Still from Minor Premise
Minor Premise

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Horror movies are the only way to make sense of our present moment. At this time of unparalleled anxiety, the horror film genre can explore our innate primal fears. The Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival, the annual showcase put on by AFI, is an opportunity for that exploration. Now that this festival is entirely virtual, it’s easier to hunker down and get the crap scared out of you. Like every year, the festival highlights exciting voices in horror, pushing the genre to cerebral and emotional possibilities. This year also includes one of the finest “making of” documentaries, and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in film history. Check out five previews of films from the festival, which runs from now to Oct. 15.

Get The Hell Out

Taiwan’s parliament is known for the physical fights that break out on its floor. Get The Hell Out ups the ante with a simple question: What would happen if the country’s president became a zombie, and an official visit turned into an unintentional super-spreader event?

Aside from the on the nose nature of this film, director I-Fan Wang films the zombie action with madcap energy. His influences include cartoons, newscasts, and wild videos on YouTube. Unlike The Walking Dead, this film has a bright palette and stylized choreography. It is always goofy and never grim, which is a shrewd way to hide the political satire under the film’s surface.

Minor Premise

In Minor Premise, director Eric Schultz makes a puzzle-like psychological thriller in the tradition of Memento and Primer. There is an emotional core in this film that keeps us engaged with the material.

Sathya Sridharan plays Ethan, a brilliant scientist who invented a machine that can delete memories and alter consciousness. After a disastrous experiment, he accidentally creates 10 separate alter egos of himself. Each one acts out an extreme version of his natural impulses, and these episodes last exactly six minutes, causing him to change 10 times an hour. And one of these personas is deranged.

Schultz dovetails this heady premise with Ethan’s backstory. An alcohol addict who lives in his father’s shadow, he undergoes fractions of character development at a time (the identities also communicate with each other, leading to a bizarre form of time travel). Minor Premise keeps the audience guessing, with enough scenes that slow down the premise so we can catch up. With its stirring lead performance and ticking clock, this modest thriller is a major accomplishment.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

It has been more than 45 years since Father Karras, while possessed by the demon Pazuzu, threw himself down Georgetown stairs in The Exorcist. Since then, the film has captured the imagination with its mix of spirituality and Grand Guignol horror. Leap of Faith is a long-form interview with director William Friedkin about the film. Even if you’re not a huge Exorcist fan, his lucid observations and storytelling are fascinating.

Friedkin is well into his 80s, and has nothing left to prove. He is forthright about how he conceived, developed, and directed this horror film. Like the seminal Sidney Lumet book Making Movies, this documentary doubles as an accessible guide to the filmmaking process.  

There are also juicy anecdotes. His frequent, droll stories include asides, like how Max von Sydow apparently struggled with the line, “The power of Christ compels you.” Pulling from all sorts of influences, including Dutch painting and classical music, Friedkin synthesizes them into his peculiar creative vision. In this interview, you are listening to a true artist.

Hail to the Deadites

If Leap of Faith is a model of how to make a documentary about another film, then Hail to the Deadites is the opposite. Director Steve Villeneuve seems to have little interest in the cult horror Evil Dead series directed by Sam Raimi, beyond that some fans happen to be really into it.   

Villeneuve follows some Evil Dead fans, also known as “Deadites,” as they go to various horror conventions. No one there can quite articulate why the films matter, and at one point, an actor from the films observes that these fans are not socially developed, and perhaps these conventions are a substitute for what is missing in their lives. Villeneuve’s subjects never reach that level of self-awareness.

There is no archival footage of the original Evil Dead films, and no narrative other than mini-arcs about the fans, many of whom have little personality or imagination. Hail to the Deadites is an example of what happens when someone depicts fans without questioning their fandom.

12 Hour Shift

The presence of Angela Bettis adds instant credibility to a horror movie. Her prickly performances are not traditionally charismatic, but in films like May and The Woman, her willingness to go to dark places goes a long way.

That is also the case with 12 Hour Shift, a horror thriller that has grace notes of gallows humor. Bettis plays Mandy, an overnight nurse in an Arkansas hospital. She is a go-between for an underground human organ market, and things go wrong when a kidney goes missing. Her accomplice Regina (Chloe Farnworth) takes matters into her own hands, hunting for the organ.

On top of the kidney hunt, the mob infiltrates the hospital, and a cop-killer is one of the patients. All these storylines converge in macabre, hilarious ways. Things escalate quickly, and there is a deadpan logic to the action that recalls Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ debut film. Director Brea Grant has a deeper message about how caregivers do not always get the respect or compensation they deserve. Her masterstroke is to conceal this idea with dark irony, and enough spilled blood to make a hospital orderly wince.