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Sundance For Horror Films Only: The Stanley Film Festival Looks to the Future

Sundance For Horror Films Only: The Stanley Film Festival Looks to the Future

Horror film festivals are hardly a new concept, but in its first year the Stanley Film Festival has hit on something new: a horror film festival in a haunted hotel. On paper, the idea holds immediate appeal: The hotel, a beautiful architectural achievement located amid the natural splendor of Estes Park, Colorado and built in 1909, embraces the rumors that late residents haunt its hallways. Legend has it that Stephen King had a nightmare in room 217 that inspired him to write “The Shining.”

Appropriately, visitors can buy a room 217 keychain in the gift shop and tour the hotel in search of ghosts. And now, once a year, they can watch movies, too — including, of course, “The Shining,” which screened one night outdoors on the hotel’s expansive lawn. But is Stanley’s horror festival merely one more quirky addition to a spooky tourist attraction or does it hold potential as a legitimate addition to the film festival world? Its founders make a compelling case for the latter possibility.

According to Colorado Film Commissioner Donald Zuckman, the idea for the festival was first brought to him by John Cullen, the founder of the Grand Heritage Hotel Group that owns the Stanley. During a visit to the hotel for a private film screening, Zuckman found himself pulled into a prolonged discussion with the owner about his master plan. “He said, ‘I want to start a film festival and it to be the biggest horror film festival in the world. What do you think?'” Zuckman recalled. “He said, ‘Look: There’s no reason why we can’t make this into the Sundance of horror.’ He thinks big.”

For Zuckman, the possibility of another high profile film event met his own agenda of promoting the Colorado film scene. “It struck me as a great promotional tool,” he said, pointing that the hotel accounts for roughly 31% of the business in Estes Park, hosts up to three weddings a day and attracts some 100,000 paid admissions to its legendary ghost tour. The prospects of uniting a group of established and emerging horror filmmakers and fans for an intimate weekend of screenings and events holds unique appeal. “Sundance, Toronto — these are all great festivals, but you don’t have the camaraderie factor,” Zuckman said. “Here, you have a whole bunch of people in one place.”

While it has plenty of room to grow, the Stanley Film Festival certainly nailed the intimate vibe. “We tried to design it as an adult sleepaway camp,” festival director Jenny Bloom said. Guests milled about the hotel over the long weekend talking shop and discussing genre in between events that included a panel on the secrets of “The Shining” with former Stanley Kubrick assistant Leon Vitali, a whiskey tasting and an awards brunch that featured breakfast burritos served with plastic axes and the word “REDRUM” scrawled along them in sour cream.

The festival honored indie horror maven Eli Roth, who produced and starred in the twisted disaster movie “Aftershock” that closed the festival. After receiving a shiny silver axe as his prize, Roth roamed the hotel after hours on a ghost tour led by the Stanley’s resident haunting expert, a peculiar but apparently serious-minded woman named Scary Mary. She also led some two dozen filmmakers and other guests on a basement trip the night before — in which this writer was accused of stealing candy from dead children, and the entire group was ordered to sing “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” while packed into a pitch black room in order to coax out the hotel’s shyest ghost — named Lucy, of course.

Such gimmicks, of course, would hold little value without a compelling lineup of films to complete the experience. The festival had that element down as well. Director of programming Landon Zackheim, a Sundance programmer, assembled a selection that included both hits from the genre world that have played the circuit over the past year, such as Ben Wheatley’s Cannes-acclaimed “Sightseers,” the Elijah Wood-starring remake of “Maniac” and “VHS2” alongside newer entries like the dark Israeli police drama “Big Bad Wolves,” Larry Fessenden’s “Beneath” and the Mexican family possession thriller “Here Comes the Devil.” The international dimension of the program begs comparison to current prominent festivals that focus on horror programming — most notably Toronto’s Midnight Madness section, Austin’s Fantastic Fest and the Sitges Film Festival in Spain. With all those festivals positioned toward the end of the year, the timing for the Stanley Film Festival may help it fit into the current horror circuit over time.

Even so, it’s quite the crowded marketplace. For the time being, the only genuine “Sundance of horror festivals” is probably Sundance itself, which has a respectable midnight section of its own. Before the Stanley Film Festival gains national prominence, its founders may have to settle for simply building word of mouth about the distinct atmosphere it offers up. The infrastructure is already there to keep things running smoothly. Bloom pointed out that even as only about two dozen festival staffers worked for the festival during the actual event, they were able to rely on hotel staff for additional help. “Because they have this huge kitchen staff, they’re undaunted by the fact that there might be a couple hundred people to feed,” she said. Additionally, the Chiller network helped out as a sponsor.

Though it ran smoothly and hinted at future possibilities, the Stanley Film Festival is a long way off from becoming a cash cow. “Clearly, this is costing money this time,” Zuckman said. “My guess is that it will cost money next time. It might always cost money. But what if, in five years, this is the most important festival of its kind in North America?” 

Lucy the ghost had better get used to the company.

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