Aspen Times Weekly: Fear and Cooties in Estes Park |

Aspen Times Weekly: Fear and Cooties in Estes Park

by Andrew Travers
The Stanley Hotel, inspiration for Stephen King's "The Shining," hosted the third annual Stanley Film Festival April 30 through May 3.
Andrew Travers |

2015 Stanley Film Festival Winners

Audience Award (Feature): “The Final Girls”

Audience Award (Short Film): “The Babysitter Murders”

Jury Award (Short Film): “The Babysitter Murders”

Stanley Dean’s Cup Colorado Award: Moon Studios

Stanley Dean’s Cup International Award: “Inherent Noise

Visionary Award: Tom Quinn

Master of Horror Award: Stuart Gordon

How does a writer raised on Freddy Krueger and “Friday the 13th,” whose capacity for cinematic spooking has been dulled by decades of on-screen monsters and murderers, get his fear back? One idea: go to the haunted Estes Park hotel that inspired “The Shining” and spend a weekend watching a slate of the world’s best new horror movies, all while camping alone in a mostly deserted Rocky Mountain National Park.

That was my mission going into the Stanley Film Festival, now in its third year at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. The massive Colonial Revival-style hotel on a hill above town is where Stephen King got freaked out during a night in room 217 in 1973 — the experience that inspired “The Shining.” (The Kubrick film adaptation used a hotel in Oregon and a set in Britain to recreate it, but didn’t film there; King’s 1997 miniseries did.) This year’s festival included four days of films spanning the spectrum of horror with screenings in the (allegedly very haunted) concert hall on the hotel grounds, at a nearby modern multiplex and at a shabby old downtown gem, the Historic Park Theatre (allegedly even more haunted than the Stanley).

In a misty rain that lasted aptly through the festival, I spent my days and nights hopping from screening to screening. After the midnight movies, I made my way back into the silent park, still unmanned for the winter season, and crawled into my tent.

Unfortunately, I left without a backwoods haunting to report. But I did see some fantastic new movies at a festival that is tapping into the ascendance of indie horror and bringing its leading practitioners to remote Colorado (100-some filmmakers were in attendance).

“This festival is really special to me,” says Rodney Ascher, director of “Room 237,” a 2013 documentary about people obsessed with “The Shining” and their elaborate theories behind its meaning. “Anything related to the Stanley Hotel has ways of distorting and weakening the walls that typically separate reality and imagination. That’s been my experience.”

Ascher’s genuinely terrifying new documentary, “The Nightmare,” was among the stand-outs from the weekend. It explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis – a sort of waking nightmare — by interviewing eight people who’ve experienced extreme forms of it, with strikingly similar visions. Far more visually dynamic than the talking heads and film collages of “Room 237,” it includes freaky live action re-enactments of the subjects’ dreams. As Ascher – who had a sleep paralysis experience 20 years ago – started researching the project, he found a sprawling worldwide community of people trying to learn more about what was happening to them in their sleep.

“If you ever found a comment or a blog about the topic there would be 100 people replying and saying, ‘Oh my God, this happened to me. I thought I was the only one,’” he says. “It was clear what kind of underreported phenomenon this is.”

While “The Nightmare” mined reality for horror, on the other end of the spectrum, “Cooties” is a throwback bloody comedy – bringing together the creators of “Saw” and “Glee” in an unlikely pairing — that doesn’t take itself seriously, delivering gore and laughs in equal doses. It’s one of those rare horror-comedy hybrids – in the “Evil Dead 2” tradition – that successfully hits both extremes throughout.

Infected with cooties by diseased chicken nuggets, elementary school kids turn into murderous zombies in the film. Their teachers – who include Elijah Wood as a wannabe novelist and substitute, Alison Pill as his high school crush, and Rainn Wilson as her deliciously over-the-top jock gym teacher boyfriend – do vicious battle with them. It’s ridiculous gory fun with a ridiculously good cast that’s clearly having a blast together — supporting players include Hugo from “Lost” freaking out on mushrooms in the school parking lot and Kenneth from “30 Rock” wrestling with his sexuality (and zombie children).

“How is there not a movie from the ‘70s and ‘80s called ‘Cooties,’ out of all the exploitation movies?” says Wood, whose SpectreVision production company made the film. “We looked it up. Believe me.”

“Cooties,” which is scheduled for a September theatrical release, was among 20 new films in the Stanley lineup, alongside 27 shorts and several retrospectives (including a new print of the cult classic “Re-Animator,” with director Stuart Gordon on hand). Off-screen, the festival boasts an immersive horror game, a virtual reality experience, panels and live events like a live radio play edition of Larry Fessenden’s “Tales from Beyond the Pale.”

A road trip to the Stanley Hotel – and a guided tour — should already be on the bucket list of any Coloradan. I’d add a weekend at the Stanley Film Fest as a must for anybody who appreciates scary cinema.

The scariest thing I saw off-screen at the festival: A pet cemetery on the Stanley grounds that’s been there since the hotel opened in 1909 is currently being torn up to make way for a new wedding pavilion – a really bad idea that I hope inspired one of the filmmakers on-hand.

Aspen Times Weekly

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