Steven Sheil is a horror film writer/director from Nottingham. His first feature Mum & Dad was released by Revolver in 2008. His second feature Dead Mine, will be released by eOne later in the year. He is also one of the co-directors of Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival.
What was it that first attracted you to horror?
The first horror film that I really remember watching was probably John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was on VHS, one of the first films my dad bought when we first got a video recorder. I don’t know why he bought it – he’s not a big fan of horror at all – but I remember watching it loads of times with my brother. It must have been the early 80s, just prior to the whole Video Nasties era. The VCR was a great thing – our first one was a great lumbering monolith, the Ferguson Videostar, and the fact that I can still remember what it was called pays testament to how many times I sat in front of it, pressing down the top-loading tape bay and crunching down the big piano keys on the front to start playing. I watched a ton of stuff from then on – Poltergeist, Evil Dead, The Exterminator – some of them on dodgy copies that my Dad managed to get from friends at work. I think that whole experience of watching those films on VHS – in 4:3, with the tape occasionally rolling over or crackling or even twisting up and clogging up the guts of the machine – gave those films a real added sheen of illicitness which obviously made them even more attractive and effective.
The climax of Halloween, where Jamie Lee Curtis battled Michael Myers, was the sequence we must have watched more than any other. Michael sitting up behind her when she thinks she’s killed him was a great, chilling moment. I loved the way that the film could affect you on a real physical level – twisting your guts like that, sending your mind racing – and I guess that’s what‘s always attracted me to making horror – that power to affect the audience so viscerally.
That’s hard to say. I think on one level I’m most proud of still being around and making films. I’m only a few films into my career and hope to keep going and make a lot more, but every single time it’s a huge battle to get things done and get the next project off the ground. It takes a lot of stamina and resilience to keep going in this industry, especially when you’re working at the lower-budget end of things. You have to keep picking yourself up and pushing forward even when you feel exhausted, drained, fed-up, pessimistic and fearful for the future. You can’t ever take anything for granted and there’s no real safety net, so just being able to keep going feels like an achievement in itself.
If you’re asking about specifics, I think hearing whole audiences react in shock or fear or disgust at moments in my films is what makes it worthwhile – eliciting that same reaction that I love getting from watching horror – when it hits you in the pit of the gut and the back of your mind.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a film for HBO Asia, produced through an Indonesian/Singaporean company called Infinite Studios. It’s called Dead Mine and it’s a story about an expedition to find treasure hidden by the Japanese army in WWII. The treasure-seekers get trapped in a former colonial mine on a remote Indonesian island, repurposed to serve as a bunker for the Japanese, where they must face the mutated results of the Imperial Army’s human experimentation tests. It’s a dark pulp adventure story.
I’ve also co-written a film called Gozo, directed by Miranda Bowen, which is a psychological portrait of a couple imploding as they face up to the buried horrors of their past. That’s in post-production at the moment and should hopefully be finished later in the year.
Currently I’m working on a couple of new scripts and about to begin work on a section of a British portmanteau horror.
I admire anyone who manages to keep going and making films in the genre. I like Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and guys like Larry Cohen, especially for his 70s and 80s films, people who always have a little bit of something crazy in their films.
Do you prefer gore or psychological horror?
Each has its place. I think you’ve got to look at what works for the story. I think with gore you can either go full-on splatter mode – and make the film more like a live-action cartoon, removing it another step from reality, which gives the audience a lot more licence for release – they can (and often do) laugh at the absurdity and over-the-top nature of it – or you can make the audience really feel it, in which case you can get away with showing a lot less, but at the same time maybe getting inside their heads a little bit more. They’re just two different approaches and both are valid.
All horror should, to a greater or lesser extent, be psychological – it should get into the dark corners of your mind, and I like it when films do it well. It’s one of the things that interests me most about horror – the chance to explore other states of mind, and to take audiences on that journey inside the heads of characters who might have disturbed, twisted or perverted world-views.
How important is it to unsettle a viewer?
I think it’s important for horror to affect the viewer and I don’t have a problem with making an audience feel unsettled. With my first feature Mum & Dad, one of the aims was to make the audience feel a bit grubby after watching it, like they’d seen things that they may not have wanted to. I think it’s a real danger for horror to get too comfortable, for an audience to respond to an effect – a jump, a scare – but not carry anything more with them from the experience. Horror is a great way to explore big questions – the biggest of all being ‘why do people hurt one another?’ The psychology of what makes someone into a killer – whether they be a human, ghost, vampire, monster or gill-creature – is something that is incredibly rich territory for a horror writer, and I think that taking an audience to those places is a really worthwhile – if not necessarily wholly enjoyable – experience.
I think that if you can make an audience feel what the characters are experiencing, then you can scare them more deeply than if you just have a flock of bats swarm out of a dark tunnel or a cat jump out of a closet. If you can create an atmosphere where the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and has a vested emotional interest in your character(s), then you can really affect them. Audiences go into films wanting to be told a story, wanting to go on a journey, wanting to stay within the world of the film and be affected by it. I think you have to make sure that the audience stays with you – don’t make your characters take decisions that have no basis in a comprehensible psychology i.e. just because the plot needs them to.
What scares you?
Why should people watch your films?
I don’t know – maybe they shouldn’t… I remember a screening of Mum & Dad in my hometown of Nottingham where I met a guy on the stairs who was leaving halfway through and he was really angry – looked at me like he wanted to punch me and said ‘What the hell’s going on inside your head?’ then stormed off. So I guess that film at least isn’t for everybody… I just try to make the type of horror films that I’d like to see. I help to run a horror film festival – Mayhem in Nottingham – and I talk to a lot of the audiences that we get in, and I feel like I’m there for the same reason they are – we’re all horror film fans.
I don’t think there are any absolute taboos – it’s all to do with treatment. Every film presents a world-view – sometimes it’s a singular world-view, sometimes it’s been assembled by committee – and audiences open themselves up to these world-views every time they watch a film. An audience can watch, and stick with, the most extreme of situations if they feel like it’s offering something to them beyond just shock effect, if they feel there’s a point to the journey, or that they are being given a glimpse into a world-view which, however shocking and perverse, might be interesting. Horror cinema explores violence and madness, often with a more forensic gaze than mainstream cinema. Horror cinema at its best asks the audience to think about the source and nature of the violence onscreen in a way that big-budget action blockbusters, for example, never do. Hundreds or thousands of people get killed in these films purely for effect, or, when it’s the bad guys, for the sake of a quip. I’ve seen big-budget blockbusters that are far more offensive to me in their world-view, in their treatment of humanity, than even the most extreme of horror cinema.
How do you think horror cinema will evolve in the next ten years?
I think that the definition of what is ‘horror cinema’ will continue to expand, at least for horror audiences. I know many people who don’t watch horror often have a very narrow view of what actual horror audiences watch, whereas in my experience a horror crowd will watch a vast number of films across a whole spectrum of horror, from full-on splatter-fests to quiet and understated ghost stories, from high Gothic romps to lo-fi camcorder found footage films. Horror tropes – the group of teens going into the woods, the masked killer, the zombie – have been so deconstructed, debated and satirised within horror cinema itself, that I think new modes of story will have to present themselves and the definition of what a horror film actually is, will change and evolve.
Recommend a film.
God Told Me To by Larry Cohen. Great, crazed low-budget entertainment.
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