Thursday, April 27
You know that infamous mistake in the opening scene of The Shining, where you can see the shadow of a helicopter following the car carrying the Torrance family up to the Overlook Hotel? All I could think today as I made my trek to the Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mt. Hood — which stood in for the exterior of the Overlook in The Shining — was how much I wish I were being carried to the top by helicopter. Turns out, I did not heed warnings to dress for snowy conditions — and I was shivering.
I'd made the 12-hour plane-cab-bus journey to the Timberline for the first-ever Overlook Film Festival, a four-day horror festival with film screenings, panels, and an emphasis on immersive experiences designed to scare the crap out of you. I snagged my pass as a horror fan and a longtime devotee of The Shining; to be honest, I don't need an excuse to hole up in a hotel for a few days and watch a dozen horror movies in a row, but it's always nice to have a little added incentive.
My room at the Timberline is lovely and cozy (and not in that euphemistic way that just means small). There's even a fireplace I plan on figuring out how to use before I leave. What struck me upon entering was a piece of paper on my bedside table with some weird symbols drawn on it. Ah, yes, I remembered. The game. Before I arrived here, I had signed up for an all-weekend interactive game — and the festival organizers clearly wasted no time getting that started.
Just after settling into my room, I had my first event of the festival: orientation. Details about the game were pretty hush-hush beforehand, and orientation only cleared things up a tiny bit. I don't want to say too much while it's currently happening, but basically it involves finding clues, talking to the right people, and locating some dangerous person of interest who is allegedly wandering the grounds. It was at orientation that I realized fairly quickly that I...am not well-suited for this game. It's possible that I'm not well-suited for any game! The two things I'm worst at are solving puzzles and interacting with strangers, so, uh, we're at a bit of a standstill here. Nevertheless, I took a few photos of items around the lobby that looked like they could be possibly relevant to the game, and I'm definitely still playing, if anyone asks.
After orientation I had a quick break, so I went back to my room for a short nap and to deal with my anxiety over being snowed in. We're not actually snowed in, but the view from my window was bleak enough to spook me. Yes, I wanted the full Shining experience, but, you know, with some remove.
I brushed off my unease and made it to my first screening of the weekend, Akiva Goldsman's Stephanie. The movie itself was a solid start to the festival: The titular character (Shree Crooks) has been abandoned by her parents and forced to defend herself against a mysterious force that seems out to get her. And there are some fun twists that kept me engaged.
After the screening, there was a party, but I was too hungry for "satanic burlesque," which was a thing that was happening. I ran into my friend Troy, who works for IFC Midnight, and we grabbed food at the Ram's Head Bar. Delirious from my day of travel, I began to wonder if Troy had been recruited as an actor in the game and I was somehow missing the obvious signs. If the movie The Game taught me anything, it's that literally everyone is involved and there will be serious continuity errors.
And here's where things got really strange. After we parted ways, I walked back to my room and discovered two raspberry jam bars waiting for me on a plate next to the TV. Is it possible they'd been there the whole time and I just missed them? Is this, again, another part of the game? (The best kind of clues are the ones you can eat.) Am I being poisoned by ghosts who know I can't resist a raspberry jam bar? It definitely felt like some kind of test — and one that I immediately failed by eating the bars. (Around this time, I also found a hot-water bottle under the covers. I do not remember it being there during my nap. What I'm saying is, I'm not not being haunted.)
As I checked my email before bed, I noticed a strange request to meet in a certain room at 1 a.m. Finally, a clear instruction from the game! But I was exhausted and in my pajamas. As my eyes closed, I wondered (somewhat hopefully) if I'd be disqualified.
Friday, April 28
Two terrifying things happened this morning: 1) I overheard someone in the next room talking about finding a mutilated corpse, and 2) I almost missed breakfast. The latter was the more pressing concern, if we’re being honest, but I hauled ass to the restaurant downstairs and the crisis was averted. Now, back to the dead body.
I wasn’t even trying to eavesdrop; the walls here are just really thin. (Seriously. The Timberline even supplies you with earplugs in case you have a hard time sleeping over the sound of your neighbors.) At around 10 a.m., I began hearing someone from Cascade Enforcement — the fictional security team in the big immersive game — talking about a “crime scene investigation at Timberline Lodge.” At first, I was convinced the voice was coming from somewhere in my room, and yes, I actually crawled under my bed looking for a tiny speaker. Once I realized it was definitely in the next room, I marveled at the planning of the game — was this creepy dialogue intended for anyone in the adjacent rooms? Then, I put my ear up to the wall. “Approaching, right away I notice the body is cut up” was all I could make out clearly. Also, yikes.
Since I had already established myself as the Worst Player Ever, I ignored that pretty obvious clue and headed to my first screening of the day, Hounds of Love, a gritty Australian thriller. (I’ve seen many Australian films, and they are almost always gritty thrillers.) It was a solid, compelling addition to that niche canon, although I didn’t feel like it did anything I hadn’t see before. After that, I darted to my next movie, The Bad Batch, the sophomore feature from filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour. I love, love, love A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but this was a pretty significant departure, and not only because she went from vampire Western to post-apocalyptic cannibals. The Bad Batch was a little too meandering for me, with a Mad Max aesthetic that never quite gelled. It didn’t strike me the way Amirpour’s first film did, but I still appreciated her stylistic flairs.
After The Bad Batch, I was beginning to remember how much film festivals take out of you, especially when the movies you’re seeing inevitably incorporate dismemberment. I decided to take a break and try out some of Overlook’s more interactive offerings. I’d been emailing with Teal Greyhavens, who has the best name ever, and who came to the festival on behalf of Dark Corner Studios, a film production company that specializes in immersive VR horror. Teal told me to come check out their latest film, Mule, which has viewers lie down in a coffin before strapping on a headset. Yes, I decided to take a "break" with immersive VR horror.
And I had a surprisingly good time facing my mortality via virtual reality! Mule starts out with a terrible game of Would You Rather? as you choose between cremation or being buried alive. The Dark Corner volunteer asked me which scares me more, and I ultimately settled on the latter. (Word of advice: If someone asks about your darkest fears for the sake of tormenting you, it’s OK to lie!) I don’t want to spoil too much about Mule, but I will say at one point I looked down and watched someone removing my organs, which was still somewhat less distressing than the opening, in which a prostitute hovered over my naked body. (Well, not my naked body. But you know. Virtually.)
Back to the screenings! Next up was Primal Screen, the pilot episode of a planned series by horror documentarian Rodney Ascher. (If you haven’t seen The Nightmare, check it out. I have never been more terrified by a documentary, and I’ve seen the ones that show you how the planet will die.) Primal Screen is all about confronting the pop culture that traumatized you as a child, and I hope a future episode deals with Zeke the Plumber on Salute Your Shorts, because no, I’m still not OK. That was followed by M.F.A., a rape-revenge movie that mostly made me sad about Sweet/Vicious getting canceled; it’s so hard to get the genre right, and while it was clear M.F.A. had its heart in the right place, the whole thing felt a little misguided.
By nighttime, I was ready for another break: A) My butt was tired of sitting — it could happen to you! — and B) I’d had my fill of seeing people, particularly women, being brutalized. That’s not a feature of all horror, contrary to what some of the genre’s most vocal detractors will tell you, but it was an unfortunate matter of timing that I happened to see three such movies in the same day. And I think the general atmosphere of the festival was starting to get to me, too: Despite the fact that we were clearly not snowed in, walking past a window completely obscured by snow sent me into a mild panic spiral. I didn’t need creepy twin girls in the hallway to feel like I’d be here forever.
But I’m glad I pulled myself together and made it to the centerpiece screening of the Overlook Film Festival, Lady Macbeth, an unconventional choice for a horror festival but the film I’ve loved the most so far. It takes quite a while for the horror to seep into the story of an unhappy wife (Florence Pugh) in rural 1865 England who ends up having an affair with a man (Cosmo Jarvis) who works for her husband. Once the movie takes a turn, though, it’s shockingly dark and brutal, the kind of terror that catches you off-guard and gets under your skin. Not that I really needed that at my current state of fragility.
There was another party after the screening — there appears to be one here every night. My friend Troy, who remains my sole festival buddy, told me to come check it out. There were stilts and a DJ who played a funky remix of the Halloween theme at one point, but I couldn’t stick it out long.
I returned to my room feeling wiped out and more than a little bit anxious. There were no mysterious raspberry bars this time — but there were cookies, along with a note explaining that they were a gift from the kitchen. I know that undermines my ghost theory, but my suitcase also moved positions despite the fact that no one ever came in to make the bed, so who knows what dark forces are at work here. I ate the cookies anyway.
Saturday, April 29
My “day” actually started late last night. I was dozing off when I got a text at 12:30 a.m. that The Chalet, a “fully immersive theatrical experience,” was ready for me. I’d signed up when I was feeling ambitious, but here’s the thing: While I have a lot of respect for immersive theater, there are few things that make me more anxious than audience participation. And The Chalet is designed for an audience of one. Given that I’m at a horror festival, I decided to lean into the dread, however, and headed over.
The volunteer at the bar I'd been directed to told me to clear my mind, which wasn’t hard because I’d been half-asleep mere moments before. “Nothing is more important than this experience,” she told me. My heart immediately started pounding. Immersive theater-induced nerves aside, that’s just a lot of pressure! She instructed me to walk through the double doors across the bar and meet the woman in a red dress. I did as I was told, while also doing some calming breathing exercises. Said woman was waiting for me with a tiny cup of hot tea, which I dutifully accepted with the naïveté of someone who hasn’t watched every available documentary about Jonestown. And then I was blindfolded.
I don’t want to give away too much about The Chalet, just in case you ever get the chance to experience it. But I’ll tell you what the waiver I signed told me: You’re blindfolded, you’re fitted with noise-canceling headphones, the actors may touch you (but you can’t touch them), and you have to follow instructions. I was also told that I’d be provided the experience of being in someone else’s skin (but personally, I think I'm too self-aware — and self-conscious — to give myself over to that part of it).
I was led into a room where I was given some phrases to repeat, and I then had to listen to a recording of myself saying the words. Yes, I had to hear my own voice, and it was awful. Eventually, after being moved into another, smaller room, I was invited to take off my blindfold and headphones — and the scene I encountered was so distressing it made me long for the mere discomfort of hearing myself speak. I lasted about 20 seconds before bolting, which was long enough to report that The Chalet is incredibly effective, well-conceived, and truly terrifying. Immersive theater is just not for me. But the tea was delicious.
Somehow I managed to get to sleep shortly thereafter.
I woke up realizing how much Friday had taken out of me, so I decided Saturday would be my chillest day at Overlook. Before my first screening of the day, I did a little exploring, including a quick stop outside the infamous Room 217; I couldn’t see inside (I assume it looks a lot like my room down the hall), but I stood outside the door for an awkwardly long time. For those who don’t know the confusing backstory, Room 217 is the allegedly haunted room at the Stanley Hotel Stephen King stayed in that inspired The Shining. To avoid spooking future guests, the Timberline Lodge, which was used for exterior shots in the film adaptation, requested that the movie version change the room, so it became Room 237, which doesn't actually exist at the Timberline. Despite all that, 217 has become the most requested room at the hotel, while the real haunted Room 217 remains a safe distance away in Estes Park, Colorado. So basically it’s a nonsensical tourist destination, but a tourist destination nonetheless.
My first screening of the day was Still/Born, which I’d been drawn to from the moment I read about it. Sign me up for any horror film about pregnancy, birth, or babies: Human reproduction is spooky as hell. And Still/Born did offer the most straightforward scares of anything I’ve seen at Overlook. I appreciate the subtler genre-benders like Hounds of Love and Lady Macbeth, but it was surprisingly refreshing to finally get some good old-fashioned jump scares. I don’t even love being startled — I’d just forgotten how much fun it is to watch a movie like that with a big genre enthusiast crowd (although I could have done without the guy behind me remarking that he might have peed himself after one particularly alarming moment).
I was going to see another movie, but I decided to tag along with Troy to a more unique festival experience, a live taping of Larry Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid’s horror podcast Tales From Beyond the Pale. I had my doubts — podcasts are made to be listened to! — but Tales is really more of a classic horror radio play than a podcast. And it’s honestly a thrill to witness great voice actors do what they do best. Watching someone sip water in between screaming bloody murder was worth the price of admission alone. Uh, not that the event cost extra.
Then, it was time for the big secret screening. There had been a lot of talk all day about what it might be, but I appreciated the fact that no one I talked to who knew would drop so much as a hint.
Much to my delight, it ended up being It Comes at Night, the sophomore feature from Trey Edward Shults, whose debut film Krisha was an unnerving family drama that surprised me and flirted with the genre just enough to be my favorite horror film of 2016. (Incidentally, a few people I talked to earlier in the day had guessed this would be the screening based on the presence of representatives from A24, the film studio releasing It Comes at Night, at Overlook. Never forget that festival attendees are serious nerds.) I sat in the front row and got ready to take in a film I knew next to nothing about — and prepared to deal with my shame over visibly reacting to scares with an entire audience of people behind me.
There were certainly moments that startled me in the movie, but like Krisha, It Comes at Night is definitely a paranoid psychological thriller that cares more about inflicting lasting dread than it does about spooking you out of your seat. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, who is trying to protect his family — wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — from a plague that has decimated the outside world. When another desperate father, Will (Christopher Abbott), enters their lives, Paul has to balance his compassion with his cutthroat need for survival. It Comes at Night is stressful, gripping, and gorgeously shot, a film that mimics the anxiety of Krisha on a somewhat larger scale. It’s nice to see Shults spreading his wings a bit while still sticking close to what he does well. And even in a more mainstream movie, he has not lost his commitment to relentless bleakness.
Relentless bleakness is not what you want before the big closing night party, but hey, when at a horror festival. I did think going with the It Comes at Night theme was a bit of an odd touch — I won’t go into detail about what comes at night in the movie, but it is not the urge to dance — and yet I did appreciate the way the ski chalet had transformed itself with some of the key elements from the film: a tight hallway, a big red door, an adorable dog made of ice. (The dog is not ice in the movie, to be clear.) I wandered around just long enough to take advantage of some of the photo ops, including a few Shining-themed cutouts that had been circulating all weekend, then headed back to my room.
Shortly before falling asleep, I heard a scratching sound outside that made me bolt up in bed. And while I knew it was probably nothing — thin walls and all — I’d just seen a pretty terrifying movie and I was kind of drifting in and out of consciousness, and I swear that when I glanced at the mirror across from the bed, I saw something moving quickly across the wall. Long story short, I slept with all the lights on and I Love Lucy playing on Hulu.
Congratulations, Overlook Film Festival, you finally broke me.
Sunday, April 30
I have been pretty lighthearted throughout these daily diaries, even as I’ve occasionally questioned my sanity after hours and hours of watching horror films in a remote snowy lodge, but things took a bit of a turn this morning. I was awoken in my room at 6 a.m. by three figures walking toward me — it was a small consolation that I had fallen asleep with the lights on and could see pretty clearly that they were humans and not, I don’t know, cenobites. But that didn’t make it much less distressing when two men held my arms down on the bed and a woman swabbed my mouth with a Q-tip. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” she hissed, “and don’t try to follow us.” A series of thoughts hit me all at once: I didn’t even know I was still playing the immersive game. What if this isn’t part of the immersive game at all? If this is part of the game, I’m almost certain I didn’t sign a waiver to have people break into my room and restrain me. Oh, god, what if I’d been sleeping naked?
I tried to laugh the whole thing off after it was over, because as unsettling as the experience was, I assumed I’d neglected to read the fine print on the waiver I signed. But I also thought maybe my game status had been misidentified. See, there were three levels to the game: Lurker, Player, and Hunter. Hunter was the most invasive one, and I opted out when I read that “Hunters must sign a detailed waiver and consent to giving the game masters comprehensive details which may include access to their lodging, personal possessions and consent to physical contact at any time.” Gee, that sounds an awful lot like what happened to me at 6 a.m., except, again, I very deliberately didn’t consent to any of that.
Sure enough, I got an email with an apology from Bottleneck Immersive, the group behind the game. “I hope you can forgive us for invading your privacy and involving you in that activity meant for the Hunter tier,” it read. Just like that, I went from mildly skeeved out about the morning intrusion to completely fucking livid. Now that I had confirmation that I hadn’t actually signed up for any of that, I felt a wave of revulsion and anxiety about the whole thing. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here: I’m not scarred for life or anything. But there is something distinctly upsetting and yes, a little traumatic, about three strangers coming into your room while you’re asleep and pinning you to your bed. I would never have agreed to that, and I’m not OK with the fact that it happened to me. I also know that it was a mistake, and I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s fun, but as far as fuck-ups go — both on the part of the game, and the hotel, which gave out my room key without my consent — this one’s pretty unforgivable.
I really do hate to end things on a sour note, because this has mostly been a really wonderful weekend. So let’s get back to the movies. Of course, the films I ended up seeing today didn’t exactly offer much in the way of comfort. But that kind of goes with the territory.
First up was Psychopaths, the latest from the absurdly prolific young filmmaker Mickey Keating. One of the things I love about Keating’s work is that every one of his movies — which he busts out with impressive regularity — feels entirely different from the last. And Psychopaths is no exception; sure, it has his trademark darkly comedic sensibility, but it’s way more chaotic and surreal than his past films, with a distinctly psychedelic bent. Psychopaths is one of those movies where a bunch of disparate people’s stories end up connecting in unlikely ways — think Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve, except all of these people are serial killers. The movie was surprisingly fun, but also contained a torture scene that made me, no joke, feel physically ill to the point that I had to put my head in my hands and wait for it to be over. And I’m not squeamish!
Just writing about the torture scene in vague terms made me feel a little dizzy again, so after enduring that, I decided to give myself a break. As I’ve been saying throughout the weekend, horror films take a lot out of you, especially when viewed en masse. In fact, it’s a credit to the genre that it can get under your skin so effectively: These are the movies that have been giving us nightmares for as long as we can remember, that make us think twice about ever staying in remote cabins in the woods, that have us convinced that one of these days we’re going to shut the bathroom cabinet and see someone standing right behind us in the mirror. Horror is powerful. It can also be very draining.
Once I’d regained my composure — by which I mean I spent a couple hours in my room catching up on Real Housewives, which is a different kind of horror show — I debated what to pick for my last screening of the festival. I ended up going with Killing Ground, which I’d been hearing positive buzz about all weekend. In retrospect, given how shaky I was from the way my morning started and the nauseating sadism of Psychopaths, I probably should have avoided another Australian movie. (See my April 28 entry for my entirely accurate declaration that every Australian film is a gritty thriller.) Killing Ground, about a couple on a camping trip that goes terribly wrong, wasn’t just gritty — it was relentlessly brutal. It also turned out to be easily one of my favorites of the festival, but yeah, I really could have done without another 90 minutes of rape and murder and the attempted destruction of a baby. A BABY.
I went back to my room so that I could pack before a very early ride to the airport. (Note to self: Do not book a flight at 6:40 a.m. when you have to descend a mountain and drive 60 miles to get there.) I wasn’t thrilled about not being able to get a full night’s sleep, but I’ll admit that I was also a little relieved about not having to worry about anyone else barging into my room in the middle of the night. (I’ll get past it eventually, honest, but right now I’m still wavering between outraged and skittish.)
Knowing it would be a while since I was able to have a real meal again, I picked up something to go from the bar. But I couldn’t bring myself to eat it; my appetite had all but disappeared. It didn’t help that I kept returning to one of the more upsetting moments in Killing Ground, not to mention the goddamn torture scene in Psychopaths (I want to Eternal Sunshine it from my brain), and was feeling queasy.
Why do I put myself through this? I thought. Surely there’s a rom-com convention somewhere, and I bet it ends with a lot less nausea.
Sometimes when I talk about movies like Killing Ground — and really, when I talk about horror in general — I have a hard time explaining my adoration. I like to think of myself as a kind, compassionate person, and yet, I spend a lot of my time watching some unabashedly twisted shit. Now, we could spend all day looking into why that is (and it would involve a lot of film theory and maybe a bit too much self-analysis) but instead I will say this: The Overlook Film Festival was a great reminder of one of the things that I appreciate most about horror, the community. All weekend, I was surrounded by, crazy as it might sound, a lot of love. These are people who care deeply about the genre, whether as fans or creators or, very often, both. Everyone I spoke to was eager to talk about what they’d seen and loved. People were friendlier and warmer than I’ve experienced at most other film festivals. It feels weird to say this, but — minus the room invasion — Overlook was pleasant, a four-day adventure I will look back on fondly. Inevitably, it was a great reminder that horror is not just about viscera; it’s also about heart.
The Australian thriller screened April 30 was Killing Ground. An earlier version of this post misstated the title.