NB: This interview was originally published online in November 2010.
CULT PROJECTIONS: You state on your blog, Seven Doors Hotel [ED: Now defunct] that you’ve been a dedicated fan of horror since the age of 6. What movie(s) transformed you into a horrorphile?
STEPHEN: It was a TV show, actually, Doctor Who. When I was a kid it was going through a particularly scary patch. I jumped in when Jon Pertwee started playing the Doctor and on into the early Tom Baker years, when the stories could be quite terrifying for a ’family show’. At 6 or 7 or 8 years old, you don't notice things like wobbly sets and the seams up the monsters' backs, you just buy into what you see, and invest your imagination. I've always loved that show, and I'm very glad that it's been successfully revived recently. Next, I started looking for books that would give me the same buzz, and as luck would have it I discovered the stories of H.P. Lovecraft in the local library when I was about twelve years old, in the old yellow-cover Gollancz editions. I was a fairly precocious reader and I immersed myself in M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker, Clark Ashton Smith. I found the Gollancz edition of Robert Aickman's short story collection Cold Hand in Mine when I was about thirteen and that really haunted me. Around the same time I came across a series of paperbacks called “The Pan Books of Horror Stories”. The early editions included classic horror stories like The Monkey's Paw and such, but around Volume 6 or 7 they started to zoom in on extreme violence, grisly stories designed to provoke disgust and repulsion as much as terror. I have to say I lapped these up too. As a consequence, I've never taken seriously the idea of a divide between suggestive horror and explicit horror, because I was steeped in both from an early age and always appreciated the pleasures of both.
CP: Can you remember your first horror on VHS (or Betamax even?) Did you sneak into movies that were age restricted by lying about your age? If so what was the first “adult” horror movie you saw, on VHS and at the cinema?
S: As a kid I was never allowed to see late night horror movies on TV. I only started seeing them when I was in my mid-teens, when I had some money in my pocket. The first real horror movie I went to see was David Cronenberg's The Brood, which came to the UK in 1980 when I was sixteen. That blew me away. In fact, I left the cinema with the most appalling stomach-ache because of the tension - I was knotted with anxiety watching it! But that day opened the floodgates. Basically, as soon as I had money of my own, I went to see everything! I don't think there's a single horror movie released in the UK between 1980 and 1984 that I didn't see: good, bad or wretchedly boring! When video came along, I'd just left school and got a job, so I had the money and the freedom to really immerse myself. I think the first two videos I rented were I Spit on Your Grave and Tobe Hooper's Death Trap (aka Eaten Alive). Loved them both.
CP: At what age did you first become entranced by Euro horror and exploitation? Can you name any specific movies that facilitated this obsession?
S: The first European horror film I saw was Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh-Eaters some time in 1980, quickly followed by Mario Bava's Shock on a double bill with The Beyond. I fell in love with all three. In that year alone I must have seen a well over a hundred other films, but the European ones really reached out and grabbed me. Of course I've written about Fulci in my book Beyond Terror, but I should stress that Mario Bava's Shock was a massive influence on my ideas about horror cinema. It starts out within a psychological framework - paranoia, psychosis, murder, repression, etc. - then tips into the supernatural. Or does it? Perhaps we're simply seeing a visual representation of the way madness is passed from parents to children. Add to this all the thrills of a progressive-rock-meets-avant-garde soundtrack, and I was hooked.
CP: In one or two words describe what it is that attracts you to each of these directors’ movies: Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco, Andrzej Zulawski, Alejandro Jodorowsky.
S: Argento: cruelty, style. Fulci: rage, melancholy. Franco: freedom, delirium. Zulawski: passion, madness. Jororowsky: spectacle, comedy.
CP: What compelled you to write a book on the movies of Lucio Fulci?
S: Mainly it was because no one had given the best of his films the respect I thought they deserved. They had some enthusiastic supporters in the fanzines, myself included, but I thought there was room for closer scrutiny, and since I loved the films so much I took a stab at it. It's hard, because when I wrote the book it burned a hole where the films used to be, and now I look back at them like someone who's discovered a house they used to live in has been bulldozed. It's strange. I used to watch them all the time but I find it very hard to re-watch Fulci now. It's one of the downsides of writing a book on someone; it can leave you with a bit of a scorched hole where the pleasure used to be. Hopefully it'll scar over and I'll get back into them some day!
CP: What is it about sex and death that brings the sexual elements within exploitation and the viscera and violence in horror movies so close together? Are there any taboos left within cinema? Are there any movies you’ve seen that push the boundaries too far?
