The Knoxville Horror Film Festival returns for its eighth installment Oct. 21-23 at Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 and Scruffy City Hall. It’s the biggest KHFF yet, with 10 full-length features plus the usual program of short films—ranging from the gore-soaked to the spooky—and the results of the annual Grindhouse Grind-Out trailer contest. We talked to KHFF founders William Mahaffey and Nick Huinker about horror, Phantasm, and this year’s lineup. Visit knoxvillehorrorfest.com for a complete schedule and to purchase tickets ($15-$100).
KHFF obviously appeals to hardcore horror fans. What does it offer to people who aren’t necessarily horror movie junkies?
William Mahaffey: One thing I always consider in programming is the different tastes people have. I try to balance things out with a wide variety of shorts and features, so that if someone isn’t really that into horror, we still might have something that could appeal to them. For instance, Trash Fire is more of a drama, Fury of the Demon is a documentary, The Master Cleanse is a quirky dark comedy, and The Greasy Strangler is a gross-out comedy. All of them have elements of horror, but they definitely don’t fit under the textbook definition of horror.
Nick Huinker: I’m not personally a huge horror movie guy—I probably watch five or six a year that don’t directly relate to KHFF events. But even if I weren’t involved in the festival, I’d still be catching at least a few screenings each year because of the range we offer. I think working from a broad and inclusive definition of “horror” is, along with DIY, the most valuable principle we’ve brought to the fest. (I’d say the bigger concern would be a viewer’s threshold for extreme content, which is undeniably a throughline for many of the films we show.)
I’m also just a fan of genre film festivals. I’m beyond glad our city has thoughtfully programmed events like the Knoxville Film Festival and Public Cinema’s Big Ears offerings, but we do feel KHFF’s format goes a lot further for casual movie fans curious about the film-festival experience, because it’s easy for us to put a premium on what’s going to be thrilling and fun versus what’s going to be impressive or edifying.
Can you talk a little about horror? It’s been blamed over the years for everything from juvenile delinquency to violent crime. What do you see as its redeeming values?
Mahaffey: I think horror movies are unfairly regarded as valueless and not for adults. I feel that a lot of genre films have just as much to say with their themes and stories as the average Oscar contender does. To me, it’s silly to think that something has to be a serious drama for you to glean any life lessons from it. Take Phantasm, for instance; it’s all about coming to terms with death, and how encountering that affects children. Films like The Fly are meditations on how our bodies are slowly dying, and how going through that affects the people that we love. Why can’t we learn something and be entertained, shocked and scared at the same time? Maybe hiding deep messages within a film designed to entertain might resonate and stick with people more.
Huinker: I’m personally drawn to genre films because the best of them embed serious ideas in an accessible and entertaining frame, and horror is arguably the most vital of the genres because of how it draws directly and viscerally on whatever anxieties are inherent in the concept. And the most artistically successful horror films of the past few years—The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook—offer pretty strong evidence of that.
The Phantasm movies have an incredibly passionate cult following, so it seems like having both the restoration and the new one is a big deal.
Mahaffey: This is a huge deal for the festival, and for Nick and me personally. The Phantasm films are what really got me into horror. Nick and I first watched these together way back in high school, in the early days of our friendship, which really ties into why these films work. As I said, it’s one of the few horror franchises that focuses on character, and I think that’s why the cult of “Phans” around these films are so loyal. Yes, there’s crazy action and gore, but we keep coming back because the characters feel like real people and really feel like they care about each other. The original feels like you’re just watching a bunch of friends playing together—their acting is a bit amateurish but feels real.
They may not all be perfect works of art, but there’s always imagination and creativity on display, and despite never having the funds to truly match Don Coscarelli’s vision, they didn’t let that stop them from shooting for the moon.
Huinker: As William said, this one’s got personal importance to us. We’d talked for years about booking the original Phantasm as a flashback screening, especially after scoring an advance screening of Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End for our 2012 festival. So we were pretty thrilled when they announced a restoration would be released along with the new one, and there’s no denying this year’s lineup really came together when we got the go-ahead on those.
There’s just really not another horror film like Phantasm. It’s got so many ideas, both visually and in its mythology, and doesn’t let practical or budgetary limitations get in their way. It’s also impressionistic and intriguing in a way its other franchise-launching contemporaries aren’t, and though its sequels are admittedly a mixed bag, there’s a continuity on the creative side that says a lot about what the series means to its creators as well as its fans.
What about short films—what can we expect?
Mahaffey: We’ve got some twisted body horror with “When Susurrus Stirs,” quick and hilarious gems like “The Procedure,” gory stop-motion with “Postman Pat’s Pet Sematary,” and some straightforward terror with “Cauchemar Capitonne.” That’s really just skimming the surface, though—there is a lot to offer this year. We’ve always been proud of the diversity of the shorts program and this year we have some amazing French, Danish, Norwegian, Belgian, and Turkish films to share. Many people probably aren’t as interested in the shorts, but we really hope people check them out, as they are often the highlights of the weekend.
Huinker: We’ve had to tighten up our short film slate this year to make room for our features (10 in 2016, versus seven last year). But that just made everything that much more competitive. We’ll always see the short films as the real hidden value of the festival. Issues like availability, public profile, and screening fees factor into our feature-film programming, but with the shorts there’s basically one question: Is at least someone in the audience going to love this film? And that’s paid off. When we ask people what their favorite film of the festival was, more often than not it’s a short film they’d never heard of three days earlier.
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