Cult Projections: You’ve been a film critic for Variety for eleven years, how did you land the enviable position of programmer for Sydney Film Festival’s Freak Me Out section?
Richard: In 2010 SFF director Clare Stewart asked me to programme a vampire movie retrospective. Clare had already initiated the Freak Me Out sidebar but the rougher end of the horror spectrum wasn’t really her thing. I’d known Clare for some years already and she knew for sure that the rougher end of the horror spectrum was definitely my thing. The vampire movie programme was a success so Clare asked me to take over the reins of Freak Me Out in 2011. This is my fifth Freak Me Out and I’m deeply grateful for the support SFF director Nashen Moodley and SFF Programs Manager Jenny Neighbour have given me and the sidebar over the years.
CP: As the Freak Me Out programmer you are involved directly with the acquisition of the movies, pulling from your experience, not just as a critic and enthusiast, but as a curator and producer. What is the hardest part of the job? What’s the best part?
R: The hardest part is narrowing down the field to six or seven titles and getting the balance right. I love a cinematic bloodbath and as much as anyone and I could easily select nothing but gore-shockers each year. But that would be to pigeonhole FMO as purely horror of the traditional kind and deny so many wonderfully strange and weird films that aren’t “horror movies” a chance to be seen in Sydney. Luckily I’ve had a fair degree of experience as a television and documentary producer and film critic, which helps in understanding audience interest and anticipating audience reaction to films. Whether you’re making films or curating a film festival programme you are there to give your audience the best possible viewing experience and value for money. The best part of FMO for me is watching people you’d never expect to see in the same audience going ape for a Freak Me Out film! If I can bring together hardcore horror hounds, cinephiles and curious “general viewers” in a darkened room and scare, thrill and excite them I’m delighted. Horror is the foundation of FMO, to be sure. Genre buffs that regularly attend FMO are like family to me now. I love them for turning out in numbers and keeping this SFF sidebar alive. My mission via FMO is to encourage the audience that’s hooting and hollering at the hilarious carnage in a film such as Deathgasm to also check out more artsy offerings such as the very strange and beautifully composed Goodnight Mommy. On the reverse side I’m always doing my best to nudge regular moviegoers and the intellectual set to get on down with a cracking good haunted house offering such as We Are Still Here. My constant aim is to select films that will play to the dedicated core audience and also encourage viewers to step out of their comfort zone – even if that zone is awash in blood-soaked mayhem! That’s why films such as Spring, German Angst and The Invitation become FMO selections. They deliver thrills, chills, blood and guts ands also have something to say about the human condition. I want audiences to trust FMO to deliver something special each and every time they buy a ticket.
CP: What international film festivals do you rate highly for their programmes?
R: For genre/fantasy films the leaders for me are Sitges (Spain), Fantastic Fest (USA), Fantasporto (Portugal) and Brussels Fantastic. I also love BiFan (formerly PiFan) in South Korea. It’s not as well known as it deserves to be, but I think that’s going to change very soon. It houses the Network of Asian Fantastic Films initiative which is very exciting. SXSW Midnighters and Toronto After Dark sidebars remain vital showcases for genre films within high-profile festivals. Elsewhere I rate Cinemalaya (Philippines), Hawaii and Busan film festivals very highly.
CP: Your first year directly involved with Sydney Film Festival was to put together a mini-programme of vampire movies. If you could return to a couple more specific sub-genres of horror/exploitation, what would the programmes be of?
R: Where do I start! There are dozens of potential programmes leaping around in my mind all the time. Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich needs to be recognized with a retrospective. Same goes for Jess Franco, the most prolific filmmaker of all time. The ultimate would be an Andy Milligan retrospective, though I’m not sure the world will ever be ready for it …
CP: What three “Freak Me Out” style movies would you love to see on the big screen, regardless of their availability or the condition of the print, etc?
R: Today my dream FMO-style triple-header of films I’ve never seen on the big screen would be The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), Succubus (1967) and Begotten (1990). It could be three different titles tomorrow, but today that’s what I’d like to watch.
CP: Of the four years you’ve been the FMO programmer what have been some of the highlights? What screening has had the best response?
R: The undisputed all-time FMO champion (so far) is Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2011). It brought the house down at both screenings and was voted number 4 in the SFF audience vote. The reaction at FMO helped the film get a limited theatrical release, and I couldn’t be prouder. I remember big reactions to Hobo With A Shotgun (some people walked out it was so violent; others were cheering every time Rutger Hauer pulled the trigger). J-sexploitation-horror Mutant Girls Squad certainly got the audience’s pupils popping. I particularly liked the sheer insanity and deadpan hilarity of J-fantasy The Warped Forest; both of Jim Mickle’s films We Are What We Are and Stake Land were terrific modern horror movies and Cheap Thrills [Ed: Love that movie!] was a dazzling debut by E.L. Katz. I’m thrilled that people still stop me years later to comment how much they liked and remember “small” FMO films like OK Good, Septien and End of Animal. I’m leaving aside all 2015 selections from this list for now. All I will say is that I believe this year’s programme is the strongest FMO yet. Plus, we return to the drive in with the fabulous ‘50s double feature of Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
CP: No doubt you’ve been a cult cinema fiend for as long as you can remember, what movies as a lad and/or adolescent cemented your love of such subversive/transgressive fare?
