Screamfest L.A. 2001

Film festival review by Thomas M. Sipos

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In October 2001, I covered the Screamfest L.A. Horror Film Festival for Horrorfind.com. Back then, Screamfest L.A. was a small event, giving no indication that it would soon grow into Los Angeles's largest horror film festival.

A year later, I interviewed Screamfest L.A.'s Rachel Belofsky for the Hollywood Investigator. Much later, I wrote about that first annual Screamfest in my recent book on Horror Film Festivals and Awards.

Horrorfind no longer carries my original report. Thus, for the sake of horror film festival history (and assuming anyone cares), I'm reprinting my original 2001 Screamfest L.A. Horrorfind report, as it first appeared a decade ago (the embedded videos are, of course, new):

 

The 2001 Screamfest Horror Film Festival screened its top entries on October 24 and 25 at the Vogue Theater in Hollywood. Two features and eight shorts made the final competition, with enough categories to ensure most films won a prize (or several). Most entries were shot on video, but Screamfest made no distinction in award categories between film and video, so in my reviews I refer to all entries as "films." Festival organizers Rachel Belofsky and Ross Martin intend for Screamfest to be an annual event.

Details about Screamfest and its entries (including screenplay entries) are at: Screamfestla.com.

I will review the two features, Deep in the Woods (French 1999) and Biohazardous (2001), in coming weeks. Blood: The Last Vampire (Japanese animie) will also be reviewed separately despite its 48-minutes length because of its superior artistry.

Below are reviews for the seven other short films. Entries rated on a scale of * to ***** (5 being best).

 

Earth Day (17 minutes) *** (dir: Michiko Byers and Meredith Casey; cast: Jason Ritter, Mark Hamill, Nathan Hamill, Logan Levant, Meredith Casey, Matthew Champan, Marianna Palka).

Cute parody of slasher films portrayed by Barbie dolls and "action figures" (including Mr. T). The credited cast does the voices.

Few parodies excel -- most settle for easy laughs by hitting familiar targets. Earth Day strikes all slasher film clichés, but the dolls inject a fresh element that makes for a fun film. If Earth Day doesn't excel as a parody, it's still above average. No mean thing, considering its low budget and stale topic.

Earth Day opens with two dolls (a John Travolta and a Barbie) killed in a shower during sex, as seen through the slasher's POV. Like many slasher films, Earth Day incorporates a holiday and a camping trip. Young horny dolls, ignorant of the shower murders, go camping during Earth Day. There is a green-conscious camp counselor with a sexy daughter, an ominous handyman, more POV shots of gruesome killings, a slasher whose murderous transvestitism is rooted in a high school prank, a lone female survivor, and a dark "family legacy" twist ending. Familiar slasher story elements which will delight slasher fans.

 

 

 

Earth Day's digital videography is bright, sharp, and competent. Nor did the film overstay its welcome: 17 minutes was appropriate. Its one-joke gimmick (a slasher film with dolls), absent other satirical targets, would wear thin if it ran much longer. (South Park's crude animation is no slicker than Earth Day's jiggly dolls, but South Park's satire is broader in scope.) Earth Day's editing is admirably tight (unlike the feature-length Biohazardous, which needs much trimming).

 

 

Knight of the Headsman (15 minutes) ** (dir: Michael Bohusz; prod: Mike Michaud; cast: Corey Taylor, Joe Carberry, John Carl Buechler, Mike Michaud)

Dreadfully lit videography, mediocre story, fine performance by John Carl Buechler.

Two cops have tracked a modern day headless horseman to a trailer park. The cops are the usual mix of clichés: one white, one black. One's a hotdog, one's by-the-book. One's a street-hardened veteran, one's a younger rookie type. One's got a family, one's whole life is his badge. Mix 'n match those elements, doesn't matter what the spread.

The by-the-books younger black cop wants to wait for backup, but the hotdog white veteran cop storms the trailer. Tension results from deafening rock music, cold strobe lighting, and gory trophy heads. A well-choreographed fight with the headless horseman adds excitement. But images are fuzzy, the color murky -- which happens when video is shot in low lighting. And the "surprise twist" ending is no surprise to seasoned horror fans.

The one outstanding element is John Carl Buechler's performance as the headless horseman. Dressed in biker leather, his charismatic villainy combines the right mix of evil threat and dark humor. Otherwise, Knight of the Headsman is no better than most student films (which it is not).

[In my original Horrorfind report, I have this film entitles Knight of the Headsman, but Screamfest L.A. lists this film as Night of the Headsman. The IMDb doesn't list this film under either title.]

 

 

Y2K (22 minutes) ** (dir/prod: John Gonzales, Trent Shumway, Slava Siderman)

Forgettable shot-on-video cannibal zombie gorefest.

