It started with a simple suggestion. It ended with local success. The in-between was filled with phone calls, emails, deadlines, invites, drinks, smiles, wincing, handshakes, blood (mostly fake), sweat, and possibly some tears (of joy). Thursday, January 26, 2017 marked the first annual Dead of Winter Film Festival. Most of you have never heard of this. It’s not Sundance or SXSW, but ended up being much more than anyone had anticipated.
On your typical chilly January night in Chicago, a crowd of people assembled to celebrate their hard work in independent film making and artistry. Everything about the night screamed Chicago from the up-and-coming Den Theater in the Wicker Park neighborhood to the shots of Malort being passed around at the after-party. For those of you out-of-towners, Malort is a Chicago staple liqueur that was described that night as “a burnt condom full of gasoline.”
For anyone that has ever spent time on a film set, the theater itself represented everything about it. It was hot and stuffy. I’m almost certain there was no ventilation whatsoever. But there were also no empty seats either. I estimated about 100 spots in the theater and every seat was taken, establishing a sauna of creativity. Friends, family, crew, actors, genre fans, and even local randoms were there to witness the hard work of many. One of the things that stood out was seeing all the names overlapping in the credits of the films. Chicago and the Midwest in general is void of any horror film festivals, so what filmmakers Daniel DelPurgatorio, John Pata, and Anthony R. Williams were able to put together was pretty special. They showcased the passion and hours of labor that this family of independent artists poured out of themselves. They proved to be a three-headed beast fronting their very own festival. A strong network has been building over time and I hope that it leads to bigger and better things from everyone involved.
The festival kicked off with Daniel DelPurgatorio’s Body(s). This was an interesting flick with twists and turns that left me guessing at the end. It follows a man suffering from some sort of psychological disorder who undergoes an experimental lobotomy to cure himself. However, the treatments have some adverse effects which may be worse than the disorder itself. The film displayed a drab and simple aesthetic, but the actors really brought it to life with their unhinged performances. This was a good introduction into DelPurgatorio’s directing style and really cemented him as an auteur of the genre.
Next up on the schedule was a movie called Service by Jerry Pyle. This one centered around a mother who is trying to make ends meet by acting as an “exotic” housekeeper. Unfortunately, she has to bring her daughter along and puts her in a bedroom to keep her busy while mommy makes that dough. Little did she know there was already an unwanted *** guest lurking in the house, other than the owner. I really liked the performance of the main actress in this. I don’t think I could ever fight for survival in a G-string and high heels. I also thought the camerawork was great and the director did a solid job of building tension from start to finish. However, this one was a tough one to swallow for me. In the climate of extreme political correctness we live in, this one demonizes the mentally ill. I know this is a genre where being offensive is the name of the game, but I felt this was the “easy way out” to explain the killer’s sadistic behavior. I’m sure that wasn’t the intention of the film, but I guess I’m a “snowflake.”
Next on the bill was The Dark Hunger by filmmaker Anthony Williams (the man responsible for most of the Malort consumption that evening). In this film, a man is locked away in some sort of cell and is forced to perform some tasks that satisfy his “hunger” from within. This was a fun, dark thriller with horror elements. In character it was like Hannibal Lecter and John Wick had a love child. I could definitely see this concept being pitched as a feature length film, and should be, in my opinion. It’s a good slice of what the feature could be. The story is timed well with small reveals as you go. Overall, it’s like a close-up shot that slowly zooms out until the big picture is revealed. The main actor really takes on a physically demanding role and pulls it off brilliantly, despite his rather frumpy stature. The editing for action sequences was spot on and set the pace for the climactic showdown. Who knows? Maybe Malort is the secret to filmmaking…
Batting clean-up on the night, was Joe Zerull’s Redhead. This one is battling for the top spot as my personal favorite of the night. A man is hired to dispose of a body and cuts off the head, but can’t seem to complete the task. After encountering problem after problem, his business associate takes over and eventually is met with quite a surprise of his own. I’d like to start out by saying the cinematography stands out the most. The entire movie is shot from the angle of the severed head. It put the audience in the mind of the victim and makes you feel like you’re the one being disposed. It was a great blend of moving and static shots that encompassed everything we needed to see. I thought the movie had a great Tales From the Crypt-like twist at the end that no one sees coming. It definitely caught me by surprise. I would really like to see this as part of an anthology.
Following Redhead, we were graced with the presence of the Susurrus in Anthony Cousins’s When Susurrus Stirs. In case you were wondering what the hell a Susurrus is, don’t worry none of us knew either. But I think you’ll be shocked and pleased when you see it in its final form. The story is about a man who encounters a new form of life that grows from within him. He must keep eating and aid in its growth to full maturity. The climax commences in a true outbreak scenario, leaving us all hanging as to where it ‘ll go from there. I have to say this movie won best effects of the night for me. The hours of dedication put into making this creature feature work was truly appreciated by myself and audience members alike. The practical FX were a throwback to the 80’s slime and gore era. Even the voice of the Susurrus in the main character’s head was creepy as hell. This is a short film I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a good gross-out.
At this point in the night, there was a short intermission to allow people to get some fresh air and refill their libations by the friendly staff over at the Den Theater. Coming back from the break, the first film was a music video for the band Child Bite for their song Vermin Mentality. This video was directed by Ryan Oliver and actually served as a neat extended intermission and breather from the serious films. The only way I could describe this film is Food of the Metal Gods. There is a freak accident when some lab rats are given bad doses of experimental drugs and transform them into giant murderous vermin. A group of four friends (Child Bite) happen to come across the rodents in their minivan and must fight for their lives. The miniature sets were intricate and detailed and blended well with the real camerawork inside the van. The continuity is the key factor of this short and the precise editing helped suspend disbelief. Also, there are a couple of fun cameos in this from indie actress Sarah French, and genre legend Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Devil’s Rejects) himself.
After the intermission and musical break, we come back to reality with Pity by one of the creators of Dead of Winter, John Pata. This film is about one man obsessed with his former girlfriend who recently broke it off. He’s having a little trouble letting go and moving on. He decides to sit outside of her house and watch her from his car while deciding what his next move will be. Through an excessive amount of internal monologue and exposition, we find out his obsession goes way deeper than we thought. The flashes of practical effects shock the system and Pata does a great job of building tension to the end while accomplishing a very gritty aesthetic. Unfortunately, it ends just as the action is about to begin and we are left completing the rest with our imaginations. I think this film would be great extended as a feature and I’d love to see the story in its full spectrum.
Moving along, we come to Gags by Adam Krause. If you have a phobia of clowns, you should leave the room. This one is like IT meets The Blair Witch Project. Gags seemingly cashes in on last year’s craze where a rash of creepy clowns were seen all over the country at night standing around being uh…creepy. Coincidentally, Gags is what started it all in what proves to be one of the most effective publicity stunts of recent indie cinema. The story itself centers around three friends on a night out, encountering Gags in the flesh! One of the friends wants a closer look and it proves to be a grave mistake. Gags was shot in the found footage style. In the vast pool of such films, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It played out like one long Snapchat story gone horribly wrong. They used natural lighting really well to help create an eerie, desolate mood. The thick Wisconsin accents and excessive swearing actually becomes a bit of a distraction from what’s a pretty clever story. The clown was really terrifying and I would put him in the same class as Pennywise. If there’s one thing this film accomplished, it’s making you glance over your shoulder the next time you’re walking to your car alone at night.
Making you afraid of taking a bath, director Tony Wash showcased The Muck next. This one takes us back a couple of decades to the 80’s in all it’s synth rock glory. We start out with a young, attractive woman getting home from an aerobics class. Upon realizing she has the house to herself after receiving a message from her husband that he won’t be home for a while, she decides to relax with a cigarette and a nice, hot bath. Strong direction and crafty camerawork bring this piece to life for the audience. The actual “muck” is a great practical effect. At first it begins to look like a gloopy mess of a hand puppet, but suddenly becomes it’s own entity as it latches onto the poor victim’s face. It looks like Swamp Thing and The Blob had an abortion that survived and ran rampant in the sewage system. Look for The Muck on our very own Bloody Disgusting web series, World of Death.
Our second to last featurette of the night came from filmmaker Jill Gevargizian. In The Stylist, Claire is a hairstylist waiting for her last client of the day to come in for a new do. Little does her client know that’ll be the last haircut she ever gets. Claire has a dirty little secret from her broken past. Probably the best acting performance of the night goes to Claire herself, portrayed by actress Najarra Townsend. She conveyed her character’s duality of existence beautifully. She was able to fool everyone as a normal girl with a typical day job while being a tortured soul in her own private space. The depth of emotion that Najarra displays in her facial expressions are impressionable and profound. To top it off, the scalping scene was cringe-worthy and hard to watch. There was something classy about it, with the lack of blood and simplicity of the skull underneath. It was realistic and not excessive. If you need any more validation for this movie, it was chosen to stream on AMC’s Shudder app back in December. Check it out!
Book-ending the night of shorts, we have one of DelPurgatorio’s other films called… Other. The progression from his first film of the night is definitely noticeable. Like Body(s), this one was also written by Anthony Williams of The Dark Hunger. They seem to make a dynamic team in filmmaking and support each other well. This movie is about a scientist/doctor who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and has built his own extraction contraption that seems to have some rather questionable effects. He keeps entering the machine, taking more and more of the cancer out of him, all the while killing himself bit by bit. This film had my favorite production design of the night. It was like a mad scientist’s laboratory with intricate and complex gadgets. It had a monotone, warm color scheme that gave it life. There is excellent depth of field and use of the foreground. As I stated above, DelPurgatorio has cemented himself as an auteur and certainly deploys his own style and injects his own aesthetic into his films. The makeup and effects were realistic and the score was haunting. The editing was precise and the actor’s pain was displayed in his face the whole time. Each element of filmmaking were banging on all cylinders in this one and was a fitting end to a successful night.
After the show, the party moved down the street to Emporium, a popular bar/arcade/live music venue in the area. Everyone mingled and shared set stories and current/upcoming projects and that’s when it all came together. This camaraderie goes beyond the horror genre and should represent all of the film industry. Everyone is there to lift each other up and give the Midwest a chance to pat themselves on the back without having to spend tons of money and travel to crowded cities for larger festivals. On my way out, I ran across the street to Cheesies because gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches are drunk food for the soul and provide the calories necessary to sleep easy. There was a group from the festival already in the dining room with the same idea. I had only met them briefly during the night and while I was waiting, they asked me if I wanted to sit with them. I politely declined because I was ready to pass out with a grilled cheese on my chest, but I definitely felt welcome and a part of the group. That kind of acceptance and the quality of films are the attributes that will help Dead of Winter gain success in the future. I know the next time around, the Dead of Winter will rise from the dead and claim more victims.
Watch the trailer for the event here courtesy of editor B.A. Lewandowski: