Panic Fest is something that I look forward to every year; after all, why wouldn’t I? A world-class horror/monster/sci-fi film festival right in my own backyard, put together by my good friends at Rotten Rentals and the Screenland Armour; what’s not to love? But for me, at least, Panic Fest has become something of a fraught weekend.
Two years ago, just as I was leaving the house to go to Panic Fest, I got a phone call about my dad’s declining health. It wasn’t the first phone call on the subject, but it was one of the ones that triggered the fall of dominoes which made up the end of his life, the realization of a lot of trauma and baggage, and various other things that I’ve been dealing with in one capacity or another for the last two years. As such, Panic Fest always feels like an anniversary: the last weekend where I got to feel normal for a while and just have some fun.
Every year since, when Panic Fest has come around it has brought with it a weird combination of emotions–fraught, like I said. This year was the first time I attended as a “private citizen.” In the past I’ve helped out with the fest in some capacity; manning the Rotten Rentals booth or whatever. This year I just bought my ticket like everyone else and showed up to watch movies and bullshit around in the (really nice) vendor loft. I picked up a copy of the really great-looking book Unsung Horrors, which contains a couple of essays by my friend (and former boss, way back when I still worked at a video store) Jeff Owens.
I also watched four movies over the course of the weekend, along with a handful of really good shorts. That is, I believe, fully twice as many movies as the most I ever managed at a previous Panic Fest, so I’ll call it pretty good. To make matters better, I enjoyed all four movies, which is always nice. Here are my brief thoughts on each, presented in ascending order of quality.
The Barn – An 80s-style VHS throwback, The Barn was funded at least partially via IndieGoGo, and it shows. Because of the film’s intentionally low-rent aesthetic, the budgetary limitations are never really a problem for it, and the result is something pretty charming for anybody who has a nostalgic yen for 80s slashers and monsters that are just guys in Halloween masks. What The Barn can’t do is rise much above that. It’s never quite funny enough to function as pure parody, nor strong enough to stand on its own as anything else. So what you get is a pleasant throwback that seems like it ought to be watched on an old tube TV, popped out of one of those clamshell VHS cases; but a surprisingly crowded theatre at a horror film festival is probably the next best thing.
Don’t Knock Twice – A few days before Panic Fest, I watched last year’s Lights Out for the first time. Don’t Knock Twice shares a lot of parallels with that film–minus its specific light-related central conceit–but Lights Out suffers every time by the comparison. Which is not to say that Don’t Knock Twice is any particularly great shakes, but it stands up better than most of the familiar ghostly fare that so often haunts our multiplexes these days.
The Void – Imagine if the Astron-6 guys couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make a fan film of Hellraiser, The Thing, Prince of Darkness, or The Fly–so they just did all four. That’s pretty much The Void in a nutshell, and as such it manages to seem both inventive and derivative, while also feeling more like watching someone play Resident Evil than the Resident Evil movies ever managed. The visuals are strong, and there are plenty of gloppy monsters all done with practical effects, so I love that, but I also can’t help noticing that all of the effects feel like they would probably have been more confidently deployed in the hands of any of those other directors.
It’s been called Lovecraftian–as anything with cultists, tentacles, or horror on a larger-than-human scale will be (and The Void certainly has all three in spades)–but it owes a much bigger debt to Barker than to Lovecraft. Call it Hellraiser with the aesthetic of Carpenter and Cronenberg and you’re damn close. All this probably sounds a little down on The Void, but it absolutely isn’t meant to be–it’s sitting in my number two spot here, after all–it’s just that, for all its promise and its many great qualities, it never quite rises to what it almost is. (A problem that, honestly, seems to plague many of even the very best of our crop of contemporary horror movies.)
Train to Busan – In a year that has already been full-to-bursting with surreal moments, few were as jarring as walking out of Train to Busan to the news of Trump’s Muslim ban. Train to Busan is, essentially, a Korean zombie movie of the contemporary fast, swarming zombie school, and one that, as you’ve no doubt heard from other people than me, is handled brilliantly well. There’s a lot going on in it, but possibly its biggest and least subtle theme can be summed up as: Turning people away because you are afraid makes you into something worse than the monsters that scare you. As such, it has maybe never felt more topical than in this moment.
All that aside, though, it is also just an extremely solid movie. Like Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist from a few years back–which was also very emphatically a product of its moment with a very heavy social message, but that still plays fine without that context–Train to Busan holds up amidst a sea of similar fare as one of the best of the modern crop of swarming zombie flicks.