A Look at Indie Horror’s Rise at Panic Fest 2024

Image Courtesy of PanicFest

Each year, Panic Fest provides an opportunity for low budget indie horror to make a splash and impress critics and secure distribution deals. It’s an opportunity for burgeoning talents to find an audience, and some great movies have emerged through the fest, every year there’s at least one diamond in the rough, Dawning was one of my favorite horrors of 2022 and The Artifice Girl was one of the most exemplary explorations of consent I’ve seen on film in recent years. So as each year, I looked forward to diving in and seeing what crop of oddities had been cooked up.

Don’t Die

Theodus Crane and Virginia Newcomb convers in a sunlit cabin
Image courtesy of PanicFest

There’s been a very clearly perceptible trend in the horror of the late ’10s early ’20s, fueled largely by the popularity of the so-called “elevated horror” or the term I’ve recently adopted “metaphorror”. Socially conscious horror movies more concerned with message than with actually delivering any hair raising chills. In my view it’s part of a social movement of cynicism and deteriorating appreciation for subtext, and it’s resulted in a spate of so-called horror movies that are horror movies in name only and more concerned with shallow expressions of progressive politics, so much in fact that they all but forgo a gripping story and fairly beat the viewer over the head with their themes. Don’t Die falls into this category sadly, and feels like the horror angle, such as it is, was tacked on rather clumsily and actually works against its message as much as it does for it. I’d be able to better appreciate the fact it respects the audience’s intelligence enough not to provide facile resolutions if it weren’t appended to what essentially amounts to a thin riff on Get Out.

Don’t Die follows Jenks (Theodus Crane), who we meet having just pulled a desperate breaking and entry on a pharmacy to obtain medicine, in the process of which he panicked and shot Julia (Virginia Newcomb). Stalled by guilt, he goes back to help her, but his attempt to make amends gets him a lot more than he bargained for, when she insists against a hospital herself and instead gives him a burner phone before passing out. It’s a punchy intro with a lot of intrigue, but sadly of the many questions raised in this first act, few if any are answered in a way that satisfied the mystery surrounding them. I won’t spoil any of the revelations that Don’t Die has in store because the film leans heavily on obscurity to generate suspense, but I will say, I don’t really get why. Why make a mystery story when almost all the solutions are almost inevitably going to disappoint. It’s a film where every character, including Jenks, has a secret and piecing together what they are is half the fun. It may even be more than half the fun as once the reveals do arrive, they often fail to add up to very much. It slowly transforms into a somber slice of life drama as Jenks falls in with Julia and her crew, who seem to be unfurling a needlessly convoluted plan to convert him to their cause. I like that the film refrains from moral judgment for the most part and the big reveal works on its own, it just doesn’t really have the emotional weight it ought to. The characters all feel like they’re in different movies and the thriller elements aren’t integrated well enough into the tone of the rest of the film.

Haunted Ulster Live

The presenters of Haunted Ulster Live eagerly await the confirmation of the apparition caught on mic
Image Courtesy of Panic Fest

2023 was a lackluster year for horror, at least in my eyes, with many of the most acclaimed and commercially successful of the year’s horrors just not quite reaching greatness, if they didn’t disappoint outright. Yes that was partly due to 2022 being such a hard act to follow, an all time great year for horror that, but the big releases all felt a bit too polished and safe to me. 2024 is already shaping up to be a more interesting year for horror, with a clear identity: horror that is artsy, intense and distinctly retro. Out with the glossy ’80s nostalgia of the Halloween reboots and similar legacy sequels, in with original horror taking heavy inspiration from European horror from the era of Giallos and Video Nasties. Immaculate and The First Omen are clearly both heavily inspired by ’70s horror, and of course there’s Late Night with the Devil, whose Ghost Watch inspired antics have won it fans the world over. And now there’s Haunted Ulster Live the influences of that seminal piece of docu-horror are all over it.

