Severe disappointment permeated the air last fall as I learned Salem Horror Fest would not be a part of my October plans. A spooky season mainstay for me since its inception in 2017, Salem Horror Fest has been the reason I brave a sea of millions and the endless backup of traffic just entering Witch City because they play genre gems that I wouldn’t see anywhere else. The 2023 lineup is no different. This year, the festival is outdoing itself. Not only by bringing over 100 jaw-dropping films over two jam-packed weekends, but the thought of less traffic as I Uber up Bridge Street to see them across Salem Horror Fest 2023’s multiple venues is something of a relief. Plus, some of my favorite movies from last year are going to be a part of this year’s lineup, and I’m beyond excited to see them on a big screen setting.
With over 100 films playing at this year’s festival, it’s almost ridiculous for me to run down the list of everything when you can go right to the Salem Horror website to get the entire lineup. However, as the first weekend is set to begin in two weeks, it’s time to preview the movies and events I am most looking forward to at one of MovieMaker’s 50 Best Genre Festivals in the World.
WEEKEND 1 | Apr 20 – Apr 23
Candyman (1992) with Tony Todd
Dir. Bernard Rose | Thursday, April 20, 7:00 pm
Kicking off Salem Horror Fest 2023, a keynote address from Kier-La Janisse (director of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched and the writer of House of Psychotic Women), and a moderated conversation with special guest Tony Todd by Faculty of Horror and Rue Morgue contributor Andrea Subissati; this unique event is followed by a screening of Todd in his most iconic role as the ghostly beekeeper of Cabrini Green, the one and only Candyman. I bought a full VIP ticket for this event and can’t wait to be Todd’s victim in a photo op. I’ll just be sure not to say his name five times while watching the movie because that could turn the one-of-a-kind experience into my worst nightmare.
Satan Wants You
Dir. Sean Holor and Steve J. Adams | Friday, April 21, 7:15 pm
Directors Sean Holor and Steve J Adams’ documentary, Satan Wants You, deep dives into Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith’s controversial book Michelle Remembers, the catalyst tome that started the Satanic Panic era. In the book, Smith recounted tales of child abduction for a cult of Satanists while under hypnosis. Pazdar coined his methods as “memory recovery therapy” and submitted the book as fact until journalists looked into his claims and found no evidence to corroborate Michelle’s accounts. However, before being discredited, the book was a huge success. The global moral panic effect could be felt in attacks on women in the workplace, homophobia against gay daycare workers, and amassed xenophobic fears over alternative religious beliefs. Holor and Adams dig into the mass hysteria event and the witch hunt Michelle’s fabrications caused.
Satan Wants You makes its East Coast premiere following a successful debut at SXSW in March. The film currently sits with a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Bloody Disgusting’s Meagan Navarro calling it “a cautionary tale for our current age of rampant misinformation.”
The Ones You Didn’t Burn
Dir. Elise Finnerty | Saturday, April 22, 4:15 pm
My favorite horror film of 2022 will hit close to home for many Salem residents. When two siblings, Nathan (Nathan Wallace) and Mirra (Jenna Rose Sander), return to their father’s farm after his untimely death, Nathan begins to spiral down a rabbit hole of addiction, accusing two farmhands (Elise Finnerty and Estelle Girard Parks) of witchcraft in the process. The Ones You Didn’t Burn explores patriarchal themes of privilege, control, and ownership, creating wonderfully tense atmosphere around fantastic performances for a truly magnetic and bewitching story.
You’re probably wondering why I would be excited to see a film I’ve already seen. My answer to that is because it is that freakin’ good! Not to mention the energy surrounding an atmospheric witchcraft folktale screening on the big screen in Witch City, it’s a no-brainer. If you need further convincing, please check out The Horror Obsessive Podcast with the filmmakers Elise Finnerty and Estelle Girard Parks. I recommend The Ones You Didn’t Burn as a must-see for festival attendees.
