Exclusive Interview with Alan Jones, Frightfest Organiser & Horror Guru
By James Whittington, Sunday 24th September 2006

Zone Horror caught up with Frightfest organiser Alan Jones, author of the 'The Rough Guide to Horror' amongst much other horror-related work.

ZH: How did the idea of FrightFest first come about?

I used to organise a festival in the 80s entitled ‘Shock Around the Clock’ at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross. (24 hours non-stop of previews) It became an exhausting marathon so when the BFI asked me to do something similar at the NFT, but over a month, I agreed and ‘Fantasm’ was the result. After a few years I soon realised the NFT was not the right place for a horror fantasy season because of its rarefied auteur atmosphere and the staff not quite understanding what I was trying to do. (A lesbian manageress moaning about the constant violence against women being the final straw) So I drew a line under it especially when I was told it was far too successful to meet their mandate of niche programming - they replaced it with a season of Iranian movies from the 40s! So when ‘Shock’ goer Paul McEvoy asked me to consider joining him, and Ian Rattray, to revive the horror festival idea in 2000 at the Prince Charles Cinema, I thought it was the right idea at the right time. I did think about using the ‘Shock Around the Clock’ title again but decided it needed different repositioning so FrightFest was born.

You moved into a larger area of the Odeon this year, was this an idea that paid off for you and the attendees?

Our 2005 event was our most successful ever, but the upper Odeon West End auditorium only had 525 seats. We found ourselves in the annoying position of turning away a lot of fans because of the popularity of titles like LAND OF THE DEAD and WOLF CREEK. We clearly needed more space to satisfy not only public demand but also our sponsor and distributor requests for complimentary tickets. So we moved downstairs into the larger 800 seater, good for the hot tickets, PAN’S LABYRINTH and THE HOST especially. The projection quality and the superior sound system made everything play wonderfully well so we will definitely be there in 2007, despite some of the less well-known titles playing to less than full capacity. I worried about that initially. Then Adam Green, director of HATCHET, told me that every festival venue his film had played, including Tribeca, only had the maximum of 150 seats. So our screening – 600 plus – had the bigger overall audience he’d ever had. I relaxed after that in the realisation that we were delivering the most spectators such films could attract.

Was it difficult to put the programme of films together?

AJ: Not this year. Our move to the Odeon West End in Leicester Square last year sent out profile sky high. So this year we were in the enviable position of having distributors come to us very early on offering us their horror titles. We had eight films signed up (including BEHIND THE MASK, THEM, BROKEN and ISOLATION) before going to Cannes, where we usually select the main body of the programme. It was at Cannes we realised that FrightFest had now gained a global recognition. We didn’t have to explain FrightFest any more as everyone knew who we were and what we were doing and how important placing their movie with us was. THE MARSH, SEE NO EVIL and SNOOP DOGG’S HOOD OF HORROR were offered to us at Cannes as a result. Because I cover a lot of horror movies in production for my various worldwide magazines, I often firm up involvement at the earliest stage too. I tell the producers I will be back in touch if I think the film will play well for us and that’s how I got SEVERANCE and THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. The latter was our most challenging title and the fact it went down so well really pleased me, and director Simon Rumpley, so much.

One thing any new attendee will have noticed is that the event has an incredibly friendly atmosphere to it, is this something you, Ian and Paul have strived to create or was it a natural happening?

We have always pitched FrightFest as ‘for the fans by the fans’ and the growing camaraderie and community spirit that has grown up over the years is one of the best aspects of the FrightFest family. Our website forum has been responsible for that too - people have got to know each other, made firm friends and given us their vital feedback. We make a point of being available throughout the weekend to talk to everyone and listen to thoughts and (few!) complaints. It’s what separates us from every other festival out there. Our attendees’ support is what keeps us going and is the fuel to our passionate flames.

The pre-festival charity screening of Severance was an incredible experience, was it difficult to arrange?

Yes, in a word! Director Chris Smith is a friend, but trying to arrange what essentially was the FrightFest launch and a SEVERANCE premiere was a logistical nightmare. Chris gives FrightFest a closing credit thank you in SEVERANCE because we put CREEP on our countrywide tour in 2004. That was the reason we got the preview in the first place. But all the organisational problems vanished on the night when stars like David Schwimmer, Derren Brown and Shane Ritchie, not to mention most of the cast, turned up to help us celebrate our opening.

New directors such as Jordan “The Marsh” Barker and Adam “Hatchet” Green seemed amazed by the event and not accustomed to the unique atmosphere the festival has. Did they give you any feedback on the event?

Again it’s the unique way we approach FrightFest that strikes visiting guests. As soon as I saw HATCHET I knew we had to invite Adam Green over from LA, the first time he’d ever been out of the USA. It’s important for us to promote new talent from all over the world. Costly but important for the profile of FrightFest as the place to see new discoveries. Unlike most festivals though who literally ignore the talent once they’ve done their intro/Q&A chores, we make our guests part of the whole experience. They can see what they want and can join us for any extra-curricular gathering or meal. Being good hosts is part of the deal as we see it. This year we organised a lunch get-together for all our participating short film/feature directors and producers (Simon Rumley’s idea) so they could network and get to know each other away from the main FrightFest frenzy. It was a spectacular success and one we will be repeating from now on.

How did you manage to get hold of the Guillermo del Toro’s stunning movie Pan’s Labyrinth, which, personally speaking was the film of the festival, as well as the great man himself?

Guillermo is a close personal friend so all I had to do was ask him. He’s one of the good guys in the world film industry and his word is his bond. I absolutely adore him (my next book is about his career to tie in with HELLBOY 2). In my opening intro to PAN’S LABYRINTH I said he was FrightFest’s greatest supporter and friend and he delivered in spades on that description. I wanted the movie the moment I saw it in Cannes and knew we would be in competition with the London Film Festival for it. But Guillermo told his UK distributors Optimum Films he wanted us to show it so there was no contest. He did the same with HELLBOY in 2005 when Columbia Pictures refused to take us seriously. He turned Columbia’s perception of us around and they actually apologised to us when they saw how well the film played and how well we organised the whole premiere event. I could ramble on about fabulous Guillermo is for days. I have spent so much quality time with him on location and at other festivals. He’s a fan first, a filmmaker second, and knows the importance of the genre aficionado to his work. I hope he gets every award for PAN’S LABYRINTH because it’s a masterpiece and he deserves it. And how fantastic he brought Alfonso Cuaron along with him too?

One of the highlights for horror movie buffs was the showing if three Hammer classics. The prints you got were incredible, how did you manage that? Any chance we’d get more in future events as few have been able to see these movies on a big screen?

Ian Rattray is a film distributor and booker in his own right and one of his many contacts is with Park Circus Films who own the rights to many classic horrors. We inaugurated the classic Friday afternoon homage last year with the George Romero zombie trilogy, a no-brainer really considering we were opening with LAND OF THE DEAD. So we wanted something similar this year and we decided on the Hammer trio when Ian found out Park Circus had just struck new prints of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, COUNTESS DRACULA and TWINS OF EVIL. It really was that simple. Everyone loved them too. They almost had a 3-D quality about them. So many younger fans never had the chance to see these films on the big screen in such great condition so it was well worth it. Next year, if it works out and Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA sequel MOTHER OF TEARS is indeed our opening as I’m in the early stages of planning, we will show a retrospective of his films with the great man himself in attendance.

The now legendary weekend pass-holders goodie bags seemed to impress all, how did you manage to get such a great collection of freebies?

We lean on our sponsors and ask every film company to open their cupboards and give us anything that’s in them. Our goodie bags our famous for being laden with DVDs, T-shirts and other tie-in merchandise so it’s very much a case of begging from as many people we have in our collective address books. So far we haven’t disappointed.

The CUT! Competition contained some very inventive filmmaking and stark imagery. Were you impressed by the standard of entries?

Absolutely! I know how time-consuming they are to do and the hard work involved. I wouldn’t do it. But for young filmmakers to take that leap of faith I find amazing. The winners actually stayed for a few of the main movies too and that impressed me. They wanted to learn and get feedback from the audience. That’s commitment and you need it in this industry believe me! The best three did win, and I was pleased my fellow jurors – Robert Tapert and Lloyd Kaufman – agreed wholeheartedly on our choices. I also received some nice emails from the winners too – and some not so nice ones from the losers…

It’s been a couple if weeks since The Zone Horror FrightFest 2006, what are your fondest memories of the event and is there something you would change with the benefit of hindsight?

The ecstatic response to PAN’S LABYRINTH, the audience singing Happy Birthday to David Soul, star of PURITAN who actually took the time to turn up on this date, short film producer/70s icon David McGillivray doing his usual hilarious stand-up routine, and the amazing heartfelt reaction to THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. What I’d change…. After leaping up and down four flights of stairs on a five-minute basis, I wish I’d discovered the wheelchair lift sooner!

Have you begun thinking towards next year’s event?

The moment FrightFest is over, we start planning next year’s event immediately. Paul and Ian go to the Toronto Festival to see what’s new; I go to the Sitges fantasy Festival to cover the European waterfront. I found THE LOST there last year. We always strive to make each FrightFest better than the last, and that takes an enormous amount of organisation and strategy. Our 2006 press profile was the biggest ever and this will impact greatly on next year’s event. We have already hired the same Odeon auditorium and now we have to get the big-ticket films to maximise attendance.

Can you foresee more FrightFest events around the country or do you think this would water down the idea too much?

We have already done this. FrightFest already stages mini-events within the Cambridge, Brighton and Glasgow Film Festivals. These will continue. We have also gone on the road to Leicester and Nottingham. Our next event is a double bill of George Romero’s CREEPSHOW and Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES at the ICA, Pall Mall, on October 31st. That will be followed by a Halloween all-nighter at the same venue, the titles a mix of old and new, still under discussion. Not all would-be FrightFesters can make it to London so we see it as apart of our mission to take the films to their parts of the country and hopefully give them a taste of what we’re all about.

FrightFest now has its own DVD label and is building up a most enviable reputation for giving some obscure genre movies top rate releases, what titles can we expect in the future?

Ti West’s THE ROOST, a FrightFest 2005 favourite, is currently on sale now. Other titles are in the pipeline but we don’t just want to release any old film. It has to be something good, something we believe in, and something with the unique FrightFest flavour. So if we don’t release something for a few months, that’s OK. We have a brand people respect and we are not going to discredit it.

What’s your favourite Friday night in with a pizza movie?

Wow, that’s a hard question. Does it have to be a horror movie? Sometimes even I need a break! One of my all-time favourite films I can watch over and over again is THE LAST OF SHEILA, the best murder mystery ever made. I never get tired of it. Or VALLEY OF THE DOLLS for entirely different reasons.

So what’s next for Alan Jones?

Well I record the DVD commentary with author Graham Masterson for THE MANITOU next week. Then I’m off on location with Eli Roth for HOSTEL 2 in Budapest. Then, it’s the Sitges Festival, then Rome with Dario and Asia Argento for the filming of MOTHER OF TEARS, then I have the first of my mega-meetings with Guillermo (in London for a year to make HELLBOY 2) to record his life story. Plus the usual press, screenings, glamour and excitement. It’s a hard life….

Alan Jones, thank you very much.

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The Bay
Tuesday 25th February
10.50 PM
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Sunday 1st March
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10.50 PM