Monday, October 05, 2009

The Shriekfest Report

Shriekfest kicked off the Halloween season in Los Angeles this past weekend with a lineup of 14 features and 26 short films – including the west coast premiere of NIGHTMARES IN RED WHITE AND BLUE. Attendees included filmmakers Mick Garris and Tom McLoughlin, both of whom are featured in the documentary, and Eileen Dietz – best known to horror fans as the face and voice of evil Regan (a.k.a. Captain Howdy, a.k.a. Pazuzu, a.k.a. The Devil) from THE EXORCIST. This was the first time I’d met Eileen, and I’m thrilled that she was there to add her devilish humor to the mix.

If you’ve seen NIGHTMARES, you already know that there is a rather lengthy section on THE EXORCIST. Tom McLoughlin talks about the effect the film had on American culture and on his own circle of friends in 1973. What didn’t make it into the documentary are the details of how director William Friedkin crafted this masterpiece by using very subtle filmmaking techniques (including subliminal sounds and images) to convince audience members that they were experiencing true evil. One of the many tricks he used was replacing actress Linda Blair with Eileen Dietz at key moments in the film. It’s these appearances, seamlessly interwoven with Blair’s scenes, that make the possession seem so real.... because we are, in fact, seeing two different people without being consciously aware of it. Looking back now, I realize that many of the images from THE EXORCIST that haunted me the most on initial viewings were images of Eileen Dietz, rather than Linda Blair… and what made them so frightening was that I knew, on a subconscious level, that I wasn’t seeing Linda Blair.

Here’s a test. See if you can identify the actress in each of the following images…

The answers: 1) Linda Blair, 2) Eileen Dietz, 3) Eileen Dietz, 4) Eileen Dietz’s face super-imposed on Linda Blair’s face, 5) actually, this one is tricky… it’s neither Blair nor Dietz, but a dummy created by FX artist Dick Smith. Here’s another interesting fact from the world of THE EXORCIST: Tom McLoughlin was originally slated to direct the prequel, before either Paul Schrader or Renny Harlin got involved. I, for one, would have liked to have seen that version. But I digress…

Shriekfest offered a wonderfully eclectic batch of films. I only saw about half of them, but every one had something to recommend it. The variety of the films made me realize just how many different types of horror there are these days (thus indicating how many different types of horror fans there are these days). There’s the traditional monster movie (see Michael Emanuel’s MANEATER, which is chock full of blood, breasts and beasts), the pseudo-religious ghost story (I love the Spanish because they aren’t afraid to use blasphemy as a plot device, as evidenced by Elio Quiroga’s NO-DO), and the tongue-in-cheek rollercoaster ride (Darin Scott’s DARK HOUSE trumps the similar Dark Castle productions of the early 2000s).

A couple of films inadvertently served to illustrate points that are made in the NIGHTMARES documentary. The thread about the American dreamer-turned-nightmare visionary (which starts with Hannibal Lector and continues with AMERICAN PSYCHO and SAW) plays itself out in Luke Ricci’s film HOW TO BE A SERIAL KILLER. On the small screen, the Showtime series DEXTER has taken this idea to its utmost extreme, by prompting us to completely empathize with the killer -- not just as a vigilante, but as a family member, a co-worker, a boyfriend, a father figure. HOW TO BE A SERIAL KILLER adds self-help guru to the mix, and plays everything for laughs rather than drama. I was surprised at how well it works, thanks to the performances of charismatic actors.

Mick Garris suggests, in the documentary, that the future of horror may be found in the dark fantasies of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, the man behind THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH. Robert Beaucage adopts that myth-making style in his “gothic fairy tale” SPIKE – which reminded me more of Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) than of anything that’s come along in the past few years (excepting del Toro’s work). I was thrilled to see such a passionate blend of fantasy and horror… something that’s been sorely lacking from mainstream horror films in the past few years.

My personal favorite of all the films I saw at Shriekfest was Gregg Holtgrewe’s DAWNING. This one is harder to talk about, because it is purely and simply about the Unknown, and it thrives on tone and atmosphere rather than plot. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a filmmaker do so much with so little, but Holtgrewe has the good sense to realize that the most disturbing horror films are often the simplest ones. DAWNING (in its current edit) is a lean 72 minutes, shot in one location with a handful of actors and very sparse dialogue. Darkness and relative silence are all the filmmaker needs to hypnotize the viewer and hold us captive for over an hour. The minimalist sound design forces us to pay close attention to every detail, and the filmmakers have carefully crafted a sense of mystery for each character and every little turn of events. If you like the slow-burn approach of films like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE STRANGERS, and can appreciate the metaphysical underpinnings of works by directors like David Lynch and M. Night Shyamalan, then DAWNING will be a very welcome discovery.

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