Brian Burger had reached the point of exhaustion trying to produce a Hollywood horror film in Carrollton, Mo.
“We had wasted too many years just sitting around waiting for the perfect conditions to make a movie,” he says. “Finally we just said, ‘What do we have to work with? An iPhone? Ok, let’s do it!’”
The result is “Jennifer Help Us,” a feature-length indie shot entirely on iPhone 4s.
“Early on we made the choice to give it a period, grimy, late ’70s-style look. This was because of the phone’s limitations,” Burger says. “So we decided to give people something they’d expect to look that way: an old-school, grind house horror movie. Once we embraced our handicap, I actually think we came up with some rather beautiful imagery.”
“Jennifer Help Us” is one of 17 films headlining the Panic Fest, a three-day “horror and thriller event” at Screenland Armour. Burger will attend the 7:30 p.m. Friday screening for a question-and-answer session with the audience.
He describes his feature debut as the story of a vengeful high school senior whose violent kidnapping of a fellow student collides with her town’s haunted house and its brutal past. Shot in Carrollton (60 miles east of KC), the film features a primarily female cast recruited by producer Burger and writer/director Juan Ortiz from University of Missouri and Stephens College theater majors.
Like the makers of “Jennifer Help Us,” Panic Fest organizers know something about embracing limitations.
“The first year was real niche; it was horror fans,” says Panic Fest co-founder Adam Roberts, who runs Screenland Armour and the soon-to-open Screenland Crossroads with partner Jason Chaffee. They launched the fest in 2013.
“Then last year we added sci-fi, and things became more diverse. Now there’s been a growth to the ‘geekdom’ aspect of it. People who might not typically go to a film festival are going to ours, maybe because we have people selling cool collectibles and toys and posters.”
The loft space above Armour is poised to house 18 vendors, a batch of video games and barrels of Tallgrass beer. One of the unusual collectibles presented at this third gathering is a Panic Fest board game created by Tim Canton of the horror website DownRight Creepy, a co-founder of the event. The colorful game is called Phantom Fighters, where players guide the fest’s Murder Kid mascot as it slays monsters, captures ghosts and attempts to defeat the evil Gangle.
Roberts says this year’s cinematic lineup, which includes two different shorts programs, offers a broad mix. In addition to playing classics such as “Heavy Metal” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” they’ve slated anticipated new flicks such as “Wyrmwood,” an Australian post-apocalyptic zombie movie described as “Mad Max” meets “Dawn of the Dead.”
There’s also more of an emphasis on horror comedies such as “WolfCop,” which concerns an alcoholic police officer who transforms into a werewolf.
“Films like ‘WolfCop’ are made to be seen with a crowd like this,” Roberts says.
“We like our format. I think we nailed that since the beginning. Now we’re just trying to improve on it. We keep talking about bringing more special guests. We’ve talked about adding a lifetime achievement award to honor somebody like Wes Craven,” he says.
As for the filmmakers already in attendance, they’re quite comfortable with the idea of panic. That seems to be an unavoidable byproduct of the independent movie scene.
“I’d say the most panic-inducing element of our movie is our killer, or more specifically her costume,” Burger says of the “Jennifer Help Us” baddie. “Just looking at her generally freaks people out.
“We’ve screened this a few times in different coastal cities and everyone wants to know, ‘What is that mask?’ ‘How did you make that mask?’ I have a feeling most people around here will instantly recognize it for what it is: a cow’s pelvic bone.”
Panic Fest film festival is Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Screenland Armour Theatre, 408 Armour Road in North Kansas City. Passes are $28-$40 single day; $80-$100 full festival; single screening tickets also available. For info on films and screening times, go to PanicFilmFest.com.