Shock Horror: An interview with Alan Jones, co-director of FILM4 FrightFest 2013
By Cleaver Patterson.
Alan Jones is something of a legend within the world of fantasy and horror film journalism. In a career spanning over four decades he has reported from the set of the original Star Wars film, and had dinner with Sissy Spacek while she was making Carrie. However, it is as one of the co-founders of the cult horror film festival FILM4 FrightFest, celebrating its fourteenth anniversary this August, that he has been introduced to a whole new generation of fans. As he gears up for another blood-soaked weekend of gore and mayhem, he took time out to explain to Cleaver Patterson the secret of his longevity and what he believes it is that keeps FrightFest’s devotees coming back for more.
Cleaver Patterson: How did FrightFest originate and how did you get involved?
Alan Jones: I’ve been a horror film journalist for over forty years and back in the 1980s I did a London based event called Shock Around The Clock, which was a twenty-four hour marathon that took place over a weekend. I transformed that into an event at the National Film Theatre in London called Fantasm, and we got some good people along like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Dario Argento. But that kind of filtered out after a while and nothing was really happening. Then Paul McEvoy, who owned the Cinema Store in London’s St Martin’s Lane, said “look, I really miss those times so let’s try and start one again.” So I thought ‘okay,’ and we went to the Prince Charles Cinema. Paul knew a guy named Ian Rattray, who was a film distributor—so he knew that business side of things—and we started FrightFest. I looked at the festival calendar, because I go around the world to various festivals, and the bank holiday weekend was one free time which I thought would attract people to come along and see it, so we chose that. We started small with about three hundred people the first year, and have just built since then. Of course, we’ve changed venues since and now we’re at the Empire, Leicester Square.
What do you personally feel you get from FrightFest?
The satisfaction and vindication that after years of banging away at this stuff with people that have never taken me seriously, I’ve probably had the longest career of anyone I’ve known. I’ve actually focused on the horror/fantasy/science fiction genre my entire career. Everyone would say ‘oh this is nothing, it’s a genre nobody cares about.’ Well here I am, whereas a lot of people aren’t here anymore. But it has just proved to me that the audience will go with you. I have a great band of fans who’ve grown up reading my reviews in magazines like Cinefantastique, Starburst and various others like Fangoria. As a result, it gave me a chance to talk to these people. One of the things that’s really significant and one of the reasons why FrightFest works is because of the interaction we have with the fans. We’re not these aloof people who stand on a stage and refuse to mix with anybody. I’m out there in the audience wanting feedback. I think it’s important to tell them that this is important to you too, which is one of the reasons I think FrightFest has worked so well because we’re mutually inclusive; the stars, the fans, and the directors all mix together in one big glob so-to-speak, and we all get on really well which is the difference between this and practically any other genre.
When and how did FILM4 become sponsors?
They saw us as a great opportunity to promote a horror season on their channel. Their FrightFest season is, I think, the highest rated season they do, so we lend our name to them because the fans will follow. I have nothing but good things to say about FILM4 and they’ve been absolutely brilliant. They’re there when we want them and not when we don’t. We don’t have them telling us to do this or do that, and they leave us very much on our own. We choose whatever we want to show and they’re very supportive.
Does FILM4 have any say in the programming?
Obviously if there’s a FILM4 film that’s a genre picture like Berberian Sound Studio last year, or In Fear this year, of course we’re going to look at it and say yes if we like it. There have been films that we haven’t liked and haven’t shown, but in the case of Berberian Sound Studio and In Fear we were completely happy to showcase them. Sometimes it hasn’t been the case because, with a film like Sightseers for instance, it was difficult because of the distributors. Sometimes FILM4FrightFest cannot get a FILM4 film, which is unusual but it’s just the way the industry works.
With so many film festivals worldwide dedicated to horror and fantastic film, what do you think makes FrightFest stand out from the rest?
