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Nevermore Film Festival's master class on suspense and terror

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"Is it safe?" These three words, once heard in the context of 1976's Marathon Man, will keep you from heading to the dentist for a good while after seeing the film. It was nearly two years in my case.

If you have not experienced the orthodontic terrors of Sir Laurence Olivier's Nazi dentist, you'll get a chance to do so in 35mm as part of this year's Nevermore Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre, with a lineup that celebrates less the bloodletting and torture porn of today than the sheer agony of waiting for something bad to happen—and the odd combination of shock and relief when it does.

Some fine films have been building buzz on the festival circuit this year, but what's most exciting to me are the classics on display in 35mm glory. Marathon Man is one of the best of the 1970s paranoid thrillers, with Dustin Hoffman as the world's oldest grad student who runs afoul of a Nazi (Olivier) who's already crossed paths with his secret-agent brother (Roy Scheider in his coolest role, Jaws be damned).

There's an even greater classic of suspense, 1968's Oscar-winning Rosemary's Baby, in a rare 35mm print. The most horrifying things in this Roman Polanski movie—including the titular baby and how it's conceived—are never seen, only implied, but what goes on in the imagination lingers in the nightmares.

Rosemary's Baby is presented as a double feature with 1977's The Sentinel, which does Polanski's film one better by making the entire apartment building evil (and instead of Ruth Gordon, the evil old person is Burgess Meredith from Rocky!). Director Michael Winner reportedly courted controversy by hiring real amputees and sideshow performers to play the dead in the film's climax. This might be a "you have to see it for yourself" flick.

The final classic film at the festival, 1986's Night of the Creeps, is a thoroughly underrated zombie-alien flick from Fred Dekker, who also directed the fellow 1980s cult classic The Monster Squad. With a great tough-cop role for 1980s horror regular Tom Atkins, this one has alien zombie slugs getting unfrozen at "Corman University," just one of many, many references to horror directors you'll find in this one. It's silly, scary and has flamethrowers and an evil dog.

But Creeps is a bit of an anomaly among the older films, which mostly rely on that long-lost art: suspense. Many films today settle for displaying a horribly mutilated body in the first 10 minutes, which is followed by more creative maiming every 10 minutes henceforth.

The most intriguing films among the new releases show a healthy appreciation for suspense. The Innkeepers, from cult director Ti West (The House of the Devil, another effective suspense vehicle), draws most of its horror from the sheer monotony of a dead-end job at a dying Connecticut inn, whose two remaining employees (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) attempt to contact a ghost from the inn's past to feel connected to something bigger. The film often teases us with the promise of a shock rather than providing actual jump-out-of-your-seat moments, but it has a quirky, character-oriented charm, with amusingly oddball performances from Kelly McGillis as a psychic and Tiny Furniture auteur Lena Dunham as a chatty barista girl.

Other Nevermore films are more deliberate in their retro vibe. It is a strange thing to mention the Oscar-nominated The Artist in the same sentence with the tentacle-creature fiction of horror maestro (and notorious racist) H.P. Lovecraft, but The Whisperer in Darkness is as faithful a re-creation of the Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930s, '40s and '50s as The Artist is a mimicking of the silent era. Produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, it's an expanded version of one of Lovecraft's novellas about finding strange cults linked to terrible extra-dimensional ancient creatures. A great deal of his original dialogue is intact, along with some expansion to include the likes of real paranormal proponent Charles Fort. The result is sometimes talky and occasionally features effects that evoke Ed Wood more than the classics, but the passion for the source and the filmmaking style shines through in an atmospheric, occasionally campy number.

If you want more immediate scares—or laughs—there's plenty more at Nevermore, including Playback, a thriller involving teens and an evil camera-based presence (and for some reason, Christian Slater as a pervy cop) that will be released theatrically in March; Eaters, described as "A Fantastically Gory Italian Zombie Movie"; Some Guy Who Kills People, a darkly comic flick produced by John Landis, and a variety of shorts, including one with the title Banana Motherfucker.

OK, suspense is awesome. But it's nice to know horror still has room for things that are weird, wild, and possibly do for bananas what Marathon Man once did for dentists. "Is it safe?" I hope not.

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