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Fangoria Trinity of Terrors Day 1: Creepy houses, horny puppets and a forlorn Corbin Bernsen

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Jocelin Donahue in “The House of the Devil”, which played Friday at Fangoria’s Trinity of Terrors at the Palms.
Photo: Graham Reznick / Magnet Releasing

Corbin Bernsen was looking a little lonesome in his booth at the Fangoria Trinity of Terrors, and he wasn’t the only one. The horror film festival/convention at the Palms kicked off Friday afternoon with an interesting slate of films, and an exhibition hall that was poorly laid out and a little slim on worthwhile attractions.

Bernsen was one of a number of celebrities ranging from obscure D-listers to fairly famous names (Malcolm McDowell, George Romero) sitting around hoping for people to pony up an average of 20 bucks for an autographed head shot. The crowd in the main hall wasn’t huge, but people did seem a lot more interested in DVDs, T-shirts and free posters than in horror luminaries (Romero being the exception; he actually had a line at his booth).

I picked up a cool “Redrum” T-shirt from Retro Outlaw clothing and then happened to notice signs pointing down a long, long hallway, past Palms administrative offices to two rooms with more booths. Pity the exhibitors here in no man’s land, including local cult filmmaker Ted V. Mikels and some guy who made custom fangs. Still, a handful of people milled about, and when I got back to the main area, the crowd had grown.

The real attraction for me was the movies; of the four I saw this first day, one has a good chance of making my year-end best-of list. That’s Ti West’s The House of the Devil, which opens in limited theatrical release this week and is also available on video on demand. It’s an almost unbearably tense, atmospheric slow boil about a college student babysitting for a very creepy family. West sets his movie in 1982 and makes it look like it was made in 1982 also, with grainy film stock and impeccable period hair and clothing. For an hour or so, almost nothing actually sinister happens, but the little signifiers of something being wrong build almost unnoticeably, until you’re on the edge of your seat watching a character grab hard candies from a tabletop bowl.

Jocelin Donahue leads an effective cast that plays everything with a straight face, so that when the mayhem does finally arrive, it’s deadly serious and seriously scary. West has made a couple of low-budget horror films to modest response, but with House (which has been getting very good reviews), he makes himself known as a filmmaker to watch, irrespective of genre.

The other stuff I saw was forgettable in comparison: two cheapo exploitation movies, Bitch Slap and Black Devil Doll, more concerned with jokey style than narrative or craftsmanship; and a RiffTrax riff on 1950s B-movie House on Haunted Hill, with Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans providing a mocking commentary track for the film.

Bitch Slap, an action movie despite playing a horror festival, is pretty much a tease, flaunting scantily clad women but never delivering the goods its intended audience hopes for (i.e., nudity). It’s way too concerned with its laborious, convoluted plot, and is shot largely in front of green screens for a claustrophobic, distractingly fake look. Black Devil Doll, about a black-power militant executed for murder and resurrected as a violent, oversexed, foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy, is one of those ideas that would be hilarious as a five-minute short and mildly amusing padded out to 10 or 15 minutes, but is damn near unbearable as a feature (even at less than 80 minutes). Full of disgusting humor, nonsensical plot developments and many, many missed opportunities for cleverness, it at least seemed to please the largely drunken midnight audience, and did deliver what Bitch Slap did not (basically nonstop nudity the entire running time).

August’s RiffTrax theatrical event, featuring live-via-satellite commentary on Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, rekindled my interest in the work of the ex-MST3K jokesters, but the Haunted Hill commentary wasn’t nearly as funny. Maybe it was the sparse audience, or the somewhat crappy DVD projection, but I just couldn’t get into the groove of this one, and only laughed sporadically. Haunted Hill also isn’t as blatantly silly as Plan 9, and more ludicrous films certainly make for better mockery. Might I suggest the RiffTrax folks take a look at Bitch Slap?

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