The sun beat down on Louisville last Friday with a vengeance. The city burned like a moist oven, even in the evening. Although the wisest thing to do was to dress as lightly as possible, it was a different story at the Galt House Hotel  downtown. There I witnessed people in capes or cloaks, dressed as pirates or citizens of Middle Earth, and even a furry. Thus was my first sight of this year's Fright Night Film & Fandom Fest .
After braving long lines at check-in, I entered the melee and was immediately greeted with the sight of a mass of tables and booths and wares for sale; wherever I turned there were depictions of blood, gore, zombies, vampires, and all things horrific. There was no time yet to stop and stare, however; I had a movie to catch.
I had seen the trailer for Zero Killed  and was intrigued by the premise: in the words of the filmmaker, Michal Kosakowski, “Since 1996 I've been asking people with different backgrounds about their murder fantasies. I offered them the chance to stage their murder fantasies as films. My only condition: they had to act in the films themselves.” This all occurred as part of an art project; 10 years later, he met with the participants and interviewed them about the experience and their ideas on violence. The result is this incredibly fascinating—and chilling—pseudo-documentary which covers such topics as violence in the media, the death penalty, the torture debate and the idea of revenge. The interviews were interspersed with scenes of murder which were staged, but unflinching – a man hacked up by a machete, a woman trapped in a coffin, a boy shooting up a high school. The film is a look at the dark side hidden inside everyone. As one of the interviewees says, “People afraid of their inner abyss refuse to see it.”
The film over, a world of vendors and booths awaited my inspection. Happily, I found that my friends at the Movie Meltdown  podcast (in which I've had the pleasure of participating many times) had set up their table quite close to the screening rooms, so I stopped to say hello to Bryan and Greg before plunging into the depths of the convention.
Posters, DVDs, figurines, jewelery, books, comics, movie props, and so much more were all available for purchase. On one side of the ballroom sat the minor celebrities: artists, illustrators, make-up and effects specialists, and the occasional actor. I must confess that I recognized no one—except for Sid Haig  (Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects) with whom I locked eyes for a moment before moving on (I didn't want to pay $20 for an autograph).
Naturally, I found myself most interested in the filmmakers' tables. I spoke briefly with Mike Lombardo, director of the short film Long Pig, which screened Saturday. According to flyers, the film is “a life-affirming tale of friendship... and cannibalism,” and so at the booth Lombardo wore an apron and was covered in blood—just like a real chef!
I made sure to stop by the table for Dead Weight since I intended to attend its screening that evening (I, however, didn't make it). I spoke to Joe Belknap, lead actor of the film, who, when asked if the film was good, shrugged and said, “Well, I liked it.”
Nearby was David Brewer's booth. Regular readers will recall my interview  with Brewer about his film Nothing in the Flowers and my subsequent review  following the debut at Headliners. Brewer had DVDs of his film for sale, and he had quite a surprise for me: a quote from my review had been used as a blurb on the back. For someone who just loves to write movie reviews and was lucky enough to find an outlet to occasionally do so for a little profit, it is beyond exciting to see my words used as a blurb, even if it's just a small, local release. It makes one feel quite professional.
My eye was caught by a small table set to the side, occupied by a pleasant-looking lady, an hourglass, some crystals, and a deck of cards. This was Valerie Drake: “psychic, medium, past life information, card reader, spiritual reader.” Full disclosure: I am a skeptic. Ideas such as telekinesis, astral travel, and psychic ability interest me, but I am not a believer – but what do I know? Maybe Valerie is the real thing. I decided that for the sake of journalism, I should give it a try.
I was determined to keep an open mind and approach it with a scientific mindset. The way a cold reading works is that the psychic will talk to the one being read, giving vague hints and searching for information and then following up based on the person's reaction. I decided to try to only answer direct questions and keep the reading as objective as possible.
We talked a little bit about my life – my wife, my daughter, my writing and filmmaking aspirations, my bartending job. She told me that I have a very empathetic aura and that that can sometimes cause me difficulty because I feel others' emotions too easily. She said I seem happy but a pain could be seen just behind my eyes, possibly something related to my family (this is actually not inaccurate – however, keeping a scientific mind, this kind of thing is a fairly safe bet). As for my goals as an amateur filmmaker, she informed me that I have a gift towards the darkly comic, and that heights should play a factor in my films. She told me I should watch for car trouble – something involving the alignment or the front wheels. On the subject of my wife, we discussed the dissatisfaction with her job and how the company she works for will probably soon go out of business. “But she doesn't actually want it to go out of business,” predicted Valerie, to which I replied, truthfully, “Oh, she very much does.” My wife is surrounded by fairy energy; also, I should be more romantic towards her. “But not with flowers; I don't think she is a flowers kind of woman.” Now, my wife actually loves flowers, but Valerie's next prediction was very interesting. Using the tarot deck, she unveiled The Hangman. Watch out, said Valerie, because one of your close friends doesn't have your best interests at heart. Maybe he is jealous of you, maybe he wishes you harm, or has romantic feelings towards your wife. The letter J came to mind, a short name starting with J (“Jay? Jake? Jeff”). I didn't tell her that one of my closest friends is named Jon.
The conversation continued for some time, much of it containing advice and predictions for myself and my family. I remain skeptical, but it was truthfully a lovely conversation which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Following my talk with Valerie, I headed back to the screening room to see Gut , a film whose trailer had so intrigued me that I had planned my evening around seeing it. It was a bit late getting started due to DVD troubles. The story follows Tom, an ordinary man who has become disconnected from his wife, his friends, and his work. His friend Dan shows him a DVD he ordered online: a snuff film where in which a woman is tied down and disemboweled. Tom can't get it out of his head and Dan becomes obsessed, ordering more DVDs, and they start to wonder if what they are seeing might actually be real.
While the idea presented is interesting – the snuff film is pretty clearly a metaphor for pornography – the film itself is devastatingly slow; not in a meditative and artistic way, but with shots that lingered way too long and scenes which didn't need to be included. It doesn't help that the dialogue is cliché and the acting unconvincing. I left disappointed.
I was unfortunately unable to attend the festival at all on Saturday (I was particularly sad to have missed the Buffy the Vampire Slayer panel with James Marsters and Nicholas Brendan), but I arrived bright and early Sunday morning for a recording session with the Movie Meltdown podcast. We met with Christine Elise McCarthy  (perhaps most famous for her roles as Kyle in Child's Play 2 and Emily Valentine in Beverly Hills, 90210) and her boyfriend Miles Miller to talk about her career and her new short film Bathing and the Single Girl, as well as an in-depth discussion of the excellent French film Man Bites Dog . (This episode of the podcast can be found through the Movie Meltdown website ; it will likely be posted this Friday, July 6.)
Following the discussion, I headed into the screening rooms to catch a couple of shorts: What They Say , a rather lackluster film in which a troubled young woman finds solace in cutting, but ultimately takes it too far; and the excellent Kaleidoscope , based on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, in which four astronauts hurtle through space in escape pods and must come to grips with their own mortality.
These shorts were followed by The Book of Zombie , a film I was quite eager to see, due to the fact that most of my family are Mormons, a religious which I find endless pleasure in seeing poked at for fun. The film is set in a town in Utah in which all the Mormons suddenly become zombies, while the non-Mormon population must find a way to survive. The best weapon against these monsters? Caffeinated soft drinks. The film is, naturally, quite silly, but it is held together by a pretty decent script and surprisingly good gore effects considering the presumably small budget.
Next on my list to see: Hacksaw: Documentary of a Psycho Killer . I had the opportunity beforehand to speak to the filmmaker, Toby Johansen (there was plenty of time, since this particular screening room was thirty minutes behind schedule). He created Hacksaw six years ago, when he was only sixteen, and recently decided it needed more blood and gore. He told me about how he knew there were a few existing films posing as documentaries about serial killers, but he wanted to try a different take. In the story of this film, the serial killer, Dillon Mason, is the filmmaker, recording his revenge against all those who treated him like crap because of his debilitating skin cancer. Johansen warned me that this film is extremely dark and potentially very disturbing.
I'm fairly jaded when it comes to horrific things on the screen, and so I didn't find the film particularly disturbing, but one not so used to such things may find it difficult to watch. The scenes in which the killer makes his kills and revels in the corpses' aftermath are often quite chilling. The film suffers, however, from Mason's over-long rants to his victims, much of which is nearly impossible to hear due to poor sound quality. Still, Johansen is onto something and has a definite burgeoning talent.
I stuck around to see the next two films – the “long shorts” (30 minutes) Still Meadows and A Chance in Hell – but no one came to change the DVD. Growing impatient, I left for a bit and came back a little later in time to catch A Chance in Hell; presumably Still Meadows was skipped (remember, the schedule had fallen quite behind).
In A Chance in Hell, Nazi experimentation unexpectedly creates a mutant – a zombie (think fast-moving, pissed off zombie, a la 28 Days Later) – and a squadron of American soldiers must try to escape the horde. The film is extremely well-made, but the lighting is so low that the viewer can hardly tell what's happening on-screen half the time. Add to that the fact that the audio on the projector was quite low – I was sitting in the second row and could barely hear it – and it was easy to just lose interest in the film. It's too bad – there was clearly some filmmaking talent here.
Thus ends my experience at this year's Fright Night Film & Fandom Fest. My concern is that the focus was more on fandom and less on film; as one who is much more interested in the film festival aspect, this was quite a disappointment. As I indicated, film was neglected, schedules became muddled, and not much was done to promote the films. In addition, more signage throughout the convention space would have been immensely helpful – the screening rooms took a bit of work to locate, and there is one that I never actually found, despite looking fairly thoroughly.
However, I imagine that anyone who came specifically for Fandom Fest – which seemed to be most people – came away quite satisfied. Along with the many large rooms filled with artwork, minor celebrities, and books and DVDs, huge lines snaked down the hallway awaiting a chance to meet with Sean Astin or Bruce Campbell or Luke Perry or the cast of The Walking Dead, among others. Everybody seemed satisfied and happy to be there, and thus I can only conclude that it was a very successful weekend for this year's Fright Night Film & Fandom Fest.
Illustration: Sara Lewis
Photos: Laura Wood