Horror, once the leather-jacket-clad adolescent sulking in the corner of the film world, has grown up. The Oscars have been collected, the box-office receipts have been counted, and mainstream legitimacy has been established. What now? For every horror fan who celebrated the validation that came with Get Out and The Shape Of Water’s big Oscar wins in 2018, there’s another who wears the now-antiquated badge of horror fan-as-deviant sicko with pride. Take the man in the Dawn Of The Dead T-shirt who, after picking up and thumbing through the new, glossy Fangoria, said wistfully, “This is nice, but I miss when it came on that cheap gray newsprint that fell apart in your hands.”
The Overlook Film Festival, returning for a second year in New Orleans’ intensely haunted, terminally touristy French Quarter, is hardly establishment. You can still show up minutes before a screening with a shrimp po’ boy in hand and get a seat. The parties are still small enough for everyone to fit into the same bar—or the same karaoke stage at 4 a.m., as I recalled with both fondness and regret hoofing it through the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter en route to a Sunday morning screening. (I made it with five minutes to spare.) And the more obnoxious trickle-down effects of celebrity culture—the gifting suites, the personal entourages—are still entirely absent. But Overlook is growing, and as it grows it sprouts new branches that would have busted through the roof of the Timberline Lodge just two short years ago. Appropriate, then, that the opening-night reception was held in a pizza parlor dominated by a delicate paper sculpture of a tree.
The Overlook’s reputation as a destination for immersive theater remains strong, so much so that a special set of platinum badges for those events—which, as a badge holder excitedly told me, came with a waiver saying that actors could kick down your door and barge into your room while you slept, if they so desired—sold out within minutes. It’s possible to attend Overlook and not see any movies at all. In fact, keeping up with every beat of the festival’s famed immersive game, which this year involved warring clans of witches and one notable 6:00 a.m. call time, would require skipping several of the festival’s film premieres, and so this year The A.V. Club’s coverage will stick to the films and live presentations. Oh, and one extremely humid 11:00 a.m. ghost tour, which included a pit stop for beers halfway through, just like the nighttime ones. It’s fine, you’ll sweat it all out by noon anyway.
The opening salvo of this year’s Overlook Film Festival came straight from Cannes, and unfortunately I have to agree with A.A. Dowd that The Dead Don’t Die (Grade: C) is a shambling mess of a film. Jim Jarmusch’s movies are always laconic, but this one felt less like a bunch of old friends hanging out and more like old friends dutifully showing up to do one of them a half-hearted favor. Sure, the cast is full of exciting names, but all of Jarmusch’s absurdist thematic flourishes—the Romero tributes, the meta commentary, the political humor—are half-baked and inconsistently applied. And the handful of jokes that did land for me, like a visual gag of Adam Driver pulling up to a crime scene in a tiny red car that makes him look like a grown man driving a Little Tikes, were mostly funny because of the personas of the actors performing them.
Unfortunately, Overlook’s other major horror-comedy, the world premiere of the female-driven, Fangoria-backed Satanic Panic (Grade: C), was also a bust. The film’s concept is great: A pizza delivery girl (newcomer Hayley Griffith) gets annoyed when a wealthy customer doesn’t tip, barges back into the house to tell him off, and is shocked to discover that the cheap bastard and his country-club friends are in the middle of a Satanic ritual. But something got lost in the transition between screenplay and finished film—a problem that could be found in Fangoria’s last film release, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich—and the self-aware YA-isms of Grady Hendrix’s script are flattened under an avalanche of careless pacing and cartoonish overacting. The final result is fitfully fun, succeeding mostly in the Shaw Brothers-style grotesquerie of the black magic scenes and in Rebecca Romijn’s performance as the coven’s glamorous head witch.
Fangoria’s film arm seems to be building a house brand that self-consciously harkens back to a specific moment in horror history: the flat, bright digital look of ’90s and early ’00s direct-to-video outings, whose shoddy camerawork is easily forgiven if the movie delivers lots of blood and a few bare boobs. In concept, reworking that moment for the current era is an intriguing idea; after all, ’80s VHS pastiche has been done to death, no pun intended. But if it’s difficult to tell if a movie is overwhelmingly composed of wide establishing shots as a deliberate aesthetic choice or because of a shaky grasp on basic film grammar, perhaps a refinement of the strategy is in order. (There’s also a strange disconnect between the cheap look of these films and the newly polished, post-relaunch appearance of the Fangoria magazine itself.)
