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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [September 20, 2011]




[]  Slashers, torturers, and serial killers dominated the film entries to the 2011 Tabloid Witch Awards -- even out-numbering zombies (though the latter continued to arrive in large numbers). Paranormal Activity type "shaky-cam mocumentaries" (often featuring serial killers or torturers) were likewise well represented.

But supernatural stories dominated this year's winners. Perhaps because it's a more challenging subgenre, filmmakers working with ghosts and Lovecraftian daemons created more polished works (with some exceptions) than did those filmmakers obsessed with machetes and chainsaws.

Yes, I said "Lovecraftian daemons." H.P. continues to influence today's horror cinema -- about a half dozen Lovecraftian tales were submitted this year.

As usual, last minute entries flooded into the Tabloid Witch's PO Box during the final weeks before the deadline. Many great films entered this year. Some of them might have won in previous years, but this year (with competition so high) they didn't even make Honorable Mention.

This year's winning films came from the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Italy. A screening of the winners will be held on the evenings of November 25th and 26th at Loscon 38.

Don't feel too bad if your film didn't win. It's possible that some of the better non-winning films may yet be screened at Loscon, space permitting.

Here now are 2011's Tabloid Witch Award winning films:



* Best Horror Feature: Absentia


Mike Flanagan is a master of minimalist horror. His multi-award-winning short film, Oculus (2006), was just one man in a room with a mirror. With Absentia, Flanagan proves that his minimalist style can carry a feature by crafting a starkly beautiful film that works both as horror and human drama.

"Absentia" refers to people who are declared dead "in absentia" because they've disappeared for at least seven years. The film begins with Tricia (Courtney Bell) stapling the last of her "Missing" flyers onto trees and telephone poles. It's been seven years since husband Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) vanished, and Tricia has just about given up on ever finding him. She's pregnant with another man's child.

But then her sister Callie (Katie Parker) comes to visit -- and unearths some ominous secrets...




While jogging one day, Callie stumbles upon a frightened homeless man in a nearby tunnel. From that initial encounter, she begins to piece together the horrible fate that befell Daniel -- and other people missing from the neighborhood over the past several decades.

It's not Flanagan's style to show us much of the monster, but we see enough. A glimpse of movement in the dark. Brief shots of wiggling tentacles. And the sounds. Creepy, suggestive sounds. Familiar yet unidentifiable. Suggesting all manner of unseen horrors...

What little we do see in the shadows and of silhouettes suggests something subterranean, even transdimensional. A Lovecraftian monster that exists in other dimensions and travels through our material world. Within the walls of our homes. Heaven help you if your abode overlaps one of their portals.

Ryan David Leack's simple mood music interweaves so well with Absentia's sounds, at times it's hard to discern whether we're hearing a musical note or a sound effect. His music is somber and moody, with a hint of sad sentimentality, reinforcing the gloomy drama and the images' brooding, stark beauty.

Flange borrows from Japanese ghost films of the past decade, tossing in some of the standard shock scenes. Yet though these shocks have been overused in previous films, Flanagan uses them well. When one of his ghostly images appear, I was actually shocked.

I suspect it's because Absentia's somber sounds and music, and the actors' low-key performances, lull us into a contemplative mood, such that the sudden shocks feel intrusive. The human drama is so compelling, we forget we're watching a horror film, until we are frighteningly reminded of it.

Nor are these "ghost shocks" cheap scares. They are dramatically justifiable, their appearances motivated by Tricia's guilt.

The acting is uniformly excellent, from the leading players to those with a single line. We barely see Daniel's grieving parents, yet the actors (Ian Gregory, Connie Ventress) make strong impressions despite their brief screen time.

Writer/director Mike Flanagan may be contacted at Absentia Movie.





* Best Dramatic Horror Short: Betania


That Betania is Andrea Giomaro's homage to Lucio Fulci (with a nod toward Dario Argento) will be obvious to hardcore fans of 1970s/80s Italian horror. This Italian short film's high-octane music, its grotesque undead imagery, its story structure and elements -- all of it evokes Fulci's style, stories, and themes. (Most especially, his City of the Living Dead.) But for those who doubt, pay attention. Early in the film -- albeit only once -- the lead character is referred to as Serena Fulci.




