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Horrible Imaginings Film Festival Celebrates 10th Anniversary This Weekend

Horror film fest started in San Diego and now calls Orange County its home

Photo credit: Horrible Imaginings

Director Ella McKeon on the set of her film "Butterfly" that is playing as part of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival's Youth Cinema Showcase.

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Horrible Imaginings Film Festival started in San Diego 10 years ago but moved to The Frida Cinema in Orange County last year. This year's festival runs Friday through Sunday.

Aired: August 30, 2019 | Transcript

Horrible Imaginings Film Festival (HIFF) started in San Diego 10 years ago but moved to The Frida Cinema in Orange County last year. This year's festival runs Friday through Sunday.

I have seen HIFF evolve from a crazy idea Miguel Rodriguez had to a growing and healthy film festival celebrating a decade of bringing horror and the macabre to the big screen. For full disclosure, I have helped with the festival for many years and for the past two have remained on hand as a judge for its film awards.

Must-See HIFF Films


"How to Be Alone"

"Saori, Piling Up"






"Oscar's Bell"


"Maggie May"

"What Daphne Saw"

"For My Cat, Mieze"


"Don't Croak"

Last year the festival moved from San Diego and the Museum of Photographic Arts to the Frida Cinema in Orange County.

"Largely the motivation for moving it was we got an offer from an art house cinema in Santa Ana in Orange County and it was a great size cinema and their enthusiasm was intoxicating because finding a home and a venue in San Diego has always been an up hill battle," Rodriguez said. "We were at the Museum of Photographic Arts for the last three years that we were here and it got to be financially extremely burdensome not just for the theater itself but for being in Balboa Park, which closes early and there's no food so we had to buy food to bring it in. There were just so many challenges that the dual mode of them wanting us to be there and us having so much trouble here it just really facilitated the choice to move even though it was a tough choice."

The move has not changed the festival's mission of showcasing horror and the macabre across various genres, styles and media. So at this year's HIFF you can find comedies, dramas, youth films, socially conscious films, foreign films, ballet (yes, a zombie ballet!), and more but all explore dark themes and push the boundaries of what we define as horror. And yes there are also zombies, serial killers, ghosts, and demons.

Photo credit: Horrible Imaginings

"LVRS" is a visually striking, wordless exploration of an abusive relationship. The film pushes the boundaries of how we define horror and screens at this year's Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

Wordless horror

In seeing all the films each year there are sometimes trends in horror that seem to emerge or spontaneously manifest themselves. Two years ago, a large number of zombie films flipped the perspective from the people fighting the reanimated corpses to that of the undead themselves. At a time when our political climate is clouded by hate and prejudice, films that take the point of view of the outsider or "other" resonate with special force.

This year, one trend I saw was an increase in the number of wordless films. Horror films truly lend themselves to wordless tales where visuals, music and sound effects take center stage. This is not something new but this year an impressive number of films chose to avoid dialogue. This reflects some smart filmmaking in the sense that these films require no subtitles and therefore can play in any country because fear is a universal language, and not requiring sync sound or recording dialogue on the set is cheaper and easier.

But the choice is mostly an artistic one.

"What we're trying to show is that we can come together, different types of people can come together because of fear is so universal that that emotion is so universal," Rodriguez said. "But also there's just something about leaving out words that kind of makes it a little more nightmarish. It makes it a little more ethereal, a little less real. Dialogue and words tend to ground things in a way that makes them potentially more familiar and a little less scary. Whereas without the dialogue it has this effect that maybe you're dreaming, maybe something is askew that is a little hard to describe. And if done correctly it can be very effective."

The standout of these wordless films and one of the standouts of the festival as a whole is Emily Bennett's "LVRS." Through a striking visual style and careful soundscape it takes us out of our comfort zone to explore an abusive relationship and to explore why a woman would stay in such a relationship. Bennett uses color and lighting with a bold flair and creates imagery that viscerally conveys her story.

Another near wordless film comes from a young filmmaker, middle-schooler Ella McKeon whose film "Butterfly" also employs an effective visual approach to a very real social issue. I don't want to spoil the twist of the film so I won't say any more but this young filmmaker displays more talent with her simple student film than many of the other bigger budgeted films made by more mature filmmakers. She has something that she passionately wants to address and finds a way to vividly make us understand how her character feels. Kudos to McKeon and to HIFF for showcasing her work.

Photo credit: Horrible Imaginings

The short film "How to be Alone" screens as part of this year's Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

More festival highlights

At the exact opposite end of the spectrum in terms of script is the very verbally driven "How to be Alone," which is also one of my favorites of the festival. This is a case where the words dictate the pace and rhythms of the film, giving it a pulse that reflects the intensity of the main character's battle to just make it through the day alone. The film is fun with dark undertones. Although the script is the star here, writer-director Kate Trefry does not shortchange the visuals. She delivers a film that is meticulously crafted in every syllable and frame.

Meticulous attention to detail is also what makes the feature film "Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made" so good. Filmmakers Michael Laicini and David Amito present us with a "cursed" film from the 1970s that has a history of killing anyone who watches it. The film opens with a documentary about its history and then, after a warning appears on screen to allow people to exit the theater, the film begins. Anyone attending the film will be asked to sign an "Indemnification Agreement " (mimicking the delicious showmanship of William Castle) before being allowed to watch the film. I don't want to spoil the treats this film holds but suffice it to say that it requires great care and a true love for the genre to create a film like this.

The festival also showcases some truly outstanding foreign films, most notably "Saori, Piling Up" and "HANA" from Japan, "Ulises" from Mexico, and my absolute favorite horror comedy of the festival "Creaker" from Norway.

Photo credit: Horrible Imaginings

The short film "What Daphne Saw" is part of the Horror for Humanity panel at Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

Horror for humanity

Although there is a panel dedicated to what the festival calls Horror for Humanity — a sidebar created years ago to showcase films that use horror to address social issues — many films address real world problems. One of the other trends I noticed this year was an uptick in the number of films that used horror to specifically address gender issues. Sometimes the issues are more peripheral as in "Kathy" or more central as in "For My Cat, Mieze" or come up unexpectedly as in "What Daphne Saw." But all these films reveal how horror can tackle real world issues with stunning effectiveness.

The festival opens Friday night with youth films, a zombie ballet and the feature film "Satanic Panic." Full passes are still available. And if you are wondering where the festival takes its name from, it is a quote from Shakespeare's "Macbeth," about “present fears are less than horrible imaginings.” Check out some of these visions of horror and experience the genre is all its wonderful range and diversity.

For more of my interview with Miguel Rodriguez, check out Cinema Junkie Podcast Episode 177.

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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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