Phoenix FearCon 2008

Well, it took a while, but we finally came back from the dead – twenty months after our first foray into film festival founding, we returned with our second stab. This time, we’d moved to a different venue, an enforced change, since the Paper Heart art gallery, where PFFF 1 took place, had been sold to property developers. However, this time, we were actually in a real movie theater, the fabulous Chandler Cinemas, which is the only independent venue in Phoenix, and is the closest I’ve seen to the late, lamented Scala back in my London days [they’re playing Cannibal Holocaust next weekend]. This new home was a marked improvement in several ways – most notably that, unlike the Paper Heart, we did not have to spend three hours taping garbage-bags over the windows to try and keep out the daylight. We did not miss that one little bit.

As before, we were impressed with the quality of the films submitted to us, perhaps even more so: the increasing availability of technology means that it is become easier for directors to realize their artistic goals, without the need for large budgets. The breadth of content submitted to us was also a delight, with everything from cheesy B-movies through atmosphere-driven pieces to hard-gore horror, and even a short by Oscar-nominated animator, Bill Plympton, which was a real honor. We tried to squeeze as much in as possible, though in another lesson learned from last time, we did allow larger breaks between the programs, for bathroom trips and for people to check out the vendors, etc. whom we had set up in the main foyer [they also benefited since the evening of our event also had Rocky Horror and Lobster Man from Mars screenings].

After getting some training from Andrea, the co-owner, I spent most of the day up in the projectionist’s booth, swapping out DVDs as necessary and fiddling with the aspect ratio on the projector: I felt like the Phantom of the Opera up there, though that might be in part because of the chandeliers which were lying in one corner of the room. I resisted the urge to throw them from my lofty perch onto the crowd below. It did get pretty warm up in there, though that may in part have been all the rushing about I had to do: in an awkward bit of planning, the switches for the house-lights were probably about 50 yards and down two flights of stairs from my station, which made for plenty of exercise over the course of the day.

Business started slowly, even if we thought that moving from a Friday to a Saturday would mean most people would be there from the doors opening at noon, While we did have more present for the first screening, people continued to arrived right up until the final movie, which started at 11:30pm. All told, I think we had about 150 people in attendance, a number with which we were very happy, especially as when scheduling the event, we hadn’t realized it was a holiday weekend – in an Arizona August, people get out of town any chance they can get.

L-to-R: R.A. Mihailoff, Scooter Harris of Studio Hadra, Stephen Strange (at bottom), Count Smokula and Mother Fakir

We had some special guests, in the shape of R.A. Mihailoff, who played Leatherface in the third Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie, alongside some guy called Viggo Mortensen (Mihailoff also used to be a pro wrestler, so two of our favorite things in one, right there!), as well as the marvellous Count Smokula, a 496-year old accordion-playing vampire from Smoksylvania, who has composed songs for an appeared in a number of Troma movies. He entertained the crowd between movies, winning them over from an initial reaction of “What the f…?” – which was pretty much our reaction too, when we first met him a few years back! The Strange Family Circus, with their carnival sideshow act, also helped keep the audience amused.

I did make it down out of the booth now and again to chat to people. I particularly enjoyed speaking to Eben McGarr, director of Sick Girl – turned out his brother very likely knew Chris, two decades ago, back in New York! [They knew a lot of the same people and frequented the same places, but we’re still trying to establish a final connection] Speaking of names from the past, I was also genuinely astonished by Hal – just like me, an expat Brit who moved to Phoenix and married an American – who pulled a stack of TC’s, numbers one through seven, out of his bag, triggering an instant, massive burst of nostalgia. It’s moments like that which make the whole event worthwhile.

But, make no mistake, it’s a lot of hard work. Even with help from a variety of sources, we were utterly exhausted by the end of the day – I ended up lying down for five minutes on the floor of the projection booth, because that was the only way to stop everything from aching. Wisely, we’d booked a hotel room just down the road, so five minutes after we left the cinema, we were in the room, and about five minutes after that, we were dead to the world. As with the first event, it’ll likely take us a bit of time to recover [we’ve very glad it’s a long weekend, so we have Monday off!], but all things being equal, it won’t be long before we are looking forward to, and planning, the third incarnation of the Phoenix Fear Film Festival, some time in 2009.

Brain Dead (2007)

Rating: B

Dir: Kevin Tenney
Star: Joshua Benton, Michelle Tomlinson, David Crane, Andy Forrest

There is an elegant simplicity here, that works in favor of the film. A bunch of disparate individuals – ranging from a pair of criminals (albeit with radically-different outlooks) to a televangelist and his intern – are holed-up in the same cabin, only to find themselves under siege from an alien parasite that takes over its victims and turns them into ghouls, hungry for flesh. I will now proceed to pad this synopsis blatantly, since there isn’t much more to the film than this – though, being honest, what do you need? It isn’t the story that’s important here, it’s the execution, and this has pretty much everything you might want from a good B-movie. Copious gore; smart-ass dialog, and just about all the female characters take their tops off, for reasons some killjoys might complain are not strictly necessary to the plot.