We get no funding from any sort of government body. Every film festival in the world does except us, which is why we are very reliant on sponsorship from FILM4 and other various co-sponsors. We do not give prizes in any shape, size or form because although we are part of the European Federation of Fantasy Festivals, we’re not an affiliate but an adherent. This means we are part of the federation but we do not have to adhere to their hard and fast rules, which is to choose films which will then go on to various other film festivals. Other than that, I think we are the friendliest festival. Outside of FrightFest, I think my favorite festival is the Sitges Fantasy Festival. It’s a brilliant festival, like the Cannes of horror, and they get such great titles. But even though I love the people, they don’t really have that much interaction with the fans. But we do and I think that’s the difference.
There are four of you who organize the festival: yourself, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Greg Day. How do you choose the films for the program?
It’s mainly Paul and myself. I do a lot of on-set reports for films and can usually tell when I’m there if it will fit our profile, and so I will go to the producer at that point and say look, let us see the film when it’s finished, and we will consider it for FrightFest. Other than that we go to Sitges, we go to Cannes, to Toronto, to Fantastic Fest and pick up things from other festivals. We also get a lot of submissions. We’re one of the few festivals who don’t charge for submissions as we want to see everything and we’ll go through every submission we get. The moment we finish FrightFest, virtually the next day we start looking at things for next year, and for our other events too, so it’s really an on-going saga.
Do you personally watch each film entry?
Oh yes! I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have fights over certain things. There are films that I love and Paul doesn’t like and Ian hates. There’s films which I hate and they love. So it’s a bit of a compromise along the way. But nothing goes on that screen that I think is absolutely awful.
Obviously there are now people who return to FrightFest every year. However, for someone who may be coming for the first time, why would you encourage them to come and what would you hope that they’ll get from the festival?
They’ll see the best films of the year. They’ll completely untie themselves from the cinema chains for the rest of the year, if in fact those films will get a cinema release at all. Some of the films won’t get a cinema release because they’re not considered commercial enough, but we completely disagree with that. People will see what we consider a snapshot of the genre as we speak, and we’ve filtered it down to the best fifty movies of the year. A lot of people trust our choices and won’t even read the synopses I write for the brochure as they want it to be a complete surprise, which I think is really great—I love that attitude. It’s also a community. If you’re new to the festival, we encourage people to talk to each other and make friends. We were considering an on-stage marriage this year, but the couple backed out in the end.
What do the directors and makers of the films gain from having their work shown at the FrightFest?
Fantasy fans are the most intelligent and articulate fans you’ll ever meet. They will ask great questions but also respect your privacy. That’s why the directors and celebrities love it here; they don’t feel threatened. They listen to people’s feedback—a couple of films were even re-edited last year after the screening based on what the fan feedback was. They’re going to get intelligent feedback and the right sort of comments.
What would you pick out as the highlights of this year’s festival, and if you had to pick one film what would be your favorite?
There are so many. We chose Big Bad Wolves this year as our closing film because it is the best I think—it’s the genre film of the year. We Are What We Are is one of my favorites. Dark Tourist is an absolute stormer. Odd Thomas is a great film. I was surprised at Curse of Chucky too, I thought ‘god, for a fifth sequel this is going to be pretty dismal.’ It wasn’t! It was actually one of the best I’ve seen, and we’re really pleased to have had that now. Dark Touch is another good one—the Carrie remake which is coming up is never going to be as good as this film is. It’s like a Carrie sort of story starring Ronan Keating’s daughter Missy and is a very good film. I try not to oversell things though, as I want people to see the films and make their own minds up.
With the 100th anniversary of Peter Cushing’s birth this year, you’ve chosen to screen the newly restored edition of his 1968 film Corruption. Of all his films, why did you choose this relatively unknown one?
