Memories of Midnight
Programmers Colin Geddes and Peter Kuplowsky discuss the brotherhood of Midnight Madness
While the rest of TIFF goes to bed, hardcore cineastes know that when the clock strikes midnight, the madness begins. TIFF’s Midnight Madness programme, which always features an eclectic, curated selection of horror films and cult cinema, is a different kind of animal. For the last 20 years, it’s been programmed by Toronto native Colin Geddes, whose onstage showmanship, intense adoration of action films and B-movies, and notorious red pants have made Midnight Madness one of the most memorable events you can experience at the Festival. This year, Colin passes the torch to his protégé, Peter Kuplowsky, who’s been his programme associate for the last four years. On September 7 at 6pm, TIFF will honour Colin with a special screening, aptly titled Colin Geddes’ Farewell to Midnight Madness. You can attend a free screening of the Sonny Chiba–led ‘70s Japanese horror rarity Wolf Guy, hand-picked by Colin, and hear from the Master of Midnight about his favourite Festival moments.
We asked Colin and the incoming Midnight Madness programmer to share their memories of what programming the series has meant for them. Keep reading for stories involving Takashi Miike–inspired frog suits, impromptu Bobcat Goldthwait stand-up routines, and Colin’s friendship with the late George A. Romero.
Festival tickets will be available starting September 4, or September 2 for Members. To read up on this year’s Midnight Madness programming and how Peter selected his films, read his interview on The Review.
Peter Kuplowsky: What was your first Midnight Madness?
Colin Geddes: I came to Toronto for college; my first week of living in Toronto was the first year of Midnight Madness. It was just bonkers. There was a wild energy to that audience unlike anything I'd seen.
Peter: Did you see everything that year?
Colin: My journey through the Festival was seeing a couple of films in Midnight, seeing more Midnight films the next year, and finally seeing films outside of Midnight. That first year, the only things I saw were Brain Damage (1988) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). The other films weren't really my taste. What was your first Midnight film?
Peter: My first Midnight was a failed attempt to get into Volcano High (2001). They had a strict 18-plus policy back then. I also tried to see Shaolin Soccer (2001), even though I owned the bootleg.
Colin: I think I did the introduction for that.
Peter: During my first year of undergrad, I remember thinking, "Now I can go see Midnight Madness movies!" It was 2005 — that was the first time I actually got in. I remember, vividly, hearing you refer to yourself on stage as a "gweilo who visits Chinatown.” That was an amazing moment because it was me, recognizing...
Colin: It's your tribe. I was born in Toronto, but I grew up in the country, and I always loved weird films. I was really isolated from the other people who got that stuff. When I came to Toronto, I could talk to the people in the Midnight Madness lineup about Italian cannibal cinema. Those people standing in line are my friends to this day.
Peter: It was the same for me. My first Midnight Madness screening allowed me to meet Justin Decloux, who does the Laser Blast Film Society series [at the Royal Cinema] with me. We would always end up sitting near each other, and I always wore my hat, so he was like, "It's Hat Guy again!" That was definitely a relationship founded on going to Big Slice after a Midnight movie. That's a big RIP.
Colin: No, the big RIP is when Midnight was at the Uptown Cinema. People grumbled when [Midnight Madness] moved from the Bloor, but it wasn't equipped to deal with the audio needs that films needed at the time. Screamers (1995) was the first film we showed at the Uptown. When you watched the opening credit sequence with the letters shrieking in, you knew this was the place.
Peter: It’s one of my great regrets that I never got to experience a Midnight Madness there.
Colin: When I was programming, the weekend shows would be at the Uptown’s biggest house, with around 900 to 1,000 seats. In the middle of the week, they'd move it into Cinema 2 or 3, which were the smaller theatres below. At a certain point, I asked, "Why are we doing this when the big cinema is empty?" It was felt that filmmakers would be upset because it wouldn't be a full house, but if you showed a filmmaker the size of that screen, they don't care! The first time we did that for was this film, Komodo (1999), about rampaging komodo dragons on a small island.
It’s funny — I was recently at an edit suite, checking out the new film by the Spierig Brothers who did Undead (2003). They turned to everybody and said, "Did you know we were the last film to ever play the Uptown?" Sure enough, on the DVD for Undead, they have a great bit of footage where you hear the audience cheering, the theatre forever immortalized. I remember seeing Piers Handling and Michèle Maheux sitting on the steps to see the opening of that film. They said they wouldn't miss it for the world.
Peter: Big Slice was a big thing for the Ryerson era of Midnight Madness… It was important to me because you would often have filmmakers, weird personalities, or newfound friends show up there after the screening. I remember vividly that Bobcat Goldthwait would go to Big Slice. That's probably where he got his inspiration for his film God Bless America (2011).
Colin: One of my most special Midnight friendships is with Bobcat. I showed Adam Wingard’s film A Horrible Way to Die (2010) in the Vanguard section at the AMC at Yonge and Dundas. Afterwards, Adam Wingard and the screenwriter, Simon Barrett, were talking outside about how the first screening had gone. I asked, "Who invited Bobcat Goldthwait?" because I recognized him in the lobby exiting the film. It turned out that Bobcat was in town doing location scouting and decided to check the film out simply because it had an interesting title. As a result, he became friends with Simon, Adam, and also me. I gave him tickets to Midnight Madness and the next year, he emailed me, saying, "I've got a new film, and I'm not sure if it's right for Sundance. How do I get it to you?" He saved my ass when we showed Smuggler (2011).
Peter: That's a good one. There are many Midnight Madness true-life horror stories!
Colin: We were screening the Japanese film Smuggler, and it turned out that somehow the film print had moved to the Scotiabank and no one was aware of it. One of the tech guys had to drive to the Scotiabank, meet the manager because the theatre was closed, and get the film back to the Ryerson. He also went through a drunk-driving road check. The theatre staff said the film is going to be 15 minutes late, then 40 minutes late… While we were waiting, from the stage I saw Bobcat in the audience — he was there with his film that year, God Bless America — and was seeing all the films. So I got him to go on stage, and he did stand-up. It was a really memorable screening. The audience got to see a really wild and crazy film and a rare 20-minute stand-up set by Bobcat.
A portrait of Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes, made by TIFF.
Peter: There’s something I’ve experienced from having introduced films for 10 years: there's all these people who associate you with these movies. I have been stopped at events before. "Hey, did you introduce this movie? It meant a lot to me." I had nothing to do with it! It's a weird relationship.
Colin: There's always the people who stake out the first couple of rows at every Midnight screening. I don’t know their names, but I see their faces, their smiles. I know that person's gonna ask a question, so I lean over with a mike. When you're doing Q&As, you know who asks the good questions, who asks the earnest, sincere questions, and then...
Peter: The comments.
Colin: One of the things I always liked doing was taking directors and actors through the cinema and out into the courtyard at the Ryerson Theatre to meet their fans. Some would be carted off into their limos, out into the night, but there were always directors who I knew were delighted to have that experience. There's always been this misconception that Midnight Madness fans are "crazy,” "wild," and "dangerous!" These are just a whole bunch of cinephiles.
Peter: When the ads play before a Midnight screening, you feel like you're in a 42nd Street cinema in the ’70s. Then the movie starts and the audience acclimatizes to the wavelength of the film. “Is this a film that wants us to freak out? Okay, good, now we're all gonna do that.” It’s such a respectful audience, and it's always the best possible way you want to watch a movie.
Colin: It's the audience that knows when to cheer, when to scream, when to laugh.
Peter: This is not my favourite Midnight Madness experience, but do you remember Ong Bak 2 (2008)? There was a drunk guy in the theatre yelling "Get a job!" at the screen. We also had the seizure last year at Raw (2016), which ballooned into a bigger story than it was.
Colin: I had to put it into context. At Trapped Ashes (2006), we actually had three seizures. When Hostel (2005) screened at The Varsity, someone stumbled out of the theatre and fell down the escalator. Eli Roth got really excited about that and wanted to promote it.
The other thing about Midnight is that you have to fight against the misconception that it's all about horror films and gory, graphic violence, which is not true. This year, you’ve got Bodied (2016), which is a hip-hop battle film, we had Borat (2006)...
Peter: Dazed and Confused (1993) was a Midnight Madness film! I’ve watched you for four years talk to press and say, "We're not a horror programme." I will continue to beat that drum. We love horror, but...
Colin: We have broad, Catholic tastes. One of the things I always liked was being able to introduce a new director to their audience like we did with Takashi Miike. I've always been a martial arts enthusiast and had done the Kung Fu Fridays series for many years. Back then, you’d get a VHS tape. You don't know what it's going to be until you put it in. When I first saw Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003), oh my God.
Peter: That's the kind of movie where I imagine you're watching it and you stand up and don't sit back down. You want to immediately start calling people and saying, "We're inviting this!"
