Tuesday , 28 March 2023

Reliving the NYC Horror Film Festival

For us horror fans, we take our filmwatching seriously, whether it’s watching a movie in the theater surrounded by strangers, or in the comfort of our own homes among family and friends, or all by our lonesome. Attending conventions and film festivals allows us to enjoy our genre even further, meeting those who create such imaginative works, sharing our love with others of a similar deranged mindset and discovering new horrors by up and coming talent as well as established veterans. Little did any of us know that one day we would all be living in our very own zombie apocalypse, albeit one without the zombies, which is no fun at all. As this is being written, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, that has virtually shut down much of life as we know it. Malls, restaurants (except for take-out, and now, outdoor dining), movie theaters, sporting events, live music venues, schools and churches, have, for the most part, all been shut down across the world. We’ve all seen this movie before, but this isn’t a movie, it’s really happening. While much of the world has managed to get a handle on the virus and begun to reopen, here in America, thanks to a woeful lack of leadership at the top, things are as bad as ever, especially in states that didn’t take the crisis seriously and reopened too soon. Add in massive protests over racial injustice and police brutality, and the long overdue rethinking of our history and, well, you get the picture. Change is in the air, and will no doubt be reflected in works of film in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, movie releases have been pushed back, while production has shut down on new films, and horror cons and film festivals have been rescheduled, many to 2021. Things are constantly changing, including what we can and should be doing. Should we wear masks when we’re out in public (yes, of course, if you care about others), do we gargle with bleach or inject ourselves with disinfectant (only a moron would ever suggest as such), should we resort to cannibalism if regular food runs low (not at that point yet). Anyway, by the time this piece is finished being written, it may have to be rewritten (it was), and by the time you’ve finished reading it, things may have changed once again.

So, while attending film festivals is out for a spell, let’s hit the pause button on the remote of what’s happening in the world right now and tap the rewind to this past December, as the Gore 4 discovered a treasure trove of terrifying new films at the New York City Horror Film Festival.

Begun in 2001,  the New York City Horror Film Festival is the delightfully demented brainchild of beloved founder, the late Michael J. Hein. The festival continues every year, thanks to the dedicated work of his family and friends who are committed to carrying on his legacy and shedding a light on independent cinema by talented filmmakers from around the world. This past December, the NYCHFF celebrated it’s 18th year, once again at the Cinepolis Chelsea in Manhattan. The previous year, 2018, was highlighted by the attendance of Master of Horror, Mick Garris, and the East Coast premiere of his horror anthology, Nightmare Cinema, and the honoring of Candyman‘s Tony Todd with a lifetime achievement award, all of which you can read about right here, NYC Horror Film Fest unleashes plenty of Nightmare Cinema! This time, f/x master and Walking Dead producer/director, Greg Nicotero was given the illustrious award. But more on that later. This is a film festival, so let’s take a look at some bloody films!

One of the best aspects of the NYC Horror Film Fest is the showing of so many short films. As we’ve stated before, there are many terrific story ideas out there that just don’t lend themselves to full-length feature films. But there’s enough there to craft a compelling work of shorter length. Indeed, this past fest kept the shorts flowing freely, with none over 17 minutes, and several literally only a minute long, though those did tend to drag a little during the middle. Horror, while often relying on the usual staples like monsters, ghosts and serial killers, also has the ability to tackle the present-day travails of the times, from social issues like bullying and domestic violence to the perils of technology. A couple of shorts taking on the potential dangers of dating apps were Swipe, by Niels Bourgonje, whose all-too-close-to-reality story makes it all the more terrifying, and  Matt Emert’s Come In, a 70’s/80’s-style slasher film inspired by the slasher of them all, Halloween. Our current obsession with Instagram-ready looks, whether it be via plastic surgery or magical ointments and creams, were represented by a couple of amusingly dark shorts. Beauty Juice, by writer/director Natasha Halevi, stars Jennifer Holland, along with familiar faces, Krista Allen (Feast, The Final Destination) and Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween, Victor Crowley), and uses some grisly sound f/x to tell its tale of a salon seemingly straight out of the Roaring Twenties. And Razzle My Berries, by Heather Aradas, has a 50’s-era beauty store as its setting for its campy tale of what lengths women go to for achieving and maintaining elegant looks. These films are good examples of why we need more women behind the camera in offering their own perspectives in all genres of film, though it is especially welcome when it comes to horror.

{Jennifer Holland and Lola Blanc, in Natasha Halevi’s Beauty Juice}

Every year, we come across certain short films that just scream out to be made into full-length features. At the previous NYCHFF, we were treated to Dave Yohe’s big budget-looking sci-fi-er, The Silver, which already has an expanded script ready to explore its alien invasion much further. We can’t wait. This time, a couple of intriguing shorts look ready to make the quantum leap to feature length fare. Polybius comes to us from filmmaker Jimmy Kelly and is based on the urban legend of an arcade game that produces hallucinatory and other psychoactive effects on its unwitting players, all part of a secret government experiment. The film stars none other than horror film legend Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween III, Maniac Cop) as a small-town sheriff investigating the claims of a young woman that the game was responsible for her brother’s suicide. The film appears to be a family affair, with a number of Kellys showing up throughout, and the NYCHFF‘s own Chris Rowan making an appearance.  Polybius had already won the award for best unproduced short at the 2016 NYCHFF for its screenplay, and now this proof of concept short already has a feature script and sequel script all set to go. We’re ready to go too! Jimmy Kelly has his own production company, Fight On Entertainment, so check it out to learn more about Polybius and to follow its progress on social media.

Next up is a film whose title perfectly encapsulates what the entire world is going through right now. Though completely unrelated to our current pandemic state of affairs, Killing Time, by writer/director Jason Wilkinson, takes place at a diner in rural America, where its patrons are visited by a mysterious and malevolent being that goes by the name of Mr. Clock, who extols that “mankind was doomed the moment he invented time.” With an expanded script already in hand by Wilkinson, it’s only a matter, of well, time, before we’re able to see an anxiously awaited full-length feature film. Indeed, this short has only scratched the surface of what promises to be a terrifying tale. In addition to Wilkinson being in attendance for the Q&A afterwards, the man who plays Mr. Clock, Marti Matulis, was also in the house. The tall, lean Matulis has played a variety of monstrous creatures in American Horror Story, Teen Wolf and Sleepy Hollow, and most recently has been seen in the new Star Trek CBS All Access series, Picard, and CBS’ wonderfully creepy, Evil, which has already been picked up for a second season. For up to the minute news on Killing Time, be sure to follow the film on Facebook and Instagram.

At this past year’s fest, the award for best short film went to the darkly humorous, Half-Cocked, by writer/director, Aaron Barrocas. The film follows two doctors as they try to deal with an all-too-unwilling participant in their science experiment gone horribly right. The short mixes guts and gore galore with loads of laughable lines, like, “You’re days aren’t numbered.” Follow the flick on Facebook and check out the trailer here:

Always looking to keep their film festival fresh and exciting, the NYCHFF added for the first time a program devoted entirely to animated films and it ended up being one of the highlights of the four-day weekend. First up was the black and white stop motion puppetry of Toe, which was adapted from one of Alvin Schwartz’ children book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which had a film adaptation co-produced by Guillermo del Toro hit theaters last year. Containing no dialogue, the film makes great use of sound f/x and music to tell its tale of a boy facing a terrifying night alone. Here’s a great a interview with the filmmakers, Neal O’Bryan and Chad Thurman, at Cranked Up Films, where they discuss their inspiration and what went into the making of their film, and where you can see Toe itself. Next was the brief but nightmarish trip into NYC via Ferry, by Tyler Marsh. The third and final animated short was the brilliantly crafted, La Noria, by animator Carlos Baena. Originally from Spain, Baena has been in the states since the 90’s and has worked for Lucasfilm on Jurassic Park III and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and for Pixar on Finding Nemo, Wall-E and Toy Story 3. La Noria depicts a grieving young boy who spends his time alone crafting ferris wheels, while facing off against nightmarish creatures who seem hellbent on destroying his work. The imaginative film features photo-realistic animation to bring its story to a surprising conclusion and has won awards around the globe. We could continue to praise its virtues or we could just show this magical film in its entirety right here:

Some other shorts that made an impression were The Hidebehind, by Parker Finn, about an injured hiker lost in the woods and terrorized by a mysterious figure; Night Crawl, by Gregory Schultz, depicting a painstaking attempt to dig a tunnel out of prison – The Great Escape meets The Descent; the wonderfully titled, Plantasm, by Dylan Pevin, which has a great payoff at its end; and perhaps the funniest film of the fest, Matthew Evans Landry’s Re: Possessed Homes,  in which a beleaguered single mom/real estate agent goes to extreme lengths to get her haunted houses ready for sale. Though we can’t mention every short film showed over the long weekend, their wasn’t a bad apple in the bunch. This is a testament not only to the wide variety of talent and creativity displayed by the many filmmakers, but also the selection process by the festival organizers themselves. One film, however, stood out among festival-goers and was awarded the coveted audience choice award. And the winner is….I mean, was…..

From the great nation of Italy (and we wish them all the best as they too fight this dreaded pandemic), comes Ferine. Written and directed by Andrea Corsini, Ferine is an atmospheric tale that follows a strange woman, played by Anna Della Rosa, whose world straddles that of modern civilization and a mysterious forest. The film abandons the use of dialogue and music for the most part, relying on sound f/x and well set-up camera shots in taking its time and creating suspense as it builds to its horrific conclusion. Corsini traveled all the way from the land of Bava, Argento and Fulci to discuss the film and what influences led him to make it. The NYCHFF may be based out of New York City, but it truly is an international affair, with works from around the globe. You can follow Andrea Corsini to learn more about Ferine and other projects by this talented filmmaker.

