Vancouver Badass, Day Three: The Hollow Child and Knuckleball offer up Canadian badass

Michael Ironside, Chambers Munro, and Albertan winter in Knuckleball.

The VBAFF is in some ways destined for throwback material. “Badass” as a concept is both fraught and indeterminate in the days of performative-wokeness pop culture. And indeed, the gangsters, captive women, and sexy super-spies of the first two days are all at least aesthetically retrograde, though the films themselves are generally more nuanced. Let’s focus on aesthetics, though, if for no other reason than to say that The Rio is where this festival belongs.

Vancity is a wonderful theatre with wonderful programming. We need more like it. But there was something vaguely awkward about buying a Czechvar in that beautiful lobby, settling into those comfortably tiered seats, and watching an old lady get her head blown off with a shotgun during a zombie chicken attack. There’s a certain type of film where you’re supposed to be packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder and beer-to-beer.

The death of small indie theatres has been a serious challenge to small indie film fests. VBAFF might have been better off in a bar than in Vancity. Not because both aren’t good, but because they aren’t consistent with one another. And venue matters for mood, and mood matters for film fests that go deep and dark. VBAFF needs to feel different from VIFF.

The point being: please, dear reader, attend indie theatres more and Cineplex less. Support spaces for “high” art, and spaces for “low.” Together we can build a Vancouver where no one, ever again, has to sit through Gear Guide with Marc Saltzman.

Hannah Cheramy in The Hollow Child.

VBAFF’s closing day eschewed the pre-feature shorts and wandered straight into the woods with The Hollow Child, the sort of movie, for my money, that makes Telefilm look bad. It’s a low-budget exercise in rehashing the usual supernatural possession beats, complete with a thirty-years-ago prologue and, yes, a reclusive shut-in who initially seems insane but may actually hold the key to etcetera etcetera. If it’s an exercise, it’s not a half bad one: the production design is a standout, the actors have some chemistry, the story is tight, and the supernatural force has a bit of character to it. But why make these movies? The U.S. does them frequently and better, they all end up undifferentiated on some streaming platform, and they always seem to erase the sense of place that so well serves the best Canadian flicks.

There’s some wit to the basic premise: rebellious teen Samantha finds herself forced into appreciating the perspective of her distraught mother when the family’s youngest goes full Damien and Samantha is suddenly caring for a more-or-less literal demon child. And the nature-based menace is an under-used trope in an over-done genre, recalling the lunatic fun of William Friedkin’s forgotten druidic flick The Guardian, or the more recent The Hallow. But as you watch the shut-in character beckon the frightened protagonists into her house late in the second act, taking one last fearful look around as she pulls the door shut behind them, it’s hard not to wonder why you’re watching this scene again.

Luca Villacis in Knuckleball.

Knuckleball is a good ol’-fashioned suspense yarn that’s familiar but not predictable. It’s a mashup of a few films, too. But to name them would ruin the fun of a story that happens in stages. How’s this for Canadian horror: twelve-year-old Henry’s parents are taking off together to fix their marriage, so the kid gets dumped with his grandpa, a growly old Michael Ironside, who lives on a remote farm with few modern luxuries, one neighbour, and a whole lot of manure to shovel.

The buzz around this film has partly focused on the re-teaming of Ironside with Munro Chambers, his young nemesis in the Canadian flick Turbo Kid. But on the RKSS scale, this one’s more Summer of 84 than Kid, with a slow-burning menace that builds steadily even while you’re uncertain how it’s going to erupt, or from what direction.

I’ll put the following in as delicately spoiler-free a way as possible. There’s a new strain of suspense thriller that has set itself against the meta approach of post-Scream horror flicks. These movies offer characters that act not as if they know they’re in a movie, but as if their world itself is one in which conventional genre narratives often play out. These characters have seen our movies, and they’re not interested in repeating the mistakes of the recently slashed. Fans of early Ti West films, or the mid-movie surprise in You’re Next, will know what I’m referring to, and recognize it in Knuckleball. Here, frankly, the approach eventually pushes the plot into absurdity. But by the time it does, you’ve sat through so much of this mean little thriller with a raised pulse, you’ll probably forgive it.