“You’ve always been the caretaker.”
There are genre film festivals, and then there’s the Overlook Film Festival. The founders and staff behind the fest aren’t just content to offer a lineup of films celebrating horror, but they want to fully submerse you in it. From last year’s setting of the isolated Timberline Lodge nestled high on the snowy Mt. Hood, to the second year’s relocation to one of America’s most haunted cities synonymous with voodoo, the base of operations is already saturated in horror. Then, in addition to the 23 feature films in this year’s lineup, the fest offered an extensive immersive game, ghost tours of the historic city, virtual reality experiences, live podcast events, immersive performances, and more all meant to remind you what horror feels like beyond the safety of the screen.
I began my exploration of Overlook’s immersive performance offerings with Infinitely Dinner Society: Midnight Snacks by creator Annie Lesser. The concept is a late-night pairing of food and art with math and science behind infinity, with food sourced from local bakers, shops, and farmers markets. For the Overlook, this meant a uniquely constructed performance based on the cosmic horror of the multiverse featuring a New Orleans staple; Bananas Foster. Not having a clue how cosmic horror and bananas foster went hand in hand, I signed up.
Hours before my 11p.m. appointment on opening night of the fest, I received an ominous email instructing me to meet alone on specific corner in the French Quarter, awaiting the arrival of a masked stranger in a striped chef’s apron. If I wasn’t alone, they would not acknowledge me. Alone in the dark, the chef arrived on cue, and held my hand as they led me to an empty alley way in complete silence. Stopping in front of head phones, I watched as another stranger was being led to our isolated alley from the opposite direction. Once positioned, we faced each other from 10 feet apart, our respective chefs placing the headphones over our ears as we stared at each other, listening to Lesser unravel strange reflections of cosmic terror. There were performers contorted before us as the dialogue in our ears grew more frantic, and our chefs placed the icy dessert in our hands as Lesser conveyed the coldness of dimensions beyond. The chefs also set our desserts a light, flambéing the unique twist on the bananas foster, in sync with Lesser’s woven tale. Give bowls and spoons (and wet naps to clean our hands), we were finally allowed to taste the dessert as the performance wound down, our journey back mirroring its beginning.
Another major staple thus far of the fest has been The Pumpkin Pie Show by creator, writer, and performer Clay McLeod Chapman (Co-writer of 2015’s The Boy). Described as a sort of Edgar Allan Poe for the modern age, Chapman is a storyteller like no other, relaying tales of terror from the seemingly mundane to Gothic monstrosities that pour out of him as if possessed from beyond. Overlook offered two live shows, one that included a Best of Show encore presentation from the inaugural Overlook Film Fest and New Skulduggery, which brought brand new stories to the Overlook. For those that were more daring, or just plainly wanted more, there were limited slots available for one on one stories from the storyteller.
Curiosity winning over, this meant meeting McLeod Chapman in the safety of the lobby of the Le Petit Theater, exchanging pleasantries before being led deeper and deeper into the depths of the back of the house until ending up in what essentially appeared to be a storage closet. Seated in chairs facing each other from only a few feet apart, the soft-spoken storyteller instantaneous shifted into a boisterous character and began to weave his tale of “Poor Man’s Mermaid.” The discomfort at his unflinching gaze and attention gave way to concern and then heartbreak the more his character revealed about his tragic past before giving way to horror and chills as the story started coming together. “Poor Man’s Mermaid” is a story based in plausible authenticity over the supernatural, making it even more unnerving. This intimate form of storytelling won’t be for everyone, but it’s a unique experience worth seeking out.
Another highlight was an appearance by author Grady Hendrix (Co-writer of Mohawk) and his two live shows; Paperbacks from Hell and Summerland Lost. The former was a live performance that toured the horror paperback craze that started in the early ‘70s and faded in the early ‘90s, as extensively researched in his novel of the same name. The latter, Summerland Lost, was a 75-minute one-man show that centered on spirituality and the sordid history of the Fox sisters, three sisters from New York responsible for the creation of Spiritualism.
Hendrix dimmed all the lights of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel ballroom, a room frequently cited for paranormal activity, and interwove the Fox sisters’ history with tales of the ghost of Ben Franklin, Arctic explorers, and more all in the effort to answer the big question on whether there was such a thing as life after death. Sitting in the dark with a group of strangers as Hendrix relayed the tale with razor sharp wit and quick, but heartfelt cadence, he built toward a climax that left the audience literally in tears. Hendrix made a powerful case for the answer to that question, as well as a reminder that the world needs storytellers like this.
If none of these experiences appeal to you, Overlook also offered the world premiere of a brand-new BLACKOUT experience, the X-rated fear experience that originated in New York City by creators Kristjan Thor and Josh Randall. This experience, as with its New York City counterpart, was considered extreme and required participants to sign a waiver. Because it was brand new, press was not allowed to write about it to prevent any spoilers for future participants. A fantastic excuse, because I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to sign up.
Between the exploration of the historic haunted city of New Orleans, 23 feature films, two short film blocks, VR experiences, immersive games, and a plethora of live experiences for all tastes of horror, festival co-directors Landon Zakheim and Michael Lerman have essentially turned the Overlook Film Festival into a breathing, tangible horror film that fans should seek out.