IN 2017, after past attempts to establish long-term fests had failed, the intrepid crew of DREW MARVICK, MIKE LENZINI, JUSTIN BERGONZONI and DARREN FLORES launched Las Vegas’s only horror-centric film festival, SIN CITY HORROR FEST.
To make it four consecutive years running, because of the current situation, the guys took it online this year, thrilling, dazzling and pretty much EXHAUSTING fans’ horror ‘joneses’ with a record-smashing NINETY-EIGHT film shorts and eight features, over the span of a four-day weekend.
I wish I could say there were some awful entries, because it would’ve made the process easier. But having pared the “Best Of” list down to a final list of twenty – which was tough enough – I then had to go even further, and cut that twenty down to TEN for the shorts, while cutting the features down to a final three.
The process had me feeling for the guys, and for guest judge, Weng’s Chop creator/editor-in-chief and writer TONY STRAUSS, because selecting the Fest’s deserving award winners could NOT have been an easy task by any means.
Nevertheless, Dear Readers, the one question I used as my guide, did ease things a bit…
“If I could only tell a friend about ten shorts and three features I saw at the Fest, which ones would they be?”
Read on, Macduff… and you will know!
THE TENT (RENE RIVAS & BRYAN GOFF, directors)
A short that reminds me why I love horror so much: leave it to a couple of skilled filmmakers to make even something you’d find at any Dick’s Sporting Goods or REI store seem fucking TERRIFYING. A beautiful woman takes a scenic jog on a gorgeous trail at a nearby national park. She keeps passing a red tent over and over again…and it appears that maybe one of the stores I mentioned before had a sale going on featuring red tents? But NOPE. The truth turns out to be a helluva lot more horrifying.
The short’s made even better by a score composed by Rivas, who is also a music producer. I’ve always had a soft spot for filmmakers who pull a “John Carpenter” with the music part. And it does sound like JC collaborating with Tangerine Dream in a lot of ways. One of the most memorable shorts of the fest, hands down.
By the way, the score is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Apple Music.
NOSOTROS (SILVIA PRADAS, director)
A gravely-ill father is trapped in an impossible situation: protecting his young daughter from the unseen, unnamed terrors lurking outside their home. He’s barely holding on, while contemplating what the best choice is, to try and save her not just from the threats that wait without, but something even worse that lurks within…
Think of this as what you’d see if a show like THE WALKING DEAD had an anthology of stories set in that world, that had nothing to do with the characters viewers are most familiar with. This would fit in perfectly with that format.
Tightly directed by Pradas for maximum suspense, the performance worth noting here comes from Ruben Martinez as ‘The Father.’ His performance has to carry the bulk of the emotional component of the film, and he does a magnificent job. You can feel his anguish and desperate love for his daughter as he struggles to make the best decision to protect her before it’s too late. A fantastic short.
FILM LINK: (https://fibabc.abc.es/cortos/nosotros/)
PLEASE NOTE: The link leads to a site of a Spanish film festival which is also featuring the short, but it does not have English subtitles.)
LA GUARIDA (THE DEN) (IAGO DE SOTO, director)
For lovers of classic anthology shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THRILLER! with Boris Karloff or THE TWILIGHT ZONE, this short will bring back some pretty vivid memories. Every film should start with a great story, and Serling and Hitch would give four thumbs up to this one.
A rainy night. A terrible accident. A late-night tavern in a nearby village. A dazed, wounded lady driver with amnesia. A shocking revelation. And once the truth is revealed, is it right to take the law into your own hands? What is the difference between justice and doing what’s right?
Director De Soto has taken a real-life dilemma and placed it front-and-center, asking us to look within and face the ultimate horror, one no movie could ever answer: in a given situation that could reveal the truth about your own character to you in a startling, devastating way…when you discover what that truth is, could you live with that knowledge for the rest of your life?
If you feel angry, frustrated and exhausted by the end of LA GUARIDA, that was completely intentional. Bravo to De Soto for making what could truly be called “a MOVING picture.” And a special tip of the hat to an amazing ensemble cast, for making the scenario feel that much more authentic and harrowing.
ALLERGIC OVERREACTION (ZAC EGLINTON, director)
A group of buddies is gathered for their annual “FREDDY VS. JASON” moviefest. And one of their girlfriends has been kind enough to bake her special, huge chocolate chip cookies with everything but the kitchen sink in them…and that includes NUTS. There’s just one ‘small’ problem…one of the guys has a nut allergy. And what happens next is even MORE NUTS than the contents of the cookies!
