Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival is back in Chicago this weekend (8/20-23) and, with no offense to fans of “Wolfcop,” the line-up is notably improved from year one. The fest has gone from an interesting curiosity in its debut year to a major event for horror fans in the Midwest, complete with impressive special guests and premieres of films that horror fans will be talking about over the next year. With films that played Sundance, Toronto, Fantasia Fest, and more, Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival brings the Midnight programming from some of the most notable film festivals around the world to Rosemont, IL. If you’re a genre fan and you’re not interested in attending, something is wrong with you.
Festival Director Josh Goldbloom and the team behind the fest really landed a big film for their Opening Night premiere (at 7:30pm this Thursday), the multi-director anthology “Tales of Halloween,” the best film of its kind since the cult hit “Trick ‘r Treat” (sorry fans of the less-consistent “V/H/S” and “The ABCs of Death”). Producer/director Axelle Carolyn has assembled a diverse array of filmmakers, including Darren Lynn Bousman (“Saw II”), Neil Marshall (“The Descent”), Adam Gierasch (“Toolbox Murders”), and Lucky McKee (“May”), and merged their short films into a clever, quirky ode to the holiday of ghosts and ghouls. All ten tales take place on Halloween, and while each has its own narrative, Carolyn and her team have deftly made all ten feel like they’re part of one piece. It’s not unlike a series of ghost stories told around a campfire in that one seems to inspire another, ending in a great piece (from Marshall) that ties them all together. Horror fans will adore the many cameos, including legends like Joe Dante and John Landis, and the fact that the pieces actually get stronger as the film goes along. A bit about competing Halloween decorations called “This Means War” followed by Mike Mendez’s future-cult-classic “Friday the 31st” are just two of the second-half highlights. By the end, the lunacy of “Tales of Halloween” has reached its peak and horror nuts will be sent out the door ready for a dozen more films from their favorite genre. (“Tales of Halloween” is followed by the inferior “Hellions” Thursday night, fresh off its Sundance premiere and before it plays in Toronto next month. Some people really dig it. I’m not one of those people.)
Friday night marks the world premiere of “June” (which was not screened for press), along with an awesome event in which writer/director Tom Holland will present a screening of “Fright Night.” That hot ticket is followed by the North American premiere of “The Pack” and a perfect choice for the midnight slot in the ‘80s horror parody “Dude Bro Party Massacre 3.” If you’re wondering how you missed the first two “Dude Bro Party Massacre” movies, you’re missing the joke.
Saturday offers a mixed bag of quality, but the centerpiece is the real draw—a Q&A screening with Bruce Campbell after “Bubba Ho-Tep” at 7pm. Two hours before that, you might be drawn to the semi-successful “Some Kind of Hate,” a slasher movie meets ghost story meets cautionary bullying tale. When a kid finally fights back against his bully, he gets sent away to a youth reform camp for violence. In other words, the kid getting bullied gets sent to a facility filled with bullies. This can’t end well. Adam Egypt Mortimer’s tale starts like a drama but shifts at the end of the first act when the ghost of a girl who was bullied to the grave decides to help out our woeful protagonist by eliminating his enemies for him. Some of the performances here are way too thin for the dramatic material, but there’s enough style and confidence in the filmmaking to make me curious about what Mortimer does next. And what else are you going to do on a Saturday at 3pm? Go outside? You must not be a real horror fan.
“Some Kind of Hate” leads into the superior (but still flawed) “Body” at 5pm on Saturday. This Slamdance audience fave stars Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen and Lauren Molina as three girls who break into a mansion on Christmas Eve only to be interrupted by a stranger (the legendry Larry Fessenden), which leads to tragedy. How the girls respond—or rather the series of very poor decisions they make—is the crux on which “Body” spins. I like the room given in the first act for Rogers and Turshen to develop characters, and I’ve always been kind of a fan of one-setting thrillers like “Body.” There’s something cathartic about watching people faced with nothing but bad outcomes somehow make their situations even worse. We tell ourselves that we’d make smarter choices, even though we probably wouldn’t. “Body” is a bit slight (it needed another twist or two) but it’s a solid choice mid-fest. (And a better film than Saturday’s post-“Bubba” closers, the awful “Contracted: Phase 2” and the simply ridiculous “Bunny the Killer Thing,” a Troma-esque gorefest in which a man in a bunny suit with a giant penis rips off people’s body parts while shouting little more than “Pussy!” Perfect for a midnight movie slot in a fest like this one, but more exhausting than excellent.)
Sunday is the best day yet in the two-year history of Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival, which should leave fans happy and ready for next year. It starts at noon with a screening of the classic “Cannibal Holocaust,” introduced by Eli Roth and accompanied by “mountains of breakfast meats.” Eat bacon while they eat people! Following that, catch up with the Sundance hit “Turbo Kid,” a fun Amblin-esque ‘80s throwback that has been getting buzz on the fest circuit all year long. It’s a major get for this fest.
The two best new films of the festival play Sunday afternoon in the two-fer of “Sun Choke” and “He Never Died.” Given their indie cinema styles, both will have their detractors, but I found both films to be engaging, visually confident works, carried by strong central performances. “Sun Choke,” at 2:30pm, stars Sarah Hagan in a fearless performance as Janie, a young woman trying to get over an undefined trauma through the help of an abusive life coach/counselor/kidnapper played by the legendary Barbara Crampton. When Janie breaks out of her rehab/prison, she spots a beautiful young woman named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane), with whom she becomes obsessed. What is buried in Janie’s past? What violence is in her future? “Sun Choke” is an odd film—more “Mulholland Dr.” than traditional horror—but that’s what I like about it. Writer/director Ben Cresciman works with Matthew Rudenberg’s excellent cinematography to produce a dream-like film with more questions than answers. “Sun Choke” is incredibly violent, disturbing and truly strange. Even if you don’t think it entirely works, it stands out.
Someone who has always stood out from the crowd is Henry Rollins, a man who should have been a movie star years ago but finally gets a breakthrough starring role and totally nails it in the very-good “He Never Died,” playing at 7pm on Sunday night. Rollins plays a loner with a trunk full of cash and no friends. The first act of “He Never Died” plays like a noir—low light, deadpan responses from Rollins, threats of violence. And then we learn the importance of the title. Rollins is immortal. He can’t be killed. And yet he is not a love-lorn vampire a la “Twilight,” he is someone who has lived WAY too long, seen way too much death, and found little reason to care about life any more. Even just the way Rollins says “Don’t” after getting punched in the face conveys so much weariness of an existence that has seen every war in the history of man. When his daughter shows up and gets in trouble—combined with the waitress at the diner he attends every day showing interest in him—our sullen hero has to give a damn about something again. Maybe for the last time. This is a genre film that I can virtually guarantee you will find a faithful audience later this year when it’s released. Get on the bandwagon now. And that’s what great fests are often about—introducing you to films that your friends will be talking about 3 months from now. Horror fans love the new discovery, the new cult hit, the new creative voice—come see the new this weekend. Get your tickets here.