By Jessica Peralta, Alexander Pate, Carissa Martinez, Jack Newsome and Gavin Mock

The indie horror film festival Horrible Imaginings made its annual return to Labor Day weekend with its usual collection of all that is creepy, crawly, weird, hilarious and thought-provoking in independent cinema.

Of course, the event took a virtual turn this year, and was extended to a whole seven days rather than the usual three — running Sept. 1-7. Hosted by event Director Miguel Rodriguez via Zoom, the film festival offered viewers 11 feature films and 100 short films along with live discussions with filmmakers and actors. 

Rodriguez told Halloween Every Night that the film themes this year included a lot of elements of mistrust. 

“What is real? How can we make decisions while surrounded by unreliable data?” said Rodriguez. “I think the past few years has seeped into the zeitgeist and heightened how acute that anxiety is.”

He said the only film that was selected with a cognizant connection to the current pandemic was the feature film “Darkness In Tenement 45.”  

“But that was for almost ironic reasons,” he said. “It wasn’t so much that the pandemic influenced it, but rather how many elements of that film seemed to accurately predict about the pandemic, including human behavior.

“Our mission is to give a voice to projects that express fear or anxiety, and I think the current world can’t help but influence that. I suspect there will be even more next year.”

Here are some of the highlights from this year’s festival:

Wednesday, Sept. 2

Surreal period piece “Darkness in Tenement 45” follows an unlikely group of people forced under quarantine because of fear of biological weapons unleashed on New York City. The year is 1952 and the antagonist is not who you may think.

Despite its extremely relevant theme for 2020, the film was written two years ago. It touches on some very familiar themes: feelings of isolation, the need to keep order under such uncertain times, and the chaos that ensues from that need when others aren’t willing to trust those in charge.

This is something that Casey Kramer, who plays Martha, addressed in the post-viewing discussion. “Once the quarantine started, we were left with only [our] present and our past, because all of our goals and plans became a giant question mark.” And that is something the characters in the film struggle with throughout. “What happens next?”

Thursday, Sept. 3

Part stoner comedy, detective mystery, LGBTQ allegory and ghost story, “Dead” is a genre-bending New Zealand horror film from Writer/Director Hayden J. Weal, who co-wrote and co-starred with New Zealand star Thomas Sainsbury. 

“Dead” follows Marbles Marbeck (Sainsbury) who can see ghosts, thanks to a homemade drug consisting of his late father’s neurological medication mixed with a heavy amount of marijuana. After his mother plans to sell the family farm leading to the promise of financial gain, Marbeck teams up with a recently deceased cop, Tagg (Weal), to hunt down a serial killer who has been taking the lives of men in their small city. The unlikely duo has to reconcile their own differences as they navigate their way through ghouls and hooded figures to catch the killer. 

“We didn’t really set out to make a horror or a comedy,” Sainsbury said during the film discussion. “We set out to make [a] detective film with ghosts … [and it became] just inherently funny because you’re dealing with ghosts. …[We] found the horror much later on when we started to go into things that were much more horrific.” 

This film tackles grief, the afterlife, murder, LGBTQ discrimination and inherent biases. Even as a lighthearted horror-comedy, it finds ways to explore complex themes, while not losing its levity. 

Friday, Sept. 4

Day 4 of the festival opened with Cults & Dystopias shorts, which were followed by two feature films and discussions. The first film “LUZ: The Flower of Evil” is a story about religion, femininity, inner freedom and man’s effect on nature. Director/Writer Juan Diego Escobar Alzate takes viewers far into the mountains and into a community led by a preacher named El Señor, who believes he has found the new messiah. This new messiah, a child, causes great turmoil within the town and the preacher’s three daughters, who begin to question their existence. 

Following the showing of the film, Rodriguez and moderator Sterling Anno hosted a discussion with Alzate and Colorist Felipe Martinez, as well as actors and actresses Conrado Osorio (El Señor), Sharon Guzman (Zion) and Andrea Esquivel (Laila). The discussion evolved around the movie’s symbolism, color, production and themes of religion that are all found throughout. Alzate warns that though this film may not be easy to watch, it does pay off at the end. He described it as not a movie, but “like a trip to heaven, and a descent to hell at the end.” 

Set in the ‘80s, “Survival Skills” follows rookie policeman, Jim, who goes through a series of hands-on training modules. His training leads him to a domestic violence case that he takes upon himself to resolve outside the law. The film’s throwback to ‘80s training videos, paired with its old tape distortion effects — which required the use of over 40 VHS machines to create — make for a unique watching experience.

Rodriguez sat down with Director Quinn Armstrong to talk about the director’s inspiration for the film, production, themes and the many other elements that go into directing and writing a film. One big topic that was addressed was the timing of the film’s release. Armstrong said that he had the idea and started production around late 2015 — long before the protests over the death of George Floyd that took place just as the film got accepted into festivals earlier this year. Armstrong told his producers that they should not present it at this time, but they talked him into going through with the launch. Armstrong said, “Now I’m glad that this was made before all this happened, because if we were making this movie now, I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind. I would’ve thrown more grenades.”

Saturday, Sept. 5

With a theme like A Corrupt Power Dynamic, it would be easy to fall into a predictable pattern. But the set of 10 shorts in this grouping span the theme with versatility and creativity. In just a few short minutes and with only two characters in a room, “Affliction” sets a thought-provoking storyline for what could easily be made into a full-length feature about a contagion that develops as a defense mechanism for women. “Ring” could have easily become all gimmick with its use of the security camera (Ring) as the setup to how it’s filmed — but it plays out as a surprising murder-mystery. “What the Spell?” is a hilarious buddy film with a feminine slant that turns a simple premise into a fun, horrific ride with the help of some superior writing. “The Three Men You Meet at Night” catapults a teenage girl’s walk home one night into a chilling metaphor for male power dynamics. While “Smile For Me” is just good, old-fashioned creepy. The lineup ends with “BloodBreed,” featuring an adorable (and demonic) pug. 

The night’s original feature, “The Return,” centers around a college student’s return to his family’s home following his father’s death. He brings along his girlfriend and best friend, and it doesn’t take long for things to get creepy in the house. There’s a mystery driving the story forward, and viewers make discoveries alongside the main protagonist (Rodger). The film isn’t easy to categorize — and that was the filmmakers’ intention. 

“One of the goals going into it was we wanted it to start as like a very classic haunted house-type story, but as it keeps evolving and progressing it just keeps taking on new layers until you kind of hit that third act and it really shifts hard left and then you just take off on this sci-fi ride,” said Bj Verot, director and co-writer. 

Sunday, Sept. 6

Some of the most horrifying experiences are born out of relationships. The We Are In This Together shorts series shows how love can make people do very strange and creepy things. The series consists of 10 films where couples do whatever it takes to work out issues and in some cases embody the term “till death do us part.”

The shorts “Thorns” and “When We Dance” let the audience feel emotionally connected through what each character is going through in their love life. “Thorns” specifically discovers a love between two women who try to work through their problems despite a creepy figure plotting a way to possibly attack. Co-Director Sean Temple explained during the discussion, “We are definitely playing with the way cinema has represented their characters in the past, where they are not the main character,” referring to stereotypes of the LGBTQ community and their misrepresentation in film. 

While each short explores thrilling encounters, “House Hunting” is especially chilling with its perspective that technology is capable of doing horrible things. “We found a niche in making thrillers that existed with modern technology,” said Director Joanna Fang. What makes this short so eerie is that everything that occurs within the 7-minute timespan could actually happen in the real world. 

Whether a film in the series touches on real life or is an outright blood fest, each one leaves a lasting impression. “The fact that people can take [“When We Dance”] the way they want, I think is beautiful because everyone has the right to believe and interpret it as they will,” said Director Charles Pieper. 

