Situated up on the west coast of Wales, the seaside resort of Aberystwyth provides a major cultural link between North and South Wales, is often regarded as the ‘capital’ of Mid-Wales and is home to Aberystwyth University which was established in 1872. Since 2006 this unlikely location has also been the home for Abertoir, Wales’ only horror festival which has grown from humble beginnings into a internationally renowned celebration of horror in movies, theatre, music and more. The 2012 festival runs from 6th November to 11th November with a line-up which is typically eclectic and immersive. Starburst’s Paul Mount recently spoke to Abertoir’s director Gaz Bailey to find out just why horror fans should be getting wild about Wales…
Starburst: Abertoir has been running annually since 2006. Can you tell us something about the origins of the festival?
Gaz Bailey: I’m a big horror fan and at the time there was no other horror festival in Wales and being where we are it’s quite expensive and time-consuming to actually get to some of the other horror festivals. Robin Hardy was doing a book tour to publicise ‘Cowboys For Christ’ (filmed and released as The Wicker Tree last year) and we managed to get him in on Hallowe’en so we arranged a screening of The Wicker Man and I thought ‘well, we’ve got to get a few more horror films on’ and it grew from there - basically I got carried away! It was an experiment really but it got popular and it’s grown over the seven or eight years since.
Was it always your intention that Abertoir should grow into something bigger over the years?
It was never intended to be anything other than a local thing originally but we quickly realised that people were coming in from outside the local catchment area. We talked to the Film Agency for Wales, our main sponsors, and they gave us some money towards it and we’ve managed to get some great guests over the years so now we’re getting people from England, Ireland and Scotland - one guy comes to us from Guernsey! It’s become a big international festival; we’re members of the European Fantastic Films Federation!
What’s different about Abertoir, of course, is that it isn’t just all about films. You have theatrical and musical performances, academic presentations and a bit of audience participation - there’s even a pub quiz! What’s the thinking behind providing more than just the passive movie-going experience?
We want to show people that horror isn’t just about the new releases. We want to show people where horror came from, the literary influences, theatre, music; horror has so many different elements other than just film and by packaging it all up at a nice attractive price that gives you access to everything then we’re encouraging people to come and see a bit of theatre or maybe a talk or a presentation that normally they wouldn’t have seen so it’s got a great educational value as well. There’s a sort of ‘set menu’, there’s no choice of other things going on at the same time so everyone takes part even if they might have felt a little uncomfortable sitting in a theatre, for example; they’re there with everyone else who’s been experiencing the whole six-day festival as well so it’s like a big communal experience too.
For those of a nervous or anti-social disposition, how inter-active is your audience participation?
We have a lot of audience participation because it’s all about making people come together. They’re all here for the same reason and by the end of it everyone knows everyone else. One year we had The Tingler (1959, Dir: William Castle, starring Vincent Price) and we had vibrating seats and ‘planted’ audience members and when we had The House on Haunted Hill (1959, Dir: William castle, starring Vincent Price) I rigged up a skeleton with fishing wire and we had it come out of the screen at one point! The quiz is a big social thing too. Everyone sits in is teams with people they don’t know, we have the Rocky Horror show, competitions, prizes for the best costume and so on. It’s a two-way thing. We don’t want people to just come in, watch a film and then go and sit in a corner waiting for the next one. It’s all very much hands-on and everyone feels like a part of it by the end which is why people keep coming back because they’re having such a nice time. People are coming back and they’re bringing their friends. We’ve seen it turn from something with a predominantly local audience to now predominantly people from outside Wales so it’s good for the economy, a good success story of something growing out of love from the people doing it and the audience respond to that.
But what’s in it for the people who really want to see some good horror movies? How do you select your programme of titles?
We have a submissions process and we accept submissions from all over the world and we had well over a hundred submissions this year. We’re also very dedicated towards the classic films - it’s usually me who comes up with the classics. We always have a Vincent Price movie because he’s our ‘patron’ but obviously we’re also on the ball with the big titles that are doing the rounds of the major festivals because we’re determined to put on a festival which is as good as if not better than the big city festivals so we try to get a good selection of ‘hot’ titles. But basically we want to cover all the bases, independents, classics and brand new films.
What are your own personal horror influences and what modern films have impressed you recently?
I grew up on the old movies - Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Hammer films, Amicus. I’ve always had a soft spot for them because their films are so influential. Bride of Frankenstein (1935, Dir: James Whale, starring Boris Karloff) was the first horror film I half-watched - and I half-watched it because my parents had just bought a VHS machine and I failed to programme it correctly and I only recorded the last half an hour but I watched it over and over again! It’s phenomenal and it’s so good to be able to show films like that to people here who otherwise wouldn’t have got to see them. My favourite film from this year is probably American Mary which we’re showing this year (screening at Abertoir on 10th November). It’s directed by The Soska Sisters and we showed their first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009) and it’s incredible that they’ve gone on to make a film of the standard of American Mary. Films like that we fight really hard to get.
What calibre of guest does Abertoir attract?
We’re actually on the University Campus so we have a bit of academic content - but it’s nothing dry and too academic, it’s all very accessible and fun. This year we have Peter Hutchings who has written extensively on Hammer and he’s doing a presentation in front of the screening of Quatermass and the Pit and we’ve also got Russ Hunter who’s an expert on Italian horror and he’s giving us an hour-long talk with loads of film clips. We’ve also got journalist and cult historian Gavin Baddeley who’s doing a talk about ‘what is horror?’ We also aim to get a few famous people and the thing which encourages the guests is the fact that we’re in Wales and we’ve had people coming just because of where we are! We had Lloyd Kaufman (director and co-founder of Troma Films) last year, we’ve had Herschel Gordon Lewis (the so-called ‘Godfather of gore’), Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria and they all came because they said they get invited to hundreds of festivals every year but they come to ours because they’ve never been to Wales before! They get a kick out of it, seeing somewhere they would never otherwise get to see. It’s such an odd place to have a horror festival; Laurence R Harvey came last year with Human Centipede 2 and he said it reminded him very much of Carnival of Souls (1962), this seaside place in the rain and in the dark! Doug Bradley’s been here twice now. Everyone always has a great time and we always try to get some names people have heard of! We try every year to get Christopher Lee but we can’t do it! He’s impossible to get!
Abertoir has crept out of Aberystwyth this year with some pre-event screenings at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Are you planning a wider-scale Welsh invasion?
Well, I don’t think the name ‘Abertoir’ would work anywhere else - except maybe Abergavenny and Aberdare! We’ll always stay in Aberystwyth because that’s where we’re based. But Chapter in Cardiff have been very good to us and we’ve got a good relationship with them so we would love to do more stuff in Cardiff but it would be as a precursor to the main festival, a taste of what’s on offer. It’s good publicity too, we get to speak to people like Starburst Magazine and people get to hear about the festival. We’re the only one in Wales, after all, it’s all non-profit and it’s all about putting on something that Wales can be proud of.
Now for the hard sell. Why should Starburst readers take a punt on Abertoir?
We’ve got more variety than you can possibly imagine for a horror festival. The fact that it’s six days long in itself means that it’s just bursting with different films and events and above all, at just £58, it’s affordable! It’s done by the fans for the fans purely out of love so you really can’t go wrong. Take the chance, come to Aberystwyth, check us out for yourselves! It’s not going to cost you much - and I guarantee we’ll see you next year too!
Find out more about the Abertoir Horror Festival at www.abertoir.co.uk