It’s an exciting time to be a film nerd in New Orleans. It feels like our art cinema scene is finally bouncing back from when the AMC Palace megaplexes wiped out smaller independent venues in the 90s & 00s. The Broad Theater, The Prytania, and Chalmette Movies are keeping adventurous arts programming alive on local big screens on a weekly basis. Both New Orleans Film Fest and New Orleans French Film Fest are gaining steam in screening the most exciting films of any given year in a city that would have to wait to catch them on VOD otherwise. Joining this embarrassment of riches is the Overlook Film Festival, a nomadic horror film fest that originated in Oregon and has yet to find a permanent home. Over four beautiful late-April days in the French Quarter, the Overlook festival made its welcome New Orleans debut, making me question what we did to deserve such a magical, unprompted blessing from the indie cinema gods. Like WrestleMania’s recent return, the festival felt like a birthday present to the city on its 300th anniversary, one I very much appreciated even if we ultimately don’t get to keep it.
The tricky thing about holding onto Overlook Film Fest is that it’s young and looking to expand. A four-day festival that originated at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge (which was used for exterior shots in Kubrick’s The Shining, where the festival borrowed its name), Overlook quickly outgrew its original locale in both size & tone. Festival organizers noted in an interview with Indiewire that the theater space was too small to accommodate their planned expansion, but it also seems like their mission statement as “a summer camp for genre fans” was at odds with the hotel’s Shining-rejecting nature as “a family-oriented establishment.” This branding conflict forced the festival to shift its focus away from association with Kubrick’s shooting location to a wider range of “iconic locations that evoke the spirit of the Overlook hotel, horror’s most infamous haunted fictional location.” For its New Orleans debut, the fest landed itself in the Bourbon Orleans, which unlike the Timberline, leans into its spooky reputation by billing itself as “one of New Orleans’s top haunted hotels.” The brilliance of the move is that the Bourbon Orleans’s French Quarter locale opens the festival to several screening venues instead of one self-contained building. It transforms the French Quarter, an area crawling with “ghost tour” tourist traps, into a horror nerd’s playground the fest’s site describes as being “home to countless apparition sightings voodoo legends, and vampire curses.” They also propose that a ghost child spotted at the hotel was likely on influence on the creepy twins in The Shining, which sure, why not? Of course, the French Quarter is a limited space with its own set-in-stone boundaries and the Overlook’s arrival during peak festival season means it might have to fight for screening venues as it outgrows the mere two it reserved this year, but for now the events weren’t at all overcrowded and the city seemed to have the exact vibe they’re looking for. Let’s hope that lasts.
Speaking of gradual expansion, Swampflix was too small to secure a press pass for this year’s festival. I wanted to support Overlook as best as I could to welcome its return, though, so I bought tickets to a few individual screenings and signed up to volunteer for a shift helping organize the fest. By happenstance, my volunteer shift turned out to be a total joy, as I worked the door for live recordings of two podcasts I regularly listen to anyway: Shock Waves and The Canon. Outside taking tickets & headcounts and occasionally providing information to attendees, I mostly just listened in as guests Thomas Lennon gushed about The Exorcist III (and for a brief, glorious moment, my beloved Monster Trucks) and Barbara Crampton discussed the highs & lows of horror as a medium from the POV of a woman who’s lived them at both extremes. I got to have some brief exchanges with guests, like telling Blumhouse producer Ryan Turek how much I appreciate his podcast & wishing a panel-crashing Udo Kier a good morning (he, Lennon, and Crampton were all promoting the festival’s premiere of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich). The whole event was staged inside the Bourbon’s Orleans’s “haunted ballroom,” the site of frequently reported ghost sightings and, thus, a wonderful podcasting venue. Basically, I’m sure the festival (or, more specifically, the New Orleans Film Society folks who organized the volunteers) appreciated the extra hands, but the whole event felt like something I would have attended for fun anyway.
Since I couldn’t afford an All Access Pass for the festival and couldn’t negotiate my way in as press, I had to be choosy in selecting movies to cover for the site. Major event screenings at the Le Petit Theatre of films I’ve been dying to see like Hereditary, Upgrade, and the Unfriended sequel were calling out to me like genre film Sirens, but I decided to seek out smaller films instead. I knew I’d be able to see Hereditary on the big screen if I could be patient for a couple more months, but the joy of film festivals is often seeing proper screenings of smaller films that you’ll otherwise only see distributed on VOD (if at all). As such, I watched three foreign language horror films directed by women that I’ve heard heavy buzz behind (on podcasts like Shock Waves) for months, but I suspect might not even make it to venues like The Broad: Blue My Mind, Tigers are Not Afraid, (and my personal favorite) Good Manners. All three films (all screened at Canal Place) were excellent, adventurous participations in & subversion of familiar genre tropes – the exact kind of programming you dream of for a horror-themed festival. The programming of Good Manners & Tigers Are Not Afraid as an effective double bill was especially harmonious, as both films operate on a similar post-del Toro dark fairy tale vibe while still varying wildly in visual & thematic material. The body horror transformations of Good Manners & Blue My Mind were also interesting reflections of each other, as discussing the very nature of their exact creature feature premises could constitute spoilers given their patient reveals (even though seasoned audiences know what monsters to expect long before they arrive). It was an incredibly small sampling of the two dozen features that screened at the festival, but I could not be happier with the titles I saw. At the very least, I expect to be evangelizing for Good Manners as one of the Top Films of 2018 for the remainder of the year.
It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for the Overlook Film Festival as it expands in size & ambition. I doubt even the festival organizers themselves have a clear idea of where they’re going. I can report, though, that the first year in New Orleans was an ooky-spooky delight, an experience I’ll gladly repeat for as many years as they’re willing & able to return. The crowds were simultaneously more laidback and more enthusiastic than what I’m used to seeing at our local film fests, which made for a wonderfully nerdy genre film environment. I hope everyone who traveled here had as rewarding of an experience as I did. I also hope they saw some ghosts.