By Jeffrey V. Smith
Get ready to be scared. The Stanley Film Festival returns, April 30-May 3, for its third year to showcase the best in classic and contemporary horror cinema while deeply immersing participants into a fictional world that “amplifies the experience beyond the terrors shown on screen.” There is nothing to truly fear, however, as it’s all in the name of fun.
The event, operated by the Denver Film Society, is modeled to be a complete “horror summit” rather than just another film festival. It brings industry insiders, emerging and established filmmakers, press, actors, artists and enthusiasts together to celebrate the horror film genre, network, show off their crafts and participate in a wide range of live shows, installations, industry panels, competitions and more in a spooky, yet elegant location.
Set at the notoriously haunted and historic Stanley Hotel—inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining—the four-day Stanley Film Festival was founded in 2013 by the hotel’s owner to celebrate the property’s iconic Hollywood heritage. Denver Film Society, known for its Starz Denver Film Festival and Film on the Rocks series, assisted in getting the event off the ground the first year, and took over full production of the event in 2014.
“I think we’ve hit a nice groove where we’ve been able to—since the first festival— be a showcase for the best contemporary and classic horror films,” Festival Programming Director Landon Zakheim said. “We’ve been able to get a lot of really exciting films from big festivals around the world. That’s something were really excited about, however, we did open up submissions for the very first time.”
The first two years, the festival was entirely curated, but this year, organizers opened the event to independent submissions. “I’m really excited about the possibility that along the established, great horror films, we may also have some discoveries this year,” Zakheim said. “We may have some new little gems that will pop up along side the big guns of the horror scene.”
Accepting submissions actually makes the proses of programming the event a little simpler. “In many ways it’s actually easier, because now you have more work coming to you rather than you having to solicit every single piece,” Zakheim said. “Especially as the festival is growing, as people are stating to find out who we are and want to be involved with it. We don’t want to be a closed off event, so as the festival grows and its name gets out there, we want to make sure people have a way of getting work to us quickly and easily if they want to be considered.”
According to Zakheim, event organizers are also “pushing far deeper into the immersive aspects of the festival, trying to create what we like to call a horror summer camp or horror retreat. We started adding a lot of interactive events and more tactile kind of events to the festival to enhance the community experience, but also to explore the other artistic aspects of horror. Eventually, as the festival grows, we’d like to encompass all things horror in any artistic medium, with film always being the bedrock. We’re starting to strive toward that, we have some really cool things coming.”
Returning this year is the immersive horror game, which has become much more involved. “Last year was sort of a beta test for where we’re going with it,” Zakheim said. It’s a game where you can opt in at any time for a fuller experience, or you can play more causally at your discretion. “Your basically the protagonist of your kind of horror story throughout the entire festival. By the time you have arrived at the festival, whenever that is, the game has already begun. Your level of participation is entirely up to you. You’ll spend the weekend getting more involved in the story solving puzzles, learning revelations, interacting with game pieces and characters.”
Live radio plays staged at the Historic Park Theater were some of the more popular events during last year’s event and will be making a return this year. Indie horror icon and Glass Eye Pix founder Larry Fessendon and Dublin born writer-director Glenn McQuaid are writing an original piece for the festival that includes a live a score, live sound effects and performers who are all actors in films at the festival. “That embodies the entire community aspect for the festival in one single event,” Zakheim said.
The film festival will also feature another free family screening on Sunday. This year, the 1935 version of the Bride of Frankenstein will be featured according to Denver Film Society’s Marketing and Communications Manager JoAnna Cintron. “We’re also going to do a photo booth in partnership with the 13th Floor Haunted House, which has been voted the scariest haunted house in Colorado, and the nation,” she said.
Fangoria and Shock Till You Drop’s Dead Right Horror Trivia Night is coming back to the Wheel Bar as well. “It seems like it had a big local draw [last year] because it was free,” Cintron said. “It’s good for people who are curious about the festival and what to experience the side-show aspect of the event, but not necessarily buy a pass. Then, if that captures their attention, there is a full weekend of programming for them to check out.”
The festival is also continuing its retro programing. “This year we’re going to be continuing our anniversary tract, so we’re going to be celebrating some cool anniversaries of some pretty groundbreaking horror films,” Zakheim said. “We’ve gotten our hands on some fresh prints and restorations so we’re going to have some really clean, cool versions of these iconic movies. This year, in particular, there is so much to choose from. It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches of how many great films have an anniversary of some kind in the horror genre. Our team is having some very fun arguments about it, but the four final are going to be really something.”
For anyone who stays overnight at the Stanley Hotel during the event, their in-room channels are utilized to do even more special programming in secret.
Part of the success of the Stanley Film Festival has come from its relationship with the industry itself. “We’ve had a great relationship with a lot of the genre indie sales agents, distributors and filmmakers since the beginning. That’s why we were able to get a lot of key films and guests that first year when the festival was conceived only four or five months before the first one went up. We had to rely on a lot of help from key genre industry people very early on. Luckily, because of the concept of the festival and the people involved, we were embraced very quickly as being something that sounded exciting.”
The idea of simply adding another film festival to the circuit wouldn’t have been enough to get the Stanley Film Festival off the ground. “Unless we knew this was going to be different, it wouldn’t be of interest to a lot of these people. Myself included,” Zakheim said. “I don’t necessary think we need another film festival, but this one is not the usual, regular film festival. We have a chance to create a larger experience. We have a great venue. We can do something very site specific and immersive and create community and a destination. I think that’s the aspect of that the unique idea behind it is what has attracted a lot of the horror industry and horror press to the festival. I think it’s because we’ve established a credibility and a good experience. People can smell something that is not legitimate, or that’s trying to exploit them rather than cater to them. I believe we’ve done a good job so far of establishing a credibility and actual good time that people can get excited about. That’s the goal anyway.”
Side Show Experiences & Immersive Events
The Stanley Film Festival takes place, April 30-May 3, at The Stanley Hotel, 333 E Wonderview Ave.; Reel Mountain Theater, 543 Big Thompson Ave.; and the Historic Park Theater, 130 Moraine Ave. in Estes Park. Call 303-595-3456×240 or visit www.stanleyfilmfest.com for more information and ticket sales.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly