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AICN HORROR previews best of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival Part I: THE BATTERY! MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH! STALLED! WE ARE WHAT WE ARE! & BIG BAD WOLVES!

Published at: Oct. 18, 2013, 9:22 a.m. CST by ambush bug

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What the &#$% is ZOMBIES & SHARKS?

Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. On top of this week’s regular column and on top of the countdown to the best of the best in horror over the last year on AICN HORROR, this little Bug’s been working his fingers to bloody stumps to bring you another column today focusing on films playing at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival also known as TADFF. Find out more about the festival here and scroll down to preview part one of my two part coverage of some of the best films playing the fest this year!

On with the horror reviews!

Today on AICN HORROR
(Click title to go directly to the feature)

THE BATTERY (2012)
MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH (2013)
STALLED (2013)
WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)
BIG BAD WOLVES (2013)


THE BATTERY (2013)

Available for download here
Directed by Jeremy Gardner
Written by Jeremy Gardner
Starring Jeremy Gardner, Adam Cronheim, Niels Bolle
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug




There are those who hear that a film is about vampires or zombies or found footage and immediately write them off. Sure, those folks are protecting themselves from scores of pretty bad films, but by doing so, you miss out on the occasional gem to come along and really tell a new and original story involving one of these subgenres. Sure, I have to watch a bunch of crappy vampire films, but if I didn't I would have overlooked KISS OF THE DAMNED (reviewed here). If I'd have turned up my nose to all found footage films, I would have cheated myself out of seeing the surprisingly fun THE DINOSAUR PROJECT (reviewed here). And had I turned a blind eye to all zombie films, I would have missed my favorite zombie film of the year, THE BATTERY.

THE BATTERY's genius lies in its simplicity. Peel back the rotted, decayed layers and you'll see at its core, it's a movie about friendship--a strong friendship between two guys who just happen to be wandering around in a world infested with zombies. Though the first moments begin with a literal bang, quite a bit of the film consists of the quiet time showing the highs, the lows, the differences, the embarrassing moments, and all of the complexities of friendship. Because who would you rather spend the zombie apocalypse with other than your best friend?

Not to get too schmaltzy, but this is the type of film that really highlights the importance of friendship, and illustrates it well by placing two friends in the most dire of circumstances. Though one might think these two characters--star/writer/director Jeremy Gardner (who plays the free-wheeling Ben) and actor Adam Cronheim (who plays Mickey, the more uptight one), would tear each other's throats out since they are as different as can be in the way they approach this zombie plague, this Odd Couple of the Apocalypse work well together. The title of the film is explained later as the two friends, exact opposites, act as a battery, positive and negative charges looking out for one another, or in baseball terms (a sport they both love) someone throwing the ball and another one catching it. Throughout the film both of their personalities prove crucial in their survival, as Ben keeps things fun in order to retain their sanity and Mickey is neurotically careful making every one of their moves.

A film such as this, which relies on quite a bit of conversation and interaction, would not be able to hold water if the performances weren't good. Fortunately, both Gardner and Cronheim do a fantastic job in making things feel as if they have been friends forever. Gardner especially does a great job here, and is given the most emotional turmoil to go through as the story goes on. Gardner's Ben also gets to show off his dancing skills as he lets off steam to some of the fantastic music from Mickey's music collection. This soundtrack works itself in and out of the narrative, sometimes lightening the mood, sometimes offering the perfect time for a release of tension, and other times illustrating a haunting overtone. Gardner peppers in fantastic tunes from Rock Plaza Central, The Parlor, Wise Blood, El Cantador, and Sun Hotel which I immediately downloaded after hearing in the film (something I rarely do).

What sets THE BATTERY ahead of the zombie herd is the attention to structure in the story as well. The film starts out with these expansive scenes of open forests, lakes, and fields. Being the savvy survivors that they are, Mickey and Ben get out of the populated areas and stick to the open spaces. But just a few wrong turns--mostly perpetuated by Mickey's need for something more than living a vagabond existence (an existence Ben is more than comfortable living), Ben and Mickey go from expansive spaces to the exact opposite--cramped in the back of a keyless station wagon surrounded by hungry zombies. As calm and serene the first half of this film is, the tension is cranked to the limit once Ben and Mickey, pushed to the limits of their friendship, are forced into the small quarters with nothing but liquor, beans, a baseball bat, and a gun with six bullets. The story becomes a test of will for the two men, seeing not if they survive, but how long they can survive.

The ending of this film is absolutely heartbreaking, another testament to Gardner's talented story, the cramped direction of the camera inside of the car, and the performances by Gardner and Cronheim themselves. It's a story that resonates long after the credits and makes you want to rewind and enjoy the journey all over again to see these two friends interact with one another. So likable, these two actors make you wish you could backpack with them across these fantastic locales.

THE BATTERY is not your typical zombie movie in that it's about much more than plagues, spectacle, and world wide catastrophe. It's a small film that hits harder than most big budget yarns, making you laugh, cry, and root for these two friends to survive despite the odds against them. Sure films like WORLD WAR Z are going to have the spectacle, the big budget promos, and the star power, and I'm sure that PG-13 zombie film might have its merits, but you're not going to find a zombie film this year that is more original, more touching, or simply more entertaining than THE BATTERY.

If you’re looking for more on THE BATTERY, check out my interview with the director Jeremy Gardner here!





MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH (2013)

Directed by Don Thacker
Written by Don Thacker
Starring Adrian DiGiovanni, Jeffrey Combs, Danielle Doetsch, Ken Brown, Pete Giovagnoli, Robert Kramer, Erica Highberg
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug


Like THEY WILL OUTLIVE US ALL, MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH focuses mainly on the occupants of one apartment for most of the film. Unlike that film, which has two human protagonists, MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH has one male protagonist and a talking pile of mold voiced by Jeffrey Combs. From that description alone there are going to be a few differences between two films using a single locale for most of the action.

The other similarity is that both films are awesome. MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH is a fantastic character study of a man defeated, sitting around with months worth of grime, filth, and hair growth on his body with a path carved through pizza boxes and other garbage from the couch to the bathroom to the door and back again. Though it doesn’t go into too much detail in regards to why Ian (Adrian DiGiovanni) is so down, the actor’s performance makes us forget about asking these questions since his performance is so captivatingly sad and fascinating all at once. Ian talks directly to the camera through the film, walking us through his humdrum life. In most cases, this would be horribly pretentious, but there’s a sense of real soul in his performance that loses all pretention and made me want to go along for the ride.

When Ian’s antique television he calls Kent dies on him, it motivates him to find other means of entertainment. Only able to sleep for so long, Ian futzes around talking to the camera about this and that until he realizes that something must be done about the faulty TV. When he slips and falls in the bathroom, hitting his head on the floor, a pile of mold in the corner forms a mouth and begins talking with him. And that voice sounds an awful lot like the Re-Animator. Combs does a fantastic job as the pile of fungi who becomes Ian’s motivator to get his life back together. Though it takes a while for Ian to trust the pile of goo, soon he finds that it is trying to help him and the two embark on a quest to put his life back together.

All taking place in one locale, the charm comes from scenes of utter lunacy as Ian eats pieces of mold sprouting from the pile and goes on some gravity-bending acid trips. Soon he’s starring in the television episodes he zoned out on, cleaning his apartment with new vigor, and shaving off his disgusting beard. The effects in the film are minimal, but the ones used are highly effective, especially the Muppet-like pile of mold that undulates convincingly. There are also some amazing sequences of 8 bit pixilation animation that prove to be fun, as well as the vertigo-inducing slo mo falls Ian tends to endure.

The fact that 90% of this film takes place with a guy talking to the camera on his couch, all the while maintaining a creative, interesting, and intelligent edge all the way through, is a testament as to how great MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH truly is. The alternating dark and light tones give this film a unique texture, never really letting on as to where it will go next. Sure to poke, prod, and play with your brain in ways normal cinema does not, MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Coming from someone who has seen a lot, it’s refreshing to see so much ingenuity crammed into one little movie.




STALLED (2013)

Directed by Christian James
Written by Dan Palmer
Starring Dan Palmer, Antonia Bernath, Tamaryn Payne, Mark Holden, Giles Alderson, Sarah Biggins, Victoria Broom, Victoria Eldon
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug


Because of the inundation of zombie films, it’s tough for a film about the living dead to get ahead of the herd. In order to do so the film either has to have a super star in the cast or come at the subgenre from an angle that hasn’t been tried before. Now, the zom-com has been tried before, but very few of these films are as successful at being entertaining as STALLED is.

For the most part, STALLED is a one man show as a night janitor is trapped in a ladies bathroom stall during the zombie apocalypse on Christmas Eve. That one man is writer Dan Palmer, who does a great job of doing all of he heavy acting lifting here as the timid and nebbish janitor who thinks quick on his feet and may have a bit of a selfish streak to him, but those are attributes that do well during a zombie apocalypse.

Played for laughs, the film doesn’t shy away from the gore. Heads are crushed in toilet bowls, brain matter splats onto the camera lens, hammers are embedded into foreheads, and fingers are lopped off by the handful. If you’re looking for a horror/comedy tone to compare it to, I’d liken STALLED to DEAD ALIVE, as the zombies are played for laughs despite the dark and dangerous circumstances the janitor has found himself in.

Filled with some solid humor, such as a sequence where the janitor trips on acid in the stall and dreams he and the zombies have a Michael Jackson style dance routine which begins with the janitor crowd surfing across the zombie horde to the tune of techno music, STALLED almost plays out as a “What if Charlie Chaplin was stuck in the zombie apocalypse?” scenario as the film plays as a series of funny bits laced together loosely, increasing in dire circumstances and power of the laugh as the film goes on. There are some genius bits of silent cinema at play here as the facial expressions and wacky Rube Goldbergian scenarios play out with the zombies falling victim most of the time.

Not all horror has to be super serious and dire. Sometimes it’s best to laugh in the worst scenarios and that’s exactly what STALLED does. STALLED takes a simple scenario and runs full blast with it. Honestly, there are probably only fifteen people in this film and most of them shuffle around as mindless zombies. Palmer as the janitor plays a version of the classic underdog who one can’t help but root for despite one bonehead decision after another. There’s a lot to love about STALLED; a quality indication that you don’t have to go big to get big laughs and make a good zombie movie.




WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013)

Directed by Jim Mickle
Written by Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Starring Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Kassie Wesley DePaiva, Kelly McGillis, Wyatt Russell, Michael Parks, Nick Damici
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug


Making a remake almost always sets a filmmaker up for a failure. Make the film too like the original and you’re bound to get flack for unoriginality and the unnecessariness of the existence of the sequel in the first place. Deviate too far from the original and you’re likely to lose the audience that is already built in who liked the original. While history has proven that Americanized remakes of foreign horror films are rarely as good as the original, every now and then there needs to be an exception to the rule. Jim Mickle’s WE ARE WHAT WE ARE—a tale told that may very well live in the same universe as Jorge Michel Grau’s film with the same title--is one of those exceptions.

I saw Grau’s WE ARE WHAT WE ARE a few years ago ( full review here) when it played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and was blown away at this operatic tale of how family tradition can make people stay together while at the same time tear them apart. While the film is simply about cannibalism, it also delved into the complexities of family relations and roles members in a family play with one another. When one of the parents dies, that family dynamic shifts, and Grau’s story describes how destructive that shift can be using cannibalism as a metaphor for how loss can shatter a family, yet also make it stronger.

While shuffling around the sexes of the family members, Mickle’s version does the same thing as the Parkers are devastated when their mother (played by EVIL DEAD 2’s Bobby Joe herself, Kassie Wesley DePaiva) dies, leaving the patriarch Frank Parker (played by AMERICAN PSYCHO and PRECIOUS actor Bill Sage) to take care of the family. Frank is devastated, shown weeping uncontrollably when he learns of his wife’s demise, and these moments play out like hammers to the heart in the early moments. Seeing the innocent yet worn faces of the two daughters (older sister Iris played by THE MASTER’s Ambyr Childers and Rose the younger played by THE LAST EXORCISM 2 and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE’s Julia Garner) only deepens the blow, and for quite a long time in this film, you feel sympathetic for this family for their loss. The casting of this film is what is key here, as Sage is a battleship of a presence in this film as the fractured man trying to lead the family, and both Childers and especially Garner play roles that should definitely lead them to stardom. The weight of carrying on the family tradition is communicated not only in the heavy story of hardship we see playing out, but in the silent and sad-painted faces as the family copes with the loss and reshuffles in order to survive. Though dark deeds are suggested from the very beginning of this one, the teeth of cannibalism aren’t really shown for quite awhile. When it does happen, it’s a powerful revelation--one that could have come off as hokey in less capable hands and played by less capable actors. Thankfully, that’s not the case on either part.

What impressed me the most about WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is the leap in quality and patient restraint director Mickle takes in his handling of the film in comparison with his last effort, STAKELAND. While that film had a lot going for it, it was still squaloring around in the ooze of genre. Sure WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is about cannibals, but aside from that it’s a powerful drama about loss. The blood and gore that happens later in the film might put off some as they are pretty gratuitous, but the fact that Mickle was so patient with doling out the darkness and so deft at showing us the tragic lives of these characters proves that he is a director of immense talent.

While I prefer the operatic finish of the original film, the ending of Mickle’s version is just as satisfying. Leaving things somewhat open-ended, Mickle proved himself to have what it takes as a director who can make something as outlandish as cannibalism seem like something real rather than the over-the-top meat eaters we see in the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE films, and in turn makes the story all the more frightening. With fantastic smaller roles by the astounding Kelly McGillis as a nosy neighbor, Michael Parks as the town coroner, Wyatt Russell (Kurt and Goldie’s son all growed up and surprisingly good here) and STAKELAND’s Nick Damici as the sheriff, star-making performances by newcomers Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner and a thunderous performance by Bill Sage, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is the type of film that makes me proud to be a horror fan and one I show to others when I say that just because it is horror, that doesn’t mean it always has to be lowbrow. Just as powerful as the original, yet very much different, Mickle’s WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is a horror masterpiece that bites deep into the heart and eats it.




