It Came From Toronto After Dark: Citadel

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters which hooked me at an early age to genre films, that in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).

Citadel

After losing his wife to a violent assault from a group of hooded youths, Tommy is left to raise their daughter on his own.  In the aftermath of the crime, Tommy is gripped by crippling agoraphobia, convinced that the ‘hoodies’ are waiting outside to steal his daughter.

Pure, uncut, 100-proof, fear.  Plain and Simple.

Citadel was simply the most frightening film of Toronto After Dark.  This movie is proof that there are untapped, original voices in horror and if that doesn’t sell you on this festival gem, I don’t know what will.
While completely different in terms of story and theme, Citadel in many ways reminds me of last year’s Abesntia.  Both films were made on modest budgets, but don’t look like they were; both are almost bloodless but still very threatening; and both left me very creeped out (both also have terrifying pedestrian tunnels – honestly why do city planners keep making those?).
There is a perfect storm between writer/director Ciaran Foy and lead actor Aneurin Barnard that captures an atmosphere of absolute dread and makes Citadel so effective.  If you have ever been the victim of crime, or lived under the threat of violence, there is a certain kind of fear that infects your life.  I can’t remember a movie that captures this quality quite as well as Citadel does.  It’s hardly surprising that Foy himself was a survivor of random gang violence.  He really lays it out in Citadel, and there are scenes that feel so raw and exposed they’re hard to watch (the group therapy session with the counsellor speaking about re-victimization struck a chord).  Despite fear being the stock and trade of horror films, rarely do they feel so genuine.
I mentioned the film is relatively bloodless, which will disappoint gore hounds, but that doesn’t mean Citadel is non-violent.  The portrayal of violence in the film is like a car crash: it happens quickly, with no fanfare and no spectacle.  What makes it so shocking is the horror of how utterly mundane it is to snuff out a human life.  It stands in such stark contrast to the theatrical deaths of other horror films and Foy smacks you with it right in the gut.  It’s used sparingly, but the threat remains, driving home the fear in Barnard’s performance (and I’ll tell you it stuck with me on my late night ride home alone on the subway).
The ‘hoodies’, Citadel’s villains, are well done and frightening.  Foy wisely leaves them as enigmatic, violent question marks for most of the film.  One of the signs that I am getting older, is that I find myself suspicious of groups of loitering teenagers.  I am sure that I’m not the only one, and the film plays nicely into that particular irrational fear (at least I’m not so old that I don’t think it’s irrational anymore).  When he does reveal the nature of the hoodies, the payoff is worth it.  Foy creates a nice urban mythology and social commentary all in one.
What must be the worst social housing development in Glasgow provides an excellent backdrop for the story and Foy puts it to good use.  I’m struck by how post-apocalyptic visions of urban decay have become in recent years (Crave, also in the festival, uses Detroit for similar effect).  A sign of global economic crisis perhaps?  Oh, and as I mentioned earlier Citadel pushes one of my fear buttons by including a very scary pedestrian tunnel (seriously, put one of those in your film and you are guaranteed to raise my anxiety level a notch).
Citadel is highly recommended.  It’s the kind of film that will have casual fans and jaded horror afficionadoes alike looking over their shoulders long after the credits roll.  I can’t wait to see what Ciaran Foy does next.

RPG Goodness

The hoodie creatures in Citadel are freaky, and reminded me of one of D&D’s creepier monsters, the semi-obscure meenlocks from Fiend Folio (just in case there was any question that I’m always thinking about D&D monsters).  The movie is excellent, but if that wasn’t enough of a pull to get you to see it, if you ever even think of running an encounter with meenlocks, Citadel is the blueprint.  While the hoodies don’t really share the insect look of meenlocks, the stooped, shambling throng of random violence that Foy presents paints a perfect scene to steal for the tabletop.  Add in the baby snatching plot (and a disturbing origin story) and you’ve got a pretty nice self-contained adventure.  In fact, the kinship between the hoodies and meenlocks is so strong that I wonder if there isn’t some common folklore that the creators of both creatures were drawing on (or the less likely but more intriguing possibility that Foy was inspired by D&D – without giving any spoilers there’s a connection between the 2e version of the monster and a certain scene in the film).  Internet legend holds that the made for TV film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was the inspiration for the meenlock (and the case is pretty strong), but I wonder if there isn’t also something older in its DNA?
My first instinct was to update the meenlock for the Pathfinder edition of the game, but I decided to stick with Citadel’s monsters because there’s an aspect to them that is extremely common in horror films (and nature) that I’ve never seen in D&D and wanted to try and re-create myself – the ability of predators to see (or smell) fear.  In fact it’s such a common (and awesome) motif that I can’t believe I haven’t seen a mechanic for it in any rpg that I’ve played.  Based on the way the ability works in the film, I figured that the mechanics for the faerie fire spell were a good place to start.  The ability to see fear wouldn’t be that useful without the ability to instill it though, so any monster inspired by the film would also have to have a fear aura…
Just a word of warning, even though I’ve adapted the mythology of the film for a fantasy setting (as well as changing the name – ‘hoodies’ just doesn’t seem to fit)it contains serious SPOILERS for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet – and why haven’t you?

Hoods

“There was something about the way the gang of small, ragged humanoids lurched and jerked towards him that the captain of the watch found threatening.  They concealed their faces beneath a collection of grimy cloaks and hats but he could see their shrivelled and misshapen hands reaching for sticks and loose cobblestones.  The captain had seen his fair share of combat and still these creatures unnerved him more than a charging ogre.  Maybe it was how the one on the left, although stooped and twisted, reminded him of the Wainwright boy who had gone missing not a fortnight ago…”

Hoods are violent fey creatures that thrive in the worst slums of large cities, infesting abandoned buildings and emerging at night to terrorize locals and kidnap the young.  In their darkened lairs they cultivate a loathsome black mold that serves as both a foodstuff and a method of propagation.  Force-fed to their captives, the black mold slowly and irreversibly transforms its victims into stunted, twisted versions of themselves, new members of the next generation of hoods.  If their nest is not found and destroyed, a hood infestation can spread across the whole city, ultimately causing its collapse.

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