Nevermore Film Festival
Ever since Kevin Williamson, a native of New Bern, N.C., wrote Scream, there has been a flood of increasingly lame horror movies in the American cinema. While he captured lightning in a bottle, perhaps, with his clever, hugely successful send-up of the teen slasher film, it was all too easy for the knowing wit of that influential effort to curdle into cynicism. Currently, the trend seems to vacillate between spineless, suspense-less, PG-13 remakes, and ugly, emotionally disconnected Saw sequels, "torture porn" and ... well, more remakes.
That's why it's a relief to say that the Nevermore Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre this weekend represents a trip back to the old school—when horror film artists took their craft more seriously, even with extremely limited resources. Low budgets and no stars didn't stop the horror auteurs, and it's safe to say this weekend's program is a cut above the normal horror fare.
While there are a few films that fall into the oldest and dullest of scream clichés, there's also plenty of work that falls into the category of "real cool flick." Simply put: With lower budgets and limited effects, there are several gems at Nevermore that put Hollywood to shame by doing more with less.
Of the films that were made available for advance screening, the highlight is Ben Rock's Alien Raiders. Boasting some studio backing (it's available on DVD from Warner Home Video) and a few recognizable TV actors (24's Carlos Bernard, Six Feet Under's Matthew St. Patrick), it's a surprisingly engaging mash-up of John Carpenter's The Thing and Stephen King's The Mist, depicting a grocery store robbery that slowly takes on darker, world-threatening implications. The plot is well-paced and suspenseful, with some unnerving scenes and effects. My one complaint is the title; it gives away too much for a film that's otherwise very effective at shifting gears. Incidentally, director Rock was the production designer on The Blair Witch Project, responsible for, among other things, the creepy stick figure used to promote that film.
Another winner is The Disappeared, a British film about a teenager haunted by a number of kidnapped children, including his younger brother. Directed with eerie restraint by the wonderfully named Johnny Kevorkian, the film relies more on mood and characterization than empty shocks, and Harry Treadaway (Brothers of the Head) does an excellent job as the haunted protagonist.
Another highlight, yet one that shows no restraint whatsoever, is Pig Hunt, from Jason X director James Isaac. The plot is a typical horror set-up: Some friends take an Army buddy hunting in the mountains, only to be confronted with evil hillbillies, a possibly evil cult and one big pig. But the film is damn fun from start to finish, with wonderfully profane one-liners, realistically gory hunting scenes, well-choreographed action and some hilariously over-the-top characters and sequences. It needs to lose about 10-20 minutes, but this might very well be the greatest giant pig movie since Razorback. (I realize some might consider this faint praise.)
There's also a nice piece of self-mockery in Reel Zombies, a Canadian mockumentary about a low-budget filmmaker who tries to film a zombie epic with real zombies after a Dawn of the Dead-type invasion. It's an excellent look at the combination of desperation and self-awareness that goes into making a bad, low-budget horror movie, and it has a tremendous amount of fun with the premise, though there will doubtlessly be some festival attendees who will wince in recognition at this.
Other features didn't quite grab me. Resurrection County is another evil-rednecks film, but I felt disconnected from its red-states-gone-bad premise, and Blackspot, from New Zealand's Ben Hawker, is admirable in its ambition and structure yet a bit dull for my taste.
There are also a number of shorts of varying quality; a highlight is Kirksdale, a visually inventive tale of inmates taking over the asylum (literally). First Kill, a Most Dangerous Game knock-off, has some suspense, but mostly feels like the 400th film at the festival about evils in the woods. Some of the comedy pieces go on too long, such as The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Horribly Inefficient Weapon, which might have made a good Grindhouse-type trailer but feels drawn-out at 11 minutes. Ditto with The Auburn Hills Breakdown, which tries to get too much mileage out of the amusing premise "What if Leatherface's family found themselves stuck in suburbia?" And a few, such as the teen-surgery tale Excision, have a kicky, weirdly compelling feel.
Overall, though, Nevermore offers an eclectic, sometimes wildly entertaining lineup, and the presence of such classics as the original 1931 Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, and the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon (in 3-D, no less!) make this a must-attend festival. No matter what you make of the endless supply of horror remakes out there (Hollywood, don't you dare touch Near Dark), Nevermore proves that sometimes the best material comes from originality—or at least the originals.