The Toronto International Film Festival is usually best known for being the unofficial start to the awards season, with many of next year’s nominees making their debut at the Canadian festival. But among the hundreds of films showing in Toronto, there are some that wait far from the Oscar-bait madding crowd. After the day’s big red-carpet galas are done, the genre enthusiast crowd gathers at 11:59PM for the Midnight Madness program, which shows the boldest, sometimes most extreme films that horror, sci-fi, and fantasy filmmakers have to offer.
This year, genre expanded beyond the confines of the late-night selection, as even the Contemporary World Cinema program — which usually focuses on art-house films that may not see wide releases — included a few titles that used horror tropes to tell poignant and contemporary stories. No matter what corner of the world these movies were made in, they all showed a love for genre cinema and its ability to make us care about real socio-political issues through pure entertainment. And the good news is that distributors and streaming services are likely to snatch them up and make them available to you soon.
To help you plan your future watch list, we’ve put together a list highlighting some of the genre movies that blew audiences and critics alike away at TIFF and which show the wild directions horror, thrillers, and sci-fi flicks can be taken in.
A film that completely grabs you by surprise and never lets go, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu is a symphony of chaos, where a wild buffalo escapes and causes mayhem and violence in a remote Indian village. Hundreds of extras are seen running through the jungle wielding machetes and knives, with the movie playing out like an on-foot version of Mad Max: Fury Road with a bit of Spielberg’s Jaws thrown in; the buffalo is used sparingly, but its presence is always looming. It’s a film that will leave you wondering how they managed not to accidentally kill anyone during production. “When Jallikattu lets it rip, it’s as exciting and unusual an experience as you’re likely to get this year. Grab it by its horns and don’t dare let go,” writes Globe and Mail’s critic Barry Hertz of this exhilarating and unique cinematic experience.
Aquatic horror is a bit of an underseen sub-genre, but Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever shows why we should still be afraid of what lies beneath, as a bizarre creature sneaks on board a trawler on the high seas. This film will remind audiences of such classics as Alien and The Thing while offering a new voice to the creature feature, with an engrossing tale that challenges your assumptions of the unknown. “Sea Fever is a nightmare you can’t take your eyes off of and can’t stop thinking about after it wraps up,” wrote Collider’s critic Perri Nemiroff.
Right after the theatrical release of The Hunt was cancelled, TIFF presented us with an alternative to the Most Dangerous Game sub-genre, one that combines socio-political commentary with sci-fi and horror elements. RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico described Bacarau, which also played the Cannes Film Festival, as “a crazy genre hybrid that exudes the confidence of the people who made it.” The premise is simple: In a near-future Brazilian village where citizens are sold as prey to bloodthirsty foreign hunter (led by cult-cinema legend Udo Kier), a resistance forms in an all-out war that allows the filmmakers to blend genres and blows minds. Psychotropic drugs are involved.
What if we were to tell you that the next big superhero cinematic universe wasn’t going to be based on American superheroes, but on Indonesian comic books? Writer-director Joko Anwar unleashed a different kind of superhero on the Midnight Madness crowds of Toronto with Gundala, a superhero origin film that infuses standard tropes of the genre with Indonesian legends and martial art fights that will make you cheer. That Shelf critic Victor Stiff says, “From beginning to end, Gundala delivers fast and furious action and rarely stops to take its foot off the gas.”
One of the biggest surprises of TIFF was how universally liked Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery Knives Out turned out to be. The star-studded ensemble not only lets Chris Evans play a despicable character fresh off of hanging up the Captain America shield, but spoofs the classic whodunnit genre. What starts as a simple mystery of the murder of a crime novelist evolves into a laugh-out-loud puzzle-box comedy that will keep your mind spinning as you try to figure out what comes next. David Ehrlich writes for IndieWire: “A crackling, devious, and hugely satisfying old-school whodunnit with a modern twist…”. Lionsgate will release Knives Out on Thanksgiving.
The demonic possession genre has long been associated with bibles and priests, but Keith Thomas’s debut feature, The Vigil, takes the genre and roots it in Jewish mythology making for a novel and terrifying horror film. Breakout performer Dave Davis stars as Jakov, a young man abandoning his Orthodox community to embrace the secular life, who finds himself working as a shomer, watching over the body of a recently deceased member of the community who is haunted by an evil presence. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer writes, “What works… is how Thomas transforms Orthodox culture into gory material for a slightly elevated horror flick, with Yakov ultimately turning to Hebrew prayer as his only way out of hell.”
A throwback to not only the classic sci-fi TV shows of the ’50s, like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but also a time when we were still fascinated with the idea of the future and the wonders it could bring, Andrew Patterson’s debut feature The Vast of Night follows two young people seeking the source of a mysterious sound invading their local radio station in a town in New Mexico. TV Guide’s Oliver Whitney writes that the film is “like an old school radio play that fuses the slow-building paranoia of The Twilight Zone and chilling awe and extraterrestrial sightings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” This nostalgic sci-fi thriller was picked up by Amazon just before the film’s premiere at TIFF.
Filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have made a career out of blending different genres to create something entirely new, while also providing emotional stories stuffed with characters we connect with – their 2018 flick, The Endless, is Certified Fresh at 93%. This time they got Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan together to play the two friends at the core of a time-bending crime thriller involving two paramedics that get their lives turned upside down by a series of crimes involving a mysterious synthetic drug that lets you experience new realities. Synchronic is the duo’s most dramatic and emotional work yet, but it still delivers a fun and exhilarating experience. Writing for The Playlist, critic Jason Bailey says, “Synchronic can best be described as egghead indie sci-fi, in which the ideas are as exciting as the effects.” This is a sci-fi thriller that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
Unlike that other film about the Latin American horror myth, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona is 100% rooted in Latin American history and culture, which adds an extra layer of horror to this already chilling tale of an aging general accused of genocide who starts seeing visions of a terrifying ghost haunting his estate. Bustamante blends utilizes stylized cinematography and effective scares that make this the surprise horror hit of the festival. Critic Carlos Aguilar writes for The Wrap that La Llorona is “a purposefully somber cry for amends and acknowledgement permeated in phantasmagoric allure.” This is the type of genre film that proves you can have a strong message while still delivering entertaining thrills and scares.
Imagine a prison where the cells are vertically stacked, and the only food given to prisoners is lowered down from the highest levels – feeding those on the upper cells but leaving those below violently starving. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform combines poignant and relevant social commentary about the distribution of wealth and the difficulties of convincing people to do good, with the nasty, wicked horrors of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. Writing for Slashfilm, critic Meredith Borders says, “Starvation, cannibalism, heinous violence and no small amount of feces aside, The Platform makes spending time in The Pit a pretty intriguing enterprise.” This is a movie that is as grotesque and shocking as it is surprisingly funny. Netflix will release The Platform at a later date.