Submit to the scare tactics

Stanley Film Festival immerses festivalgoers in the latest horror films and a game that takes the action off the screen


Imagine you’ve checked into your hotel room, passing by signs at the hotel entrance about a boy gone missing and seen a distraught man handing out more copies of that same flyer. “How sad,” you think. And what a weekend to lose your child, when the town is overrun with audiences attending the Stanley Film Festival who have occasionally been known to emerge in full zombie-style regalia. As dusk falls and the room grows dark, you turn on your lamp to discover the bulb has been replaced with a black light that reveals writing covering the walls and ceiling.

It would be a good moment to remind yourself, “It’s only a game. It’s only a game.”

After all, you’ve signed yourself up for an immersive horror game, an experience that spreads itself throughout the festival. At any moment, you could stumble upon a clue, a hint, a tip, something that helps unveil the next step. The Stanley Film Festival’s Immersive Horror Game draws festivalgoers into their own mystery, with clues to be found — and scares to be had — all over the festival as attendees work to solve the mysteries afoot.

Of course, interactive events are icing on a program of film screenings that draws horror filmmakers to the Stanley Hotel, said to inspire Stephen King’s novel The Shining, for the Stanley Film Festival. Festivalgoers are invited to spend a day watching some of the latest horror films, and then spend the night in the ghost story-surrounded Stanley Hotel.  Experience-based components of the festival also include horror trivia, the “campfire story experience” of The Pumpkin Pie Show, a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with Colorado’s Elusive Ingredient shadow cast, a haunted house by 13th Floor Haunted House and another edition of audiodrama Tales From Beyond the Pale. The game has all been mapped out by Dylan Reiff, game architect (yes, that’s a job title), who spends his days planning interactive games, a career that blossomed from a love of puzzles, experimental theater and games, and a background in marketing and event production that helped him learn how to take games off a board and into a festival.

When organizers for the Stanley Film Festival, kicking off its latest installation on April 30, started pulling the pieces together last year, Reiff ’s was one of the doors they knocked on. He’d worked with the Stanley Film Festival’s director of programming, Landon Zakheim, at Sundance Film Festival and Zakheim got in touch with him about the Stanley Film Festival.

“I love horror and love the genre and I love the fans of horror, and he was explaining how it’s a really atmospheric festival and it’s in this really awesome, historic, very spooky location and as we talked about it more, he brought up this idea of me creating an experience that would be even more immersive for festivalgoers,” Reiff says. “It’s something that you can’t really experience at any other festival and part of the reason is because it’s so site-specific. It’s such a historic and wonderfully rich place for creating narrative. … For a lot of the narratives that produce the games that I build, I try to build them on top of the existing history. … I love the Stanley Hotel and the space and I think it’s beautiful and it’s creepy and it’s all those things at once, so it made for the perfect canvas to start building something that can really take festival-goers to another level of horror.”

The game returns again this year — for those festivalgoers who signed up online, it began as soon as they enlisted.

“The most important part is that the players feel like their actions are affecting the story. I think that’s something that’s really important and I want participants to really lose themselves in it,” he says. “I can create the most unique or eccentric storylines, but the brain is going to fill in those gaps so much better than anything I can write. So people’s own theories are going to be just as exciting as the reality as they’re figuring out the story or wondering who’s going to scare them next.”

The experience is irreproducible — only players experience it, and they each experience it in a different way. Even at the end, it may not all be neatly tied up in a conclusion that answers every riddle.

“I have, in my brain, what I know is the story and what I have as the answers, but by explaining it, it loses the mystery or the magic because it negates people’s imagination,” Reiff says. “Leaving people wondering is awesome. It’s really powerful to be left with a mystery. … Although you need some form of satisfaction and you need some level of closure, to have it fully revealed and kind of spoon-fed I think makes for a less exciting experience and one that’s less satisfying, ultimate- ly.”

As with all games, people engage on their own level, but he’s learned to count on a few basics of human nature.

“People play the game in all different ways, and people solve problems in all different ways and attack puzzles in all different ways and something that rings pretty true, when you rally people around something that’s exciting to them, is that they want to share. The best way to disseminate information is player to player, especially with social media,” Reiff says.

