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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [September 17, 2012]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com]Slashers, torturers, and serial killers were absent from this year's Tabloid Witch Award winners. Of the 14 award-winning films this year (out of 71 entries), 8 had supernatural threats, 3 were zombie films, 2 had monsters, and 1 film had aliens from outer space.
As always, American films dominated both entries and winners, but Brits and Canuks were especially strong this year, among both winners and losers. (Some losing films were quite good, just not as good as the winners). Of the 14 winning films, 9 were from the United States, 2 from Britain, 2 from Canada, and 1 from Austria.
The Tabloid Witch will present a screening of all "Best" and "Honorable Mention" winners in Los Angeles, California, at Loscon 39, on the evenings of November 23 and 24.
Writer/director Mark Duffield took on a difficult challenge for a low-budget film -- he made a period piece, placing his story in Victorian London. But his creative ambition paid off. Demon is a visually resplendent English horror film that pays worthy homage to those Hammer period pieces starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Demon is about a cursed young man (Andrew Mullan) transformed by love into a blood-sucking -- you guessed it! -- demon. Combining horror and romance, Demon resembles vampire romances such as Bram Stoker's Dracula. As you might expect, a morally pure, beautiful young woman (Clare Langford) falls in love with the star-crossed monster -- who in turn struggles against destroying this woman that he loves.
Interior sets, outdoor locations (modern artifacts hidden by an admirable use of low camera angles and tight shots), costumes, and acting all contribute to Demon's Victorian ambiance, showing both the genteel and seedy sides of gaslit London. The film's music -- from starkly tense strings, to lush, tragio-romantic orchestral scores -- -- effectively supports the film's shifting dramatic turns.
Riley (Bettina Taylor) dumps a plastic bag into a trash can. She then washes blood from her rubber gloves. What was it she tossed? Conversation with her friend, Marissa (Justine Llanes), suggests that the thing in the bag was ... a fetus? Or a full-born baby? Still alive? Maybe not?
Some of this year's other dramatic shorts were more technically polished, but Birthday Boys excels in its story. Eschewing the usual zombies, slashers, and ghosts, Birthday Boys's tale has originality, thematic courage, and creepy mystery.
Why is Riley covered with burn scars? What happened to her boyfriend, Edward? When Marissa performs black magic to raise Edward from the dead, why does she draw a blood circle around her and Edward's name? Just to resurrect him, or were they an item behind Riley's back?
Touching upon grim family secrets, betrayal, vengeance, and decay, Birthday Boys might justifiably be titled Bronx Gothic (being that it was shot in The Bronx, New York).
In an era when too many horror films offer nothing other than "See zombies eat people!" or "See maniacs cut people!" -- when too many directors confuse "daring" and "dangerous" and "cutting edge" with ever more graphic (and boring) gore -- Birthday Boys instead broaches subjects that scare away many "horror" filmmakers.
Birthday Boys offers no clear message. Rather, its darkly ambiguous story leaves us feeling creepy and discomforted. It's a thought-provoking fright piece that raises unsettling questions and provides no easy answers. Clichéd praise, but in this case, it happen to be true.
It's bad enough working in a dead-end office cubicle, without a spider infiltrating your ear and laying eggs, filling your head with baby spiders. Even worse when your job is so dreadful, you assume the only reason for the ringing in your ears, and spiders in your vision, is work-related stress.
While the spiders are shudder-inducing, I Spyders is also funny, both as horror and as a workplace satire. The boss is an insufferable liar, the co-worker is a soulless drone. Production designer Tad Michalak's pastel colors and drab furniture effectively captures the mind-numbing sterility of cubicle existence. The muzak-like songs of Bloodshot Bill airing over a cheap radio (the boss's idea of how to create a cheerful workplace environment?) adds to the insipid misery.
Like the proverbial disgruntled employee, I Spyders is a slow burn that builds up to an explosive gross-out. Details on the film's website.
* Best Animated Horror Short: Thumb Snatchers from the Moon Cocoon
Every year, the Tabloid Witch gets a lot of zombie and slasher and torture films. And this year saw an inordinately high number of excellent supernatural films. But good horror/sci-fi is always in short supply. We want to see more alien abduction films.
This year there were two alien films. One was quite good. Thumb Snatchers from the Moon Cocoon (7 minutes) is a humorous piece of stop-motion animation.
Aliens invade Earth to make the universe safe for intelligent life. These aren't gray aliens with anal probes. Instead, they're a throwback to the 1950s. Robot-like monsters who come to conquer us in the name of peace. Much like Klatto's mission in The Day the Earth Stood Still, expect these aliens are past giving us a chance. They've decided that humans are hopelessly violent, so they're gonna cut off our thumbs, so we'll stop building weapons of mass destruction.
