The third chapter of the Stanley Film Festival, produced by the Denver Film Society, has concluded at the haunting Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, and like its predecessors, it was a thrill-a-minute ride, complete with scares aplenty and an increasing body count (via its glorious horror programming) that finished with a bloody, satisfying conclusion…until the next sequel, of course.
This year’s spooktacular opened with Cooties, a virus/zombie comedy starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad and Alison Pill that featured a horde of elementary-school children turned into flesh-eating monsters by tainted chicken nuggets; they are dispatched in gory, glorious (gorious?) ways by their long-suffering teachers, who are forced to go from teaching to bludgeoning the kids in order to survive. Wood joined the filmmakers and the cast at the fest for the premiere, which was followed by a cafeteria-style, post-film party complete with a chicken-nugget-eating contest that set the weekend’s spectral events into full-tilt boogie.
Along with honoring horror maven Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond) with the Master of Horror award, the 2015 fest gave the Visionary Award to RADiUS-TWC co-head Tom Quinn for his work ushering horror films to the forefront — including turning this year’s indie fright flick It Follows into a huge hit and opening a new path to success for scary movies. On the film front, the Audience Award went to the meta-slasher romp The Final Girls; the Audience and Juried Award for best short film went to the creatively chilling The Babysitter Murders; and the Stanley Dean’s Cup Award – created to honor local, national and international student filmmakers – went to Colorado-made Moon Studios (directed by Merritt Crocker) and Inherent Noise (by Karol Jurga).
Based on its first two editions, we named the Stanley Film Festival Best Film Festival in the Best of Denver 2015; after experiencing this year’s events, we’re happy to underline that title with ten reasons why this homegrown horror-thon has changed the face of film festivals.
10) Location, location, location.
As you turn onto the main road in Estes Park, you can’t miss it: The sprawling, foreboding Stanley Hotel is just sitting there atop a giant hill, daring you to come closer. The estate is the perfect place to conjure up the desire to mainline horror films, or, as we’re famously reminded, dream up one of the most terrifying stories of all time, The Shining. “Oh, there’s no doubt that the Stanley has a remarkable ghostly atmosphere," says Mick Garris, SFF’s Master of Horror consultant and frequent Stephen King collaborator. “King told me that on that final night before the hotel closed when he was there, sitting and eating and drinking in the bar — he and his wife, Tabby, were the only customers there — he looked into the mirror and saw the whole book come together in his head at once.”
The spooky atmosphere bleeds into the small town of Estes Park, with the spectral chill you feel walking around the hotel grounds amplified by the city’s decision to close most of its businesses by dusk, making it feel like The Town That Dreaded Sundown. One minute you’re enjoying food at local diner You Need Pie! (seriously, you need its fifty varieties of pie), and the next you’re expecting an old townie to pop up and yell, “I told you kids not to come around here! You’re all doooooomed!”
9) The best screens with the biggest screams.
Since Estes Park is a small town, options for movie viewing are slight — but the three locations that the SFF uses are ideal for this destination festival and its growing brood of horror fanatics. The first venue, the Stanley Concert Hall, is not normally a theater, but it's set up every year for the festival to house its biggest films. The venue also happens to be the estate’s most haunted area, supposedly full of the spirits of children and one woman who likes to hang out in the ladies' room (she probably just wants to gossip). The second venue, the Reel Mountain Theater, is an adorable three-screen venue run by an adorable family; Mom and Dad handle the big business, and the kids oversee the concession stand. The Reel Mountain serves up first-run fare year-round for the Estes regulars who need their latest Marvel or popular art-house flick. The last venue is the one with the most history, the Historic Park Theater. Built in 1913, it's the oldest operating movie theater in the country. You can see its white “Tower of Love” (with its own dark story) peeking out over the city; once inside, you’ll find a charming lobby and a quaint theater filled with historic seats (which will undergo a renovation soon). The Park is the only theater in Estes that can still do 35mm film, alongside a new digital system; due to a technical gaffe, the reflection of every image also bounces back into the lobby above a small couch — so if you have to run out for popcorn, you won’t miss any of the movie!
8) The programming brings all the ghosts to the yard.
Truly the jewels of this blood-soaked prom crown are the movies themselves. The Denver Film Society has pulled together a crack team of programmers who have their fingers firmly on the undead pulse of horror. Unlike most film festivals that feature so much programming you couldn’t possibly see even a third of it, SFF has the right number of films to see, pulled from a wide swath of subgenres. Want a spooky ghost story? Check out We Are Still Here (opening May 15 at the Sie FilmCenter, fyi). Psychological terror your jam? The quizzical Sun Choke may be up your alley. Want a new take on the slasher genre? The gender swap of Some Kind of Hate will leave you rooting for the villain. How about a scary documentary? The Nightmare (also coming to the Sie in June) left viewers rattled and awake for days. Rather take in a classic? No sweat: Screenings of Shivers, Re-Animator, Bride of Frankenstein and Repulsion will show you the fingerprints of fear. This year also featured the return of Glass Eye Pix’s Tales From Beyond the Pale, a live radio play made up of spooky short stories that featured live sound effects and a great cast of performers hamming it up for the cheap seats.
