Panic Fest Marks 10th Anniversary and Return to Normalcy


As I sat in the main theater at Screenland Armour for the start of Panic Fest on Thursday, April 28, I couldn’t help but feel relief. That relief comes with the knowledge that since January 2020, I haven’t experienced anything like this in a little over two years. The pandemic extinguished the lights at repertoire cinemas across the country, but some managed to fight through the uncertainty to emerge victorious; shining brighter than ever. So Panic Fest 2022, the 10th iteration of the genre film festival, felt personal in the context that the pandemic is now over, we can begin congregating again to partake in films that make us peek at the screen between our eyes or laugh at absurd things with a large group of degenerates some of us refer to as friends or family.

The 10th annual Panic Fest kicked off with Joe Bob Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl presenting a 20th anniversary screening of “Bubba Ho-Tep.” The second day of Panic Fest kicked things into gear with films ranging from the comically bizarre, “CRABS!,” to the gory insane, “The Sadness,” which kept the hundreds who were in attendance happy and horrified. The directors came out to play Saturday as Joe Lynch introduced, what he called an undiscovered gem waiting to become a cult classic, 1984’s “Surf II.” don’t bother asking me about “Surf I.”

Director Mick Garris was in attendance as a nearly sold out theater laughed along and cheered to 1992’s, “Sleepwalkers,” which I can only describe to people as a horror film featuring indescribable super powered cat people who are not only deathly allergic to house cats, but also incestuously horny. Spider One, the lead singer of Powerman 5000 and brother of Rob Zombie, attended the global premiere of his first film, “Allegoria.” Spotted amongst attendees Saturday at several films, including “Sleepwalkers,” was Lloyd Kaufman. Yes, that Lloyd Kaufman. Kaufman would be introducing his latest Troma film, “Shakespeare’s Shitstorm,” a Troma adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” on Sunday.

While the celebrities and filmmakers are just one joyous part of Panic Fest, the other joys come in the form of independent films looking to break the mold. This year’s line-up films ranged from tense thrillers about neighbors next door, “Watcher,” to nightmare fuel bat shit insanity, “The Outwaters.” Just like in 2021, this year’s Panic Fest was a hybrid of in-theater selections and virtual selections. For fans who only attended in-person, you missed out on some great stuff that was only available digitally through Panic Fest like “The Chamber of Terror,” which feels like a midnight film waiting to burst onto the scene and “Masking Threshold,” a serious contender for one of my favorite films of 2022. While a few films, both virtually and in-person, weren’t really my thing, most of the films were diamonds in the rough while others showed great promise for the future creators behind it.

While it’s clear that not everyone was ready to be back in a theater, Screenland Armour was hopping with life during the four days I was in attendance. It was refreshing to be around like-minded people devouring high-brow and low-brow horror content. While the pandemic certainly had an effect on 2021’s and 2022’s Panic Fest, it’s safe to say the founders haven’t skipped a beat when putting together a well-crafted mix of genre films and events that most certainly put a smile on everyone who sat down to once again enjoy the magic of the movies.

 

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Watcher”

Starring: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman and Burn Gorman
Directed by: Chloe Okuno
Rated: R
Running Time: 91 minutes
Shudder

During “Watcher,” I was reminded of a scene from the first season of “Master of None.” It shows the carefree nature of a man walking home from a night of drinking, as he giggles and dances sloppily on his way home. The flipside, which we see, is a woman, walking home, after that same night of drinking with the man, petrified because she can hear footsteps behind her. Instead of a joyous walk home, she speed walks without revealing to her potential captor that she knows she’s being followed. “Watcher” doesn’t take place in one night nor is the fear immediate, it creeps in over an hour and a half as we watch Julia (Monroe) sense and fight back against someone who may or may not be watching her from afar.

Julia, an American, starts out of her element. She’s in Romania’s capital, supporting her boyfriend who’s so busy at work, he hardly has time to see her, much less show up for dinner on time. Julia spends her days walking about town, having trouble communicating since she doesn’t speak Romanian, and wondering what is happening across the street. At night, she stares out her window and sees the lives of others, whether they’re at the dinner table, in front of a TV, or staring right back at her. She knows he’s there, even when she can’t see him. Her boyfriend shrugs it off, becoming more concerned about her mental health and damn near everyone around her seems content on brushing things off even as a serial killer stalks the streets as evident by his murders being details on the news.

The “Watcher” is a slow-burn, as it lets Julia and the audience settle into Eastern Europe, without ever making us feel fully comfortable with some affective jump scares and lingering shots that have us holding our breath. The influences are clear for this film as director/writer Okuno utilizes elements from films, like “Rear Window,” but I’m a little disappointed she never twisted any of those elements in an attempt to modernize or fool the audience. While “Watcher” is a great thriller homage that taps deeply into paranoia, it never quite does anything unique that makes it stand out as an instant classic, even though it’s shot and feels like it should be one.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Chamber of Terror”

Starring: Timothy Paul McCarthy, Jessica Vano and Ry Barrett
Directed by: Michael Pereira
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes

In the opening moments of “The Chamber of Terror” we meet Nash Caruthers (McCarthy), a deep-voiced renegade. He’s sealing up a member of the Ackerman crime family alive in a coffin, making short grandiose statements about his personal revenge. The audience knows nothing about any of this and yet the movie continues to chug along. We flash forward a month later where Caruthers finds himself in the Ackerman family’s underground torture dungeon where revenge meets revenge, as well as the paranormal.

Any more info would ruin “The Chamber of Terror” even though I’ll admit the first 10 minutes of the film had me wondering if I had made a mistake hitting the play button, but thankfully this is all a part of writer/director Pereira’s plan. I would implore you not to turn it off even though that opening feels like a film school student who watched “Boondock Saints” way too much. Thank God I don’t rely on my gut instincts that much or else I would have missed out on the best low budget gorefest I’ve seen in years. And by low-budget, I mean that they probably spent the majority of their budget on every exploding head, blood geyser and chunky internal organs littered across this film.

