and press releases may be sent to editor at hollywoodinvestigator.com. All submissions become property of the Hollywood Investigator and deemed for
publication without compensation unless otherwise requested. Name
and contact information only withheld upon request. Prospective reporters should research our Bookstore.
by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor [September 29, 2015]
[HollywoodInvestigator.com] For the 12th year in a row, the Hollywood Investigator is happy to announce the winners of its Tabloid Witch Awards horror film contest.
Out of 103 entries, 15 films took home at least one award. Winning films came from Argentina, Germany, Greece, Spain, and the United States. This is the first year that Greece won an award. Argentina has won before, but this year two Argentine films took home prizes. Another first.
Entries represented a greater variety of movie monsters than in recent years. Zombies were still among the entries, but not in as many numbers. Found footage films were also plentiful, but not as much as in recent years. Slashers and serial killers were the most common entry. Supernatural monsters in all their forms -- ghosts, vampires, demons -- were also plentiful.
Taking inspiration from Pulp Fiction, Dead Heart risks falling into ugly, mean-spiritedness nihilism. Yet the violence and cruelty in this tale of a kidnapping gone bad is elevated by a passionate heart, albeit a dead one. (There's a reason for the title.) The story ends on a note that is darkly romantic, yet also surprisingly sentimental. Surprising, yet logical, not arbitrary. For while Dead Heart raises many mysteries during its telling, when everything is revealed, the pieces fall neatly into place.
The production values -- cinematography, sound design, special effects, art direction -- are strong across the board. The cast is talented without exception. The parallel editing, of two seemingly separate tales, keeps things moving at a fast pace, while creating mystery and suspense, scares and shocks.
Dead Heart is both a crime thriller and a ghost story, and does a fine job of playing the two genres off each other. The nihilistic savagery of the gangsters is balanced by the ghost's retributive justice -- but a justice tempered with a love that transcends mortal understanding. It's this poignant balance in the end -- effectively conveyed by actress Ariadna Asturzzi -- that raises Dead Heart from common scares into the better class of ghost stories.
* Best Dramatic Horror Short: Inner Land
Robert Aickman wrote what he called "strange stories." Quiet, moody tales with a hint of the bizarre, often set on the European Continent, amid old buildings and anachronistic people with odd customs. Inner Land is not based on an Aickman story, yet it evokes the look and feel of his work more than any other film I've seen.
The tale concerns a new teacher at a school populated by eerie staffers and students. All of them with sallow skin, and dark rings beneath sad, sunken eyes. No one threatens the teacher, yet she soon feels like an outcast. The other teachers stare mutely at her in the lounge. The students deny seeing what's on the blackboard. And her watch is never in sync with the school's clock.
Tales of quiet horror rely on atmosphere. Thrassyvoulos Mitaftsis's cinematography is dimly lit with desaturated colors, the outdoor scenes shrouded in mist. Athanasios Nastos's composition for a piano and cello is slow and low. Thus photography and music combine to create a dreary, ominous mood.
Antigoni Krikeli's make-up creates people who look unsettling, yet not so bizarre that one can say with certainty they're monsters. Set decor and sound further support the atmosphere. The school is clean and spartan, reflecting the conformity of its strange dwellers. Its uninviting colors are mostly off-white and a dull blue. The hard walls and floors cause sounds to reverberate harshly.
Inner Land comes from Greece, and does its writer/director, Vivian Papageorgiou.
* Best Comedic Horror Short: Unlucky Girl
A young woman is turned into a zombie. But rather than hunt for human flesh, her sole obsession is "I'm ugly! Omigod, what will my boyfriend think?!" She doesn't actually say those words. We infer it from her behavior, because Unlucky Girl's zombie is the old-fashioned kind who saunters and can't talk.
Unlucky Girl is more than a zombie film. It has resplendent cinematography. It has a theme. It has heart. And it has a strong performance by lead actress Tara Strand.
Gene Blalock's images alternate from cold sepia tones (Dianne's zombie existence), to bright primary colors (her pre-zombie life), to black & white (her dreams).
Beautiful to watch, Unlucky Girl also explores women's desires to look beautiful. Upon turning into a zombie, Dianne hunts not for human flesh, but for a beauty salon. Why not, when people react with such -- not fear, but disgust -- upon seeing her hideously rotting face? If Dianne sounds shallow or silly (doesn't she have bigger problems than her looks?), Strand's performance inspires sympathy for Dianne, giving this film its heart.
Unlucky Girl does drag in the middle. The dream sequence could do with trimming, specifically everything after Dianne's imaginary encounter with her boyfriend. But overall, the film's merits surpass its weakness -- in addition to surpassing every other horror comedy entered this year.
* Best Animated Horror Short: Bunny Bizness
A taxidermist informs a goth boy (Noodle), that the stuffed raven he expected for his birthday is still alive. Noodle won't leave the shop without his dead bird. What's a taxidermist to do?
Gently whimsical, darkly alluring, and perversely twisted, Bunny Bizness balances all the conflicting elements of a Tim Burton film. Barbara De Biasi's beatnik piano score is a lively accompaniment to the film's bright primary colors (nicely set against a shadowy background). Yva, the statuesque taxidermist with an indeterminate East European accent (voiced by Peggy Gormley), evokes such classic goth femmes as Vampira and Lily, but most of all Morticia.
Bunny Bizness is an NYU student film. What reason for the title? Apart from a play on words, Bunny Bizness seems partially inspired by Kip's pink bunny outfit. Filmmaker Irisa Hou explains how she made the film on her blog.
* Best Avant-Garde Horror Short: R.E.M. (The Lucid Dreamer)
A young woman falls in and out of sleep -- but when is she awake, when is she only dreaming that she is awake?
Blatantly surreal films are easy to make. Just show a series of bizarro images. Much harder is a film wherein events play on the edge, the viewer uncertain if an incident is real or a dream. In R.E.M. it's sometimes obvious the woman is dreaming, but not always. She herself is at times uncertain. Upon "waking" she tries to determine whether she's really awake or still dreaming.
As befits a horror film, the images are nightmarish. But to his credit, filmmaker Kyle J. Macias offers no gore, no shocks. Shocks are easy. Instead, the woman's dream images are unsettling. They emerge slowly from the shadows, the closet, from under the bed ... then creep slowly toward her.
Lighting and sound contribute mightily to R.E.M.'s eeire atmosphere, both in how they're used, and how they're not. The sets are sparse and pedestrian. Instead of relying on weirdly surreal set décor, R.E.M. emphasizes contrasting use of light and shadows, sound and silence. The few make-up and visual effects are simple and off-the-shelf. R.E.M. demonstrates how imagination and creativity can substitute for big budget sets and special effects.
Each year certain themes are prevalent among Tabloid Witch entries, as if something is in the air. In addition to lucid dreaming, R.E.M. touches on the phenomenon of "sleep paralysis" -- one of several such entries this year .
* Honorable Mention
Because of the extremely competitive nature of the Tabloid Witch -- so many films to consider! -- winning an Honorable Mention is indeed cause for pride. Some were great, just not as great as the winning films. Some had some weak spots, but still elements that raised it about the other entries such that they're worth a look.
The Honorable Mention prizes -- as with the "Best ... Film" prizes, are awarded to a film's writer and director.
* Dead Air
An escaped mental patient breaks into a radio station and stalks the nighttime DJ, trying to kill him, racking up a body count around the DJ, but always failing to get the DJ. Not because the DJ is clever or brave or strong. Actually, he's a typical FM buffoon. But he's a lucky buffoon. God really does look after children and fools.
Dead Air is a Rube Goldberg of a slasher film. Wearing headsets and thus cocooned from outside noises, the DJ wanders innocently about the station, always just missing a knife attack, the sight of a corpse, a scream for help. While chaos reigns about him, he shouts jolly greetings to a slumped co-worker, unaware that he's dead, or unintentionally locks the killer outside a room just as he was about to strike.
Dead Air also benefits from great cinematography, editing, and sound design. The perspective incessantly alternates between the DJ's blissful musings -- listening to self-help tapes and happy music -- to the killer's stark reality. These dramatic shifts are supported by shifting colors, sound effects, and music, edited to create a sharp emotional contrast between subjective innocence and objective horror.
Actually, Dead Air is not all that horrifying despite the generous gore. It's a farcical romp and was a strong contender for Best Comedic Horror Short Film. Unlucky Girl beat it because, while both films score even on originality, humor, and production values, Unlucky Girl also brings heart and a theme to the table, whereas Dead Air is content with vapid fun. Even so, if Unlucky Girl is the best zombie film submitted this year, Dead Air tops all the other slasher entries.
Dead Air is another student film, hailing from Chattanooga State College.
* The Town Where Nobody Lives
Portrait of a middle-aged couple alone on a deserted highway. Alone in their marriage. There's a Detour sign up ahead. A sign that leads them to ... The Twilight Zone.
Or so it feels. The Detour off this highway takes them to an empty town. A town that looks lived in, yet forsaken. As if everyone left just a few minutes ago. The Town Where Nobody Lives blends a Twilight Zone type setup with David Lynch's weird retro sensibility. The decor is a throwback to an earlier era, as is the music broadcast over an old radio. Together with the empty streets and rural landscape, overcast sky, and Matthew McMurry's softly haunting piano score, writer/director Al Topich has created an ominous sense of forlorn dislocation, with a hint of menace.
But it gets better. The film is not strange for the sake of being strange. Topich's forlorn atmosphere supports his story and characters. The couple are estranged, their marriage as empty and forlorn as the town. By returning to simpler, bygones times, will they resurrect their youthful passions -- or find new ones?
Topich's dialog is at times too purple, the husband's (Duane Jackson) acting at times too forced. But on the whole The Town Where Nobody Lives is a nice little film. An atmospheric tale with weighty themes and quiet scares. It's a refreshing change from the slashers, zombies, found footage, and gore that dominate modern horror.
As the credits list a "Thesis Committee," this appears to be yet another student film.
* The Unusual Case of Mary Mason
An FBI agent investigates a woman whose son was abducted by "star people." Alien impregnation, alien hybrids, and even references to the Ansazi indians also play roles in this tale of UFO close encounters. It's a safe bet that writer/director Nicholas Quezada is an X-Files fan.
The Unusual Case of Mary Mason isn't perfect. The writing is occasionally clichéd, the acting is at times rough. Yet there's also some nice cinematography, a creepy atmosphere, and some genuine scares. (The film's cinematography was judged in the manner submitted -- as a black & white short film. It's now up on YouTube as a color "Episode One" of a web series. Go figure.)
The special effects are impressive for the likely budget. There's only one shot of an alien looking silly and unreal -- when he leaps upward too quickly. The story is unoriginal, but that's true of most horror films. More importantly, Quezada's film will entertain fans of the alien conspiracy subgenre.
The Tabloid Witch doesn't receive enough alien conspiracy films, and half of those that do come in are not very good. Thus, an entertaining alien conspiracy film, with good (if not perfect) production values, is always welcome and worthy of encouragement.
* Dead Lines
Just as we welcome alien abduction/conspiracy films, the Tabloid Witch loves corporate horror. We usually get one entry each year. This year we got several. (Sign of a worsening economy?) The best of these was Dead Lines.
Writer/director Marco Ragozzino stars as a night shift worker at a corporate call center -- that's also haunted. Dead Lines's whimsical ghosts and humorous tone evoke The Frighteners but without the emotional depth. Death's gravity is conveyed in the latter. But while Dead Lines lacks depth, it does have a theme. Respect your customers.
We always prefer horror with a theme rather than straight scares or laughs, so Dead Lines wins points for that. (Although laughs and gore sans theme didn't stop us from loving Dead Air.) The production values are slick. Visual effects are impressive. The music is lively and aesthetically appropriate. The acting is hammy and broadly comedic, but the script doesn't call for more.
Dead Lines is a fun supernatural fantasy, though it does stretch the limits of believability. Does America still have any call center jobs? Weren't they all outsourced to India?
* Director's Cut
There's been a recent glut of mockumentaries (usually done as found footage and shot in green nightvision) about ghosthunters killed by a supernatural entity. We received several this year. But Director's Cut is different. A refreshing throwback to an earlier formula -- a mockumentary about artists pursing their dreams in music, film, and theater (e.g., This Is Spinal Tap, And God Spoke, Waiting for Guffman). In this case, they are producing what they hope will be "the world's first snuff movie with a plot."
Director's Cut's follows the traditional plotline popularized, if not invented, by Christopher Guest. We have an egotistical director, delusional actors, inept crew, and problems and creative compromises along the way. As always, the funding collapses midway through the project. Yes, we've seen this before. But Director's Cut enters the heart of entertainment darkness previously avoided by Guest -- the world of snuff films.
Actually, there were some other Guest-inspired mockumentary entries this year, always blending horror and porn. Director's Cut was funnier and more enjoyable, with superior production values. Despite there being an actual victim -- tied and suffering, the entire cast and crew unconcerned for her impending fate -- Director's Cut's cheerful obliviousness allays any mean-spiritedness. The film manages to be funny and entertaining. Its production values are high. Its cast is talented (despite portraying artists without talent). Produced in Spain and directed by Pol Diggler.
* Additional Winners
As a zombie, she is mute throughout the film (apart from a line croaked to a salon attendant). Her role is that of a silent film actress. Luckily for Unlucky Girl, Tara Strand's rubbery face effectively conveys shock, desperation, hope, despair, grief, and even pre-zombie joy and ecstasy. Her expressive face is matched by an expressive physical agility, her stiffly jittery zombie moves inspiring silent film pathos as she gropes for the spilled contents of her purse, trying to maintain her dignity despite her appearance.
We laugh at Strand's zombie, then pity her, then root for her, and finally laugh with her.
The Tabloid Witch saw many fine actresses this year, but none who did more to raise their film above the pack. Strand's character is the core of Unlucky Girl. Without a strong performance, which she provides, it would have been just another funny flesh-chomper.
Tara Strand wins the Best Actress Award.
In a similar way, the (oddly punctuated) Chateau Sauvignon: terroir would be just another sordid tale of cannibalism -- not our favorite subgenre -- were it not for Michael's Lorz's standout performance as the cannibal patriarch's son.
Lorz projects a Norman Bates persona, suppressing (but not quite) fear, rage, desperation, and even sensitivity beneath the overly polite mannerisms with which he greets folks to the gruesome winery.
But as Kyla the cook, JamieLee Ackerman is cold, morose, uptight, and a hint murderous. She creates a character who stands apart from the other ladies. Kyla catches our attention and continues to intrigue us in all her scenes.
JamieLee Ackerman wins for Best Supporting Actress.
As with JamieLee Ackerman, Chucho Fernández stands out among the several gangsters in Dead Heart. Looking as if he stepped out of a Tarantino film, Fernández projects quiet menace, cold gravity, and ruthless decisiveness as he orders about his criminal underlings.
The only implausible aspect about his role is that Fernández plays second banana to a less imposing boss. But that problem lies in the casting, not in Fernández's memorable performance.
Chucho Fernández wins for Best Supporting Actor.
Another's convoluted tale of witchcraft is difficult to follow. Confusing to the point of annoyance, one is tempted to give up and stop watching. Yet the film's imagery -- haunting, beautiful, innovative, colorful, surreal -- compels us to keep watching.
A difficult film, but also an ambitious one. While many horror filmmakers continue to crank out the same old, same old, Another tells a familiar tale in a radically different way.
Jason Bognacki wins for Best Cinematography.
Although a technical award, how sound is used aesthetically in a film plays a big part in selecting the winner. Low in gore and shocks, The Town Where Nobody Lives boasts seemingly insignificant incidents made ominous through the use of sound.
There are the changing timbre of the radio broadcasts, the shifting voices of the odd woman in the bar, the nondiegetic rumblings as the wife discovers a clue in a newspaper, the wind, the haunting piano melody -- the volume waxing and waning to maximize the emotional impact of the images on screen.
The Best Sound Design award goes to Tyler Hutchins.
Dave Campfield is the writer, director, star, and lead producer, which makes him a poor choice for editor. Auteurs risk falling into self-indulgence, refusing to cut, or even trim, their masterpieces -- especially scenes showcasing themselves. The result is a slow-paced, flaccid, overlong film, full of needless exposition and scenes that drag on long after the joke has been made.
Caesar and Otto's Paranormal Halloween bypasses these pitfalls. Jokes come in quick succession. Much as in Airplane, we're hit with a punchline, then it's on to the next gag. Campfield's cuts serve the film rather than any of the actors' egos, including his own.
