Over the past nine years, the Knoxville Horror Film Fest has remained unapologetically committed to its core vision of keeping Knoxville cinema scruffy. In its early days, the fest consisted of a marathon screening of obscure splatter shorts, but recent years have seen the resurfacing of video store oddities like Death Spa, premieres of indie exploitation films like The Greasy Strangler, and rare screenings of classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Your taste may or may not be receptive to the Horror Fest’s vision, but it has become somewhat of an institution at this point–it’s the longest running film festival of any kind in Knoxville. As a result, the festival has an air of confidence about it that only comes with years of going one’s own way.
This year’s fest felt like an embrace of horror’s most ambitious extrapolations. Though many features wandered far away from any type of traditional scare-tactic, they were often heavy on experimentation, constructing new forms out of the genre’s basic building blocks of killers, hauntings, and creatures. While watching samurai epics, teen comedies, and documentaries this weekend, I sometimes had to remind myself what kind of festival I was attending. It might seem counterintuitive, but as a fan of horror, this is exactly what I want in a festival dedicated to it: a curated demonstration of the diversity to be found within a genre that is often unfairly pigeonholed and maligned for its most sordid tendencies.
Ten feature films played at Knox Horror Film Fest last weekend (the biggest slate for the fest yet), and I was able to see six of them. I skipped three films–Game of Death, Kuso, and Sequence Break–strictly because I know my own limits in terms of witnessing gore and bodily fluids on screen. I missed another called The Endless just due to scheduling complications, and that film ended up winning the festival’s grand prize: “The Palme d’Gore”. [see trailer below] Though I wasn’t able to see it, I’d advise readers to believe the hype about The Endless; the filmmakers’ previous movie, Spring (a human / tentacle-monster romance?), is pretty affecting.
Disregarding those omissions, here’s a quick overview of the fest as a whole:
Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento: This classic played in a new 4K restoration, setting the tone for the rest of the festival with its surreal, exploratory sense of wonder. I wrote about the film in-depth for Arts Knoxville last week. [Grade: 5 / 5]
Better Watch Out (2017) by Chris Peckover: A Christmas home invasion film built like a steel trap. Using the latent sadism of Home Alone as a launching pad, Better Watch Out places familiar suburban archetypes under a microscope to examine their power dynamics and ultimately flip the bird at a specific kind of white male sociopathy. The film’s heart could be said to be as rotten as that of its central antagonist, but I ended up admiring this the most out of all the fest’s new releases just for how tightly crafted and well-executed of a genre flick it is. [Grade: 4 / 5]
Tragedy Girls (2017) by Tyler Macintyre: A bubbly satire on social media’s tendency to reward sensationalist spin, Tragedy Girls follows two teen girls who blog about their own murders to attain celebrity status. It plays like a teen comedy, and the dialogue pops thanks to two charismatic performances from Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom (ironically) deserve star-status. Unfortunately, the film’s very short runtime ends up dragging due to a tedious plot structure, and the embedded social commentary isn’t quite sharp enough. Still, if this played wide, I imagine it would do extremely well–though perhaps the R-rating would shut out the core demographic. [Grade: 3.5 / 5]
Blade of the Immortal (2017) by Takashi Miike: A samurai kill-em-up that earns its place in the ranks of a horror fest partly due to its director’s prestige within the genre, as well as the relentless over-the-top violence of the film (in which every human’s anatomy seems to fall apart like Monty Python’s “The Black Knight”). The film has an undeniable sense of style: from the tangible softness of the samurai’s robes to the punk futurism of their haircuts to the unique design of each weapon. The film does suffer from a lack of forward momentum, however, and the whole experience feels a bit too thematically empty to justify its 159-minute runtime. [Grade: 3 / 5]
Spookers (2017) by Florian Habicht: A New Zealand documentary about a popular haunted attraction called “Spookers” operating out of a now-defunct mental hospital. The film offers comedic and compassionate portraits of staff members who have found a new sense of confidence and familial belonging by dressing up as monsters. Though the film is meandering at times, I was touched by how personal it was, conveying a strong sense of body positivity, sex positivity, and inclusivity in all its forms. Or…almost all it’s forms: the film also flirts with the idea that institutions like Spookers further stigmatize the issue of mental health, but it backs away slowly, never quite reconciling that idea with the personal liberation of the attraction’s employees. [Grade: 3.5 / 5]
Hausu (1977) by Nobuhiko Obayashi: Bookending the festival with Suspiria, Hausu is an audacious experiment in form that truly must be seen to be believed. For a closer look at this Japanese haunted house romp, I would again advise readers to check out Arts Knoxville’s feature from last week. [Grade: 5 / 5]
Reviewing those features doesn’t begin to describe all the ground covered by the 40-ish short films that screened at the festival, often programmed as pre-roll for features that shared similar subject matter or thematics. Although many shorts grated on my nerves (usually because brevity makes justifying gruesome content a tougher sell), others were absolutely transportive: especially “Great Choice” (in which a looped Red Lobster commercial folds in upon itself), and “Thursday Night” (an evocative piece of dialogue-free tone poetry from the perspective of a dog entering the afterlife).
Even though the shorts had such a low hit-rate for me, I have to admit that they are an essential part of the Knox Horror Film Fest experience, which admirably privileges inventiveness and novelty over almost everything else. It makes perfect sense that its programmers—William Mahaffey and Nick Huinker—are now spearheading an effort to bring Knoxville its first repertory theater in the form of Central Cinema (which plans to show much more than just horror). The Knoxville film scene certainly has a lot more personality with programmers like them around.