Grimmfest's BFI "Monsters and Movies" takes place this weekend in the UK. A full weekend of screenings and in-depth talks focused on MONSTER CINEMA. Amongst other Manchester guests, Mick Garris and Reece Shearsmith will introduce a 40th-anniversary screening of The Thing followed by a live Post Mortem interview on John Carpenter's classic… along with a 30th-anniversary presentation of Sleepwalkers; one of many Stephen King adaptations Mick has directed over the years. As two of the major contributors in anthology horror, FANGORIA took the opportunity to talk with Mick and Reece about their nation's contributions, respective work on (and love for) such a smorgasbord of bloody delights.
What are your earliest memories of horror anthologies?
Reece Shearsmith: I think the very first anthology film I ever saw was The House that Dripped Blood, although some memory is blurring here. It sticks with me because of how terrifying the very first story was… the Denholm Elliot/Dominic story. The image of Tom Adams peeping out from the dark corners and smiling with those rotten teeth stopped me from sleeping that night! And I remember being really frightened by "Sweets to the Sweet", the Christopher Lee story... he looks so brilliant in this film, and I remember finding it really unusual and horrifying that he wasn't the baddie. In fact, quite the opposite, he is terrified of his own daughter ― the incredibly delicate and spooky Chloe Franks, playing a little fledgling witch, which in itself is a brilliant twist. But yes, all in all, it was the perfect first dip into anthology films; some really great stories, a classic wrap-around device, and a host of brilliant performances from a superb cast.
Mick Garris: As a child of the '50s and '60s, I started watching The Twilight Zone, which was released in 1959. It blew my mind. Then, later in high school, my first interviews were actually with the show's creator Rod Serling and influential writer Ray Bradbury. But there was very little exposure to British horror over here until the Amicus releases of Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. As a comic book fan, I would read the reprints of EC Comics, so naturally, I loved the movies when they came out.
Do you feel the Amicus productions perfectly balance British and American anthology horror?
MG: They felt British, even though Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, along with writer Robert Bloch, were American, the directors and most of the actors were British. But the HBO show it spawned couldn't have been more American. It was very crass and became the "boobs 'n' blood" show that took advantage of the uncensored cable channel. A show I ended up directing on, amongst others.
Mick Garris' "Life On Death Row" from Amazing Stories
Thus anthologies became a huge part of your career, from Freddy's Nightmares to Nightmare Cinema.
MG: Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories was my first job as a director. I've always loved that anthologies provide these little movies you can watch on television and that they're self-contained. This is why I'm so thrilled there are now eight seasons of Inside No.9, which is just killing it all the time. No matter which episode you choose, it's not at all what you expect it to be, and just when you think you've figured it out, there's another left turn.
RS: I'm so delighted that we've been able to continue but also be part of this resurgence of the anthology. It should never have really gone away; there are so many brilliant examples of one-off stories and so much enjoyment to be had within whole seasons of Tales of the Unexpected and Masters of Horror. I think it became sidelined by TV commissioners, those who seemed to be chasing this relentless idea that you have to commit to something that returns to the same characters each week, this obsession with an ongoing story.
MG: That they create a family.
RS: Yeah, and I think that was the received wisdom for a long time. So it's great now the tide has turned, and people want the one-off 30-minute hit like we do. That's fantastic. It happened most recently with Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities, a great example of allowing people a bite of the cherry… which, in terms of the writing and central performances, me and Steve [Inside No. 9 co-creator Steve Pemberton] don't allow anyone else to do.
RS: Yeah… I know.
MG: It's totally the opposite of what we did on Masters of Horror, where I would bring in the likes of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, and Takashi Miike and say, "We don't have much time or money, but we are giving you full creative control to make whatever you want in a way that you've not experienced in decades." It may be a different approach to No.9, but I still watched these great artists flower the way you and Steve are able to do every single week. John Carpenter, for example, was initially very cynical about it ― "Well, I don't know… it could be a piece of shit." Then, when he finished his first one and it was so popular ― and we were able to do a second series ― I asked him back, and he said, "You know what… I would do another one of those."
John Carpenter's "Cigarette Burns" from Masters of Horror
Up until that point, he'd at least taken a stab at an anthology with Body Bags.
MG: Body Bags was John's show ― he was able to do whatever he wanted ― but there was also Tobe Hooper on one of the three segments. It was actually a pilot, but sadly never picked up, which was not uncommon as these things seem to go in such waves; anthologies often out of favor. When we did Masters of Horror, there was nothing else out there like it, and nobody was looking for it. We were financed by a DVD company and, therefore, not even part of a network. This meant they had to pay 10% of the cost of the show to license it, so they had no right to interfere creatively.
RS: The undiluted artist doing what they want to do. And in your case, an unusual gift to give established directors who had moved beyond a point in their careers where they were struggling and had to be creative. With Masters of Horror, you allowed them to be that person again.
MG: Back to being an independent filmmaker.
RS: "I haven't got all the money in the world to solve the problem, shall I be creative again?" We find that with No.9, our money goes down and down every time, but it's the mother of invention ― our fuel ― when we are restricted. Not because we like it but because we are better when we have to think of these contained scripts. It makes you sharper with your writing. That's one of the great joys of anthologies. They're lean. They have to be because you have to care about something in a very short space of time.
