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Q&A: Scary Movies 7 Curators Laura Kern and Gavin Smith

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Now considered New York City’s must-attend Halloween-season event, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Scary Movies series returns beginning next week with a slew of new films, old gems and, in the case of NIGHTBREED: THE CABAL CUT, a mixture of the two.

Scouted from the best in horror cinema from festivals across North America (Toronto International Film Festival, Fantasia, SXSW, Fantastic Fest), this year’s lineup, running October 31-November 7, features U.S. and NY premieres including ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE (pictured above) and CHEAP THRILLS, as well as in-person filmmaker and cast appearances (Eli Roth with THE GREEN INFERNO and Bobcat Goldthwait with WILLOW CREEK are just two of the guests; go here and here for more details). FANGORIA recently sat down with Scary Movies’ two highly selective curators, Laura Kern and Gavin Smith, to discuss the history of the series, how the films are chosen and more.

FANGORIA: How did the festival start, and were you both on board since the beginning?

GAVIN SMITH: I guess I was. Laura wasn’t here when it started back in the ’90s.

LAURA KERN: That was before I was working here, but I came to see all the movies.

SMITH: We did one series called Scary Movies, and then we decided to revisit it a number of years later with Scary Movies 2. We didn’t have any plans for it to become an annual event, but I guess at some point, five years ago, we proposed doing something around Halloween. [To Kern] The third one, was that more coming from me or was it something you wanted to do? I don’t remember.

KERN: I don’t know if I approached you with it or not.

SMITH: I think maybe I suggested doing it, and then I invited you to do it with me. And then pretty quickly, Laura became the primary person choosing the films and doing all of the legwork. But those first two were programmed by me and Kent Jones, and they weren’t very focused on showing new movies. They were more about showing old classics. There might have been a new movie…

KERN: I think I saw THE RING there…

SMITH: THE RING. That was in the first one. That was kind of focused on guests; we had tributes to John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro, and they came and they were great and that was a lot of fun. The second time we did it, I don’t think it was particularly oriented around guests; it was just showing more movies. After that, it has increasingly tilted toward presenting new films. The impression we got was that audiences want to see the new stuff, and they were already coming out in force for them.

FANG: Two years ago, you presented a live performance of Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs’ NEVERMORE: AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE, and you showed their “Black Cat” episode of MASTERS OF HORROR.

KERN: That was quite an undertaking. I don’t know if we could pull that off again. It was just something that fell into place. We were already planning on showing RE-ANIMATOR, and then we started hearing about this performance of NEVERMORE, and we proposed it to them and it all just came together. We’re not really equipped in the Walter Reade auditorium to do live theater, so it was a bit stressful, but it was worth it in the end.

FANG: How badly was the festival affected by Hurricane Sandy last year?

KERN: I think we had to cancel six screenings. The attendance went down when there was no subway.

SMITH: There was no way people could get up here. Let’s hope there isn’t another storm!

FANG: What was the process of finding this year’s new work? CHEAP THRILLS was at SXSW, PROXY was at Toronto, THE GREEN INFERNO was at Fantasic Fest…

SMITH: The current films this year were things I’d seen at Toronto, for the most part.

KERN: I went to FrightFest and this year Fantasia for the first time, which is where I found ACROSS THE RIVER, which is a very special movie. That was my one discovery there. But usually, FrightFest is a good source for new horror.

FANG: Do you go to many different horror festivals throughout the year?

KERN: I did go to the Stanley Film Festival this year, and Sundance, of course. The midnight movies at Sundance are the first things I see, but the timing isn’t always right. Because that’s so early in the year, by the time our series comes, most of the films have been released.

SMITH: It is difficult when some of the films we’re most enthusiastic about get tied up with some distributor who can’t really decide what they’re going to do, and sometimes those movies end up going out straight to DVD or VOD. Or they just sit on the film for a long time. One of my favorite features at Toronto this year certainly would have been a big highlight of this year’s series, but we just couldn’t get it because the distributor hadn’t made their plans yet and didn’t want to commit to anything.

FANG: Kind of like YOU’RE NEXT, which played at festivals for what feels like two or three years.

KERN: Oh, we tried. We tried to get that from day one, but it just never worked out, unfortunately.

FANG: Can you speak a little bit about Eli Roth’s THE GREEN INFERNO? It’s his first feature in six years, since HOSTEL: PART II in 2007.

SMITH: I didn’t realize that, but that’s right, yeah.

FANG: That definitely has a lot of buzz.

SMITH: Well, it certainly was a big deal in Toronto. I went to the midnight screening and I saw how Eli Roth really had a connection to his audience. It was very impressive. The film was pretty good; it was definitely one of the best things in the Midnight section. It’s a movie that definitely delivers. We were just lucky that the distributor that acquired it, Open Road, was open to the idea of us premiering it in New York. I assume they’re releasing it very soon after that. All of these things just kind of fall into place. There’s a lot of luck involved, to be honest. We’re very enthusiastic about a lot of things, but we aren’t always able to attract the films we want. We’re always very grateful when a distributor really wants to work with us, because they don’t always want to. But hopefully, if the series starts to get a little more of a reputation—and I believe it is—maybe they will be more amenable to working with us.

KERN: Yeah, and I think that already has been the case, to a certain degree.

SMITH: Was it last year or the year before that somebody approached us? Maybe not.

FANG: And last year, The New York Film Festival [at Lincoln Center] had a Midnight Section as well, featuring THE BAY and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. We’re seeing horror influence some other programs there.

SMITH: Yeah, but not this year. THE BAY was a horror movie, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO was sort of a horror movie, I guess, but the other Midnight movie was a crime thriller, a Takeshi Kitano film [OUTRAGE]. So they don’t really have a policy about horror movies at that festival. Once in a while they will show one.

KERN: Very rarely.

SMITH: I did start doing a Midnight Movies series here in the summer. Last year was the first time and this year was the second. Generally we don’t show new movies, and it’s not all horror movies, although the majority are. That probably helps build up the audience and a presence for those kinds of films. We’re just both basically fans of horror. That’s really how it happens.

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FANG: In terms of horror remakes, this year you have PATRICK (pictured above) and last year was MANIAC, and you also have found footage with WILLOW CREEK…

KERN: And AFFLICTED also.

FANG: Are there certain trends in horror like those that you either go for or stay away from? Does that ever affect your thinking?

KERN: I personally try to avoid remakes. It’s so rare that one is actually good, but then there are the exceptions like PATRICK, which surprised me, and MANIAC, which I think is pretty great.

SMITH: I don’t think there’s any kind of planning or strategy that we’re going to do this or that, or focus on one thing or another. It’s a scramble. We just try to put together whatever we can from what’s available.

KERN: We try to find the best movies out there, and it’s always a nice surprise when that includes remakes and found footage.

FANG: How important is it for the filmmakers to attend?

SMITH: If the filmmaker comes, it’s another draw for the audience. A fair number are coming this year. That’s not vital to us, that filmmakers be there, but it’s fun.

FANG: Are there any personal favorites this year? Did you both pick and choose individually, or did you have to come to a consensus on certain titles?

KERN: In the case of the Toronto films, I haven’t seen those because I didn’t go. I think it’s rare that both of us have even seen some of them. I mean, the old ones we had seen…

SMITH: Even amongst the older ones, you have some personal favorites and I have some personal favorites. We don’t even necessarily always agree, and sometimes we’ll show a film that you or I are not a fan of. We’ll see in a few weeks what Laura thinks of the films she hasn’t seen.

It’s really Laura’s festival; she does the lion’s share of the work, and I come in and look at the movies if she wants a second opinion, or I’ll try to pull in stuff that I vouch for. It sort of happens that way, rather than us watching everything together and voting.

KERN: It’s not really work. I would be watching these films all year round anyway.

FANG: You’re also showing nine older films, at least five of them on 35mm or 16mm.

SMITH: Are any of them not?

KERN: No. They all are.

SMITH: Yeah, that’s part of it as well. We love to see things on 35mm.

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FANG: Does that influence what you show? In the case of NIGHTBREED (pictured above), the new cut that’s 42 minutes longer, I believe it’s on VHS.

KERN: [Laughs] Well, they’ve digitized it, but…

FANG: I’ve read that it’s easy to tell what the extra footage is, based on the difference in quality.

KERN: That’s the only way you can see that film right now. Scream Factory is now working on a Blu-ray, so it will be better quality by next year, but for now…

SMITH: [To Kern] Where did you see that?

KERN: I saw that at FrightFest last year. NIGHTBREED has always been one of my favorites. That’s what’s so interesting about this cut: when I was in high school, I probably saw that film like five or six times in the theater. I loved the book and I loved Clive Barker, but I was never aware that it wasn’t his vision. I thought it was a successful film already. So of course, when I heard that it was in fact not the way he wanted the film to be presented, I got very excited. This is the first time the new cut will be playing in New York City, so I’m hoping people will come.

FANG: When it comes to the older titles, are they movies you’ve been a fan of for a while or were there prints available, etc.?

KERN: I have a very long list of old films that I love, and yeah, it’s just a matter of actually finding the prints.

SMITH: It would be very easy to do weeks of vintage horror movies if we could find prints and clear the rights. Sometimes you can find the print but you can’t clear the rights. More often, you know where the source would be for a print, but they don’t actually have any. Prints are disappearing. We rely a little bit on collectors, people who have big libraries of horror movies especially. We get at least a few films from them.

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About the author
Erik Luers
Born and raised in Queens, New York, Erik Luers has been writing about the cinema for longer than he can remember. Having received his Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies from Queens College (CUNY) and his Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School, Erik has written about movies for The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Indiewire.com, Slant magazine’s The House Next Door and various other publications, while guest-curating screenings for Videology, an eclectic movie house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Erik has also extensively covered film fests such as the Havana Film Festival in New York and the Fantasia international film festival in Montreal. In his spare time, he enjoys riding the MTA subway system and rooting for the New York Knicks.
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