Between a multitude of festivals, screening series, rep theatres and plain old multiplex offerings, there’s no question that there are a hell of a lot of movies that play on Toronto screens in any given year. And yet there are some films that are so bizarre, so esoteric and so outside the realm of recognizable narratives or taste, that they still struggle to find exposure in our movie-mad city. That’s where What The Film Festival comes in.
Kicking off its 3rd annual edition this Saturday, June 24, 2017 at the Royal Cinema, What The Film Festival is the brainchild of freshly-minted TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky, in association with the Laserblast Film Society, and focuses on cult and outsider art cinema that may otherwise have languished in obscurity.
“I work for a number of Film Festivals – Fantastic Fest, Toronto After Dark and TIFF – but I feel there are holes or gaps, in genre cinema or experimental cinema or offbeat cinema, that just don’t fit the purview of those festivals,” relates Kuplowsky, as he gears up for the upcoming program. “That’s really why What The Film Festival started. I felt like there was an audience in Toronto that wanted to see this stuff and I didn’t see another festival that would be taking that kind of programming.”
Over the last couple of years, audiences have been treated to everything from an ‘80s Canadian martial arts movie starring identical twin kickboxers (Dragon Hunt) to a handmade animated science fiction epic (Nova Seed) to an early ‘90s public access Terminator/Predator clone from Niagara Falls (Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments) to the introspective musings of international rock star Bené over two hilarious separate features (I Am a Knife With Legs, Tango Europa). Basically, if you’re looking for something different, this is the ticket.
This year’s program takes the form of a one-day, seven-hour marathon of pure craziness that should satisfy even the most hardened veterans of the weird and wonderful.
First on the docket is the amazingly titled Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell. Even more amazingly, this Japanese remake of Evil Dead was shot over 20 years ago but only completed recently and it’s the sole credit of writer/director Shinichi Fukazawa, who also acted, shot, edited and created the special effects for the film. Kuplowsky credits Laserblast Film Society co-director Justin Decloux with discovering Body Builder, which finally saw a home video release in the UK last year.
“I guess it’s kind of like The Grudge meets The Evil Dead – you have Grudge iconography but there’s full-on Evil Dead gags and shot-for-shot recreations with the Super-8 aesthetic,” Kuplowsky elaborates. “What I was really impressed with was how fun the movie is. I wondered why this filmmaker didn’t make anything else after this. Was it just a thing to do with friends? I imagine it might have been something they did on a lark and then put it together years later. I haven’t received the full story on the film, it just emerged from the ether.” In any case, check out the trailer that’s been making the rounds for a taste of the insane, DIY creativity that you should expect.
Next up on the schedule is Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s quirky indie comedy, Sylvio, about a gorilla (played by a guy in a gorilla suit) who becomes an overnight celebrity when he accidentally smashes up the set of a local talk show.
“It’s the most endearingly hipster film we’ve ever played but I really like its origins – the fact that it was a Vine channel that had about 500,000 followers at one point and followed this gorilla as he just sort of did mundane, banal activities in life,” enthused Kuplowsky. “There was a gusto to the filmmakers for challenging themselves to adapt that concept into a feature and when I saw it at SXSW, I was really charmed by it.”
While Sylvio at first enjoys his newfound fame, his true passion is for creating miniature performances with a hand puppet of a bald man named Herbert Herpels.
“That’s the other reason Sylvio made sense for me for WTF as it’s about an outsider artist in a sense,” Kuplowsky continued. “It’s about a creative figure on the margins who is trying to do something that means a lot to him, regardless of whether it means anything to anybody else. I like the fact that he’s a figure that achieves fame through humiliation, like he’s smashing up stuff and being clumsy and violent, and so his audience is laughing at him in a mocking way. I feel like it reflects a lot of outsider artists that achieve fame through this kind of mockery and I think that’s always complicated.”
Wrapping up the day is possibly the most esoteric selection of the bunch – Michael Reich’s She’s Allergic to Cats. “I’ve described it as watching a Richard Linklater meet-cute that gradually becomes Inland Empire,” says Kuplowsky through laughs.
