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Sun, sand, zombies and monsters! It's L.A. Screamfest!

by Scott Weinberg

You can tell by the name alone if you're interested. "Hey, we're going to Screamfest. You wanna come?" Gee, do I want to see a handful of horror movies, shorts and features, from all over the world...before anyone else gets to see them? Hell, yeah! Where do I sign?

What's funny to me is that while "horror" is considered the red-headed stepchild of the movie genres, you never see a Drama Festival or a Comedy Festival. Nope. Just horror. OK, and sci-fi. Obviously.

If you keep your ear to the ground and your eyeballs on the internet, you're bound to find a Horror Film Festival somewhat close to your home town. However, there aren't many that are, well, good. Chicago, New York, Edinburgh...that's where you'll find 'em. Wait, here's a relative newcomer to the Horror Fest field, and the left coasters call it Screamfest.

The press notes tell me that "Screamfest was formed in August 2001 by film producers Rachel Belofsky and Ross Martin in order to give filmmakers and writers in the horror/sci-fi genres a venue to have their work showcased to people in the industry." In their first few years, the Screamfesters have showcased titles like Ju-On: The Grudge, A Tale of Two Sisters, Cradle of Fear, Eternal Blood...and a whole bunch of other ones I've seen on the video shelves but skipped over so I could rent Tremors again.

While looking over the Screamfests of years gone by, I was struck by the opinion that they've taken a huge step forward this year, both in the number of films offered and the impressive variety of titles on display. Oh sure, you could spend a few hours at the retrospective screenings*, take in a handful of horror shorts, or head on over to the Lon Chaney tribute...but what we really came here for is the flicks, so let's get to 'em.

(*Those who've never seen Candyman, The Thing, Halloween, Re-Animator or Happy Birthday to Me on the big screen would have a freakin' ball at Screamfest, but then you'd be missing something new!)

Hmm, let's start with the ones I didn't dig all that much. This way the good stuff comes at the end and the festival folks won't hate me as much...

Jennifer's Shadow - Gina Phillips (Jeepers Creepers) and Faye Dunaway (432 movies) go toe-to-toe in this gothic tale of "Did my estranged granny cast a cancer spell on me when I showed up to snatch an inherited mansion out from under her?" Co-directors Daniel De La Vega and Pablo Pares lay on the atmosphere by the bucketful, but the screenplay feels languid and more than a mite predictable. Phillips does some fine work and it's always nice to see Aunt Faye getting some work, but Jennifer's Shadow failed to spark much interest from scene to scene.

The Park - OK, this one I actually saw at the Philadelphia Film Fest, but the Screamfolks have it as well. Feel free to check my full review right here.

Blessed - Are you among the 187 Americans who went out last April to see Godsend? No? Then you might find some fun in this Heather Graham/evil-fetus-in-distress thriller. Me? Well, you can see my full review of Blessed right here.

New Orleans: Rich and Haunted - Here's an hour-long documentary that feels like maybe three. So at least it's a good value should you ever buy it on DVD. Imagine a local-TV travelogue on New Orleans combined with one of those Psychic Seer TV shows. Much of the film consists of women walking into rooms and muttering "I sense an M. M. Mmmmmmm. Mona, Mary, Marisol..." There is then a surprised reaction when the ESPer is informed that, yes, the house was once owned by a woman named Maria. (Close enough.) Even IF you're the sort who can swallow this sort of otherworldly hooey, this movie just repeats the same schtick about 8 times. And why is it that these seers can only sense the names of the dead? Not their favorite colors or their pets, just the first letter of the first name?

Bah, now I'm just being mean. Hey, these ghosthunters went out and made their very own movie, while I just sit here clacking away on a keyboard. So good on them either way.

Lost Things - OK, now here's an Aussie import that I didn't so much "dislike" as I did "discomprehend". (Yes, film critics can make up fake words when it suits them.) It starts out with two young couples who are about to spend a day on what's apparently a doomed portion of beachfront. OK, fine. So...slasher flick? Monster movie? Unsettlingly realistic rape-and-revenge rodeo? Nope, this one gets all metaphysical and Mulder-y at the halfway point, and I was too busy scratching my head to keep pace with the onscreen antics. And I'm a pretty smart guy. Honest. There are time-jumps and mysterious figures, evasive clues and wandering doppelgangers... I felt like I should have been taking notes! Still, praise is due to any young moviemakers who try and forge something unique instead of just rehashing the same old stomp-and-stalk. Plus I always have a soft spot for the Aussies. They're good people!

The Locals - Two horny young studs head out to the middle of nowhere, persistently on the lookout for a nookie-laden party. They instead witness a terrible murder, split up, meet a few hot girls in a Jeep, get chased by evil rednecks who may or may not be from beyond the grave, set a few things on fire, run like hell, and end up part of a decidedly Twilight Zone-style concoction. Flick drags here and there, but there's a bunch of solid surprises along the way and a pretty solid finale. Picture a cable flick just interesting enough to watch all the way through.

--So those were the ones I didn't get too excited about. Screamfest had a few offerings that I was not able to partake in, so let's just mention those ones right quick.

The Dark (a.k.a. Darkness) - Far as I know, Dimension Films has been sitting on this Spanish-lensed Anna Paquin thriller for going on three years now. That's not necessarily an indictment against the movie; Dimension mishandles lots of cool movies. Expect a quiet DVD release some time next year.

Rojo Sangre - I had the tape all ready to roll, but that pesky old PAL vs. NTSC confrontation raised its ugly head. Darn! And I've heard some good things about this flick!

Hellbent - Apparently billed as the first gay slasher movie. Interesting combo there, I suppose. Oh, actually...ow, ow, ow. No it's not!

Drowning Ghost - A very cool-sounding Dutch offering about an undead centennial slasher who awakens from a watery grave to wreak bloody vengeance on a college campus! Mwaahaaha!

--So that leaves the movies that I've both seen and seriously enjoyed. Fortunately there are several.

Tears of Kali - OK, it threw me around and shook me up (and frustrated me just a little) but this insane German anthology kept me watching all the way through. The connective tissue to the three tales is the fictional Taylor-Eriksson Cult, which is clearly the most violence-friendly and torture-laden freako cult ever conceived. Some of the material may have been lost in the translation, but solid scares and gooey gore feel the same in any language.

H. H. Holmes: America's First Serial Killer - So I may not have had much patience for the New Orleans documentary, but here is a fantastic little treat! I've already watched it a second time. Honest! Take a look at my full review right here!

The Invisible - Not full-bore horror, but certainly close enough to qualify is this melancholy and clever little flick from Sweden. Poor young Niklas is killed by some high-school thugs and his ghost is left behind to struggle with all sorts of miseries. Kind of funny, kind of sad, and sometimes quite spooky, the movie also finishes up with a truly tight finale that left me oddly satisfied. Takes a while to warm up, but it's worth the wait.

Cube Zero - Currently scheduled for a Jan. '05 release by Lions Gate, this is the third chapter in what can now accurately be called the Cube trilogy. Me? Big fan of part 1, annoyed survivor of part 2...and officially back on the horse after part 3! All you cube junkies can check out my full review right here!

Dead Meat - Let's hear it for the Irish boys! Getting into the Zombie Mix! Anyone who's seen all the modern-day zombie fare will most assuredly have a good time with this pile of rotting meat. I'd say may, but then you' could always just read my full review right here.

...and that's just about all I got! This year's Screamfest ran from Oct. 15th to 24th, and you can wager a pumpkin full of peanuts that they'll be back the same time next year! Were I even somewhat close to sunny California, I'd gladly swing by and check out the mayhem...but I'm not. So I'd like to thank the fine folks at the L.A. Screamfest for allowing me to sample their wares and share my findings with you. It's all about spreading the word on a handful of new horror movies, and I'm pleased to be a cog in the machine.

For all there is to know about the L.A. Screamfest, have a poke through their official website.

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originally posted: 10/22/04 21:14:40
last updated: 11/23/04 22:21:30
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