Serena (Sonia Caselli) is a rational person. A doctor. She performs autopsies for a living. (Yes, we see her sawing open a human skull.) Then her grandfather dies, and she's called to his remote village for the funeral. There, she unearths a dark secret about the cemetery's "dead" residents...

Betania's desaturated photography is eerily beautiful -- almost black and white, with traces of pastel greens and reds. These dull, lifeless colors, along with the crumbling stone mausoleums and crypts, create a gothic atmosphere that reinforces the story's dreary funeral scene.

Yet in contrast to the photography, the music is a high-octane, electro-synth score, of the sort that one finds in Fulci's work. While American supernatural films normally opt for ethereal sounds (e.g., Billy Goldenberg's score for TV's Ghost Story/Circle of Fear), the music in Italian supernatural films often blend horror sound effects with modern pop (e.g., Goblin). Betania follows in that tradition of Fulci, Argento, and Lamberto Bava.

The acting is professional across the board. The story's supernatural elements make no sense, but that's appropriate for any film inspired by Lucio Fulci. Nor is it a problem. For like Fulci's best works, Betania grabs the viewer from the start, then propels us along on an entertaining, high-energy thrill ride, filled with atmosphere and gore.

Giomaro has a webpage at Project Betania.





* Best Comedic Horror Short: The Ghost and Us


Emily Carmichael's film isn't the most polished of this year's entries (though it's no slouch), nor does it offer as many special effects bells and whistles as some of the other winners. But The Ghost and Us has heart -- and without falling into the trap of cheap sentimentality. With so many torturers and serial killers entering this year's awards, reveling in sordid nihilism, it's nice to see a horror film take a different direction.



Laura (Maria Dizzia) has a problem. She's newly married to a man she loves, and who loves her in return. The trouble is that his ex-wife, Sena (Moira Dennis), won't let go. She keeps dropping by unannounced, just to whisper sweet nothings into ex-husband Ben's (Geordie Broadwater) ear. Laura even finds Sena in the newlyweds' bedroom.

Laura can't even get a restraining order against Sena, because ... Sena is dead. The woman isn't just a stalker, she is a spiritual stalker.

Yes, it's Blithe Spirit, with a dash of Ghost.

The Ghost and Us's photography and music are pretty, but the film's strongest element is its story, effectively performed by a small cast of three talented actors.

Entries to the Tabloid Witch are often weak on story. Way too many serial killers or zombies killing people. Zombies attack. People run. Zombies kill. Repeat cycle. By contrast, The Ghost and Us has story arcs. Three of them, even! Each character changes in some small way by film's end.

Especially admirable is the film's middle (the turning point). Laura and Sena have called a temporary truce in their struggle for Ben's affections. Together, they share a snack in the kitchen. Girl stuff of the sort that bonds women. Then it becomes apparent that Sena cannot eat. She's a ghost.

Laura's attempt to help Sena eat, and the latter's realization that she's no longer of this world, both strengthens their bond, and conveys a poignancy that lifts The Ghost and Us above a mere spook tale. Adding to the scene's strength is that 1. it's not overdone or overlong (it happens, it's over, we move on), and 2. it's conveyed visually.

An NYU film student, Carmichael avoids the beginner's mistakes of telling what she's already shown -- and then telling and showing it to us some more.

Carmichael may be contacted at Kid Can Drive.





* Best Animated Horror Short: Nursery Crimes


The original Brothers Grimm fairy tales are reputedly far darker than their Disneyfied retellings. Scottish filmmaker L. Whyte returns to those dark roots -- and parodies them in Nursery Crimes. In her animated short film (under 4 minutes), an unseen narrator relates a nursery rhyme (co-written by L. Whyte and M.J. Magee -- can't they afford full names in Scotland?), wherein Little Bo Peep launches a killing spree worthy of Jason Voorhees. Among her victims are Little Miss Muffet, Mary Mary (Quite Contrary), and Jack and Jill.


