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).
When Michael receives a disturbing video of his childhood friend Chris in the throes of meth psychosis, he decides to track Chris down and give his estranged friend one last opportunity to clean up and seek treatment for his addiction. Michael finds Chris in a derelict shack in the middle of nowhere and executes his plan; he handcuffs his friend to the wall to wait for the seven days it takes for the meth to leave Chris’ system. At the end of that time Chris can decide whether or not he wants to accept rehab. In the meantime, some sinister force is toying with the friends, leaving them a series of clues that seem to tell a story. A dark mystery is about to unfold…
Intelligent, Creepy, and Funny – Like a Club Sandwich of Awesome
I find it very difficult to give Resolution a description that does the film justice. It’s creepy, but it isn’t a straight horror; it’s often hilarious but isn’t a horror comedy either; and it ties everything together with some compelling character drama… not a film that’s easily pigeon-holed. If this review seems annoyingly vague at times, that’s because Resolution is also a film that hinges on a mystery and going into some of the details risks spoiling the movie’s best parts. Indeed, Resolution is a bit like the show Lost, except the ending was actually good and looking back all the weird little components of the story made sense.
The strength to pull that feat off lies in the writing and directing duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (hard to believe they teamed up making beer commercials). The film is very smart, but never pretentiously so, and is subtle enough that it avoids the temptation to call it out to the audience and say ‘look what we did here’. It’s that subtlety that gives Resolution the re-watchability of a Memento or Inception.
I was impressed with the naturalistic dialogue, which is important since it forms the backbone of a film that spends a lot of time with two characters in a room. After the screening the filmmakers were asked if it was primarily ad-libbed, but apparently almost everything came from the script – a testament to Benson’s ability to write authentic dialogue (he could get a lot of work as a script doctor). That might not seem like a big deal, but the writing goes a long way in making the whole thing believable, which is one of the qualities that helps bring all of Resolution’s parts together.
It doesn’t hurt that the script is in the hands of the film’s two stars, Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran. The chemistry between these two guys is perfect and convincingly captures the genuine affection between old friends as well as the baggage years of addiction can burden a relationship with. In spite of each of the characters’ problems they are instantly likeable, punching up the drama of their turbulent friendship and investing the audience with concern for their well-being when things take a darker turn. They are also hilarious. Given that the film deals with meth addiction and doesn’t turn it into a joke, it doesn’t seem like there would be a lot of room for humor; surprisingly there’s quite a bit and Cilella and Curran pull it off brilliantly.
Resolution is definitely a slow burn in terms of pacing, but I never found myself getting bored (and at this point in the festival I was pretty sleep deprived, so kudos). The layers of the mystery are added on at regular enough intervals, drawing the viewer in deeper while getting progressively creepier. There is a steady buildup of intensity with the appearance of some truly memorable side characters breaking up the dialogue between Michael and Chris into digestible chunks.
Resolution is highly recommended. Watch it with a friend; because it’s the kind of film that you’re going to want to discuss with someone as soon as it ends (it’s killing me not to discuss the spoilers).
During the Q&A the filmmakers revealed that part of the reason they made Resolution, was because they were dissatisfied with traditional ‘cabin in the woods’ type horror movies. In their experience, the only people who went out into the wilderness to spend the weekend in a shack were meth heads and religious weirdoes, not frat boys and bikini models. This struck a chord with me and made me think of the kinds of NPCs that adventurers would run into as they traipse through sewers, hang out in graveyards, and camp in crumbling ruins (there is a great scene in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that demonstrates this well). Sure there are captured villagers to rescue and slaves to free, but, let’s face it, adventurers are pretty liminal characters who spend most of their time in places that well-adjusted and self-respecting people wouldn’t, so most of the people they’ll meet on their travels are going to come from the fringes of society. The problem is, when a random encounter is rolled or I’m planning on inserting an NPC into an adventure that isn’t central to the plot, I find my mind reaching for convenient and easy ‘stock’ characters (wily merchant, friendly barkeep, bullying guard, etc.). Resolution has some great side characters, and much like NPCs in a D&D adventure, not all of them are integral to the plot of the film, but all of them are what I like to call ‘memorable weirdoes’ – not a stock character in the lot. In order to help foster the kind of creepy atmosphere that Resolution cultivates I present the following random sampling to draw from when memorable weirdo NPCs are needed (I’ve kept them as rules neutral as possible so they can be grafted onto any NPC statblock the DM has).
