With less than three weeks to go till Mayhem Film Festival’s 10th anniversary, Impact sat down with the directors of the festival, Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil, to talk about what to expect, the allure of genre cinema and the changing fortunes of British horror…
How did you get started with Mayhem? What motivated you to start it?
Chris Cooke (CC): Ah yes, it’s the tenth anniversary isn’t it… Mayhem started in 2005 as a short film festival and that was its focus. I used to work with Bang! short film festival and there was loads of horror and sci-fi shorts coming in but not a real platform for them so, inevitably, we wanted to give one to filmmakers who are making horror. Then Gareth Howell, Steve and I, well we’re just huge horror film fans and Mayhem was a platform for being able to showcase really brilliant new short films from up and coming filmmakers from around the globe as well as just Nottingham and it really just developed quite quickly.
Steven Shiel (SS): Well it also came out of, when we started talking about it, [to Chris] you and Gareth used to go to things like Black Sunday in Manchester in the ’90’s, the film festival there, and it was just thinking ‘if there was a festival like that here we would go to it’ and ‘why isn’t there a festival here?’ and then…
CC: We might as well be the festival, because there is that thing where if you want something, you think ‘we might as well put it on’.
SS: And we both have this connection to Broadway so we went and approached and said “look, we’d like to put on this night of horror shorts’ and it just grew from there. I think 2008 was our first expansion to do a weekend.
Picture credit: Betsy Finlay-Sheil
How do you go about choosing which features to screen?
CC: Well we’re quite like minded. If someone’s got a strong opinion for or against a film then it will or won’t get on for that reason, so 90% of the time we agree 100% on a film. But we’re trying to do a whole weekend so we’re trying to offer audiences as much variety as possible.
SS: I guess we’re in the situation now where, because we’ve been doing it quite a while, we have a good relationship with distributors so we can go to them and ask them ‘what have you got coming up?’ ‘What’s being made?’ So every year from March we’re on the lookout. This year we were lucky enough to go to Cannes, to go to lots of market screenings, and that’s a great chance for us to see what’s on everybody’s slate and to meet people who are making these films.
CC: We went and discovered that The Editor, from Astron-6, was being edited, and we approached the sales agent saying “look we’re big fans of Astron-6, the Canadian collective of comedy filmmakers, we’d love to consider the film” and from there it has just been the process of ‘okay that’s what we’re gonna do, screen the film and bring Astron-6 over’. Every film is one we want to put in front of audiences and we hope, especially this year, we have more variety. This year we’ve really pushed the sci-fi because we know audiences are broad and like-minded and horror fans like sci-fi and cult cinema. We hopefully have something for everyone.
And what about the ‘classic’ screenings, what goes into deciding which of those to screen?
SS: I dunno!
CC: It is hard. This year is the 40th anniversary of Texas Chainsaw Massacre so…
SS: That made it an obvious choice but we both think it’s the greatest horror film ever made.
CC: It is the greatest horror film ever made, in some ways.
SS: I think it’s official now.
CC: It is official now. Also Marilyn Burns, the star of the film, died this year quite suddenly. At the beginning of the year I had been in touch with her discussing the possibility of screening the film so it now feels like not only is it an anniversary screening, it’s also a tribute to her, because it’s one of the most striking performances. It’s such a raw piece of acting from her. She’s dragged through hell over and over again, an incredible performance. So that was a shoo-in.
Well you’ve probably already covered it then, but what are you most looking forward to screening?
CC: Ooh that’s hard. For me, a thing I’m really excited about is Astron-6 coming. We’re showcasing their shorts and then their brand new film The Editor which isn’t gonna be out here till late 2015. That’s a real highlight and we’re starting the ball rolling with that.
SS: Monsters: Dark Continent is another one we’re really looking forward to. That one’s just played London International Film Festival got some fantastic reviews. We had the original Monsters a few years ago so to put this on, which is a very different film will be great. And we’ve got the director coming.
CC: [coughs mysteriously] Plus some of the cast, and we’re going to announce soon so stay tuned. Especially when there’s local cast in that film. And there’s a Nottingham feel for that film, ironically considering its setting.
SS: And The Canal, which is one we saw at Cannes, and that’s grim, really grim and scary.
CC: Yeah it starts like a really strong psychological ghost story and then takes the audience into really horrible places they don’t wanna go… which is a really good thing, really brave. It’s a straight ahead horror film that says “well, we’re not gonna let anyone off the hook which is a good thing for a lot of horror. The shorts this year is one of the strongest line-ups we’ve had, in both senses. There’s some really fantastic creative filmmaking and then some really controversial, envelope-pushing filmmaking.
