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Midnight Madness TIFF 2023: Programmer Peter Kuplowsky Discusses the Lineup (EXCLUSIVE)

TIFF Midnight Madness

Although TIFF is arguably best known for its high-profile Gala and Special Presentations programs, there’s one program that has developed a massive cult following: Midnight Madness. TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky sat down with us at FandomWire to give us a preview and some insights into this year’s Midnight Madness lineup.

TIFF Midnight Madness Lineup

Dicks: The Musical. Courtesy of TIFF.

This year, festival-goers will realize that the Midnight Madness lineup has more of an emphasis on acquisition titles, as opposed to the studio films. Only A24’s opening night film Dicks: The Musical came into the festival lineup with distribution, and since the lineup was announced, the closing night feature, Riddle of Fire, was picked up for the US by Yellow Veil Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome.

When asked about why this year’s lineup has such a focus on sales titles, Kuplowsky issues a reminder of last year’s strong lineup. “Last year, I think I also had a strong emphasis on sales titles and that was very well received by both audiences and industry alike. So I’m certainly happy to deliver something similar to that again,” he explains.

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Considering the ongoing dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, it’s certainly convenient that none of the films in the lineup are from struck AMPTP companies. This could ensure that big names are still able to attend the festival, including Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk, the stars/writers/directors of Hell of a Summer. “My understanding is that a lot of these productions are pursuing interim agreements with SAG and we’ll see how it all turns out,” Kuplowsky adds. 

“But I very much respect any decision a filmmaker or actor makes with regards to whether they’re able to attend and support their film in person.”

Kuplowsky says that, even if the filmmakers aren’t able to attend in person, attending Midnight Madness screenings is still going to be an amazing experience for one big reason: the crowd. “To me, the films are paramount,” he asserts. “We want to champion and we want them to experience the film with the Toronto audience. From an audience perspective, I feel very confident too that, as much as the audience is coming for the talent, they’re also coming for the audience. They’re coming for the Midnight Madness experience, and the audience is part of that equation. That audience is still going to be there.”

So which film does Kuplowsky think is the one you simply cannot miss seeing with the Midnight Madness crowd for its premiere at the historic Royal Alexandra Theatre? He says Larry Charles’s Dicks: The Musical.

“This is our second year at the Royal Alex Theatre and I’m very excited because last year I thought was just terrific. The energy that was there opening night was just unreal. I haven’t even felt like that kind of energy at the Ryerson in a long time, so that was really exciting,” he says. “I do think opening night is going to be pretty, pretty great again, because I just think the start of the festival just brings with it that excitement and Larry Charles’s Dicks: The Musical is just so wildly infectious and funny. There’s a sing-along sequence at one point, which I can imagine the audience fully taking advantage of.”

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Midnight Madness Kill
Kill. Courtesy of TIFF.

Kuplowsky also suggests audiences take advantage of the action and martial arts films in the lineup. “I’ve always found that the screenings that always stuck out to me when I was just a fan going to Midnight Madness had been the martial arts movies. And this year, I have two of them: Kill from India, and Boy Kills World, which is a German/American/South African co-production that Sam Raimi produced, and hopefully Sam will be able to join us at the screening as well,” he says. “I just feel like there’s no better audience to react to punches, kicks and death blows, knockouts, than the Midnight Madness audience.”

This year’s Midnight Madness lineup has less of a focus on the horror movies one might typically associate with a festival midnight section, instead offering a broader approach to the weird and genre-tinged. “I’ve always been interested in subverting those expectations of horror cinema. And I know that my predecessors, Noah Cowan and Colin Geddes, were always very insistent that Midnight Madness offer a different midnight experience every night,” Kuplowsky explains. “And the thing that’s interesting is that wow, on the face of it, it seems like this is a lineup that has less traditional horror movies. A lot of these movies kind of have little injections of horror or stuff that I think would satisfy a horror film fan. So like the two martial arts films, for instance, I think they have the most shocking gore in the section. It’s really gnarly and really over the top. Dicks: The Musical, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have been introduced to the ‘Sewer Boys,’ which is totally in a camp horror space.”

Midnight Madness Aggro Dr1ft
Aggro Dr1ft. Courtesy of TIFF.

One of the more out-there films in this year’s lineup is Aggro Dr1ft, an experimental action flick that Kuplowsky calls “one the most experimental films he’s ever programmed in Midnight Madness, at least under my tenure.” However, there’s also a bit of a mainstream aspect as it is directed by cult film icon and Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine, and stars musician Travis Scott.

“This feels just like a Midnight Madness film more in the tradition of like Lynch’s Eraserhead or Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain in that you’re dealing with something that’s a little bit more abstract, a little more poetic,” explains Kuplowsky. “I think there’s very much a relationship between the avant garde and genre in midnight [movies]. That intersection does exist. And that it’s something I’ve wanted to see more reflected in this section. And this is a movie that totally has a mesmerizing vibe and I can’t emphasize enough just how extraordinary the infrared photography is. It’s really mesmerizing. It really feels like a radically new aesthetic. I’m hoping that it can open the door for more experimental works in the section because I believe experimental cinema is absolutely part of midnight canon.”

We also asked Kuplowsky to share what he thinks are two of the “hidden gems” in this year’s festival lineup, and this is what he has to offer:

“One film that I think I’d like to champion because I feel like there’s just the risk of it being overlooked is Naga from Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I think Meshal Aljaser is going to be a major filmmaker. I think it’s such an auspicious debut that reminds me of the Safdie Brothers’ work and films like Good Time. It’s one of those ‘one crazy night’ movies that increasingly escalates and in surprising directions and tense directions. It’s incidentally the Tuesday slot where I had The People’s Joker last year, so I feel like maybe Tuesdays become my space to put the film that I think is going to really surprise people and upset expectations.”

Kuplowsky also recommends not sleeping on Mladen Đorđević’s Working Class Goes to Hell. “I know a lot of people bemoaned the loss of the Vanguard program, and I think Working Class Goes to Hell is absolutely a bullseye Vanguard film at Midnight Madness,” he asserts. “I think it’s a very intelligent film. Really, really, really funny as well — I think disarmingly.”

As for the most messed up movie audiences can see in this year’s Midnight Madness lineup, Kuplowsky says it’s When Evil Lurks. “If anyone is familiar with Demian Rugna’s work, Terrified, I thought it was a really terrific horror movie from a few years ago,” he adds. “And he really one-ups himself with both scare sequences and also shocking violence. Like I’ve compared the film to Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. There’s a moment in this film that I say every year, when I’m watching movies, sometimes what determines the selection is I really just want to hear what the audience reaction is to that moment. There’s a moment in When Evil Lurks that I think is going to suck the air out of the room, and we may all die of asphyxiation.”

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Midnight Madness Riddle of Fire
Riddle of Fire. Courtesy of TIFF.

As for experiences beyond the premieres at the Royal Alexandria, Kuplowsky says there are a few. For example, last year’s encore screening of Sisu in the Scotiabank IMAX theater blew the roof off. “I know that a couple Midnight Madness movies will be in Scotia 12, and if you can’t make it at midnight, it’s always pretty cool to see some of these movies on IMAX screens which probably will never happen again,” he says. “It’s something that I’m working on, but Riddle of Fire, which closes the festival, was shot on 16 millimeter, and I believe they’ve struck a 35 millimeter print. Look out for you know, follow the Midnight Madness Twitter channel to get confirmation — but I would love to show that film on 35 during the festival because the print does exist and that would be pretty special, I think.”

Outside of Midnight Madness, Kuplowsky also played a hand in programming Platform opener Dream Scenario, directed by Kristoffer Borgli. He says Midnight Madness fans absolutely should not miss that one: “If festival goers have seen Kristoffer Borgli’s last film, Sick of Myself, they’ll have an idea of what to expect, which is just very practiced absurdism that escalates to great heights,” he says. “I think Kristoffer has quickly established himself as one of the great contemporary satirists, at least in the Western world. And I think this is just a really terrific and funny film. I’ve referred to the film as kind of a comedic reversal on A Nightmare on Elm Street. And Cage is great. I think it’s one of the great Cage performances — certainly my favorite of his since Pig.”

With all these amazing options in the Midnight Madness lineup and beyond, there’s no shortage of films for the genre cinephile at this year’s TIFF. Be sure to get your tickets before they sell out, with ticket pre-sales for members beginning August 18 and continuing throughout the month for different levels, before going on sale to the general public on August 28.

The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival runs September 7-17, 2023.

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Written by Sean Boelman

Film Critic and member of the CACF.