Last year, The A.V. Club covered a little festival in Chicago called Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival. This year, that same festival re-appeared in greatly expanded form as Cinepocalypse, and we partnered with the organizers as one of the festival’s media sponsors. We were on the scene for the entire week—as much as we could manage, anyway—and saw quite a few movies. The festival wrapped up last week, and after a little bit of recovery time, here’s what we thought about them.
Katie Rife: So, Alex, last year we had a positive experience at what was then called Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival, a weekend event out in the Chicago suburbs. This year, that event moved inside the city limits to the Music Box Theatre, and expanded its programming to a full week. In some ways, that move didn’t change the festival at all: As the BCHFF, the festival played a good number of repertory titles to take advantage of the celebrity guests attending the adjacent Wizard World convention, and partnering with the Music Box, a steadfast champion of showing movies on film, meant that Cinepocalypse had a good selection of repertory films as well. In other ways, the move—and particularly the expansion to a weeklong event—revealed some of Cinepocalypse’s growing pains. What was your overall impression of this new evolution?
Alex McLevy: As with all things, there were good and bad aspects to the change. The bummer is that it goes from something just about anyone could participate in and be guaranteed to see the vast majority of offerings—hey, a weekend commitment isn’t so hard—to a weeklong endeavor that essentially guarantees you’re going to miss some good stuff, unless you’re independently wealthy and can take a week off of work. (Or you’re really, really dedicated to horror fests, in which case good on you and I admire your zeal.) It’s also harder to reel in folks when it’s a stand-alone event, rather than something where Wizard World attendees can just cross the street and join in the fun during time they’ve already set aside for general nerdery. And you’re right: As with any new festival, even one that’s really just an evolution of an older one, there are bound to be some hiccups and growing pains. But it’s hard to be too churlish when a festival offers such an abundance of appealing titles, and such a wealth of talent in attendance.
For me, the dominant impression of the festival was that, in the world of horror, everything old is new again. The refrain I heard and witnessed over and over was an array of movies and shorts that explicitly paid homage to (and sometimes just ripped off, in less charitable terms) the late ’70s and ’80s horror era, with old-school throwbacks to slashers, monster movies, and that splatter-comedy edge that ran through so many movies of that time. There was very little that attempted to come across like a new and unexpected twist on horror (or even referenced anything from the post-Scream timeline), and a lot that enjoyed their collective identity as a garrulous throwback; way-back machines that touched on everything from John Carpenter to Joe Dante to David Cronenberg. So it wasn’t just the repertory titles that let people step into a bygone world. Was that your impression as well, and if so, what titles gave you that nostalgic buzz?
Katie Rife: I know what you mean about the ’80s homages, Alex—at this point, I’m more excited when a horror movie doesn’t have a Carpenter-inspired synth score, as awesome as those can be. On the other hand, horror is one of those genres where solid craftsmanship can make all the difference in elevating an otherwise familiar story. That’s how I felt about Veronica, my favorite pure horror title of the fest; the film is a possession movie directed by REC’s Paco Plaza, and it’s full of all the creepy blind nuns and claustrophobic Spanish apartment buildings you might expect. Plaza’s an expert at creating intensity and tension, though, and although it didn’t reinvent the possession-movie wheel (aside from a clever twist involving a solar eclipse), it was still the kind of jump-in-your-seat funhouse entertainment I love.
And although they weren’t as accomplished, I saw the seeds of new and original ideas in Applecart—an audacious but flawed blend of supernatural slasher and true-crime mockumentary that was recut between Fantastic Fest (where I first saw it) and Cinepocalypse—and The Crescent, an otherwise super slow-burn haunted house movie with one intriguing idea: What if the so-called “final girl,” the survivor who faces the final evil, was a toddler? And Ted Geoghegan, of whose film We Are Still Here I know we’re both fond, also tried something new and bold with his second film, Mohawk, which I first saw at Fantasia but liked even better the second time around. It’s a Native American revenge drama with horror and action elements, and it manages to be challenging in its subject matter—there’s no way a Hollywood studio would ever make this movie—while still compelling to watch. In the Q&A after the movie, Geoghegan told us about star Kaniehtiio Horn’s family history of Native activism, which deepened the experience for me. It’s a movie that becomes more interesting the more you talk about it, which you can’t say about a lot of films.
