Four days into the Toronto After Dark film festival and my body is starting to acclimate itself to living off of coffee and baked goods while hunched over a laptop in various coffee shops around Toronto. My coverage this year has been fuelled by Krave Coffee on St. Clair, Versus Coffee on Adelaide, and, of course, the perennial festival stand-bys: the Second Cup and Starbucks located at the intersection of Queen and John.

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On Day 3 of the fest, I was looking forward to taking in the annual shorts program, Shorts After Dark. Curated this year by programmer Shannon Hamner, the program features an impressive selection of incredible horror shorts from around the world. 

It didn’t disappoint.

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Standouts this year included the Albanian film Bon Appetit by Erenik Beqiri, an incredibly atmospheric and macabre tale about a power-hungry man who finds a drastic new way to whet his appetite. The music and creepy set design, coupled with restrained but chilling performances, effectively build a pervasive sense of dread which is only deepened with the introduction of some truly disturbing body horror.

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Natalie Erika James’s Creswick, an eerie Australian entry about a dark presence that a woman realizes has been haunting her family home since she was a child, is subtle but effective. A set piece showcasing a series of increasingly surreal handmade chairs is a particularly skin-crawling sequence. Jon Rhoads’s American apocalypse horror-comedy Buzzcut had me in stitches as it detailed the lengths to which lead character Jane will go in order to get a haircut to impress her girlfriend, even as The Rapture tears society apart around her. Frenetic editing and musical cues keep the blood pumping, while Kelly Jane’s pitch-perfect deadpan delivery enhances the hilarity of the stellar script.

Michelle and I both loved Todd Spence and Zak White’s Your Date is Here. Her review of the short can be found hereDavid Mikalson’s Stay is a witty look at some unexpected consequences of a demonic ritual, while Adrian Selkowitz’s Taste showcases an epic culinary occult battle that takes place during a high-stakes, paparazzi-peppered dinner party. The Plague is not pleasant viewing, but in terms of pure emotional horror it is probably the strongest of the batch. In Guillermo Carbonell’s Uruguayan short, a woman deals with a father suffering from dementia, and possibly something much more sinister.villainessposter.jpg

Following the shorts program was the much-hyped Cannes favourite, Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess, a film that I’ve been dying to screen since missing its appearance at Fantasia Film Festival due to a scheduling conflict. I was happy to see that Toronto After Dark would be featuring this high-octane South Korean action film, starring Kim Ok-bin as a woman whose dark secrets threaten to derail her newly established life when she tries to escape her violent past. Ok-bin’s Sook-hee has been trained since childhood to be a deadly killer, a premise which lends itself to some of the most incredible action scenes I’ve seen on film, including a jaw-dropping POV opening sequence that must be seen to be believed. While the narrative is occasionally lacking in clarity, the film’s strong action choreography, interesting set pieces, and well-crafted performances make these lapses and ambiguities easy to forgive.

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The Villainess is a film that wears its influences on its bloody, shredded sleeve, the most notable of which are La Femme Nikita (1990) and Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004). While the impact of these spiritual predecessors is undeniable, the effect is far from derivative — The Villainess, for all of its borrowing, remains a fresh, vital, powerful piece of film that never falters in gripping the attention of the viewer.

The Villainess is now available for pre-order on DVD and blu-ray.