Set in a typical terrace house in Ulster, Northern Ireland in 1998, Haunted Ulster Live presents itself as a Halloween live TV special where presenters Gerry Burns (Mark Claney) and Michelle Kelly (Aimee Richardson) have set up cameras in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the house’s infamous occupant “Black Foot Jack”, assisted by ghost detectorists, mediums, occulists, the resident family, the good old Irish public, and an oblivious DJ rocking out in the attic.

It’s well worn ground and likely many examples of similar fictional experiments are occurring to you, there’s the aforementioned Late Night with the Devil, Deadstream just recently put a contemporary spin on the concept and my favorite is the Halloween Special of Down the Line where perpetually optimistic call-in host Gary Bellamy finds himself locked in a pitch-dark booth, comedy turning to genuine chills thanks to presenter Rhys Thomas’s increasingly panicky performance. Haunted Ulster Live doesn’t add a tonne to formula, but it executes it well with an acutely observed eye for the artifacts and idiosyncracies of the era’s local television. From the awkwardly stuffy and chipper presenters fractionally missing their cues to the analog video aesthetic of the whole endeavor, Haunted Ulster Live pays homage to that era of broadcasting perfectly, feeling appropriately lost in time. It’s also effectively paced, arriving at its messy climax swiftly. It mightn’t have the most to contribute to the tradition of live TV horror, but its novelty should still appeal to most and it’s sold credibly enough to please those more devoted to the school.


Hippo (Kimball Farley) sprays his mother (Eliza Roberts) with a super soaker as she relaxes in her pool
Image Courtesy of PanicFest

Best described as a macabre mash up of Stranger Than Paradise, The Royal Tenenbaums and DogtoothHippo is a strange confection indeed. It’s undeniably ghoulish and uncomfortable at times, but it’s much more of a comedy than anything else with its dispassionate narrator (Eric Roberts – he of the Roberts acting dynasty including Emma and Julia) recounting the affairs of a dysfunctional and incestuous family with the deadpan wit of Wes Anderson, though without his gentle pathos or attractive pastel palette.

The film follows two adoptive teenage siblings, nicknamed Hippo (Kimball Farley) and Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger) raised and homeschooled by their mother Ethel (Eliza Roberts). Hippo has clear violent tendencies, raised primarily by retro video games and delusion, while Buttercup is dealing with burgeoning sexual desire, mostly for Jesus, but she’ll take what she can get and turns to Craigslist to find a father for the baby she hopes will enable her to fulfill her destiny as a mother and save her from ruin, issuing the arrival of the film’s fourth and final onscreen character, a sleazy creep named Darwin (Jesse Pimentel) who may be more unhinged than even Hippo. Hippo’s greatest desire himself though is for a crossbow, with which he might defend himself and his own from the coming alien invasion.

Shot in grimy black and white, set entirely within and around this awful family’s home, Hippo could well have felt quite the chore, but the offbeat spirit of ’00s indie comedy is very much alive in it, and it’s a diverting, abruptly funny affair played with commitment by the talented cast. The story unspools in an unpredictable monotone, the characters fumbling inevitably towards who knows what manner of disaster. Their characterisation isn’t exactly novel but its deep enough that they do feel like genuinely disordered minds and not just assortments of familiar tropes and men are from Mars, women are from Venus cliches. It’s clearly rooted in a cock-eyed misperception of gender roles, though the ultimate psychological root of all this being the absentee father is a bit lame I supposed.

It’s certainly an entertaining little curio, it doesn’t establish the most unique voice for debutante writer director Mark H. Rapaport, but its unlikely concoction of influences, boldness and oddity demonstrate a fully fledged ability to establish characters and develop them in unexpected but organic ways, which stands him and his young leads in good stead for the future to come.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory, and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

A dimly lit image of a character from the 2014 movie Blood Widow. The character is standing in a dark room, illuminated from above, wearing a black, glossy outfit and a white mask with black smudges. Chains hang from the ceiling on either side, creating a chilling atmosphere. A staircase with brick walls is partially visible in the background.

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