The crowd rushing in to claim their seats at the Ryerson Theatre are younger, quicker, louder than the typical Toronto International Film Festival audience. More tattoos, too. They're closer to rock-concert fans than to a biker gang, but they're ready to rumble. And cheer and stomp their feet for movie masters few other festival goers know about.
When Stuart Gordon, who directed the smartly ghoulish Re-Animator a couple decades ago, steps onstage to present his new film Stuck a melodrama about a young woman who crashes into a pedestrian, then leaves the injured man lodged halfway through her windshield like a giant hood ornament the mob goes appreciatively nuts. And when Gordon notes solemnly that "Every seven minutes there is a fatal car crash," someone applauds.
Just another typical installment of Midnight Madness, the festival's nightly showcase for pictures with an outrageous agenda and a racing pulse. There are films, and then there are movies; the Madness audience knows the difference and celebrates it. But they're not slumming. "They're diehard festival goers," says Colin Geddes, the section's programmer. "They've been to three or four films that day and this is their last stop. They know they're going to see a film that will thrill them. But they understand world cinema. After nearly every film the director does a Q&A, and we have some very intelligent questions coming from our audience at two in the morning."
Some of the young directors taking those questions in years past have graduated with honors from Midnight Madness. This was where to find Peter Jackson before The Lord of the Rings (with Meet the Feebles and Braindead). James Wan launched his Saw franchise here; and Eli Roth, helmer of the Hostel horror movies, got his first international exposure with Cabin Fever. "After the first screening there was a bidding war for the film," Geddes says. "It basically kick-started his career."
The section, now in its 20th year, championed prime work from Tsui Hark, the Hong Kong action master. The gaudily talented, impossibly prolific Takashi Miike got his start here and soon became a Madness regular. One of the highlights of TIFF 2007 is Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django, a shotgun-vs.-sword sagebrush pastiche in which all the actors speak phonetic English except for Quentin Tarantino, in a succulent cameo role.
"Don't forget: directors start young," says Noah Cowan, who programmed the series through 1997 and now runs the festival with Piers Handling. "And when you're young you're attracted to the magic of horror and action. So Midnight Madness is an excellent festival recruiting tool not only for young audiences but also for young directors." The section thus makes room for low-budget horror films, extreme action epics, foreign gangster movies what are known, affectionately or derisively, as genre films.
The dirty secret of film festivals is that most of the entries belong to their own, more elevated genres. There's the noble costume drama, beautifully appointed but with all the zazz of a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum; the political documentary, confirming its audience's liberal prejudices about the failings of everyone who doesn't agree with them; and the minimalist European drama, where misfits glower silently at each other over their coffee cups, then (if we're lucky) explode into violence at the end. Put them all together, they spell Art Film, which comprises a tiny percentage of all movies made in a year.
That leaves a vast and vital batch of commercial stuff which may be box-office hits in their home countries, though unknown elsewhere for the connoisseurs of Midnight Madness. As Geddes says with justifiable pride, "It's everything that you don't expect to find at a film festival." His job is to honor the primary demand after-hours movie goers have for a film: that it keep them awake.
Midnight screenings of outré films had been a staple of independent movie theaters since the early '70s, when the Elgin in New York City unearthed Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and John Waters' Pink Flamingos. Late-night showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into their own audience-participation phenomenon. But no international festival had set up a midnight menu of genre films until Handling unleashed his staff on the project in 1988. Among the premier offerings were Frank Henenlotter's horror film Brain Damaged and the rock doc Decline of Western Civilization Part Two: The Metal Years. Cowan took over as sole selector in 1990, when the films were shown in the rattily atmospheric Bloor Cinema. Cowan cites Tarantino as helping the section when, showing Reservoir Dogs in another part of the festival in 1992, "he brought his actors out to most of our films that year. He really broke it open, talked in interviews about how cool he thought Midnight Madness was."
Not all films fit snugly into genre classifications. The 1992 Belgian film Man Bites Dog was a brutally dark fakeumentary; Tokyo Decadence from the same year was a study of degenerate Japanese sex. But they were peculiar and edgy enough to build a base of acolytes. One of these was Geddes, who can be seen on the TIFF Midnight Madness blog in video footage of the audience from 1990; he's the one with the gothic cross. In 1992 he published a Hong Kong fanzine called Asian Eye, concentrating on action movies by the likes of Jackie Chan and John Woo, which were still found mainly in specialty video stores. That brought him to the festival's attention, though Cowan already knew him as a knowledgeable amateur. "Colin was always more than a fan," Cowan says. "Talking to him in line year after year I realized that he had something special to offer."
Geddes, who assumed the Midnight Madness mantle in 1998, has midwifed the program to further éclat. "The films in earlier days were probably more transgressive," he says, "but now this part of the fest is an acquisition hotbed." Being the hot kid on the block brings its own pressures. As Cowan notes, "Colin is contending with a more difficult situation than I ever did: dealing with major Hollywood studios, major European companies. The richest people in Asia are producing big genre movies and he's got to bat them off with a stick. He probably gets more calls from studio heads and very scary financiers than I get about Galas."
This year, along with the Miike and Gordon, says Geddes, "We're closing with a really crazy French film called Inside, with Béatrice Dalle. It's an intense bloody horror film. You're going, 'Omigod, they're not going to do that! Omigod, they've just done that.' I saw it at Cannes, where a quarter of the audience walked out and the rest gave it a standing ovation. When we play the movie I actually want to have a camera on the audience so I can film them freaking out." That makes Geddes the perfect Midnight Madness programmer: he's a voyeur of his own audience.
Really, how many film-festival programmers would so eagerly anticipate the visceral effect of a movie on its viewers that he'd want to have a record of them watching it? It all comes back to a show-business credo that festivals often forget: please the customers. "We try to align our programs with our audiences," Cowan says. "They want films with crazy bloody stuff going on and people flying on high wires and some great rock 'n' roll, all filtered through the director's artistic vision and the programmer's curatorial mind. We give them that."
And they respond. It's one thing for a theater full of black-tied swells to applaud George Clooney or Brad Pitt. It's quite another for 1,200 Madness minions to sing Happy Birthday to Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, as they did this year. Or, in 2005, to rise and cheer for Hong Kong martial-arts star Sammo Hung. When he strode onstage the people at the Ryerson practically levitated. Ambitiously titled, Midnight Madness is now an annual ritual that always lives up to its name.