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The Overlook Film Festival turns an iconic location into a horror mecca

Joshua Rothkopf

It was the selling point, the sizzle, the wow: The first annual Overlook Film Festival, a showcase of new horror movies for serious fans, took place last weekend at Oregon's Timberline Lodge, a popular Mt. Hood skiing resort with its own distinguished history (it was dedicated in 1937 by FDR himself) but more famous for its fictional identity as the backdrop for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The idea worked beautifully: Driving up twisty roads with terrifying drops, you could be forgiven for getting nervous when you reached a certain elevation and it started to snow, then blizzard. Finally, those gray devil-horned towers peeked out of the whiteness, the two wings of rooms wrapping their arms around you. The place was alive. Even though it was cozy inside with its central stone fireplace, decorative wood carvings and delicious steaks (self-butchered, the staff told you, a little darkly), you wanted to go back out and take selfies in front of that facade again.

The festival's organizers rode the Kubrickian vibe hard; after all, this was the audience for it. (There was much talk over the weekend about the assembled "horror community," clad in black T-shirts but sweetly nerdy.) Echoey big-band music, straight from The Shining's ghostly ballroom scene, greeted you in the lobby. Winners of the fest's jury prizes didn't get gold trophies but axes—sharp ones—with "Here's Johnny" scrawled on their handles. Roger Corman, the mischievous B-movie pioneer honored with the Overlook's first Master of Horror award, wondered aloud how he was going to get his gleaming prize through airport security.

But the best and biggest surprise of the four days was that a world-class film festival was happening right before our eyes—not merely a gimmick for Shining fans but an event of stature, curation and significance. A much-whispered-about "secret screening" turned out to be the world premiere of Trey Edward Shults's It Comes at Night, a devastating post-apocalyptic thriller that wrecked its first audience. (It also earned our highest rating.) As the film's viewers pushed their way into the night's thick fog—better than any manufactured dry ice—to a swanky afterparty staged by indie cool kids A24 (also distributors of The Witch and the forthcoming A Ghost Story), the Overlook had orchestrated its first big splash.

Consistently thoughtful, the lineup yielded more than just notable features (such as Australia's grungy Hounds of Love, coming to NYC theaters May 12). Shudder, the online streaming service beloved by horror connoisseurs, debuted its first original content, Primal Screen, an instantly likable series that explores traumatic childhood media memories. Show-runner and creator Rodney Ascher outdid his towering Room 237 with this dazzling first installment: humorous, neurotic, intimate as a confession. It's a deep dive into the eerie appeal of dolls, touching on ventriloquism, psychology's "uncanny valley" and anonymous online trolling, as well as the creepy TV trailer for 1978's Magic.

Nightly parties brought out shrieks and (inevitably?) Bauhaus's goth-rock churner "Bela Lugosi's Dead" to the rollicking second-floor bar. There were live radio plays from Tales from Beyond the Pale (extraordinary), as well as a weekend-long immersive game which had players raiding a "murder car" parked in the lot. Trivia and dance raves had their nights. And in a masterstroke that should become the Overlook's signature, there were one-on-one theatrical performances such as The Chalet and Blackout, both of which I tried, turning me into a exhilarated fucked-up mess. If that's not what a great film festival is supposed to do, then I've got it backward. Let's hope the Overlook sticks around for many years to come—or, to quote those creepy twins at the end of the hallway, forever and ever. And ever.


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