SS: Sex and death, sex and death.
CC: [to Steven] That’s your big thing.
SS: Sex and death. And sexy death and deathly sex.
CC: And sex with things you shouldn’t have sex with.
Alright then… Well, on a related note, what is it about genre cinema that you find so appealing?
SS: I think it really connects with an audience. I love the fact that genre is the cinema of ideas and people love to go see films that are about ideas. With genre cinema you’re a step away from reality, so people are already going into this zone where they want to be told a story and have this full on visceral reaction. When I watch something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre it’s such a strong reaction you have to that film, it’s scary and its grim and an amazing thing to watch but yeah I love the fact that we have that response whether its laughter or ‘uuuergh’ disgust. In a way its kind of quite close to comedy isn’t it, that similar kind of reaction that’s involuntary.
CC: All good genre cinema wants to get a response from the audience, and its almost like the mark of its quality is how it achieves that. But also its stories, the fact that genre encourages storytelling in a very pure sense, it creates a whole world very very quickly for a story to happen in. We’ve got two really interesting, really well told science fiction stories, Coherence and Predestination.
SS: There’s some mind bending ideas, especially with Coherence, it’s just… [long pause] they’re both very hard to talk about without spoiling.
CC: They’re very hard to write the blurbs for because youre thinking ooh there’s a big hook in this film, a big twist here and if you say too much about what the gimmick is people will expect too much and then it’ll ruin it.
Yeah in writing previews for these films I managed to spoil Coherence for myself.
CC: Ah so you’ve seen it referred to as-
SS: Well don’t ruin it anymore!
What are your views of censorship and certificates and ratings and that aspect of cinema?
CC: [laughing] Well Steve you made one of the most controversial British horror films of all time, apparently, by all accounts. That was pretty envelope pushing in some areas…
SS: [nonchalantly] Yes, I guess so…
CC: Horror can work, entirely in the shadows and never show you anything and suggest and be just as disturbing as something that needs to show you everything. Horror is broad and has to do both, as does science fiction. So I’m totally against censorship. I don’t think there is a right way to tell a story and things that were censored ten years ago are suddenly deemed as safe now to the same people so their abilities to corrupt and deprave vanishes so quickly.
SS: Well censorship and certification are two very different things. Certification is about letting the audience know as guidance. As a parent I appreciate being given the guidance whether a film contains scenes that I think might be inappropriate for my daughter but as a filmmaker I’m absolutely against any form of censorship whatsoever. I if you’re a grown adult you should be able to see anything that’s being produced and I really don’t like the idea that films are being censored at any level. Ideas are out there in the world and the idea of censoring them on film is crazy.
CC: I think it sets up an idea in the audience’s mind that they’re being protected so when they are shocked it’s a greater shock. It’s weird, audiences go to genre films knowing that they might be shocked and confronted with things, and sometimes expecting those things, you know what I mean? And that’s not a bad thing because they are story-writing tools, you know we are entering the world of the story, we wanna be shocked, we wanna be confronted, we wanna be challenged and those things can be really really productive and useful and the moment someone says “well, I don’t think they should see that”, I think ‘who are they?’
SS: I think there’s this argument with horror films that’s now moved onto video games and there is no evidence whatsoever that that is true. The BBFC are hot on the idea of harm, the idea that harm is caused by watching. There is no proof or evidence for the fact that harm is caused.
CC: And what they define as harm is very vague.
SS: There’s the idea of cultural harm.
CC: Psychological harm, individual harm, cultural harm, physical harm. It doesn’t make any sense
SS: That’s not to say- I think some films have bad ideas in them. I think some films are terribly racist, sexist, misogynist, but I don’t think those ideas should be banned. Those ideas should be confronted and challenged. Banning them and pushing them under the carpet doesn’t make them go away at all. If you have bad ideas you have got to confront them.
CC: Look at Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that was considered too extreme, was morally reprehensible and now you have a Cannes screening this year that honours the film and apologises for having not considered it for the Palme d’Or when it was first released. And you’re thinking ‘hang on, that film was considered one of the most reprehensible pieces of poor taste, not just 40 years ago but in the ‘80’s and the ‘90’s by our censors, but now they wouldn’t dream of cutting a frame from it. And I think that’s the problem really. Our censors are… they base their judgements on feelings as opposed to objective reality.
The copy of TCM I own is the one with The Daily Mail quote on the front saying “If ever a film should be banned this is it”
CC: [laughs] Yeah, use this as the poster quote!
So, besides TCM, what are your favourite genre films?
CC: Well I’m a huge [Dario] Argento fan, to the extent that he can do no wrong even as his career slides away from him. I am a champion and defender of Argento. Particularly Inferno, these big supernatural films that he made. I love the way he mixes stylised violence with really dreamlike narratives.
SS: It’s a real mix of stuff for me, I like The Haunting, The Innocents, that creepy ghost story feel but also a load of 1970’s sleazy British horror. There’s a period in the late ‘60’s-early ‘70’s in British horror where there’s a reality you don’t see any more. There’s not a glossiness, there’s a grubbiness that I find quite appealing. You’ve got these directors are moving from sexploitation to horror because that’s where the money is, and these films have sleaziness and grimness to them. They’re very representative of that era in Britain.
CC: They act as a kind of documentary portrait of the country at the time.
SS: At the time they were low budget and made on location so everything seems much more real. There was definitely a kind of cinema where people were confronting taboos, were confronting ideas and it’s probably the last time where you had that. It was the period where Hammer and Amicus were winding down then, in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s, there was no real British horror. For decades there wasn’t . It was only since the turn of the century that you’ve had this rise again.
CC: This is the thing isn’t it, whether or not there’s a new wave of British horror? Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, there really does seem to be a new wave. And you have filmmakers [to Steven] like your films, Ben Wheatley’s, films like The Canal.
Do you think this new wave has anything to do with the financial aspect, that horror films tend to be relatively cheap and with the current economic climate…?
CC: To an extent I think it does. Keeping films in the real world is often largely budgetary, because it’s going to be affordable, but it also does mean that horror can be disturbing, that the background is same reality that we live in, and recognisably so. It’ll unsettle the audience more.
SS: There’s always an audience for horror films but financers and producers don’t always recognise that so it can be a struggle to get them made in this country. It’s not an appreciated genre. They don’t win awards, they’re not the sort of thing people like to talk about at dinner parties. Whereas in America it’s much more of a business, you can have a career making horror films.
CC: They will appreciate that there is a film in the box office top ten and that it’s horror, whereas in the UK there’s a tendency to think in awards and prestige and classy dramas. Costume-dramas-cum-horror-film.
SS: I love The Innocents, I love The Haunting, but that’s not the only…
CC: That’s heritage horror.
SS: The idea that horror should be the nice cosy, costume drama type thing and not anything else is really bizarre to me. Horror should feel subversive. The Innocents is a costume drama film but weird and grim and has such an undercurrent of sexuality…
CC: Well that’s the thing all good genre cinema does. It smuggles in underground, left-field messages that can alert people to the world they’re in and disturb them about that. It’s like a punch from underground instead of from the mainstream.
You’ve mentioned The Innocents a lot, are you interested in genre stuff outside of film, literature and other such media?
CC: [defensively] I, I’ve read a book…
CC: Yeah I do like horror in other mediums… [long pause] TV is another medium, that’s still filmmaking… I love short horror stories, more in fact really than full novels. I’ve gone really old school at the moment, rereading MR James and thinking about how he played such an important part in creating the British ghost story as we know it.
SS: I read more pulp stuff, pulp crime or adventure, anything that’s in a tatty paperback. I’ve been reading a lot of Modesty Blaise novels, anything that you can read in one sitting and just devour.
CC: Anything that’s short and sweet, where the writers get in, tell the story, get out. The story is key. One of the things we’re doing as part of the ten year celebration is stuff for younger audiences with Teen Mayhem and that at its centre has got Wolfblood, the CBBC TV series. It’s one of those things that deal with teenage issues and being different and celebrates those things in good storytelling. We always feel that we were best served, whatever our generation, where we discovered the things that we loved. But I’m hoping that there are just as avid fans out there and they are being excited and served well by great creative writers.
SS: And we try to snare them early
CC: [laughs] That’s it, we’re selfishly hoping to guarantee our future by getting new blood. New blood for Mayhem.
SS: It’s like political parties trying to get voters, this Teen Mayhem thing, trying to get the next generation.
CC: [dramatically] We need to galvanise them. We just want their blood. Wait, that sounds wrong…
Teen Mayhem takes place on Saturday 25th October.
Mayhem X takes place from Sunday 26th till Thursday 30th October.
Mayhem’s 10th Festival takes place from Thursday 30th October till Sunday 2nd November.