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Q&A: South African HorrorFest Celebrates 10 Years of Terror

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Horror is a global village and every country and culture seems to embrace and celebrate their love of strange, dark fantasy entertainment. In South Africa, musicians, writers, filmmakers and general genre movie obsessives Paul Blom (who occasionally contributes to Fango) and Sonja Ruppersberg do their part in keeping horror relevant with their annual festival, the SOUTH AFRICAN HORRORFEST, running from October 27th – November 7th at Capetown’s historic Labia Theatre. This year the fest will be screening John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN, NYMPH, a new South African film called JULIA, SOULMATE and doc’s like DOC OF THE DEAD, LOST SOUL and YELLOW FEVER. Plus much more.

To celebrate almost 10 years bringing big-screen shocks to South African horror fans, as well as sculpting all manner of strange media, FANGORIA took some time to talk to the duo whose passion for all things odd has yielded a profound partnership that is both professional…and personal.

FANGORIA: When and why did you start the fest?

PAUL BLOM: Since I met Sonja in 2000, we’ve been creating projects and events together (incl. our band Terminatryx, live soundtrack group The Makabra Ensemble, short films, photo-shoots, and various film festivals).  So it only made sense to get married!

SONJA RUPPERSBERG: All of these activities fall under our Flamedrop Productions banner.

BLOM: In 2004 we made the short film ‘imPERFECTION’ – a woman’s surreal trip down a spiral of indiscriminate murder, tied to a circle motif (starring Sonja in a dual role).  On completing it, we realized that it was not at all the kind of thing anyone would screen here in South Africa…

RUPPERSBERG: Being horror fans and fully aware of genre film festivals around the world, we were always dumbfounded that no-one tried this kind of thing here (but people always want to play it safe and not take chances or risks).

BLOM: So we bit the bullet and dived in to create our own event catering for off-centre cinematic creations, and besides creating a festival where our own work will sit comfortably, make it possible for other local moviemakers to have a home where they can showcase productions for which they have difficulty finding a platform.

RUPPERSBERG: Planning started in 2004 and the first South African HorrorFest happened over Halloween 2005.

BLOM: We took it on in our own way, have it grow organically into what we’d like to experience as fans, not basing it on any other events.

RUPPERSBERG: A lot of trial and error.

BLOM: The screening venue of choice was the Labia Theatre here in Cape Town, one of the last indie cinemas in the country—yes, yes, we can already hear the snickers. The four screen cinema used to be a ballroom donated to the Italian embassy by the royal Labia family around 60 years ago.  It has an old-school charm, not the impersonal, clinical atmosphere of a mall multiplex.

RUPPERSBERG: It grew from a weekend of a few feature films and a handful shorts, to a 10-day event covering a wide range of activities.

FANG: Is there much of a South African horror community?

RUPPERSBERG: All ‘alternative’ activity here is just that, very much underground. Here people are more interested in sports!

BLOM: Unfortunately there isn’t a rabid Horror community as in the States and other parts of the world. A lot of the reason is culturally based, but that is part of the reason we started this festival, to introduce new, exciting things, and encourage both side-lined viewers and moviemakers (from aspiring to professional) to support the genre in a communal setting, and produce work diverting from the norm.

RUPPERSBERG: Initially we had to hunt for content, but within a matter of a few years, submissions exploded (especially form abroad), growing to the extent that we receive enough amazing submissions from around the world each year that could fill up several festivals.

BLOM: But locally, people seem hesitant. Some cool shorts have come along, but don’t always seem to be followed up (as I think many move on to jobs in the industry that is commercial and mainstream, or simply dissolve into the mediocre pool).

Across the years some directors have surfaced and made an impact abroad, but not by staying in South Africa unfortunately. Guys like Richard Stanley (HARDWARE, DUST DEVIL and guest of honor at our Celludroid festival a few years back), Jonathan Liebesman (DARKNESS FALLS, WRATH OF THE TITANS), Gavin Hood (WOLVERINE) and of course Neill Blomkamp (DISTRICT 9, ELYSIUM).

Terminatryx

Terminatryx

RUPPERSBERG: Where local entertainment used to be moored in socio-political drama reflecting the country’s tumultuous climate of the past (and new issues of the present), it has shifted to a blend of light comedies, and an upswing in Afrikaans movies, but nothing we can really identify with.

BLOM: I think TV and movie producers play it safe.  More producers coming over from abroad to make genre movies, utilizing the affordability, good crews and diverse locations. While we make music videos for our band Terminatryx (thus far always Horror / Paranormal themed), and short films like our werewolf movie ‘Marked’, the notion of making our own feature film has definitely come up, and we’d been encouraged by others who’ve seen our short films and music videos, but cost is always a factor…

It sometimes gets frustrating for us facilitating the screening and exposure of others people’s work and not getting to make more of our own, but we’ve elected ourselves the proponents of Horror in South Africa, and feel it’s our duty to do what others won’t bother to do.

RUPPERSBERG: The same goes for the kind of music we make – cater for a neglected Alternative community.

BLOM: Without serious backing to publicize the HorrorFest across the country, there may still be many undiscovered talents out there, and hopefully they won’t just go for the mediocre mainstream in order to make a living.  Sometimes it feels like a sacrifice, but this is who we are.
Our hands-on approach also includes having Sonja as the HorrorFest poster girl, many of these executed ourselves, but several done in collaboration with our good friend Dr-Benway, artist Vernon Swart, as well as special make-up FX artist Clinton Smith (who I interviewed in my Fango article for the Last House On The Left remake).

FANG: How have things changed with attendance and press over the years? How has the fest expanded?

RUPPERSBERG: Each year, the festival grows incrementally. We have regulars whom we’ve become acquainted with, see more and more familiar faces each year, and loads of new ones. For a large chunk of the attendees it has become an annual event they wouldn’t miss, but it remains a battle to reach others who may enjoy Horror movies, but aren’t aware of our festival.
Halloween is not as big here as in the US, and still quite a foreign concept.

BLOM: Press find it an amusing subject to cover, being linked to Halloween, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into getting people into the cinema…

RUPPERSBERG: We’ve had prudes write to a newspaper (that interviewed us) urging people to shun this Satanic festival we’re pushing. This is the mentality of far too many ignorant people here…

BLOM: Another difficulty has been people retreating into their homes for entertainment and illegal downloading of movies, with people who simply copy something you painstakingly got the rights for, something someone created and submitted, having spent their own money to produce – a fact lost on those who simply search on-line share sites and hit download…

RUPPERSBERG: Almost since the very start we kept adding more elements, always wanting to expand the Horror culture roster beyond just cool feature films and short films. From the get-go, we included the performance of new soundtrack scores written for classic silent films, played live beneath the big screen – this morphed into our Makabra Ensemble with Paul and I (from Terminatryx) joined by collaborative musician friends of ours to breathe new life into legendary movies like NOSFERATU (which we’ve released on DVD), HÄXAN. MACISTE IN HELL, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, DR. JEKYLL & MR HYDE, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, METROPOLIS and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

FANG: What kind of films have come through the gates? Have any gone on to become big titles?

BLOM: A wide variety get submitted each year from all over the world, from ghosts, monsters and vampires, to slashers, found footage and documentaries with Horror subjects.
Spain is one of our biggest submitters, while the East is an area from which we’d like to receive more submissions.

RUPPERSBERG: We also include classics, from those of the ‘20s and ‘30s screened with our Makabra Ensemble soundtrack performances, to the likes of Lugosi’s DRACULA, Karloff’s FRANKENSTEIN, Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, Argento movies and so forth.

BLOM: While almost all of the movies we screen make their South African theatrical premieres (from THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE to STRIGOI), more mainstream cinema releases we’ve premiered at the HorrorFest include the likes of ZOMBIELAND, MACHETE, PANDORUM, CAPTIVITY, FRANKENWEENIE, EVIL DEAD (’13) and via our linked X Fest and Celludroid Film Festivals: INSIDIOUS, SCREAM 4 and DISTRICT 9. The X Fest and Celludroid arose from submissions that didn’t exactly fit the Horror genre 100%, but were still ‘out there.’ So, the X Fest is an ‘anything goes’ extreme cinematic event, with Celludroid focussing on sci-fi, fantasy and animation.

FANG: What do you have lined up for this year?

BLOM: Submissions are still coming in with no finalized selections, but we may be incorporating a pre-release screening of the next Paranormal Activity chapter. There is also word of a certain QUEEN OF BLOOD to make its South African premiere.

RUPPERSBERG: The last time we did the CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI’s Makabra Ensemble live soundtrack was in 2007, so we’re planning on resurrecting it for our 10th anniversary of the HorrorFest for viewers who didn’t get to experience it the first time round (as well as those die-hards who want to see it again).

BLOM: We always do a horror movie giveaways including a huge collection won by a single viewer.  This year we may look at giving someone the chance to “Win the HorrorFest”, by having the DVD collection consist of movies screened across the event’s history.

RUPPERSBERG: We’re looking at giving the festival logo a slight facelift as well for its 10th birthday!

BLOM: And we want to implement plans to do a special drive-in event for a night. These are unfortunately no longer a part of the Cape Town landscape and a whole generation has never experienced it.

RUPPERSBERG: We’ve been approached by a small theatre company to look at incorporating a horror play, and we’d also like to kick-start adding a kids’ element for earlier in the day, and start them off with something less extreme like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

BLOM: And cultivate a new South African Horror generation from the ground up!

For more on the South African HorrorFest, visit its official site, as well as the online homes of Paul Blom and Sonja Ruppersberg.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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