As co-director of the Abertoir Horror Festival, Nia Edwards-Behi has what many horror fans might look upon as the dream job. Held every year in Aberystwyth Arts Centre, it attracts some of the most iconic names in horror. Here she talks to Gary Raymond about how the festival has grown, the big names it attracts, and what makes horror movies so addictive.
Gary Raymond: How did you get involved with the Abertoir Horror Festival?
Nia Edwards-Behi: I’d been attending the festival since the first event in 2006, and, as I live in Aberystwyth and was a frequent visitor of the Arts Centre cinema, I got to know Gaz – both manager of the cinema and Abertoir founder and director – outside of the festival context too. As the years went on and the festival grew I simply offered my help, and was lucky to offer that help at a time that meant I could easily come on board then as part of the team that put the festival together. If I remember rightly, the first year I could vaguely call myself festival ‘staff’ was 2009, but my memory is a bit hazy!
It’s expanded over the years from 3 days to 6; how has that come about and how has it been putting it together?
We’ve been a six day festival for a few years now, having steadily grown from 3, to 4, to 5…and onward! The festival has expanded simply to accommodate the number of films and events we’ve wanted to put on as we’ve become more ambitious and as our funding (which primarily comes from Ffilm Cymru Wales) has increased. I’m not sure if we’d ever expand beyond 6 days, quite simply because it’s such hard work as it is! Putting together the festival is always a heady mix of a lot of fun and a lot of frustration, and this year’s been particularly tricky in terms of some films and in terms of the scope of events. But we always like to challenge ourselves, and I think we’ve done a good job of it – though the ultimate test is of course pulling everything off on the day!
Can you identify where your love of horror comes from?
I think the roots of it lies with the sorts of TV shows I used to obsess over when I was younger – The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that sort of thing, and more sci-fi/fantasy stuff like Dark Angel and Star Trek. Those programmes always have an element of horror to them. My actual love for horror, and horror cinema specifically, though almost definitely comes from when I began studying film at university, which coincided with the first year of Abertoir. The combination of becoming critically aware – I’ve always loved films but there’s something about being given the tools to really think about them – and the opportunity to experience horror, new and old, on the big screen, really fostered my love for the genre. Abertoir’s got a lot to answer for, in that regard…!
The festival is a kind of mix of film festival and a fans convention, isn’t it? How important is that aspect of the festival to you?
In some ways yes and in some ways no. We’re not a fan convention in the sense of the American horror conventions, which are primarily about autograph collection and merchant stalls. These are very common in the States (some horror stars keep a steady income thanks to these, and why not!), though there have been a few recent examples in the UK, such as Scardiff, and HorrorCon in Sheffield. The way in which we are like a fan convention is, I suppose, partly in thanks to our relatively small size – we always have guests and they’re always very accessible. Otherwise we’re very much more in the form of a film festival, although we also incorporate theatre, live music and talks. The films are always the primary focus, but the friendly and accessible atmosphere is also really paramount to us.
There is a real emphasis on the breadth and depth in the line-up – premieres next to old classics. Can you give us a bit of insight into how the selection process is made?
Yes, we’re insistent on including a mix of old and new. We show more new films than we do old, but we also emphasise the celebration of classic horror cinema through the guests of honour we bring to the festival. The selection process is different in each instance. In terms of the old films, it often depends on what we personally enjoy and what we want to see on the big screen and shared with, essentially, friends! We often think in terms of anniversaries too, as a way of narrowing the field a little bit. The newer films are selected in a number of ways. We visit other film festivals and see films there – the Cannes Marche du Film is an important way of seeing or hearing about upcoming films, but likewise we always derive great pleasure watching films at our big cousins like Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival and bringing them back for our own screen. We read about what’s selected at other festivals, too, or what’s forthcoming, and try to chase up what we like the sound or look of. We also accept submissions over a number of months in the year, and we watch a lot of features that way and occasionally find something that we really love and select it there. What’s in common across this process is that we see the films. In very rare instances do we blind-book a film for the festival (it has to be something we think our audiences, as much as us, really wants to see) – we only really want to show things we can genuinely stand in front of and introduce as something we’ve loved.
This year has a delightful leaning toward the great Vincent Price as not only are you showing a few of his films but you have his daughter Victoria guesting. That must be particularly exciting.
It is! Vincent Price is a big part of the festival as whole – Gaz is a massive fan and has always included, from day one, at least one Vincent Price film every year. He’s referred to Vincent as the festival’s unofficial ‘patron saint’, though now that’s in fact ‘official’, as we had the pleasure of having Victoria as a guest at the festival back in 2011, which was the ‘Vincentennial’. She had such a great time with us that she wanted to come back, which is a really humbling and encouraging thing! She’s working with a journalist and Vincent expert, Peter Fuller, to put on a tour of events in the US and the UK celebrating ‘Vincent the Anglophile’, that is, his love for working and visiting Britain, and she wonderfully asked if we’d be part of this. Naturally we jumped at that chance!
And another legend – Fabio Frizzi – will be there this year.
