Panic Fest Review: The Whooper Returns

Metahorror deals with the trauma of having your life as a movie

Stories outlive reality, even when that reality is tragedy. This was re-enforced in March, when Ron DeFeo died.

If the name sounds familiar, it's because of The Amityville Horror. On November 13, 1974, DeFeo killed all six members of his family, a vile crime for which he spent the rest of his life in jail. A year after the shooting, George and Kathy Lutz moved in, then quit the house a month later, claiming demonic possession had forced them out. People like patterns, so the idea rose that the devil made DeFeo do it, or the shootings opened a gateway to Hell.

It's a pretty story, but what happens when your life is overshadowed by the myth? That's the surprisingly heavy and poignant question underneath microbudget cerebral chiller The Whooper Returns, as a family deals with the fallout of outsiders who have turned them in to characters.

There's a film within the film of The Whooper Returns. As introduced by the host of a typically cheesy local TV film show host, The Whooper is one of those weird, based-on-a-real-possession story, much like the one that spawned the Amityville myth. The Sheps are not so happy about their childhood being turned into a Friday night cheapie. There was no haunting, they insist, beyond the normal tensions of a family with four kids, a dad trying to keep a flailing business afloat, and a mom with some undiagnosed mental health issues. But even after decades of their childhood being a weird little cult title, they can't make any headway on the legend. When their mother finally dies, they're reunited to work out how to deal with the property that's become a millstone ever since their parents let the filmmakers shoot their "biopic" on location there back in 1979.

Everyone has a plan, whether it's eldest sibling Frankie (Rik Billock) who just wants a retirement nest egg; jovial brother Theo (David Flick) who just wants to keep dad's business afloat; scathing but loving Teri (Caroline Nicolian), who is conflicted about selling the place; and Pete (Nathan Hollabaugh), the baby of the family who is sick enough of living with the legacy that he is literally prepared to blow the whole damn family home to smithereens. He may well have the right idea, as shown when a deranged film fan (Megan Bolton) turns up and claims that mommy dearest left the house to her and her fellow Whooper loons.

Writer/director Samuel Krebs strikes a very particular cadence with the Shep family's catastrophic night dealing with these surprisingly dangerous interlopers. It comes from really getting how a family works, the energies and balances that are struck - especially when adult siblings fall back into old patterns. The Sheps don't look alike (Krebs seems to have done a much better job of similarity between the grown-up characters and their kid selves, as shown in flashbacks, and snippets from the faux-film) but their interaction feels real, organic, and very, very damaged. Under the lo-fi '70s throwback haunting vibe, it's really a portrait of dysfunction, one that deepens the more time you spend with the family. At the same time, it's a mournful look at how urban myths, and "based on a true story" stories, can dehumanize people, and the toxicity of possessive fandoms. Normally this is done through star/stalker narratives like The Fan, but by focusing on the bottom of the celebrity food chain Krebs has just as much to say.

The Whooper Returns streams as part of the virtual Panic Fest through April 18. Passes and tickets available via

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Panic Fest, The Whooper Returns

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