“I was a horror fan before I’d even seen a horror film,” says Paul Cotgrove, director of the Horror-on-Sea film festival, which takes place every January in Southend-on-Sea, an English seaside town about 40 miles outside London.
Paul’s lifelong love for screen monsters of all shapes and sizes makes him a perfect fit to deliver Southend’s annual celebration of blood-splattered cinema. “I’ve been a film fanatic since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” continues the 58-year-old, resplendent today in grey flattop and jeans with the biggest turn-ups I’ve ever seen. “My love of horror goes back to the 1960s, when a magazine used to come out called Famous Monsters Of Filmland. I used to beg my mum – or anyone – to let me have a copy.
“They were half-a-crown each, which was a lot of money in them days, and I’d sit there for hours studying pictures of Boris Karloff. I hadn’t seen the films.”
Small budget, big ideas
Paul’s story is a similar one to that of horror fans the world over, the only difference being he’s since channelled his life-long obsession into an actual dream job. And his timing could hardly be better because horror seems to be very much back in vogue these days. On the day we meet, Jordan Peele’s brilliant Get Out has been voted the year’s best movie by Sight & Sound magazine, while the latest adaptation of the Stephen King novel, It, was one of 2017’s biggest non-superhero films at the box office.
Horror-on-Sea exists in a world in which the humble chiller seems to have staged something of a high-profile comeback. The festival returns next month for a sixth instalment, boasting 30 feature films and 65 shorts, spread over two consecutive weekends. This year’s movies include Empire Of The Sharks, Islamic Exorcist, and the wonderfully titled Pazucus: Island Of Vomit And Despair.
In other words, if you were hoping to see blockbusters or superstar actors and directors, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because Horror-on-Sea does things a little differently. Growing out of the long-established Southend Film Festival (celebrating its first decade in 2018), this is very much an event for up-and-coming filmmakers on small budgets with big ideas.
“We realised that all the other festivals in the country – and there’s quite a lot – were mainly interested in getting all the big, new films coming out, and getting the big stars to the festival,” says Paul. “But no one was really helping the people on the way up – the grindhouse, low-budget horror makers. So, that was it, we decided to do a horror festival based around helping those people.”
Paul’s wealth of movie industry experience – which includes work for Disney, as well as directing Green Fingers, his own horror short in 2000 – meant he had a book full of contacts and no problem putting together 2013’s inaugural festival programme. Since then, the event has grown every year, in terms of both bums on seats and the number of submissions he receives for those precious but limited feature film slots.
“This year the programming just went through the roof and I was turning away really good films, which was a hard decision to make,” says Paul. “We run it over two weekends because we get so many entries – we can show 30 features, basically, and we had 150 to choose from.
“I tend to watch a lot of the features we’re sent myself, over a period-of-time, which is quite hard because they do blur into one in the end. Submissions are already coming in for next year (2019) – I’m not looking at them yet.
“Something else unique about Horror-on-Sea is that we don’t charge an application fee. I’m not saying it can carry on forever, but I’ve done my best. There’s a lot of nasty festivals out there that have been set up just to take submission fees off filmmakers. I hear this all the time – but we’re a bit more rock’n’roll than that.”
It would be tempting to compare Southend to Stepford, Royston Vasey, or some other fictional repository of weirdness, but, frankly, the place is far from remarkable. A conservative town, with an ageing population, it’s an unusual setting for a horror festival, but Paul insists he’s had little trouble attracting guests and punters from far and wide.
“More people come from outside than locally – they come from all over,” he explains. “I’ve got people coming from France, from Canada. We’re showing a film called Islamic Exorcist – it’s pretty-damn creepy and has done really well at festivals all around the world. I thought there’s no way the director (Faisal Saif) is going to come all the way from India, so I’ll put it on at 10 o’clock on the first Friday morning (January 19). Turns out, both the director and his lead actress (Nirab Hossain) are coming over to introduce the film, and have booked in for the entire festival.”
In 2018, for the first time, the festival will be re-screening a favourite from a previous year. The Snarling, a knockabout comedy-horror, that takes place on the set of a zombie movie, will be released on DVD on both sides of the Atlantic in 2018, and is celebrating the fact at Horror-on-Sea. The film is the brainchild of writer/director Pablo Raybould. He was inspired to make The Snarling when, as an actor, he’d attended the festival to introduce another film he’d appeared in.
“Horror-on-Sea is something we really look forward to each year now,” he tells me. “It has a fantastic vibe and friendliness. Filmmakers from around the world are given a chance and encouraged, whether they’ve made features, shorts, animation or any genre, and one can make so many contacts and friends.
“Having attended many other festivals, this is THE best by far and it is down to the organisers. This is driven by the passion for film and not simply by the money that can be made – like a few others out there.”
Tongue in cheek
The Snarling is the perfect poster child for Horror-on-Sea – it’s low budget, rough around the edges, and taps into a vein of banter-packed blokey Brit horror exemplified by the likes of Shaun Of The Dead. Indeed, Paul has very specific ideas about what his audience is after… and what it certainly isn’t.
“This sort of torture porn genre, which I’m not a great fan of at the best of times, some of the stuff that has been sent in is so extreme that it doesn’t fit in with Horror-on-Sea,” he says. “It needs to be a bit tongue in cheek – a lot of boobs, a lot of blood – but when it comes to relentless, gratuitous violence and torture, it isn’t for us. Some of the films we show are a bit extreme but we’ve been careful. You need to be able to laugh at it.
“We want to entertain the audience and get them to come back the following year. I love all types of film – I can sit through arthouse and experimental – but it’s not for everyone, so if a film’s too experimental or arthouse, it doesn’t stand a chance. It does break my heart – I had some very worthy films sent in this year, almost at David Lynch’s level, and I had to turn them away. They kind of don’t fit.”
Inevitably, we get around to the subject of favourite horror films, Paul quickly settling on the late George A. Romero’s “ground-breaking” and “creepy” Night Of The Living Dead, from 1968, as his #1 choice. As a scrappy newbie filmmaker Romero had to scrape together the money to finance Night, which had an original budget of just $6,000, before further investors were found. Perhaps the next Romero has a movie showing at Horror-on-Sea, a festival of which the great man would surely approve.
Paul’s top five Horror-on-Sea 2018 picks…
The Snarling: “A top-notch horror comedy. The inspiration to make this film came from actor/director Pablo Raybould after visiting Horror-on-Sea back in 2013.”
Mask of Thorn: “We have had a film made by MJ Dixon in every Horror-on-Sea since the beginning, and his work just gets better and better. This is the prequel to Thorn’s first outing, Legacy of Thorn.”
Pumpkins: “A wonderful homage to 1980s teen horror movies from Maria Lee Metheringham, starring actress Dani Thompson.”
No Solicitors: “A real crowd pleaser, with a wonderful, over-the-top performance from Eric Roberts. It’s about a family that kidnaps people, so they can sell their vital organs and eat what is left over.”
The Redeeming: “A very well executed psycho thriller. We screened a very good short film by the writer/director Brian Barnes at the first ever Horror-on-Sea, and now we are proud to have his first feature-length film.”
Horror-on-Sea takes place over consecutive weekends (January 19-21 and 26-28) in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, UK. Visit the festival’s website – horror-on-sea.com – for full programme details, plus ticket and hotel information.
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