Last year's Nevermore Film Festival eschewed the flesh-carving, bone-crunching gore of mainstream cinema's torture-porn craze in favor of psychological terrors to die for. This year's lineup is a continuation of the festival's preference for subtlety and nuance in horror.
But even though the festival programmers at Durham's Carolina Theatre sifted through more than 130 entries in search of originality and artistry, the influence of Hollywood's self-referential jokesters Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, and such Asia-extreme purveyors as the Pang Brothers, has had a profound effect on independent horror directors. Even the most avant-garde films pay homage to the once-declassé cheap blood and guts cinema—the way Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did with Grindhouse and Roth (who also contributed to Grindhouse) did with Cabin Fever.
Of course, if torture-porn is your cup of tea, then by all means, indulge.
Otherwise, you'll find that Nevermore's programmers succeeded in locating at least two films that cross-breed elements of psychological fantasy and the requisite slasher body count: Paddy Breathnach's Shrooms and Adam Pitman and David Blair's Paper Dolls. Both festival heavyweights, these boast a smoother-than-smooth production design and well-mounted scenes of bloody mayhem. Both offer plenty of blood-spurting wounds, but it's the meticulous psychological underpinnings of these films that make them work.
Shrooms, set deep in the forests of rural Ireland, focuses on five American college students who set out to get wasted on mushrooms before getting wasted by an evil, ominous presence living in the forest. (The gleeful evisceration of pleasure-seeking Americans, of course, has its antecedent in Roth's Hostel.) Borderline formulaic, this thriller offers parallel plotlines as the stoner kids wonder if it's the Grim Reaper at work or their own minds at play.
Paper Dolls also features a woodsy setting—Montana's Glacier National Park—and a crew of murderous forest-dwelling creatures, rumored to be part of the Big Foot tribe. This film also reaches for a grainy, more psychological subtext as the relationship between two friends is tested when the young men take a shortcut through this dangerous landscape and only one exits, leaving authorities and audience questioning the real killer's identity.
Other films that aspire to the depths of psychological terror are Dav Kaufman's 13 Hours in A Warehouse, in which five robbers spend the night in an abandoned warehouse where spirits of the dead taunt and torture the men and the Spanish suspense thriller Timecrimes, directed by Nacho Vigalondo, in which a man stumbles upon a secret government research facility and a mind-bending universe. John Suits' Breathing Room, a grainy, low-budget Saw-styled thriller, finds 14 strangers trapped in a desolate room, confined and controlled by lethal electronic collars that force the wearers to abide by the rules of the game they are playing: a game of life and death (a plot that resembles the 2006 French cult film 13 Tzameti). Low on camp and high on suspense, these films at their best utilize a Hitchcockian template of tension and release.
Among the short films, camp reigns supreme as this year's collection of comedy-horror shorts spoofs everything from rock operas to high school proms. Zombie Love, for example, brilliantly mimics musical grandeur from Broadway to Bollywood as a flesh-eating zombie falls in love with a beautiful blonde. Elsewhere in the program, Prombies!, a low-budget fright-fest for the teenage set, capitalizes on the sexual frustration of adolescent boys through gore and goofiness, while the concisely titled Gay Zombie is ripe with sexual satire and flesh-devouring fun.
Among the festival's other highlights, Raleigh horror maven and Monster Creature Feature host Ormon Grimsby will preside over a special selection of juried shorts called Sackcloth and Ashes. There also will be revival screenings of two classics from the early 1980s. Dario Argento's Tenebre, from 1982, never received a proper stateside release; instead, a domestic distributor butchered the story and released it as Unsane. Nevermore will screen a print on loan from the Danish Film Institute—one of only two in existence.
Near-extinction is also the condition of Russell Mulcahy's 1986 cult film Highlander. There's only one print left in the world, and assuming nothing happens in the interim, it will screen three times this weekend.
Nevermore Film Festival is at Carolina Theatre Feb. 22-24. For tickets and schedule information, visit festivals.carolinatheatre.org/nevermore. Festival "10-passes" are available for $50.