TORONTO (Reuters) - Forget red carpets and polite Hollywood stars. Mayhem reigns at the Toronto film festival's "Midnight Madness" movies that kicked off, literally, with an early Friday morning screening of "JCVD" in which aging action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme pokes fun at his own career.
The Toronto festival is one of the world's top movie gatherings and Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and even young Dakota Fanning will be in town walking up the glamorous red carpet at gala screenings.
But at midnight, the glitz is packed up and moviegoing gets down to dark, bloody, and outlandishly funny films that help define the range of about 300 films overall at the festival.
In the past, Midnight Madness has launched Hollywood hits such as Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and horror flick "Saw," which spawned several gory sequels.
Studio executives prey on the offbeat material for their next big hits, and the buzz around "JCVD" is pretty strong.
Van Damme plays himself, an international action hero who's down on his luck and going through a custody battle. His aging body makes it hard to kick butt, and he's in money trouble.
He heads back to his hometown to escape life, but is taken hostage in a heist-gone-awry and has to fight his way out. Sure, there's high-flying kicks, but Van Damme won fans here for a monologue he delivers addressing his personal demons.
Known as the "Muscles from Brussels," Van Damme was not among the predominantly male audience in the early morning hours on Friday, and he apologized via a brief video message.
"A really big hug to the Toronto festival," he said.
Ten films are chosen each year, and at 2008's launch, programmer Colin Geddes promised "another year of mayhem."
A documentary by Matt Hartley explores "Ozploitation" during the 1970s and 1980s when Australian moviemakers seemed obsessed with car crashes, nudity, and kung-fu.
Other titles include French sci-fi film "Eden Log," horror flicks "Acolytes" and "Martyrs," and Japanese manga-influenced "Detroit Metal City."
Now in its 21st year, Midnight Madness is akin to sitting in a large living room as audience members yell "Don't do it!" during hair-raising scenes or cheer on the hero.
Marcel Sarmiento, who co-directed one of this year's films "Deadgirl" -- a coming-of-age/horror/thriller -- said he has been an audience member at previous years' Midnight Madness and he looked forward to the audience participation.
That reaction is hugely important to Hollywood executives as they seek out the next "Borat" or "Saw." In fact, nearly 90 percent of movies in the midnight program over the last 10 years have been released in theaters or on DVD.
Sarmiento hopes he is part of that group. "We think that if they (the Toronto audience) don't like our movie then we must have made something terrible."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte