Happy fifteenth anniversary to the AFI Silver Theater’s Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival! Over the years, this festival has blossomed into the Maryland/D.C./Virginia area’s premier horror film festivals and stands as the most popular genre-fest in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Each year, filmmakers from around the globe enter their works, be they big budget or small, vying for a spot. The festival’s main goal is to shine a light on genre films from all over the world that might not have gotten a chance to find an audience.
What is great about holding the festival at the AFI Silver theater is the support the theater gives this and all festivals it holds and sponsors. Always a fantastic venue, the AFI Silver supports filmmakers and artists while also supporting the community.
Homegrown filmmakers such as Eduardo Sanchez (“The Blair Witch Project”) and area horror personalities such as “Dr. Sarcofiguy” (Jon Dimes) and “Count Gore Devol” (Dick Dyszel) have become permanent fixtures of the festival with Sanchez screening most of his films there and the two horror hosts presenting classic genre films with a side of humor and a heaping side of fun.
Every film that shows is a hit with the crowds; each one receiving applause and respect from loving genre fans.
The audience has gotten bigger over the years with more and more young and/or first-time filmmakers trying their hands at submitting their works, in the hope of finding a theater going audience, if only for one glorious night.
COVID-19 has flipped the script and all 2020 film festivals since the beginning of the shutdown have been viral only. The Spooky Movie Fest is no different. This is the first (and hopefully only) year fans could not congregate inside the beautiful AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD and rub elbows with filmmakers and artists while watching their works on the big screen.
However, the AFI Silver was still the online host of the festival and, besides the loss of in-person showings and thousands of dollars in popcorn and other snacks, it was business as usual. The 2020 Spooky Movie International Horror Festival gathered some of the finest work by international filmmakers to give horror and genre fans the October treats they crave.
The following are my top five picks for this year’s festival:
Opening Night Film: “I Am Lisa”
One of the great pleasures of covering the Spooky Movie Fest is discovering a talent that shows me a horror film that is different from the norm. A film that takes the usual horror tropes and shakes them up a bit, putting a fresh spin on a certain genre.
Written by Eric Winkler and directed by Patrick Rea, “I Am Lisa” is a refreshing twist on the werewolf film.
After rebuking a come-on from a girl who has previously bullied her, Lisa (Kristen Vaganos, who also graciously introduced the film) is attacked, brutalized, and left for dead by a vicious sheriff and her equally-dangerous deputies.
While in the woods, Lisa is bitten by a werewolf but saved by a woman who once knew her grandmother. As Lisa recovers she lays low so the sheriff will think she is, in fact, dead. While in hiding, she discovers that she is turning into a werewolf. Coming to terms with this, Lisa seeks her revenge.
The filmmakers wisely play down the FX and find a harmony with being a young single woman finding your strength in a male-dominated world while morphing into a werewolf. Except in this film, the bullies are all women, including the sheriff. It is a refreshing change of pace, as this film tells us women are not helpless.
Vaganos is charismatic as Lisa and strikes the right balance in her character’s tonal shifts, especially when she becomes assertive and revenge-driven, finally giving in to her animalistic urges and director Rea and his actress infuse the film with moments of humor where Lisa has a childlike curiosity about her new condition.
It is nice to see a female driven Horror film that isn’t exploitative or condescending. But make no mistake gore fans, there is just enough blood to feed genre fans’ desires.
This is well-done and exciting Lycanthropic Feminist Horror. Perhaps a new genre!
“The Deep Ones”
Chad Ferrin’s entertaining and effective ode to low budget Horror films of the 80s. Ferrin’s screenplay pays homage to many H.P Lovecraft tales while telling the story of a young couple who rent a beach house from another couple. The community houses a much darker secret and their world turns upside down on night one.
With music by iconic genre composer Richard Band and featuring ingredients such as sex cults, mind-altering weed smoking, monster fetus’s, and sex-starved sea creatures, “The Deep Ones” is a treat for those who appreciate a filmmaker making the most of a lower budget and having fun with Lovecraftian lore.
This was a quite entertaining thrill ride of a horror film.
