Durham’s own Carolina Theatre is well-known in the community for its special film programming, including their Retro Film Series, the NC Gay + Lesbian Film Festival and the upcoming Anime-Magic Film Series, to name a (small) few. This past weekend saw one of those special programs in its 19th and highest-grossing year: Nevermore Film Festival, a “three-day feast of the macabre” that includes horror, sci-fi, dark fantasy, animation, mystery/suspense and action-thriller films. Between Friday and Sunday, the Carolina Theatre screened 10 features and a number of short films from all over the world, each produced with the same goal in mind — to disquiet, and sometimes disgust, their viewers. 

But the festival is more than a series of film screenings. It is a resurrection of Halloween amid the candy hearts and flying Cupids of February. Festival-goers were greeted at the theater last Friday by a banner proudly proclaiming “HORROR MOVIES RULE!” and red floodlights bathed the building’s facade in a bloody glow. Inside, those same lights painted the ballrooms red, a floating skull operated the ticket booth and perched ravens, foreboding signs and a prop electric chair decorated the hallways. The Carolina Theatre transformed into a creepy wonderland for Nevermore Film Festival, creating an immersive environment for horror fans and directors. 

At the festival’s end, the Nevermore Jury awarded five prizes to five films, one in each category: Long-Form Narrative, North American Short, International Short, North American Feature and International Feature. Sam Wineman’s “The Quiet Room” was awarded Best Long-Form Narrative after it screened in “Four Minutes to Midnight,” Nevermore’s long-form shorts series. J.M. Logan took home the award for Best North American Short with “Lunch Ladies,” a film in which two twin sisters’ love for Johnny Depp and cooking lands them in some hot water. Another off-the-wall film about a killer shed titled “Blood Shed” won Best International Short, and Swedish science fiction film “Tangent Room” claimed Best International Feature. Preston DeFrancis’s first feature film, “Ruin Me,” used classic horror genre tropes to its advantage to secure the award for Best North American Feature.

All films were eligible for audience awards in each category in addition to the Jury-awarded accolades. For the first time in Nevermore history, two films tied for Best North American Feature: Tom Murtagh’s “The Ascent” and Ben DeLoose’s “Escape the Dark.” Murtagh’s feature follows a detective whose prime suspect in an ongoing murder case claims to be more than human. Its co-winner, “Escape the Dark,” weaves a tale between two separate pairs of roommates who experience strange happenings in their homes. 

As with many film festivals, Nevermore offered attendees the chance to hear from and engage with the directors and crew of many of the films screened this year. In fact, audience-favorite directors Murtagh and DeLoose were in attendance, as well as filmmakers, artists and crew from “Tethered,” “Lunch Ladies,” and “The Boogeys.” The festival also included a BBQ Artists Luncheon and, on the second day of screenings, a time-honored tradition between filmmakers, volunteers and Nevermore committee members: a boozy twilight picnic. 

Nevermore Film Festival is one of the few spaces dedicated to honoring horror cinema, a genre that comes under attack more frequently than it is praised. Too often, we see so many blockbuster horror films recycle the same overdone tropes — stalker killers, haunted houses, abandoned asylums, violence for the sake of violence — that we condemn an entire genre. We easily forget that, somewhere, there are filmmakers having unique ideas and making new, unsettling, creepy films that do what horror should do: keep us awake at night. Nevermore brings these films out of the recesses of a saturated genre and celebrates them. More than that, it creates an environment that horror buffs only get to enjoy once a year on the best of days. For the macabre-minded, Nevermore Film Festival is as good as it gets.