That’s the basic plot of ALLERGIC OVERREACTION, but it doesn’t even BEGIN to tell you the level of hilarity and horror hijinks that commence when you add paranoia and mistrust into the mix. Zac Eglinton found the right notes to “play” with this, but the best part is his cast: MATT MERCER, C.B. MULLEN, ACE MARRERO and ANDREW NATHANIEL MORRIS. The natural chemistry they have together as the four ill-fated buddies really helps make the dark situation even funnier, and basically all Eglinton has to do is turn on the camera and watch them go!
BUFFALO & TROUT (PRESLEY PARAS, director)
Imagine, if you will, two drug addicts/BFF’s on a mission to rip off actual “fellow bad guys”, but filtered through a very similar lens as MANDY? Imaginative, exhilarating, trippy as fuck, and also bittersweet, thanks to the great helming job by Paras. Buoyed by luminous cinematography, editing and scoring, and most especially the lead performances of BROOKE COLEMAN and CARLYE TAMAREN as the titular characters. Never have I ever wanted to spend more time with two characters I would probably want to strenuously avoid in real life!
POSSESSIONS (ZEKE FARROW, director)
Starts off as an almost SPINAL TAP-like “found footage” video about a pretentious, self-absorbed “artist” and his latest project: to sell off everything he owns that’s not “useful”, for a dollar per each item. One of those items includes a strange, tightly wrapped-up “keepsake”. He’s about to learn, though, that some things from the past should never be opened…
There were a lot of really good, surprising comedies in this program, ranging from the absolutely ridiculous to the bitter darkness of a three-day-old pot of French Roast. POSSESSIONS is more of a dramedy that starts off pretty light-hearted, then takes a left-turn into territory so bleak, it’s like Rob Reiner was directing, got fired and then suddenly David Fincher took over. What ultimately sells it here, though, is the fearless, boundary-breaking performance by Christine Woods. Her transformation, completely without any special makeups or costuming is by turns horrific, saddening and spellbinding to behold. She damn sure earned this award!
(Unfortunately, because this short is still in competition at various festivals, there are no trailer or film links available at this time.)
STRIP (CRAIG OUELLETTE, director)
The PERFECT short for Sin City Horror Fest! A young rookie dancer makes her debut at a secret club, for a VERY discriminating clientele. You don’t think this short is going to go where it does…until it does, and director Ouellette, effects wiz Wagner and actor YUWI KIM team up, to present an illusion of horror that plays like the real thing!
BACKWARD CREEP (CHRISTOPHER G. MOORE, director)
You know a short has made an impression on you, when even TALKING about it sends a little shiver down your spine. To Chris Moore’s endless credit, this one does. It gives you that one vital component that all shorts, in fact, all FILMS should strive for – not just to evoke emotions from the viewer, but also to show them something they’ve never seen before.
I hate to keep going back to BEETLEJUICE, but it’s apropos in this case – there’s a creature in here that reminds me of a makeup I saw in the Burton film, but this isn’t anywhere near as whimsical, and nope, STILL not funny. If, like me, you can’t take “eye stuff” in your horror films (eye gouging, removal, squishing, etc.), consider yourself forewarned before diving into this one.
The basic plot is simple: on their way to a convention, a group of cosplayers are convinced that they’ve hit and killed someone accidentally. But before this film is over, they’re going to wish that’s ALL it had been. One of the films that may be up for development into a full-blown feature, and one I’ll make sure not to miss…even if I spend 90% of the time NOT looking at the screen. Kudos to Moore for the extreme freakiness!
WHAT THE SPELL? (KRSY FOX, director)
Krsy Fox, featured star and muse of director Spider One, who also gave the Fest the incredible shorts THIS IS NOT ACTING, THIS IS HELL! and SHE REALLY DOESN’T LIKE RABBITS, takes her own turn as writer/director, and gives us one of the funniest shorts in the entire program!
A distraught woman (Fox) tells her witchy, lesbian BFF (the fantastic AZURE PARSONS) she received a text from another woman, that informed her that her boyfriend, Adam (ADAM BUSCH) is cheating on her. What’s the best remedy for a broken heart in this case? Lots of alcohol? Trashing his car, Carrie Underwood/“Before He Cheats”-style? TP’ing his house? No?
How about casting a death curse on him?
NOT the best idea, but at the time that it happens, neither one of them is thinking about the consequences. So they do it.
The good news is: it worked.
The bad news? IT. FUCKING. WORKED.
All the best comedies come from clear-cut cases of miscommunication and/or misunderstandings between people – especially where and when technology is involved – and WHAT THE SPELL? takes full advantage of that. Fox and Parsons are so good together, I want to see them in an extended version of this…or in a whole series of misguided supernatural adventures, in the same tradition as TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL…but with girls instead of guys!
SHINY SHINY (JEFF SANDERS, director)
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2…THE MUSICAL???
Ever see one of those movies in a theater, where as the credits roll, you and the stranger next to you turn to look at each other, with that “WTF DID I JUST SEE?” expression on your faces?
Yeah…this is one of THOSE. And not in a bad way at all! The opening line of this review is accurate…kind of…but…
Trust me…explanations wouldn’t do it justice. See it and judge for yourself!
And slow-clap applause to Sanders for presenting what you THINK is going to be a by-the-number slasher homage and taking a 180 degree turn you would NEVER expect!
Written and Directed by JEFF WEDDING
Adapted from a short story by RAY RUSSELL
Sylvia, a pretty, petite blond woman is assaulted and nearly raped by two rednecks, back in an isolated part of the swamps. But the moment they’re distracted, she takes the chance to get the drop on them and kills them both. Afterward, stumbling dazed by the side of the road near the town of Bigelow, she attracts the attention of a concerned farmer, who turns “Good Samaritan” and comes to her aid.
Taking her home to help treat her wounds, she also meets young Caleb, the son of her new savior, (who tells her to call him “Paw.”) To say that the three of them hit it off would be putting it mildly, as Sylvia turns out to be a woman who’s not only not ashamed of her earthly sexuality, she has no qualms about sharing it anytime, anywhere with whoever’s around – including Caleb (a LOT), Paw (eventually) and the nosy and VERY perverted Reverend Simms, who takes a very close interest in the young woman’s “spiritual welfare.” Understandably, the Reverend’s spouse, Mrs. Simms, takes a very dim view of what’s been going on to say the least.
Meanwhile, the brother of one of the murdered would-be-rapist has just found his sibling’s body, and is now headed for Bigelow, loaded for bear with vengeance on his mind…
Skillfully based on legendary writer Russell’s “American Gothic”, Wedding takes us on a raucous and risqué journey that starts off as a rural sex comedy of sorts, frenetically fun to watch and so engaging, thanks to the way the music, editing and performances come together, that you don’t really see the screws starting to turn. And once you do, you can’t unsee them, as you gradually begin to learn even before our “heroes”, that there’s more to Sylvia than just a tight little body and a tireless libido. The ending is a jaw-dropper, even if you THINK you know where things are headed.
The job Wedding has done with the material can’t be lauded enough, but a good portion of the kudos have to go to DP ERIC STANZE, composer GREG BENNETT, “Jill-of-all-trades”, art director/costume designer-and-more, KATIE GROSHONG, and an incredible cast: JACKIE KELLY as “Sylvia”, WILLIAM RYAN WATSON as “Caleb,’ VICTOR HOLLINGSWORTH as “Paw,” WYNN REICHERT as “The Reverend Simms,” CHRISTINE POYTHRESS as “Mrs. Simms,” and JASON CHRIST as “Ronnie”, the vengeful brother.
Written and Directed by ANDREAS RESCH
For those who usually skip foreign films because they “don’t like having to read during movies”, they’re closing themselves off to an entire world of amazing cinematic experiences. Sure, the language may not be one that you speak, but people everywhere all have the same hopes, dreams and fears that we all do, no matter what dialect it’s expressed in.
All that Marlene (CORDELIA ZIELONKA) wants to do is make a fresh start. A restorer of rare museum artifacts, who just got out of a really shitty relationship, all she wants to do is move to Berlin and get a brand new start. In short order, she gets a new job lined up, makes new friends with her co-worker, Luisa (ANNE WEINKNECHT), and her boss, Ludwig, (VALENTIN SCHREYER), and gets set up in her new sublet apartment. Only there’s a problem: her odd, quirky upstairs neighbor, Flo, (THOMAS CLEMENS). To say that he’s lacking in the usual ‘social graces’ is putting it mildly. He has no concept of personal boundaries, tends to be aggressive, controlling and very needy. And guess what? THAT’S in the first couple of times Marlene meets him. Not to mention that he’s one of THE most inconsiderably noisy neighbors anyone could ever want to toss off a nearby balcony.
But if you think that should send up red flags, wait until you get a load of what happens next.
MARLENE is by terms captivating, gripping and absolutely terrifying – a relationship drama that suddenly decides to “go off its meds cold-turkey”, and much like TENNESSEE GOTHIC, fools you initially into believing you’re watching one kind of movie, before it does a ‘180’ and turns into something completely unexpected.
The entire cast is great, but the two actors who really deliver are, thankfully, Zielonka and Clemens, who does a great job channeling Anthony Perkins on steroids (albeit in German). Their chemistry and the way they play off one another is where the movie stands or falls, and MARLENE is one of those that, once seen, won’t be exiting your memories – or your nightmares – anytime soon.
Especially unsettling is how matter-of-factly Resch handles this…as if this is something that could happen (and probably has in some form or fashion) to anybody in any town, any country. (And I’m sure viewers will be able to think of several similar American films that this is similar to, aside from the obvious.)
With an ending that some viewers may find unconventional, MARLENE nevertheless is one of those movies I’d wholeheartedly recommend as a first experience with foreign film, for those fans of horror and suspense who have never seen one.
Written and Directed by JOE BADON
Like the best movies that take audiences on a freaky journey through a character’s fractured mind – Polanski’s REPULSION, Cronenberg’s SPIDER and Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY are some stellar examples – writer/director Badon continually keeps you off-balance and simultaneously on your toes with this psychedelic, gory, unpredictable and ultimately heartbreaking “Tale of Two Sisters: Peyote Edition,” as a woman, Anne Hutchinson (KALI RUSSELL) struggles with the mysterious disappearance of her younger sister, Karen (HOLLY BONNEY).
That’s the oversimplified version of the story. If you don’t like your movies spoon-fed to you with a linear narrative, and you love the challenges thrown at you and your brain cells by directors like Ken Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and the ones I already mentioned, this is your stop. Get off and dive in.
And there you have it. The shorts and features I highlighted that I thought should be mentioned before anything else featured at the Fest (though everything shown had various good reasons to be seen and discussed. Often.)
I hope that when going out becomes possible again, this will convince you, Dear Reader, to come to Vegas and join us for next year’s edition, which I’m sure will top even THIS one.
Thanks for reading…and now, for the prizes that were taken home!
Complete List of Awards for SIN CITY HORROR FEST 2020
BEST KILL – “THE FACIAL” from SONRISAS (SMILES)
BEST KILLER – BACKWARD CREEP
BEST MAKEUP FX – Rachel Wagner for STRIP
BEST SOUND DESIGN – MALAKOUT
BEST SCORE – NIGHT OF THE WITCH
BEST EDITING – Ryan Buckley for POSSESSIONS
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – THE HISTORY OF MONSTERS
BEST ACTRESS – Christine Woods for POSSESSIONS
BEST ACTOR – John Ennis for THIS IS NOT ACTING, THIS IS HELL!
BEST SCREENPLAY – THE SPRINGFIELD THREE
BEST DIRECTOR – Presley Paras for BUFFALO & TROUT
BEST SHORT – MALAKOUT
BEST KILL: “MEAT TENDERIZER” from THE CURSE OF VALBURGA
BEST KILLER – Jerry G. Angelo in ARTIK
BEST MAKEUP FX – THE CURSE OF VALBURGA
BEST SOUND DESIGN – Jeff Wedding for TENNESSEE GOTHIC
BEST EDITING – Joe Estrade for SISTER TEMPEST
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – ERIC STANZE for TENNESSEE GOTHIC
BEST ACTRESS – Cordula Zielonka for MARLENE
BEST ACTOR – Simon Phillips for THE NIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS
BEST SCREENPLAY – Jeff Wedding for TENNESSEE GOTHIC
BEST DIRECTOR – Joe Badon for SISTER TEMPEST
BEST FEATURE – SISTER TEMPEST
**Article and film ranking courtesy of Samuel Glass**