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The Disappearance of Garret Weaver: My Stanley Film Festival Experience

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After learning about the Stanley Film Festival last year, I knew that the festival was going to be a necessary destination in 2015. It had everything that this writer could have ever asked for in a horror festival: an interactive horror immersion game, a line-up of reportedly fantastic genre titles and a legendary location that’s supposedly one of the most haunted estates in America. So when I learned that I would be representing FANGORIA at the beloved festival, I knew that I would be in for a treat, although admittedly, I had no idea truly what I would be walking into.

I landed around 2 p.m. MST at Denver International Airport on April 30th, having already opted in for the Horror Immersion Game while plotting out my film fest schedule between the game and interview requirements throughout my four-day stay. I navigated through the airport until I arrived at the shuttle waiting area, where I bided my time as fellow Stanley fest folk showed up. To be completely honest, Stanley would be my first true film festival experience: while I’ve been to Tribeca and Tromadance, they were only for one screening apiece, and were mainly out of convenience due to my home location and always having had a time-consuming retail job until I came aboard full time at FANGORIA. So I was a bit intimidated and quiet when I was shuttled to Estes Park with the likes of Alison Pill, Francisco Barreiro and Devin Faraci, all of whose work I had admired in the past in their respective fields.

While I knew of many of the people at the fest, the truth is I didn’t really know anyone personally outside of former FANGO web editor and current Shock Till You Drop managing editor Sam Zimmerman and occasional FANGO contributor Madeleine Koestner. Beyond that, I have a certain amount of social anxiety that really makes it difficult to break the ice with new people, further testament to my status as a complete nerd. Nevertheless, I am an outgoing person whenever possible, and I was planning on making the most of my time at Stanley.

I arrived at the Stanley Hotel a little after 4:30 p.m. and was immediately taken by the beauty of Colorado, and the quaint, tight knit community of Estes Park. It’s the kind of town that, ironically enough, one sees within a Stephen King novel: isolated from the rest of the world, but a surviving slice of old fashioned normality nonetheless. And at the heart of Estes Park was the hotel itself, a massive estate that is as gorgeous as it is elegant, and immediately, I saw some of the hallmarks of the immersion game: signs for D.E.D.I. Construction, warded off areas for “construction” and people talking about an Ankh that had been seen on the property.

Shortly after I settled in, I received an email from a filmmaker named Garret Weaver, who had his short, “Man’s Best”, in the festival’s program and was inquiring about coverage and interviews. As any member of the press can tell you, we get dozens of emails like this every day, but because this guy had gotten into Stanley, I decided to drop him a line back and request a digital screener for the film. He pointed me to his website, a fairly low-rent site I’ve seen all too many times before with a broken Vimeo link, and so we decided instead to meet up later the day after I would explore a bit for the Immersion Game. Garret told me he was also playing the immersion game, and so in light of that, we decided to meet at the whiskey bar in the Stanley to meet and share information.

With about an hour before the first screening of the festival, COOTIES, this writer met with Garret Weaver, and immediately hit it off. Garret was funny, humble and very excited for the whole festival experience, and indicated it was his first festival as well. He caught me up to speed with his immersion game experience as well, noting his chats with a “security guard”, “protesters” and Mark from the archives. Garret was the first friend I had made at the festival, and soon introduced him to Madeleine as well as two of her friends, Elijah and Jackie.

As we discussed the immersion game for a bit, the young man sitting next to Garret joined in on the conversation, and revealed he was Derek McKee, a magician who was in town to perform with a winner from America’s Got Talent. After some brief nudging, we asked him to perform some tricks, to which he obliged and impressed us all while proving he had a firm sense of humor as well. Soon, time was running low and we migrated over to the COOTIES screening, to which Garret did not have passes; we told him we’d meet him the next day to correspond further.

After seeing the brand new cut of COOTIES (check back this week for a review), we migrated again to the COOTIES after-party, a school-gym themed gathering in Stanley’s spacious MacGregor Ballroom. It was there that we met up with Garret again, who accompanied us as we used our time to grill ARG actors who we couldn’t tell were still in or out of character, including Mark from the Archives and the charming security woman. I also used the time to meet Landon Zakheim, the mad genius of the Stanley Film Festival to whom I talked at length in a pre-fest interview, and observed the chicken nugget eating contest, which was won by the aforementioned Mr. Zimmerman.

Knowing I’d have to be up fairly early for interviews, I called the night around 1 a.m., returning to my room to watch GAME OF THRONES until I passed out. But my night wasn’t over… not if the immersion game had anything to say about it. It was around 3:00 a.m. on the dot when I heard my door open. Luckily, the latch lock was still on, but someone was trying to get in.

In my half-awake state, I saw a man (or a mummy) in full costume regalia in the doorway, who shouted, “JOIN US!” In my confusion and genuine fear, I responded as authentically as possible: “No thank you.” “JOIN US,” he said again, with more emphasis. Still, I responded “No thank you.” I then saw him throw something into my room before backing out into the hallway. I was thoroughly shaken, but it was all a part of the game, and I passed out shortly after.

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I awoke around 8:00 a.m. and noticed snake bones on my floor; obviously, it’s what this cult member (or, as I’m almost sure, mummy) threw into my room. It was clear that this was a part of the ARG, and so I immediately emailed Madeleine and Garret my experience. Madeleine, who was not staying at the hotel, told me shortly after that she had heard similar things, and soon went head-on into the immersion game with her ARG team. From Garret, however, I had heard no reply. I then began to prepare for a long goddamn day, including 4 straight hours of interviews and then 12 hours of films. I was making the most of the festival, even if it killed me.

As I peripherally kept an eye on the immersion game via Twitter, emails and texts, I went about my day, and you’ll be able to see the multitude of interviews over the course of this week and next week. I briefly took the chance to engage in some of the immersion game tactics, including “marking” my hand in “blood” and drawing an Ankh on a triangular wooden board. I then lined up to my first film of the day, Tim Kirk’s DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY: TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, an enigmatic festival entry produced by ROOM 237 director Rodney Ascher. Expect that review later today, although Kirk also took part in a great Q&A afterwards, in which I was able to inquire about the participation of the most reliable actor in horror today, Clu Gulager.

After that screening, I quickly made my way to the shuttle to catch TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE LIVE. As I waited at the shuttle stop, I encountered Derek once again, who asked me how the immersion game was going. After trying to explain it in my stupid, socially awkward mumblemouth logic, he responded correctly by shutting me up with a trick, which the card revealed a note: “Music Hall. 2 a.m. SHARP.” And like that, I realized: Derek is a part of the ARG, and I now had plans for 2 in the goddamn morning.

The shuttle arrived and soon after, I got on the line for TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE live. The show was a rousing, phenomenal success (catch my recap here), to which afterwards I made my way to catch THE HALLOW, mainly because I’d heard great things and that Corin Hardy was lined up as the director for THE CROW remake. THE HALLOW was an equally great time (check out the review here) and then I stuck around for the midnight screening of STUNG. STUNG, unfortunately, was not a great time, but it got me to 1:30 a.m., which was a begrudging plus.

After reuniting with Madeleine, who had spent the large part of the day in the immersion game, we headed over to the music room. Madeleine, noticing that the CATATONIC 3D virtual reality experience was still up and active, immediately jumped on line, leaving me to mingle as I waited for 2 a.m. to come about. During that time, I met Patrick Cooper of Bloody-Disgusting, Andy Breslow of Mile High Horror and reconvened with Garret, who was super excited to be there. Garret filled me in on his ARG information, and eventually the doors to the Music Room opened.

