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After the close of another brilliant year of Panic Film Fest programming, I reflect back on the five features that left an indelible mark.

This year’s Panic Film Fest, a hybrid model of in-person theatrical and virtual screenings, featured an outstanding lineup of feature film and short horror programming. Picking my favorites from more than 25 noteworthy features was not easy. But here are five films from the fest I consider essential viewing, listed in no particular order.

I urge you to try to catch all of these independent genre gems as soon as you’re able. There’s something here for everyone, and these unforgettable films represent some of the best and brightest rising talent in the genre. I’ve also included five other noteworthy films, previously reviewed, which are more than worth your time.

1. KEEPING COMPANY

For the first year ever, Panic Film Fest handed the voting for festival awards over to attendees. Over 700 people voted to crown winners in five different categories, and the horror-comedy Keeping Company walked away with the award for Best Feature Film – for good reason.

The opening scene of Keeping Company is deceptively straightforward — and absolutely chilling. Beautifully shot with ample suspense, we think we know exactly what kind of film we’re about to experience. But as quickly as this captivating house of cards is built, the deck is immediately reshuffled, and the film becomes something else entirely.

We soon meet a couple of life insurance salesmen, Sonny and Noah, who have perfected the art of high-pressure sales through an effective good cop/bad cop routine. Noah (Ahmed Bharoocha) is a good-natured, somewhat naïve father-to-be who is madly in love with his wife considers his partner, Sonny (Devin Das), his best friend. Sonny, however, is far more focused on career success than friendship, desperate to impress his impossible-to-please father and earn the favor of his unscrupulous, ball-busting boss, Paula (Gillian Vigman).

When Sonny and Noah end up at the home of an unlikely serial killer names Lucas (Jacob Grodnik) and his psychotic grandmother (Suzanne Savoy), a bad day at the office turns into a nightmarish fight for survival.

While Noah focuses on keeping hope alive and bonding over shared childhood trauma with the strangely sympathetic Lucas, Sonny insists it’s kill or be killed.

Darkly comedic with a nasty reveal, KEEPING COMPANY from writer/director Josh Wallace is surprisingly heartfelt at times and gloriously violent at others. Taking aim at soulless politicians and amoral capitalists, it’s telling when the serial killer in the film is one of the least objectionable characters.

This is, at its core, a biting satire and condemnation of the American ideal that prioritizes success above else and rewards those who step on and crush the most vulnerable of society in their climb to the top. Despite that, it never feels preachy and is a damn entertaining and wickedly funny ride.

With an outstanding cast and a script that is exceedingly clever and expertly constructed, Keeping Company is a very easy sell. 

2. THE OLD WAYS

Best Director went to Christopher Alender for the gorgeous, atypical exorcism film The Old Ways. If you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in the demon possession subgenre, think again. The Old Ways blends truly effective supernatural scares with gruesome body horror, a culturally significant authenticity, and character-driven drama.

As a young girl, Christina Lopez (Brigitte Kali Canales) witnessed the death of her mother during a horrifying exorcism gone wrong. After being orphaned, she is sent to America to live with a foster family. Years later, Christina is now an investigative reporter, and she has returned to her childhood home in Veracruz to do a story on local tribes and cultures. Ignoring warnings, she travels to a cave known to harbor sinister presences — a cave from which people do not return. Once there, she is knocked unconscious and awakens in a barn, tied to a chair with a bag over her head.

She discovers she is being held hostage by a man named Javi (Sal Lopez) and his mother Luz (Julia Vera), a practitioner of ancient witchcraft. When her estranged cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortes) arrives to help translate, Christina discovers Luz and Javi believe her to be possessed by a dangerous demon. And she will not be allowed to leave until the demon has been exorcised.

Believing her only chance of escape is to play along with the ridiculous charade, Christina submits to the exorcism.

What transpires is one of the most intensely affecting and memorable exorcism scenes in modern horror. There are no crosses, no holy water, no priests reciting Latin or invoking the power of Christ. It’s a refreshingly non-Western take on religious custom and tradition that makes THE OLD WAYS feel remarkably new.

Beautifully shot and drenched in atmosphere, Alender masterfully turns a meager budget into a sumptuous production. With unsettling imagery, strong special effects, and outstanding sound design, The Old Ways delivers terror without jump scares. Canales is incredible as Christina, and her emotionally intense journey and deeply satisfying character evolution are enthralling to watch.

A well-made horror film that delivers depth without sacrificing scares, The Old Ways tells a compelling story steeped in fascinating lore that reinvents an overwrought subgenre by showcasing a different cultural viewpoint. 

3. CENSOR

Director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature is a powerful one. Censor lovingly embraces the grimy aesthetic and transgressive spirit of VHS horror films, while layering in important historical context and effectively leveraging nostalgia in an intriguing and inventive way.

It’s 1980s Britain, in the middle of the infamous “video nasty” hysteria. There’s a war raging against the extreme violence and perceived immorality of Horror films, and Enid Baines (Niam Algar) is one of the country’s most loyal and effective foot soldiers. An unassuming, hardworking film censor, Enid’s life revolves around her work. She sees it as a special calling, allowing her to protect the innocent.

She’s careful, methodical, and diligent. But she gives a pass to a film that a deranged madman cites as inspiration for a bloody rampage, causing the media to label her an accessory to murder for her negligence.

The lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur as Enid buckles under the pressure of her perceived failure, coupled with resurfaced childhood trauma sparked by her latest assignment — a film with scenes eerily reminiscent of her own past and the mysterious disappearance of her sister.

CENSOR is a clever meta-horror on the damaging effects on the psyche from continuous exposure to shockingly violent and disturbing imagery, delivered by and for the very devotees of such “depraved” subject matter.

With numerous references to the decade’s most notorious shockers and plenty of lurid scenes used to showcase the taxing nature of Enid’s work, it feels like a voyeuristic experience — both shameful and stimulating, like seeking out banned films from underground purveyors of smut during a nationwide moral crusade.

With an eerie, anxiety-inducing sound design from Tim Harrison and sleek, stylish visuals, Censor is both artistic and unsettling. And Niamh Algar delivers a captivating performance as a woman who rapidly spirals from unflappable to unhinged.

A timely commentary on censorship and our increasing desensitization to extreme violence, along with a reflection on repressed trauma and the ways we embrace horror to escape it, combine to give Censor a fascinating depth. 

4. VICIOUS FUN

The uproarious and blood-soaked Vicious Fun more than delivers on the promise of its title. Currently boasting a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score at the time of this writing, it’s the kind of film that seems pretty damned hard not to love.

After a killer opening, we meet an irritating horror journalist/wannabe filmmaker named Joel (Evan Marsh) as he’s interviewing — and critiquing — a popular hack-and-slash director. Back home, he waits for his roommate Sarah, who he’s secretly in love with, to return home from her date with the Patrick Bateman-inspired yuppie scum, Bob the Realtor (Ari Millen).

When Sarah’s friend arrives in a taxi at the same time Bob is leaving, Joel hops in and tells the cab driver to follow his car. They end up at a Chinese Restaurant, where we learn just how much of a dirtbag Bob is, while Joel proceeds to get blackout drunk. He passes out in a utility closet and gets locked in for the night. When he finally wakes, he notices a small group has gathered to listen to what appears to be a motivational speaker.

They mistake Joel for one of the missing attendees and invite him into their fold. But Joel quickly learns that he’s in the company of the world’s most dangerous and sadistic serial killers.

From the hulking masked killer with mommy issues who gets off offing frisky coeds to the brooding cannibalistic chef and the “emotionless lizard in a skin suit” with a clown fetish, this film wears its genre influences like a bloody badge of honor.

