By RICKY J. DUARTE
New York City has long been affectionately known as the city that never sleeps, yet who among us has questioned what exactly it is that’s keeping us New Yorkers up all night? Granted, the city is rife with things to be afraid of – from the threat of violence in the streets to sewer rats, train delays, and greedy landlords. However, these horrors of city life are nothing compared to the films celebrated at this year’s NEW YORK CITY HORROR FILM FESTIVAL.
This year, the festival celebrated its 21st showcase of independent horror films. From December 7 through December 10, the festival included eleven features and 44 short films in addition to a handful available only through the virtual version of the festival. Held at Midtown West’s LOOK Dine-In Cinemas, the NYC HORROR FILM FESTIVAL differs from others in that it showcases just one program at a time, affording audiences the chance to catch every selection rather than have to pick and choose. With a bar and a full dining menu available at the theater, the festival and location made for a comfortable and exciting experience.
For Sean Marks, the festival’s head of programming, connecting fans and filmmakers is the best part of the fest. “Nights like tonight. I like going up to people and playing the game of ‘Have you met?’” says Marks. “Introducing people to each other and seeing, maybe, years down the line, that they made something. I think that’s cool.” Marks’ game works. Upon my arrival, I was immediately welcomed and introduced to a host of filmmakers, all excited to discuss their projects.
When reviewing submissions, there are certain aspects the programmers look for. “We tend to look for the positives in every submission we get,” Marks explains. “We don’t sit there and say, ‘Ah, this was garbage.’ We talk about what we liked about it. When we’re putting together a program, we want to make a buffet. Tons of different stuff. You may not like all of it, and that’s fine, but you’ll leave full. And that’s how we program.”
The festival celebrated its 21st year, with a lineup of films as diverse as New York City itself. Commenting on the vastness of representation, event co-host Alan Rowe Kelly (director/actor/producer/makeup artist) remarks, “That’s on purpose. Not for the spirit of wokeness, by any means, but it’s exciting to see what everyone’s doing. You make friends afterward, too. Being a filmmaker myself, it’s so inspiring to see everything that everyone’s coming out with. The best part about it is we’ve built a tight community of filmmakers from all over the place. They love coming here, and we love talking to them, and we love introducing them to each other. A lot of people start working with each other afterward, so it’s just spreading the love a little bit. Just seeing the talent that’s out there – it’s so inspiring that we can’t wait to get behind the camera ourselves.”
Fellow co-host Nathan Faudree (co-writer of A Wounded Fawn) agrees. Speaking to the festival’s spirit of diversity and representation, Faudree says, “That’s a huge thing that we do look for … I don’t know that there’s a specific formula or anything. We just get good stuff sent to us. The fact that we look at it equally and distribute it equally and get it out there … I don’t think there’s any secret sauce to it or some magic to it, we just look at [the films] and say, ‘Oh, this is interesting. I haven’t seen this before.’ We’re always looking for something interesting, something new. A different take on stuff. So, you’re probably not going to see the more traditional [horror] movies. There’s so much out there now, especially with the way people are creating. There’s so much interesting shit out there, so many ways that we can help!”
For Faudree, building relationships among filmmakers is the most exciting part of being involved with the festival. “The chance to be part of the community, Faudree states. “It’s like hanging out with family or hanging out with friends, hanging out with other cool people who love the same kind of [stuff] that I do. We’re all really supportive of each other. Everybody’s rooting for each other. Everybody wants everyone’s movie to be awesome. It’s the community that’s the biggest part for me.”
The festival has certainly cultivated a tightly-knit community. CEO and Executive Festival Director Ronnie Hein has lovingly carried on the vision in memory of her son, filmmaker Michael J. Hein, who initially founded the festival in 2001. “Getting together with all our festival family and everybody who works so hard for this festival, she says. “This is the work from January until December, and then, the fun part starts, and we’re all together [to] meet the filmmakers, and that’s what this is about – meeting the filmmakers, letting their films be all over the place so people can see them. That’s the best part. We try hard! I mean, twenty-one years!”