The only thing standing between them and our thumbs is one ornery Texan. If you want his thumb, you'll have to pry it off of his cold, dead hand...
Thumb Snatchers from the Moon Cocoon is cute, colorful, fast-paced, imaginative, and loads of fun -- for horror and science fiction fans alike. Written and directed by Brad Schaffer.
* Best Avant-Garde Horror Short: The Halloween Kid
The Tabloid Witch's Avant-Garde category was founded to honor films that eschew traditional form narrative structure. This year's winner, The Halloween Kid (7 minutes) has no dialogue. Instead, it's a visual dramatization of a poem narrated by actor Derek Jacobi (I Claudius, and much else).
The story, themes, and emotional ambiance are straight out of Ray Bradbury's October Country. A gentle tale of a sensitive boy, Henry (Leo Donnelly), who relates better to monsters than to people, and who loves Halloween. Naturally, he is mocked by the other kids, and scolded by his teachers and coach. Henry's loving but exasperated mother (Anna Walton) doesn't know what to do with her strange son.
The Halloween Kid is well supported by Sam McCurdy's beautiful photography of autumnal pastels, and a score by Christian Henson that evokes Danny Elfman's music for Tim Burton.
The Tabloid Witch is primarily a contest rather than a film festival. Rather than picking many official selections to be screened, of which a few films win awards, the Tabloid Witch begins with the winners.
And a few Honorable Mentions, making this a rare and special recognition.
The Honorable Mentions are:
* Motion Sickness
Motion Sickness is not quite a horror film -- but neither is it not a horror film. Its a mesmerizing piece of surrealism that combines David Lynch's bizarro characters and incidents with Darren Aranofsky's Jewish mysticism.
Shem (Jason Liebman) is a former (failed?) rabbinical student with health problems. A limp, possibly subconsciously induced. He also sees people who may or may not be real. Odd people. Especially the temptress next door who calls herself Lila (and may or may not be the demoness Lilith).
Motion Sickness risks being over-long (114 minutes) and self-indulgent, with languorous scenes that at times (like Lynch's work) linger on minutia. But, as with Lynch, filmmaker Stephen M. Kerstein's events, characters, and visuals are compelling enough to keep us watching, wanting to see how his surreal mystery unfolds.
Spirit Stalkers is about a "true ghost-hunters" TV show called -- what else? -- Spirit Stalkers. (Not to be confused with The Feed, another horror film about a "true ghost-hunters" TV show which won an Honorable Mention last year.)
As we've come to expect from Big Biting Pig, Spirit Stalkers is rife with unexpected plot twists and moral dilemmas. The host of Spirit Stalkers, Reuben (Steve Hudgins), is too smart for his own good. He solves every mystery, behind every eerie noise and cold spot, at every "haunted" location. He's also conscientious. He reveals the logical, rational explanation for every so-called "haunting."
That's bad for ratings. The show's producer wants Reuben to put on more of a show. Couldn't he at least pretend that something scary is happening and remains unexplained? But Reuben refuses to compromise. Then the Spirit Stalkers stumble upon what appears to be a real-life haunting. Or is it? Don't guess too quickly. After every dramatic twist there is ... yet another twist.
Spirit Stalkers features nice photography, creepy sound effects, strong acting, and original story-telling. Independent, regional horror filmmaking at its finest.
* Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You!
There is nothing scary about this film. The creative duo at Motern Media (Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley) admit that Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You! is a comedy. Or rather, it's the sort of film that a 1950s shlockmeister -- William Castle, perhaps -- might have marketed as horror, but which today is seen for its camp value.
Riverbeast even pays homage to Castle's promotional gimmickry. The film opens with a professor warning viewers that some scenes may be too intense for those of weak constitution. And so a red flashing light will precede every scene with the riverbeast, allowing time for more sensitive viewers to cover their eyes.
The film is a charming homage to old-fashioned Americana and the none-too-scary horror films that once dominated the nation's drive-ins. A humiliated tutor, Neil (Matt Farley), flees his small town -- and small town sweetheart -- after being mocked for claiming to have seen the legendary riverbeast monster. Years later he returns home and, in Jimmy Stewart fashion, touches and fixes the lives of friends and neighbors, all the while struggling to prove the reality of the riverbeast.
It's rare that a film intended as camp succeeds. Most films that set out to be "so bad it's good" end up as "so bad it's unwatchable" -- but not so with Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You!. The characters are engaging, not crude caricatures. Their silly foibles elicit sympathy, not mockery. We laugh with them, rather than at them.
This is Motern Media's third entry, and the first to win an award. As with Big Biting Pig, this New Hampshire production company has improved with each entry. It's time their persistence paid off.
