Film Preview: The Salem Horror Fest 2023 — A Preview

By Peg Aloi

This year’s version of the iconic festival features a number of premieres, some restorations, and some screenings of well-loved cult classics, as well as a number of special guests.

A scene from the 2021 version of Candyman.

Beginning tonight (April 20) at the Peabody-Essex Museum, the Salem Horror Fest is an iconic horror festival that has grown more prominent in recent years. Taking place in the city known as a hub of witchcraft tourism (though the infamous Salem Witch Trials actually took place in Danvers, known long ago as Salem Village), the fest has generated an energetic vibe suited to passionate genre enthusiasts. This year’s gathering features a number of premieres, some restorations, and some screenings of well-loved cult classics, as well as a number of special guests. The opening night gala will have three special guests: actor Tony Todd (best known for the Candyman franchise), keynote speaker Kier-la Janisse (author of House of Psychotic Women and filmmaker whose excellent documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror will screen on April 22 at 2:30 pm), and founder/president of the George A. Romero Foundation, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero. There will be a screening of Candyman (though it’s not clear if it will be the 1992 or the 2021 version), preceded by a conversation with Tony Todd moderated by Andrea Subissati (editor of Rue Morgue magazine).

The main screening venue is Cinema Salem, with some events also happening at Bit Bar. Screenings will take place over two consecutive weekends, from Friday April 21 through Sunday April 23, and Saturday and Sunday April 28-29. Some films screen once, while others (including some local and world premieres) will show twice, so be sure to check the schedule.

Satan Wants You explores the legacy of the book Michelle Remembers, a memoir written by Michelle Smith and Dr. Lawrence Pazder.

There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the new documentary Satan Wants You. This fascinating film, co-written and directed by Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor, focuses on the Satanic Panic of the ’90s, and one of the narratives at its heart: the 1980 book Michelle Remembers. Presented as a “memoir” written by a psychiatrist about his patient, whom he later married, the book chronicles a young woman’s accounts of being abused by a satanic cult (some of whom were her family members) as a child. Michelle also appeared on numerous TV talk shows and radio programs throughout the ’80s discussing her experiences. She was one of a number of Satanic Ritual Abuse “survivors” made briefly famous by the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Oprah Winfrey, not to mention any number of tabloid articles. In recent years, her story has been discredited. This absorbing film features a number of experts, including Kenneth Lanning (an FBI agent appointed to head a task force to investigate numerous reports of children being kidnapped and murdered by satanic cults, who found no physical evidence of any wrongdoing), psychologist Elizabeth Loftus (an expert in the use of coercive techniques to elicit false memory recall in therapy), and a slew of authors, podcasters, and perhaps most interestingly, friends and family members of Michelle herself. Stay tuned for a full-length Arts Fuse review of Satan Wants You when it is released more widely, but catch this premiere if you can.

Shelley Duvall in The Forest Hills. Photo: Dreznick Goldberg Productions

Other premieres include The Forest Hills, a gruesome horror thriller about a man who sees disturbing visions and feels compelled to act on them. Directed by Scott Goldberg, it features a heartbreaking cameo by the legendary Shelly Duvall as the mother of the man who endures a traumatic brain injury while lost in the woods that changes his life forever. Brightwood is a psychological thriller with a simple but compelling premise: a married couple on the brink of splitting up try to process their marital strife while jogging around a local pond, only to realize they can’t find their way back home. Written and directed by Dane Elcar, co-stars Dana Berger and Max Woertendyke give tour do force performances as the lost couple. Horror director and actor Larry Fessenden stars in Summoners, a story of a grieving family with a legacy of modern witchcraft. Directed by The Unquiet Grave’s Terence Krey (who co-wrote the screenplay with star Christine Nyland), the film is a contemporary story of a young woman whose former beliefs in witchcraft are rekindled when a childhood friend (McLean Peterson) seeks her help.

Other premieres and new films from a number of countries, including Russia, Australia, Canada and Ukraine, will also be shown: Dalila Droege’s No More Time, Alexandra Spieth’s Stag, Danny Dunlop’s Wolves, Elise Finnerty’s The Ones You Didn’t Burn, Carter Smith’s Swallowed, Sylvia Caminer’s Follow Her, and Zach Passero’s animated feature The Weird Kidz are just a few of the titles in the eclectic program. Also on the festival schedule are an impressive selection of shorts and classic features, including The Fog (1980, John Carpenter), an English folk horror classic rarely seen on the big screen, The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971, Piers Haggard), Italian giallo horror Demons (1985, Lamberto Bava), 1999’s groundbreaking indie The Blair Witch Project (which gave a name to the found footage genre), and an eclectic selection of horror shorts shown throughout the fest. There will also be conversations with actors, directors, authors, and film artists, and a live podcast session with Horror Queers on Saturday, April 29.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

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