The film uses a mix of stop-motion animation, and what appear to be backlit, black & white cutouts. Orange yarn or cloth depicts the characters' spilt blood.

Orange blood? Why not red? Perhaps to further distance viewers from the film's fantasy violence. Orange "blood" is less realistic, hence, more fanciful and satirical. (Granted, nobody would confuse Nursery Crimes with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even if its "yarn people" did bleed red, rather than orange, yarn.)

The narration (both in content and delivery) is typically British. The sort of dryly delivered, satirical wit that narrates the BBC's 1981 Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The Tabloid Witch doesn't award horror animation every year. The category doesn't produce worthy contenders every year. It was nice to find Nursery Crimes this year.

Details about L Whyte may be found at Voodoobeans.





* Best Horror Music Video: Happy Happy Halloween


Music videos have yet to return to the creative originality of their 1980s heyday, an era of innovation and experimentation in the genre. In its eight years, the Tabloid Witch has only awarded a horror music video three times -- including this year's winner, Happy Happy Halloween.




The video is creepily fun, its goth images apparently inspired by The Addams Family's Wednesday. The main problem (if you can call it that), is that its simple lyrics and repetitious melody will haunt you long after you've gone to bed. You're trying to fall asleep, but "Happy Happy Halloween" keeps ringing in your ears.

In other words, this is a good video to email to a friend on a weekend -- or to someone you hate who has to get up early the next morning.

The video's two goth girls are Jazzy and Nikki Daniels. The video was directed by their father, who's credited as Daddy O'Jaznik. (Get it?). His actual name is Matthew Daniels. The song is by Daniels's band, Midnight Habit.

More info on Midnight Habit at Bandcamp.



* Honorable Mention


The Tabloid Witch is primarily a contest rather than a film festival. Rather than selecting many films to be screened, from which a few films win awards, the Tabloid Witch begins with the few winners.

And a handful of Honorable Mentions. 

Of the 100+ films that entered in 2011, only five earned Honorable Mentions, making this a rare and special recognition.

The Honorable Mentions are:

* An Evening with My Comatose Mother


It's hard to classify Jonathan Martin's An Evening with My Comatose Mother (33 minutes). Is it drama or comedy? A bit of both, with some shocks and some smiles, yet not quite either. The film offers not so much a story, than a setup for said shocks and smiles. A classic, horror "rollercoaster ride" of fun -- and on that level the film excels.




The film's simple setup has Dorothy (Wendy Macy) arriving at a mansion to "babysit" a 92-year-old comatose woman on Halloween night. The woman's daughter and son-in-law are off to a Halloween party, leaving Dorothy to distribute candy to trick-or-treaters and, if needed, change the old woman's diaper.

"Your shit better be worth forty dollars an hour," a scowling Dorothy mutters.

There are no likeable characters in Martin's film, just as there are none in your typical Tales from the Crypt episode. An Evening with My Comatose Mother is a live action comic book -- loud and bright and exaggerated, from the actors' performances to the set decor's huge cross on the wall. Its vivid colors (as deeply saturated as Betania's are desaturated) evoke Suspiria.

After the polite but phony, bickering couple (Rick Macy, Michele Turner Wilson) leave for the night, Dorothy is plagued by sinister trick-or-treaters, an evil clown doll, and the old woman herself. Each incident is an episode unto itself, like a new room in an amusement park's haunted house ride.

An Evening with My Comatose Mother feels like a showcase film. Less a story than a chance for everyone involved to display their talents. And there is much talent on display in this technically outstanding film.

Devin Grahm's cinematography -- lots of smoke and colored lights -- is spookily resplendent. Jamey Anthony's costumes support the couple's opposing natures (the high-strung wife in an uptight dress, the slovenly husband in a casual sweater). Kevin G. Lee's music resembles the eerie fantasy scores of Danny Elfman (e.g., Edward Scissorhands, The Corpse Bride). Art direction, and visual and makeup effects, are all first rate.

More information at Comatose Mother.





* The Feed


Fans of "true ghost-hunting" reality shows should enjoy The Feed (73 minutes), yet another Blair Witch inspired horror mockumentary. What The Last Exorcism did for film documentarians, what Quarantine did for TV news teams, The Feed does for TV shows like Ghost Hunters.




The Feed depicts the last episode of "Ghost Chasers," a (fictitious) reality show that broadcasts their final presentation -- live! -- as their ill-fated crew investigates the reputedly haunted Brenway Movie Theater. As is typical of mockumentaries, we only see those incidents that are recorded by the characters' cameras. That includes the static and electronic interference caused by supernatural manifestations, and the shaky views from dangling or dropped cameras as the characters run for their lives.

The Feed does an admirable job of recreating an authentic TV episode, complete with historical news clippings and film footage, parody commercial breaks, and interviews with chirpy, elderly patrons who recount the good old days when 25 cents bought you a movie ticket plus popcorn!

The acting is superior to what you see in many grassroots indie horror films, though admittedly the roles aren't too difficult. No emotional subtleties; mainly just talking to the camera or running in fear. Low-budget horror legend, Lloyd Kaufman (Mother's Day, Splatter University), has a cameo role as a sleazy ambulance chaser whose TV commercials sponsor "Ghost Chasers."

The Feed's weakest point is that it takes a while to build up steam. There's much exposition as the "Ghost Chasers" crew explain their equipment to viewers, do interviews, relate the theater's history, and wander about the dim theater, doing meter readings and marking suspected seats with masking tape. Waiting for something to happen.

It's clear that the film's cast and crew are fans of "true" ghost hunter TV shows, and had lots of fun parodying every element of the genre. I would have preferred that the scares start sooner, and last longer, but The Feed is still enjoyable for what it is.

Shooting much of the film through a nightvision green light (while the "Ghost Chasers" crew conduct their explorations in darkness) is a good aesthetic choice. The eerie green glow both enhances the spooky atmosphere, and strengthens the premise (I'm guessing these sorts of TV shows are often shot in nightvision).

Contact info at The Feed Movie.





* The Picture in the House


The Picture in the House is one of several short films (13 minutes) this year that was based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. Set in the early part of the last century, a man (Mark Slacke) is bicycling from Boston to Arkham when a rainstorm compels him to seek shelter in what appears to be an abandoned house. But the house is inhabited by an old man (Ron Tarrant) who welcomes the unexpected company.



The old man gets around to showing the young man (we never learn their names) a book about "Afreeka" that he traded for back in 1868. The old man can't read the Latin text, but "I relish the pictures." Pictures of monsters, mutilation, and cannibalism. He admits to getting "all tingly" just looking at them pictures. "It's queer how a picture makes a body think."

The Picture in the House is a simple film. Two men conversing in a room. Yet while the conversation is innocent, the subtext is menacing. With some assist from the slowly building mood music, tension arises primarily from the dialog and acting. The outside rain (keeping the man in the house) adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

Many psycho killer films were submitted this year, but The Picture in the House is the only psycho killer film that won. (Except for the animated Nursery Crimes.) The characters are better developed, showing more personality, range, and charisma, in the film's brief 13 minutes than are characters in many psycho killer features.

The Canadian location (The Picture in the House was shot with assistance from ACTRA) doubles nicely for early 20th century, rural New England. Costumes, set decor, and period music (over the opening and end credits) are admirable and effectively support the film's historical milieu.





* Side Effect


A nice yuppie couple go out for a night on the town, leaving their two young children (a boy toddler and a baby) alone with Lauren (Virginia Newcomb), the babysitter. Lauren seems nice. And reliable. And hard-working. And smart. She's even taking a new (legal) drug to help her stay awake, so she can work and study that much harder. Lauren hopes to get into an Ivy League school.

But the drug has an unfortunate side effect...




Liz Adam's short film (13 minutes) is inspired by fact. The DVD's Special Features say that lawyers and judges have blamed various "antidepressant" and other drugs for sparking deadly psychotic episodes. Call it a "side effect."

Even knowing that, Side Effect's ending is still surprising. Like a magician's trick, the film's story and editing misdirect our attention and expectations, finally shocking us with a twist that is unexpected yet not unforeseeable.

Production values are high. Not unsurprising, since Side Effect was produced through an American Film Institute program. The actors are professional, especially Newcomb and Suzy Cote (during her outburst).

Yes, it's true. The Tabloid Witch had two babysitter film winners this year -- An Evening with My Comatose Mother and Side Effect. And neither film had a slasher or a Final Girl. Proving that one can make a babysitter horror film without copying Michael Myers's template.

Contact info at Side Effect the Movie.





* The Creepy Doll


Over the years Big Biting Pig Productions has submitted six horror feature films to the Tabloid Witch Awards, winning for the first time last year. These people are both persistent and diligent. They don't just keep making new films -- their filmmaking skills improve with each one. (Not true of every indie filmmaker.) Their latest film, The Creepy Doll (94 minutes), is their best film yet.




Written and directed by PJ Woodside (who alternates directing chores with her Big Biting Pig partner, Steve Hudgins), The Creepy Doll recalls Talky Tina from the original Twilight Zone's "Living Doll" episode. Woodside's doll doesn't talk, but one senses that she's alive -- and that she has the sinister soul of Talky Tina, if not her eloquence or good looks.

Yes, she's got one ugly mug. Everyone says so. That she's one ugly, creepy doll. Which does not help improve her attitude or interpersonal skills set.

The creepy doll doesn't even have a name. Kate (Kristine Renee Farley) refers to it as her Guardian Doll. Back in the Old Country (according to Kate's grandma), dead bears and wolves are sometimes found mangled outside of little girls' homes, with tracks leading from the house. Legend has it that the Guardian Doll has come to life, to kill the nearby threat.

The adult Kate -- newly married and pregnant in Kentucky -- fills the expected baby's room with dolls -- including the Guardian Doll, for protection. All should be well so long as Kate is not threatened.

But Kate does feel threatened. Jason's old flame, Samantha, keeps dropping in. Kate is jealous. She learns that Jason's mom (Cindy Maples) was hoping that Jason and Samantha (Justin Veazey, Jessica Cook) would marry. Kate's jealousy grows. She talks to her Guardian Doll.

POV shots indicate that the doll is looking back, aware and listening...

The Creepy Doll benefits from nicely composed shots, careful lighting, creepy mood music, complex characters performed by a capable cast, and an engaging supernatural tale peppered with dramatic nuances. When the brooding Kate walks by a school, she sees ominous events -- a man photographing girls at play from behind a wall; another man yelling at a child -- yet these details turn out to be innocent.

This scene both unnverves viewers and supports Kate's character by suggesting that she is overly imaginative. Does she often imagine threats? Does she only imagine that Samantha is a threat? Does she only imagine that her Guardian Doll has powers? Although the weight of the evidence suggests that the doll is truly alive, there's room for the interpretation that it's all in Kate's head.

As is typical of Big Biting Pig's films, the story is ambitious. Like AbsentiaThe Creepy Doll effectively interweaves a supernatural tale (of an evil doll) with a domestic drama (of a jealous wife), so that the film works on both dramatic levels, each supporting and playing off of the other.

P.J. Woodside may be contacted at Big Biting Pig Productions.




* Additional Winners


Courtney Bell and Katie Parker both turn in stellar performances as the troubled sisters in Absentia. It's hard to say who's best.

Additionally, they share so much screen time together, each performing against the other's performance, it's hard to separate their work. Many of their scenes constitute a two-actress ensemble.

This year, the Best Actress Award is a tie, shared by Courtney Bell and Katie Parker.




As the police detective in Absentia, Dave Levine brings much texture and balance to a complex role.

His detective is hard-boiled, yet burdened with a pining and broken heart for another man's wife. He is both kind and cold when helping that man -- his attitudes justified by his job, but to what extent motivated by the thought that his success may mean losing the woman? Finally, amid all his emotional turmoil, his cynical mind struggles to understand supernatural occurrences that defy his street smarts and police experience.

A nuanced and brooding performance. Dave Levine wins for Best Actor.



Opening the door to admit the babysitter, Michele Turner Wilson looks like a witch from the Land of Oz. Her Halloween costume, pointedly arched eyebrows, and fake smile all suggest that the babysitter Dorothy (get it?) is entering a dark and sinister realm.

