Film Festivals


By • Mar 26th, 2012 •

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I left for Buffalo on Friday morning, October 28th, the day before a freak blizzard hit the tri-state area. The trees still had leaves on them and couldn’t support the additional weight of the snow. A thousand fell in Central Park alone. A friend’s barn was crushed by one in upstate New York. And a Jet Blue plane sat on the runway for eight hours, running out of water, functional toilet facilities, and first aid for two sick passengers.

It would have served them right if Gerard Depardieu had been on board.

Greg (SLIME CITY MASSACRE) Lamberson, who is also a co-founder of the Buffalo Screams Film Festival, picked me up at the airport and dropped me at my hotel – The Courtyard By Buffalo Marriot – to rest up before joining the screenings at the theater. The lobby of the hotel was under construction, which felt almost calculatedly appropriate, as if it were some kind of post-apocalyptic film set.

Greg and fest co-founder Emil Novak set the tone for the event — friendly, communal, and going-with-the-flow when the inevitable problems arose (eg. when, after the DVD of THE SUPER wouldn’t work in the projector, and the back-up similarly misbehaved, I heard Greg asking, without the least hint of panic “Is there a back-up for the back-up?” That’s when I knew I was in the presence of a rare example of grace under pressure.)

DAY ONE (for me – day 3 for many others) – Friday, the 28th

The festival had already been in progress for two days when I arrived. An intimate guest room adjoined the actual theater auditorium where the festival screenings were being held. In this ante-chamber several small tables had been set up against one wall. My next-door-table neighbor was the larger-than-life Melantha Blackthorne, whose film, INBRED AND UNDEAD, I was told, was a doozy in the STREET TRASH vein. Greg assured me I would love it. But alas it had already been shown the first night, so at my request, Ms. Blackthorne later sent me a copy of the film, which I certainly did enjoy for its gleeful desire to assail the viewing audience with all manner of gross bodily malfunctions, not to mention presenting an answer to one of the nagging questions concerning the zombie population – no, not how do they go to the bathroom (though that is addressed as well) – but are they interested in sex.

Melantha herself, on-screen, introduces the film, the first in a series of grotesque horror tales, this one also directed by her. As a host in the Elvira mode, she has a most charming style of verbal delivery. Her directorial choices send the actors way over the top, and just when you’re adapting to its very low-budget, your perception is disrupted by a stunning effects shot. I’d love to describe one such shot, which I replayed three times to study how effective it was, but I’d be giving away a good shock, and that I’m unwilling to do.

I’d also missed ABSENTIA, which eventually won Best Film. And there had been a retrospective 30th Anniversary screening of the first horror film made in Buffalo – THE BURNING. Tom Savini worked on it, and the Weinstein Bros produced it, before they became Miramax.

The lovely little venue in which the screenings were being held is called The Screening Room. Its walls are covered with film posters and stills, obviously collected and displayed with a great love of cinema. There are a few hundred seats of varying forms – fold-ups, fold-ups with better back support, high-back cushioned chairs, etc. – all of which could be removed for special events…such as the film fest’s Gala Closing Night Dinner.

As previously mentioned, off to one side of the theater proper was the small space where the guest filmmakers congregated. I was at the end of the table. Further down the row of tables, beyond Melanthra, was Rod Durick, a local filmmaker who has done special make-up effects on many films, and was currently hawking his new book, ‘Filming the Undead: How to Make Your Own Zombie Movie.’

From the guest room I would periodically mosey into the theater to see the films on display. Two of them topped my list of the best experimental films of 2011, though they fit into the horror category as well. From Texas, THE BLACK BOX, and from Mexico, Isaac Ezban’s short film, COSAS FEAS (NASTY STUFF).

THE BLACK BOX was made by a film teacher, and it’s a post-apocalyptic adventure in which a group of survivors is systematically whittled down. Lead thesp Kate Laken keeps our interest and our hopes up. The Black & White cinematography is vivid and stylish.

Talk about experimental filmmaking, Ezban’s 29-minute COSAS FEAS is fish-eye-lens-city from start to finish. This allows his cast to play into the distortion and go caricatured, or to play against it (a harder task) and balance the others. The narrative is seen through the eyes of a maladjusted school kid whose home life holds its own peculiar difficulties. The protagonist’s mother, played by Aida Torres, brought back memories of Daniela Rocca in Pietro Germi’s DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE in the way she laughed and generally appeared grotesque to the camera’s eye. I could have used a few less extreme close-ups of her – the point was made, and soon became redundant – but certainly the effect was unsettling. Despite the unusual choice of visual presentation, one doesn’t see the third act revelation coming, and when it does… Not only was the director in attendance, but his young lead actor was there, charming everyone, and me in particular when he expressed his delight with STREET TRASH.

That evening was the world premiere of DECAYED, a feature film by fest co-founder Emil Novak. I was told that he was going to trim its 113 minutes in the weeks after the fest, and so decided to wait for the final cut, but from the guest room I could hear the howls of appreciative laughter and periodic applause. I’m looking forward to receiving the DVD.

SWIRLEE, a project I’d produced in 1992 which never went beyond the first act, was shown as a short preceding a feature presentation at 10:00 pm. Remarkably, the audience went berserk over it. I’d introduced it, and that was all I was instructed to do, and all I expected to do. But after the explosive reception, Greg ushered me up front again for a Q&A. One deliriously happy patron said he’d been dying to see the film for two decades, and asked how he could see it again. I told him he could catch it Thursday evenings at my apartment.

However, the audience reaction really affected me, and I’ve been thinking about dredging the project up again for feature production. After I got back to NY, I called its director/star James Lorinz and alerted him that if anything, the film was more provocative than it had been twenty years ago. He was happy to hear it. We’ll see what happens next.

The first night, rather than do the bar-hopping party scene, I retired to my spacious room at the Marriot, with its curious view of the garbage bin out back, and started reading Rod Durick’s book. Clearly explained, profusely illustrated (there’s a photograph of a real location full of stone tombs on stone stilts that got my imagination going), it takes zombie flicks from the script stage all the way to completion. I found it a lucid, readable text, well worth owning for up-and-coming zombie film helmers as well as special make-up classes. Check the book’s site – for info on how to purchase it.


DAY 2 (for me) – Saturday Oct 29th

When I appeared in the hotel lobby for the continental breakfast, I was taken aback by the presence of a huge flock of teenage girls, all decked out in the same quirky uniforms. It was some kind of sporting event team, and they were chattering merrily like an infestation of exotic roaches. The tone was generally jubilant, except for one of them who had the flu and sat there shivering while the others debated what to do about her. Unfortunately for me, she was in the dining room, and I’m germ-phobic. How disconcerting! Just send her back upstairs and let her sleep and sweat it off, for Christ’s sake! Is that so difficult to figure out? I forsook the continental goodies.

Lunch was spent with Al Griffin, an old friend. We used to put out the Rolls Royce of home theater magazines – ‘The Perfect Vision.’ Now Al is the editor of ‘Sound & Vision’ magazine, and he’s based in Buffalo, where he lives with his wife and kids. We ate at Tom’s Diner a block from The Screening Room, and had some terrific Bourbon Pecan Pie, as well as an extremely friendly waitress.

A highlight of the day was a tribute to Tony Mauro, one of the top designers of Hollywood movie posters, who grew up in the Buffalo area. His poster designs, familiar to everyone who loves cinema, include the iconic images for THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, DEJA VUE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE (Steve Martin) PINK PANTHER, and BLACK CHRISTMAS. More recently, having moved back from Hollywood to his hometown, he has been designing fantasy book covers, many in the glorious fashion of Frank Frazetta. His presentation was both entertaining and enlightening…so much so that I invited him to lecture in my producing classes at The School of Visual Arts in NYC, which he did in February, much to the unanimous delight of all the students.

After dinner I ducked out with Chris Scioli, a lovely guy who I guess had been assigned the task of being my handler for the duration of my visit, and we hit the Dessert Deli, which featured a mind-boggling array of chocolate pies, tarts, cookies, and other unique creations. I sampled several, and decided that Buffalo wouldn’t be a bad place to reside. Surprisingly, its desserts were as good as anything in Manhattan.

In the evening there was THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, a creepy black comedy short from David Guglielmo, who had helmed last year’s award winning short DAMN YOUR EYES!, and whose name you might recall from the reviews he’s done for this site. Following that was the screening of STREET TRASH, another black comedy, written and produced by me back in 1985 (it opened in the US in ’87). Again, very gratifying audience responses, though perhaps not as tumultuous as those that greeted SWIRLEE. Afterwards I regaled the audience with a few of the more outrageous stories I’d compiled while making the film

And later, at 9:00+ pm, Bart Mastronardi’s THE TELL TALE HEART (31 minutes) was screened. A lovely film to look at, I was particularly thrilled at the excellent performance from genre mainstay Debbie Rochon. Debbie starred in Greg’s SLIME CITY MASSACRE, and though our paths didn’t cross at that time, I’d met her since, and found her to be a warm and intelligent person.

Then came one of the great events of the fest for me – the late evening screening of THE SUPER (as yet unreleased), with producer/editor Alex Lugones and stars Demitri Kallas and Manoush in attendance. Rarely do I see high-quality, unexpurgated work these days on a level with STREET TRASH, with wondrous ideas, inspired casting choices, and real chemistry and emotional impact such as this film spewed forth. Exploitation icon Lynn Lowry does a fascinating, lengthy cameo, there’s violence and nudity galore, surprising plot twists, an endearing quirkiness that permeates the whole narrative, and a graphic experimental sequence that was actually shot in Russia. I can’t wait for it to appear on DVD. Both lead actors were present, and Manoush, on taking the stage, growled “I have to take a piss!” I could just imagine what those shooting days must have been like…

DAY 3 (for me) – Sunday, Oct 30th.

After lunch, sensing this would be my last foray into dessert-land, I headed with Chris for a second visit to The Dessert Deli. But it was closed! Not one to admit defeat, he drove us to Paula’s Donuts, and Fate must have wanted me taken to that very location. They were the best donuts I’ve ever tasted. Nothing in NYC to compare. The coconut donut filled with Angel Cream was phenomenal. Food tops films on my swoon list, you see, so this was a dramatic event in my life. (I haven’t been able to lower myself to indulge in a Dunkin’ Donut since I’ve been back in Manhattan!).

Back to the theater for more screenings and the Awards Dinner.

In the late afternoon I screened THE DEFINITIVE DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD, my 33-years-in-production overview of George Romero’s zombie-laced film career. This was the U.S. premiere of the 102 minute film, and in introducing it I tried to explain that while George may go on to create many more zombie flicks, this is the end of the line for me as far as being there to record his progress. Somehow the audience didn’t seem to believe me.

Some years ago I met and chatted with Michael Apted, who’d been with the SEVEN UP! series of documentary films for 42 years. Every seven years he would film and edit updates on the seven British children the docs were following through their lives. I asked him how he felt now about doing the series, and he seemed genuinely grim when he replied that he was sick of it and couldn’t bear to think about facing the next chapter.

Now I may have caught him on a bad day, but after working for over three decades on DOCUMENT, I can’t say that feelings even remotely like his have made me consider myself done with the series. I just think I’ve spent enough time on those important subjects – indie filmmaking, and George Romero – the pre-eminent independent filmmaker of our time.

Well, at least I think this is the final incarnation of the film. Over the decades it has mutated from a teaching film to a straight-on documentary to a more personal work in which many of my friends appear and pay tribute to George at a party I usurped during a Chiller Theater convention back in ’05. The final half hour of footage actually took five years to compile, and that’s because some people I wanted in it (eg. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg) took over a year to reach and persuade. But since I had nothing but time, I doggedly persisted in my various quests and got pretty much everything I wanted. DDD comes out this Summer (perhaps) from Synapse, which has been the distributor for five of my films.

Then came the Awards Dinner. Fest entrants come in from all over the world, and there was an abundance of awards to divvy amongst them. There were awards for shorts, awards for medium-length films, and awards for features. There were other, stand-alone awards, like the one for the most helpful local person, and another for Dedication to Excellence in Independent Filnmmaking – which went to yours truly. Categorizing the film awards by length was a smart decision, as there were at least two actresses who deserved special kudos – Debbie Rochon in THE TELL TALE HEART and Kate Laken in THE BLACK BOX – and, fortunately, they fell into different length film categories.

On accepting his award for editing THE SUPER, a tipsy Alex Lugones coined the word Cinematonomy. He might have been aiming at ‘cinematography,’ but whatever his initial goal, I plan to use his newly coined film term in all future teaching gigs, just as soon as I figure out what it actually means. His lead actor, Dimitri Kallas, snagged the Best Actor in a Feature Award, well deserved, and he brought the audience to utter silence with a halting, passionate acceptance speech that struck me as emotionally charged with just the right instinctive theatrical timing to put the assembled souls in the palm of his hand. Wait until you see his work in THE SUPER. For the first act, he conjured memories of the hyper-energized auto mechanic, “VaVaVoom,” from Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY. But then, as we get deeper into his character, he breaks away from that relatively superficial association.

Eventually, following a lovely intro from Greg, I got up and botched my acceptance speech, clear enough from the response I was aiming for and didn’t get. I’m great in front of a class, or doing a Q&A for my own work, but addressing an audience in this manner throws me into that huge demographic who voted a few years ago that public speaking is more feared than death. I should have just told an anecdote about making STREET TRASH, which is what they probably wanted. But luckily I get to express my sentiments again, here, and this time I’ll get it right.

What I meant to communicate to the friendly festival audience was that I’ve been to many film fests over the years, usually covering such events for Films in Review, and there are some quite renowned ones recently whose choices haven’t been exactly primo – this I not only gleaned on my own, but from many disgruntled critics in attendance. I won’t name names (of either the critics or the festivals); I’m just mentioning it in order to, in balance, make it clear just how good Buffalo Screams succeeded in its choices. Every film I saw was a superior piece of work. And there was even local talent on display, which was both canny and impressive. I felt I had to communicate this to the audience, but next time, and forever after, I’ll stick to the stories. I bet they would have enjoyed the one about Nicole Potter, who played Sarah the Winette in STREET TRASH, when we appeared at the Fangoria convention just prior to the film’s U.S. opening back in ’87….

Well, perhaps I’ll save that for another column…

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2 Responses »

  1. Roy:

    An exceptional article with great insights. After reading over this article I realized how great the show really was. From the promoter point of view, we’re so involved in making it flow smoothly we sometimes forget all the great work we’ve done is appreciated so much. Thank for noticing! Glad to see you last year again.

    Emil J. Novak

  2. Kudos for showing the James Lorinz vehicle SWIRLEE. A much need short that needs to be seen by the greatest underrated actor working in the universe. Love that guy! I’d watch him again in THE JERKY BOYS just for him and Alan Arkin. More SWIRLEE and James Lorinz and less of the other features that were chosen. May Lorinz live forever!

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