Attending the Overlook Film Festival has become an immersive experience in itself. In its evolution from the Stanley into its current form, the festival has taken attendees to two isolated mountain resorts—in Estes Park, Colorado, and atop Oregon’s Mt. Hood—until decamping this year to New Orleans’ French Quarter, the opposite of both those places both in geography and atmosphere. It’s a sensible location, if an overwhelming one, for a festival built around the concept of haunted hotels. It’s a place that trades on its bloody past as much as its boozy present: As you elbow through the cargo short-clad masses that overflow the uneven sidewalks of the Quarter every night of the week, vampire tour guides recite bloody apocrypha mix with bachelorette parties in matching T-shirts, gruesome murder and drunken revelry colliding in a cacophony of humanity’s baser instincts.
In the chaos of the French Quarter, playing an immersive game—part scavenger hunt, part interactive theater—whose actors cause screaming scenes in the middle of festival parties (all part of the show, folks, nothing to worry about) makes sense. Anyway, it’s no less absurd than parading around in a pirate costume in broad daylight, or lining up next to sailors on shore leave for a liquid breakfast. Throughout its history, Overlook has tried to distinguish itself by providing immersive horror experiences as well as genre movies, and this year’s incorporated the festival’s surroundings to great effect.
The hushed hallways of festival headquarters the Bourbon Orleans Hotel provided the backdrop for the surprisingly moving In Another Room, a one-act play specially staged for the festival where audiences of three were asked to join in an “innocent” game of Ouija in a “haunted” hotel room, and silent, masked “chefs” led attendees down a cobblestone alleyway for a performance from LA’s Infinitely Dinner Society, blending food and performance art in the shadow of an 18th-century cathedral. Both, while not overtly terrifying, prompted spontaneous bursts of relieved laughter when they were through.
In this environment, the cool and quiet of a movie theater becomes a respite, a place to rest your overwhelmed Fitbit and recover from a debate about the relative merits of Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers that spiraled into 3 a.m. at a Goth bar (which, like seemingly everything else in New Orleans, was apparently better in the ’90s). It’s tempting to make grand pronouncements on the state of the horror genre after mainlining more than a dozen movies in four days. But unlike some festivals past, no overarching trends emerged at this year’s Overlook, just a clear jockeying for dominance between distributors Blumhouse and A24 and a few oddly specific recurring themes. (It’s a big year for dioramas and deaf characters in genre film.)
The highlight of this year’s festival was a foregone conclusion: the A24-core of Hereditary (Grade: A-), Ari Aster’s debut feature that blends crushing family tragedy and vivid nightmare imagery to astounding, disturbing effect. The film’s already gotten rave reviews from our critics at Sundance and SXSW, so my expectations were set very high for this one. I’m pleased to report that it met them. Reviewers and marketers alike have done a good job of keeping at least some of the film’s secrets intact, and I won’t spoil them here, merely join the chorus of praise for the performances—which were excellent all around, but particularly Toni Colette as a grieving diorama artist and Alex Wolff as her teenage son, both names I hope to see coming back around this awards season—and Aster’s invigorating direction, which includes the unusual technique of filming rooms in extreme wide shots to give them an unsettling dollhouse feel.
Another festival highlight was Upgrade (Grade: B), an impressive example of how to do more with less, directed by screenwriter Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious). The story, set in a near future where humanity has become completely dependent on machines, leans on familiar genre archetypes—the gruff loner, the effeminate techno-aristocrat—but does so with enough panache and punchy visual style to persuade all but the sourest critics to come along for the ride. (Not to mention the fact that it’s essentially a buddy cop movie between a Robocop-esque cyborg and the chip in his brain.) The film will be especially appealing to fans of Matrix-style action: Whannell was able to recruit members of the Mad Max stunt team for his independent film in between major studio jobs, resulting in an outstanding car chase midway through the film and some clever camerawork in the well-choreographed fight scenes.
Both of those films have already secured distribution and are scheduled to hit theaters in June, but my other favorite of this year’s Overlook has been on the festival circuit for nearly a year at this point: Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (Grade: B+), a magical-realist horror-fantasy that debuted theatrically in Lopez’s native Mexico back in November. Set in an anonymous border town where “ghosts are created every day,” the film centers around a group of orphans on the run from a sadistic cartel boss after one of them steals a cell phone from one of his flunkies. The Tigers’ rooftop hideout is like something out of Hook, and the film moves along at a brisk, Spielbergian clip; however, the combination of dark themes mixed with whimsical fantasy strikes a tone more similar to Guillermo del Toro’s early work. It’s no coincidence, then, that del Toro is a big advocate of Lopez’s, and has signed on as producer for one of her upcoming projects.
The world premieres at this year’s Overlook, meanwhile, were more of a mixed bag: Darren Lynn Bousman, also of the Saw series, premiered St. Agatha (Grade: C), a nunsploitation period piece set in a home for unwed mothers in the 1950s rural South. Bousman’s baroque style has always been divisive, and this particular film makes excessive use of the by-now-cliché orange-and-blue digital color scheme that, combined with an uneven script, dilutes a promising premise into something mostly forgettable. Carolyn Hennessy turns in a performance that would make Louise Flecher proud as the convent’s twisted Mother Superior, however.