- Green Thumb: An attractive spellcaster has set up permanent camp near a hidden grove of yellow musk creepers. She reeks of a strange, musky perfume. Her lover was killed by one of the plants years ago and she is convinced his soul still remains in the dangerous growth of vines and flowers. She lives now only to lure others into the grove to become infected with the creeper’s seeds and be transformed into yellow musk zombies – which she believes are short-lived reincarnations of her lover. She is friendly but reserved with strangers, reading them in order to discern what deception will convince them to enter the grove unprepared.
- Grave Diggers: A group of five sullen laborers are at work with shovels and picks digging evenly spaced, deep holes in a clearing. Nearby is a mule drawn cart stacked with lacquered, darkwood coffins. The gravediggers are standoffish and tight lipped about what they are doing. Unbeknownst to them, the coffins contain a coven of staked vampires. They were paid good coin by an elderly patrician to bury the coffins and given a map to this specific location. The patrician’s family succumbed to vampirism and he couldn’t bring himself to completely destroy them. The clearing has sentimental meaning to him, and he plans to visit in the future to pay his respects.
- Mad Hermit: Amidst the chaotic wilds a lone hermit tends her incongruously orderly garden. Her clothes are threadbare but clean and her long grey hair is bound in a single braid down her back. She removed herself from civilized society many years ago to live a life without compromise or negotiation of any kind. She will not speak to the PCs (or interact in any way) unless they speak to her first. She speaks only in statements and any interaction that involves an exchange or offer of quid pro quo (which she considers a compromise) makes her progressively angrier. The hermit is a wealth of information about the area, but gleaning that treasure is difficult at best.
- The Mushroom Growers: Three wild-eyed, unkempt men with mud on their clothes and filthy hands grow hallucinogenic mushrooms in a nearby cave. They are friendly to strangers, offering to share their campfire and provisions, but become cagey and paranoid if asked what they are doing in the wilderness. They are fiercely protective of their discovery – they believe that eating the mushrooms allows them to perceive beyond the planes to the heart of reality. Normally they grow the mushrooms on the carcasses of dead animals, but if they fear their discovery is in jeopardy are not above adding a few humanoid corpses to the pile.
- The Narrator: A cloaked figure sits cross-legged in front of a large, heavy bound tome reading aloud. He appears to be narrating the story of his life, describing in flowery prose the sights and sounds of the wilderness. If the PCs approach, he includes them in his narration, even quoting their speech a few moments after it is uttered. The cloaked man will not respond to the PCs and will not stop narrating, even if threatened with violence. If attacked he does not defend himself, and uses his last breath to describe his own death. The book that he appears to be reading from is blank.
- Hunting Party: A party of young, decadent nobles crosses the PCs’ path, laughing loudly and drinking freely. They are a hunting party, complete with local guide, porter and tracking hound. They are moving cross country in pursuit of some animal, but are evasive about the nature of their prey. If the PCs seem of similar social station and like mind the nobles invite them to join in on their hunt. If not, they are rudely dismissive. Tired of hunting for bear and boar they abducted a young pickpocket from a nearby town and released him into the wild. They are eager for excitement and diversion – if the PCs agree to the hunt the nobles are willing to wager a large sum of money that their hunting party will find and kill the boy first. If the PCs antagonize them, they are quick to fight but even quicker to back down if the fight turns against them.
- The Gift: The PCs are approached by a mephit, leprechaun, or similarly devious creature. With as much sinister fanfare as it can manage, the creature offers to grant a single wish to the group. Suspicious PCs will likely suspect caveats, of which the creature is entirely forthcoming: the universe must be balanced, so a stranger will have to pay the price for whatever the PCs wish for (i.e.: if they wish for gold, someone will lose a like amount); and the bigger the wish the longer it will take the creature to complete the task (even a small wish is not instantaneous). In reality, the creature has no power to grant wishes, but loves to torment burgeoning heroes with moral dilemmas (as well as fostering strife between friends).
- The Hunted: A woman stumbles across the PCs’, her clothes and skin branch-torn. She is on the run from a horde of monsters and is desperate for help. The hounded woman is half-starved and looks as though she hasn’t slept in days. If the PCs agree to help her she describes a menagerie of fantastic creatures that have been pursuing her for the past few days. There is no sign of the monsters at first, but after the PCs bed down for the night their camp is attacked by a random assortment of creatures that explode in a shower of ectoplasm when slain. The woman’s subconscious harbours tremendous psionic power, which manifests the monsters as a latent suicidal urge every time she goes to sleep. The monsters will continue to attack every evening, until either she dies or somehow manages to come to terms with her inner demons.