It's no secret that I'm a big fan of independent horror. That said, having spent the last few years optimistically wading through the highs and lows of low-budget horror filmmaking in the hope of finding diamonds in the rough has, in all honesty, kind of jaded me. I have nothing but respect for anyone who picks up a camera and tries to making something to call their own, but, let's face it, more often than not low-budget amateur horror flicks remain relegated to the obscure world of the horror movie convention tradeshow floor not because they're unlucky in distribution, but because they're just not very good.

So when fellow Cinematical/Sci-Fi Squad writer John Gholson asked if I wanted to drive three and a half hours to attend the Pretty Scary Bloodbath Film Festival, a team-up between the Texas Bloodbath Film Festival and Pretty-Scary.net designed to honor independent, female voices in horror, I had a few trepidations. But the more than reasonable ticket price of $15 for 3 features and 8 short films won me over and I've got to say that I'm really glad it did.

I had a lot of fun at the Pretty Scary Bloodbath; more than expected, actually. It delivered exactly as advertised: a fine showcase of indie horror movies made by women. Below I've done a brief rundown of everything the fest had to offer, so read on to see if there were any hidden gems to be found.

The Features:
The Retelling, directed by Emily Hagins
In his Cinematical write-up of the event, Gholson mentioned that he felt he couldn't talk objectively about The Retelling seeing as he was in the film and is friends with 17 year old Austinite filmmaker Emily Hagins, who horror fans should remember as the Zombie Girl who made the zombie film Pathogen when she was only 12 years old. I'm not entirely sure if I'm completely objective myself, seeing as I made the drive up to the fest with one of the film's stars in the backseat, but considering I'd be perfectly happy to tell Gholson he stinks whenever possible, I suppose I'm as objective as I can be. Either way, it's worth keeping my tangential knowledge of one of the film's cast in mind when I say that The Retelling was the best film of the festival.

And that's not grading on "made by a 17 year old" curve, either. I think someone with no prior knowledge of the filmmaker's age would be able to pick up on its lingering character work and genuinely interesting story about a ghostly curse visited upon an unsuspecting family when they return to their grandfather's small town. It's told from the point of view of the youngster member of the family, a boy who seems to be the only one interested in where grandpa goes at night and who he talks to when no one else is around. Given the age of the main characters, I couldn't help but imagine The Retelling as though it was an Are You Afraid of the Dark episode that never came to be. A comparably innocent-yet-edgy campfire ghost story vibe wafts ominously throughout the film, drawing the viewer along from beginning to end.

Considering it was made for a scant $9,000, one shouldn't expect gobs of gore, advanced stylistic flourishes and immaculate production values, but the production's lack of ability is countered by a surplus of talent on the part of Hagins. I know I've already stated that her age shouldn't factor into the quality of the movie, but if she's this skilled at telling and not showing this early on in her career, I can't wait to see what she delivers in the years to come.

Dead Hooker in a Trunk, directed by The Soska Twins

I've never heard of the Canadian-hailing Soska Twins, but after having seen Dead Hooker in a Trunk, I certainly feel I know exactly what to expect should I come across their names again: irreverent comedy perverted by a love for the red stuff and characters free from the shackles of civility and morality. Yes, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from a title like Dead Hooker in a Trunk.

In a way, the Soska Twins' film is bullet proof. You can't attack its nonsensical script, which is about a quartet of friends who find a you-know-what in the you-know-where of their car and the zany adventure that ensues, because it's remarkably self-aware. You can't attack the characters because of how charming the performers make them, despite a script that never has them performing a single charming action. And you can't attack the filmmaking, which strikes a balance that is oddly satirical of more serious films that also feature droning metal soundtracks that back up any excuse to splatter some blood or pop out an eyeball.

I say that not to accuse it of bad filmmaking, but to explain the care-free world in which this film operates. It's low-budget and amateur and knows it, embracing those qualities whenever it makes sense and attempting to ignore that fact whenever it doesn't. Dead Hooker in a Trunk certainly isn't for everyone, but for those unswayed by the title, I've little doubt it'll be fine way to pass the time with a few friends and a few drinks.

Family Demons, directed by Ursula Dabrowsky
Family Demons was the only feature of the fest that I, unfortunately, didn't connect with one way or the other. This is odd considering I also think that Ursula Dabrowsky's film was, in some ways, the most accomplished film of the day. Dabrowsky shows a real knack for slowly building the suspense during a couple of scenes, culminating in a few "is this really happening?" moments that are surprisingly eye-widening.

However, the plot of an Australian teenage girl trying to escape the shackles of her alcoholic, trampy mother is steeped in melodrama throughout. I can take only so many moments of being shown how dreadful a person's life is before wanting to throw my hands up and say "I get it, your protagonist's life sucks, move on with it." It's a problem that plagues films of all budgets that deal with similarly dreary stories and a problem few ever surmount. That it built to an obvious conclusion is of no help.

When Family Demons is not drowning in emotion, though, it does boast a palpable, pervasive sense of dread and creepy atmosphere. It's a shame it was in service of an unambitious script.

The Shorts:
The Misadventures of McT and A
If you're already a fan of Michelle Tomlison and Kimberly Amoto, then you'll like this webseries which finds the two actresses doing whatever silly things viewers request of them. If you, like I, have no idea who Tomlison and Amoto are, you'll probably be left a little in the cold. That's not a knock against the show, it's just that it's for a very particular audience of McT and A fans that I happen to not be a part of.


Death in Charge, directed by Dev Sniley
This fun little jaunt into what happens when the grim reaper babysits a little girl was the best short of the festival. Sniley has a great style that transitions fluidly from situational comedy to a truly macabre sense of humor. I wish it were online to share, though all I could find was this very brief trailer that doesn't do a young girl's night with Death justice. If you happen to ever come across Death in Charge in a short film lineup, though, you'd do well to check it out.

Side Effect, directed by Liz Adams
The second most enjoyable short of the fest next to Death in Charge, Side Effect is a deliciously twisted satire of the academic pressures teenagers go through these days in the pursuit of good grades and a high SAT score. It follows one teen-aged gals night babysitting a young boy and baby that goes horribly awry when the pills she's been taking to help concentrate her studies have unintended side effects. The ending is a bit obvious, but lacks no punch because of it.

The Farm, directed by Holly Reece
I actually expected an all-day festival of this ilk to be peppered with films like The Farm. Fortunately it was not and Holly Reece's low-budget misfire about a haunted house's who-can-survive-the-night hiring process ended up being the fluke and not the norm. The Farm is set in a cool locale but is weighed down, even by low-budget standards, by poor cinematography, poor acting, and a script that takes itself way too seriously.

Switch, directed by Melanie Light
Hats off to this UK short about two strangers colliding in the snow woods that put a smile on the collective audience face in record time. Switch may only be a minute or two long, but it makes smart use of its well-shot surroundings and amusing reversal of fortune.

Hollywood Skin, directed by Maude Michaud
Hollywood Skin is, to say the least, bold. Maude Michaud's short holds an unflinching mirror up to Hollywood, reflecting back at it the extreme measures some aspiring actress will go to in order to be thin and pretty enough to make it in the movies. It's exaggerated for maximum impact in all the right places and I have a feeling it could make a solid reputation for itself as a viral success on the web were it a bit shorter. On the flip side, were it any longer (and this the early '90s), Hollywood Skin would have made for one hell of a memorable Tales From the Crypt episode.

Distraught, directed by Brenda Fies
I'm sure every artist has a different approach and motivation when they approach a short film and, whether the goal was reached or not, such aspirations are usually apparent in the final product. Distraught, on the other hand, had me wondering what the point of it was. It builds, goes off, and then disappears without ever connecting on either an emotional or visceral level.

Consumed, directed by Lis Fies

Consumed is a great example of the apparent motivation I was just talking about that her sister's (I'm assuming they're related) film lacked. It's riff on people who are perhaps a little too in love with their pets starts off aloof as a woman sings a song to her dog, Hero, and ends up in a very self-aware, bizarre place that is a bit of a logical jump for normal people while completely at home for someone crazy. The scenes and techniques that connect the two states of mind seem very disjointed while you're watching, but the big picture winds up earning its share of mildly disturbed laughter.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Horror