Bakeneko: A Vengeful Spirit and The Cat Came Back: Feline Familiars in the Horror Genre
Dir. by Yoshihiro Ishikawa | Sunday, April 23, 11:30 am/1:00pm
First, a screening of the Japanese “Kaibyo,” or monster/ghost cat, film Bakeneko: A Vengeful Spirit, one of Director Yoshihiro Ishikawa’s several ventures into the ghost cat genre. When a Vassal murders a woman and her husband and takes their castle, consuming the woman’s spilled blood by her cat turns the animal into her spiritual avenger. Ishikawa’s film was overshadowed by the more popular Kuroneko, which released the same year. However, this story of shapeshifting and flesh-eating revenge from beyond sounds like it’s not to be missed. Salem Horror Fest 2023 presents the world premiere of Severin’s 2K restoration of the 1968 film.
Then, following the film, a discussion examining the use of felines in horror and contemporary culture, this lecture that originated at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies examines the numerous ways our cat companions have been associated with the dark arts. Using films like Bell, Book and Candle, Hausu, Pet Sematary (1989), and more, The Cat Came Back will look at the roles of these supernaturally abled creatures as vessels traversing life and death realms and why we both fear and adore them.
Bury the Bride
Dir. Spider One | Saturday, April 22, 10 pm
For his sophomore directorial feature, Powerman 5000 lead vocalist Spider One reunites with Allegoria actress Krsy Fox to co-write a horror tale about a Bachelorette Party that gets crashed by the bride’s toxic fiancé and his backwoods friends. June (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her bridal party must fight for their lives to make it through the night. While the synopsis is playing it very close to the chest, the trailer for Bury the Bride indicates there may be something a little more supernatural going on.
The Haverhill, MA native and brother to Rob Zombie has some skills behind the camera, especially in the creepy atmosphere and gruesome kills areas. Burry the Bride sounds a little more like conventional horror fare than the near Hellraiser summoning “Would you die for your art?” approach Allegoria took. Either way, I’m excited to see more of what Spider One can do behind the camera.
WEEKEND 2 | Apr 28 – Apr 30
Dir. by Alice Maio Mackay | Friday, April 28, 7:15 p
If it says Alice Maio Mackay on it, you bet your ass I’m showing up. The So Vam and Bad Girl Boogey director is unleashing a goopy-looking parasite-possession film where people from a small town are infected by the creatures who begin radicalizing their fear and hatred into acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ community. A young trans filmmaker who can sense the parasites may be the only one who can stop the parasites, but can she rally a resistance together before the hatred escapes and spreads?
Mackay’s allegorical film feels specifically important in this time of Republican scapegoating that has been spreading lies and LGBTQ+ hatred to incorporate an agenda of exclusion. As a fan of Mackay, and a proud producer of their last film, queer slasher Bad Girl Boogey, I am very excited to see what Mackay has in store for the audience with T-Blockers.
Dir. Michael J Ahern, Ryan Miller, and Brandon Perras | Friday, April 28, 9:30 pm
If you’ve seen Death Drop Gorgeous, then you already know why Saint Drogo is on this list. This follow-up film by the creators of the over-the-top fabulous, glam slasher film has been on my radar since it was announced, and I didn’t need to know anything about it to make me want to see it. However, for those who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this group’s first feature (which is on Shudder right now, go watch it), Saint Drogo is about a gay couple, Caleb and Adrian, that begin having ominous nightmares concerning one of their exes. When the two decide to visit the area, they discover the ex has gone missing in Provincetown after taking a summer job. Dreams and hallucinations continue to plague Caleb, whose search leads him to the precipice of a disturbing secret the town is hiding.
If Saint Drogo has any amount of the humor or gore that Death Drop Gorgeous had, it’s destined to become another cult hit for Ahern, Perras, and Miller. Single tickets for the World premiere are now sold out, so the only way to see Saint Drogo is by buying a Salem Horror Fest 2023 weekend I pass.
Dir. Sylvia Caminer | Saturday, April 29, 4:15 pm
I have been closely following this one since Brendan Jesus saw the film at Popcorn Frights Festival last year. In his review, he cited the tone of the film as “if Creep and Fresh had a baby that was raised by David Lynch” and included it in his personal top ten list last year. The film follows struggling actress and influencer Jess Peters (Dani Barker), who finds the right angle for her social media posts to propel her into fame. Jess begins filming her creepy interactions, from online job searches to Craigslist postings. Things begin to get surreal when she takes a job helping a screenwriter in a remote cabin in the woods. Not only is the poster not at all what he seems, but the script he’s writing also uses Jess and himself as the main characters.
Dir. K/XI | Sunday, April 30, 1:30 pm
Three years ago, when I had just started covering festivals, Black Lake premiered at Salem Horror Fest. Equally challenging and engaging, I was mesmerized by it and became an instant fan of K/XI’s work. K/XI returns to the festival this year with Maya, which may be even better than Black Lake. The story concerns the titular character, a young Pakistani woman who begins to remember her traumatic childhood while being tormented by a Jinn trying to possess her. Maya and her sister must travel to Karachi to confront the past, but all they find is inescapable horror.
Inspired by The Shining and The Exorcist, K/XI’s Maya is another must-see for horror fans. It’s beyond atmospheric, with award-worthy sound design and a story that will keep you glued to the screen. When I saw this film a year ago, ahead of the Renegade Film Fest, I wrote, “A scarf in Black Lake acts as the catalyst for the film’s fevered nightmare, but it’s an onslaught of everything in Maya. A rolling ball, the hum of a ceiling fan, a spiral staircase, a cell phone ring, a family dinner. My safety felt jeopardized after the first few minutes, and security became a rarity over the ninety minutes that followed.” Don’t sleep on Maya. It’ll knock you flat.
The Forest Hills
Dir. Scott Goldberg | Sunday, April 30, 5:30 pm
While all many know about The Forest Hills is that it features a performance from the great Shelley Duvall and is her first role in over twenty years, horror alums like Edward Furlong (Pet Sematary 2), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Stacey Nelkin (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), Marianne Hagan (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), and Dee Wallace (Cujo) are also a part of writer-director Scott Goldberg’s ensemble.
The Forest Hills is about Rico (Chiko Mendez), who suffers severe head trauma while camping in the Catskill mountains and suffers a series of nightmarish visions when he’s made to believe he’s a werewolf by his friend (Edward Furlong). The film premiered last month at Kevin Smith’s Smodcastle and has received mostly positive reviews.
This is just the tip of Salem Horror Fest 2023’s cinematic iceberg, and there are so many more that I want to check out. Another film that made my top ten last year, Swallowed, starring Jena Malone and Mark Patton, has Patton giving an incredible performance as a drug kingpin in a squirmy and uncomfortable film where bugs are drugs, and getting them across the border is just the beginning.
Meanwhile, a host of movies I haven’t heard of before, like Summoners, Pendulum, The Weird Kidz, Your Love is Mine, and No More Time, have caught my attention. A slew of repertory films are also being presented each weekend, focusing on Czech movies during Weekend I and a Bollywood horror Weekend II. Plus, they have an extensive short film collection of wild, weird, and intense titles. The Five Fingers of a Dog is a title I missed at Boston Underground this year, and I was happy to see I would have a second chance at Salem Horror Fest 2023. And finally, guests Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead), Amelia Kinkade (Night of the Demons), and Geretta Geretta (Demons) will be on hand for photo ops and autographs on the first weekend. Fright Night fans will get their fill with William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, and Stephen Geoffreys on the second weekend.
Check out Salem Horror Fest’s full lineup on their website. Single tickets for all showings are now on sale for $13 per screening. Weekend passes are also on sale for $175 per weekend but get you into every event for that weekend except the Tony Todd event at the Peabody Essex Museum. Tickets to the opening night showing of Candyman with Todd, Kier-La Janisse, and Andrea Subissati begin at just $50.