Since its inception in the late ‘70s, the Toronto International Film Festival’s success has been nothing if not rampant. It’s one of the most well-attended public festivals in the world and has proven to be a pretty decent predictor of future mainstream award success, too, with winners there often going on to sweep major Oscar categories.
But if you’re anything like me, then you know that when it comes time to TIFF, the Midnight Madness section is where the magic happens.
This was the first in 20 years that Colin Geddes—former Midnight Madness curator and current Shudder curator—hadn’t been in charge of picking the films. Luckily, Peter Kuplowsky’s inaugural lineup didn’t disappoint, with solid indies like James Franco’s The Disaster Artist and horror bangers like David Bruckner’s The Ritual making the cut.
Joining that roster this year was Ryûhei Kitamura’s genre-bending horror thriller Downrange, which will exclusively hit Shudder this Thursday.
Downrange is a film about six college-ish kids, who probably met via some sort of impersonal rideshare app, carpooling to wherever college kids carpool to—it’s not very important. While driving through a particularly desolate area (except for one big tree…), a camouflaged sniper we never learn anything meaningful about shoots out one of the kids’ tires.
Because the three college boys are all of the pretty-rather-than-useful ilk, the girls are mostly interested in half-heartedly chasing dodgy cell phone service, and the sniper is very patient, it takes longer than it should for these young people to realize exactly what’s about to happen to them. That is, that they’re about to be viciously, violently, and inexplicably picked off, hunted like animals in the wild with exceedingly poor chances of making it out alive.
They do figure it out eventually, though, and boy, is it memorable.
I don’t feel ashamed in betraying that this revelation is met with some swift killing because you’ve probably already connected those dots (though I’m never here to judge you know, you be you), and from that first climatic death, the practical gore was delightfully impressive.
I don’t want to give much away because the gore was so well-designed and executed by the makeup and effects department under head Kazuyuki Okada and well-shot under cinematographer Matthias Schubert that it truly deserves to be watched rather than read. But if you’d like a taste…
There were horribly gruesome gunshot wounds that left gaping holes, oozing with icky, sticky, thick, hot blood about it. There were exploding body parts and hungry, munching birds (guess), and horrible eyeball gore (which is a real soft spot for me), and really maybe even too much grunting and screaming from almost every single person involved.
It was a lot, for sure, but so many of the goriest moments paid off in the best way—it’s really the reason we watch these movies.
Otherwise, in some of the more expository moments when the kids were left just talking to each other (like in the beginning of the film and later, when the sniper is busy tearing into some thick-ass beef jerky) things can get a little sticky. The dialogue grew exhausting and was too on the nose at times, and though the performances were enthusiastic to be sure, they’re probably not going to win any awards about it. But in this kind of film, none of that is really the point anyway.
And speaking of things relatively beside the point, plot-wise I couldn’t shake the feeling that Downrange was a relic of an earlier time, despite being released just last year. A nameless, faceless sniping antagonist, terrorizing a group of helpless American youths for no apparent reason as they struggle to survive. Naturally, this attack sort of unites the fundamentally different individuals, who then (at least vaguely) try to keep each other alive in the name of freedom. It sure does remind you of something…
To illustrate, a story:
There’s a quiet point during the killing spree when, bloodied and battered and leaning against the only thing separating them from the promise of precisely aimed full metal jackets, these relative strangers unite in song to deliver a very depressing rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” Something that nobody ever really wanted or needed to see and something so ridiculous that it never would have happened outside of these objectively insane circumstances.
The performances aren’t important, but immediately I was transported back to my almost entirely forgotten youth. It was a day, shortly after 9/11, when all of the elementary and middle school-aged children on my school bus, including me, burst into an impassioned rendition of “God Bless the USA” along with the radio—a song that had been pumping through my rural Pennsylvanian town in the aftermath and likely hasn’t stopped. Again—ridiculous circumstances, nobody needed it, please, etcetera.
What I’m saying here is that the idea of a people united against a foreign, faceless enemy is a little…well, two-presidents-ago America. Things today are a bit louder, a bit more domestic… a bit more unfortunately dressed.
However, again, there’s no reason to go mudding around in the specifics with a film like Downrange, which was full of other wonderfully delightful things—especially once it hits its stride in the last third or so. That’s when shit starts to get nuthouse insane and kids start trying things, very bold things, uncharacteristically bold things.
In all, whether or not you want to hit play on Downrange is up to you, but I will say this: If you have an appreciation for some seriously good gore, with the only complaint being that there maybe wasn’t even enough of it to satisfy your mad desires and you’re willing to endure a little bit of trying dialogue here and there, then you can probably spare 90 minutes of your life for this movie. Right? What were you gonna do anyway? Laundry? Please.