Horror reflects our collective fears and uncertainty in a profound way, and IHSFF 2021 showcased this with a remarkable slate of programming.
After seventeen industrious years, the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival (IHSFF) continues to do what it does best. Like music conductors, its programmers strategically blend the diverse themes of each year’s films into a finite balance while setting the tone of what is to come for Horror.
We spoke with the festival’s director, Monte Yazzie, and asked him what made 2021 unique from the past years’ programming line-ups?
“I feel the films this year are tapping into the anxieties we’ve felt over the last two years: the changing times, the isolation, the fear of the unknown, opening up and exploring the subject matters at hand with greater introspection.”
For ten glorious and splattered days, we attended the crowd-pleasing IHSFF to give you the scoop on the year’s most impressive must-see genre offerings.
THE PAST WILL BITE!
Given the state of the world, it’s not surprising that psychological horror titles dominated the fest, along with many films about taking chances. In the end, the last act is what you make it. And in times that feel apocalyptic, this resonates in a big way. It also seems that this year is all about having a point of view — and not being afraid to own it.
Blood Conscious – Director Timothy Covell
Synopsis: A family (Lenny Thomas, DeShawn White, and Oghenero Gbaje) shows up at their parent’s cabin to find them dead from a mass shooting. While capturing the shooter (Nick Damici), he indicates a demonic force is to blame. They fight to survive the night while testing the realms of good vs evil lurking all around them.
Covell is smart at playing on our intuition and senses through editing, transitions, and camera work. Beliefs hold power, and the narrative of Blood Conscious allows the audience to explore demon vs human nature in today’s cultural and historical climate.
The Feast – Director Roger Williams
Synopsis: An elaborate dinner party in rural Wales brings the arrival of a young server, Cadi (Annes Elwy) who is to help with preparations. As plans proceed for the evening, so does a string of events both unhinging and distressing just in time for the feast.
Filmed in Wales, subtitled, and spoken in Welsh, The Feast is a visually stunning experience and I LOVED it! Williams draws you into the atmosphere throughout the whole film, whether in the countryside or within the house. Through the different camera angles, there is a feeling of “being watched” allowing you to feel a sinister presence. The buildup of the plot, controlled sound, and quietness are characters themselves.
Elwy’s performance as Cadi in each frame of the film is bewitching.
ISOLATION, YEARNING, AND THE SLOW BURN
Through the lens of isolation and yearning, we often develop a sharper image of who we are and what we want. There is hope in the void of loss and loneliness — the chance for new beginnings and emotional growth. But there is also a darkness that threatens to consume us when these emotions take hold and devours the light. At the intersection of possibility and futility, there is horror.
The Strings – Director Ryan Glover
Synopsis: In the desolate winter near the beach, a musician arrives at a vacationing home to do solo work on her album, but a menacing figure begins to play on her senses and isolation.
Catherine played by the remarkable Canadian singer and musician Teagan Johnston paints the screen with isolation and questioning. Glover’s direction and breathtaking camera work take in the photographic moments of stillness. You can see his stylistic approach in many of Johnston’s music videos, such as Dig Up My Grave and Witness, and how he brings an unearthed and dark matter to human emotions.
This film has been on my mind quite a bit. I’m still haunted by it. I enjoy visually hypnotic films like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and The Strings played on my senses.
For me, there is a need for the film to be more cohesive at the very end, and I wanted some more reactions from Johnston, but I’m also mesmerized by her performance. Perhaps Glover intended that the reactions be mostly saved for the audience.
Can the aspects of music, silence, sound effects, and a landscape be characters in a movie? Absolutely! The Strings quietly lures you in before really ramping up the tension. My heart was beating rapidly in the last half of the film while I held onto my jacket for dear life.
12 Months of KAI (IHSFF Best Sci-Fi Feature) – Director Mutsumi Kameyama
Synopsis: Kyoka (Ayaka Nakagouchi) purchases a humanoid named KAI (Kosei Kudo) and over the next twelve months, they form a relationship that draws the lines of boundaries and intimacy to an unexpected event between human and droid.
