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Green Light in the City

Mayhem Film Festival 2013 Preview

30 October 13 words: Harry Wilding

Mayhem Film Festival has been striking fear, and laughter, into the hearts of cinema goers for over eight years with line-ups rammed to the bloody hilt with exclusive screenings and cult classics. We spoke to directors Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil, the men who control an audience’s heart rate for four full days...

How did the festival begin?
I was a director of Bang! Short Film Festival and we got loads of horror shorts. It seemed a pity to not showcase them.
Steven: Chris and Gareth – the three of us who started Mayhem – were reminiscing about a Manchester film festival, Black Sunday, and how great its all-nighters were. When we started there was FrightFest and hardly any other horror festivals. Mayhem started as shorts, then shorts and a feature...
Chris: ...Two days became three, three became four. It’s grown because there’s an audience. It sounds like a bunch of people sitting around and watching lots of gore but it’s not. The audience is as diverse as the genre. We’re starting to include dark science fiction and fantasy because we know the audience want that.
Steven: We try to give a snapshot of the current state of world horror. It’s about what we like but also interacting with our audience and getting feedback from them about what they want.

The audience are a key part in the festival then?
Chris: They like to tell you what they enjoyed about a film, what they didn’t, and which films they’re looking forward to, which is great. They are the reason we do it. It’s not a big profit making exercise.
Steven: In fact, it’s the opposite.

Do you have to leave good films out the selection process?
Steven: Some films we can’t get because they’re out of our budget or distributors don’t want to show them prior to their theatrical release.
Chris: Nine times out of ten it’s because the film is out before Mayhem - we want every film shown to be an exclusive. Apart from the cult classics, which make up a strand throughout the festival. It’s a slog going through loads of films, some of which are absolutely awful and wear you out, but we have seen some incredible new films.  

Are there a lot of disagreements between you both?
Chris: Yeah. What we’ll do is strip down, have a big fight...
Steven: We’ve got similar taste in films. Sometimes we’ll disagree, but then we will ask ourselves if the audience will like it. We’ve show that I’ve not been bothered about.
Chris: There are films you know that are going to divide the audience in the bar after, but you owe it to those films because they’re pushing the envelope.  We’ve got a film this year, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, by the same team who brought us Amer that we screened in 2010.
Steven: Did you see Amer?

Yeah. Hated it.
Chris: Now, I loved Amer. Not everyone’s going to like Amer and it’ll be the same with the new one. I hate this phrase, but it’ll be a Marmite film. We have, this year, got a huge amount of variety – from grand, civil war, almost fairy tale kind of films to outback, gritty, grim psychological drama, dark sci-fi...
Steven: And disco killers!
Chris: We put on films that we know will test the average Broadway audience. Martyrs, a few years ago, was one of those films; really shocking violence.
Steven: It was the last film shown and everyone came out and looked like they’d been punched in the face.

Is horror your favourite film genre?
It’s the only genre that deals entirely in metaphor. With many genres you’re just along for the ride, but horror always feels more intense.
Steven: People say they can’t understand horror films or the people who like them. The subject of almost all horror films is why do people hurt one another or what happens when you die – if you’re not interested in those questions, I can’t quite comprehend what you are interested in. I’m not saying that every single horror has that kind of profundity at the base of it... They are much more concerned - are absolutely obsessed with - the results of violence, more so than action or superhero movies.
Chris: Not all horror is about making you jump out your seat.
Steven: Sci-fi and horror are two of the oldest genres, and are absolutely perfect for the cinema screen, but they are still looked down upon. We do watch other stuff; the reason for starting Mayhem was because this audience wasn’t being served in this city.
Chris:[mechanically] Horror. Is. Fun.

Do you have a favourite horror sub-genre?
Chris: I’m a huge Dario Argento fan: I love his supernatural stuff, but it’s more his giallo movies
Steven: I like quite sleazy early seventies British horror. People like Pete Walker, films and filmmakers that came out of sexploitation films and then made horror films. They’re low budget but they are more telling of that period in Britain than a lot of social realism films.
Chris: There’s a great truth there; you’ll watch the beginning of a Pete Walker film and people are drifting around Soho - that’s real documentary footage.
Steven: It’s not art directed, it’s not in the studio. I love Hammer films, but they’re all studio based and very controlled and you come out of that into this period of sleazy sexploitation-esque films and suddenly you’re seeing contemporary Britain. It’s also that it has come out of the sixties with the sexual freedoms so you suddenly start to get some weird perverse little films. There’s a film called The Fiend which I really love, it’s fantastically odd and weird.
Chris: I like it when the title is as elaborate as the storyline: The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, The Case of the Blood Stained Iris, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Your Vice is a Locked Room Only I Have the Key...

Chris: They’re good films, though. Sergio Martino films are like watching a lurid soap opera where every now and then someone gets brutally murdered.
Steven: The films we’re talking about are all made on a low budget, outside the studio system and the mainstream. They have fewer restrictions, so you really get this unfettered world view coming out on the screen.
Chris: The filmmaker has their stamp on that film - they’re not films that anyone could have directed.
Steven: My criteria for watching a film; it should have some madness in it.

Do you like zombie films?
I love zombie films, I love George Romero, and Night of the Living Dead. It is still the seminal zombie film. A lot of zombie films have become generic; like any genre, there’s a risk of repetition.
Steven: I wish there was a more rigourous examination of the pathology behind zombieism. I’m sick of seeing films where you turn into a zombie if you’re bitten – but people get absolutely splattered with their blood, in their mouths, their eyes, everywhere. Is it the saliva? Teeth enamel?
Chris: It won’t make any sense, it would fall apart! ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’ – that’s all you need to know; it is that metaphor. When they try to over explain stuff, like with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and try and make it too complicated, they forget that the actual concept, of dead people hate the living, is what scares you. It’s not an otherness; zombies are us. I thought Snyder tried to reverse that.

What do you think the state of UK horror is currently?
Chris: We’ve got a few on this year, which is nice to see.
Steven: Because of the affordability of technology and funders like Kickstarter, a lot of people are making features. People make horror because they see it as an easy route in to films.
Chris: Horror audiences are quite sophisticated; they can sniff out that bullshit very quickly. It is nice to see films that are made by people who love the genre. And know the audience because they are the audience. I love British horror film, the history of it is really crucial.
Steven: It’s weirdly difficult to get funding for a horror film in this country; there are a lot of distributors, producers and financiers who don’t like it as a genre.  It’s weird because horror has a regular audience; but they want that big crossover movie, like Paranormal Activity, which will make millions at the box office.
Chris: The British distribution model is really cautious; really conservative. I still think there are new British filmmakers all the time who have been plugging away either with shorts or online that do break through. Like Gareth Edwards a few years ago; fantastic film Monsters, but it just shows you that there’s enormous potential on a low budget - and then do Godzilla. The revival of Hammer as a studio has produced films as diverse as Wake Wood, low budget horror, and then The Woman in Black, that has a big star attached and needs a 12A. It shows there is an audience for it in Britain.

Steven, you screened your movie Dead Mine at last year’s festival. Was it more nerve-racking or more comfortable than showing it at another festival?
Steven: More nerve-racking! I know a lot of people there and it’s my festival, so it feels a bit weird showing my own films. But then it would be weird not to. We know and respect the audience and want them to like it - it’s terrifying. People seemed to like it but even if they didn’t it’d be unlikely for them to come up and say, “that was shit.”

Do you think you’ll always make horror films?
Steven: Not necessarily. I do love horror films and I love making them. The thing I’m writing at the moment is within the horror genre, but it’s more of a dark drama. My sensibility will always lend itself to darker stuff. Someone recently sent me a script for a romantic comedy and for a second I looked at it and said, “Could I do this?” But soon concluded, “no.” Terrible things would happen; they’d never get together, the lead character would die horribly...
Chris: I got asked to do a Miriam Keyes...

Do you have any projects on the go, Chris?
Chris: I’ve written a really perverse short.
Steven: You have written a really perverse short.
Chris: That’s not the title of it; maybe it should be. I’m trying to find funding for it.

Will Mayhem be dying with you both, or will you eventually pass on the torch?
Steven: Are we dying? [turns to Chris] Are we dying?
Chris: This would be a bizarre way to find out.

I mean in forty, fifty years, obviously...
Chris: Next year is kind of the tenth anniversary, so hopefully we can do something bigger. Mayhem is more likely to kill us before we kill it. There are some fantastic film clubs in Nottingham, like Cinema Diabolique, Kino Club, and Kneel Before Zod. There are talks at Screen 22 to do some midnight screenings soon. Nottingham cinema culture is really exciting at the moment.

Like dogs at Xmas, is horror not just for Halloween?
Chris: Definitely. Horror is for life. I love weather in films, it’s a complete fetish. One thing I miss from my childhood are the horror double bills on TV that they used to largely program in the summer holidays. We also now spend the whole summer watching the festival films.
Steven: Plus, we started Mayhem in May. Hence the name.

Sell the festival to a Mayhem newcomer…
Chris: You can dip in, you don’t have to stay for four days. You can meet like-minded people, make friends, see decent films ahead of their release, see something exciting, or discover future talent. And meet some of the filmmakers too.

Mayhem Horror Film Festival will be on at Broadway Cinema from Thursday 31 October to Sunday 3 November 2013.

Mayhem Film Festival website

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