Completely because we were offered it. It has just been restored. It’s the full version which has never been shown before. I knew Cushing. Corruption was the least favorite of his movies and he hated it. He thought it was overly violent. He thought his character was very unsympathetic and if you knew his work he hated playing those sort of characters. I disagree. In my Rough Guide To Horror Movies book, I actually pointed it out as one of his better performances, and I will stick by that. A lot of what we show in the Rediscovery Screen, as we call it, is not just some crappy old print shown for the sake of it. Of course, we could have shown Dracula, but thought ‘lets show something that has had some care and attention leveled at it,’ and Corruption really fit the bill this year.
The Leicester Square festival isn’t the only FrightFest event during the year. What are the others and what is their connection with the main festival?
The connection is us. The connection is the fans will come along to most of what we do. We don’t want to dilute what we do, so we keep it to a Halloween event at the Vue in London’s Leicester Square, and for the last two years we’ve taken it to select venues around the country. I personally go to Bristol’s Watershed theater because I love the venue and think they’re a great crowd, and we do Cambridge and other places. Our other really big main event, which has become nearly as massive as the London one, is our Glasgow event which is part of the Glasgow Film Festival. We were asked to be a strand of that event eight years ago and it has just grown and grown, and this year we had, I think, the most spectacular event we’ve ever staged up there with Eli Roth, Gemma Arterton, Neil Jordan and Saoirse Ronan. The stars came out for us this year and I think next year is going to be equally great. There’s two different vibes. The London vibe is really fantastic but the Scottish vibe is slightly different and I really like it though I can’t put my finger on why it is. But they’ve got two different personalities and I like both of them.
As you said, you’ve been writing on film for forty years, but how did you get into horror film journalism?
This is a really long story but I will edit it down to the major highlights. Ever since I was ten years old I’ve been writing reviews in diaries of every film I ever saw. When I first moved to London in 1969, I got a job in a very famous hotel where all the celebrities stayed. At the age of 19 I was meeting Elizabeth Taylor, Ryan O’Neal, everybody. ABBA, you name it I knew everybody. One of the people who stayed at the hotel was Harlan Ellison, who was a famous science-fiction writer. One night he caught me writing up my reviews in my diary and he said ‘let me have a look at those,’ which he did and he liked them and said he would recommend me to a friend of his who turned out to be the editor of Cinefantastique magazine. I submitted some stuff to Cinefantastique and Fred Clarke, who was the editor, loved them and I never looked back. Then when he asked me to join the magazine full-time, the very first film that I was assigned was the original Star Wars. I knew Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Luke Hamill personally, and as a result of that everything I did for the magazine on Star Wars I have seen reprinted a hundred, million times. The second film I did was Carrie. I have gone on ever since. I was one of the few people at the time who would go anywhere, any place, to talk to anyone about horror. Nobody else was doing it and that’s where I made my name. People, to this day, still remember me from forty years ago—people like Brian De Palma. It’s amazing to me that they still do, but it’s because I was really the only person at the time who was willing to go the distance for these people. I would travel to Russia to do stuff. It’s unbelievable what I did when I look back. But hey it’s like any job, you put in the hours you gain the rewards, and I feel that’s what happened in this case.
What would be your advice to anyone wanting to get into horror film journalism?
It’s all different now. It’s quite the trendy thing to do and anyone can open up a blog or a website now, it’s almost insultingly easy. All I’d say to anyone is to batter away at the usual outlets and see if what you have is what they want. I mean, if you do send stuff to Total Film or Empire you’ve got to make sure it has some style and content. It was purely by accident for me. I didn’t set out there to do it or go to school to study it. It was just one of those things I loved so much and I think that’s again what was missing back then, but is too prevalent now with so many horror fans. Then you had to wait until things came up in repertory or on the week of release to see them. Now you can watch it on DVD or streamed or whatever. I’m not saying it was a better time then, but it was a different time. I can tell you, if I was was on a set I’d get two hours with Vincent Price in his hotel room. These days, you’re lucky if you get two minutes with Angelina Jolie on a junket. Seriously. I did the ‘Making of’ books on Tomb Raider and Angelina was great to me actually, but she’s untypical and that was a strange, different thing. Sissy Spacek on Carrie asked me out to dinner with her and her husband. I was spending days with these people, but that’s how they did it back then. Now you’re lucky if you get in a room with twenty other journalists, with two minutes to ask what attracted you to this role and then you’re out. It’s unbelievable. So I won’t do any job now unless I have some kind of exclusivity and am the only person on the set. I know it sounds boring but it’s the only way I can manage my own sort of thing.
Do horror films still frighten you?
Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. The last film that I thought was astonishingly good was Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. You look for that sort of thing every time you go into the movie house. When I was growing up, films like Blood and Black Lace, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist and Psycho—all the obvious titles—they shocked you, they really thrilled you to death. You’re like a junky looking for that again. So when people say something like The Conjuring is the most shocking film I’ve seen in ages, you see it and think well actually I’ve seen it all before. But every now and again something comes along like a Martyrs, like a Switchblade Romance, that really makes you think ‘my god people can still do it,’ and that’s what every horror fan is looking for, that communal jump, that shock that they love.
If you had to name one favorite horror film, what would it be?
It’s tattooed on my arm and is mainly because I have a long history with Dario Argento, because of my books on him and how we’ve become close friends. But it’s Inferno, the sequel to Suspiria. I was watching it the other day, and even to this day I think it is the perfect horror film. I’m not saying it’s the scariest, but I think it’s the most beautiful, most complex and most rich and it is my favorite Dario Argento movie. As a result of that, I stupidly tattooed it on my arm many years ago, but I don’t care. Asia, his daughter, has one of his films tattooed too, so we would be going around showing each other our arms. So it’s that one for so many different reasons. I had just met Dario so it keys into that, and I loved it so much that it was the reason I went to Italy. Don’t you think your favorite films have a lot to do with the situation around them and personal experiences as well and not just what it is? So yeah, Inferno is the one.
Who do you personally respect in the world of horror cinema?
George Romero. I’ve interviewed him numerous times and we’re very good friends. But George is very honest about his career. Not only is he a legend, but for me he’s like an icon for inventing the zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead. When we meet up now, we don’t really discuss movies, just personal stuff, because we’ve gone beyond that. But he’s such a gracious man. He knows his place in history but doesn’t throw it in your face. He’s very unassuming about how important he is. He’s very supportive of other filmmakers and I absolutely love him. I wish he’d make more movies but he’s just a bit out of vogue at the moment. I hope he comes back. But I think out of everyone I’ve ever met, I respect and admire George Romero the most. Dario’s different for me because he’s turned into a friend. He’s an astonishing talent, but he’s typically Italian in that way that he fires off at everybody and can be quite volatile. But it’s definitely George.
Who is up and coming in the world of horror cinema that you think people should watch out for?
No question for me. A few years ago I’d have said Ben Wheatley, but of course that’s been and gone now. Paul Hyett. We opened with his film The Seasoning House last year. He’s been one of the best special effects technicians of his day. I thought The Seasoning House was great. I’ve just read his new script that he’s about to direct and I think it’s a work of art. I think he’s the one whose going to be the new Neil Marshall. He’s the one whose going to carry British horror into the next decade, no question about it.
If people attending this year’s FrightFest walk away with one thing on Monday night, what would you hope that would be?
That they’ve had one of the best times they’ve ever had in their lives. That’s one of the reasons that people come back again and again, because they gear their whole holiday around it. That we’ve actually given them some major, major memories. That they’ve met the people they’ve always wanted to meet. That they’ve seen some great stuff. It’s just the whole feeling. There’s always one film within the first two days where you can feel the audience gel as one.We always lay bets, the four of us who run the festival, as to which film it’s going to be. This year I don’t know where it’s going to be, so it’ll be very interesting to see. But you can always tell that the atmosphere has suddenly changed and they’re all together, and from there on it’s like a roller-coaster until the end. That’s the feeling I think people get and that’s the feeling I think people want, and I just love it.
Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.