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[TIFF] ‘To Kill the Beast’ review: Gothic horror born of sexual awakening & female empowerment

Blurring lines.

To Kill the Beast is an atmospheric horror movie playing at the Toronto Film Festival. Emilia has moved into her aunt’s hostel following the death of her sister. She wants to reconnect with her brother Mateo and maybe even bring the whole family together again. The rest of the family are not as keen on the idea and Mateo will not even answer the phone. On top of everything else, a beast is stalking the area at night and targeting women.

The directorial debut of writer-director Augustina San Martin harkens back to Gothic literature. The focus is more on emotional and imagined terrors than visceral ones. A shot of decaying fruit is shown more than the beast, for example. This is a common technique in To Kill the Beast. There is no graphic violence or any blood. The story places doubt in the minds of Emilia and the audience.

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To Kill the Beast is more about the journey of its main character than anything else. The longer Emilia’s search continues, the more confident and aware she becomes of herself. There are hints that the women of the town live in a patriarchal society. It is a man who organizes the nightly hunts for the beast and a pair of men who try to bless the hostel Emilia is staying at. It is also hinted that the beast may be the product of the fears, hates, and anger of men.

Is Emilia's sexual awakening a product of the environment?

This may be the biggest issue with the film. Its meaning is very muddled. A story does not have to lay everything out. The best ones allow the audience to think on the themes and ideas presented. To Kill the Beast has plenty of teases, but does not go far enough to help audiences to make any connections. This ends up affecting the characters. How much has Emilia truly changed? Has her aunt Ines fought back since the arrival of the beast or has it been ongoing.

Are the women of the movie as free as they are due to their proximity to Brazil? Is the beast a manifestation of female desire or power? If so, why is it hurting women instead of protecting them? Is Emilia’s sexual awakening a product of the environment or truly how she feels? To Kill the Beast touches on all of these ideas but never provides clear answers. It is very frustrating.

Ultimately, that may be part of the movie. The camerawork is beautiful, looking simultaneously gorgeous and stifling at the same time. The look of To Kill the Beast brings an oppressive tone that adds mystery. There is a natural intrigue to the setting and the plot may also be more about asking questions than providing answers. This will end up impacting people’s final opinions.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place virtually and in person from September 9 – September 18

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