With Halloween around the corner, what could be more fitting than an interview with acclaimed film critic, writer and broadcaster Kim Newman? Kim, an expert on fantasy and horror cinema, writes for magazines such as Empire and Sight & Sound, published a series of novels for which he’s been awarded several literary prizes and has written non-fiction books on cinema history. I’m honoured that Kim took the time to answer 13 questions for this Halloween-themed interview.
How many films do you watch a week? What’s the longest period you’ve gone without watching a film?
I don’t have a set number, and it varies depending on circumstances. Obviously, if I’m at a film festival or if close to a deadline on my Empire column and chain-watching check discs, I watch more films in a concentrated time. Taking the last four weeks at random, I watched 19, 9, 12 and 14 films. Sometimes if the number dips, it might be because I’m watching a box set of a TV show which takes up time I might have spent on movies. I doubt if I’ve gone more than five days without watching a film in the last forty years … and the number of times I’ve done that is very low. Of course, much of this is down to having personal interests which are also part of the job I do.
What kind of films do you watch? We know you love horror and science fiction, but would you also choose to see films as Gone Girl and Fury in the cinema? Or indeed, how low would you go in terms of viewing?!
I did see Gone Girl in the cinema, having missed the press screenings. I’ve not seen Fury, and might have to miss it – more because I’m busy on other things than a lack of interest. As a critic, I get invited to most movies and sometimes sent to see things I might not have chosen to see. I don’t feel obliged to watch everything – and there are many movies (ordinary rom-coms, kids’ CGI cartoon films, sport films, soccer violence pictures, films about rich people getting married or having babies, porn, even art films) I have little interest in seeing. But I would give most things a chance if I had to, and try to keep up with most branches of cinema. I’ve watched a lot of stuff some critics might feel was marginal – but there’s almost always something interesting about the most despised, or even the most ordinary films.
Your new novel An English Ghost Story came out this month. Can you tell me what it’s about?
It’s exactly as the title says. After a series of expansive, historical novels with big casts and huge themes, I wanted to try something more enclosed and character-driven. I like ghost stories, and wanted to play with all that the title implies, including the English part.
In the past you wrote plays, humour sketches and musicals which seems worlds away from your novels. Would you still be interested in writing plays and comedies, or indeed do you have other ambitions for creative output?
My work all seem to have a continuum to me. I have done some more overtly humorous stuff in the past few years (the audio dramas Mildew Manor and Sarah Minds the Dog, for instance) and my current novel project (Kentish Glory: The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School) has stronger comedy content than most of my recent fiction (it’s partially a parody of 1920s school stories). I’d love to write for the theatre again, and have talked about getting back together with the folks I worked with on The Hallowe’en Sessions – a portmanteau horror play we put together a few years ago. I very much enjoyed doing musicals, and would like to get back to that form in some way though it’s a very difficult business, and harder to throw together than a production without songs.
I read that one of your short stories travelled into space. What an amazing story, so how did that come about?
It was a story called ‘Famous Monsters’, which featured a Martian narrator, that was included on a CD-ROM of stories about Mars sent on a probe to Mars. I think it was on one of those space shots that didn’t make it all the way, but it was an interesting concept anyway.
Obviously you watch a lot of horror films. Do films still have the ability to scare you? Or are you numb to surprise now?
Recently, I found The Babadook and It Follows suitably creepy. Of course, I know how a lot of the tricks are done and can spot where filmmakers are going … but I can still be caught out by a surprise shock or disturbed by particularly strange visions. I’m more inured to extreme physical horror than most viewers, but quiet scariness or off-the-wall weirdness still affect me.
This year is the 30-year anniversary of Ghostbusters. What do you think of the all-female remake that’s in the making?
I actually think that sounds like a good idea. I thought The Heat – a film I wasn’t that hot on seeing – turned out well, and Paul Feig, director of that, is attached to the Ghostbusters reboot. There are plenty of talented female actresses/stars who aren’t getting enough opportunities. If a franchise has to be revived (which is no means certain), this strikes me as being a way of making it work. It’s rather like the way Roger Corman would sometimes take a familiar genre story and redo it with a female lead (Gunslinger, a Western with a female sheriff … Sorority Girl, a melodrama based on the military school drama End as a Man … Black Mama, White Mama, a female version of The Defiant Ones). I also suggested a few years back that the Expendables franchise should do an instalment bringing back 80s female action heroes, which seems to be on the cards.
The name Johnny Alucard appears in your URL and is the main character in your novel Anno Dracula – Johnny Alucard (2013). This is also a character from the film Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). Why is this character so significant to you that you even named your website after him?
I just like the name – I think Christopher Neame is a hoot in Dracula A.D. 1972, and there’s a neat collision between the 1950s-style Johnny (as in Johnny Cool, Johnny Angel, Johnny Suede, etc) and the hokey Dracula-backwards pseudonym. Ironically, the Neame version of Johnny Alucard doesn’t feature in Johnny Alucard, but the earlier Anno Dracula novella Aquarius (an extra feature in the Titan issue of Dracula Cha Cha Cha) has more of the specifics from that film. Dracula A.D. 1972 was the first Hammer horror film I saw in the cinema, and I’ve always been fond of it.
Times are different now from when you started writing about film. There are so many online outlets and possibilities for writers at the moment. Any tips for starting film critics and how their writings can get noticed?
It strikes me as much easier to get a platform, but harder to get noticed and much harder to get paid. I wrote for fanzines before I sold anything. If I were a teenager now, I might post reviews on IMDb (not knowing or caring about their rights grabs) or start up a blog/website. But that would be a hobby, not a career. My tip for beginning freelances is to write to the word-length, fit the template of whatever publication you’re writing for and deliver the copy well before the deadline.
What films should we need to watch out for in the next months? What are you excited about in current production?
Of the things I’ve seen lately which aren’t out yet, I recommend It Follows, Spring, Nightcrawler, Home, Creep, Monsters: Dark Continent, Predestination, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Grandmaster and The Keeping Room.
What was the first film that made a major impression on you? Do you remember what you felt after watching it?
The First Men in the Moon (1964), which was not quite the first film I saw (that was the B picture on the same program, East of Sudan). I was instantly captivated by the medium, and especially the fantastical elements – it had steampunk space travel and Ray Harryhausen creature effects. It was obviously a life-changing experience for me.
What was the last film you chose to see in the cinema, rather than just for review?
Gone Girl. Before that, Maps to the Stars. Which isn’t to say that I won’t eventually review either – and I posted my notes on the latter online on my site, which I do quite often if I see something interesting without immediately being commissioned to do a review.
What is your ultimate Halloween film? Do you have a costume prepared?
I don’t tend to dress up for anything, let alone Hallowe’en. And, tiresome and obvious as it might be, I’d pick John Carpenter’s Halloween. I’d also make a case for Meet Me in St Louis. I’ll be at a film festival this October 31st, so I’ll watch whatever’s been programmed there.