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The Overlook Film Festival raises its game with each well-planned scare

In Fabric
Photo: Courtesy of A24 In Fabric

When we first attended the horror-centric Overlook Film Festival in 2017, the experience kicked off with a bang that was hard to top. It was the sight of Oregon’s Timberline Lodge—better known as the location where Stanley Kubrick shot the exteriors for his haunted hotel in The Shining—peeking out of a snowy blizzard. That’s what greeted you when you arrived. No matter what films would eventually play at the festival (and there were some killer ones, including the world premiere of Trey Shults’s brooding post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night), the Overlook had already won.

Since then, the festival’s resourceful co-founders, Michael Lerman and Landon Zakheim, have been forced to do something even scarier: keep a niche film festival alive at a moment when viewers are discouraged from even leaving home. They’ve swapped ghostly locations; now the Overlook takes place in New Orleans. They’ve negotiated complex hotel contracts. They’ve smoothed ruffled feathers. They’ve put on sprawling immersive games. They’ve improved screening conditions. And somehow, the two of them haven’t stabbed each other in the middle of the night or given up.

Their efforts are beginning to pay off: Robustly, the horror community turned up for this year’s smoothly run fourth edition, which enjoyed full houses and sweaty afterparties. The Overlook has earned (and embraced) its reputation of being a four-day “horror summer camp”—if you can imagine a summer camp where your counselors have day jobs on the staffs of the rebooted Fangoria magazine or Shudder, the horror fanatic’s streaming service of choice.

Attendees came to talk terror. Post-screening Q&As were provocative, notably one for director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s accomplished Daniel Isn’t Real that veered from its imaginary-evil-friend premise to the territory of mental health, resulting in a frank back and forth. Podcasters Amy Nicholson and Paul Scheer brought their Unspooled to a live audience (listen to it here), where the all-time horror canon was hashed out among experts. And, in a powerhouse performance, author Grady Hendrix donned an evangelist’s white suit and ranted through five decades of trashy teen-horror novels for over an hour, leaving the crowd raptured.

One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead
Photograph: Courtesy of Enbu Seminar

As for the movies themselves, the Overlook was finally hitting critical mass, scoring the U.S. premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die only two weeks after the zom-com opened the Cannes Film Festival (that’s good company to be in). Horror as a genre remains poised between nostalgia and the need for fresh blood, literally. You could see that tension in many of the Overlook’s offerings, which, collectively, offered up a vivid state of the art. Retro-horror specialist Peter Strickland’s stunning In Fabric, about a haunted dress that kills off its wearers, threaded new enthusiasm into the grammar of ’70s exploitation cinema. Elsewhere, a panel celebrating Shudder’s documentary series Horror Noire was an opportunity to shed belated light on the contributions made by black artists onscreen and off.

Even the lineup’s most backward-glancing offerings pulsed with updated nerviness. Jury prize winner The Vast of Night at first seemed trapped in its Coke-bottle-glasses conception of 1960s period décor, but the film’s relentless camerawork gave way to some sincere Spielbergian wonderment. And Japanese filmmaker Shin'ichirô Ueda somehow found a way to infuse yet another zombie flick with unusual perspective in his delightfully meta One Cut of the Dead, which, as this year’s closing night selection, made for a matching bookend with Jarmusch’s unexpectedly downbeat anti-comedy.

Stocked with access points for seasoned genre fans and the merely curious alike, this year’s Overlook produced a definitive snapshot of everything going on in the horror genre right now. There will be a time—soon—when the Overlook will be scooping its competition (Midsommar, Ari Aster’s massively anticipated follow-up to his Overlook-screened Hereditary, was still being sound-mixed during the festival; otherwise, it surely would have been in New Orleans). Lerman and Zakheim seem prepared to do what it takes to get to that commanding perch. The films are coming, as are the faithful.

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