Toronto After Dark 2013: We Are What We Are & The Battery

This is a massively belated post for several reasons. One: October is an intense period at work for me and the festival comes near the end of weeks of exhausting work. And two: I got sick! I attended a few screenings between shifts on the weekend of the festival, but the rest of the week I was fighting a chest infection and only managed to see three more. Not my best record at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, but I feel that I still managed to see some of the top films in the festival. I wrote (most) of these reviews ages ago, but after reviewing these thoughts, it’s good to know that my feelings have cemented since then. Enjoy these reviews of We Are What We Are and The Battery.

We Are What We Are, USA, 2013 – Opening night film!

We Are What We Are, 2013
This was included as one of my “must sees” in my top 5 films to see at Toronto After Dark 2013 and it definitely didn’t disappoint! While I’m the type of film-goer who generally shies away from a remake (especially if I haven’t seen the original film yet) I was heartened by supremely positive reviews of this feature, as well as Jim Mickle’s substantial history with winners like Mulberry Street and Stake Land. My review is less an actual review (because I really don’t want to spoil anything) but more of a stream of consciousness about the film.

From what I understand, the original Mexican film is more of an urban tale, partially decrying the isolation of the city and showcasing how crime, deviance and horror can go relatively undiscovered in a city of millions. But this remake takes a different turn, dropping our characters, a small, extremely religious family, into the open air of the Catskills. And what of the family? Well, the Parkers are an isolated, introverted and religious bunch, and while they seem to be respected by the locals, they try to keep to themselves and avoid attracting any undue attention. Our protagonists (sort-of) are Iris and Rose, two teenage girls coming to terms with the true horror of their family’s ritual habits while also learning to identify and trust their own beliefs and urges. After their father notices the two girls pulling away from him after the death of their mother, he grows desperate to keep his family on track, and the girls are struck between sticking to the live they know, and escaping to the outside world.

The film internalizes their distress and growing pains (as opposed to other horror films that utilize external tropes such as period scenes, i.e. Carrie) and their intense teenaged brooding over their horrifying homelife dominates the narrative for the first half of the film. Yet we’re also permitted to enter the private lives of a few other other characters in this tale, such as the doctor obsessed with the disappearance of his daughter, and the deputy who is attracted to older sister Iris, but confused by her hot-and-cold behaviour. Their stories are equally important in the narrative, because they highlight the way that the decisions made by the Parker’s affect the other people in their lives. As the film progresses, the Parker girls and their father come to the uneasy realization that they are not nearly as isolated as they think they are. And when it comes down to it, the most horrific moments of the film aren’t the gory sequences, but the moments in the film when certain decisions are made, particularly decisions made by Iris and Rose. It’s especially terrifying to watch two protagonists that you desperately want to connect with, struggle with such brutal religious conviction, their intense familial bonds and the teenaged fear of the unknown.

At the beginning of the film, the title “We Are What We Are” seems like a question, perhaps a question asked by the girls about their own identity. Are they doomed to repeat the actions of their father? Can they ever be independent creatures? But at the end, after the particularly harrowing but necessary climax, it’s clear that the girls are who they are, because who else could they possibly be?

The Battery, USA, 2012

The Battery, 2012
While We Are What We Are is an adaptation by a director with a few hits under his belt, The Battery embodies all the reasons I try to go to Toronto After Dark in the first place. It’s a fresh take on a genre film (zombie apocalypse), that utilizes a fantastic script to take a micro-budget as far as it can go.

I have to admit, initially I had The Battery pegged as yet another zombie-buddy movie, with an indie soundtrack, dishing out the laughs while also dishing out the emotional turmoil at the same time. I wasn’t even going to see it! I had work that night! But due to a fortuitous schedule-change, I managed to catch what would become one of my favourite screenings, and my absolute favourite Q&A of the festival. But first? Watch the trailer below.

First, we NEED to talk about the soundtrack. Almost all the music in the film is diegetic, meaning that it belongs and resides within the film itself, coming from a DiscMan that the two characters endlessly fight and bicker over. Mickey (Adam Cronheim) uses the technology as a crutch, a way to distance himself from the zombie horrors he sees every day, and Ben (director/producer/writer/actor Jeremy Gardner), recognizing that it’s a method of escapism for Mickey, fears the device will end up doing more harm than good. But for the audience? It’s a source of some amazing tunes and you can visit their website to get listings of all the songs they used. Especially haunting are the songs by Toronto outfit, Rock Plaza Central, and during the Q&A of the film, one of the band members came onstage to play Anthem for the Defeated to a roaring crowd. Magic.

But we also need to talk about the characters. Ben and Mickey, in the synopsis and from the introduction to their characters, are described as former baseball players trying to survive on the road. But the true story is a little deeper than that, and their relationship isn’t nearly as close as it appears. It really ties into one of the tenements of zombie epics like The Walking Dead, where certain types of survivors really need to work with other survivors to well… survive. Mickey, a pacifist who hasn’t killed so much as a zombie in all their travels, desperately needs Ben to survive, but Ben, the resourceful leader of the two, also needs Mickey to make it. The two cannot be separated and it’s often when they are apart that things go awry. Watching them bond, and fight and tear each other apart (figuratively… I’ll let you decide) is one of the best parts of the film, and the chemistry between the two leads is wonderful to watch.

And finally, let’s talk about the world. The Battery is one of those refreshing zombie films that allows their protagonists to realize that the best place for people to hide from zombies is away from everybody else. (Honestly, I’m so tired of zombie attacks in grocery stores and malls, okay?) Instead, Mickey and Ben spend the majority of the film traversing the back-country trails and woods in Connecticut, sleeping in their station wagon and ransacking people’s summer cottages. The film almost has this vacation-esque haze for the first half, as the two make their way, slowly, sleepily, through the state, bitching with each other and at each other. But loneliness is a devastating companion, and the real trouble in this film happens, as it does, when they make contact with others. This is one zombie genre trope that sadly, never gets old as it’s completely believable.

I dare not say anymore, except to say that this film has one of the most harrowing final sequences of recent memory, but it’s a relatively gore-less zombie film that spends more time focusing on wracking your nerves, than grossing you out. That said, ,y nails did not survive this viewing. The Battery is available in some areas on VOD and you can find more information on their website.

Next up? The Machine, Last Days on Mars, and my LEAST FAVOURITE FILM OF 2013, Found.

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