    {Ferine‘s Andrea Corsini}

So, OK, that was the short of things, now, grab some peanuts and Cracker Jack, fill up that drink, and get ready for the main feature, or rather, features, as we take a look at a smorgasbord of full-length motion pictures that delighted and terrified the festival audience. You might as well, since you’re not going anywhere.

Leading off is She Never Died. When missing people’s bodies start showing up shy of their fingers, a world weary cop forms an unlikely alliance with a woman with an unusual appetite as they hunt down a human trafficker. Olunike Adeliyl and Peter MacNeill give strong performances as the wayward woman and veteran cop. For a movie with such a grisly premise, it is surprisingly funny. Even more surprising was learning that She Never Died was actually a sister sequel to the Henry Rollins’ starrer, He Never Died, which you may have seen on Netflix. That film was written and directed by Jason Krawczyk, who also wrote the script for She Never Died, with the directing reigns turned over to Toronto-based filmmaker Audrey Cummings. She spoke after the film screened about her take on an apocalypse, something which we’re all taking on now. She’s hoping to reignite horror in Canada, which has taken a backseat to more conventional, aka, boring, dramas of late. Relying on her friends and credit cards, Audrey revealed that she shot the picture in only 15 days, a remarkable achievement for such a polished, yet gritty-looking film. To that end, the festival awarded her with Best Director. Keep a bloody eye out for the movie hitting home video, on demand and streaming.

Batting second is the monster-at-sea yarn, Blood Vessel. Sailing in from the land of koalas, kangaroos and kookaburras, Blood Vessel takes place near the end of World War II as survivors on a lifeboat adrift at sea find hope in an apparently abandoned Nazi vessel. Now, as Indiana Jones and every decent human being knows, Nazis are very terrible people, they just suck. Can’t we just eradicate them from the face of the Earth once and for all, relegating them to WWII movies and TV shows? Anyway, our survivors soon discover that the only thing worse than a ship full of Nazis is a Nazi ship full of….something else. The film is directed and co-written by f/x artist, Justin Dix, whose previous directorial effort, Crawlspace, would indicate a penchant for claustrophobic horror. With Blood Vessel, Dix makes his film appear much bigger budgeted than what it most likely was, utilizing an actual battleship for much of its impressive set design. The cast includes Aussie actors Nathan Phillips (Wolf Creek, Snakes on a Plane), Alyssa Sutherland (TV series, Vikings and the short-lived, The Mist) and Robert Taylor (The Meg and the title sheriff in the A&E/Netflix series, Longmire) and has elements of Alien/Aliens, The Thing and Ghost Ship. Blood Vessel has been picked up for distribution by The Horror Collective, and is set for release on streaming and VOD on July 21st. You can also follow Blood Vessel on Facebook.

Third in our lineup is the unnerving tale of abduction, torment and murder, Do Not Reply. It stars Jackson Rathbone, who played vampire, Jasper Hale, in every one of the Twilight movies, as Brad, a charismatic, yet disturbed individual, who kidnaps teenage girls and forces them to play out his twisted fantasies, before brutally killing them if they act out of line. The girls are played by a bevy of talented, young actresses, led by Amanda Arcuri, Kerri Medders and Elise Luthman. The girls are really put through the wringer, with the last act of the film revving up the intensity as they attempt to escape and go hand-to-hand and weapon-to-weapon in fighting their captor for their very survival. Jackson went on to win the festival’s award for best actor for his creepy and frightening performance.

{Kerri Medders and Amanda Arcuri}

One of the most unusual aspects of Do Not Reply is something that we can’t recall ever coming across before – the film was written and directed by the father and son team of Walter and Daniel Woltosz, with this being the first feature for both. The two were on hand to give insight into the unique dynamic that went into creating the film, and how they trusted their actors and gave them room to ad-lib. Do Not Reply serves as a cautionary tale focusing on the dangers of online dating, where you’re always just one swipe away from possible harm. With social media so pervasive today, predators have a much greater access to potential victims, and it’s something everyone needs to be more aware of. The actresses relayed to the audience some of their own online dating disasters and The Gore 4 asked if the film had any effect on them. They said that they had become more aware of the potential perils of meeting strangers and more selective of who they dated, and were much more apt to be looking over their shoulder when travelling or walking alone. Learning some of the actual statistics of young women and girls who are abducted further opened their eyes to the risks that exist in the real world.

The Gore 4 also asked Jackson, Amanda and Kerri afterwards what it was like working so intensely with each other in the more physically demanding scenes, and if Jackson in particular had to hold back in committing such violent acts upon the girls. He often did feel compelled to hold back a bit at times, and Amanda and Kerri both concurred that Jackson couldn’t have been more concerned with the girls’ welfare, always making sure they were OK. For Jackson, his family served as a welcome respite from the day’s shooting, and he literally would have to shower away the dirtiness he felt from the atrocious actions he had to convey on film whenever he came home. At the time of the screening, his wife was due with their third child and so we’d like to congratulate them on since having their new little dude. You can learn more about the filmmakers and cast at the Do Not Reply website. The film hopes to see a limited theatrical release later this year.

{Cast of Do No Reply – Amanda Arcuri, Kerri Medders, Jackson Rathbone}

Batting cleanup (we are clearly and dearly missing baseball at this time) is the anchor of the aforementioned first-time ever all-animated program, the blood-soaked, gore-drenched delight that is To Your Last Death. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s tempting to just let the picture below speak volumes, volumes of blood, that is. Plus, it would serve as a break from all this writing. But there’s just too many good things to say about what is billed as the first-ever, U.S.-made 2-D animated horror movie. Can that possibly be? If so, then the bar for that particular sub-genre has been set incredibly high. The wild plot goes like this – in order to save her siblings, a young woman takes on her father and the powerful entity known as Gamemaster, who ensnares humans into diabolical plots while her species gambles on the outcome. It’s The Matrix meets Saw done in an Archer-style animation.

The all-star voice cast features the great Ray Wise (Twin Peaks, Reaper) as the wealthy father who’s a narcissist and sociopath that’s only interested in lining his pockets (Gee, who does that remind you of?) Directed by Jason Axinn, from a script by Jim Cirile and Tanya C. Klein, the film got its start on Indiegogo, and was able to snag, in addition to Wise, such names as Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Deadpool), Bill Moseley (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Devil’s Rejects) and the one and only William Shatner as the voice of the Overseer. Dani Lennon provides the voice of Miriam, the main protagonist who must relive her horrific ordeal over and over again while trying to change the outcome. The film is a carnage-filled assault on the senses that never lets up. We’d be amiss, if not downright d^cks if we didn’t leave you with a trailer to give you some idea of what you’re in store for:

To Your Last Death has recently been made available on VOD platforms, like Amazon Video, Vudu and iTunes, with a blu-ray set for release on October 6th. Check out the film’s website at To Your Last Death.

Our next film is one that, unfortunately, we didn’t even get to see. While we appreciate the festival trying to squeeze in as many worthy films as possible, the late Friday night screening would’ve left the Gore 4 too late to catch the last train home to the swamps of Jersey. Yes, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Gore 4 is human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. Anyway, our humanity forced us to miss the awesomely-titled, Exorcism at 60,000 Feet. So, a priest, a rabbi and a demon board a plane, and well, all hell breaks loose. Directed by Chad Ferrin, the film features an all-star cast, including genre favorites, Lance Henriksen, Adrienne Barbeau, Bai Ling. Kevin J.O’Connor and Bill Moseley. We especially like the film’s promotional cover art, done in the style of those classic 70’s disaster movies like Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and of course, the Airport films. Luckily for us and you as well, the film is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Scream Factory with plenty of cool extras. So, get on board, set your seat back and prepare for a wild ride.

So now may be a good time to take a break, hit the bathroom, wash your hands thoroughly, of course, and come back to where we left off. We’ve still got some more films to discuss and a very special guest to honor. So we’ll wait right here for you. ——————- OK, cool you’re back. We return now to our regularly scheduled program.

In these divisive times, where everyone has a differing opinion, some right, some wrong and some just downright dangerous, one thing most of us can agree on is that puppets are cool, puppets are fun and puppets are entertaining for kids of all ages. Perhaps that is why whenever a puppet goes astray and heads down a deep, dark path to become a murderous psychopath, it’s that much more disturbing. While killer dolls in horror films have long had their time in the spotlight, from the 70’s anthology film, Trilogy of Terror, starring Karen Black, to the reigning champ, Chucky, beginning with 1988’s Child’s Play, to the more recent Annabelle and The Boy films, killer puppet films, other than the Charles Band Full Moon Puppet Master franchise, are few and far between. Perhaps it’s because puppets are generally cuter and more cuddly. Perhaps it’s because there needed to be talented filmmakers with the imagination to bring killer puppets to life in a way that works. Perhaps I’m using the word perhaps too frequently. Well, that dearth of deadly puppets came to an end at this past NYCHHF, as we were blessed with not one, but TWO films featuring murderous muppets. The first comes from our neighbors to the north, the land of hockey, maple syrup, healthcare for all and more hockey, with the charmingly chilling, Puppet Killer.

Directed by Lisa Ovies, who co-wrote the film with Kevin Mosley, Puppet Killer, as opposed to the more obvious-titled, Killer Puppet, follows young Jamie and his high school friends on a Christmastime outing at a remote cabin in the woods. This provides the perfect setting for Jamie’s childhood friend, an innocent-looking, Elmo-ish pink puppet named Simon, to appear, bringing with him some traumatic memories and gruesome deaths. The film is a reverential, yet tongue-in-cheek love-letter to 80’s horror films, with references to a number of iconic staples of the genre. Ovies displays a clever, just-go-for-it touch, while adding sincerity and depth. The fact that sweet, teenage Jamie is endearingly played by 6’5″, 50-year old Aleks Paunovic (the CW’s iZombie, SyFy’s Van Helsing), with no explanation, is a perfect example of how Puppet Killer plays by its own set of rules, meaning there are none. Other cast members include Richard Harmon (the CW’s The 100, SyFy’s Continuum), Gigi Saul Guerrero, an accomplished filmmaker herself, who has directed episodes of Into the Dark and The Purge, and is set to helm the Eli Roth-produced Orion Pictures’ 10-31, and Lee Majdoub (TV’s Zoo, The 100), who not only turns in a funny, heartfelt performance as Curtis, but also provides the high-pitched voice of Simon.

After the film screened, Ovies said she shot the film in Vancouver in only 15 days, though post-production proved to be a much longer and more arduous task, and she was determined to use practical f/x. She’s another bright example of women in horror who are anxious to put their stamp on the genre and provide an original perspective that’s long been lacking. While Lisa is truly one-of-a-kind, the world of film would be a much better one with more like her. Hoping to see a release later this year, Puppet Killer was in the midst of a five continent festival run, racking up a number of nominations and awards. Be sure to follow Puppet Killer on Facebook and Instagram, while maintaining at least six feet of distance of course.

{The Gore 4 with Puppet Killer‘s Lisa Ovies}

Next up is the mind-bending thriller, Volition. Leaning more towards science fiction than horror, Volition follows a petty crook named James, who has suffered from the affliction of clairvoyance ever since a childhood tragedy. When he receives a vision of his own murder, he must change his outlook on life if he is to have any chance of avoiding death. The Canadian film is directed by Tony Dean Smith, who co-wrote it with his younger brother, Ryan W. Smith. Originally hailing from South Africa, the two hatched the idea for the movie in film school. Adrian Glynn McMorran, who had a recurring role as Murmur on The CW’s Arrow,  gives an earnest performance as James, desperate to change the outcome of his vision. The always appealing Magda Apanowicz (Caprica, Continuum, and most recently, Netflix’ You)  portrays the young woman who James encounters that helps him on his journey. Volition won best feature at its first festival, appropriately, the Philip K Dick Film Festival. At the New York City Film Fest, it won best science fiction film, cinematography and sound design. Perhaps you can change your own destiny, by following Volition here, which provides links to all the streaming services where you can watch this time-bending thriller now or in the future.

A chance encounter with a world famous popstar not only turns a graduation party into a terrifying night of death and destruction, it also brings us to our next film, Star Light. Scout Taylor-Compton plays singer Bebe Love. Not only has Scout released music of her own, she also portrayed rock icon Lita Ford in the 2010 biopic, The Runaways. But you may know her best for her role as Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie’s Halloween films. In Starlight, Scout perfectly captures the mysterious singer with a dark secret residing inside her, one that makes her valuable to evil outside forces. The film also features an appearance from our favorite, Tiffany Shepis, and co-stars another talented singer, the fetching Chandler Rochelle. Do your ears and soul a favor and check out her single, ‘Free’ and her latest and greatest, ‘They Lookin.’ Starlight comes from the directing team of Mitchell Altieri and Lee Cummings. Altieri had previously co-helmed The Hamiltons, one of the first batch of After Dark Horrorfest’s 8 Films to Die For, and the remake of April Fool’s Day, as the directing team, the Butcher Brothers. He also most recently directed the horror comedy, The Night Watchmen. With Starlight, the horrors that await are revealed little by little, as we are kept in the dark just like the characters themselves. We learned the film was shot in Kentucky, mostly at night, in only three weeks, though it took about two years total to complete the project. Advice to other independent filmmakers out there – once you get your funding, make your movie ASAP before anyone sobers up.

Our next film to come up to the plate is Teddy Grennan’s Swing Low. When a nature photographer, played by Annabelle Dexter-Jones, witnesses a brutal act of violence, it sets in motion a series of ever increasing harrowing events that test her strength and endurance as she’s pushed to the limit. Dexter-Jones delivers a killer performance as the woman who endures torment and pain. The film also co-stars the one and only, Bruce Dern. This screen legend has had a bit of a film renaissance of late, appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the recent sci-fi mystery, Freaks, and 2013’s Nebraska, for which he received his second Oscar nomination, the first being for the Vietnam war drama, Coming Home. He also co-starred in Joe Dante’s underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) and one of the Gore 4’s favorite films, the environmental-themed space saga, Silent Running, Swing Low too has a message about how we’re treating the planet (not very well). The antagonists in the film, though ruthless and savage in their behavior, actually have a valid, even commendable point of view. They are simply trying to protect the old growth forests that have been their home for generations and preserve their way of life. That they are using extreme measures to do so, well, therein lies the quandary. You sympathize with their goals, not their methods. Writer/director Teddy Grennan certainly wasn’t aiming low with his directorial debut, as Swing Low went on to win best feature amidst some steep competition. And Annabelle Dexter-Jones won the fest’s award for best actress for her performance as the resourceful Harper. Click the link to learn more about Swing Low.

It’s at this point in the game that we’d like to take a break from all the amazing films to honor someone who has been integral to the genre of horror for decades. Though he needs no introduction, he certainly deserves a major one for all the work he’s done on many of our favorite films and TV shows. So, without further adieu, but, rather, with lots of adieu, a Neil Peart drum role, please……ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and ghouls, the latest inductee into the New York City Horror Film Festival Hall of Fame is none other than f/x maestro, producer and director, Greg Nicotero!

Born in 1963 in Pittsburgh, PA, ground zero for zombies, thanks to legendary director, George A. Romero, it seemed predestined that Greg would end up in the business of creating creepy creatures. He began his incredible career working on Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) as f/x master Tom Savini’s assistant. Little could George and Tom know at the time the monster they were giving birth to. After working with Romero again. on the films Creepshow 2 (1987) and Monkey Shines (1988), with Sam Raimi on Evil Dead II (1987) and Don Coscarelli on Phantasm II (1988), Greg joined with fellow artists Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman in 1988 to form special effects company, KNB EFX Group, currently the longest surviving make-up f/x company in the world. After their first film, Scott Spiegel’s gory Intruder (1988), Greg and company have worked on installments to pretty much every iconic horror film franchise out there – Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, Final Destination. Other major collaborations have been with Wes Craven on The People Under the Stairs (1991) and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), in addition to several Elm St. films, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and Vampires (1998),  Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and The Faculty (1998), and a longstanding partnership with Quentin Tarantino on everything from Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bills to Inglorious Basterds and The Hateful Eight. Nicotero and KNB’s diverse range of skills in bringing make-up f/x and animatronics to life, and death, have also contributed to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves and Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s HBO mini-series, The Pacific (2010), the latter winning them their second Emmy award, the first being for the 2001 mini-series version of Dune. Now, Greg is best known for his integral work on AMC’s The Walking Dead, for which he’s won two more Emmys, and Fear the Walking Dead, both for which he also serves as an executive producer. In addition, Greg has directed more episodes of The Walking Dead than any other living person, helming some of its most spectacular and intense chapters in the ongoing saga.

{Festival host, Chris Rowan, with Greg Nicotero. Photo courtesy of Gene Lynn]

After the showing of a terrific reel highlighting his illustrious body of work, disfiguring, maiming, slicing and eviscerating many a body, Greg officially joined the likes of horror legends George Romero, Roger Corman, Wes Craven, Robert Englund, and the previous year’s recipient, Tony Todd. After receiving his distinguished award, Greg sat down with festival host, Chris Rowan, for an informative and entertaining chat and Q&A. The Gore 4 led off with the first question, asking Greg, after directing one of his many standout episodes of The Walking Dead, if it was difficult to step back the following week, returning to f/x work and letting that week’s director take the helm, and in turn, if the other directors welcomed his input. After replying with “Good question,” which is always welcome to hear, Greg said that 98% of the time, he leaves the director alone, trusting him to do his thing. However, 2% of the time, he’ll offer up some suggestions, usually to make it more horror and scary. Interestingly, early on in the show, directors often didn’t even know the rules of zombiedom. Luckily, they had Greg’s expertise in the lore to draw from. Greg relayed how Michael Cuddlitz, who played Abraham up until his head served as a juicy fastball to Negan’s barb-wire bat, and is now directing some of the show’s episodes, often thinks, ‘what would Greg do?’ before a scene, while Greg, himself, often thinks, ‘what would Carpenter or Romero do?’ Greg’s advice to other directors – always have an answer, yes or no, never, I don’t know, and learn how to communicate with your artistic team, be definitive.

In looking back at his career, Greg said that the most challenging f/x setpiece he ever worked on, which also turned out to be the most rewarding, was the horrific car crash sequence in Tarantino’s Death Proof. Also daunting was creating all the make-up and gore f/x for the point in Rodriguez’ and Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn when all hell breaks loose. Nicotero does have the pleasant memory of Salma Hayek sitting on his lap for three hours and a signed pic as proof of it. Nowadays, Greg continues to serve as executive producer, f/x master and frequent director on The Walking Dead. The upcoming season 10 finale, entitled “A Certain Doom,’ which he directs, promises to be massive, and we look forward to finally seeing it once it is deemed safe for those working on it to complete it. Additionally, Greg serves as showrunner and executive producer on Shudder’s Creepshow, the follow-up to George Romero and Stephen King’s anthology film and its sequel. Among the first season’s cast are Adrienne Barbeau (the original Creepshow, The Fog), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), Tobin Bell (Saw franchise), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator, The Frighteners) and our favorite little ass-kicker, Cailey Fleming from The Walking Dead. A second season is on the way, and AMC aired the six episode first season back in May. Be prepared to be scared! And check out the KNB website and follow Greg on Instagram for updates and lots of cool stuff.

{Fangoria and Dread Central‘s Tony Timpone, Greg Nicotero, Brian de Castro of the Gore 4}

OK, now we’re heading into the homestretch, or in better baseball terms, the 9th inning, with our final three batters. First up is Immortal, an anthology film that tackles such important subjects as assisted suicide and the Me Too movement. There are plenty of twists and turns in every segment, and things you will not see coming. Some familiar names in front of the camera include Dylan Baker, Samm Levine, Agnes Bruckner, Mario Van Peebles and Candyman himself, Tony Todd, who puts in a moving performance, along with Robin Bartlett, as a couple dealing with the wife’s terminal cancer. The case of assisted suicide for those not wishing to spend their final days, weeks or months in pain and suffering, remains a controversial subject. That we don’t afford our family and friends the same compassion and consideration given to our pets is something that we as a society still need to come to grips with. While each segment of Immortal is directed by a different person, it was entirely written by Jon Dabach, who also directed a segment, and had the same producer, editor and cinematographer, which helps lend the anthology a measure of consistency, despite the unrelated stories.

Next to the plate is the disturbingly funny, Homewrecker. Alex Essoe, who starred as the starlet in 2014’s Starry Eyes and portrayed Wendy Torrance in last year’s superb sequel to The Shining  Doctor Sleep, here plays Michelle, a newly married interior designer ready to start a family. All that gets turned upside down when she meets Linda, played with wild abandon by Precious Chong, an intrusive, very forward woman, who seems to be stuck in the 80’s, and takes a clingy shine to Michelle. Things go from uncomfortable to unstable in this Single White Female meets All About Eve. Directed by Zach Gayne, who co-wrote the film with the two leads, Precious and Alex, Homewrecker went on to win the festival award for its wry, witty screenplay.

Finally, we come to our last film of the festival, but by no means its least, the other killer puppet movie we previously mentioned, the devilishly delightful, Benny Loves You. The film comes from across the ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, specifically, which is a whole lot bigger than the pond so many refer to, the land of kings and queens, fish & chips, the Beatles and Doctor Who. In Benny Loves You, Jack is a put upon, 30-something toy designer who is looking to get a new lease on life, which includes increasing his creativity at work, dating an attractive and charming woman, and tossing aside his childhood toy, a cute, cuddly bear named Benny. Unfortunately, Benny has a life of his own and he’s not especially fond of sharing it with others who don’t know Jack or care about him like only he does. The result is a hilarious and blood-drenched series of events where Jack must cover up Benny’s increasingly horrific misdeeds. Watching Benny bop around wreaking havoc, all while declaring in his high-pitched, childlike voice, ‘Benny loves you,’ is alone worth the price of admission.

{Host Sean Marks (in jacket) with Karl Holt (in red sweater) and crew of Benny Loves You}

Benny Loves You is the love child of writer, director, editor, cinematographer, composer, special effects artist and star, Karl Holt. At the Q&A afterwards, the audience was stunned to learn of all the duties that Karl undertook to complete the film, which took the better part of a decade, initially stemming from a short film in 2006. Certainly, others helped Karl out wherever needed, including his parents, who were proudly on hand to support their talented son, and Karl was quick to offer appreciation and thanks to all who assisted him. In a quite moving moment, Karl’s partner offered profusive praise of Karl’s extensive talents along with his humble nature which kept him from acknowledging it. Karl was clearly taken aback by such flattery. Karl considers himself a jack of all trades, but master of none, and casting himself as the lead came down to cost. And in a film with such a small crew, everybody did a bit of everything. Aspiring filmmakers out there might be interested to know that whatever skills were needed on his film which he didn’t already possess, Karl would simply do the research and learn how to do it. Incredulously, Benny Loves You had been turned down by many a film festival, so Karl was especially thankful to NYCHFF for their acceptance. The Gore 4 asked, and even suggested, if Karl could perhaps take the opening segment of his film, which works on its own as a terrifying tale, and submit that as a short film to some festivals or make it available for viewers to screen. Currently, or rather, formerly making the festival rounds before this dreadful virus engulfed the planet like the Blob, Benny Loves You‘s worldwide rights were picked up by Toronto-based Raven Banner Entertainment and the film will be screened at the prestigious SITGES Film Festival in Spain in October. Benny strongly encourages you to follow his adventures on Facebook. And check out this very cool, throwback trailer for the film:

As we attend the NYC Horror Film Fest each year, it’s always welcome to meet new people but also great to see familiar faces from past events. This time, we ran into a couple of filmmakers whose works won awards the previous year. Like Javier Gomez, co-producer and co-star of the 80’s retro slasher, Don’t Look, which won its star, Luciana Faulhaber best actress and is available now on Amazon to stream or on DVD. And Kevin Sluder, whose Edgar Allen Poe-based short film, Heartless, won the audience choice award. You can watch it at Heartless movie. It’s always awesome to see longtime friend, Tony Timpone, and his wonderful wife, Marguerite. Tony, longest-serving former editor at Fangoria, continues to write for them along with Dread Central, where he runs screenings as well, and serves as program director at Fantasia. Be sure to follow Tony on Twitter and Instagram. Another friend of the Gore 4 in attendance was Edwin Pagan, founder of, and chief writer at Latin Horror, which covers all aspects of the genre, but shines a much needed spotlight on a rising voice within horror. Most recently added to Edwin’s staff is author Violet Castro, whose book reviews will expand Latin Horror‘s reach into the literary world. Also spotted at the fest was Matt Desiderio, there on behalf of Wild Eye Releasing, home of horror, exploitation and cult films from around the world. Matt is a manager and buyer at Forbidden Planet NYC, the fantastic store in downtown Manhattan that sells all sorts of cool collectibles, comics and more. Matt coordinates their special events, such as the launch parties for  Fangoria and Deep Red Magazine. Like most retail stores, Forbidden Planet is going though some hard times, but you can help support them at this gofundme page or order some stuff online at their Forbidden Planet website. Better yet, visit the store itself now at 832 Broadway,between 12th and 13th St. next time you’re in downtown Manhattan. We need these places to stay in business for when we get back to the business of resuming our lives.

Lastly, thanks to everyone at the New York City Horror Film Festival for making everyone, from filmmakers to fans, so welcome. Michael Hein would be incredibly honored and thankful that his dream has been kept alive by this team all these years. And that wouldn’t be possible without his immediate family, festival directors, mom, Ronnie, and sister, Jennifer, running things so smoothly. Thanks also to managing director, Hank, Michael’s dad, for talking baseball and hooking the Gore 4 up with some skullduggery. Then there’s Michael’s extended family – festival director, Sean Marks, who was there for every film to introduce and interview those involved, and did so tirelessly, and host, Chris Rowan, who entertainingly got each program off to a rousing start with fun giveaways and more, and did a kick-ass job holding court with Greg Nicotero. Thanks also to programmer, Brian Smith, for reading many screenplays and coming up with those trivia questions, and programmer,.and actress herself, Kimberly Magness, whose mere presence lights up the room, and everyone else who makes the festival what it is, which is a place where filmmakers, fans and friends are all made to feel like family

{photo by Gene Lynn}

So there you have it, our quick little rundown of the 2019 New York City Horror Film Festival, whose title you can click on to learn more and how and when to submit your own work of passion, patience and perseverance. While many other festivals and conventions have been forced to postpone or cancel their events due to the coronavirus, as things currently stand, the next NYCHFF is set for Dec. 3-6, 2020. Let’s hope that the world gets to a place where mass gatherings of people, even with some restrictions, can once again take place. At this point, there’s really no way to know what the world will be like as the year nears its end. There are still many questions left to answer. Why is this particular strain so virulent? How can we best combat it and prevent the next one from inflicting similar damage? Is this the Earth ‘s way of allowing itself a breather from humanity’s harmful, destructive ways by attacking our ability to breathe? Are human beings essentially an invasive species on the planet, one originating from the heavens long, long ago? Ancient astronaut theorists…..say yes. At the very least, mankind needs to treat all animalkind a lot better, from cleaning up wet markets and ending wildlife trafficking abroad to revamping our factory farming methods here in the states. Already, with fewer cars on the road and less human activity, the air is becoming cleaner and wildlife is traversing areas once avoided. One thing we can count on is this pandemic inspiring a new spate of films dealing with the ramifications and aftermath of this terrible ordeal. To that end, we all hope to once again enjoy the experience of seeing movies the way God intended, in a beautiful theater, with others of our species, enjoying edible confections as we witness spectacle and drama, and especially horror, unfold and drip across the screen. Till then, wear a damn mask, stay six feet across from strangers (but not necessarily strange people, as they’re usually the most interesting) and keep washing those hands! Stay safe and stay strong, and keep your eyes to the skies and watch out for those bodies hitting the floor!

— lyrics and music by Brian de Castro