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Ashley Bell in The Last Exorcism

How do you triple your audience in four years?

Start with a raft of blood-spattered, chill-inducing indie flicks covering sci-fi, horror and the supernatural. Make sure your opening-night includes cast, crew and sea-monster masks. Oh, and did we mention the ticket discounts for the living dead? (More on that later.)

This black-magic recipe is working for Toronto After Dark. The fifth edition of the spooky little genre fest, which opened Friday with the slapstick slimefest The Last Lovecraft: the Relic of Cthulhu, includes 16 features, as well as 16 scary Canadian shorts and nightly pub covens (perfect for "dissecting" the evening's flicks). For the first time, there's also a blood-red-carpet premiere.

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Eli Roth and cast members of The Last Exorcism (which opens in theatres Aug. 27) will be in the house for the film's Toronto premiere Monday night. Roth, who produced Exorcism, is widely credited with changing the horror game. His hit directing debut Cabin Fever ignited a bidding war among distributors after its premiere at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness program. He then went on to make horror hits Hostel I and II.

A guest like Roth is a dream come true for Adam Lopez. The director of After Dark (who set up his first sci-fi and horror-film club in high school) got the idea for a Toronto festival after seeing the growing popularity of the Midnight Madness program at the Toronto International Film Festival and Montreal's massive genre-fest Fantasia.

"For a long time genre festivals were for geeks, punks and outcasts," Lopez says. "But, increasingly, mainstream festivals have added programs for this audience, because they realize genre fans have great taste and want to see foreign and independent films - the kind Hollywood doesn't make and that the After Dark team is dedicated to finding."

A case in point is Phobia 2, a Thai horror anthology Lopez says will totally freak people out. "Two years ago we programmed Phobia, four scary little tales that had people jumping out of their seats," he says.

In the sequel there are five stories. "The thing with genre audiences is that they've seen everything before, particularly Western-style commercial horror films that, I hate to say, are geared to the teen market. So something genuinely terrifying, with an Asian sensibility and different types of characters and styles of editing and not starring Hollywood actors, is a delight."

Lopez is doubly delighted that Centurion, the latest film from Neil Marshall ( The Descent), anchors a strong British group at this year's festival, which includes demon thriller Heartless (marking the return, after 14 years, of cult director Philip Ridley), medieval witch-hunting chiller Black Death (from Severance director Chris Smith) and the cult tickler Doghouse (Jake West), with its politically incorrect premise that all the women in small English town become man-eating zombies.

Which brings us back, at last, to the living-dead discount. After Dark has teamed up with Toronto Zombie Walk (the eighth annual event is planned for Oct. 23) to offer Zombie Appreciation Night, which starts Saturday at the stroke of 7 with Doghouse, followed by Yorgos Noussias's Greek gorefest Evil - in the Time of Heroes, starring Billy Zane.

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"When I came to Toronto I soon realized this is a city of zombie-loving maniacs who demanded a night of their own." Lopez says. After Dark hacks $5 off the $13 single ticket price for zombies - just its gruesome way of giving back to the community.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs Aug. 13-20, Bloor Cinema.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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