I wouldn’t call Acolytes a dud, as far as Midnight Madness shows go, though of the four MM flicks I’ve seen so far (two more to go) it’s the only one I’m not exactly raving about. The afternoon screening went rush shortly after I picked up my ticket at the Manulife box office. I’m not sure why the sudden surge in interest, the reviews in the weeklies hadn’t exactly been effusive, and it certainly wasn’t garnering the press attention of JCVD or the public curiosity (judging from how many people I talked to this week who were dying to see it) of Detroit Metal City. I suspect that many festival-goers just wanted to see SOMETHING—Friday was a rainy, muggy, miserable day outside, and there were less than 36 hours remaining in the festival and oh god this can’t end so soon, is it nine days already? Is there something, anything starting right now? I’ll take it! Just keep the non-mainstream flickering images going in front of my eyeballs! In all honesty, that’s kind of why I went. Well, it was Acolytes or Christopher Walken as a wacky con man, so…
Director John Hewitt showed up to introduce the movie though he couldn’t stick around for a Q&A. Interestingly enough, Geddes mentioned that Hewitt had actually been seeing plenty of other movies at the fest while in town, including all the midnight shows, which is refreshing news, as I’ve been wondering for years why more guests of the festival don’t kick back for a week and take in the TIFF like regular movie-lovin’ folk instead of bolting for Pearson after a gala or two and a couple of parties. Personally, if I was in their boots I’d be making a ten ticket pack and a program(me) book a condition of playing nice on the red carpet. This year, like I mentioned, I spotted a couple of directors in the audience for Kathryn Bigelow, and reports were going around of Geoffrey Rush making like a local, but except for Ivan Reitman at the Ryerson showing of DePalma’s Redacted last year, that’s the extent of my celeb spotting among the hoi polloi.
So anyway, Hewitt commented on his enthusiasm for Not Quite Hollywood, and how those same schlocky seventies grindhouse flicks influenced his own work (“You can see the occasional Brian Trenchard-Smith shot in here,” he promised, and went on to dis the classy examples of Aussie national cinema such as Breaker Morant and Picnic at Hanging Rock which, after the week I’ve had, somehow seems like a de rigeur complaint), which places him solidly in the tradition of the horror film directors working today who revere the seventies as a golden age for the genre. Which is a stance I only partially understand. I think Eli Roth is a terribly underrated director solely because he traffics in the most extreme end of the mainstream horror genre (and by “mainstream” I simply mean that he pushes the envelope in terms of what a major studio will release), but actually has a tremendous eye and a solid sense of pacing and storytelling. Still, to listen to the commentary track on Cabin Fever, he’s yet another young filmmaker who can’t stop raving about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie I’m still convinced is the biggest cinematic case of the Emperor’s New Clothes in history, a dull, dreary, murky bore. This era of “hardcore” horror never does anything for me; except for Dawn of the Dead and early Cronenberg, the seventies were a big dry stretch in horror in my opinion.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to my main issue with Acolytes. Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend the movie: the performances are uniformly genuine and effective, and Hewitt’s a creative guy when it comes to camerawork, so the movie works well cinematically. It does suffer from a certain depressed grimness, a shadowy visual palette that makes me think that just maybe it wasn’t the best choice moodwise for an ugly, muggy Toronto afternoon. But for all the skill behind the camera, Acolytes rarely cuts loose with the kind of celebrated weirdness and gonzo spirit that Hewitt loved at the Ozploitaion drive-ins of his youth. It’s a pretty unrelenting story about three high schoolers seemingly from the Queensland touring group of Larry Clark’s Kids, three familiar types: the sensitive wounded teen romantic, the hypersexualized hottie (played by a terrific actress named Hanna Mangan Lawrence who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anna Paquin) and the sneering bully alpha dog, the type of fifteen year old asshat we all remember from high school, the guy who was a mess of wretched aggressiveness who still somehow managed to bag the girls who bore an uncanny resemblance to Anna Paquin. What starts off as a down-under version of Stand By Me, as the trio discovers a dead body in the woods, soon enough starts twisting off course into a cat and mouse game with a suburban serial killer and the local white trash child molester. There may be a twist or two too many, actually; though all the pieces come together at the end, I personally thought one of the reversals was a deus ex machina of the highest order. I left the Varsity feeling very bummed out rather than exhilarated, recognizing the skill with which the movie was made but still wishing that today’s horrormeisters would let loose with the wonky craziness more than the seemy-underbelly aesthetic. (***)