by Mike Corrigan

A man of mournful visage stumbles through a dark and nightmarish dreamscape, haunted by the untimely death of his beloved. Shuffling down the cobblestone streets of a dank and decaying port town, he is tormented by memories, visions and demons from the netherworld. In his agony, he finds himself facing the crypt of his long lost love, seeking an end to his anguish through communion with the dead.

Morbidly obsessive love, death and madness form the foundation of Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee," the writer's final poem, published posthumously a month after his own mysterious death in 1849. It's also the title of an animated short by New York filmmaker George Higham. Inspired by Poe's immortal work, Higham utilized stop-motion animation techniques, horrific sets and a puppet protagonist to bring the tragic poem to life.

Annabel Lee, along with seven other independent short horror films, will be screened during Shadow Fest, Spokane's first independent horror film festival this Friday night at SFCC. Shadow Fest is the brainchild of local filmmaker Andy Kumpon, whose own b & amp;w horror short, Last Stop Station, will be featured at the festival. Other short films will include When Zombies Attack! by Chad Waters and Matt Rose, Quench by Chris Mack, Fullfiled: A Halloween Story by Stacy Arnold, Prey by Shawn Hazeleur and cult favorite Addicted to Murder by Kevin J. Lindenmuth. Shadow Fest will also feature the world debut of local filmmaker Wayne Spitzer's Shadows in the Garden, a lysergic murder mystery told from the perspective of a hulking reptilian beast.

Local filmmaker Wayne Spitzer began producing independent movies with his Super-8 camera when he was 14. On Shadows in the Garden, the filmmaker says he used multiple formats, including digital video.

"I don't think there's anything we didn't use," he laughs. "We used every type of industrial video imaginable, and even a little bit of film. It was edited over the course of a couple years on various systems including old 3/4-inch decks, which are famous for taking your tape and eating it. It took a lot of hits that way."

As for the time he's got invested in the project, Spitzer says, "This thing predates my marriage. I had just met my wife when I started it, and I've just now finished it, so it's been going on five years for a 22-minute project."

Each short film featured in the festival boasts inventive, low-budget visuals and radically different approaches to driving home the terror. The visuals in Annabel Lee are graphically horrifying -- influenced by German Expressionism and reminiscent of the work of the Brothers Quay. The serial killer in Quench is, atypically, a woman. When Zombies Attack! mixes black humor and the chill of Night of the Living Dead with the live-action thrill of C.O.P.S. to bring you a profile of Officer Frank Hadley of P.M.A.C. (Post Mortem Animation Control) as he and his partner cruise the streets of the city tracking down and exterminating the living dead.

The horror genre lends itself well to low-budget filmmaking; that's why so many filmmakers start there. In the right hands, even a mediocre script, inexperienced actors and primitive production values can be transformed into something quite startling and effective. Before Francis Ford Coppola had a hit with The Godfather, he was churning out creepy cheapies like The Terror (for Roger Corman) and the infamous Dementia 13 (which he both wrote and directed). Film buffs today revere director Sam Raimi, not for his recent action movie, Spiderman, but for his groundbreaking, no-budget 1982 horror classic, The Evil Dead.

"For a lot of critics, horror, fantasy and sci-fi are genres they just tune out," says Spitzer, "as if those films couldn't possibly be any good and just had to be the work of idiots with video cameras. That's not true at all. Shadows was made very seriously, and certainly nothing is in there by accident. I'm very proud of that. So many legitimate directors out there today came up from what those critics would consider the trashy, sub-basement of the culture.

As these and many other filmmakers before and since have realized, it's much easier to shock and frighten than it is to elicit any other kind of emotional response from an audience. It's amazing, in fact, what can be done with a little fog, some screaming and lots of corn syrup and red food coloring.

"Raimi's films get a lot of attention now. People see that they have real artistic merit. But I think everything he's done has that. You don't have to leave the genre to do good work."

Surprisingly, Spokane is home to a growing number of independent filmmakers. Utilizing small film formats (Super-8 and 16 mm) as well as digital video to realize their creations, these renegade filmmakers are challenging the status quo by offering local film buffs intriguing homegrown alternatives to tired Hollywood formulas. It's a community that is bolstered by connection and collaboration.

"Years ago, Andy [Kumpon] and I were working on this cable access program called Dead of Night," says Spitzer. "The Review did an article on it, and as a result, a whole bunch of people contacted us. From that, some of these little film festivals started popping up. There is kind of a grassroots filmmaking subculture in Spokane. There's a lot of good work out there, too. That's pretty exciting. To me, it's just surreal. I mean, here I am in this little apartment in Hillyard, and I have friends and filmmakers coming over every day and we're working on this stuff together. How did that happen?"

"Maybe it's a generational thing," adds Spitzer answering his own seemingly rhetorical question. "We all grew up in front of TV sets, and in many ways, we're still sitting there."

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