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The first incarnation of any big event is bound to experience a few hiccups, but having recently returned from the inaugural Stanley Film Fest in Estes Park, Colorado, I feel confident in reporting that the biggest issue I encountered was slow service at the Sunday morning horror-themed brunch. It wouldn’t have been a problem, but these were Carrie pancakes I was waiting on complete with a bucket of red berry syrup! I ultimately had to leave before my food arrived, but the reason why was the same reason I was at the fest in the first place.

I was there to see movies.

This first year saw 24 feature films play, and while that may not sound like a lot, it was more than enough to fill up a single-weekend festival. I only managed to see eleven over the three days, and the titles available ranged from well-regarded horror films from years past, including All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Cabin Fever and even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari accompanied by live music to new releases like Maniac, Beneath and The Purge.

But this fest had another ace up its sleeve in addition to the films. Location, location, location!

stanley 2The Stanley Film Fest takes place in the old but beautiful (and possibly haunted) Stanley Hotel. It’s somewhat of a shrine for horror fans thanks to its place in genre history, secured when Stephen King found himself alone in one of the wings many years ago and was inspired to begin writing a little novel called The Shining. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation was filmed elsewhere (although Mick Garris’ mini-series was actually filmed here), but it remains filled with reminders of the King connection.

Props like the one to the right (complete with Jack Nicholson impersonator) can be found in and around the lobby, a Japanese movie poster for The Shining hangs in one of the bathrooms and the hotel’s restaurant serves a locally brewed (and damn tasty) Redrum Ale. Speaking of which, they also had some delicious Red Rum shots available, too, to help bring out the raging alcoholic in us all.

Kubrick’s film received a special outdoor screening one night, while hotel room TVs all had a channel playing the forwards/backwards version of The Shining (referenced in Room 237, which also played here) on a 24 hour loop.

While the man-made elements like the aforementioned props and the hotel itself are impressive not even they can compare to the natural beauty that surrounds it all. This was my first trip to Colorado, and Estes Park quickly made itself memorable thanks to a gorgeous backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Herds of elk wandered the hotel’s lawn and even meandered across busy roads as if it was no big deal. The altitude messed with me a little, but the headaches were an acceptable price to pay for such a view.

As mentioned already, this is a small film fest. And while that means fewer movies it also means smaller staff, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for them being any less effective. Between the actual staff (a couple organizers, a programming director, etc) and a small legion of happy, helpful volunteers this ended up being incredibly well-run and smooth for a first-time event. Kudos to all of them for making it so easy for the rest of us to simply enjoy the movies.

There’s no jury at the Stanley Film Fest, but there are Audience Awards to be won. My tastes rarely align with festival audiences, but happily my two equally favorite movies here (Maniac and Big Bad Wolves) actually won first and second place. Don’t tell tell the directors of the latter film this, as I don’t know how close the tally was, but I walked out of their movie chatting with them and completely forgot to hand in my vote.

Ryan Spindell’s The Root Of the Problem won best short, and the fest also played host to a competition featuring student shorts from the Art Institute of Colorado, Colorado Film School and University of Colorado. The winner, Peak of Terror, netted its director a cash prize and, impressively, a production deal to turn the short into a feature.

stanley 3The fest’s remaining big prize was its inaugural Visionary Award, given to actor, director, writer and producer Eli Roth for his contribution to independent horror cinema. The actual award was an engraved “Stanley Film Festival” axe, and Roth was visibly excited by its design, joking that he may have finally found something to replace the baseball bat over his mantle.

“The Stanley Film Festival is set in a beautiful and haunted hotel – it’s a must for any horror fan,” says Roth. “I’ve been traveling the world going to genre festivals since Cabin Fever and this was one of the most fun, creative and cool events I’ve ever been a part of. May it run long enough for me to haunt it.”

Regardless of your opinion of Roth’s films, it’s hard to argue against his inclusion here, as he not only jump-started his own unfortunately named subgenre in “torture-porn” but he also has made a habit of helping the younger and newer talents coming up behind him. He recalled his own excitement and awe at being invited to his first ‘Masters of Horror’ Dinner alongside big names like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, John Landis and others, and he’s genuinely interested in bringing the same opportunities to others.

Roth’s latest film, Aftershock (starring and co-written by him but directed by Nicolas Lopez), was actually one of the fest’s surprises, as it’s a far more entertaining movie than expected and even better than any of his self-directed movies, too. Yeah, I said it.

My reviews for the following films from the fest can be found here: 100 Bloody Acres, Aftershock, Beneath, Big Bad Wolves, Frankenstein’s Army, Maniac, The Purge, Sightseers and Wither.

The Stanley Film Fest is a small one by almost any comparison, but it’s already proven itself to be a fantastic one, too. I’ve already booked my trip back to Estes Park next year. Or, at least I will as soon as they announce the dates. And I hope to see some of you there too.


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