This year’s International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival, which took place April 7th to 12th in Scottsdale, AZ, may not have been the most memorable (I’ve been to every single one since 2005, when the festival began) or the highest profile event at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, but its influence may have started to rub off of the festival itself as a whole. Though there is a separate festival specifically for genre films, there were still several authentic horror films accepted into the typically-mainstream official competition of the Phoenix Film Festival. There was even a live action short film, The Babysitter Murders, that not only played outside of the Horror Shorts program, it ended up winning the award for Best Live Action Short Film against more, um, inspirational competition. The lines between mainstream cinema and genre may have been permanently blurred at the festival for years to come after these selections. Horror is clearly here to stay in the Phoenix area, whether or not it is submitted to the actual Horror and Sci-Fi festival or not. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Unfortunately, one person alone cannot see every single screening. I volunteer as a submissions screener during the off season, and see every film that I am able to during the festival when I am not volunteering (the festival required 24 hours to earn a festival pass). As a result, there were several horror films I was not able to catch. The fact that a lot of the Showcase selections only had one screening each didn’t help matters much. On top of that, the Best Horror and Sci-fi film winners were not scheduled for encore screenings (which has never happened before), so if you missed them here, there’s always Netflix, Amazon Prime, or another streaming service later on.
So, while I was sadly not able to view The 6th Friend, Happy Hunting, Lake Bodom, Dave Made a Maze, and The Transfiguration due to scheduling conflicts, I purposely avoided Game of Death as the buzz out of South by Southwest was toxic and it didn’t get much better when it played twice here. I guess you could say this list is a little skewed. Of course, full disclosure is better than no disclosure at all, or basing your opinion solely on other reviews.
Since I was not able to see the full spectrum of selections, I felt it was unfair to focus only on foreign produced horror features. The two Australian films, Hounds of Love and Killing Ground were the biggest highlights of the horror section. Sadly, there were no Asian films selected. I can only hope that is rectified next year and beyond. Surprisingly, the American films for the most part lived up to the strong examples their European and Aussie filmmakers set. Unlike previous years, there were no glaring mistakes that made you wish you had not attended the festival in the first place from what I saw. IHSFFF director Monte Yazzi deserves credit for his quality control here.
Since there seemed to be several horror films in the Phoenix Film Festival official competition, I felt it was appropriate to start off by acknowledging one of them.
Best Non-Horror Horror Film: Painless
Just looking at the Full Moon-esque one sheet for Jordan Horowitz’s new sci-fi/horror feature (and Cinequest prize winner), Painless, made me wonder why it wasn’t in the IHSFFF section. I found the story to a be a little too Flowers for Algernon as it follows a man who agrees to be experimented on to try to feel actual pain. I actually found its deliberate pacing, astute cinematography, and eerie on-screen experiments to be more intoxicating and uncomfortable than some of the actual IHSFFF selections. Perhaps Mr. Horowtiz didn’t realize that the IHSFFF existed since his last feature, the documentary Angel of Nanjing, was a Phoenix Film Festival prize winner a few years back. If he continues down the sci-fi/horror path for a narrative follow-up, let’s hope he learned his lesson about which one to submit to.
Bottom Film I Saw: The Night Watchmen
So while Mitchell Altieri’s new comedic horror film has its moments and is not a complete wreck, I found its uneven tone and inconsistent humor to be more of a liability than asset. The story involves two generations’ worth of security guards and corporate drones trying to survive a night with super tough vampires killing everyone around them. I found the jokes mostly condescending, aggressively commercial, and disappointedly sexist. The performances, especially James Remar, managed to elevate the pretty mediocre material they were given and it’s always pleasant to see local Horror film staple Tiffany Shepis in a small role. Among more sophisticated horror selections in the festival, this stuck out like an undead severed gangrenous sore thumb. Naturally, it was awarded Best Horror Film at the awards show (being sarcastic here for those who cannot read between the lines). Still the audience ate it up like zombies on a fresh brain so that cannot be too bad. The production values were noteworthy, but the rapid pacing and relentless violence diluted the effect for me. I kept wondering what video game this was based on, and Uwe Boll is not what I want to think about while watching vampires.
