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The Best Horror Festivals in the World 2021

Dread Central presents: the ultimate guide to the best horror festivals in the world for 2021. Filmmakers and fans, strap yourselves in!

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The world of horror festivals is as massive as it is marvelous, and it only seems to grow by the year. Finding your way through that world can be thrilling… but also overwhelming if you’re unsure of which horror hubs will best satisfy your needs as a horror filmmaker, fan, or both.

When we at Dread Central got to talking about what makes a horror festival experience truly great, we knew that the answers would vary depending on who you ask. So, it wasn’t our mission to tell you where in the world you should or shouldn’t attend. What we really wanted to do was tell the story of the horror festival circuit.

Our guide to The Best Horror Festivals in the World is a telling of that story. It’s a story we expect to change with each passing year—and one we hope will help you better understand the circuit’s leading horror hotspots, so you can decide which have the most to offer you. 

All of the festivals on this list were selected by a panel of industry experts. (Say hello to those fine folks here.) No festival qualified for selection unless it received votes from panelists who are not associated with that festival. Once the list was set in stone, we surveyed our selected festivals to help us paint an accurate and vivid picture of what goes on at each event.

Beyond this process, the Dread Central team will also provide rankings of selected festivals in four key categories: Programming, Filmmaker Support, Market, and Fan Fun. (Rankings will be regularly updated based on availability of data.)

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Illustrations by Matthew Therrien

Launching the inaugural edition of this list in 2020 had its challenges. So much of the festival scene is about connection, community, and being at the heart of the action—all things that the COVID-19 pandemic has scaled back from public life for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are moved by just how well these fests have managed to deliver unforgettable experiences in trying times, and we’re humbled to be able to share that part of their story with you.

So, here it is: your personal map to the brightest spots on the global horror festival circuit. Don’t lose it…

Abertoir

Ceredigion, Wales / November 2021 / abertoir.co.uk

“I found films at this event that I wouldn’t have found elsewhere,” says a panelist, who praises the “small, dedicated group of fans” that make up Abertoir’s staff. 

Originally a three-day celebration of classic and contemporary horror film, the fest has since expanded to a six-day schedule with live concerts, theater performances, and workshops all held at its home venue, the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Wales. 

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Fest-goers at Abertoir 2019’s Death Line Party. Photograph by Matt Hardwick

Last year’s lineup featured the U.K. premiere of director Simone Scafidi’s experimental doc on Lucio Fulci, Fulci for Fake, which was followed by a post-screening discussion with producer Giada Mazzoleni and Lucio’s daughter, Antonella Fulci. Fans also enjoyed silent horror shorts with live piano accompaniment, and a masterclass on practical special effects led by Dead and Buried director Gary Sherman. 

In November, Abertoir made its 2020 program accessible via Abertoir Online, a virtual version of the fest that streamed new films, Q&As, and live performances—like at its closing night afterparty, where DJ Dellamorte spun horror-themed surf and psychedelic jams. 

A Night of Horror International Film Festival

Sydney, Australia / 2021 / anightofhorror.com

One panelist calls A Night of Horror International Film Festival “Australia’s top genre festival,” and attributes its success to founding director Dean Bertram’s discerning curatorial eye. 

“Dean has taken pride in the fact that ANOH mostly selects films from blind submissions, as opposed to sourcing from other festivals, distributors, or sales agents,” that panelist notes. Bertram recently moved stateside to start the exciting new Wisconsin-based hub, MidWest WeirdFest, putting ANOH on a two-year hiatus. ANOH returned this year under co-directors Enzo Tedeschi and Bryn Tilly, who are equally passionate about presenting new discoveries. 

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Filmmaker Megan Riakos (L) has her temperature taken by the festival team at A Night of Horror International Film Festival 2020. Photograph by Shane Rozario

According to its website, the fest’s acceptance policy ensures that “no less 90% of short films and 50% of feature films are selected from our open submission process.” (Mike Flanagan’s 2011 breakout indie horror feature, Absentia, was one of many films that benefitted from this policy in years past.) 

ANOH’s 2020 edition hosted the world premiere of the Aussie splatterfest The Slaughterhouse Killer, whose director, Sam Curtain, received the John Wiggins Independent Spirit Award. The crew of “The Malicious”—this year’s winner of the Aussie Short Film Audience Award—came away with $3,500 worth of gear, courtesy of festival sponsor Panavision Australia. 

Arrow Video Frightfest

London, U.K. / August 26-30, 2021 / frightfest.co.uk

“Arrow Video Frightfest is huge, but feels totally personalized and handcrafted,” says a panelist. “Co-director Paul McEvoy curates the films he loves, and in so doing, he expands audiences’ notions of genre.” 

Frightfest’s 2020 slate reached far beyond the bounds of conventional horror fare, showcasing the world premieres of a taut, character-driven thriller (Concrete Plans), a sci-fi survival story (Dune Drifter), and a supernatural gangster noir (The World We Knew). And for the first time in its 21-year history, it did so digitally—working around the constraints of COVID-19 with a schedule of live, online screenings, rather than with the on-demand time window utilized by other virtual fests. 

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Fans always have horror on the brain at Frightfest. Photograph by Julie Edwards

“Fans needed to be in front of their device at the appointed time or miss the film,” explains co-director Ian Rattray. “This was our attempt to recreate an in-cinema event at home and get as many people as possible together to watch films at the same time.”

Frightfest supports up-and-coming British genre filmmakers with three initiatives: First Blood, which screens first-time and low-budget films to attract sales agents and distributors; New Blood, which helps genre screenwriters get their scripts into production; and Fresh Blood, which awards funding to filmmakers who successfully pitch their project to industry pros. 

Guests of past editions include Dario Argento, Christopher Nolan, and the late George Romero. Frightfest’s team are “lovers of filmmakers and of connecting people,” adds a panelist, so while other genre giants may have stayed at home this year, you can bet they’ll be back to mix and mingle with lucky fans as soon as they’re able.

Beyond Fest

Los Angeles, CA / Fall 2021 / beyondfest.com

In 2020, Beyond Fest was the first place on the west coast where you could see Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, the first place in the U.S. where you could see Bryan Bertino’s The Dark and the Wicked, and the first place in the world where you could see Jim Cummings’ Wolf of Snow Hollow.

It was also the only physical genre fest held in the country this year, thanks to its team’s success in converting its usual in-theater event to an exclusively drive-in experience.

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Courtesy of Beyond Fest

“Beyond Fest always has an amazing line up,” one panelist raves. “It’s a fantastically organized festival and has some of the best Q&As I’ve seen, moderated by thoughtful hosts.” The fest’s repertory screenings are often epic: John Carpenter, Al Pacino, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are just a few marquee guests who’ve attended anniversary showings of their beloved works.

Festival founder Christian Parkes stresses that “filmmakers and talent who attend the festival view films in the same seats as everyone else. Whether you’re Guillermo del Toro or attending your first Beyond Fest screening, we want everyone to be part of the same shared communal experience.”

While all that star power certainly helps ticket sales, Beyond Fest has remained a not-for-profit entity since its inception. All of its sales and concessions go straight to American Cinematheque, the essential L.A. film institution whose affiliated venues, The Egyptian Theatre and Aero Theatre, need steadfast support now more than ever.

Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival

Toronto, Canada / October 2021 / bloodinthesnow.ca

“This Toronto horror fest has grown immensely in the past few years and will keep getting better,” says a panelist. This year’s run of Blood in the Snow saw the addition of presenting partner Super Channel, whose streaming platform has made the fest’s stellar Canadian genre programming more accessible than ever before. 

Over the years, fans and attending filmmakers at BITS have hung out with such horror heavyweights as Tony Burgess (Pontypool), Steve Hoban (Ginger Snaps), Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), and Julian Richings, whose Satanic chiller Anything for Jackson had its regional premiere streamed by BITS this past October. “It isn’t surprising, given the Canadian location, that everyone was so nice and welcoming,” adds a panelist. “On my first night, the staff was concerned about me finding the bar for after-screening drinks, and once I got there it was easy to find friendly people to chat with.”

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Hail to the Deadites director Steve Villeneuve accepts the 2020 Blood in the Snow Film Festival award for Best Editing via Zoom. Courtesy of Blood in the Snow Film Festival

BITS is fiercely committed to the future of fright filmmaking from its motherland. This year, the fest’s four-day Deadly Exposure Industry Market brought upstart Canadian creatives and industry vets together for discussions on production and distribution in the age of COVID-19, undoing horror tropes with cultural sensitivity, and more. 

Publicity coordinator Jen Gorman says that next year, BITS hopes to return to its stomping grounds at The Royal Cinema and resume its routine of “an after-party every night.” Until then, this year’s virtual visitors could at least let their hair down on Facebook with live-streamed parties on Halloween and closing night.

BoneBat “Comedy of Horrors” Film Fest

Redmond, WA / October 2021 / bonehand.com/bonebatff.html

“As popular as they are, it’s a wonder there aren’t more horror comedy-focused fests,” says a panelist. “Maybe it’s because doing it well is hard… but not for BoneBat. Definitely the most fun you can have watching horror-comedy—and some straight horror mixed in.” 

BoneBat “Comedy of Horrors” Film Fest follows an atypical schedule—each of its two nights starts at 6 p.m. and runs straight through its program—and that’s what one panelist says “amps up the energy and sends the audience into a frenzy.” Usually that program consists of long- and short-form horror-comedy alike. This year, though, shorts were king—accounting for 100% of BoneBat’s first-ever virtual event, with a solid 22% of them programmed from submissions. 

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Courtesy of Bonebat “Comedy of Horrors” Film Fest

BoneBat’s 2020 edition awarded statues to filmmakers who bested their competition in Best Live Action, Best Animated, and Best Pacific Northwest shorts categories. This year’s winner of the Jumbo Bonus Jury Award for Excellence in Horror Comedy—director Jason Cook’s “Fucking Ghosts”—also snagged a cash prize. 

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival

Boston, MA / February 5-15, 2021 / bostonscifi.com

Though it’s not a straight horror festival, Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival is the oldest-running indie genre fest in the U.S., and has unleashed heaps of heavy-hitting sci-fi horror on audiences throughout its 46-year tenure. 

Boston Sci-Fi runs for 10 days each year, culminating in a 24-hour sci-fi marathon. Last February, attendees saw The Long Walk, the sci-fi ghost story whose director, Mattie Do, won the fest’s Best Director award. (Do has emerged as a filmmaking force since becoming the first and only female director—and horror director—from Laos with her feature debut, Chanthaly.) 

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Trivia night at Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival. Courtesy of Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival

Recent repertory programming has included screenings of Ken Russell’s hallucinatory sci-fi-horror, Altered States; David Cronenberg’s masterful remake of The Fly; and Steve De Jarnatt’s apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles, Miracle Mile. 

Boston Sci-Fi’s workshops offer genre filmmakers a wealth of opportunities to hone their craft and spark creative new partnerships. Recent educational events delved into the essentials of post-production, how to cut a trailer, the ins and outs of distributing indies, and more. 

Other industry meet-ups offer lessons of a different sort. One panelist recalls hitting up a filmmaker brunch where “Tom Atkins, who was there with a film, told me the secret to making fluffy pancakes: ‘None of that cardboard crap, that’s the worst!’ (Although I haven’t tried it, the secret is apparently separating the whites from the yokes and whisking them, then pouring them into the mix.)”

Boston Underground Film Festival

Boston, MA / 2021 / bostonunderground.org

Held in Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre, Boston Underground Film Festival has earned its long-held status as a fan and filmmaker favorite with its primo programming and cozy amenities. 

“The Brattle is one of the last great single-screen theaters in New England,” says a panelist. “There’s a balcony and local beer on tap, what more could you ask for? I actually have a Brattle Theatre tattoo with a nod to the ‘Balcony Crew’ after making so many friends at BUFF over the years—no joke.”

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Crowds pour in for a packed screening at Boston Underground Film Festival. Courtesy of Boston Underground Film Festival

Last October, BUFF—alongside four other horror festivals on our list—streamed its lineup under the Nightstream banner, giving virtual viewers who usually can’t visit the physical fest a chance to enjoy its excellent New England horror shorts block. The fest also hosted the regional premiere of director Rose Glass’ Saint Maud and a 30th anniversary screening of Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches.

When BUFF returns to regular order, its local eats and nightlife will continue to be a draw. “In between screenings which combine local filmmakers and the weirdest in global cinema, you can get nearly any kind of food due to the location,” says a panelist. “There are also eclectic DJ-ed parties, and great afterparties, too.”

And in case all that’s not enough, one panelist adds these final words: “To put it into perspective on how cool this place is, David Lynch is on the board of directors.”

Brooklyn Horror Film Festival

Brooklyn, NY / October 2021 / brooklynhorrorfest.com

“Though only four years old, this fest has emerged as the one to watch,” says a panelist, who points to Kurtis David Harder’s queer horror feature Spiral as just one example of Brooklyn Horror Film Festival’s “smart, savvy programming that digs deep for terrific indie films.”

Among BHFF’s 2020 offerings—all screened as part of Nightstream—were the world premiere of Honeydew, Devereux Milburn’s directorial debut about a road trip from Hell, and the North American premiere of Mandibles, a characteristically crazy comedy from director Quentin Dupieux (Rubber, Deerskin) about two idiots and a giant fly. 

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This year, would-be attendees of Brooklyn Horror Festival 2020 met up online via Nightstream’s 8-bit avatar program, Gather. Courtesy of Brooklyn Horror Film Festival

Going digital didn’t deter the fest from bringing the repertory ruckus: While the 1963 Japanese splatter flick Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell and the 1980 grossout Canuxploitationer Deadline scratched fans’ retro itch, Shock Value author Jason Zinoman joined USC archivist Dino Everett for a rare look back at the early short films of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. 

Another panelist adds: “I’ve been lucky enough to play BHFF most of the years that it’s run; in 2019, I was stoked to play my weirdo short in a block with Brandon Cronenberg’s. The parties are fun to catch up with old friends and the films are, of course, great. Plus, you’re in New York! The food and shopping are great and it’s always fun to hang out with Larry Fessenden when he’s able to stop by.” 

Horror fans have much to look forward to once BHFF’s physical event is back in The Borough.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival

Brussels, Belgium / April 6-18, 2021 / bifff.net

“This Dutch festival rolls out the metaphoric and literal red carpet for filmmakers by hosting an ocean of new horror, sci-fi, and fantasy every year,” says a panelist. “Coupled with director showcases and wild parties, Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival is a must-see mega-festival that loves genre film as much as its fans.”

On top of its 150-plus films per year, BIFFF features cutting edge VR experiences, make-up contests, gaming events, and masterclasses. Last year, its Vampire Ball brought out masses of masked fans for a night of dancing and drinks at the historic Art Deco Horta Hall in Bozar. 

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Closing night at Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival 2019. Photograph by Saskia Batugowski

Four of BIFFF’s 13 days are dedicated to the BIF-Market—a program that shows 90-plus features and 100-plus short films from five continents to facilitate meetings between producers and buyers and encourage international co-productions. Dates have been set for next year’s edition, which the fest promises will be a mix of new premieres and throwbacks to the best of years’ past. 

Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival

Bucheon, South Korea / 2021 / bifan.kr/eng

“BiFan is the most important genre film event in Asia,” says a panelist, who praises the Korean festival’s consistently stacked lineup of feature world premieres. “Distributors and sales agents all over the world look here to discover the next Asian horror hit.”

Last July, BiFan attendees filled theaters at 35% capacity for world premieres of Whispering Corridors 6: The Humming—the latest installment in the long-running supernatural series that first shook up Korean cinema in 1998—and director Kyung-hun Cho’s animated horror debut, Beauty Water. Much of the fest’s screenings streamed online via the local platform Watcha.

BiFan didn’t let COVID deprive the DIY filmmakers in its audience of the lessons they crave, managing to hold numerous in-person Q&A and “Megatalk” sessions. Guests who couldn’t fly in still made an impact: William Friedkin—this year the subject of Alexandre O. Phillipe’s incisive documentary, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist—pre-recorded a masterclass moderated by Phillipe that streamed after the film was screened. 

If accepted, those who submit their scary movies to BiFan can expect a reward-rich environment. The festival hands out some hefty cash prizes for competition features and shorts—Pelican Blood director Katrin Gebbe received $16,600 for winning this year’s Best of Bucheon Award—as well post-production services for select projects. 

Buenos Aires Rojo Sangre

Buenos Aires, Argentina / November 2021 / rojosangre.quintadimension.com/2.0

The oldest genre film festival in Latin America, Buenos Aires Rojo Sangre “has earned the respect of every other festival because of its endurance,” says a panelist. “It’s extremely well-curated and its fans love everything, from bizarre B-films to highbrow horror fare.”

“It’s also important to highlight this festival’s stubbornness,” jokes a panelist, and another panelist agrees, pointing out that it insists on “keeping its main idea of a festival made for horror fans by horror fans.” 

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Courtesy of Buenos Aires Rojo Sangre

Small but impactful, BARS has long helped kickstart careers for top Argentinian talent—like Adrián García Bogliano, who premiered his Best Feature Audience Award-winning horror, Room for Tourists, in 2004 and went on to helm the potent possession shocker Here Comes the Devil a decade later. 

BARS just wrapped its 2020 online edition, which streamed 45-plus features and 100-plus shorts via Contar, Flixxo, and YouTube throughout its 10-day schedule. The fest won’t return to its physical festivities until next year, but one panelist, who praises “the great environment that it creates,” assures that all the choripán—a local specialty sandwich with grilled chorizo—and beer in Buenos Aires make it well worth the wait. 

Celluloid Screams

Sheffield, England / October 2021 / celluloidscreams.com

“Celluloid Screams stands out from the crowded U.K. horror fest scene with a primo line-up composed entirely of feature film blocks,” says a panelist. 

That’s not to say there are no shorts at Celluloid Screams. (The same panelist notes that “the features are supported by great shorts,” and in fact, 100% of the shorts in the 2020 slate were programmed from submissions.) But it’s the fest’s decision not to have dedicated shorts blocks, one panelist argues, that “creates a really interesting change of pace for those on the circuit.”

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Courtesy of Celluloid Screams

This year’s run included the U.K. premieres of Peninsula, director Yeon Sang-ho’s highly anticipated sequel to Train to Busan, and The Block Island Sound, a taut, genre-bending thriller that served as the fest’s annual “secret screening.” 

Celluloid Screams pulls no punches for its public parties, like its opening night Halloween party that rang in its midnight premiere of Halloween in 2018. Its closing night karaoke party has also become the stuff of legend—always ending, without fail, in a group rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Ever since its 2014 screening of Dead Snow 2, the song “has become the festival’s unofficial anthem,” says founder and co-director Robert Nevitt.

Chattanooga Film Festival

Chattanooga, TN / April 15-19, 2021 / chattfilmfest.org

Chattanooga Film Festival earns the endorsement of one panelist not only because its online programming produced “great results” earlier this year, but because it was “one of the first genre festivals that dared to go online, and inspired others to do the same.” 

Another panelist agrees, adding that “Chattanooga’s partnership with Microsoft went very well and it was one of the best virtual festivals this year.” That panelist has also experienced CFF’s physical event, though, and says it’s not to be missed: “The fest is run by a small, tight-knit group of rag-tag misfits who feel like a family and sacrifice a lot to bring the best genre selections to the area.”

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Elijah Wood wins the “Moonstruck” moon pie eating contest at Chattanooga Film Festival 2019. Courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

“Plus, if you’re a filmmaker, you’ll get to go on cool field trips in a school bus while imbibing sponsored Chattanooga Whiskey,” a panelist continues. “There’s also plenty of barbecue and fried chicken biscuit sandwiches!” An axe-throwing adventure was on the 2020 itinerary, but fest-goers will have to wait until the next physical fest for any hatchet heaving to commence.

What did commence this year, though, was commendable: CFF and presenting partner Vinegar Syndrome hosted an all-night pajama party—featuring a horror triple-feature and live music from death metal band Undeath—and the great Barbara Crampton led a raucous live reading of the script for John Carpenter’s The Thing

Cinepocalypse

Chicago, IL / 2021 / musicboxtheatre.com

Although it’s still a relatively new kid on the block, Cinepocalypse is “one that’s started strong and kept it up,” says a panelist, who notes that the Chicago-based fest “has more of a balance between upcoming films and retrospective screenings than many other fests on the circuit.” 

Cinepocalypse has a habit of making horror history. One panelist reminds that just last year, its attendees were the first to see a cult classic in the making: “The fest brought Glen Danzig into town to premiere his debut film, Verotika… gutsy move, but that is very Chicago!” 

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Courtesy of Cinepocalypse

Another panelist recalls that Cinepocalypse “was one of the first festivals to show the ‘Gore Cut’ of Tammy and the T-Rex, which played brilliantly to a pumped and bewildered crowd,” and adds that having sponsoring bar The Music Box attached to its theater makes it easy for people to connect before and after its rowdy premieres. 

Despite this year’s unfortunate cancellation, the fest is currently taking submissions for its 2021 edition, which will once again open its doors to new and returning faces.

Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival

Edinburgh, Scotland / April 22-25, 2021 / deadbydawn.co.uk

For one panelist, Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival is a place where “I always felt welcomed into the ‘body of the Kirk,’ as we say in Scotland.”

According to its website, Dead by Dawn programs about 5% of what’s submitted to its staff, and it never screens two films at the same time. The fest is all about its films and not so big on workshops, but it does see its share of horror greats as guests—like Jeff Lieberman, who visited last year to present Blue Sunshine, Squirm, Satan’s Little Helper, and other classics from his filmography. 

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Courtesy of Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival

Dead by Dawn boasts an impressive track record of discovery: In years past, the fest has hosted the U.K. premieres of Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles and Braindead; Jaume Balaguero’s The Nameless; Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street and Stakeland; Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers; and Mike Flanagan’s Oculus. And if you want your horror film to be discovered next, you can submit it free of charge. 

“If the dedicated fans who run this fest hadn’t gotten off their backsides to organize it, the genre scene would be a much less vibrant place,” says a panelist.

Dead North Film Festival

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada / deadnorth.ca

“Yellowknife, Northwest Territories might be a blip on the map of Canada, but it hosts a unique festival that celebrates independent filmmakers who live north of the Arctic circle,” says a panelist of Dead North Film Festival, which wrapped its eighth edition last February.

The majority of Dead North’s selected films were made in extreme climates throughout the Northwest Territories, where it’s not uncommon to shoot in -54C windchill. (In 2020, 40 of the fest’s 50 features came from Dawson City, Tulita, Fort Smith, Inuvik, Hay River, Dettah, Norman Wells, Iqaluit, and Yellowknife.) 

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Courtesy of Dead North Film Festival

This year, Dead North launched its HyperBorea Talent Lab—a free, two-day lab that helped nine of its accepted filmmakers prepare their projects for the major festival circuit and beyond. Ginger Snaps writer Karen Walton, Blood in the Snow Film Festival founder Kelly Michael Stewart, and Blood Quantum director Jeff Barnaby all participated in the lab as mentors. 

“Dead North touts itself as a ‘filmmaking festival,’ and that’s accurate,” adds one panelist. “It celebrates not only the end product of filmmaking, but everything that goes into the production of cinema.”

Festival organizers Jay Bulckaert and Pablo Saravanja announced on the fest’s Facebook page in September that Dead North will be going on hiatus “for the foreseeable future,” but added that it is “not dead—merely resting for a while, like a Lovecraftian beast, just below the surface… biding time until an inevitable, terrible, and triumphant return.”

Dead North’s commitment to championing circumpolar horror cinema has already left a lasting legacy. We eagerly await the day it’s thawed from its frozen slumber. 

Dracula Film Festival

Brașov, Romania / October 2021 / draculafilm.ro

“Dracula Film Festival’s wonderful atmosphere is something you have to experience,” says a panelist. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better place to sink your fangs into fresh gothic horror and dark fantasy films than in Brașov, steeped in medieval milieu and encircled by the chilly Carpathian Mountains. 

DFF usually comps travel and lodging for guests who trek to its Transylvanian home turf, but this year’s experience was an all-virtual one. The fest was well prepared for that, though: In 2016, it launched Dracula Digital—an educational section geared toward discovering and developing Romanian horror filmmakers ages 16-29—so it came into its 2020 edition with years of online organizing experience under its belt.

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Dracula Film Festival director Ioan Big (L) awards Lamberto Bava (R) with the 2019 Count Dracula Award. Courtesy of Dracula Film Festival

While a panelist notes that “of course, much of its programming consists of vampire films,” festival director Ioan Big says that this year, DFF expanded its base of competition finalists from five to 10, “in order to underline the variety of subgenres and filmmaking approaches at the festival.” DFF also added a Best Documentary Film award category for the first time ever. 

Fittingly, DFF 2020’s closing night featured the world premiere of In Search of Dracula Castle. The doc, written, produced, and narrated by Bram Stoker’s great-great-great grandson, Dacre Stoker, follows Dacre’s journey to find the real location that inspired Count Dracula’s fictional dwelling place. 

Dragon Con Independent Film Festival

Atlanta, GA / September 2-6, 2021 / dragoncon.org

“Want to feel like a superstar?,” a panelist asks. “Want a packed house that sometimes turns hundreds away from screenings? Want an all-shorts lineup?” 

For this panelist, there’s one fest that delivers all of the above: Dragon Con Independent Film Festival, “a one-of-a-kind experience that every filmmaker should have at least once, and fans should have every year.” 

DCIFF has been a part of the circuit since 1987—the same year that its parent festival, the massive, multimedia Dragon Con convention—was founded. Early on, the fest only screened amateur sci-fi shorts made by fans, but by 2002 it evolved into a showcase for true blue indie genre film. DCIFF’s history of guest speakers reads like a horror hall of fame: Charles Band, Clive Barker, Brian Yuzna, and the late Ray Harryhausen are just some of the vets who’ve shared their wisdom with attendees over the years.

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Courtesy of Dragon Con

Last year, shorts from over 10 countries were presented over the course of four days in themed blocks, including “Demons, Psychos, & Ancient Evils,” “Pagan Magic & Folk Monsters,” “Horror Documentaries,” and more. 

“The shorts are terrific and the atmosphere is unbeaten by any fest, including the biggies,” says a panelist. “The screening room is secreted in the epicenter of Dragon Con—on the bottom floor of one of five gargantuan, sold-out hotels, with every hallway, elevator, meeting room and spare ledge packed to bursting with tens of thousands of genre fans, cosplayers, geeks, and weirdos.”

Dublin Horrorthon Film Festival

Dublin, Ireland / October 2021 / ifi.ie/horrorthon

“Dublin Horrorthon has the backing of the Irish Film Institute, but is none the less enjoyable for that,” a panelist jokes. 

Last October, Horrorthon spokesman Mick Fox announced on IFI’s website that although 2020 was “a very tough year—the hardest Horrorthon to put together—the festival is an achievement we did not expect, and one that we feel will not let fans down.” 

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Courtesy of IFI Horrorthon

The fest kicked off with a recorded Q&A with Joe Dante, and from there, dished out droves of horror cinema from Canada, Denmark, Japan, Slovenia, Spain, and Uruguay. It also proudly touted home-brewed horror in its lineup—like Caveat, the claustrophobic directorial debut from Damian McCarthy that was filmed in Bantry, West Cork. 

Etheria Film Festival

Los Angeles, CA / June 20, 2021 / etheriafilmnight.com

“This festival sets the example of how women should be celebrated for their voice in genre,” says one panelist. Another panelist agrees, adding: “Etheria is extremely important to female-identifying creators. This fest has fostered meetings to help careers and highlights the very best short genre films to be found.” 

Forced by COVID to forego its usual festivities at Hollywood’s iconic Egyptian Theatre, Etheria opted to make its entire 2020 shorts lineup temporarily available on Shudder.

 

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Courtesy of Etheria Film Festival

Last year, Roger Corman presented Gale Anne Hurd with the Etheria Inspiration Award to honor her illustrious career. Corman and Hurd also served as jurors—providing feedback for every filmmaker who screened in competition, win or lose—and attendees had the opportunity to meet both producing legends in person. 

To kickstart creative careers, Etheria puts its money where its mouth is: Each year, the festival offers a $5,000 grant to a woman-identifying film student.

L’Etrange Festival

Paris, France / September 2021 / etrangefestival.com

“One word: Paris.” That’s the first thing that springs to mind for one panelist who recently attended L’Etrange Festival. 

It’s not hard to see why: The City of Light’s historic theater, Forum des images, has long proven to be an ideal home for L’Etrange’s brand of deliciously dark cinema. Crowds continued to flock to this year’s physical screenings, even when only 50% of the venue’s tickets were made available to enforce social distancing.

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Lux Æterna star Béatrice Dalle (L) and Gaspar Noé (R) at L’Etrange Festival 2020. Courtesy of L’Etrange Festival 2020

L’Etrange 2020 attendees enjoyed guest appearances from The Voices director Marjane Satrapi, who was given carte blanche to program her own repertory screenings; Gaspar Noé, who screened his metafictional mockumentary, Lux Æterna; and Trouble Every Day and Inside star Béatrice Dalle, who plays a version herself in Noé’s film.

Always on the prowl for the next great discovery, L’Etrange awards its New Genre Grand Prize to one of many films in its International Competition. Each year’s winning film is directly purchased by French distributor Canal+, a longtime festival partner. Last September, that sweet deal was given to Tomiris, a lavishly produced sword-and-sandals adventure from Kazakh director Akan Satayev.

Fantafestival

Rome, Italy / November 2021 / fanta-festival.it

At Fantafestival, a fixture of fantastic cinema in the heart of Rome, it’s not uncommon for filmmakers to connect with fans in a very informal way. Last year, fest-goers took a break between screenings to hang out with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 director Jack Sholder at La Città Perduta, a popular pub where locals play vintage board games over a pint. 

Of course, it’s the fest’s guest list of Italian icons that outshines that of any other. Giallo maestro Pupi Avati, Dark Waters director Mariano Baino, and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni— the star of seminal films by Avati, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava—are just some of the folks who’ve recently mingled with fans in and around the fest’s main venue, Nuovo Cinema Aquila.

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Jack Sholder received the Golden Bat award at Fantafestival 2019. Courtesy of Fantafestival

“Since 1981, Fantafestival has been known for its unique programming that celebrates horror, sci-fi, and fantasy that other festivals might overlook,” says a panelist. “With an emphasis on Italian cinema—they’ve given lifetime achievement awards to Argento, Lucio Fulci, the Bava family, and more—their prestigious premiere section is met with great respect and adoration by filmmakers around the world.”

Typically, Fantafestival collaborates with Italy’s national film archive, Cineteca Nazionale, to host 35mm repertory screenings, but this year that was tabled due to COVID restrictions. Virtual viewers did, however, get to revisit director Jeff Lieberman’s 1988 sci-fi-horror gem, Remote Control, which was followed by an online masterclass led by Lieberman. 

“We hope to return to normality in 2021,” say artistic directors Michele De Angelis and Simone Sarace. Until then, the dynamic program it streamed in 2020 gives Fantafestival plenty to be proud of. 

Fantasia International Film Festival

Montréal, Canada / August 5-20, 2021 / fantasiafestival.com

Plenty of festivals use superlatives like “largest” or “longest” as marketing mantras, but those descriptors don’t always indicate high quality. They do, however, at Fantasia International Film Festival—a horror-lovers’ haven with a list of raves from attendees almost as long as its three-week runtime, which remains unsurpassed in North America.

“Though it’s certainly not an underdog, Fantasia is my greatest love,” says a panelist. Another panelist agrees: “It’s a huge and popular A-list fest, but I can’t help but put it near the top of my list. Co-director Mitch Davis is a sublime human with such vision and enthusiasm, and Fantasia’s Frontiéres Market is a great place to launch a new project.”

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Filmmakers Kaye Adelaide and Mariel Sharp accept Fantasia 2020’s Audience Award for Best Canadian Short for “Don’t Text Back”. Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Frontiéres connects genre filmmakers with industry pros to promote collaborative opportunities. Its 2020 edition showcased 20 international projects in the stages of advanced development and early financing, including There’s Something in the Barn, a new project from Dead Snow producer Kjetil Omberg, and Electric Child, the first film from Switzerland to be selected by the program. 

Fantasia’s crowds are a horror filmmaker’s best friend—“the best I’ve ever seen, crazy and enthusiastic,” a panelist says. “You can feel the energy and excitement as the theater darkens—especially when they start meowing, which is an inside festival joke that doesn’t end.”

One panelist adds: “When I saw our film there in 2019, I had no idea I’d be walking into a 500-person screening. The audience reaction was incredibly warm and our Q&A went on and on and on, eventually moving into the hallway for another hour. Afterward, I got to see Phantom of the Paradise among its incredibly loyal Winnipeg fans, which was the ultimate treat. Legendary Canadian hospitality is a real thing.”

Fantaspoa International Fantastic Film Festival

Porto Alegre, Brazil / April 16-25, 2021 / fantaspoa.com

For three of our panelists, Fantaspoa International Fantastic Film Festival is truly the gold standard for fests of its kind. One raves that it’s “South America’s finest genre event,” another dubs it “the premier showcase of Ibero-American genre films,” and a third proclaims that “the programming here is far superior to that of any other genre festival in the country.” 

Even as Fantaspoa’s size and length—each edition runs 18 days—is unrivaled in the region, its first-ever virtual event still managed to grow, reaching some 70,000 viewers online this year. (That’s about a 600% improvement from the roughly 10,000 attendees that typically turn out for the physical festival.) “Given the COVID situation in Brazil, we know that we’ll have to have another online edition in 2021 and we hope to do the best we can under that limitation,” says festival director Joao Fleck.

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Fantaspoa festival directors Joao Fleck (L) and Nicolas Tonsho (R) celebrate Ruggero Deodato’s (C) birthday. Courtesy of Fantaspoa International Fantastic Film Festival

Fantaspoa prides itself on its masterclasses led by filmmakers from around the world—with recent years’ led by the likes of Roger Corman and Larry Wilson (Tales From the Crypt)—and its parties, which one panelist describes as “total madness.” Another panelist appreciates that the fest’s “chill evening events make the vibe less stressful.” 

Somewhere between the fest’s myriad Latin American premieres—batshit horror-comedy Porno and Portuguese slasher Skull were two of this year’s standouts—and drunken sing-alongs that rage into the wee hours at the cult-themed Mondo Cane bar, “people end up with Fantaspoa tattoos on their bodies and a new horror family for life,” a panelist says fondly.

Fantasporto: Oporto International Film Festival

Porto, Portugal / 2021 / facebook.com/fantasporto

At this 40-year old Portuguese horror hub, “founding director Mario Dorminsky takes a lot of risks premiering a diverse slate of cutting-edge indie films,” says a panelist. “Some prove to be masterpieces, others crap—but this approach is essential for discovering gems that otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance by more commercial, risk-averse festivals.”

This year, Fantasporto’s award for Best Film went to Ghost Master, director Paul Young’s horror-comedy about an embittered assistant director whose script supernaturally possesses the star of his latest low-budget movie.

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Weston Terray’s directorial debut Precarious won the Critics Award at Fantasporto 2020. Courtesy of Fantasporto

Last February, Fantasporto paid tribute to its groundbreaking early history with a repertory screening of Blade Runner, which had its Portuguese premiere at the third annual fest in 1983. The fest’s 2020 edition came to a close just weeks before the onset of the pandemic, leaving it poised to return with minimal setbacks next year. Its upcoming 2021 event is now taking submissions and horror filmmakers can e-mail their latest projects free.

Fantastic Fest

Austin, TX / September 24-30, 2021 / fantasticfest.com

It might seem as if everything to say about Fantastic Fest has already been said. But everyone who’s been to this Austin-based extravaganza has their own story, and no two are the same.

For one panelist, Fantastic Fest is “the place that facilitated the sale of my first feature treatment. When I was just 25, I met the wonderfully supportive Guillermo del Toro and Fantastic Market supervisor Rodney Perkins, who chose my film out of two options and worked with me on my presentation.”

Another panelist enjoyed “a crazy, drunken ‘Scripts Gone Wild’ reading I did onstage last year with many female horror filmmaker friends,” and got a special kick out of meeting Keanu Reeves, who “was as cool as you think he is.”

