One of the themes of this year's Toronto After Dark was that the woods are a deadly place, with three films set in the forest. The festival showcased the World Premiere of Silent Retreat and the Toronto Premiere of Solo, both of which were shot in Ontario. The third film, Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, was shot on location where the famous "Patterson-Gimlin" footage was captured in Northern California, or Bigfoot country.
Silent Retreat is the second film by director Trisha Lee (her first feature, Clean Break, is playing at the Blood in the Snow festival on November 30th.) The director, most of the cast, and their families, were in attendance for the screen. In the Q&A, Lee talked about how this story was inspired by the juxtapositioning of two events. The first was a ten day silent retreat Lee took where the rules were strict. No speaking, no gesturing, no eye contact, no writing, no books, no music, no distractions. The second item was that during the retreat a person she'd driven up went missing, and Lee had no information about her or way to find out if she was okay. She blended that emotion of loss of identity with a malevolent doctor who had a "treatment," and a supernatural element. They shot on weekends at a camp in Aurora, Ontario, just outside Toronto. The shooting schedule meant that the creature (and there is a creature) is played by five different actors, which is enough to challenge any director.
The story is about Janey, played by Chelsea Jenish in her second movie credit, who in lieu of prison is assigned to a "program." She joins four other female offenders at a camp where they all have separate cabins and they must be silent. Each day contains meditations and some of the girls have individual treatments. Throughout the film, we learn more of Janey's backstory, as we do about the program itself. Robert Nolan plays the doctor and his voice was the perfect blend of hypnotic and menacing, grounding the first half of the movie. The second half of the film has some logical inconsistencies, but this is a group that does like their horror, and makes effective use of a blend of stage blood and chicken guts. It's a movie that wasn't subtle about its theme, but it is refreshing to see a horror film where over half the cast was women, even if most of them were, ironically, silent.
The film played to a full house on a Sunday afternoon, with most of the cast (and their families) in attendence. It also won the Toronto After Dark audience award for Best Canadian Feature.
Solo also has a female protagonist. Toronto After Dark paired this with "The Hunt," a short created during a 48 hour contest in Calgary, which thematically matched the predator/prey feel of the feature.
I was able to speak with Solo’s director Isaac Cravit at the pub afterwards and learn some more details about this project. It was a technically difficult shoot with 15 days and one pick up day. It was split between two locations: a park in Scarborough and a location near Algonquin Park. They used natural light, and the night scenes were lit using only flashlights and a bounce. Since they were using the sun, there was no overtime, but there was also little chance to deviate from the shooting schedule; well, except for the shots involving the dog. (Spoiler alert: the dog lives).
Like Silent Retreat, Solo also focuses on a trouble young woman, Jillian played by Degrassi:TNG's Annie Clark. It opens with a taped counseling session that discusses her nightmares, her meds and her new job as a camp counsellor. Before the campers come, Jillian has to complete a two-night solo camping trip on the camp's island. The night before her trip, she hears the camp legend of a girl who haunts the island after being lost there years ago. Once Jillian is there, she finds out that the island isn't as uninhabited as private property should be, when a middle age fisherman and his dog turns up at her campsite. There are several jump scares and I give this movie a tip of the hat for the creepiest use of tent zippers. It won the Silver Audience Choice award for Best Feature Film.
It was odd that two films with young directors pit girls in their late teens-early twenties against middle-aged men, but the third wood based film avoids this dynamic. Bobcat's Willow Creek is a found footage film with minimal shaky cam and a focus on both character and characters.
The film is about a couple, Kelly and Jim, who are venturing into Bigfoot country so Jim can film a documentary on the history of Bigfoot in the area of Willow Creek and Buff Creek. Both Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson had worked with Bobcat on previous features, so there was a level of trust between them that was necessary for the style of shooting.The team worked with a 25-page outline rather than a script. Kelly is the Scully to Jim's true believing Mulder. She's being the good girlfriend and supporting her boyfriend's birthday plan to make a film.
The first half of the film is in done in Willow Creek focusing on the town's Bigfoot tourism trade. They visit the Bigfoot museum, have Bigfoot burgers and do interviews in front of various statues of the creature. The interviews are with real residents of the area, including two different performers who have songs about both the creature and the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage. Johnson and Gilmore split the camera duties, but most of this part avoids the shaky cam feel that infects most found footage. In fact, Goldthwait said they had to reshoot some bits because Johnson did such a good job with zooms and pushes that they had to 'amateur it' down.
The second part of the film is when the couple go camping to see the location of the Patterson-Gimlin footage. As per narrative requirements, they were warned off three times. They perservere to the end of a long logging road, and then have to hike into the bush. This part includes a 19-minute long shot, which makes excellent of ambient sound and actors reactions to sell the scares.
There you go; three good reasons to NEVER EVER go into the woods.