Borrowing from the plot of the horror film he’s been writing, Joel is able to convince the group he’s also a cold-blooded killer. But when a late arrival shows up to the group who turns out to be Bob, the glaring plot holes in Joel’s story become readily apparent and mayhem ensues.

With impressive production values, VICIOUS FUN is a feast for the eyes and ears, from the great practical gore to the pitch-perfect ’80s soundtrack. Drenched in homage, it’s self-aware without being smug. And it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny while still as relentlessly gory and adrenaline-fueled as you crave in a slasher-inspired horror film.

Writer/director Cody Calahan (The Oak Room) really knocks this one out of the park, assembling a fantastic ensemble cast who are more than capable of keeping up with the film’s frenetic pace and relentless comedy.

Ari Millen nails his role as a demented but brilliant sociopath and effortlessly steals every scene he’s in. Amber Goldfarb is captivating as Carrie, a badass female foil to the killer Boys’ Club.  And Evan Marsh shines as our unlikely hero, starting off as a caustic loser but quickly winning our hearts with his ultimately endearing nature.

Thankfully, this enormously entertaining thrill ride also does a great job sticking the landing; and don’t forget to keep watching after the credits for one last bit of vicious fun. 

5. THE BLAZING WORLD

My favorite film from the fest, The Blazing World is a dazzling feature film debut from writer/director Carlson Young, who also stars in the film alongside heavyweights Dermot Mulroney and Udo Kier.

Loosely inspired by Margaret Cavendish’s foundational science fiction novel “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666),” Young’s interpretation is a beautiful and surreal meditation on grief that’s part Guillermo del Toro and part David Lynch — a dark fairytale that follows Alice, Tom, and Margaret down the proverbial rabbit hole.

We open on two cherubic young girls, golden-haired twins in matching pink dresses, as they blissfully run through an idyllic meadow catching lightning bugs on their family’s sprawling estate. Inside the perfect home, a perfect wife dances along to classical music, while making dinner for her perfect family. Everything is perfect… until it isn’t — until the beautiful façade cracks a bit and we glimpse the horror hidden just below the surface.

Beneath the enviable veneer, a perfect couple are perfectly miserable. The simmering rage boils over, and a husband (Dermot Mulroney) explodes in violence on his long-suffering wife (Vinessa Shaw), while a curious young daughter, Margaret, watches from a window. While distracted, Margaret’s sister Elizabeth drowns in a pool. Next to her lifeless body, a mysterious and oh so creepy man (the always outstanding Udo Kier) beckons Margaret to enter a big black portal.

Fast forward to a now grown Margaret (Carlson Young), called home by her mother for one last visit before they sell the family estate. Years of grief and heartache have only deepened the rift between her parents and further illuminated their fatal flaws, leaving Margaret’s mother lonelier and more desperate for love than ever while her father drinks himself into oblivion.

Seeking answers about her sister, who Margaret believes may not be dead but trapped in an alternate dimension, she approaches a popular television psychic in a parking lot. The psychic warns Margaret about unresolved childhood trauma. But Margaret can’t stop seeing visions of her sister and the mysterious man from her youth trying to kill her and force her into that portal.

After seeing the man take her sister through the portal, she follows them in, waking up in an alternate plane where much is familiar yet also entirely different. A forest now grows inside her home, drenched in red light with ivy crawling the walls and asymmetrical, smoke-filled hallways. The man, calling himself The Emperor, becomes her guide, informing her of the quest she must complete to free her sister, imprisoned between life and death. She must confront and defeat three demons to obtain the literal keys to her escape.

To say much more would rob the viewer of the many extraordinary twists and turns that await you on this disorienting but deeply affecting journey.

While some critics have rejected Young’s ambitious debut as all style with little substance, I found it to be a visionary work of art from a promising new talent, aided by a dread-inducing score and flawless production design. 

FIVE HONORABLE MENTIONS

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