At the Q&A for We Are Still Here, an audience member complimented stars Larry Fessenden and Barbara Crampton (whose genre staples go all the way back to the ‘80s) on their performances and earnestly asked if they had ever been in horror films before. The audience laughed at this question, knowing their countless roles, but the question points more to the fact that you don’t have to be a blood-steeped nerd to love the SFF; your knowledge of horror can just be skin deep. This weekend in Estes Park will get you up to speed on what the state of horror was and is constantly transforming into...like a werewolf.
7) Spectral guests and terrifying tributes.
Horror’s best and brightest are assembled every year at the Stanley Film Fest, with Mick Garris himself an energetic consultant to the who’s who of frightmakers. Previous notables included Eli Roth, Joe Dante and the three twisted minds behind horror imprint SpectreVision: Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller. This year included an abundance of fresh faces breaking into the fear fracas, alongside seasoned vets Larry Fessenden (Wendigo), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, You're Next) and Stuart Gordon. The joy of these mad geniuses appearing at the festival is that they’re all coming to watch movies right alongside you, getting just as many chills as they’ve given out in their long, storied careers.
6) You can hear the horror, too, you know.
Every good horror film needs a soundtrack that produces just the right amount of dread to get your blood pumping — so kudos to the festival for bringing Colorado artists to perform at various events, including Bad Luck City, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake and Ian Cooke. Their sets got folks moodily swaying in the hotel's ballrooms, summoning musical ghosts of big bands past and chanteuses that most likely still hover somewhere on the grounds. If those bands were a conjuring, then the inclusion of 32-piece extravaganza Itchy-O was a full-on exorcism for the festival; the set came into the hotel because of rain, but caused such a sensation indoors that festival ghosts were moving and shaking as if they'd been caught in a possession and Itchy-O’s big drums and sounds were the only way to get the spirits out.
5) What’s eating YOU at Andrew Novick’s Horror Brunch?
Everyone’s favorite fun professor, Andrew Novick, has had a role at every Stanley Film Fest with his patented Horror Brunch, which spotlights the festival’s awards ceremony. Guests get to pick from terror-themed entrees while they sit at specially branded tables complete with ornate centerpieces designed after horror films: Children of the Corn, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Se7en, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more. This year’s menu gave diners the choice of a Candyman waffle with a strawberry honey drizzle and a Re-Animator burrito with a fluorescent green-chile “infusion." The meticulous event was a sight for the eyes and a feast for a bloodthirsty belly.
4) Immerse yourself in a mystery...if you dare.
Last year, SFF began including a special immersion game that took the top off the entire event by creating a mystery woven into the festival complete with clues, unexpected moments and, according to a line in the contract if you “opted in” to the festivities, the chance that you could end up part of the mystery yourself. This year featured spots of construction around the Stanley by the mysterious D.E.D.I. Construction, a kooky magician, an angry protester trying to hold D.E.D.I. responsible for a tragedy, mysterious ankhs popping up in places, and, by the festival’s final night, a magic show that featured one filmmaker disappearing…forever. Whether you were playing or not, it added to the overall atmosphere of this being a festival where anything could happen: Why is everyone walking around with a bloody hand? Why are those people all chasing after that person over there? Was that a scream I just heard? Why is that person following us? All of those delicious questions led to a satisfying conclusion by the end of the fest.
3) Terror took on a third dimension with Virtual Reality.
Speaking of games, this year included a special slice of virtual reality courtesy of five-minute samples of a game called Catatonic. Often the longest line at SFF wasn’t for a film but for developer Guy Shelmerdine’s unique terror experience, where guests are strapped into a wheelchair and Samsung VR goggles by a very attractive and demanding nurse and, via the game, wheeled through a very creepy mental hospital. The game is essentially a short horror film from your POV, and the ability of the VR to give you a terrifying perspective from anywhere you turn — even looking down to see what has become of your hands — is a trip. For an added thrill, the chair was rigged to buzz during certain moments, including a vertigo-inducing scene where you’re wheeled to the edge of a staircase, teetering to your possible death. The sky’s the limit for the future of this all-encompassing platform; find out more about the game at catatonic.co.
2) The future of horror is bright and bloody.
Technological advances aside, the Stanley Film Festival truly presents the future of horror, a genre that seemingly gets killed every few years only to come back to life even stronger than before. A perfect mix of recognizing where horror has come via its tributes and including dozens of short films and debut features from new voices along with takes on something that dates all the way back to the Grand Guignol of 1897, the Stanley Film Fest is fertile ground for cinematic evil to take root. “The great thing about the Stanley festival," says filmmaker Mick Garris, "is that it is international, that the state of horror is a mix of cultural film experiences, movies that come from studios, from independents, and from far-flung places around the globe, as well as deep roots in genre film history. Horror is in pretty great shape.”
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1) It’s truly a film festival to die for.
Yes, this festival is the perfect mixture of film and atmosphere. From the moment you arrive, something seems just a little bit off — and the experience of watching a great horror film and then walking back to your room or car in the dark is a feeling that, thankfully, we don’t get very often, only at the hellmouth of the Estes Park landmark. Just like horror films — which seem to put you in danger and take you right up to the glass with death itself while always keeping us safe — the Stanley Film Festival wraps you in a cool paranormal blanket filled with just enough tingles to make you look over your shoulder multiple times. But that chill I felt was just the wind, right? RIGHT?!
The Stanley Film Festival will return to Estes Park for a terrifying fourth chapter in 2016. Dates are still to be determined, but you can find out more and get ready to buy your badge and book a room at stanleyfilmfest.com.