EMAV Review: Sin City Horror Fest 2019

"Z" - A film by Brandon Christensen

The first two years of Sin City Horror Fest featured some entertaining, creative and gruesome indie horror movies, often playing to very small crowds. This year’s third edition likewise showcased the range of artistic expression in the horror genre, including work from a number of local filmmakers. But the local film community seems to have finally discovered how great this festival is, and attendance this year was consistently strong, with multiple sold-out screenings (I had to sit on the stairs during one shorts block, because all the seats were taken), even when the festival upgraded to a larger auditorium at the Brenden Theatres at the Palms halfway through. The programming reflected the level of interest, especially the dozens of short films that made up the bulk of this year’s slate.

It was a little disappointing that the festival didn’t program more features, but it was also exciting that two of the four feature-length films on the schedule were from Las Vegas-based filmmakers. Brandon Christensen’s “Z” was the centerpiece screening on Saturday night, demonstrating that Christensen deserves his place as a rising star in the indie horror scene. Like Christensen’s first feature, “Still/Born” (which played at SCHF in 2017), “Z” was shot in the filmmaker’s native Canada, and it features some recognizable character actors, including star Keegan Connor Tracy, a TV veteran whose credits include “The Magicians,” “Once Upon a Time” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

Tracy plays stressed-out mother Beth, whose young son (Jett Klyne) becomes disturbingly obsessed with an imaginary friend he calls Z. The movie begins like a familiar (but well-crafted) evil-kid story, one of the most durable horror-movie plots. But it takes a turn as Beth learns more about Z’s origins, and the story’s focus shifts from the terrors of motherhood to a deadly generational legacy. Tracy brings genuine emotion to her role, and Canadian icon Stephen McHattie makes the most of his small role as Beth’s therapist. It’s no surprise that “Z” is already set for release on a major streaming service early next year.

"The Head" from filmmaker Michael Keene.

Michael Keene’s “The Head,” the festival’s other local feature, could not be further from the audience-friendly polish of “Z,” and that too demonstrates the range available to horror filmmakers. Shot entirely on actual VHS, “The Head” is a tribute to micro-budget shot-on-video horror movies of the ’80s, a niche product so narrow that Keene is possibly the only filmmaker emulating it. But he does so effectively, mixing humor and depravity in the story of a lonely loser (Dani Richmond) who bonds with a bloodthirsty disembodied head (played, of course, by the head from a female mannequin).

Keene’s first film, “Fatal Future,” was a feature-length pastiche of the work of Vegas-based cult bad-movie auteur Neil Breen, and both movies prove that Keene is very good at meticulously re-creating something that most movie-goers would consider very bad. (Disclosure: I participated in a live taping of the Piecing It Together podcast about “The Head” following the screening.)

A moment from "High Desert Hell."

Festival co-founder Drew Marvick presented a work-in-progress screening of the horror anthology “The 12 Deaths of Christmas,” a collection of horror shorts by local filmmakers inspired by “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The presentation was missing two of the installments, as well as the wraparound segment set to be directed by Marvick himself, so it’s not fair to judge it as a finished product. But the individual pieces, from filmmakers including Mike and Jerry Thompson, Heather Aradas and fellow SCHF co-founder Mike Lenzini, were clever and entertaining, some taking the concept more literally than others. Marvick has potential distribution lined up and expects the movie to be widely available by Christmas, and it could easily find an audience within the surprisingly robust holiday-horror sub-genre.

Among the other short films, local filmmakers Samantha Rodriguez and Sean Singer made an impressive showing with their film “Cult Friends,” a funny take on the horror device of the ritual sacrifice, with an appealing lead performance from Tom Peck. I also liked the shorts “Grave Expectations” (a macabre take on a Jane Austen-style romance), “Nepenthes” (featuring a woman lured by a deadly plant), “Zebra” (a comedic reversal of expectations about two blood-spattered old ladies), “High Desert Hell” (a slow-burn, sunlit slasher) and “Piggy” (featuring the revenge of a tormented overweight teen), which was effective even though it accidentally played without subtitles for its Spanish-language dialogue.

A scene from “Never Hike Alone.”

Those shorts are all very different, and with its higher profile, SCHF has the chance to give the horror genre the deserved respect it doesn’t always garner. Hardcore horror geeks can come for things like the viral “Friday the 13th” fan film “Never Hike Alone” (a competent but unmemorable effort), but there’s something here for every kind of cinephile, from the arty and obscure to the slick and crowd-pleasing. It’s encouraging that more people are taking notice.

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