DRAG ME TO (HEAVENLY) HELL: My Weekend At The First Annual Sin City Horror Fest Day 1

DRAG ME TO (HEAVENLY) HELL: My Weekend At The First Annual Sin City Horror Fest Day 1

Jan 22, 2018

DRAG ME TO (HEAVENLY) HELL: Day 1
My Weekend At The First Annual Sin City Horror Fest
Written by: Samuel Glass Jr.

My entire reasoning behind starting the Las Vegas Horror Trivia Club via Meetup.com, was the fact that I wasn’t aware that there was much of a ‘horror community’ that existed in Vegas, bizarre as it might seem.  My entire experience with horror fans can be summed up in my time spent as a ‘hired psycho killer’ with the now-defunct “Eli Roth’s GORETORIUM”. That entire story can be saved for another interesting article, so the less said about that at this time, the better. But just for reference, via working at the GORETORIUM, I wasn’t aware that beyond the tourists who passed through the haunt, there wasn’t much of a horror fan presence among Vegas locals.

Okay…my faulty memory banks aren’t doing me any favors right now, but thanks to maintaining a horror-heavy presence on Facebook, somehow, I got the word about the SIN CITY HORROR FEST (https://www.sincityhorrorfest.com/). Horror-themed events that are usually worth their weight in blood squibs just don’t get promoted very well in this town, for whatever reason, and I usually hear about the few outstanding events WEEKS after the fact.  So when I heard about this in late August/early September, all I could do is pray that this wasn’t going to be something that would be announced, only to fizzle out for whatever reason, and I vowed to follow the holy hell out of this thing, right up to “D-Day.”

Well, after three years of developing it, creators/producers and local filmmakers DREW MARVICK, DARREN FLORES and MIKE LENZINI saw to it that this was not only NOT another Vegas ‘flash-in-the-pan’, but broke their damn necks trying to make it the best horror fest that a local fan could want to attend.  And they succeeded…well beyond even what their own expectations were!

There was no way they could have possibly gone wrong, employing the beautiful Eclipse Theater (https://eclipsetheaters.com/) as THE venue. With reclining seats, wait service, a full bar and a menu of scrumptious treats to go with your movies, there’s no other place I’d like to do a festival after this one!

With the exception of three features: CHARISMATA, MUSE and STILL BORN, I was able to see everything that was on the schedule.  My apologies to the filmmakers of those features…at some point, I hope to catch up to your work and to review it all. Most horror fests are a mishmash of hellishly horrific shorts and features – and not at all in a good way, with only a few good standout efforts here and there. It’s wonderful to be able to report here that the Sin City Fest is one of those rarities where the opposite was the case. If this recounting of their fare achieves anything, I hope it will persuade you, dear reader, to check them out in 2018, when the Fest hopefully returns for another full weekend of frightfully fun features.

In the meantime…on with the shows!

DAY ONE: THE SHORTS

Block One: ‘PARANORMAL’:

THE STRANGER IN MY HOUSE
Directed/Written by ALBERTO TRIANA

A young woman, Melissa, who shares her apartment with her twin sister, Michelle, tries to welcome her back from a trip she allegedly spent with her boyfriend.  But the weird behavior starts almost immediately, as the girl barricades herself in her room, and can be heard sobbing…yet when Melissa tries to comfort her…Let me put it this way: if you saw RINGU or JU-ON, (known to American audiences as THE RING and THE GRUDGE respectively), you know IMMEDIATELY that sister or not, the best thing for our heroine would have been to get the hell out of that place ASAP.  Which she does not, since horror movies that starred sensible characters would be extremely short ones, too.

STRANGER is shot well, and the fact that the lead speaks Korean (with English subtitles) gives it that feel that only Asian horror films have.  It’s just that this is nothing we haven’t seen before in – and this might have been a reference – A TALE OF TWO SISTERS.

THE ARMOIRE
Directed/Written by EVAN COOPER

I don’t know about you, but after this one, I’m thinking twice about ever picking up discarded furniture again.  A young wanna-be actress (are there any other kind in L.A.?) moves into her brand new apartment…her brand new, almost bare apartment.  She starts off with a lamp and a chair, but then spies something near a dumpster that anyone would consider a real find…a HUGE armoire that somebody dumped there. (We find out very soon why they did.) She gets it back to her place and immediately starts putting her stuff in it. But come nightfall…

THE ARMOIRE is a clever, no-nonsense, frightening little short that shows how these things can be done with imagination and ingenuity.  Filmmaker Cooper hit all the right notes with this one, especially with the sound design, and a certain ‘tell’ that will have shivers playing with your spine like a twisted shutter cord.

TUCK ME IN
Directed by IGNACIO F. RODO
(https://vimeo.com/97259197)

At about a minute, this one would get the award for “Shortest Short Film Ever,” if SAVOR weren’t already gunning for the title.  A great take on one of those “CreepyPasta” two-sentence long horror stories you’ve seen online, TUCK ME IN is worthy of those quick blackout sketches you might remember from Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY series.  A father comes to tuck his young son in for the night. Quick, easy, no complications whatsoever.

Well, except for maybe just ONE little, terrifying detail…

#NOT ALONE
Directed by SOTIRIS PETRIDIS & DEMITRIS TSAKALEAS

Fans love the tech terror encompassed in Charlie Brooker’s brilliant, seriously creepy Netflix series BLACK MIRROR, and this was the first of several shorts that would find a more-than-welcome place among those episodes, if they skewed more towards horror instead of science fiction.

Selfies and status updates…if you’re joined at the hip with your phone, or your PC (or both), you do it now about as easily as you breathe or blink. A young woman, spending yet another boring night at home, decides to post the usual selfie, along with the hashtag #Alone.  As she’s posting the pic, the first thing that she notices is that the tag has suddenly changed to ‘#NotAlone’.  We’ve all experienced strange online glitches from time to time, but this is not one of those.  The ‘fun’ really begins when she tries to delete and/or edit the tag, as visions of horror bombard her…the horrific results of other online selfie posters who once thought that they, too, were #Alone.

The ending is predictably gory, but is anything but boring.  A good introduction to the two filmmakers and their style, which mixes tech fear with old-school slasher conventions…and just a touch of the supernatural.

THE CLIP
Directed by MARIA FORSLIN

You’ve had a friend send you a link to some funny animated GIF file, a bit of music, or a video, right? In spite of all the warnings about opening things we’re not expecting, even from people we know – it could be a virus or a scam of some sort – sometimes, we forget and we do it anyway.

That’s what Alva, the young girl in this terrifying Swedish short does.  Only what the link reveals to her isn’t a virus, but something far, far worse. It’s a clip that tells the future, and for poor Alva, that future is about to become a very limited one.

Effective little shocker short, that will have you side-eyeing the next link somebody PM’s to you…

DEAD BED
Directed by LEE VANDER BOEGH

Having to make your bed with the family dog or cat…or the kids getting in the way…that’s tough enough to put up with.  But how about when whatever is making getting the sheets on difficult…isn’t even HUMAN?  Nice little spooky short.

THE COP CAM
Directed by ISAAC RODRIGUEZ

This one will have you feeling sorry for the guy wearing THIS body cam…it’s like a first person-shooter game…but not all the bullets in the world are going to help you.  Very reminiscent of a scene from the original [REC]…and that’s a good thing.

ADAM PEIPER
Directed/Written by MONICA MATEO

You know how your job feels like a repeating nightmare, day in, day out?  Like GROUNDHOG DAY, but without a trace of the fun that Bill Murray could bring to it? When it’s more like something out of 1984 or Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD?  Well, the title character knows how you feel, because that’s what he’s going through.  Except that his dilemma takes a very David Lynchian turn before it gets to the end.

Not sure exactly what this short is trying to say about the hell of working one’s life away, but the art direction here is GORGEOUS.  You could drop this into the middle of BLADE RUNNER 2049, and nobody would know that it’s not supposed to be part of the movie.

TOWARD THE ENTRYWAY
Directed/Written by KYLE KLUBAL

Another one with cinematography and design that will have people talking…but the pretty lady at the center of this one isn’t too sure if what she’s experiencing is a dream or a nightmare…or even if she’s living or dead! And neither are we…I was still kind of confused at the end, but it (and she) was still lovely to look at.

VEXED
Directed by MARC CARTWRIGHT

The director of the ‘shortest short’, SAVOR, presents a couple at home, eating popcorn and watching a horror movie.  But in an interesting twist, it’s the GUY, not the girl, who’s not feeling the horror goodness. The spirits of scary cinema aren’t feeling HIM, either, and decide to teach him a lesson that I’M sure I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

A neat little reminder that next time, before you grab the remote OR the popcorn, you might want to gauge exactly how much your other half is into the movie you’re watching…or not.

Block Two: ‘INSANE’

MONSTERS
Directed by STEVE DESMOND
Written by STEVE DESMOND and MICHAEL SHERMAN

In an undetermined future, a young girl, Jenn (CAITLIN CARMICHAEL), lives locked in an underground bunker with her parents and her brother. She’s never allowed to go out, told constantly by the other members of her family that she’s not ready yet to face the “monsters” that lurk in the world, just outside the bunker door. Curious and frustrated as a kid could be, Jenn prepares herself for the day that she’ll sneak out, face down these allegedly frightening creatures, and make her family proud.