Of course, attendees’ stories do have some common themes. No one fails to mention what one panelist describes as its “combination of top-caliber programming with a nonstop party environment that isn’t for those with weak-wills or tired livers.” Another panelist highlights its “feverous fan base and outrageous sidebar programs.”

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“A Drag Horror Affair” party at Fantastic Fest 2019. Photograph by Jack Plunkett

At recent editions, Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster was the captain of a Fantastic Feud trivia team, and Parasite director Bong Joon Ho was the guest of honor at the unveiling of an Alamo Drafthouse theater that was renamed the Bong Joon Ho Theater. 

“We pride ourselves on being a down-to-Earth festival where celebrities and fans can mingle casually at events and parties without red tape between them,” says associate head of programming Logan Ann Taylor. Although Fantastic Fest’s 2020 virtual version was decidedly more low-key, fest-goers are hopeful that they’ll be seeing new and old faces at the fest’s on-site bar, The Highball, late next year. 

FilmQuest

Provo, UT / April 2021 & October 2021 / filmquestfest.com

“Run by director Jonathan Martin, the seven-year-old FilmQuest has quickly became one of the most important genre fests on the U.S. circuit,” says a panelist, who applauds the Utahn event’s strong slate of world and regional premieres.

In 2020, FilmQuest programmed the regional premieres of 12 Hour Shift and Survival Skills and the world premiere of They Live Inside Us, the buzzed-about feature debut from director and Utah native Michael Ballif. (Audiences will see them at a later date after this year’s physical festival was postponed.)

Over time, Martin says that FilmQuest’s team discovered that “panels aren’t everyone’s favorite, as enjoyable as they are. People like workshops and labs more: They present more opportunities to learn and improve one’s craft.” Last year, the fest hosted labs on almost every stage of a film’s life cycle, from indie financing and sales, to screenwriting, to marketing. 

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FilmQuest winners Zack Ogle and Aaron Pagniano of We Got a Monkey’s Paw and Chynna Walker, Maverick Moore, and Ryan McNamara of My Dinner with Werner pose in victory on the FilmQuest red carpet. Courtesy of FilmQuest

FilmQuest gives out 48 awards to the winners of its wide-ranging competition categories—22 of whom receive its lovingly crafted Chthulu Trophy. Market activity at the fest is also consistently strong, with Martin noting: “We have a track record of 100% pickup for distribution  for all features we’ve ever taken.” 

The karaoke afterparty is always a favorite among new and returning fest-goers, but last year also added a Friday the 13th-themed party and a hatchet throwing event to the mix. Aside from resuming all that fun in 2021, FilmQuest has some other ambitious goals—including plans to found a new film society and build a new arthouse cinema with the support of local community organizations.

Final Girls Berlin

Berlin, Germany / February 4-7, 2021 / finalgirlsberlin.com 

“This small fest has a huge, bloody, beating heart and is run by radical feminist super horror fans!,” one panelist exclaims. 

For five years and counting, Final Girls Berlin has showcased standout horror shorts and features written, directed, and produced by women, thanks to robust state support from the Senate of Berlin. 

The 2020 edition of FGB received more government funding than any previous year. “That allowed us to pay for the flights and accommodation of our horror specialists so we could expand our program,” says co-director Elinor Lewy. 

This expansion project included investments in marketing to increase local and international press coverage; the rental of a separate space for panels and workshops; an increased presence of women vendors and artists who sold their work during the fest; a trio of dancers who performed a cult-inspired piece before the Berlin premiere of Charlie Says; and a well-received horror trivia event.

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Final Girls Berlin attendees at the 2019 festival’s horror-themed self-defense class. Courtesy of Final Girls Berlin

FGB 2020 audiences were treated to gems new and old, from the German premiere of The Deeper You Dig and the Berlin premiere of Swallow, to repertory screenings of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and Slumber Party Massacre

Recent workshops included talks on the “Bad Mother” trope in Mexican horror and “The Changing Face of the Female Monster,” and even a horror-themed self-defense class. 

Horrible Imaginings Film Festival

Santa Ana, CA / September 3-5, 2021 / hifilmfest.com

Emerging independents, take note: “Horrible Imaginings is the kind of festival you want to experience early in your career,” says a panelist. “That’s because director Miguel Rodriguez treats his festival community like a family—with the utmost care and love.”

Under normal conditions, HIFF hosts its weekend-long stint at The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana. The fest’s response to COVID-19 was a 2020 online edition that Rodriguez says “expanded from three to seven days, with the price reduced and several periphery events added for our pass holders.” 

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Horrible Imaginings’ Future Fears Young Filmmakers block. Photograph by Urbanite LA

Virtual attendees enjoyed the U.S. premiere of Steve Villeneuve’s Evil Dead fandom doc, Hail to the Deadites, and the California premiere of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, director Derek Carl’s remake of the 1962 cult classic of the same name. HIFF is also the home of “Campfire Tales,” a quarterly showcase of standout horror shorts both foreign and domestic. 

One panelist adds: “Part of this super-cool horror fest’s mission is to bring you the best, most diverse films from around the globe, and it is the most diverse I’ve ever attended. The socio-political shorts blocks my films have played in there are very well attended by both filmmakers and audiences, and the conversations resulting from these films are quite gratifying”. Certainly deserving, then, of a spot as one of the best horror festivals around.

Horror-on-Sea

Southend-on-Sea, England / May 14-23, 2021 / horror-on-sea.com

No, Horror-on-Sea isn’t some gimmicky cruise ship-set affair—the name of this event is a reference to its hometown in England. For nine years, the fest has been held at Park Inn By Radisson Palace Hotel in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, with a late night festival bar set up in the Grosvenor Casino next door.

Horror-on-Sea prefers to invest in emerging talent over established stars. Says festival director Paul Cotgrove: “We tend not to have big names at our festival, as we only focus on independent movies.” 

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Courtesy of Horror-on-Sea Film Festival

Each year, attending filmmakers glean insight at a masterclass held by prolific British indie horror director Pat Higgins. Most of the titles that had their U.K. premiere at the fest’s 2020 edition also went on to land home video distribution deals. 

The on-site bar is always buzzing—with horror fans chatting up filmmakers between screenings—and this year, Horror-on-Sea gave it new set dressing. “We turned the bar into a faux VHS video shop,” Cotgrove says. “Filmmakers who screened at the festival designed box covers for their own films, which we mixed in with many other video nasty boxes on display.” 

Imagine Film Festival

Amsterdam / April 2021 / imaginefilmfestival.nl/en

Recognized by a panelist as “a top European genre festival,” Imagine Film Festival has been a key player in the Netherlands’ horror scene for 36 years. 

The fest has made a strong push into the gaming sphere, too—adding an expanded section in 2019 that focuses on games, VR, and interactive productions. Imagine FF’s 2021 edition will also include a brand-new program called Level Up, which gives select developers from the Netherlands and Flanders a chance to share demo versions of their games with audiences.

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Awards night at Imagine Film Festival 2020. Photograph by Almicheal Fraay

The intersection between horror cinema and VR is equally reflected in the fest’s programming. This year, Imagine FF hosted the world premiere of Sleepless Beauty, Russian director Pavel Khvaleev’s surrealist horror feature about a woman who’s kidnapped and forced to wear VR glasses as part of a psychologically torturous experiment. 

Imagine FF is currently taking submissions for next year’s event. For those accepted, flights and hotel stays in Amsterdam are covered by the fest. Awards hopefuls face fierce competition in their bid for the Méliès d’argent prize for best European fantastic film, which Imagine FF co-presents with the 21 other fests who comprise the prestigious Méliès International Festivals Federation.

LUSCA Caribbean International Fantastic Film Festival

San Juan, Puerto Rico / October 20-27, 2021 / luscafilmfest.com

Founded in 2006 as the Puerto Rico Horror Film Festival, LUSCA Caribbean International Fantastic Film Festival has since “become a force in the Puerto Rico area, with a team known for its kindness and filmmaker support,” says a panelist. 

Sadly, co-founder Rafael Mediavilla-Morales passed away earlier this year, but co-founder, programmer, and executive director Zoilo Rodríguez Hernández has resolved to keep LUSCA CIFFF alive and thriving. The fest is now taking submissions for its 2021 edition, which will feature an exhibition of bizarre artwork, cosplay contests, and other special events in addition to its main showcase of international horror features and shorts. 

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Courtesy of Lusca Film Fest

LUSCA CIFFF also has an annual fantastic short script contest, and awards its winners with free screenwriting software, plus the opportunity for professional actors to perform their scripts at a public read-through event. 

Over the past decade, the fest has honored a number of horror icons with its Lifetime Achievement Award—among them, Candyman’s Tony Todd and Tippi Hedren, who joined fans in San Juan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Birds

Macabro International Horror Film Festival

Mexico City, Mexico / August 2021 / macabro.mx

“Mexico City knows best how to party and so does this festival!,” exclaims a panelist. “Festival director Edna Campos Tenorio is a machine, and makes Macabro such a memorable fest with a new theme every year. Macabro always spoils their guests with the most amazing locations and an amazing time.”

