Overlook Film Fest’s New Orleans Debut

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.

-Brandon Ledet

From Beyond (1986)

Despite my lifelong obsessiveness as a horror fan, I have several personal taste hang-ups with a few directors considered to be the titans of the genre that I cannot explain, but cause me great shame. I cannot put into words, for instance, why 80s splatter mayhem excites me to no end when Peter Jackson’s behind the camera, but I’m not at all amused by tonally similar work from Sam Raimi. There’s no accounting for why the works of George A. Romero tend to bore me, but I have deep love & appreciation for the gore hound & social critic devotees that followed in his footsteps. I’m not at all proud of these “I don’t get it” reactions to a select few horror greats, but I do have to admit that Stuart Gordon is among the spooky titans whose appeal escapees me. I can laugh & swoon over the misshapen oeuvre of a Brian Yuzna or a Frank Henenlotter without ever tiring of their cartoonishly juvenile sex & violence, but Gordon’s own additions to that exact aesthetic, most notably the Re-Animator series, has always left me cold (except maybe in the case of Dolls, which feels more like a Charles Band production than a standard Gordon film). As I’d obviously much rather enjoy his work than decry it, I recently sought out Gordon’s surrealist, Lovecraftian horror From Beyond (made largely with the same cast & crew as Re-Animator) in hopes of finding something that would finally clue me in on what makes him so beloved. It was only a moderate success.

Produced by Yuzna and starring returning Re-Animator players Jeffery Combs & Barbara Crampton, From Beyond follows a classic HP Lovecraft/”The King in Yellow” plot about people who get too curious about supernatural forces and are subsequently driven mad by their experiences with a realm beyond normal human comprehension. A scientist is accidentally killed and his assistant is driven mad by an invention known as The Resonator. Through a series of intense purple lights and bizarre sounds, The Resonator is a machine that “accesses the imperceptible,” syncing up what we understand to be the world with an entirely different dimension of invisible threats & dangerous sensations. The mental capacity to access this invisible world is linked to schizophrenia and the pineal gland (which protrudes & throbs at the skull walls of characters’ foreheads like a tongue pressing against the inside of a cheek), but its ramifications extend far beyond our understanding of science. Invisible sensations (later echoed in titles like Final Destination & The Happening) terrorize the film’s characters as The Resonator’s immeasurable effect introduces them to Lovecraftian tentacle monsters & increases their desire for kinky, transgressive sex. Even in scrawling this plot description at this very moment, I’m shocked that From Beyond wasn’t instantly one of my all-time favorite films. Assuming I would’ve loved this exact setup with the touch of a Cronenberg or a Ken Russell behind the camera, I have to assume it’s Stuart Gordon himself who’s holding its potential back.

The major letdown of From Beyond is that for a movie about unlocking a sinister realm of infinite possibilities, the places it chooses to go are disappointingly unimaginative. On a visual craft level, I’m wholly in love with the film’s D.I.Y. feats in practical effects mindfuckery. The soft, shifting flesh of the film’s oversexed, inhuman tentacle monsters from another dimension are deserving of audiences’ full attention & awe. The story told around those creations is disappointingly limited in its juvenile white boy masculinity, however, which makes me wonder if you have to be a preteen horror nerd when you experience Gordon’s work for the first time to fully appreciate him as an auteur. Of the four main victims to The Resonator, it’s the two white men who most fully experience its mindbending wrath and transform into surreal monstrosities. The remaining two victims, The Black Man and The Woman, are treated with a much more limited imagination. Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree’s character as “Bubba” Brownlee (even that name, ugh) is an ex-athlete bodyguard who throws out lines like “I know this behavior. I’ve seen it in the streets” in reference to Resonator addiction. His being locked out of the machine’s more extreme effects is disappointing, but what’s even worse is the way Barbara Crampton is immediately sexually violated in her first monster encounter, then asked to sexily model fetish gear. She also never fully devolves into the pineal gland demon her male colleagues transcend to despite her equal exposure to The Resonator. This should be a movie about an endless galaxy of cerebral terrors, but instead it’s mostly about impotence & other sexual hang-ups of white men in power, which is disappointingly reductive at best.

I can see so much DNA from some of my favorite horror titles seeping in at From Beyond’s fringes (Society, Slither, Videodrome, etc.) that it’s a huge letdown that the film is ultimately just Passably Entertaining. The feats of practical effects gore are impressive enough that I enjoyed the film more than Re-Animator’s more minor pleasures, but that isn’t saying much. There’s a violent, over-the-top goofiness to Gordon’s work that I appreciate in the abstract, but he’s so unselfaware about the unimaginative cruelty in the way he treats certain characters (especially women & PoC) that stop me short of heaping on praise. I might have been a lot less critical of it had I seen it for the first time as a kid, but I can’t help but find it a gross letdown now, especially since the infinite possibilities of its premise should have opened it up to so much  more. Then again, this all might just be a matter of taste, and there’s no accounting for that.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Do you remember VHS board games? What if you found one that was haunted; or worse, possessed? What if completing the game was the only way to save your father’s soul?

Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) Hardesty are archetypically, even stereotypically, different brothers. Gordon is a buttoned-down salaryman with a dependable girlfriend (Margot, played by Brea Grant of Heroes), a mortgage, and skeletons in his closet that have driven him far from his home town. John, in contrast, is a scruffy layabout with frequent run-ins with the law. Their troubled father, the proprietor of a VHS rental outlet, has been missing for seven months, and the two come together to close down his store, sell off the merchandise, and part ways, presumably forever. Following some strange dreams and bizarre nighttime occurrences, the two brothers are finally able to enter their father’s office, where they find Beyond the Gates, an 80s-style VHS board game that contains the last tape their father watched.

Upon playing the tape, the brothers first experience lost time, but when Margot convinces them to play the game, a strange woman (Barbara Crampton, of Chopping Mall and Re-Animator) appears on screen and explains that they must play through the game and go in order to save their father and themselves. The tape is obviously interacting with them directly, not playing straight through, and even attempts to enlist the authorities in the form of their cop friend Derek (Matt Mercer) fail, as he can see nothing on the screen but static. Gradually, the trio comes to accept that they’re stuck in a Jumanji situation, and there’s no way out but to beat the game and go . . . beyond the gates.

This film is a bit of a surprise, as it doesn’t get off to a strong start. Gordon is ostensibly the lead, but Skipper is the weakest actor of the main trio, and his performance comes across as broad and unrefined. Williamson’s John is supposed to be a deadbeat, but other than his perpetual five o’clock shadow, his appearance is pretty well-maintained, and there’s no real menace to his presence. The film is also awfully cheap-looking, so much so that even visually dynamic shots, like the slow pan across seemingly endless shelves of VHS tapes, look more like they were shot for a daytime soap than a feature. Once we’re out of the starting gate, however, the ride gets weirder and gorier until you’re lost in the moment. My roommate even compared the film to those of David Lynch (although I wouldn’t personally go that far), citing that he often evokes the facade of normalcy before tearing down the curtain to show the evil that lies beneath. Here, we start with a fairly basic story about brothers in conflict that gets more cinematically complex as the narrative progresses, until you’re suddenly captivated and carried away by the film than anticipated.

The game itself has a board that’s prettily designed, even if the mechanics are unclear (and ultimately kind of irrelevant), and the gore is both hilarious in its overkill and surprisingly effective in the way that it suddenly appears in the film as a complete surprise after a long period of mostly-psychological horror. There’s also a great attempt to give the characters an interesting backstory, as we learn that Gordon and Margot are working out some relationship issues that arose from his overindulgence, and John’s elaboration of how he was the son who stayed when Gordon went out to find a new life belies the cliches that this genre convention usually relies upon. My favorite part of the film may be the scene in which the brothers visit the shop where the game was purchased and have a conversation with the creepy owner (Jesse Merlin) who’s so delightfully transparent in his evil that his name may as well be “Mr. Needful.”

It takes a little patience to get into Beyond the Gates, but it’s pretty rewarding if given half a chance. There’s a lot of love for the VHS era of horror in the movie’s DNA, but unlike other throwbacks, it’s not beholden to that aesthetic or the trappings thereof. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a delightful way to keep Halloween in your heart on a hot summer night.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond