Horror, thriller and science fiction might get dismissed as genre movies (as if recognizable storytelling conventions undermine true quality), but thankfully that didn't deter audiences from making classics out of "Rosemary's Baby," "The Silence of the Lambs" and last year's "Get Out."
Why do otherwise reasonable people embrace the jittery anticipation of waiting for a killer to jump out of an unexpected spot, or the appalling spectacle of a bloody gore film (of which I am an unashamed fan)? Psychologists theorize that many of us identify with the potential victims, and feel reassurance at the prospect of escaping helplessness.
For such fans, Kansas City is the place to be starting this weekend, as Screenland Armour Theatre hosts the 6th Annual Panic Film Fest, with more than 20 new films and two short film showcases.
Fest co-founder Tim KC Canton is proud of how the event has transformed over the years, including developing a relationship with IFC's Midnight division, which specializes in horror, science fiction and thriller film distribution.
"Our first year we attempted to have the fest over the course of two separate weekends in two different locations," Canton remembers. "It was an ambitious task for a brand new Fest. The following year we scaled back and focus on quality over quantity and wanted to bring in more new releases and focus less on classics."
The two featured films they let me see ahead of time were delightful.
Directed by Philip Gelatt and starring William Jackson Harper (who fans will recognize as Chidi from NBC's "The Good Place") and Rebecca Henderson, "They Remain" is a quiet thriller. Harper and Henderson play scientists who observe unusual animal behavior on the site of a Manson family-style massacre. The two carry the film almost entirely, while most of the other characters appear in hallucinations, visions or via audio feed.
"They Remain" has the pacing and feel of an early 1980s horror film; the gorgeous landscape, peppered with the scientists' quiet, glowing base pods, belies the building dread and impending horror.
Preston DeFrancis' much-different "Ruin Me" is a lively meta-horror in the "Scream" series tradition. Attendees of the movie's "Slasher Sleepout" know all of the tropes and cliches of horror movies and drop nonstop references. DeFrancis has a prolific knowledge of the field, referencing contemporary, classic, American and international horror with ease and including visual nods (one lake shot affectionately calls out to "Friday the 13th") as well as more blatant name-drops: one character identifies "Dead Ringers" as his favorite film and another cries, "Cronenberg! Classy."
The Fest also celebrates a newer subset of horror and science fiction media: podcasts.
Last year the organizers brought in a live recording of "Last Podcast on the Left," an international chart-topper beloved by fans of true crime, urban legends and, as its creators put it, "all things horror."
This year they've expanded with live versions of "The Movie Crypt" and two locally produced podcasts: the popular "Generation Why," which discusses unsolved mysteries and conspiracy theories; and "Nightmare Junkhead" featuring weekly episodes on horror.
Other additions this year include a Q&A on the new Pumpkinhead comic series with illustrator Kyle Strahm and awards for festival submissions. And vendors will be selling action figures, shirts and collectibles between screenings in the festival's "Pit of Misery."
While Kansas City horror fans are regular attendees of the Fest, Canton says he noticed a spike in out-of-state attendees last year.
"We asked who had attended the show from outside Missouri and Kansas," he says, "and about 80 percent of the crowd raised their hands in a packed, sold-out, 250-seat theater."
The 2018 Panic Film Festival, Friday, January 26 through Thursday, February 1 at Screenland Armour Theatre, 408 Armour Road, North Kansas City, Missouri, 64116; 816-994-7380.
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.