John Waters opened his audience's eyes to a kind of film experience they'd probably never had before. Another writer-director raised in Maryland scared a late-night crowd silly. A movie about a sexual assault left some viewers heading for the exits early.
Such were the pains and pleasures of the first two days of this weekend's 14th Maryland Film Festival.
Running through Sunday night in and around the Charles Theatre, the festival showcases more than 100 films, including documentaries, short subjects and feature-length narratives.
Despite the threatening weather, which could have persuaded some people to stay home altogether, large crowds were showing up to experience a full range of cinema, from short films shot on minuscule budgets to mainstream releases that will be hitting movie theaters in the coming weeks.
"From a numbers standpoint, it's looking very strong," festival director Jed Dietz said of this year's attendance. He also praised the willingness of this year's audiences to sample films that may be outside their normal comfort zone.
"The audience's seeking-out these emerging films and filmmakers is going to a whole other level," he said. "It's exciting to see."
Even before the festival officially kicked off with a program of five short films Thursday night at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, ticket sales were on the upswing, programming director Eric Allen Hatch said. Advance ticket sales were up about 25 percent over last year, he said.
Several screenings sold out, including the annual pick from director John Waters. This year's choice, which he introduced to a capacity crowd at the Charles Friday night, was Barbara Loden's 1970 "Wanda," the story of a Pennsylvania housewife struggling to find any meaning, much less excitement, in her life when she links up with a small-time thief and becomes his not-as-reluctant-as-she-ought-to-be accomplice.
The movie, shot on a low budget and shown in only a few theaters, was a long-time Waters favorite, the director said. And chances are it had never played to a bigger or more appreciative audience than saw it Friday; MFF audiences seem ever-willing to sample whatever film Baltimore's favorite-son director recommends.
"I can always understand disliking the movies I pick," said Waters, who has presented a film at every one of the 14 festivals. No one in the audience complained, however.
That wasn't true during a Friday afternoon screening of director Craig Zobel's "Compliance," in which a crank phone call to a fast-food restaurant leads to an especially discomfiting sexual assault — one made even worse because those doing it think they are obeying police orders.
Several audience members walked out during the film. During the post-film Q&A, director Zobel said he'd never shown the film without someone walking out.
"This is a challenging movie," he acknowledged.
Former Maryland resident Eduardo Sanchez's deliberately creepy "Lovely Molly" proved challenging in another way. Friday's late-night audience reacted positively to the film, screaming and acting scared in all the right places, said its star, rookie screen actress Gretchen Lodge.
"I love this festival," the 26-year-old stage-trained actress said Saturday afternoon, still coming down from the high of seeing the movie with such an appreciative audience. "Everyone that I have come in contact with has just been so excited, so encouraging."
Saturday at the festival started off with the announcement of the winners of the seventh annual Baltimore Screenwriters Competition, sponsored by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.
The winner was Wade Byard, for his screenplay, "Spotts: An American Legend." Byard received $1,500, an all-access pass to the festival and VIP passes to Baltimore-area attractions.
Second place went to Denfield Dowdye's "June Rain," third to Kevin Butler's "George Love."
The Maryland Film Festival continues through Sunday. Offerings for the final day include the 1920 silent German film "From Morning Till Midnight," with accompaniment by the three-piece Alloy Orchestra, and the closing film, Todd Solondz's "Dark Horse," with a cast that includes Selma Blair, Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken.