Film festivals are often so full of the best, the brightest, and the most prestigious, that it’s sometimes an awful lot of fun look in the other direction — to check out the genre movies, the weird goofs, and the horror flicks. There’s a particularly rich selection of scary movies to choose from this year at Toronto, ranging from surreal indies to the latest from acclaimed international filmmakers. And sequels. Lots and lots of sequels. So on Monday, I dedicated my morning to a very important, sacred event that I fully expect to become a TIFF tradition: the horror movie sequel double feature.
Diving into such a daunting task without preparation would have been unwise — I didn’t want to pull anything — so I actually started my scary movie warm-up routine a couple of nights ago when I caught a screening of Osgood Perkins’ second feature I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. It’s an odd and creepy title for an odder and creepier film, in which Lily (Ruth Wilson, The Affair) plays a young nurse who moves into the home of an aging horror author (Paula Prentiss) inspired by novelist Shirley Jackson.
Osgood Perkins has made an intoxicating film
I hadn’t seen Perkins’ previous feature, The Blackcoat's Daughter (aka February), but I grew up reading novels like Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and eagerly went in sight unseen — and from the opening frames I was absolutely intoxicated. There are almost no traditional jump scares or "horror moments" in I Am the Pretty Thing; instead Perkins has constructed a slow, patient film that is almost pure atmosphere. Lily speaks in long, dense voiceover that sounds like it’s pulled straight from a novel, and is confused when the author will only call her "Polly" — a character from one of her novels. As things get stranger and stranger, the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur.
Perkins’ camera stares down dark hallways and into unlit rooms, daring the viewer to see if some dark presence is waiting, quiet, in the inky blackness. He expertly ratchets up tension, not with cheap tricks or gimmicks, but by slowly letting each scene play out until you practically want to scream. While unconventional, the film’s brand of arthouse horror clearly makes Perkins a director to watch moving forward. The only shame is that the movie is an original Netflix production — and a film this moody really deserves to be seen (and heard) in a theater if at all possible.
But while I went into Perkins’ film unfamiliar with his prior work, the opposite was true of Daguerrotype. It’s the newest film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, famous for exploring his obsessions with technology and death in films like Pulse and Cure. His first film in French (Kurosawa used a translator to speak to his cast while making the movie), Daguerrotype, centers on a young man who gets a job working for an eccentric photographer that is obsessed with shooting long-exposure, life-size daguerrotypes of his own daughter.
There’s a moment early on when the photographer looks at one of the images and casually mentions that his daughter’s very being is adhered to the silver plate, and it seems like the film is gearing up to tackle some of Kurosawa’s favorite topics, just transposed onto primitive photographic equipment. But while full of incredibly beautiful imagery, Daguerrotype never seems to know where it wants to go. It throws out ideas about life, death, and denial, but they never really coalesce into a cohesive thought, while its second half turns into an odd con-man movie that milks an obvious twist for far too long.
If it had been any other filmmaker I probably would have chalked Daguerrotype up as a pretty, if odd, curiosity. But because it’s Kurosawa, there’s a certain bar you hope will be met, turning Daguerrotype into a bit of a disappointment. That’s the problem with expectations, of course: they usually only hurt you. Unless you’re talking about a film that’s trying to bring a franchise back to life after a bad sequel cratered it into oblivion.
Part of my official Monday double feature, Blair Witch isn’t a reboot and it’s isn’t a remake. Instead, it’s a found-footage sequel to the original The Blair Witch Project from 1999. Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, who previously collaborated on standout thrillers like The Guest and You’re Next, the film focuses on the younger brother of one of the first film’s victims, as he and his friends explore the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland to follow up on some newly uncovered evidence.
The 'Force Awakens' of found-footage movies
I’ll have a full review coming soon, but Blair Witch excels at doing one thing in particular: helping people remember why the original was so scary in the first place. It calls back to the kinds of scares and even exact story beats as the original, while adding just a handful of new tweaks here and there to keep it fresh. (While talking to another critic, I jokingly referred to it as the Force Awakens of found footage movies.) The Paranormal Activity franchise has become the go-to found footage series over the past 10 years, but Wingard and Barrett show that there is definitely life to be had in the legends of the Blair Witch and the mysterious forest that she hides in. If audiences are interested, of course.
I closed out my day with a slightly less satisfying experience: Sadako vs. Kayako. In all fairness, it’s hard to expect anything more than a few hours of goofy weirdness from this film. It’s basically Freddy vs. Jason, starring the villains from the Japanese films Ringu and Ju-on (both were remade in the US as The Ring and The Grudge, respectively).
In terms of plot, it’s exactly what you’d expect. A pair of girls end up watching the tape from Ringu, sentencing them to die in two days at the hands of Sadako. Meanwhile, in another part of town, another young girl has haunting visions of the house from Ju-on — where the ghost of Kayako resides. As the first pair of girls try to free themselves from the curse, there’s a lot of wacky fun involving a professor who’s obsessed with seeing Sadako, even if it means he has to die, and a hotshot young exorcist who figures out a way to solve both girls’ problems by pitting the supernatural forces against one another. (The exorcist also has a blind teenaged girl as a sidekick, but that’s one of the least strange things about him.)
Take away the mystery and they're just not scary
There are some deaths, and the movie does have a few decent jump scares in it — but I found myself having the same problems I had with Freddy vs. Jason (or any 1980s or ‘90s horror sequel that felt like it was just going through the motions). Horror villains are often scary because we don’t know much about them; they’re shrouded in mystery, which gives them a certain amount of gravitas and power that they can terrify us with. Putting them in a rock ‘em, sock ‘em match takes that away, turning them into cartoon characters rather than creatures to be feared.
Now, I realize I was watching a movie called Sadako vs. Kayako. And I realize that these franchises have been run into the ground in Japan the same way that Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween and dozens of other slasher franchises have been in the US. But despite all of that, I guess I was hoping that the film would somehow pull off the impossible: putting these characters in this scenario and still letting them be scary.
I probably should have realized that wasn’t going to happen when I saw them playing baseball this summer. But you can’t blame me for being optimistic.