Life in quarantine may not have allowed for the colorful bashes that Macabro is accustomed to throwing, but the fest found other ways to spoil its online attendees. Viewers took in a 60th anniversary screening of El Esqueleto de la Señora Morales (The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales); revisited the 1936 landmark of expressionist horror, Dos Monjes (Two Monks); and rediscovered The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as musicalized by Mexican gothic band El Clan.

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Award winners show off their statues at Macabro International Horror Film Festival 2019. Photograph by Sandra Monroy

Accepted filmmakers from across Latin America made new connections through the festival’s Macabro Lab initiative, which hosted online masterclasses, pitch sessions, and workshops to nurture shorts and features in various stages of development. 

“That the festival is so well organized makes it of the highest caliber,” a panelist adds. Always looking to the future, Macabro plans to incorporate the digital model it experimented with for the first time this year into every annual edition going forward.

Mórbido Film Fest

Mexico City, Mexico / 2021 / morbidofest.com

“I’ve had the pleasure of playing this awesome festival several times, and every time I’ve been able to attend, I’ve had a blast,” says a panelist. 

Some attribute the indelible impression Mórbido Film Fest leaves on its attendees to its extraordinary showmanship. “Mórbido is very theatrical, with jaw-dropping opening ceremonies—sometimes with ninjas in attendance,” says one panelist. Another adds: “The festival is theater, love, guts, and blood—tons and tons of blood! Mexican people know the genre well and explore its culture marvelously.”

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Image courtesy of Mórbido Film Fest

Beyond its flagship festival, Mórbido also runs a cable channel that airs horror and sci-fi for Latin American viewers. The network, called Mórbido TV, was an especially important asset this year, providing a host platform for the fest’s 2020 films and filmmaker Q&As to work around COVID restrictions. 

Once the physical fest returns, a panelist promises fans and filmmakers that an incredible experience awaits, “from sold-out screenings to parties overflowing with luchadores (masked Mexican wrestlers) and mezcal.” 

Monsterfest

Melbourne, Australia / December 2021 / monsterfest.com.au

Hailed by one panelist as “Australia’s foremost celebration of international cult and horror cinema,” Monsterfest is the only genre film festival that’s supported by the country’s federal screen agency, Screen Australia. 

Monsterfest’s “dozens of premiere screenings and tons of wild parties offer a unique opportunity for genre fans down under,” a panelist adds. Last year’s festival brought in a record attendance of more than 3,500 people and gave out $9,000 worth of post-production prizes to competing filmmakers.

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Courtesy of Monsterfest

This year, virtual viewers saw the Australian premiere of the French survivalist horror Meander on opening night, and ended the fest’s week-long run with a closing night “Christmassacre” screening of Santa Claus is Coming to Town—a holiday horror mixtape that features demonically possessed children, stop-motion monsters, and a very violent Ol’ Saint Nick. 

Fans also got in on some retro anthology action with a 35th anniversary screening of Night Train to Terror, which was given a 2K restoration by the American Genre Film Archive.

MOTELX – Lisbon International Horror Film Festival

Lisbon, Portugal / September 7-12, 2021 / motelx.org/en

MOTELX soldiered on this year to deliver over 20 sold-out screenings to hungry horror fans in the heart of Lisbon. Its record-setting number of films directed by women—including Katrin Gebbe’s Pelican Blood, which won the fest’s award for Best European Horror Feature—was more than enough reason not to cancel its 2020 event.

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Takashi Miike joins the MOTELX audience via live stream. Courtesy of MOTELX

Aside from its impressive international features program, MOTELX consistently highlights exciting new works from its local horror filmmaking scene. Each year, the fest gives the winner of its Best Portuguese Horror Short Film award the largest cash prize in the country, plus an automatic nomination for the prestigious Méliès d’or Award, which is awarded in Sitges, Spain. 

Guests at recent editions have included Ari Aster, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Richard Stanley. Last September, Takashi Miike joined fans via livestream to lead a masterclass, and Portuguese director Pedro Costa shared his lessons on a timeless technique for horror helmers: how to film in darkness. 

Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival

Neuchâtel, Switzerland / July 2-10, 2021 / nifff.ch/en

Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival’s programming doesn’t just bring together horror fans—it brings together filmmakers. One panelist recalls forming a friendship at last year’s edition: “When my film screened there in 2019, I got an email from the most awesome Yann Gonzales—who made an outstanding film called Knife + Heart—about how much he loved it. Yann and I are now friends who, coincidentally, both made NIFF-programmed features with similar titles.”

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Fest-goers check out an installation at Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival’s Temple du Bas theater. Photograph by Miguel Bueno

NIFFF screens some 177 films that are divided into four competitions. The fest leverages key partnerships with the City of Neuchâtel and the Swiss non-profit CSEM to hand out hefty cash prizes to its Best Feature Film and Best Production Design award winners. Its Narcisse Award, given to the Best Feature Film winner, was designed by visionary artist and Alien mastermind H.R. Giger.

The fest takes its out-of-competition program just as seriously, screening standout Latin American genre film in its El Dorado series; trend-setting Asian features; and fully restored classics projected in an open-air environment. One of its many unique venues, the Temple du Bas, was originally a baroque church before it was converted into a cult cinema. 

Nevermore Film Festival

Durham, NC / February 26-March 4, 2021 / carolinatheatre.org/festival/nevermore-film-festival

Hailed by a panelist as “a grand dame of indie genre fests,” this North Carolinian horror hub has been a reliable champion of short films and filmmakers throughout its 21-year history. To wit, 48 of its 58 accepted submissions in 2020 had runtimes in the range of zero to 55 minutes.

“Nevermore’s unique awards allow the audience a big hand in determining winners, and are one of the rare systems that recognize long-form shorts in their own category,” adds a panelist. This year, the long-form short favorite was unanimous: While fans voted for Spanish director Diego H. Kataryniuk Di Costanzo’s “A Bitter Was the Desert” to win the Audience Award for Best Long-Form Narrative Short, industry experts gave the film the Jury Award in the very same category. 

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Courtesy of Nevermore Film Festival

Nevermore 2020 had its fill of fright features, too. Fans got an early look at Aaron B. Koontz and Cameron Burns’ horror anthology Scare Package before it was released exclusively on Shudder last June, and Justin and Rob Brunner’s twisted take on YouTube celebrity, Making Monsters, won over enough of its premiere viewers to take home the Audience Award for Best Feature.

Another reason Nevermore “rules,” according to one panelist, is its “gem of a theater, The Carolina, in Durham”—a treasured downtown arts complex with rich cultural history. Earlier this month, Indy Week reported that The Carolina announced major layoffs and a plan to close its doors entirely for the first half of 2021. Here’s hoping Nevermore won’t nevermore call it home.

Nightmares Film Festival

Columbus, OH / October 21-24, 2021 / nightmaresfest.com

When it comes to filmmaker-to-filmmaker community and support, Nightmares Film Festival walks the walk. 

“Festival directors Jason Tostevin and Chris Hamel back up their #BetterHorror mantra with their lineup and inclusivity,” says a panelist. “With so many festivals going virtual this year, it takes away a bit of the community aspect Nightmares is known for, but they are making sure to capture that mood with several live components each day, like real-time filmmaker Q&As.”

Another panelist notes that “Nightmares continues to grow in popularity in part due to Tostevin’s relentless social media activity.” Case in point: Nightmares hosts a year-round, private, and very active Facebook group for its alums—a forum that Tostevin says is “unique to us… a hub for advice, support, partnership, and insight.”

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T-shirts printed to commemorate Nightmares Film Festival’s 2020 virtual festival, which was billed as “Masquerade.” Courtesy of Nightmares Film Festival

One panelist believes that some aspects of Nightmares’ first all-virtual event—this year cleverly billed as “Masquerade”—are “something to build on for future fests as an added offering to the film community.” While some innovative programs—like Shut-In Shorts, which showcased films made under pandemic constraints—may not continue beyond 2020, others, like the new Working Maker Workshop seminar series, could become permanent staples of the fest’s ongoing mission to give indie horror creatives an insider view on writing and making films.

Award winners typically take home the fest’s Night Mare statue, beautifully crafted by toy designer Tony Simione (Godzilla, Alien), but last October, best-in-class filmmakers were presented with the Masqued One—another of Simione’s stunning creations made one time only to commemorate this crazy year. 

Night Visions

Helsinki, Finland / August 25-28, 2021 / nightvisions.info

“Scandinavia, the homeland of metalheads… what does this mean?,” asks a panelist. “Counterculture. The geeks, beer lovers, and outcasts who get together in Finland to celebrate genre film make Night Visions a one-of-a-kind festival.”

Although the fest is non-competitive, one panelist adds that “Night Visions is committed to helping find distribution for films they deeply believe in.” At least five features from its 2019 lineup secured distribution in the entire Scandinavian territory, and in 2020, Luz: The Flower of Evil landed a similar deal following its premiere. 

For guests, there are some private perks—like the famed filmmakers-only sauna—but even in a normal year, festival director Mikko Aromaa stresses that red carpet or “industry-exclusive” events are a rarity. “We instead encourage all filmmakers to spend post-screening time in public, where they are easily accessible to the audience,” Aromaa says. 