Dave Campfield wins for Best Editing.
Although filmed this past year in Buenos Aires, Francesca is set in 1970s Rome. This presented the challenge of recreating a time and place 40 years earlier and 7,000 miles away. Adding to the difficulty, Francesca is feature length, requiring that many more appropriately dressed sets and actors.
Nicolás Onetti met that challenge, filling the screen with vintage typewriters, rotary phones, reel-to-reel tape recorders, slide projectors, cameras, clothing, cars, lamps, and much else. Francesca is no 1970s era Italian giallo -- but you wouldn't know it by looking at it.
Nicolás Onetti wins for Best Production Design.
While a traditional green-faced zombie makes an early appearance (and attacks the Unlucky Girl), the real challenge lay in creating zombie makeup that would suitably distort Dianne's features while retaining her humanity. She must be ugly enough to convince us of her distress (and search for a beauty salon), yet still remain attractive enough to elicit our sympathy.
Christopher Baer achieved these conflicting needs. We especially liked Dianne's black hole of a mouth, which functions like the heavy make-up used in 1920s silent films. It sharply delineates the edges of her lips, helping her mouth to visually articulate her feelings.
Chris Baer wins for Best Make-Up Effects.
Based on a Stephen King short story, Willa is a short German film about a man searching for his fiance in some wintry limbo between life and death. Low on plot and characterization, Willa derives its emotional power from beautifully eerie images that are due largely to its production design and visual effects. Credit for the latter belongs to the film's Visual Effects Supervisor.
Robert Hoffmeister wins for Best Visual Effects.
Many films had enjoyable music this year, be it lively, chipper, or creepy. Often the music was aesthetically appropriate, supporting the story on screen -- its mood, theme, premise, settings, and characters.
The tie-breaker test: Which music composition was most critical to the film's success? Which contributed the most? If the music were lost, which film would lose the most?
Inner Land's terror derives from suggestions of things unseen. Its subtle tale requires the right atmosphere, relying on photography, set décor, make-up, and (very much) on music. Athanasios Nastos's simple piano and cello score is grim, ponderous, suffocating, and oppressive. We feel there's something not right, even if we don't see it.
Athanasios Nastos wins for Best Music Soundtrack.
* The Final Tally
Best Horror Feature Film .......................... Mariano Cattaneo & Sergio Salgueiro (Dead Heart)
Best Dramatic Horror Short Film .............. Vivian Papageorgiou (Inner Land)
Best Comedic Horror Short Film .............. Gene Blalock & James Boring (Unlucky Girl)
Best Animated Horror Short Film .............. Irisa Hou (Bunny Bizness)
Best Avant-Garde Horror Short Film ......... Kyle J. Macias (R.E.M. (The Lucid Dreamer))
Best Actress .............................................. Tara Strand (Unlucky Girl)
* Best Actor .................................................. Michael Lorz (Chateau Sauvignon: terroir)
* Best Production Design ............................ Nicolás Onetti (Francesca)
* Best Visual Effects
.................................... Robert Hoffmeister (Willa)
* Best Make-Up Effects
............................... Chris Baer (Unlucky Girl)
* Best Music Soundtrack
............................. Athanasios Nastos (Inner Land)
* Al Topich (The Town Where Nobody Lives)
* Nicholas Quezada (The Unusual Case of Mary Mason)
* Ryan Hixson, Will Taylor & Louis Letrange (Dead Air)
* Marco Ragozzino & Eric Brown (Dead Lines)
* Pol Diggler, Lidia Milette Artigas & Ramon Lazaro (Director's Cut)
"Hollywood Investigator" and "HollywoodInvestigator.com" and "Tabloid Witch" and "Tabloid Witch Award" trademarks are currently unregistered, but pending registration upon need for protection against improper use. The idea of marketing these terms as a commodity is a protected idea under the Lanham Act. 15 U.S.C. s 1114(1) (1994) (defining a trademark infringement claim when the plaintiff has a registered mark); 15 U.S.C. s 1125(a) (1994) (defining an action for unfair competition in the context of trademark infringement when the plaintiff holds an unregistered mark). All content is copyright by HollywoodInvestigator.com unless otherwise noted.