Desmond repurposes the scenario from 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, but in a really unexpected and clever way that’s bolstered by all of the performances, most especially Carmichael’s. Her character was warned about being in contact with the “monsters” outside, but the awful truth is even more horrifying…and heartbreaking.

2 AM
Directed/Written by HUSEYN HASSAN

If you’ve ever played the SILENT HILL video game (and I have a couple of times), think of having the POV of a character in the game – terrified, disoriented, trying to find clues as to who and where he is, while also trying to escape a house of horrors.

Now try to imagine it’s no game.

Writer/director Hassan has done a commendable job capturing that sense of uneasy dread and growing panic, leading to the only climax possible when the game is not a game, and without a controller or a button to reset your ‘reality’, that leaves only one way out…

RAINY SEASON
Directed/Written by VANESSA I. WRIGHT
(Story by STEPHEN KING)

THE reigning Master of Horror, Stephen King is still writing, so I have a problem keeping track of all the terrifically terrifying tales he’s ever written.  I vaguely remember this one, and writer/director Wright has done a nice job of capturing the King vibe, even if I can’t actually recall having read the story this is adapted from.

A couple, writer John Graham (BRIAN ASHTON SMITH) and his wife, Elise (ANNE-MARIE KENNEDY), drive up to the town of Willow, Maine, to hole up in a secluded house and write his next book. Refusing to heed the warnings of the ‘friendlier’ town folk that they meet, they soon learn why coming to Willow was a really, really bad idea – in the best King fashion, of course.

I liked the way that Wright uses the implication that because the Grahams are a mixed-race couple, the tension between them and the townies they meet stems from that, instead of something altogether different, and much more sinister.

SATANICA
Directed/Written by VIVIENNE VAUGHN

SUNSET BOULEVARD meets THE EXORCIST? Not a combination you’d ever think would work, but as a short – and a beautifully shot one at that – here it’s a perfect blackout story.

A young psychiatrist, (ROBERTO DE FELICE) is called to the lavish home of faded singing sensation Abigail Fortuna (TRACEY TOTH). He tries to diagnose and treat her mental illness…until certain signs and behaviors reveal that he’s way out of his league on this one…something he discovers far too late.

Nice performances in this two-character piece that takes an unexpected turn from its Norma Desmond-meets-Joe Gillis vibe. Well-directed and written by Vaughn, the one thing that stuck in my memory about SATANICA more than anything else is the stunning cinematography by Michael Swaigen, (who was – not surprisingly – on the crew that shot THE WITCH.)

CANDY SKIN
Directed/Written by KYLE MARTELLACCI

One of the more interesting shorts of the fest, a young man, David, at home with his girlfriend, Lynne, suddenly discovers that she’s disappeared, and then with a growing sense of terror and paranoia, realizes that so has everybody else in the world.  Disoriented, frightened and alone, he soon discovers that last part isn’t quite true.  He’s NOT alone…and to make matters worse, whatever is in the world with him now begins to launch an increasingly violent series of attacks on him, determined to take him apart, piece by piece.  It’s not until he finally runs into another similarly afflicted man, that he learns the horrific truth.

Though the technical glitches and some editing gaffes are easy to spot, one of the reasons this stuck with me is that it seemed to me to play as a metaphor for the crushing horror and loneliness of depression.  There are some truly remarkable practical effects in this one, and though the lead, Renny Jachowicz is a little rough around the edges performance-wise, he still does a serviceable job of helping filmmaker Martellacci convey the movie’s message.

WE KNOW
Directed by NICOLO FUMERO

A hot shot in a muscle car on an isolated stretch of back road, not paying attention, manages to hit and kill a schoolgirl.  Panicked about how to get rid of the body, things only get worse for him as he begins receiving messages on his cell phone, indicating that someone knows what he did…and they’re not going to let him get away with it!  A nice short with a “TWILIGHT ZONE”-ish vibe to it.

RED RUBY
Directed/Written by JOSE HOLDER

You know the old saying about “always leave ‘em wanting more?” Well, Jose Holder’s short goes the extra mile in this case. Conceived in parts as both a graphic novel and a regular novel, this densely-packed short is a companion piece, all about the adventures of one Ruby Grimm, (AMBER GOLDFARB), who not only discovers after a tormented existence of thinking she might be insane, that she’s not, but that her missing brother has been dabbling in experiments dealing with concepts and theories both terrestrial and not-of-this-world, and that within his research lies the keys to helping Ruby discover capabilities she never knew she had. But more importantly, they could help her solve the mystery of his disappearance, as well as the entities behind it.

With clear influences from David Cronenberg, Clive Barker and even Tarantino’s KILL BILL, RED RUBY is, for those not familiar with the other parts of it, an intriguing and convoluted exercise in the fantastic that ABSOLUTELY requires more than one viewing. I’d love to see some boldly progressive producer give Holder the resources and the reins, to transform this into a full-length feature.

SAVOR
Directed by MARC CARTWRIGHT

A hair in your food.  Every so often, it’s happened to all of us at least once.  But with SAVOR, one of the shortest shorts I have ever seen (it’s barely even a minute long!) you may find yourself flinching a bit more dramatically the next time it happens to you.

DAY ONE: THE FEATURES

IT STAINS THE SANDS RED
Directed by COLIN MINIHAN
Screenplay by STUART ORTIZ and COLIN MINIHAN
Produced by BRANDON CHRISTENSEN, BIC TRAN, STUART ORTIZ and COLIN MINIHAN
DP: CLAYTON MOORE
Music by BLITZ/BERLIN

On the face of it, just going by the title alone IT STAINS THE SANDS RED seems like it would be some kind of supernatural thriller set overseas – Iraq or Iran, maybe? (Plus there already have been a couple of those.)  What you would NOT expect is a story set smack-dab in the middle of Sin City Itself, but that’s exactly what it is.

It’s maybe a few minutes, days, weeks, months into the future, and Las Vegas has indeed finally been hit by the ‘zompocalypse.’ Molly (BRITTANY ALLEN) and her current ‘flavor of the moment’, Nick (MERWIN MONDESIR) are hot-footing it out of town as fast as Nick’s muscle car can get them, but an unplanned stop by the side of the road leaves them stranded…And just when they think things couldn’t get much worse, they have company coming: a lone zombie who somehow got stranded out in the middle of the wastelands on the outskirts of town.  Needless to say, he’s hungry.  And reluctant snacks Nick and Molly hole up in the car when he attacks, hoping to wait him out.

When they decide to make a run for it, thinking he’s gone off at last…well, you know what happens next, and yes, it’s in the preview trailer.  Mr. Zombie finally gets to dine on filet of Nick, and Molly, taking advantage of the distraction, grabs whatever she can carry and head out, trying to put as much distance between herself and the undead eating machine.

So, again, the movie tricks us. You think you’re going to get another hour of watching a Vegas stripper bimbo trying not to get eaten in a way she WOULDN’T like, by a casting reject from THE WALKING DEAD.  But what STAINS becomes is a character study about a woman who’s made some bad decisions (and continues to do so, but gradually learns from them), who had a life that she wants to somehow get back to…if she can survive the desert, the heat, and the relentless pursuit of the zombie she comes to nickname “Smalls” (JUAN RIEDINGER).  And I’ll let you discover how THAT comes about.

The wonderful thing about festival features like this is that you get some great actors’ showcases.  Performers who you’re not really familiar with, seize an opportunity to create a tour-de-force with the kind of roles and stories that major studios wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot-pole, and Allen’s turn as Molly is no exception to this.  She goes from tickling our prejudicial and judgmental impulses about her, and before it’s all over, we recognize her as a plucky, smart, un-fuck-with-able heroine we’re rooting for to make it to the end. And even Riedinger’s wordless role as “Smalls” becomes something a lot deeper than just a shambling, grunting gut-muncher.  Once we accept Molly in full, we accept what Smalls comes to mean to her.  But at the risk of dropping major spoilers, that’s as far as I want to go with discussion about these two standout characters.

Director Minihan has done a bang-up job of taking a basic zombie plot and turning it into a two-character study that is fascinating, funny and frightening as hell by turns.  Best of all, it brings us back to the message that a certain popular series kind of lost along the way, about how in their own way, the “walkers” retained more of their humanity without the power of cognitive thought, than the real, thinking human beings have.

FRAZIER PARK RECUT
Directed by SAM HANOVER and TYLER SCHNABEL
Screenplay by SAM HANOVER and TYLER SCHNABEL
Produced by MOLLY CHRISTIE BENSON, SAM HANOVER and TYLER SCHNABEL
DP: JOHN BERCHTOLD
Music by DAVID LEE HESS

Found-footage films.  Yes, I hear the groans without being able to watch you reading that phrase.  Ever since the granddaddy of them all, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, made this sub-genre a “thing”, it’s been through several cycles of going stale, and then getting freshened up by a few passable to really good efforts, (AFFLICTED, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, THE HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT, DIGGING UP THE MARROW, etc.)  It’s been a while since someone else picked up the mantle flung down all those years ago by filmmakers Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez, and created something in the FF sub-genre that makes us recall why BLAIR WITCH captivated and terrified us in the first place.

