Origins of evil, zombies and a film festival on the rise

Stanley Film Festival lures in horror fans and filmmakers

Courtesy of Stanley Film Festival

It’s a cool spring evening with a bit of a breeze coming in off the mountains — just enough to slam a few doors and lift a few curtains. Old iron gates swing on their hinges in the courtyard. Though it’s too dark to clearly see the surrounding peaks, there’s a suggestion of cloud cover in the sky, a storm blanketing the peaks. At dusk, it was just beginning to spit snow down on the mountain roads that led into town, and who knows what condition they’re in now. The thought that an escape route may not be clear sinks heavily into the gut.

It’s an ideal setting for the preview night for the Stanley Film Festival, Colorado’s new horror film-focused festival, which is slated to be held at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park April 24-27. At the near sold-out advance screening of the horror film Oculus, director Mike Flanagan delves into the origin story for his latest film. The concept nearly died — it was tossed out as an afterthought in Flanagan’s meeting with would-be producer Jason Blum. The idea begins with the Overlook Hotel, the insidiously evil setting for The Shining that drove Jack to chase Wendy and Danny with an ax and has made the historic Stanley Hotel, inspiration and setting for the book and film, a coveted visit for horror fans. Flanagan’s film explores the answer to, “What if you had a portable Overlook Hotel?” In Oculus, the Overlook is a mirror, bought to adorn a father’s office wall, that slowly poisons the minds of father and mother and drives them to horrific ends while their terrified children watch (see full review page 51). Then the conversation turns to the origin story of the mirror itself — a background Flanagan says he deliberately omitted.

“If you’re dealing with evil, of course we all want to understand where it came from,” he says. “But in my experience as a viewer … I think it’s scarier if you don’t know.”

Just like the evil we encounter in real life, he says, evil in films ought to appear in ways we don’t fully understand.

“The nature of evil is something that is at the heart of what’s being explored in The Shining, and it’s always going to permeate the conversation here,” says Landon Zakheim, festival programmer for the Stanley Film Festival, run for the first time this year by the Denver Film Society. And so, he says, will a film that pays tribute to The Shining in some way — references to the film are so pervasive in horror movies that it’s almost inescapable.

“It’s just one of those movies, which is nice, because we’ll always be able to find something that pays homage to The Shining that is also a great film we can showcase,” Zakheim says.

And would a filmmaker ever be reluctant to ship a film — a new film, because the Denver Film Society has an unwritten rule about playing only films that haven’t been released yet — to debut in the tiny mountain town of Estes Park? Unlikely.

“We’ve had great luck getting films like [Oculus] and from these really contemporary icons or budding icons in horror,” Zakheim says. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that horror filmmakers are inherently excited by the idea of this festival. It doesn’t seem like the world necessarily needs another film festival, but I think what we’re doing here is already inherently exciting to people. We’re doing something else, we’re doing something unique, and so we can attract and will continue to attract films like that.”

While the 19 horror films screened at the festival form the centerpiece, there’s no denying that some share of the focus will be on the setting for the festival, one of the more notoriously haunted hotels in the country. Programmers have included an array of events to accompany the films, among them, a zombie walk, a Shininginspired “big wheel race” (picture Danny’s tricycle), a murder mystery dinner, horror film trivia and a live radio play run by Larry Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid that’s expect to hit at the heart of what horror is.

“We know that this place has kind of a magical calling to fans and to filmmakers and even to the casually curious, so we have this opportunity to create a convergence where all of these elements can come together at once and have a larger celebration,” Zakheim says. “The destination aspect also lends itself to feel a bit like a vacation. You certainly feel a bit like you’re elsewhere here and we can take advantage of the little secrets and nooks and crannies in here too and then do something that other festivals can’t do at all, which is create a bevy of really exciting, immersive events.”

Horror filmmakers as a group, Zakheim says, are unusually supportive of one another’s work, in addition to being polite, jovial and surprisingly squeamish. They’ve got a ready-made community that lends itself particularly well to a destination festival setting. And yes, they’ve all heard of the Stanley. They’re also prone to being historians (hence the horror trivia).

“I think, because horror filmmakers are such a jolly bunch generally, that there is always going to be a celebratory tone at the festival, and also because camp and kitsch is such a large part of horror, as well, that there is a fun element that we are always going to have and is certainly what we seek with our events,” Zakheim says.

The origin story for the festival itself begins with John Cullen, owner of the Stanley and founder of the Grand Heritage Hotel Group, who had the idea of using the iconic hotel as the backdrop for a film festival inspired by The Shining, and approached the Colorado Film Commission. The Commission works closely with the Denver Film Society, the largest film organization in the state, and Colorado Film Commissioner Donald Zuckerman helped draw the Film Society in as a partner for the inaugural Stanley Film special offer: $5 uplift tickets for Festival the in flood-distressed 2013. at “After the first year and the success of that, I think everyone knew — it was like this crystalline moment — this is going to be something big,” says Britta Erickson, Denver Film Society festival director. “So we started discussions with John Cullen about helping grow it, with the capacity we have as an organization with a full-time staff to move things forward and give it even more support.”

The Denver Film Society signed a three-year contract to the run the festival, and mapped out a trajectory for the programming and event content, as well as the artistic spirit of the festival, that is expected to see full maturation around year five.

“Denver Film Society just felt like this was the right festival for us to grow into. We do so many already, we don’t look at these things lightly. We don’t just decide to do anything that comes our way,” Erickson says. “We get proposed a lot of things, but we know that this one was the spark of a great idea and we’re glad to get in.”

The film society’s official place at the wheel was settled a relatively short time ago, giving staff a small window in which to plan. But they’ll start work on the 2015 festival, Erickson says, the day after this year’s festival ends.

Among the changes to come is a switch from a curated festival, as this year’s is, to one that takes open submissions. The 2014 line up draws big names from big festivals, Zakheim says, but with an international flair and some experimental films that may appeal to the University of Colorado Boulder film crowd.

“As a curated festival, everything we’re playing has a pedigree,” Zakheim says. “We’re playing a lot more repertory titles than we did last year as well because we feel it’s important, especially with the history of the hotel, to honor the kind of heritage and history of horror, especially because horror fans tend to be historians.”

The features recently announced for the festival include Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, a follow up to the cult hit by Tommy Wirkola in which Colonel Herzog leads a Nazi zombie army; Open Windows featuring Elijah Wood, who will be recognized alongside SpectreVision cofounders Daniel Noah and Josh Waller with the festival’s “Visionary Award”; vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows; and retrospective screenings of The Fall of the House of Usher, a silent film from 1928 played at the festival with a live score, Gremlins (1984), Sleepwalkers (1992) and a 40th anniversary restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

But the festival kicks off with an opening night feature that digs into, what else?, origin stories. In Doc of the Dead, director Alexandre O. Philippe traces the roots of a current pop culture phenomena — zombies.

“I’ve been making pop culture-related documentary films now for about 12 years, so I think it’s an understatement to say I’m obsessed with pop culture,” Philippe says. “So that also means that I look at trends and I think it’s been very, very difficult to not notice the past few years that zombies were on the rise in a very, very big way. So really in a nut shell, I set out to make this documentary to explore the questions, why are zombies so popular today? Why have they gone from fringe culture to mainstream?” For answers, he turned to interviews with George A . Romero, creator of the original zombie film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead; Greg Nicotero, executive producer of The Walking Dead, the mostwatched drama in basic cable history; Simon Pegg, co-writer and star in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End; Bruce Campbell of chainsawlimbed glory in the Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness trio; and Max Brooks, creator of the comics Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z.

Among the bigger surprises in the filmmaking, he says, is Romero’s take on zombies now, which is to say disconnected and disbelieving that something that originated in a film he made with a bunch of friends has become what borders on a franchise.

“He loves his fans … but he does not understand how Hollywood is banking on zombies being what they are,” says Philippe, pointing to the film adaptation of World War Z with its $190 million budget and Brad Pitt in a starring role. “It’s really interesting, but it’s also touching in a way. It’s this creator who doesn’t comprehend how this thing that he did has become so huge. It’s kind of beautiful, in a way.”

As for the questions of how and why zombies have made this rise to prominence that prompted the film, he says, there hasn’t been any one single answer. For starters, it’s fun.

