November 15-21, 2006

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Cult Leader

Forbidden Flicks: 'After Dark HorrorFest 2006' gives fans a chance to see eight films that were too much for studios

By Steve Palopoli

YOU CAN be forgiven if you missed An American Haunting in theaters earlier this year. It appeared to be just one more entry in the recent cycle of supernatural-themed films "based on a true story." Slick and boring movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Amityville Horror remake made plenty of money, but never had the cultural impact of Ringu and its subsequent parade of evil-ghost knockoffs and remakes.

But if you made that assumption about An American Haunting and then actually saw it, you most likely got quite a shock. I know I did. Smart and subversive, with a look that recalls Neil Jordan's knack for dark fairy tales, this movie breaks a lot of rules. It's a period piece with top-shelf dramatic performances from Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland, told in a modern horror style with a disturbing streak a mile wide.

If you can imagine what a headache it would be to market such an unusual film—or perhaps more importantly, to convince studio execs why they should try to market such a film—you won't have any trouble understanding what inspired An American Haunting's writer-director Courtney Solomon to create this weekend's HorrorFest 2006. Solomon produced An American Haunting himself, and now his production company After Dark Films, in conjunction with Lionsgate, has put together this HorrorFest as a showcase for movies that were too risky for the studios but deserve an audience. The "eight films to die for" will rotate showtimes Friday through Tuesday at select theaters in cities across the United States, including four locations in San Jose (interestingly enough, we appear to have the most participating theaters of any city in California).

All of the necessary info, including locations and times, is at the festival's website,, which also features this pretty tantalizing mission statement: "Each year, there are movies produced that are never seen by the public. Their content is considered too graphic, too disturbing and too shocking for general audiences. Now, for the first time, one studio will defy the system to bring you eight movies you were never meant to see."

And not just because of gore or violence, as many might assume. "There's different reasons that they're too extreme for the mainstream," Solomon told me. "We watched, like, 50 movies, and what we tried to do was pick movies that were different. There's a mix of everything."

For instance, writer-director Jason Todd Ipson's debut feature Unrest is about a group of medical students who start dying while working on mysterious cadavers. Ipson had been a medical student himself before going into film, so he took a leap of verisimilitude that is considered strictly verboten—he filmed with real cadavers. The Hamiltons, made by the Butcher Brothers from San Francisco and shown at Cinequest this year, is a daring, vicious little bit of social satire dressed up as a story of an all-American family with an insatiable murder habit.

Other films include Dark Ride, about an escaped killer who returns to the theme park he terrorized 10 years before; the hitchhiker thriller Penny Dreadful; and the acclaimed debut from director Nacho Cerda, The Abandoned—which is Solomon's personal favorite. "The Abandoned is an intelligent, really well-made film," he says. "Real creepy—cool, cool film."

If the HorrorFest is successful this year, Solomon plans to make it an annual event. And if you guessed that what's driving him is the experience of trying to get his own film seen, take the fucking elephant already.

"It was just the frustration of going, 'God, these films deserve to be out there,'" says Solomon. "Somebody needs to take that role in this day and age."

Sometimes that means something as simple as taking a chance on Reincarnation, the new film from Takashi Shimizu. Now, you wouldn't think bigger studios would mind gambling on the director of the monster-hit Grudge films—oh, but wait, it's a foreign film. With subtitles.

Solomon scoffs. "Horror fans aren't going to mind the subtitles," he says. "Everybody liked Ringu better than The Ring anyway."

HorrorFest 2006 plays Nov. 17-21 at theaters in Silicon Valley and around the country; go to for info. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite overlooked horror film here.

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