Alan Jones | Film 4 FrightFest

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth

With FILM 4 FRIGHTFEST, the annual celebration of all things horror almost upon us, we chatted to one of the head honchos, legendary journalist ALAN JONES to get the skinny on the event…

STARBURST: How did FrightFest get started?

Alan Jones: Back in the year 2000, Paul McEvoy – who I didn’t know – asked me to join him in setting up a horror film festival in the centre of London. He used to come to something I used to do in the eighties called Shock Around The Clock that I did at the Scala cinema and transformed into Fantasm at the National Film Theatre. I didn’t like doing it at the NFI, they weren’t the right place for a horror film festival; they don’t understand it. As a result of that, it sort of faded away; I lost interest. Until Paul mentioned this. I’d been in on the festival circuit for thirty years, I’d been to all the really famous ones across Europe, and could never understand why London being a capital city never had a festival and I thought this was a really good chance for us to do something. It was baby steps to begin with, but because I had set up Shock Around The Clock with [Shock Xpress editor] Stefan Jaworzyn years ago, I knew basically what to do. Because I’d been a journalist for so long, I knew the film companies to talk to about getting films. It was easy enough. The reason we put it on the August bank holiday weekend really was because I live very near the Notting Hill Gate carnival – hate it – and wanted something to do, and thought there are other people as well who just couldn’t bear the carnival and the fact it took over the whole of London. So here was an alternative. We got a really good audience the first year and looking back, it’s grown and grown to where we are now.

What sort of selection process is there for the films?

Paul and I mainly do it, Ian [Rattray] every now and again stamps his feet and says ‘I want this in, ‘cos I like it!’ and generally, it’s OK and we’ll say ‘yes’. But Paul and I mainly do everything, we trawl every festival – I still do go to a lot of festivals: Berlin and Cannes, obviously, are quite crucial, but submissions have been really, really more important this year than I’ve ever come across. We’ve had so many films submitted, and we do watch everything, because you never know. We had some amazing entries this year. A lot of what you will see at FrightFest are those submissions, because we just couldn’t believe the quality and how good they were. Things we didn’t even know existed were turning up; titles we’d never heard of, and they were really fantastic. We managed to keep a lid on most of them I think, until we announced the full line-up. But Paul and I are dogged about this – we watch everything!

That just proves the independent talent is flourishing, but what are your thoughts on the state of the horror genre at the moment?

I would say very, very good, very buoyant. Things are changing; the industry’s changing so much. The reason why festivals like FrightFest work now, even more than they ever did, is because we can provide a platform for the sort of films you used to see on general release, but now they’re lucky if they even get a day-and-date VOD platform. So for that reason, I think we’re considered vital; if we select somebody’s movie and show it, it puts it in the spotlight, head above the parapet, and as a result, we’ve given it sort of like a seal of approval that it wouldn’t necessarily have. From the submissions this year, the horror genre’s in a very good state! Some years aren’t so great, you can see it sort of treading water. While the mainstream industry is content to do sequels and bloated blockbusters, I feel that down at the bottom end of the market that’s where most of the imagination and talent is lying, and I think you’re going to see that this year. We have some extraordinary stuff that I know is going to make sure the directors are going to go on to bigger and better things.

You screen a lot of independent movies, which is something we’re passionate about supporting, is there anyone who are you looking forward to seeing more from?

Oh, I don’t want to particularly single out any one in particular, but Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Some Kind of Hate is such a great film, something that really came on our radar that we had no idea was that good. Michael Thelin, whose film Emelie really is sensational, it’s one of my favourites this year, actually. Valentin Javier Diment, who’s a guy from Argentina whose film The Rotten Link (El eslabón podrido) we sort of thought ‘oh we better go and see this’ in Cannes because I’ve got a particular love of South American cinema. We went to see it not expecting anything, and it blew me away! I thought, ‘Wow, where’s this guy been hiding all these years?’ There’s stuff like that - Adrián García Bogliano’s new film Scherzo Diabolico is on, and we’ve been following his career for quite some time too. It’s great to see these people who we nurtured in the past suddenly grow into full-blown talents. There’s going to be a lot of that this year. We call one of the strands the Discovery Screen, because we want people to discover their own people for themselves. To this day, Vincenzo Natali credits me for helping his career because I gave Cube possibly the very first review he ever had (I was a reviewer for STARBURST for twenty-five years), and you can do that, but we can only program the stuff, and it’s up to today’s outlets to discover it and make those people famous. I love to do it, and love to put people on pedestals and say this is great, but I think from a programmer’s point of view, you can’t do that. In the past, I’ve noticed if I go out in front of an audience and say ‘you’re going to love this, it’s fantastic’, invariably, they say, ‘well it wasn’t as good as you said it was’. So to be honest, I keep my mouth shut, and afterwards, people come up to me and say, ‘that was really good’, and I say ‘yeah, wasn’t it?’ And if they go, ‘that was really not great’ I can say ‘yeah, I know’ [laughs] in the way you can only provide the conduit between them. It’s up to the likes of STARBURST to do that, I think, more than it is for me to this is great, that’s great. We’ve got a load of things I absolutely adore; Curve by Iain Softley – who’s one of my favourite directors from the past anyway – he’s come back into the spotlight with this amazing thing. There’s loads of stuff like that: Night Fare by Julien Seri, the French director, what a great story that is! He did a movie called Scorpion that got released all round the world and was trying to get his next film off the ground but it never happened. So he thought, ‘fuck this’ and got eighty grand together and made Night Fare, which is possibly one of the best films, you’ll particularly like that because of what it is. That’s what I like about these people, especially now working in this genre level because sometimes money doesn’t matter. We’ve got $100,000 movies and $20,000 movies, and I defy anyone to tell the difference in quality. It beats the studios at their own game.

