Bruce Campbell's Horror Film Festival, now in its third year in Chicago, is one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the year. A mix of festival favorites, new discoveries and a handful of repertory classics, the BCHFF offers a huge range of experiences and has introduced me to several of my favorite horror movies of the last few years. This was where I first saw Starry Eyes two years ago. This is where I saw Tales of Halloween and Turbo Kid last year, and where I was introduced to smaller films like Body and Sun Choke. Like with the Chicago Critics Film Festival, there hasn't been a movie that I've been unhappy to have seen at BCHFF even when I haven't loved them all. The thrill of discovery and the passion of the filmmaker is always there.
Adam Riske, who joined me for this column last year, was at the festival with me for three of the four days but had to bow out a little early because he wasn't feeling well. The good news is that he was there for the best day. And that we got to hang out and watch horror movies all weekend and dream-cast our own Rob Zombie's Suicide Squad. Meg Foster is Enchantress.
More in-depth reviews of several of these films are forthcoming, but for now here's an overview of how the weekend went.
The opening night film was Don't Breathe, the second film from director Fede Alvarez, who previously made the 2013 Evil Dead remake (a movie I have publicly [and maybe controversially?] turned around on since the first time I saw it). The movie reunites Alvarez with his Evil Dead star Jane Levy as one of three desperate teenagers who set out to rob the house of a blind man (Stephen Lang), but things don't go as planned. Alvarez made a point of saying during his post-screening Q&A that he has received complaints about the trailers giving everything away, but that the movie has way more surprises in store than are revealed in the marketing. I still haven't watched any of the trailers (I try to go into all of these screenings completely cold, in most cases not even know the premises), but I can say that Don't Breathe is not a movie that can be easily predicted from its rather basic setup. The movie played really, really well with a crowd and should be seen opening weekend in as packed a theater as possible. As a piece of filmmaking, it's a huge improvement over Evil Dead and shows Alvarez to be a really exciting technician and stylist. It's so much fun.
Alvarez and star Stephen Lang did a Q&A after the screening, which was fun because Alvarez is pretty honest and outspoken (not to the point of being rude the way some people are when described as being "honest") and because we found out that his nickname for Stephen Lang is "Slang," which is the best.
Up next was the 30th anniversary screening of Night of the Creeps with writer/director Fred Dekker in attendance. I grew up and still am a huge fan of Creeps, which is a movie with a lot of rough spots but with its heart in the right place -- it is positively bursting with love of horror and science fiction and film noir and all of the stuff that Dekker grew up on. This was my first chance to see the movie on the big screen with an appreciative audience -- the kind who applaud at the first appearance of Tom Atkins (who I would still argue is at his best here) and laugh in all the right spots. Dekker talked about the movie a little and is very blunt about what he sees as its shortcomings; it was his first feature and he was only about 26 or 27 when he made it, and his reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. That's always been one of the things I love about the movie, though. It's the kind of horror film with a ton of heart and a love for its characters (and idea we'll come back to later in the weekend) and which you can feel growing and expanding almost at the speed of thought. I love this movie.
Friday night of the fest kicked off with Pet, the new movie from Apartment 143 director Carles Torrens and writer Jeremy Slater (of The Lazarus Effect fame). It stars Dominic Monaghan in full-on weirdo creep mode as a guy who develops an attraction to a woman (Ksenia Solo) and, when he can't have her, takes drastic measures to "save" her. Pet is a really frustrating movie. It's well made and everything, but kept yanking back and forth between a movie I really, really didn't want to see (pretty, blonde, white woman is kept in a cage in her underwear -- KILL ME) and a movie that wanted to take some twists and be better than that. There's some effort to say things about power dynamics and a few really effective sequences, but then it keeps going back to being ugly (and not in the way it's intending) and histrionic and acted with real obviousness. I appreciate where it lands and liked enough of the new stuff it tried to bring to what is one of my least favorite horror tropes, but it's a major mixed bag for sure.
One of the weekend's hottest tickets was for the Benson Interruption with comedian Doug Benson, who riffed his way through Army of Darkness alongside comedian Geoff Tate and star Bruce Campbell in front of a sold-out crowd. More a comedy experience than a traditional screening of the film, it was a fun and unique way to see a movie I've already seen over a dozen times and offered some variety for the festival. Bruce Campbell did more of a running commentary over the film, which didn't always allow for Benson and Tate to get in as many one-liners as they might normally do at this kind of show, but there were still enough big laughs and behind-the-scenes stories to make it a fun 90 minutes.
