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Screen Screams: Madison Horror Film Fest 2009

Posted on October 12, 2009 by Jason Thorson

This year’s Madison Horror Film Fest at Market Square Cinema in Madison, WI didn’t go off without a hitch, but it was so much fun it didn’t matter.  In only its second year, the festival featured high profile genre greats, up and comers, a variety of horror flicks, and enough vendors to lighten your wallet.  The future looks bright for this upstart horror gathering produced by festival director Rich Peterson and Icon Entertainment.  Things kicked off on Friday night, October 2nd with the world premiere of the feature film Incest Death Squad followed by two full days of films and guests that covered Saturday and Sunday. 

I took part in Saturday’s depravity and my day went as follows:

Entering the fest was hassle free.  I walked in and immediately spotted a sign directing me to a booth where I could check my name off the media list and get my tickets.  Honestly, the sign was unnecessary as several vendors’ booths were set up in a cluster and surrounded by people who were unmistakably there to revel in terror.

The first person I spotted was Re-Animator writer/director Stuart Gordon as he was chatting with Rich Peterson.  It was a tad surreal to walk into Market Square Cinema, a theatre that shows movies late in their theatrical rotations at a discounted price, and run into one of my all time genre faves in Gordon.  Although not surprising given that the Re-Animator screening and Q&A with Gordon was essentially Saturday night’s main event, it was cool nonetheless and it put my enthusiasm on high.

Next I was off to the vendors.  There were the expected participants such as Full Moon Direct slinging DVDs from their large catalog including Puppet Master, Evil Bong, and Gingerbread Man.  There were artists and musicians selling their horror-centric creations, filmmakers selling copies of the movies they had submitted into the fest, and there were even local clothing vendors whose products appeal to those of us who are more sub-cultured than we are cultured.

The most attention-grabbing booth was set up by Barry Crawford, otherwise known as Clay Guy from Streamwood, IL.  Barry sculpts from clay damn near every horror and science fiction character in the known universe.  He then creates molds from the sculptures, casts the characters in resin, hand paints them, and viola’ – you buy them because you can’t help yourself!  No sooner did I have my eyes set on a Dr. Herbert West figurine than did Stuart Gordon sneak over to the booth, snag Dr. West and leave the fest to drop it off safely in his hotel  room.  I was only slightly disappointed to lose the figurine to the man who immortalized Dr. West on film and thus contented myself watching Clay Guy ply his craft in the shabby Market Square Cinema lobby.

I decided the time was right to enter the theatre and check out some flicks.  On the way in I met Cory Ulder, writer/director/producer/kitchen sink of Incest Death Squad.  He proceeded to introduce me to writer/director/producer Bill Rebane, a truly monumental figure in indie filmmaking and exploitation horror (The Giant Spider Invasion, Monster A-Go Go) and the pioneer of non-coastal studio filmmaking having built a fully operational movie studio in Wisconsin, the first and only of its kind in the Midwest.

In the theatre the movies were various.  Some were shorts and some were features.  Some were horror-comedies while others were full on hardcore terror.  Among the films I saw were Wade, a sleazy micro-budgeted short, Murder loves Killers too, an unexpectedly fantastic feature that I highly recommend, The Landlord, an ambitious and complex horror-comedy shot in nearby Chicago, IL, and You’re Next 3: Pajama Party Massacre, a filthy little grinder short starring Elske McCain, Scarlet Salem, and Elske McCain’s breasts.

These showings were broken up by a presentation in which Cory Ulder presented Bill Rebane with the Madison Horror Film Fest Lifetime Achievement Award.   This was both sweet and funny as Mr. Rebane honestly thought it was a joke until he was standing in front of a live mic holding a nice commemorative plaque.

At last it was time for Saturday’s main attraction.  Stuart Gordon made his way to the front of the theatre after being introduced by local horror hosts Freakshow and the Harlots of Horror.  After the raucous applause died down, Gordon reminded us all that it was exactly twenty-five years ago this month when work began on Re-Animator.  And with that the movie began to roll.  Gordon walked back up the isle to more enthusiastic applause and took a seat across from me.  This left me simultaneously waxing nostalgic about watching Re-Animator when I was eleven and marveling at the coolness of what I was currently experiencing.  Admittedly, my inner fan boy was barely contained.

Re-Animator was a blast as it always is, but even more so given that I’d never seen it on the big screen before.  The lights came up and Stuart Gordon returned to the front of the theatre where he spent about a half hour giving a wonderfully engaging Q&A.  The following are Stuart Gordon fun-facts gleaned from the Q&A:

He was expelled from the University of Wisconsin in the late sixties for a psychedelic production of Peter Pan wherein the characters used LSD to fly rather than pixie dust.  If one thing was made clear, it’s that Gordon has got to be considered one of the foremost experts on H.P. Lovecraft and his works.  He is not a fan of remakes, particularly those of movies that were bad originally.  He would be sorely disappointed if Re-Animator were to be rehashed.  His three favorite horror movies, Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs were all inspired by Wisconsinite Ed Gein’s macabre exploits and this helps Gordon take pride in his dairy state ties.  He recently co-wrote a one-man play starring Jeffery Combs (Dr. West) entitled Nevermore: An evening with Edgar Allen Poe which is playing in Los Angeles.  He’s lobbying some Chicago theatres to bring the production to the Midwest.  And perhaps his most instructive advice, a movie is only as good as its script, even no-budget horror cheapies.

And with that my night was over.

I have little negative to write about the Madison Horror Film Fest.  There were typical mishaps such as last minute cancellations by Debbie Rochon, Elske McCain, and Scarlet Salem which left their “Women in Horror” presentation in the hands of last minute replacements.  But these things are uncontrollable and as the fest gains more reputation they are less likely to occur.

Hopefully Rich Peterson will continue to expand the festival in upcoming years and if he does, he’ll need a location that can accommodate more people, more comfortably.  The day’s highlights were not so much the movies, but rather talking about the movies after they had played via Q&A’s, presentations, and good old fashioned schmoozing with other fans and filmmakers.  I’d like to see more panels and presentations next year.  These are improvements that are well within reach.

Given the fest’s favorable bang to buck ratio and the sense I get that it’s going to pick up steam quickly with each successive year, my verdict is an easy one: Horror film fans in the Midwest are well-advised to show up when this festival haunts Madison, WI next year.

Jason Thorson – 2009

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One Response to “Screen Screams: Madison Horror Film Fest 2009”

  1. As one of the organizers of this year’s festival I would like to state for the record that the guest cancellations were not due to the guests but due to organizational problems with the festival. All the guests were very willing and excited to attend the festival. I do not want anyone to think that the blame for the cancellations falls upon the guests themselves.

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