Then there’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (Grade: C), which boasts talent frankly far above the level of what one would expect from a direct-to-video horror franchise on its thirteenth installment. The practical effects and the score from legendary horror composer Fabio Frizzi are both excellent, which makes the film’s tonal issues all the more disappointing. These can presumably be traced to directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, who take S. Craig Zahler’s typically brutally nihilistic script and graft onto it a crude, glib tone, adding gratuitous T&A and nerd-culture pandering. Fans of the film will beat the drum of offensive humor, but if you’re at all inclined towards reflecting on the political messaging of what you watch, the extended middle sequence—in which Nazi puppets engage in a gleeful, extremely bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting Jews, lesbians, and Romani people (the film uses an older term, now generally considered an ethnic slur), to cheers from the gorehound audience—gets uncomfortable rather quickly.
Sure, the puppets are the bad guys, and eventually, they start killing indiscriminately. But given the film’s frequent, in-your-face use of Nazi imagery, a sharper satirical take than “mindless fun” would have mitigated the edgelord factor significantly. As it is, it’s the feature-length equivalent of an internet troll posting “edgy” Holocaust memes. What’s unclear is if this is a shallow interpretation of a script that read differently on the page, or mean-spirited punching down reminiscent of Tom Six’s The Human Centipede III. Only the sequel clearly set up at the end will tell.
Meanwhile, Arizona (Grade: B-), the feature debut of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals AD Jonathan Watson, takes a steadier approach to its very dark comedy, set in 2009 in an abandoned suburb amidst the housing crisis. Danny McBride leads a cast full of comedy favorites—Kaitlin Olson, David Alan Grier, Luke Wilson, and Seth Rogen all make appearances—as a lovable loser who transforms into a lumbering, Michael Myers-esque killing machine over the course of the film. I’m also pretty sure it was shot in the same abandoned subdivision as Twin Peaks season three, but who can be sure? They all look the same.
I was mixed on Unfriended: Dark Web (Grade: C+), a sequel to the surprisingly good 2014 techno-chiller that shares little but a gimmick—it takes place entirely on a computer desktop—with its predecessor. The sometimes plodding screenplay revolves around an idiot kid and his unlikable friends being picked off in vaguely supernatural ways after our hero finds a laptop connected to a snuff-movie ring; while the premise is extremely 21st-century, the execution is classic slasher movie, with strategically inserted buffering issues standing in for more conventional jump scares. It’s bleak as all hell, but consistently so, and did leave me unsettled for a solid half hour afterwards.
A more enjoyable guilty pleasure is the scrappy, energetic The Ranger (Grade: B), indie producer Jenn Wexler’s first foray into feature directing. Although obviously working with a limited budget, Wexler clearly knows and loves both classic slasher movies and punk rock. The film is slyly clever in the way it employs the tropes of the subgenre—there go those one-dimensional friends you can’t wait to see get picked off again—but never tilts all the way into camp, mostly due to Chloe Levine’s engaging, sympathetic characterization of main character Chelsea. You genuinely want to see Chelsea triumph in her battle against an unhinged park ranger (Jeremy Holm, doing a sort of poor man’s Patrick Warburton) who’s convinced that he and Chelsea have a shared destiny thanks to a traumatic incident in her past. The comic-book visuals and rousing soundtrack further indicate that while Wexler is still establishing herself as a director, she’s one to watch.
On a quieter note, Don’t Leave Home (Grade: B) is a gently surrealist, borderline art-film tribute to British horror studios Hammer and Amicus. It’s the kind of movie where someone is perpetually putting a kettle on, about an American miniature artist (yep, just like in Hereditary) who’s summoned to a creepy Irish manor house to create a commissioned piece for an elderly priest who tells her, “I had to choose between painting and God.” The film’s dreamy montage, harp-heavy score, ambiguous ending, and flirtation with some pretty heady religious themes—plus one extremely apropos quick zoom—should all put a smile on the face of fans of vintage Gothic Euro-horror.
The organizers of this year’s Overlook Film Festival stated repeatedly throughout the long weekend that the move to New Orleans was an experiment. The concept of a traveling film festival that takes place in a series of cities that are popular destinations in their own right is an interesting—if expensive, for your average attendee—concept, and if the Pacific Northwest, where last year’s festival was held, is underserved in terms of film events, then New Orleans, where many films are made but few are screened, is practically a festival desert. (There are only a handful of movie theaters within the city limits, surprising for a city otherwise so rich in culture.) Overlook has made some gestures towards putting down roots in New Orleans, partnering with local film groups to let them know that they’re interested in growing the scene there, not taking it over. And expanding beyond the touristy confines of the French Quarter could only benefit the festival, as well as, hopefully, the film community as a whole.