TIFF 2012: Midnight Madness primer

Wide Screen
Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern, Rider Strong, James DeBello and Eli Roth at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage)

For many stargazers, the Toronto International Film Festival is about one thing only: celebrities. Famous folks from all over the world descend on the city every September, hitting red carpets, swanky parties, and transforming the town into a celebrity Mecca where star-stalking is the official pastime. While getting a taste of the glamour at TIFF may be high on the list of priorities for many festival goers, for serious movie-lovers, their love lies not with Brad and Angelina, but with genre films.

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Genre flicks have long enjoyed a prime spot at TIFF thanks in large part to the Midnight Madness programme. Midnight Madness takes the idea of the late-night grindhouse screening and applies it to the festival format; the programme showcases the best in action, science fiction, horror, and more from around the world for rabid genre cinema fans. While film fests devoted entirely to genre films do exist (Spain's Sitges Film Festival and Montreal's Fantasia International Film Festival), Midnight Madness at TIFF offers these movies to an unrivaled international audience.

But it wasn't always that way. Genre movies have always lagged behind so-called mainstream film when it came to critical acknowledgement and inclusion in stuffy film fests like Cannes and Venice. In the early '80s, if it came down to "Sophie's Choice" or "Blade Runner," a critic or festival would always choose the former. While Toronto did lead the pack when it came to genre acceptance at major film fests, it wasn't until the 1988 Festival of Festivals (as TIFF was then known) that Midnight Madness was born — a full twelve years after the TIFF's founding. Programmed by then-rookie TIFF staffer Noah Cowan, Midnight Madness was originally intended as a way to attract younger audiences to the festival. The early days of the programme were an experiment of sorts that featured more misses than hits.  Highlights from the inaugural edition included the horror film "Hellbound: Hellraiser 2" and the heavy metal documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years."

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"There were hardly any people in the theatre; I was heartbroken!" recalled "Decline" director Penelope Spheeris in a 2007 interview with the National Post. Paul Bordonaro, the former owner of the Bloor Cinema (once home to the entire festival) remembered headbangers setting off fireworks in line before the "Decline" screening, calling it a "wild start" for the things that would come.

Over the following years the programme would steadily grow, attracting sold-out crowds and cult directors like Italian terror maestro Dario Argento, prolific Japanese gore hawker Takashi Miike, "Dazed and Confused's" Richard Linklater, and even a young, pre-"Lord of the Rings" Peter Jackson. The programme shifted venues over the years as well, moving from the Bloor to the venerable Uptown Theatre in the mid-'90s. It was around this time that current MM master of ceremonies Colin Geddes took over programming duties, and the section continued to grow in popularity and profile. The closure of the Uptown in the early aughts meant another change of scene for Midnight Madness, taking it to its current home at the Ryerson Theatre, where it will remain for the foreseeable future.

Midnight Madness continues to attract top genre talent to this day. In recent years has featured the debuts of some of horror's biggest names: Eli Roth brought his flesh-eating debut "Cabin Fever" to the fest in 2002, and the then-unknown Australian writing-directing duo of James Wan and Leigh Whannell premiered a little movie called "Saw" at Midnight Madness in 2004. Horror not your thing? Festival audiences in search of an action fix have always been able to rely on Midnight Madness as well; the programme has included the North American premieres of bone-crunching Asian exports like "SPL (Killzone)," "Ong Bak: Thai Warrior," "Flash Point," and "The Raid: Redemption" over the past few years.

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Whether it's the movie you're seeing or the folks who show up, Midnight Madness screenings are always full of surprises. At the somewhat infamous premiere of the cultural satire "Borat," actor Sacha Baron Cohen arrived at the Ryerson Theatre in character, being pulled in a cart by "peasant women." The film projector subsequently broke about twenty minutes into the screening, forcing Baron Cohen to entertain the audience with an improvised in-character performance for close to an hour.

But celebs aren't the reason you go see a witching hour movie at TIFF. The real reason you go to Midnight Madness is the crowd. The late-night screenings are full of enthusiastic, like-minded genre fans that are all there to have a good time. The soundtrack of a Midnight Madness movie will frequently be accompanied by the cheers and jeers of the audience depending on how into the film they are. Nothing compares to experiencing 1250 people wince in unison as Tony Jaa or Donnie Yen deliver a high kick to the head of some poor sod on screen. It's exactly the kind of highly engaged crowd that you want to watch an off-the-wall, insane movie with.

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Almost every year, Midnight Madness attendees are the first to see the next big genre hit. The 2012 programme is no exception, featuring highlights like the grim sci-fi actioner "Dredd 3D" and the black comedy "Seven Psychopaths," director Martin McDonagh's follow-up to "In Bruges." You can see a few more of the highlights here, but the only way to truly experience Midnight Madness is to brave the night and go to a screening yourself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6 - 16.