Phoenix Fear Film Festival 2006

Held: Paper Heart Gallery, Phoenix AZ – 29th December, 2006

It’s always been a dream of ours to have a film festival, and we finally got our wish on Friday, with the first annual Phoenix Fear Film Festival. Now, Arizona already has a horror event – October saw the “International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival”. But our genre seemed the unwanted little brother there: I mean, Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror a showcase film? [Though that certainly counts as horrific.] So, we opted for our own, indie version, devoted solely to non-studio movies. We’d a fine time selecting entries, as you can imagine. People send us films to watch and a submission fee? We should have one of these every month! Though, I should point out, running a film festival is far from a license to print money: we were deliriously happy not to be too badly out of pocket, even with no media adverts and guests who were either local or paid their own way to attend. But like TC: it’s a hobby, and you expect to pay to enjoy those.

The quality of work received was genuinely impressive, with only one film – which we’ll kindly keep anonymous – not meriting real consideration. In the end, we crammed six features, eight shorts, a sneak peek at Troma’s Poultrygeist, plus a live performance from Hardwire into the day. At first, it looked like a disaster, as there were hardly any paying customers present for the first film, but – to our great relief – more arrived steadily, throughout the day, and we ended up with a good turnout. More info and pics of the actual event will be found on the festival website by next week, so here, I’ll stick to covering actual content.

Below, you can find reviews of the features, and notes on the eight shorts. Roll on next year – we learned many valuable lessons from our debut for 2007’s event: not least, start planning more than three months in advance…

Caregiver (2007)

Rating: B

Dir: Dennis Devine
Star: Osa Wallander, Rebeka Montoya, Elisa Eliot, Kali Hawk

When Paige Hopkins (Wallander) begins working at a halfway house for dysfunctional teenage girls, she seems all sweetness and light. But it becomes clear that she may be far more troubled than any of her charges, with her history easily a match for any of them when it comes to abuse. Slowly, the saccharine veneer begins to crack at the edges, and as the unravelling accelerates, she becomes a threat to all those who cross her. Things come to a head when one inmate comes to realise the truth, and threatens to expose her to the authorities. Meanwhile, Paige’s past has made an unwelcome return, imperilling her from a different direction.

This is probably more psychological thriller than horror film, with blood restrained between the opening sequence and the climax. But it’s no less effective for this, thanks to a great performance by Wallander, who looks like Nicole Kidman’s evil sister. She can switch from an angel to a demon in the blink of an eye, and while the fakeness of her good side is entirely obvious – I presume deliberately – to the audience, it’s still very convincing. The writer used to work in a place like the one shown, and this might be why much of the dialogue and situations ring true, albeit in exaggerated form, naturally. My main problem is a couple of the subplots don’t quite work: there’s a suicide early on, which is creepy to watch (a naked girl slicing her wrists in the shower), but we hardly know her, so it has little impact, and nothing much results either. Overall, though, it’s a very solid piece of work, that knows its limitations, and works effectively within them.

Dark Places (2005)

Rating: C+

Dir: Guy Crawford
Star: Nessa Hawkins, David C. Hayes, Syn Devil, Ernest Melon

While not an unqualified success, there are a number of interesting ideas floating around here – the main one being that you’re never sure what is “happening”, as opposed to being the product of the heroine’s deranged imagination. For Keri (Hawkins) is a homeless street hooker who, desperate for a place to stay, ends up at the house of Luther (Hayes) and Lilith (Devil), a pair of creepy dudes whose residence is a flophouse for all manner of lost souls. However, she soon finds out this is not quite a charitable institution, and discovers some highly malevolent things going on. When she witnesses what seems to be murder, she makes a break for it: but will she be able to escape? And perhaps harder still, how can she get anyone to believe her lurid tale of ritual sacrifice?

This is an ambitious and laudable step forward, largely aiming for disturbing imagery in favour of the simple gross-out: this is a double-edged sword, because the former is much harder to pull off. Crawford manages the low-level creepiness fine, helped by an effectively sparse electronic score, but the attempts to crank things up are less successful, because we’re given no real reason to like the heroine. While Hawkins does well, in addition to Keri being a crack whore, she’s a mainly passive character: even as she’s being brutally violated by Lilith, the audience feels not particularly much, This may also be because this could just be a delusional nightmare: it’s hard to commit, when a character might wake up at any second.

