What You Missed at The Overlook Film Festival (Don’t Miss It Next Year!)

A certain breed of movie fan knows immediately why something called The Overlook Film Festival would be held at a place called the Timberline Lodge. The Timberline Lodge? In Oregon? Why, that’s the place that stood in for the fictional Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of The Shining! What better place to hold a horror film festival?

Well, OK, one better place might be the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo. That’s the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, and the 1997 TV version was actually filmed there. The Stanley was indeed home to an eponymous horror festival from 2013-2015, but after taking a year off, its programmers, Landon Zakheim and Michael Lerman, have moved it to Oregon and renamed it The Overlook.

Did they do this just so that I, a Portland resident, would find it easier to attend? You can’t prove that they didn’t.

The first edition of The Overlook Film Festival was a success by all of the usual measurements. Things ran smoothly, the movie lineup was solid, and Kevin Smith didn’t show up. This wasn’t Zakheim and Lerman’s first rodeo, nor the first rodeo for their advisers and co-programmers, and everyone’s experience (not to mention enthusiasm) made a huge difference, rodeo-wise.

The films, 24 features and 17 shorts, screened in two makeshift cinemas, one in the main Timberline Lodge, the other in a lesser lodge a few steps across the parking lot. As is customary for smallish festivals not held in actual movie theaters, the digital sound and projection were excellent, the chairs astonishingly uncomfortable, as if designed to enhance the experience of watching a movie where people are tortured. Sight-lines weren’t great, either. Unless you were a grotesquely tall monster (over 6’3″,) it took planning and luck not to have a head blocking your view. But logistical problems like these are typical in a new festival, and I have every confidence that the amount of bitching everyone did will lead to either improvements or murder by next year.

Timberline Lodge as it appeared in The Shining, and as it appeared last weekend. (Oh, is it spring where you are? That’s nice.)

Many festival-goers spent the weekend in rooms at the Timberline itself, a rustic, sturdy lodge that looks nothing like Kubrick’s Overlook on the inside and is not particularly haunted, and whose elevators contain only the usual amount of blood. Other attendees stayed at various hotels down the hill from the Timberline, in an unincorporated part of Clackamas County charmingly named “Government Camp” (which, as a place to sleep, sounds more ominous than “the Shining hotel”). Holding all of the screenings, panels, parties, and other events in one location — a location that is also a hotel — makes The Overlook convenient to attend once you’re there, though getting there (it’s a 90-minute drive from Portland) and paying for accommodations (it ain’t cheap) might be another matter.

The main lobby of the Timberline served as festival HQ, with ballroom music from The Shining piped in to add ambience. Fest-goers who wanted to participate in the weekend-long immersive murder-mystery game went to orientation meetings and signed waivers that said we were in “good physical condition,” so already the lies had started. The game, put on by a company called Bottleneck, involved actors and clues planted around the hotel and allowed players to participate as much or as little as they wanted to. Though it sounded like fun, I soon realized I don’t have the right mindset for games that are woven into real life because I keep forgetting that I’m playing. I would see something weird in a hotel corridor and just think, “Huh. That’s weird” and forget about it. 

The opening-night film was the world premiere of Stephanie, from screenwriter-turned-director Akiva Goldsman and horror producer Jason Blum, both of whom were in cheerful attendance. Stephanie is a robust, if slightly clumsy sci-fi/horror hybrid set a few years after Earth was invaded by destructive “entities” that feed on negative emotions. Shree Crooks (from Captain Fantastic) plays the title character, a young girl who’s alone in her house at first, fending off unseen monsters and waiting for her parents (Frank Grillo and Anna Torv) to return with new information about how to defeat them.

In the Q&A afterward, Goldsman spoke frankly about the limitations of a small budget, and how it forced him to be creative in how he showed (or didn’t show) the monsters. The minimalism works in the movie’s favor (as it usually does), but the film has some other issues, including the remnants of a mostly deleted subplot about the post-invasion containment efforts. It works as a whole, though, with moments of high tension and dread. (You wouldn’t think a horror festival would attract the kind of viewers who say “No!” and “Don’t go in there!” out loud during horror movies, but you would be wrong.) Stephanie doesn’t appear to have a distributor yet, but it’s from Blumhouse Productions, so it’ll turn up somewhere. Blumhouse ain’t in the business of making movies that go straight to Crackle.

The post-screening party occupied the second level of the Timberline Lodge and featured the sort of things you’d expect: booze; music; Satanic burlesque dancers; a virtual-reality experience called “Mule” where you see yourself die of a heroin overdose; hors d’oeuvres; etc. “Satanic burlesque” is exactly what it sounds like: women in a variety of unsettling masks and costumes doing PG-13 stripteases. One plucky gal performed to Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge,” which she lip-synched flawlessly while gamboling around a mini-‘henge placed at the front of the stage. That cheeky attitude — name-checking the devil while keeping things light (or at least enjoyably dark) — was the festival in a nutshell.

Along with the VR experience and the immersive game were several other options for Overlook attendees who wanted to soil themselves, including a version of Blackout, the “underground immersive horror experience” that debuted in New York in 2009, and something called The Chalet, described as “an immersive performance for an audience of one” and adapted from another theater experience. Every slot for both events was filled as soon as the festival made them available, so I wasn’t able to take part myself. But the recurring theme in my conversations with people who did participate was that it effed ’em up, it effed ’em up real good.

I wanted a souvenir, and Buzzfeed’s Louis Peitzman was nearby. We are not really twins.

In truth, there was more horror in the festival’s branding and extracurricular activities than in the films themselves. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Several titles certainly fit the “horror” genre: Mickey Keating’s Psychopaths, a Rob Zombie-ish parade of pain and murder (I continue to be of the opinion that Keating is a very talented director who needs better material); It Comes at Night, the superbly unnerving closing-night secret screening about a paranoid family surviving a plague; and Still/Born, a pregnancy-related nightmare that won the jury award for Scariest Film.

But more common were films that had horror elements (violence, creatures, ghosts, revenge, etc.) but would fit comfortably at any “genre” festival (like Fantastic Fest, to name one I’m intimately familiar with). Joe Lynch’s aptly titled Mayhem, about an office building infected with an inhibition-lowering rage virus, is violent action comedy. M.F.A., a female-written and -directed drama of rape revenge, is slightly more vengeful than an episode of Law & Order: SVU but still fairly tame. The Bad Batch, from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night director Ana Lily Amirpour, mixes its cannibalism with Western dystopian romance, weirdly enough. The Untamed, a surreal Mexican drama involving a tentacled sex-alien, is more interested in its characters’ relationships and down-to-earth things like homophobia than it is in scaring anyone.

What this means is that The Overlook Film Festival, like the immersive game that I neglected to play, can be as scary or un-scary as you want it to be. You can dive head-first into deep pools of horror, or you can enjoy other sorts of raucous entertainment that won’t have you checking your closets before you go to bed. Assuming the organizers work out the kinks — which they will; all festivals have them — the 2018 version is something genre fans should start looking forward to (and saving up for) now. After one weekend, I could see the appeal of the Shining quote that kept popping up: “You’ve always been here.”

Eric D. Snider lives in Portland, is a dull boy.

Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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