The Third Annual New York City Horror Film Festival
by Barry Meyer
The big one for horror fans features some great original horror films. Check out the offical site here.
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Picture this… you’re walking down a dark, wet downtown New York City street and you come across a young lady dressed in a nurse uniform. Not all that strange, until you notice that her bright white nurse’s outfit she’s wearing is about two sizes too small for her, and it’s accessorized by jet black army boots — which match her jet black hair, and compliment her bright red lipstick. Weirder still is that she’s followed by a guy with disheveled clothes and caked-on blood covering his forehead and shirt.
Okay, so this isn’t all that strange for New York City—at all! Especially when you’re outside of a bar where the kickoff party to the 3rd annual NYC Horror Film Fest is being thrown.
Inside Don Hill’s (a nice little hole in the wall kinda bar, nestled about a car horn blow away from the Holland Tunnel) the party got to a quick start. I’d arrived about quarter past 7:00 to pick up my press pass and scope out the party venue and get settled in. I was met by very dapper looking little guy standing outside, wondering about what time we were all allowed to enter. His name was Michael, and he unabashedly explained to me that he was an actor in one of the films competing in the festival. He mentioned that wasn’t even aware the film was ever entered into the fest in the first place until his mother called him up that morning to tell him so. It seems that the film’s director phoned Michael’s mom in search of his lead actor, wanting him to make an appearance at the horror fest and schmooze the crowd. Michael was interesting to say the least, and I made sure to speak with him later.
Inside, card-carrying horror fans, busy press passers, and ecstatic cast, crew and directors all milled about, bubbling up some good ol’ fashioned horror fever. Michael Hein, the festival director, took the mic and welcomed the gore-loving crowd to the Halloween-themed bash, and assured everyone that we were all in for some good spine-chilling fun. Before he could say “boo!” the party-goers ascended onto the bar for the unannounced open bar—which turned out to be just free bottles of Rheingold Beer (the stuff tastes like piss, but—but hell! it’s free!!)—and they all got to feelin’ good.
After doing an on-camera interview with a guy from ScreamTV, about what scares me, I sat and talked with Michael for a while. He was a real interesting guy with a great zeal for film and theater. Michael couldn’t have been much more than 4.5 feet tall, but he had a huge personality. He told me about the short film he was in — Stickers — “an elementary school thriller,” in which he plays the bad guy.
He’d also told me about his obsession with everything Oz. He’d watched the classic Judy Garland Wizard of Oz for the first time as a kid (by the way, when the ScreamTV guys asked him what scared him, he told them “the flying monkeys”) and became instantly obsessed. “Ebay is excellent!” Michael smiled as he listed all the OZ stuff he’s collected, including videos, comic books and toys. Watching Oz also gave Michael the acting bug, and he took to the stage in various plays and musicals, and eventually played the role of the Cowardly Lion, as well as the much feared flying monkey, in several productions of Oz.
So in love with all things Oz, Michael is now mounting a one-man show based on his obsession and experiences with the Frank L. Baum stories. I wish him good luck and success on that.
I gotta say the venue for the party was not the best for those people who wanted to actually see the first ten short films scheduled to kick off the event. Picture this—remember those screens that Mrs. Abernathy, your 3rd grade teacher, used to show those funky educational films on? You know — the ones with the flimsy tripod with a heavy metal tube on it that you pulled the screen up from. Now, picture that you’re standing in a crowded room trying to see that screen over the heads over every person in NYC who stretches up over 6”2’. Not the best film viewing situation—especially if you’re a guy under 5 feet tall, like Michael.
First film up was I’m Here, a five minute thriller directed by Brad Olery from Washington DC. Now, I could only see the top of the screen, but I could read the programs notes on it, and it described that I’m Here was about a girl who finds herself locked in a small dark space, using her cell phone to try and get her boyfriend to save her. From the enthusiastic reaction by the tall folk in front of the screen, the films climax seemed to have been pretty twisted. I wouldn’t know though.
What played next, I couldn’t say, cuz I was trying to find a more advantageous spot for Michael to see the screen. It turned out that the only spot open was right next to the friggin’ screen, so we had to watch the next short William Cicchino’s Quiche Lorraine from a very demented side angle. What I did see was a lot of creeping around dark rooms and long stair cases, culminating in a comic payoff ending. I was getting a headache. Not from the film, but from the impossible angle for which I had to watch it. Again, the crowd seemed to dig it all up.
After another band and another round of Rheingold’s came three more shorts, preceded by a trailer for some upcoming retro-gore and action DVD releases from Blue Underground. Stolen Shadows, a unique looking experimental animation short from Yuki Nakajima, told the trippy story of a girl who happens upon a witch and ends up being sent on a weird mind-trip. Following that was The Doll Collector, a very very short thriller from New Yorker Annetta Merion. We were warned that this flick was gonna be quick, but before I could get a good view of this one, it was all over, and the next flick rolled.
The G.I. was probably the most impressive short that I saw that night. Directed by Mike Nelson, The G.I. is an atmospheric creeper about a WWII American sharpshooter who gets separated from his troop in the frosty European woods. The lone soldier crawls and scampers across the snowy terrain; picking off the nasty Nazi’s and trying to find his way back to his squad. Soon the brave soldier realizes that there’s something else out there lurking about that may prove to be even scarier than the Nazi’s who are hunting him down. Nelson does a fantastic job creating a creepy mood with wide shots of the barren snow covered country side, and frenetic action-camera work that blurs the world which envelopes the G.I. in a white blanket of fear. The only disappointment in this flick was the anti-climatic ending. It’s very apparent what the climax will include, so when it finally gets to it, I was left in the lurch, wanting just one more bang. Still, The G.I. was more than successful.
Another band took the stage, but I was pretty much tapped out on the whole night. The crowd was very enthusiastic (dressed in some inspired Halloween costumes), the bands were energetic, and the films were fun… but I was loosing steam and jonzing some pizza to sop up the Rheingold swill that was swimming in my belly.
Heading for the door, though, I spied a director that I’d recognized from a great indie-horror flick I had reviewed. Director’s aren’t the most recognized people, especially virtually unknown directors — but trust me, if you’ve seen I’ll Bury You Tomorrow, you won’t forget this guy. He played a memorable gender-bending key part in the flick that he also wrote and directed.
Alan Rowe Kelly was poised on his bar stool exuding some feminine charm that could rival any scream queen from the glory gory days of the 60s horror screen. I wanted to stop by real quick to let him know that I really enjoyed his Jersey-lensed low-budget splatter flick, fully expecting that he’d thank me and I’d be on my way out to the PATH trains home in no time at all. But to my surprise Kelly recognized my name from the review I did, and he was greatly appreciative of it. We ended up talking for a quick spell about his film, and about the trailer that was just shown for a flick he was co-starring in—Dead Serious. When Kelly’s face flashed across the screen it got a tremendous round of cheers and applause. Deservedly so. Glad to see he’s getting a good rep in the local indie-horror scene.
Unfortunately, the volume of the band was not conducive for friendly conversation and Kelly and I couldn’t hear much of each other. I did find out that he’s working on a new creeper—the title, if it was given, was lost in a power chord from a band called (I believe) Butt Sex Jihad. Kelly said he was having some budget issues that needed ironing out, but should be back to work on it soon. Fortunately, Kelly will be around the fest for its entirety, seeing that he’s on the panel of judges for the contest. I look forward to speaking to him more.
That was a wrap for the opening night shenanigans. I wanted to see the rest of the flicks, but I quickly realized that to so meant hanging out as the next couple bands—Secret Crevix and Sasquatch & the Sick-a-Billy’s—had their way with me. The swill in my gut was crying out for that pizza, so I was out the door onto the wet NYC streets again.
…by the way, the pizza did the trick. I’d give them a plug, but I was too involved in my munching to notice the name of the place.
The New York City Horror Film Festival is just three years old, but it’s quickly found recognition in the Horror world, with major players donating their time and knowledge to help festival director Michael Hein build his wonderful monster. The list includes FX genius Tom Savini, Troma sickie Lloyd Kaufman, drive-in hillbilly Joe Bob Briggs, horror directors Larry Fessenden, Bill Lustig, and Jeff Lieberman, as Sleepaway Camper Felissa Rose… and oh yeah, the Toxic Avenger, too!
NYCHFF has also gotten some tremendous support from the independent film community. The Independent Film Channel has been a dedicated sponsor since the fests first screenings in 2002. Rue Morgue Magazine, and Cinemascope Magazine have been there all along too, and this year they’ve been joined in support by Blue Underground distribution, and MTV Films, as well as a host of others.
The 3rd annual festival line up features nearly 40 shorts and 5 feature length pictures up for awards in several categories, including Best Feature, Best Short, Cinematography, Acting and Makeup. Filling out the roster are some noncompetition screenings of Rankin and Bass’ Mad Monster Party, Jeff Leiberman’s Satan’s Little Helper, a restored edition of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the NYC premiere of Tobe Hooper’s new version of the classic splatter flick The Toolbox Murders.
This year, the NYCHFF was pleased to announce that the recipient of their 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award will be legendary horror writer/director Tobe Hooper. Hooper changed horror cinema with his groundbreaking 1972 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and from there on in he’s helmed over 35 feature films and TV projects. Some of those amazing films include Poltergeist, The Funhouse, Salem’s Lot, and Lifeforce, Showing no signs of slowing down, Tobe Hooper is back with a vengeance with his updated version of The Toolbox Murders. The highlight of this year’s NYC Horror Film Fest is that Mr. Hooper will be in attendance to accept his award and participate in an audience Q&A session following the screening.
Sounds like a good weekend for horror fans in the NYC area.
Program One, with a lineup of 4 shorts and a feature length flick, was held in the Tribeca Screening Room at the popular Tribeca Film Center in Greenwich Village, and were dedicated to Screening Room manager Barry Manasch, who’d passed away just a couple weeks back.
Starting the night out was BLIND, a short action/thriller directed by Kristoffer Aaron Morgan, who also co-wrote the script with Eric Vespe. BLIND is fine enough actioner, but it’s really not much more than and inspired take on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer… except it’s Bob the vampire slayer (okay, the character’s name was really Vessar, but that just didn’t sound funny enough). It doesn’t amount to much more than a standard Buffy opening sequence, where the vampire slayer finds herself in an unexpected face-off with some living dead thing. But BLIND does feature some niftily shot fight sequences, and even more impressive makeup FX. It’s nothing mind blowing, but supplies some good fun for its 13 minute duration.
TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL was clearly the most polished piece of the night, introducing itself with a distinguished wide screen Universal Pictures credit. This hysterical teen parody of the Faust story is about a teen heavy-metal enthusiast, Todd (Steve Arbuckle), who seeks dating advice from the Prince of Darkness after the schools stoned losers take to calling the acne-scarred geek a “loser!” He just wants to be popular like ex-nerd turned super-jock, Jason Valentine (John Bregar), but ends up unleashing the fury of hell to win the heart of the head cheerleader. Director/co-writer (with Max Bernard Reid) nailed the sharp humor perfectly, sidestepping the tired parody shtick of the Scary Movie vein (or even Cabin Fever) by injecting TODD with some earnest satirical Heather’s-like cleverness. My favorite line of the night came when the cheerleaders lamented their injured hunky basketball star, who’d been put out of commission by a rogue bus— “Why do all the hot guys have to be the one’s run over by the bus?”
Some trivia for you Degrassi fans out there: not only did the popular teen drama’s production company (Epitome) provide their sound stage, but they loaned out two of their cast members. Degrassi regular Shane Kippel, aka Spinner, has a bit part as one of the B-ball team members, along with John Berger, who plays the love interest for one of the gay Degrassi kids.
DEAD LINE is an effective short creeper about a temp worker (Dagney Kerr) hired to answer phones for a washed-up import business. The building where she works is practically abandoned, but in an attempt to appear active, the company has hired temps to answer their phone in the rare chance that it does actually ring. One quiet night the phone suddenly does ring. The temp on duty picks it up to hear a disturbing plea for help from a coworker who has mysteriously disappeared. Terrified by the persistent calls, the temp implores the pasty-skinned cleaning lady to help her, but the bitter hag ends up locking the girl inside the vacant building, leaving her trapped and on her own in her search. Director Carolyn Townsend cleverly fills the short nine minute story with some genuine eeriness, providing bona fide chills — but it appeared that TODD’s polish may have edged this one out of the spotlight when it comes time for voting the “audience favorite” award.