What do you feel are the similarities and sensibilities of British and American horror anthologies?
MG: There are more differences than similarities. I would say British anthology horror is much more literary than the United States and, just like the nation itself, we are much more brash. The Tales from the Crypt TV series was the "boobs 'n' blood" show, but the movies weren't quite that way. There's a slasher sensibility over here in young people's horror; you don't seem to have that tradition in the UK, and I think that's a big dividing line.
RS: I think that's true. I can't think of anything that fills the mold of the slasher here. We are more literary, you're right; we're more about the ghost stories, more haunting, and less of the body horror.
With talks of a US version of Inside No. 9, naturally, that's where the stories could be taken.
RS: A US version might be an opportunity to shine a different light on some of the themes that we explored in our original episodes; what exists is very particular and very British, and our sensibility is that Steve and I are the glue and the continuity. Then you go on the internet, "I'd enjoy it more if they didn't keep appearing in them."
MG: Well, they're full of shit, so…
That they are…
But back to the slasher mentality, Mick nails the contrast, essentially the post-Vietnam war elements so often associated with American horror vs. the (urban) Gothic and literary stories of Inside No. 9.
MG: And the beauty of Inside No. 9 is that it's still not limited by any of that. You have these brilliant creative minds that are still performing it, and they go somewhere different every single time.
It refuses to be pigeonholed.
MG: They're just so emotional. An audience expects "funny" from half of the League of Gentlemen comedy troupe; they don't expect heartbreak and tears. You actually feel depth that horror movies on both sides of the pond rarely commit to.
Because they are treated like perfect little movies that happen to be funny, the comedy feels natural because of the distinct sense of humor that Reece and Steve bring to Inside No.9. That's what makes them stand out a mile.
RS: Yeah, well, thank you. It is born from never settling on the first route. The storytelling is all. But, as it is coming from the BBC comedy department, there always comes a point when we're confronted with: "Why is this remotely funny?" And sometimes, they're not. And that's okay because often, peoples' favorites are the heartfelt stories when they're crying by the end. It blindsides them.
MG: Every time. And there is nothing like it on this side of the ocean. It's nearly always thoroughly painted with horror. Maybe there's humor and depth of relationship, but rarely chokes you up.
RS: Some have an inherent EC Comics vibe, but mostly they're not about revenge or anything else deemed exploitative unless leaning into the latter intentionally… such as "The Devil of Christmas." We've dealt a blow because you care about the characters. It's rare in this day and age you can feel that the rug has been pulled from under you. We love it if we can achieve that because it's such a thrill to have it happen to you when watching anthologies.
It's hard enough to do that with one movie, let alone coming up with six separate stories each year. Do you find yourselves writing backward, that you come up with the twist before you commit?
RS: Sometimes, we start with an ending but mainly a vague plot of the story. Other times we change it because we think the viewer would be onto us ― a red herring being our original ending ― it could be a good ending, but we will push it again and not even settle on that as the twist. There are lots of tricks we pull… but it only becomes harder and harder. Everyone's onto us now like a magician who's clever with his own hands ― how does he pull the wool over your eyes if you now know where to look? So, if anything, the tyranny of the twist has become a thorn in our sides. It hangs over us that people only enjoy the last 30 seconds and that we mustn't get bogged down in coming up with a jaw-dropping episode every week, even though most times we have. But I still can't help but feel the ghouls are out waiting for us to fail.
MG: I would say you have a pretty high batting average. Your show is very writer and performer driven, whereas Masters of Horror was director-driven, expressing the cinematic personality of those who were truly the masters of the genre. We tried to make everything completely different as well, discovering how wide the definition of horror could be. Sometimes it was a spec script expressing a director's personality. Other times, the likes of Dario Argento adapting a Creepy comic book tale. All of these approaches delivered a completely different attitude and were a welcome surprise each time.
RS: The palette of being able to do that is one of the joys but also one of the terrible tortures of doing an anthology. You're burning a lot of ideas ― a lifetime of ideas ― because each week it's "What's the next one? And the next…?" You are constantly trying to keep up the quality of the different aspects of a dark journey. Nevertheless, that's one of the great things about exploring all these different kinds of storytelling within the medium, even the mechanics of a television show itself, our Halloween Special.
Other than Guillermo ― also championing genre filmmakers with Cabinet of Curiosities ― it's hard to find an example of two better creators in the field, such as yourselves, who are now a major part of the legacy of anthology horror.
MG: Stuart Gordon too. Like Guillermo, he was also a master of Lovecraft. Both Masters and Cabinet adapting "The Dreams in the Witch House."
RS: And, similarly, that's what's great about Inside No.9; it's a body of work that we're proud of with different directors at the helm. Not everyone will like every episode ― that's the nature of anthologies ― but no matter, we're incredibly proud of what we've accomplished. Maybe it will really dawn on people what an achievement Inside No.9 is when one of us dies.
Oh God, don't say that. You may be wrapping the eighth, but we need the final No.9 anthology!
Tickets are still on sale for GRIMMFEST's BFI "Monsters and Movies". In the meantime, check out Mick's original interview with Reece over on his Post Mortem podcast and our recent 9 Horrors From Inside NO.9.