Hendrix’s voice may have been obscured in Satanic Panic, but the cult horror author—whose books My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Paperbacks From Hell both received positive reviews from The A.V. Club—had the mic all to himself the following day for a work-in-progress presentation of his new lecture/one-man show, Paperbacks From Hell 2: Think Of The Children. The subject this time around is teen scare fiction, and Hendrix resembled a tent revival preacher in his slightly-too-big white suit, waving his arms and letting the absurd plot lines of Christopher Pike books tumble from his mouth like an adolescent oracle of Delphi. The fact that he was doing all this standing at the front of a chapel-turned-performance space just completed the illusion.
Earlier in the day, that same space hosted a live taping of Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson’s podcast Unspooled, where Shudder curator and Blair Witch 2 true believer Sam Zimmerman made a serious and well-reasoned series of arguments for adding The Blair Witch Project to the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies. (Also submitted for the audience’s consideration: Night Of The Living Dead, Scream, and Get Out.) I would have gone with The Exorcist, personally, a choice that would have pleased the ghostly nuns who almost certainly roam the halls of the venue, Hotel Peter And Paul, a former 19th century convent school-in the colorful Bywater neighborhood. Should you find yourself plagued by undead Catholics while staying there, there are two occult shops within walking distance that carry all the spiritual cleansing items a supernaturally troubled tourist could ever require. But if it’s humans that are trailing you, shoving homemade mixtapes into your hands, cash is the only banishing spell that will work.
There really weren’t a lot of ghosts on screen this year at Overlook, with the notable exception of Goodnight Mommy directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s new movie The Lodge (Grade: B). I’m again with A.A. Dowd that the movie is impeccably composed and full of deeply upsetting religious imagery that temporarily turned my sluggish, roux-filled blood to ice. (It was kind of refreshing, actually.) But the thing that haunted me the most about the film afterwards—aside from Riley Keough’s choking screams in one particularly intense, symbolically loaded sequence—was the ludicrousness of its plot. Guess I’m just not the kind of person who appreciates rug-pulling for its own sake.
The spirit that hung heaviest over Overlook this year was that of late experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whose expressionistic collage influenced three of my favorite films at this year’s festival. Some Kind Of Hate director Adam Egypt Mortimer makes a huge leap forward with his second film, Daniel Isn’t Real (Grade: B), a slick and thrilling take on the intersection of mental illness and creative inspiration that also doubles as a commentary on toxic masculinity. Miles Robbins stars as Luke, a Manhattan college student torn between school, art, and concern for his severely mentally ill mother. His troubles are first relieved, then compounded, by the re-emergence of Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), Luke’s childhood imaginary friend, whose leering, aggressive presence in Luke’s life coincides with a period when schizophrenia often begins to manifest in young men. It’s not the most subtle portrayal of mental illness ever captured on screen. But as someone who also has to remember to take her meds every night, I found it far more relatable and empathetic than The Lodge’s treatment of the same theme.
Luke’s hallucinations are expressed in terrifying bursts of intense montage, a technique that’s replicated to more romantic ends in Depraved (Grade: B-), New York horror godfather Larry Fessenden’s latest in a series of films that re-interpret classic monsters in realistic contemporary settings. The inspiration this time around is the Frankenstein mythos, which is updated here to incorporate commentary on both the evils of a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry and the lingering trauma of PTSD in Iraq War veterans. Although mad doctor Henry (David Call) and his business partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard) are amoral enough to truly befit the film’s title, the frankly rather long-winded political commentary didn’t work as well for me as the lovesick monster himself. That would be Adam (Alex Breaux), whose disembodied memories of his last night as a living man keep leading him back to Lucy (The Ranger’s Chloë Levine), the woman whose apartment he was leaving when he was stabbed to death on the street.
