Chicago Horror Film Festival 2014

The year-plus-long closure of the Portage Theater orphaned a number of events, one of which is the Chicago Horror Film Festival, organized each fall by filmmaker Willy Adkins and his production/promotion company Breaking Fate Entertainment (apparently the successor to his previous Spook Show Entertainment concern). Even though the Portage is open again this year’s CHFF was held at an alternate venue, a very interesting one: an assembly hall at a high school, specifically Carl Schurz High School in Chicago.

The stated focus of the CHFF (and its sister event, the Indie Horror Film Festival, held in spring) is on independent genre cinema, but obviously “independent” has a bit of a vague definition. While CHFF and IHFF do occasionally screen larger-budget works with (comparatively) well-known actors, what I really associate the festival with “backyard horror”: low-budget productions made far outside the usual centers of the entertainment industry. Such enterprises are by necessity low-budget, tend to have strongly regional vibes, and rely on local acting communities for their casts.

This year I only saw four features and two shorts, which is not much considering the fest lasts three days, but it was still a decent value for my $25 weekend pass. I would have liked to see more, but there was also a neighborhood art festival in the city that I wanted to attend.

A scene from DEAD GIRLS

Dead Girls (Neal Fischer & Del Harvey, 2014)

Dead Girls is an anthology film consisting of three stories and a wraparound, each of which is founded on the premise of a young woman coming back from the grave to have vengeance on those who wronged her.

It’s not enough for all four segments to have the same basic premise. The first two stories, “Over My Dead Body” and “Theta Phis Never Die,” pretty much have the same damn plot. In both, the Dead Girl is accidentally killed by some asshole or group of assholes who cover up the death. The Dead Girl comes back to life, and starts picking off the story’s villains slasher-style, starting with the ones who are least culpable for her death.

“Dead Body” is the stronger of the two stories because it’s the briefest and tightest. It’s hardly perfect–the victim comes off as shrill, insecure and hard to relate to, even though her suspicions are vindicated in the end. The characterization is also lacking, but because of the brevity and the slasher vibe, I can deal with that. For the most part, it’s simple and effective.

“Theta Phis,” on the other hand, is bloated and flabby. It pits its victim against an entire sorority of Mean Girl types, but only a couple of the antagonists receive any sort of character definition, so the Dead Girl spends much of the second half of the segment mowing down extras who aren’t much distinguished from one another. It’s also hurt by Mia Doran as Avery, the segment’s protagonist. Before the character’s death, Doran saddles her with a “pretty actor playing awkward nerd” performance that’s hilariously unbelievable. (She’s better as Zombie Avery, who, predictably, is infinitely self-assured and confident in her slinky red bandage dress.)

The final segment, “Vengeance is Mine,” punts the slasher vibe of its predecessors in telling its tale of a prostitute who gets back at those who exploited her and put her in the position she’s in. I did have some problems following the dialogue–large amounts of echo in the assembly hall rendered many exchanges unintelligible to my ears. I also felt the tone was a bit too dark in comparison to the comparatively lighter previous segments.

I also had a hard time figuring out what was going on in the wraparound but at least the pictures were pretty.

My rating: Mixed. (Breakdown: wraparound, mixed; “Dead Body,” pro; “Theta Phis,” con; “Vengeance,” mixed)

A scene from DR. LIEBENSTEIN

Dr. Liebenstein (Erik Karl, 2014)

I can’t lie. Well, actually I can, but I won’t when I tell you that writer/director/actor Erik Karl’s vampire-hunting romp Dr. Liebenstein is a huge mess.

The core story–vampires attack a young couple; the boyfriend is turned but the title character, a modern-day Van Helsing, saves her life and takes on the bloodsuckers–is solid. But Karl keeps adding material to it–unnecessary subplots, weird time jumps (the film starts in 1972, flashes forward to late 1998, flashes back to early 1998, and finally settles in 2013), and an entire set of about half a dozen characters who only appear during the opening titles and a “blooper reel” under the closing credits. Too many times I wanted to stand up and scream “What does that have to do with anything?” at the screen.

It doesn’t help that the other weak link is the title character (played by Karl himself), largely bland and burdened with a lot of hideous dialog.

Other than that it’s fun. It’s a bit too flashy for my tastes–when vampires appear, they literally do so in bursts of flame–but the effects are surprisingly good for such a low-budget effort. It needs to be edited more ruthlessly–cut down from its present 100 minutes to something like 60 or 70.

My rating: Mixed.

A scene from ALICE D.

Alice D. (Jessica Sonneborn, 2014)

This is one I might want to revisit in the future. My viewing experience was hurt by the same auditorium echo problems I had with Dead Girls, so there’s huge chunks of backstory that I’m not quite sure I processed correctly.

From what I can tell this is about a haunted house and the ghost is named Alice. About a hundred years ago Alice was a teenaged prostitute and the house was a brothel run by Kane Hodder, who abused and killed Alice. In the modern day, one of Kane Hodder’s descendants (played by Juan Riedinger) has inherited the house and he holds a party for a couple of old friends. He also hires some prostitutes, although it does turn out that one of them isn’t really a hooker at all, she’s just doing this as a one-time thing because she really needs the money.

Anyway, Kane Hodder’s descendent turns out to be a violent, drug-addled, misogynistic asshole and that seems to cause Alice’s ghost to manifest and start fucking with people, which results, probably not surprisingly, in death.

I have issues with the movie (standard slasher movie characters who can be summed up in two words, and a weird pacing issue that results in very little happening until the third act) but I was rather impressed with how well I could follow the action without being able to understand about 70% of what was being said. And Riedinger was on fucking fire. This might have the potential to be something I like. Then again, it might not.

My rating: Mixed.

Stormy Night (Ezequiel Martinez, Jr., 2010)

(couldn’t find a screencap)

The rise of independent cinema has had its upsides and downsides. One of the downsides is what I’ve come to call the “Tarantino structure.” Basically, a film that follows this structure is simply a long series of alternating violent/action scenes and scenes in which people talk endlessly about bullshit, usually popular culture.

Tarantino and a few other filmmakers can make this structure work because they understand that the point of dialog is to reveal character. Other writers and directors fail to make it work when they’re more interested in impressing the audience with their clever writing skills (Diablo Cody) or using the characters as mouthpieces for their own opinions (every third-rate Kevin Smith wannabe ever).

This is pretty much was Stormy Night was. A bunch of assholes sit around a Beverly Hills swimming pool and are too stupid to realize that the biggest sociopath of the lot is bumping them off one by one. Every so often they stop the plot, such as it is, to rant about shit. None of what they have to say is anything you haven’t heard fifty brazillion times before, and since the sum total of character definition tends to be “chick in bondage attire” or “fat guy” or “stoned guy” or “chick with accent” it’s hard to care when they get greased.

If there is one good thing to say about the film it’s that it’s filmed beautifully in black-and-white, a pretentious move that somehow works.

My rating: Con.

Short Films

The short film programs are usually the festival highlights and I really regret not being able to see more.

Balloon Feast: A brief vampire tale directed by Willy Adkins. It’s very heavy on the VHS video effects and heavy-metal soundtrack but I found it highly effective. (I’m not a huge metal fan–I like a few bands here and there, usually classic-rock or experimental bands, but it’s not really my thing overall. I do get a bit irritated, occasionally, at the ubiquity of metal music in horror culture. And I’ve seen a lot of films that deploy metal songs so often and obtrusively that I feel like I’m watching a string of music videos.) Pro.

Cannibals and Carpet Fitters: Two Australian working joes come to install the carpet but the lady of the house tries to feed them to her pet cannibal. The combination of echo and Aussie accents really had me straining to understand the dialog, but otherwise I adored this riotous horror-comedy. Pro.

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