Here’s a little secret for all you TIFF junkies out there. If you’re cramming in a lot of movies all day everyday, at this point in the festival you’re going to be hitting a wall that makes engaging with art films damn near impossible. So now is the time to dabble in the twisted world of horror and midnight mayhem designed to keep audiences awake whether they like it or not. Here are reviews of two of the best horror flicks of TIFF13: The Sacrament and Oculus.

The Sacrament

Now here’s a film that I was practically guaranteed to fall in love with before I even saw a single frame. Not only is it written and directed by one of the most promising contemporary genre filmmakers, Ti West (House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers), but it’s about a suicide cult very much modeled on Jonestown and I’ve been hankering for a proper Jonestown feature for quite some time. If you have too, this is that movie. If all you know about Jonestown is the legend of the Koolaid, prepare to be shocked and keep in mind that despite fictionalizing and contemporizing the cult, he’s stuck remarkably close to the actual events. This isn’t a monster mash picture or gory schlock. It’s a stone-faced, frighteningly realistic trip into a suicide cult that will leave you gutted on the way out of the theatre.

The film follows a pair of Vice journalists making one of their beloved web documentaries (yes, it’s another found footage horror movie, but don’t worry it’s a good one). In this case a Vice photographer (Kentucker Audley) learns that his sister (Amy Seimetz) has joined an isolated sober commune and a few of his colleagues (Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen) decide that could make one hell of an online piece. So they head out to visit Seimetz and immediately something seems wrong. They’re escorted to the commune by guards with machine guns, everyone in the camp seems cheery to the point of being sedated, and the leader (Gene Jones delivering an incredible performance) has clearly started to become overbearing in his control.  Things are creepy but still functional until residents start visiting the reporters, begging to be taken home. If you know the Jonestown tale at all, you can probably guess where things go from there and it ain’t pretty.

One of the reasons why West has skyrocketed to the top of the list of most folks’ favourite genre directors is the way he doesn’t play into current trends or norms. He’s a filmmaker who enjoys sustained atmosphere over jumps and gore and knows how to grab an audience and keep them in a perpetual state of unease. This time, the found footage conceit robs West of the finely honed and carefully controlled visual style he usually employs. So instead, he has to focus all his efforts on situation and character driven terror, which cuts so much deeper. Tension slowly raises from the openings frames until the conclusion and when the suicide cult finally lives up to it’s label, West delivers some of the most devastatingly disturbing imagery of the entire festival. Even if you know all the Jonestown details, West pushes and expands ever so slightly to move into pure horror territory without sacrificing any credibility. It’s an uncompromising movie that confirms West’s immense potential, if only because the film is deeply effective while being completely different from his previous two efforts. If you don’t need a supernatural element to tickle your horror funnybone, this could be the finest horror flick you see all year. If not, well then…



Enter Oculus, a peculiar little horror oddity that requires more patience than is usually demanded of the midnight madness crowd, but pays off in a big way. The movie falls into the all too rare “haunted mirror” subgenre (yes, such a thing exists) previously gracing flicks like Dead Of Night and The Boogeymen. What writer/director Mike Flanagan has done here is a bit more ambitious though. He’s weaved together two connected horror narratives that somehow meet in the third act for an unrelenting and deliberately disorienting finale that offers two climaxes for the price of one. It’s a pretty impressive work of narrative gymnastics and the fact that it’s also vividly frightening doesn’t hurt either.

The film opens with Tim (Brenton Thwaits) being released from a decade long stay in a psychiatric hospital. As a boy, he witnessed his father torture and murder his mother before he shoots daddy himself in self-defence. After years of therapy, he’s finally come to terms with the fact that all the ghosts he was convinced were part of a delusion developed in an abusive household. However, when he’s picked up by his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), she immediately tries to convince him otherwise, claiming they made a pact to return to the house to set things straight when they were finally reunited. Kaylie is convinced the family accidentally bought a haunted mirror that caused all of the psychotic wrongdoing and has tracked it down as well as researched previous tragedies associated with the mirror. She’s set up a complex system that will hopefully help them film evidence of the mirror’s power and destroy it. At the same time, the audience is slowly teased with their childhood leading up to the tragic event. The two stories slowly start to intertwine as creepy things start occurring in each narrative and eventually they come together in fascinating ways.

Getting there can be a little tough since the 30 to 40 minutes is burdened with two separate plot set-ups and attempts to convince the audience that there’s nothing spooky about the mirror and the two kids are just crazy. Plus, as often happens in horror movies, the actors were all cast for their skill with the believable hysterics necessary to the ticket-shifting fright screens and struggle when saddled with exposition. However, from the second Flanagan starts to introduce the ghostly threats and eerie mirror-induced hallucinations, the movie takes off and never comes back. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that the narratives start to collide, but once it happens Flanagan mixes them in ingenious ways that only heightens the terror. Once that starts happening, the film veers off into a hallucinogenic/supernatural nightmare along the lines of flicks like Jacob’s Ladder or even The Shining. Just like the finest horror filmmakers, Flanagan messes with his viewers’ heads as much as his characters. Once Oculus is firing on all cylinders, it proves to be a trippy, terrifying, and downright fascinating horror yarn. Most of the flicks screened at TIFF every year rarely end up with a wide distribution deal and disappear. Not Oculus though, it already has distribution and deserves it. When you see the movie, you’ll understand why.

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