The Stanley Hotel, peering ominously down on the small town of Estes Park, nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, is undoubtedly a perfect locale for a horror festival. The 110-year-old hotel’s widespread claim to fright fame is of course having been the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel, and its local popularity is in large part due to its ghosts. And while I sadly didn’t witness anything supernatural, there was plenty of spookiness to behold—cinematic and otherwise—during the kickoff edition of the four-day Stanley Film Festival (its tagline, after all, is “Yeah, It’s Creepy”).
Suitably, a film about the threat of danger within the “safety” of one’s lodgings was selected to establish the mood on opening night. The Purge, James DeMonaco’s hotly anticipated (at least by me) home-invasion thriller, envisions a not-so-distant future (2022) in which all laws are lifted one night a year in order to keep crime, homelessness, and unemployment rates low. Some choose to cleanse themselves of evil thoughts and desires by transforming into cold-blooded murderers, and others, like the Sandins—father, mother, teenage daughter, and tween son—prefer to lockdown for a quiet evening in, which should be a secure enough option considering that Dad (Ethan Hawke) is responsible for selling most of the home-security systems in their deceptively friendly suburban neighborhood. But the son opens his heart (and the family’s front door) to a homeless man, who, as it happens, is serving as the evening’s prey for a group of bloodthirsty preppie hooligans—and they will stop at nothing to get to him. The film (opening June 7) is entertaining enough as far as mainstream horror goes—and Hawke gets to kick some pretty serious ass—but it’s certainly no Sinister.
Over the long weekend, the programming in general was solid, if a bit obvious (at least for those who travel the horror-fest circuit). Going in I had already seen 17 of the 24 features on offer; leaving I had seen them all (and most of the shorts, too)—something I will probably never be able to say again about a festival… Of the two dozen some were notable films coming soon to a theater near you, such as Maniac (which took the fest’s audience award), All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (seven years late, but we’ll take it!), V/H/S 2, Berberian Sound Studio, and others not so notable: Black Rock, Frankenstein’s Army, The Rambler. Also, Larry Fessenden’s latest, Beneath, which was made for the cable/satellite channel Chiller TV (the fest’s main sponsor), had its world premiere. It’s a diverting film with a creature too silly to be threatening. But no matter—this was one of the many selections on offer that believe humans are the worst kind of monsters.
Big Bad Wolves
That definitely applies to Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves, the high point of the lineup for me, which I had seen a week earlier at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film (just acquired by Magnet!) is Israel’s second horror outing—the first being the writing-directing duo’s equally impressive 2010 Rabies. Wolves is an extremely well-made work that cleverly toys with genres (blending elements of horror, crime thriller, revenge drama, and black comedy) and with the audience’s emotions, making them unsure of what to believe and feel throughout. It’s the story of a child-killer, whom an early scene may or may not be introducing as a group of cops attempt to bully their suspect, a wimpy-looking schoolteacher, into admitting his guilt. After they fail, one of the cops (Lior Ashkenazi), now on suspension, teams up (in a sense) with the father of a girl who’s been brutally murdered and employs even harsher tactics to break the guy down. It’s surprising that a film this memorable—and one that manages to make even oh-so-tired scenes of basement torture feel somewhat fresh—didn’t take first prize for the audience award. (It came in second.)
On the weirder end of the spectrum was Hajime Ohata’s debut feature Henge (Metamorphosis), a not-even-hour-long low-budget Japanese horror/sci-fi oddity (which played between two shorts). It’s an intriguing tale of what true love will lead one to do. A woman watches as her husband is afflicted with some sort of freakish illness that makes him behave oddly to say the least: symptoms include seizures, speaking in an unknown language, and literally transforming into a monster that feeds on human flesh. The devoted wife must choose to what lengths she will go to protect him.
The inaugural Visionary Award, in the shape of a giant axe, was presented to Eli Roth (shivers—of the wrong kind) on closing night, followed by a screening of Nicolás López’s Aftershock (which was released May 10) and an unrated director’s cut of Roth’s 2002 Cabin Fever. Starring and co-produced and co-written by Roth, Aftershock is tolerable for its overload of intensity and gore, and it’s another of the films delivering the message that people are the scariest monsters of them all. In this case, sadistic inmates who are freed thanks to the earthquake outdo the horror of natural disasters—an earthquake, its aftershocks, and an impending tsunami—by stalking Roth (playing a vacationer called “Gringo”) and his entourage through a ravaged Chilean town. (Spoiler alert: in the film, Roth’s character is tortured and burned alive, which in my book makes it well worth watching!) To be fair, Roth did prove to be a wholly gracious guest, his energy easily livening up the room.
Equally vital as the films were the fest’s special events, many of which played on a Shining theme, with an outdoor screening of the film, a showing of Room 237, plus discussion, parties serving red rum punch, brunches offering “Here’s Johnny” burritos, and even a spot-on Jack Nicholson look-alike lurking about the grounds throughout the festival. While it’s too early to determine if the SFF will become a primarily location-based affair, they’re certainly off to a promising beginning. As program director Landon Zakheim said in his opening-night speech, “we’re just getting started.”