Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest Delivers Grindhouse, Gore, and the Supernatural

The fifth annual Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest took place at the S. of Broadway Theater in North Charleston, South Carolina from May 25–28. With 12 feature films and 50 shorts on tap, the festival offered a wide array of scare fare for attendees, from slasher to supernatural, horror comedy to psychological shockers, and most everything in between. Following are reviews of just a few of the fest’s cinematic terror tales for 2018.

Fans of grindhouse-inspired outré fare and a predilection toward nihilism should find director Christopher Bickles’ The Theta Girl to be one wild rabbit-hole ride. Bickle also shot the movie, which captured the festival’s award for Best Cinematography, Feature. This low-budget (reportedly $14,000) look at a nihilistic, decadent world plays like a Liquid Sky on LSD for the new millenium. This was a repeat viewing for me, having watched The Theta Girl for another film fest earlier this year, and I enjoyed it here more than I did the first time around. It’s a challenging, provoking slice of cinema that is making a lot of noise on its film festival run.

Victoria Elizabeth Donofrio stars as Gayce, a young woman pushing a hallucinogenic drug named theta that connects its users to a freaky being that might possibly be a deity. She is also the manager of punk rock band The Truth Foundation, which indulges in an orgiastic party after a successful gig. One of Gayce’s friends is murdered with his intestines laid out in a symbolic pattern, and she goes on a deadly, bizarre mission to find out who is responsible. Along the way, she runs afoul of violent Bible thumpers, the aforementioned otherworldly being, and a variety of outlandish, unsavory characters. 

The Theta Girl sports an abundance of nudity, gore, and violence, and has already been building a cult audience on its early festival run. For this reviewer, the envelope pushing definitely aims for shock value, which will certainly please devotees of that sort of fare. A main factor concerning how much viewers may become invested in The Theta Girl is the appeal of Gayce as the lead character. Donofrio does a solid job in the role — it’s just that Gayce, along with the other characters, aren’t necessarily presented in a sympathetic manner, so it can be difficult to become emotionally invested in rooting for anyone to make it to the end of the story. 

The Theta Girl is a gritty movie that is making divisive waves. It is absolutely worth a viewing to see which camp you fall into, for its outrageousness and brashness, and for the decadent world that Bickles and his cast and crew have fashioned. 

Psychological horror short Songbird won Best Actor, Short for Jonathan Benton’s portrayal of disturbed street musician Ray Faraday, who stumbles across a box in an alley that just happens to contain a magic camera. Some people believe that taking pictures steals part of a person’s soul, but suffice it to say that this device is much deadlier than that. The more people that Ray photographs, the more unhinged he becomes — especially when it seems he may have chosen the wrong subject. Benton delivers a creepy performance, indeed, in director Helen Baldwin’s well-paced, increasingly eerie tale of the macabre. 

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Director Christopher G. Moore’s Gut Punched won Best SPFX, Short. Sean Krumbholz’s special effects makeup is gruesome stuff, indeed, in this briskly paced horror comedy about pick-up artist Rex (Tom A. Major) and his “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” night with a mysterious young woman named Kimatra (Sara Gorsky of Chrysalis [2014]). He probably should have listened to her reason for hooking up with him at the beginning of their flirtatious conversation in a bar: “I’m here to rid the world of sinful men . . . like you,” but his thoughts (and eyes) are elsewhere — until he finds himself the center of a bizarre party at Kimatra’s house. Gorsky does a fine job in her portrayal of a saucy seductress with a sinister side, but Major seems to undersell how a character in his situation might realistically react if put in the horrifying situation in which Rex winds up. The supporting cast does a nice job, including Vanessa Gisselle Thompson as one of the partygoers. The screenplay by Moore and Eryk Pruitt is chock full of offbeat humor. Moore can be counted on for crackerjack direction and editing, and Gut Punched continues that tradition.

Verite-style horror short Midnight Shift from Wreak Havoc Productions is an exorcism tale more concerned with building suspense than putting on a special effects show or relying on shocking or disturbing images. The story is told from the point of view of sheriff's deputy Sergeant Brown (voiced by Tom Gore) and his body camera. Checking into a disturbance call at a private home, he finds himself smack dab in the middle of an exorcism. The subject is a wheelchair-bound young man who is well known in his small community. The short’s dialogue rings true thanks to the writing of Dan Sellers, who also directed. He broaches the subject of whether people subjected to exorcism would be better off with medical treatment than religious rituals, giving Midnight Shift some added heft. 

Writer/director Melissa DeLeon’s Paralysis also deals with dark, diabolical forces, as a young mother (Julie Reyes) tries to ward off a seemingly nightly visit by a frightening, shadowy figure while her baby cries in the background. Reyes’ fear feels real and immediate, and David DeLeon inhabits the figure to gripping effect. With fine sound design and use of color, hair-raising special effects, a menacing villain, and a claustrophobic atmosphere, DeLeon has forged a short film guaranteed to cause shudders among viewers. 

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Director Alan Lougher’s The Dollmaker is an outstanding cautionary tale in the tradition of The Twilight Zone and EC Comics’ horror titles, though without the gore that the latter often employed. This chilling work, with shades of “The Monkey’s Paw,” Pet Sematary, and other scare fare about unintended consequences, features a fantastic performance by Daniel Martin Berkey as the titular creepy craftsman, who creates a doll in the likeness of a couple’s deceased little boy. Wife Jenna (Perri Lauren) is optimistic that a promised supernatural solution to bring the child back to life — with certain rules that need to be enforced, of course — will work, while husband Rick (Sean Meehan) is more skeptical. Lougher, who directed the short film So Dark and the television series of the same name that followed, does a superb job of helming the screenplay by Matias Caruso (Mayhem).

Other award winners included the Jury Award going to director Michelle Iannantuono’s Livescream, about a haunted video game; portmanteau offering What Becomes of Us won the Audience Choice Award, where the first runner-up was Livescream. The Best Feature Film nod went to I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday, in which a mother and her young child try to survive in a bomb shelter after an apocalypse, while Tony Escamilla won Best Director, Feature, for his Christmas slasher movie Stirring.  Best Short Film went to Lunch Ladies, and Vanessa Ionta Wright won Best Director, Short for I Baked Him a Cake. The Best Unproduced Screenplay, Feature prize went to Jaysen Buterin for Killing Giggles; Glenn Lissner was First Runner-Up for Evil Spirit. Best Unproduced Screenplay, Short went to Nathan Ludwig for Love, Post-Mortem, while Katelyn Harbert was First Runner-Up for Dissipate. Best Produced Screenplay, Feature went to Don’t Look, and T Is for Tada scored the award for Best Produced Screenplay, Short. 

Joseph Perry