Where horror lives: why genre fans cannot miss FrightFest

We talk to the minds behind Arrow Video FrightFest about what makes the horror festival so special

When you hear the word “fandom”, you tend to think of Marvel movies, Star Wars, Supernatural…anything that has accumulated a fanbase of passionate and dedicated viewers who have a very strong personal connection to their chosen passion. For whatever reason, you don’t tend to think of horror, but if there’s one thing that the genre has, it’s an incredibly devoted, knowledgeable and vocal community.

Since 2000, a huge chunk of that community has descended on London once a year for a feast of horror movies: FrightFest. Run by Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy, Ian Rattray and Greg Day, FrightFest has been described by Guillermo del Toro as the “Woodstock of gore”, and has shown everything from Cabin Fever and Wolf Creek to The Babadook and The Devil’s Backbone, not to mention the fact that del Toro picked the festival to host the UK premiere of Pan’s Labyrinth.

Over the years, the festival has gone from strength to strength as its scope and community has grown. There are a record 70 films playing over the five days in Leicester Square this year and the excitement levels among the FrightFest faithful are dangerously high. We take a look back at its history with Alan Jones and Greg Day, get some tips on how to make the most of the fest, and look at some of the films you can’t afford to miss this year…

What can first-time attendees expect from FrightFest?

Alan Jones: The best community spirit in the world, a warm welcome from everyone, a fantastic line-up of under-the-radar horror and must-sees, and the best time of their lives.

There are a record-breaking 70 films this year! What’s the selection process like? Is it tricky to whittle down to a feasible number?

AJ: It changes from year to year. 2018 was quite an easy programme to put together because we knew what were going to be the hottest titles well in advance. What does take some engineering is making sure we don’t have too many of the same concept. A few years ago, there were way too many girls-chained-up-in-perv’s-basement movies, so you pick the best ones to highlight the trend. This year it seems we have a surfeit of nuns!

Greg Day: As I’m sure Alan and Paul will testify, you can only choose from what’s actually being made but a mix is very important. It’s a bit like putting together an elaborate globally-influenced menu for people to gorge on for five days.

AJ: Of course, one of our bugbears, still, is how sponsors/distributors etc think we are just a horror festival when we show thrillers, sci-fi, docs, everything. I always point out that we were the first festival in the world to show the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and that usually gets them on the same page. This year we veer from slasher and social realist horror to South American shockers and Mike Leigh infused giallo. Variety is the spice of life after all even in genre terms.

2017’s Leatherface premiere (picture credit: Julie Edwards)

The community spirit is obviously such a great part of every FrightFest. When did you first become aware of this family atmosphere?

AJ: I think we noticed it in our third year when it became clear the audience was bonding, greeting old friends from the same row, making new ones and supporting each other. Obviously, the rise in social media has helped that aspect. It’s not that I didn’t expect it, but I didn’t realise how strong a connection there was until we had an unexpected death of a beloved fan and his funeral was jam-packed with FrightFesters wanting to pay their respects. The fact his mother insisted he be buried with his weekend pass was one of the most moving moments I’ve ever experienced. We’ve had births, marriages and deaths during FrightFest, so all human life is well and truly with us, in the greatest of conjugations.

GD: For me, it was in 2003, when I first asked to get really involved in the fest. I found it quite nerve-wracking at first as I felt like a bit of an imposter, not thinking I had the ‘genre credentials’ but when I went on stage with the others for the first time in 2006, the reception overwhelmed me and I realised that I had nothing to worry about. The FrightFest crowd don’t judge each other, only the movies.

At the moment horror is everywhere, with box-office success and phrases like “elevated genre”. Have you noticed ebbs and flows in the genre over the years or do you feel that it’s stayed pretty constant?

GD: It’s not unusual for the mainstream to highjack the genre when it feels appropriate. And that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned as it helps raises the profile of all the creators involved, including the festival. And don’t forget, horror is still the most consistent money-making division of the film industry. even if the critics still try and dismiss it. It’s NEVER going to go away, and perhaps, in these dark and dangerous times, it’s more desired than ever.

AJ: I have been in the genre film critic/journalist business now for over 40 years and have lost count of how many times I’ve been told that ‘horror is big business’ or ‘horror is dead’. It has always been the same, it’s only mainstream perception that has changed with these ludicrous descriptions of post-horror or elevated horror. The moment I read anything like that I know that we’re in a time where ‘normal’ critics have seen a horror film they like, but can’t admit it, so have to make up excuses for their sudden improvement in taste.

FrightFest directors Ian Rattray, Paul McEvoy, Alan Jones and Greg Day

Does FrightFest feel like a great place to show films that might provoke wildly different responses?

AJ: I can only say what I feel and know it translates to the FrightFest audience. I’m always looking for the next chill, the next jolt, it can be from a foreign subtitled film or the third in a franchise. We will always give a film the benefit of the doubt because we want to be taken some place new and shocking. We programme a lot of films people do not know about for that reason so they will look back next year and say, hey remember when we saw that at FrightFest last year, and now look what it has started. The genre is always the best place to find innovation and new ideas. I get tired of people thinking the Blumhouse model  is an accident, of course it isn’t, it’s the way to go.

For fans it’s incredibly exciting see these films on the big screen with a crowd of like-minded people. Is it a similar thrill for the filmmakers and guests who come to present their work?

GD: Yes, absolutely. FrightFest is a level playing field. We don’t have VIP areas, there’s nothing elitist going on. The filmmakers and the audiences are constantly mixing and it’s a rare opportunity for the talent to get direct and honest feed-back from the very people they are making the movies for.

AJ:  We get the greatest guests for that reason. The fans are respectful but always speak their mind. We’ve had filmmakers re-edit their work based on FrightFest’s reaction. No better compliment and no better testimony to the democracy of the genre

Is there one memory that stands out from past festivals that stands out as a really special, once in a lifetime moment?

AJ: I’ve always said it’s when I introduced Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón on stage for Pan’s Labyrinth, the second time in the world the film had been seen outside of Cannes. The atmosphere was electric and I was on terrific form.

GD: For me it was forming a friendship with director John McNaughton, the director of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer one of my all-time favourite films. We spend a few hours together whilst he was at the festival with The Harvest and he is such an intelligent, curious and gracious man. Can you believe that he made Henry over 30 years ago? For me it will always stand the test of time…

Argentine horror Terrified.

Do you have any personal favourite picks from the upcoming event to flag up?

AJ: Way too many, Upgrade is fantastic, the Argentine Terrified is the scariest movie of the year bar none, The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot is an incredibly moving portrait of American heroism, starring one of my movie heroes Sam Elliott (please let him be able to attend the screening!) and of course there’s our closing film Climax, which is quite something, a masterpiece of extreme cinema and a fabulous Disco movie to boot!

GD: I loved The Dark, Terrified, A Young Man With High Potential, Perfect Skin, Lasso, Lifechanger, The Ranger and there’s many more coming up behind…

Finally, do you have any tips for newcomers on how to make the most of their time at the festival?

AJ: Get involved, talk to the people next to you, come and introduce yourself to the organisers. Only be scared of the movies, not the audience! You’ll have instant firm friends in seconds. Don’t try and see everything. That’s impossible. Curate your own programme, stick with it and don’t panic. Just have a fantastic time.

GD: Be open for all experiences…

Arrow Video FrightFest runs from 23-27 August at Cineworld Leicester Square and the Prince Charles Cinema. For more information and tickets, visit www.frightfest.co.uk