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Shriekfest Orlando 2017: Film Festival Review

October 23, 2017

I had the recent pleasure of attending Orlando’s first ShriekFest, a smaller one-day event satelliting the flagship Los Angeles film festival (October 5-8, 2017) on its 17th year.  Thirty-five short films were featured.  Being a huge enthusiast of horror anthologies and Neill Blomkamp’s latest short film releases (Zygote, Firebase, Rakka) via Oats Studios, I delighted in the variety of styles and flavors that befell the screen.

Any of these films would have fit comfortably in a horror or sci-fi anthology movie and, actually, maybe some of them actually will. Films like Agatha and Tethered appealed to dark cautionary fairy tale fans—as you might find in a more mature realization of Creepshow (1982).  Some even had a more random ABCs of Death (2013) vibe to them.  For example, Daemonrunner and Classified offered a ghostbusting sci-fi videogame draw; Miscast, Play Day and Good Morning seemed more concerned with having fun than creating a serious narrative (not that there’s anything wrong with that); and Savor was a silly (though very well executed) 15-second scene.

Foxwood, Santapocalypse, Jack, Burn, Humbug and Megrim were more cheeky—befitting such funny anthology films as A Christmas Horror Story (2015), Trick ‘r Treat (2007) or Holidays (2016), which offered a lot of dark humor.  Honestly, I feel like these filmmakers should be using festivals to get together and form their own anthology films. Withheld, Ghosted, Red Handed and Psycho Therapy would all fit well together into a sexually themed horror anthology. The Witching Hour, Jack, Foxwood, Humbug, Miscast and Santapocalypse could go towards forming a sequel anthology to Holidays (2016).

A few of these shorts deserve further exploration, even if only adding 5-10 minutes. I’m not at all saying this is indicative of a flaw in the short films—quite the opposite.  I’m compelled by them!  I wanted to know more about the monstrous girl chained in the bedroom (Agatha), and a more clarified irony of our gruesomely jack-o-lanterned victim (Jack).  Whereas Remnants, Echoes of the Past and The Armoire felt like tasters for potential feature length films.

Of course, as with an anthology movie, I didn’t expect to enjoy all of the films. Some weren’t stellar, others (softer and/or dramatic science fiction) just weren’t what I wanted to see in a festival with “shriek” in the name.  For example, Still Here was a soulful and gorgeously shot “last man on earth” premise, but just didn’t ‘fit’ the venue or event ‘mood’ for me.  Call it personal preference, but I’d rather see the films grouped into program blocks following closer to their theme/style.

My personal favorites were Burn (boasting equal parts candid sincerity and cruelty, with amazing characters), Tethered (gorgeously shot and harrowing), Blood Sisters (wonderfully executed circumstantial horror comedy), Megrim (light-hearted humor about a haphazard torturer who we likened to a kinder, gentler Human Centipede doctor), Agatha (great creepy draw, even if familiar), Six 2nds to Die (a gory, light-hearted comedy which amusingly felt like it would have made a great “Commercial” to advertise Shriekfest), Cherry Pepper (the Napoleon Dynamite of black comedy horror), and Nightlight (a brief yet sympathetic short about the monster under your bed).

Excerpt from my full Burn review about a particular character/actor: “Kindly playing a father whom his son will never know, Max Cavenham brings a candid compassion to the screen.  His performance, complemented by solid editing work, breathes humanity into this role—and a challenge it certainly is to truly relate to short film characters in such short time… If there is a take home message here, the thing I’ll remember most about this film, it actually won’t be the sort of double-twist zinger (which I quite enjoyed).  Nope.  For me it will be [the] endearing father, nervously and meticulously preparing videos for his unborn son with such tender care.  In those show-stealing moments Max Cavenham was brilliant!  So much more than just “great scenes (that happen to be) in a horror movie,” the heart of those opening scenes transcends the genre and would shine in any film of any genre.  Imagine that, real filmmakers making horror.”

Before their festival circuit release, I had the pleasure of reviewing Burn and Tethered.  In fact, it was one of the Tethered filmmakers that invited me to Shriekfest. That in mind, I’d invite any independent filmmakers to send us their work.

Excerpt from my full Tethered review: “At but a brief 12 minutes, I was captivated in minute one… Consistently thoughtful, well-practiced and technically sound shots leave us at the mercy of the film’s atmosphere.  The camera lingers on a boy’s weathered face… we are taken aback by the circumstances of his existence as his mother’s harrowing voice plays on a cassette-tape recording narrating the “rules” by which the abandoned blind boy lives, tethered to a weary wooden shelter surrounded by bells and animal traps… The acting and camerawork were exemplary; the editing…perfect, abrupt, uneasing.  The film opened powerful intrigue overlaying melancholy, with the rigid remoteness and fable-like rules beckoning memories of the finer qualities of The Village (2004), the tip-toeing isolation in The Witch (2016) or the opening shots in The Hallow (2015). The finer moments of the sound editing/mixing (e.g., the rabbit scene) really dropped me deep down the abyssal mystique of this dark woodland fantasy that all viewers, by now, fear will be a cautionary tale of dire consequence… 0:44-0:58 (i.e., “the 1st rule”) were 14 of the best seconds of editing I’ve seen this year.  It reminded me of the pub/pint pouring excellence (the brief, quick-cut montage) of Shaun of the Dead, only harrowing!  A man appreciative of nuance, director Daniel Robinette breeds mood and mystery into this fantastic film—especially in those first two minutes.  He’s generated all I need to support whatever he next pursues.  Solomon’s desperation is as tattered as his clothing, and his soul-broken longing noted each time he pushes “rewind” on his mother’s departing message.”

Having never been to a film festival before, this was a real treat for me. Passersby on the streets of Sanford wandered over from the Saturday farmer’s market to buy a 2-hour block ticket (about 9 short films), only to stay and buy another block once it ended.  I brought a horror fan friend of mine who had also never been to such an event and, despite its smaller scale, she loved it as much as I did.  So I certainly hope that Shriekfest Orlando finds its 2nd Annual date in October of 2018.

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