The Blood Is Thicker Than Water short film series took us down a different road to horror. 

“Unholy ‘Mole” was a fun horror short about a man who’s so self-centered that he decides that rather than wait for his wife to give birth so that she can make guacamole for him again, he would sell his unborn child’s soul in exchange for his wife to begin producing guacamole from her own body. This does not work out in his favor.

“Happy Mother’s Day” plays on fears of motherhood. The main character is a new mother who attends a pool party and is quickly accosted for breastfeeding. This soon erupts into chaos, during which her baby is taken from her hands.

“Fait Maison” (Homemade) is an eerie look into a seemingly unremarkable family with a sinister secret they hide in every one of their homemade surfboards.

“Weisse Kugal” (The White Marble) is a dark look at the implications of unsustainable populations, and the extreme measures a fascist government can take. In this dystopian Germany, those who receive a white marble are granted life, and those who are given a black marble are sentenced to death.

“Separation” is a heartbreaking look at divorce and how it hurts both involved. It this case, it’s not only emotionally painful, but physically as well when one morning the couple wakes up literally attached at the hip.

“Hammurabi” is a story about revenge but with a twist. The main character is deaf, so she uses a translator service to communicate to her father all of the feelings she’s held in for years — before exacting her revenge.

The feature film “Repossession,” set in Singapore, follows a man who fights against losing everything. We see him lose his job and slowly try to regain control in increasingly more difficult and sinister circumstances. We are given a very intense picture of the societal structure in Singapore and how one’s financial standing dictates their standing and respect in everything they do. While our main character is dealing with his financial and societal life crumbling, there is a malevolent spirit, a self-described monster, stalking him and making every one of his actions ineffective and actively breaking his spirit.

Monday, Sept. 7

It is no big surprise that people do horrible things to each other out of fear, anger and revenge. The People Behaving Badly short film series consists of eight different films showing just how gory and spine-chilling people can get. 

Each film has elements of both suspense and gore. “I really just want to frustrate the audience and draw a scare as long as possible to really get them to boil up and expand the moment,” said Elwood Quincy Walker, director of “Rule of Three.” 

The relationship between the suspense and the audience definitely plays a role. Open interpretation of these films is inevitable since they range from only 5 to 15 minutes. This adds another element of fun and curiosity while watching. Each director that attended the discussion after the screenings expressed how entertaining it was to put together these slasher horrors. 

“We’re playing with the audience and pulling the carpet from under them,” said Mick Dow, of “Pretty Bonnets.” 

The series keeps its audience engaged through gut-wrenching terror. It forms the picture of classic slasher well.

The Monsters Are Everywhere short series concluded the short film showcase for the film festival. The series provided viewers with just about every type of monster you could think of for a 14-film sequence. 

“It’s a play on the imagination,” said Rodriguez, referring to the film “Face Your Fears.” The film highlights the eeriness of the childhood toy, the Jack-in-the-box, and how it can make the main character overcome her fears in ways she would have never imagined.

“When you think your safety is solid and then these sorts of characters creep up, I think that is one of the most terrifying things that could happen,” said Joe Martinez, co-writer of “Red Light Green Light.” The monster in this film is a real arm-hair-raiser.

Each director portrayed each monster in this series originally and impressively.

The Horrible Imaginings Film Festival culminated with “Hail to the Deadites” — a documentary about fans of the “Evil Dead” franchise — with an up-close look at this unique breed of horror fan. Featuring interviews with fans, members of the “Evil Dead” creative team, cast members and the man himself, Bruce Campbell, the film honors the people who have turned this trilogy into cult classic legend. In addition to exploring horror convention life, the film delves into the lives of fans, including some very moving moments. The underlying link is the unfettered passion for the world of “Evil Dead.”

“The main part of my persona is like a horror lover, but that wouldn’t have been a thing if I hadn’t seen ‘Evil Dead,’” said cast member Bri Cummings during the post-film discussion.

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