How do you open a festival like Toronto After Dark? Do you want to start with a bang or a slow burn? Should you celebrate something new and rising or lift up those who have been long laboring in independent horror? Apparently, you can have your treats and eat them too with Tales of Halloween.
Tales of Halloween is a collection of ten semi-related segments set in the same suburbia on Halloween. The frame story, insofar as there is one, is of a radio DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau (perhaps reprising her role from another film?) setting the scene and the mood for the whirlwind tour we are about to take through Anytown, USA on this, the most spooky of nights. Barbeau is the connective tissue that joins the segments together. She opens the film, which starts with a somewhat overlong, but still very cool, animated credits sequence and lends some interstitials over the radio as we move from segment to segment.
The narrative beds that open and close the segments lend to the overall feeling of a 2015 version of an EC Comics horror anthology. As do the beautifully crafted shorts, which all have premises that would be at home in Tales from the Crypt. I won’t describe each short — you should just go see Tales of Halloween for yourself, it’s a delight — but I will highlight some standouts.
Barry Bostwick in Demon Horns
My personal favorite short was “The Night Billy Raised Hell”. The titular Billy (dressed in a demon mask and cape) is out with his older sister and her boyfriend before the sun has fallen on All Hallow’s Eve. Billy is literally egged on by the boyfriend to prank the house of a recluse who never participates in Halloween festivities.
Moments before letting loose with an egg on the front door, Billy is caught by the owner — played to a tee by Barry Bostwick in bespoke suit, fedora and demon makeup. It seems that Billy is in over his head as Bostwick sits the boy down in his house (bedecked with all sorts of demonic paraphernalia) and tells him that he’s going to show him what Halloween is really all about.
The next five minutes is a comic tour-de-force as Bostwick and Billy proceed to terrorize the town. Bostwick whittles a toothbrush given to Billy by a well-meaning parent into a shiv, which Billy jabs into the man’s stomach. The duo hold up a convenience store, rob a woman of her car and spray-paint the town with tags showing Billy’s rise to infamy. The entire sequence is set to music and includes hilarious, Hanna-Barbara-style sound effects, particularly under all of Bostwick’s over-the-top antics. The short ends with an unexpected, and delicious twist, putting a neat bow on the proceedings.
Grim Grinning Ghost
Axelle Carolyn (who also is the lead producer on this project) directed one of the more straight up terrifying entries with “Grim Grinning Ghost”. Lin Shaye makes her industry-required cameo as the mother of Alexandra Essoe of Starry Eyes fame.
Shaye recounts to some Halloween guests, including her daughter Essoe, the story of a disfigured woman who was mercilessly taunted while alive and now haunts the living on Halloween night when the dead walk among us. Late at night, when you are alone on the street, you might hear the footsteps of the Grim Grinning Ghost and her cackling, but whatever you do — don’t look behind you.
After Essoe leaves the party, the rest of the short is one sustained burn of tension as you wait for the ghost to show up. Every time it doesn’t, or Essoe narrowly escapes, the tension ratchets up another click. By the end, Carolyn has built things up to a fever pitch and does not disappoint with the finale.
- The After Dark crowd was a little more subdued than I would have expected at 7pm when the festival opened, but by the closing credits of Tales of Halloween, everyone was definitely in the mood for the next ten days of films. This was a great choice to open the festival and I expect Tales of Halloween to be a top contender for the audience choice award based on the cheers, clapping and all-around revelry we all felt after the credits rolled.
- While it was not my favorite, the short that got the biggest laughs and cheers was definitely “Friday the 31st”, a send up of the Friday the 13th franchise that includes both a nearly perfect encapsulation of the series and the most adorable little animated alien you ever saw. His little, lispy “twick-oh-tweet” was a highlight of the night. As were the brutal decapitations.
- There were a few duds: “This Means War” (a battle of lawn decorations between an old-school fellow and some metal heads) was strong on premise but weak on execution and “The Weak and the Wicked” (a Western-influenced story of revenge and demons) never seemed to really land. But, even these weaker entries were far from terrible and didn’t detract from the overall quality of the project.
- Special mention has to made for “Ding Dong”, a truly strange retelling of Hansel and Gretel that seems like it should be a hot mess but actually was one of the most enjoyable and interesting entries. It has a relentless pace, even for a short, and has some of the most out-there style of the whole joint. The sound effect every time the woman/witch adjusted her boobs was a crowd-pleaser.
- John Landis’s (pretty extended) cameo was delightful.
Completely Subjective Rating
Generally, I think rating movies is a fool’s errand, but since After Dark is having the audiences rate every film for the festival’s audience choice award, I thought I would share the ratings that I left for the films I review over the next week. Please know that these are purely subjective — and will surely be influenced by the evanescent atmosphere of the audience.
My final word on Tales of Halloween?
More treats than tricks and definitely an early contender for crowd favorite at After Dark 2015. Poised to be a perennial classic in years to come.
Follow the rest of my 2015 Toronto After Dark reviews and experiences at A View from the Dark.