S: Sex and death are like beans on toast, bacon and eggs - inseparable! The French have been saying it for centuries, so who are we to argue? Taboos are always shifting. I don't have 'taboos' as such when it comes to cinema - just things I don't like, or things I don't agree with. I have my own notion of good and bad taste, and I can be disgusted by something that I consider to be stupid or fascistic or mean-spirited. But as for 'going too far', the only way someone can go too far, for me, is if they kill for real.
I saw A Serbian Film recently, and apparently it's upset a lot of people, but to be honest I was unmoved and didn't feel shocked or disturbed at all. I'm not trying to be a tough guy! I want to be moved, I want to be left quaking. I don't get a macho kick out of sitting there being ostentatiously unfazed by extreme horror. But the whole thing was too stylized and melodramatic. I was expecting something really grim, but after watching it late at night a few weeks ago I went to bed and slept without a single backward glance, much less a sleepless night. Besides, the 'taboo' elements (which I won't go into as I might spoil the film for someone) are not as new and edgy as some critics have made out. There's a scene, for instance, which essentially Chris Morris did ten years ago, in a black comedy context, on British TV! More than any of this though, the chief failing of the film for me was the sound design, which was so overdone and exaggerated it became a bore. I hate it when movies have every sudden movement accompanied by some corny Dolby-stereo 'swoosh'! And I'm sorry, but banging techno in horror films just sounds dated to me. It comes from this alt-cultural place where 'transgressive' music taste and film taste have fused into a sort of orthodoxy; I don't have 'out-there' associations with that sort of muscular, pulverising techno beat. It just reminds me of trying to have conversations in deafening 1990s gay clubs!
CP: Since the publication of Eyeball Compendium in 2003 (which featured the best work from the five issues of Eyeball magazine spanning 1989-1998) the European horror scene has exploded; a new wave of filmmakers have emerged, especially from France and Spain, who are providing modern horror with a visceral and emotional intensity not seen since, what I affectionately term, the Scarlet Age of Modern Horror (the mid-70s to the mid-80s). What are your thoughts on this new wave of brutalism?
S: I'm not sure how much of a wave there is, but I have seen a few impressive European horror films in recent years. I thought Martyrs was outstanding. Calvaire was beautiful and funny and so black. Some of the others have felt less fulfilling. The best has to be Irreversible. Gaspar Noe is a law unto himself, and Irreversible was a beautiful and terrifying masterpiece. I still haven't seen Enter the Void, which I'm really looking forward to.
CP: Contrary to the European new wave Hollywood has, over recent years, been sanitizing horror movies more and more, forcing directors to deliver PG-13 versions, and remaking cult classics that have virtually none of the shock power of the originals (with very few exceptions). What are your thoughts on this?
S: No, I don't agree that Hollywood has been doing what you say. Saw and Hostel are as grisly as any 1970s horror flick, and 'soft' horror has been with us since forever. What's different is the vibe. The newer American gore films have a mainstream vibe, because the mainstream has caught up with what used to be the fringe pleasures like gore and sadism. What they can't process, though, is the randomness, the odd construction of plots written by amateur writers, the illogic, the lack of stable third acts and character arcs and all that crap. The skills involved in making horror have been quantised, standardised. I miss that accidental magic you'd find when you had untrained actors blundering through bizarre scenes that had shock value because they felt like a new form of reality. Who cares if they saw someone's face off? Content is not the frontier any more, form is the frontier. It's not a genuine shock to see someone's eye poked out in a film any more. I remember seeing Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou for the first time, projected before a Cabaret Voltaire gig back in 1980 I think, and when that razor-blade cut through the eyeball you felt as if your world was changing. Nowadays, kids are just as likely to see that horrendous Russian snuff thing on the internet. As for Hollywood, I think the Hollywood machine is reaching a position, with films like Avatar, where pure size, massiveness, the biggest screen, the most expensive illusion, is all they can offer that people can't get elsewhere. The filmmakers who peddle this stuff buy off their liberal guilt at spending the national debt of the Third World on SPFX by parading 'socially responsible' themes, but the content is old hat. It's all about form now: video gaming, Youtube clips; fragmentary excitements.
CP: You were a full-time member of seminal electronic industrial outfit Coil, a band synonymous with producing nightmarish soundscapes and dark music. What releases did you specifically work on? Those first few years of editing Eyeball magazine and composing with Coil must have been an intense period, any notable anecdotes you care to share?
S: I was in Coil from Scatology in 1984 to Stolen and Contaminated Songs in 1992, so I did five albums and various odds and ends. Were we nightmarish? I thought we beautiful! We did an album in 1987 called Horse Rotorvator, which was heavily influenced by the encroaching AIDS situation, but even then... I mean, covering Tainted Love at the height of AIDS panic, Daily Mail anti-gay headlines and such, I think we were taking a stand against something really evil. And knowing that we were speaking not just to the mainstream but to the fringes of the gay community... you tailor your remarks to your likely audience, and we were sure we were not addressing the moral majority - they would never come within a mile of us! The people we were reaching out to were those already at the front line, already developing their private coping strategies in this blizzard of hate from the mainstream media. Tainted Love was a sort of beacon to the awkward squad in gay culture. They understood that we were playing ironically with the ideas and the words and the format. We received some hate mail from gay individuals who felt, wrongly, that the song attacked gay people, and yet a lot of those letters came from gay men safely ensconced within the status quo. Whereas gay outsiders understood what was going on, and they got the sense of humour even in such dark times.
CP: I presume you worked on the unofficial Hellraiser soundtrack. Tell me briefly, what exactly happened, from its inception to its rejection?
S: I met Clive at the old Forbidden Planet bookshop in London just after The Books of Blood came out. We ended up going for a drink and a chat. I played Clive the first Coil LP, Scatology, and it clicked with him straight away, so I arranged for him to visit Jhon and Sleazy, and they all got along well. Sleazy showed Clive his collection of hardcore S&M mags from the USA, 'Piercing Quarterly' for instance, which featured extreme genital piercings, penile bifurcation and the like. Clive was mesmerised! It came out in the imagery of Hellraiser (or 'Sado-Masochists from Beyond the Grave' as he liked to call it!) There was no brief from the film studio when we first became involved, just Clive, who was excited by the avant-garde aspect of what we did, plus he was looking for something lush and romantic too. In Coil we often worked with string quartets and careful harmonic arrangements hand-in-hand with weird atonality, so it fell well within our capabilities. We went into the studio and did much of what eventually emerged on disc in about three or four days. These recordings were approved by Clive and we were about to add orchestral instruments, when the news came that New Line had persuaded Clive to drop us from the project.
I think the rift had its roots in the budgetary issues. When the early rushes came back, the special effects (the resurrected Frank, for instance) were not up to scratch. New Line were unhappy with the effects but after they saw a rough cut of half the film, they realised that Clive was making something with a lot of commercial potential. Unfortunately for us, they persuaded Clive to sacrifice his attachment to Coil in favour of a more conventional Hollywood-symphonic score, and in return pumped in more money for reshoots. It was frustrating because the recordings we released as The Unreleased Themes For Hellraiser were only half-way to where they were meant to go. Our way of working at the time was to do 'first passes' electronically, and then bring in other musicians to re-record some parts and overdub others. Sadly, we never got that far, although I believe many Coil fans like the recordings anyway.
CP: What do you think of the cinema work of prog-rock band Goblin?
S: Glorious! Hugely influential. Their themes for Deep Red and Suspiria are touched by genius, in my opinion. So is the score for Bava's Shock, by Goblin offshoot I Libra. That's possibly my favourite of them all. Oh, and the main theme to Contamination is so exciting and blissful, like musical Ecstasy! I'm very much in favour of progressive rock in a horror context, I think it has complexity which helps to keep the mind alert. I'm not a big fan of ELP, but Keith Emerson's score for Inferno is fantastic. It really reaches into the corners and enhances all the emotional subtleties of the imagery.
CP: Apart from the music scored for the surreal horror Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, are there any further plans to compose for movies? Or collaborations with directors, like Chris Cunningham for example.
S: We're always open to suggestions in this field. I'm sure something will come about.
CP: What are your thoughts on the use of sound and music in the movies of David Lynch? Are their any other directors whose use of sound and/or music particularly impresses you?
S: Lynch creates total sound environments more than soundtracks. His influence on film and music has been enormous. I remember when the soundtrack to Eraserhead came out on an LP back in 1981 or 1982, I used to lie on the floor in my first flat, in the dark, with the stereo speakers positioned next to my ears like huge headphones, and just live in that recording for forty five minutes. Beautiful. He has an incredible talent for sound design, and for the way context plays strange games with content. I have complete respect for him as an artist, there are very few people working in cinema today who have this man's talent for making new worlds on film.
CP: Have you done any screenwriting and/or filmmaking outside of your work as a film critic?
S: Ask me that in a year's time, and hopefully the answer will be yes! It's too early to say, but I'm hoping this will happen in the next twelve months … Best not to jinx it by talking about it too much yet though.
CP: How did the publication Nightmare USA come about? Have you always shared the same love of American horror and exploitation as you have for European? What are some of the more important American horror movies in the history of the modern horror movie? What distinction can you make between American horror and Euro horror that excites you about each?
S: I always liked certain kinds of American horror films, but for quite a while I was very intensely obsessed with European horror. I always remained keen on the low budget stuff such as The Driller Killer, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Death Trap, I Spit on Your Grave. I always really loved the slasher movies too, despite the fact that they were often poo-pooed by more quality-fixated film journalists! I just love the format, regardless of whether or not the films are 'great art'. I find the post-Halloween slasher cycle of movies irresistible. As I said in Nightmare USA, if anyone ever made a 24 hour slasher film, I'd be first in line to see it! When I started my magazine Eyeball, I wrote only about European movies, but it wasn't because hated all American horror films, it was really just a way of carving a distinctive niche for myself, at a time when the horror fanzine market was very busy and crowded with titles. I suppose the big difference between the sorts of European horror films I like and the American ones is that the Europeans were nearly always art designed, quite lavishly, even the sleazy ones! Something like Fulci's The Beyond is basically an arty exploitation movie, but it was shot on soundstages at De Paolis studios in Rome, with great technicians, a studio's worth of skill and artistry behind the scenes. Many of its American counterparts are shot almost entirely on location, with no money for expensive set dressing, and therefore only a rudimentary attention to art design. So the American films have greater verisimilitude, while the European ones have greater artifice. That's a generalisation, of course!
CP: As a hard-copy collector I read a disheartening article in Rue Morgue magazine recently on the future of DVDs (in particular special editions, and rare movies). The writer stated that at best the future is uncertain, as companies move toward releasing movies as compressed digital files, and at worst, the future is grim, as it will only take one or two major companies to cease releasing movies on DVD and a domino effect will occur. Surely there’s no longevity in Blu-ray either. I’m assuming you’re a collector, what are your thoughts on this?
S: Well, the real reason for this is illegal filesharing and downloading. It's so prevalent now that it's only a matter of time before the smaller DVD companies go belly up. It's a shame, but since it's now so cheap and easy for everyone to basically upload their DVD collection onto their own blogs, it's not even something that can be dealt with by prosecuting the larger pirate sites. I don't see how the drift towards everyone wanting everything for free can be reversed, short of incredibly draconian legislation.
CP: Worse still is the steady disappearance of cinemas playing cult classics and grindhouse flicks (simply because the prints are becoming too damaged to play). Can you lament any further on this?
S: Not really, not without being a hypocrite! I hardly ever go to the cinema any more. I live outside London, in a small coastal town, and the only films I can see here are mainstream blockbusters. I've adjusted to a DVD-only lifestyle. I do miss the thrill of seeing sleazy or horrific films in the cinema, but my life has changed a lot in the past ten years and I'm no longer as hooked on the big screen experience as I once was.
CP: Have you visited any of the big horror conventions or festivals (FanTasia, Festival of Fear, Sitges, World Horror Con, etc), and if so which ones and what are the best?
S: No, haven't been to any.
CP: Do you have favourite sub-genre of modern horror and if so what and why? Zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, aliens, monsters, giallo, slashers …? Do you place more importance on horror as opposed to terror, or vice versa?
S: I'm usually more interested in 'the evil that men do' than the evil that ghosts and ghoulies do, although I enjoy supernatural subject-matter if it's well written. Zombies used to be a special case, because they straddled both worlds somehow. But they've been run into the ground through overuse in the past ten years. I wish Romero would drop it with the zombie schtick, frankly. I thought his last three were pretty dreadful. I expect they're the only films anyone will give him money to make, but still...
CP: What recent horror/nightmare movies have tickled your fancy?
S: The best new horror film I've seen in years is a Hungarian movie called The Seventh Circle, by Árpád Sopsits, about a suicidal cult among teenagers. Apart from that there's nothing much new or recent that's appealed to me, except for the films I mentioned earlier. The best things I've watched again recently were Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, Jess Franco's Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein, Jess Franco's Lorna the Exorcist, and Erle C. Kenton's House of Frankenstein.
CP: I’m playing Devil’s advocate here, but if you could pick two or three movies you’d like to see remade, what would they be and who would direct?
S: I'd like to see The Bell of Hell remade by Todd Haynes. Maybe like Claudio Guerin-Hill he'd fall off the fucking clock tower and then we'd be rid of him. With the Catholic Church having been caught red-handed these past few years covering up child abuse, perhaps a remake of Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, directed by Martin Scorsese?
CP: And finally, are you able to list (not necessarily in any order) your all-time top ten favourite nightmare movies?
1. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
3. A Virgin Among the Living Dead (Jess Franco)
4. Martin (George Romero)
5. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe)
6. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
7. Inland Empire (David Lynch)
8. Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier)
9. The Brood (David Cronenberg)
10. Funny Games (Michael Haneke)
CP: Thank you, Stephen!
Since participating in this interview Stephen has co-written a comprehensive book on on another of his cinematic heroes, the late Jess Franco.