If you had been at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., around 3 a.m. on Saturday, May 2, you would have seen some notable film folk taking part in some notably odd activities. Like what? Like Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood chasing a masked, hooded figure down one of the hotel’s corridors. Or Insidious franchise writer Leigh Whannell poking around the supposedly ghost-filled basement of a concert hall in hopes of finding a magic-show audience member who’d vanished into thin air while on stage earlier that night. Both Wood and Whannell were taking part in what was described as an “immersive horror game” offered to attendees at this year’s terror-tale-themed Stanley Film Festival.
“It’s basically a narrative that’s taking place in and around the festival that you are a part of,” explained Wood, a founder of the horror indie company SpectreVision. “[There is] a wristband that indicates to the architects of the game that they are allowed to infringe upon your personal space. Last year, I came back to my room and all the lightbulbs had been changed to black lights and there were symbols written all over the walls. This year, I think they’re amping it up a little bit.”
Well, the Stanley Festival does have a reputation to uphold. Since slithering into existence in 2013, the festival has become one of the highlights of the horror-movie calendar, routinely called “horror summer camp” for fans and filmmakers alike. This year’s lineup boasted the zombie-kids film Cooties (out Sept. 18), starring Wood and Whannell, Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare, filmmaker Karyn Kusama’s slow-burn drama The Invitation, and an eclectic roster of short films, including the impressive The Listing from 19-year-old filmmaker Luke Jaden.
The festival also featured the world premieres of both the meta-horror tale Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein and the gritty slasher film Some Kind of Hate, which stars Ronen Rubinstein and a pair of Disney Channel actresses, Sierra McCormick (A.N.T. Farm) and Grace Phipps (Teen Beach Movie). “These actresses who come out of Disney always want to find the next step to grow and become something else,” said Adam Egypt Mortimer, the director and cowriter of the film, which was acquired for distribution by Image Entertainment after its well-received screening. “I think all the people that were in the movie responded to what we were trying to do with the script, which was to do something very violent, and very hard-core, but we take the emotional violence as seriously as the physical violence.”
Does he think the film’s two young female stars will ever work at Disney again? “I probably can’t comment on that,” laughed the filmmaker. “I don’t want to jinx anybody’s lovely careers! But the things that you see them do in this movie are pretty extreme.”
The festival’s queen bee, however, was undoubtedly Barbara Crampton. The resurgent ’80s horror actress and You’re Next star had three films screening at the event: the intense upcoming drama Sun Choke, the haunted-house tale We Are Still Here (out June 5), and the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator. “When I first read the script for Sun Choke, I thought ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t know if I can do this,'” said the actress of the film, which costars Sarah Hagan from Freaks and Geeks. “It’s very dark. I don’t want to give too much away [but] if Lars von Trier was more depressed than he already is, that would be this movie. But I’m glad I did it, I think it turned out spectacularly.”
According to Crampton, We Are Still Here— the directorial debut of Ted Geoghegan, whose cast also includes Andrew Sensenig, Lisa Marie, and indie-horror stalwart Larry Fessenden—is a very different cup of blood, sorry, tea. “This couple, who lost their son in a car accident, decide to move to the country so they can start afresh,” said the actress. “The woman in the movie—myself—she feels like she senses her son, and she actually likes that she’s haunted by him. But we soon find out that perhaps it isn’t her son. I’d say it’s like Wicker Man-meets-a supernatural ghost story. And then it’s just balls-out gore at the end. It’s bloody, bloody, bloody!”
Did we say Crampton was the queen of the festival? Actually, she may have been its most assiduous worker bee. In additon to attending Q&A’s for Re-Animator, Sun Choke, and We Are Still Here, the actress played one of the leads in a live performance by Fessenden’s spooky audio play troupe Tales from Beyond the Pale, took part in the Dead Right Horror Trivia Night hosted by Blumhouse Productions director of development Ryan Turek, performed a duet of “These Boots Were Made For Walking” with Some Kind of Hate director Mortimer at the fest’s karaoke party, and was still going strong when EW joined Crampton’s Hellraiser-themed table at Sunday’s awards brunch. (Sample menu item: “Re-Ani-tater biscuits and gravy.”)
In short, no matter how much Crampton was being paid to be here, she was certainly earning her money. “Nobody’s paying me anything!” protested the actress. “Nine months ago, I decided I wanted to come to this festival. I had watched it for the past two years on social media; all my friends came here, and they looked like they were having so much fun, so I decided, I’m going to go! And about a month and a half ago I found out that I had three films here and Larry Fessenden asked me to be in Tales… Unfortunately, because everybody knew I’d already bought my ticket, nobody offered to pay me for me! But that’s okay, because it’s all good fun.”
What really makes the festival unique is its setting. The Stanley Hotel is reputedly haunted, and room 217 is allegedly rife with paranormal activity. If that location sounds familiar, it should. Back in the ‘70s, Stephen King came up with the idea for his classic horror novel The Shining while staying in that very room. One of the hotel’s TV channels plays Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation on a loop, and director Mick Garris, another of this year’s attendees, shot much of his 1997 TV miniseries version here as well. “It was probably the best experience I’ve ever had shooting anything in the 30 years I’ve been doing this,” recalled Garris, who was in town to present Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon with the festival’s annual Master of Horror award and to announce his new project, a Spanish-language thriller called Soy Miedo. “Stephen King wrote the script for the miniseries, and he was here as executive producer for about two-thirds of the shoot. He was writing the Green Mile and he would pump out pages and I would see them every night, he would give them to me to read before anyone else saw them. Being in the hotel which inspired him to write The Shining and got all those ideas, and here we are bringing it to life, it was great.”
Of course, the Stanley’s spooky history can be a deterrent as well as an attraction to potential guests. “My wife remembers reading The Shining, and she was scared to death the whole time,” said Re-Animator director Gordon, whose other credits include From Beyond, King of the Ants, and most recently, the stage extravaganza Re-Animator: The Musical. “She said, ‘I’m not going to that hotel!’ ”
Gordon is made of sterner stuff, and expressed sadness that he had yet to properly experience the festival’s immersive game. “I tweeted a message saying ‘No ghostly visitations so far,'” explains the director. “I got a message back saying ‘That can be arranged!'”
You can hear a special report from the 2015 Stanley Film Festival this coming Memorial Day, May 25, 1-3pm EST, on Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM 105.