Monday , 8 August 2022

Ghouls and ghosts galore at NJ Horror Con & Film Fest!

With all the craziness and horrific happenings occurring in the world today, we can all use an occasional break from it all. And as Halloween approaches, what better respite is there than dressing up in scary costumes and watching frightening movies? In the state that Jason prowls looking for teenage victims, where the phenomenon known as Jaws was conceived, and that serves as the birthplace of the Toxic Avenger, a new gathering for horror fans has found a welcome home. New Jersey may be known as the Garden State, but it could also be called A True State of Horror. From Chiller Theatre and Monster-Mania to Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors, New Jersey has welcomed ghouls and ghosts and those who love them for decades. Earlier this year, a new convention arose from the beyond to honor and promote the long and short of horror films. The New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival’s inaugural celebration took place last spring in Edison, NJ, quite fitting as the town named after the man so instrumental to the world of motion pictures. Co-creators Robert Scott Weber, a filmmaker in his own right, and Robert Bruce, pop-culture merchandise expert of AMC’s Comic Book Men, brought their sophomore effort to the Renaissance Hotel in Iselin last month and it was even bigger and better than the one before it. Of course, the Gore 4 was there to take in as much as was humanly, and inhumanly possible.

We knew were in the right place when, soon upon entering, we came across Father Evil and another one of his brethren. While horror conventions generally emphasize guests signing autographs and taking pictures, and horror film fests naturally concentrate on showing films, what’s great about the NJ Horror Con and Film Festival is, like the name says, it does both. While there’s plenty to see and do on the convention floor, the continuous run of films and panels allow one to get off their feet and be entertained for hours at a time if they so choose. It greatly adds to the event and makes it rather unique among so many other horror conventions. In addition to handing out awards to filmmakers and actors, they also held a cosplay contest, making it a full weekend where creative souls of all kinds could be recognized for their skilled work. So, with so much going on, where does one even begin? Well, how about some films?

For fans of uproarious, no-holds-barred entertainment filled to the brim with copious amounts of blood, gore and nudity, there’s no better place than the world of Troma, who have had a long history with the state of New Jersey. The one and only Lloyd Kaufman, who’s a bit of John Waters, Russ Meyer, Herschel Gordon Lewis and P.T. Barnum all rolled into one, was in the house to deliver his latest directorial effort, the pierced tongue-in-cheek titled, Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High, aka Volume 2. A direct sequel to 2013’s Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, it serves as a continuation of the raucous Class of Nuke ‘Em High trilogy of films beginning in 1986 and taking place in, where else, Tromaville, New Jersey. An amazingly awesome animated graphic novel-style recap of the previous film catches you up on where things left off, and is worth the price of admission by itself. Returning are Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran as the lovely lesbians battling the evil Tromorganic Foodstuffs Conglomerate and the mutants they’ve created. It also, sadly, marks the final screen appearances of the legendary Lemmy from Motorhead, as the President (if only), and long-time Troma player, Joe Fleishaker. One couldn’t possibly describe the events happening on screen sufficiently, but the film is delightfully depraved, a virtual pundemonium of pop-culture references, in-jokes and fun cameos that fly at you farts and flurious. It was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend, and one wonders how high the filmmakers were to bring such a wild creation to the screen.

Afterwards, the irrepressible impressario himself, Lloyd Kaufman, who co-stars in the film as well, brought some of the other players on stage with him, like Zac Amico and Monique Dupree, along with Troma favs, the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman. Kaufman’s enthusiasm and ability to tap into the pulse of today’s youth belie his age. With all that’s going on in the world today, he said his films are indeed meant for young people, and unless you have really cool, open and demented parents, it’s best to keep them far away. Currently showing at film festivals and select screenings, look for Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High, aka Volume 2 on Blu-ray and DVD early next year. Kaufman, and Troma co-founder, Michael Herz, have created a wild and wonderful universe with Tromaville, akin to, but more deranged than another Jersey creation, that of Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse. Be sure to check out The Troma Channel on YouTube, with hundreds of free movies, shorts and new content every week, and for more Troma classics and world premieres, go to Troma Now, not yesterday, but right now!

Now, there were many more films to see over the 3-day weekend, and while it was impossible to watch them all, the Gore 4 did the best we could. Among the feature length productions, there was Camp Blood, from filmmaker Shawn Jones, with a fun, bloody opening credits sequence setting the stage for the Halloween/Friday the 13th-inspired slasher. Mania, from director Jessica Cameron, a Thelma & Louise-style road film centering on a woman’s compulsion to kill, went on to win best picture, and best actress for Ellie Church, as the agonized girlfriend who got more than she bargained for in her relationship. Though we unfortunately missed Troma associate Dylan Greenberg’s Re-Animator parody, ReAgitator: Revenge of the Parody, and the intriguingly-titled, The Dark Military, we did manage to get a DVD copy of Miss December, a dark romantic comedy which screened Saturday night. Producer Frank Williams was on hand to tout the film from director Derek Lindeman, which features well-known stars, Corbin Bernsen, comic Gilbert Gottfried, and Brian O’Halloran of Kevin Smith’s Clerks fame. In fact, NJ’s Smith provides an introduction on the DVD.

On the short side of things, there was a variety of lesser-lengthed films that may have been shorter on time, but no less inspired and inventive. There was Your Date is Here, where a board game becomes all too real, and the winner of best short film, the colorfully shot Creatures of White Chapel, a Frankenstein meets Jack the Ripper tale from the team of Jonathan and Rebecca Martin. We saw Happy Birthday, Brenda, which won best actor for Theodore Copeland, the disturbing, dialogue-free, bathed-in-blood, Exsanguinata, the gorgeous Ellinor Rosander as the The Madame in Black, and The Devil’s Cut, where a man is forced into editing a snuff film. Also on tap was Michael Lippert’s Expecting, featuring an appearance by Lloyd Kaufman in the story of a pregnant writer with a deadline approaching, and the unsettling, She, an examination of dissociative identity disorder from Taylor Vitelli. It’s great to see a number of female directors trying their hand at horror – we need more of them! And though we missed this early Friday screened short, congrats to the makers of Based on True Events, seen above, winners of best NJ Film.

Several beloved horror movies had cast reunions and panels at this fall’s NJ Horror Con. There was Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and Kevin Tenney’s original Night of the Demons, which screened Saturday along with a live commentary. Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake saw stars Tyler Mane, Scout Taylor-Compton, Kristin Klebe and Daeg Faerch display continued camaraderie and chemistry a decade later. Tyler’s imposing frame did nothing to daunt his castmates from making fun of him playing a dinosaur in a film that never was. They all had great perspective into the remaking of a treasured classic, and taking on such iconic roles. Another gory, modern day classic, Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, was celebrating its 15th anniversary. While it was disappointing that Cerina Vincent was a last minute cancellation over the weekend, stars Jordan Ladd, James Debello and Joey Kern offered up their take on working with Roth on his feature debut, and reminisced on what it was like dealing with all the bloody f/x. They too share a special kinship having worked together on this cult classic. Kern, from Super Troopers and his one-of-a-kind performance in the little seen, but delightful, The Sasquatch Gang, was also at NJ Horror Con to deliver his directorial debut, the bachelor party comedy, Big Bear, currently available on demand after a limited theatrical run. Based on his terrific work in front of the camera, this is definitely one worth checking out.

With the larger venue this time, the NJ Horror Con had the chance to add a greater number and variety of vendors, along with more stars signing autographs, etc. Taking place in New Jersey, Weber and Bruce take pride in showcasing homegrown talent, from the films being shown to the various artists, authors and other guests on the convention floor. One such author is Neil A. Cohen. Hailing originally from Hazlet, Neil has taken on the zombie apocalypse and given it a Jersey setting and flare with his novel, Exit Zero, on Permuted Press. A sort of The Walking Dead meets Escape From New York, Exit Zero is nevertheless a fresh, pulse-pounding take on the living dead sub-genre utilizing NJ locations from the Garden State Parkway to the Boardwalk in Atlantic City to weave its tale of survival. Cohen has consulted with the military, health organizations and more, and all that extensive research gives his story a sense of realism amidst all the fantastic chaos. His follow-up, Welcome to Nuke Jersey, is also available, and the third in the trilogy, Zombie Democracy, is due next year.  Check out Cohen’s website, for updates and to order his book through Amazon.

Another native denizen of the Garden State is the publication known as Weird NJ. Begun as a newsletter in 1989 by Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, this New Jersey institution has grown into a bi-monthly magazine, books, TV shows and more. Investigating all things spooky and mysterious, from local legends to haunted houses to unsolved murder cases, Weird NJ has even branched out beyond our stately borders to Massachusetts, Florida, Texas and California, chronicling the unknown. Both co-founders were on hand to promote their latest bi-monthly issue, #49, which examines the creepy Hands of  Hamilton, the mysterious Devil’s Drop, a haunted courthouse in May’s Landing, and much, much more. Who knew New Jersey had so many hair-raising and mysterious places and things? Moran has also co-authored, with Jesse P.Pollack, Death on the Devil’s Teeth, a fascinating look at the still unsolved murder of a teenage girl from Springfield. With a seemingly endless supply of places and cases to explore, Weird NJ has plenty more to come and has clearly left its Marks on the paranormal and unexplainable landscape of New Jersey and beyond. You can pick up Weird NJ wherever magazines are sold, and visit their Weird NJ website and follow them on their Facebook page.

As much as there was to see at this fall’s NJ Horror Con, there was also some great sounds to hear too. Saturday night filled the air with macabre music, led by the enchanting songstress, Jess-O-Lantern. Originally from Florida, now living in New York, Jess sang her bloody heart out, armed only with her guitar and her voice, pumping out ghoulishly titled ditties like “I Don’t Want to be a Deadite,” “Dead Girls Never Say No”, and her ode to her favorite serial killer, “Dear Norman”. She just released her latest horror punk album, Bare Bones, and you can order it on her Jess-O-Lantern website, along with her previous spine-tingling releases.

Next up were the Stereotytans, combining ancient Greek mythology with moshing clowns for, what they describe as, “if Living Colour, Fishbone and Radiohead had a threeway while Public Enemy watched.” That sums it up pretty well. Check out the Philadlphia-based band at The punk band, Charm School hit the floor next, followed by a closing performance by the Stereotytans.

Lastly, in addition to awards handed out to filmmakers and performers, a costume contest brought out the best and bloodiest among the conventioneers. Above top is Taylor Vitelli, winner of best female costume for her Princess Ahmanet from Universal’s recent Mummy reboot. Taylor was also director and star of the earlier mentioned short film, She. Clearly, a multi-talented individual. And congrats to the lovely Pennywise, winner of cosplay best in show for her enticingly menacing clown, and all those who entered their creepily-clad designs.

While that about wraps it for this Gore4er’s experience at this year’s Horror Con, it by no means covers everything. There was a Goonies reunion, featuring Sean Astin and Kerri Green, Barry Bostwick from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Scream Queen extraordinaire, Tiffany Shepis, Marky Ramone, the Circus Rejects, New Jersey Ghostbusters, and the wonderfully weird Crispin Glover of Back to the Future and Willard, who performed live shows both Saturday and Sunday nights. Scalps off to Ryan Scott Weber, Robert Bruce and all the staff who brought this scaretastic event together. Best of all, the next one is scheduled for March 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 2018, back at the Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel on Rt. 1 in Iselin, NJ, and the first guests are already being announced. In the meantime, keep your bloody eyes peeled for Weber’s latest film, Pretty Fine Things, due in February, and catch Bruce on AMC’s Comic Book Men Sunday nights after The Walking and Talking Dead. And keep checking out New Jersey Horror Con for updates, guests announcements and film submission deadlines. See you in March!

— write-up by Brian de Castro