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The Best Horror Festivals in the World 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. 

Written by Max Weinstein

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