As the bloody and brilliant Grimm Up North horror film festival gets ever nearer we managed to get hold of Steve Balshaw the festival programmer. He took time out from all the last minute petrifying preperations to talk to us about how Grimm got started, his highlights of the festivals and what to expect not only this year but from Grimm in the future.
How did Grimm Up North start?
The simple answer is it started because we had a few too many drinks and decided to do it! In more detail – Grimm’s Directors Simeon Halligan and Rachel Richardson-Jones had just finished their first feature film, SPLINTERED, which Simeon directed and Rachel produced. Frustrated by the lack of platforms for screening new films, they contacted me at the time I was Programme Manager of the Salford Film Festival, about the possibility of doing a one-off Halloween screening to promote the film’s imminent release.
The initial thought was that between the three of us th we could source two or three other independently produced UK horror feature films, maybe a few shorts, and make a day long event of it. The name of the festival was my suggestion, though the extra “m” in Grimm was added by Simeon, to indicate that the festival was also open to fantasy and other material apart from horror. And it just grew from there. Soon as the word got out that Grimm was happening, people started getting in touch and it snowballed into a four day, 20-odd film festival.
What was the first Grimm like back in 2009 and how has it changed over the years?
In a lot of respects, Grimm started as it meant to go on – we were always interested in screening films that were not part of the genre mainstream, that pushed boundaries in terms of what is meant by horror, as well as in terms of the imagery they put on screen. The difference for that first ever Grimm is that it was harder to get the films we wanted, because we were a new festival, and an unknown quantity, so we missed out on a few things we would have liked to have shown, and we were perhaps a bit less rigorous in our selection process than we would be now, because we did not have as many film options available to us.
I think we were insanely ambitious from the start, though, with markets, exhibitions of props and movie stills, book signings, reading, all manner of Q&As. In some ways we’ve tried to streamline this a little since then because we found we were often competing with ourselves. For example, in the previous two years, we have had two screens running films more or less simultaneously, but we have decided that this pleases nobody, so we are focusing on a single screen for Grimm 3.
How do you choose your films and what makes a Grimm movie?
We have a selection panel of viewers, including festival directors Simeon and Rachel, myself and Noel Mellor, who writes for Filmrant. Each has different tastes in film, and will make very different choices, so we thus avoid the festival being too much the reflection of any one person’s too-esoteric tastes. However, as for what makes a Grimm movie… In our Call for Submissions, we describe the festival as follows: “Dedicated to exploring the darker, edgier, more extreme aspects of cinema, Grimm Up North focuses on Horror, Fantasy, SF, Crime film and thriller, and even black comedy, but is not limited to mainstream notions of genre cinema.
We try to trample all over acceptable boundaries; to offer films which challenge our audiences as much as they shock, thrill, and entertain them.” Thus is is that we will mix Arthouse and Underground film in with more mainstream examples of genre film. We will have brutal, noirish crime movies, poetic studies of guilt and bereavement, black-hearted satire and full on splatter. We are looking for things we haven’t seen done before, which challenge or push the envelope in some way, both in terms of startling or shocking imagery, or in terms of ideas and approach. We also keep our eyes open and our ears to the ground.
We communicate with our loyal fanbase of Grimmlins, and find out what they are interested themselves in seeing. There is, ultimately, though, no formula. We’ll see something, like it, think it will play well at the festival, and then it becomes, at that moment, A Grimm Movie.
What has been your highlight from the Grimm’s gone by?
So many different things: The premiere of Rachel and Simeon’s very own SPLINTERED to a packed house with cast and crew galore – the reason the whole Grimm project got underway and vindication for us all. The riotous Q&A Simeon and Steve had with Hellraiser’s original Cenobites, Doug Bradley, Nick Vance and Simon Bamford, at the first Grimm, which was so much fun it could’ve gone on hours; the standing ovation received by the extraordinary Thai film SLICE at the second Grimm – it was one of the more arthouse films we showed, and it proved that our audience was willing to take that cinematic journey with us.
A seminar on adapting books into films and vice versa with Christopher Priest, Ramsey Campbell, David Moody and Conrad Williams, which yielded some hilarious and indiscreet stories about the idiocies of modern Hollywood. Generally, just the people we have met through doing this, filmmakers, writers, bloggers, actors, the Grimmlins themselves, which sounds a bit Hollywood-acceptance-speechy, but we mean it, man. One of the nicest things that happened after the first Grimm was being stopped on the way to the office by a guy driving past who had recognised us, and just wanted to thank us for the festival.
What can we expect from Grimm 3 this year?
Our usual high standard of previews, premieres and a couple of classics just to sweeten the pot. It’s a leaner, meaner festival, in that we’re keeping everything on the one screen – which means people can see EVERYTHING that’s on at the festival, and do not have to make any difficult scheduling decisions. We’ve also got a new venue, AMC Cinemas, who are providing us with state of the art sound and projection, so this is going to be a great-looking, great-sounding festival, even before you consider the films on offer.
What special events and celebrity guest do you have lined up?
We’ve a trio of Gala Premieres over the first three nights, all of which hail from the UK, and reflect our continued desire to support our homegrown film culture. We’re kicking off with the premiere of RETREAT, a paranoid psychological thriller starring Jamie Bell, Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton, and we’ll be joined by Director Carl Tippetts and Producer Gary Sinyor, and various TBC celebrity guests.
