It’s hard to overstate the natural beauty that surrounds the Timberline Lodge. Located above the snow line atop what everyone refers to as simply “the mountain,” every window—except for the ones completely blocked by snow—casually opens onto a stunning vista, as if to say, “Oh, that? That’s just the white-capped peak out back of the old maintenance shed.” But nature, however beautiful, tends to make indoor kids nervous and a little wheezy. And so pass-holders huddled together in the lobby amid wood carvings and rustic stone work, lanyards around their necks and black T-shirts on their backs, at the inaugural edition of the Overlook Film Festival, which took place this past weekend in Mt. Hood, Oregon.
The Timberline, originally built as a WPA project, has stood on the southern edge of Mt. Hood since the late 1930s, when it was dedicated by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Overlook Festival, meanwhile, is much younger; it evolved from the Stanley Festival, which ran for three years at another “Shining hotel,” the Stanley in Estes Park, Colorado. A stay at the Stanley inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, but the Timberline has more horror curb appeal. It actually appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece based on King’s novel, where it served as the exterior of the Overlook Hotel. (Except for the hedge maze. That was built in a studio in England.)
And so it was that I found myself cruising up a steep, snowy path after midnight, feeling a bit like Dick Hallorann in his quest to save young Danny in Kubrick’s movie. The snow had stopped by that point, so we weren’t as bad off as poor, doomed Dick. In fact, our driver, a local filmmaker who had enthusiastically described an immersive haunted-house experience over pizza as we awaited other incoming guests back in Portland, was positively cheerful, explaining that cars had been stranded on the road earlier that day in one of the many snowstorms that keep the Timberline in the ski chalet business year-round. We got lucky, in other words.
It’s odd to pull up to a place you’ve seen innumerable times on TV—when I was a child, The Shining was the only horror movie my parents owned on VHS, and I would watch it over and over again on latchkey afternoons—and 1:30 in the morning is the ideal time to pull up to the Timberline. Lit by dramatic spotlights, even the arch over the covered pathway to the main entrance looks sharp and peaked, and the building itself, consisting of two wings branching off from a hexagonal main lobby, seems smaller somehow than it did in the movies. Some of that is the snow; even in late April, the snow drifts burying the Timberline are massive. They reach all the way up to the second floor, inspiring fantasies, while sticking my head out the window to check out the view, of sliding down to the parking lot like Wendy escaping her homicidal husband.
The wood-paneled hallways probably would be quite eerie on a silent, snowbound winter’s night, but thankfully the Timberline was far from abandoned. The hotel itself was bought out by the festival, but afternoons brought groups of Japanese tourists and families in ski pants drinking hot cocoa in the lobby and watching festival patrons climb into a coffin with puzzled curiosity. The Overlook Festival is big on immersive experiences, which this time around included not only the virtual reality film Mule—where you climb into the aforementioned coffin, don a VR headset, and step into the body of a man who just overdosed, following the corpse’s journey from the morgue to the graveyard—but also the notorious X-rated haunted house Blackout and The Chalet, a modified version of The ABC Project’s one-on-one theater production A(partment 8). (You can read a full account of The Chalet from editor Meredith Borders over at Birth.Movies.Death.) There’s also a weekend-long interactive mystery game, sort of like LARPing for the Twin Peaks set—which, I’m hoping, was behind the posters hung throughout the hotel telling Timberline patrons to watch out for an escaped serial killer.
My first event of the festival was a preview of the first episode of Primal Screen, all-horror streaming service Shudder’s first foray into original programming. It’s directed by Room 237 and The Nightmare’s Rodney Ascher, and features what’s becoming Ascher’s signature form of stylized, all-recreation documentary storytelling. The first episode delves into the fear of dolls and puppets, using the 1978 movie Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist who loses control of his murderous dummy, as an entry point. The series attempts to branch out from the literal object of fear and explore the psychological underpinnings of that particular phobia; here the fear of dummies is compared to the freedom afforded by online avatars. But in a half-hour TV format, the first episode of Primal Screen lacks the expansive opportunities of one of Ascher’s feature films, leaving some connections underexplored. For fans of the Lore podcast and its similar dives into the origins of cultural fears, though, it will make good zone-out material whenever it premieres on Shudder.
Friday also saw a bold but flawed attempt from the all-female writing and directing team behind M.F.A. to reclaim the rape-revenge genre. The film stars Francesca Eastwood as an art student who takes it upon herself to rid her campus of rapist frat bros after a traumatic experience at a party. Later in the night, we also saw the prolific Mickey Keating’s new film Psychopaths, a nearly plotless, heavily stylized Rob Zombie homage (has it been that long already?) that must have been fun to make, but was disappointingly tedious to watch.
The most striking film of the night was Lady Macbeth, which opens in July and earned rave reviews at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film, from first-timer William Oldroyd, dissects the mechanics of oppression in 19th-century England through the character of Katherine (an ice-cold Florence Pugh), an upper-class woman who escapes her loveless marriage through an affair with a farmhand on her husband’s estate. To her husband and father-in-law, Katherine is little more than a vessel, and is treated poorly as a result. But Katherine also has the power to manipulate those of lower social status, thoughtlessly inflicting the same suffering on Anna (Naomi Ackie), a black maid on the estate, that the patriarchs of the family inflict on her. The overcast palette and static compositions enhance the biting cruelty of the story, with a stunning climactic reversal that sent a gasp through the Overlook audience. Whether or not it’s horror is debatable, but Lady Macbeth is certainly chilling.
