Resisting the urge to make a kicking and Jean Claude Van Damme pun, we'll say our second Toronto After Dark report begins with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The sixth branch in the franchise, which was spawned by Roland Emmerich’s 1994 film, it is the fourth official instalment in the series. As someone who has come to appreciate late-stage Van Damme, Universal Soldier is more an object in the cultural matrix that makes up JCVD, rather than a personally treasured film. With such a viewpoint, or perhaps bias, going in I couldn’t imagine what a fourthquel would bring to the sci-fi action series centering on reanimated soldiers. But what it brought was entirely unexpected and pleasing. Rather than a low-budget knock-off, John Hyams’ film is a surreal fever-dream, comprised of prolonged point-of-view shots, seizure inducing flashes, and a pulsating score. The emphasis is less sci-fi and more psychosis.
Opening from the perspective of John (Scott Adkins), we are introduced to our protagonist as his family is brutally killed at the hands of Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). John’s mission for revenge takes him deep into a renegade UniSol faction, led by Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) and Deveraux, who are seeking to liberate Unisols from their implanted memories in order to overthrow the government.
Beyond the crowd-pleasing gore and kinetic fight sequences—best of which takes place in an athletics goods store, giving new meaning to “blood sport”—Day of Reckoning’s strongest move is its utilization of Lundgren and Van Damme. The former, now a near wax caricature of himself, embodies a clonish feel that would be funny if his presence didn’t feel all too real and threatening. By contrast, Van Damme haunts most of the film, appearing in mind-bending apparitions, saving his true reveal for the final climatic fight. Leaving room for another chapter at the end, whether you are an invested Universal Solider fan or not, Day of Reckoning is fascinating in its atypical style.
Next up was the Canadian co-production, In Their Skin. A Toronto premiere, director Jeremy Power Regimbal somewhat quietly introduced his film, noting he was looking forward to watching it for the first time in the city he calls home. Starring Selma Blair and Joshua Close as a couple grieving the loss of their youngest child, the family heads up to their oh-so-perfect cottage in the woods with their son, hoping to rebuild. Despite their fractured family life, their neighbours are fixed not just on their material possessions, but their very personas. (Lifestyle porn, to the extreme.) There is an inevitable tension that comes with a home invasion plot, as it plays on basic fears and scares, with threatening faces looming in darkened windows. While Regimbal’s establishes a clear tone for the film, saturating the world in dreary greys, In Their Skin reads more like an index of previous entries in the genre. Funny Games by way of Straw Dogs, the guilt cum patriarch’s impotency plot fails to bring anything new to the table. There is, of course, always some pleasure in watching Blair be sullen, as she does it like no one else can.
The final screening we caught, the latest film from Quentin Dupieux, Wrong, was by far the best. Expectations were high after his last film about a tire with telekinesis, Rubber (2010), was a surprise hit in cult circles. With exploding bunnies and brains, Rubber is as blood-soaked as it is bizarre. Presumably, this helped get Wrong into the festival this year, but those expecting decapitations would have be disappointed. Rather than self-consciously toying with conventions, Wrong approaches surrealist comedy and distanciation in its slow pace, punctuated by the hilarity of the banal. Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick) wakes up one morning—at 7:60am (not a typo) on the dot—to find his dog, Paul, has disappeared. The missing canine ushers a series of characters and events into his life, from the bubbly pizza delivery operator, Emma (Alexis Dziena), to the mysterious Master Chang (played by the excellent William Fichtner). While Rubber was more about the absurdity of cinematic motivation, Wrong goes deeper, exploring the irrationality of human connection itself. Be it with a pet or a fellow homosapien, friendship and love remains somewhat intangible, and often hilarious. It is this which Dupieux strives at communicating through, fittingly, lack of communication. Though at times Wrong feels strained, bordering on the purposefully inane, overall the film is an accomplished oddity.