It's the night of Y2K. A computer at some sort of biotech company thinks it's 1900, or the year 0, or something. So it locks everyone in the building, clones this and that, creates a blob monster, then some zombies, then a baby-thing emerges from someone's stomach, alien-style. Much bloodshed and running around and screaming by office workers. "Surprise twist" ending is no surprise. That we don't see the narrator's face till the end is a giveaway

Low-budget filmmakers try hard to simulate a high-tech company, but it still looks like drab office space. The sliding "high-tech" biotech lab shelves resemble the bookshelves at any college library. Sound, lighting, acting, art direction, zombie makeup, and writing are adequate but unimpressive. Most impressive element is the computer-generated slithering blob SFX. If this film is a calling card to Hollywood, the blob SFX creator is most likely to land work.

Y2K is remarkably forgettable. The next day, I already had trouble recalling its actors, story, or key scenes.

 

 

The Appointment (11 minutes) ** (dir/prod: Clinton Gleason; cast: Bru Muller, Jennifer DeMartino)

One of two student films at Screamfest, and it shows. Film is an exercise in lighting rather than storytelling, as there is no story.

A woman awakes in a hospital. We cut to a clock near someone's foot. We never learn about the clock, or what "the appointment" refers to. (Symbolism?) A psycho-killer is messing with a corpse on ... an autopsy table?

The woman leaves her room. She creeps about deserted corridors (where is everyone?), then meets the psycho. He chases her. Some cat-and-mouse ensues. Someone (an orderly?) is killed. The woman kills the psycho. A newsradio reports: an escaped lunatic's reign of terror ended because a woman fought back. The end.

No story. Mainly cat-and-mouse hide-and-seeking in dark deserted corridors. No characters. A generic psycho, generic gore-soaked victim, generic woman. Very much a student film. No story or characters, but well-lit. Much better production values than Knight of the Headsman.

Memo to film students: A poorly-lit, but good story with engaging characters is more entertaining than a well-lit, but pointless chase with cardboard figures.

 

 

The Puzzle (22 minutes) *** (dir: Robert Harari; prod: Robert Harari and Kimberly Roil; cast: Courtney Bell, Elena Torrez)

Screamfest's more entertaining student film, The Puzzle, is based on a short story. It shows, being one of the most literate entries.

A young pharmacist is feted with a surprise birthday party, after which she finds a present from an unknown guest: a jigsaw puzzle. It's a dark and stormy night. The power goes out. By candlelight, she completes the puzzle. The "surprise twist ending" is not wholly unexpected, but the film's effectively creepy atmosphere gives it punch.

The Puzzle relies heavily on atmosphere, building it with painstaking care, employing lighting, art decor, story, and character. Film begins on a cheery afternoon at the pharmacy, when the characters' innocent banter reveal the pharmacist's empty social life. We cut to the pharmacist's stark white apartment, its impersonal decor at first obfuscated by lively partygoers, but exposed when the partygoers depart. Her apartment is clean and tasteful, but apart from the party debris, appears unlived in.

Alone in her lonely apartment, the pharmacist begins piecing together the jigsaw puzzle. The atmosphere of solitude grows ominous as an intensifying thunderstorm kills the lights. She continues working on the puzzle by candlelight.

Like The Appointment, The Puzzle has the marks of a student film lighting project. But The Appointment merely uses lighting to try and create a dark and scary atmosphere. The Puzzle does that, but its lighting also affects and changes the mood of the scenes -- and more importantly -- in a way that supports character, theme, and flow of story. Both lighting and art decor underscore the pharmacist's empty life, leaving her open to the dark supernatural entry of the puzzle.

Shot-on-video, The Puzzle suffers some fuzziness and murkiness, though its videography is superior to Knight of the Headsman's. One senses that Puzzle director Robert Harari did the best possible with available equipment, as the lighting and art decor are aesthetically motivated.

Unlike many Screamfest entries, The Puzzle is literate and atmospheric, opting for old-fashioned spookiness over gory zombies or slashers. Characters are strong, doubtless grounded in the short story. Exposition feels long for a short film with a brief payoff, but it's put to a purpose: to build character and atmosphere.

The Puzzle, like Earth Day, should make nice fillers for the Independent Film Channel or Sundance Channel.

 

 

Cradle of Fear (ca. 20-25 minutes) *** (British; dir: Alex Chandon; prod: Eddie Kane; cast: Dani Filth and band members from Cradle of Filth)

Part of an upcoming horror anthology feature film starring the heavy metal band, Cradle of Filth.