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L to R: Music video director Michael Panduro, festival director Mikko Aromaa, production coordinators Riina Liukkonen and Petri Mauranen, The Hole in the Ground director Lee Cronin, and “Mines of Eeclor” director Mikko Lopponen, hang out at Night Visions 2020. Photograph by Juho Liukkonen

Last year, giallo giant Sergio Martino flew in to introduce screenings of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Torso, and more, and stuck around for Q&As when the lights went up. Masterclasses, and at least two big parties, were also open to the public.

After wrapping its 2020 edition in August, Aromaa bemoaned the first-ever cancellation of Night Visions’ most cherished ritual. “The biggest sacrifice we had to make was giving up on the all-nighter marathon that has finished the festival for the last 23 years,” he says. Night Visions’ team is counting the days until it can revive that tradition in 2021. 

North Bend Film Festival

North Bend, WA / 2021 / northbendfilmfest.com

“This fest is new but mighty,” says a panelist, who asks: “And what’s not to love about the fact that it takes place where Twin Peaks was set?” 

It’s true: North Bend Film Festival is named after the strange and sleepy small city in Washington that served as the backdrop for David Lynch’s beloved cult series. Sharing this slice of TV history—and meals at Twede’s Cafe, the real-life restaurant that played Twin Peaks’ “Double R Diner”—is part of what one panelist says makes NBFF “very, very memorable” for filmmakers and fans.

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Courtesy of North Bend Film Festival

The Lynchian spirit also extends to NBFF’s curation. As one panelist explains: “This programming team’s idea of genre is really expansive”—a reflection of the fest’s focus on boundary-pushing oddities and surrealist cinema. 

Last year, NBFF treated attendees to the U.S. premiere of The El Duce Tapes, a doc about the incendiary frontman of the metal band The Mentors; and the regional premiere of Monument, an eerie and enigmatic tale about an internship from hell. In 2020, the fest was a participating partner of Nightstream.

During its offseason, NBFF teams up with sponsoring bar Volition Brewery to host its “Film Fest Fridays” monthly series, which gives ticket buyers limited-time online access to exciting new indie titles from around the world. 

Offscreen Film Festival

Brussels, Belgium / 2021 / offscreen.be

Non-competitive and non-conformist, Offscreen Film Festival does genre its own way—programming not just horror, but exploitation and underground cinema in a wide range of styles that it describes on its website as “the cult films of tomorrow.” Originally set to take place March 4-22, 2020, Offscreen’s physical festivities were sadly cut short this year, but it did manage to squeeze in some screenings and shenanigans before quarantine.

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Beach Horror & Party Night at Offscreen Film Festival 2020. Courtesy of Offscreen Film Festival

Some films that represented genre film’s bright future included Miguel Llansó’s Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, Alejandro Landes’ Monos, and Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow. There was plenty of time to celebrate the past, too—with events like “Beach Horror & Party Night,” where fans flocked to a tiki bar to watch vintage beach-bound fright flicks like The Horror of Party Beach, Shock Waves, and Blood Beach

Each year, Offscreen partners with the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema & Sound to co-present Mondo Culto, a screening series of cult classics for filmmaking students attending the Brussels-based film school. 

Overlook Film Festival

New Orleans, LA / 2021 / overlookfilmfest.com

After relocating from Mount Hood, Oregon—the famed filming site of The Shining—it seems that Overlook Film Festival has finally put down roots in New Orleans. Even if the fest isn’t intended to be itinerant, a panelist suggests that switching locations might have its advantages: “The idea that it could move every few years to a new city with some kind of genre-based provenance is radical,” the panelist says.

Wherever it’s held, Overlook is always a uniquely immersive experience. Of course, attendees enjoy the ghost walks, burlesque parties, cemetery tours, and cajun eats that typify New Orleans’ culture throughout its four-day run. But Overlook also hosts an alternate reality experience that one panelist calls “the industry’s most celebrated immersive game, which becomes more detailed and complex every year.” 

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Mick Garris accepts Overlook Film Festival’s Masters of Horror Award. Courtesy of Overlook Film Festival

Another panelist adds: “While Overlook shows incredible films across a variety of horror subgenres, this might be the only fest where the events outweigh the films. We got to see one of Grady Hendrix’s infamous, hilarious, and meticulously researched performances of Paperbacks From Hell and a taping of a special horror edition of the podcast Unspooled, all in an abandoned church. Then, later that same night, those still left on their feet streamed to the after-after karaoke night. Singing Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ at the top of my lungs in a sea of fellow monster kids, filmmakers, press, and a few locals at 3 a.m. in the Big Easy has to be one of the best fest memories I will ever have.”

Panic Fest

Kansas City, MO / January 29-February 4, 2021 / panicfilmfest.com

Filmmakers accepted into Panic Fest will fly in and shack up free of charge, but the thrills to be had at this Kansas City horror hub are anything but cheap. 

“Panic Fest is a newer entry in the festival scene, but has landed with a bang,” says a panelist, who praises its screenings of “great indies that might not find placement at larger fests.” At its 2020 edition, fans dug into a buffet of North American premieres including Two Heads Creek and The Vigil, and filmmakers connected over brunch at local restaurant Chicken & Pickle. 

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Courtesy of Panic Fest

Panic Fest awards a one-year subscription to Shudder to the winner of its Short Film Showcase. This year, the prize went to director Zachary Eglinton for his standout horror-comedy “Allergic Overreaction.”

“The small staff knows their stuff, and makes their boutique festival feel like a massive event for filmmakers and fans,” one panelist adds. Last February, filmmakers gleaned insight on the economics of indie production during one of the fest’s many live podcasts, Nightmare University, while fans came away with super-short print horror trading cards autographed by 12 Hour Shift director Brea Grant, Hatchet director Adam Green, and Mayhem director Joe Lynch.

Popcorn Frights Film Festival

Fort Lauderdale, FL / August 12-20, 2021 / popcornfrights.com

“Popcorn Frights feels set to emerge as one of the events taking on the big kids of genre,” says a panelist. “Its combination of attentive founders, a connected program, and expansive reach means selected indie films are always playing alongside a who’s-who of genre filmmakers.”

This year, after screening its main lineup as part of Nightstream in mid-October, Popcorn Frights closed out the month by delivering Floridian fright fans a geo-locked, charitable virtual event called Wicked Weekend. Pass-holders were treated to some 21 premieres, including the North American premiere of David Gregory’s Tales of the Uncanny, and all proceeds were donated to local arthouses affected by COVID-19.

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Popcorn Frights Film Festival hosted drive-in screenings this past summer. Courtesy of Popcorn Frights Film Festival

In that spirit of regional support, Florida-based short horror filmmakers are showcased each year with the fest’s “Homegrown: 100% Pure Fresh Squeezed Florida Horror” program. (Room 237 director Rodney Ascher, a Sunshine State native, premiered his short “Primal Scream” as part of the program’s inaugural edition in 2017.) And in 2019, Popcorn Frights partnered with Gunpowder & Sky’s horror platform, ALTER, to make some of its shorts eligible for distribution. 

Popcorn Frights’ historic home theater, Savor Cinema, famously survived the monstrous Miami Hurricane of 1926, and will open its doors to attendees once more when we’ve passed through the eye of the pandemic. One panelist suggests submitting sooner than later: “Aim for it now, so you have the in when they go big time!”

Semana de Terror de San Sebastián

San Sebastián, Spain / October 2021 / sansebastianhorrorfestival.eus

“After Sitges, Semana de Terror de San Sebastián is the most important genre festival in Spain,” a panelist proclaims. “It’s a must for fans and filmmakers to attend at least once.”

This year, the festival co-hosted its online platform, “Noviembre Fantasma” (“Ghostly November”) with fellow Spanish horror hubs Fancine Málaga and TerrorMolins to stream its outstanding premiere programming. One highlight: the Spanish premiere of Ringu director Hideo Nakata’s latest slice of horror, Stigmatized Properties—a chilly dramatization of Japanese comedian Tanishi Matsubara’s real-life experiences living in houses where murder, suicide, or accidental death once took place. 

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Semana de Terror de San Sebastián director Josemi Beltrán. Courtesy of Semana de Terror de San Sebastián

Although this year’s travel restrictions whittled the fest’s physical guest list down to zero, accepted filmmakers can usually expect comped travel and lodging. Semana de Terror de San Sebastián also awards cash prizes to the winners in its numerous short film competitions, and hands out specially designed rings to winners in every awards category. 

Sick N’ Wrong Film Festival 

Orlando, FL / December 10, 2021 / sicknwrongfilm.com

“Orlando’s Sick ‘N’ Wrong has all the community feeling of a hand-crafted, founder-led festival, but is run as tightly as any larger fest,” says a panelist. “Director Stephen Stull curates a bleeding-edge program of the bizarre, filthy, and delightfully manic as good as any underground lineup around, but the fest never feels up its own ass.”

Stull says his biggest regret about running Sick ‘N’ Wrong during the pandemic was that he “wasn’t able to hold the ‘super-secret’—but not really secret—filmmakers-only brunch the last day of the fest, which is always a huge highlight.” 

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Sick ‘N’ Wrong’s “Sickie” Award. Photograph by Jemuel Stone

On the other hand: “One cool thing about going online, though, was being able to talk with a lot more filmmakers than I usually would, since most can’t afford to fly to Florida. I have every intention of incorporating something like this in the future live events to increase filmmaker involvement,” Stull adds. 

