As the rattling shuttle bus began to climb the slope of Mount Hood, up the winding, narrow fistulas of US Route 26, as seen in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, the snow escalated from a sparse little rumor to a dense, sky-blurring reality. To calm myself, I quietly hummed Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's opening title score for the film. It was the right note.
Then, at the top of the rise, in the lobby of the majestic Timberline Lodge—built in 1936–37 by the Works Progress Administration, according to a legend carved into a stone by the entrance—they were playing Roy Noble's rendition of "Midnight, the Stars and You," from The Shining's creepy final sequence, on a loop. An excellent touch. But this wasn't meant to be a Stanley Kubrick convention (though I would indeed be interested in attending such a gathering). I came here to get scared in the present tense.
The occasion was a horror film festival housed entirely at the Timberline, which Kubrick chose as the exterior for the accursed hotel in his 1980 masterpiece, hence the name: The Overlook Film Festival. Four days of not-yet-released horror films, immersive solo theater experiences (torture, dead naked bodies, and masturbation were themes), interactive games, virtual reality, live radio productions, and a tribute to the great Roger Corman, all in a remote setting synonymous with being ax-murdered by a psychotic writer who may also be a ghost.
You can keep your island getaway—this is my kind of vacation.
I'm not much of a horror freak, but when I read about Overlook, I jumped directly into a theory that a film festival consisting exclusively of dread, shock, violence, despair, and brutality would be far more likely to reflect the world we actually live in now than a more conventional festival.
The first film I saw confirmed my suspicions.
Set in a no-laws prison camp on the other side of a wall built between Texas and Mexico, The Bad Batch is one of the most astonishingly fucked-up, dark, brilliant, cynical, and secretly optimistic films I have ever laid eyes on. Director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) has made a story about humankind at the point of either evolution or extinction—in a way, almost every movie is about survival, but this one is about survival on a species level, about the biological necessity of empathy, and also about human beings eating each other because there's simply no other food. There's Mad Max in there for sure, and maybe a dash of Battle Royale, but the moral imagination of The Bad Batch is both singular and new. Even though the film is massively difficult to watch at times, it also felt important.
Also important: the moral of the brutal, grueling, masterfully crafted Australian nightmare Killing Ground—never go camping. I, of course, already know that. But I'm always grateful for a reminder.
I also saw some lousy films, most notably M.F.A., a rape revenge story that undermines its moral authority by finding a way to make every frame an opportunity to feel up its lead actress (Francesca Eastwood, daughter of Clint). And the live radio production "Tales from Beyond the Pale" may have suffered from the fact that it's hard to be eerie in a roomful of people.
(Also, though I love Roger Corman, and it was super cool to be in his presence for a few minutes, he does tend to recycle his anecdotes. It was neat to see X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes on a big screen, too, though I wouldn't say it improved the film. Then again, I'm a Bucket of Blood person.)
On the whole, the inaugural Overlook Film Festival shared a characteristic common to many horror films: It was a great time, but slightly better in theory than in reality. From the outside, the Timberline still looks like a haunted mansion where the elevators gush blood. But inside, it's a wintry resort lodge where the last skiers and snowboarders of the season uncomfortably rubbed shoulders with a flock of beardy horror nerds (not an epithet; if anything, "skiers" is an epithet). Also, it turns out that conference rooms don't make for great movie theaters.
But these are petty complaints in the face of the much larger pleasure of the concept, and the place, and the fact that getting utterly terrified by art for several hours at a time is cathartic, yielding a kind of euphoria at the end. Though that might also have been due to the altitude.
Best of all: There was almost no cell-phone reception at the lodge. For three sweet days, I had limited access to all the real horror right there on the phone in my pocket.
After a while, I almost forgot to look.