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SPOOKY FEST Washington D.C.’s premiere genre film festival

Spooky_Fest
Spooky Fest

Politics aside, Washington D.C. isn’t known for horror. Exorcist fans  know the iconic flight of stairs in Georgetown are the same steps Damien Karras met his fate. But beyond that, there isn’t much gore-ism our nation’s capital has to offer. However, D.C., like any other city, has its genre fans. Curtis Prather is one of them, and he’s doing his part to showcase some of the most promising up and coming horror films of the year. With Spooky Fest running for the better half of a decade, Curtis has a lot to say what goes on in the making.

What was the impetus behind Spooky Fest?

It wasn’t one thing, but really a confluence of points in my life that led to the festival. My first job out of college in 1991 was working at a fairly renowned repertory theatre. I had many great opportunities working in event planning and festival organization, not to mention seeing indie filmmaking up close. This was a great time in independent cinema – we were actually the second US theatre to screen “Reservoir Dogs,” after Sundance. I had some brilliant mentors to learn from during this time.

After a few years I dove in and began making my own movies. Small, independent documentaries, very much in the spirit of Ross McElwee, who made a terrific film in the 80s called “Sherman’s March.” For about 10 years, after I left the theatre, I made several of these “personal” documentaries, and even began having some luck in getting them screened at festivals around the country. One of these films, “Public Witness,” which had music from Brendan Canty of Fugazi, had modest success, but for every festival acceptance I had, there were at least 10 rejections.

This still gave me some valuable experience, and I started thinking about what I would do if I could program and plan my own festival; how I would treat the filmmaker, etc. I do not think this is unique to me. Many festival stories began with a filmmaker who wanted to show the world their vision of how it should be done.

In 2006 I began talking to a theatre close to my home about doing a festival-like event. I wanted to test out some of my thoughts. At first they were open to the idea, and together we looked at possible weekends that were open. A big deciding factor was “The Washington Redskins.” The theatre would show football games on Sunday, so we looked for a weekend the Redskins had a “bye” week and wouldn’t be playing. As it turned out, that weekend in 2006 was the one before Halloween.

That was really the “a-ha” moment. It made sense (to me) that we program a horror film festival. DC did not have a genre festival, and horror movies, old and new, are a passion of mine. In fact, it was my love of horror filmmaking that opened me up to love of all cinema. If it wasn’t for the late night television horror host, breaking up classic moves – talking about these movies in ways you never saw other movies discussed in tv at the time – or the magazines I grew up with, like Fangoria, Famous Monsters, Starlog, which would take me into the behind the scenes world of filmmaking – if it wasn’t for this education, I wouldn’t have the love for film I have today. It really began there.

I am also a firm believer that horror filmmaking is one of only two major genres – along with documentary filmmaking – where artists can not only stay truly independent, but can also connect with an appreciative audience fairly “easily.”

So, this seemed like a slam-dunk idea, but the theatre wasn’t sold on it. I then went out and made several calls, and eventually found a receptive theatre in the DC suburbs – Cinema Arts in Fairfax, Virginia – who were wonderful to work with. Like I said, it really was several things that led me to that point. Even the name for the festival was retrofitted from a television project I had been doing for about 10 years (“The Spooky Movie”). It seemed like everything had led me to this point, and that is how it happened.

Do you reach out to film makers or do they come to you – or is it a combination of the two?

For the first few years we depended mostly on submissions from filmmakers. This was fine, as long as we got a lot of submissions to choose from, but after the second year I realized that if I wanted an audience to come back, I would need to up the game on the films and make sure they were receiving a product worthy of their time and money. It might be nobel to want to screen a film because of the backstory on the filmmaker, or because it has a local connection – ultimately, the festival is really for your audience. I know some film festivals take a different tactic, and that’s fine, and I am certainly open to screening experimental or provocative features of shorts, but I have to make sure that whatever we screen that I can stand behind and be able to defend my choice.

I’ve actually talked to filmmakers before who told me that some festivals would get mad at the filmmakers for the poor response to a screening, which makes no sense. It’s the festival’s responsibility to stand behind their choices. If that choice was not right for their audience, then they need to decide what lessons they can learn for future events, and own their decision.

But back to the original question – we prefer it when a filmmaker comes to us first. We have had some great gems come in, like the Brazilian film “Morgue Story,” the Australian “El Monstro del Mar,” and the Russ Meyer homage “Pervert!”

And over time, a third option comes up with filmmakers who have had a relationship with the festival. They are kind of separate from the submissions or curated, even though they are held to the same standards as everyone else.

Even from the first year we would curate some films. We had a great run of premieres of some great Asian films, thanks to a relationship with Tartan. By 2010 we began getting more aggressive with the films, going to festivals like Fantasia or SXSW and reading up and reaching out. The documentary “Zero Killed” in 2012 is one example of a film I was happy to discover from another festival – the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Since 2010 we have screened at least one film that played at Sundance. Today, now that we have a 10 day festival, we frequently partner with companies like Anchor Bay, Magnolia and IFC, but we always work to maintain a balance with indies that haven’t been signed up yet.

What have been some notable films that have screened at Spooky Fest?

There have been plenty. As far as premieres go, Spooky Movie had the world premieres of the final cut of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ “The Uh-Oh Show!” back in 2011, and in 2012 we did the world premiere of “Ninjas vs. Monsters.””Patient 17” from England, “A Sweet and Vicious Beauty” and several more, including the directorial debut from Jamie Nash – “Two Front Teeth” – the writer for “Exists” and “Lovely Molly.”. We’ve had US premiere’s of Jennifer Lynch’s “Chained,” the amazing Canadian slasher “Pin-up Dolls On Ice,” and the Brazilian “Nervo Craniano Zero” and a few dozen more.

The fest has also screened “notable” films like “Resolution,” “Dark Touch,” “Colin,” S&Man,” “The Dead,” “Midnight Son,” “The Oregonian,” “Haunter,” “Helldriver,” “100 Bloody Acres,” “Poutrygeist,” “Halley,” “Chastity Bites,” “Haunter,” “Manborg,” and “Tucker and Dale vs Evil,” which was our 2010 opening night film, months before being picked up by Magnolia. In fact, I think we were one of only a handful of US festivals to screen “Tucker and Dale” before it was picked up, something that still makes me proud. As a result of our screening, when it was released the following summer in limited release in DC, it played for several weeks. The word of mouth had been very strong.

A real treat for us was in 2012 when Teller (of “Penn and Teller”) came in to present a film he helped write and produce called “Play Dead.” It was a of a performance of a show he mounted in New York with Todd Robbins. Afterwards Teller did a fantastic Q&A and even did some on stage magic. It was really memorable. He even stayed around and went to a diner with myself and several people who had come out.

Again, however, I have to come back to all of the great films we have screened that, for whatever reason, people may not know about, but I consider notable. I still have people who come to me and mention films we screened like: “Murder Loves Killers Too,” “Audie and the Wolf,” “George’s Intervention,” “Strange Girls, “Skew,” “Broken Springs,” “All About Evil,” “Dark Souls,” “Backwater,” “Millennium Bug,” “The Watermen,” “Little Deaths,” and so many more. This is why festivals matter; connecting audiences with filmmakers; being part of the discovery, because you never know these days who is going to break out.

Are there films you want to get, but are out of reach?

Absolutely. Now that we are having to be more aggressive with seeking films out, we have to be prepared for disappointments. There was one film we worked on for about 9 months, since its premiere, and every way down the road it would seem close, and then they would kick the can down that road again – always tabling the conversation for another day, which is never a good sign, in my opinion. Finally, we got shot down right before press, being told that they weren’t going to do festivals. A couple of weeks later, the film popped up at another festival down south. What are you going to do? The film never had a DC area screening, so I don’t know what the problem was.

Last year there was a similar story of film I wanted. The filmmaker had played at our fest before, and we had continued to work with him on other projects and I thought we had a good relationship, but when it came time to screen his latest film I got the run-around. First there were non-commital comments, which is fine; I understand about waiting and seeing. Then we were told that the film had distribution in place, and couldn’t play the fest. I accepted that as well – it happens. About 2 weeks later, however, the filmmaker’s assistant contacted the venue we hold the festival at to see if they wanted to screen this film. Not as part of the festival, but as a stand alone at the same theatre, at the same time. This wasn’t the distributor, but it was the filmmaker himself. I can’t really be mad or hurt, because I know what’s what, and I am prepared for that every year I decide to continue the festival, it just was very disappointing.

People tend to think we all plug into a cultural zeitgeist. It’s up for debate how it influences us, but would you say you notice trends in the films submitted each year?

I did early on. Some years we would get more zombie films, which seemed to mirror the over-all “end of world” angst that came with 9/11 and the wars that followed; then things switched over to cannibal films, and all sorts seemed to be able to be read into that. Back in 2007 and 2008 we had several women as psychotic killer films that came in through the submission process, including two with identical plots, which I jokingly attributed to unease about Hillary Clinton running for president, but I have nothing to prove that! In the last couple of years I have seen several film tackle subjects like humans rotting away to nothing, and school shootings. Someone could write a paper or article on those, I’m sure. I’m not sure what they mean.

Because it takes so long to get a movie made, you do have to remember that what we are seeing really is a view into the past. Today’s anxiety may be long past by the time anyone sees these films, so really you have to backtrack a bit to figure much of it out.

Spooky_Fest
Spooky Fest

Most of these films are very personal, so often the roots for it go back even further. Ricky Bates, who is from the DC area, lived with his film “Excision” for years. First as a short, which we screened on opening night back in 2008, and then as a feature, which we showed in 2012, also on opening night. Very proud that we screened both films, and our relationship with him. If you have seen “Excision,” you know there is nothing else like this story and these films, because Ricky poured himself into these films. It is not an autobiography, but he would be the first to tell you how his life shaped the film, just as much as the films and art he admired and grew up with influenced his approach to make the films. More and more of these indie films are coming from this personal space, from really talented artists who are tackling the genre with much more personal conviction than maybe we have seen before. It is a very exciting time for the art form and see these men and women emerge.

What are some considerations when it comes to selecting the films you’ll showcase?

I am fan of the very weird and the very funny, so a good horror comedy, like the Australian film “The Killage,” our closing night film in 2011, will do well with me – as will something very provocative and unsettling, like “Thantamorphose” from last year. I love a good mind-fuck. Seeing something clearly done well that surprises us, like “An American Terror,” will always get high marks. At this point, it is very tough to make something that won’t remind us of something else that has been submitted and/or screened, so when we do find something really original, we really will go all out for it.

Ultimately, when programming, we work to strike a balance. We don’t want too much of just one thing; often times, this is where programming shorts with each feature helps to break things up a bit. We want to give the festival goer a full experience, even if they can only make it out to one screening.

What’s your favorite scary movie?

I have often found that it is tough to be “scared” twice by the same movie. You might still get creeped out, you might respect the film or the filmmaker, but often we re-watch our favorite horror films, I think, to remind ourselves of how we felt the first time we watched it. I say all of that to admit that “The Exorcist,” for me, is an exception. That movie, in the right setting, can still get to me. Last Halloween I saw it in Georgetown with William Blatty in attendance. It had been about 10 years since I had last seen it (also in a movie theatre) – and the film still got to me, even though I know all of the beats. And maybe it is because I’m now older. It really was a different story when I was a teenager or in my twenties – today, I lock in with Ellen Burstyn’s character like I couldn’t have back then. Such a great, powerful, scary film.

What do you think makes the ideal horror movie?

“Jaws,” “The Exorcist” and the original “Night of the Living Dead” are, for me, classic examples of the “the ideal” horror movie. All of them took the time and care for us to connect to their characters. It wasn’t just about the gore or the kills. I will often prefer a slow burn where we care about the people we are watching, over just watching carnage for the sake of it. Bobcat Goldthwait did that very well, I thought, with his found footage film “Willow Creek,” which was our opening night film last year. It was really all about setting things up for the third act, and it was important that you connected to the characters. A lot of people do not have the patience for that, which is a shame, and a challenge, for me as a programmer.

Do you feel you’ve been able to improve the fest each year?

Absolutely. I look at what we have been able to accomplish every year and often wonder how it has been possible. We are now a 10 night festival, screening films at the American Film Institute’s AFI Silver Theatre, going into our 9th year. I am very proud of this festival.

What advice could you offer to others that want to launch a horror film festival?

Have a solid partnership with a theatre or venue, do your homework and be someone who is attentive to the details. Also, look around and see if what you want to do is currently being done near where you are; there are dozens of great genre festivals all over the country, and it might make more sense to see if they would accept your help.

Have you accomplished your goals with Spooky Fest?

Spooky_Fest
Spooky Fest

No. Not yet. I still do not feel we have found our entire audience.

In 2012 we moved the entire fest to the AFI Silver, one of the premiere theatres on the east coast. Definitely the theatre to be at in the region. It is run by people who get film and appreciate what we do. However, to those not familiar with the DC metro area, this is in Silver Spring, Maryland, which might as well be the other side of the earth for our core fans we had in Virginia for 6 years. The same was true, by the way, with those in Maryland when it came to going to Virginia – and then there is DC itself. All very frustrating, as you would love for there to a more united front when it came to this, but to anyone who has had to drive in this area, it is (sadly) understandable. It’s awful here, sometimes, just to get from one point to the next.

Its not just that – the culture is changing, I’m afraid. Or “cultures.” In recent years I’ve seen two of the longest running DC film festivals close up, perhaps for good. I’ve also seen radical changes in our only real “destination” festival. There are still some strong festivals doing well, like “DC Shorts,” but I worry that in this age of “Walking Dead” and “Hannibal” on TV year round, not to mention VOD, that the audience for what we do is shifting away. I hope I’m wrong, because there is nothing like being in a darkened theatre and seeing these films. Nowhere else will you have the opportunity to have burlesque dancers or zombies or cult icons, like Mink Stole, come out to introduce the film, or meet filmmakers both established or first time. It’s just not going to happen sitting at home.

I’m not giving up. I know we have the audience there, somewhere. We see plenty of proof that they exist. We just need to work harder to convince them to come out for more and more. My goal these days is to work on this outreach.

Beyond Spooky Fest, do you have any plans to get into film making?

Sure. I’ve always had a hope to make movies, and not just the DIY documentaries, that I’m still doing, but the scripted, narrative films. In the last year I’ve finally had the opportunity to push forward. This area is rich with talent – both Jeff Krulik, who made “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” and Ed Sanchez, the co-director of “The Blair Witch Project,” are on our advisory board – so it really came together thanks to a core group of very talented local artists. We have just completed photography on a short, and with luck I will get to do 2 or 3 more in the next year, all hopefully leading up to a feature. We shall see. I really enjoyed the process, and I definitely have renewed respect for the films and filmmakers that are submitted to the festival every year.

Thanks, Curtis! Spooky Fest 2014 will be held October 9-18th. For more information, check out www.spookyfest.com

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Social agitator raised on an unhealthy diet of punk rock, horror movies, and black humor. You've been warned.

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