After a brief detour into a party that bathed the Timberline lobby in purple light and dotted it with what can only be described as gothic lumberjacks moonlighting as exotic dancers, it was goodnight until I awoke to snoring from the room next door (like many old hotels, the Timberline was built before soundproofing) and the steady drip-drip-drip of melting snow on a warm-ish Saturday morning. The first film of the day, Australia’s Boys In The Trees, was another genre hybrid, bringing together horror and coming-of-age elements for the reunion of two estranged boyhood friends on Halloween night, 1997. Blending magical realism and ’90s nostalgia, the film looks great, but failed to hit the same emotional chord with me as it did with some members of the audience. There was no such genre ambiguity in the follow-up, the world premiere of the postpartum horror movie Still/Born. There’s no mistaking this one for anything but a horror movie, and a rather generic one at that, although lead actor Christie Burke makes an enjoyable wide-eyed psycho when the film finally has the courage to go bonkers at the end of the second act.
As well as interactive experiences, the first Overlook Film Festival also highlighted audio horror, featuring two live podcast tapings that were among the highlights of the penultimate (and my last) day of the fest. First was Tales From Beyond The Pale, a 1930s-style radio drama from Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix that’s been running for more than six years at this point. Fessenden, who’s done just about everything there is to do in the indie-horror world—writing, directing, acting, producing, you name it—clearly relished his role as a diabolical gentleman who gives a fed-up family man a way out in the EC-comics style first story, “Re-Appraisal.” The second, “In The Wind,” had sort of a Stephen King-meets-Fargo vibe, telling the story of a folksy female cop who encounters winged monsters at a snowy mountain resort. (How apropos.) Both stories were engrossing, and watching the foley artists clink glasses together and stomp empty shoes on pieces of wood was a treat.
The second taping was one of the centerpieces of the festival, as Masters Of Horror founder Mick Garris interviewed the legendary Roger Corman for his Post Mortem podcast. You want to talk about someone who’s done everything? Corman’s been in the film business since the 1950s and is still producing films at 91 years old. After a screening of X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes—the film of his Corman would most like to see remade—Garris presented Corman with a personalized axe that declared him a Master Of Horror, which he accepted with the gentle bemusement you might expect from a man who’s been making scary movies since before most of the people giving him a standing ovation were born.
In their more than 40-minute conversation, Corman showed why he’s an invaluable piece of walking film history, with the humility—“They placed a little more power in my name than I do,” he said, talking about the title of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050—and good humor that’s made him a beloved mentor to generations of filmmakers like the late Jonathan Demme. Sharp as ever, Corman talked about his engineering background and how it’s helped him keep up with current technology (he’s impressed, but not intimidated, by the power Netflix wields in the industry), his love of Edgar Allan Poe and Ingmar Bergman (whose Cries And Whispers played the drive-in circuit thanks to Corman’s New World Pictures), the mainstreaming of genre cinema (“I thought Jaws was going to put me out of business”), and what exactly makes a “Roger Corman picture.”
The conversation ran late—who’s going to cut off Roger Corman?—and by the time the audience left the theater, they joined a massive line of people hoping to get into the highly anticipated secret screening. Sometimes secret screenings are all hype; I once attended one where the studio made a big deal out of taking away everyone’s cellphones, only to have half the audience get up and walk out once they announced the title of the film. (It was Paranormal Activity 4, for the record.) But this year, Overlook came through with the world premiere of It Comes At Night, screened on a digital cinema package, which a rep from distributor A24 told me flew with her from L.A. that morning. The version we saw was mostly complete, save for a few visual effects tweaks that director Trey Edward Shults is probably making as you read this.
Shults broke out last year with his grueling micro-budget family drama Krisha, and his follow-up is just as emotionally devastating, with creeping dread and the occasional flash of brutal violence to make the experience all the more harrowing. The film takes place in a postapocalyptic America where a devastating “sickness” modeled after the bubonic plague has driven survivors out of the cities and into isolated rural strongholds. But there aren’t any monsters—at least, none that we can see—hiding in the woods. The “it” in It Comes At Night is primal panic, which can infect a group of people just as quickly, and can be just as deadly, as any virus.
We open with a strikingly lit, morbidly beautiful image of an elderly man whose body is wracked with disease; we pan out to see that his sickroom is covered with plastic sheeting, and his family is bidding their tearful farewells from behind the safety of gas masks. The story is a sort of reimagining of Night Of The Living Dead as a blend of survival horror and intense psychodrama, starring Joel Edgerton in ’80s Kurt Russell mode as Paul, the pragmatic father of a small family hiding out in a boarded-up cabin. Carmen Ejogo co-stars as Sarah, his equally heavily armed wife, along with Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their 17-year-old son, Travis, whose nightmares are the audience’s gateway to understanding the fear that weighs on him and his parents, like a demon sucking the air from their lungs as they sleep.
The arrival of another family fleeing the plague is the match that sets the situation ablaze, as small misunderstandings and eerie omens build to a shocking confrontation and a haunting final image. As in Krisha, Shults seems to have a thing for long tracking shots down hallways, particularly the hall that leads to the cabin’s only entrance, which appears to grow narrower as the film goes on. Practical lighting from lanterns and flashlights (and even the sight of a gun at one point) enhances the claustrophobic feel, as does the suffocating blackness of the shadows. The film deliberately leaves some questions unanswered, which certain viewers may find frustrating. But if the rapturous response at Overlook is any indication, It Comes At Night will make quite an impact when it hits theaters in June.
Not everything about the Overlook Film Festival was perfect—it’s a new festival, with some logistical issues that still need to be worked out. But its newness also offers it certain advantages, like the ability to expand beyond traditional film-centric festival programming and the simple fact that fewer people means easier access to screenings. The Pacific Northwest isn’t as spoiled as its California neighbors when it comes to film events, but the Overlook Festival is an experience you can’t get in L.A.—or anywhere but atop Mt. Hood, really. You might even do some skiing, if you’re one of those freaks who likes to go outside.