A hefty 29% of Sick ‘N’ Wrong’s 2020 lineup was programmed from submissions, and filmmakers competed for 12 “Sickie” awards that a panelist calls “one of the great trophies on the circuit.” This year, filmmakers took home statues for films that were “Sickest,” with the most gut-wrenching visuals, and “Wrongest,” with the most morally aberrant story. And for the film with the most uncomfortably sexy scene, there was the prestigious Weirdest Boner Award.

Shriekfest

Los Angeles, CA / 2021 / shriekfest.com

“Shriekfest rivals Screamfest as Los Angeles’ top genre festival when it comes to open submissions for features,” says a panelist.

Festival founder and director Denise Gossett says that Shriekfest accepts around 10% of films from its submissions pool, and that about 85% of those films go on to garner distribution either during the fest or shortly after its run. Last year, crowds caught the world premieres of Do Not Reply and Greenlight, which won Shriekfest’s Best Thriller Feature Film award.

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Shriekfest’s coveted Blood Reel Trophy. Courtesy of Shriekfest

Award-winning filmmakers can receive a number of prizes—from cash to camera equipment and software—and some walk away with Shriekfest’s red-splattered Blood Reel Trophy. The fest’s 2020 edition introduced five new competition categories: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Pilot Screenplay.

Shriekfest hosts its repertory screening series, “Shriekfest Presents,” every other month, giving Angelenos the chance to revisit horror classics like Alien and Child’s Play 2 at local theaters in glorious 35mm. The fest also hosts a second, one-day showcase in Orlando a month after its main event, so Floridian fright fans always get a taste of what it has to offer. 

Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival

Sitges, Spain / October 7-17, 2021 / sitgesfilmfestival.com

When it comes to this horror haven on the sunny shores of Spain, two panelists share the same exact thought, verbatim: “Sitges is the best genre festival in the world, without a doubt.”

Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival’s rep as the “grandaddy” of all horror fests precedes itself, yet its atmosphere is “without egos,” a panelist notes. Another panelist attests to its hearty backing of new voices: “I first attended Sitges in 2015 with my first short, which played in a small former classroom that was converted into a screening room. In 2019, I returned with a feature, which played in an auditorium for 1,200 people. This was mostly made possible by festival director Ángel Sala—a brave and daring ally of genre films. The Hispanic genre landscape gets more fascinating every year thanks to his support!”

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Masked movie-goers attend Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival. Courtesy of Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival

One panelist points to Sitges Pitchbox—“a nurturing program for European and Spanish-language genre films”—as another of the fest’s many strengths. For this year’s first-ever virtual version of the event, seven international features and seven European series in development were selected to be pitched in one-on-one company meetings. In total, Sitges awarded roughly $11,500 worth of cash prizes to the winners. 

Above all, it’s Sitges’ celebratory spirit and coastal charm that put it in the horror festival hall of fame. As one panelist sums it up: “Nothing tops the experience of screening your film to a packed house of raving Catalonian film fans and then whiling away the evening on a beach overlooking the Mediterranean. No other genre festival carries the prestige of Sitges.” 

/Slash Filmfestival

Vienna, Austria / September 23-October 3, 2021 / slashfilmfestival.com

/Slash Filmfestival took longer than expected to host its 2020 edition, but its patience and persistence paid off. The Austrian horror hotspot successfully held a socially distanced physical event in September after postponing its initial May schedule. 

Chalk it up to the fest’s uncompromising attitude. Shortly after the decision to postpone, artistic director Markus Keuschnigg told Creative Austria in June: “The /Slash Filmfestival is not a content provider, but a living organism, which consists of the films, the locations, and the audience. We hope that these elements will once again rub against each other this year, so that as many sparks as possible will fly and the passion for cinema can be rekindled. /Slash lives!”

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Courtesy of /Slash Filmfestival

Each year, /Slash Filmfestival’s program presents 60-plus Austrian premieres of international genre titles, and welcomes such guests as Nicolas Cage, Crispin Glover, Jörg Buttgereit, and John Waters. Its team also co-presents a three-day long event called Slash 1/2 with the Crossing Europe Film Festival in the spring, and even a Christmas special event with premieres of unholy holiday horror. 

Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival

Silver Spring, MD / October 2021 / spookyfest.com

“Somehow still flying under the radar after 15 years, Spooky Movie is the leading genre fest in the D.C. area,” says a panelist. 

Maybe the Maryland-based fest has a relatively low profile because it lacks awards hype—Spooky Movie is decidedly non-competitive—but for as long as it’s been around, its team has premiered top-shelf features within the four walls of The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

One panelist boldly states: “The fest regularly boasts one of the best feature lineups in the country… every bit as good as Fantastic Fest, in a more accessible—and, dare I say, more fun—gathering of genuine genre fans.” 

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Courtesy of Spooky Movie International Film Festival

This year, that lineup was headlined by the U.S. premieres of director Patrick Picard’s Edgar Allen Poe-inspired thriller, The Bloodhound, and Taiwanese director I-Fan Wang’s zombie-laden political satire, Get the Hell Out

Fans in virtual attendance also got their Lucio Fulci fix with 2K restorations of the maestro’s late-’80s gems, Aenigma and Zombi 3. And the fest’s retrospective roundtable on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Oh, Rocky! 45 Years of Rocky Horror Fandom,” gave audiences enough time to reflect on their fandom as they had to indulge it.

Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival

Strasbourg, France / 2021 / strasbourgfestival.com/en

One panelist, who calls Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival “a top European destination for genre films,” praises its strong slate of world premieres. 

Strasbourg EFFF breaks up its action into three “Fantastic Weekends,” held in September, October, and November. This year, one highlight of these micro-dosed marathons was a retrospective on overlooked 1970s Hammer horror, with screenings of The Scars of Dracula, To the Devil a Daughter, and more gems from the studio’s golden age. 

From Lamberto Bava and Ruggero Deodato to Catherine Breillat and Marina de Van, iconoclasts from Italy, France, and everywhere in between have attended Strasbourg EFFF to screen and discuss their unique contributions to genre cinema. Thousands of fans also gather for its opening zombie walk—now a beloved annual ritual after its debut over a decade ago.

When it’s not running its main event, the fest hosts its summertime showcase, “Ciné Plein Air”—a series of nighttime, open-air screenings where cinephiles can revisit films by Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and more while laid out in the grass by the Rhine River.  

Toronto After Dark Film Festival

Toronto, Canada / October 14-22, 2021 / torontoafterdark.com

“This growing festival has a very special programming selection and its awesome team ensures that it’s a great time for audiences,” says a panelist. 

Now coming up on its 15th year, Toronto After Dark has cemented itself as a hotspot for independent horror, sci-fi, action, and cult cinema. Its screenings regularly rake in crowds of around 500 people, with such major genre distributors as Elevation Pictures, Entertainment One, Raven Banner, and Shudder often in attendance. 

Another panelist believes that TAD’s personal touch is a key to its success. “TAD had always been on my radar, but I had to go after meeting festival director Adam Lopez in line for a film at Fantasia,” that panelist says. “He introduced himself to me and we chatted until we were let into the theater. When I applied for TAD credentials later that year, Adam emailed me back personally. What a memory in that guy!” 

Although TAD’s October schedule means that several selections will have premiered elsewhere earlier in the year, one panelist notes that this makes for a “greatest hits” of anticipated titles, and that “the Toronto crowds are always pumped to get to see these films that have been buzzing around the fest sphere for months.”

Recently, TAD introduced a new networking lunch event, which Lopez says was “greatly appreciated by attending filmmakers.” In an announcement on the festival’s website that its 2020 edition would be postponed, Lopez stressed that doing so “better positions Toronto After Dark to return with a much more enjoyable, relaxed, and above all, safe environment” in 2021.

Windy City Horrorama

Chicago, IL / April 2021 / windycityhorrorama.com

“While still in its infancy, Windy City Horrorama feels like it’s led by fest directors who know what they like—and what horror fans like,” says a panelist. 

For one panelist, the best example of this is WCH’s 2019 edition, “which hosted director J.R. Bookwalter for a screening of Robot Ninja and subsequent Q&A, as well as screenings of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made and Straight Edge Kegger. Each of those are vastly different films, but found their homes in the same audience at this fest.”

Held in The Davis Theater—originally a vaudeville and silent film venue and now the longest operated theater in Chicago—WCH has gained steam since its founding in 2018, thanks to steadfast support from ticket-buying horror fans in and around its home city. Lots of beer is consumed during the fest’s three-day stint… and after it, too, at offseason events—like the free, BYOB J-horror double feature of Ringu and Dead or Alive held at Bucket O’ Blood Books & Records earlier this year. 

Last spring, WCH’s small but mighty team released a joint statement announcing that its 2020 edition would be cancelled, and that “the future of Horrorama is unknown.” (Since then, the fest proudly announced on its social media pages that several of its 2020 official selections—including Homewrecker, Scare Package, and The Wretched—were distributed digitally.) 

Horror fans and filmmakers are keeping the faith that WCH will be back with a vengeance. But even as it sits in limbo, the community it’s built in three short years is a testament to the fest’s instant impact on the circuit.