Not only is Simeon Halligan the director behind 2010’s Splintered and the forthcoming White Settlers but he’s also one of the main masterminds behind Grimmfest. This year Grimmfest has teamed up with the BFI to present a season of gothic films in some of the English north-west’s most atmospheric buildings. Recently he kindly took some time out to talk to RJ Bayley about the project.
Simeon, how did this partnership with BFI come about?
The BFI approached us to see if we wanted to run some screenings of gothic films where we are based, in the north. We decided to break it down into four screenings, as BFI had four sub-headings for their season. We broke it into zombies, vampires, monsters and ghosts. We’ve already done the vampires and zombies screening, and the ghost one is screening The Innocents and The Others at Ordsall Hall on the 13th of December. The monsters one is screening on the 10th of January at John Rylands.
These four topics, were they ones that BFI had picked? Or were they doing four, so you picked four as well and decided on the topics yourself?
Their sub-headings, ‘Love is a Devil’, ‘Haunted’, ‘The Dark Arts’, ‘Monstrous’, we took those and kind of twisted them and found films that we thought would fit those headings. It also seemed to make sense to break our screenings down into different subjects, different monsters I guess. We’d love to show more; we were looking at doing Phantom of the Opera at the Manchester Opera House, things like that. Maybe The Mummy at Manchester Museum, which has a very big Egyptian section, that would be fantastic, but they’re all up for grabs if we do it next year.
Out of the ones you have done and are doing, do you have any favourites yourself? What were the reasons for choosing these particular movies?
The BFI sent us a list of movies they were looking at putting on as part of their season, movies that they considered part of their overall world of gothic, films that they identified as ‘worthy’. Quite a few of those are ones they’re releasing as films over this season; others they are releasing on blu-ray and DVD. We used that as a basis and looked at ones we thought we could play, and also ones we thought we could get hold of, as they’re not all easy to acquire in high quality formats. Beyond that it was a matter of thinking what people would like. Personally The Innocents is a film I’m really looking forward to seeing as I haven’t seen it for years and I’m particularly keen on supernatural horror. The zombie night went very well, and the zombie stuff generally does. We screened Day of the Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters, which are less obviously in the gothic tradition but they did have a resonance with the whole gothic season and are identified by the BFI as films included in their list. They played really well and it was a great night. Then we did a vampire night; we decided to screen Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the original 1922 Nosferatu. For that one we wanted to go for films that were at two ends of the spectrum – one an early silent movie and one that’s much more contemporary. Bram Stoker’s Dracula sticks much more closely to the content of the original book, especially in terms of structure compared to earlier films, so that’s why we screened that one. In terms of the John Rylands screening we chose two movies that we really like, though we’re not sure how popular they’re gonna be. La Belle Et La Bette is arguably not even a horror movie. It’s French, it’s in black and white, but it’s a fantastically atmospheric movie with some beautiful surreal moments in it and its design is fantastic. That’s playing next to Bride of Frankenstein, which a lot more people would have seen, and is considered by many to be the best of that series of (Universal) movies. We felt it was the perfect movie to screen in John Rylands. The former is a little obscure but we try and put some things on that are a little bit different. We’re hoping a lot of our fanbase will come along, even though it might not be something that they’ve seen. We’ll see how it plays.
Has it been mainly your fanbase or have you been attracting lots of new people?
It’s a mixture. Obviously Ordsall Hall is coming up, and by the looks of ticket sales it appears to be a real mixture on that one in terms of our regular fanbase and new people. I guess it’s a slightly different thing for us, putting films on at different venues, and a lot of the films we’re putting on are so-called “classic” films. We often, at Grimmfest, screen contemporary movies or yet to be released movies, as well as the odd classic. It’s a new thing for us and it seems to be attracting a new audience.
Well that’s a good sign. Can you describe how it’s all going to work?
At Ordsall Hall doors open at half past six, film starts at seven and they’ll screen back to back with a small interval. There’s an opportunity for people to come into the building to explore the hall and try to spot the white lady, a ghost that’s supposed to haunt Ordsall Hall, and we’re going to have some people dressed up as period characters, performing various spooky activities. There should be a bit of fun before we screen the movies!
