By Wednesday, it's near impossible to wander around the Toronto International Film Festival without bumping into a handful of dazed critics or industry types eager to tell you that the fest is over – done! Go home already! You smell! Well, no, there are still five more days and hundreds of films left to see, and my shower has been on the fritz – so there. But because the splashy Hollywood premieres have come and gone and the foreign press corps has shipped back home with tales of traffic and poutine, the back half of TIFF can take on the air of an altogether different festival, one more languid and calm, perhaps even with time to see movies.
Yet there's one part of TIFF that never fails to maintain its momentum: Midnight Madness. Throughout the festival, the horror-focused program keeps packing in near-riotous crowds at unsavoury hours. This is largely thanks to programmer Colin Geddes' exceptional taste for the profane and shocking, but this year's slate also hints at an industry shift in the previously maligned genre: Suddenly, horror seems just a bit, well, respectable. Call it a "gorenaissance" if you want (lord knows I do), but independent genre films – that is, not the haunted-house cheapies or Paranormal Activity sequels that flood multiplexes – are having a moment.
Leading the pack at TIFF is Green Room, an expert twist on the siege film from director Jeremy Saulnier. Focusing on a punk band's very bad night at a neo-Nazi clubhouse, the film is a perfect example of everything high-art horror should be: smart, funny, terrifying and with just enough violence to send shock waves over its audience. Never exploitative but always thrilling, Green Room will appeal to everyone with a pulse, whether or not you've ever lined up at 11:55 p.m. to see zombies, vampires or zombie-vampires.
The film's success owes everything to Saulnier, who considers himself less a horror director than simply a filmmaker interested in the horror of extreme situations. After coming to TIFF last year with Blue Ruin – another film fascinated by the ramifications of violence – the director is set to become the new poster boy for crossover horror success (the film was recently picked up for distribution by critical darling outfit A24 Films).
"The fun thing is that it's not my job to assign it a genre – I like to be genre-agnostic," Saulnier said in an interview with The Globe and Mail in Toronto. "It was about making an intense film that's aimed not only at the Midnight Madness audience but also myself, when I was 19 and full of piss and vinegar. ... But however it's marketed or packaged, I'm happy to let that go and just get it out there."
Elsewhere in the Midnight lineup, The Devil's Candy offers a lean and slick homage to occult films, but with a knowing edge that suggests director Sean Byrne is aiming for the critical rafters. It also carries the increasingly important imprimatur of Snoot Entertainment, the production company behind the whip-smart genre exercises The Guest and You're Next (both of which played previous editions of TIFF). Each film offers something new by twisting something old – namely the glut of cheapo slasher flicks from the 80s. Here, the synth-heavy scores and high body counts are given a respectable shine by filmmakers eager to honour their youth while still smart enough to create legitimate works of cinema.
Horror has even bled into TIFF's mainstream programming, with Robert Eggers' Sundance hit The Witch playing in the upper-tier Special Presentations lineup. Eggers' powerful feature debut hints at where the genre may need to go next: By mixing in family psycho-drama, societal satire and 17th-century period drama, the film has horror in its blood but is an entirely different beast in execution.
"When I was developing my voice as a writer-director, and trying to get a feature made, I had ideas that were so genre-less and obscure that people didn't want to make them," Eggers said in an interview. "So I set a goal for myself that The Witch would be in an identifiable genre, but without sacrificing my creative beliefs to make it."
The future looks terrifying – and thank goodness for that.