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There are at least a few die-hard horror flick fans in the house at Arkansas Times, so we'd been waiting with dripping jaws for last weekend's Little Rock Horror Picture Show, the deformed, chained-in-the-basement sister to the annual Little Rock Film Festival. Featuring horror features and shorts from Arkansas and around the world, all arrows point to the idea that it was a bloody success, hopefully portending an expanded Part Two and beyond in coming years.
The festival kicked off with two fairly packed screenings of Arkansas writer/director Eric England's retro-slasher flick "Madison County," which went on to win the audience award at the festival. The film — about a group of college kids who travel to a remote town in North Arkansas to meet with the author of a book on a local serial killer, only to fall into the trap of a psychotic named Damien Ewell who wears a rotting pig's head as a mask — isn't great art. But then again, it seemed more interested in fitting in with the long history of films like "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween" than it did with making some grand statement. That said, the script could have definitely used some work in the plot and connective tissue department, including helping answer questions like: If somebody knew enough about Damien Ewell and his crimes to write a book about him, why has he, you know, not attracted the attention of the FBI? Annoying plot holes like that take away from the overall enjoyment of the film, but they're pretty much the same ones that annoy us about a lot of Hollywood horror, so we can't judge too harshly. On the upside, we did find a lot to like in the cinematography, and the film's dedication to old-fashioned menace over jump-out-and-gitcha scares.
Director England, producer/actor Ace Marrero and star Colley Bailey answered questions from the audience after the screenings on topics ranging from camera choice to working with the sometimes-suspicious locals on location in Madison County (one of whom, England said, tried to purposely run over the shoot's rented $100,000 Red One camera with his truck for reasons that still aren't exactly clear). Some of the night's most entertaining stories were the trio's tales of dirt-budget movie making in the wilds of Arkansas — including the cast and crew sleeping a dozen to a room in the only motel within driving distance of the shoot while fending off toads, stickbugs, cockroaches, black widow spiders and an infestation of maggots in their quarters. Truth is truly more horrific than fiction at times.
Saturday night's slate started with the short "The Curtain," in which a deadbeat boyfriend and his control freak girlfriend discover a mysterious locked shower curtain in their new apartment. Turns out, the curtain helps contain a demon in their bathtub, leftover from an exorcism that took place years before. Full of comic absurdity, the film was hilarious, gross, and deliciously mocked every character in its small cast.
The second short, "Going to Hell," was directed by University of Central Arkansas film professor Bruce Hutchinson. It's a brief psychological-zombie-thriller, in which a young, allegedly "infected" man is imprisoned in a house with his cynical sister and compassionate girlfriend as they try to decide what to do with him before he fully transforms. It's a moody little set piece aided by some boilerplate horror-flick chick badassery.
"This is one of the best films we're showing," festival programmer Justin Nickels said as he introduced "The Tunnel," a 2011 Australian thriller directed by Carlo Ledsema. The film's brilliant pacing and determined withholding of narrative clues confidently meted out the kind of quivering tension that only solid horror pictures can.
The film opens as a documentary about a Sydney television news crew that suffers some mysterious trauma while covering a story about the sub-train-station tunnels that lie beneath the city. Through "found" news and surveillance footage, interviews and the cameras used by the crew as they crawl deeper underground, we learn the story of Natasha, an overly ambitious TV journalist who gets a juicy lead about the abandoned tunnels, which were once appointed to house an elaborate water-recycling system until frightening reports of disappearing homeless inhabitants ended the plan.
After getting the green light from her boss, Natasha, who desperately needs this story to keep her job, fails to secure permission from the transit authority offices for use of the tunnels, and bluffs the camera team into assisting her with coverage. Everything we see of the underground action is culled from the nightvision camera and the large TV camera carried by the team.
It goes without saying that the faux-verite film owes much to "The Blair Witch Project," which itself didn't even offer the temporary respite of clean documentary-style interviews to soften the trembling, nausea-inducing DIY camerawork. However, as evinced by the derivative "Paranormal Activity" franchise, it's a formula that works. Couple that restricted scope of vision with pitch-black tunnels and other bourgeois fears of homeless people living underground, and you have strangling, ruthless tension that expertly delivers fright even when it comes in all the moves you expect.
The film's only weakness is its inability to wrap up with the measured and detailed approach with which it began: storylines are dropped, hardly believable plot holes aren't addressed, and the horrible trauma that the characters relate simply ends resolutely and with surprisingly little social commentary or sense of foreboding. Not that these are entirely mandatory traits of an excellent horror flick, but it seems curious when the first half of the movie strives to present itself so boldly.
All in all, a great start for the Little Rock Horror Picture Show, which will return next year, according to organizer Nickels.