Benton makes a particularly-good impression as the non-psychotic of the two criminals, whose mouth is clearly responsible for getting him into trouble, and the script makes particularly fine use of sarcasm. If most of the other characters are swifly-drawn, they are given personality quirks that help them rise above two dimensions, even if the most memorable thing about them is usually their deaths. [C’mon – that hardly counts as a spoiler, does it!] The special effects are by Gabe Bartalos, who has been doing this kind of thing for the best part of 20 years, since Frank Hennenlotter’s Brain Damage, and are slick and squishy, to say the least. We even get a cameo from B-movie icon Jim Wynorski, as the local sheriff. Tenney also directed Night of the Demons, which you may remember for Linnea Quigley’s novel use of a lipstick. This is a nostalgic, entertaining throwback to that era of horror – the word “fun” is probably the best way to sum it up.

Conjurer (2008)

Rating: B-

Dir: Clint Hutchison
Star: Andrew Bowen, Maxine Bahns, John Schneider, Tom Nowicki

If you’re looking for something to put you off moving to the country, this is probably a good start. Shawn Burnett and his wife, Helen, head for a rural idyll, after she suffers a miscarriage. They’re going to build their dream home there, even though the derelict cabin on the corner of their property is ominous. with a capital Om. There’s a neighbourhood kid hanging about the place; is he responsible for the signs of life Shawn finds there? Or is the reality buried in the past of their property – which might turn out to be the house of their nightmares. While there isn’t a great deal new here, it is an effective throwback to a kinder, gentler era of horror films, where atmosphere was valued above explicit gore. I don’t hold particularly towards one kind as superior over the other; it’s really down to the execution, and neither kind requires more skill, just different kinds of skill.

Anyway. While constructed in a way only possible in horror movies, where even the windvane looming in the background has come from central windvane casting, it’s still put together with some skill. There is a particularly nice sense of build-up, with the initial sense of idyll gradually replaced by unease, which then turns into menace and dread, where even the most prosaic, everyday events can carry a sense of impending doom. Probably the main strength is a very good performance from Bowen, who is a sympathetic protagonist – for the bulk of the movie at least – dealing with events that are beyond his comprehension, and snowballing downhill to an uncertain end. Hutchison appreciates that it’s essential to give the horror a human face, especially because of its understated nature, and this help the end result to become an effective piece of work.

Death Factory: Bloodletting (2008)

Rating: B-

Dir: Sean Tretta
Star: Claudia Vargas, Noah Todd, Michelle Mousel, Shane Dean

Though still effectively executed, this straightforward slasher is nowhere near as ambitious, cinematically, as Tretta’s last film, The Great American Snuff Film, opting instead for a more standard approach to the horror genre. Six sickos are invited to a disused factory to witness the killing of an innocent, only to discover they were lured there by Denny (Todd), a Jesus-freak [with the emphasis firmly on “freak”] who needs a steady supply of victimes to feed his sister Alexa (Mousel). She was turned into a flesh-eating ghoul as the result of a chemical experoment turned wrong, and Denny has now decided to combine his religious views with her nutritional needs. But included in the party is the innocent Ana (Vargas), who is trying to find the individual who was responsible for killing her daughter, and has burrowed her way into the sicker side of the fetish underground, to get an invite to this event, where she believes the killer will also be present.

The results are solid enough, with some excellent effects work, and the performances are not bad at all: Vargas comes across well, projecting a good degree of empathy, Todd is an excellent, off-the-wall loony and Mousel has an otherworldly quality that’s almost freaky – I’d have had her pegged as a demon, more than anything human. The problem is mainly a script that sets up the characters and then doesn’t give them anything to do, except run about and get killed. Which is admittedly kinda cool for a while, but the longer it goes on, the less interesting it gets: they might have done better to hold back the revelation about Alexa’s origins, and used that to drive the plot forward in the second-half. There is a tweak that does twist things around at the end, and all told, it’s by no means bad; I just had to suppress a twinge of disappointment that it was something largely generic.

Demon Kiss (2008)

Rating: C+

Dir: Dennis Devine
Star: Elizabeth Di Prinzio, Sally Mullins, Jamie Macek, Sebastian Gonzales

If you are planning on summoning a demon, and need a sacrifice, why not call up an escort agency and have them send a girl over? What could possibly go wrong? Well, except for the demon possessing the intended victim instead, in order to continue its quest for the descendant of Mary Magdalene (Di Prinzio) – who is also working as a hooker, which I guess counts as following in her mother’s footsteps. Oh, and its capable of moving between people with a kiss. This makes the police’s job pretty damn hard, for obvious reasons, not least because one of their homicide detectives is among the hosts who are infected. So they turn to a therapist and former prostitute (Mullins) for help in unravelling the case. But who realized prostitutes were uniformly attractive, clean and sat around naked so much? Welcome to the wonderful world of exploitation cinema, with hookers called Donna and Vixen – which makes me wonder where Cupid, Comet and Rudolf are.