* Blue Hole
This slick production has all the horror filmmaking basics down. Fast camera moves, jarring angles and edits, intense music -- all of these elements contributing toward building atmosphere, creating energy, and conveying emotional intensity. Blue Hole (12 minutes) isn't especially original, but it's a good scare story, told in a fast-paced, entertaining fashion.
The devil is said to reside in a lake. In a specific spot called the "blue hole." If you stand near it, he might yank you in -- into the lake and into hell. But there's hope! If he pulled in your loved one, and you want her back, you can offer the devil a human sacrifice. Then he'll release your loved one from the "blue hole."
But remember ... the devil is a trickster.
Filmmaker Erik Gardner claims that the "blue hole" is a real spot. It's in New Jersey. Blue Hole is intended to be a precursor to a feature length version of this story. Details at the film's website.
Like Blue Hole, Vadim (Austria, 15 minutes) covers all the filmmaking basics. Professional acting, effective art direction (the apartment is gloomy and uninviting), creepy monster makeup, unnerving music, and atmospheric photography. The story is not especially original, borrowing elements that we've seen before. But it delivers its share of frights and shocks.
Vadim tells a simple spook story. A young couple move into a new apartment. The former tenant is dead. How did he die? He left a big crate, bolted to the floor, so it can't be moved. It's also locked. What's inside? The landlady doesn't know. Doesn't have the key. Katja's hubby dismisses it. Only Katja (Eva Pröglhöf) worries about that mysterious, locked crate.
Vadim is a dark film, but alas, not always in a good way. Not only is the story dark, but so is much of the photography. Sometimes it's hard to discern what's happening on screen, especially when Katja creeps about the apartment at night, in search of strange noises. Horror filmmakers often rely on the dark for atmosphere, and to hide monsters, but it wouldn't have hurt if writer/director Peter Hengl had opened up his camera another f/stop.
Despite this minor complaint, Vadim is a skilled production. It displays much talent, on both sides of the camera. Details at the film's website.
* Anniversary Dinner
So many bad zombie films. Sure, it seems like zombies are an easy subgenre to pull off. Take some untrained "actors" in bad makeup, add fake blood, chicken entrails, and a "story" about some people trapped somewhere. And viola! ... it's the same old, same old.
The Tabloid Witch receives many zombie entries. Only a few ever go on to win. Those are the ones that bring style, high production values, and at least some originality to the living dead.
Such is Anniversary Dinner (12 minutes), a brief vignette set shortly after the end of the zombie apocalypse. Zombies have been defeated. The survivors are rebuilding civilization.
Alas, one man can't bring himself to turn in his zombie wife to the authorities. He keeps the creature locked in their bedroom, hoping to maintain some semblance of normal life. He even prepares an anniversary dinner, hoping to rekindle a spark of remembrance in her putrefied brain.
Anniversary Dinner has strong production values and a talented cast, lifting the film several notches above most zombie fare. Director/co-writer Jessi Gotta also plays the wife. Co-writer Brian Silliman is the husband. Alyssa Simon rounds out the cast as the husband's sister.
We received three strong Canadian short entries this year, all of them horror comedies. Two went on to win prizes: I Spyders and Dead Friends (11 minutes).
What's going on up in the Great White North? Nobody's afraid, they're all just laughing!
Of course, it's not all laughter. Comedies can convey important themes. Both of the winning films did so (which is what gave them an edge over the third entry). I Spyders satirized wage slavery. Dead Friends targets bullying.
What little girl, bullied at the playground, hasn't dreamt of having a tough boyfriend to protect her? Better yet, a zombie boy, to sic upon her tormentors!
Now, technically, I'm not sure if Dead Friends is a zombie film. The little girl in question grows her zombie like a potted plant. So really, he's more of a "plant boy" with zombie -- and some canine -- attributes. He growls like a dog. And he's more viscous than a pitbull terrier!
Dead Friends is almost a silent film. There are sound effects and music, but no dialogue. The music selection creates an early Woody Allen feel for the comedic antics. Sleeper comes to mind.
Perhaps the lack of dialogue was to hide that the young cast had no professional training? If so, it was a smart creative choice. If the cast are untrained, we don't notice it. Dead Friends is a fun and funny film, with no rough bumps to upset an enjoyable ride.
* Additional Winners
Oscar loves the mentally and physically challenged -- or at least, the actors who play them. Understandably so. These roles allow actors to showcase their skills across a broad range, providing they're up to the task.
PJ Woodside is. As the emotionally disturbed woman in Spirit Stalkers who is either seeing ghosts -- or relapsing into schizophrenia -- or both -- she plays crazy realistically, without going overboard or into caricature.
The Best Actress Award goes to PJ Woodside.
