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EMAV Film Review: Sin City Horror Fest 2020

A scene from 'Smiles' at Sin City Horror Fest, 2020.

Following in the footsteps of the Nevada Women’s Film Festival and the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, this year’s Sin City Horror Fest on October 22-25 transitioned to a fully virtual edition, hosted on the YouTube page of popular horror brand Kings of Horror. That opened up a much larger potential audience for the niche festival, which is run by a dedicated, enthusiastic crew but has attracted fairly small crowds in its three in-person events in Las Vegas. Kings of Horror has more than a million YouTube subscribers, and the SCHF live programs regularly had 100-plus people watching at any given time, from all around the world.

The numbers might have been even higher if the festival organizers had been less committed to replicating the live film-fest experience, but the ephemeral nature of the festival was part of the charm. Unlike many online festivals that allow attendees to view selections at their convenience over a period of 48 hours or longer, SCHF showed each selection only once, at a specific day and time, and anyone who missed the live broadcast was out of luck.

But that also helped engender a communal feel for the screenings, thanks to a running text chat that often included the filmmakers, receiving feedback in real-time. Festival co-founders Mike Lenzini, Darren Flores and Justin Bergonzoni also broadcast a live kick-off video at the beginning of each day, interacting with attendees and contributing to the vibe that we were all in this together. They returned on the final night to give out the festival awards from Lenzini’s couch.

Among the eight feature films, the top awards were mostly split between Joe Badon’s “Sister Tempest” (which won Best Film, Best Director and Best Editing) and Jeff Wedding’s “Tennessee Gothic” (which won Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Score and Best Sound Design). Both are artistically ambitious projects that are more than a bit uneven, but it’s easy to admire the efforts at creating something more sophisticated and complex than a basic slasher movie (which SCHF is also happy to program).

A moment from the film 'Sister Tempest'.

“Sister Tempest” is a surreal, experimental piece about a woman undergoing a mental breakdown following the disappearance of her sister, expressed via elaborate set pieces that range from horror to sci-fi to religious allegory. “Tennessee Gothic” is a more straightforward tale about a mysterious woman taken in by father-and-son farmers, but it also embraces a range of tones and styles, including slapstick comedy and explicit sex scenes. Both movies are clear auteur visions from uncompromising filmmakers, the kind of work that film festivals exist to support, in any genre.

My favorite film among the features was the slow-burn German thriller “Marlene,” a deeply uncomfortable story of stalking and abduction, which deservedly won the Best Actress award for star Cordula Zielonka. She plays the title character, an art restorer who moves to Berlin for a new job and attracts the attentions of her creepy but seemingly harmless neighbor Flo (Thomas Clemens). “Marlene” is an engrossing character study of a woman trying to start her life anew, even before it shifts into intense horror in its final act. Writer-director Andreas Resch builds a pervasive sense of dread even in the most mundane moments, and it pays off in a horrifying climax.

SCHF 2020 Best Actor winner, Cordula Zielonka in 'Marlene'.

Moving the festival online allowed SCHF’s organizers to program an expanded slate, including more than 90 short films in 11 different blocks. There were a handful of local productions among the shorts, including prolific local filmmaker Joe Lujan’s creepy doll story “Billy”; Heidi Moore’s bizarre gross-out semi-sequel “Dolly Deadly 1.5,” an epilogue to her 2016 feature film “Dolly Deadly”; and Christopher Styles’ “The Tunnels,” which takes advantage of the inherent scariness of the storm drain tunnels below Las Vegas.

Elsewhere in the shorts programs, SCHF succeeded with films that combined horror and comedy, since horror shorts are often essentially quick build-ups to punchlines, whether those are horrific or comedic. I especially liked the Spanish short film “Smiles,” which won the shorts award for Best Kill, and which depicts a family with grotesque yellow smiley faces in place of their heads, as a visit home for the daughter’s new boyfriend goes awry. It’s not easy to create moments that are equally funny and horrifying, and “Smiles” succeeds at that where so many other horror shorts only accomplish one of the two.

Heidi Moore’s film 'Dolly Deadly 1.5'.

Just being funny or strange is okay, too, though, as in “Shiny Shiny,” in which a seemingly dangerous killer kidnaps a woman just so he can have an audience for his peppy dance routine. Or “Unholy ’Mole,” which also played at the Dam Short Film Festival in February, and is essentially a one-joke premise about a man’s extreme devotion to guacamole over his pregnant wife and unborn child.

On the more serious side, I liked the unexplained creepiness of “Loop,” in which people turn homicidal after hearing a mysterious cassette tape. Too many horror shorts are built around a single jolt rather than an actual plot or idea, and “Loop” is a great example of constructing a fully realized story without having to explain all the details. I also liked the escalating, grotesque social media satire of “Clout,” and the claustrophobic tension of another Spanish short, “La Guarida,” which explores the insidiousness of mob mentality.

With so many shorts, there was really something for everyone, even the squeamish, and the festival organizers promised in their closing-day broadcast to include an online component in next year’s festival, even if it returns to a more traditional in-person format. Viewers from across the globe got a feel for SCHF’s eclectic taste at this year’s event, and hopefully that will bring more attention to the festival in its Vegas home base, too.


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