R: If there’s a single day that “changed my life forever” and set me on the path of seeking out subversive, transgressive and aberrant art it was a 7-film Andy Warhol marathon at the Forum Cinema (700 George St.) when I was 16. Flesh, Heat, Trash, Lonesome Cowboys, My Hustler, Flesh for Frankenstein, Blood for Dracula. The perfect corrupter of youth from the glory days when it was so easy to get into R-rated films when under 18! (I took a day off school to see Caligula on the big screen, but that’s another story …) Going back a bit from there it all started from about the age of 10 with Hammer Horror films on Channel 9 when it showed midnight-to-dawn movies. Titles like Lust for a Vampire, Horror of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. Then Channel 7 showed Freaks and The Vampire Lovers on its Friday night Creature Feature slot when I was about 15. From there we go to Scanners at Merrylands Mall cinema. At the Walker Street Cinema (North Sydney) there was The Living Dead at The Manchester Morgue, To The Devil a Daughter, Raw Meat, Solaris, Slaughterhouse Five, Stalker, and Deep Red. At the Valhalla in Glebe I remember Plan 9 From Outer Space, Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Eraserhead, El Topo and Guy Maddin’s early films. Elsewhere I recall Dawn of the Dead at the Miranda Forum, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle at the Roma in George St, Final Exam and Fear No Evil double-bill at Hoyts Entertainment Centre, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Man From Deep River at Caringbah drive-in. Then there’s just about everything ever screened at the legendary Mandolin cinema, and the 1980s Hong Kong action spectaculars (Tiger on Beat, City on Fire, Hard-Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, Possessed, Blonde Fury, She Shoots Straight, Centipede Horror, Red Spell Spells Red, Haunted Cop Shop etc, etc,) I was lucky enough to see at the Chinatown, Hoover Twin and Australia Cinemas. This list could go on and on. Is there no end to this madness? I sincerely hope not.
CP: What cinema(s) in Sydney do you miss the most, and why?
R: My favourite cinemas in the 1975-1995 pre-multiplex total domination era were The Valhalla in Glebe (half the audience stoned, but always well behaved), the Mandolin at 150 Elizabeth St (that lobby, that wallpaper, those fantastic indie film hits, one after another) and the Walker St cinema in Nth Sydney (what was a superb little arthouse/grindhouse venue doing in an upscale place like that?). I also liked the Town cinema on Pitt St (“topless usherettes will show you to your seat”), The Roma on George St (rats running across the floor, trains rumbling beneath). Out in the ‘burbs the Merrylands Mall cinema was definitely the scariest place in town. I’ll never forget missing the last train home after the late night double-header of Vampyres and The Case of the Smiling Stiffs and wondering if I’d ever get home alive. These cinemas had character and history. Their walls spoke to you.
CP: How has the role of film critic changed over the years, for you personally, and in the bigger picture of the industry as a whole?
R: Like every other aspect of life the internet and social media have changed things profoundly. Reviews need to be posted faster now than ever before. This means there’s rarely time to let some films “sit” for a while before filing the review. That’s both good and bad, depending on the film. The sheer volume of films being made has also had a huge impact. There was a time when Variety covered just about every film in every middle and high profile film festival in addition to new films in general and limited release. That’s impossible now owing to the deluge of films and proliferation of film festivals in the past decade or so. We also review many films now from Internet links. This was unheard of just a few years ago but now it’s essential. It’s great that so many more films can be made with digital technology but the marketplace has become saturated as a result. Film has also become devalued; it’s just another commodity on instant access and is struggling to maintain its prestige. That’s why film festivals are more important than ever before.
CP: Where are the best horror movies coming from these days? What makes these particular movies and/or filmmakers so exciting to horror fans?
R: There are always good horror films being made by US indies and a scattering of good stuff from South Korea, Thailand, Japan and across Europe but if any one country holds the horror championship belt right now it’s New Zealand. Just in the past few years NZ has cranked out a line of winners including Housebound, Deathgasm, The ABCs of Death, The ABCs of Death 2, Turbo Kid (Ok, a sci-fi actioner in co-pro with Canada, but still a cracker), What We Do in The Shadows, and I Survived a Zombie Holocaust. There’s a fantastic streak of deadpan humour in so many NZ horrors that reminds me of the Aussie larrikin humour that made so many ‘70s and ‘80s Australian movies enjoyable. Sadly we seem to have lost that spirit here. There are big lessons Australian horror filmmakers can learn from those across the Tasman. That said, I like what I see in recent Oz horrors such as Wyrmwood and The Babadook.
CP: If you had to pick just five horror movies that encapsulate, as a whole, everything about the genre that you love, what would they be, and what element about each movie you admire so fiercely?
R: OK, but I’m going to “cheat” a bit here, with good reason!
Dawn of the Dead (1979). Perfection in horror. High level gore and high level social and political critique.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Unrelenting terror with very little explicit physical horror.
Bad Taste (1986)/Braindead (1992)/ Evil Dead 2 (1987). Impossible to separate these two Peter Jackson masterpieces and Sam Raimi’s superb sequel as the best horror comedies of all time.
Possession (1981). Pure psychological horror insanity.
God Told Me To (1976)/Q, The Winged Serpent (1982)/The Stuff (1985). Larry Cohen is the most underrated and underappreciated horror filmmaker so he gets three highly deserved mentions here. Idiosyncratic, subversive and exciting.
CP: Thank you for your time Richard!
R: You’re welcome!