The Best Movie Critic + review

Ben Does the 2nd Annual Halloween Horror Movie Fest

4 years ago, bummed that college finals kept us from applying to Harry Knowles’ infamous Butt-Numb-A-Thon and looking for something interesting to do on a bitterly cold and dreary Greeley, CO weekend, fellow Movie Advocate Justin, his wife Miranda, my girlfriend Beth, our friend Joey, and I got together and held our own 24 hour movie fest in Justin and Miranda’s basement apartment. We learned two things that day. One: A murky VHS copy of The Third Man is not a good choice for the 4am-6am timeslot. Two: Movie fests are totally awesome! In the years since, Beth and I have traveled to the real Butt-Numb-A-Thon twice, and the fests we’ve hosted have evolved into their own thing. Now, instead of annual 24 hour fests, we host several 12 hour themed fests throughout the year. Last weekend we held the second annual Halloween Horror Movie Fest. Justin, Miranda, Beth, and I were all there, but the movie fest family has grown in leaps and bounds. Since its inception, the movie fest audience has more than quadrupled! We’ve outgrown our house! As more and more people attend the fests, we try to make room for others to program movies, too. At this fest we screened one movie apiece from the original four, plus a pick from movie fest veterans Eric and Luke. Our picks now are typically more obscure than the ol’ “Third Man” days, but this fest surprisingly skewed toward horror staples and classics. It was awesome to see newer festers experience these classics for the first time. For those who’d been around the movie fest block a while, it was a chance to revisit some old favorites. That said, the two movies out of six that I hadn’t seen prior to the fest blew my freaking socks off…

The Bride of Frankenstein

The first movie of the fest was my choice. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies, and I was shocked when I found out so many of my friends hadn’t seen it. Bride is one of those miraculous productions that come along hardly ever where everything from the direction to the script to the score to the acting to the set design is just absolutely compelling and absorbing. There are few movies that engage my brain on so many levels at once. Often I appreciate a movie’s subtext or implications but the production value itself is slightly shoddy. Or else the effects and design are great but I could take or leave the characters. The Bride of Frankenstein is one of only a handful of movies I’ve seen that engages my academic brain and my movie geek brain in perfect balance. There's not a weak link in the whole damned thing.

The Omen

I’d seen the Omen a few times before and loved it. So I hate to admit that I think The Omen loses something after a few viewings. Though it is made up of great parts, it just doesn’t hang together very well. Gregory Peck adds more gravitas than the movie needs or deserves, and that sense of not being able to figure out whether it’s an A-movie or a B-movie is distracting. Individual scenes, specifically the masterful sequence when Damian and his mother go to the zoo and are accosted by baboons, are uncanny and terrifying. Certainly Richard Donner was going for an Exorcist vibe and sought to transcend the schlocky reputation of the horror genre. But Donner tries to have it both ways, and scenes like the dog attack at the cemetery and when the photographer’s head is sliced off by a plate of glass, seem like something out of a different movie. I would be happy with a highbrow Omen, I would be happy with a lowbrow Omen, and I appreciate Donner and Co.’s attempt to combine the two, but the combination does not work. The Omen is far from a bad movie, and maybe I was just a little taken aback that it wasn’t the stone classic I remembered.

The Gate

There were a lot of MST3K jokes at The Gate’s expense during the movie fest screening, but I want to come out and say that I absolutely adore this movie. As cheesy as parts of the story are, I like these characters more than any other 80s kids horror or action movies I can think of. I have a hard time sitting through Goonies or Monster Squad, but The Gate works mainly due to the chemistry between Glen (Stephen Dorff), Al (Christa Denton), and Terry (Louis Tripp). The relationship between siblings Glen and Al is superficial at times, but the way the pair loathe yet truly care about each other is really effecting. Terry may be the movie’s most complicated figure. He tries to give the impression that he’s this badass metal kid, but we learn that his mom just died and that he's acting out because he’s hurt and lonely more than anything else. I know, I know. The best part of The Gate by far is the astonishing practical effects work, but I want to point out that none of those effects would be worth a rat’s patooty if not for the stellar job these three young actors do in the movie’s first half selling these characters and their relationships.

But my god, how about those effects? This must have been one of the movies Peter Jackson and Weta were using as a litmus test when they prepped the hobbit effects for Lord of the Rings. Stop motion, man-in-suit, forced perspective with giant and miniature sets, matte composites… The Gate’s effects crew really threw in the kitchen sink. If you’ve ever gotten pumped up about the practical monster work in The Thing, American Werewolf in London, any Star Wars movie, Evil Dead, or anything else like that, you must seek out The Gate as soon as possible. You won’t regret it. The end of this movie goes so far and so dark. I really respect that. If images from the final third of this movie are haunting my memory now as an adult, I can only imagine how terrified I would have been as a kid. The Gate blew my mind, and I can’t wait to watch it again as soon as possible.

