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How ‘The Purge,’ Opening the Stanley Film Festival, Reminds Us Why We Love Horror Movies

How 'The Purge,' Opening the Stanley Film Festival, Reminds Us Why We Love Horror Movies

The Stanley Hotel might not harbor ghosts in the traditional sense, but the empty hallways and surrounding desolation of this remote chunk of wooden real estate adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado suggest the sort of phantom presence that active imaginations tend to create. That’s exactly what Stephen King did when, decades ago, he stayed at the Stanley and felt spooked enough to write “The Shining.” Now horror fans are getting the chance to pay back the favor by relishing the genre’s appeal with the first edition of the Stanley Film Festival, a horror festival that kicked off last night.

Shortly before a screening of opening night film “The Purge,” a rough but crowd-pleasing near-future thriller produced by Universal Pictures, director of programming Landon Zakheim stood before a packed audience and embraced the concept behind the event. “Welcome, everyone, to our haunted hotel,” he said.

Alongside festival director Jenny Bloom and fellow programmer Michael Lerman, Zakheim hinted to a mixture of eager locals and out of towners staying in the hotel that the possibilities for the festival were still wide open. “This is the start of something that’s gonna grow,” he said, and indeed, the potential lurks around every spooky corner. As guests meandered into the lavish Concert Hall for the first screening, a disturbingly spot-on Jack Nicholson impersonator held court at the balcony, watching the spectacle unfold behind a pair of dark shades.

Elsewhere, guests could find Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation “The Shining” playing backwards and forwards simultaneously on channel 43 of the hotel’s televisions — in acknowledgement of a cult experience on par with “The Dark Side of the Rainbow” — which “Shining” conspiracy theorists discuss in detail during the recent documentary “Room 237,” naturally screening in the Stanley’s program this weekend. Earlier in the afternoon, word spread that channel 44 might have something special to offer viewers around 3 a.m., when this bleary-eyed writer turned on the tube to discover a broadcast of the 1979 cult sensation “The Visitor,” an unsettling and cryptic Italian-produced curio about ominous alien invaders with a cast that includes John Huston and Shelley Winters. Wonderfully odd, fascinating examples of the genre actually lurked in the hotel’s airwaves.

In contrast to these offerings, “The Purge” couldn’t compete. “Paranormal Activity” creator Jason Blum continues his crusade of producing low budget horror with commercial prospects by singling out an original idea from writer-director James DeMonaco that might have sufficiently fueled a short story. At feature-length, it suffers. Set in 2022, DeMonaco’s undeniably appealing premise involves an America in which crime has been thoroughly eliminated from society aside from one 12-hour period each year, when murder is temporarily legal.

The expected themes of primal urges versus social control emerge early on and hover over the material like a demented civics class, but the movie doesn’t go out of its way to match the smart ideas with an equal depth of execution. Ethan Hawke plays the conflicted man of the house in a family that attempts to embrace the idea of the Purge, settling in for the night in their fancy home. But once their adolescent son — inexplicably a softie in spite of supposedly growing up with this tradition each year — opens the door to a wandering homeless man and attracts hordes of eager killers in the process, the family’s security promptly vanishes.

While a giddy, one-note Charles Manson wannabe (Rhys Wakefield) hovers at the door and asks for the affluent family to release his target, Hawke frantically searches the dimly lit home in search of their invader (Edwin Hodge); meanwhile, his gun-toting wife (Lena Headey) and their two kids slowly take charge of the situation.

Having established this conundrum, “The Purge” stumbles repeatedly without any firm direction. The bad guys make their way into the house, where ample gunfire and ax fights abound. More than once, a character seemingly about to make a kill is predictably shot from behind. Leaden performances and outright silly dialogue prevent the ideas from progressing beyond their initial ramifications. Though its finale is admirably downbeat, “The Purge” ultimately feels like a two-bit grindhouse movie in studio clothing.

And yet the audience at the Stanley found enough compelling and frightening ingredients in “The Purge” to cheer at certain violent moments of payback and then dig into its weighty themes during a post-screening discussion with the filmmaker. DeMonaco said he was inspired in part by class and race problems illuminated by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, a point illustrated by the movie’s inclusion of a black man fleeing from preppy white murderers eager to eliminate him from their hierarchy. “The Purge” reaches hard for a fierce indictment of American aristocracy and suffers from transparency, but it nevertheless engendered a heavy Q&A session.

Questions included one regarding “morality versus civic duty,” which the director pointed out “aren’t the same thing,” and concluded “we should question all that.” The mentality was as inelegantly stated as it is in the movie, but simultaneously illustrated the unique capacity of the horror genre to deliver a shocking form of entertainment elevated by social commentary. That tendency, arguably formalized over 40 years ago with “Night of the Living Dead,” remains intact and livelier than ever among recent examples of the genre.

Still, there was better filmmaking on display in Jonathan Levine’s “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” the underseen debut feature of “50/50” and “Warm Bodies” director Jonathan Levine, which screened later in the evening. Levine’s 2006 movie follows a group of teens hanging out a remote house over the course of a violent weekend in which a stranger starts to kill off the horny kids one by one. Like “The Purge,” the movie develops into an unlikely survival story, but also smartly uses its excessive sex and violence to develop a wry take on the rough edges of teen communication. Plucked up for a July release by The Weinstein Company’s Radius-TWC label, “Mandy Lane” illustrates the effectiveness of movies that can make their dreadful scenarios thoroughly believable. “The Purge” may have scared and excited its audience in the moment, but “Mandy Lane” sticks with you.

Of course, opinions vary on both movies, and attendees of the festival had plenty of time to discuss them at the opening night party. While a festive jazz band played at the front of a dimly lit room, the Nicholson impersonator wandered the crowd with a Dolly Parton lookalike on his arm. Guests posed for photos behind a cardboard door with a jagged hole at its center akin to the iconic image of Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” moment from “The Shining.” The evening was more fun than scary, but nevertheless felt like an apt celebration of why we love to scare ourselves.

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