When is a gothic horror film festival too violent or gory? Such was the predicament facing Jim Carl and the rest of the selection committee for this year's Nevermore Film Festival, which returns to Durham's Carolina Theatre Friday, Feb. 23 through Sunday, Feb. 25.
One goal for many specialty film festivals is to foster independent filmmakers whose avant garde work might eventually influence the larger genre and expand it beyond mainstream strictures. Yet, when Carl and Co. began to peruse the roughly 70 feature-length submissions vying for inclusion in Nevermore's eighth edition, they found that, by contrast, an opposite trend had taken root.
"So many entries seemed to be modeled after Hostel or Saw," says Carl. "They were unimaginative and contained such gratuitous graphic violence—I'm talking about gross displays of torture, rape and such. Some films were so awful that I would shut them off 20 to 30 minutes into watching them, and I turned down three or four titles because of their graphic nature even though they had been accepted to other festivals."
Carl cites "the damn Eli Roth/ Tarantino influence" as having trickled down to indie and, he has started to notice, Asian horror. At the same time, festival fans are clamoring for organizers to schedule even more grindhouse-type films.
Further complicating matters was the recent "8 Films To Die For Horrorfest," which played nationwide (including a couple of area theaters) last November and contractually co-opted many top-rung horror films that Nevermore would typically covet.
Thus, due to the more homogenous and depleted pool of submissions, this year's program represents a departure from recent Nevermores that offered healthy, diverse doses of Asian anime, cult fantasy and experimental fare like Primer and The American Astronaut to complement the festival's bloodier bread-and-butter.
Despite these obstacles, Nevermore has assembled a number of noteworthy gems among its program of 10 feature- and nine short-length films. Foremost among them is the opening night feature, the intriguingly titled The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell. A favorite with festival organizers, the film is perhaps best described as a frenetic, post-apocalyptic farce. While we found the production quality and narrative a bit slapdash, it is the kind of film destined to draw a cult following, if for no other reason than Richard Riehle's narration and the presence of Daniel Baldwin, Jane Seymour and Tony Hale in cameo roles. The director and some cast members will attend the festival and post-screening Q&A sessions.
The Host, the highest grossing film in South Korean history, is a creature-feature with a heart and probably the best film in the festival. The supernatural thriller Shutter, made in Thailand, is more consistent with the Asian suspense-horror template.
In Memorium is a low-budget but well-made experimental-cum-haunted-house flick shot from the perspective of multiple security cameras erected to capture the dying days of a cancer-riddled young man. Lockout tries to make some points about the effects of outsourcing, but its jumpy narrative and psychological twists serve to generate more boredom than tension. And, for the campy classic fans out there, be sure to catch a special showing of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (see sidebar below).
Among the short films, the spine-tingling Oculus is the cream of the crop and an award-winning favorite on the horror film fest circuit. The Listening Dead is a visually engaging gothic fable shot in the style of a 1920s silent film but with a few modern, computer-generated embellishments.
On the other hand, some shorts seem to take a more humorous, Tim Burton-esque approach. The slight-but-entertaining Itsy Bitsy, about a couple plagued by a large arachnid, has a solid sense of pacing and structure even if the effects are more goofy than scary. Likewise, the UK entry Night of the Hell Hamsters is reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead in its mixture of gore and goofiness, complete with cricket bat.
Of Darkness offers the cheapest monster possible—slowly dimming lights. With creepy kids and demonic books, it steals from a half-dozen or so existing films in about 20 minutes, which probably means it is the short most likely to become a Hollywood feature. Of course, judging by the state of the industry, its makers probably intended that all along.
For more information on Nevermore, including a complete listing of films and screening times, go to www.festivals.carolinatheatre.org/nevermore.
Peter Jackson became a superstar filmmaker with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but before that he was known in his native New Zealand as a top-notch director of darkly comic films that were vivid, bizarre and perverse. Dead Alive (1992), originally entitled Braindead and a fine example of old-school Jackson, will screen at Nevermore in a re-mastered 35mm print. It tells the tale of poor Lionel (Timothy Balme), whose life with his nasty, domineering mother (Elizabeth Moody) takes a bizarre turn when Mum is bitten by a "Sumatran Rat-Monkey," a loathsome cross between a monkey and a plague rat. Next thing Lionel knows, mum's a zombie, leading to some ugly incidents with a lawnmower, an undead baby named Selwyn, and a kung-fu priest who declares, "I kick arse for the Lord!"
So hideously violent that barf bags were supplied with rental copies in Sweden, Dead Alive is literally the bloodiest movie ever made in terms of fake blood used (five gallons were pumped per second in the lawnmower scene). This new print contains the original 104-minute cut of the film and offers viewers a rare chance to see the film in all its gory glory. Though he's come a long way since Dead Alive, Jackson hasn't forgotten his roots—in King Kong, there's a case labeled "Sumatran Rat-Monkey." Maybe Kong would have been a more entertaining film if it had gotten loose. —Zack Smith