Essentially, it’s about a morose L.A. video artist who ekes through the mundanity of his existence working at as a dog groomer. One day, however, he meets the girl of his dreams (played by Sonja Kinski, the granddaughter of Klaus) and things seem to be looking up when they go on a date together. Various sinister complications, however, including an out-of-control rat infestation in his apartment, ensure that things are not going end well. Taking cues from the lead character’s obsessions, the majority of the film is filtered through a scuzzy VHS look to give it an even more off-kilter vibe.
“It feels very self-conscious but sincere to me as well,” Kuplowsky continues. “It’s like a parody of that quirky indie narrative but amped up and filtered through VHS nostalgia and internet memes in a very effective way. My favourite scene in the movie, and another thing I try to sell people on, is that it delivers a pitch-perfect Phoebe Cates Gremlins monologue parody. The whole thing just has such weird esoteric points of reference for its humour, from Congo to Howard the Duck, that it’s so up my wavelength and I’m so excited to see it and meet the filmmakers.”
Reich will indeed be in attendance at the screening and is a pretty fascinating character himself. “He’s got one of the craziest day jobs ever,” Kuplowsky explains. “He paid for the film with the money he was earning being a body double for Daft Punk. Whenever I tell people, they’re like ‘What? They’re not always in the robot suits?’ and I say, ‘Evidently not!’ I asked if he was also the left shark in the Katy Perry halftime special.”
As per usual, there will also be a short film before each feature, including a Cybertronic Spree music video by Astron-6 member and Manborg director Steven Kostanski and the latest work from Vinnie de Ghoulie, who was previously at the inaugural WTF with his brain-busting surrealist short, My Johnny.
“The new one’s interesting because it’s very personal for Vinnie,” said Kuplowsky. “It’s basically about a breakdown he went through to make another movie. I think Vinnie is brilliant. He says this might be his last movie ever and I hope that’s not true, although it does feel like the work of a defeated artist.”
Kuplowsky has been diligent over the last couple of years in establishing What The Film Festival as a true experience that stretches beyond just the screenings themselves. As he puts it, “I do find with a lot of this lo-fi stuff that there’s some trepidation from a lot of audience members going into it. I think some people may be suspicious watching movies that cost less money than the ticket that they’re paying for. At WTF, I try and keep it fairly reasonable in terms of price – it’s 7 hours of entertainment for $20. It’s cheaper than an IMAX movie that’s gonna run 2 and a half hours. I feel like people are going to get their money’s worth. There’s gonna be an after party and a live performance that’ll be super WTF. I’ll be doing weird sketches between the movies with Justin [Decloux] – we’re gonna have Cybertronic Spree in costume, we’ve got a gorilla thing planned. I’m currently trying to write some introductory song number but we’ll see…”
“Everyone’s favourite experience about a movie is a variation on the concept of being surprised. And that’s what I chase. I love films that are unpredictable – from one 5 minutes to the next 5 minutes, I don’t know where the film is going.”
Anyone that has followed Kuplowsky’s programming work in the city knows that he bleeds this kind of offbeat work. But now that he’s taken over the mantle of TIFF Midnight Madness programmer from the iconic Colin Geddes, the What The Film Festival gives those unfamiliar a chance to get a glimpse of where his tastes run in anticipation of this year’s TIFF.
“I think the reason I have such an affinity for this stuff is the nature of the job I’ve been doing for the last 10 years – watching movies and pre-screening films for festival and curation. I’ve just seen so many movies and I’ve slowly gotten bored of the conventional formulas of movies. You see so many horror films and so many action movies and dramas and comedies that adhere to, what I call, the conventions of aesthetics and taste. I love watching movies where I honestly can’t wrap my head around the filmmaker’s decisions and it forces me to analyze the film from a fresh place.”
“I want to see a film that feels directed. I feel like everything at WTF feels directed. There’s no arbitrary moment. There’s such a specific vision that’s being employed by a single mind.”
No matter what kind of films you naturally gravitate towards, the films at What The Film Festival all have one certain quality that any viewer can get excited about.
“Everyone’s favourite experience about a movie is a variation on the concept of being surprised,” concludes Kuplowsky. “And that’s what I chase. I love films that are unpredictable – from one 5 minutes to the next 5 minutes, I don’t know where the film is going.”