By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Oct 19, 2023 at 2:56 PM

By the time they reach an eighth installment, horror franchises can feel like they’re all out of new blood. “Jigsaw” routinely gets ranked amongst the worst of the “Saw” series, “Jason Takes Manhattan” infamously spends most of its time taking a boat instead, not even a pre-stardom Henry Cavill could save “Hellraiser: Hellworld” and “Halloween: Resurrection” concludes with Michael Myers meeting his long-awaited match … Busta Rhymes?

Yes, for fans, horror sequels can be scary for all the wrong reasons – much less by the time they reach eight. But that’s not the case for the Twisted Dreams Film Festival, returning Oct. 20-22 to terrorize horror hounds near and far for its eighth straight year, wielding yet another killer lineup of on-screen creep-outs and off-screen community.

Founded by Milwaukee movie buffs Stephen Milek and Christopher House, the Twisted Dreams Film Festival struck first blood in the spring of 2016, bringing their love of horror flicks and supporting local indie film to the big screen. Since that devious debut, the festival’s seen plenty of evolutions, going virtual during the pandemic years, growing from the former Underground Collective to their current host at the Times Cinema, inviting bigger and bigger names to the frightful festivities, and moving the extravaganza from spring to early summer and – as of last year – spooky season (partly to avoid a true real-life terror: Wisconsin’s unpredictable April weather).

All the while, though, their mission’s stayed the same: shining a big-screen spotlight on excellent horror, big and small, local and international, with fellow fear fans. 

"Steve and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing; we still don’t know what we’re doing,” House joked. “But it’s so cool to bring this whole community together. We’ve literally got people coming from all over the world. We have filmmakers coming from Bulgaria this year. So it’s amazing bringing this community together and doing it here in Milwaukee. It’s a great city and it deserves a good festival like this.”

This year’s edition will kick off on Friday night with a particularly killer combo, opening with a special 50th anniversary screening of George A. Romero’s 1973 unsung gem “The Crazies” – complete with star Lynn Lowry in the room, joining fellow horror icons like Joe Bob Briggs and Lloyd Kaufman as big-name Twisted Dreams attendees. 

"It’s one of the lesser-known George Romero films. Everyone thinks of him as zombies, so it’s good to show he did more than just his ‘Night of the Living Dead’ films,” Milek said.  

Opening night will then chase an older horror classic with a brand-new tale from the world of terror: a special work-in-progress screening of “I’m Your Host,” a locally-made documentary – produced by House – about some area horror hosts dealing with tragic real-world twists and turns while crafting their latest scary experiences. The showing will be a full event, featuring Grindhouse Tease burlesque performers before the screening and a celebratory afterparty at Bay View Bowl after the end credits roll. 

And that’s all just night one, as Twisted Dreams has plenty more nightmares to share throughout the rest of the weekend. For instance, the festival will screen feature-length frights like “The Nursery” – about a babysitting gig gone demonically wrong – and the rat-transformation horror flick “Fang” throughout the weekend, as well as a freaky double feature finale on Sunday. Don’t overlook the short films, either, as the creepy collections hosted throughout the festival – from local-focused anthologies to Saturday night’s Spook Show, a late-night mix of live in-person magic and on-screen terror – include some of House and Milek’s most anticipated scream-inducing selections.

"The Wisconsin shorts this year are pretty amazing – probably one of the strongest lineups we’ve had. Every film in there is really great,” Milek said. “There’s also some really disturbing shorts that I’m really excited for people to see and to hear people’s feedback. ‘A Cure for Clownette’ is one of the most bizarre short films, made by a local; that’s in the Spook Show because I thought it was too disturbing even for the Wisconsin shorts. But those are the movies that I want to see people’s reactions to it. I’m sure it’s not all of it’s gonna be loving it – it’s going to push some people’s limits – but I want to see that, how people react to it.”

While horrific things may happen on screen, however, the atmosphere in the crowd at Twisted Dreams is quite the opposite, hearteningly bringing together people to giddily share their favorite scares, swap hidden gem horrors and bond over the unique communal experience of the big screen. Horror has been one of the few reliable moneymakers at the box office, post-pandemic – in part because audiences want that ecstatic shared emotional experience and in part because the horror community, in a time of increasingly toxic fanbases, seems more eager to share and include rather than gatekeep.

"I’m in a number of communities – the Marvel community, the DC community – and the horror community is the least toxic of any fanbase I’ve been a part of, by far. It’s just an amazing community of fans,” House said. 

With gruesome death on screen and a lively community off it, expect this eighth Twisted Dreams Film Festival to pull a Michael Myers and refuse to die, setting up yet another chapter. And unlike Michael’s eighth installment, this one won’t require a hard reboot after.    

The Twisted Dreams Film Festival will run Oct. 20-22 at the Times Cinema. For information on movies, showtimes and more, visit the festival's website or the Times' website

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.