Vampire’s Kiss

Justin’s pick was Vampire’s Kiss, 1988 flick I hadn’t heard of that that was another mind blower. Nic Cage stars as Peter Loew, a Manhattan literary agent who is either in a masochistic sexual relationship, turning into a vampire, or else imagining the entire thing. For the majority of the movie, each of those possible explanations is given equal probability of being true, and even by the end I think there’s some debate as to what the hell actually happened. Cage astounds with previously unimaginable levels of mega-acting. He starts out with strange ticks and a weird Keanu Reeves-esque fake accent, and it only gets more bizarre from there. By the time Cage stalks a dance club with fake plastic vampire teeth and his eyes all googley, Vampire’s Kiss has turned the corner into some kind of alternate dimension where Nic Cage is actually purposefully allowed to do shit like this in big budget movies. Unbelievable. I have no idea how Vampire’s Kiss was made. When Justin and I were talking after the movie, I noted that if I had been handed that script I would have had absolutely no idea how to make a movie out of it. There's no way to heckle this movie because it will beat you at your own game. This is the perfect movie for fest viewing, as I can’t think of better audience than 20 of your closest, tipsiest friends.

The Wicker Man

Miranda’s pick, The Manatou, was on deck, when the most feared fest programming disaster happened: the damned DVD wouldn’t play! We tried two different DVD players with no luck. I’m really bummed about this, not only because I felt bad for Miranda, but because one of my favorite things about these fests is seeing great or crazy movies for the first time. I’d never seen The Manatou, and can’t wait to watch it when it hits Netflix Watch Instant soon. As a backup pick, Miranda presented The Wicker Man. That made four out of six movies that I had seen before at this fest, which was too bad, BUT once the Wicker Man got going I remembered why it’s one of my all time favorites. I have a long history with Wicker Man. It’s one of the first movies Beth and I bonded over, which by the way is why she’s my grrrrl 4 life. When we started the first incarnation of the band I’ve been in for half a decade, Lil’ Slugger, “The Maypole Song” from Wicker Man was the first piece of music we attempted to play. (For those of you keeping score at home, the Lil’ Slugger lineup at that point was me, Eric Ten Hoeve, Ed Day, and Gary Villeneuve. Weird, huh?) Justin, Miranda, Beth, and I have shown the movie to countless people over the years, some of whom end up loving it as much as we do and some of whom think we’re bigger freaks than ever. The last time we showed the Wicker Man to anybody was at Justin and Miranda’s on Halloween a couple years ago, as a double feature after Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. That night it went over like a lead balloon. I honestly hadn’t watched it since then, the screening went so poorly. I think we must have been watching the director’s cut, which is longer, flabbier, and just not that great. The original cut of Wicker Man is an intelligent, taut, compelling masterpiece, and I owe Miranda one for reminding me of that. I’m man enough to admit that I had kind of a moment with Wicker Man toward the end. I’ve seen the true, sinister purpose of Sgt. Howie’s trip to Summersilse revealed so many times it shouldn’t effect me at this point, but when the ending of the movie came I got chills and kind of even cried a little bit at just how brilliantly everything comes together. The Wicker Man is a miracle.

The Return of the Living Dead

I am a huge Dan O’Bannon fan. Alien, Total Recall, hell I even like Lifeforce. He’s such a strange and unique personality in the history of horror and sci-fi movies. Unlike some of the tortured souls he worked with – H.R. Geiger and Tobe Hooper spring to mind – O’Bannon always seemed like someone who’s just really, really excited about getting to make the kind of movies he’d want to see. He was giddy in love with genre cinema, and his death last year hit me hard. O’Bannon was one of my industry heroes. He worked through some tough times, but never held anything against anyone. Rather it seems like he simply felt blessed to be a part of these great pieces of movie history. Beth and I watched the O’Bannon written and directed Return of the Living Dead for the first time just a few weeks ago, but it was such an instant classic that it immediately nudged our movie fest pick out of the running. I don’t know that there’s another movie like it, but Return of the Living Dead feels to me like it takes place in the same universe as Repo Man. I think the ludicrous punks in both movies would get along. They’d do some crimes and talk about the most violent ways to die. It’d be great. Seriously though, Return of the Living Dead is a strange flick. Much of the movie plays out as a slapstick comedy, but it ends up really gets under your skin. These zombies are genuinely terrifying. The ending of this movie is bleaker than it has any right to be.

You know, I just realized that the common thread between all of the movies that played at this year’s fest is that they all end in near or total annihilation. Weird. For how dark much of the content was, it was a lighthearted fest. Lots of jokes and not too many genuine scares. It’s hard to program a truly scary movie at a fest like this. For one, the light streaming in through the windows during the afternoon negates any atmosphere that might otherwise build up. For two, I don’t know about you guys but hanging out for an all day marathon with your best buds makes me pretty happy, not skin-crawlingly terrified. Everyone who was there will remember last year’s fest bomb, Robert Wise’s The Haunting. The movie itself is amongst the scariest I’ve seen, but is much more effective when viewed alone at 2am than at noon with 15 friends. But this year's movies combined with trailers and animated shorts, tarot readings, delicious food, and the best company Denver has to offer filled the Halloween-shaped hole in my heart.

These lil’ fests have grown too big for their britches. We may have to take donations and rent an big room of some kind soon enough. To those of you who came, I hope you had as great of a time as we did. For those who didn’t, come on down to the next one! We can always find another chair or some room on the floor for ya. The more the merrier.

-Ben

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