Jane Rose covers the NYC Horror Film Fest, 10/18-10/22 2006. Horror film director Devi Snively and actress/producer Ean Murphy. Picture is blurry because of alcohol consumption, most likely.
I was mildly disappointed to find that this year's New York City Horror Film Festival only had one movie by a female director. The general lack of female directors represented at most genre fests can be frustrating for people like me who think that they have a lot to offer the genre, and I can only imagine that, for whatever reason, there is a lack of women's submissions. Nonetheless, good horror movies are good horror movies, and there were a lot of those at this year's NYCHFF, interesting guests, a nice venue, and good times all around...
Jane Rose is a horror film director. Her short film "The Statement of Randolph Carter" can be found on the anthology "LoveCRacked! The Movie", and "Heading Home" was an official winner of the 2006 Pretty/Scary Film fest. Jane lives in NY.During my budding involvement with the New York City horror filmmaker's community I've found the people involved to be friendly and supportive, and this attitude is reflected at the NYCHFF where it's easy to talk shop with the attendees, be they knowns or unknowns. I've also always found it to be a very well-run and organized fest. Surprisingly, this is the first year that I've made it to the opening night party at Don Hill's, where I had a chance to chat with some of the people who would be present for the rest of the weekend. Festival organizers Michael Hein and Anthony Pepe were there of course, as well as Michael Gingold (Fangoria), Joe Mauceri (Fearsmag) and Marc Fratto and Andrew Dantonio (director and DP/AD/one of the producers of Last Rites of the Dead), among others. In my attempts to meet some of my fellow women in horror I initially ran across a bunch of weird PR types who really didn't seem to be into horror per se. Fortunately, some ladies who I knew to be true horror fans showed up including Devi Snively (director), Ean Murphy (actress, executive producer for Reel Sweet Betty filmgroup), and Bunni Spiegelman (journalist). I spoke briefly with Susie Adriensen (driving force behind NYC-based horror filmmaker's networking group Mingle Mangle), who was there with the actresses from her upcoming feature Under the Ravens Wing. Some of the women involved with Last Rites had also arrived, including Brandi Garfi (producer at Insane-o-rama Productions), Helena Inno (line producer) and Khrys Inno (zombie wrangler). Two of the Last Rites actresses, Gina Ramsden and Mary Jo Verutto, were there as well. Ray Zablocki (who made Binding Silence, which I had seen early in October at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival) was there with Jen Suarez (makeup artist) and Diana Post (library researcher for Binding Silence).
Susan Adrienson, flanked by minions, acting all cool or whatever.
Later on there were more chances for talking shop at Tribeca Cinemas, which is a great venue mainly (IMOP) because of it's large attached cocktail bar. Paula Haifley (whose short Movie Monster Insurance screened at this year's Pretty-scary Film Festival in Pittsburgh) flew in from LA on Friday just to check the festival out (even though, like me, her movie didn't make it in this year. Better luck next time!). Adam Barnick (director of Mainstream which screened at the 2005 NYCHFF) was busy with press and various other duties so I didn't get to talk to him much. Actor, NYCHFF staffer and Mingle Mangle regular Alan Gary worked the door. Michael Hein kindly introduced me to actor Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead 1978 & 2004, From Beyond, and The Devil's Rejects) who was very friendly and very tall. Later on I got to meet Grace director Paul Solet, as well as the Grace FX team from Wicked EFX based in Brooklyn.
Hot young director Paul Solet kissing a disgusting dead baby
A word to the wise for all of you female horror filmmakers out there: Saturday night Mick Garris (recipient of this year's NYCHFF Lifetime Achievement Award) was in attendance to introduce his latest Masters of Horror episode, Valerie on the Stairs and to take q & a afterwards. Paula raised her hand and asked the question that I've always wondered the answer to: Why aren't there any Masters of Horror episodes by women? Acknowledging that this issue 'always comes up,' Mick said that they'd asked Mary Harron, but that she didn't want to be considered a genre director. They also asked Kathryn Bigelow, but she was unable to do to health problems. So you know what that means: many of you reading this now had better get cracking and try to be the first! [Editor's Note: Notice how Mick Garris didn't ask Mary Lambert, the director of Pet Semetary 1 and 2. That's because she probably would have said yes.]
Gina Ramsden and Mary Jo Verutto
I attended screenings Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and saw most of what screened at opening night on Wednesday. But deserving first review is the film by the festival's sole female director this year.
