There’s something incredible about attending one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world and watching a horror movie.
When TIFF takes over Toronto every fall, the city is alive with film fans, reviewers, critics, Hollywood stars and celebrity gossipers. People stake out red carpets all day hoping to catch a glimpse of Kristen Stewart or Benedict Cumberbatch, industry members chat candidly about a film’s Oscar chances outside the Princess of Wales, writers from respected film publications cover every moment of the festival.
And yet, at midnight at the Ryerson Theatre, it all feels a world away.
The Midnight Madness program is like a mini film festival of its own. Every night of the fest a different horror, sci-fi or action movie is screened to an eager, devoted crowd who care more about body counts than Oscar chances. The fact that all this goes down within TIFF makes the experience somewhat surreal.
I’ve attended Midnight Madness every year that I’ve been going to TIFF, and it’s created some of my strangest and most favourite memories. The premiere for Jennifer’s Body was the craziest red carpet I ever had: millions showed up to see Megan Fox, who arrived late and didn’t know where the red carpet was; Adam Brody spent a solid half hour running back and forth and getting fans to scream on command; every C-list actor you could think of arrived without a ticket trying to get into the theatre. All that for a feminist genre picture about a demon devouring boys!
Horror fans are a breed of our own, and we’re fine with it. We understand that not everyone will get the same joy out of seeing a really creative kill, or can react with glee when a graphic and deformed creature appears onscreen. We have our own canon, our own A-list stars and our own film viewing behaviours, different from both the average movie goers and the hardcore cinephile.
I regularly attend to many film festivals, some genre-specific and some not. Each has its only personality, vibe and credentials. Watching a genre picture at a regular film festival is usually a quiet, reserved affair — the crowd might be there out of curiosity, they might be trying to see whatever they can, or they might be genre fans who know this isn’t their normal crowd. It’s like watching The Exorcist on TV with your parents. It’s creepy, sure, but the lights are on and there are commercial breaks and if you start laughing at the vomit you’re going to get weird looks. Genre-specific film festivals are more like going to see Insidious in theatres. Everyone is there because they want to be scared, and they’ll jump and scream and then laugh at themselves for jumping. Midnight Madness is more like seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show: it’s an experience wholly unique and full of devotees.
Midnight Madness has its own fans and rituals. When you’re at Roy Thomson Hall you’re not likely to hear a call and response with the pre-film advertisements like you do at Ryerson — how do people learn them so quickly? They seem set by night two — and clapping along to the L’Oreal ad has become an in-joke with those in the know.
Seeing these immersive cult film experiences at TIFF gives a weird sense of legitimacy, but not in the way you’d think. It’s not that I need the prestige of TIFF to feel like my choices in film are legitimate. It’s that being at this major festival with literally hundreds of options, I can still find myself in a dark theatre with hundreds of like-minded fans reacting the same way to stoned cannibals getting the munchies and eating a guys arm off. It’s legitimacy in found family, in making friends in line and discussing a film’s weirder moments on the all-night bus ride home.
It’s one of the most important film festivals in the world, and it’s also a place to enjoy an unpretentious, pure ID experience. It’s madness.