Honorable Mention: Killing Ground
Had this Australian out-in-the-bush romp been in the competition and not the non-competitive Showcase section at IHSFFF, I would’ve recommended it for a directing award. The ironically (and suspiciously) named Damien Power lives up to his, well, name. I was not surprised to learn that he just signed with CAA so I hope we can look forward to many more exciting features from him. Everything here from the cinematography, acting, violence, pacing, sound design, and editing worked effectively, a true stylistic triumph. The only thing that brought it down on my list was the rather been-there-done-that story elements where the screenwriter commits one of the great sins of horror writing and only allows ambulances and outside help to finally arrive only when narratively convenient. You can pretty much guess what happens next and proves that the title isn’t the only dull aspect of this otherwise compelling feature debut.
3. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl
Probably the most controversial feature in the horror section, competition or not, this 70s horror throwback is a gothic delight that makes up in execution what it lacks in the originality department. Comparisons to Persona, Jane Eyre, Silent Night Bloody Night, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, or even Mulholland Dr are inevitable, but also well justified. I was surprised to find out that this was not the first feature I have seen from Argentinian director A.D. Calvo and I hope it is not the last (Just found out his feature debut, The Other Side of the Tracks, is available on Amazon Prime for those who are members). I found the first 2/3 of this metaphorical story to be seamless with rising starlet Erin Wilhelmi giving a potential Anya Taylor-Joy-like star-making (for a horror film, that is) performance. That is until the abrupt, overwrought climax that leads to a underdeveloped and ambiguous ending that feels as cliched as it does inappropriate after the engrossing character development that had occurred up to that point. Still, the cinematography and period art direction achieve a sense of dread, atmosphere, and claustrophobia rarely seem in horror these days, so I’m willing to over look some of its story flaws. The rest of cast fits their roles nicely also. Definitely a rare find at IHSFFF, even if Mr. Calvo doesn’t completely pull off what he’s going for.
2. Tonight She Comes
I was warned about Matt Stuertz’s new feature. Though from the descriptions I was getting, it almost sounded as if it were a horror musical instead of a postmodern take on the cabin the woods slasher sub-genre that won awards at the Eerie Horror Fest, Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival, and A Night of Horror International Film festival. Though I found the young cast to be a little too “CW-ish” for my slasher film tastes, the performances were uniformly strong with Jenna McDonald being the standout. The story involves the disappearance of a girl in the woods with her friends trying to figure out what happened. Pretty standard stuff for a horror feature. Except Mr. Stuertz’s go-for-broke style keeps things interesting with depictions of the occult and spell casting I don’t think I have ever seen in any horror film. Despite its exciting execution, Tonight She Comes has probably no shot at a theatrical distribution deal due to its uncompromising NC-17 vision, so I am glad I was able to catch this at a festival screening as seeing it on a big screen will become increasingly difficult to do once it hits the VOD market. If it plays at a festival near you, take a chance on this one. Its ending alone is something I’ve only seen in Asian horror films directed by folks like Takashi Miike and Shin’ya Tsukamoto, and that’s really saying something for an American film.
1. Hounds of Love
Easily the brightest highlight of the horror section at IHSFFF for me this year, and you can see there was serious competition for that in the showcase section. Ben Young’s directorial debut won awards at the Venice and Brussels Film Festivals last year and we can see he is already destined for bigger projects with his next film, Extinction, already in production with Michael Pena and Lizzy Caplan. The story here is basically a child kidnapping by a serial killer couple in the 80s, Australian style. Yes, this concept could be something you’ve seen on numerous crime shows like Unsolved Mysteries or America’s Most Wanted. Unlike the other Australian horror film, Killing Ground, substance is not sacrificed for style. The intensity never lets up and the ensemble acting is superb. In spite of its simple story, the psychological character development and pacing never ceases to be fascinating. I was impressed how complex and persistent the female characters were without sacrificing a strong, memorable male antagonist in the process. These characters never felt like horror caricatures to me, which seems to be the ultimate test for a up and coming horror director recently. This might end up being not only a classic of Australian cinema, but also a prime case study in a simple subject matter done extraordinarily well as a film. Like everything in horror, it’s the execution not the concept that matters more.