Last year I walked away from the Stanley Film Festival questioning whether the brand-new high-profile horror affair was more about its fabled, supposedly haunted location than a serious love for the genre. But the second edition of the fest—now produced by the Denver Film Society—proved that it had plenty of tricks up its sleeve. The programming was more inspired, the events more abundant, and the mood more festive—making for a long weekend of spooky delights far from civilization, 7,500 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains.
Doc of the Dead
As its inspiration, The Shining will most likely always be the face of the fest (next year: hedge maze?), but zombies were this edition’s guests of honor. (Note: even scarier than The Shining twins are zombie Shining twins silently greeting audiences as they exit the theater!) And kicking off the festivities was a screening of the hugely entertaining Doc of the Dead, the third part in a pop-culture trilogy by Alexandre O. Philippe, a Colorado resident who hails from Switzerland. Featuring talking-head appearances by horror-movie personalities like Simon Pegg, Bruce Campbell, George A. Romero, and Stuart Gordon, the documentary chronicles the evolution of zombie cinema and builds up to today’s strange phenomena of people of all varieties who can’t get enough of the living dead off screen—including those who make their livings by prepping clients on how to survive an anticipated real-life zombie apocalypse. The film could have perhaps benefited from a more in-depth focus on screen-zombie history, but in any case it was an apt and energetic tone-setter for the festival and its invasion of zombies, who wandered the hotel grounds, performed onstage for the opening-night party’s burlesque show, and paraded before a screening of Dead Snow follow-up Red vs. Dead (which, as far as sequels go, is not half-bad).
Of the fest’s 20 features, two stood out partly due to terrific lead performances. In Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes, a biting and increasingly gruesome depiction of the lengths people will go in the name of success, striving young actress Sarah (Alex Essoe) finds her life dramatically altered when she tries out for the lead role in a horror film to be produced by a legitimate if not wholly reputable studio. The first audition, conducted by two creepy weirdos, sends her into a dark and revealing place—with some of Sarah’s unusual, previously private habits coming in handy—and two further callbacks push her over the edge. She begins to fall apart (a disintegration not dissimilar, yet far superior, to that of the girl who catches a nasty “STD” in last year’s Contracted) as she becomes increasingly psychotic, and Essoe’s brave performance (and her own first starring role to boot) is fully engaging, even as her character disengages.
And while Nick Damici has been a reliable screen presence in bit parts (In the Cut, Cold in July) and the occasional lead (Stake Land) for well over a decade, never been so commanding as he is in Late Phases. At first he might appear too young for the role of Ambrose, a hard-ass blind Vietnam vet who moves to a retirement home after the death of his wife, but he sinks into it so completely that we stop noticing... On his first day there, Ambrose finds a mysterious claw embedded in the wallpaper, and things go rapidly haywire from there. He’s mauled and his friendly neighbor killed in a strange animal attack—and it turns out these attacks are a regular monthly occurrence, synchronized to the full moon... A thematic departure and the first English-language film for Mexico-based, Argentina-born director Adrián García Bogliano (Here Comes the Devil), this satisfying chiller is not to be missed.
Nothing Bad Can Happen
Also essential viewing—for those with a hard heart and strong stomach, anyway—was Katrin Gebbe’s impressively assured debut feature, Nothing Bad Can Happen, which, though not categorically horror, is way more haunting than many of the genre’s bona fide examples. Over the course of the film, whose title comes from biblical scripture and is divided into three parts—“Faith,” “Love,” and “Hope”—we learn that in fact everything bad can and will happen. Tore (newcomer Julius Feldmeier, quietly heartbreaking) is a lost, epileptic young man apparently without blood relatives of his own. Turning to God for support, he has fallen in with a group called The Jesus Freaks in Hamburg, where he randomly crosses paths with a seemingly generous family whose actions eventually challenge every reason why God could ever exist. The father invites him into their lives with open arms, treating him like one of the household (which also includes a teenage daughter and younger son). But the dad’s violent tendencies begin to bare themselves—and, more jarringly, the mom’s eventually do as well. Poor Torre keeps coming back for more, though, in part because of the bond he develops with the daughter, or perhaps because he just can’t stop putting his faith to the test. A devastating film, made even more harrowing in light of the fact that it’s based on true events.
Set in a poisonous domestic situation of another type is Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound. A rebellious young woman is arrested following a hilariously botched robbery attempt and is sentenced to nine months of house arrest in her obnoxious but well-meaning mom’s home. But it turns out that there are worse things than being trapped with family: being trapped with family and apparent ghosts. This is that rare horror-comedy that consistently works on both levels, even if it at nearly two hours it burns itself out. Zipping by at 80 minutes, on the other hand, was the festival’s second offering from New Zealand: the gloriously charming yet blood-soaked vampire “documentary” What We Do in the Shadows, my favorite film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award–winner here—which also supplied the best post-screening Q&A, with director/writer/producer/star Taika Waititi in person, and Jemaine Clement (who shares all the aforementioned duties with Waititi) in character, as the vampire Vladislav, Skyping from his coffin!
Additional award-winners included horror icon Joe Dante, who was on hand to accept the Master of Horror award, as well as to introduce a screening of Gremlins, and Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh Waller of SpectreVision (the horror-film production company they founded together), who were presented with the axe-shaped Visionary Award trophies. (Last year’s honoree Eli Roth’s latest film, The Green Inferno, turned out to be this year’s secret screening.) Along with the super-cool Iranian vampire flick A Girl Walks Home at Night, two other SpectreVision projects were included in the festival’s lineup. The first, Open Windows, is an ambitious, high-tech thriller starring a solid Wood as a variant of the Hitchcockian everyman-thrown-into-danger. The film’s action mostly unfolds on a single computer screen that fills the frame—and often on multiple windows simultaneously. But unfortunately Wood’s co-star is the supremely untalented porn-star-turned-“actress” Sasha Grey, and the film’s endless string of plot twists tie things into so many knots that by the end even those involved in the making of it probably have little idea what’s going on. Which is too bad: as any fan of Timecrimes knows, director Nacho Vigalondo is capable of tackling material of mind-bending complexity with simplicity and brilliance. The second film, Antonio Tublen’s LFO, also sounds way better on paper. It follows wacko Robert—a thoroughly uncharismatic protagonist—who devises a way to use sound waves to hypnotize people into following his commands, and with a larger scheme in mind recruits two of his neighbors as test patients, turning them into his little puppets. This Swedish sci-fi comedy might have taken the “what the hell am I watching?” prize had Álex de la Iglesia’s typically bizarre and visually lush Witching & Bitching not also been playing at the festival. Both films may be original, and both will find fanatical followings, but to me, after great beginnings, they ultimately seemed to go on forever.
But despite the occasional disappointment (inevitable at any festival), an impressive balance of films and events—which also included a special Stanley edition of Glass Eye Pix’s Beyond the Pale audio performance series, a crime-scene photo booth, an invitation-only 2 a.m. séance, and more—made for a manageably jam-packed four-day weekend. Unsurprisingly, next year’s dates have already been announced. The trick now will be to keep the festival from getting overrun by horror fans and makers alike wanting in on the action.