Horror film festivals: why their best screenings never make it to multiplexes

Cut. Kiselev Andrey Valerevich

In the east coast of Scotland, calendars are circled in blood: it’s time once again for Dundead, the horror film festival that descends on Dundee each May.

Launched eight years ago for campaigning locals who wanted a dedicated festival to rival Glasgow’s FrightFest, Dundead screens various previews and even premieres. There is always a gem among these mostly shoestring productions – like last year’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, starring Dundee’s own Brian Cox, aka the original Hannibal Lecter.

The buzz this year has centred on Vampire Clay, a Japanese film about possessed sculptures running amok in an art college. But my money is on The Lodgers, a slice of Irish Gothic from Brian O'Malley, a young filmmaker whose Let Us Prey (2014) was a surprise hit at the festival several years back.

These new releases are always built around a carefully curated themed retrospective. Last year’s focus was Stephen King; this year it’s the late Tobe Hopper – starting with his first and finest film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

It’s not only Scots that want to scream at the likes of Leatherface, of course. Horror movie festivals have become big business in recent years. There is Horrorthon in Dublin; Abertoir in Aberystywth; Horror on Sea in Southend; while London has both the British Horror Film Festival and another FrightFest.

Yet now that the genre finally seems to have gained mainstream acceptance, you might wonder if afficionados will need so many festivals in future. Look no further than Jordan Peele winning Best Original Screenplay for Get Out at the Academy Awards this year. Everyone rightly celebrated Peele being the first African American ever to win this category, but most people failed to realise it is also very rare for a horror film to be recognised in this way.

Jordan Peele takes Best Screenplay.

The Silence of the Lambs did take the five biggest Oscars in 1992, but it is the exception to the rule: horror movies rarely even get nominated, let alone win these categories. The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) and The Sixth Sense (1999) are the only others to have even been nominated for Best Picture in the past.

Not only has Get Out now been added to that list, it was beaten by Guillermo del Torro’s The Shape of Water – a fantasy film with horror elements. Meanwhile, three Stephen King adaptations were also released in the past year, and were all quite good. The remake of It performed well at the box office, while Gerald’s Game and 1922 must rank as two of the best films to be premiered on Netflix.

Anatomy of horror

But while there is bound to be some overlap between horror festivals and these mainstream box office movies, Dundead helps to illustrate some differences. Many films showing at the festival have no advertising budget and therefore fall under the radar of most mainstream cinema exhibition chains. Yet in many cases, they would not be considered serious enough for many arthouse cinema programmers either. This lack of distribution can be a big problem for people working in the genre.

Festivals like Dundead, with its specialist programmer Chris O’Neill, help filmmakers working on the margins of the industry, including local talent, to get their work seen on the big screen.

Aaaaargh! Joe Prachatree

Horror films can, of course, be works of art. As a British cinema specialist, I think that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) rival any film the UK has produced.

The best horror films reject the aesthetics, narrative codes and mores of conventional Hollywood cinema and replace them with something more innovative and subversive. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left (1972) addressed the Vietnam war long before any major studio dared to, just as It’s Alive III (1987) was years ahead of Philadelphia (1993) in confronting HIV/Aids. Meanwhile, the The Blair Witch Project (1999) proved that professional sheen was not a prerequisite for success.

Above all, a good horror movie provides a vicarious thrill. Psycho (1960) lets you be both Marion Crane and Norman Bates – the predator and the prey. We can confront both our darkest fears and even live out murderous fantasies, always in the knowledge it is only a movie. Put this together and you would have to conclude that horror is further from the mainstream than any other genre.

Knives out?

All this considered, this year’s recognition for Get Out was a double-edged sword. It is great to see a genre you love getting limelight, but being welcomed into the Academy can only lead to the genre becoming more bland and safe.

There are echoes of this in Dundee right now around plans for a nine-screen multiplex in the city centre. The site is right next to Dundee Contemporary Arts, where Dundead takes place, and people are rightly concerned about the future of the centre.

It is hard to imagine a proper horror festival in a multiplex – even if Dundead was created in response to popular demand. Horror festivals are the antidote to Hollywood populism. Dundead attracts a crowd that includes DCA regulars and people who might not otherwise visit an independent cinema or watch a subtitled film. We all happily sit through an Italian giallo, a Korean zombie movie, or an Argentine ghost story.

So while it’s nice to see horror films going through a phase of mainstream critical recognition, brace yourself for some expensive turkeys in the coming months. If it’s the genre’s beating heart you are looking for, get along to horror festivals like Dundead instead.

Dundead runs from May 10 to 13 at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

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