The scariest new movies we saw at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival

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The scariest new movies we saw at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival

Found Footage 3D
Found Footage 3D

Alex McCown-Levy: Good horror movies are like surgery: They’re terrifying, gruesome, and best experienced with a bunch of other people sitting in the same room with you. Okay, I admit that simile may have fallen apart a little at the end, but it’s true that scary movies should unnerve you, pushing you out of your comfort zone, whether in fright or—as with some of the more splatter-worthy flicks—sheer visceral discomfort. And there’s nothing quite like the collective experience of seeing a horror film in the theater. When the lights go out, and you’re surrounded by a bunch of other people equally eager to be scared, the effect can be electric.

But also, it can just be fun. That was the general vibe this year at the third annual Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival, an offshoot of Wizard World Chicago that takes place across the street at the Muvico Rosemont 18 theater. It’s a festival for the weirdo films—the outsiders, from the chilling to the gory to the absurd—that fall under the loose category of “horror.” Some of the films already have release dates, some are still looking for distribution, but all of them are shown to an audience of eager aficionados happy to join a weekend-long journey into the world of brand-new scary movies. Katie Rife and I went looking to find some cool new stuff that we could report back to A.V. Club readers, giving them a heads up about the best films to keep an eye out for in the coming weeks and months.

And I think we succeeded! There were some genuinely fun and frightening entries in this year’s festival, wouldn’t you agree, Katie? I’ll go ahead and kick it off by reporting on my favorite movie of the whole weekend: Fede Alvarez’s terrific Don’t Breathe, opening this weekend at a theater near you. With the exception of Green Room, I don’t think any horror film I’ve seen this year manages such a consistently tense mood. The story of three young hoodlums who pick the absolute wrong house to rob, it features multiple edge-of-your-seat sequences, and even manages to throw an unexpected twist into that simplest of premises. It’s the definition of horror that’s improved with a crowd, the better to absorb the infectious anxiety generated by a room full of people simultaneously holding their breath.

What do you think? Do you share my enthusiasm for Don’t Breathe? And what’s your top pick for a must-see?

Katie Rife: I do share your enthusiasm. I had seen Don’t Breathe once before the fest, but I was excited to see it again with a bigger audience, and it held up the second time (although the audience was a lot quieter than I expected). The first time I saw it, I just kept thinking, “how can this movie keep going?”—not in an escalating shock value sort of way, like in I Saw The Devil, but because it’s just so unrelenting. Both of Alvarez’s films so far have traded on their intensity, and while there’s not nearly as much gore in this one as in his 2013 Evil Dead remake, the shocks are doled out in these violent little jolts that really make you feel the characters’ pain.

Seeing it again, I still winced, but I also noticed that every little detail on the screen was there for a reason. A piece of glass stuck under someone’s boot will be stepped on and picked up in another scene. A lock tried unsuccessfully early on will become an escape route later. And Alvarez brought a lot of thought to the camera work as well, like the terrific night-vision chase scene or a long, unbroken shot following the intruders all the way through the house as they ransack it for cash. It’s impressive, both as a visceral experience and as a piece of filmmaking.

One movie that I was—to be completely honest—not expecting that much from but surprised me in a good way was Found Footage 3D, which had its world premiere at the fest. I had heard that it was a meta take on the found-footage genre, which piqued my interest somewhat. But the fact remains that so many crappy movies have been made in that style that any knowledgeable horror fan approaches a new entry into the subgenre with a bit of caution. Well, Found Footage 3D knows this, and makes a joke out of it. It’s a movie that really respects its audience’s intelligence, both by winking at them and by delivering real scares.

Like Alvarez did with Don’t Breathe, the director of Found Footage 3D, Steven DeGennaro, really thought through the conventions of the found-footage subgenre before making the movie, and very deliberately sets them up for maximum payoff. And while the film doesn’t exactly subvert these conventions, it lets them play out in a very clever, highly satisfying way that even the nit-pickiest of horror fans will have trouble tearing apart. In fact, this movie is kind of made for those people.

It’s also my favorite kind of horror-comedy, which is the kind that’s funny right up until it’s not funny at all. Here, that switch doesn’t flip until a little later on, but the buildup has enough funny exchanges and character moments that it makes up for any slow pacing. The setup is simple—a tiny crew is filming a found-footage horror movie at a remote cabin, and the producer thought it would be cool if they made it in 3-D, even though that kind of doesn’t make sense. But the backstory keeps deepening, which I liked. Plus, it has some real gnarly practical effects, and was filmed completely independently. Found Footage 3D doesn’t have a distributor yet, but I hope it gets one soon, one that is willing to give it a proper theatrical release. Because yeah, you do need to see it in 3-D.

