Thanks to the ongoing clusterfuck that is Eddie Carranza’s ownership of the Portage Theater, this year’s Chicago Horror Film Festival was held at the Des Plaines Theater in suburban (you guessed it) Des Plaines, a decent enough theater, but let’s be honest, it’s not the Portage or the Patio or even the Music Box. The festival was held over the weekend starting Friday, September 27, and I attended all of the first day and most of the last day.

Honestly, I was much less impressed by CHFF’s 2013 program than I was by previous years’–I saw several very good short films, but was not overly impressed with the four features I saw–although, admittedly, one of them isn’t necessarily a bad film, it just has a lot of elements in it that stick in my craw.

Anyway, I’ve got a lot of unpopular opinions and a limited amount of time, so let’s get started.

* * *

A scene from CONJOINED.

Day one started with Conjoined (dir. Joe Grisaffi, 2013), a feature-length horror-comedy with a lot of problems. The basic premise–a guy has only ever seen his fiancée over FaceTime, so he doesn’t find out until his wedding day that she has a conjoined twin who’s a total psycho–has some potential as the basis of a stupid-people-acting-stupid comedy. Yet despite a few clever lines and gags and strong performances by Keefer Barlow, Jake Byrd and Sarah Gaston, Conjoined is largely devoid of laughs, thanks to too many sequences that are dragged on too long, too many “uncomfortable silence” scenes, and too many narrative dead ends. (The subplot involving a Joe Friday-style police detective is a great example.) A big part of comedy filmmaking is the editing, and there simply doesn’t seem to be much of that in Conjoined. There’s some evidence that a lot of the problems with the screenplay and production are deliberate, but in this case “deliberately bad” doesn’t end up translating as “funny.”

* * *

Friday’s short film block kicked off with I’m Still Alive (dir. unknown, 2013), the first episode of a zombie-horror web series, but it works very well as a standalone short film. It does something I don’t think I’ve seen done very often, which is examine the process of turning into a zombie from a psychological standpoint. I’ve been a bit burned out on zombie outbreaks for…well, let’s be honest, years, but the focus on the victim’s POV along with a couple of powerful performances and scenes were enough to break through my curmudgeonly nature.

* * *

A scene from THE BIGHEAD.

The Bighead (dir. Michael Ling, 2013) is a short film based on a novel by Edward Lee, gross-out author extraordinaire, and therein lies the problem. The film is basically two plots–the first about a couple of young women who go out to the middle of nowhere to research the urban legend of the Bighead, a homicidal monster with a huge head and huge cock, and the second is about a couple of country-bumpkin dipshits who rape and torture a prostitute–and the two plots never actually connect. From the research I’ve done, it looks like the film only covers the beginning of the novel, so it may be possible that this is a sort of proof-of-concept release intended to drum up interest in a feature-length adaptation. If it isn’t, well…honestly, it doesn’t seem to me like the film has much of a point. Either way, the film doesn’t seem to have anything to offer aside from over-the-top grossness and vile assholes acting out depraved impulses. If that’s your thing, good for you; I’m not gonna tell you you’re wrong, and you’ll probably like The Bighead. I didn’t, though; I wasn’t disturbed, only disgusted.

* * *

The Snow Man (dir. Erik Gulbrandsen, 2013) is another series entry–in this case, the Vanishing Point series. It’s a succinct little slice of weirdness about a street beggar who does some interesting things with snowmen. A lot of fun, although I didn’t care much for the final shot.

* * *

Do You Want to Play? (dir. Alexander James Gross, 2012) is an enjoyable exercise in scary-kid creepiness, a story about a young woman who encounters a strange little girl on a playground. I do think, however, that it would have worked better if the flashback sequence had been cut.

* * *

Yet another webseries episode comes in the form of the Dorkumentary offering Our First Babysitter (dir. David Tarelton, 2012), an over-the-top comedy about a Satan-worshiping witch hired to babysit an infant. It’s a hoot, although I was bugged by the fact that nobody seemed to think it was weird that the babysitter honked the mother’s breasts. I’m not sure why that should bug me, considering the entire film is not even remotely predicated on credible reactions, but there you go.