Raven Gets a Life short Dir. Devi Snively Raven is a 150 year old vampire stuck in the body of a 12 year old girl, and, like Claudia in Interview With A Vampire, is pretty sick of it. She's depressed, in fact, and the first indication we have that something is wrong with Miss Raven is her presence in a psychiatrist's office (well that and her crying blood tears in a screening of Dracula). This is a cute and fun movie, nicely lit and shot with some beautiful effects. There is quirky humor throughout, like in the psychiatrist's office (his checklist has a box for 'lackadaisicality') and in the pharmacy. The best and most impressive part of the movie happens as Raven watches Dracula (again) in a movie theater, and ol' Drac himself (well played by Circus-Szalewski) turns and addresses the audience directly. Devi's reproduction of the scene from Todd Browning's original looks awesome and left me wondering how she'd accomplished it. The main problem with the movie lies in both the character's and the actress' believability as a 150 year old being. Firstly, unless vampires mature very slowly it seems strange that Raven would be wrestling with the very young adult issues of identity and purpose in life a century and a half into her existence. Secondly, Amber Burke-McDonald (Raven), though cute and fun to watch, definitely plays as twelve rather than adult, let alone semi-ancient.
I was sorry to miss Friday evening's program (I was freezing my ass off at an upstate haunted house attraction) mainly because the next day everyone kept telling me how great the short Eddie Loves You by Karl Holt was (it won the Audience Choice award), but I tried to make it to as many of the other screenings as possible. Some standouts that I did catch included:
Binding Silence short Dir. Ray Zablocki It was a complimentary choice to program Oculus and Binding Silence next to each other in the festival since they share a similar theme: guy gets a hold of an object, spends a lot of ill-advised alone time with it, and then goes crazy. In Binding Silence the object happens to be a book. The short has a Lovecraftian feel to it (I saw it win the coveted Brown Jenkin award at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival in Oregon two weeks prior) and some neat motion graphics at the end.
Deadly Tantrum short Dir. Mike Mort This Aussie flick is a lot of fast-paced, silly, bloody fun. You gotta love a deformed psychopath in striped pants and a gas mask who acts like a big, murderous baby when someone tries to stop him from killing. As in Peter Jackson's very Kiwi Bad Taste, there are a couple of regional in-jokes at the end that might be even funnier if you from Australia, but they're still pretty funny nonetheless.
Delirium and the Dollman short Dir. Andrew Lobel Nicely shot with wonderful sets, costumes and general art direction, this child's perspective establishes itself as a dark fairy tale at first but doesn't pussy out at the end, delivering instead an unexpectedly disturbing twist. The little girl characters are interesting without being annoyingly precocious. This flick has a sick sense of humor too, and one of its best moments comes when the mom's lover brings home a hog's head and we later learn that they're using it for some kind of sexual fetish. Fucked up!
Recently Deceased short Dir. Chris McInroy This one delivers a lot of laughs on a low budget, not to mention a zombie in bleached jeans, which I haven't seen since, like, 1989 maybe.
Grace short Dir. Paul Solet Sometimes the horrors exist on the outside, sometimes they reside inside you. Nicely short and paced, Grace deals with the latter type of horror. An eight- months pregnant woman suffers a terrible accident that kills her unborn child, but she is still determined to carry it to term and have a 'natural' childbirth. My favorite scene is when the mother (looking half-alive herself) is shopping in a baby store and starts bleeding on the floor. How inappropriate! The movie cuts short at the height of horror and doesn't drag on a moment too long, though I could see it being expanded into a feature (I wonder if that will happen).
Last Rites of the Dead feature Dir.Marc Fratto Taking its place alongside other zombie movies with a political message (like Dawn of the Dead or Masters of Horror: Homecoming), Last Rites deals with undead who are more than walking pieces of meat. The movie opens with Angela (Gina Ramsden) cowering in a bathroom as her ex-boyfriend Josh (Joshua Nelson) rages outside. He breaks in and fatally shoots her, but Angela doesn't stay dead. We soon learn that the recently deceased are coming back as lucid and intelligent but flesh-craving zombies, and a few of the freaked-out living are forming militias to control the problem. Before long a cult of zombie terrorists, believing themselves to be a superior life (?) form, arises, and the battle is on, leaving Angela mixed up in the middle of it all. The whole movie is very well-acted (Ms. Ramsden won the Best Actor award at the fest). Strong female characters abound, and the two armies are headed by formidable female leaders: the zombies by creepy hippie-ish cult leader The Good Mother Solstice (Mary Jo Verruto) and the living by a scary-ass bitch known as the Commandant (Christa McNamee). The two sides' stories interweave nicely in the first half, keeping the viewer interested, but the second half (after the first raid) plays a bit long despite being action-packed (two full hours does make a long movie). The zombie makeups are great and nicely varied, but the best gross-out effect happens near the end when Angela sticks a knife into Josh's crotch and digs out his testicle trailing the cord behind it. Yuck! Last Rites also won the Best Screenplay award.