12 Months of KAI is a strong and original storyline showing Kameyama’s precise talents in capturing the environment of these two characters naturally without a heavy musical score. Eighty-five minutes for this type of stylistic film was exactly what was needed, and Kameyama understands how to perfectly pace a story.
GRIEF, TRAUMA, AND CLOSURE
Festival standouts included films that dealt with powerful subjects of grief, loss, and the deeply affecting way that trauma haunts us long after the initial blow.
The Night House – Director David Bruckner
Beth (Rebecca Hall) starts to dig through her deceased husband’s belongings after encountering a ghost-like presence at the lake house he built for her. Hall’s performance in The Night House is one of the best of the year, and the film lingers on long after it ends for the viewer thanks to the unexpected turn of events.
Take Back the Night – Director by Gia Elliot
Jane (Emma Fitzpatrick), a social media influencer is attacked by a monster at night after leaving a party. Her past is thrown against her while authorities and family question the reality of her trauma, she fights to prove her innocence and the truth about her assault.
Fitzpatrick is a magnificent and consuming talent that brings me in easily to her predicament. The director, Gia Elliot, I feel has a strong intellectual talent for capturing the human experience. What is even more admirable about Take Back the Night is that it is co-written by Elliot and Fitzpatrick, showcasing a true collaboration between actor and director.
WE NEED TO LAUGH AGAIN!
The selection of comedy films at the fest this year was outstanding — and so very welcome. Sometimes we need a great release with plain gore-luscious horror and solid story structures. Staying too deep for too long starts to burn us out. In times like these, laughter is such important medicine.
Danni and the Vampire – Director Max Werkmeister
Synopsis: A madcap drifter tries to reignite a special feeling from her past by helping a vampire achieve his dreams.
Imagine if Hal Hartley went Horror, combined with everything you wish TWILIGHT could have been – that’s the glorious comedic sensation of DANNI AND THE VAMPIRE.
Out of all the films this year, Danni and the Vampire hit the love note for me. I needed a good laugh, a bloody release, a reason to smile — and I needed to love the simple moments again. Werkmeister delivered all of that with the strongest black comedy. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good horror comedy that sets the bar high like other classics such as Shaun of the Dead and What We Do In The Shadows.
Danni, played by Alexandra Landau, shines with a charismatic presence on the screen; beautiful and uninhibited with each shot. Her chemistry with Remy (Henry Kiely) the Vampire was extraordinary. Let me put it this way, imagine if Ginger (Rogers) was a bounty hunter and Fred (Astaire) was a Vampire. Together, they dance literally and narratively through their journey of discovery of each other and self.
With a strong supporting cast, outrageous montages, and witty dialog, Danni and the Vampire is magical in its comedic timing.
Bad Girls – Director Christopher Bickel*
In 2017, South Carolina-based filmmaker Christopher Bickel brought one of the most enjoyable pieces of underground independent cinema into the fold with his first feature, The Theta Girl. It was vulgar, violent, made for very little money, and the perfect precursor to Bickel’s Bad Girls.
In probably the most irreverent selection here at the IHSFF, Bad Girls follows the drug-induced exploits of three badass babes, Mitzi (Sanethia Dresch), Val (Morgan Shaley Renew), and Carolyn (Shelby Lois Guinn). After acquiring a bag full of cash and copious amounts of mind-altering substances in the robbery of their strip club, the ladies take off and leave in their wake a growing list of criminal activities, a resentful, misogynistic investigator, and a collection of ‘hostages’.
With no clear ‘good’ or ‘bad’ found in the characters of Bickel’s sensational sophomore effort, we as an audience are rooting for the less evil and those we can relate to. In this case, it is the trio of women pulling the strings and aggravating the bigots that earn all the love.