Daniel Isn’t Real and Depraved try to tie their hallucinations to larger social issues, but the third film in Overlook’s unofficial Freakout Trilogy is straightforward in its message: It’s the drugs, man. Like Daniel Isn’t Real, Bliss (Grade: B) represents a stylistic leap forward for its director, Joe Begos (The Mind’s Eye, Almost Human), whose decision to shoot his new movie on 16mm gives its torrid sexuality and Fulci-style ooze a tactile grindhouse grime that plays like Gaspar Noé by way of Abel Ferrara. Dora Madison, best known for her roles on Chicago Fire and Friday Night Lights, gives a balls-to-the-wall performance as Dezzy, a brash and hedonistic painter famous for her heavy-metal album covers who gives in to a powerful hallucinogen called Bliss in a moment of professional crisis. Where the story goes from there isn’t unprecedented, but both Madison and Begos are so committed that it works. Usually, horror films inspired by heavy metal top off their tributes with a dollop of comedy. (See: Mandy’s Cheddar Goblin.) But Bliss approaches its aesthetic with a straight-faced intensity, pummeling the viewer with woozy handheld closeups and violent bursts of montage until you feel like maybe you might have been dosed somehow on your way into the theater. The only irony here is that Begos says it’s his most personal movie to date.
But the most exciting discovery of this year’s Overlook Film Festival, the kind of thing that you’re hoping to see as you drag your suitcase through the airport, was The Vast Of Night (Grade: B+), a film that wasn’t even on my radar until it unanimously won this year’s festival jury award. Stunningly well-developed for a first feature, it’s set in 1950s New Mexico, and as director Andrew Patterson admitted in the post-screening Q&A, we all know what that means: flying saucers! What’s interesting about the film is the narrative approach of James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s screenplay: The Vast Of Night manages to be eerie and compelling despite unfolding mostly in a series of conversations and monologues tied together by a fictional Twilight Zone-esque show called Paradox Theatre.
Despite its intergalactic scope, this is an intimate, character-driven film, centering on small-town dreamers Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator and amateur engineer, and her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ and fellow electronics nerd. Using a high school basketball game as a wraparound device, The Vast Of Night follows Fay and Everett as they investigate a strange frequency that comes through the wire during Fay’s shift on the town’s telephone switchboard, Fay’s trusty handheld recorder bouncing against her hip as they walk the dusty, quiet streets. Patterson keeps the camera tight on his actors’ faces as they tell their stories in long, mostly unbroken monologue, until pulling back for a jaw-dropping tracking shot halfway through the film that’s the best I’ve personally encountered since True Detective season one.
It’s impressive to see such sophisticated camera work from a newcomer. But to combine that with experimental narrative and sound techniques, and place it in a detailed mid-century modern environment, and to have all these ambitious gambits (mostly) work, all on an independent film budget...well, it’s quite the feat. I was also impressed by the confident, boldly stylized visions of directors Jennifer Reeder, whose Knives And Skin (Grade: B) puts a forward-thinking feminist bent on the Riverdale school of neon Twin Peaks fetishism; Alice Waddington, whose sumptuously designed Paradise Hills (Grade: B-) plays a bit like the Rogue One to The Hunger Games’ Skywalker Trilogy; and Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, whose Greener Grass (Grade: B-) is always in control of its deeply bizarre, suburban surrealist tone, even when its story is more like a series of comedy sketches than a feature film.
New Orleans is a city of stories, the closest we in the U.S. have to the casual intermingling of past and present that you see in European countries. Every bar, restaurant, and hotel in the French Quarter seems to have a ghost or three in residence, carrying with them violent tales of slavery, of colonization, of natural disasters and unnatural deaths. Looking up bleary-eyed from a bag of Zapps potato chips on my way home one night, I realized that the convenience store where I bought them was catercorner to the infamous LaLaurie Mansion, where a 19th-century aristocrat named Delphine LaLaurie performed sadistic acts of torture on the people enslaved in her home. Nicolas Cage also briefly owned the house in the ’90s, a bizarre footnote to an otherwise extremely sobering story. Even the real-life nightmares here have many faces.