Christina Brennan


New frights at the first virtual Salem Horror Festival

Despite the pandemic, this year’s event showcased an impressive variety of emerging genre talent.

Horror is a genre which is continually reinventing itself. From the alien invaders of the 1950s to the slashers of the 1970s and supernatural horrors of the early 2000s, each time the monsters of one decade become over-familiar and clichéd, new ones are born to shock audiences. While the global film industry has seen unprecedented disruption this year due to COVID-19, no genre has adapted to these circumstances better than horror.

Established directors have released low-budget shorts about nocturnal intruders and being home alone – Rob Savage’s found footage horror, Host, shot entirely on Zoom, became an overnight hit on the streaming platform Shudder. Yet necessary creativity under lockdown is not limited to the cinema screen. Amid a summer film season devoid of packed blockbusters, savvy festival organisers are ensuring that chilling treats can still be delivered to horror fans.

Salem Horror Festival is a case in point. Hosted every October in the historic American city known for its infamous witch trials, this year’s festival offered a unique virtual experience, showcasing top-tier independent talent alongside panels and director Q&As which reflected on new directions in contemporary horror.

Events were available through three access pass levels. As one of the few virtual festivals without a national geo-lock, all films were available for international audiences. Alongside new releases, Salem’s audiences relished the devilish cocktail of classic monster films, including The Howling, and nostalgic podcasts revisiting iconic ’80s horror (The Purple Stuff Podcast on Gremlins).

Meanwhile, Salem’s main slate showed what can be achieved with limited resources. Those who prefer slow-burn psychological terror will relish Bleed With Me, which offers a novel take on the vampire movie. Another highlight was Threshold, a pandemic-era film shot on two iPhones which follows two estranged siblings on a road trip across the US, offering viewers a window into contemporary perceptions of mental illness.

This year’s event also highlighted how contemporary horror isn’t afraid to delve deep into psychological fear. Federico Gianotti’s Leni was another stand-out, weaving the realities of domestic abuse into a frightening story of suppressed trauma. Among other independent horrors, Josh Atkinson’s Displaced, filled with allusions to Rosemary’s Baby, follows an African-American man who upon moving into a white, gentrified neighbourhood discovers the residents to be emissaries of the devil.

In the best of horror traditions, Salem Horror Festival spotlights low-budget works as well as first-time directors. The result is an astonishing diversity of films which skewer the paranoia and injustice of modern America, showing that independent filmmakers are taking horror aesthetics in new directions, rather than merely paying homage to genre touchstones of old.

Published 28 Oct 2020

Tags: Salem Horror Festival

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