As the movie progresses, the plot gets sillier and more intricate, with characters gradually breaking the fourth wall as if they realize they’re in some kind of film worthy of an 80s Saturday night on a UHF channel. Caruthers delivers most of the silliness, fighting back against his captors in bizarre ways and delivering phony lines that even Bruce Campbell would struggle saying with a straight face. It’s a difficult film to describe because its only inherent purpose is to introduce outlandish characters and watch them interact in a blood-soaked sandbox.

“WolfCop,” another Panic Fest film that has made the rounds for its comedic approach to insane ideas, is referenced early on in the film. If you’ve seen “WolfCop,” then you know what kind of film you’re in for and if not, don’t take your love of horror too seriously, or even “Chamber of Terror” for that matter. While “The Chamber of Terror” sounds like a bad haunted house attraction in a shopping mall, the film itself is a confidently directed horror comedy that gets more ridiculous and bloody as the film goes on. By the end, you hope that Caruthers winds up in another misadventure.

Panic Fest Film Review: “CRABS!”

Starring: Kurt Carley, Robert Craighead and Bryce Durfee
Directed by: Pierce Berolzheimer
Rated: NR
Running Time: 80 minutes

Sometimes it’s difficult to type or relay articulate thoughts with intentionally silly movies. CRABS! is the kind of film that I could easily just type, “Turn your brain off, pop an edible or get some beers, and enjoy the schlocky magic.” However, I can’t because you’re expecting an actual critique. All I can say in my opening paragraph is if my simplistic line above about the movie isn’t something that is in your own wheelhouse of pop-culture entertainment, just go-ahead and know you won’t like this movie.

For the rest of us though…CRABS! is a melting pot of Ed Wood and Japanese Kaiju monsters, with sprinklings of Gremlins, Tremors and CGI that might break Asylum films budget. CRABS! let’s you know immediately what kind of film you’re in for as the opening sequences are as follows: a crab makes cutesie noises as a nuclear power plant explodes, a young couple is having sex vigorously on the beach in broad daylight, a crab (potentially the one that got a front row seat to radioactivity) comes up to the couple only to kill the horny lovers. Once again, if your funny bone isn’t tickled before the title credits, then you won’t like the rest of the film.

CRABS! has an eclectic cast, featuring a boy in a wheelchair looking to create robotic legs, his girlfriend and her thirsty mom who teaches at the high school in town (she acts equally flirty and airheaded with the men and students in town), a foreign exchange student who is given the most ludicrous dialogue to say with his ridiculous accent, and a Sheriff’s Department that’s only made up of two men; both who really enjoy smoking pot. The plot, which there actually is one, is nonsense and almost unnecessary. Even a hint of scrutiny would make the plot crumble like a house of cards in a windstorm. Yet again, it’s definitely the kind of film that fits the phrase, “leave your brain at the door.”

However, even though the film wears its influences on its sleeve like a soldier being pinned with badges of honor, CRABS! really doesn’t offer anything new or different to a genre that’s ever changing and evolving. While it is an enjoyable trip, it’s not a film that’ll stick with you for years or even be begging for a rewatch; I’m not even sure if an unnecessary sequel is in the future for this film. “CRABS!” is intentionally terrible, and as long you understand that you might have a lot of fun with it.

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes”

Starring: Luisa Taraz, Frederick von Luttichau and Anna Platen
Directed by: Kevin Kopacka
Rated: R
Running Time: 73 minutes
Dark Sky Films

What happens when a couple inherits a big haunting castle? Margot (Taraz) and Deiter (Luttichau) have a lot of work to do, and while neither seen worried about the creaking and dark corners lurking around the castle, both are terrified by something in the cellar, so much so Deiter doesn’t even want to go down there again. Sounds like a great horror film set-up, right? “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” isn’t a horror movie though, and honestly, I’m not sure what genre it fits in other than made-up ones mouthed by people on an acid trip.

Talking anymore about the plot behind this film would give a lot away, even though it appears I said next to nothing about the script or motives of the characters. I don’t want to spoil a film, regardless of how niche it is. I will say the twists and turns the movie takes are surprisingly interesting and inventive for a film that appears to be a general homage to European horror films of the 70s. While the film isn’t a tribute, the aesthetic it’s going for allows for it to evolve and flow naturally throughout its peculiar tale. I would say I’ve seen films that have done what it does better while I’ve also seen films, like “mother!,” fail spectacularly at what “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes” is going for.

A little while ago I reviewed “Strawberry Manson,” a film that I would almost consider to be a cousin of “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes.” There is this indie vibe that radiates throughout the film, despite the fact some scenes are so impressive they could be in any modern-day blockbuster. The relation between the two films appears to be one of ambiguity. Both films have a distinct message, but it’s so layered under popping visuals and a thick atmosphere. Layering it on the original message allows the story to branch off into different notions and ideas. Both films are a head trip, providing some sustenance throughout their brief runtimes while ultimately leaving a curious viewer hungry for more. The only problem is, I’m not sure I could watch either movie ever again.

