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The First Annual Overlook Film Festival Combined Horror’s Past And Future In A Historic Location

Overlook Film Festival

The Timberline Lodge shouldn’t be scary. Constructed during the Great Depression as a WPA project, it’s a lovely ski lodge on the south slope of Oregon’s Mt. Hood whose darkest chapter — at least on public record — came in 1955 when it fell into disrepair and became a hangout for bad characters. It recovered pretty quickly under new ownership, however, and apart from the occasional bizarre accident and the usual ghost stories attached every old hotel , there’s nothing all that spooky about it.

Or at least there wouldn’t be if it weren’t for Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, which immortalized the Timberline by using its exteriors to stand-in for that film’s Overlook Hotel, where Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance loses his mind and turns murderous over the course of one snowy winter. Kubrick never set foot on the grounds of the Timberline, choosing to shoot as much as possible on elaborate sets constructed in Elstree Studios in England. But he needed a model for the Overlook and a few shots impossible to create on a set. Enter the Timberline. And though the hotel itself is onscreen only briefly in the film, it’s long enough to make a lasting impression.

So what better place to hold a Horror movie festival? That’s the thinking behind the first annual Overlook Film Festival, organized by co-directors Landon Zakheim and Michael Lerman. This isn’t their first time attempting a similar project. Between 2013 and 2015, the pair programmed the Stanley Film Festival in Estes Park, Colorado. It’s spending time at the Stanley Hotel that first inspired Kubrick but it’s hard to imagine that festival having quite the same atmosphere as one shot on such famous ground. Walking up to the front door of the Timberline, I kept expecting Wendy Carlos’ score to start thrumming on the soundtrack. There may not be any ghosts at the Timberline apart from those visitors bring with them, but thanks to Kubrick, it’s hard not to arrive with a lot of ghosts.

“The whole idea,” Zakheim told The Portland Mercury “is to create a genre summer camp.” Factoring out the not always pleasant relationship between horror films and summer camps, that’s the pervasive atmosphere of the fest, which is filled with genre fans and filmmakers here to check out what’s happening in horror filmmaking, but also an ongoing immersive game, a variety of live performances, panels, a virtual reality piece, and some innovative pieces of interactive theater, some of which involve one-on-one performances and involve signing waivers. I’ve heard the lattermost are especially amazing but, as a committed wuss, I opted out of them. And for all the other goings on, film remains very much the focus, with audiences packing into a pair of makeshift theaters where enthusiasm and the thrill of discovery more than makes up for some uncomfortable chairs and the occasionally iffy sightlines.


The Past And The Present

Much of the program is made up of up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world, but there are some veterans on hand, too. The opening night belongs to Stephanie, a forthcoming release from Blumhouse Productions and producer Jason Blum. At a time when big-budget fits dominate the multiplexes, Blumhouse has found a niche releasing modestly budgeted horror movies that sometimes grow into mighty franchises. (Examples include Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious, and all their accompanying sequels.)

Blumhouse doesn’t always succeed artistically, but it’s not for a lack of trying. The company’s made its name working skilled directors and developing ingenious concepts that have a cultural stickiness. Paranormal Activity and Insidious started, or at least helped orchestrate, horror’s move away from torture porn and toward new spins on haunted houses tales and classic ghost stories. You might not like the Purge movies — you might not even have seen a Purge movie — but the idea of a night of government-mandated lawlessness is tough to shake once you’ve been exposed to it.

Stephanie doesn’t have such a concept, but it doesn’t want for ambition in other respects, even if it’s at its best in its simplest moments. For his second film as a director, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman — whose work spans his Oscar-winning script for A Beautiful Mind to the TV series Fringe to Batman & Robin — takes on a script by the team of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski about… well, that’s kind of hard to describe. Stephanie opens in a near future that’s undergone some sort of invasion from entities that feed on negative emotions then zigs back to focus on a little girl who’s living alone in an abandoned house. It’s not entirely successful but it’s going for something and it creates some memorable scenes without much money. It’s, in other words, a Blumhouse film. With Goldsman by his side, Blum was on hand to accept the festival’s first Visionary Award on behalf of Blumhouse. It seems like a fitting honor for a company that’s helped keep the horror flame burning over the last decade.

Blum’s antecedents, particularly when it comes to combining innovative low-budget genre filmmaking with business savvy, include Roger Corman, the famed low-budget director director and producer who once wrote a book titled How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That title only tells part of Corman’s story, however. Though adept at exploiting B-movie trends, Corman also directed rich, artistically challenging films like The Trip, X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, and a cycle of lush, colorful horror movies that largely drew from the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the first half of the 1960s. As a producer, Corman served as a mentor to everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to Joe Dante to Jonathan Demme, who treated his low-budget productions as a kind of hands-on film school. Corman was on hand to accept the festival’s first Master Of Horror Award.

Walking to the stage with a cane, the only real indication that he’s now 91, Corman graciously accepted both a standing ovation and an inscribed axe then introduced X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes. After the screening, he joined horror veteran Mick Garris for a Q&A session for Garris’ Post-Mortem podcast. (I also had the good fortune of chatting with Corman during the festival. Look for the interview later this week.) Their conversation ranged from Corman’s childhood in the downmarket section of Beverly Hills to releasing and Ingmar Bergman movie to drive-in theaters in the ‘70s to Netflix, keeping, as always, an eye on the future.

Overlook Film Festival

The Future

For anyone interested in where the horror genre is, and where it’s going — be they legendary mogul or a curious fan — the first Overlook Festival offered a fine cross-section and a sense of how flexible the definition of horror can be. Some of the best films I saw barely fit the definition of horror on paper while being very much part of the genre in spirit by emphasizing fear, suspense, and what can be gained by gazing into the dark.

These ranged from Hounds of Love a tense, superbly acted abduction thriller from Australian director Ben Young that doubles as a mediation on domestic violence and broken families to Lady Macbeth, an unblinking, morally ambiguous costume drama from William Oldroyd about death and deception in the Victorian countryside. Either could — and have — played a less-focused sort of film festival, but here they fit right in next to the monsters and gore. (I’ll have full reviews of both films closer to release.)

That said, it might risk getting the bends going from the stately pace of Oldroyd’s film to Mayhem, the latest from director Joe Lynch. Set at a law office in the grips of a virus that causes the afflicted to lose their inhibitions, it more than lives up to its title, combining a crude-but-effective satire of office politics with plentiful gore as a just-fired lawyer (Steven Yeun) and an unhappy homeowner (Samara Weaving) try to fight their way to an office building’s top floor while chaos reigns around them. The concept owes a debt to David Cronenberg’s Shivers but Lynch makes the film play like a combination of the office orgy scenes from Wolf of Wall Street and Oldboy’s hammer fight. When it’s not exhausting, it’s thrilling.

The Canadian chiller Still/Born also doesn’t want for thrills, especially in its early scenes, which establish newcomer Brandon Christensen as a skilled technical director. The concept — in which a new mother finds herself haunted by an unknown force after the sillbirth of one of a pair of twins — gets away from him, however, thanks to a few too many lapses in logic. Still, any movie with the words “And Michael Ironside” in the credits can’t be all bad.

Saturday was the closing night — though screenings continued deep into Sunday — and the festival came to an official end with a much-talked-about secret screening that had been teased as a chance to get a first look at a major new horror movie. And it was: Though many in attendance had already teased out the likeliest title, the crowd still seemed thrilled to be the first to see It Comes At Night, Trey Edward Shults’ post-apocalyptic family drama. And, like others in the festival, it felt like it belonged at a horror festival even if pushed beyond the traditional definitions of horror. The most formidable threat comes not from a monster of even from the plague that’s ravaged the Earth before the film even begins but from the darkness within characters made desperate by the singleminded need to survive. (I reviewed in in full earlier.)

It’s the sort of film whose darkness sticks in the mind, and I found myself thinking about it as I tried to go to sleep on my last night in a hotel overtaken for the weekend by horror fans — albeit one far cozier and less labyrinthine than the Overlook we know from The Shining. As I closed my eyes I heard a scream in the snow-covered parking lot below and while I’m pretty sure it was a late-night reveler, but who’s to say for sure? In that horor-filled, movie-haunted place it seemed best not to try to find out.



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The First Annual Overlook Film Festival Combined Horror’s Past And Future In A Historic Location

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