Sometimes, a clue may be planted where only a couple players will find it, but those pieces of information, those necessary clues to solve the mystery, seem to get around.

“We have fail safes, just in case. I plan for everything that can go wrong, to go wrong, or I try to — it’s the impossible goal — but at some point you have to trust that those two people that have that experience are going to want to tell everyone about it,” he says. “Everyone is going to have a unique relationship to the game, depending on how they want to play, and part of it is whether you want to opt in to the full experience. Anyone can play, but there is a deeper level of play that can only come when you consent to the opt-ins, and those are players that want to explore the deepest level of the experience, so that allows a lot more freedom for us to kind of permeate their stay at the festival.”

Reiff builds the game through a lot of constantly changing to-do lists, and begins with a single idea — sometimes linked back to the history of the place. Last year, he dug into ancient antiquity and Romanian history and tied it to elements of the Stanley Hotel.

“I do my research and try to find the history because if I can create [a game], as best I can, to thinly layer on top of the existing reality, then it becomes that much more believable and fun, because that line between fantasy and reality is a lot blurrier in those instances,” he says.

Horror fans, in particular, can be a pliable crowd to work with.

“What excites them in a lot of ways about the genre is that moment when they’re not in control of their emotions, so I want to create an atmosphere where you never know what’s going to happen and when it does, it happens in a way that isn’t just an ‘Ooh!’ moment, but there’s a larger, ominous darkness behind it that makes that ‘Ooh!’ moment even creepier,” he says. “There’s a lot of experiences you can have where someone jumps out from behind a tree with a mask, but it’s very different when that fits into this larger framework of horror because you’re at that point you’re living in it.”

Daniel Noah, a producer with SpectreVision of the horror films Open Windows, Toad Road, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Cooties and The Boy, says last year’s game was a highlight of the festival and at one point he and his girlfriend pulled an all-nighter to keep playing.

“Apparently this year it’s going to be exponentially more complex and more far-reaching,” Noah says. “What we really got sucked into was just playing detective. There was one night where we had a breakthrough. … It involved decoding secret messages in a book, and following a map and it just got very, very intricate and we just couldn’t stop. We ended up cracking the code in this book and then running all over the hotel property looking for clues and crisscrossing with other teams, all racing to get to the objectives first.”

His was that hotel room covered in writing.

“That’s what the game is like. You never know when the game is going to rise up and present itself to you. You don’t know who’s in on it, who isn’t, and so you really get on edge after a while because you never know what is part of the game and what isn’t,” Noah says. “You’re very unsteady as you’re playing it, which is so much what horror is about, it’s that feeling of being unsteady or disoriented, not knowing what’s real or what isn’t.”

Noah and his fellow producers from SpectreVision, Josh Waller and Elijah Wood, will return to the Stanley Film Festival with two feature length films: The Boy, a realistic handling of one child’s emerging sociopathic tendencies that Noah describes as a “slow, intense burn,” and the alternately terrifying and riotously funny Cooties, about children turned into blood-thirsty monsters by bad chicken nuggets from the school cafeteria.

There’s an obvious link between them — kids gone wrong. But there’s more to it than that. What draws The Boy, Cooties and other entries from the company like the black and white Iranian-language vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and the hallucinogen-induced trip through the underworld that is Toad Road under the same umbrella comes down to an axiom for what Noah says he’s looking for in films: “It needs to be unique and it needs to matter.”

During a panel discussion at the 2014 Stanley Film Festival, Noah, Waller and Wood, recipients of the festival’s 2014 Visionary Award, talked about starting their film company looking to bring back to audiences the kinds of horror films they prized, but had seemed to evaporate from the genre. A genre that’s considered to be a safe investment because it can succeed at the box office on the basis of its concept without depending on star appeal wasn’t taking advantage of that financial durability, and was instead turning to common tropes.

“We noticed that there were films that were essentially exploitation films, films that were really heavy on violence and nudity and tended to focus on young, attractive victims in kind of a traditional slasher sense, and there’s a place for those films, but it struck us that no one was taking advantage of the economic platform provided by the genre to stretch and to do things that are a little different and maybe things that might appeal to audiences that are looking for stories that are a bit more subtle or, for lack of a better word, grown up — character-driven, directordriven, having more of a literary quality to them,” Noah says.

They’re not first to try to make genre films that draw on the elements of drama or non-genre films — great stories, great parts for great actors and challenging scenes, Noah says. That practice just wasn’t happening much on the independent film scene when they started. Now, he says, that approach has seemed to become a trend — and part of what he looks forward to about returning to the Stanley is that many of the filmmakers and producers building that trend will be congregating at that hotel for the weekend.

“I can’t speak to other genres, because this is the one I work in, but there’s a real lack of competition amongst us all. We’re all friends, we all work together, we all share scripts with each other, recommend filmmakers to each other. We’re all friendly,” he says.

The festival’s director of programming, Landon Zakheim, has told him he wants Stanley to feel like horror film summer camp, but Noah’s metaphor is that it’s like Telluride Mountainfilm festival for horror.

“It’s a gathering for people who make and love a certain kind of film and because there’s such strong programming at Stanley, you know that you’re going to be getting the best of what’s out there,” he says. He gives a nod in particular to We Are Still Here, Death Chasm, Good Night Mommy and The Invitation, but adds, “There’s not a film here I don’t want to see.”

As far as the two films from SpectreVision that are screening, Cooties and The Boy, and their general mission, Noah says, they’re constantly asking themselves what makes a film right for SpectreVision. They examine possible films based on a couple factors — how that film lines up compared to what’s already out there, and the fundamental inquiries the film itself poses.

“It’s very important to us that we only make films that generally no one else is making, and that’s one of the reasons we started the company to try to support films and filmmakers who wanted to do something that was maybe a little bit outside of the norm and so, as such, they might have a little bit more difficulty getting movies set up,” Noah says, and cites Lily Amirpour’s film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as an example.

“I remember when the movie was being put together and talking to people about it. It’s black and white, it’s in a foreign language, there’s no recognizable stars in it — people thought we were insane. But we knew that the movie was so unusual that it would be very commercial, we had to just make it to prove that, and it has done incredibly well because it is so unique,” he says.

They’ve passed on films that they know will be commercially successful because someone else is already doing strong work in that area and they’d like to do something different. Frequently, their chosen films come from first-time filmmakers. That’s not necessarily by design, Noah says.

“We’re just looking for fresh ideas and it’s just happened that the ones that have turned us on the most have tended to come from new voices,” he says. “The conventional wisdom is that a first-time filmmaker is dangerous because of the lack of experience, but we feel the opposite, that you get so much energy and enthusiasm. There’s a joke about how, when you’re a director, you’re preparing to direct your first film for your entire life, and your second one you get about two months. And first films are really special, there’s something really magical about them. You only make your first film once.”

In looking at how the film stands up on its own, Noah says, “We try to choose films that have some sort of thematic content that is resonant to our real lives outside of the imaginary elements of the genre. Cooties, as silly and heightened as it is, has some hopefully very provocative underlying ideas in it about the flaws in the public school system, the food that we feed our children in cafeterias. Toad Road I think is a provocative look at the role of hallucinogenics in our lives. I don’t think it really takes a stand for or against, which is one of the things that makes it haunting.”

Like Cooties, The Boy, the first in a trilogy about a child growing up to become a serial killer, takes on its own broader themes, these of nature versus nurture and the difference good parenting can make. The film recently screened at South by Southwest to great acclaim. It was a social experiment, Noah says, because it’s such an unusual film.

“We tried very hard to ground it in a very real world and tried to depict a young boy who is experiencing first symptoms or eventually emerges into a form of psychopathy or sociopathy and understanding what that really looks like in real life at that age,” he says. “The movie withholds the expectations of the slasher genre and the killer kid genre and I think it sort of subverts them to give you something much more real than you’re expecting to get from it. One of the things people say haunts them is how much they find themselves rooting for the boy, even as he begins to do darker and darker things. So that’s my interpretation of why it’s getting under people’s skin is that it feels very real and it kind of sneakily draws you into rooting for someone that you shouldn’t by any means be rooting for.”

Here’s hoping that if there’s a lost little boy at the center of this year’s horror game, he’s a safer receptacle for empathy.

ON THE BILL: The Stanley Film Festival takes place April 30 to May 3 at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Additional details are at The Immersive Horror Game is free but requires signup and consent at For those registered, the game has already begun.

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