I’ll not say whether Keri actually does so at the end. The film initially looks to leave that up to the viewer, then cops out with the kind of moment you’ve probably seen too often before. It’s a disappointing ending, but the film as a whole is a credible stab in an interesting direction. There’s more visual style than expected, with Phoenix looking suitably generic – I presume the aim was for Anytown, USA – yet this also possesses the lurid, neon-lit feel of a pepperoni-induced nightmare [and as I write, at 4:25am, post-pizza, I am well aware of what that is]. Despite the odd mis-step, it shows promise and suggests a new direction of much potential for future Brain Damage output.

The Deepening (2006)

Rating: C+

Dir: Jim O’Rear and Ted Alderman
Star: Ted Alderman, Jim O’Rear, Debbie Rochon, Gunnar Hansen

Troubled New York fireman Ted (Alderman) suffers from post-traumatic stress after working on 9-11. In search of a fresh start, he relocates to a small fire department in a quiet rural town. The bad dreams he endures, however, do not subside. Instead, they turn into reality, because the population of the town begins to decrease. It’s up to his friend Jim (O’Rear) to find out who is the killer: is it the sleazy colleague with a grudge against Ted? Creepy Dr. Chambers (Hansen)? Or is Ted’s trauma coming back to haunt his new location? This is intended as a throwback to the 70’s proto-slashers, which mixed sex and violence with more enthusiasm than subtlety – and on that level, it’s straightforward, with some gory kills and no shortage of nudity.

However, there’s a reason why cinematic horror has moved on since those days, and this left me yearning for something with more innovation, or even real thought of any kind. It might also have been wise if O’Rear and Alderman had delegated some of the tasks to others, rather than writing, directing and starring in their film, as some of the weaknesses apparent in all three areas might have been caught by a different pair of eyes. We did like Jim’s dialogue, which is snappily sarcastic. But why are firemen apparently obsessed with listening to the Christmas Eve speech from Apollo 8, which crops up more than once on the soundtrack? [We noticed because it’s sampled in VNV Nation’s Genesis!] That kind of thing proves an unwelcome distraction, and in a film of such simplicity, you really don’t need that.

The Great American Snuff Film (2004)

Rating: B

Dir: Sean Tretta
Star: Mike Marsh, Ryan Huttman, Melinda Lorenz, Holi Tavernier

The makers were initially discussing a premiere with one major theatre in Arizona – up until the cinema saw the film, at which point all communication abruptly ended. I kinda see their point; this is the longest 85 minutes we’ve endured in ages. Normally, that’d be condemnation of a high order, but here, the aim is to make something very difficult to watch, and it succeeds admirably. It’s an unflinching record of six days when William Grone (Marsh) and backward accomplice Roy (Hutman), captured two women and tortured them with the intention of making a snuff film, climaxing with the movie itself.

Like Blair Witch, this takes low-budget cinema weaknesses and tries to convert them into strengths: most obviously, we imagine snuff as grainy, with limited camera movement. Much of the information is also told in voice-over by Grone. This is wise; what dialogue there is, doesn’t convince and is largely unnecessary – we don’t really need to know where the murderers got their van, or hear a pair of hookers chatting. But its depiction of the mindset of a psychopath scores a number of solid hits: “I have a nervous condition that prevents me from achieving an erection when I’m with a woman. I’ve found that the problem goes away once they’ve stopped moving.” Sheesh. The hairs on my neck are paying attention.

Enormous credit to Lorenz and Tavernier as the victims, who convey the sheer horror of the experience, in scenes which must have been enormously tough to film (years of therapy beckon…), and certainly are to watch – imagine the “home video” sequence in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, massively extended in length. Restrained on gore, it makes up for this in raw intensity and downright, seemingly-endless nastiness. Rarely can cold-blooded murder have come as such a relief, for both character and viewer; this is impossible to like, but equally impossible not to respect.

Malediction (2007)

Rating: C+

Dir: Kevin R. Phipps
Star: Eric Parks, Mike Decamp, Catherine Urbanek, Laura Durant

There isn’t an awful lot new here – we’ve all seen the “guy hassled by ghost until he solves the mystery” storyline before. Yet the execution here is tidy enough to make for a decent time, with a good visual sense and some striking moments. When Jason (Parks) hears a neighbourhood house may be haunted, he and his teenage friends stage a night-time visit. From there on, Jason suffers a series of increasingly disturbing visions, that point to a terrible, undiscovered crime having been committed there, but the police find no evidence to justify opening an investigation. After he shares this with a teacher reputed to have some psychic gifts, she encourages him to make contact with the afterlife. Can Jason unravel the past and quell the restless spirit that torments him?

