Launched last year as part of Sci-Fi London, the Cine-Excess festival was so successful that it returns this year as an independent festival hosted by the ICA (London) from May 1-3. Over three days, this cult extravaganza offers academic papers alongside film screenings and talks by leading genre filmmakers and critics. The guest of honour this year is Roger Corman, who will be presented with a lifetime achievement award. We talked to Xavier Mendik, director of the Cult Film Archive at Brunel University, author of a number of books on cult cinema and organiser of Cine-Excess.
Virginie Sélavy: You aim to bring together the academic world with the world of cult film fandom. How does that work?
Xavier Mendik: It might surprise you to know that academics have been really interested in cult movies for quite a while now. There’s been a lot of activity for the last ten years around genre filmmaking, around cult auteurs and particularly cult fans. So really what we’ve done is harness the interest that’s been there for ten years within a film festival format.
VS: What are the advantages of having a mixed festival?
XM: All the directors I’ve interviewed have been really interested in academic interpretations of their work. Someone like David Cronenberg, who I interviewed a few years back, really gave me a run for my money by saying things like, ‘well, actually, your interpretation of Freud is rather narrow there’, and I thought, wow, these people really do know the other side of the coin. In a way, all we’re doing is bringing to life those connections that remain hidden and we’ve found that people want to make those connections.
VS: Can you give us an idea of the kind of topics that will be discussed in the conference part of the festival?
XM: We’ve got 15 parallel strands that deal with everything from famous cult auteurs to Italian trash cinema, to global cult film traditions, particularly Third World traditions, to debates on the role of the cult performer and a panel session on cult soundtrack. We’ve also got a number of panel sessions around dangerous cult genres, one looking at the erotic image, one looking at grindhouse traditions, and later Stateside cult phenomena. What we’re doing is to indicate that cult these days is global, and we’re trying to capture the very best of the global market and hopefully bring it to an interested audience.
VS: Are the conferences open to all or are they only for the academic participants?
XM: It’s all about breaking down boundaries, so what I see is that ordinary cinema-goers will be as interested in the debates as they are in the UK premieres.
VS: You’ve also got a special panel discussion on Brit horror, chaired by Kim Newman. Is this part of an effort to focus on home-grown cult cinema?
XM: One of the things that we’re often guilty of is looking too far overseas when in fact there’s a wealth of talent outside the mainstream here in the UK. My background is in Italian horror, I did all my research on Dario Argento years ago, and that was probably more dangerous than doing Cine-Excess because in those days it was seen as really going out on a limb to be talking about continental cult cinema. In the last two-three years we’ve seen a mini-explosion in Brit cinema and Brit horror in particular, and we’re really interested in that.
VS: What do you think of the state of British horror at the moment?
XM: I think it’s really interesting right now. Cult never occurs in a vacuum, it’s always a social barometer of things that are happening in wider society. That’s why American cult cinema is so interesting, it always reflects tensions and fears. From Shaun of the Dead onwards, I think it’s a reaction to the fact that there’s something quite stale and moribund and not very exciting in wider British society right now. And I think the cult film generation, the new Brit horror directors that are coming through, are really shaking that up in interesting ways.
VS: To go back to something you said earlier, it’s interesting that you think that things have changed in the academic world since you did your research on Dario Argento. When did things start to change and why?
XM: What’s happened is a growing critical acceptance that creativity does in fact lie beyond the mainstream, that so-called underground or cult areas of activities are populated by fascinating, possibly off the wall, but very creative individuals. And because they’re not constrained by the mainstream, their productions can be far more creative and challenging and often far more political. I think the way to think about cult movies is the pulp as political, that’s what we often say and that’s still the case.
I think in the case of Dario Argento, his growth as a cult figure coincided with the very notorious period of the video nasties in the early 80s, which meant that you had to trawl halfway around the country and see some kind of dodgy market dealer called Brian to get hold of these movies on third-generation copies. And what you found when you watched them is that despite their so-called horrific labels, they’re actually quite artistic. Argento is interesting for a number of reasons, because he breaks down the barriers between commercial film production and avant-garde. You’re never quite sure if these are art-house movies or straight-to-video horror films. But they’re also interesting in terms of gender representation. We’re still very much used to the whole idea of woman as victim within cult horror and what you find is that Argento’s films are populated by monstrously aggressive women. I have to say, he’s lost a bit of ground in recent years so the attention has moved elsewhere, but I’m still proud to say that I did the first MA research on Dario Argento.
VS: What films will you be showing this year?
XM:We have the new cat-and-mouse thriller P2, which is made by the creative team that brought us Switchblade Romance and The Hills Have Eyes. Alexandre Aja, the director of those movies, is the producer here, and Frank Khalfoun, who was the actor in Switchblade Romance, is directing for the first time. It’s a really fascinating movie about a female yuppie trapped in a high-rise building block on Christmas Eve by a deranged mechanic. After so many years watching cult movies, commissioning them for festivals, it’s very rare for a movie to make me jump out of my seat and this one did, so I had to have it. What I find fascinating these days about those kinds of movie-makers is the fact that you’re finding them so readily imported into Hollywood, so there’s an awareness that this European filmmaking talent is really reviving the American film industry.