Colin: You're also standing up because you're like, "Don't fuck it up!” That was a film that I underplayed. I didn't expect people to go as crazy for it as they did.
Peter: Well, you're a Hong Kong martial-arts junkie, so you’re playing to your taste. I understand that fear.
Colin: We couldn't get Tony Jaa, the lead actor of Ong-Bak, but the director [Prachya Pinkaew] came. He showed up just before the film started with his wife, who was one of the producers. Air Canada had lost their luggage, so we had to take them across the street to buy clean T-shirts. Everything was not going well for them, but then 90 minutes later, the crowd was on their feet cheering. Thai cinema had been around for years, but no one could identify a Thai filmmaker; no one could identify a Thai film star. Overnight, that all changed. Suddenly, there was Tony Jaa.
That night, we went out for dinner in Chinatown. Carie Wong, who was the sales agent, took us to a restaurant and ordered off-menu; it was terrific. We were buzzing about the screening. The director called Tony Jaa, and the phone went around the table. Finally, it comes to me, and I hear this very quiet voice that goes, "I am crying because I am so happy." I feel really happy to have created that moment.
Peter: I remember my first year working as your programme associate, you got sent a suit modelled on the outfit Bruce Lee wears in Game of Death (1972). It was to promote Sion Sono’s Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2014) I begged to wear it, basically. (Laughs)
Colin: I said, "You're wearing it, Peter."
Peter: Well, I'm a ham, and I like being theatrical. I remember introducing you and discovering that suit was way tighter than I previously imagined it would be...
Colin: That was the beginning of us introducing characters from the films that broke out from the screen. We screened the Belgian horror film Cub (2014), and there's this creepy little feral boy who wears a wooden mask made of bark. As the film was playing, we had this young boy smeared in dirt, wearing the mask, walk slowly down the aisle.
Peter: There was a seat for him. He watched a bit of the movie, too! [Laughs]
Colin: We were really concerned it would detract from the film, but it was special. We did it again with Takashi Miike's Yakuza Apocalypse (2015). Not only did we have Takashi Miike on stage, but we told the audience, "Hey, we've got the bad guy of the film!"
Peter: That was a martial arts-powered sports team mascot version of Kermit the Frog.
Colin: Down the aisle came the frog, and it was Peter in the frog suit.
Peter: Which I also demanded that I wear. We continued the tradition in your final year.
Colin: The final film I introduced at Midnight Madness was The Ring vs. The Grudge film, Sadako vs. Kayako (2016), which is way more fun than it deserves to be. We had the actual actress for each of the ghosts. Since they didn't communicate in English, they pantomimed all their answers to the questions, which was ridiculously fun.
Peter: That’s the thing I love about the programme. Since the rest of the Festival is going to sleep, we can be a little looser. We can go off the tracks.
Lastly, the late George A. Romero is another major filmmaker to have come through Midnight. I know you developed a friendship with him.
Colin: I saw Diary of the Dead (2007) and was so excited that we had a chance to show a George A. Romero film! Our friend Thea Munster, who runs the Toronto Zombie Walk, organized 50 zombies to come to the screening. As soon as George A. Romero and his cast stepped onto the red carpet, it was swarmed with zombies. George was so happy. It was interesting because Romero was living in Toronto at the time, and I had briefly met him at Fan Expo, but we didn't get a chance to hang out until towards the end of the Festival. I still remember him saying to his wife, "This guy, Colin, I meet him and he's a quiet, mild-mannered guy! But then you see this guy on stage and huzzah, he's a showman!" Oh my God, that just made my heart swell. I rolled pennies to buy a VHS copy of Night of the Living Dead (1968). His absence is definitely missed, but it was great to see him meet the other filmmakers that week whom he inspired.
Peter: For the filmmakers who stay awhile, Midnight Madness is a club. We've seen filmmakers develop friendships that extend into other projects. It's a meeting of the minds.
Colin: One year, we had a dinner for a number of the Asian directors who were at the Festival. There was the Pen-ek Ratanaruang (6ixtynin9, 2000); Takashi Miike, who was there for The City of Lost Souls (2000); Tetsuro Takeuchi, the director of Wild Zero (1999)... Also at our table was Kiyoshi Kurosawa. At one point, I told all the directors, "This is the Midnight Madness brotherhood." The next day, Kurosawa’s translator told me that Kiyoshi turned to his wife and said, "I want to be a Midnight Madness brother.”