Like so many of its famous monsters and murderers, you just can’t kill the horror genre – in fact, it only seems to get stronger, with 2017 marking a banner year for chilling cinema.
"It" outgrossed the star-studded likes of "Justice League" and "The Fate of the Furious" domestically, while "Get Out" not only ranked as one of the greatest financial successes of the year but as one of the greatest movies, period, even winning an Oscar for best original screenplay. Even "Split" and "Annabelle: Creation" quietly overperformed both with critics and audiences. And horror’s rise hasn’t stopped in the new year, with "A Quiet Place" becoming an instant smash across all metrics.
"There’s something about being scared," said horror movie fan Stephen Milek. "Even if it scares you or it’s disturbing, it stays with you. It’s not like something where you say, ‘Oh, that was good,’ and you move on."
At the same time, the Milwaukee film scene has also seen a rise over the last several years. Milwaukee Film will soon run a theater – while also running a festival that’s been moved to late October, a much more prime space on the film schedule for big festival releases – and Oscar-winner John Ridley has given the local industry a jolt with the creation of No Studios.
So the timing seemingly couldn’t be better for a horror movie festival in Milwaukee – like, say, the Twisted Dreams Film Festival, screaming its way to the big screen this weekend, April 13-15, at the Times Cinema in Wauwatosa.
The festival grew from small beginnings, just a simple friendship between festival co-directors Milek and Christopher House – though fittingly late at night in the middle of a graveyard. Well, a graveyard shift, at least.
"I was a pharmacist at Walgreen’s, and Chris was an assistant manager, and we worked third shift," Milek recalled. "We were there in the middle of the night, so if it was a slow night, we’d start talking and realized we both liked the same kinds of movies: really bizarre movies and movies off the beaten path. Kind of like a ‘Clerks’ thing, but in a pharmacy."
The two would continue to bond over horror flicks (Milek’s favorites include "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "The Exorcist," while House calls "Creepshow" a perfect horror movie) and local film events until they realized there was a horror-shaped hole in the Milwaukee film scene. So Milek and House went to work like mad scientists, creating a horrific monster of a movie marathon in 2016.
Now, in its third year, like any good slasher villain, it’s still alive – and growing. For one, the festival moved this year from the Underground Collaborative to three days at the Times Cinema. ("The Times came to us, so that’s what was the most surprising," said House.) Beyond typical feature-length frights and scary shorts collections, the Twisted Dreams Film Festival’s programming has expanded beyond the big screen, with events like the first ever Spook Show, combing bizarre short movies with live performances. And for this year, they even got Lloyd Kaufman, a god of cinematic guts and gross-out, to help judge the 2018 selections.
"One of our friends worked for Troma – he was an editor – so he knew Lloyd, met him a few times," Milek said. "So we said, ‘Hey, can you put us in touch with him?’ And he’s like sure, and Lloyd said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ Like, alright! We just asked him and he said OK – awesome!"
Then, of course, there are the movie selections themselves, which range from more familiar frights – babysitters menaced by ghouls, masked killers and slumber parties gone severely wrong – to the likes of "Bong of the Living Dead" (both exactly like it sounds and better) and "Cuddle Sticks," which House warns, "You’ll never look at tampons the same way again." That’s a part of one of the Twisted Dreams Film Festival’s many shorts programs – including one entirely comprised of female directors and one from all Wisconsin creators.
"That’s always one of our highlights," Milek said. "It’s always good to see local filmmakers get together and hopefully spark some collaboration and see where that takes them in the future."
The Wisconsin shorts is how the festival begins Friday night, as well with a late night screening of "Bond of the Living Dead." Twisted Dreams then continues into Saturday with the Milwaukee-made horror flick "Ashface" amongst other slasher selections and short stories. Sunday then brings the fest to an end with the North American premiere of "Interstellar Civil War," a slight sci-fi detour in a weekend filled with deadly deviance.
But even amongst all these delectably diabolical on-screen options, according to Milek, it’s the communal aspect – amongst filmmakers as well as amongst fans – that’s been the most rewarding part of the festival’s quick rise over the past few years.
"Even if they don’t like a movie – in a short block, nobody’s going to like everything – no one cares," Milek said. "We’re here, having fun talking about the film afterwards and just hanging out with people who like these kinds of things. It’s just amazing the people who come out. The movies are a central part, but it’s not the essential part. It’s about the communal."
Milek and House hope to continue to grow that aspect and the entire Twisted Dreams Film Festival as time continues on, with ideas ranging from multiple venues to more live acts and taking over Milwaukee with a destination festival. But for now, just like the horror movies they show, it’s about the thrill of the now.
"People like to be scared and feel like you don’t know what’s going to happen next," House added. "It’s that thrill of the unknown – and it goes back to the communal experience. There’s something about watching a horror movie in a theater with a group of friends you can’t get anywhere else."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.