Filmmaker, Variety critic and expert on all things genre, Richard Kuipers is a steadfast advocate for the offbeat in movies.
“If I'm evangelical about anything, it's weird movies,” he told SBS.
Part of the reason, he says, he took on the task of programming this year's Freak Me Out sidebar at the Sydney Film Festival was because he saw it as the opportunity to practice what is a traditional role of film festivals: 'seeding' a potential new audience for cinema that they would perhaps overlook or dismiss out of hand.
He deliberately designed Freak Me Out's program to offer a cross section of genre movies in terms of tone, style and approach, but they all had to have the one thing in common: a sometimes hard to define strangeness, a 'what the f**k?' quirk. All genre fans know this feeling well and aficionados like Kuipers seek it out. It's that moment in the cinema where we have to ask the scary question: What warped, twisted humanity came up with this?
“I wanted everything from the pure sleaze of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Hobo with a Shotgun to high art cinema like End of Animal from Korea, to the classy Hitchcockian-type thriller of Corridor, from Sweden.”
Kuipers says he drew inspiration and encouragement from last year's Hawaiian Film Festival, where he first saw Mutant Girls Squad from Japan, one of the highlights of his program. “Half the crowd in Hawaii were def-metal die-hard fans and the other half were this 'straight' traditional film fest audience and it went off – by the end they were hooting and cheering.” He says the whole point of Freak Me Out is to encourage the different kinds of audiences to 'test' themselves: “I want to see the gore hounds checking out End of Animal and the high-brow crowd at Mutant.”
Kuipers modestly makes the point that it was festival director Clare Stewart's idea to have the Freak Me Out sidebar in the first place, though, he adds, the trouble is, Stewart doesn't quite have the stomach to travel this often gruesome cinematic by-road. “The fact is, she has trouble sitting through this stuff and she told me she really wanted this kind of cinema and in me she found a lunatic who was willing to program it!”
Kuipers' selection was based on recognising the fact that there's a lot of genre cinema out there – splatter comedy, vampire, stalker horror, etc – but he was looking for startling variations or imaginative twists on the conventions. “I love mindless violence as much as anyone but one of the reasons, say, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (pictured) made the cut was because there was something else going on in it than your traditional slasher movie, and that became one of the rules.”
Made in Canada and directed by Eli Craig, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil supplies buckets of blood and deploys a wood chipper to gory effect but it is also, says Kuipers, part genre satire, part social critique. Taking its plot cues from Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, it is, he explains, “a reversal of all those '80s slasher films. I love its premise: new age sensitive hillbillies being terrorised by horrible uni students!” You could argue, he adds, that the film is something of an allegory for Canadian-US cultural relations. “People being chased through the woods is my least favourite kind of horror films, but this is very sly.”
Genre cinema is everywhere now, says Kuipers. Once upon a time, say 30 years ago, it was hard to see pictures like this and fans had to rely on each other swapping third generation video cassettes. But in the new age of digital technology the fanbase has grown and so have the standards. As a rule, the movies are better made, and loving a movie just because it's bad seems no longer cool.
“I think filmmakers are working harder to vary the formula,” says Kuipers. Perhaps the biggest thing to have changed over the last two generations is the respect film festivals and critics have accorded a strand of genre filmmaking that was openly and often derided as irrelevant.
“I think there is one person responsible for changing the way audiences and critics felt about these movies and that's Quentin Tarantino,” says Kuipers. Not only has every country spawned a 'QT wannabe' he says, but a lot of film production companies have set up exploitation/genre divisions to make Tarantino-inspired work, like Japan's distinguished Nikkatsu corporation. Their 'cult film' division, Sushi Typhoon, produced Mutant Girls Squad.
“There's always been champions of these kinds of movies, I mean Todd McCarthy's book King of the B's (about Roger Corman) was first published in 1975. But really where the reassessment starts is the '90s. If you look at the Leonard Maltin TV Movie Guide book, and check out the 1978 edition of that and you look at the exploitation flicks of Russ Meyer. they all get one star; if you look at it in 1998, they've all got three stars!”
There was, and still is, a lot of snobbery about genre cinema in critical circles, says Kuipers, “But when QT comes along and makes a fantastic, brilliant example of the kind of film that certain critics find a piece of trash, well, they have to stop and say hang on a minute… 'maybe there's more to this sort of cinema than I once thought'. Maybe those Russ Meyer films have great satire…”
More Freak Me Out Highlights with Richard Kuipers
Stake Land (USA)
“It's a really savage attack on Christian fundamentalists and neo-Cons. In the film, extreme Christian fundamentalists are actively supporting a 'plague' of vampires because they believe that God has sent them down and they're sacrificing the non-believers because they believe that God has told them to do it. Because it does relate very directly to the US political landscape at the moment it's got value. It's not every vampire film that wants to go that far and that's why Stake Land for me is worthy of a spot in this section – it's got great visceral thrills and a bite. It has a philosophy to it but one that doesn't get in the way. It's not preachy.”
Hobo With a Shot Gun (Canada)
“It's a perfect example of post-modern exploitation cinema. It's not a parody but it does have comedy elements. But it is in a film that is very mindful of '70s vigilante cinema like Charles Bronson at the top end – then there were at the lower end of the spectrum B movies that took the piss out of those pics. Now this film is taking the piss out of those films that took the piss out of Bronson!”
The Troll Hunter (Norway)
“A brilliant variation on 'the found footage' film with great and convincing special effects produced on a very low budget.”