2011 Los Angeles Film Festival Winners

The closing-night film of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, was designed to scare the crap out of the audience. But who knew the real nightmares would come from the actual screening itself.

Just an hour into the world premiere of the movie Sunday night the Regal L.A. Live theater, the emergency warning system started flashing lights accompanied by a siren-like noise and an announcement that audience members should vacate the premises immediately due to an “emergency in the building.” Everyone got up and marched outside before the all-clear was quickly declared (a false alarm), the auditorium filled again and the film restarted at the crucial point it left off. And you wonder why producers get ulcers.

But THAT was nothing compared to the nightmare end of the movie that surrounded audience members from that screening (and the overflow house upstairs) who simultaneously had to retrieve their cellphones and BlackBerrys that had been seized for fear of piracy when they entered the theater. The crush as final credits rolled was mammoth as theater personnel slowly took claim tickets and acted like they were on a scavenger hunt. The guy searching for my phone finally came back and rather pathetically asked me, ‘Uh, what color is it?’ to which I replied ‘Black,’ like every single other friggin’ one there.

FilmDistrict (which is releasing the film Aug. 26) distribution honcho Bob Berney came over during the forced intermission of the showing to say that co-writer/producer Guillermo del Toro thought the unplanned interruption was the dirty work of Bob Weinstein or the MPAA (which gave his film an unwanted ‘R’ rating for “violence and terror,” particularly since it involved a minor, according to Berney).

At any rate, the terrifying film, about a young girl tortured by ugly gremlin-like creatures in her home, seemed to grab the closing-night audience despite all the distractions, although the couple sitting next to me split when the emergency lights came on halfway through and never returned. The movie is one of those where the adults are clueless, and you wonder why don’t they just f***ing move out of the old dark house rather than subject themselves to constant terror (particularly for the kid), but that’s half the fun of these things I guess. We’re not talking Oscar contender here like del Toro’s classic Pan’s Labyrinth, but it definitely delivers the jolts. Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and young Bailee Madison (Brothers) star. Madison and Holmes did the red carpet beforehand (Holmes’ husband Tom Cruise did not attend).

When I caught up with del Toro at the Club Nokia after-party, he seemed in a very good mood despite the drama surrounding the screening. He said he was perplexed by the ‘R’ rating slapped on his film (although in the first five minutes a chambermaid has her teeth sledgehammered out of her mouth) since he thinks his film isn’t remotely as offensive or grossly violent as hard-core horror movies (perhaps like Saw or Hostel) that received the same classification. That’s true, but who can EVER figure out the thinking of the MPAA ratings board?

Earlier in the day, del Toro, who was also serving as a “guest director” of the fest, had hosted a super-rare screening of a flick he believes has never been shown in America: Italian helmer Pupi Avati’s 1996 thriller The Arcane Enchanter, which the extremely movie-savvy del Toro told me instantly landed a place of honor in the top 20 horror films he has ever seen.

Berney, who also was at LAFF a few days earlier for the North American premiere of FilmDistrict’s Cannes sensation Drive, told me he thinks this hometown fest has come a long way in gaining industry acceptance and was a great way to launch two of their prestigious films in America. Ex-Sony mover and shaker and GK Films president Peter Schlessel is a key force behind the films now making the emerging FilmDistrict a major player in the indie world. Their spring releases Insidious and Soul Surfer both made waves at the box office on relative modest investments.

LAFF director Rebecca Yeldham and artistic director David Ansen seemed very pleased with this year’s lineup when I caught up with them at the after-party. Just before the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark premiere, I attended a small Sundance Selects dinner at L.A. Live’s Katsuya restaurant honoring stunning French star Ludivine Sagnier, who was at the fest co-starring in two hot titles: The Devil’s Double (Lionsgate; it bows July 29), which could be awards fodder for star Dominic Cooper playing dual roles, and Love Crime (Sundance Selects; it bows Sept. 2), which co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas in a French thriller that is reportedly already tapped for an American remake I hear with Brian De Palma behind the camera. Sagnier heads back to Paris after a press day on Monday still reeling from the nonstop LAFF schedule, but she seemed excited by the reception she has received here.

Earlier Sunday, I caught the multi-talented Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, at the fest. At the post-screening Q&A, Farmiga gave total credit to her Up In The Air supporting actress Oscar nomination for finally getting the long-in-gestation project made about the complications in the life of a female Christian fundamentalist (she also stars in it). Sony Pictures Classics releases at the end of August. Certainly Higher Ground merits serious Independent Spirit Award consideration if not award contests on even higher ground than that.