Celluloid Screams

The man behind the most popular horror festival in the country discusses the grisly genre with horror director Tim Sullivan

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Horror is one the most misunderstood art forms in existence – ostracised to the fringes of cinematography, success is rewarded with ‘cult’ status rather than any real commercial or artistic integrity. There is no real belief that a horror film will break box office records, alleviating the pressure on new directors and giving them a higher capacity of freedom in which to gestate – often before moving onto more commercially viable options. This has made for fertile ground, crafted by the lords and ladies of Hollywood, sheltering a unique position for horror within the industry: a place at their table with no expectation that they will pay their way. There is a reason for this: many of the biggest directors in Hollywood started their careers with low-budget horror films.

It also makes festivals solely dedicated to its cause a great interest to those who are involved in the industry. Dazed Digital met up with the Robert Newitt, festival programmer of Sheffield’s major horror festival Celluloid Screams, and Tim Sullivan, director of 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams to discuss what horror means to them.

Dazed Digital: Why do you run this event in Sheffield?
Robert Newitt: I’ve been a regular at these kinds of events throughout the world really, I’ve always known that it would work in this kind of locality – Sheffield is a city that perfectly suits a horror festival. This is only our second year but we are already having relative success; we’ve premiered films such as Paranormal Activity and had guest speakers like Ian McCulloch who starred in Zombie Flesh Eaters.

DD: What is it that interests you in horror?
Robert Newitt: What a lot of people don’t recognise is that there is a lot of artistry involved in horror – a lot of directors that don’t necessarily stay with horror made their first movies there – James Cameron’s first film was Piranha II, which is this schlocky, low budget monster sequel – and now he’s gone onto make the most successful film of all time. I think from a filmmaker’s perspective it’s a rich palette to be working from, there’s a lot to get out of horror even though it’s often considered a low art form.
Tim Sullivan: It’s strange, doing an interview with a Dazed, considering that horror has always been considered out of fashion – I’ve always been on the ‘outside’ for my love of horror.

DD: How did you become interested in the genre?
Tim Sullivan: I started off in the 70s watching horror movies and reading a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland and then around the end of the 70s a lot of people said the birth of the ‘Splatter Film’ came about with the release of Halloween and Dawn Of The Dead. But while horror films were extremely popular they were frowned upon if you took a real interest in them – instead of joining the football team, I was off making plays that involved a lot of blood and make-up. These things were the reason people would say that I’d amount to nothing, and I now make my living making them.

DD: What’s the new film about?
Tim Sullivan: The new film is a sequel to a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs. It’s very over-the-top cartoonish violence. Herschell came up with a very interesting concept; his story was that a bunch of southerners had their town destroyed during the civil war by a group of renegade Union soldiers. Then on the anniversary of the massacre the town would rise and take their revenge on wayward northerners. It’s interesting because he approached his film from a southern point of view, whereas I approached my remake with a northern perspective. In my version, I decided to get my humour from the conflict that arises from the broadly portrayed bigoted attitudes of the south versus the broadly portrayed liberal attitudes of the north. We have a lot of fun with the red state/ blue state.

DD: Do you think there is still a north/ south divide?
Tim Sullivan: Absolutely. I made the first film in 2004 and we shot it in Georgia around about the time of Bush’s second election, it was a really interesting time – and the whole red State/ blue State thing became such an issue – there is a massive division throughout the United States. Just the fact that in 2009 we went from someone with such extreme ideological views as George W Bush to the exact opposite in Barack Obama is evidence of that division. I mean there is a divide and no, slavery doesn’t exist but that’s not because certain people don’t wish it to. I really do think that there are people who still can’t believe that the South lost. Confederate pride is strong and well. That is honestly the most frightening thing of all, not monsters that come out at night but the misguided bigotry that still exists today. In reality, even though this movie is a comedy I’m using it as a veil, an excuse to get some issues out.  Another film I did, Driftwood, was a horror film more sombre in tone but an excuse again to get my anger out at these ‘Attitude Adjustment Camps’ we have in America which have sprung out of the Columbine Massacre – a lot of people were blaming the parents and saying: 'You don’t want to be the parents of the next kid that does something like this do ya? Well why don’t you send your misfit kid to us and we’ll make a man out of him.' These are not government run places, some people might call them ‘brat camps’ but if you’re under the age of 18 you have no legal rights in America and if say you’re 16 and you like horror movies, or you wear tattoos or you like the guy next door instead of the girl next door – Mom and Dad can send you to one of these and your whole identity is stripped from you. To me, I like to take real life issues, real life horrors such as bigotry and intolerance and address those in the guise of a horror film or a horror comedy.

DD: Do you think horror is important then?
Tim Sullivan: I think, consciously or unconsciously, horror films are often comments on the times in which they were born. Even going back to the silent horror films like the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of The Opera – think of their context in which they were made – men were coming back from WW1 heavily disfigured, walking around with people scared of them. Lon Chaney made a living of playing monsters that were that way not because they were evil but because they were denied love. Then in the 50s we have the H-bomb, Korea and nuclear power and suddenly we have all these films that centre on mutations. Take Godzilla for example, Godzilla is just a Japanese metaphor for the H-bomb. It’s this thing that is released by the atom bomb and then wreaks its revenge upon America; it’s the monster that the bomb creates. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about people losing their identity with the rise of Communism. All that can now be viewed as social commentary. Going through to more modern times: the 80s is really interesting, we have our ‘slasher’ movies but if you look at all the main characters in those movies: Freddie, Jason, Michael Myers – none of those are sympathetic characters. Instead you have paedophiles, or victims of paedophilia in the case of Jason, inbred creatures like Leatherface – these are the monsters that our own immorality has created. We go from creatures that are monsters because they have been denied love to creatures that are monsters because society has turned them into it. Now, in a post 9/11 era, we have what we call ‘torture porn’ movies – like Hostel where the violence has to be so extreme because we’re exposed to real violence on the news with scenes of people jumping to there death from the World Trade Centre or the Taliban decapitating a hostage. Filmmakers have had to up the ante to what now means that their movies are more like endurance tests than entertainment.

Celluloid Screams will take place on October 22 – 24 and Field of Screams is released on July 5, 2010.
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