Bad Girls is a fast-paced, foul-mouthed homage to the (unfortunately) bygone style of Grindhouse cinema and an era of outrageous, unapologetic filmmaking. True to the underground spirit, it was filmed in part with favors, the fierce determination of cast and crew in addition to the wildly successful Indiegogo campaign backed by numerous folks wanting to see more of what Christopher Bickel would passionately pass on to fans.
Made for the love of it and the sheer hope it would entertain, BAD GIRLS is a barrage of over-the-top violence and loathsome characters conjured in an almost otherworldly narrative; this was the low-budget, high-octane surprise addition to the festival that I stood up and cheered for.
THE BEAUTY OF THE SHORT
IHSFF has an aptitude for timing the sequence of shorts like an anthology; it is one of their greatest strengths thanks to programmers Danny Marianino and Brandon Kinchen. I think this was their strongest year yet with regards to short horror programming, making it very difficult to pick my favorites from the stellar lineup.
The Relic, directed by J.M. Logan, won Best IHSFF Horror Short and it is an impressive piece with spectacular special effects. But the two shorts that resonated for me the most were Cultured and Tinder Tango.
Cultured – Director Dáire McNab and Brian Robinson
Johnny (Brian Robinson) has found a new desire in the kitchen to make the ultimate sourdough bread for a local contest but more than what he bargained for. The special effects and makeup help ferment the buildup of Johnny’s baking obsession and this short is what I consider to have perfect comedic timing!
Tinder Tango – Director Cecilia Robles
For one woman (Cecilia Robles), Tinder becomes the ultimate hell in finding the perfect date and dance partner. The camera work moving in a seductive nature with the tango dance moves, plus the vibrant colors, brought this short to life. The beautiful and talented Robles executed a concept with a strategic buildup and a perfect twist.
For more details on all the amazing shorts, visit http://www.horrorscifi.com/films.
Breaking New Ground
The newest films of Horror will continue to develop themes from a post-pandemic timeframe for years to come. Horror will always be the greatest element that allows us to examine our responses to our challenges. This year’s IHSFF programming certainly evoked a new emotional chapter for the genre, and perhaps none more so than Red River Road and The Stairs, each breaking new revolutionary ground. These are two films to not miss out on as they both hold your undivided attention.
Red River Road – Director Paul Schuyler
Synopsis: A family of four isolating against a pandemic virus that spreads through the internet and robs you of your ability to perceive reality–often violently–begins to unravel when they suspect one or all of them might be infected.
Red River Road is an unexpected and surreal ride, a profound achievement in filmmaking.
The IMDb synopsis says it perfectly, as I don’t want to reveal any more of the storyline or give you spoilers. This was a true surprise and in my top five for this year. Red River Road kept me captivated; I even broke out the Kleenex twice. The tears really hit home regarding the buildup of all our fears, the uncertainty, the conspiracies, the illusions of freedoms and control during a pandemic.
I had no idea the talented Schuylers – Paul, Jade, Quinn, Shaw, and their dog Brody — shot this in the comfort of their own home during the lockdown.
The score by Cindy O’Connor was beautiful and helped navigate the pacing and tension of our fears.
Red River Road was a release and a purge of 2020.
The Stairs – Director Peter ‘Drago’ Tiemann*
In 1997, a grandfather and grandson set out to hunt in the great Pacific Northwest for a little relaxation and bonding. But the part of the wilderness they have set foot in is unlike any other. After stumbling upon a mysterious, ornate set of stairs deep in the woods, the pair inexplicably vanish without a trace. Two decades later, the stairs seem to reappear to a group of friends hiking through the same stretch of landscape.
As they trek deeper, the forest seems to swallow them up, transporting them into a dangerous nightmare.
Delicately teetering on the edge of science fiction and horror, just how the IHSFF likes it, is The Stairs. Co-written and directed by Peter Tiemann, this tale uniquely weaves several genres while utilizing some superb natural landscapes, crafty set pieces, and the notable performances from two of its leads — Adam Korson and Josh Crotty — The Stairs ended up finding its way to a well-deserved Best Film win at the festival.