For its second year, the Sin City Horror Fest moved from Downtown’s Eclipse Theaters to the Brenden Theatres at the Palms, attracting a relatively small but devoted audience of horror fans. Thanks to the dedication of its founders (local filmmakers Drew Marvick, Mike Lenzini, Justin Bergonzoni and Darren Flores), the festival is on its way to becoming a local institution, with a third year already planned. The gregarious and prodigiously bearded Marvick was on hand to introduce every feature film and shorts block, and his enthusiasm for the material was infectious, even at screenings with only a handful of people in attendance.
As a genre, horror has a lot of range, and the feature selections included the surreal drama The God Inside My Ear and the cult-movie documentary Survival of the Film Freaks (with Vegas locals William Powell of the Sci Fi Center and filmmaker Jimmie Gonzalez among the interviewees), in addition to more traditional horror offerings. My favorite features at this year’s festival provide solid variations on familiar horror formats, though, with worthwhile takes on found footage (The Lost Footage of Leah Sullivan) and ’80s-style supernatural spooks (The Night Sitter). Within predictable, well-worn frameworks, both movies deliver interesting, appealing characters, engaging stories and effective scares.
Lost Footage follows the found-footage template exactly, presented as the unedited footage captured by the title character (Anna Stromberg), a college student working on a school project about an unsolved murder in a small town. Could there be something supernatural lurking in the now-abandoned house where an entire family was brutally mutilated? Obviously yes, and the movie never really pretends otherwise, setting Leah and her affable cop love interest (played by director Burt Grinstead) up for certain death by the end. But Grinstead is much more rigorous about the found footage concept than the filmmakers behind the many, many other lazy takes on the format can be, and there’s a believably naturalistic quality to the performances.
The Night Sitter is a fun throwback-style horror-comedy about a small-time thief posing as a babysitter who ends up having to fight supernatural forces at the house she's attempting to rob. It’s silly and full of plot holes, but also stylish and quite entertaining, with impressive special effects and charming performances all around, especially from lead actress Elyse Dufour, who makes her fake-babysitter grifter into a heroine worth rooting for. Like a lot of current indie horror movies (including several shorts and features at SCHF), Sitter pays homage to the ’80s horror golden age, but it never panders to the audience, and its references exist to serve the plot and characters, not the other way around.
Among the shorts, there were perhaps too many films that got that balance wrong, but there was still plenty to like in the five shorts blocks, with even more stylistic diversity than in the features. I was especially impressed with a couple of shorts that deal with what happens after the end of the zombie apocalypse, when people attempt to return to some kind of normalcy. Honeymoon explores how a cured zombie repairs her marriage, and Riley Was Here depicts two broken people deliberately activating the zombie virus in order to forge a connection.
Other shorts that stood out include the award-winning Smiley Death Face, a clever, nearly dialogue-free film that manages to make emojis scary; the eerie Baghead, which turns a reunion with dead loved ones into a grim revenge story; the goofy post-apocalyptic stop-motion animated comedy Hammer Down; the dreamlike VHS-inspired sci-fi/horror piece The Chairman; and the darkly comedic demon-summoning tale Stay.
This year’s festival also hosted a screening of John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween, to coincide with the release of the new sequel, and Marvick hopes that settling into the new venue will allow next year’s SCHF to recruit more special guests and schedule more retrospectives. There’s lots of potential in a Vegas horror festival, and SCHF is clearly just getting started.