Hereditary, Horror and the Power of Choice
It was the closing night of the Overlook Film Festival and everyone was gathered at a mansion on the outskirts of town. I was coming out of the bathroom, spooked, because A24 had planted some Hereditary sound effects next to the toilet. Jesus. The film, which comes out today, had closed the festival earlier that night and had left everyone on edge — deliciously so. I grabbed a glass of wine, discussing the experience with a stranger who was leaning against a wall outside next to some friends. Why do we put ourselves through all this? There was a number of discussions around everyone’s personal motivations for attending a festival that’s four days of non-stop horror and beyond. As I walked away towards the immersive theater finale that was happening in the mansion parlor (amazing, right?) I gathered a shared answer: Because we can.
The fourth edition of the Overlook Film Festival ran April 19th – 22nd and was led with taste and panache by Landon Zakheim and Michael Lerman — between them, programmers for other renowned festivals like TIFF, Sundance, LAFF, and Palm Springs. The genre festival, which focuses on everything and anything in the horror/thriller landscape, including immersive theatre and live performance, evolved from the Stanley Festival, which originally ran at the Stanley hotel — the lodge that inspired The Shining. Now centered in New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine the festival anywhere other than the most haunted city in the world. The comfort of being cocooned with other festival goers was gone — everyone stayed at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, next to bacchic Bourbon street. And New Orleans is a city brimming with mortality — illness, crime, sex, and death are all hyper palpable. One of my producing partners kept reminding me of how unsafe NOLA is. You can’t stumble home alone like one might at another fest. And yet here we all were submitting ourselves to the obscene, taboo, and terrifying while in the comfort of a theater or controlled performance experience. Because we can. I say all of this because we live in a time where words like “consent” and “trauma” hold a lot of weight, and horror is a genre that allows us to explore painful and dark experiences (often reflecting our own depths) but on our own terms. It’s a gateway to healing and discovery in a lot of ways, too. And as I recount the days at Overlook, I find that much of the programming is better explained through a first-hand account — as is any good ghost story.
What makes Overlook special, apart from this hyper-specific programming, is its embracing of various mediums. Upon arriving at the festival, guests were encouraged to meet in the lobby of the Bourbon Orleans for “The Game” orientation. The immersive experience this year was from designers Scott Gillies and Nick Tierce and its details were kept under wraps leading up to the festival. In years past, certain guests played the “Game” for the entirety of the festival, with live actors providing clues, maps built into the hosting location and backstories unraveling each day. This year, Overlook made sure that you could still play the Game and see movies. In the morning, groups would wonder around the city, finding symbols in antique shops, bookstore windows and uncovering the story: a family divided, a sacrificial ceremony the only answer to restoring order. With The Game, Overlook was providing the opportunity to stay immersed in a story for the entirety of the weekend. Guests had the power to make the experience as real as they wanted —- which was often alarmingly easy to do when a character has a conversation with you that bleeds the lines of truth and fiction. I tried to finagle one of their real names at a bar at 2:00 AM to no avail. We both grew up in Texas — but then again, was that just her character?
Clay McLeod, the creator behind The Pumpkin Pie Show, also walked the fine line of reality and performance. You had the option to see the show as a group or 1:1, and I chose the latter. When I met McLeod, he shook my hand and led me into the guts of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, down the alley, through the cluttered backstage, up some carpeted stairs and into a tiny room. It was nostalgic, having grown up in the theater — but also a bit, wait, where is he leading me? I realized the performance had already begun (something I found myself doing a lot at Overlook). I sat across from Clay in a small chair and for 15 minutes he spoke to me as if I was a mermaid, and he a fisherman who found me — in awe, in love. I was able to ask him to stop at any time. Safe words a huge part of all of the festival’s experiences — this is key. Having McLeod’s eye contact locked on me for that amount of time was perplexing. Do I say something? Only if I want to. Some may have found it alarming, and others, a beautiful 20 minutes of human connection. When it was over, and McLeod walked me down to the lobby, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to break the fantasy, ask him about how others had reacted…or stay the mermaid. It wasn’t until days later that I realized this same dilemma was the core of Blue My Mind, a delicately captivating feature debut from Lisa Bruhlmann. In the film, from Switzerland, Mia (Luna Wedler) has moved to a new high school, and as her sexuality and body bloom, she soon realizes she’s not like the other kids. She picks up cigs and crop tops like the “popular” girls she’s trying to impress, but meanwhile is coming to terms with the fact that she may be turning into a fish. Bruhlmann is precise with her exploration of that strange time in a girl’s life where she’s on the cusp of womanhood — how friendships evolve, sex is demystified and your body can feel repulsive; foreign. At one moment the film is body horror, and at others adolescent drama. Depending on your perspective, it could all be a big metaphor (although it’s better to believe it’s not).