It’s funny you bring up the post-Scream era, because the films I saw that really pushed my nostalgia buttons were both crime films, and both tributes to the post-Pulp Fiction mid-’90s boom of ultraviolent crime comedies featuring fractured timelines and an ensemble cast of unusually eloquent fuckups. Lowlife, a immensely crowd-pleasing black comedy set in the fleabag motels and greasy taco stands of working-class L.A., ended up winning Beast Picture at the festival, and for good reason: You can tell it was written by several people (a sketch comedy group, to be precise), but director Ryan Prows unites the film around its colorful characters, including standout performances from Nicki Micheaux as morally conflicted motel owner Crystal and Jon Oswald as Randy, the most lovable ex-con with a swastika face tattoo ever committed to film. (It makes sense when you see the movie, I promise.) Snowflake, meanwhile, is even more Tarantino-esque, opening with an impassioned debate about kebabs that zooms out to reveal a scene of bloody carnage. But while Snowflake is a little shaggier around the edges than Lowlife, it’s also more inventive, adding an element of Charlie Kaufman to the Pulp Fiction formula that was unlike anything I, at least, have seen before. Both films were also made independently on extremely tight budgets, proving that the ’90s may be back in spirit as well as style.
Maybe I’ll be tired of ’90s crime throwbacks soon enough, but for now, they felt edgy and current—particularly Lowlife’s positing of ICE agents as the villains of the piece, which set the Music Box audience cheering. Was there anything you saw that the crowd really seemed to dig, Alex? And did it jive with your favorites?
Alex McLevy: In terms of crowd response, the biggest hoots of approval came from a film that also ended up being my favorite of the fest (and the rare film that didn’t feel like a throwback): Tragedy Girls. The movie is the definition of candy-coated black comedy, proudly in the tradition of Heathers, Jawbreaker, and other films that treat the lives of teenagers as so much humorous fodder for gossip and tabloids. Impressively, Tragedy Girls really goes all the way, refusing to submit to any sort of moralistic arc or let noble intentions intrude on the bloody and nihilistic good times. Moving at the hyperspeed pace of recent horror-comedies like Detention, the film stars two X-Men (Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand and X-Men: Apocalypse’s Alexandra Shipp) as social media-obsessed teens who kidnap a serial killer in hopes of having him teach them the ways of murder as a means of achieving online fame. It’s a perfect movie for watching with a crowd, and delivers on the bloody promise.
As far as other movies that left a positive impression, the most amiably enjoyable was The Terror Of Hallow’s Eve, a movie whose first third actually paints a pretty distressing picture of how painful life can be for bullied and outcast kids before pivoting into a broadly entertaining horror film that owes a lot to the warped sensibilities of Joe Dante and the not-too-dark tone of Trick ’R Treat. It mixes practical and CGI effects to great use, and features a lovely role for cult character actor Doug Jones as an impish villain who deserves to become a halloween staple. More uneven but still fun was Dead Shack, a genre-blending slasher about a family that goes into the woods for a low-rent vacation and ends up fighting a killer. The movie’s initially nasty tone—despite a hyperverbal sense of humor, most of the characters come across needlessly hateful and unpleasant—turns out to be the whole point, with the story delivering a homily to families that hide a strong love beneath layers of bile.
And then there was Sequence Break, the Cronenberg-iest David Cronenberg homage that ever crawled through a screen. Essentially a minimalist Videodrome transposed to arcade games—indie horror regular Chase Williamson plays a game repairman who’s sucked into a nightmarish reality conjured up by a mysterious game—the movie never quite nails down its aestheticized body horror to solid enough terra firma for all the pulpy nightmarish imagery to land with any real force, though it provides some excellent hallucinatory visuals. Written and directed by omnipresent horror actor Graham Skipper, it feels like a test run for a more fully realized project to come, as Skipper proves a superb architect of unsettling scenes and haunting sound design.
You mentioned the new films you enjoyed, Katie, but I know you were excited for a couple of big-screen classics, too. Did they deliver?
Katie Rife: I didn’t get to see all the 35mm revival titles I wanted to see at Cinepocalypse—while hardly a classic, Maximum Overdrive would have been great to see with a crowd—thanks to all those life obligations you mentioned up top, Alex. But I did catch a few, and the experience was overwhelmingly positive, and not just because I hosted one of them. That would be the midnight screening of Get Even (or, as it’s written on the box and in the credits, Geteven), a DIY labor of love written, produced, directed, and starring a Los Angeles attorney named John De Hart. Get Even has gained legendary status among my VHS-collector friends over the years, not just because it’s totally hilarious, but also because it’s really hard to find. (I had to call De Hart at his office to track him down with a booking request.) So it was a joy to see it with an audience, who went crazy for its Satanic cult scenes, Wings Hauser’s madman rantings, and De Hart’s leather pants and cowboy hat. If you can find it, I recommend it—but don’t use the contact form on De Hart’s website. It’s broken.
I also caught two movies on 35mm film prints of varying quality: First was one I had never seen and enjoyed quite a bit, Larry Cohen’s characteristically bizarre 1990 action-thriller The Ambulance, starring Eric Roberts as a comics artist who becomes obsessed with finding a woman who passes out and is taken away in an ambulance one afternoon on the street. It’s not one of Roberts’ favorite roles, apparently, but both he and Cohen were there for different reasons—Cohen to promote a new documentary about him, King Cohen, which paints him as a multi-talented iconoclast with a talent for shooting on the street without permits, and Roberts for a live taping of the podcast Eric Roberts Is The Fucking Man, which I wrote more about here. The print of that film was quite lovely, clear and bright and filled with primary colors that were especially striking in scenes that take place at Roberts’ office at Marvel Comics.
The other older film that I was able to catch was one of the marquee events of the festival: A screening of Suspiria on 35mm, in a print recently acquired from an Italian movie house. The theater was sold out, and the energy in the room was palpable knowing that the film’s star, Jessica Harper, was in attendance. (Harper is a native of Chicago suburb Winnetka, about which she’s currently preparing a podcast set to debut next year.) I’ve seen Suspiria at least a dozen times, but always on video, so it was cool to see it on the big screen, with the Goblin soundtrack cranked up loud. But the same things that made the print historically significant also made it technically challenging to show. Subtitles had to be projected onto the screen, as the print was in Italian, and years of sitting in a basement, or a projection booth, or wherever that theater was stashing it, had faded the print and scratched it up in places. This particular print is touring the U.S. through next February, and if you do go check it out, just keep the ravages of time on physical media in mind and you’ll have a lot of fun.
Personally, I’m glad Chicago has an event like this, and am curious to see how it evolves year over year. Any final thoughts on your experience, Alex?
Alex McLevy: Oh, I couldn’t be happier that Chicago has an ambitious and wide-ranging horror festival unafraid to mix it up with a variety of selections and yet still retain a strong quality and consistency among its choices. That’s a tough balancing act for any festival, especially a plucky little one like Cinepocalypse. Moving forward, however, I might suggest one or two fewer days—a week is an awfully long time—just as a way to make the whole thing more accessible to people who might want to attend a horror fest but can’t afford to commit to that much time. Plus, in these initial years, it would help keep it from feeling like it’s stretched a wee bit thin. (Ongoing host, screenwriter Simon Barrett, could not have been more congenial and approachable, but it did seem like he was running on fumes towards the end, and I can’t say I blame him.)
Festivals are an endurance test under the best of circumstances, and for one just getting to its feet, this was an impressive success. I was there for a number of days, and was only sorry I wasn’t able to see more. With a tighter focus, I could see Cinepocalypse turning into one of the great genre festivals; it’s already quite good, and I don’t think it’ll take much more to make it great. We’ll see what next year brings—besides more artfully dismembered corpses, of course.