“Partying in the tunnels?” said the security guard, as he found our group that had broken into the locked tunnel that sits beneath the historic Stanley Hotel. We weren’t partying - we were looking for a missing boy, in fact - but we were totally busted.
The Stanley Film Festival Chapter II brought me back to Estes Park and the Stanley Hotel; last year was the inaugural session of the fest that celebrates horror in the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. The first year of Stanley was fun, and had strong programming that represented the best genre films that had been doing the festival circuit in recent months. I expected the second year to be better, but I didn’t expect it to end up being so damn good.
It’s important to note that the Stanley Film Festival is an experiential fest. Yes, you want to see movies that are playing there, but if you flew all the way out to Denver - and then took the hour and forty five minute drive up the mountain to Estes Park - you want to do more than sit in a movie theater. And Stanley gives you a whole lot more to do, and it has assembled an incredible community for you to do it with.
This year’s fest included a horror trivia night (brag: my team, which included Fangoria’s Sam Zimmerman and Bloody Disgusting’s Evan Dickson, won the game), a closing night performance by the astonishing dark bluegrass (seriously) band Munly & The Lupercalians, a live radio play, a bunch of interesting panel discussions, a zombie walk, a Big Wheel Death Race that allowed contestants to channel their inner Danny Torrance, a seance, ghost hunting, karaoke and, most intriguingly of all, an alternate reality game that permeated the entire festival.
And then there were the movies. The opening night film was Doc of the Dead, a documentary about the zombie phenomenon in pop culture. Closing night was What We Do In the Shadows, the hilarious vampire mockumentary starring Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. In between was a veritable laundry list of some of the most interesting genre films that haven’t yet been released: The Sacrament, Blood Glacier, Late Phases, Starry Eyes, The Babadook, The Green Inferno, R100, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, and more. And those are just the new films; the festival showed the new 4K restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a rare 35mm print of Who Can Kill A Child? and had a screening of Gremlins with Joe Dante in attendance.
My reviews are still coming, largely because I’ve been recuperating from the sheer insanity of my four days in Colorado. The van ride to the hotel is an adventure itself as you leave the highway and start up a treacherous, winding mountain road and - like in all good horror movies - lose your cell reception. When you get to Estes Park it’s impossible to not be charmed by the hamlet; this year I spent more time in town and found that while everything closes at 8 the Main Street has a kitschy Western mining town vibe that won my heart. It’s the kind of place where you get a yak burger at a restaurant called The Grub Steak (yak is awesome, and tastes like very tender beef).
But let’s talk about this game, which is how I ended up breaking into a tunnel. Even before getting to the festival the game had begun; I was contacted by a private eye named George Basta, who was looking for a young boy named Andrew Tabor who had gone missing in Estes Park months ago. Then I heard from Andrew’s dad, Dean, who emailed me as I was traveling - he was hoping that the media converging on the Stanely could get his story to the world. The boy’s mother had taken him, Dean said, and the authorities wouldn’t help. And Andrew was a hemophiliac, so time was of the essence.
Once I checked into my room the game started in earnest. I discovered that the inside of the closet, entry and bathroom doors were painted in blacklight paint; occult symbols were all over the doors, along with words like “MIRROR MIRROR,” “FANTANA” and my initials. It was weird.
Other festival goers (who had opted in, although anybody could join at any time) were also being contacted, and we shared information. Mark, who worked in the Stanley archives, gave us clues. Strangers handed us pieces of paper. Dean Tabor burst onto stage at the opening night party as a zombie burlesque troupe danced, urging us to hear his truth. Trails led us to the pet cemetery on the grounds, where a box was buried, covered in occult symbols and containing ominous pictures of missing children.
I should now let you know that the Stanley Hotel’s bar is a haven for whiskey drinkers, with over 580 labels. So much of this was experienced through a pleasant alcoholic buzz.
On Friday I found a note under my door. It invited me to a seance at 2am, to be held in the abandoned icehouse on the edge of the property. The password for admittance was Fantana - the same word scrawled on my bathroom door. I had to attend.
So did a lot of other people. The icehouse, lit by flickering candles (electronic), was packed by 2. I lucked into a spot in the inner circle of the seance; everybody else had to stand around and watch. The psychic - an attractive young woman whose hair was bleached to almost whiteness - started by telling us her origin story. She had always seen spirits, but held it back until she got older, thinking she was crazy. When a relative showed her a picture of a dead person who the psychic had seen walking around the house she knew she wasn’t nuts, and she began harnessing her powers.
Side note: It’s possible she’s nuts. Later in the weekend she enthusiastically told me vampires are real. “Like the psychic kind, right?” I asked, giving her an out. “No,” she said. “They turn into bats and fly."
Then she opened the channel to the other side, and a spirit came to her. The spirit of… Stanley Kubrick. You could sort of feel everybody getting uncomfortable; Kubrick seemed about the least likely ghost to show up here, and also we were all film nerds who knew a lot about him. So when - after telling us that Stanley was proud of the fest and the work we were doing - the psychic opened the floor to questions it got weird.
Eyes Wide Shut was playing the fest, and someone asked the ghost of Stanley Kubrick what he would change about the film, having famously died before he finished it. The psychic paused and listened to the other side and said, “Stanley think it’s perfect,” which really we just had a hard time buying. She quickly explained to us that when someone passes over they gain a new perspective, which apparently meant we shouldn’t expect their personality to be recognizable in any way, shape or form. Which kind of defeats the purpose.
I asked Stanley what he thought about the impended attempt to make his Napoleon, and he gave her the sign of a finger across the throat. So, Badass exclusive: the ghost of Stanley Kubrick doesn’t approve of the TV version of Napoleon.
This weird press conference with the dead ended with Stanley reiterating that he felt film was the most important force in the world. I guess I can buy that. Then the psychic asked if anybody had a relative they wanted to contact. The room was quiet (for once - there had been a lot of giggling) and I asked if she could get my grandfather Joe. She concentrated and thought and strained a little and then - victory! She said that Joe was here, and that he had his hands clasped and was shaking them in front of his chest. He was proud of me. She said he was showing her an image of him giving me a big bear hug. He loved me.
He must have gotten A LOT of perspective on the other side, because none of that sounds like my crotchety, grumpy, racist grandfather. It seems like dying was the best thing to ever happen to his attitude. I made a joke about it, one that would haunt the psychic; the next night at karoake (yes, the psychic came to karaoke and she got LIT) she’d corner me and say “Devin, do you think I’m a fraud?” I felt bad and said, “No, I think you believe everything you’re saying.” Even about werewolves, which she also said were real.
The seance wound down - she did say that when she asked the spirits about the missing Malaysian flight they showed her sinking, so somebody get her on CNN stat - and then something weird happened. There was a banging on the door. A robed and horned figure stood outside, holding a torch.
We chased him, of course.
He eventually lost us but not before lighting a bonfire in the shape of Baphomet’s head. It was almost 3am and we were hanging around the fire, some of us drunk, all of us wide awake. Elijah Wood, who was at the festival with his Spectrevision production company (and showing some movies, including LFO and Open Windows. I moderated a panel with Elijah and his partners Daniel Noah and Josh Waller, and I think it went pretty great if I may say so), was a pretty serious player of the game, and I think he was the one who felt that the next clue was leading to the tunnels beneath the hotel. So a whole bunch of us - including Elijah, actor AJ Bowen, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night director (and killer metal karaoke singer) Ana Lily Amirpour, Twitch’s Ryland Aldrich and Sam Zimmerman - went down to the basement. And found the tunnel door locked by a code key lock.
But that didn’t stop us, as we were tipsy and believed this was the next step in the game. A friend stepped forward with not just one credit card but EVERY credit card in his wallet and actually opened the door. We were in, and we were hunting for clues as to where Andrew Tabor could be. The walls were brick on one side, rough-hewn rock on the other. The ceiling was low, and there was a small cave on the north side of the tunnel. Elijah and AJ went spelunking while I stood around talking to Daniel Noah, trying to figure out what it all meant.
And then the security guard arrived. “Partying in the tunnels?” he asked, and we explained why were down there, expecting to be kicked out of the hotel. He looked us over and then launched into Stanley Hotel ghost stories.
“This is one of the most haunted places on the property,” he said. “I don’t even like coming down here at night. That spot right there, that’s where a tall Native American spirit manifests. Sometimes he shows up in photos. Just last summer someone took a picture here and showed it to me and pointed out the ghost and said, ‘Who’s this guy? He wasn’t on our tour.’”
The guard smiled. “Well good luck down here,” he said. “Just be quiet. And I’ll tell you, there’s one place I wouldn’t go at night - the basement of the Music Hall.” And he left us.
That was enough for us. Clearly he was part of the game. Every person you met might be part of the game, and every interaction you had was weighted with the possibility of offering a clue. And what a way to end our conversation! He was telling us where to go next, and so we ran to the Music Hall.
It was locked and we couldn’t pick the lock and it was cold so we went to bed.
But that wasn’t the end of the night. I was awoken at a quarter to five by a creepy melody, a version of Silent Night played too fast. I stood by the door to my room in my undies, one eye peeking out the peephole, ready to be scared by someone. The music wound down. I waited. I paced a little. I finally had to know.
Outside my door, just down the hallway, was a musical figure of a happy bearded man holding a bag of fruit that I eventually figured out was Saint Nick (it said “Bishop of Myra” on a plaque). It was alone. The halls were empty. I was staying in the Lodge, the hotel next to the hotel, and I went through every floor looking for anyone or any other weird sign or object. Nothing.
I brought the Saint Nick back to my room. When I closed the door I locked the latch. Just in case.
Others came home that night to something just as weird - all the lights in their rooms had been switched to blacklights, illuminating all the paint on the doors.
The game was the thread that went through the weekend, but the movies and events (and people) were the beautiful beads strung on that thread. One of the best things I saw was a live radio play written by Larry Fessenden and directed by Glenn McQuaid; the actors stood at podiums while foley artists were behind them, smashing watermelons and crinkling paper as the story of a writer coming to the Stanley to tell one final tale unfolded. Fessenden does these often, and they’re called Tales From Beyond the Pale. I imagine this one will eventually be available on the web, and you should listen. It’s a spooky delight.
The closing night party was a blast, with free absinthe and the desert death trip sounds of Munly & The Lupercalians. The band - a guitarist/singer, two keyboard players wearing pointy black hoods, and three drummers with Wicker Man/Kill List-esque masks - played beautiful dark music that boomed through the hallways of the hotel. And then midnight came and the party was over (after a DJ set by Elijah Wood) and the end of the game was upon us.
We were sort of right the night before - the tunnel was key. And at midnight we entered the tunnel and witnessed a deadly occult ceremony. I can’t tell you more, but I will tell you that Andrew Tabor has found peace and that the police who are searching for his father Dean will never, ever find him.
With all that out of the way it was time for karaoke… after some ghost hunting. The karaoke was held in the haunted Music Hall basement the security guard had warned us about, and in a room next door some paranormal investigators had set up shop. We sat in the dark and talked to ghosts, hoping to hear anything. Ryan Turek of Shock-Til-You-Drop was mysteriously pinched. After I left - desperately needing to sing - some folks stayed behind. Elijah was in the room all night and after he came out he told me things had happened. A flashlight turned itself on and off, and when they asked the ghost if it liked music a radio had briefly burst to staticy life. I pressed him - did he really think something had happened? He did, and he was pretty excited about it.
The next morning was, miraculously, free of a hangover despite my best efforts (and the altitude. Being at 7500 feet will fuck up a sea level type). We all gathered in the lobby of the Stanley and took a group photo, recreating the iconic final shot of The Shining. Joe Dante, that year’s Master of Horror honoree, took the Jack Nicholson position. The fest intends to recreate this photo every single year - I hope to always be in it.
After all, I’ve always been here.
You should come to the Stanley Film Festival, which has confirmed it's returning for a third year. Keep an eye on their site, and also on Badass Digest. We'll give you all the information as the time draws near.