Dead by Dawn 2013 director Adele Hartley gives us an insight into Scotland's Horror Festival
Hartley talks us through the festival highlights, as well as trends and misogyny in the horror genre
This year’s Dead By Dawn horror festival at Edinburgh’s Fimhouse features original debuts; an appearance by the legendary director of Basket Case and Brain Damage; and a new strain of ‘recession horror’. Festival director Adele Hartley talks about her hopes and the audience’s fears…
What can you say about this year’s programme? Surprises, favourites, screenings about which you are particularly excited?
Super-excited about showing Modus Anomali which is one of those gorgeous, mind-melt movies that demands an extra pint in the bar afterwards, just to figure out what the hell went on! Nail-biting, breath-taking, clever film-making. Also, we have a clutch of amazing feature debuts this year – Jug Face, Dead Shadows, The Battery, The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh – which shows the genre to be in fine hands and it feels like a proper privilege to be part of those film-makers’ careers. Each of those films attempts to do something new in its sub-genre and it’s a joy to celebrate that. We live in an age of prequel, sequel, franchise and remake so it has become incredibly important to me to revel in the excitement of film-makers who try to tell original stories, or at least seemingly familiar stories from an original perspective. Also, without gibbering too much, Frank Henenlotter!!!!
What qualifies a film for inclusion? What if any are your personal criteria?
As ever, it comes down to story. Without a story, all you have is 90 minutes of victims and clichés and unless you’re only paying to keep your eyes from getting bored while you shove junk food down your gullet, who the hell cares about that? What I want, what I’ve always wanted, is film-makers who are attempting to breathe new life into sub-genres, who aim high, who obviously care deeply about trying to engage the viewer rather than just trying to part them from their cash
Have you noticed any interesting (or uninspiring!) trends within current horror during your viewing process?
Oh man, there’s a list of stuff that makes my heart sink but interestingly this year there’s a very strong trend of stories from the States about the fall-out from aggressive house repossession (see there’s possession, then there’s repossession…) and that seems to be a direct and speedy response to the fear and uncertainty brought on by the global recession. The stories feel rooted in personal distress and disappointment in failed aspirations and dreams and although the narrative arc has been fairly predictable, the interpretations have been heartfelt and it definitely feels like a timely howl of despair
What distinguishes Dead By Dawn from other horror-centric festivals, and what makes Edinburgh the right city for it?
Edinburgh has a gothic heart, which is why I love it. Obviously I can’t speak for what drives other events but like all the best festivals, we take our programming very seriously and spend around 15 months watching hundreds and hundreds of submissions to find the very best that’s out there. Just because a film plays elsewhere on the circuit doesn’t automatically mean it’s right for us. Also, I think our approach to the genre is broad – we understand that 'horror' is an umbrella term, just a reference point, and that the genre is incredibly subjective. What scares one person will leave another unscathed. What we’re always interested in is material which will unsettle or disturb the audience, or sometimes just make them laugh!
It can look from the outside like quite an exclusive club – are newcomers welcome, and what can they expect from the event on a social level?
Oh god that makes me sad! It’s nothing of the sort, and I think that worry comes from the usual assumptions about what passes for a horror fan. Around 20% of our audience every year are there for the first time, and one of the great joys of my job is when people come up to me each year and admit they didn’t used to think of themselves as horror fans, but now, because they love the films we’ve shown them, they have no choice but to redefine themselves! We’re all scared of something, I just try really hard to present a wide variety of what that might be. As for socialising, our audience are friendly and lovely, happy to chat away to the person next to them, thrilled to talk about movies, delighted to find people who care about cinema, about the experience of it, about sharing it. The bar at Filmhouse is mobbed between screenings, our guests are in there too (we don’t hold with this ‘them and us’ crap) and (apart from the odd zombie t-shirt) I challenge you to pick out the genre fans from everyone else. People at Dead by Dawn are driven by a love of storytelling and the sheer wonder of great cinema – what film fan isn’t?
A lot of otherwise tough-minded people I know tell me that they absolutely can’t watch horror films, or anything that they fear might contain what they consider “horror”. Does that attitude frustrate or annoy you, or is it just a matter of different strokes for different folks? And do you have a theory about what it is that makes certain people enjoy a level of gore and violence in their cultural diet?
First off, what frustrates me most is the assumption that horror equates with gore and violence. Good horror – actually, great horror – doesn’t need a drop of blood or a hand raised in anger. Great horror should be a series of triggers that allows the viewer to engage their own imagination – Hitchcock understood perfectly well the power of getting the audience to scare themselves – and it is all the more unsettling when the worst images come from within. Those same people that won’t watch horror will watch Embarrassing Bodies or CSI or Dexter or 24 Hours in A&E while they have their dinner. Colour me frustrated and annoyed! The fact remains that 'horror' as a word is offputting to some people but those are the same people who love a good thriller. One of the ITV channels ran a season recently of ‘thrillers’ which included The Shining and Jaws. Funny, I could have sworn those were horror movies. Anyone who sits down to a reality TV show and enjoys seeing incompetence, humiliation, toxic levels of faux gratitude – when those are the people snippy about horror I know it’s about snobbery, not content
For some there are specific sticking points – for instance, the sexualised victimisation of young women in a lot of horror films. Do you take an ethical position on this kind of issue? Do you think attitudes to gender and sex in the genre are cause for concern?
No more than they are anywhere else. I am very conscious of the sexual politics at play in horror films and will reject a film out of hand if it thinks the visual shorthand for shocking is to strip, beat, rape and kill a girl. There’s as much laziness in horror as there is any other genre but again, snobbery marks horror out as an easy target. I’m all for equality in victims – if it’s the kind of tiresome movie where pretty much everyone dies. then don’t do anything to the girls you wouldn’t do to the boys.
Just because misogyny is likely (and horror is hardly the only culprit here) doesn’t mean it has to be indulged. The majority of horror fans I know find that cinematic treatment of women to be extremely distasteful and are sorry to see this kind of question cropping up again and again in relation to the genre. I think it’s worth, again, pointing out the difference in attitudes between mainstream and independent film-making. The fact remains that the sexualised victimisation of young women in mainstream horror is approved (encouraged, even) by men who assume this is what sells. The only way to stop it is to vote with your money. The more people go to see a movie on opening weekend, the more secure its franchise.
Unfortunately, there are horrendous, insulting clichés demeaning women in all genres – take Silver Linings Playbook – a below-average movie revered for reasons I definitely do not get. She’s spiky but that’s ok because she’s grieving, which is also why it’s ok to be promiscuous, but secretly all she wants to do is put on a nice frock and dance and be rescued by a man. Seriously? This kind of drivel makes me furious.
Happily, of our four debut features this year, the women are all driven, smart and self-aware, not a single feeble victim amongst them.
Dead by Dawn takes place at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Thu 25-Sun 28 Apr.