Alex McCown-Levy: Ah, found footage, my public nemesis and secret lover. It’s a stylistic device that burns me more than any other, and yet I still find myself eager to watch them, hoping each time it will justify my affinity. Fusing it with 3-D was a clever move here, if only to double down on things movie buffs generally dislike.

But my next source of enjoyment was Pet, a genuinely fucked-up little trifle of a film. (This is where we transition from the crowd-pleasers to the stuff that’s more appealing to those who like disturbing shit.) It stars ex-Lostie and hobbit Dominic Monaghan as a dimwitted weirdo—with his finest sniveling American accent, no less—who develops an obsession after briefly reconnecting with a woman from his old high school. Given his job working at an animal shelter, it’s pretty clear where the movie is going, but what’s great is that it keeps twisting the plot, long after you thought you knew what you were in for. What looks on the surface like another in the seemingly endless series of misogyny-tinged ordeals in watching a man do terrible things to a woman turns out to be something else entirely. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say, gruesome things do happen—just not in any predictable way.

Katie, I wasn’t able to be there for some of your films, and vice versa (work waits for no film festival)—what did I miss out on that made you swoon?

Katie Rife: Seeing a buzzed-about movie early is one of the pleasures of attending a film festival, but there’s also the excitement that comes from walking into something completely blind that you end up really liking. That’s how I felt about Found Footage 3D, as well as another surprise earlier on Saturday afternoon, I Am Not A Serial Killer. I’m writing a full-length review for The A.V. Club about it, but I will say that this one impressed me in terms of its craftsmanship—it was shot on 16mm in Minnesota in the middle of the winter, which lends it a great atmosphere—as well as its unique point of view. To make an analogy, I Am Not A Serial Killer is to Dexter as George Romero’s Martin is to True Blood, a subtle, sympathetic, character-based take on a monster movie—here, the human monster of the serial killer. It’s also got Christopher Lloyd in a menacing role the likes of which I haven’t seen him in before.

Several of the screenings you missed were revivals, seemingly programmed to capitalize on the presence of big names in ’80s horror who were there promoting work old and new. There was a 30th anniversary screening of the very fun Night Of The Creeps Thursday, introduced by director Fred Dekker. Dekker was there to receive the festival’s inaugural “Groovy As Hell” award, which, of course, is awarded in the form of a chainsaw. The ceremony preceded a screening of Sony’s 4k scan of Monster Squad, which drew a big crowd of nostalgic thirty- and fortysomethings in “Wolfman’s Got Nards!” T-shirts but has never been a favorite of mine. I identify too much with perpetually excluded little sister Phoebe, I guess.

But I always dig the trifecta of Barbara Crampton, Jeffrey Combs, and Stuart Gordon, and the ever-gracious Crampton—who took the time to hang out and chat with fans all throughout the weekend—introduced a midnight screening of From Beyond. It’s certainly a more interesting part for Crampton than the one she played in Re-Animator, and it moves along at such a great pace. Maybe I’m just a sucker for anything with stylized lighting, I don’t know. I had a giant, overpriced-but-it’s-a-movie-theater-so-what-do-you-expect beer at that one. Normally I don’t drink at screenings when I’m covering something, but I had seen From Beyond before, so it was fine. And that was the last of my three movies on Friday. Saturday I saw five, which was a little tough.

Alex McCown-Levy: I’m not sure I’ve ever watched From Beyond (or Re-Animator, for that matter) without a giant beer. One of the downsides to a festival like this is that you’re bound to the theater’s food offerings. Thankfully, there was an upstairs bar at this theater that served real food, so on the rare occasions when there was enough time between screenings, you could dash up and get a proper meal. Of course, me being an idiot, I never had that time, meaning I consumed enough nachos in the past 48 hours to kill a team of oxen. Sure, I threw in the occasional soft pretzel to mix things up, but my mind is trained at a movie theater—akin to Pavlov’s dogs, I salivate at the sight of a plastic bag of rock-hard tortilla chips and an overflowing tub of liquid gel generously referred to as “cheese.”

And in that vein of things I really enjoy despite their flaws, let’s talk about Beyond The Gates, which Barbara Crampton co-stars in and produced. Here was a movie seemingly geared toward my pleasure centers, in that it was all about a haunted VHS board game, which is ridiculous and also delightful. The film takes its aesthetic cues from its narrative ones, in that the look and feel of the entire movie hearkens back to the horror-adventure movies of that era, most notably The Gate and From Beyond, two films that you can literally combine to get the title of this one. (The director even acknowledged as much when discussing influences in a post-screening Q&A.) Two estranged brothers come together to sort their oft-absentee father’s possessions, and end up playing the titular game in a life-and-death struggle against evil forces.