Following Army of Darkness was the world premiere of the micro-budget indie Show Yourself, which got off to a late start both because the Benson Interruption ran long (and because they screened the first episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead Season Two afterwards, though neither Adam nor I stayed because we needed a break) and because the movie was literally being finished five minutes before it was scheduled to run. Ben Hethcoat stars as a famous actor who goes out into the woods alone to scatter the ashes of his recently deceased best friend and to work out some personal demons, eventually getting visited by something that may or may not be a ghost. While a clear labor of love, Show Yourself works better as a metaphor for grief than it does as a moviegoing experience, as it consists largely of the main character Skyping with people out in the woods. Writer/director Billy Ray Brewton and most of the cast was in attendance. I was too tired to stick around for the Q&A so I bailed, but spotted many of the people involved with the movie hanging out at screenings throughout the weekend, which endeared them to me greatly. That was true of many of the filmmakers, actually, and one of my favorite parts of the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival -- it's isolated enough that everyone hangs out and watches each other's movies. It's cool.
Friday's midnight movie -- which actually started at 1 a.m. -- was From Beyond, with star/world's best human being Barbara Crampton on hand for a Q&A. I was driving home to go to sleep and likely dream about Barbara Crampton.
Saturday was undoubtedly the strongest day of the festival, kicking off in the early afternoon with a screening of Abattoir, the new film from Darren Lynn Bousman. It's a new take on the haunted house genre, mixing old-school film noir tropes with a fairly cool new mythology and a last act that lets it rip. This is another movie with a reach that exceeds its grasp; the pacing is a little rough (the middle act is almost exclusively expository dialogue) and the stylized dialogue was trimmed way back in the editing, meaning only two characters really speak in '40s-style one-liners and only to each other. The results can be jarring. Still, I admire what Bousman is trying to do and love how ambitious he is as a filmmaker, constantly trying to do new and weird things. He was present for a Q&A after the movie (for which he admitted he might have still been somewhat drunk from the flight) and talked about how the film was halted four times before it finally shot, each time with a shorter schedule and lower budget. He also stuck around for the next film, where he sat with some of the guys from Bloody Disgusting right behind Adam and me and kicked our seats for most of the film. It wasn't really a big deal, but I did think about turning around and shouting "Stop kicking my seat, Saw II's Darren Lynn Bousman!" because I thought it sounded funny. Not sure when Abattoir is coming out exactly, but if you've been a fan of Bousman's work in the past you should really check it out. It feels a little like his Dead Silence.
Immediately following Abattoir was the Chicago premiere of my most anticipated movie of the festival: Jackson Stewart's Beyond the Gates. It's an '80s throwback (I know, I know) about two estranged brothers (Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson) who discover a haunted VHS board game and use it to find their missing father. While paying tribute to '80s horror has become very fashionable in recent years, up to and including this summer's Stranger Things on Netflix, what I loved so much about Beyond the Gates is the way its heart is so in the right place. Yes, the music and the VHS stuff and the overall vibe feels very '80s, but what Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata get right about '80s horror is the attention it pays to its characters. Skipper and Williamson form a very real, very believable relationship as brothers, and it's their story (as well as the romantic story of Skipper and co-star Brea Grant) that made me care so much. The horror stuff was just a bonus. I loved this movie a lot. Stewart, Williamson, Grant and co-star Barbara Crampton (who plays the host of the haunted VHS tape and gets big laughs with just a look) did a fun Q&A after the movie and then stuck around for the rest of the day, which was super cool. They're the best.
Next was another high point of the weekend: I Am Not a Serial Killer, directed by Billy O'Brien and starring Where the Wild Things Are's Max Records as a teenage sociopath who begins investigating a series of murders taking place in his small town. I don't want to say any more about the movie, which you should see as soon as possible (I think it's out in a few weeks from IFC Midnight). Everything about the movie, from the '70s-inspired 16mm photography to the incredible performances from Records and co-star Christopher Lloyd to the fascinating thematic work, is nearly perfect. It's one of the best movies of the year for sure and probably would be my favorite of the festival if my heart wasn't already pledged to Beyond the Gates for the way it spoke to me very personally. Christopher Lloyd, who was across the street all weekend signing at Wizard World Comic-Con, came over for a Q&A and received a standing ovation. Like he should. That's Doc Fucking Brown we're talking about.
Saturday night's main event was a special screening of The Monster Squad with director Fred Dekker and stars Andre Gower (Sean) and Ryan Lambert (Rudy) on hand. Prior to the screening, Bruce Campbell presented Dekker with the first-ever "Groovy As Well" award, which was a very cool engraved chainsaw that can be worn over one's hand. Fred Dekker is the perfect choice to receive the inaugural award. Because he is, in fact, groovy. As hell.
What can really be said about The Monster Squad that hasn't already been said? It's a movie I know by heart and one which as been special to me since my brother first took me to see it in theaters in 1987. It played great to the audience in attendance, because of course it did. This is the audience for The Monster Squad. It's interesting to think about how many horror fans caught up with the movie years later on VHS and cable (or, as comedian Doug Benson admitted on Twitter, for the first time ever during Saturday's screening) and missed it the first time around. It's not their fault, necessarily, but I have to imagine it's a little heartbreaking to realize this thing existed and played in theaters and no one went, like finding out your favorite band was playing your town the day after the concert. The Q&A after the movie was enjoyable, with Dekker once again being critical of the movie's shortcomings and Ryan Lambert doing some excellent shit talking of The Goonies: "The Goonies is a movie about a group of kids who save their town from nothing. They get some jewels and they run from an old lady and her kids. The Monster Squad is a movie about kids who save the world from fucking Dracula." A screening of The Monster Squad at a horror movie festival is probably the only place it's safe to throw shade at The Goonies to an audience of 20 and 30-somethings.
The true surprise hit of the festival was the world premiere of Found Footage 3D, a meta comedy/horror film that is, in fact, a 3D found footage movie written and directed by Steven DeGennaro. Even more than any of the repertory screenings, Found Footage played best to the packed-house crowd of any movie during the weekend. It's a modest film, about a small group of filmmakers who go to a remote cabin to make a movie until life starts to imitate art, which, in turn, imitates life. While I'm no real fan of found footage movies, DeGennaro and the cast found a way to have their cake and eat it, too; the film is both a critique of found footage and one of the best found footage movies ever made -- the rare sendup that works as both a goof on the thing and as a great example of the thing itself. There are really funny observations about the horror genre and the filmmaking process, but a handful of terrific scares as well. While horror movies -- and in particular found footage movies -- aren't known for great character work, that's what's best about Found Footage 3D. DeGennero and the cast (who are, to a person, terrific) understand that we have to care about these people in order to give any kind of shit about what happens to them, and the film has an amazing ability to shift tones and sympathies multiple times in the course of a single scene. I don't think the movie has distribution yet, but keep an eye out for it and hit up social media saying you want to see it if you can. It really is something special.
DeGennaro, producers Charles Mulford and Scott Weinberg (yes, that Scott Weinberg) and the entire cast were on hand for a Q&A, which was particularly fun because of how surprised and moved everyone genuinely seemed by the reception to the film. They reiterated the importance of the characters to the movie, which cemented something I had already been suspecting through the weekend. The horror movies I was responding to most, whether it was a classic like Night of the Creeps or a new discovery like Beyond the Gates, I Am Not a Serial Killer or Found Footage 3D, are entirely rooted in character. Every single one of my favorite horror movies is. This is something that was true of many of the films that screened over the weekend and something to which I wish studio horror films (or studio films of any genre) paid more attention.
The final film on Saturday night -- which started well after midnight -- was The Greasy Strangler. I was beat and had been told by a few people I trust that it might not be a movie for which it's worth staying out until 3 a.m. so Adam Riske and I each went home for the night. One more day to go, and Saturday would be really, really tough to beat.
After arriving a little early to some press for Found Footage 3D, I checked out the block of horror shorts programmed by festival director Josh Goldbloom. Like most shorts blocks, it was a mixed bag but fun to see what a bunch of up and coming horror filmmakers came up with, from a mutant troll baby that gives the best blowjobs ever ("Gwilliam") to the late, great Roddy Piper as an apartment super trying to close a portal to the underworld ("Portal to Hell!!!"). Some, like the all-female "Innsmouth," were cool and interesting. Others were just gory fun. Some I wasn't as crazy about so I won't mention them here. Tristan Risk showed up in two of the shorts, so that's never a bad thing. A few of the filmmakers did a brief Q&A afterwards, and later Bruce Campbell made mention of a possible anthology being assembled of the "least shitty" shorts to be packaged into a feature. I couldn't tell if that was a real thing or not.
Following the shorts program, director Peter Hewitt came up to introduce the 25th anniversary screening of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, shown from Shout! Factory's upcoming Blu-ray of the film. Anyone who participated in F This Movie Fest a few years ago knows just how inventive and imaginative and truly, truly funny this movie is, making it fun to revisit in an audience full of fans. As an added bonus, star William Sadler showed up for the last third and happened to sit right next to me, laughing just as loud as anyone and dancing to all of the metal songs on the soundtrack. We had a good time together. We're now best friends is what I'm saying. #RIPDoug
Sadler and Hewitt did a Q&A following the screening and told some funny stories about Sadler's casting, how he came up with the accent (it was based on someone he knew and the only way he could figure out how to make the character funny) and writing the Reaper rap, later used as the last words of a death row inmate. The film was a reminder the William Sadler should have done more comedy in his long and varied career, because he's so goddamn funny in it. Station.
The first new-to-me feature of the day was Here Alone, a small and somber character piece about a woman living through what is essentially a zombie plague and what happens when she encounters a pair of survivors. Though it covers incredibly well-worn territory (like, incredibly well-worn), Here Alone is so gorgeously made and carefully controlled that I had to admire it as a piece of filmmaking. Director Rod Blackhurst and writer David Ebeltoft add a few new ideas to the zombie survival genre (including the use of pee buckets) and a handful of scenes were deeply, deeply moving as a parent. I liked the movie overall, though I can't fault anyone who feels like they've seen it before. If nothing else, it suggests that Blackhurst is someone I really want to keep my eye on. The movie won the audience award at Tribeca this year, but I'm not sure if it has distribution yet.
Closing night's penultimate film was Antibirth, a work of garish trash (by design) written and directed by Danny Perez and starring Natasha Lyonne as a hard-partying woman who finds herself pregnant despite not having sex for the last six months. Chloe Sevigny, Mark Webber and a welcome Meg Tilly all star as well. I don't know if it was just my own hitting the wall after three days of nonstop movie watching or just my tastes not being in line with this one, but I had a hard time keeping my patience with Antibirth. Natasha Lyonne certainly throws herself into the role of a woman who treats her body like a sewer and the punchline is almost worth the wait, but the movie plays like a mix of David Cronenberg meets John Waters meets '90s Gregg Araki meets Troma, and somehow the alchemy of all of those things (many of which I would be on board for) doesn't work together.
Prior to the closing night feature, writer/director Steven DeGennaro was presented with the first-ever Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival Jury Award for Found Footage 3D and got the chance to take the stage to shoot the shit with Bruce Campbell for a few minutes. I was really happy to see him and his movie take home the award. The way that the entire festival was buzzing about the movie, it was the right call.
The final movie of the festival was the premiere of Siren, a feature-length adaptation of the great "Amateur Night" segment from the original V/H/S. Though the original writer/director David Bruckner was heavily involved with the production, directing duties this time fell to Dance of the Dead director Gregg Bishop, who infused the feature with his own sensibilities and made it more comic, at least for the first half. I really wasn't sure how the short -- my favorite of the first V/H/S anthology and one of my favorite anthology segments ever -- would work expanded to feature length, but the script (by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) re-frames the characters to make them way more sympathetic and way less douchey and adds a bunch of interesting mythology to surround the story. Chase Williamson, making his second appearance in a BCHFF movie this year, stars as the groom-to-be of a bachelor party that goes awry then the group attends a weird sex club and encounters the titular siren (Hannah Fierman, reprising the role she originated in V/H/S). Bishop really embraces the monster movie-ness of the whole thing, and while I found myself a little frustrated at what felt like some limitations of this being a Chiller Film (though it's far gorier and adult [in terms of language and nudity/sexuality] than the other films they've distributed), I had a really good time with Siren. The movie hits theaters and VOD in early December.
So that's it! Four days, 15 movies, great people, new friends, shitloads of horror. With the independent scene producing just about every great horror film these days, festivals like this one are vital in introducing audiences to new voices and new movies. I don't take for granted the fact that I'm very lucky to live in a city where a fest like this is put on, as some of these movies many not ever get a major theatrical run and the opportunity to see them on the big screen among a huge group of fellow horror fans and the filmmakers is a gift. Each year the festival has grown and improved, which is great because I want to see it continue. This is where I'm seeing so many of the horror films I love. Hopefully you'll check them out when they're released, and maybe love some of them too.
Any weekend spent in a building with Barbara Crampton is a good weekend.