Bringing a tidal wave of horror onto the shores of South Florida, the fifth annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival sliced its way into Savor Cinema back in August for nine days of eclectic scares and insightful conversations. Co-founded by Marc Ferman and Igor Shteyrenberg, this year’s Popcorn Frights featured more than 70 films (both feature-length and short form) from around the globe, including 10 world premieres of diverse stories ranging from a comic book serial killer to a dog-sized spider and new twists on Frankenstein. This year’s Popcorn Frights proved that horror has found a loving, long-term home in South Florida, and Daily Dead was lucky enough to attend the festival (and serve on its jury). With many of the festival’s films now being released in theaters and on VOD, we thought this would be a good time to look back at the week of killer screenings that left an indelible and (sometimes bloody) mark in South Florida so that you can put them on your viewing radar this Halloween season (and beyond for the movies that don’t come out this fall).
The Dare: What really goes on behind the mask of a slasher in a horror film? That’s the question co-writer/director Giles Alderson and co-writer Jonny Grant seek to answer in The Dare, which, along with Dan Berk & Robert Olsen’s Villains, won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film. A potent blend of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Saw, The Dare features a killer twist and nerve-fraying moments of brutality among a group of people trapped by a mysterious man in a very creepy mask. After watching The Dare (which does not yet have an official release date), I’m eager to see what Alderson and Grant work on next, as they both show a lot of promise for telling twisted tales with potent psychological subtext.
Haunt: Imagine if the killers from The Strangers ran a haunted attraction next door to the carnival in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, and you’ll start to get an idea of the frights that await you in Haunt, the latest film from Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. Runner-up for the Jury Awards for Best Feature and Scariest Film, Haunt follows a group of friends into a countryside haunted attraction that turns out to be all too real. While many horror fans may know Beck and Woods from their wonderful co-writing work on A Quiet Place, Haunt provides a completely different horror-fueled experience, with stripped-down scares, creepy costumes, and in-your-face violence that is genuinely shocking in its abrupt execution. Haunt is all of your fears of haunted houses rolled into one helluva spooky cinematic experience, and I highly recommend horror fans check it out when it’s released on Shudder this month.
Z: After tapping into the worst fears of new parents with 2017’s Still/Born, Brandon Christensen returns with a vengeance with a truly haunting tale about a boy’s imaginary friend who might not be so imaginary after all. Winner of the Scariest Film jury award, Z features the most shocking jump scare I’ve seen in years (no joke, it still makes me shudder just thinking about it), but perhaps what’s most surprising about Z is how Christensen subverts the expectations of the ever-growing imaginary friend subgenre and takes his story to places I never saw coming.
Bringing Christensen’s ambitious vision for Z to staggering heights is Keegan Connor Tracy, who gives a phenomenal performance as a believable mom trying to keep her family together amidst her son’s disturbing behavior and her own mother’s ailing health (and as a diehard Grave Encounters fan, I was giddy to see Sean Rogerson in a key role, too). On top of all that, Z’s secret weapon is Brittany Allen, who provides a soul-tugging score and created the unsettling artwork for the film’s imaginary friend—artwork that could be right at home in the world of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. After watching Z, I’ll sprint to see whatever Christensen directs next, and I implore you to watch his latest film as soon as possible when it’s unleashed on the world (it does not yet have an official release date in the US).
Bliss: For a full review of Joe Begos’ Bliss, be sure to check out Heather Wixson’s thoughts on the film, but I will say this: Bliss starts out at 100mph and it only gets more intense from there. Begos grabs the vampire subgenre by the neck and takes a big, bloody bite, portraying vampirism as a drug trip that goes straight into hell—one that’s equal parts pleasure and pain. Imagine if the bar scene from Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark were an entire movie, or think of a vampire film told through the lens of a Bryan Smith novel and you’ll start to get an idea of just how intense Bliss is.
Although the film moves at a frenzied pace all its own, it never flies off the rails thanks to a fearless performance by Dora Madison as Dezzy, one of the most interesting, complex, and compelling characters I’ve seen on screen this year. Now that Bliss is on digital platforms via Dark Sky Films, see it on the biggest screen possible with the volume cranked way up… then sit back and let its blood-soaked story wash over you this October.
The Sonata: 2019 is the year of the classic string instruments in horror cinema. Striking a chord in the same malevolent scale as The Perfection and Ambition, The Sonata focuses on a violinist’s (Freya Tingley) obsession with perfection over the intricate art of classical music, particularly the mysterious composition left by her late father, Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer), a masterful but enigmatic composer. Largely set at a spooky, isolated mansion whose walls practically ooze gothic horror, The Sonata is rich with foreboding atmosphere, and once the film hones in on piecing together Marlowe’s final composition, it’s hard to not get swept up in the musical obsession right along with the characters, as the narrative begins to feel like a horror-fueled version of The Da Vinci Code wrapped up in the comforting confines of the Clue board game.
Many horror fans may be drawn to The Sonata to see one of the final performances by Rutger Hauer, and although he’s used more sparingly than you might expect, he doesn’t disappoint in his scenes, and his presence is felt throughout the film. Freya Tingley, however, steals the show with a confident performance, refreshingly unafraid to go toe-to-toe with anything that gets in her way… of both the human and supernatural variety. The other star of The Sonata is unquestionably Alexis Maingaud’s string-centric score, which brings the film’s titular composition to life in a fashion so haunting and beautiful that it almost makes you just want to close your eyes and savor the sound of the film… were the film’s gothic setting not such a sight to behold (the film does not yet have a release date in the US).
Itsy Bitsy: A haunting creature feature with a bloody heart, Itsy Bitsy proves that while a spider the size of Godzilla would be scary, one the size of a small dog is even more terrifying because you never know where it may be hiding: under the bed, in the bathtub, or above your head… Directed by Micah Gallo from a screenplay co-written by Gallo, Bryan Dick, and Daily Dead contributor Jason Alvino, Itsy Bitsy is just as compelling as a family drama as it is a spider-centric horror film. Elizabeth Roberts gives an intriguing performance as Kara Spencer, a single mother who isn’t perfect, who struggles every day to overcome a pill addiction and the devastating loss of her son. Kara’s flaws ground the story and give the film’s spider an intriguing family to weave a web around.
Bolstered by strong supporting performances by Bruce Davison and Denise Crosby, you can tell that Itsy Bitsy was made with a lot of love and hard work, and its eerie animatronics and gooey, palpable effects should please fans of practical effects-driven horror films from the ’80s. Plus, if you’re even slightly scared of spiders (like yours truly), Itsy Bitsy has one scene in particular that will have you squirming in your seat (and checking under the covers the next time you go to bed). This film was a blast to watch with an audience during its world premiere at Popcorn Frights, and if you didn’t catch it in theaters, I highly recommend you add it to your Halloween movie marathons now that Scream Factory has unleashed it on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms.
Villains: If Raising Arizona were a home invasion horror movie, it might look something like Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains (in case you missed it, read Heather Wixson’s full review). A definite crowd-pleaser during a very animated and atmospheric Saturday night screening, Villains tied with The Dare for the audience award for Best Feature at Popcorn Frights. The movie leaves a mark with some of the best acting I’ve seen this year, particularly from Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde on the run from the law, only to find themselves in the clutches of something much worse: an eccentric couple played by Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick. If you really want to see how wide of an acting range Skarsgård has after watching IT Chapter Two, be sure to see Villains (which was released in theaters by Gunpowder & Sky on September 20th) and prepare for one of the sweetest, twisted, and funny romances of the year.
Artik: What if Leatherface, Jigsaw, or the Elite Hunting club from Hostel were obsessed with comic books and sought to find a victim worthy of being a hero? That’s the type of compelling story first-time feature filmmaker Tom Botchii explores in Artik, a horror movie that’s equal parts punk rock and introspective contemplation. Of all the acting in all the movies I saw at Popcorn Frights, the trio of performances by Jerry G. Angelo, Chase Williamson, and Lauren Ashley Carter was right up there with the most intriguing work showcased in Fort Lauderdale, and I wish I had gotten to spend more time with these characters. If Botchii ever wants to make an Artik prequel, I’ll be first in line to see it, but in the meantime, you can get in the Halloween spirit by watching a deadly game of cat and mouse in the sunflower fields now that Artik is on VOD and Blu-ray via DREAD.
Daniel Isn’t Real: Winner of the Feature Film Jury Prize, Adam Egypt Mortimer delivers a truly trippy and thought-provoking experience with Daniel Isn’t Real (in case you missed it, read Heather Wixson’s full review), an adaptation of Brian DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved. Like Z, Daniel Isn’t Real focuses on an imaginary friend with a very real influence, but takes things in a completely different direction (both films succeed immensely in carving their own creative paths).
Heartbreaking at times, horrific at others, and surprisingly humorous, Daniel Isn’t Real brims with possibilities and endless imagination. It’s the kind of movie that has more layers than meets the eye—every time you think you have it figured out, the story sheds its skin and becomes something else. These transitions are never jarring, though, as Mortimer expertly weaves through a minefield of emotions and situations that leap from funny to scary, calming to anxious, haunting to cathartic. It’s a wonderful magic trick of a movie. A completely game cast led by Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, and Sasha Lane ensures that you stay along for the ride through the entire film—and trust me, this is one ride that you definitely want to take when Samuel Goldwyn Films and Shudder release Daniel Isn’t Real in theaters and on VOD and Digital beginning December 6th.
In Fabric: A killer dress movie that plays as if it’s viewed through the eyes of David Lynch and Dario Argento, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric brings out the creepy side of consumerism in a surreal style all its own. Running at nearly two hours, the film could be considered two different movies due to one major (and rather abrupt) narrative shift, but Strickland still manages to keep you under his story’s hypnotic spell throughout thanks to empathetic characters, a score from Cavern Of Anti-Matter that slithers under your skin, and the aforementioned killer dress.
Strickland and cinematographer Ari Wegner give the dress just enough life to make it creepy, using subtle scares and suggestion before going full-blown bonkers in the third act. But suffice to say that the movie’s biggest scares have more to do with the store the dress comes from than the outfit itself. Strickland also sneaks in plenty of humor to go with the horror, including hilarious corporate scenes that feel like a British version of the Bobs from Office Space. For a movie that centers on the horrors of the winter shopping season, A24 has picked the perfect day to release In Fabric: December 6th. And trust me, this is one storewide sale that you’ll want to line up for—even if you have to start waiting this Halloween season.
The Gravedigger: There have been many adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein since its initial publication more than 200 years ago, so it’s always refreshing when a filmmaker can take a new approach to the timeless tale. Founder of the horror theatre company Infinite Abyss Productions, director Erynn Dalton proves with The Gravedigger (much like Larry Fessenden does with Depraved) that there are still innovative ways to assemble the complex parts of Frankenstein’s monster, both emotionally and physically. Filmed on the soundstage at The Abyss Theatre in Florida, The Gravedigger offers an intriguingly humanized look at one of cinema’s most misunderstood monsters, blending cinema and the stage for an ambitious take on Shelley’s classic novel.
Popcorn Frights is run with pure passion by horror fans, for horror fans. And the festival’s celebration of the genre doesn’t end in August—it continues throughout the year with monthly screenings at Savor Cinema, including a screening of Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street on Friday, November 1st with Mark Patton in attendance. Florida may be known for surf, sand, and sun, but thanks to Popcorn Frights, horror fans in the region can also soak in plenty of blood-stained scares on the big screen—many of which can now be enjoyed in your own homes this Halloween! To learn more about the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and their monthly screenings, visit the festival's official website.