While much of the plot seemed haphazard—the game itself just had things happen willy-nilly, with little rhyme or reason, and the emotional beats in the ending felt unearned—excellent performances and superior direction made up for the weak stuff. A few good scares and a reliable sense of humor carries it far, making it something I would still recommend with only the most minor of caveats.

Katie Rife: I’m a little more cautious in my recommendation of Beyond The Gates than you are. I know I just raved about how much I like the look of From Beyond, and you’re right, it does draw from that particular ’80s horror aesthetic in a delightfully bonkers way. That aspect of the movie had a great sense of fun, but I had trouble reconciling that with the more serious-minded stuff, which didn’t blend as seamlessly for me as it could have. If you’re going to go from estranged brothers discussing their respective alcohol problems to those same guys fighting demons in their dad’s basement, you’re going to have to earn it, especially in a festival that had so many films with strong character elements. Still, it’s definitely worth a watch if you grew up browsing the horror section of your local mom-and-pop video store, and I will be checking out freshman director Jackson Stewart’s next movie.

The thing I was more disappointed by was the “Movie Interruption” of Army Of Darkness. Bruce Campbell was on hand, joining Doug Benson and another comedian to provide running commentary for the film. I, along with the rest of the crowd, enjoyed basically hearing Campbell give live DVD commentary, especially a story about producer Dino De Laurentiis’ plan to have the skulls strewn around in the graveyard scene whisper “fuuuuckk youuuuu” to Ash. But the comics’ contributions were pretty uninspired, especially compared to an “Interruption” of The Village I saw in L.A. a few years ago.

Was there anything that fell flat for you, Alex?

Alex McCown-Levy: Honestly, there weren’t too many duds! Even the stuff I didn’t particularly care for was made tolerable by the atmosphere and crowd. Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey is an almost embarrassingly ridiculous movie, but seeing it surrounded by adoring superfans—with William Sadler and the director in attendance—made it enjoyable, at the very least reminding me Sadler’s portrayal of Death is pretty unimpeachable. The shorts were a mixed bag, to put it politely, but since nobody will see most of those, it’s a moot point. I will say I hope Justin Harding’s “Kookie” makes its way online at some point, because it was funny and well-crafted and legitimately scared the crap out of me at two separate times. And even a mess like Antibirth, starring Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny, was made passable by good performances and an ending that was one of the most gonzo of any film in the fest.

But I’ll close by giving a timid recommendation of Abattoir, the new film from Darren Lynn Bousman, a director whose “Insane Clown Posse meets Hammer Films” idea about what makes good horror I normally find excruciating (The Devil’s Carnival, Repo! The Genetic Opera) but who is also capable of great cinema when he sets his pet indulgences aside and just focuses on the story (his Mother’s Day remake). In this tale of a news reporter and her ex-flame detective trying to uncover the mystery hiding in a backwater town, he again tries to blend multiple predilections in ways that end up working at cross purposes (gumshoe noir, Grand Guignol horror, cartoonish CGI), but somehow charms despite its flaws. The literal haunted house of an ending is the closest he’s come yet to actually pulling off the low-rent carnie roller-coaster vibe he’s tried to create in the past, and his two leads (Joe Anderson and Jessica Lowndes) rise above the tonally conflicting dialogue choices.

Katie, was there something you liked despite yourself? And are you excited for next year?

Katie Rife: I still don’t know how I felt about The Greasy Strangler. The most succinct way I can think of to describe this indescribable movie is “if Tim & Eric made a porno.” I was, admittedly, having a good time squealing and watching the really gross stuff—I could handle the full-frontal prosthetic old-man penis, but the tubs of lard really got to me—through my fingers during a rowdy midnight show. On the other hand, I walked out of it declaring, “I hated every second of that!” But, on yet another hand, I was laughing when I said it. And the post-show discussion was quite lively for nearly 3 a.m.

(Note: This trailer is graphic.)

I must say, I’m very happy that a festival like this is happening in Chicago, and is becoming increasingly high profile. I went to a couple of events last year, and there was, as far as I know, very little media coverage—not even from me! Compared to cities like Austin and Los Angeles, Chicago’s genre-movie scene is very small and decentralized, and many of these movies, were it not for the fest, would maybe play one weekend at The Music Box at midnight in the small theater. Now in its third year, Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival is hosting world premieres, which is a big deal, and I thought the programming overall was quite strong. I’ll be back next year, even if I did eat popcorn for dinner for four days straight. That’s on me!