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Monday, September 25, 2017

WIHFF 2017: Feature Film Reviews

This past weekend, the first Women in Horror Film Festival was held. It was a fantastic festival with loads of wonderful films that showcased the talents of some incredible women directors, writers, actors, editors, composers, and more. I got a chance to attend all the screenings, so here are my thoughts on all the feature films of the festival! Check out my picks for the best short films of the fest here!

Murder Made Easy
dir. by Dave Palamaro

This 76-minute feature was an entertaining delight! It begins as the story of a couple that invite old friends over for dinner on the year anniversary of the woman’s husband, only to murder them one by one. It’s a play on the Agatha Christie murder mystery, and is full of dark sarcastic wit and clever twists and turns. Murder Made Easy is full of impressive and engaging long takes and at times recalls the fun of watching a Hitchcock movie for the first time. 

The real seller for the film is its excellent cast, led by Jessica Graham, who plays the widow Joan. The whole cast, which includes fun exaggerated characters like the aging dramatic stage actor, the pretentious documentarian who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, the psychoanalyst/author who is always looking for her next book’s subject, and the vegan spiritualist. The characters are all written with love amidst the poking fun, and the casting is pitch perfect as these talented actors and actresses bring these big personalities to life.

Murder Made Easy is the perfect example of how to make a fantastic short feature film on a small budget. It only uses one location, a small cast, and minimal special effects, but it fills the screen with quick and scintillating dialogue, an exceptionally clever plot, and engaging long-take cinematography. 


dir. by Jason Winn
Official Website

A bunch of kids get trapped in an abandoned hospital and are hunted down methodically by killers in animal masks. Seen it, right? Not quite so with DeadThirsty.

While that part of the concept has perhaps been done before, this film aims higher by adding in a very interesting political angle. The film takes place in 1992, shortly after Clinton was elected and the standoff at Ruby Ridge occurred. In the film, a couple goes to a rave in an abandoned hospital destined for demolition for the woman’s birthday; the husband is less than enthusiastic, as he is concerned about the future of America under Bush’s “New World Order”. 

The rave scenes that start the movie out are expertly shot and lead us to be very connected to the leading characters as their relationship begins to fray during the course of the party. Since I saw this at the inaugural Women in Horror Film Fest, it’s worth noting that the two female leads (Sara Bess and Melissa Kunnap) are pretty badass, and compared to the men they more than hold their own against their tormentors.

It’s shot quite well and utilizes the naturally creepy setting of a real life abandoned hospital to great effect. Most unnerving are the cleverly created pull back shots when one of the women wakes up in a morgue drawer, and the claustrophobia portrayed is very palpable. Despite some issues with distorted dialogue recordings (unfortunately something that is quite common in indie films) that were a bit distracting at times, the film is well crafted and smartly edited, especially the very intriguing opening credits sequence that sets up the political undertones that permeate the film.

dir. by Lou Simon
Official Facebook

This twisty and disturbing thriller tells the story of a man who decides to help a rape victim kidnap her rapist and force him to confess on camera. The initial concept has been done before–an extremely similar idea is at the heart of Hard Candy, a movie that it could be said launched the career of Ellen Paige. However, 3 quickly becomes something quite different as the story unfolds.

The film is very well written, for starters–there are little hints and ideas dropped carefully throughout that clue us in that perhaps there’s more to this story. Is the man they’ve kidnapped really the rapist? Who are these people, really, who relatively calmly kidnap a man and tie him up in a basement? What is that awful smell in the basement, and whose house is this?

The script and fantastic performances by the extremely small cast (essentially just Todd Bruno, Aniela McGuinness, and Mike Stanley) do a great job of throwing you off the truth in so many places that the movie changes from a revenge thriller into a psychological mystery at some point without you really noticing. The multiple twists are exciting and surprising, and the film looks at a impressive number of difficult subjects including life after a rape and PTSD. Knowing that the movie had a crew of barely six people makes it all the more admirable an effort.

Buzzard Hollow Beef

dir. by Joshua M. Johnson
Official Facebook

New mother Jordan comes home for the Thanksgiving holiday only to discover that her brother’s friend Bob, who she’s had an on-again-off-again relationship with after her recent divorce, is at her father’s house as well. After an unsettling trip to the local butcher shop to get a side of beef for Thanksgiving because Bob is allergic to poultry, some weird things start happening. Is the butcher’s family that lives next door hunting them for sport, and are they the descendants of a cannibals?

The central premise is a fun one, and only gets more fun when it is completely turned on its head, making us question who is hunting who and what is really causing the violence that has suddenly rocked this family’s holiday. The twist is reminiscent of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, but with a slightly different and darker perspective. 

This is a great play on the cannibalistic hillbilly subgenre made better by the wonderful cast made up of primarily improv actors. This lends the whole affair a casually comedic vibe that brings a lot of life to the characters and their romantic entanglings, which in turn makes their bloody fall all the more disturbing. Buzzard Hollow Beef is a solid horror movie with great characters and a clever twist on a familiar concept, and I’m looking forward to what these filmmakers do next!

Ruin Me

dir. by Preston DeFrancis
Official Facebook

"This isn't part of the game!" Any great haunted house, escape room, or amusement park ride worth it's salt pulls this meta trick at some point or another. But how can you tell what's real and what's not, especially if you're already potentially unstable? That's what Ruin Me aims to do as it's main characters all agree to an extreme 36-hour "ultimate horror movie experience".

Ruin Me is extremely well produced, and it's production quality rivals that of big budget horror films, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't get picked up for some kind of distribution soon. It deserves it; nowhere to be found are the poor sound, odd editing, or questionable acting that plague most independent films, especially genre films.

The concept is a clever one that plays on the popularity of escape rooms and horror fandom, but doesn't take the meta humor to Scream levels, instead choosing for us to see the whole thing from the perspective of someone who isn't all that into it. What really pushes it into great territory is the depth of backstory which all it's characters are given. We are gradually given clues to Alex's difficult past and how she came to be with Nathan, Pitch and Marina's alternative views on relationships, and how the other two solo adventurers came to get involved with Slasher Sleepover.

All the performances are believable and interesting, but Marcienne Dwyer as Alex is particularly good. There's a richness to her character that is brought out both through the writing and by both the vulnerability and strength that Dwyer brings to the role.

Ruin Me is a memorable modern horror film, and that in itself is a feat in a lot of ways. The puzzle aspect, especially in the first half of the film, impressively recreates the thrill and excitement of doing a real escape room. Add in some very interesting characters and a twist or two, and you've got a really enjoyable horror flick that will certainly be popping up on some top 2017 horror lists.
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