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Now in its 25th year, Midnight Madness – the Toronto International Film Festival’s cult cinema programme – has become the place to see non-mainstream films, says programmer Colin Geddes. (TIFF)

From blood-thirsty cheerleaders to hungry cannibals to a gang of ruthless dominatrixes, the list of nightmare-inducing characters appearing in this year’s Midnight Madness films upholds a legacy of genre bending.

Now in its 25th year, Midnight Madness – the Toronto International Film Festival’s cult cinema programme – has become the place to see non-mainstream films, says programmer Colin Geddes.

Horror film director Eli Roth, back this year for his third TIFF premiere, is a prime example of the festival’s influence. In a storyline that has become the stuff of festival legend, Roth, who premiered Cabin Fever at the festival in 2002, famously sold the U.K. rights to his debut feature within the first 10 minutes of the film’s press screening.

He returned three years later with the world premiere of Hostel, which went on to gross over $80 million at the box office and spawned two other films. The director is returns to Midnight Madness this year with The Green Inferno, in which a group of college students travel to the Amazon only to crash land amid a tribe of hungry cannibals.

The lighter side of TIFF

Midnight Madness: key dates
  • 1988 - Midnight Madness launches
  • 1992 - Tarantino presents Reservoir Dogs
  • 1993 - Dazed and Confused debuts
  • 2002 - Eli Roth's Cabin Fever debuts
  • 2003 - Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior debuts
  • 2004 - James Wan's Saw closes festival
  • 2005 - Roth returns with world premiere of Hostel
  • 2006 - Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat premieres

"TIFF can be really serious and Midnight Madness is about letting the freak flag fly," Geddes said. But the veteran TIFF programmer wants viewers to know, "it's not all blood and guts."

Midnight Madness features 10 films making either their world or North American premieres, including new releases by festival alumni directors Hitoshi Matsumoto, Sion Sono and Roth.

Matsumoto returns to TIFF this year with R100, a darkly lit story about a Japanese man whose penchant for S&M sees him pursued by a gang of relentless dominiatrixes. Sono, known for his use of explicit imagery, is back with the premiere of the gore-filled gangster thriller Why Don’t You Play in Hell? 

The Midnight Madness lineup also includes the world premiere of All Cheerleaders Die, a film that mixes the supernatural with the everyday setting of a high school cheerleading squad, Afflicted, which bends a buddy-film plot into a psychological thriller when a pair of friends travelling the world face a mysterious affliction, and a dark sci-fi drama out of Austria called The Station, in which a deadly red substance leaking from melting glaciers leads to some truly horrific mutations.

Colin Geddes spoke with the CBC’s Evan Mitsui for a Q & A session ahead of the festival.

Q: For a first timer, what can I expect at Midnight Madness?

A: It's the experience. You’re seeing a film at midnight so it seems dangerous. And really it's about the audience. Ryerson is a 1,200-seat theatre so it's full of people ready to be thrilled, chilled and  entertained, and that level of appreciation for the films and directors is infectious. I credit the success of Midnight Madness to the enthusiasm and dynamic of the audience.

Q: What are the can’t miss films this year?

A: I’m like a cinema sommelier so my recommendations are based on what you like. Horror, comedy, action?

Q: I’m actually more of an action fan, don’t have much of a stomach for horror films.

A: If creepy stuff — stuff that gets under your skin — is OK, I’d say All Cheerleaders Die because it doesn’t start as a horror film, it has more of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel, at first. Green Inferno is gorgeous. It's Roth doing [Werner] Hertzog and has an action movie feel but it's about cannibals so, you know what you’re going to get!

And for a third recommendation is Why Don’t you Play in Hell? It has a Kill Bill-level of violence but it takes place in a fun, slapstick world. And for its supernatural element, the ghost story Oculus is excellent.

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Supernatural thriller All Cheerleaders Die premieres during Midnight Madness. 'TIFF can be really serious and Midnight Madness is about letting the freak flag fly, Geddes said. But 'it's not all blood and guts,' he added. (TIFF)

Q: Midnight Madness has a developed a pedigree as a place for filmmakers to premiere films outside the mainstream. After 25 years, has Toronto become the place for horror and genre films?

A: Yeah, I can say that. Director Eli Roth is a prime example. He is a veteran of the festival. He was discovered in 2003 with Cabin Fever and attributes Midnight Madness for discovering him so it's great to have him on board for a third time this year.

I don’t program the same old same old and every year is different. So I think that helps keep it fresh.

Q: You’ve been the programmer of Midnight Madness since 1998, what attracted you to the job?

A: I was in the audience for the first year of Midnight Madness. I stood in line at the Bloor Cinema and was doing a film zine at the time so I jumped when the offer came. [Being the programmer] is like glorified show and tell. To be able to share what you’ve found on a giant screen and champion fresh new visions is remarkable.

Q: You also program the Vanguard lineup at TIFF but you have developed a reputation as a horror guy. Is that a label you wear proudly?

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Japanese gangster drama Why Don't You Play in Hell? by director Sion Sono is one of Geddes' recommendations for viewers who like to cut their intake of blood and gore with black humour. (TIFF)

A: I have very broad taste (in films). I like horror but I also like action. My choices depend on the quality of films I see that year. I try and make the program as eclectic as I can, so I include horror, black comedy, action, martial arts… and often the only thing I don’t like is that Midnight Madness is thought of sometimes as a gory horrorfest. People forget that we had the world premiere of Borat. Last year, we showed Seven Psychopaths and we discovered Ong-Bak and The Raid, so we deliver a heavy dose of action and black comedy, as well as bloody thrills and chills.

Q: Are you happy with where Midnight Madness has gone while you have been at the helm?

A: I’m very proud of it. The program has gotten so much recognition and prestige around the world and the directors who show here have gone on to do big things. It took me a while to become comfortable with my curatorial choices but it is a dream come true.

The 38th Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5 to 15, 2013.