WIDE AWAKE TO NOTHING is a stylish parable set in an enclosed, bleak Orwellean future. Carter (Erik McDowell) works in a severely oppressed industrial factory, trying to move his way up the ladder, as his fellow workers dream of a life “outside.” When he catches an employee smuggling contraband into the shut-in factory workers, he begins to question his meaningless existence and pushes the limits of faith and logic by venturing into the forbidden “outside.” I was surprised to find that this effective sci-fi story, with echoes of Bradbury and Orwell, was actually a student production. The photography alone could hold a sturdy candle to a lot of the stuff you see produced on some of the cable channels. And the script — co-written by Joseph Warner and director Paul Lingas)— has more subtlety and nuances than you’d expect from a pair of novice filmmakers.
Topping the programs list (and filling out the night’s gore quotient) was the graphic shocker THE GHOULS. Writer and director Chad Ferrin had already impressed (or depressed, if’n you’re the queasy type) the indie horror scene with his Troma hit Unspeakable. This time around he’s gotten seriously more nasty. Eric Hayes (Timothy Muskatell) is a stringer — a rebellious video vulture preying on police chases, ambulance runs, and random street violence, selling the oft graphic footage to the highest bidder. Hayes barely survives on his steady diet of booze, drugs and cigarettes and has made a living off of other people’s pain and misery. When he comes across what appears to be a young woman being attacked by a band of depraved homeless creeps, he thinks he’s hit pay-dirt and grabs his camera. But, what he discovers is that there’s something lurking the streets of LA that’s even hungrier for blood than he is.
The indie horror world is filled with fanboy flicks that crib ideas — along with scenes and dialogue — from better known horror movies rather than paying honest tribute to them, so it’s relieving to find low-budget stuff like I’ll Bury You Tomorrow and Demon Summer — flicks that claim their own distinct stake in the bloated crimson heart of the creeper genre. And now THE GHOULS fearlessly bursts out of the usual blood-n-guts horde as one of the most balls-out nasty corpse-rippers that a horror fan like myself is thankful to find.
Chad Ferrin pulls no punches in this vicious cross between Paparazzi and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, delivering an inventive and original take on the usual cannibal zombie scenario with some unflinchingly foul action (Hayes screwing a woman in a bathroom stall as his footage of a suicide plays on the barroom TV; zombie victims are skinned alive and hung from meat hooks) and morally repugnant humor (when a mentally handicapped young man steals his camera, Hayes screams after him “That fucking retard stole my camera!) all the while demonstrating great regard for the audience by understanding their basic need for a story— no matter how simple or complex, real or fantastic. I just haven’t seen a horror film as audacious and satisfying as this in a long long time. This flick should be a cult fav real soon.
I couldn’t fathom why this flick hadn’t yet gotten distribution. It wasn’t until after the screenings that I was told by one of the judges that there’s been plenty of interest from smaller distribution companies, but there were several product clearance issues bogging the sales down. Ferrin didn’t had the foresight to understand that Heineken or Makers Mark may want a bit of grease across their palms before placing a bottle in every other shot; and the family of the late great Jackie Gleason probably wouldn’t want the copious images of the Great One connected to some of the vile goings-on in THE GHOULS. Regardless of this, I’m thinking someone will take a chance on this flick, and hopefully horror fans will get to feast their eyes on it mighty soon.
Before I wrap up, I have to hop in my trusty Wayback Machine to the opening night party… If you’d bear with me for just a quick paragraph, it seems I left out one of a review of one of the films from last nights festivities— HUSH LITTLE BABY. Don’t know how I coulda forgotten this one, because the screening of it practically blew out my left ear-ball. Joey Evens directed this fairly derivative tribute to Japanese horror, mixing familiar motifs from Ringu and The Eye with the old American monster-in-the-closet story. The film had a real creepy mood to it, but suffered from some poor acting, and music cues that bonked you over the head instead of accentuating the eerie atmosphere.
All in all, the first full night of spook flicks proved to be pretty impressive. If it keeps up like this, Halloween is gonna have some ‘splaining to do.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in Jersey.
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