This is the first 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.
Felix Hubble: Hi Richard and Alex, thanks for joining me today.
Richard Kuipers: G’day Felix, hi Alex, I like your pseudonym (Heller-Nicholas) – getting Suspiria and Xanadu in the same name is very creative.
Alex Heller-Nicholas: It was the only way that I knew I could get a name that nobody else had. It’s a very little demographic… people who are into Suspiria and Xanadu.
Richard: That would be a hilarious double bill to put on, which has always been one of my dreams. If I can con Sydney Film Festival into putting on double bills of the least likely films in the coming years I’d be very happy. I’d love to do, for example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and India Song by Marguerite Duras. I reckon it would actually work because I reckon I can’t be the only person in the world who would think that that would be a fantastic double bill – your screen name reminded me of that sort of idea.
Alex: You’re researching already!
Richard: I know, it just never stops, there’s no end!
Alex: I’ve heard rumors that a new collection of essays about Argento includes a chapter arguing for Suspiria as a rock opera – I don’t know the details, but this is a tantalizing suggestion.
Felix: Fantastic! I’m really impressed by this year’s excellent Freak Me Out program.
Alex: It’s a beautiful program Richard, you’ve done a really wonderful job.
Richard: Oh look, thanks so much Alex, and Felix, I really appreciate your comments. This is the best program yet, there’s no question. I’m always happy with what I put together for Freak Me Out but this year there’s not one film there that I don’t think is an absolute cracker, and I hope the audience will come out and agree, but I think it’s just a really great program. It’s sort of my dream program.
Alex: I can understand, it’s so diverse and it’s so thoughtful – I love the older stuff and the newer stuff, it’s just a beautiful program. Let’s start off by talking about Spring…
Alex: I’m having a little moment, I’m so emotional about those filmmakers, I love everything they do and I think that film is a masterpiece.
Felix: I have to agree with you, I was just blown away. It was the same with Resolution and even their segment in V/H/S: Viral (which was a pretty terrible film overall); they’re all really great.
Alex: I 100% agree with you. I saw Resolution just after I’d sent my manuscript on a book on found footage horror films to the publisher and I actually emailed the publisher and said “could I at least get a sentence in there on Resolution?”. It’s almost like a post-found footage film in a way.
Richard: If there is a future for the found footage genre, and I don’t know that there is, but if there is one, it’s in a film like Resolution. It’s the same here, I was totally blown away by that and I desperately wanted to get it for Freak Me Out last year or the year before (whenever it was) but it was coming out on DVD, and I rang the DVD company, I said “look, I want to put it in the program, can you hold it back for a couple of weeks or something?” that was all it was, just a couple of weeks and they said “ah, no, no, we’re not interested” and I was really disappointed. This is a big launch, and theatrical, because it was such a knock out.
Alex: The film itself is amazing, the materiality…
Richard: What’s great about Spring is – and everyone will say pretty much the same thing – you start of watching it and you think “well, this is a Richard Linklater film and there’s a bit of sort of edge to it, you know, we’re going through Italy, and he’s on the road, and I’m quite enjoying it, but hang on a minute; where does this sort-of go in a genre sort of sense. Then when it twist and turns and kicks off with his relationship with Louise it just goes into fabulous territory. Again, genres that wouldn’t normally sit together comfortably in this case just work together beautifully. It’s a really fabulous love story and a great body horror story as well. The casting in this film is brilliant – if Nadia Hilker does not become a massive world superstar then I’m no judge because I just think she’s absolute dynamite and Lou Taylor Pucci who won best actor at Austin or somewhere… I just think it’s a great film and something exciting in horror.
Alex: Yeah, no, I agree completely. A lot of press I’ve read is that it’s like Linklater’s Before trilogy combined with Żuławski’s Possession and I love those two things coming together, but it’s so much more than that, that’s almost just like lazy critic shorthand because what this film does is so much its own thing. Just talking about it as a love story, I love how it’s based on that quite cynical premise that love is just a biochemical reaction. It kind of takes that as its starting point and says “okay, fucking game on, let’s play” – let’s start from there and see where it takes us. And it’s somewhere really fantastic as a horror movie but it’s also so romantic, and I’m not that kind of girl, I don’t get swept up in that kind of whimsy that lightly, but I think that’s why, because it’s not whimsical. It does start from quite a dark premise that love is a biological necessity and it just plays it out.
Richard: That’s right, and instead of “stand by your man” it’s “stand by your woman”. It’s wonderful to see this guy who’s witnessing what’s happening to this woman he loves. He sort of so blinded and obsessed by love that he’s willing to go there and stay there and nothing’s too much and nothing will break the love that he has. Even if the film the horror elements to it, it’s such a lovely romance you’d watch it anyway, but the fact that it does have this element just makes it doubly exciting. That’s a really great way of pointing towards the film, as a biochemical romance to the max, to the absolute max.
Alex: There’s its tagline, “fuck biochemical romance”!
Richard: That’s right (laughs)… “if the chemistry is right”. That’s what the couple in cinema is about, it’s about the chemistry of the leading performers. The chemistry here, the onscreen chemistry is fabulous, and the chemistry of the premise and the execution of that premise is really interesting so in every sense, yes, this film is all about chemistry.
Alex: Did you guys see Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon?
Felix: Yes, I loved that film.
Richard: No, I missed that one.
Alex: It was interesting that two horror romances came out so close together. It really surprised me because I can’t think of too many other films that do it. Richard, Honeymoon‘s worth watching, it’s an interesting film on the back of Spring. It’s a very different film…
Richard: I’m going to write that down. I’m not as up to date as I normally am, because I’ve been producing this film for the last two years. So I haven’t seen everything; I haven’t seen as much as I should have over the last couple of years because my viewing time has been constrained.
Felix: Definitely – it’s kind of like Spring but it fails to really hit it out of the park at the end and hit its emotional core like Spring but the first hour or so is really on point.
Richard: Cool, I’ll check it out for sure.
Alex: They’re almost opposite films in a sense because Honeymoon is about a relationship breaking up, whereas Spring is about one in formation. Leigh Janiak’s an interesting director, she’s just been pegged to do the remake of The Craft of all things.
Richard: Oh, The Craft! All of these films from my youth!
Alex: I’m still reeling from the remake of The Entity, it’s hard not to take that as a personal insult.
Richard: Oh god, god, I’ve got to go and see Poltergeist tonight.
Felix: It’s terrible – I saw it last night. It’s really bad. I had really high hopes because I thought the trailer was pretty well cut but it’s just a real big bummer. It loses all of the social commentary, all of the comedy, relies on a knowledge of its predecessor; it does that mid-’90s thing of making fun of the original and being like “isn’t that stupid” which is an issue because this one is even more stupid.
Richard: It’s so depressing. When will filmmakers who want to work in the genre learn that it’s the non-horror bit that make films work.
Felix: It’s interesting that you mention that, because the film’s about 30 minutes shorter than the original and all of the stuff that’s been cut are the moments that connect the scares.
Alex: That’s the mechanics of it – it’s the stuff in between that propels you through the scares. It’s interesting that you mention ’90s horror because I think one of the less than wonderful, or actually straight out negative leftovers or remnants from that sort of supposed post-modern explosion in the ’90s is smugness. I really feel it in so many remakes, and I’m not precious about films being remade but so many horror remakes are smug and they just miss the joy of the originals so often.
Richard: Yeah, I can only agree with you on that. It’s really depressing because you can sense that feeling of “gee, we’re really clever, we’ve watched all these films and we’re interested in the kitsch value and the camp value, and we’re more interested in projecting how much we know about horror, how many films we’ve seen, and having a nudge and a wink… proving how knowledgeable we are at the expense of the film being made”. It’s really condescending and you see the same thing happening with a master filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino… appropriation, reference, acknowledgement… but when it’s done by people who don’t have the filmmaking skills and the outlook on what an audience should be given it’s just awful. It’s great that there’s digital technology and films can be made on a much cheaper basis, lots of filmmakers who wouldn’t have been able to make a film before now have an opportunity, but it just means that there’s just so much terrible, terrible stuff out there, there’s a deluge and a quagmire of really, really awful shit. It’s harder than ever now to find the good stuff. We all know that horror is more than any other genre loaded with more bad stuff than good stuff because a lot of filmmakers choose horror as their first film to make, which is a really good idea because everyone should learn their chops on some genre material, but there is just such a deluge of awful stuff. It really is harder than ever to find the really good things and get over these smug smart-arses who worked in a video-store for three weeks and now they consider themselves to be knowledgeable masters of pop culture and kitsch references in horror films. They’re making them for their own enjoyment more than the audiences. This smug attitude is a really depressing trend.
Alex: There’s three things I found really interesting: first of all Tarantino, I’m not personally a fan of his films but I agree with you so much. I think even a Tarantino sceptic would be really pressed to argue there’s not a deep joy in what he does. There’s a real love, such energy and such joy in what he does. There’s a deep genre literacy there but those references aren’t there to exclude anybody. If you don’t know those references you can still enjoy his films – that democracy of joy is Tarantino’s strength as a filmmaker, that’s what’s made him a star. I say that as someone who doesn’t really like his film’s anyway, but that’s just a taste thing. This idea of glut too, in horror in particular… found footage horror was a blessing and curse. It really opened the floodgates in pure budgetary terms for anybody, I mean I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of found footage horror films because I wrote a book about them. I’ve seen ones made on phones which I think is wonderful; that democracy of filmmaking technology means we’re not reliant on having money anymore, so you get different kind of people making films, which is brilliant – we want diverse cinema. But at the end of the day you’ve got a lot of shit to sift through before you get to the interesting stuff.
Richard: That’s right! I mean, I’d rather have this situation where I have a mass of films in front of me that I have to pick through than the opposite: where filmmaking is still a more exclusive and harder to achieve process. So, this democracy… I’m all for it, but it does present its own problems.
Alex: And like you said you miss films. Things like Honeymoon or Starry Eyes, they fall by the wayside, especially when you’ve got the mainstream stuff that’s so different. I think the gap between the mainstream stuff and the indie stuff has never been greater. There’s such a chasm, not just thematically but also formally. Indie horror is embracing colour; there’s so much colour in the last year or two in horror and mainstream stuff is really clinging to the same old blue-green palate.
Richard: In the 1970s and the 1980s you could make up a list of horror films that were produced by major Hollywood studios, and the difference between those and a lot of the indie films of the same time is not that huge. There were really interesting, challenging horror films that came out of the studios and the ’70s and ’80s but the gap now… there’s just a gulf there, it’s like two different worlds. Just to get back to Freak Me Out for a second, I don’t have a philosophy where I’ll never ever pick a film that’s getting a wide commercial release in Australia, but I haven’t found one yet that I’m interesting in programming for Freak Me Out and I don’t know that I ever would because there is such a massive disparity between that and what I’m interested in presenting, what I think are the interesting new voices in horror and what my audiences want to see. I don’t think that that gap is going to be bridged any time soon. I think there’s only been one film in the whole history of Freak Me Out and that was Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil…
Felix: There was also You’re Next, for like two weeks.
Richard: It does happen, very rarely. I’m always looking at the stuff that the big distributors have and hoping that there’ll be something there, but I’m really not finding it because the quality of the product is really substandard… It’s not what I want to present. I want little films like Spring and We Are Still Here, films that aren’t going to get a theatrically release at all, but they’re terrific films and they will find an audience on ancillary formats like VOD or DVD, but to give them their little moment in the sun on the big screen is really important. And that’s why I think film festivals, whether they’re mainstream festivals like Sydney or more genre specific events like A Night of Horror are more important than ever because the chances of a really great little indie film like We Are Still Here or Spring getting a theatrical release of any type are smaller now than they ever have been. So to put these films on the big screen in the conditions of the way a film like this should be watched is really important and film festivals have an even bigger role than ever before because the gulf and the gap is so huge. Distributors simply cannot take a risk on these sorts of films.
When a great little horror film does come out – like The Babadook – it dies. This is an absolutely fantastic Australian film, it’s one of the best ever made in this country, and that’s because it’s not just a horror film. It’s an absolutely fantastic film, it gets great reviews, it’s celebrated everywhere, it comes out and dies a terrible death in the Australian box office, it goes over to England and it takes more money in two days in the British box office than it did in two weeks of limited release in Australia. William Friedkin comes out and says it’s the best film that he’s ever seen and a whole movement kind of forms around it, and it’s great for the film but how depressing is that for the Australian distributors and the Australian producers of the film to have a really fine film that just didn’t work even though they marketed it quite well and did the best that they could with their resources. That gets back to the responsibility of film festivals to give these worthy films a chance to shine, and who knows what will happen after that to them.
Alex: I like that idea of film festival creators like yourself. I was a judge of MonsterFest last year in Melbourne;1 it’s so wonderful to be able to trust curators to sift through that glut for you. I think that’s what makes for just good film programming in general but especially in horror where there just is that glut of material – we keep coming back to this word glut. I mean I saw films at MonsterFest that absolutely would have fallen off my radar because of their blurb or poster, stuff like Onur Tukel’s Summer of Blood that I would never have gone out of my way to watch. It ended up being one of my favourite films from last year, it was beautiful. I think that’s the function in a way – not to sound so utilitarian about it, but it’s really special and I think we’re very fortunate to have such strong curatorial forces at work in horror genre festival culture in Australia, whether it’s at something like Sydney Film Festival, or one of these smaller horror festivals.
Richard: It’s an awesome responsibility but I take it very seriously, because it’s also about getting – in the case of Sydney Film Festival and other festivals that have this sort of horror sidebar – those mainstream audiences, those people who are just generally going to the festival to see what they’re going to see… I’m always trying to pull them in and get them to see something like Deathgasm or Turbo Kid, something that they normally wouldn’t see. I’m trying to encourage that all the time, to get them to see something that is a bit strange or a bit weird, and if I can get them to open their eyes and make them appreciate something that’s out of their normal sphere of film watching then that’s a great thing, because if we all love cinema then we should all embrace all parts of cinema. It’s like music; it doesn’t matter what your main interest is in music, if your ears aren’t open to every single style of music and if you’re not searching for all the best stuff from every single style of music you’re missing out. If you hate country and western music, there’s actually great country and western music out there if you just go and find it.
The reverse is true as well; I know my hardcore audience is going to go and see Deathgasm because it’s rock and roll, and heavy metal, and gore, and it’s just a fabulous, fun time. But I want them to go and see Goodnight Mommy, as well – I want them to go and see this Austrian film, this very beautifully composed arthouse kind of horror film. It really does deliver chills and scares and really does freak you out but it wouldn’t normally be the thing that perhaps a Deathgasm type person would go and see, so if I can get them to come along to that, and have, you know, people in death metal t-shirts sitting next to arty people wearing berets and discussing the intellectual meaning of cinema then that’s the happiest thing that I can see in any one year. When disparate people are coming together that normally wouldn’t and can be excited by something from the outer fringes of filmmaking – that’s why I’m here and why I do what I do. Because it would be really easy to just program 6 slice and dice kind of horror films, with heaps of mutilations and killings and blood and gore – you could easily do that, but that would be really boring as far as I’m concerned.
It is that idea of mixing it up and having that broad view of what horror is. Horror isn’t just blood and guts and physical horror, it’s horror of the mind and horror of human experience in something like Goodnight Mommy and parts of German Angst as well…
Alex: I was going to bring up German Angst actually…
Richard: It’s terrific! Of course, as soon as I saw Jörg Buttgereit’s name on it my eyes and ears pricked up having as a kid watched a fourth or fifth generation VHS dub of Nekromantik. Nothing much like that was released and it was banned. We used to get our tapes from Holland and places in Europe because stuff was uncut. Half the time it was so badly degenerated, it had been juked four or five times and it was in black and white – you could barely see the film, but that kind of added to the experience of it because it was really hard to find. You really had to search these things out and show dexterity to pursue the things you loved in life – now you just get it on Netflix or YouTube. There was an experience about actually finding stuff in a different era that is very different to today.
Alex: Films like Nekromantik definitely, but I’m also thinking of things like Faces of Death, Cannibal Holocaust, even A Clockwork Orange… I think you couldn’t even get A Clockwork Orange before Kubrick died; that didn’t come out on video until after he passed away, from memory.
Richard: That’s right.
Alex: All those grainy, grainy copies of those things on video that people would give you surreptitiously at school.
Richard: I remember in Melbourne actually, I was visiting friends and someone got a tape of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; it did eventually get released here with cuts, but we had the thing when it was still banned and all that, and I watched that right near where one of those terrible massacres had happened. I finished watching the film at four in the morning and walked out onto the crime scene, and that was something very different from today. If you’re on a bus and you want to watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or any other hardcore film you can just sort of dial it up and get it. In England they were called video nasties, and we had the same sort of thing here; there were a lot of films that wouldn’t get through, they’d get banned or censored. You would find the ways and means of getting these things in – there were always a couple of video shops you knew where under the counter you could get this or that, it was great!
Alex: I think that experience of covert film works so well with horror, I mean that’s what The Ring is based on – that joy and perverse pleasure of the forbidden film, and Buttgereit is such a perfect director through which to think these things through. If you can manage to get the David and Margaret crowd to see a Buttgereit film you deserve some kind of award. I totally agree with you, I think he is an art director. Nobody films the colour red like Buttgereit – maybe Antonioni, Kubrick perhaps. They’re exploitation films, they’re trash films but I think that there’s a real aesthetic beauty to Buttgereit films despite the corpse-fucking and all of that, or maybe because of the corpse-fucking – who am I to judge?! They’re art films, I think they’re beautiful.
Richard: Oh yeah! Art and gore don’t come together any better than in a Buttgereit film and certainly in his contribution to German Angst – he’s right on form. I’m not going to give it away if you haven’t seen it but it’s a girl in a room, and you’re thinking “hmm… what’s all this then?”. Slowly but surely, you think she’s alone and then she’s not alone, and what happens after that is art and gore and extremity… I love the fact that I can still be shocked, even after torture porn and Hostel and all of these films that wallow in really nasty violence just for its own sake. That you can still actually be shocked deeper than just going “eugh!”. Your physical reaction and your deeper, darker psychological reaction… in Buttgereit’s segment in German Angst it’s just where it hits you and that’s what I love, even after watching horror films forever I can go “Augh!”, just like that. It’s not just because it’s a special effect, someone’s head being ripped off or something like that – there’s something deeper and much more dark and disturbing about why that might have happened. They’re the sort of places that really stand out when they’re investigated successfully in horror.
The other two segments aren’t too bad either… the middle one’s sort of half good – it’s not perfect but it’s got some great elements to it. It’s got an amulet from Nazi occupied Poland – it’s not 100% successful but it’s pretty decent. The third one is pretty fantastic – it’s filled with sex and monsters and internet dating and porn, all these thing thrown together around a pretty interesting character. Again, you can follow this guy on this thing, you have an investment in him – if you don’t have an investment in anyone on-screen you’re going nowhere. It goes to some pretty wild places! It’s great to have an anthology film – they’re a funny thing. There are times where anthology films are really popular like in the late ’60s and early ’70s…
Alex: I grew up on Amicus and Hammer and I have a really soft spot for horror anthologies…
Richard: Oh I love them, Amicus and, is it, Tigon films, and you see them today, they never go away…
Felix: The ones today are really interesting, the V/H/S stuff for instance, it’s a lot of the most interesting directors horror turning in their dullest work. I think what’s great about German Angst – and I think I have the same opinions on its strengths and weaknesses as you – is that all three film we’re clearly not phoned in. All the directors seemed to approach the project with a view of “I have this idea that will work for 15 minutes or 20 minutes… maybe 40 minutes… but not a feature film, and here it is”. That was just fantastic to see.
Richard: I think it’s a really good point to make because don’t we just see so many films that are just struggling a bit – especially since many horror directors are young or inexperienced. The 20 minute format, the 30 minute format, it’s a great showcase; it forces directors to be compact and really direct, and hit the mark running because there’s no time for padding or anything else, you have to get the story across in that time. So I’m really chuffed that I’ve got an anthology film here because I haven’t seen one that’s really done it for me as a consistent thing. Like you said Felix, really uneven stuff – you get one good segment and three terrible ones. I’m pretty happy with German Angst, and who would have thought that I’d have two German language films in Freak Me Out? I couldn’t be happier because the Austrian film we have, Goodnight Mommy, is just one of those dream Freak Me Out films – this is art, and this is horror with a fantastic, disturbing, psychological base to it. On the surface it’s about evil twins but deep down below it’s about so much more. It’s about mother guilt, all sorts of guilt, all sorts of family dynamics, all sorts of Psycho dynamics. And again, I hope that I’ll get the more intellectual side of the festival audience coming to see Goodnight Mommy as well as horror buffs who’ve just seen Deathgasm, who want to see something that’s equally as exciting but constructed in a different kind of way.
Alex: Goodnight Mommy I haven’t seen, but the images I have seen from it remind me Eyes Without a Face, and I love that.
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.