There’s plenty of fine or even great movies I’ve only watched once. I thought “Walk the Line” was an impressive biography about one of country music’s greatest acts, but I have no interest in rewatching it. So, while rewatchability isn’t a defining factor of whether something is good or not, it does beg the question why something so curious and unique doesn’t elicit an emotion that makes me yearn for a second or third helping. I equate this to the “Infomercials” that Adult Swim airs. The line between “surprisingly rewatchable” and “once is enough” is so thin in these surreal ideas, the scale could tip either way because of the slightest thing. For me, the movie is mystical, but also kind of straightforward in that you either get it or you don’t so you won’t have to worry about watching it again to see what you missed. In that regard, “Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes,” is worthy of a gander, especially since you’ll know right away if you’re in tune with it’s funky vibes or turned off by its puzzling madness.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Outwaters”

Starring: Robbie Banfitch, Angela Bosolis and Scott Shamell
Directed by: Robbie Banfitch
Rated: NR
Running Time: 100 minutes

According to the San Francisco Gate, 1-2 people die every year In the Mojave Desert, specifically because it’s home to Death Valley. The iconic national park is known for its unforgivable heat, a record of 134 degrees in 1913, and being the driest and having the lowest elevation on the North American continent. It seems like every fact involving Death Valley, or even the Mojave Desert, is dreadful in its own unique way. But a new reason to avoid these three million acres will be found on three video camera memory cards.

The first memory card in “The Outwaters” shows us four people who aren’t necessarily brave enough to venture into Death Valley for fun, but more or less, have a legitimate reason. Robbie (Banfitch) is directing a music video for musician Michelle (Michelle May). In tow are his brother and a make-up artist, with the men in one tent and the women in another. They aren’t ignoring any warning signs or ominous news reports before they head off into the hottest place in the world. In fact, nothing would lead them to believe they are in danger, until night falls on their first night in the desert.

In the dead of night, a booming, rattling noise is heard. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. It awakens everyone, but no one can see the cause. Is it a nearby vehicle? Is it the distant sound of thunder from a storm? Is it otherworldly? After some tense moments, they ease their nerves by settling on the idea that it’s distant thunder, but the idea seems false. We see it on their faces as they go back into their tents. Soon though, that’s not the only disturbing thing to happen and when the proverbial shit hits the fan, it’s sudden and frightening.

“The Outwaters” spends a decent amount of time setting everything up like pieces on a chess board. While I assume most people will be checking their phones during this, the set-up is crafty in that it feels realistic, natural and ultimately foreboding. It’s like a warm sip of cocoa before being shoved into an ice-cold lake. The second half of the film can only be described as bloody, trippy and ultimately nightmarish.

What made “The Blair Witch Project” a jumping off point for those in horror in 1999, is seen once again in “The Outwaters.” Banfitch (who writes, directs, stars, edits and probably did damn near everything else) pulls out all the stops to lull us into safety before throwing us in the hellish fires of his final act, which are equally unexplainable and hard to watch. The simplicity of the shots is never grotesque, but the ideas they convey take our minds to some morbid places about what is potentially happening to Robbie and the others.

As I’ve noted before and very recently, the found footage genre is a difficult one, with very few finding a unique and different way to tell the story, but “The Outwaters” almost feels like a rebirth, making you forget about the clichés of the genre as well as some other nagging questions that arise when you watch a found footage film. For instance, why does Robbie keep filming? In the darkness of the desert, it’s the only light he has to see with and if he turns it off, what demons/monsters/aliens are waiting to pounce? We feel for him as he cries and moans with every new moment he captures on his digital handheld. Eventually it feels like “The Outwaters” transcends the found-footage genre as it becomes viler and more repulsive. This is definitely the closest we’ll ever get to someone’s nightmare coming to life on-screen.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Masking Threshold”

Starring: Ethan Haslam, Johannes Grenzfurthner and Jason Scott Sadofsky
Directed by: Johannes Grenzfurthner
Rated: NR
Running Time: 90 minutes

What would be a good horror for Zoomers, the generation born in the very late 90s and early 2000s? Certain movies are able to tap into something in each generation, whether it be nuclear fears from generations who lived basically from the 50s to 80s or utilizing the internet to drum up interest like the “Blair Witch Project” did for my generation. I think “Masking Threshold” may be the kind of film that Zoomers will take notice of because it’s not your typical spook house genre film, instead focusing on the inherent narcissism that social media and self-filming can create.

The nameless protagonist, physically played by writer and director Grenzfurthner and voiced by Haslam, tells viewers that he’s an IT engineer who is going to buckle down at home and begin experimenting with sounds because he has suffered from severe tinnitus for three years. His tinnitus comes in waves, sometimes with the sounds boring into his skull like a jackhammer. He’s done his research, citing different studies and sources that have investigated the reasons behind tinnitus. Unfortunately for him, all those studies and sources have no answer and that’s why he’s looking to find his own answers.

He creates a makeshift lab in his basement, where he runs simple experiments, making notes, logging information and testing if the tinnitus is affected by any specific things. The tests, at the beginning, are ultimately harmless, but this is a film playing at a horror movie festival and you know something is going to go wrong. Is his tinnitus mad science? Is he simply being haunted? UFOs? What is it? Our lead, who explains a lot of his life in the first half of the film, is a geeky gay man whose narcissistic viewpoints have actually protected him from the torment he’s endured in life. So not only is he a minority, but is probably a minority within his own group of friends because of his perception that he’s smarter than everyone else in the room. To be fair though, he is smart. A lot of this background information and inward look at his self-obsessed nature comes in the form of video diaries that he’s uploading to Youtube, as well as his reactions to comments on social media about his experiments.

“Masking Threshold” is a first-person journey into madness. Grenzfurthner’s direction has this macabre confidence as it leads you to a paranoid isolation in hell. The film casually prepares you for the horrors that will unfold with close-ups of our protagonist doing mundane, yet kind of gross things like cleaning his ear wax, chewing loudly or other things. Maybe that’s not gross for everyone, but I find those things to be visually and audibly like nails on a chalkboard. It’s just the first of many crazy things our protagonist will subject us to in his quest for audible sanity, ironically enough.

It’s hard not to think about the pandemic during a film like this because of the isolation and depression that is accompanied with the film’s lead. In a lot of ways, we’re shown the causes of what finally happens in the finale of the film, but we’re never really given a direct link to which cause. If anything, it’s like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gradually getting bigger and picking up steam. Our protagonist’s psyche is fragile from years of crippling tinnitus and viewers are taken down a path to reveal the final nails in his mind’s coffin.

“Masking Threshold” is clever in that we’re sympathetic towards the plight of our protagonist. We understand that he’s a part of marginalized communities and is dealing with a paralyzing condition. Those moves are intentional because that sympathy will be tested and eventually spit on. If there were ever a film warning people about the perils of bathing in their own conceited echo chambers, “Masking Threshold” hits the nail on the head with a worst-case scenario that can only be created when one travels down a demented wormhole that continually feeds a broken and obsessed mind. I guarantee you’ve never seen a film quite like this before.

 

 

 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Malibu Horror Story”

Starring: Dylan Sprayberry, Robert Bailey Jr. and Valentia de Angelis
Directed by: Scott Slone
Rated: NR
Running Time: 93 minutes

If I had to pick a genre that’s hard to create something new in, it would definitely be the found footage genre. From “Cannibal Holocaust” to “Paranormal Activity,” there’s a lot of genre busting films that manage to take the basics of the genre and elevate them to a new brand or style of horror. But this seems to be a genre that’s more miss than hit in my opinion. For every “V/H/S,” there’s at least a dozen bad ones like “The Amityville Haunting” or every “Paranormal Activity” film with a number after it. So that brings us to 2022. I’m not gonna lie, “Malibu Horror Story” isn’t necessarily a good title for a found footage horror film, but never judge a film by its title or genre.

We open with four paranormal investigators in a reclusive cave amongst the mountains north of Malibu, California. They’re in this desolate location to film their latest episode and investigate what happened to four teenagers back in 2012. For more backstory on the teens, the film shows the investigators showing off what work on the episode has already been completed. From that point, we dive from found footage of the investigators into their show which features newspaper clippings, interviews with law enforcement and of course the found footage left behind by the teenagers. To the general public, the found footage only revealed that the teenagers were dirtbags. The search for the teens pretty much ended when the found footage showed the teens doing drugs and partying more than it actually show what happened to them. So, you could say it’s technically a found footage film within a found footage film or within a fake paranormal investigator show all wrapped around a conventional claustrophobic film. Either way, without getting too deep in the thick of it or confusing you, “Malibu Horror Story” structures the story like a puzzle so that we can comfortably sit back and let the mayhem and story unfold as the pieces fall into place.

The set-up and premise are actually quite clever in that it never becomes too confusing and it manages to give us enough exposition to explain things while making us thirsty for more of the mythos behind the cave and the potential Native American curse that is about to show our paranormal investigators what happens when they meddle in something they shouldn’t, much like those dirtbag teenagers. The film has some effective scares once the monster/entity/ghost/thing makes its appearance. Of course, you have to wonder why the teens continued forth once things were clearly going awry, much in the same way the paranormal investigators find out they’re someplace they shouldn’t be.

When characters keep filming, I always wonder if that’s the urge filmmakers or voyeurs get in that situation because if I was in their shoes, I’d be using the camera as a blunt weapon to escape instead of making sure I frame the monster right. I’m not the first to make an observation like that, nor will I certainly be the last. While “Malibu Horror Story” breaks the mold of found footage storytelling, it can’t help but rely on tropes to get us from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’. “Malibu Horror Story” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it manages to add a few neat spokes to it.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Sadness”

Starring: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei and Ying-Ru Chen
Directed by: Rob Jabbaz
Rated: NR
Running Time: 100 minutes

This wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last time, that I say that I ultimately enjoyed a movie I can’t really recommend. For perspective, I’ve said that about films like “Swiss Army Man,” “Vortex” and damn near anything with Troma’s name on it. Even then, I still talk about those movies as interesting films to watch in the hopes that someone amongst my group of friends who don’t watch the insane amount of films that I and other critics watch will give it a peruse and see what I see. I don’t think that will happen with “The Sadness.”

As if the zombie genre wasn’t already slightly depressing enough with its themes of the world ending and the trashiness of society, a film like “The Sadness” comes along and spits on all of them before flipping the bird. “The Sadness” begins with a couple, Kat (Lei) and Jim (Zhu) talking before their individual days at work. It’s through this early morning, post cuddling conversation that we learn about the Alvin virus, a virus that’s clearly an allegory for COVID-19. But unlike COVID-19, the Alvin virus has an alarming chance to mutate into rabies on crack. Which it does. Once it does, the couple is already split up heading off to work and now with everything descending into chaos, they have to work their way across Taiwan’s capital to reunite, but nothing is ever that simple.

The zombie virus in “the Sadness” turns everything up to 11, as the people who become zombified don’t simply walk around slowly and munch on brains. This virus makes people act upon their most primal urges, whether it be sadistic violence or even more sadistic sex. So, if you get squeamish over sexual violence, appendages being torn off, knives entering orifices’ or a blood orgy of severed limbs and viscera, this movie is probably one huge trigger warning that will have you running to the nearest exit and trash can to throw up in. But at my screening, every person sat in their seat horrified and mesmerized with the occasional “oh my god” and “what the fuck” splattered amongst us.

While the brutality clocks in at over an hour and a half, the film manages to squeeze in every bit of plot and mayhem without sacrificing the other or making the audience members, who have the stomach for it, check their phone for a time. The actors, who deliver some of the vilest lines seen outside of a snuff film, gnaw on the scenery with such ferocity I wouldn’t be surprised if people began having nightmares about their black, red tinted haunting eyes and blood-soaked grins. It’s very clear from the get-go that director/writer Jabbaz isn’t concerned about whether or not he’ll work again.

Like any good zombie film, “The Sadness” does have a message, albeit one deep in bitter nihilism. Having just exited a pandemic, “The Sadness” does reflect on humanity’s collective response to a virus as well as some jabs at the rising autocracies around the world that took advantage of the unthinkable. That being said, “The Sadness” seems to have its eye on future pandemics and how well humanity can come together to overcome the next mutated strain of a disease we have yet to encounter. If “The Sadness” is a representation of our past, present and future, I think it’s clear we are all fucked.

Film Review: “Those Who Walk Away”

Starring: Booboo Stewart, Nils Allen Steweart and Scarlett Sperduto
Directed by: Robert Rippberger
Rated: NR
Running Time: 94 minutes
VMI Releasing

Every year I try to make it to the annual horror movie festival in my neck of the woods (Kansas City, Mo.) called Panic Fest. Over the years I’ve talked with people about this event and a lot of times I get asked the same thing, “How can you enjoy low budget horror? It’s bad.” Well, here’s the thing. I don’t need a horror film to be from Blumhouse to appreciate low budget craft and I can ignore average acting if other elements are above par. Everyone’s gotta get their start somewhere. I’ve always been more likely to judge a big budget film more critically than I am a film put together with a shoestring budget and first time director. So when I say “Those Who Walk Away” is decent, I’m potentially only telling that to people who feel the same way about low budget horrors. Everyone else will watch it and go, “How can you enjoy low budget horror? It’s bad.”

Max (Stewart) is on a tinder date with Avery (Sperduto) and the nerves are palpable as they meet in-person for the first time in a park. Avery, a theater manager who’s also in school for literature, isn’t upfront with every little detail, apologizing profusely while also cushioning the blow of lying by saying that she’s genuinely interested in Max, and that’s why she’s being honest. This is one of many red flags as the two stroll through their town making idle chit chat and revealing their own personal demons. Avery’s personal demon is clearly lying, while Max’s personal demon is his emotional inability to take care of his ailing mother. This elongated conversation and revelations are setting up the film’s monster, which doesn’t arrive until the date begins taking bizarre turns.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about “Those Who Walk Away” because my attempt at the synopsis above does more than cover basic exposition, it covers the first half of the film. That’s right, the first 40ish minutes of the film (I didn’t pause to check) is a conversation/date between Max and Avery. While this kind of set-up helps establish our characters for the second half of the film, it also prevents this movie from ever developing its aesthetic. I say that because the second half of the film is like a found footage nightmare in a still livable home that more closely resembles a condemned shack. Max finds himself in a maze of horror, even though the audience feels no fear moving forward because we’ve already spent a good chunk of time watching a bad first date.

“Those Who Walk Away” employs a lot of single takes, attempting to pull a “Birdman” by tricking the audience into believing it’s all one single take even though the director and cinematographer aren’t as adept as Inarritu at fooling people. Even though they aren’t very good at tricking us, or much less scaring us, the visuals that are created are sometimes fascinating to pick apart and sometimes do offer a mirror to Max’s psyche. Actor Booboo Stewart really gets to shine through in the latter half of the film whereas I wasn’t sure in the first half if he was still stretching his acting legs or simply channeling an introverted man on a first date.

I had to think for a bit after watching “Those Who Walk Away” because I felt that there was an important message being delivered. However, I couldn’t quite pick through the noise to see the message as the credits began to roll. It’s a good ending, but it feels like such a misfire in terms of conveying what it wants to say. “Those Who Walk Away” offers up plenty of peculiar, surreal horror moments in it’s finale, but without a cohesive message the overall look and idea feels lost. It’s difficult for me to recommend “Those Who Walk Away” because the film’s title feels like such a self-fulfilling prophecy about the audience members who will get tired of waiting for the haunted house spooks to begin, and even those who do tough it out, will most likely find themselves walking away empty-handed.

 

Panic Film Fest Announces Lineup for Hybrid In-Person and Virtual Online Programming

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Panic Fest kicks off two weeks of genre packed programming as the ninth annual festival begins April 8, 2021, virtually and in person at Screenland Armour in Kansas City, MO. 

“We are absolutely thrilled to be able to offer Panic Fest as both in-person and virtual experiences. It’s important that we allow for all comfort levels and situations. The prospect of bringing Panic Fest to the entire country is unbelievably exciting for us,” says Panic Fest Co-Founder Adam Roberts. 

This year’s lineup includes over 25 feature films and 40+ short films from around the world in addition to signature podcasts, special events, and virtual meet-ups via the Gather platform. 

Panic Fest Co-Founder Tim KC Canton says, “We know that our festival is built upon networking and a sense of community. We wanted to ensure that when people attend virtually that it feels like our festival. That they walk away with new relationships as well as discovering new, emerging voices through our unparalleled programming.”

For the first time in fest history, all films will be in contention for awards picked by audience members. “Each year we assemble a panel of judges to decipher the awards. This year we’re putting that in the hands of our attendees,” says Canton.

Panic Fest continues their partnerships with IFC Films, Shudder, Dark Sky Films, Epic Pictures, Dark Star Pictures, and Fangoria. New this year as presenting sponsors are 4 Hands Brewing Company and Logboat Brewing Company. 

“Horror movies and great beer. It’s one of the all-time great matches and we couldn’t be happier with our new partners,” says Roberts.

The festival will utilize the latest in networking applications to bring the fest experience into your home with meet-ups, happy hours, and more over the Gather platform and special events via Clubhouse. 

Panic Fest kicks off April 8, 2021, as one of the leading genre festivals in the world. Don’t miss what MovieMaker Magazine and Dread Central have named one of the best genre festivals in the world for three years running.

Get your tickets here.

Feature Film Programming

An Ideal Host
D: Robert Woods
Regional Premiere, 1h 25minLiz just wants to host the perfect dinner party but an unexpected guest sends the evening into chaos, with potentially apocalyptic consequences.

An Unquiet Grave
D: Terence Kray
Regional Premiere, 1h 12min
A year after the death of his wife, a man enlists her sister to help him bring her back.

Below the Fold
D: Clayton Scott
World Premiere, 1h 32min
Without a trace, Susie Potter vanished from her home in the quiet town of Skidmore, Missouri. Ten years later, two reporters uncover a harrowing new detail, which leads them on an obsessive hunt for the truth through the dark labyrinth of rural northwest Missouri.

Benny Loves You
D: Karl Holt
Regional Premiere, 1h 34min
Jack is desperately trying for a new start in life, but when he throws away his childhood bear Benny, it’s a move that can only end in death.

The Blazing World
D: Carlson Young
Regional Premiere, 1h 41min
Decades after the accidental drowning of her twin sister, a self-destructive young woman returns to her family home, finding herself drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive.

Blood Conscious
D: Timothy Covell
North American Premiere, 1h 46min
A vacationing family turns the tables on a mass shooter who claims to be fighting demonic forces.

Caveat
D: Damian Mc Carthy
Regional Premiere, 1h 28min
A lone drifter suffering from partial memory loss accepts a job to look after a psychologically troubled woman in an abandoned house on an isolated island.

Censor
D: Prano Bailey-Bond
Regional Premiere, 1h 24min
After viewing a strangely familiar video nasty, Enid, a film censor, sets out to solve the past mystery of her sister’s disappearance, embarking on a quest that dissolves the line between fiction and reality.

The Carnivores
D: Caleb Michael Johnson
Regional Premiere, 1h 17min
Alice and Bret’s dog Harvey is dying, and he’s ruining everything. What had been a bright little family is quickly getting consumed by clouds of self-doubt, suspicion, and a disturbing amount of ground beef.

The Djinn
D: David Charbonier, Justin Powell, Clayton Scott
North American Premiere, 1h 22min
A mute boy is trapped in his apartment with a sinister monster when he makes a wish to fulfill his heart’s greatest desire.

Duncan
D: John Valley
Regional Premiere, 1h 31min
A dark social satire inspired by the real-life conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. An amateur journalist and a far-right militiaman team up to expose the ugly truth behind rumors involving sex cults, a pizza place, and the lizard people.

Honeydew
D: Devereux Milburn
1h 46min
Strange cravings and hallucinations befall a young couple after seeking shelter in the home of an aging farmer and her peculiar son.

Jakob’s Wife
D: Travis Stevens
Regional Premiere, 1h 38min
Anne, married to a small-town minister, feels her life has been shrinking over the past 30 years. Encountering “The Master” brings her a new sense of power and an appetite to live bolder. However, the change comes with a heavy body count.

Katherine’s Lullaby
D: Savvas Christou
Regional Premiere, 1h 29min
A teenage runaway who’s trapped by a delusional man, pretends to be his daughter in order to escape.

Keeping Company
D: Josh Wallace
Regional Premiere, 1h 22min
A fateful chain of events begin to unravel after two brash insurance salesmen go knocking on the wrong door and find themselves trapped in a stranger’s basement.

The Last Matinee
D: Maximiliano Contenti
U.S. Premiere, 1h 28min
It’s a soaking wet day with rain pouring down and one of the best things to do is to go seek refuge in a great old cinema. There’s only one problem: A scary murderer is on the loose and he also has taken refuge there.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It Too
D: Jonathan Cuartas
Regional Premiere, 1h 30min
Two mysterious siblings find themselves at odds over care for their frail and sickly younger brother.

Night Drive
D: Brad Baruh, Meghan Leon
Regional Premiere, 1h 22min
A rideshare driver’s life is turned upside down after an unexpected series of misfortunes.

The Old Ways
D: Christopher Alender
Regional Premiere, 1h 30min
Cristina, a journalist of Mexican origin, travels to her ancestral home in Veracruz to investigate a story of sorcery and healing. There, she is kidnapped by a group of locals who claim she’s the devil incarnate.

Parallel Minds
D: Benjamin Ross Hayden
Regional Premiere, 1h 26min
In the near future, an A.I. called URM is investigated by a detective and researcher for a lab about to release a contact lens with the power to record what the eye can see to re-create memories.

Prisoners of Ghostland
D: Sion Sono
Regional Premiere, 1h 40min
A notorious criminal must break an evil curse in order to rescue an abducted girl who has mysteriously disappeared.

Red Snow
D: Sean Nichols Lynch
World Premiere, 1h 20min
A struggling vampire romance novelist must defend herself against real-life vampires during Christmas in Lake Tahoe.

She Watches From the Woods
D: Beau Ballinger
World Premiere, 1h 19min
A troubled artist with a dark past attempts to make peace with her dying mother while investigating the mysterious death of her teenage sister.

The Stylist
D: Jill Gevargizian
1h 45min
A lonely hair stylist becomes obsessed with the lives of her clients and descends into murderous madness.

Threshold
D: Powell Robinson, Patrick Robert Young
Regional Premiere, 1h 30min
A sister claims to be cursed and persuades her brother to embark on a cross-country road trip to break her spell.

Vicious Fun
D: Cody Calahan
U.S. Premiere, 1h 36min
Joel, a caustic 1980s film critic for a national horror magazine, finds himself unwittingly trapped in a self-help group for serial killers. With no other choice, Joel attempts to blend in or risk becoming the next victim.

The Whooper Returns
D: Samuel Krebs
U.S. Premiere, 1h 24min
Following the death of their mother, four estranged siblings find themselves fighting for their inheritance and their lives when an eccentric stranger arrives, claiming their famous haunted childhood home was left to her.

Short Film Programming

“Aftertaste” D: Chloe Wicks
“Bloodshed” D: Paolo Mancini, Daniel Watchorn
“Body of Mined” D: Eric Jungmann
“Coil” D: Spencer Ryerson
“Crock Pot” D: Ty Jones
“Death Scene” D: Mando Franco
“Deep Learning” D: Andrew Laudone
“Diabla” D: Maya Korn
“Diving Bell” D: Kyle Brewis, Josh Klaassen
“Dystopia” D: Laura Ugolini
“Gastral Projection” D: Zachary Eglinton
“Green Cobra” D: Sigurd Culhane
“Hare Hunt” D: Ken van Mierlo
“Hey, It’s Me.” D: Courtney Sposato, Mark Sposato
“Koreatown Ghost Story” D: Minsun Park, Teddy Tenenbaum
“Lake Forest Road” D: Ashton Avila
“Late Night” D: JJ Pollack
“Love Bite” D: Charles de Lauzirika
“Make A Wish” D: Dinh Thai
“Mourn” D: Joanna Tsanis

“New Not Normal Trilogy Supercut” D: Ryan Oksenberg
“No One is Coming” D: Matthew Barber, Nathaniel Barber
“Occurrance” D: Deb 
“Pare” D: Lauren Sick
“Pirouette” D: Peter Howard, Glenn Delaney
“Strayed” D: Sarah Bonrepaux
“Stuck” D: David Mikalson
“Suspense” D: Jacob Burghart, Ben Burghart
“Sweet Nothings” D: Christian Klein
“The Good Samaritan” D: Jonathan Norberg, Maria Forslin
“The Occult Son” D: Patrick Murphy
“The Rage” D: Steven DeRock
“The Relic” D: J.M. Logan
“The Rule of Three” D: Elwood Quincy Walker
“The Snoop” D: Tom Hipp, Scott Hipp
“There’s Someone in the Garden” D: Nicholas Cole
“Watcher” D: Meg Swertlow
“Who Wants Dessert?” D: Venita Ozols-Graham
“Witches Midnight” D: Lisa Ovies

Event Programming

A Puff of Smoke Short Film Special Presentation Presented by Yellow Veil Pictures
Clubhouse Weekend Hangouts
Colors of the Dark Podcast
Final Exam (Horror Trivia) FREE hosted by Ted Geoghegan
Frightday Podcast
Gather Fandom Weekend Happy Hours
Gather Weekend Filmmaker Networking Happy Hour
Knight Light Podcast
Nightmare on Film Street Podcast
Nightmare Junkhead Podcast
Screen Drafts Podcast with Rebekah Mckendry & Graham Skipper



Film Review: “The Swerve”

Starring: Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham and Ashley Bell
Directed by: Dean Kapsalis
Rated: NR
Running Time: 95 minutes

What’s it look like to have it all? For some people, its financial stability; while for others, it’s about having a white picket fence, two-story home and kids. But ultimately it’s what makes you happy. That seems like a very obvious notion, but it isn’t. Millions of couples every year still get divorced. Millions more go to see a psychologist every year to discuss emotional and mental stress. So what makes us happy is very nuanced and different and it’s not a one shoe size fits all. That doesn’t stop the gears of society from forcing us to make decisions that we may not want to make.

Holly (Skye) is a victim of those gears. She’s trapped with a dreary husband that turns every argument onto Holly. He knows he wears the pants in the households and sometimes lords it over her. She’s also the mother of two sons that don’t view her as a mother, but more like f a personal chef and maid. She goes to a job that she’s lost all passion for, teaching. She attempts to teach classic literature, but her classroom is full of students who are mindlessly on her phone. So it isn’t surprising that during this rinse-repeat mundane life, the smallest thing, a mouse, upends everything.

As “The Swerve” goes along, several layers are peeled back, revealing that Holly is dealing with more than just a rut in her life or a hiccup along the trail. She’s stuck, doesn’t know how to escape, and everything is slowly picking away at her on the inside, and that feeling of emptiness is slowly eroding everything that made her whole and happy. “The Swerve” isn’t the kind of movie that will lay out everything and then spoon feed it to you. You have to pay attention to every little detail, every little character, and every little bit of information that dribbles out of someone’s mouth. It all builds towards a shocking, yet understandable finale.

Skye guides Holly’s character on this somber journey. Skye, whose IMDB is less than impressive, gives one of the best performances of the year. She starts out with a haggard look and approach to her acting method, before flipping the script and giving us a performance that’s equally riveting and heart breaking. Skye breathes a world of life into a character that has become lost and empty in her own life. It actually overshadows every other performance in this movie, including Claudia (Bell), Ashley’s sister. Claudia has a very integral role, but Bell is outmatched in every scene she has with Skye.

I have several nitpicky things about this film, but I feel they’re not warranted because this is Dean Kapsalis’ feature film debut. As writer and director, he shows an impressive cinematic pedigree, crafting a gripping atmosphere around an engaging narrative that refuses to let go of your psyche, even as the credits roll. When it comes to directorial debuts, this is one of the most incredible and is certainly a sign of things to come. “The Swerve” is a nearly flawless outing with palpable tension and a script that’s equally shocking and sensitive to the ground it covers.

Panic Fest Presents Tricks & Treats – A Halloween Celebration

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Trick or Treaters. Candy bingeing. Horror marathons. Pumpkin carving. Costume contests. Even though this Halloween turned out to be more gnarly than Regan projectile vomiting green pea soup – that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the best time of the year together! Panic Fest won’t let Halloween die! Panic Fest Presents: TRICKS AND TREATS, a special virtual Halloween celebration that runs Oct. 30 through Nov. 1. 

Every year we look forward to these traditions but with the pandemic they are in real jeopardy of not existing this year. Fear not, Panic Fest is here to satisfy your horror appetite.The three day event features new and classic films, shorts, live events including horror themed trivia, live podcasts, special guests and more. Best of all, you, the horror community get to participate with each other throughout the weekend. Hell, we even have a ‘Best in Show’ style pumpkin carving contest. So, grab your costume and bowl of candy and join us for a jam packed weekend celebrating our favorite time of year. Tickets are now on sale with full programming coming in October. 

Have a feature or short? Submissions are open: https://filmfreeway.com/TricksTreats

Tickets on sale now: https://panicfilmfest.com/tricks

Panic Fest enters it’s 9th year and has been recognized for three years running as one of the top 25 best genre festivals in the world by MovieMaker Magazine. Panic Fest is scheduled to take place Jan. 29th – Feb. 4 2021.

Film Review: “Uncle Peckerhead”

Starring: Chet Siegel, Ruby McCollister and Jeff Riddle
Directed by: Matthew John Lawrence
Rated: Not Yet Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes
Epic Pictures

Punk rock and horror just work. Both are angry, fast, short, simple and to the point. From “Surf Nazis Must Die” to “Return of the Living Dead,” there’s a lot of great elements at play anytime you get punk rockers and horror tropes mixed up. Contemporarily speaking, there isn’t much left in the proverbial tank, outside of “Green Room,” a film that I was in the minority on. But “Uncle Peckerhead” could serve as a potential rejuvenation for blast beat punk rock soundtracks laid over a gory mess.

When we meet the band Duh, made up of Judy (Siegel), Mel (McCollister) and Max (Riddle), they’re down on their luck. The trio’s touring van is repossessed, coming immediately after Judy secures several shows on a statewide tour. In a desperation move, the band begins plastering signs everywhere, hoping someone will let them rent a van for their tour. That’s when they meet Peck (David H. Littleton). Peck agrees to the van deal, but he has some stipulations. He gets to drive and be the band’s roadie. Out of options, the band agrees, even though something isn’t quite right with Peck. It’s only after their first gig on tour that they learn Peck is a flesh eating monster, with pale skin and yellow teeth, for about a dozen minutes when the clock strikes midnight.

The monster that Peck becomes isn’t scary, nor is it supposed to be. If the opening moments aren’t a clue, “Uncle Peckerhead” is a comedy-horror. My favorite kind of genre because it’s an excuse for gore and sometimes childish comedy. I mentioned “Surf Nazis Must Die” earlier because the film has a quaint Troma charm to it. If you had told me “Uncle Peckerhead” was a Troma film, I wouldn’t be surprised because it’s in the film’s DNA. Everything is cheap, but the cast dives so far into that content, that their line delivery is admirable, no matter how bad the dialogue is. The comedic timing is hit and miss, but when it hits, it’s nearly pitch perfect. So if uncomfortable situational humor and gore don’t tickle your funny bone, you should probably just avoid horror, and Troma films, altogether.

The main conflict that develops throughout this off-the-beaten path road trip film is between Judy and Peck. While Judy has her eyes set on becoming successful (which in the punk world, isn’t that successful), she has one eye on Peck. While her bandmates seem content with Peck’s blood lust, especially after he devours some metalhead bullies, Judy is understandably concerned that a trashy older man devours human flesh at night. Over time though, she begins to admire Peck because of the way he supports the band and its members. You could call him a hillbilly with a heart of gold.

I probably enjoyed “Uncle Peckerhead” more than most low-budget horror because it recognizes what it is, and doesn’t try to be different. Surprisingly by the film’s end, “Uncle Peckerhead” made me feel nostalgic. Watching a bad punk band play to a couple dozen fans looking to mosh made me miss concerts in new COVID-19 world. Campy films like “Uncle Peckerhead” are best viewed with a crowd. Unfortunately I missed this film at Panic Fest, where it premiered, so it also made me miss the cinematic experience that films offer in a crowded, dark room with strangers. I especially admire these kinds of low-budget horror gore films because the passion at work on screen spills over into the crowd, and suddenly the screening becomes a party. “Uncle Peckerhead” should satisfy the sweet tooth of passionate horror fans and give them something to bob their head to.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot”

Starring: Brian Emond, Zach Lamplugh and Jeffrey Stephenson
Directed by: Zach Lamplugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes

I used to work as a morning news producer in the Kansas City metropolitan area. One of the strangest things I ever came across during my time was during the closure of the Wentworth Military College in Lexington, Missouri. Cpt. Scott Nelson, an instructor at the former private university, believes to have tapped into the language of Bigfoot (or is it Bigfeet?). He believed in it so thoroughly, he served as a keynote speaker at several Sasquatch conventions. I guess what I’m trying to say is, not every Bigfoot believer is some backwoods simpleton. That’s one of the few charming takeaways you’ll get as well if you happen to catch “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot.”

Vice reporter Brian (Emond) loathes his job. He entered journalism in hopes of tracking down a juicy story or saving the world. Instead he’s chasing after clickbait stories and highlighting war torn Crimea’s craft beer scene. Brian’s constant in life, other than the terrible stories he reports on, are his cameraman and producer, Zach (Lamplugh). Brian reaches his breaking point when the two are tasked with going on a hunt for the infamous, Bigfoot, along with Youtube Sasquatch hunter Jeff (Stephenson).

“The Vice Guide to Bigfoot” is almost a mockumentary in the same vein of “What We Do in the Shadows,” but it’s more focused on mocking other things, like the current state of journalism and Vice’s attempts at it. It also has a lot of humor at the sake of online cryptozoologists, hillbillies and social media. While there is a lot of comedy, at a character’s expense, the film is never cruel. Everyone is given their own backstory that’s sympathetic, so that they can have their own form of redemption by the film’s end.

In a lot of ways, the movie is far from being about Bigfoot which works to its benefit. Especially since some found footage or mockumentaries prior, like “Willow Creek,” more or less tread familiar tropes despite a change of scenery. While it’s a pretty damn funny movie, it’s hard to see myself watching this again by myself. I may watch it again if I want someone else I know to watch it, since some jokes work better with a group. In some ways that’s a knock at the movie, but I feel that it’s sufficiently funny and entertaining enough, that it’s worth a watch.