The entire board of the festival has created a welcoming environment full of comradery and support. Their appreciation of the genre, the spirit of independent cinema (and those who love it) is displayed in the festival’s level of professionalism and organization. From the moment I checked in at the welcome table to the moment we said our farewells, I felt like a member of the community. It was an experience I’m incredibly grateful for.
A highlight of the weekend was the bestowing of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement award to an iconic horror legend, Hellraiser’s Hell Priest himself, Doug Bradley. In his acceptance speech, Bradley recalled his casting process for the role of Pinhead and his long-standing friendship with author Clive Barker. He showcased a great sense of humility and appreciation for his career and what it means to him to have such a massive fandom. He equated meeting fans overcome with emotion to the moment he met Ringo Starr of The Beatles. He genuinely understands the weight of what his presence in the genre has brought to people.
After telling his story, noting that he got his start in the theater (starring in plays written by Barker), I asked Bradley which Shakespearean role he’d most like to play. He took a moment to ponder and even remarked, “Shakespeare is God, isn’t he?” before conceding that he never got the opportunity to appear in any Shakespearean productions. While he would have loved to have played Macbeth, “That time has come and gone,” he laments. “Now it looks more like King Lear, though I don’t see it happening any time soon.”
The festival also features an unproduced screenplay competition, including categories for features and shorts. Directed by programming team member Brian W. Smith, the competition operates under the belief that great horror cinema begins on the page. “Every film starts with a good script,” Smith explains. “We’re always looking for the next film that’s gonna come in that’s programmed. When you see it on the page, and you find that magic there, and you’re able to visualize a film that has the potential to someday be an official selection, we get excited. It’s challenging to create a movie on a page … We find so many talented writers. They just have to elevate it and give it a boost.”
When reading screenplay submissions, fellow competition team member Vincent Viñas is “a big fan of set pieces.” “I know Brian is, as well, he says, adding, [I’m] not so big on a lot of blocks of description. Obviously, I like the movie described in the screenplay, but I like a little wiggle room to imagine things as well without being spoon-fed every little detail.”
So what about the films that were showcased? There were many incredible films to keep an eye out for as they find distribution in the coming year. While every program contained merits worth celebrating, here are a few that genuinely stood out:
Winning the award for Best Horror Feature, Faceless After Dark gathered a sizable audience, including indie favorite filmmakers The Adams Family. The film, co-written by Todd Jacobs and the film’s star, Terrifier’s Jenna Kanell, is directed by Raymond Wood. It’s a jarring depiction of the dark side of fame, the fetishization of actresses and the creeps who slide into their DM’s. In addition to Best Feature, Kanell also took home the Best Actress award.
Also highly noteworthy was Andrew Fitzgerald’s An Angry Boy, a dark exploration of child molestation and vengeance. The film’s young star, Scott Callenberger, won the festival’s Best Actor award.
In her sequel to 2018’s Livescream, writer-director Michelle Iannantuono expanded the universe of haunted videogames with Livescreamers about a team of live-streaming gamers who find themselves playing the wrong RPG, battling not only an evil embedded force but also one another. Iannantuono went above and beyond her duties as writer and director, building all the Unreal Engine games showcased in the film. Rife with tension and unexpected emotion, it’s a successful experiment in forward-thinking storytelling. “[The film] is pretty close to what I imagined it being,” Iannantuono says. “I knew I wanted to do an ensemble cast or ensemble project in general because I’d never done that before. I’d wanted a coherent mix of themes and other ways in which content creators become monsters and are victims of monsters in the gaming and content creation industry after several years of personal experience doing that myself. I also wanted the games to look like a million bucks – to really level up the way the games looked, so I used the newly-released Unreal Engine 5 rather than 4, which I used [for the first film]. I put a lot more sweat equity into making those games look good and making them really sell as something that gamers of this caliber would be interested in playing.”
