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Report: The Stanley Film Festival, an Essential Horror Retreat

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Traveling to the Stanley Hotel is already something of a pilgrimage. The historic lodge, built in 1909 and famous for its spectral activity, looms over Estes Park, CO, surrounded by stunning, natural but also otherworldly landscape. Then of course, there’s the fact that it was a catalyst in the mind of Stephen King; his own stay there inspired THE SHINING, one of the most seminal works of horror there is. Lucky for us then, The Stanley Hotel, the Denver Film Society and programmers Michael Lerman and Landon Zakheim have enhanced the inherent aura of the locale with the Stanley Film Festival. A weekend-long celebration of genre in all its forms, which wrapped its second edition over the course of April 24-27, is quickly establishing itself not only as a perfect horror vacation, but as growing into a vital horror retreat—an essential destination for all those who worship at the altar of the macabre.

THE SHINING’s legacy is multi-faceted; King’s novel, Kubrick’s film, the history which helped inform both and an everlasting atmosphere, which in turn permeates the tale’s place of origin. The Stanley Hotel and certainly the Stanley Film Festival leans into it all. The eerie nature of the estate’s grounds may be ingrained, but it can’t hurt to offer ghost tours, ghost stories and resident psychic and paranormal experts to complement the atmosphere. Even when you’re fairly confident a particular room isn’t haunted, as I was mine, you’ll find the window slowly creaking up after it’s been forcefully shut. It’s no wonder then that the festival and its fantastic staff should go even further, taking a weekend-long immersive horror game as a cue to scrawl messages in blacklight ink across your doors. Almost immediately upon arrival, I found occult symbols, ominous warnings and—shoulder shudders—even my initials there to greet me. It certainly made each push into the walk-in closet a wary one.

As THE SHINING is more than just a tale, but now a state of mind, so The Stanley Film Festival spirals into itself and out over the proceedings. Walls between the natural and supernatural become shaky, as do those between narrative and non-fiction. The aforementioned immersive horror game, populated by hotel staff, festival staff and actors lead fest-goers on a scavenger hunt throughout the four-day festival, literally digging up clues on the grounds, talking to experts in the basement archives, attending 2 a.m. séances and generally questioning what is real and what is part of the search for a missing boy. “Do you love horror stories enough to live in one?” the festival essentially asks. If so, good, as you’re expected in the hotel’s subterranean tunnel at midnight for a fog, fuelled, occult-heavy finale.

That was Saturday night, but I had already been familiar with the cave-like tunnel, through which the hotel used to have goods delivered. That air of little boundary lead myself and a tidy group of fans, filmmakers and colleagues (including actors AJ Bowen and Elijah Wood, Twitch’s Ryland Aldrich, Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT director Ana Lily Amirpour) to drunkenly and slyly (thanks to the lock picking of one Kyle McCullough, director and karaoke expert) sneak into the dark corner somewhere near 3 a.m. Of course, this being a major hotel, it was hardly a surprise when a security guard promptly charged in, just as many of us were crawling underneath stone into a particularly frightening crevice. Startled as we were, it was both a relief and more than creepy that the gentleman wasn’t particularly punishing. Instead, he took the opportunity to launch into a series of late night/early morning accounts of what exactly haunts that area of the hotel.

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EXORCIST Oatmeal at Horror Brunch

The layers of horror and how they inform our lives was revealed as something of a running theme throughout the Stanley Film Festival. Its stellar film lineup proved a genre festival can in no way be limited by being a “genre festival,” running the gamut from the good times of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, HOUSEBOUND, WITCHING & BITCHING and DEAD SNOW 2; to serious-minded inquiries NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN, THE BABADOOK and THE SACRAMENT; to headtrips like THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS and STARRY EYES. That’s just a sampling of the highly anticipated horror currently knocking festival audiences out (a secret screening of Eli Roth’s THE GREEN INFERNO also took place). Then there was the honorary nature of it all, from past pioneers to those pushing the genre forward today. The Stanley awarded Joe Dante with a Master of Horror award and the legendary filmmaker presented a screening of the wonderful GREMLINS, while not far off the brand new 40th anniversary restoration of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE unspooled. Stanley Kubirck, being the patron saint of the fest, was again praised as his longtime collaborator and friend Leon Vitali presented a 35MM print of the overwhelming EYES WIDE SHUT to an ecstatic audience including myself and HERE COMES THE DEVIL director Adrian Garcia Bogliano.

Proving horror not just versatile, but essential to our existence were two of the hottest tickets of the weekend: Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK and the wondrous presentation of TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE LIVE: The Stanley Edition, both of which engage the necessity of art’s dark thoughts and themes. The latter truly proved the treat of The Stanley [Full Disclosure: I was lucky enough to be part of the cast]. Directed by Glenn McQuaid and written by McQuaid, Clay McLeod Chapman and independent horror legend Larry Fessenden, the Glass Eye Pix brand of old-fashioned radio drama rendered live on stage is an incredible occasion as actors, composer, sound designer and foley artist collaborate before an audience’s very eyes offering (again) layers of reverent entertainment. You may close your lids for something of an authentic experience, or open and be wowed by the quick-witted work of telling a tale beyond the pale.

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Fessenden, Bowen and the author. Photo by Annette DiGiovanni

The Stanley Edition of TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE boasted diegetic tiers, too. Tailored to the hotel and festival, the story saw Fessenden play an author who looks and sounds like Jack Nicholson (not unlike Fess, himself) retreat to the Stanley for a bit of inspiration, as well as confront his own demons. His story then folds into one he writes, a pulpy werewolf tale that saw the voice talents of Ana Asensio, AJ Bowen (a teen wolf who bites through a placenta), Jocelyn DeBoer and Martin Starr and more. That’s in addition to the amazing audio work from foley artist Chris Skotchdopole and designer John Moros that truly led the experience.

Beyond a live theatrical event, the Stanley incorporated literature as TALES writer Clay McLeod Chapman read from his latest novel, THE TRIBE: CAMP CANNIBAL; competition with the Colorado debut of Fango and Shock Till You Drop’s Dead Right Horror Trivia; a day of panels on the industry and fandom featured filmmakers like Ti West and Amirpour, as well as CHEAP THRILLS producer Travis Stevens and Stanley award-winning producers Spectrevision (Daniel Noah, Josh Waller and Elijah Wood); and music, as the incredible Munly & The Lupercalians absolutely brought the closing night party to a fever pitch. Donned in ritual dress not dissimilar to the likes of THE WICKER MAN and KILL LIST, the band brought a mean set of Gothic Americana rock with booming percussion and undoubtedly made a slew of new fans.

Even brunch on the final day was something to behold. The placemats were coated in the famous carpet pattern of the Overlook Hotel, while each meal selection came themed. A gentleman dressed as Hannibal Lecter carved some rare roast beef, while a Regan MacNeil puppet spit oatmeal out (pictured, above). The Horror Brunch also served as the festival’s awards ceremony, which again saw celebration of the past, present and future with prizes to Dante, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’ Taika Waititi and filmmakers James Fleming & Kelly Hucker, who won for short doc GHOST TRAIN.

It’s almost unreal that The Stanley Film Festival is only in its second year. It’s so lived-in, so realized and so much pure fun for the horror devotee that I understand it’s only able to be so successful through authentic affection and dedication. It simply feels like it’s always been here (sorry, I had to). The Stanley is not a put-on to capitalize on an infamous location, but instead something truly special that I implore readers and fans to make time, and budget, for. It also doesn’t hurt that just a few minutes-walk from the Stanley, Estes Park’s You Need Pie! serves some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and that Estes Park as a whole is an amazing place to visit. While the Horror Brunch was an official end to the fest, a full Sunday of screenings and events (like a Big Wheel Death Race) soldiered on. I pulled away from the Stanley for the hour-and-change drive to Denver Airport elated by the thriving genre community, from viewers to creators (and most importantly, both), and now haunted by atmosphere and memories to hold on to dearly.

Just prior to closing night film WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, it was announced The Stanley will absolutely be returning for a third round in 2015. I’ll be there, and I hope you will too.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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