In Chicago, October arrives each year like the ring of a death knell. Leaves turn brittle, cold winds blow, and the skies turn as gray as a bruise. For movie folk, there is only one balm with which to soothe the lashes inflicted by the impending arrival of sister winter—horror.
And no better way to administer that balm than at a 24-hour horror movie festival. But when Movieside (the collective responsible for organizing the long-running The Massacre) and the Music Box Theatre parted ways a couple years ago (the reasons are unknown, but I’d guess they have something to do with the green stuff they collect at the ticket booth) the result was two separate events: Movieside’s Massacre continued, under the direction of Rusty Nails and company, moving first to the now-shuttered Portage Theater, and then to the Patio Theater, and the Music Box re-titled its event as the “Box of Horrors.”
Both are 24 hours. Both are in October. Both have terrific line-ups. How to choose?
Let’s chop it into pieces, and see who survives.
The Music Box is the grand old dame of Chicago art houses, earning a rightful place in the hearts of movie-lovers with its unbeatable, consistent mix of repertory classics, midnight shows, and first run indie fare. It’s also ideally suited to event programming due to its size. With capacity at around 700, the house is usually packed, and the laughs and screams of the audience reverberate loud and clear. (Also, has anyone spotted the theater ghost Whitey lately?)
At the Patio, which seats well over a thousand (sans the “balcony” stadium seating area which is roped off and unusable) seating was plentiful. It’s certainly nice not to have to guard your seat (or the seats of your friends) with honey badger-like tenacity. Also, the Patio is a gorgeously restored genuine movie palace, perhaps the most beautiful place to see a movie in Chicago. You could be forgiven if your eyes occasionally wander off their gigantic screen to take in the grandeur of the many beautiful bits of decor that adorn the theater, as mine often do. ADVANTAGE: DRAW
The Massacre does a nice job of hitting most of the beloved benchmarks of horror that fest-goers can look forward to each year (a Karloff film, a Lugosi, a Vincent Price, a Hammer, an 80's slasher, etc.) The Box of Horrors was programmed a bit more eclectically, and the risks paid off occasionally, such as the incredible experience of seeing the inscrutably nutso "The Manitou" on 35mm with an audience of bewildered victims. At a time when weird cinematic genre artifacts are being revived at a breakneck pace, it’s a wonder this one isn't showing up at midnight screenings everywhere.
Just as in music festivals, these events often suffer casualties once the schedules are announced. Full disclosure: as a working person, I did not dare upend my entire sleep schedule to observe all 24-hours of either of these fests, which means that many movies went unseen. I was particularly bummed to miss a 35mm print of Dario Argento’s “Deep Red,” which hit the screen at the Massacre at around 3 a.m. For its part, the Box of Horrors featured the incredible “Possession,” which, in a forgivable but frustrating bit of populist revision, was pushed to an early morning start time in favor of “Child’s Play.”
For those given to award higher points for the screening of 35mm film prints as opposed to DCP digital prints, the Box of Horrors edges slightly ahead (only one of the films this year was projected digitally,) although it should be noted that both fests do an admirable job of heroically navigating the waters of booking 35mm, sourcing prints from all over the globe, from private collections and archives. The Massacre is inclined to throw in a short film here and there, though print quality evidently goes out the window when choosing these (this year’s screening of Guy Maddin’s short “Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity” looked like it was sourced off of YouTube.) ADVANTAGE: DRAW
At the Music Box, there are plenty of bars and restaurants on Southport to satisfy any occasional food or booze cravings, and food trucks were on hand periodically. There are fewer options on Irving Park near the Patio, though the Massacre went with its perennial food vendor Gotta B Crepes, which smelled terrific wafting through the lobby. Also, theater neighbors Regulus Coffee were on hand pouring java.
Special guests are hit-or-miss. Some, like “Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” star Mark Patton, who was at the Massacre, are veterans of the screening circuit, knowing how to whip up an audience and keep Q&A sessions both lively and (cough) short. Others, like David Schmoeller, who directed the bizarre Klaus Kinski vehicle “Crawlspace” and gave a Q&A at the Box of Horrors, can have attendees flocking to the restrooms in no time.
The Massacre announced ticket prices as $20 pre-sale, whereas the Box of Horrors set buyers back about $35. Further salt was poured in this wound when half price tickets to the Box of Horrors were made available a few days before the event. I understand that the Music Box uses events to essentially underwrite its year-round programming, but with such a large disparity in ticket pricing, many would-be attendees will opt for the bargain.
The Massacre makes a point of raffling off movie-related items each year to benefit Vital Bridges, an HIV charity based in Chicago. Though the auctions can be a little trying to sit through, the fact that this is clearly a labor of love for the festival organizers makes it endearing, and they have raised a staggering amount of money for the charity through the years.
Finally, the Massacre’s willingness to show short films and promote the work of local filmmakers makes the fest feel less like just a show and more like a community coming together. ADVANTAGE: THE MASSACRE
WINNER: THE MASSACRE
The Massacre ekes out a bloody victory, but truly, for horror aficionados either of these events is a terrific way to opt out of the season for a day. Get out of the chill, take a seat up close, and embrace the darkness.