VS: But they’re influenced by American filmmaking themselves; Alexandre Aja is very much influenced by Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven and 70s and 80s American horror.
XM: Absolutely. Robin Wood wrote a fascinating book many years ago; academic texts tend to date very quickly but this book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan is as current now as it was in the early 80s. It’s about the fact that horror films in particular always reflect wider social crises and tensions, particularly in America. So in the 70s, in the years of Vietnam, the Watergate, race riots and political corruption, we had a whole slew of very pessimistic and nihilistic horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead. And lo and behold, in the years of 9/11 those are exactly the films that are being remade by a new generation of filmmakers like Alexandre Aja.
VS: It’s interesting also that Aja is a French director because there’s no real horror tradition, at least not that type of horror, in France.
XM: It’s interesting because in France there was always an exploitation tradition. France had the kind of cachet to be able to market exploitation as art-house, particularly in the 60s and 70s where in other regions nudity was taboo. So it’s always smuggled cult under the wire and I think Alexandre is just making that explicit. It’s rare to say that a remake is better but much as I like Wes Craven I have to say that the remake of The Hills Have Eyes is absolutely top. So we’re delighted to have P2. What we’re trying to do with Cine-Excess is to always try and be on the tip of current trends so alongside P2 we’ve got a new American backwoods splatter movie called Timber Falls, by Tony Giglio. That comes out nationwide on May 23. What I liked about that movie is that it’s doing interesting things with the American survivalist genre and highlighting the craze around religious fundamentalism. There’s a lot of swipes at the American right in the movie and the whole politics-into-religion vibe that’s so current with the Bush administration. I am also proud to promote Brit horror and we have two exclusive Brit screenings. We’ve got the new sex and horror thriller Mind Flesh by Robert Pratten, his second movie. His first movie London Voodoo got rave reviews. I remember him saying to me last year he didn’t think the Cine-Excess audience would like London Voodoo because it’s more of a mood piece; what I would say is that they will love Mind Flesh, because it’s extremely gory, extremely explicit, but as with Robert Pratten’s other work, it’s extremely intelligent. It’s almost like a Freudian gore movie. We’re also delighted to have a movie by Julian Richards, who’s another intelligent Brit horror director. This is his new movie, Summer Scars, which is apparently based on an incident in Julian’s teenage past about a scary guy who wanders into a teenage group’s daily life and disrupts it with fairly traumatic consequences. We’ve also tied in to the Curzon Soho to bring cinema-goers an evening of Roger Corman movies – we’ll be screening The Intruder and Masque of the Red Death.
VS:How do you select the films? You’ve just mentioned gore in relation to Mind Flesh, any other criteria?
XM:I would say gore isn’t a key thing here, I think these movies have to be unnerving and I’m always particularly interested in the fact that cult movies tend to be political movies. I think cult wouldn’t work in a period of social stability. 80s horror is nowhere near as good as 70s horror, because what tends to happen is when society feels stable and comfortable the horror tends to be very joky and unthreatening, which is why Freddy part 8 is nowhere near the movies Alexandre Aja was influenced by. Right now we’re in such a profound period of instability both in the UK and the US, it’s producing great movies. So gore is not a key criterion, the ability to be shocking and socially critiquing is more of interest to me than the actual splatter quota.
VS: I thought it was interesting that you described the films on the programme as ‘new cult movies’. Can you really have a ‘new cult movie’? Isn’t a ‘cult movie’ a phenomenon that happens with time, something that grows organically from the spontaneous response of the audience?
XM: Very good point. There’s lots of different ways of defining ‘cult’. There are movies that are ‘cult’ by virtue of the genre, and content that they deal with, and by that virtue I think those are cult movies – and also because I feel you’ve put me on the spot so I’ve got to wriggle like an eel out of that difficult position now (laughs). I do agree with what you say, many cult movies are cult by evolution and what’s very interesting is how cult audiences make them cult movies. To give you one example, Paul Verhoeven’s lap-dancing spectacular Showgirls was roundly condemned when it was released a couple of years ago, but the movie was picked up by gay audiences on the Midnight Movies circuit who read it as a critique of male sexuality and then it got its cult status. So it’s part genre and part content, but there is an evolutionary aspect. Maybe what will happen is that these movies will start out as cult movies but after Cine-Excess they’ll go mainstream.
VS: This year you have Roger Corman as your guest of honour.
XM: Yeah, we’ve invited him to receive a lifetime Cine-Excess achievement award in recognition of the fact that this is one of the true creators of American cinema. He directed some of the most memorable cult movies of post-war America, from The Intruder, a cutting-edge race drama with a pre-Star Trek William Shatner to all those great Gothic horror movies with Vincent Price like Masque of the Red Death, to ground-breaking biker movies like Wild Angels. He’s really been a profoundly innovative film director. But that’s only half the story; he’s also the man who in many respects made the new Hollywood, he broke new talent like Robert de Niro, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, as well as directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. So we’re really celebrating a man of many unique talents and we’re delighted that he’s coming over to accept his award on Friday 2 May and giving an onstage interview on Saturday 3.