Performer Grady Hendrix’s live shows were some of the most unique experiences I’ve had at a film fest. In an age where our attention spans are shrinking and entertainment is drifting from simplicity, Hendrix offered the opposite. In his one-man show Summerland Lost, he led the audience through a tale about two Victorian teenagers, the Fox sisters, who launched the country into a frenzy. After finding they could speak to the dead in the mid-1800s, they built a business around helping people communicate with the spiritual realm. This ignited the Spiritualist movement in America, which Hendrix divulged without robbing his audience of the rich question: was it real or not? In his other live show, Paperbacks from Hell, he walked us through the torrid history of the horror novel, from Rosemary’s Baby to works so heinous and outlandish the crowd audibly gasped at each plot point. Hendrix also brilliantly tied each novel trend — zombies, doctors, killer children and/or women — to their respective societal climate. Authors and audiences alike were working through shared cultural fears via the genre: women gaining power, abortion, political changes, you name it. If there were a grotesque D-grade horror hit published today, one wonders what it’d be called and how it would fit into the “from Hell” canon. Maybe there already is one? If so, please share.
Overlook’s film programming was similarly interested in the vast topics horror can tackle and how that dictates the unique tone of each piece of work. After premiering earlier this year at Sundance, Revenge was a pitch-perfect choice for the fest. The thriller is a feature debut from Coralie Fargeat, who is sure to change the landscape of the genre in coming years as is her fellow French comrade Julia Ducournau (Raw). In the film, which has blistering visual saturation — making the sun bolder and blood reds brighter — Jen (Matilda Lutz) is enjoying a weekend away with her boyfriend. He’s married, as are his drooling, gun-slinging friends. Fargeat constructs the tension of the situation with each camera angle, each choreographed glance between Jen and the three men, and it builds to our worst fear. After Jen is left for dead, the men think they’re off to enjoy their hunting trip… but they’re wrong. There are so many flavors in this cinematic cauldron. There’s witchcraft, comedic winks, commentary on male behavior, and out of it comes a heroine for 2018. It’s hard not to watch the film and wish we had more characters like Jen. Enough with watching women in the horror and thriller genre get sliced, stabbed, used and abused — it’s way more interesting to watch them prevail.
One of the most intriguing films in the slate was Caniba, an unrelenting portrait of a man who lived a shocking existence of the titular abusing: Issei Sagawa. The film also took home the jury’s scariest feature award. Filmmakers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan) sit with Sagawa, along with his brother Jun, as they discuss his existence as a cannibal and their relationship to pain and death. In 1981, Issei murdered and cannibalized Renee Hartevelt and was never imprisoned. He was dubbed legally insane, and even went on to be a guest speaker, participate in exploitation films and write a book about his murder. The film remains in close-ups of the Sagawa brothers, in locked focus, so each of them is often blurred for minutes at a time. With the brutality of the camera not giving its audience a moment of freedom from the brothers’ faces, one might suspect a level of understanding to arise in the psyche. Quite the opposite. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor provide a portrait of an aging man who drifts in and out of presence, where by the end of the film there is little sanity to be found. If anything, it poses the question: how much of these desires exist in all humans?
That brings us to the highlight of the festival, and one of the best horror experiences to infiltrate cinema in a decade: Hereditary. Have you ever had a fleeting moment where you don’t trust your family? That moment where you view someone extremely close to you, but in the shadows? Hereditary takes that fear and exemplifies it, rubs your face in it, shoves you in a dark room with it, and then let’s you walk out two hours later, “unscathed.” And it’s fun — if you let yourself know it’s all in your control. You can, in fact, leave at any time. A feature first for Ari Aster (I’d like to take a moment to thank Overlook for programming so many debut features), the film centers its gaze on the matriarchy. Toni Collette is Annie Graham, in an Oscar-worthy performance, if we keep the Academy paying attention to horror like it did last year. After losing her mother, Annie begins to confront her own shortcomings as a caretaker for daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). After another tragedy shocks the family, and one that wants to burn itself into your memory, be warned, the terrifying catacombs of the Graham’s history surface. The performances of the cast combined with Aster’s ability to milk terror from every frame (the slow zoom down the hallway never gets old) makes for an experience of elevated tension. It’s been years since I saw a film in the theaters where people audibly screamed multiple times — myself included. And yes, there are some cracks in the foundation of the narrative, where the ending would have paid off better if Aster had weaved together a tighter explanation (no spoilers). But as for the images put on screen and the merciless depiction of a family’s flaws, Hereditary feels personal. It dredges up some trauma — for anyone who’s willing to go there — and for those of us who’d rather not, it’s a wild, good time. Because hey, it’s not real… right?
The one piece of programming I regret missing was Black Out. It was a psychological 1:1 experience many guests were eager to try. But they weren’t allowed to talk about it afterwards. I had opted out — I figured I couldn’t handle it. Throughout the weekend and through splintered, vague accounts from people who had done it, I gathered that the experience allowed for participants to explore dark spaces where they felt, finally, some sense of control. In actuality, the participant in an immersive experience like this has all the power. It’s not real; you can leave at any time. It was a weekend of exploring these unconventional spaces and stories, screaming and laughing it off after with people who appreciated the rollercoaster. The horror genre and a festival like Overlook may seem unapproachable to anyone who pulls the blanket over their eyes when the monster jumps out on screen. I am that person sometimes, but after spending four days at Overlook I realized there was great power in choosing to push your boundaries through cinematic and theatrical experiences. And I could endure much more “horror” than I thought — as probably you can, too.