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Monica May in Green House, an acidic mix of Hal Hartley and Wes Anderson playing at What the Film Festival in Toronto.

Lamberti May Productions

For a man who spends his days and nights watching all manner of horror movies, there are only four words in the English language that strike fear into the heart of Toronto film programmer Peter Kuplowsky: “So bad it’s good.”

The catch-all cult-film term conjures up all sorts of pejorative cinema, the type of projects that were never meant to be consumed with any sort of audience sincerity, and are viewed only for the promise of sadomasochistic cheese. Despite the deliberately absurd title of Kuplowsky’s fourth-annual What the Film Festival and its aim to celebrate “contemporary eccentric cinema,” he is not, and has never been, interested in programming films only to sneer at them.

“WTF is less about that idea of something being so bad that it can only be enjoyed by mocking it, and more about finding innovation in very fiercely independent and intensely amateur productions,” he says. “Sometimes with lo-fi and amateur work, like we’re showing here, you’re not sure how conscious the filmmaking decisions are. But watching this year’s selections, everything feels very decisive and deliberate.”

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In a city littered with film festivals – roughly 75 annually, at last count – WTF stands out for being not only proudly extreme, but attempting to seriously interrogate its own oddball mission. It is typically held at the Royal cinema by the Laser Blast Film Society, which frequents the theatre once a month to watch and celebrate niche film. This year’s edition will screen five works of what Kuplowsky and WTF partner Justin Decloux call “outsider features”: movies that live within genre (that is: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, pitch-black comedy) but were assembled with precious few resources and even less expertise.

Something like, say, Anchor Zone, a long-lost Newfoundland-shot dystopian epic that involves fascist villains and skateboarding heroes. Or Green House, an acidic mix of Hal Hartley and Wes Anderson. Or Junkhead, Takahide Hori’s stop-motion oddity that took eight years to make, mostly because the Japanese director had no idea how to make a stop-motion animated film when he started.

“It speaks to a quality that a lot of WTF films have: They’re passion projects by filmmakers who don’t have the resources,” says Kuplowsky. “We’re talking about half-decade-long production cycles because these directors are making the films on the weekends or in their spare time, completely outside mainstream channels.”

Kuplowsky is an expert at working outside the mainstream, thanks to his prior programming work at the horror-centric Toronto After Dark festival, and his ongoing tenure at the Toronto International Film Festival. This past fall, Kuplowsky took the reins of TIFF’s popular Midnight Madness program after years of acting as deputy to former Midnight Madness guru Colin Geddes.

“I was happy to bring out a different quality to the Midnight program while preserving what Colin had done,” says Kuplowsky, speaking over the phone from the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., where he’s hoping to scope out potential TIFF ‘18 selections. “I felt I was able to show traditional genre crowd pleasers, straight horror films, something with martial arts, but also something unexpected and unclassifiable like Bodied.”

Yet Kuplowsky recognizes that there are certain expectations when it comes to TIFF, whereas WTF presents a more comfortable space for works that may not be ready for prime time (even if that slot is at 12:01 a.m.).

Green House was the first screener I ever watched as a programmer for Midnight Madness, and I would revisit it again and again while watching other movies,” Kuplowsky says. “I knew it was something that wouldn’t fit the purview of TIFF – there’s this air of non-professionalism to the acting – so playing it there would give the filmmakers exposure, but also a judgment that wasn’t deserved. But I still wanted to show it to a Toronto audience, to see what they thought of what was being attempted.”

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To that end, Kuplowsky credits the local moviegoing community for being increasingly curious about just what type of cinema is worth stepping away from the couch for.

“When we began with the Laser Blast Society, there were 10, 15, 20 people showing up to screenings, and now I can count on 70 people coming out,” he says, name-checking other recent and adventurous local screening series such as the Royal’s Neon Dream Cinema Club and MDFF, now housed at TIFF’s Lightbox. “And this year WTF is making efforts to involve others in the DIY community, people who trade in outside art, by bringing in Arrow Video for a market, and The Beguiling comic shop for local artist signings. We want to tap into those audiences looking for something different.”

Or, to put it into four words that might warm Kuplowsky’s heart: “So good, it’s … good.“

What the Film Festival runs March 24-25 at the Royal in Toronto (laserblastfilmsociety.com)

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