A house full of horror

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Traditionally marginalised by the big studios, genre films are finally gaining the respect they deserve, says James Mottram

It's Saturday night in Montreal, and hundreds of film fans have arrived at Fantasia for the international premiere of The FP.

A crazy, pumped-up retro comedy – think 8 Mile meets First Blood crossed with The Warriors – it's like nothing you've ever seen. But then so is the screening. Before curtain up, the crowd is whipped into a frenzy as three natives are invited on stage to prove how patriotic they are; the first one to down a bottle of maple syrup wins. Needless to say, they all meet a sticky end. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of genre festivals.

These are not the usual staid cinematic gatherings, where the movies are as polite as the patrons. "I think genre fans, in general, are more prone to emoting," explains Mitch Davis, co-director of Fantasia, which remains North America's biggest genre festival. "Obviously we enjoy having this crazy group energy, but what's interesting is we can have 700 people in the room and it will sound like a rock concert. At the same time, you won't hear people talk over dialogue or a mobile phone go off. There's a real respect for the film-making."

Compare this to Cannes, an event that has become so industry, each screening is peppered with executives talking on phones. "It's audience driven," says Davis. "We never gear it to the industry." Partly it's because he started out as a fan. "The audience is the programmer, in a sense. The programmer was part of the audience. So there is that affinity as well. We try for there to be no barrier between fan and festival."

Guests this year have included John Landis, the man behind An American Werewolf in London, and Britain's own Robin Hardy (the director of The Wicker Man).

Once upon a time, such gatherings dedicated to screening horror, science fiction or fantasy films were marginalised events. Not any more. The rise in genre festivals over the past few years has become palpable. Montreal's Fantasia is now in its 15th year. This week, London will see the return of FrightFest, a five-day cinematic orgy that's been running for 12 years. And come September, Austin's Fantastic Fest – or the "Comic Con of film festivals" – will start its seventh edition. And that is just the bloodied tip of the iceberg.

In the UK alone, there's Grimm Up North (held in Manchester, in October), Abertoir (held in Aberystwyth in November) and the After Dark Horrorfest (key cities in March). Factor in long-standing events in Brussels, Sitges and Porto, not to mention young pretenders stretching from Morbido in Mexico to Neuchâtel in Switzerland and it's clear this lust for films that would've once been labelled "video nasties" is growing faster than fangs on a vampire. But why the sudden explosion? Partly it seems this rise has come through a growing voice of dissent amongst the film community.

"There was almost a frustration in the traditional film festival circuit, in that our types of movies, the ones that we love and champion, were somehow being relegated to B-movie status," suggests Tim League, Fantastic Fest organiser. "It was almost as if that meant they're not quite film festival movies. What we try to champion are exceptional storytelling films and great new narrative voices, that just happen to speak in the context of genre. But still we think of these movies on a par with every other type of movie, if not better. And I think that's our mission, to add credibility and legitimacy to them."

League, who also programmes the SXFantastic section of Austin's increasingly influential South By Southwest festival, points out that genre festivals don't simply have to consist of below-par slasher sequels. "I'm not a huge fan of the straight-ahead horror film. I like the horror films, which have more of a story to tell. So if it's just a straight-ahead slasher film, which we've all seen since the 1970s, we're probably not going to show it at Fantastic Fest. Adam Wingard, for example, made You're Next, which we're super-excited about playing. It's a horror movie but it's exceptional storytelling."

Certainly, there's an argument to be said that these festivals are often in the vanguard when it comes to championing important film-makers. "The reason why we do well is that we get to know these people when they're just starting off," says FrightFest co-director Alan Jones. "If you look back at FrightFest, we were the first people to invite [The Dark Knight director] Christopher Nolan. He was one of our very first guests [with his no-budget debut Following]." Other friends of the festival include Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote/produced this year's opening film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

While the likes of Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have been among the most profitable films of all time, Jones believes it still takes festivals like his to remind the industry of the commercial viability of genre fare. "Horror films come out and make a fortune on small budgets, but the main studios still look down on them," he says. "We don't look down on them. And I think by us educating the studios, by really taking it seriously, they suddenly realise, 'This is what it's all about. We shouldn't be looking at these films as the poor relations any more."

The irony is, the so-called A-list festivals are now catching on. This year, Cannes saw Nicolas Winding Refn win Best Director for the ultra-stylish getaway thriller Drive, following last year's inclusion of Takeshi Kitano's bloody Outrage. Venice, meanwhile, saw Robert Rodriguez's Machete jointly open last year's festival, while also dedicating one day to Hong Kong-turned-Hollywood-action director John Woo. This September, it will see Steven Soderbergh's pandemic thriller Contagion play out of competition. "I think they're acknowledging that there is a commercial market for some of these films," says League.

Even Robert Redford's US indie festival Sundance has "got a lot bloodier" over the past few years. League recalls being at the screening of Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me. "There was outrage from the audience that this was not what Sundance is, this is a bastardisation of what we're trying to do." This year was no better, with the inclusion of the American director Lucky McKee's savage The Woman, a film so incendiary in some people's eyes it caused one incensed viewer to lambast the film-maker in the aftermath of the screening. With his film also playing in Fantasia and FrightFest, McKee's reception is rather different here.

According to Davis, Fantasia and its fellow genre festivals are more geared towards directors like McKee, who – despite this being his fifth film – defiantly hover on the fringes. "To come here and see Lucky McKee be treated like Mick Jagger, that's exciting. Usually, you talk to a person who loves movies and bring up a guy like Lucky McKee and they won't know who he is. So here it's common knowledge – there's something very exciting about that. You're loving these movies that very few people are aware of, or are passionate about."

It's why you'll see lines of people round the block, hours before the films start, talking to strangers. "So many friendships have grown up through us," says Jones. "We've always called it a FrightFest community." Even celebrities have been known to gorge on genre. Go to FrightFest this year, and you might see illusionist Derren Brown. "Everyone's surprised to see him, but he's a horror fan," says Jones. "He came to our very first one. He's been with us for 12 years."

Back at The FP screening, the audience roars its approval throughout, with one group to my right later telling co-director/star Jason Trost how the film changed their lives. It's a far cry from what Davis calls the "blaséness" that modern audiences fed on a diet of Hollywood product show. "I feel our audience are generally happy to be here," he says. "They're really excited about the possibility of sharing in a group discovery, experiencing something really fantastic and new, with a huge group of like-minded strangers." Time to dig out your fake blood and get booking.

FrightFest ( www.frightfest.co.uk) runs from 25 to 29 August

Screen Screams: The best of Fright Fest

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Lucky McKee's controversial effort about the attempts of a US family to civilise a feral female caused uproar at Sundance.

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