“People really enjoy just being zombies and going on zombie walks and zombie runs and zombie fashion shows,” Philippe says. “There’s also the fact that we live in very uncertain times right now and certainly horror films tend to arise during very uncertain times. I think you look at 9/11 and 9/11 sort of changed everything. What’s really interesting about 9/11 is post-9/11, you’re seeing a lot of fast zombies versus the slow, shambling Romero zombies that we’ve been accustomed to seeing. So I think there may be an answer here in this notion that our fears are greater — that we need, in a sense, a faster zombie now.”

One zombie expert even connected zombie walks and movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring — 10,000 zombies walking in the street is a tacit message to government that revolution is still possible.

“I think the zombie is so interesting because of course the zombie is us, you know, and I think it’s a way for us to exorcise the fear, we’re going to essentially be this thing that one day we’re all going to be — which is dead,” Philippe says. “So I think it’s a way to exorcise that fear because I think we’re all afraid of death, to a certain extent.”

Do we need to go on to say there will be plenty to discuss at the festival’s film panels? Probably not.

Philippe, who also made The People vs. George Lucas, has a standing relationship with Denver Film Society staff and they’ve shown 10 of his films in the Starz Denver Film Festival over the last decade, he says. They asked to see his latest film when he completed it.

“It didn’t take them very long to say ‘OK, we’d like to program it,’” Philippe recounts. “And I was actually really, really pleased that they were wanting to screen it at the Stanley. … I just think, in a few years, that festival is going to be huge. It’s a combination, to me, of the location and what it represents, what they’re doing, the fact that they’re going beyond the idea of a film festival and they’re creating some events, and then the fact that it’s going to be a horror film festival with a very small, kind of focused programming.”

Right, the location. There’s little in the origin story for the Stanley Hotel that belies the storied presence it now occupies in the minds of horror film aficionados and paranormal activity would-be investigators.

The hotel was built by F.O. Stanley, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis, given six months to live and moved to Colorado in 1903 to help increase that lifespan. It worked — by 37 years. Time enough for his wife, Flora, to convince him to build a “summer home” to entice a social scene to the otherwise quiet valley.

The hotel’s supposed hauntings don’t stem so much from a grisly history as much as the persistent presence of early residents. The owner’s piano-playing wife or perhaps their regular visitor, American composer John Philip Sousa, left behind a piano that seems to play itself. One of the longest-termed employees of the Stanley, former head chamber maid Elizabeth Wilson, turned down beds for decades in the presidential suite, what is now the famed room 217, and was caught, but only injured, in a gas explosion while lighting a lantern. Lights are said to flicker in that room. It was in that room that Stephen King stayed for a sleepless night said to inspire The Shining. Children were let loose to play on the hotel’s diminutive fourth floor for their family’s threemonth stay at the hotel, and Ryan Gaterman, Stanley Hotel manager, claims the front desk receives two or three calls a week from fourth floor residents with complaints of children play ing in the hallways late into the night.

Guiding a ghost tour for the hotel, Gaterman takes guests to the basement and shows them the pillars of rock that go almost up to the floorboards of the first story rooms, directly beneath the spiral staircases said to frequently be spotted with an orb or two in photographs. The rock, mostly a dusty tan, he points out, has little flecks of metallic sheen — pyrite, and there’s quartz, too. The conductive quartz and pyrite create a base for a loop that circles up the twin spiral staircases in the hotel and across the fourth floor, Gaterman says.

It’s like a magnet, or a record. Things that occur, reoccur.

“Had the hotel had a traditional foundation, it might not be haunted,” he says.

“I think the nice thing about that history here is that we don’t know if that’s true,” Zakheim says. “That’s a theory. People want to create answers. It’s human nature to want to solve problems. … I think, yeah, people are looking for answers, and that’s a theory, but I think there’s enough skepticism of that theory that the search for why are there ghosts here and what are they doing can go on.”

Though he’s gone looking for ghosts himself, even taking filmmakers on a late-night tour of the hotel last year searching for a paranormal experience, so far, he says, he’s come up short.

“I have not experienced anything paranormal, but you know what, it’s because I want to so badly,” he says. “I feel like the magic always comes when you least expect it, and you can’t go looking for it.”

While ghostly sightings may not be a guarantee at the Stanley, the film festival looks to have a staying power similar to some of those former residents.