Yes, this is a low-rent crossbreed between The Hidden and The Fallen, except with a great deal more of that old B-movie standby, naked flesh. As Fred Olen Ray once said, nudity is the cheapest special effect because you don’t have to wait for it to be ready, there are no wires to hide and no one ever complains about it. Devine is certainly from that school, and hardly a scene goes past without breasts – or sometimes, a good deal more – being exposed. This may be a somewhat-wise move to distract you from the performances, some of which, to be honest, leave a good bit to be desired. Macek, as the detective and sometimes demonic host, is the best of the bunch, but most of the others come across more like hookers playing actresses, rather than actresses playing hookers. The effects are fairly limited, yet occasionally very effective, with the death by broom handle coming to mind there, and the script throws the odd curve-ball. For might this be a Christian exploitation flick? If the poverty-row origins are barely concealed and the results are often derisory, I still found it an entertaining-enough piece of schlock, with few pretensions beyond that.

Sick Girl (2007)

Rating: A-

Dir: Eben McGarr
Star: Leslie Andrews, Charlie Trepany, John McGarr, Katherine Macanufo

Let’s cut to the chase. The creator-provided synopsis goes, “A girl who wants to protect her little brother, fuck her older brother and torture everyone else out in the barn.” Any questions? Well, while undeniably accurate, the film isn’t quite as simplistic as this would suggest. Izzy (Andrews) is left to bring up her young brother (Trepany) after her older sibling heads off to Iraq with the Marines – both parents are absent, and the reasons for this are, interestingly, never made entirely clear, though we have some evidence for Izzy’s involvement. The only one who helps out is Barney (McGarr) a biker who plays Santa Claus at the local hospital, but it’s soon made clear that Izzy is entirely capable of fending for herself. Especially when a proto-thug at the local school decides to pick on her kid bro.

Izzy is an intriguing mix, a character somewhere between Juno and Dexter; to those she loves, she is fiercely loyal, yet anyone else had best not cross her, or the results will be horrific, in ways beyond your imagination [certainly, at least one sequence goes well beyond our imagination!] I think it’s her sheer cold-blooded approach that is the most chilling thing here, and Andrews is simply phenomenal in the role, possessing a calmness which is completely unnerving. Even when engaging in brutality of the most appalling sort, you suspect her heart-beat rarely goes above 85. She even takes time out to lecture small children on the evils of bullying, where her philosophy is, “There’s nothing wrong with hurting things smaller than you – providing you also take on things bigger than you. Then size is irrelevant.” Cold: very cold. If you want to peer into the abyss which is the very darkest corner of the human psyche, then this is low-budget cinema at its brilliant best. However, you should be aware that you might see things you will not easily forget.

The Shorts

The horror film lends itself quite well to the short subject, perhaps because it encourages a raw, stripped-down approach that gets to the point economically – horror, unlike drama, usually had a clear-defined point – even though that is usually death or other unpleasant things. As with the features, we received a wide variety of shorts, covering the whole spectrum of the genre from atmosphere (The Eye of Menw) through comedy (Friday the 13th: Jason Goes Shopping) to unrelenting, gory darkness (Prime-Age), all of which had something to offer. And, hey, even if you don’t like a short, there’s another one along very shortly, since the average running-time of the fifteen we screened, was a little less than thirteen minutes. Given the number, we can’t cover them all, but here are some of the most memorable.

The winner of the prize for Best Short went to Cheerbleeders by Peter Podgursky, which was exactly on the average length, but was the kind of idea that could easily have merited a full-length feature. Two high-school outcasts are using an ancient urn for Show & Tell, but an unfortunate incident unleashed the power within, turning one of them into the ultimate monster: the most popular guy in school. There’s a dry sense of humour to it which is very engaging, and it falls nicely between Ginger Snaps and Heathers. The first part also applies to Alex Masterton’s Mr. Video, a cautionary tale about piracy, where a video-store owner has a profitable sideline, punishing those who believe downloading films is better than renting them – putting the “late” into “late fees,” as it were. Blue Mouth Madness, by Doug Mallette, has a similar moral, warning of the dangers of drugs.

The Audience Favorite award went to Genital Genocide. These categories do tend to favor local film-makers who can bring family and friends, but this was a nice piece of work, depicting the execution of an entirely unrepentant serial killer and rapist (right, above) – the urban legend about the electrocution of Albert Fish appears to have been something of an inspiration. On the darker side, Prime-Age deserves an honourable mention as Best Short, with its tale of a son returning home to confront his abusive father. But I think my favourite was Christopher Alan Broadstone’s Three Dead Girls trilogy, shown out of competition, all three parts of which succeeded admirably in creating an atmosphere that was genuinely disturbing and unsettling. Credit for that must partly go to Tony Simmons, the lead actor in each segment, who plays everything from a cop to Death himself.