Well, to be fair, I think Rachel would probably want you to pay attention to every film at Screamfest, which opens tonight in Hollywood – but she sent me five films she felt represent the range in 2014. Now in its 14th year, Screamfest is no longer the only game in town for horror movies at a festival – even the mainstream players like their midnight movies nowadays – but it continues to be one of the best places to discover emerging genre talent, having debuted movies like Trick ‘r Treat, Paranormal Activity and Feast.
“We have not had to adapt at all,” says Rachel. “Our mission still remains to find the best in independent horror films. So we don’t focus as much on the big stuff. But of course, we do like to screen some for the fans. We mainly find the joy in helping further the careers of those yet to be discovered filmmakers, which is actually harder to do in my opinion because it is not coming straight out of a ‘midnight’ section with press and buzz already around it. It is more of a challenge but also more rewarding when they succeed.”
A horror fan so diehard she claims “I can never get burned out on zombies,” Rachel and her crew spend all year seeking out their picks, and the five she sent me to look at deliver a snapshot of indie horror today that may be quite different from what the viewer expects – with a new emphasis on international and artful films, we’re talking stuff that might have alienated the casual fan back when Screamfest started for being too arthouse. In the age of Netflix and on-demand, this is less and less of an issue, a turn which the cinephile and the horror fan in me applauds.
If you’re not in L.A., remember these five titles for later, because you will be hearing from them again.
1. Cyprian’s Prayer
Rachel says: “Here is a an example of micro-budget filmmaking, a mere $5K, done well. The director did not rely on cheap jump scares or effects. He commanded the performances from his actors to deliver the scares. We were compelled to the story. It is a MUST see.”
I’m generally allergic to the idea of an exorcism movie, but having heard this compared to Paranormal Activity, I couldn’t resist. And it’s a fair comparison – not in the groundbreaking way, but in the “make great use of limited resources” way. Sometimes a location the audience has never seen before is the best special effect, and Bulgaria looks beautiful in crisp black and white, even when the walls are bleeding and a girl’s mouth is being unsewn open.
But while Rachel is technically correct that the movie doesn’t RELY on jump scares…that’s not to say there aren’t any.
Rachel says: “I always find killer kids creepy as hell. Definitely applauded that for once cell phones actually work in a remote location. The film made good use of its location and the pursuit scenes were tense.”
No kidding. I’ve been to enough Screamfests to know that movie in which a couple of adults go out into the wilderness and must fight for their lives against delinquent teens with weapons is more than likely to be selected if it’s competently done. And hey, sometimes new stars emerge, like Magneto. Actress Wrenn Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire) shines in this one, as the potential Final Girl who may yet fail…but whose surgical skills just might come in handy when necessary.
And yes, the use of cell phones is far more creative than normal in survival horror films.
Rachel says: “This post-apocalyptic thriller chronicles a family’s struggle to survive. We were drawn to these characters and rooted for them. It is well made little film.”
The opening hook of Refuge is that yet another group of delinquent youths is about to go ransack a house, in violation of their previous rule that you never do that when families are inside. But they go anyway, and the sounds of death imply terrible deeds. Then the opening credits begin, and all of a sudden we’re being brought up to speed on a plague decimating society, and making this movie super-timely in the age of ebola paranoia.
The conflict from there ensues when a family man with a sick kid takes in a deserter from the group we’ve just seen, and his ex-pals come for vengeance. Home is trashed, and a road trip in search of safety must be taken. I was frequently surprised by the turns the plot took, and the sense of an abandoned earth is ably conveyed with some well-staged key locations and beautifully shot woods. Reminiscent of The Walking Dead, if the dead stayed the hell down.
4. Suburban Gothic
Rachel says: “We loved director Ricky Bates’s sense of humor. A fun flick with some spooky moments as well.”
This one took a little patience at first. When Criminal Minds‘ obviously thirtysomething Matthew Gray Gubler breezed onscreen with a dorky Thompson Twins haircut and the douchiest scarf ever, playing a recent college grad, I was inclined not to like his protagonist character in any way, especially when his jerky, homophobic dad that we’re supposed to hate is played so brilliantly and hilariously by Ray Wise. Neon suburban colors and tedious family dinners made it feel like an Edward Scissorhands knockoff without the blades, and the addition of goofy Latino gardeners…but then, things are allowed to get weird. Kat Dennings shows up as a bartender, Jeffrey Combs is a creepy doctor, and supernatural visions of a sentient blood cloud and screaming severed head prove hilarious and unsettling.
The whole never quite congeals into the sum of its weird parts, but maybe it doesn’t need to. And Gubler’s character eventually gets his ass kicked enough to be sympathetic.
5. The House at the End of Time
The House at the End of Time – Trailer English Subtitle from Jinga Films on Vimeo.
Rachel says: “A very inventive supernatural thriller with solid performances. I can see this film getting an English remake.”
Apparently the highest-grossing Venezuelan feature of 2013, this haunted-house tale throws you in at the deep end witha woman’s family mysteriously vanishing after some violence has obviously been done, then leaps ahead 30 years later to her being released from prisons for murders they never found bodies to…and moving back into the haunted house, now an old woman determined to uncover the secret. In true Twilight Zone fashion, she may find that her attempts to fix things actually wind up enuring that they will happen again.
It’s too bad she couldn’t summon a TARDIS.
SCreamfest begins tonight and runs through Oct. 24th. Check the official site for showtime and ticket information.