RECAP: NYC Horror Film Festival (11.14-11.17) - A Festival From the Ashes

When I began my four-day venture at the New York City Horror Film Festival, I assumed that my role would be to document and review the various films and shorts that premiered.

However, like any unique institution, as I sat in the backroom speaking to Sean Marks about a friend of his that died two years earlier, I quickly learned that there were bigger things going on around me. “Mike was a one-man army,” Marks said, seemingly holding back tears. He was one of several staff members that I spoke to throughout my time there, and through these people it became apparent that, after breaking through the festival’s outer shell, there was a story. The New York City Horror Film Festival is a self-sustaining watering hole, where directors, actors and actresses, producers, special effects artists, and general fans of the genre group together and celebrate the gory—and often humorous—nature of horror films. All the money earned throughout the four days is recycled into the following year, and has been sustained by the Hein family since 2002, when cinematic Renaissance man, Michael J. Hein, first started it.   I had no expectations when I entered Tribeca Cinemas on day one. However, as soon as I stepped through the doors I found myself in an unforgettable environment, characterized by a myriad of movie posters featuring demons, monsters, and scantily clad women, a full-service bar, and a crimson room where patrons and filmmakers alike joined together for cheers and conversation. There were plates of prosciutto served next to a decapitated pig's head—which I’m still unsure as to whether or not it was real. Folks by the hundreds all lined up to view the U.S. premier of Troma’s long-awaited film, Return to Nuke’em High Vol. 1, of which, Troma’s creator and horror movie icon Lloyd Kaufman, would be to receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. There were thirteen films and over twenty shorts that showed throughout the four days, none of which were bad in any way, and some of which were downright stellar. The best part about the festival was that it held no biases. There were filmmakers such as Joe Stauffer (Pieces of Talent) who spent his entire life savings just to make his film happen, and who did such a good job that he earned awards for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Screenplay, which aired alongside Eric England’s Contracted, which had more notable backings and higher funding. The one that stood out most to me was the film Found, which won the award for Best Feature. As summarized by the film’s director, Scott Schirmer, Found was about “a fifth grader whose older brother is a serial killer, and everything goes to hell in a hand basket,” but I feel that explanation still doesn’t give it proper justice. In reality, I walked out of Found feeling more impressed and moved than I have after having seen almost any higher-budgeted film from any given big-name studio. Despite being somewhat of a newbie to the horror genre, Found proved to me, with its childlike perspective on such a heavy and unadulterated subject, that horror movies can still rouse the viewer in more than a simple visceral way. But the festival’s egalitarian philosophy wasn’t formed out of niceness alone. According Jennifer Hein Inserra, sister of Michael, the conception of the festival was spawned from his own experience. After premiering his first film at a festival in L.A., Michael “...wasn’t greeted nicely, no one was hemming it hard over him. And when he got back to Jersey, he was left with this feeling that it wasn’t that big of a deal,” according to his sister. It was that lack of care that prompted Michael to start a festival of his own, one where all filmmakers would be treated with the same respect, regardless of merit. One where, even if your film was not selected to be in the festival, Michael would still do everything in his power to push it.   Producer and writer, James Morgart learned that first hand. After submitting his film Wan Ton Baby! in 2009, which didn’t make the cut, Michael allowed Morgart to set up a promo table. Michael also gave Morgart the chance to submit the film for non-competition the next year, and, according Morgart, “By screening here and also by him liking the film, and telling people about it, we had distributors knocking at our door.” Because of this, Morgart has continued his involvement in the festival, and is now one of the photographers. As any artist could probably attest, finding someone with connections to lend any sort of helping hand is a rare thing, and one should cherish it wholly if it ever happens. During my quartet of days at the festival, and after speaking to just about everyone in the staff, it seemed that Michael was one of those people. Which only adds to the tragic reality. Michael died in 2011. The Hein family has since taken the helm, but that certainly hasn’t been easy. “They’re doing a spectacular job. But they’re filling so many roles,” said Morgart. “They’re dividing up the labor…and then you realize that one person did all of that, it’s really amazing." “When Mike left us, that community that he had left was shattered,” Sean Marks commented, who admitted that even he was skeptical about coming back after Michael’s passing. “But we’re trying to rebuild that community now.” And rebuild it, they have. I couldn’t help but feel, even as a stranger coming in, that I wasn’t simply joining a community of like-minded individuals. I was joining a family. I spoke to Michael’s mother, Ronnie Hein, on the last day. “This week was amazing,” she said. “The crowd, the energy, and the excitement…the filmmakers were just in awe.” I could tell when I was speaking to her how hesitant she was to open up about the passing of her son, and understandably so. But, even with the help of her family, and Michael’s closest friends, they still managed to make it happen. “My son took me to school. And I did this for him, and because of him. I was successful because of Michael,” Ronnie added. An award was presented for only the second time in the festival’s decade-long history: The Michael J. Hein Award. Last year it was given to Rob Zombie. This year it was presented to director Stuart Gordon, who is responsible for Lovecraftian horror classics Re-animator and From Beyond. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Gordon, he was also the mind behind Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which he pointed out during his Q&A is actually a horror film because it has a mad scientist and monster insects. As Mr. Gordon stood atop the staircase answering questions and discussing his work to the crowd, he spoke a truth, which I was slowly discovering over the course of my time there. “I’m always sorry that I never got the chance to meet Michael,” he said. “But after meeting all of you guys, I feel like I have met him in a sense, because his spirit is here with us right now.”