A FOUR DAY INDULGENCE OF ZOMBIES, SLASHERS, PSYCHOTIC DEVIANTS (AND FEW THINGS I’M NOT SURE THEY HAVE A NAME FOR YET), THE FESTIVAL BOASTS AN ECLECTIC AND TWISTED SELECTION OF HORROR FROM A BEVY OF INDEPENDENT FILMMAKERS. AND JUST IN TIME FOR HALLOWEEN – MY REVIEWS OF THE WATERMEN, THE MILLENNIUM BUG & THE DEAD
According to the Oxford Dictionary, horror (noun) is defined as ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust.’
As a lifelong genre fanatic, I share the plight of discerning horror junkies whose need for fresh material is rarely satisfied in mainstream cinema. Recently, I had about the same reaction to the remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street as I did to the sticker price on a package of organic blueberries at Whole Foods; disheartened, but not shocked.
My nostalgia is found in the films of the ’70s and ’80s, two decades ripe with horror that is now fodder for a progressively unimaginative cog of remakes and sequels (and remakes of sequels). But I digress, and of course there are plenty of exceptions - My Bloody Valentine, The Crazies and Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead for example – but for the most part, we rely on the independent filmmakers for good old, non-homogenized fright fare.
I found solace in The Spooky Movie International Film Festival, Washington DC’s four day reassurance that horror and ingenuity still coexist in the film industry. Occurring two weeks before Halloween (October 13th-16th), the Sixth Annual Spooky Fest found its home at Artisphere, a multifaceted urban arts center in Arlington, VA. Of the 14 features and 28 shorts filling its tight and diverse schedule, I was able to screen 11 of them (see my reviews of our top picks starting with The Watermen), a marathon from which my sensibilities are still recovering.
Since its inception in 2006, the festival has garnered increasing recognition as the go-to platform for independent filmmakers promoting their works in horror, sci-fi, and a few genre-bending gems in between. Founder Curtis Prather has harnessed the work of select talent from England, Japan, Canada and the U.S. in a genre that has been screaming for a festival presence in the Washington-Metro area for many years.
Ranging from the stylized acid-trip of opening night’s frenetic Helldriver to the eerie minimalism of the ‘found-footage’ intensity in Skew, the sexually twisted Little Deaths to the cerebral PIG, this year’s selections undoubtedly covered the spectrum of ever-expanding sub-genres (including a free, family friendly screening of the 1951 James Arness classic The Thing From Another World). Even a musical worked its way into the schedule with Troma’s heavy metal vehicle Mr. Bricks.
With local TV personalities Count Gore De Vol (legendary host of Creature Feature), Karlos Borloff, Doctor Sarcofiguy, special guest and star of the quirky festival short Bugbaby Mink Stole (Pink Flamingos) and an unprecedented number of producers, directors and actors who were present to discuss their films, The Spooky Movie Festival presented its most fearsome lineup yet.
Director Matt Lockhart is in tune with his target audience. His confidence is abundantly clear in The Watermen, an homage to innovators like John Carpenter and Wes Craven whose respective films The Fog and The Hills Have Eyes have an oddly symbiotic presence in this story about a group of well-to-do twenty-somethings stranded on a luxury fishing boat in the Atlantic Ocean. After heading out into the mouth of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay for some R & R, six friends run in to trouble when an engine fire renders them dead in the water. It’s not long before a rusty old trawler responds to their distress call – unfortunately, these local watermen (who make the guys from Deadliest Catch look like yuppies) don’t take very kindly to people outside of their Guinea clan. After being drugged and detained in the bowels of the creepy fishing boat ( a veritable floating torture chamber), their numbers begin to diminish in some pretty graphic scenes of dismemberment (and a little cannibalism) as the group tries to avoid becoming crab bait. Replete with the typical horror devices of the ’70s and ’80s (gratuitous T & A, gore and requisite ignorance that’s expected from a few expendable characters), The Watermen has the claustrophobic ambiance of Hell Night, the pacing of Friday the 13th, the brutality of Wrong Turn (I also felt a hint of Aja’s High Tension) and the local culture of Virginia’s Guineamen, descendants of settlers on the Chesapeake Bay. Shot entirely on RED digital technology, Lockhart wraps this salty beast in a tight 92 minute package, a maritime nightmare that is likely to be more effective in curtailing crab pot tampering than The Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The Watermen premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and stars Jason Mewes (Clerks, Feast), Richard Riehle (Office Space),Tara Heston and Luke Guldan.
THE MILLENNIUM BUG
New Year’s Eve, 1999. Like The Devil’s Rejects dropped into Land of the Lost, The Millennium Bug is an unlikely genre hybrid that went through almost a year of production before a single actor was seen on set. As the company name No CGI Films might suggest, this production was strictly hands-on, a project that writer/director Kenneth Cran handled with the painstaking TLC of a burgeoning – if not extremely warped – Jim Henson. Though not The Dark Crystal, this distinctly palpable, undeniably schizophrenic freak show is often as resourceful as it is insane (eat your heart out, Robert Rodriguez); an amalgam of horror, comedy and…well, family values if you’re a member of the Crawford family, a psychotic, inbred group of hillbillies residing in the Sierra Diablos Mountains. After Pearlene Crawford (Ginger Pullman) gives birth to their child (sparing the imagery, it doesn’t go very well), Billa (John Charles Meyer, in a crazed and disturbingly spunky convergence of American Gothic and Two Thousand Maniacs) is dead-set on finding a wife that he’s not related to. Enter the Haskins, a suburbanite couple who, with their teenage-adult daughter Clarissa (Christine Haeberman), go camping in the neighboring woods to avoid the anticipated Y2K hysteria. Oblivious to the hostile environment, their impending abduction by the Crawfords won’t be the worst part of their night, as we’re already aware of the prehistoric beast that’s itching to emerge from its millennial hibernation to devour everything in sight before daybreak. The delightfully unrefined events that follow in this half old-school, half contemporary bloodbath are a creative rebellion against an industry ensconced in CGI. From the lunacy of an impromptu redneck wedding to ravenous dinosaur babies (don’t forget the humanoid chained up in the basement), The Millennium Bug revels in its own absurdity and the anything-goes mentality of a world gone mad.
British writing/directing team Howard and Jon Ford had a hell of a time surviving The Dead (details in my interview with Howard), a zombie picture shot in 35mm against the sweeping landscapes of Western Africa. In an environment as harsh as it is breathtaking, the premise – a viral outbreak of unknown cause and magnitude – is an allegory for the all-too-real plight of much of the region’s population. Filmed on location in Ghana and Burkina Faso, The Dead follows American Air Force Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman, Smallville) after his plane crashes on the coast of West Africa. Unaware of the epidemic’s global impact, Murphy is desperate to find a way back to his family stateside. As Murphy navigates the unforgiving terrain and an endless sea of walking dead, he encounters Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), a soldier determined to make it back to his son. Arousing both dread and compassion, The Ford Brothers’ devotion to forging a relevant story is evident in a horror film that derives its fear from reality. Whether a zombie flick masquerading as a road epic or vice versa, The Dead is the most ambitious of festival entries in depth and scope, a visionary, dystopian nightmare that would make Romero proud – and maybe even a little envious.
TRR Film Festival Revue by Michael Parsons
Click here to read my reviews of PIG and Skew including interviews with the filmmakers as my coverage of the 2011 Spooky Movie International Film Festival continues…