Every festival has a certain ineffable something, a nearly unclassifiable personality that makes it unique. One of the most difficult realities of the COVID-19 era (apart from its obvious horrors) is that these personalities can get lost as festivals bring their programming to the digital space. For Salem Horror Fest, however, this was almost never going to be a problem. That’s because, in a very brief expanse of time, Salem Horror Fest has set itself apart as a truly unique showcase for film with an attitude, agenda, and style that’s singular in the festival scene. Founded by K Lynch in direct response to the 2016 election, Salem Horror Fest is unafraid to put its progressive politics forward and court controversy in a way that older festivals would never dare, and this has served it well: attracting programming and guests that the young festival’s contemporaries could only dream of. Not only that, but the location is pure magic. It’s gobsmacking that it took so long for someone to hit upon the bright idea to launch a horror fest in the “Witch City,” but thank whatever pagan gods you follow for Lynch, because it’s hard to imagine an event more suited to Salem’s unique flavor and sociological history.
Presenting its lineup in an on-demand digital format, Salem Horror Fest 2020 kicked off on October 2nd with an impressive selection of films, panels, reunions, and lectures. One of the film highlights was THRESHOLD, which tells the story of two siblings on a road trip to discover the source of a mysterious curse. Shot on two iPhones with a crew of three filmmakers, we found the film to be an impressive feat of ingenuity with a lot of heart, topped off with a “wonderfully bonkers” final act. We were similarly impressed by writer/director/editor/actor Josh Atkinson’s satanic-gentrification joint, DISPLACED (which had its World Premiere at the fest) but we’re more eager to see what he does next with a bigger budget. Nora Unkel’s A NIGHTMARE WAKES (another World Premiere) re-imagines Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein, in “an endlessly refreshing […] horror-infused biopic” that’s far superior to the 2017 film, Mary Shelley, which attempted to do the same.
On the live podcast/round table front, Salem Horror Fest founder and artistic director K Lynch was a wonderful surprise addition to Horror Queers with Joe Lipsett and Trace Thurman, while the We Hate Movies crew brought the yucks discussing an episode of the early ‘90s animated series, Tales from the Cryptkeeper. For those who enjoyed that episode, We Hate Movies returns next weekend to riff on the ridiculous 1986 possession film Witchboard which is sure to be a hilarious standout for the fest. Scored To Death: A Virtual Roundtable with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers, in which host J. Blake Fichera lead a discussion with Richard Band, Joseph Bishara, Holly Amber Church, Charlie Clouser, and Mister Friday the 13th himself, Harry Manfredini was one of the crown jewels of the fest’s first weekend; an Avengers-style meeting of horror’s greatest musical minds as most could only dream of.
Another essential program was A Round Table on Black Women’s Horror Aesthetics & Traditions, in which Lea Anderson sat down for a lengthy discussion with Ashlee Blackwell, Moon Ferguson, Dianca London Potts, and Dani Bethea to explore the representation of Black women in horror and their specific aesthetics and traditions within the genre. Using Dr. Robin R. Means Colman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890s to Present as a jumping-off point for a thoughtful and challenging discussion, this round table provided an expansive supplement to the 2019 Shudder documentary of the same name, and should be mandatory watching for every serious fright fan.
For many, of course, events like this are all about the reunions, and Salem Horror Fest delivered in spades. This first weekend alone, the fest hosted star-studded panels on Gremlins 2: The New Batch, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives. The Gremlins reunion was a must-see, considering that it’s part of the fest’s ongoing celebration of work of Joe Dante (even more goodies in that vein to come this upcoming weekend) and the Jason Lives reunion saw the largest assembled collection of cast and crew, but for our money, the best had to be the Dream Master panel, in which Ashlee Blackwell moderated a chat with star Lisa Wilcox and supporting players Toy Newkirk and Tuesday Knight. The three hardworking, multi-talented women gave a lot of fun tidbits about the film and the movie business, and also happen to be close friends, which made this female-centric event a bit like having coffee and catching up with your best pals.
We’ve barely scraped the surface of what Salem Horror Fest had to offer in its first weekend, and there will be so much more incredible content to come during its second. Passes are still available, and we hope to see you there! Virtually, of course.