* * *

The final short of the night was Night of the 1% (dir. David Bradburn, 2012). I’m as liberal as they come, am plenty outraged over income inequality, and prefer my zombie movies with a side-order of social commentary, but Night of the 1% struck me as a bit…pointless, really. It’s about a wage slave who makes a mint as a day (well, night) trader, becomes a zombie, and…that’s pretty much it. “One-percenters = zombies” is a bit of a weird allegory to pursue–honestly, if you’re going to do a zombie movie about class warfare, Land of the Dead seems the way to go–but the bigger problem is that the story simply doesn’t go anywhere. As with Bighead, I have to wonder if this is a prelude to a full-length offering.

* * *

The Cemetery

Friday’s second and final feature was The Cemetery (dir. Adam Ahlbrandt, 2013), Adversary Films’s follow-up to last year’s entry Cross Bearer. I’ll give the film props for taking a worn-out premise (a bunch of know-nothing-bozos go off in the woods to track down some urban legend monster or shit and end up biting off more than they can chew) and redeeming it with fantastic gore effects and killer performances, particularly by female lead Tabetha Ray and festival hostess Natalie Jean. There are a few missteps–a series of flashback sequences shot like a bad metal video featuring voice-over narration treated to sound like the vocal track of the song “The Downward Spiral” (and I’ll bet you didn’t even know “The Downward Spiral” had vocals!)–but for the most part, the technique is solid.

However, I had a huge problem with the film, in that it features the most unlikeable group of characters I’ve seen in a film in a long time. I definitely hated them more than I hated the Don’t Go to the Reunion gang. I think I have to go all the way back to Hollow to find a bunch of fictional characters I despised to much. In narrative terms, these guys could have been stalked by Adolf Hitler, Albert Fish and Ted Cruz and I would have rooted for the bad guys. I found it very hard to even remotely care whether they lived or died. (Tim, in particular…if he were a real person, I would have no moral objection to taseing him in the face until he had a heart attack.)

Add to this Ahlbrandt’s trademark tasteless gross-out humor–here, he treats us to the sight of a dog licking whipped cream off of a man’s hairy chest–it becomes clear that I never stood a chance of liking The Cemetery. That being said, Ahlbrandt’s mining some unique territory here–it’s like he’s standing at the center of a Venn diagram featuring slasher flicks, Lucio Fulci, John Waters and speed-metal–and he’s definitely a talented director, so maybe you’ll find this up your alley.

* * *

I had to skip Saturday due to social and work commitments, but I showed up (comparatively) bright and early for Sunday’s program. The first feature of the day was Mister White (dir. Erika Summers, 2013), a film I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. It starts off with a premise that’s a bit obvious (a misfit kid who’s socially tortured by the cool kids in town) and puts an intriguing twist on it (he talks to people that only he can see–are they imaginary, or are they real?).

Unfortunately, the film takes too long to get on track (the title character isn’t even mentioned until almost 30 minutes in) and when it does, it turns into a fairly typical slasher with a largely unsympathetic Final Girl. (I find this recent trend in indie slashers irritating; Mr. White lets the Final Girl get away with treating the misfit like shit with a minimum of repercussion or forcing her to face her nasty behavior. Don’t Go to the Reunion was even worse, in that it not only does the same damn thing, it actually goes one further by turning her into a kick-ass heroine, glorifying her in the process.)

That being said, Summers captures perfectly what it’s like to be a bullied outcast in a small town (not that I would know from experience–cough, cough), there’s some great character development and the performances by Andy Salgado and Dakota Morrisiey are nothing short of fantastic.

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* * *

The Dead Will Draw (dir. Jacob Regul, 2013) led off Sunday’s block of shorts. It’s pretty simple–it’s the story of a suburban man who faces off against a zombie in a cowboy outfit. There’s not much here, but to be honest, when you’ve got a zombie in a cowboy outfit do you really need much more than that?

* * *

And then came the highlight of the fest: the awesome Air Conditions (dir. Ryan Oliver, 2012)! This was the highlight of Terror 13, and this Lovecraftian masterpiece of mounting dream was just as great the second time around. I have run out of words to describe how amazing this film is. Seriously, it’s stuff like Air Conditions that makes being a horror fan worthwhile.

* * *

Echo Chamber (dir. Timothy Troy, 2012) tells the story of a television interview that goes terribly wrong with the TV crew discovers exactly how the subject–a writer of weird fiction–gets his ideas. It’s not particularly substantial, and the ending is marred by a terrible digital effect, but an intriguing story and effective performances make the end result plenty enjoyable.

* * *

If it weren’t for Air Conditions, Our Lady of Lourdes (dir. Peter Szewcyk, 2013) would probably be the highlight of the festival for me. It’s the unexpectedly poignant tale of the friendship between an alcoholic and a waitress on the mean streets of a Polish city (which I assumed to be Warsaw, but I could be wrong). This one’s fantastic on all fronts: brilliant use of locations, beautiful effects (both in terms of artistry and “realism”) and fantastic performances, especially British actor Nick Moran (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as a scummy Interpol agent.

* * *

As with The Bighead and Night of the 1%, I walked away from The Plan (dir. Daniel Fallik, 2012) asking myself, “That’s it? That’s all there is?” The central story–a man visits a shop in a burned-out wasteland, where he proceeds to have his head cut off and another sewn on; from there, he goes to visit a group of people who all have the exact same head–is definitely striking enough to grab my attention, and to be honest if that’s all there was to The Plan it’d be enough for me. But there’s also some voiceover narration about how we all wanted freedom or something like that, and fucked if I know how it’s supposed to connect to what we see on-screen. The film’s IMDB page makes references to a lot of things that I don’t recall…so did I miss something? Or is it that the film simply doesn’t make its point effectively?

* * *

It’s evil kids again in Ready or Not (dir. John Scar, 2013), the final short in the Sunday block. There’s very little to surprise in this one, and I was particularly amused by the fact that one of the characters pulls up what’s clearly intended to be a web page in what obviously is a word processor, but the ensemble sells this one to bits–particularly Marielle Meyer, who’s very effective as the creepy Paige.

* * *

For me, the festival closed out with Deathly Love (dir. Sandra Tuerk, 2013), which was my personal dud of the weekend. It’s a limp backyard semi-slasher about a small town in the grips of a blood-drinking Satanic serial killer. The dialogue is riddled with inconsistencies (people refer to events that happened the previous night as if they happened several days at the very least in the past), the direction is hilariously flawed (a girl is seen strumming a guitar, but what we hear on the soundtrack is finger-picking), the plot is predictable (the Law of Economy of Characters guarantees that the identity of the killer is obvious from frame one), there’s not enough story to over a hundred minutes of film time, the characters are poorly-drawn and there’s not a single acceptable performance in the bunch, although I’d like to single out Sandra Tuerk (who also wrote and directed) for her nails-on-chalkboard interpretation of the already-obnoxious Annabelle.

* * *

That was it for me this year. While there were two more films scheduled for the evening (a feature and a short), the real pop-culture highlight of Sunday was the broadcast of the Breaking Bad series finale, and there’s no way I was missing that for all the horror in China. (It was awesome, by the way.)

Anyway, next up is the 2013 Movieside Massacre in a couple weeks. Seeya then!

3 thoughts on “Chicago Horror Film Festival 2013

  1. Wow, someone thought to try and adapt Edward Lee to film? That’s a tough gig. I haven’t read THE BIGHEAD, but from his work that I have, it’s pretty intense. I don’t think anyone in film could possibly go as far as he does in his writing. Well, maybe Troma, but they would never treat it seriously. Although I think it would be pretty interesting to see Eli Roth handle “The Stick Woman.”

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  2. “Tim, in particular…if he were a real person, I would have no moral objection to taseing him in the face until he had a heart attack.”

    I’m having a hard time cutting through all the subtext here. Definitely having trouble getting a read on how you felt about this character.

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