially after the high-profile splash the program made in 2018. That year, two of the biggest studio projects of the entire festival found their way into the late night offerings in the reboots of “The Predator” and “Halloween,” which led many to believe that a similar pattern would emerge this year, possibly with additions like “Zombieland 2” or “Doctor Sleep.” That didn’t happen. In fact, Midnight Madness went hard in the other direction, premiering an eclectic group of films from around the world, and the biggest name in the entire program belonged to the master Takashi Miike. Sadly, I didn’t get to much of the program this year merely because of scheduling conflicts, but I heard some good things about “The Platform” and “Color Out of Space.” The two I did see in Toronto this year were disappointments, but there’s one marvelous story of an indie darling that somehow worked its way from Slamdance to TIFF to Amazon that is simply wonderful to see happen.
I was pumped for “The Vigil” from the concept alone: “A Jewish Exorcist.” Sign me up. Judaism has a long history of stories of supernatural happenings and beliefs that reflect a thin line between reality and the afterlife. So a single-setting piece that works on these deeply-held tenets of the faith has a ton of potential. Sadly, director Keith Thomas doesn’t trust his own themes or visual sense, swallowing his entire film up in abrasive sound design and a reliance on jump scares. Instead of getting enraptured in the horror of what’s happening, I kept thinking, “Dude, turn it down.”
Dave Davis has to be given ample credit for what is basically a one-man show. He plays a young Jewish man in Boro Park, Brooklyn, who is asked to be a shomer for a recently deceased member of the community (he’s asked by Menashe Lustig, star of “Menashe”). A shomer is a respected position of someone who watches over the body overnight to keep it from demons. Of course, this is usually a symbolic position, but not tonight, as he learns that this man was haunted by an entity who now needs a new human home. The opening scenes of isolation and creepy sounds in dark rooms quickly give way to screeching music and sound design that drain everything of its potential emotional impact.
In a very different way, I had a similarly detached response to Takashi Miike’s “First Love,” a movie that had been sold to me a Miike thrill ride, which sets a certain pedestal height from the man who directed “Ichi the Killer” that this film does not meet. There are definitely things to like here, including Miike’s consummate craftsmanship during a few intense sequences, but it never comes together in a way that I found truly entertaining. It’s minor Miike, which means fans of his should still plan to see it, but temper those expectations more than I did and you might be happier.
“First Love,” which is an incredibly generic title for a movie this goofy, is basically Miike’s riff on “True Romance” as a boxer with a brain tumor (Masataka Kubota) and a drug addict (Sakurako Konish) end up on the run together, chased by some deadly villains. Miike’s 104th film (!!!) is another one of his offerings with memorable characters doing vicious things – one of the first shots is a beheading – but there’s a passion missing here that you can find in his best work. I wanted a bit more energy and melodrama in a film that sometimes feels like it’s going through the motions. Sure, the motions may be crazy, but there’s something hollow about this experience that’s less lacking in Miike’s best work. It’s a movie I enjoyed reasonably while watching and forgot entirely the second it was over, which could be the product of fest exhaustion or a hint that this won’t stand out much against Miike’s 100+ other films.
From a 104th film to a 1st, this is the joy of fest programming. One of the biggest stories of the year in terms of genre film has to be Andrew Patterson’s clever “The Vast of Night,” a movie that world premiered at Slamdance, the indie cousin to Sundance that takes place just up the hill during that annual event. From the minute it played in Park City, people were talking about this movie, but even that kind of buzz doesn’t always lead to a major slot at TIFF and then an acquisition by Amazon. I love that people are going to get to see this smart, taut little indie genre piece, a film I’ve thought about a lot since I saw it much earlier this year.
“The Vast of Night” is showy, filled with long takes and intricate sound design, but it’s also much smarter than a lot of films by young filmmakers that feel designed merely to show off techniques learned in film school. It takes place near the end of the ‘50s when some young people in a New Mexico town learn of some strange happenings nearby – yes, you can do the math between the era and the location in the same state as Roswell, although this is not your typical indie alien movie. It feels like a piece of work heavily inspired by things like “The Twilight Zone” and “The X-Files,” which is rarely a bad thing. Like a lot of debuts, it sometimes feels stretched to meet a running time – there’s a brilliant short film in here – but it’s never boring and often riveting. More than almost any other film this year, it is a great representation of the “calling card movie,” a film that announces a talent to watch. It has that echo of something like Christopher Nolan’s “Following,” an imperfect film that still heralded a major talent, which, believe it or not, also premiered at Slamdance. Don’t be surprised if Patterson follows the same path.