Shot-on-video, Cradle of Fear will please undiscriminating gorehounds, but is weak on story and acting (band members starring in this film should keep their music gigs).

Film opens with two dead girls, eviscerated in vast pools of blood, in a cheap London flat. A flashback reveals how they came to die.

Gorehounds will howl with delight. Yeah, I enjoyed it too. It's not art, but it's fun.

Police find the bloody mess. The end.

Simple tale of "have sex with a demon and die." Acting is limited to menacing or slutty stares. It may be enough to carry a goth metal stage act (or whatever the band calls its subgenre) but feels anemic in a feature film. Even the leathers and skull rings and 1980s MTV smoke effects aren't enough. Psychomania (British 1972) had a similar milieu, but with meatier story and characters.

 

 

 

Britain's Cradle of Fear was the shoddiest of Screamfest's three foreign entries, a poor third to France's Deep in the Woods and Japan's Blood: The Last Vampire.

 

 

Fatal Kiss (35 minutes) *** (dir/prod: Jeff Rector; cast: Jeff Rector, Ted Raimi, Kato Kaelin, Tane McClure)

Shot on film, slick production values, skilled acting, cute story.

Director Jeff Rector casts himself as a sad sack cuckold who seeks vengeance by becoming a vampire. The last to learn of his wife's many infidelities, Jeff responds to a latenight TV ad for a vampire-creation service. He then agonizes over his possible fate while awaiting the arrival of the vampire who will turn him into nosferatu.

His fantasies and fears lampoon vampire icons, from aristocrat to leather-clad nightclubber, each in turn falling prey to angry villagers or a Buffyesque slayer. Reality arrives in the form of a kooky Elvira lookalike. Naturally, Jeff's undead fate is not what he expected.

Fatal Kiss is not a horror film, but a comedy parodying both noir and vampire icons. Its cheery macabre sensibility evokes TV's original Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A cute tale, colorfully lit, playfully performed by a skilled cast. (Yes, it's that Kato Kaelin -- doing decent work in a bit part as the cheating wife's hunky lover.)

Plot points tie together despite the incongruity of two "surprise twist" endings. One senses that director Rector couldn't decide which was better and so he includes both, revealing the first ending to be yet another fantasy before the real ending. It feels indulgent and unnecessary, but does not seriously mar an otherwise fine film.

 

 

In summary, among the seven shorts, the most noteworthy were Earth Day (for its clever concept), The Puzzle (for subordinating cinematic tools into aesthetic service to character, theme, and story), and Fatal Kiss (for overall slick professionalism).

In coming weeks I will upload detailed reviews for Screamfest's feature entries: Deep in the Woods (France 1999), Blood: The Last Vampire (Japan), and Biohazardous.

But here's a brief overview.

Deep in the Woods, a stylistic horror-art film, is a modern-day metaphorical retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood." Naturally, it evokes both Company of Wolves (British 1985) and Blood and Roses (French 1961). French soundtrack, subtitled in English.

The Internet Movie Database has its release date as 2000, but its print says 1999. I'm assuming it was released in France in 1999, in the U.S. in 2000. The second-best film at Screamfest.

 

 

 

Blood: The Last Vampire, at 48 minutes, is not a feature, yet more than a short. Either way, it was the finest film at Screamfest. Apart from its resplendent visual artistry -- dissolving live action footage into its beautiful animie milieu -- this violent tale of an eternal child-vampire packs a powerful emotional punch.

Lead character evokes elements from both Lara Croft and Interview with the Vampire, yet retains her unique identity. Japanese soundtrack, subtitled in English. Nominated for an Emmy (that, as of this writing, it may yet win).

 

 

 

Biohazardous. Despite a slick poster and opening credits, this shot-on-video mess never rises above home-movie production values. Laughably inept acting (which is why the audience was  laughing), banal dialogue, flaccid editing. Its unimaginative tale of flesh-eating zombies is identical to the 500 previous flesh-eating zombie knockoffs of the past 20+ years.

 

 

 

Oddly, the two best films at Screamfest -- Deep in the Woods and Blood: The Last Vampire -- were both foreign language films.

 

 

Independent filmmakers have been lamenting the lack of festival screens. Slamdance was established in response to Sundance's surfeit, and now Slamdance too rejects most films.

Screamfest should have been inundated with strong product, yet overall, the final cut was disappointingly weak. Most of the films were enjoyable, but in a so-so way. No previously unknown grassroots discovery. No Blair Witch Project. The finest film had already won recognition from the Emmy people.

I'm assuming this lack of first-rate product is because of the newness, and hence relative obscurity, of Screamfest. With time, as it becomes known, its entries should increase in quantity and quality. Should it survive into a second year, I expect to review a superior batch of entries.

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