Wilson plays her character on the edge. Friendly and facile, with undercurrents of sarcasm and menace. She criticizes her husband, and expresses concern for her comatose mother, but one senses that Wilson would just as soon poison both should the mood strike her. As with Snow White's evil stepmother, you would not want to get on Wilson's wrong side.

Michele Turner Wilson suggests a wickedly bitchy character in her brief screen time in An Evening with my Comatose Mother, earning her a Best Supporting Actress Award.



Horror films belong to the villain. We best remember the monster. Heroes rank a distant second. Victims rarely even register on viewers' radar. Victims are just warm bodies to be killed off.

Victim roles thus challenge actors to do much with little. Morgan Peter Brown meets that challenge as the frightened, tormented husband in Absentia. Having escaped the creature, Brown is maddened by his ordeal, and terrified of the creature's possible return. Other characters -- and viewers -- must decide to what extent Brown's bizarre behavior and trembling mania are rooted in insanity, lies, or legitimate fears.

Morgan Peter Brown wins Best Supporting Actor.



It was a close call between Comatose Mother's vivid comic book colors, and Betania's grim goth with hints of color, but the latter wins by a nose.

Best Cinematography goes to Betania.

Ironically, the film's credits list no DP. We're guessing it's director Giomaro Andrea. In any event, we look forward to him revealing the mystery winner's identity when we contact him.



The Tabloid Witch has always sought films that not only have a clean soundtrack, but which use sound aesthetically.

Absentia's nondiegetic sounds build the mood. Its diegetic sounds suggest the creature lurking in darkness, its nature and physical attributes. These complex layers of sound interweave and morph into each other, and into the music.

The sounds are appropriate, never arbitrary or done for cheap scares, earning Best Sound for Richard Ragon.


In An Evening with My Comatose Mother, it's hard to tell where the makeup effects end and visual effects begin. Effects are plentiful and blend seamlessly into each other, contributing mightily to the film's colorful funhouse ride of a movie.

Comatose Mother's Chris Hanson wins for Best Make-Up Effects. Stephen Sobisky takes Best Visual Effects.




Another close call. Absentia's simple mood music integrates well with its sound effects, and supports the film's somber story and themes. And Comatose Mother's beautiful score seems inspired by Danny Elfman. But Betania's Fulci-esque score thrills and excites, from its surreal opening credits in the morgue, till it cemetery finale. Music worthy of Fulci himself.

Best Music Soundtrack goes to Betania's Sabrina Bursi, Fulvio Mennella and Frederick Livi.





* The Final Tally


Tabloid Witch Award Winners


* Best Horror Feature Film .......................... Mike Flanagan (Absentia)

* Best Dramatic Horror Short Film .............. Andrea Giomaro (Betania)

* Best Comedic Horror Short Film ............... Emily Carmichael (The Ghost and Us)

* Best Animated Horror Short Film .............. L. Whyte (Nursery Crimes)

* Best Horror Music Video .......................... Matthew Daniels (Happy Happy Halloween)

* Best Actress (tie) ...................................... Katie Parker & Courtney Bell (Absentia)

* Best Actor ................................................. Dave Levine (Absentia)

* Best Supporting Actress ........................... Michele Turner Wilson (An Evening with My Comatose Mother)

* Best Supporting Actor ............................... Morgan Peter Brown (Absentia)

* Best Cinematography ................................ Andrea Giomaro (Betania)

* Best Sound ................................................ Richard Ragon (Absentia)

* Best Visual Effects ..................................... Stephen Sobisky, Sandman Studios (An Evening with My Comatose Mother)

* Best Make-Up Effects ................................ Chris Hanson (An Evening with My Comatose Mother)

* Best Music Soundtrack .............................. Sabrina Bursi, Fulvio Mennella & Frederick Livi (Betania)


Tabloid Witch Honorable Mentions


* Jonathan Martin (An Evening with My Comatose Mother)

* Steve Gibson (The Feed)

* Miles Finlayson (The Picture in the House)

* Liz Adams (Side Effect)

* PJ Woodside (The Creepy Doll)



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