International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival

Posted by phultstrand // March 27, 2015 // in Features //

 Written by Hal C. Astell

Running a little earlier than last year, this year's Phoenix Film Festival starts on my birthday, which is about as joyous a present as I can imagine. I'm far more interested though in the other festival that it ate in 2011: that's the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, which has consistently grown inside the PFF as a genre track since then but which sadly might have finally reached a limit.

Back in 2011, the IHSFFF part of the event comprised of four competition features, five showcase features and three sets of shorts. By last year, it had grown back to the size old fans remembered: six competition features, eleven showcase features (including 'Cujo', with Dee Wallace Stone in attendance) and four sets of shorts, two of horror and two of sci-fi. 2015 numbers have dropped for the first time since that low year in 2011, but competition films are still up.

The short film sets remain untouched, but there are now seven, count 'em, seven feature films in competition and they include some interesting titles. I'm looking forward to 'The House on Pine Street' and would highly recommend the other two horror features in competition.

'Blood Punch' takes a few standard horror tropes and mixes them up into something very new indeed; that many of the cast and crew got to know each other shooting 'Power Rangers RPM' in New Zealand is about as misleading a note (albeit a truthful one) as I could conjure up. It's completely unlike 'Power Rangers' with copious amounts of drugs, swearing and imaginative death.

'Closer to God' also adds something new to something old, taking the old gothic 'Frankenstein' story and bringing it firmly up to date, making it a modern 'Modern Prometheus'. I also offer up a great deal of respect to the writer/director Billy Senese, who ironically shot his film right in the heart of the Bible Belt in Nashville, TN.

The four sci-fi features in competition are a more inconsistent bunch, but there's enjoyment to be had. 'Clew' is an especially intriguing story about genetically engineered life that takes us down a few roads we don't expect. 'Adventurados' calls itself an 'Irish road movie in space', but I call it a German 'Dark Star'. 'The Sighting' has Mia's boyfriend film her on a quest to figure out if her mother really was abducted by aliens in New Mexico years earlier. That leaves 'The Shells', another picture that follows amateur filmmakers on a quest, this time to visit a former undercover DOD research facility to document a dream researcher who vanished during secret experimentation. There's something for everyone in these competition films.

Even though there's no retro film and no name guest, the films in the showcase category are a varied and intriguing bunch and when the festival director Andrea Beesley, the former Midnite Movie Mamacita and current film programmer at FilmBar, describes them as 'pretty killer', we can be sure she's only understating the case.

I'm especially looking forward to 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter', in which cult Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi plays a bored young lady who travels to North Dakota because she watches a video of 'Fargo', the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers picture, and interprets it as a treasure map. Japanese cinema enjoys taking its imaginative leaps and this sounds like a rather good one.

I'm also looking forward to 'When Animals Dream', a horror drama from Denmark which has garnered much praise for its notable atmosphere and may have built more buzz than anything showing this year except 'Monsters: Dark Continent', the long-awaited sequel to Gareth Edwards's indie hit, 'Monsters'. The new crew have a tough act to follow but I'm happy to watch it just to figure out if they're up to the task.

Among the others on show, 'Deathgasm' features the same lead as 'Blood Punch', Milo Cawthorne, and promises to be as outrageous as its title suggests. I have a weakness for Antipodean horror and this one was made in New Zealand.

Closer to home, 'Julia' is a modern rape revenge movie, 'Betamax' is a horror anthology and 'Lost Soul' is a documentary which sets its sights on the 'doomed journey of Richard Stanley's 'Island of Dr Moreau''. 'The Editor' is a modern giallo that did very well in the Midnight Madness track at the Toronto International Film Festival, from the people who made 'Father's Day'.

That leaves 'Exeter' aka 'Backmask', which stars perhaps the best character actor working today, Stephen Lang, who I know best as Freddy Lounds in Michael Mann's 'Manhunter' but you probably know best as the bad guy colonel in 'Avatar'. It was made by major genre name Marcus Nispel, director of a host of modern reboots, such as 'Conan the Barbarian', also with Lang, and 'Friday the 13th'.

As always, many of these films, both competition and showcase, will be accompanied by cast and/or crew to give Q&As after the screenings. Beyond the films themselves, this is always one of the best aspects of both the PFF and the IHSFFF, with this year looking like a special one for the sheer amount of filmmakers in attendance. Thus far I'm aware of directors and/or actors from 'Blood Punch', 'The House on Pine Street', 'The Shells', 'Exeter', 'Julia', 'Closer to God', 'Clew', 'Deathgasm', 'Lost Soul' and 'Betamax'. That's subject to change, of course, but we're morely likely to see more than less.

There are always representatives of short films in attendance too, but I don't have any details there yet. I've only seen a couple of the shorts selected, but I can highly recommend the half hour steampunk romp known as 'Valiant', as I've screened it myself twice, at last year's San Diego Comic-Fest and at this year's Wild Wild West Con earlier in the month. Check it out in the Sci-Fi Shorts B block.

I talked to Danny Marianino, who programs the horror shorts, to pick his brain about what he has in store for us. He called out 'Dead Hearts' and 'Bad Guy #2' from the Horror Shorts A set and 'A Stranger Kind', 'Q' and 'I Owe You' from the B selection, so make sure you check out both sets if you're into the short side of things. While many of the features make it out to Netflix or other release, the short films often disappear once they wrap up their runs on the festival circuit. Some make it to YouTube or Vimeo, but don't count on seeing all of them there. Catch them on the big screen at the festival or risk never seeing them at all.

As I wrap up this preview of the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival 2015, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of features that are playing the Phoenix Film Festival rather than its genre sister. Horror comedy 'Bad Exorcists' is surely a whole bundle of fun and, yet again, the director will be attending to support his film. 'Makin' Wookiee' is a family comedy musical documentary, of all things, in which students attempt to stage a live musical parody of 'The Empire Strikes Back' and learn much about themselves in the process.

Whatever your genre tastes, there's surely something playing over the next week at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, in the very northeastern corner of Phoenix, that will utterly rock your boat.

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