When we first meet him, Lorcan is the perfect Victorian gentleman. Reserved and polite. Then loves blossoms in his heart -- and he struggles against his emerging demonic side. By film's end, Lorcan is a blood-sucking monster who wishes he weren't, who dreads harming the woman he loves, but who can't help what he is.
As with Woodside, Andrew Mullan successfully tackles a role offering a broad range of emotional nuances.
Andrew Mullan wins for Best Actor.
A distraught sister has a heated exchange with her brother. Their emotional argument covers medical crises, law-breaking, dark familial secrets, and personal betrayal.
Apart from the flesh-eating zombie in the next room, Alyssa Simon's dramatic scene in Anniversary Party could be from any daytime soap opera or night-time cop drama -- proving that there is no such thing as a "horror actor." Good acting is good acting.
Alyssa Simon's better-than-good acting wins her a Best Supporting Actress Award.
Office comedies of the past decades have given us a diversity of insufferable film and TV bosses, to which we add I Spyders's Dave (Gabriel Dumas).
Dave is smarmy, shifty, insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. A fake "nice guy" boss who promises much, then forgets; who thanks you for volunteering before you even agreed to anything. His ponderous enunciation of buzz words like "efficiency" and "due diligence" evokes Gary Cole's Bill Lumbergh in Office Space.
Gabriel Dumas wins for Best Supporting Actor.
Motion Sickness exhibits all types of photography and lighting in its shifting tale. Argento-like primary colors in scenes involving with the temptress. Pastels so muted as to be almost black-and-white in the noirish scenes with the cops. Dark and murky colors to evoke mystery and danger. Happy sitcom lighting when events turn to romance. It's enough to give us ... motion sickness?
Granted, Spirit Stalkers had the advantage in this category. The Tabloid Witch prefers to confer its sound award on films that not only professionally record sound, but which use sound in a way that aesthetically supports and advances the story.
Being a tale about things that go bump in the night, Spirit Stalkers is full of ghostly voices, creaking floorboards, EVP recordings, and other creepy sound effects, using sound (and silence) to create atmosphere and chill viewers.
This is the first time that someone won a Tabloid Witch for work done both behind and in front of the camera, but the Best Sound award goes to actress (and sound editor) PJ Woodside.
No make-up effects this year were especially original. James Alexander's demon looks like what a demon's supposed to look like -- claws, pointy ears, leathery wings, etc.
But there is nothing wrong with a traditional interpretation when aesthetically appropriate. Demon does strive for a traditional, Hammer ambiance, and Alexander's make-up well supports that goal -- and on a low budget.
James Alexander wins for Best Make-Up Effects.
Divination is to be admired for its ambitious themes and visually stunning battles between angels and demons. Unfortunately, too many scenes drag. Less talk, faster paced dialogue and staging, and shorter shots would have helped.
But the film's CGI visual effects are outstanding, the best of this year's entries. No surprise, since computer graphics are writer/director Ben Pohl's day job.
Demon, Motion Sickness, and The Halloween Kid all featured beautiful and aesthetically appropriate music. But their scores supported the story. Blood Rush's music goes the extra mile and alters the very character of the story.
On the surface, it's the same old, same old tale of post-apocalyptic survivors vs. flesh-eating zombies. Yet Michael Daniel's score lends this under-populated, micro-budgeted feature a 1950s, retro sensibility. His music alters the images so that Blood Rushfeels like Robot Monster. (And to a lesser extent, like The Last Man On Earth.)
Michael Daniel's aesthetically transformative music earns him Best Music Soundtrack.
* The Final Tally
Best Horror Feature Film .......................... Mark Duffield (Demon)
Best Dramatic Horror Short Film .............. Rafael De Leon Jr. (Birthday Boys)
Best Comedic Horror Short Film ............... William Allinson (I Spyders)
Best Animated Horror Short Film .............. Bradley Schaffer (Thumb Snatchers from the Moon Cocoon)
Best Avant-Garde Horror Short Film ........ Axelle Carolyn (The Halloween Kid)
Best Actress ............................................. PJ Woodside (Spirit Stalkers)
* Best Actor ................................................. Andrew Mullan (Demon)
* Best Supporting Actress
........................... Alyssa Simon (Anniversary Dinner)
* Best Supporting Actor
............................... Gabriel Dumas (I Spyders)
* Best Cinematography
................................ Eun-ah Lee (Motion Sickness)
* Best Sound ................................................ PJ Woodside (Spirit Stalkers)
* Best Visual Effects
..................................... Ben Pohl (Divination)
* Best Make-Up Effects
................................ James Alexander (Demon)
* Best Music Soundtrack
.............................. Michael Daniel (Blood Rush)
* Jessi Gotta & Brian Silliman (Anniversary Dinner)
* Stephen W. Martin (Dead Friends)
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