And everyone has access to a camera now…

True. It’s very democratising this genre at the moment, I think. Anyone can go out and do something and if it’s any good in any way whatsoever… we’ve got a 14-year-old French guy’s film on called Hostile – we couldn’t believe it. It’s a great film, but when we found out Nathan Ambrosioni was only 14, we thought, ‘Jesus, he can’t even see it when we show it!’ He’s just made this great film, and I think it’s just wonderful that people are going out and doing that.

The retro strand is becoming more popular, is there any particular film you’d love to show?

Well for years, I didn’t want to do retro. For me, FrightFest was all about the new, the upcoming, and the exciting. So many people kept saying ‘you should show something old’. I mean, really? And as we’ve done that, I’ve realised there is actual value, as unlike myself, who has seen everything in the cinema, a lot of people haven’t seen favourite films screened. So I could see the value in that. So yes, I want to see – because giallo is a particular favourite of mine – I want to see more. I’m thrilled we’ve got Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key this year, I think I’m going to be droning on incessantly about that one at the front of that! So if anyone’s turning up for that particular movie, I’m afraid they’re going to hear me do a twenty-minute rave about giallo in general. I think it’s important that we show stuff that’s been restored; we can’t just show a DVD or some crappy old print. I think we’ve got to have a reason for showing it, and as more companies – especially Arrow – restore half-way decent films, if they’re quirky enough we’ll put them on. We’ve got Hawk the Slayer on, I remember being on set for that, and it does seems to have built this incredible reputation, they are launching the sequel and Kickstarter campaign on the back of showing the original, and I can see why people like it. 

Do you feel that genre films in general are still looked upon as outcasts by media outlets and critics?

Oh yes, it’s been my mantra for years, and I’m so bored with it still being seen as the poor relation. Look at the London Film Festival, they won’t call their horror strand a horror strand, they call it a cult strand. This goes back to why I hated them back in the nineties. Horror fans are the best in the world as far as I’m concerned, what’s the problem? Horror films still make a fortune for the studios. You have to sit through crap to realise they’re not embarrassed to take the money! Mainstream horror is just a waste of time, as we all know. I don’t want to see another 12 or 15-rated jump-shock, loud-noise excuses for horror, I want to see good stuff. The stuff that shapes you and actually has something to say; that confronts you and I think that’s the most important thing that horror can still do. For me, horror is two things: yes, it’s a rollercoaster ride but it’s also one of the most vital ways of dealing with today’s issues anyway. I think those are the two things that should really work still.

You’ve expanded into other screenings throughout the year now, including the Halloween allnighter and Glasgow, are there any plans to expand further, maybe a FF roadshow?

Well, we’re moving into the DVD/VOD market thanks to our liaison with Icon Distribution with FrightFest presents, which we launch in October, we have a number of titles coming up there. We also have FrightFest enterprises, because we’re going to be doing some merchandising of sorts. We’re still working those things out. We keep being asked to do festivals in various places in the UK and abroad, I can’t honestly see us doing it, I think it’s enough as it is. I’m always worried about spreading the brand too thin. I don’t want people to ever think, ‘oh god, another FrightFest’, I want people to look forward to it. The three events are well spaced for me; everyone looks forward to the August one; as they’re coming down from that, there’s Halloween to look forward to. Then there’s the wait until Glasgow where we hit them with a fabulous new range of stuff. I think it works that way, I’m happy with the way it all is at the moment.

We guess to much would dilute the impact…

Yes, and I think the fans would be upset if we did dilute it; I don’t want that to happen! FrightFest is very special to me, and special to the people who come. Every year, I think ‘are we doing a good job’ and yet every year we sell the tickets we do, which to me says we still have our fingers on the pulse. One of the reasons is because I’ve been in the business for so long and know what I’m doing. Some of the people that do festivals don’t understand the genre they’re in and I do!

Do you foresee the festival will outgrow the cinemas available?

Well, everything that’s happened to FrightFest has happened because of outside forces. It grew because we had to move cinemas, and then the cinema closed down. Then it grew because the Empire was converting into two cinemas, we had to go to Vue. They’re going to be doing a refurbish plan next year, so who knows what’s going to happen? Perhaps we will take over Leicester Square in the end, I don’t know! Some people say there’s such a choice of films this year – but I like that! In every other film festival – if you go to Sitges or Brussels – you have to curate your own experience anyway; you can’t see everything. I want to choose my own films to see – there are some I don’t want to see, some I do – It was very hard to choose this year what we were going to put in the Discovery Screen and what we were going to put in the Main Screen – where they are screened three times – but that is where you go to discover, it’s not us putting things on three times and forcing people to discover it, that’s the difference. There are seventy-seven movies we’re showing this year; I don’t think we could do more next year! There was just so much good stuff around; we just had to show it all.

Alan Jones’ new book THE ACT OF SEEING, is a collaboration with DRIVE director NICOLAS WINDING REFN. The weighty tome is a lavish exploration of classic exploitation cinema poster art, with hundreds of glorious images and is published by FAB Press’ new NWR Imprint on September 10th, order here.

FILM 4 FRIGHTFEST takes place over Bank Holiday weekend, August 27th – 31st at Vue Cinemas, Leicester Square, London.



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