Screamfest, L.A.'s premiere festival of horror films, hasn't made it to its 13th year by sheer luck. From humble beginnings right around that 9-11 period when nobody really wanted to see violence onscreen - or so Hollywood assumed, perhaps falsely - it's become known as the place to see tomorrow's cult hits first, from Paranormal Activity (which screened with its original, ruling-out-a-sequel ending...ah, those innocent days!) to Trick 'r Treat and The Human Centipede, whose plot I felt bad even trying to describe at the time.
It's getting tougher nowadays than it used to be for a horror fest, not because horror is dying out, but because everyone wants in. Relative newcomer Fantastic Fest has used the clout of Alamo Drafthouse, Harry Knowles, Badass Digest and an extensive media outreach to become the popular kid on the block. Meanwhile, mainstream festivals like Toronto and even Sundance use a robust selection of midnight movies to help bring in audiences who might see more obscure fare once they're there. Screamfest has responded by becoming more diverse and international: Indonesia, Switzerland, Spain and Israel are among the countries represented this year. Screamfest also has a DVD distribution label now, with previous entries Thale and American Mary represented.
It makes it more challenging for a writer to see everything, though I did fairly valiantly. Here's the lowdown on the six Screamfest films I did see, and the five I most want to. Why should you care if you're not local? Because given the track record here, they'll be coming your way shortly thereafter.
1. The Demon's Rook.
A decade or so after disappearing down a rabbit hole to Hell, a skinnyish hippie dude named Roscoe emerges from underground to battle demons who look like refugees from a GWAR concert (note: not an insult). While the demons turn random groups of partiers against each other via evil hypnotism, raise zombies from the dead, turn a construction worker into a beast and ogle gratuitously naked chicks, Roscoe reconnects with his childhood love and finds out he essentially has Jesus powers. Awww snap!
It's hard not to love these monsters, handcrafted from a mountain of latex and buckets of fake blood, all making their introductions in clouds of dry ice and spooky red lighting. It's equally hard not to wish the movie were a good 20 minutes shorter - some moments try too hard to be artsy and could be trimmed, while the leads feel misdirected (amusingly so, though). It's best when it embraces its inner Tromatons and lets the gore fly.
2. The Gauntlet.
As I love both Saw and Cube, any movie which features amnesiac strangers awakening inside a series of death traps is already off to a good start. In this case, it's a medieval dungeon, though our victims are thoroughly modern (one of them's Bai Ling, for goodness' sake). It quickly becomes apparent that all have misdeeds they are apparently here to atone for - but that to get out, not all of them can survive.
Okay, so the twists on the concept - medieval setting plus knowledge of obscure Catholic lore as an escape guide - are pretty clever, but better yet, the ending is one earned by the character arcs, and not a one-movie-fits-all "surprise" of the semi-obvious kind. Director Matt Eskandari seems to know that making the best movie you can make without thought of a followup is, indeed, a good strategy. As you'll find, not every filmmaker in the fest thinks that way.
3. The Dead 2: India.
What fans of the book wanted from World War Z is gradually being delivered by Howard and Jon Ford's The Dead series, which began by following a zombie outbreak in Africa, and now moves to India, where an American engineer and a local orphan boy must traverse a zombie-infested desert en route to Mumbai, where the man hopes his fiancee still awaits.
If it weren't for the setting, this might be an overly familiar tale...but you can say the same about Dawn of the Dead in a way, can't you? (no shopping mall = no classic?) Point is, the setting matters. The opening helicopter shot of our hero high up on a windmill is stunning, and the Indian settings give the zombie horror formula a new life - the full white-out contacts are particularly creepy on the locals.
Plus one estranged foreigner + a street-smart kid > Brad Pitt's lame-ass movie family nobody cares about.
Not 20 minutes into Savaged, our beautiful deaf heroine Zoe (Amanda Adrienne) has been beaten, tortured, raped, stabbed and murdered by a gang of desert-town bad ol' boys who generally make it a habit to kill local Indians over a long-standing Civil War-era grudge. By now, the movie may have ruled you out completely, but if not, know that what ensues is less I Spit on Your Grave than The Crow: Torture Porn Edition. En route to the afterlife, Zoe's soul bonds with that of a vengeful Indian Chief (it's goofy, but it mostly works), who sucks both of them back into her decaying body to take care of bidness on some real white trash.
Writer/director/editor/cinematographer Michael S. Ojeda used to direct reenactments on Deadliest Warrior - I'm guessing he never got the chance to do Redneck vs. Apache-Possessed Corpse, and was champing at the bit. While some of the "spirit" effects are a bit shaky, the grungy cinematography and the hardcore gore make this the best-looking of all the screeners I got to see. Whether this movie is for you will depend whether or not you can see the humor in a decaying girl replacing her own innards with rocks and sand for extra toughness, or fixing her wounds with duct tape. Oh, and then shooting a bunch of racists full of arrows. Yes, it's another cinematic heroine who loves her bow - kids got their cartoon version, tweens had their franchise...horror can have one too, dagnabit.
Escape From Tomorrow gets a lot of credit for being guerilla-filmed in Disney World, but Torment wants in on that Mickey Mouse action too - check out the familiar circular ears its chief villain wears, having ripped the head off a bootleg stuffed animal and turned it into his mask. There's a whole family of them out there in the woods, fond of similar plush heads and garden shears, and ready to exploit family tensions in the newcomers to the neighborhood by literalizing them. Seven year-old's not getting along with his new, young stepmom? Become a metaphor for that.
Director Jordan Barker does this the right way, beginning with a great hook but then letting us care about the main characters and their family dynamic before unleashing the psychos upon them. There's one scene - you'll know it when you see it - where a father is forced to break his and his son's heart in order to save their lives, and it's as emotionally brutal as the rest of the movie is violent.
Just one quibble: rather than reveal too much about his villains, Barker seems to suggest with his extended ending that he's saving a lot for a potential sequel, which is an arrogant move he hasn't quite earned yet. I'd like to know more, but I want it in this movie, not some future installment yet-to-be.