That Blumhouse’s latest budget-defying mainstream genre flick opened the very first Overlook Film Festival is probably a good sign that—next to the critical and box office success of Blumhouse’s Get Out or the studio’s hand in the resurgence of M. Night Shyamalan’s career—what the film industry needs most right now is a type of film built on the impulse to shit all over the idea of what that “industry” is in any traditional sense of the word.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned Blumhouse-produced film is Akiva Goldsman’s Stephanie, the latest from an Oscar winner who also recently attached his screenwriting chops to such points of pride as The 5th Wave, Rings, Transformers: The Last Knight, a draft of The Dark Tower and the universally despised fable he also directed, Winter’s Tale. Though Jason Blum and Goldsman were both in attendance, and though the audience didn’t seem particularly sold on what Goldsman probably considered a respite between blockbusters with budgets more than a small island country’s GDP, the Overlook Festival crystalized in that one opening night the current interstitial nature of the Horror Film: The Money wants a piece of the proven pie. Goldsman and Blum announced that their next project together would be a new adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter, news greeted with base acknowledgement.
Taking place over three days and three nights at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest, the Overlook Film Festival operates under the weird shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the agreed-upon horror classic which used the portentous but picturesque accommodations as the exterior for Kubrick’s hotel and interdimensional horror. Hence the name of the festival: Isolated from nearby Portland and Hood River, Overlook took place all within the confines of the iconic Timberline, keeping occupants literally and existentially apart, an hour drive in the snow away from PDX and the Willamette Valley’s typical 60-degree April. I drove in an out of Portland each day of the festival, but even with my relative familiarity with the terrain, I still couldn’t help staving off the exhaustion of each day’s trip, which often ended in a slow, treacherous slog down the mountain and the wish that I’d sprung for a room in order to stay and enjoy the festivities without the justified fear of needing to abandon my car in a snow drift and pray that I not end up like Jack Torrance, frozen in the hell of my own labyrinthine nightmare.
Immersion, it turns out, was much of a theme over the course of the weekend, and if there’s any blanket challenge that could be construed as the goal of the current horror filmmaking community, it’s that idea of provocation. This kind of limit-pushing experience came both care of Blackout and The Chalet, two immersive horror experiences guaranteed to rend the brain of those in the midst of it a’twain (especially Blackout, which is a beyond-insane, X-rated test of what any decent human is willing to accept as “entertainment”), but also via an attitude common to new horror films and indulged by these so-called “games”: You are what you’re willing to let into your brain.
So the Overlook Film Festival established itself as an attempt to fulfill two main goals, which were basically to 1) present the best of what represents current horror filmmaking, in all of its many forms and sub-genres, and to 2) also present the best of what represents current horror, in all of the creatively nefarious ways an especially fucked up individual can infiltrate your brain and plumb it for your most exploitive, spine-tingling neuroses. If the future of horror filmmaking is to erase the lines between motion picture and what one can endure as an “observer,” than we’re probably at the precipice of something, for lack of a better word, “special.” Which isn’t to suggest that ISIS execution videos or Facebook Live murders are the next step in horror filmmaking, but that such videos resemble the kind of explicit boundary-annihilating ventures that horror filmmakers are, more and more, exploring.
Meanwhile, the Overlook lined up a pretty heady smorgasbord of horror movie types and tropes—though, on brand as ever, one of the salient themes of many of the Overlook’s offerings was sexual assault, maybe expressed most thoroughly in Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. Starring Francesca Eastwood (family name is exactly the one you’re thinking of), the film chronicles a few semesters in the life of a super-shy art student at a fictional SoCal college who, upon initial meetings with the audience, seems wholly inexperienced in the forum of love. When Noelle (Eastwood) is pursued by a cocky fellow student (Peter Vack) and invited to his house party, the swishy-haired lothario rapes her, and, as is too often the horrifying outcome, she is unable to find any help or even acknowledgement in the staff or programs supposedly set up by the school to do just that. Another meeting between Noelle and her rapist inadvertently leads to his death, whereupon Noelle realizes she wields an especially potent sexual power, proceeding to work her way through all the disgusting bros on campus, picking them off one by one.
As much as Leite obviously wants to modernize and claim the rape revenge thriller as both a tool for feminist filmmakers and as a statement all her own, her film can’t seem to grasp a particular tone, veering between farce and ultra-realism without really demarcating any difference between the two. Noelle’s rape is the most harrowing thing I saw at the festival, but the subsequent murders she embarks upon, as well as the seductions she perpetrates over the doofuses who deserve her rage, require a pretty healthy suspension of disbelief. In turn, the violence—which Leite puts forward as the audience’s reward for witnessing Noelle’s violation—barely proffers any sort of satisfaction in understanding how Noelle derives pleasure from her vigilante justice: a college athlete asphyxiates on his own vomit, one gets hit a few times with a hammer, one gets stabbed in the neck but lives—all of them deserve to die according to the film’s logic, but their deaths proceed with so little visual flair or any sort of interesting slasher stylization that Noelle’s satisfaction is more believed than felt. Which could be, in so many obvious ways, the point, especially given the deplorable reputation of such injustices on college campuses, but as a horror film with a ludicrous third act, M.F.A. can’t quite do its bloodlust justice. Plus, Clifton Collins Jr. is wasted as a detective who only pushes the plot forward and sports a weird beard which, I think, is supposed to represent the passage of time in Noelle’s academic career?
During the Q&A after the screening, Leite spoke about initially having a different ending, but that she settled upon the most law-abiding conclusion for Noelle because “that’s just a more realistic ending of what would happen in life…and also a more impactful version of the story.” Leite expresses Noelle’s fate as the ideal of what the fate would be for the many men who’ve gotten away with what she’s punishing them for, but accepting a “realistic” ending in this case deviates wildly from every other impulse the film is working under—to the extent that accepting such an ending causes just that: the film to, simply, end.
Director William Oldroyd has much less trouble than Leite in keeping his tone straight throughout Lady Macbeth, a bleak thriller (which premiered at Sundance in January) that only gets bleaker and more suffocating the more freedom it affords its main character. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a young woman sold into marriage in 19th century rural England, and though her much older husband has no interest in spending time with her, let alone acknowledging her, she’s kept practically in amber, her time spent falling asleep on the couch while staring at the wall or holding long, pregnant silences while her servant (Naomi Ackie) sees to the various exigencies of keeping Katherine alive: dressing, cleaning, feeding, waking. Not until her husband goes away on business—of some short, because its beyond her lot as a woman to know any details—does she begin to enjoy her days, eventually starting up a clandestine relationship with a thick-necked stable boy (Cosmo Jarvis) her age. Unwilling to give up her new way of life and newer love, she pretty much puts aside all else to keep what she wants.
Less an obvious horror movie than something more subtly unnerving, Lady Macbeth offers little clarity as to whether the vile actions Katherine inevitably takes are really her fault, or if that’s what was bound to happen with such a stifled life. Oldroyd is skilled at keeping clean answers just out of reach the further Katherine devolves into desperation, but at some point near the end of this gorgeous black heart of a film (props to cinematographer Ari Wegner for drawing endless shades of gray out of Britain’s landscape), Alice Birch’s screenplay feels like it’s taking the easy way out, pulling back from Katherine’s perspective to provide little sign of what’s going on behind her glazed-over stare. Pugh is captivating, allowing just enough madness to shine through a few cracks in her bemused exterior, but all the evil shit she does feels like an inevitability, not any sort of moral decline.
Same with Brandon Christenson’s Still/Born, which premiered at the festival, winning the “Scariest Feature” award (Best Feature—decided by a jury including Sam Zimmerman from Shudder, Alicia Malone of Fandango and Indiewire Editor Eric Kohn—went to the Australian Hounds of Love): As one of Overlook’s most traditional horror movies, jump scares and domestic dread telegraph every plot point and emotional beat of this tidy flick. It operates as could be expected from a horror movie that initially seems to be about a ghost baby until it becomes about a witch demon—which may be a physical manifestation of a recent mother’s (Christie Burke) grief and post-partum depression over the loss of a baby during childbirth—who wants to steal the mother’s other baby, the twin who lived.
Christenson handles it all deftly, quickly showcasing his bonafides by setting up a creepy-ass psychological nightmare pretty damn leanly, but as the movie pushes its way through one overwrought plot mechanic after another, trying to give some supernatural heft to the already-compelling mania of its poor main character, Burke begins to seem as if even she’s losing grip, coming to the startling revelation that she’s in kinda dumb movie. Michael Ironside has a cameo, but his presence injects the film with the gravitas of a made-for-Lifetime joint, just a reminder that the best that could be done in this situation is have him play the therapist because the other choice was to not have him be in the movie at all.