Upon entry, we were instructed to write our favorite horror movie on a dry erase board, while everyone took their seat (or standing space). Following a short announcement from the organizer of the event, Derek came out, pulling out his tricks from the night beforehand as well as some new sleight of hands as well. However, after Garret laughed a little too loud at a failed trick, Derek brought him up stage, humiliating him with some humor-infused tricks.

Suddenly, Derek noticed the shirt under Garret’s vest, adorning the Stanley Ankh (which were being sold from the gift shop during the day). Derek immediately screamed, “You shouldn’t be wearing that! Magic is real, and that is a symbol of dark magic!” Derek called up Kristy King, one of the Denver Film Society’s top tier organizers, who brought a velvet red tarp to the stage, and in one swoop, Garret disappeared into thin air, with the “security” woman appearing suddenly in his place. In her shock, the security woman demanded we go search for Garret, who was nowhere to be found.

Now, a quick sidebar, if you will: upon Garret’s disappearance, a very specific wave of thoughts hit this writer. As film fans, you may be familiar with this line of thinking, as it has appeared at the end of SAW, THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE SIXTH SENSE, and I realized that Garret was a part of the immersion game the entire time. On one hand, it made so much sense: the deactive Vimeo link, the mediocre website and the email that didn’t go through Stanley’s publicity team. On the other hand, this writer didn’t necessarily want to believe it: if true, not only did the first friend I had at the festival was fictional, but the immersion game actively exploited a human relationship for the purpose of furthering the experience, which was beyond anything I could have imagined. In that moment of clarity, I realized: shit got real.

This is also a good time to talk about the dissemination of information throughout the fest: some people were given clues that others were not. Some people were given emails to meet people in places, while others had emails that contained clues to specific locations and people. And then there was the element of chance: local businesses offered tarot cards, the Zoltar machine had clues, and some things you just had to see for yourself.

As the 100+ attendees of the magic show tried to figure out what was going on, this writer, Patrick from B-D and HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN filmmaker Jason Eisener began to wonder where to go from there. The “security” woman came up to us, asking us why we were not looking for Garret, especially as news came to light that “Garret Weaver” was not registered in the hotel directory. However, I had an ace up my sleeve: earlier that day, I saw Garret in the hallway on my floor, entering his room; though I didn’t get a number, I knew it was right outside of the elevator on the third floor.

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After the group of dozen of ARG players went on a wild goose chase (first to the Ankh, then to Ryan Turek’s room for whatever reason), someone found a key to room 340, the supposed room of Garret Weaver. Upon entering we found the room to be set up like a goddamn conspiracy theorist from a movie: multiple boards posted around the room, cabinets and suitcases raided, and a video feed of the captured Garret in an unknown location. Then, some genius tried opening the bathroom door, and out walked a member of the cult (definitely not a mummy) who screamed, “You must bind yourself to him!”

The cult member exited the room and this is when the night got fucking nuts. It’s 3 in the morning on a Friday night, and groups of 30+ people are running in separate directions. Some stayed in the room for clues, others followed a “security guard” with a search dog, and others, including myself, started climbing narrow staircases at the cult members advisement. Eventually, the groups coalesced outside again as we searched for a third Ankh, which we discovered outside the pool, along with a shovel. At this time, a cult member prayed by the first Ankh, and official Stanley staffers encouraged that we keep our volume to a minimum, but unfortunately, there was no controlling 100+ people running on an alcohol and caffeine fueled second wind.

After a futile attempt at digging and finding Garret, my phone was at 1% and I had interviews scheduled at 9 a.m. So I called it a night a bit before 4 a.m., and luckily, this night did not have any interruptions. What it did have, however, was a fucking terrible experience of waking up on 5 hours of sleep for another 4 hours of press and 12 hours of films. This is also as I comprehended that my friend was not a real person, and that a silly immersion game had turned into David Fincher’s THE GAME. I kept wondering the possibility that the Stanley people would have 100+ players jump off the hotel through a glass roof onto a big landing pad with a giant X on it, or if it was time to question reality as a whole.

In any case, I was a very tired man, and in waking up so early, I was able to catch Mark from the archives at the hotel cafe in my vampiric lust for coffee. On the line, I began to inquire about Garret being a fictional character, and of course, Mark couldn’t respond. He had a cheshire grin on his face, but stayed silent. I knew I was right. I had to be right. If I wasn’t right, then the Stanley Film Festival had officially broken my brain.

At that point, I was only getting clues from the occasional tweet, while Madeleine had mostly gone MIA with her own group, and understandably so. From this point on, any information I did get was almost like the ravings of a psychopath: “GARRET IS DEAD!”, “DESTROY THE PYRAMIDS!”, “THE PROTESTERS ARE ATTACKING D.E.D.I.!”, “THERE’S AN ANCIENT EVIL MAGICIAN!” I was intrigued, but I also had professional responsibilities, and I also really love movies.

I started my third day at Stanley Film Festival at SOME KIND OF HATE, where I met an awesome couple on the line and chatted about films we’d seen, GAME OF THRONES and the general attitude of the festival. It was an awesome experience of its own, and a fulfilling one that reminded me that a good amount of people here have paid a lot of money on good faith alone. Luckily, SOME KIND OF HATE would make good on that faith, as the pair really enjoyed the film, which turned out to be my favorite film of the festival (check our review here).

Luckily, at the same location (the reportedly haunted Historic Park theater), the 30th Anniversary RE-ANIMATOR screening and Q&A was to be held, and I got on the line immediately afterwards. It was there that I noticed I was near Glenn McQuaid, the TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE co-conspirator who also directed one of my go-to feel-good horror films, I SELL THE DEAD. My social anxiety disappeared and I introduced myself, meeting further TALES participants Lee Nussbaum and Graham Reznick, and discussing respective projects, immersion game and the show from the night before.

The screening was a great time (and expect an event report on that later this week), but then I was stuck with a quandary: I had heard that THE FINAL GIRLS was the hot ticket of the night, and I was debating seeing either that or Karyn Kusama’s THE INVITATION, which was playing at my current location. Surely, if I left for FINAL GIRLS and couldn’t make it in, I would have no time to make it back for THE INVITATION. I took my chances and left for THE FINAL GIRLS, incidentally meeting back up with Patrick from B-D. We briefly talked about the ARG and some of the films, and luckily got into the film, which was a brilliant, hilarious and genre respectful blast with a genuine sense of heart (an impending review out of SXSW should be on the site any day now).

Afterwards, I caught wind that the so-called “grand finale” of the immersion game was happening at 10:30 p.m., but I had promised myself I would see Ted Geoghegan’s WE ARE STILL HERE, which had mounted phenomenal buzz from the few I knew who had seen it. So in missing this finale, which involved Derek, blood cannons and a mysterious figure on a ledge, I instead got to catch an amazing movie from a great up-and-coming filmmaker, and one that will definitely be a fan favorite upon release as it relentlessly exudes Fulci-esque mayhem with expert precision.

I hastily tried to catch the shuttle to get to Jason Lei Howden’s DEATHGASM at the Concert Hall at midnight, but alas, the line far outside the door all but indicated that option was off the table. However, upon checking my email, I learned that there was a private karaoke event at the Ice House, and knew that my night was not yet over.

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As much as I previously stated about my social anxiety and my problems with breaking the ice around new people, there is one exception to this, and that is karaoke. By my own admission, karaoke is one of the few things I’m passionate to a fault about, and having read about the karaoke parties at Fantastic Fest and the like, I was ready to make an impression. I arrived a little after 12 a.m., and the party had already begun, so I made sure to stock up on beer and prepare my first song: Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

That night, everyone brought their karaoke A-game: Devin Faraci killed Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck,” Ted Geoghegan whipped out a taste of Little Shop of Horrors, Sam Zimmerman and The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato provided some contemporary pop hits, and Madeleine even got into the mix with an INXS track. However, nothing- and I mean nothing- left an impression as much as watching SOME KIND OF HATE director Adam Egypt Mortimer and horror acting legend Barbara Crampton duet Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’”, knocking out some incredible frenetic dance moves as well. At 2:30 a.m., after I powered through my second and last song, The Scorpion’s “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, I called it a night, and returned to my room a sweaty, drunken, happy mess.