While a low-budget work, the technical aspects are nicely handled, and for much of the time, the makers work within the limitations effectively. Sound and music are particularly strong, and the film also contains a surprising number of well executed and integrated FX shots. The main weakness is a script which, as noted, is just too familiar, and contains some clumsy elements: if I stumbled across a blood-spattered tape hidden in a wall, I’d watch more than 30 seconds (a minute’s patience would have resolved the entire mystery). The same elements could have been re-arranged to better effect, and some judicious trimming might have helped as well. For example, one of Jason’s friends has a blood-spattered dream, an aspect which goes nowhere. Still, as a debut (apparently) feature effort for Phipps, it’s got promise, with a careful eye on the commercial side as well as the artistic one.

Watch Me (2006)

Rating: B-

Dir: Melanie Ansley
Star: Frances Marrington, Sam Voutas, Katrina J. Kiely, Celeste Barry

Spam. We all get it. We all hate it. But it’s not usually lethal. However, this Australian film is about one attachment that is more than an annoyance. It’s called “Watch Me”, and if you do as it says, you’ll encounter a red-headed woman in a yellow dress, then end up dead, with your eyes sewn shut, before the email forwards itself to everyone in your address book. Tess (Marrington) stumbles across it, as part of a college project – but as her friends end up brutally murdered after opening the message, she must team up with a trafficker in underground films, Taku (Voutas), to find the secret behind the attachment, and stop its progress. At first, we were mocking this one as “The Gring”, for it seemed little more than a hodge-podge of ideas lifted from Japanese horror films. But the more it went on, the more we realised we were actually enjoying it, regardless of the apparent lack of originality.

A big plus is Ansley’s nice visual sense, that adds significantly to the tension as things progress. It’s not a long film – less than 80 minutes – so of necessity, the story is established quickly, and things then unfold at a solid pace. The score is also worth noting, the mix of piano and harsher electronics certainly proving atmospheric. Marrington’s performance in the central role is decent, rather than spectacular, and Voutas probably has the more interesting character; while, initially, Taku seems little more than a degenerate slime-ball, by the end he’s become much more sympathetic. By the end, we’d discarded all sarcasm and were simply enjoying the well-written, creepy tale. We’ll let Ansley off with a light tap on the wrist, providing she promises to do something original next time. If so, we certainly look forward to seeing it.

The Shorts

Dir: Various
Star: Various

While the commercial market for short films remains questionable, they remain a valuable tool for demonstrating artistic talent, and we had some great examples of the format at the festival. The first movie screened was Kenny Selko’s Alone (right), about a woman trapped in a sorority house, as much by her own fears as anything else. It featured beautiful cinematography as well as a good use of music to create atmosphere. This was shown along with The Tortured Man, which had no shortage of creepy visuals, but probably would have benefited from a more coherent story, and slightly less “borrowed” music [unless The Smiths gave permission?] No. My Other Possessed Zombie Girlfriend undoubtedly wins the award for best title for the year, but Flesh-Eating Ghouls From Outer Space walked away with the festival prize for Best Short. And deservedly, too: so much warped imagination has rarely been crammed into less than twenty minutes. It’s a puppet-based tale of alien invasion, Twinkies and TV reporters. Oh, and did I mention its a musical?

Into the Flesh + Serial Cleaners were both local-based productions, with some overlap of cast and crew, and were short, even by short standards, lasting less than five minutes each. But the latter, especially, was impressive at telling a complete story despite the brief running time. The Eyes of Edward James was our Canadian entry, from Rue Morgue publisher Rodrigo Gudiño, and showcased a nice use of POV camera, to tell a story that might not have happened yet. Finally, Human No More had a disturbing, yet deeply confusing, first-half, that redeemed itself with an excellent finale, and a powerhouse performance from Tony Simmons. Like all the shorts shown, it couldn’t be described as perfect, but these eight films certainly proved a refreshing reminder that imagination is alive and well in horror, no matter what tired sequels and remakes Hollywood may prefer to make.