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In gore they trust

By Steve Persall
Published March 9, 2007


Steve Barton fondly recalled the first time he was scared out of his wits.

He was 3 years old, waiting until his parents slept before sneaking to the living room to watch television.

"I was always a night person, I guess," Barton said.

The console set flickered on. The first thing the child saw was a news report about the dead coming to life and eating people. Everyone was being warned to take shelter immediately.

Barton did just that, running to his parents' bedroom, shocking them awake with his screams. Eventually they convinced him that Night of the Living Dead was just a movie and zombies weren't real. Then they spanked the little boy and sent him back to bed.

"I lay there, my butt throbbing, and I felt 150,000 percent scared and 100 percent safe," Barton said. "That's when I fell in love with horror."

So have movie studios, given the profits horror films turn almost every weekend at megaplexes worldwide. Graphically violent films such as the Saw trilogy and gorier remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead are low-risk, high-return projects with a hearty fan base.

Such films are practically critic-proof, to the point that studios often don't offer them in advance for reviews except to horror-related Web sites. More and more, those sites are becoming part of studio advertising campaigns for scary flicks, figuring fanboy opinions will be more favorable.

Barton is one of those new-generation influences on what people pay to see at the movies.

He is known as "Uncle Creepy" to legions of horror enthusiasts visiting the Dread Central Web site he co-founded and co-edits from his Tampa home. If it gushes blood or desecrates flesh, Dread Central covers it. Female nudity is also expected from a predominantly male audience seeking an over-the-edginess that mainstream horror films typically don't provide.

"I'm the proud representative of the lowest common denominator," Barton said recently, taking a break from hosting the Horror + Hotties Film Festival at the University of South Florida in Tampa. (It should be noted that it was not an official university event.)

Horror + Hotties evidenced how low, with an evening of stomach-turning violence and titillating flesh. Nearly 200 fans cheered and even jeered exploitation films with titles like Cannibal Flesh Riot!, Devil's Den and the Russ Meyer homage Pervert!

These aren't typical multiplex scares. If these films were submitted for MPAA ratings, an NC-17 might not be strong enough. These independently produced collisions of sex and violence - free of cultural and financial restraints faced by studios - were greeted by viewers with skin-crawling glee.

Festival sidelights included a wet T-shirt contest using fake blood instead of water, and a Scream Queen contest in which the loudest shriek of orgasmic terror earned a role in an upcoming fright flick.

Barton's co-host was Krista Grotte, a statuesque horror film actor from Clearwater suitably underdressed for the occasion. "Barf bags" of candy and chips were sold for $2 alongside T-shirts adorned with the festival's logo, a mudflap-style silhouette of a nude woman with a bloodstained butcher knife.

"The connection between sex and horror really boils down to a primal instinct," Barton said.

"Let's face it: When men first walked the Earth I'm pretty sure they were willing to do whatever they wanted to do or had to do to get that girl. It's two of the most basic instincts: fear and sexual aggression."

The audience reflected the festival's diverse appeal; from college age to a few retirees, packs of thrill-seeking pals and dating couples. Later, the group was joined by a few vampirism enthusiasts who coincidentally had been sharing their avocation at a club meeting in a nearby classroom.

Andy Lalino and Andrew Allan, organizers of Horror + Hotties, manage Film Ranch International, a Clearwater production company specializing in gore. Both are family men who wouldn't look out of place in a corporate boardroom.

They say they'd someday like to produce more mainstream projects, but meanwhile enjoy their underground movies blending carnage and carnality.

"There's something visceral about them, something taboo," Lalino said. "Generally they're independently produced so there's a rawness about them. They try a little harder to offend."

Allan believes that's why aficionados seek outlets such as Horror + Hotties, rather than mainstream terror and sloppily made ripoffs.

"Horror fans know when a horror movie hasn't been done well. As loyal as they can be to the genre, they're not going to be loyal to those people who just serve them garbage."

Barton says horror films, even at their most horrifying, still don't come close to real life.

"Having lived through 9/11, I can say that real life is scarier than anything any filmmaker can conjure," said Barton, who lived in New York and saw the Twin Towers fall. At least with the movies, "you're terrorized but all the time you're safe."

"Things aren't that different than when I was 3."

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or


[Last modified March 8, 2007, 10:28:31]

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