Again, he’s a return guest! This is particularly exciting because this time he’ll be performing, with his band. Last time he was a guest with us he took part in a Q&A with the great actor Richard Johnson (who we were very sad to learn passed away earlier this year) following a screening of Zombie Flesh Eaters. His concert is called Frizzi 2 Fulci, and has been performed in London a couple of times in the past few years, and has recently toured North America. It’s a dedication to the wonderful music he composed for the films of Lucio Fulci, and the performance features clips from the films. I’m really proud that we’re bringing this concert to Wales, and even more excited to get to experience it!
Where does your heart lie – the theatrical movies of Vincent Price or the fatalist gore of Fulci? Or does it just depend on what mood you’re in?
Oh, that definitely depends on mood! I’m not sure I could ever choose between the two – I think a sumptuous Vincent Price film is like a warming cup of tea held between the hands, while Fulci’s masterpieces are more like a shot of something strong, knocked back in one! What’s wonderful is they demonstrate the breadth of what horror can offer as a genre, and the breadth is part of the reason I love it so much.
Horror soundtracks are in a bit of golden age at the moment, aren’t they? Not only is there some attention paid to them (as with Death Waltz and live performances), but there’s also some great new artists coming out in this field (like Disasterpiece’s work on It Follows, for instance).
They really are, there’s a real nostalgia factor contributing to the resurgence, I think. Labels like Death Waltz have done amazing work to lavish attention on deserving work and their releases are real collectors’ pieces. I own a few and I don’t even own a record player! Likewise the soundtracks being composed for new films I think are stemming from this generation of musicians and filmmakers now harkening back to that previous golden era – everyone loves a John Carpenter-inspired synth-score! – which is evident elsewhere in the films as well as in the soundtracks. I think the massive success of Drive had a lot to do with that too. For me, there’s a danger of this being over-done, though, much like the ‘neo-grindhouse’ films that are now dime-a-dozen and have to be seriously good to impress.
Who do you think is making the most interesting horror movies at the moment?
I find that’s a difficult question to answer. A few years ago I would have said ‘the French’, following films like Martyrs and L’Interieur, but that wave seemed to have been something of a flash in the pan. I’m a big fan of East Asian horror, but really I think that’s as much due to my own taste as it is anything else. There are some filmmakers who make exciting films but it’s so hard, I think, to be able to get second, third, fourth projects off the ground that sometimes real talent is left to fizzle away, and that’s sad. I realise that sounds pessimistic of me! I’m a big fan of the work of, say, Astron 6, or the Soska Sisters, or Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, or Axelle Carolyn, or even a more veteran filmmaker like Shinya Tsukamoto, so it’s not that there aren’t interesting films being made. It’s just hard to pinpoint a particular source!
Johnny Walker is talking about the state of contemporary British horror movies at the festival – how is contemporary British horror cinema doing?
I wouldn’t say we’re in any sort of British horror golden age right now, but I also wouldn’t say things are awful. Like I said, I think sustaining talent within the genre is very difficult, and of course not every filmmaker wants to limit themselves to one genre either. I really admire a producer called Jen Handorf, who’s worked on several really exciting, low-budget films in the past few years, and continues to do so. Some of the films she’s produced represent, again, the range of what can be done within so-called ‘confines’ of a genre.
The Descent with the Silver Mountain Experience looks like a fantastic night out. Who came up with that idea?
If I recall correctly I think the root of the idea was mine! We had a successful off-site event last year when we took our attendees on a trip on the Vale of Rheidol steam train, followed by a screening of Horror Express on the Aberystwyth platform! We realised because it had been so much fun for people that really we ought to try to do something again…and so we were on the look-out for ideas when I realised that this year was The Descent’s tenth anniversary too…and so the idea to screen the film as close to ‘underground’ as we could came to be! We’re going to be taking people into the side of the mountain, through the very narrow mine, and screening the film just outside the mine. It might even be colder than last year’s event…!
I think that’s a really nice way of putting it. We take a very professional approach to running the festival but we also, essentially, do this because we love horror films ourselves and want to share the ones we like best with attendees, who we also consider friends! Fun is a very important part of horror. That can encompass obvious things like William Castle-style gimmicks or horror comedies, but also the enjoyment of frightening or even disturbing films can be, weirdly to some I suppose, fun. I think the sense of fun is definitely important when watching films at a festival too – you’re sharing that film experience with a room full of other people and that’s an experience that’s very much meant to be enjoyed.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?
It’s got to be the Frizzi 2 Fulci concert. It doesn’t seem right picking a non-film event, but really it’s a celebration of Fulci’s films as much as it is an incredible chance to see Frizzi perform live! I’m also looking forward to seeing the audience responses to some of the films we’ve programmed. We’ve a really exciting European premiere, for example, of this film from Hong Kong called Robbery, and it’s essentially a very dark, very satirical and visually stunning film, but it’s got a very strange tone which I suspect won’t be for everyone…! I hope and think our audience appreciates the chance to try something unusual, though, and we always try to do that at the festival.
For more details on this year’s festival, which runs from November 10-15, visit the website.