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2017 FilmQuest Festival: Horror Student Films

Provo, Utah’s Covey Center for the Arts hosted the 2017 FilmQuest Festival recently and the talent on display easily rivaled any of the preeminent US-based events including, Sundance and Tribeca, in terms of quality movies. Over 1,000 films and screenplays were submitted for consideration, with more than 200 projects being officially selected for exhibition and competition. And the seven horror films in the Student Film category displayed a wide array of complexly engaging narratives and numerous emerging creative talents.

Home Education (United Kingdom, 2016)

Psycho is a film I love and I’m sure it had something to do with all this on some level.” – Andrea Niada.

Writer/director Andrea Niada’s Home Education is a clever and disturbing look at the power and perils of knowledge. In this uniquely-conceived narrative, Rachel (Kate Reed) and her mother Carol (Jemma Churchill) await the return of the family patriarch, Philip (Richard Ginn). There’s just one little problem: he is dead and rotting away in the attic.

Niada’s ideas for the short film are the result of lofty goals. “The film began as a feature-length idea, so I did a great deal of brainstorming and exploration of the world around the characters, slowly adding various layers to it,” Niada explained. My partner (who is also the amazing producer of the film) was vacuum-packing some of her winter clothes and that’s how it happened. It seemed to tie in perfectly with the rest of their twisted logic.

Indeed, like many well-known horror films like Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991), Home Education found inspiration in real life. “I was on the subway and came across a brief article describing how police in Russia had connected a man’s body they found in a dumpster back to a lady who turned out was his wife and had kept him in bed for years, certain he would resurrect,” Niada said.

She had made her kids wash and feed him daily, until they were old enough to realize she might be a little unhinged and had thrown him out. As soon as I read this I knew I wanted to do something with it. The dread of dying is something I have felt very strongly and the subsequent mechanisms we employ to shield ourselves from this finality have always fascinated me.

In addition to ideas that are sure to resonate with audiences, another strength of Home Education is the virtuoso performance of young Kate Reed. It’s frightening, in a good way, how precise she is delivering her lines of dialogue in such a realistic and believable fashion. And even when Reed isn’t speaking, she’s saying volumes with her eyes and subtle facial expressions – techniques that elude even some of Hollywood’s leading thespians.

“Kate is a brilliant actress and wonderful person! She was the last actress we saw for the role and happened to be the best for the role,” Niada explained. We knew it was her from the minute she opened her mouth to read for us.

Gemma Churchill also gives a noteworthy performance as the misguided mother. Jemma was another wonderful actress and person,” Niada said. “We did work a lot on making her as real as possible and for her denial to come from a well-defined place. I think that’s the only way absurdity can really work and also when madness is at its most effective – when people FULLY believe what they’re saying and in some twisted way it makes sense.

In fact, it is truly terrifying at the conclusion when Carol’s daughter goes from suddenly being the learner to the teacher. Saying more would give the riveting end away, but Churchill and Reed are at the top of their respective acting games when the climax hits audiences over the head like a shovel. That final scene will scare the hell out of any parent – guaranteed.

I think the fact Rachel becomes even more unhinged than her mother is the only way she could go in reality,” Niada said. “And I think it’s also the more quietly terrifying element of this kind of psychological ‘abuse’. She’s rebelling against her mother just like any other teenager, but with the distorted tools she has available in her sealed off reality.”

One of the more surreal elements used in the story, and that’s saying something when the father is rotting upstairs, is the bone that Rachel utilizes. Yes – a bone. It’s not at all what you expect a little girl to possess or play with, but everything about its inclusion screams The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), in terms of scenery and prop elements.

I hadn’t seen Texas Chainsaw yet when I made this, funnily enough,” Niada said as he described the use of the bone in the film. “Rachel’s bone is supposed to be attracted to a particular space in the woods where she believes she can find some answers to how to save her father from his ‘condition’. The idea came when writing the feature and writing the rules of the woods and the ‘in-between’ space within it. I suppose that since most of what I was writing centered around decay, death and the deathly, it seemed appropriate that a bone would be the object guiding her!

In addition to the imagery of the bone, Carol also has all of these notes posted around the house like one might highlight events in their smart phones or even employ those little yellow Post-its. “All the signs and ‘decorations’ once again came from really trying to connect with the characters’ psychologies and their beliefs and how, therefore, they might manifest them in their world,” Niada explained. “I also think I channeled a lot of my own obsessiveness into them. For the record – I don’t have signs like that all over the house, but I think I connected with a place in myself that made me see how someone would want to do that!

Home Education is wonderfully-constructed realism, with just a dash of the unorthodox, which culminates into one of the most dangerously unhinged teenagers in horror history. And that unique mixture makes Niada’s tour de force one of the must-sees from FilmQuest.

Total: 4 stars

Raisin (USA, 2016)

“Raisin was about exploring primal subconscious fears. I was mostly just examining ideas, images, and sounds that I find disturbing or interesting, and I hoped that doing so would resonate with others as well.” – Danny Hunt

Writer/director Danny Hunt’s Raisin compares favorably to movies produced by the iconic filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. You can see the influence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) in Hunt’s unique filmmaking techniques – a psychedelic sophistication – and the eerie score by Brian Lee and Dallin Hunt is a haunting masterpiece that brings it all together.

I saw both of those movies as a teenager just as I was starting to get really interested in film and filmmaking, so I definitely think they were influential,” Hunt said. The one concrete thing I can say for sure inspired me from those films was the music from 2001. I think the composers and I talked about how the music in 2001 sometimes sounds like this hellish chorus of demonic chanting, and we wanted to try to capture a similar demonic feeling at times.”

The title itself is a clever play on words, as Raisin refers to not only the aliens themselves but the theme of the abductors rearing the sisters. “The idea for the creatures came first,” Hunt explained. I was just doodling one day and I drew this mom and dad with faceless wrinkly heads sitting at a dinner table with normal children. When I started thinking of a film project based on these drawings it just occurred to me that these ‘Raisin Heads’ were ‘raisin’ the girls. At first, I thought it was kind of a silly joke, but then it stuck and I really couldn’t think of a different name.

In addition to a suspenseful plot, the film’s antagonists are brilliantly designed by Claire and Trevor Asplund. One moment, the aliens seem nurturing and kind while at other times maleficent and quite dangerous. Their masked-expressions, and even their body language, are quite stoic. “I had worked in art and production design departments with Claire and Trevor before on some student film projects and I knew that they were extremely smart and talented, and that Raisin wouldn’t be any good without their help,” Hunt said.

“The process of designing the creatures, and the overall look of the film, was a lot of me ineloquently and abstractly trying to describe how I wanted things to look. And then them taking all my nonsense and refining and turning it into concrete reality. My vision was a little muddled, but they brought knowledge and ideas to the table that really helped me to focus, and then we all worked extremely hard to build and paint and gather everything we needed to create the look and feel we wanted.”

The combination of storytelling, visual imagery, exceptionally-executed alien creatures and that mesmerizing score makes Raisin a standout. And the director’s message, for those that enjoy his movie: “I don’t have any specific message or theme that I want audiences to take away. I just hope that it reaches people and affects them on some level. I hope people have fun watching it.”

Total: 4 stars

The Witching Hour (USA, 2016)

Filmmaker Riley Geis’ The Witching Hour is a triumph in the realm of horror comedy, with the emphasis being on the coming-of-age adventure of young George (Maddox Henry) and his new friend Susie (Amber Patino), who just happens to be a witch.

George is on the run from some bullies when he finds his way into a theater screening the late George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and it’s there that he meets Susie. As the story progresses, the pair find themselves checking out a real haunted house. And with a little magic, courtesy of Susie, George gets revenge on the three hooligans who chased him earlier.

There’s a real The Goonies (1985) feel to this film, and both of the lead actors knock their performances right out of the ballpark. In addition, Geis features two songs by The Sloths in The Witching Hour: Makin’ Love and Before I Die. And as most diehard horror fanatics know, The Sloths lineup since 2012 has featured filmmaker Tom McLoughlin as lead vocalist of the band. McLoughlin directed Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986) – another brilliant horror homage by Geis.

The sole blemish on Geis’ wonderful film is the fact that he spelt McLoughlin’s name wrong in the credits: Tom McLaughlin. The devil’s in the details, but hopefully horror aficionados will give him a free pass on an otherwise delightful movie.

Total: 4 stars

Pasghetti (USA, 2017)

Conor C. Long’s Pasghetti takes a seemingly harmless everyday household food – pasta –  and turns it into a blood-thirsty creature on the hunt for revenge. Yes, it sounds absurd that spaghetti could be at all threatening, but Long pulls it off in epic fashion. Bottom line: it really works!

The creature’s look –  created by Logan Long –  and the accompanying music by composers Aaron Moura and Alex Siciliano pays well-deserved homage to Creepshow (1982). In fact, the quality of the storytelling, photography (DOP – Angela Rosales Challis) and the original score make Pasghetti a perfect companion piece to George A. Romero and Stephen King’s wildly popular horror anthology.

Joe Bob Briggs himself would surely be proud, as Pasghetti features a smoldering-hot antagonist (Verdiana Ranieri), a wickedly-awesome beast and plenty of blood when Benito’s (Edoardo Silvana Chiappino) true involvement is revealed at the climax.

Total: 4 stars

 The Babysitter (Canada, 2016)

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) made it fashionable to stalk babysitters in the late 1970s, and Frederic Chalte’s The Babysitter continues the tradition by revisiting the past. In the movie, which is set in the 1980s, a seemingly normal family prepares to abduct a young babysitter for their hi-tech videotape collection.

In fact, the special effect imagery in that final scene is very reminiscent of how Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was absorbed into the computer world in the original Tron (1982). Science fiction and horror have been weaved together, in terms of genres, since the earliest days of cinema in George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902).

And while horror and sci-fi often fight to stand independently of one another, it’s nice to see The Babysitter uniting ideologies from both realms. It certainly worked in Alien (1979) and Chalte has it working in this deliciously wicked horror flick.  

There are so many 1980’s references in the movie, which make the film even more enjoyable for the nostalgic. Nathalie (Frederique Dansereau) is wearing a blue jean jacket, the store housing all the VHS tapes for rentals is right out of that bygone era and the fact that the VCR itself is the device used against poor Nathalie to imprison her in the family’s bizarre collection is the same kind of genius preoccupying the Stranger Things webseries.

Fans of sci-fi and horror will delight in this 80s-inspired, excellent adventure. “Party on, Wayne!”

Total: 3 ¾ stars

Dead City (France, 2015)

Director Myriam Destephen’s Dead City takes the usual formula for a zombie picture and transforms it into an original concept that clearly separates her movie from other less interesting undead features.

In 1952, there is no finality to death. Human beings can’t pass away. They can be brutalized, which forces them to decay, but there is no escape from their corpses. People who find such fates are forever trapped in their rotting shells and shunned by society.

One of the most haunting bits of imagery comes at the conclusion when the seemingly attractive lounge singer’s (Marie-Jeanne Nalbone) disgustingly decomposing face creeps out of the shadows and reveals a morbid membrane of skin and bone.

Dead City is a unique blend of horror and film noir – highly entertaining and beautiful to look upon.

Total: 3 ¾ stars

Emma: An American Alptraum in Austria (Austria, 2017)

Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t have anything on Anna’s (Ciera Danielle) spawn of Satan. And mother Anna is not to be messed with in filmmaker Daniel Limmer’s Emma: An American Alptraum in Austria.

The real erudition of the filmmaker is the wonderful use of misdirection. You will fear for poor Anna’s life right up until the point that Michael (Thomas Mraz) cuts the child out of Anna’s stomach to destroy the newborn. And you need not, because it’s everyone else who is in mortal danger. And the scene where Michael digs his blade into Anna’s stomach is one of the goriest sequences from any of FilmQuest’s Student Horror Shorts. It’s disgustingly sublime when the child pushes through, blood oozing and flesh peeling back from the wound. It isn’t quite on the same level as the infamous scene from Last House on the Left (1972), in terms of realism, but it’s a bloody segment of gory art direction.

When the daughter Emma (Feather Rose Joslin) emerges, she begins floating in the air – glowing red – as Anna morphs into this hideous-looking demon. Will those on hand to witness Emma’s end possibly survive? The answer lies within this short horror film’s well-conceived narrative immersed in exquisite cinematography by Roland Kluger. 

Total: 3 ¾ stars

Another slate of unforgettable horror movies has entered the growing library of quality-made short motion pictures. Hopefully, with the innovations in filmmaking technology continuing to grow at unfathomable speeds, and all the streaming services to expose such projects to the public, more and more up-and-coming cinematic talents will emerge.

About Steven Thrash

Thrash graduated Cum Laude from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communications, focusing on film studies, journalism and theatre arts. Dubbed a "prolific" writer by Hollywood icon Kenneth Johnson (The Incredible Hulk, V, The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation), Steven has been honored by the Arkansas College Media Association for his story writing prowess. He has also received recognition for his dramatic writing from the Eerie, Shriekfest and Screamfest horror film festivals. Publications include: Carroll County News, Benton Courier, Saline Courier, Forum, Echo, ABC Financial and Moroch.

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