Enter SAM HANOVER and TYLER SCHNABEL.  They formulated an idea so basic and yet mind-blowingly meta, that you almost forget there WAS a BLAIR WITCH PROJECT – no mean feat there. Hanover and Schnabel play slightly different versions of themselves, as two buddies who planned on making a film in the pastoral landscapes of Frazier Park, CA.  And it’s a thriller, of course, about two brothers, dealing with sibling rivalry and tensions following the death of their mother, as they trek together to the old family vacation cabin to clear out some of her things.

But there can’t be a sense of drama without an external catalyst to stir some up, and in this case, it’s the character of “The Caretaker”, the creepy guy we see in every horror film of this type, who has his own agenda…which might very well include engaging in foul play that will put the brothers’ lives in mortal danger.  Sam and Tyler go casting for this elusive ‘third wheel’ of sorts, and finally decide on who they think is an appropriately ooky character actor named “Tom Morris”, magnificently portrayed by DAVID LEE HESS.  (No relation to and not to be confused with the late, great DAVID HESS of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK fame.)

Once the cast of three arrives at the location and finally begin shooting is when things start to get really interesting.  Note to self: NEVER cast the actor who does appear more than capable, but who also NEVER BLINKS ONCE when he looks into the camera.

It’s hard to tell how much of this is actually scripted and how much is improvised, but that’s the whole idea, and Hanover and Schnabel’s chemistry seems so natural and unforced as the two buddies, that I would definitely buy it if I were told that NONE of this was really scripted.  But the real standout star here is Hess.  Bringing to mind such great, durable, versatile actors of the present like Bill Oberst, Jr., Sean Bridgers and Stephen McHattie, Hess does creepily unreadable so well, that while you hope it doesn’t get him typecast in the future, you want to see him play more guys like Tom, the same way people wanted to see Sir Anthony Hopkins keep playing Hannibal.

If you’re experienced in the found-footage sub-genre, I don’t think I have to tell you where this tale is going…you can just about spoil it for yourself.  But getting to that destination is a stunning and unnerving viewing experience, thanks to the actors’ ability to make it all seem urgent and kinetic, and a bravura performance from Hess that will haunt you long after ALL the credits have rolled.

MANIA
Directed by JESSICA CAMERON
Written by JONATHAN SCOTT HIGGINS

Ah, love conquers, repairs and renews all, right? Uhmmm… no, it doesn’t. Not especially in this slasher melodrama, the sophomore directorial effort of beloved indie scream queen JESSICA CAMERON.  Here, ELLIE CHURCH plays the girlfriend of the more-than-high-maintenance Brooke (TRISTAN RISK), who is one of those special girls who needs attention.  A LOT of attention.  As in ‘don’t leave her alone for a moment.’  Brooke has some very deep psychological issues, and she’s taking Lithium to treat them.  As with all psychotropic drugs, sometimes they’re effective for people, and sometimes not so much.  To say that Brooke is having problems with her medication is like observing that water is wet.

When Brooke has a complete, absolute meltdown after she can’t get hold of Church’s character, it falls to their friend, Mickey (MICKEY MELILLO) to go check on Brooke.  Anybody here remember the ‘birthday cake’ scene from De Palma’s SISTERS? Well…poor Mickey.  This scene is worse.  Much, MUCH worse.

In the nightmarish aftermath, the two make a snap decision to dispose of Mickey’s body and hightail it out of town. What follows is a psychotic road trip filled with popping prescriptions, hot make-up sex, and yes, more murder, mayhem and…well, you know the title.

Part of an ambitious effort to shoot two movies for the price of one while traveling cross-country (the upcoming LILITH was the other film), Cameron together with writer Higgins has created a movie that’s kind of Russ Meyer-meets-Independent International Pictures.  MANIA is one of those films you could drop into any drive-in from the Seventies or early Eighties, and it wouldn’t at all seem out-of-place.

Risk excels in her role as the psychotic Brooke…she sells crazy VERY convincingly.  Church is fine as the more sane half of the couple, (at least temporarily sane), who you can believe had the best intentions of trying to stay true to her partner, in spite of the fact that Brooke turns out to be a compulsive serial murderer, (no thanks to that lovely ‘medication’.)  The acting from the remaining cast on the other hand ranges from spotty to “needs classes badly”, but then again, it only serves to enhance the retro vibe.

(TO BE CONTINUED…)