The film’s star, Michael Smallwood (Halloween, Halloween Kills), spoke of the exciting aspects of shooting a film containing takes lasting up to 15 minutes. “A big thing I really loved about it was how much it mimicked the theatre. I love working on long takes; I love really getting to interact with a big cast of characters on screen, which you don’t get frequently in movies. It was also kind of cool getting to be in the entirety of a horror movie – literally, start to finish. They don’t always let me be in the whole thing.” (We joked that Smallwood certainly didn’t make it through the entirety of Halloween Kills.)
One impactful feature, He Never Left, co-written, directed by and starring James Morris, blends thriller, crime drama, mystery, and the slasher subgenre in ways audiences may never have seen before. This clever mashup can be credited to Morris’ inspiration from other notable filmmakers such as the Cohen Brothers, John Carpenter, Bryan Bertino and Alfred Hitchcock, specifically the master of suspense’s classic, Rear Window. “[He Never Left] was born, originally, as a thriller idea,” Morris says, “and then, I worked with Michael Ballif (co-writer/producer), and he pushed this slasher element a bit. We wrote it and shaped it.” Morris and Baillif’s previous collaborative feature, They Live Inside Us, was released in 2020.
The film features a remarkable, challenging lead performance by Colin Cunningham. “We met Colin at a festival in Saint George, Utah,” says Morris, “and we stayed in touch. I pitched him the idea. He’s done quite a bit. He was in Falling Skies, and he’s been shot by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He loved the script; He’s an integral part. He signed on, and we knocked it out!”
Making the trek from England, director Stewart Sparke, producer Cal O’Connell and actor Lyndsie Craine represented their comedy/sci-fi/horror feature, How to Kill Monsters. (Winner of the festival’s Best Special Effects award.) A follow-up to their 2018 film, Book of Monsters, the film cleverly supposes what might happen once the credits roll after a monster movie’s bloodbath finale. It’s witty, fast-paced, gore-soaked hysteria from start to finish.
Craine, who also appears in Book of Monsters, has a lot of affection for her character. “You meet Jamie at a cabin in the woods, and there’s been a massacre, and a monster has attacked, Craine explains. “She gets arrested by the police who obviously don’t believe her, but the monsters follow her to the police station, and she has to team up with the cops and lawbreakers to fight off the monsters from another dimension.”
While How to Kill Monsters started as a sequel, it soon became clear it was its own original idea. Sparke shares, “We came up with a new film, brought back a lot of the same cast, brand new story, all practical effects, and that’s the genesis of the movie. It wrote itself.”
Another festival award-winner (Best Horror Comedy), eVil Sublet, garnered perhaps the biggest audience reaction of the entire weekend. Written and directed by Allan Piper, the film is a glorious tribute to the absurd lengths New Yorkers will go to for the perfect Manhattan apartment. (It’s also the horror feature debut of the iconic Sally Struthers!) In the film, couple Alex (Jennifer Leigh Houston) and Ben (Charley Tucker) decide to put up with the malicious goings-on of a haunted East Village (get it? “eVil?”) apartment for the sake of “affordable” rent, a garden out back and an eat-in kitchen.
“This is the story of a New York couple who knowingly move into a haunted apartment because the rent is cheap,” Piper explains. “It’s a story New Yorkers can relate to, and it’s inspired by the actual strange phenomena that occur in the apartment where it was shot. Inspired by true events! But an amplified horror/comedy version of them.”
The film, which impressively blends silly humor with serious horror, leaves audiences screaming one moment and busting a gut the next. One early scene in particular took careful planning. “I’m proud of the moving-in scene because we had five characters in a very carefully choreographed, all-in-one-shot scene that goes through six different rooms in the apartment,” Piper says, adding he worked with “a tremendous team of people. Really talented actors, really amazing musicians. I’m thrilled with how it turned out.”
The film’s wildly talented cast only serves to amplify the authenticity of the film’s homage to New York. Stephen Mosher, who plays clairvoyant Lorne (whose real-life husband, Pat Dwyer, plays his partner, Ned) remarks, “When I first saw the film, I thought the scene with us sitting on the subway forever was stopping the flow of the film, and I told [Pat]. Then, when he saw it at Coney Island with an audience, he came home and said, ‘It’s hilarious and they all got the joke that you did not get.’” The moment is a specific jab at the MTA’s absurd wait times at the iconic boardwalk.
Dwyer adds, “We’ve all had our real estate nightmares. It’s very common in the city. As far as the movie goes, for me, I’m not big on watching my own work, but I’m actually very proud of the ‘You don’t wanna go out there. She lives on Staten Island’ line because we’re all afraid of Staten Island.”
Ashley Bufkin sets the comedic tone of the film early on as the real estate broker who shows the apartment. “Damn near all of [the comedy] was in the text. But I [also] think it was just me putting my own flair on it,” Bufkin says. “I was actually kind of nervous in watching it back that my eyes were gonna take too much focus on the jokes because sometimes, I can seem a bit animated. But I think it actually aids in the thriller and horror aspect of the film. Also, I think it’s absolutely amazing that this realtor is still down to try and sell this haunted apartment because of all of the amenities that it provides – what you’re willing to kill for, so to speak, for such a luxury apartment.”
Mosher adds, “I know New York City realtors, and they are like that!”
“The truth of the film,” Dwyer says, “is what people will do for a great New York City apartment!”
“If anything, that might be the most New York thing about this film,” Bufkin quips.
As the film’s lead, Houston was afforded the incredible opportunity of having a role written specifically and lovingly for her. Piper and Houston recently celebrated their twelfth wedding anniversary at the West Coast premiere of the film. On being handed a script lovingly crafted and tailored to her comedic sensibilities, Houston remarks, “I think he knows me pretty well. Also, now that you’ve seen this, you know me as well as anybody because, like, there’s zero mystery to me at all. I should try to have a little more, but I can’t!”
Short film submissions are always an exciting part of any festival, and this year, the plethora of unique and wonderful selections was thrilling to witness. I was able to speak with some of the filmmakers, who had incredible insight into their inspiration and their creative processes.
For Kristin Noriega, her short film When You’re Gone, was a very personal endeavor. “As an actor for many years, I was tired of waiting to get roles, so I figured I’d write and make something with my friends who know what they’re doing. I love practical effects, so I wanted to have a creature, and I had a really dark image that was featured in the film. That’s how it all came about – this really dark, depressive time.”
The short tells of a breakup happening as a city-wide infestation of subterranean creatures takes hold. “I’ve always been obsessed with the urban legend of sewer gators and people flushing their exotic pets, things like that,” Noriega says. The film has an impressive sincerity and claustrophobic tone, especially considering this is Noriega’s first film. Its use of practical creature effects is fully realized through various forms, stages and lifecycles. That, blended with the heartache of a relationship gone sour, leaves viewers with an insight into the horrific stages of grieving a breakup.
The festival submissions were rife with short-form horror reflective of their own lived experiences. Kyle Mangione-Smith’s Annihilator showcases the all-too-common occurrence of young gay men falling prey to online predators. “A big, big inspiration for me was Dennis Cooper, the writer. All of his writing is about similar subject matter – basically taking the idea of BDSM sexual dynamics and where is the logical endpoint of this,” says Mangione-Smith. “On top of that, the last few shorts I’d made were all very quiet, calculated and atmospheric – slow building. I wanted to do something that was the polar opposite of that. Like, can we just crank this to ten for the entire runtime?”
On telling a story about queer runaway youth, Smith says, “I was pulling from a lot of different places. Myself and most other gay men I know had really crazy, weird, out-there sexual experiences when they were probably too young for it. That’s subject matter that doesn’t really get addressed on film a lot, and it’s also really difficult to address in a way that isn’t just offensive. But it’s something I feel that you can make a movie about, and is an interesting realm to dig into, so it definitely was a big part of that – my own, experiences with that, also.”
Writer and director Daphne Zelle utilized the pandemic to create her short film, Your Face. “I was cooped up in my apartment during Covid and was watching Pom Poko, which is a Studio Ghibli film. The lore is that raccoons are shape shifters, and there’s a scene where they’re changing into humans, but their faces go blank. It’s a kid’s movie, so it’s funny, but I was watching it and I was like, ‘That is very scary!’ That idea sort of marinated for a while and then it turned into Your Face.”
When it comes to creating her first short, Zelle feels fortunate to have had her production team. “I’m an actress, foremost, so this was my first foray into directing and writing, and I felt so fortunate to have friends who were willing to donate their time and talent – from producing to sound design and editing, I felt really fortunate to pull together such a dynamic team and have the end product be something I’m really proud of.” This transition from acting to directing gave her an appreciation for having more agency. “As an actor – and I used to be a ballet dancer, too – you’re used to being a vehicle, but all of a sudden it’s your vision, and with that comes so much responsibility. On the one hand, it’s amazing, on the other hand, it’s like, that sense of responsibility is a little bit weightier because if you mess up, then it’s your fault, you know? If as an actor you do a bad performance you can hedge it and be like, ‘Oh, it was the direction,’ but… it was the direction, so…! [Laughs] So, it was also being on the other side of it and getting a newfound deep appreciation for the crew and pre-production and post-production.”
In all, the festival was exactly that – a festival. A celebration. An opportunity for artists and filmmakers to come together and build relationships, inspire one another, and share the projects they’ve worked so hard on. As an attendee representing RUE MORGUE, I felt inspired as well.
ADVICE FOR ASPIRING FILMMAKERS
Sean Marks – Program Director
“Be cognizant of things like time. It’s important. If you think you need to make a 30-minute short – I’m not saying don’t – I’m saying be aware that that can create programming challenges. A quick, to-the-point five-to, let’s say, fourteen-minute short can be very tempting for programmers to want to program. And I always tell people, make your films like we program. Which is, we say, ‘F it, go for it.’ [But] avoid things like creepypasta shorts. Please don’t do that. I don’t mind tropes, I’d say have fun with them, though. Or don’t have fun and make them really disturbing! But just go for it. Don’t sleepwalk through it. Have some what we call genre literacy. If you wanna make a Cronenberg-style movie, watch a lot of Cronenberg. Don’t just watch The Fly once!”
Nathan Faudree – Host/co-writer, A Wounded Fawn
[On screenwriting] “Write every day. I didn’t say write good every day, I just said write every day. No excuses. I find that each script that I write is a different process. So, once I figure out a process, I go, ‘Oh, this is my process from now on, it’s gonna work on the next script.’ No. It’s gonna be completely different on the next one. Some of them I outline thoroughly; Some of them I outline very basically. Outlining is a good idea, though, just because when you get into that second act, right around page 60, it’s always like, ‘I know where I wanna go – I know what I want to happen at the end, but there’s this gap where this shit needs to happen,’ and it’s easier to figure that out in the outline. But, yeah. Write every day. Write every day.”
Michael Ballif – Producer, He Never Left
“I think one of the best things you can do is try to tap into something that’s very personal. The weirder the better. Something that can represent you because I think, nowadays, with technology and cameras and editing software, we all share the same tools for the most part. But the one thing nobody else has is you – your personality and what you can draw from that and create something that represents you as a person. That’s the rarest thing of all. It’s something people should lean into. I try to do that, it’s difficult to extrapolate what that is. It’s sort of an invisible thing and you just have to dig into yourself and figure it out.”
Cal O’Connell – Producer, How to Kill Monsters
“Just do it! Stop worrying about it being perfect or a perfect situation and work it out. Just do it. There’s never going to be a perfect situation; There’s always going to be problems, so just work out the problems, and just have fun and make it. You’d be surprised at how creativity plays into it.”
Allan Piper – Writer/director, eVil Sublet
“If there’s anything else you’d rather do, maybe try that? [Laughs]. This is my third feature. I apparently make about one a decade, It seems to take that long to get an indie feature going. I can’t seem to stop myself from doing it. I think … if you can stop yourself, stop yourself. But if you can’t, then maybe you’re cut out to make indie films. Just try to surround yourself with really talented people.”
The NEW YORK CITY HORROR FILM FESTIVAL will return in all its gory glory in December of 2024.