We’ve got the premiere of Spandau Ballet and Krays face Martin Kemp’s directorial debut, STALKER, the latest release from independent genre-meisters Black and Blue Productions, which is a reworking of that infamous 70s video nasty THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL. There’s also a special Black and Blue Panel Session, with previews from upcoming releases, and we’ll be joined by Martin Kemp, producer Jonathan Sothcott and STALKER stars Jane March and Billy Murray, as well as Adele Silva from the soon-to-released STRIPPERS VS WEREWOLVES.
There’s the Premiere of THE REVEREND, starring Rutger Hauer, Doug Bradley and Emily Booth, and we’ll be joined for that by director Neil Jones for a Q&A. Other highlights include the UK premiere of SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE, exec-produced by John Landis, directed by Jack Perez of MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS infamy, with a pitch-black comic script by SCRUBS alumnus Ryan Levin, and a cult all-star cast, one of whom, Lucy Davis, is hoping to be with us, if her current shooting schedule permits. And we’ve the regional premiere of THE WICKER TREE, Robin Hardy’s sequel / reworking of his seminal classic THE WICKER MAN. Robin will be joining us for the screening and for a Q&A afterwards. That’s likely to prove a hot ticket.
What films in your opinion should horror fans definitely check out at this years fest?
Obviously, those mentioned above, but also we’ve the world premiere of outrageous splatterfest ADAM CHAPLIN, which features some truly brain-melting mayhem. We’ve the UK premiere of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society’s film version of THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS. It’s a real labour of love, shot in a kind of retro-RKO serial kind of style, and should appeal to Lovecraft buffs, film buffs, and anyone looking for something genuinely off the wall. We’ve a couple of films that come to us trailing controversy – Lucky McKee’s much-maligned THE WOMAN, and Xavier Gens’ THE DIVIDE, the harrowing REVENGE: A LOVE STORY, from Hong Kong, and the contemplative Science Fiction film BY DAY AND BY NIGHT. Hell, it’s all good. They should just buy a festival pass and come to everything.
Your always show some stone cold classic horrors, this year being Dead Zone and Halloween 3. What is your personal favourite horror oldie and why?
That’s an impossible question to answer. It would vary from day to day and hour to hour. Probably minute by minute. Speaking personally, I love the old Universal movies – particularly James Whales’s two Frankenstein films. I’m a sucker for Tod Browning and Tod Slaughter. I love Bava and the Corman Poe cycle with Vincent Price, and Cronenberg’s stuff and Argento, particularly SUSPIRIA. Kind of suggests I have a taste for the baroque, I guess. But most of the more recent stuff I like tends to be really brutal and downbeat, so maybe that’s a counterbalance thing.
You show films from all over the world at Grimm. What country do you think is pushing the boundaries when it comes to horror and how does our British home grown gore stand up against the rest?
I think the most boundary-pushing stuff at the moment is coming from France and Belgium and, as ever, from South East Asia. Of the two, I guess the biggest surprise is France and Belgium – they really didn’t have that much of a horror tradition until recently, just a few isolated individuals making films that were more often in the vein they would term fantastique – Feuillard, Franju, Rollin, Harry Kumel, or who were using genre elements for political and satiric purposes, like Alain Jessua – then suddenly there’s all this really full-on, really confrontational gory horror cinema, that tends to go right the way up to eleven: HAUT TENSION, MARTYRS, FRONTIERE(S), A L’INTERIEUR, CALVAIRE, VINYAN. And these films aren’t just viscerally shocking and violent – they’re smart. They stay with you, not simply because of the imagery, but because of the ideas.
MARTYRS in particular blew all of the Grimm team away because it made us think dark thoughts for days afterwards, and that’s always a good achievement for a horror film. But even a more tongue in cheek film like LA HORDE goes further than most other films would dare in terms of sheer mayhem. The British have a long tradition of horror, going right the way back to the silent era, and passing through the darkly funny melodramas of Tod Slaughter, through Hammer and Amicus and Tigon. What strikes me about a lot of it, though, much as I love it, is that there is often something very deliberately camp and knowing about it.
Even Clive Barker’s original HELLRAISER (and I’m old enough to remember just how much of a shock that one was to people at the time), has a certain archness of tone in places. It nudges the viewer in the ribs from time to time. I think the British have an inbuilt sense of the ridiculous, an inability to quite ever take anything seriously, which has often extended into how we approach horror. Nothing wrong with that, obviously; it means that the sensibility we bring to genre filmmaking is a little… perverse, and mischievous. But it does mean that the full on gore is often mixed with queasy laughs.
I think, I hope, we may be in for a bit of a horror revival in the UK, though. OUTCAST deservedly got a lot of attention, as has KILL LIST, and both are striking in their refusal to ever quite go in an expected direction. There’s certainly an appetite for low-budget, tongue-in-cheek horror as the guys at Black and Blue are proving, and Rachel and Simeon are intending to follow their dark Freudian fairytale horror SPLINTERED with more films in the horror and science fiction vein.
What future plans do you have for the festival?
We hope to keep building on what we’ve done thus far. We’re interested very much in expanding our remit. We will remain at core a horror / genre festival, but we want to push a little at the boundaries of what this might mean to people.
We’re looking at the kind of programming that is being done by BIFFF and Sitges, and Fantasia in Montreal, where there’s a real eclectic mix of content, a real blurring of boundaries between horror, fantasy, cult stuff, weird stuff, arthouse stuff, and what unifies it is that it is challenging, confrontational, extreme. We’ve exciting plans.
We think our Grimmlins will want to come along for the ride.
We are sure they will Steve thank you for your time.
Grimm Up North runs October 6th – 9th at AMC Cinemas, Manchester. See the full line up Here and check www.grimmfest.com for more details and tickets