Splash image: promotional still of Caitlyn Folley in sx_tape

Finding Hope in the Horror: An Interview with Director Bernard Rose of ‘sx_tape’

Fresh off of last year's divisive sx_tape and with the classic Candyman to his credit, director Bernard Rose talks horror's past and present, as well as his own forthcoming take on Frankenstein.

As we begin the long trek through another year, 2015 finds Bernard Rose currently in post-production on Frankenstein. More than 80 years ago another English director — James Whale known as “The Father of Frankenstein” — created a cinematic imagining of Mary Shelley’s famous Gothic novel. Following in the footsteps of Whale, Rose’s Frankenstein will offer a modern day interpretation of this classic story, and in keeping with horror’s obsession with life after death, Shelley has afforded the horror genre an enduring protagonist through which to play out tales bound in our greatest fears and obsessions.

Rose’s own creative and artistic works as a filmmaker, contemplating specifically his adaptations of Tolstoy. speak of the bloodlines that run through cinema and it’s intertwinement with literature of which film is inevitably an offshoot. His upcoming project Frankenstein only serves to emphasis this point with further clarity.

In conversation with PopMatters, Rose discussed the enduring appeal of the horror genre, the narrative experiments of sx_tape, the “found footage” genre as a whole, and the technological evolution of the audience’s relationship to film. He also reflected on 9/11’s impact on the definition of what we perceive as frightening, as well as reflecting on classic horror films The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Changeling to explain his own affection and interest in the genre as well as to posit the reason why horror endures on a spectatorial level.

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Why does the horror genre have an enduring appeal for you?

I have always liked the horror genre because for me it is like a debased genre; it’s one step above pornography. Actually it is a very pure cinematic genre with its feet in the gutter in that 99% of horror films are not great, but the one percent or less than the one percent are some of the best movies ever made; the obvious films such as The Shining, The Exorcist, and The Tenant. Some of the greatest and most cinematic movies ever made fall into that category, and I think one of the things that is interesting about horror is that like comedy a lot is expected of it from an audience. If a horror film is not frightening then it is a limp and useless object. So it’s actually a great challenge to make a horror film because it has to function. You can’t say, “Well you know I intended…” Bollocks! Show me. Scare me. Of course scaring people nowadays is not easy.

“Found footage” is by now an established sub-genre, although there are feelings that it is at the end of its lifespan. But talking about the challenges that horror presents, sx_tape must have been a tantalizing project to tackle.

Well it’s a narrative experiment in as much as that when you set yourself a limitation such as there is going to be no editing, and each shot is going to lead into the next one and be in its own time zone means that every single cut is a jump cut. There’s no continuity of any kind, and so you don’t know if the time between shots is 20 seconds or five years. At the end of the film it is years. It’s a very interesting kind of language to try and establish, and people are obviously familiar with this now because they all have cameras in their telephones. Everybody is now seeing what footage used to look like when you had the roll of film, and the shots would follow one another. This is something only filmmakers used to see and this footage always had an interesting logic that was separate from edited cinema.

Ironically of course it made the film [sx_tape] very difficult to cut because of the limitations of the script, and it is one thing to do that, but it is another thing to do that while maintaining suspense and making 82 minutes gripping. But for me personally it was an interesting narrative and technical challenge, plus the whole thing of the first person approach is interesting. I argue that “found footage” is a much older genre than anyone realizes that dates back to Cannibal Holocaust, and even Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a feel of “found footage” because it is gritty in that same way.

The reality changes for an audience all of the time and wherever that reality lies is where horror will be. Ironically it is also where pornography will be too because it has the same requirements to feel real to the audience, and I think that’s why it also went in that direction. Those two things are not unconnected.

And television in its own bizarre way said we are going to have reality, but it is going to be a glamorous reality. Television has an obligation to glamor because of advertising, and it is always at the cutting edge with commercials. So television content is less glamorous than the commercials, but everyone always forgets that television is a branch of advertising, and so it has its own version of reality that horror is of course not obliged to follow.

When directing a horror film, how important is it to embrace the audience’s expectations and use these against them in order to have the desired response?

Constantly with a horror film you are playing a game with the audience. They are expecting you to scare them and so it is a game of cat and mouse. Am I going to scare you now? Is it a full scare; is this going to give you a shiver or is this going to make you jump? There are lots of kinds of tricks. You’ve got the basic simple jump, and it’s amazing how often filmmakers don’t know how to achieve it. It is harder than you think. Why horror has a lot in common with comedy is that if you want to make people laugh then there are certain things that you have to do, and it’s the same if you want to frighten people. They are not to do with dismemberment, rather they are to do with pacing, geography more than they are to do with anything else.

Looking back to Candyman for a moment, if you’d made that now would it work as a “found footage” film?

Oh, I think it would absolutely work as a found footage film. It’s about this graduate student who goes into the projects and who would have every reason to take her camera with her, and you’d have all the CCTV on the balconies. You could make a film in London without ever getting a camera out if you had access to all the cameras on the street; there are so many.

There is an intriguing action within horror whereby you transition from a fear of the isolation of the empty space to a fear of the diminishing void as the protagonist’s become aware of an ominous presence. It seems that the protagonists of the horror genre are forever caught between the void and what ultimately comes to fill it.

Yeah, I think that’s true, and also one of the things that you are always up against with a horror film is that once you show the monster as it were, then it is a diminishing return. Once revealed they either have to kill more people or they become the hero in which this weird transposition happens, where they are not the antagonist anymore and you start to actually sympathize with them.

In the case of Candyman it is certainly true in a weird kind of way. Tony [Todd] doesn’t come on until half way through the film, but once he does come on he sort of takes over the movie, and while you might be scared of him you also like him. It is this strange thing that happens with horror. The reason why The Exorcist always fascinated me was because of the way in which it solves this problem in a very unique way through the victim and the perpetrator living in the same body and fighting for control. So I think that is what is always interesting about stories that deal with possession in a fairly oblique way, because the protagonists and the villains are the same person.

Is it the intention of “found footage” to take away the safety net that exists between the film and the audience?

It is about the suspension of disbelief. The action movie has turned into an animated film where the characters are stuck in via green screen. It has its own particular charm, but it definitely removes the element of danger because it is all so fantastical and impossible, and so you don’t feel any sense of risk for anyone whereas in a film like Paranormal Activity you do. Even if you are aware that it’s being manufactured you feel frightened because you believe it. So it’s about the suspension of disbelief, which after all is the fundamental building block of drama.

This might be a bad example and I don’t mean to attack anybody, but I remember thinking years ago when Oliver Stone made World Trade Center, and Nicholas Cage who was trapped was so beautifully lit that it was so obvious he was stuck in fullers earth on the set. You didn’t ever feel the claustrophobia and panic that the story should have recounted on you because the technique was essentially too old fashioned.

That was interesting because it was 9/11 that changed what could be seen as frightening. When you see something so frightening and traumatic live on television, then the sound of the fear alters; it alters in anybody who saw that, and especially anybody who saw that live.

I still remember first seeing the news reports and struggling to believe what they were showing.

Yeah, like a movie. It was extraordinary and it was completely terrifying in that sense. It certainly changed for me what the standard of fear was when you look at something.

And as you have spoken about, we have become so much more conscious of the camera.

With reality TV and with everybody having a phone, we’ve seen things on television and YouTube that we hadn’t seen 15 years ago. We’ve seen things for real that are a kind of direct confrontation with horror. Even in the ’60s people saw the Vietnam War on television, but it was filtered through a news organization and edited. It wasn’t unedited and raw in the way that we see things now.

Every generation asks the question whether horror has set itself the challenge of where it goes next that it can’t surmount. Is it inevitable that horror will simply survive, and is the reason that it accesses our instinctive desires to experience fear?

It tells us a lot about what is happening in our society, and there have been studies about what the horror films show about their era, what The Night of the Living Dead says about the Vietnam War; what The Exorcist tells you about the ’70s and what The Shining tells you about the early ’80s. It is very interesting, and for me the key element in any horror film is the supernatural element, otherwise it is just a serial killer, torture porn, or police procedural film.

Silence of the Lambs is not a horror film as far as I am concerned, it’s a police film. It’s a good police film but it’s not a horror film because it doesn’t have that element of the supernatural, and I think it’s the supernatural that people find ugly and hopeful in horror films. The Exorcist is the best example of this in that I think in the end you are terrified by it and yet in a sense it is kind of uplifting in a weird way, because it’s like a sort of proof of the existence of deities, almost. I think that’s why people love the whole thing.

Discussing The Exorcist, it is a horror film that looks back to the beginning of German Expressionism, to Faust in particular and the combination of religion and horror.

I think there is some element of that and obviously there have been a lot of films that delve chronologically into the Catholic religion. But I think I would go further and if you look at a film like The Shining or The Changeling, neither film draws specifically on religious iconography. Rather they draw very much on the very strong concept of life after death in a nondenominational way, and I think that’s part of why those two films are enduringly powerful.


Splash image: promotional still of Caitlyn Folley in sx_tape