Estranged Vampire Lovers and Scarlett Johansson: Two Gems from the Toronto Film Fest

Get ready for “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance, and “Under the Skin,” which stars ScarJo as a seductress who lures men into a dark house.

The movies spend the New Year catching up on the old year, as they run the Oscar gauntlet along with lesser gauntlets of guild awards and, lesser still, golden-globe thingies handed out by inebriated foreigners. But in that dumping ground of useless movies that is the new year’s winter and early spring months—an umpteenth Paranormal Activity and a remake of Robocop (what do we know? maybe they’re great)—are a couple of upcoming gems, if this past fall’s Toronto International Film Festival is any indication.

The biggest movie bash in the known world and bestriding the populist landscape between Cannes’ glitz and Sundance’s indie insurrectionism, Toronto not only routinely launches the fortunes of Oscar frontrunners (Gravity and 12 Years a Slave this year, Silver Linings Playbook, The King’s Speech, Precious, and Slumdog Millionaire in years past) but calls attention to dark horses. Starring Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt, Only Lovers Left Alive gained wider attention at Toronto following up on its Cannes premiere; Jim Jarmusch’s romance about an estranged vampire couple whose fitful reconciliation is disrupted by a visiting undead sister, Lovers aspires to rethink the horror film in much the way Jarmusch’s Dead Man did the Western.

Under the Skin got a more divided reaction in Toronto, but those who liked it (me, say) did so with enough passion to make up for those who didn’t, and even the doubters may be reliably challenged to try and forget it. A mysterious seductress (Scarlett Johansson, if you can possibly imagine her seductive) wanders an unspecified hinterlands luring men into a dark house where they’re swallowed up by…what? The black of a cyber cosmos? The inky ooze of some alien squid? Is Johansson an extraterrestrial? Or the software-lover of Spike Jonze’s wonderful new Her taking a more malevolent human form? Under the Skin is a dark dream of a movie by Brit filmmaker Jonathan Glazer who, nine months into the new century, made its best noir so far, Sexy Beast, and 2004’s controversial picture about obsession and reincarnation, Birth. Until the firing gun is sounded again in Toronto next fall, 2014 is already half over.