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Sundance's Real Hits Are Horror Movies

By Lidz, Gogo | Newsweek, February 21, 2014 | Go to article overview

Sundance's Real Hits Are Horror Movies

Lidz, Gogo, Newsweek

Byline: Gogo Lidz

You may think the Sundance Film Festival is all about Mongolian goat-herding documentaries, searches for Sugarmen, and six-hour Richard Linklater thumbsuckers starring Ethan Hawke. It's true that one of the most buzzed-about features at last month's fest was Linklater's Boyhood, but ghoul-hood was just as conspicuous. I ought to know. I sat through nearly all the midnight monster movies and lived to tell the tale. If you call this living.

Horror and independent film go together as neatly as Rosey Greer and Ray Milland in The Thing With Two Heads. The first narrative movie was an indie (by default: no studios) that played on the primal fears of its audience. At a 1903 screening of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, moviegoers reacted to the final close up of a mustachioed bandit firing a pistol directly at the camera lens by ducking, screaming and bolting from the theater. The first "art" film was Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), an uber-stylized expressionist nightmare.

Though today horror films are often dismissed as genre schlock, many film festivals showcase the latest entries in their midnight programs. "Toronto [International Film Festival] has the biggest, baddest midnight audience," said Jim Mickle, director of last year's wildly popular cannibal flick We Are What We Are and this year's home-invasion thriller Cold in July. "But the audience in Park City is headier."

That's one word for the hordes that stay up late at Park City; they're also rowdier. The midnight shows have a long history of fistfights and drunken heckling. In 2012, two midnighters were treated by paramedics after witnessing graphic scenes at a screening of V/H/S. The always-reliable Daily Mail reported that the "lurid accounts of moviegoers passing out will no doubt lead some to suspect that this may have been an attempt to court publicity - but the film's production team insist what happened was real."

What the Fleet Street tabloid called the film's "vertigo-inducing moments" of wobbly camera-work recalled the festival's most famous midnight success story - The Blair Witch Project (1999), which, a 15 years later, remains the most profitable indie of all time. Blair Witch was made for $60,000 and grossed $249 million worldwide, a sum two and a half times the total amassed by Park City's 2004 torture porn sensation Saw, which has spawned six sequels and a billion-dollar franchise. In other words, the real money at Sundance is not Before Sunset, Before Sunrise or Before Midnight, but during the witching hour.

Of course many of these midnight gross-outs never gross anything theatrically. More often than not, they fail to get distribution and are lucky to be released on iTunes. Nor are all midnight screenings frightening - the slate has included over-the-top comedies like Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, and surreal dramas, sci-fi, thrillers and docs geared toward late-night crowds, like last year's James Franco-produced skin-flick doc Kink.

Most premiere, appropriately, at the Egyptian Theatre, the oldest cinema in Park City. The movie house looks like a set from The Mummy - the Boris Karloff classic, not the de classe Brendan Frasier remake. The building's interior, designed by an Egyptologist in 1922 after the discovery of King Tut's tomb, is festooned with hieroglyphics, scarabs and lotus leaf motifs. (Midnight films that don't "do the Egyptian," screen at the Library Center Theatre, a converted high school gym). This year late-nighters loved the Egyptian because it was the only theater with a liquor license.

Of the eight films that played midnight, I saw four. I skipped The Guest (action) and The Signal (sci-fi) to focus on horror and monsters. I also passed on the 3-D concert doc Under the Electric Sky, which sounded too scary. (I live in mortal fear of glow sticks). And though I never caught Cooties, I did watch Kuti in Finding Fela, Alex Gibney's biography of the Nigerian musician who defined Afrobeat.

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