Here is a film that is the slowest of slow burns and one that requires patience from its audience. Those who take this journey will be justly rewarded by film’s end.
Liam Aikin stars as Francis, a man who comes to stay with Jean Paul (Joe Adler), an old friend he has not seen in years, and his sister Vivian (Annalise Basso).
Immediately things are off, and nothing appears to be as it seems.
Jean Paul is in a constant state of melancholy and seems to have all but given up on life while Vivian stays in her room, throwing violent fits if disturbed. Perhaps she crawls through the darkness of the house at night to visit Francis. Perhaps she is warning him to leave the house before the sadness swallows him up. Perhaps she isn’t there at all.
And is there a masked swamp dweller who slithers through the darkened hallways of the house, taking solace in a closet and coming out only to feed?
The importance of these questions and the sanity of Francis and Jean Paul is what drives this well-acted mood piece. Writer/director Patrick Picard infuses each moment and line of dialogue with an inescapable dread. Picard refuses to allow Francis (nor his audience) to escape the confines of the house and this is a smart move. There is no reprieve from the weight of the melancholy. And just maybe there is something more sinister afoot.
This is for the audience to discover in this riveting work by a first-time filmmaker who has announced himself as an important voice in Horror. “The Bloodhound” will unnerve you.
“Hail to the Deadites”
This entertaining documentary was the winner of the 2020 Fantasia Fest Bronze Audience award.
The film is director Steve Villanueve’s love letter to the die-hard fans of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series.
We meet men and women from all walks of life and learn how being a fan of this film and connecting with like-minded fans has changed their life, with some finding a bigger purpose to their lives.
Villanueve moves through the community easily and has an apparent knack for getting people to open. We learn about a couple’s marriage and divorce and the sad story of a man’s baby who he named “Ash” but was born with only half a heart.
Many of the stories are interesting and it is fun to see the fan made films and the people who live to cosplay as “Ash”.
Villanueve does not poke fun at these lifelong fans unlike the condescending documentary “Trekkies”. “Hail to the Deadites” is a loving tribute to a dedicated fan base who, through the Sam Raimi’s exciting Horror series, make lifelong friends and loving memories.
The best film I saw at the festival was the documentary “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.”
I will be posting a full review soon but for now, this is an absolutely fascinating almost two-hour conversation with one of American Cinema’s most important and inventive filmmakers speaking in great detail and depth about one of the all-time classic Horror films.
Director Alexandre O. Phillip sits down with Friedkin for a face-to-face interview, wisely keeping the camera on the filmmaker and never inserting reaction shots.
The depth with which Friedkin describes his thought process regarding “The Exorcist” is quite astonishing.
It is a film where a director grants unlimited access to his mind and with a mind like William Friedkin’s and a film like “The Exorcist,” Phillip’s documentary is a horror buff’s dream.
There were many short Horror films that were shown throughout the fest and while there are too many to go through one by one, I saw some truly inventive and interesting works.
Along with all the films, passholders were treated to two fun discussions.
Friday night saw “Count Gore and Friends: Looking For the Punchline,” a virtual chat between the area’s local horror celebrity “Count Gore Devol” (Dick Dyszel) as he spoke about his decades-long run as a popular horror host. Dyszel was joined in his discussion with other horror TV hosts from around the country. The chat gave great insight into Dyszel’s career and the close-knit community found amongst television horror hosts.
Saturday gave us “Oh Rocky! 45 Years of Rocky Horror Fandom.” This was a virtual chat with the DC/MD area’s main shadow cast.
Greg Bell hosted the chat along with horror celebrity Peaches Christ, who has spent decades hosting and performing with the film on both coasts.
The chat brought in most of the current shadow cast and there were many stories to be told and some very cool footage collected throughout the years of the thousands of Rocky Horror fans worldwide.
A fun chat about one of the longest running films in history.
As the coffin closes on the 2020 Spooky Movie International Film Festival, I commend everyone involved in keeping it up and running and making the smooth transition to virtual. Let us hope that 2021 will see us all back together with live coverage of what is the coolest genre film festival in the area!