Is that something that will take place at the Monstrous one too, or has that not quite been planned yet?
The Monstrous one will be something similar, but we’re just in the process of planning what we are going to do. We’re certainly going to give people the opportunity to explore the building as it’s an amazing building. We may well have some surprises in store for people.
The gothic library, for me, brings to mind the likes of HP Lovecraft. What was your thinking with going with the library? Was it purely because the building is amazing, or is there a different connection you’re trying to evoke between literature and monsters?
Let’s be honest, first and foremost; it’s because it’s an amazing building, and it feels like the perfect place to show classic horror movies. There were only so many venues around the north-west, particularly in Manchester, that we’re big enough, able to, or wanting to host this kind of event. This happened to be one that was very keen, so that was our first reason to go there. We just thought, “This would be a really cool place to put on movies!” I guess there is that sense of the literary connection, and something like HP Lovecraft would be amazing. Maybe we’ll do that if we do more screenings around John Rylands. One of the reasons we didn’t do Lovecraft is because we’ve screened a lot of Lovecraft stuff over the last year or so. I guess we could have done one of the Frankenstein and one of the Dracula movies and gone for the Mary Shelley/Bram Stoker connection. But most of the films we picked, especially La Belle Et La Bette, do feel like literary-inspired movies.
Out of the the ones that are still to come, which would be the one for people to go and see?
That’s a horrible question! I can’t really answer that because they’re two different events, and both really worth attending. Both events will have a really different atmosphere. Both movies at Ordsall Hall, I think, are really scary, and that night will be really exciting and fun. John Rylands will be a different affair; as far as I’m concerned neither of those films are scary by contemporary standards, but they are beautiful to look at and will reflect the beauty of the building, so they’ll have a real gothic sensibility. One will be celebrating the gothic in terms of its visual quality (at John Rylands) whereas at Ordsall Hall it’s about emotion and atmosphere. Hopefully we’ll get a few people jumping out of their seats during the night. Personally, my favourite is The Innocents, but I also think Bride of Frankenstein is going to be amazing. John Rylands has plenty of tickets left and they’re actually free for that event. We’re close to selling out for Ordsall Hall, but if people want to come and try their luck on the door they’re welcome to.
Can you tell me a bit about Grimmfest, outside of these BFI screenings?
Grimmfest is the north-west’s horror and fantasy genre film festival. It’s been running since 2009 and has very quickly grown to become a pretty big annual event. It runs the first weekend of October in Manchester, and we primarily screen movie premieres and the odd genre classic. It’s mainly horror, but we tend to screen some sci-fi movies and crossover films. We also now run regular screenings throughout the year in Manchester. We work with most of the UK distributors to promote their releases. We will screen a combination of brand new movies, movies you can’t get to see at mainstream cinemas and some that haven’t been released yet. Often we’ll work with people to put on remastered releases of genre classics.
What was your inspiration behind starting it?
Myself and my partner, Rachel, are filmmakers. I’m a director, she’s a producer, and we had a film called Splintered which hadn’t had a premiere in our own town, and we decided it deserved one. We thought we should show it on Halloween, and we spoke to Steve Balshaw, who ran the Salford film festival, and we decided to make a night of it, a Halloween night of movies. Somehow this expanded, and the more we talked to people about it the more people started to show interested. They started saying, “Oh you’re doing a festival, fantastic! Can we have our movie in your festival?” We said, “No, no, we’re not doing a festival, we’re just doing a screening. We’re just doing a screening.” People seemed to be willing us to do a festival whether we liked it or not. By the time Halloween came round we’d screened 25 feature films in that year. That was the birth of Grimm, and after we completed the first one, which was horrendously stressful, I have to say, I remember saying to Steve, “I’m never, ever doing that again.” The morning after the festival, following a night of drinking, I rang him and said, “Right, what are we going to do next year, then?” It’s expanded since then. As Rachel will always say: it grew out of shameful self-promotion!
Thanks very much for chatting to This Is Horror about Grimmfest and BFI’s gothic screenings.
Been a pleasure.
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