But that was not the end of my night. At 5:30 a.m., there was a knock at my door. I knew it was the immersion game once again, but the voice this time was familiar: “It’s Garret.” At this time, I put back on my sweat-drenched clothes and debated what to do next: Garret was apparently dead, and there was a part of me that was a bit pissed that my trust was betrayed by an alternate reality game (I may have accused Garret of being a fake bastard via email, but that’s between me and the dark lord to know). But there was no way I was going to ignore him, so I opened up the door groggily and accepted Garret back into my life.

“Sorry I faked my death,” Garret said, as if that was the best opening line to a conversation at 5:30 a.m. possible. “But we have to hurry. Its the only way to stop D.E.D.I.” Garret spread a small sand circle in my room, lit a candle in the center of it and then poured what I assume was holy water in my hand. With it being 5:30 a.m. and me being who I am, I of course fucked it up and couldn’t put out the candle with the water, but luckily, Garret had a few drops left to finish the job. He quickly ran to the next participant, and I went back to sleep.

The next morning, I arrived to the legendary Stanley Film Festival horror brunch, alone as expected. As a party of one, I was sent off to a table with a couple vacant seats, but it worked out for the best: I got to share breakfast with the teams behind SUN CHOKE and SOME KIND OF HATE as well as Entertainment Weekly’s Clark Collis and Barbara Crampton. After a conversation about karaoke (in which I was asked if I sang for a Scorpions cover band, which is the greatest compliment imaginable in any situation), Richard Stanley and the fest in general, the Award ceremony began. And before the awards were given out, they paid tribute to a very special filmmaker: “Garret Weaver.”

The over-excited Garret came up on stage, smiling from ear to ear. He explained everything that happened (following up a dense email of the narrative from Mark in the Archives), and apologized for his “short” being pulled from the festival. He also wanted to thank a few of the more “hardcore” players of the game- and I was namechecked at the top of the list. It was almost a very sincere moment from a very fictional man, but with that affirmation, the Stanley Film Fest had done something unimaginable: it blurred the line of reality even with all the cards on the table.

Afterwards, I spoke to Garret, who is actually actor Garrett Palm, and I congratulated him on a ruse well done, which he accredited to Immersion Game mastermind Dylan Reiff. He’s a super nice guy, and wanted to find Madeleine to reunite for the big Stanley “Shining” picture (unfortunately, Madeleine was off-site and was unable to make the brunch ceremony). But after the Shining picture, I wanted to attempt one last screening, cutting it close for the noon showing of THE BOY, the latest film from SpectreVision. Unfortunately, it was sold out, and there are some doors even a media partner badge couldn’t open. So, with three hours left until my shuttle, I tried to find a way to put a punctuation mark on one of the greatest weekend of my life.

The first was an incredible one-on-one chat with Todd Strauss-Schulson, director of THE FINAL GIRLS (which you can expect on FANGORIA.com soon), who was a genuinely nice dude and even was familiar with the backwoods locale from which I hail. The second was reuniting with Madeleine, Elijah and Jackie one last time, riffing on short film ideas to hilarious effect as we all recovered from the night before. And last, but certainly not least, was the anecdote-filled shuttle ride back to the airport, which I shared with IMDB CEO Col Needham and PUMPKIN PIE SHOW performer Hanna Cheek. It was three people of different ages and different walks of life, but we bonded over the shared Stanley Film Fest experience; one that I’ve never had before, but one I will certainly never forget.

Until next year, Stanley Film Festival. Long Live Garret Weaver!!!

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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