Oculus short Dir. Mike Flanagan Rarely do horror movies use such simple means to create such an effective sense of dread. The story of a guy who locks himself in a room with a mirror that he believes to be haunted, Oculus may well have been my favorite thing that I saw at the festival, not to mention one of the few movies that actually spooked me. The acting (there is only one character) is great, and the character's extensive scientific preparations at the beginning of the movie add power to the later unraveling of his mind under the influence of the mirror. Technological devices (cameras, TVs, alarms, cellphones) are by turns futile or vaguely malevolent, and the mirror, a simple object, exudes evil through sheer placement and editing. The movie gets under your skin with almost no flashy effects (except at the end); it uses only a plain white room, a few objects, and good story telling. My only criticism is that it is probably a bit long, but I still couldn't complain of boredom.
Rogairi (a.k.a. Villains) short Dir. Tom Cosgrove Set in 1763, this period piece was beautifully shot with gorgeous costumes, props, and sets, somewhat reminiscent of a spookier Dangerous Liaisons. Part of the dialogue is in Gaelic (supposedly, though I have no idea what Gaelic sounds like), which is cool if not integral to the plot. While a scene in which an evil nobleman attempts to feed his murdered wife's finger to the dog before tossing it in the fire is deliciously brutal, the ending, while weird, doesn't deliver the same level of effective violence, opting instead for a fairy tale-like transformation.
The Lost feature Dir. Chris Sivertson According to author Jack Ketchum (who was in attendance at the festival and wrote the novel The Lost that the movie is based on), 'the lost' refers to the people during the Vietnam era who didn't go to college and weren't called off to war. This hopelessness is apparent in the film, which deals with Ray Pye (who is based on a real person), a charismatic teen living in a small town nowhere who eventually becomes a mass murderer. Less a horror movie than a grim drama, The Lost presents scenes of disturbing violence but backs them up with a good story and believable, well-developed characters. In particular, Ray Pye, an androgynously handsome sociopath and ladies man who stuffs beer cans in his shoes to effect the way he walks, seems like a more extreme version of people I've known, who draw you in with their charisma but end up destroying everything around them. The three female leads are not your typical horror movie bimbos but have three distinctive, interesting personalities. Nor do they fall into the typical horror movie trap of doing things only an idiot would do, even in the bloody ending scene which is in itself worth the price of admission.
Paula Haifley, director of Movie Monster Insurance, which did not get into the festival. Paula is probably drunk in this picture.
There were a few other good ones as well, but for just about every movie that was really good there was also something that left me wondering how it ever got into the festival in the first place. The least offensive examples were usually just uncreative stories about teenagers/newlyweds/cowboys/whatever ending up somewhere where they shouldn't be and running away from ghosts/serial killers/ the bloodthirsty dead-- all scenarios that, without some other element or clever storyline, elicit a giant shrug. Somewhat worse were the running-from-something movies that didn't make any sense, or left me wondering what just happened. Or maybe they did make sense, but I was just too bored to pay attention so I got confused. The hands down worst movie in the fest, though, was six minutes of a girl being tortured after driving into a scary forest and nothing more. Eventually a couple of the filmmakers in attendance and I started compiling a list of stuff we're sick of seeing that included: 1. girls getting tortured (at least without an interesting reason) 2. people waking up to find that it was a dream and 3. movies where it turns out that the victim is actually the killer.
I consider myself a pretty diehard fan of the genre, but still a lot of what passes for horror is stuff that I find to be completely uninspiring and unexciting. Maybe there's such an abundance of bad horror out there that it's inevitable that some of it will find its way into any given festival. Nonetheless, I think that the NYC Horror Film Festival does try to and generally succeeds in giving its audience smart and innovative, not to mention scary and disturbing, horror movies. I will definitely be back again next year, and looking forward to it!