It's a nifty coincidence that this year's Toronto International Film Festival features two of the best horror movies ever produced in Ontario—albeit ones that were made 55 years apart. Way back in 1961, an enterprising young filmmaker named Julian Roffman cobbled together enough funds to shoot a thriller called The Mask in Toronto. In an attempt to distinguish it from the other cheapjack B-pictures flooding the market, its story of a psychiatrist who suffers hideous visions after trying on a tribal mask bequeathed by a recently deceased patient came kitted out with blue-and-red anaglyph 3-D sequences. (These have been lovingly restored for the film's free presentation by TIFF Cinematheque, and will be followed by a fall theatrical release at TIFF Bell Lightbox.)
These legitimately trippy interludes, which suggest the influence of European Surrealists and American experimentalists like Maya Deren, are meant to suggest the hero's primal urges—the perverted desires smothered by polite society. And while a lot of The Mask is laughable in a Mystery Science Theatre sort of way, its implication that evil is an irresistible force that can sway even the most rationally-minded men is as old as H.G. Lovecraft and as modern as Videodrome.
Like its namesake, The Mask is a hallucinatory relic; for something more state of the art, there's American director Robert Eggers' The Witch, which arrives at TIFF riding the highs of its Sundance hype. Shot in Southern Ontario but set in as-yet un-ratified America, the film occupies two hallowed traditions at the same time. First, it's a worthy entry into the cinema of witchcraft, one that stretches from the silent era (Benjamin Christensen's 1922 campus-cult favourite Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) to the heyday of Hammer horror (1966's The Witches) to the ever-contemporary found-footage subgenre (The Blair Witch Project).
But it also continues a grand tradition of American filmmakers decamping to Canada to shoot inexpensively. in fact, such film-industrial black magick laid the roots for our nation's entire moviemaking culture. Without the so-called "tax shelter" movies of the 1970s—a go-for-broke period when tax-deductible B-movies were being shot on a shoestring all around Ontario and Quebec—the Canadian filmmaking landscape might have remained barren.
"We did get a tax credit," Eggers told VICE via telephone on the eve of the film's Canadian premiere. "I'm very pleased with where we shot it [Kiosk, Ontario] and how it turned out. It was actually very difficult to find the location: in my American imagination, I was like, 'Oh, Canada—it's all virgin wilderness.' But it was hard because of the situation with logging companies. We had to go somewhere very remote to find a forest with white pine and hemlock that we could buy as being New England."
The attempted conquering of the wilderness is central to the story of The Witch, which follows a family that's left—or been banished—from their Christian settler community. William (Ralph Ineson), Kate (Kate Dickie) and their four children set up a farm on the edge of the forest in the hopes of surviving the winter. Their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has assumed a semi-parental role, but when she briefly takes her eyes off her infant brother Samuel, he's taken by someone (or something) in the woods. In an instant, Anya is turned into the family's black sheep, which in turn sets up the subversive idea at the heart of the story: that William comes to suspect that his own daughter might be the source of the evil that seems to be plaguing their family one catastrophe at a time.
For all its ravishing imagery and skilfully staged scares, The Witch is very much a film of ideas, which are deeply embedded in a screenplay that features reams of period-appropriate dialogue. Some of the concepts here are familiar—the tension between civilization and wilderness, or the pressurized tension of families dealing with loss—but in other ways, The Witch is downright radical. Where most films about witches and witchcraft treat their subjects as either sources of fear (the traditional, scare-mongering approach) or avatars of gendered victimization (the post-feminist, critical approach), Eggers' debut opts for door number three: without skimping on the scares or the social commentary, he's made a movie with a healthy sense of awe and respect for all that's otherworldly.
"I don't want to tell people what to think of the film," says Eggers, who admits that he's leery of spoilers even eight months after Sundance. "I will say that the film has been accused by some people of saying something like, 'Christianity is right,' which is interesting. I'm curious to see what neo-Pagan or Wiccan people think about it. It's a weirdly feminist film, because it's set in the 17th Century, and female power was seen in a very different light back then. That power was not seen as positive back then."
Indeed, the character of Thomasina (superbly played by Taylor-Joy), is one of the year's most interesting cinematic heroines—a mostly passive observer whose voice strains to be heard over the dogmatic rhetoric of her parents, and yet who is eventually in a position to make the story's most fateful choice. To say more more would require spoiler alerts—but in a way, it's an interesting companion piece to The Mask. These two films, separated by decades, both use their genre trappings to address aspects of human nature, and suggest that there's something liberating about acknowledging and harnessing the darkness within.
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