Prepare to enter a new chamber of horrors with FrightFest Presents

FrightFest is bringing horror genre jewels to a VOD audience. We quiz the guys behind the gore...

Fans of horror, or genre movies in general, will have heard of FrightFest, the international film festival which plants its flag in Leicester Square each August, runs a two-day terrorthon at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, and organises one-off screenings, panel discussions and more throughout the calendar. Since its debut in 2000, it's hosted premieres from directors including George A. Romero and Neil Marshall, and been described by Guillermo del Toro as 'the Woodstock of Gore'. 

Last year FrightFest spread its wings, moving into video-on-demand with the launch of six titles under a new FrightFest Presents label in collaboration with Icon Film Distribution. An initial six-pack of genre gems were made available for HD streaming via Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play and more, followed by a second wave of titles beginning at the end of February. I sat down with FrightFest co-creators Paul McEvoy and Alan Jones to discuss their plans for the future and the festival's meteoric rise.

Where did the idea for FrightFest come from? 
Paul McEvoy: I used to attend the brilliant Shock Around the Clock events at the Scala and then the Electric Cinema in London. Alan was one of the co-directors. They were all-day and all-night events that would start around 9am on a Saturday morning; we'd emerge like zombies from the cinema the next day at 10am. I used to love them so much. 

They stopped for whatever reason and I saw there was a gap in the UK genre market for a festival that would be the one that I'd want to go to. I contacted Alan and asked if he'd be interested – obviously a different and much more expanded proposal to Shock Around the Clock. I also spoke to Ian Rattray, who I knew as well. He deals with a lot of the tech stuff. At that time everything was on print so, at a panic, he could get hold of a print in Mexico and sent overnight to London, something Alan and I wouldn't have a clue about. After the first couple of years we got Greg Day involved, who is a PR par excellence, and had worked with [Dario] Argento and [Alejandro] Jodorowsky. The four of us became a very good team. 

Was it hard putting the first one together?
Alan Jones: It's fair to say that we just did it, we never gave it a second thought. It wasn’t even as if it was that planned, it was more 'Let's get some people together.' More planning had to come over the years as we realised we couldn’t just scramble through it any more. We actually had to take it seriously.

It's also important that we coincided with a level of genre awareness that had come out of DVD. I mean, people were actually looking at this stuff. It was different from the 1980s, where you only had magazines and video cassettes.

Anyone who has been to FrightFest will know that there’s this terrific energy and sense of community outside of the screenings. What is it about horror fans that encourages this?
AJ: It's because we’re all in it together. I’d trust anybody who told me they liked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I wouldn’t trust anybody who told me they like Bridget Jones’s Diary! There's a shorthand between fans that doesn't exist in any other genre and I think you can recognise a like mind. And we brought those people together, who I think were looking for some venue, some place like this. 

What’s the process for securing films for the festival? Is it easier now than it was before?
PM: There are certain movies that we track right through from inception to completion, so we are always on exactly what’s being made worldwide at any given moment in time. So there's that. Then there’s the submissions process, which we do through FilmFreeway, so we're getting features and short films through that pretty much all year round. Just in the last week we've probably had around 30 shorts and five or six features. We also attend as many international genre festivals as is humanly possible. Alan's also on the set of a lot of films, especially UK productions, so he’s getting in at the grassroots…

AJ: I just say to producers 'Do you think there's a chance of us showing…' I can gauge if it's going to be a FrightFest sort of film. And that is a specific. There is a FrightFest film. And I can gauge if it is.

What exactly is a FrightFest film?
AJ: A really good FrightFest film is something that’s quirky, that’s different, that actually has something that you haven't seen in the mainstream. Paul and I have a sixth sense about this, we know it when we see it.

PM: The perfect example is Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah!, which on paper you wouldn't really classify as a FrightFest film. But as soon as I saw it, I knew it would be perfect for our audience. You certainly couldn't class it as a horror. But it is a pure genre film.

AJ: Steve's been a friend to FrightFest for a few years anyway. So that was the perfect synergy... and the perfect kickoff for the FrightFest Presents label.

Onto the label: the first wave of VOD titles – including Aaaaaaaah! – has been available for 
a few months now. Have you had much feedback from fans?

AJ: You know what the FrightFest audience is like. They actually are collectors. They want it in their hands. They want a physical copy. So, the idea behind FrightFest Presents, originally, was to take it beyond our hardcore audience. We wanted people who had heard of us, but just wanted to dip their toe into the water, so to speak. The sort who would stream something and think that if this is the sort of movie they show at FrightFest then maybe we should go along and take a chance.

PM: We've had fun emails, where people are having their own FrightFest nights and FrightFest weekends. They're watching the six movies, or maybe three of the movies back-to-back on a Saturday night, and then giving us their feedback. It's great having the titles out there.

AJ: And we worked out that because we showed 76 films at the last FrightFest, due to multiple screenings happening at the same time you could only see about 30 of them. So there is an audience who were there but still didn't see Night of the Living Deb or The Sands. This is a good way of making sure that they get the opportunity.

Is this the second stab at launching a FrightFest Presents label? There was a DVD of Ti West’s The Roost under the banner a few years ago.
AJ: That was with Revolver. We thought it was a good idea, and I stick by the films we chose for Revolver. They were good ones. But they were too busy dealing with a certain niche area, which wasn't in our niche area. Then we went with Wild Bunch and we found ourselves in the amazing situation with them telling us they wanted our sensibility, because they’re a French-based company, and then every time we said 'Okay, here's a film we want', they were like, 'Hang on, it's too English'. So that didn't work. Icon came to us. We love Icon. Zak Brilliant [Head of Theatrical at IFD] really gets what FrightFest is all about. He's always been there with films to give us for the main festival; you can go back and see that there was an Icon movie playing every year. He understood the value of it. And Icon is prepared to take our view onboard. Okay, so they've seen a film and they've gone, 'Look we don’t really like it, but we understand why you want to release it'. They've been absolutely the perfect partners.

With the exception of Aaaaaaaah! (pictured), which has had a Blu-ray and DVD release, you're bypassing discs in favour of VOD. Was that always the plan?
AJ: That was always what Icon wanted. And years ago I thought DVD was going to be dead and buried by this time. I still can't believe it’s staggering on. Most people think that if it goes straight to VOD it means it's complete rubbish, and that's not true. We wanted to make sure that people realised that we've put our reputations behind these films, we have our own quality control. We don't think we've released anything that's crap.

PM: And we always said it was never about week one, which it often is with DVD. It’s actually about week 21 or week 51. Because we've put our brand – our seal of approval – on the titles, we want people to continue to enjoy them this time next year.

AJ: We want a quality back-catalogue of stuff we will always stand by. And that is what I think we’re building.

PM: Now, we are looking into physical releases...

AJ: ...But originally we didn’t think that was ever going to happen. Yet some of them were so successful that Icon said to us that we should do physical, too.

PM: I think it's the collector mentality in all of us that, if something doesn't exist in the real world, then it doesn't really exist. That’s going to change in the future. But I think discs are still a strong, important part of the UK market.

[Since this interview was conducted, Emelie and Estranged have been released on DVD under the Frightfest Presents banner. Other DVD releases on the way include AfterDeath (April 18), The Sand (April 25) and Night of the Living Deb (May 2)]

Is the idea that everything that is released through the label will have been shown at one of the FrightFest events?

PM: No. It's a completely broad church. There are no parameters on it. Absolutely not. That's the short answer. Our eyes are wide open.

When it comes to choosing the films, are their arguments and disagreements?
PM: Always. Again, there's no hard and fast rule, but if either myself or Alan see something that we know should definitely go into the festival, no matter what, then we bow to each other's choices. With a lot of movies, one of us always runs it past the other. So Alan will say, 'Take a look at this and give me your honest thoughts'. And I do.

We do disagree on stuff. But if one of us puts up an argument against it, then often the mind will move in that way. And then of course we have Ian and Greg as the back-up, as well. So we sometimes farm it out to them and ask what they think. But I think 90 per cent or more of the stuff we show is chosen by us two between us.
Also – and we're not going to take this theory into the FrightFest Presents label – but for the festival itself, it's good to have ones that dip, because the audience will love it. Day of the Dead 2: Contagion at the Odeon was an hilarious screening. But we knew that people would have fun. After all, if you have a diet of 27 or 30 movies over a weekend and they’re all on the same level, it would get quite boring. So you have to throw in a couple of movies that aren't so good. Argento's Giallo was another. I mean, everybody wanted to see the movie, but it was an hilarious screening. So that's why sometimes having a few of the lesser titles makes the other ones shine.

How important is the balance between big names and new talent for the festival/label?
AJ: We're more about the discovery of new talent now. And we can see which rising talents are coming through. We really can. It's crystal-clear to me. And the icons are becoming too few and far between, which is why they’re so difficult for us to get. Not just to our festival but to anybody's.

PM: A lot of the elder statesmen won't travel…

AJ: John Carpenter.

PM: Or they've distanced themselves to a degree from the horror genre…

AJ: David Cronenberg.

PM: With regards to the festival we try to keep a balance of the brand-new and nurturing talent we've discovered in previous years, the Ti Wests, the Adam Greens, the Guillermo del Toros. And then we do like to have a few of the elder statesmen as well. We had Robert Englund over in 2014 for a retrospective of A Nightmare on Elm Street and a screening of his film The Last Showing. The first wave of titles was released in one go. The second wave was spread out...

AJ: Yeah. Icon thought that six in one go was a bit… We wanted to make a big splash when we did that. But we've decided that two per week is preferable.

And do you have to deliver a certain number of waves per year?
PM: Again, no. We don't want to oversaturate the market with crap, for want of a better word. It's got to be quality...

AJ: It's got to be FrightFest. That's the most important thing. We do intros – we do that because we want to give the audience some sort of idea of what we do at FrightFest, that we get up and talk before the films. These people aren't stupid. We're not going to stand there and go 'You're going to love this!'. We give them some info about why we like it and where we're coming from. And I know it went down well, so we're going to do those again for the next wave.

What's your favourite from the second release of titles?
AJ: Well, if I had to pick a favourite – one which I always wanted and was so thrilled when we got it – it’s Emelie (pictured). That had to be held back into Wave Two in order for it to go day-and-date with the US. We get a lot of that sort of thing. And with Last Girl Standing, when we showed it at the festival it was so new the filmmaker [Benjamin R. Moody] asked us not to release it straight away, to hold it back so it could get a little more exposure. And that's great, because it’s been winning awards at other festivals. There is method in what looks like complete madness.

PM: I think Wave Two is beautifully diverse in its six titles. There’s something for everybody there. It mirrors the broad dynamic of the worldwide genre market, and it feels kind of like putting the festival together, where we've chosen the cream of the crop, we’ve proposed them as titles, and Icon has then said, 'Yes, we agree with your choices'. Curtain is a brilliant science-fiction mind-bender; The Unfolding is a really smart UK found-footage movie that is genuinely terrifying. And [director] Eugene McGing has delivered a brand-new cut for that. So, although we premiered it last year at FrightFest, he's been tinkering with it to make it absolutely perfect.

AJ: That’s something people do with FrightFest. They’ll take a film away and amend it slightly, taking the audience reaction into account.

PM: What's also great about Wave Two is having a female director with Ruth Platt’s The Lesson, which 
is a very strange, not purely horror, film. But it's a brilliant thriller with some very nasty stuff going on in it. Beautifully shot as well.

AJ: Landmine Goes Click is the one film we thought we were going to have a censor problem with. We were worried about that, although I won't tell you why. But we didn't and I was actually quite surprised.

Speaking about censors, you ran into trouble with A Serbian Film a few years back...
AJ: Yeah, we weren't allowed to have it [at the festival]. That's the only time it's ever happened. And it happened because a member of the public saw that we were showing it and said, 'Hang on a minute, I’ve heard about this film,' and got in touch with Westminster City Council. They freaked out and we had the filmmaker in town. So we had him, but we couldn't show the movie. The whole thing was ridiculous.

It's quite difficult. I write the programme for the festival. I have to make sure now that I don't hype films up too much, but hype it up enough for the audience. It's a difficult balancing act. I'd love to say, 'It's the most shocking thing you've ever seen!' and that sort of stuff, but if I do that it's like a red rag to a bull with Westminster City Council.

PM: I think there was one about five or six years ago where you put something like, 'Gore cannibal frenzy' and they asked to have a look at it. And we sent it to them and they were like, 'Is this it?'.

AJ: The people who are supposedly making these stupid laws haven't seen a film for like a hundred years, it makes you sick. If we were just over the road, in Camden borough, we wouldn't have any problem. That 10 yards makes the difference about whether we can show something or not. It's ridiculous.

Do you see other possibilities for the FrightFest brand outside of the festival and label?
AJ: We have to keep it special. We love doing FrightFest Glasgow. The Scottish audience for us is fantastic. It comes at the right time, after a miserable winter. That gives it that nice sort of lift. 

There's going to be a lot of different one-off days this year, because we've got a lot of interesting films coming that are released before FrightFest proper.

We’re only three years away from FrightFest's 20th anniversary. Have you started making any plans for that?
PM: No! You know, that's the first time I've actually thought about it. But we are thinking about the future constantly. So, for example, the very day after the last main FrightFest, we were already talking about titles and potential things for this coming year. We always look at least a year ahead. But probably not so far as three years.

AJ: Watch this space for an announcement that means that the next three years are going to be fine for us. That's coming up soon. But the 20th anniversary? I hadn't even thought about that.

I presume everything is provided as digital packages these days, and you don't screen genuine prints any more?
PM: It’s all digital. Or we have to convert it from whatever format into the Digital Cinema Package.

Does the digital requirement pose any problems with screenings of older films?
AJ: For years I would avoid any retrospectives. I didn't want to show anything old. That’s not what FrightFest was about. And then I realised that I was in a really good position where I'd got to see a lot of films on the bigscreen back in the day. I'm old enough for that. To deny that to an audience who hasn't seem those classics on the bigscreen... 

PM: It's thrilling now. When we showed Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was incredible.

AJ: And the Argento stuff. I'd seen everything because I worked with him. I tend to forget. Which 
is why I wanted to show Your Vice is a Locked Room… last year, I thought that needed to be seen on the bigscreen. And we got a great audience for that. I was surprised at how well they do. When we showed Blood and Black Lace in Glasgow it was packed. It's got to be well chosen, but people should have the chance to see these films in the cinema.

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