BIG BAD WOLVES (2013)

Directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Written by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring Guy Adler, Lior Ashkenazi, Dvir Benedek, Gur Bentwich, Doval'e Glickman, Tzahi Grad, Rotem Keinan, Nati Kluger, Kais Nashif, Menashe Noy, Ami Weinberg
Find out more about this film on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug


Most likely one of the best, if not THE best horror film of the year is BIG BAD WOLVES. Though it is not horror in the sense of having monsters with giant teeth and fangs or insubstantial ghosts or walking corpses or handheld cameras, it does convey the horror of humanity in a manner that will hit you hard with a gripping story, powerful acting, and scenes that will most assuredly leave a deep gash in your heart.

Much like their previous accomplishment RABIES, writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado map out an intricately charted tale that involves a lot of moving parts, character intersections, and plotlines that twist and turn in all directions. Though the cast is somewhat smaller than RABIES, the motivations of all of the players involved flow in and out of the story and all seem to come together in the ultra-powerful ending. Keshales and Papushado do a fantastic job of not only juggling these storylines so that they make sense from start to finish with the viewer, they also thread them together in ways you could never guess. Though comparisons are going to be made to Tarantino, I often find his plot construction to be much more obvious and failing in terms of subtlety. More like Hitchcock, Keshales and Papushado deal with multiple storylines, but do so with a gentler, more deceptive handling of suspense and pacing. Scenes which we know will end badly are prolonged to the nth degree just to make the viewer and the unfortunate person strapped to a chair squirm all the more.

BIG BAD WOLVES deals with the theme of child abduction and victimization and how the accusations of these crimes can ruin a person. It also deals with the weight of the crime itself. And also deals about the reactions we all have when the young are endangered. Looking at this concept from such a broad scope might be difficult to pull off, but the filmmakers do this expertly by casting memorable characters which represent each standpoint. But though each of the characters involved represent one view, the actors Lior Ashkenazi, Tzahi Grad, Rotem Keinan, and Doval'e Glickman portray them as real characters and not just visual representations of an idea.

Though there’s much more to the story, here’s the basics. A series of child abductions and murders have plagued the city for a while not. Lior Ashkenazi plays Miki a burnt out cop who recognizes the faults of the system and relies on his gut which tells him that Dror (Rotem Keinan) a school teacher is responsible for the abductions. Tzahi Grad plays Gidi, the father of a girl who has gone missing and has the same feelings about Dror. Though he isn’t convicted of the crime, Dror finds himself bound in the basement of Gidi’s home. The rest of this film plays out mostly in this basement and this latter half of the film is made of stuff tighter than the highest trapeze wire.

Though I don’t recognize any of the Israeli actors, all of them deliver performances of the tip toppest of calibers. Ashkenazi is fantastic as the desperate cop whose life is crumbling around him. Keinan juggles the truth like a circus clown and while one minute you’re convinced he did the crime, the actor flips and you believe he is falsely accused. Grad’s calm demeanor is haunting to watch. He is a shell of a man without his daughter and is out to make someone pay. And despite the fact that he looks somewhat similar to Larry David, Doval’e Glickman is fantastic as Gidi’s father, the comedic relief/voice of morality of the film. Seeing these four actors slam into one another is amazing.

Be they long takes of the camera following a hammer down a long hallway or tight shots of the facial reactions of Dror strapped to his chair or the calm demeanor Gidi seems to have through it all, the filmmakers make every scene count big, working towards an ending that resonates on levels upon levels. I was moved so much by the ending of this film and feel it’s one of the most powerful in modern cinema.

BIG BAD WOLVES doesn’t have big stars or over the top effects. But it is packing some of the most potent emotional power you’re going to find in a film this year. Keshales and Papushado are going to be huge one they hit mainstream. See BIG BAD WOLVES and their previous film RABIES now and be one of the cool ones who knew them before they break out.

Touring the festival circuit, it looks as if BIG BAD WOLVES is going to be released late this year, so you won’t have to wait long to see one of the most emotionally horrifying and masterfully executed film of the year.





Look for another round of films showing at this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival soon!

Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Mark’s written comics such as THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DEATHSPORT GAMES, NANNY & HANK (soon to be a feature film from Uptown 6 Films), Zenescope’sGRIMM FAIRY TALES Vol.13 & UNLEASHED: WEREWOLVES – THE HUNGER and a chapter in Black Mask Studios’OCCUPY COMICS. FAMOUS MONSTERS’ LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (co-written with Martin Fisher) will be available soon in trade. Mark also wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK and its follow up THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.


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