This is the second part of a two-part discussion on Sydney Film Festival’s Freak Me Out program and also the state of modern cult and horror cinema more broadly. Felix Hubble reached out to the Freak Me Out programmer, Richard Kuipers, and Melbourne-based writer and critic Alex Heller-Nicholas for this special roundtable. You can read the first part here.
Alex Heller-Nicholas: I love horror films that are aware of history, that are aware that there are historical tropes. There’s a film out called Unfriended that I just thought was terrible – I wasn’t a fan of it at all.1 It’s that thing where you get a mainstream Hollywood machine that sees an indie trend and decides to regurgitate it in a big budget film. To some degree that’s film history, this isn’t the first film to do that. It’s so clinical and it removes all of the danger from earlier films that have done that kind of stuff, films like The Collingswood Story from 2002, even Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows from last year, it’s just the kind of white bread version of those films. I found it very didactic, I found it very preachy – “it’s really wrong to bully” – and there’s no sense of this history, no sense of continuing a trope and taking it somewhere new. There’s no sense of awareness that they’re continuing this beautiful, wonderful, joyful heritage that is horror cinema, rather than just creating something in a vacuum and putting it out there. One of my constant gripes with mainstream horror is that it’s consciously history blind.
Richard Kuipers: Yes, because as you said Alex, they just latched onto something: internet, Skype, social media, how can we crassly throw all this together and make some money? It’s like when major record labels sign up a punk band or try to cash in on the latest trend. Whenever big corporations do that thing, the results will 99% out of 100% will be dreadful. I’ve not seen Unfriended but I have seen the trailer and about 3 other minutes of it, so I know what it is, and how it’s been put together and it just looks simply wretched. There’s no place for that sort of film in what I’m presenting or what any curator with any sense of self dignity would be presenting, and that again shows the gulf between what’s presented in the big multiplexes and what we’re interested in with what we’re doing here. We look at a film like Unfriended and these other dreadful films that do get theatrical release and make millions and millions of dollars – and the Paranormal Activity films just keep going and going forever, and the Saw films just keep going and going forever. You have to just have to simply accept that; you can be a little bit depressed about it because it says something about modern culture that this sort of thing works, and appeals and continues to be profitable.
But it also firms your resolve even more, to find the things that aren’t from the cookie cutter, that aren’t made by Hollywood executives looking to cash in on the latest trend. Stuff that by the very nature can’t get a wide commercial release, but has qualities that are worthy and deserve to be acknowledged and exhibited and observed. That’s where we come in here with something like Freak Me Out, and all these other sidebars that are popping up at festivals around the world. That’s one of the good things, lots and lots of festivals have this sidebar now, whether its Toronto After Dark or the Midnighters at SXSW, lots of film festivals like Sydney do have an offbeat section, or a midnight section and it’s just great. It’s not just these dedicated, specific horror film festivals and fantasy film festivals – and god love them, because they’ve been doing it for years and years and years. It’s great to see that more sort-of mainstream film festivals that regular moviegoers are going to – mums and dads and ordinary people from all walks of life; who knows? If they come and see some of these offbeat and strange things within the housing… the atmosphere… the world of this very traditional film festival they’re attending that’s great! That’s what we’re here for…
Felix Hubble: Just as a sidebar Richard, on the topic of record labels signing punk bands that they’re really out of touch with, there’s a fantastic film called Breaking a Monster that’s playing Sydney, about the signing of a trend band… a viral YouTube band who are into metal…
Richard: Great, I’m always interested in that topic, having been a very young man when punk first came out, and watching all those record labels try to get their punk bands and market it, and fumble hopelessly with what they’re doing…
Felix: Yeah, it’s this great little doco that’s a takedown of the modern music industry machine, disguised as following these 11 year-old kids as they get signed. They get picked up by Jonas Brothers’s manager and try to homogenize their sound and the kids hate it – it’s really entertaining, and depressing, and great.
Richard: Thanks for the tip Felix, I’ll definitely check that out, it sounds like Spinal Tap Jr.
Felix: Definitely, but more heartbreaking than Spinal Tap… without the laughs
Alex: I hate to do that thing where someone takes something and turns it towards their interests but I have a suspicion that’s what I’m about to do…
Felix: That’s alright, go right ahead!
Alex: The local DVD release of the Kathleen Hanna doco just came out a couple of weeks ago…
Felix: Oh, The Punk Singer
Alex: Have you guys seen that?
Felix: Yeah, I love The Punk Singer!
Alex: It’s amazing. I’m an old Bikini Kill fan; my blooming into adulthood happened around the same time so Riot Grrrl was very central to me. Just going back and revisiting a lot of that stuff and seeing Kathleen Hanna now in her 40s, still talking over a lot of those same ideas… I had that music and film ‘indie to mainstream’ dynamic running through my mind in terms of Riot Grrrl and it made me think about that quite wonderful and quite energetic Feminist horror movement that’s really been getting legs over the last couple of years. There’s a big festival in Hobart called Stranger With My Face, it’s a gender and horror film festival. I like their brief because they focus not just on female filmmakers but just films that tackle gender quite overtly. Horror has always been interested in gender, but they’re looking at how low-budget indie films are finding a new way into these avenues. They’re certainly very different from the mainstream, and you do see the mainstream try to cash onto some of these ideas too, and they never get this right; mainstream cinema’s not so great at dealing with gender issues…
Richard: They can’t because they’re slow moving, they have big public profiles, and they have boards, and they have directors… There’s just a lumbering nature to big corporations that do anything, and when they try to do something like this, like trying to tap into something that’s rising in youth culture or pop culture… they’re pretty hopeless at it. That festival and that focus seems pretty interesting, and I’m glad we have one film this year from Karyn Kusama, whose had a bit of an up and down career, but she’s got this great film, The Invitation, that I really liked – we’ve got a really good female filmmaker included in the program. This is another film that’s not horror in the traditional sense – it’s definitely not blood and guts – it’s a take on the dinner party from hell, but it’s a really interesting one. Have any of you guys seen this?
Felix: No, I haven’t…
Alex: No, I’m really looking forward to it…
Felix: I’m most excited for this one because I’m an unsung champion of Jennifer’s Body; I’m really glad to see she’s made something new
Richard: It’s really good! It keeps you guessing, but it also keeps you thinking the whole time as well. It’s possible to guess if you’re a horror hound like all of us are: you may guess the outcome in 5 minutes… you may guess the outcome in 20 minutes… you may not guess the outcome at all, but it doesn’t even matter. The dynamics, the relationships, and the questions it throws up are really captivating, and intriguing, and it really grabs you and makes you squirm in your seat. Even if you think you know what’s happening you’re never absolutely sure, which is great. It’s really well controlled, really well acted… it’s just got fantastic, human dynamics in it that really plumb the very raw materials that make people what they are… the basic emotional structure that people have, and their interactions, and they’re together, and why they fell in love, and why they fell out of love, and what happened to them, and why they changed their lives… that’s all part of what’s going on in The Invitation with this very, very spooky atmosphere around here that makes you ask “what the hell is going on here?” and “what the hell is going to happen?”.
It’s really well controlled by Karyn Kusama – it’s another really great film, and part of that diversity in the program. This is not a “horror film”, but it is about all sorts of other horror, deeper, darker psychological horror. Pat Healy is becoming the go-to guy for all these kind of films – he’s great in this; he plays this weirdo who makes you question “what the hell is this guy doing here?” and “what’s he going to do?”. He’s just fabulous at it! It’s beautifully shot, beautifully executed so I’m really pleased to have that in the program as well.
Alex: Karyn Kusama really knows how to make a film – I’m not a fan of all of her work but she knows how to put a film together. She understands the mechanics of genre intuitively. Going back to what we were saying about anthology films, she’s involved in this amazing sounding anthology called XX, it’s a chromosome joke. It’s Karyn Kusama, the Soska Twins (Jen and Sylvia), Jovanka Vuckovic, and I’ve gone blank on who else is involved…
Felix: Is it Jennifer Chambers Lynch maybe?
Alex: Of course, it’s Jen Lynch! These are all tribal leaders for this Feminist horror – I love that the work that they do doesn’t just stand on its own, it also inspires younger women to create this sort of Riot Grrrl, DIY, Do-It-Yourself… “you don’t like that horror films are a bit titty-slashy, go out there and make your own honey” – just stop whinging, start making. There’s a real punk rock spirit to it, it’s like the film equivalent of stapled together zines. It’s so exciting and so positive!
Australian filmmakers like Isabel Peppard have been involved in this Stranger With My Face festival; on the back of The Babadook last year the opening night film was Ann Turner’s film Celia with Rebecca Smart, and Ann Turner and Rebecca Smart were guests and they did a Q&A… It was fantastic to watch that film in relation to The Babadook. I don’t know if Jennifer Kent’s talked about it but it’s such a beautiful homage to Celia, and to what Ann and Rebecca did in this film – it’s almost been forgotten sadly. The idea of childhood out of control and a haunted book as a central metaphor – it’s all in Celia, and it’s re-imagined so magically and disturbingly in The Babadook. As you said it’s a masterpiece and I think the Australian film industry has a lot to learn from the international success of that film.
Richard: I know… I live in Adelaide and it was made down here, and I got to know the producers of that film. They’re really great people and they did a fantastic job with that. I just felt so devastated for them because they’ve sold the rights and they won’t get enough of the financial award that’s coming with this film at all. It’s so disappointing that it just didn’t get the audience here that it deserved. In years to come that film will stand up and be recognized and spoken about for a long, long time… it’s just a pity that it’s appreciation here didn’t happen any sooner. But isn’t that the story of so much Australian genre material, as we know from the Mark Hartley documentary. There’s all these films that we look back on and say “ah, they’re great”, “oh fantastic”, and everyone’s excited about them; at the time these films stiffed, everyone hated them, nobody went to see them. It’s great that they’re back in the public eye and people are looking at them again, but lets not forget that about 80% of them were hated, and abandoned, and flopped, and stiffed here and whatever recognition or success they had was all overseas, never with the local audience here. When a truly great film like The Babadook comes along, that just so desperately needed and wanted to get the recognition it deserves locally straight away, but sadly it didn’t.
Alex: It puts a real pressure on filmmakers like Mark Hartley because the task is almost on them (and curators like you) to be responsible for cultural memory of Australian genre film. That’s a big demand, that’s a big thing to ask of somebody – I adored Not Quite Hollywood for so many reasons, not just because it made me remember things that had been forgotten, but it made me think – this is only a 1-hour, 30-minute or 2-hour film, Mark couldn’t have fit every film in there. So what else has been forgotten? Why should it be Mark’s job, why should it be his responsibility to do this memory for us? We’re lucky that we have people like him, we’re lucky that we have people like you whose job is to do this because Australia is pretty shit at this itself.
Richard: One of my favourite jobs over the years has been being a curator for the National Film and Sound Archive’s website, Australian Screen Online. It’s pretty decent website, writing about films, a few clips… as soon as they asked me about it I said “I wanna see films that of all genres that no one has seen for years, and years, and years… who knows if there’s even a print still?” so I dug out all of these amazing films from the ’60s and ’70s and even ’50s, and there’s just some wonderful stuff there. It would be great if this material could be seen again publicly somehow, maybe in a program… that’s one of those many, many ideas that keeps bobbing around in my head.
As you say Alex, there’s a whole other layer of stuff there, film’s like The Set, which was written by Roger Ward of Mad Max that’s about bohemian Sydney in 1969, about a guy who get corrupted by a blue, high society set who are slightly decadent. Of course there was a terrible script, and terrible clothes, but as well it’s just a really fascinating portrait of this country at that time. It’s a time where there’s so little film, and so little to refer to, so little in terms of feature films. We reflect so heavily on who we are, where we came from, what we did, and where we belong in the feature films that we see from all around the world. We have a really strong idea of New York in the 1970s because we saw Taxi Driver but we don’t have much of an idea about Australia in the ’60s and ’70s and even the early ’80s, but there are so many films out there that tell us something about “us”. It’s something I’m hoping to do sometime soon – is dig these films out and show them somewhere somehow because there’s just some amazing stuff out there.
Stuff like Journey Out Of Darkness with Kamahl playing an Aboriginal tracker from 1967; I tracked down the producer of that and interviewed him from his hospital bed in Rome, just before he died. He had Ed Devereaux in the film, in blackface… blackface can you believe! In 1967, an Australian film still using blackface, like Al Jolson, to portray an Aboriginal character, with Ed Devereaux from Skippy wearing boot polish on his face! Films like this need to be seen some more so we can learn a little more, and see ourselves as we were on-screen from eras where there is very little that we have actually seen.
Alex: And even certain directors just on an auteur level – I was thinking recently about Jim Sharman, and of course everyone knows The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Shock Treatment, but we never really hear about Shirley Thompson Vs. The Aliens and Summer of Secrets and things like that – I don’t even know if they’re available, I know that they appear on select torrent networks – and it’s kind of funny that that’s become a sort of informal archive. I’m just going from memory, and they may have had big screenings and I’ve just missed them – but I only know about his really big international films, I don’t really know about those early ones.
Richard: Shirley Thompson Vs. The Aliens is one of the ten greatest Australian films ever made, there’s no question for me. It can’t be seen without Jim’s permission – I know Jim, and I keep telling him “Jim, Jim, get the film put on DVD! It’s a classic! When it comes out people will understand” and he says “no, no, it was a test run for me, for things that came later”. He has an affection for the film, but he’s not as interested in having the film widely seen as he should be. And it may be somewhere on torrent networks, but thank god that the platforms for people to see films legally and at a reasonable cost are springing up all over the place with VOD. Thank god it’s finally happening, and hopefully people will rely on illegal downloads that don’t benefit the producers or people that made the film less and less. But sometimes when you simply cannot see a film – there’s no way in the world, there’s no DVD, it’s nowhere – then you can understand why other people would do that. If there’s no other avenue open to you then you understand why people would do that. It’s just great now that there’s other new avenues open for all kinds of films, where there’s access and interface to see people’s work, at a decent cost, instantly, for which the economic model works.
Alex: Definitely! This is making me think about the wonderful Australian found-footage horror film The Tunnel, and how they went about releasing that simultaneously on cable television and bittorrent. I think you paid for it on bittorrent from memory, but I’m not sure about that…
Felix: I’m pretty sure they put a torrent out for free, because I remember they had a service through which you could donate to buy frames from the film for a dollar each. I think they released it on bittorrent, Foxtel and DVD on the same day.
Alex: That’s a unique distribution model. Aside from the fact that it was a really solid horror film, I loved that, I loved that they were considering this issue of legitimacy. How do we get people to watch our film without nicking our film?
Richard: Yeah, that’s right!
Alex: I think there’s something about found footage horror and the narrative conceit of what found footage horror is. It really worked for me that they would do that specifically with a found footage horror film. It goes back to that tradition of that deteriorated videotape that you would swap with friends at school. I like these issues of legitimacy and authenticity, and the covert and how they work into the narratives of a lot of these films. I think in The Tunnel, both in the film itself and in these meta-ideas, I think there was a lot going on there which is incredible to unpack.
Richard: I agree, the aesthetics of the found footage horror film are really important. The physical quality of the tape, the degeneration – all of those very small, very precise details, the way in which they released it, they got it really right. I’m interested to see what’s going to happen with The Visit, the M. Night Shyamalan film which is coming out later in the year. This is the man who made The Sixth Sense, two or three hugely successful, really popular films. Now he’s making a found footage film for a really major studio and I’m just wondering how it’s going to perform – are people really sick and tired of found footage, and how is it going to look? Is it going to be really clunky and unbelievable or is it going to be really good work. I’m not really a fan of found footage, I’ve included it in the program before because if something is really good and it works it should be there – it’s just one of those things I’m not really into. It’s a bit like reality TV; people said it was going to go away in 5 or so years but no, it’s here forever. I just wonder, is the found footage genre slowly going to sink into oblivion or will it keep going because there’s a whole big bunch of 12 and 13 year olds who want to see Paranormal Activity and be really freaked out because it’s the first time they’ve seen something like that. Will it just die a death, and be resigned to the history books only to be revived in 20 or so years when someone makes a really hilarious post-modern piss-take on it?
Alex: I’ve written a whole book on this so I can rant about this endlessly so I’ll try to be really concise on it. My personal feeling is that you can at least go back to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds radio show. There’s a long history of this tension in genre between the real and fiction that even transcends the moving image in media hoaxes and that. Even if we’re not talking about images, as people we have a historically documented interest in the blurring of the lines between what is real and what is not, and found footage is cashing in on that. These predecessors of found footage, right from the 1930s with that radio show through to the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, all the way up to The Blair Witch Project. Although that fascination manifested in different ways, the prehistory of found footage horror is very long, and very dense, often quite contradictory even which is one of the reasons I think I love horror – teasing out these contradictory tensions.
There’s a new Paranormal Activity movie due out at the end of the year, and my gut feeling is that the version of found footage that really started with The Blair Witch Project is starting to wear off – it feels a bit faddy now. I think that what we’ll see is it moving into new areas – these core thematic and formal ideas from found footage will manifest in different ways, and one of them is (of course) what we see with Unfriended, that idea of interface horror; it’s got history, but this is the first mainstream manifestation of that.
An interesting film for me on this perspective was the remake of William Lustig’s Maniac with Elijah Wood. I’m a horrible person, I sat down to watch that totally wanting to hate that: it’s not Joe Spinell, how dare they do this? Who do they think they are? I loved it, I just thought it was an amazing film and really clever. They do that trick that goes back to the 1947 Humphrey Bogart film Dark Passage; it’s not found footage but it’s all shot from the first-person perspective of the main protagonist, so you only see Elijah Wood when he’s looking in mirrors or things like that.
I think these kind of post-found footage ideas, things like Marble Hornets that was made by a bunch of kids in Alabama for $500, shows that the mainstream frenzy around found footage horror is on the way out. When found footage horror works I think it works very well, but I think it only works about a quarter of the time; I’ve seen more terrible films than I’ve seen good, but the excitement that I have when I see the really good ones is enough to keep me watching.
Felix: Definitely! Unfortunately, I think we may have to call it a day because we’re running out of time but thanks so much for the chat guys, it’s been great fun.
Alex: No problems, thanks for having me, and congratulations on the beautiful work this year Richard, you should be proud!
Richard: Thanks a bunch! This has been my attitude since I was 10 years old: it is worth every piece of shit that you’ve got to sit through and groan through, because there is nothing more exciting in life than finding those diamonds in the dustbin of horror. It makes life worth living, and I’ll say that til the day I die, thank you very much!
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic for Plato’s Cave on Melbourne radio station Triple R. She is the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (2014) and Devils Advocates: Suspiria (Oct 2015). She is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Research at Swinburne University, and is on the editorial team for online film journal Senses of Cinema.
Richard Kuipers has programmed Sydney Film Festival’s Freak Me Out sidebar for the last six years. He is a curator for the National Film and Sound Archive’s ASO project, a producer, a director, and critic for Variety, among others. His latest production, The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock’n’Roll, is screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival in the Documentary Australia Foundation program.