Grimm reaper

We meet the man behind Manchester's horror spectacular.

by Jennie Kermode

It's grim up north, and nowhere more so than in Manchester which, starting this Wednesday, will be hosting horror spectacular Grimmfest for the fourth time. It's a four day event packed with fearsome films, events and special guest appearances. We spoke to festival co-director Simeon Halligan who, along with his partner Rachel and friend Steve, is responsible for keeping the whole bloody business together.

Simeon and Rachel are both filmmakers themselves. In 2010 they released low budget horror film Splintered, about a young woman caught between a mysterious captor and a vicious monster only he seems able to keep at bay. They have also made several successful shorts. It's a good grounding for getting into festival management, though Simeon admits that happened almost by accident.

"We thought we'd première Splintered in Manchester," he says, "and then my friend Steve, who's involved with the Salford Film Festival, talked about maybe doing Halloween, putting on a few other films and making a night of it. It resulted ultimately in a whole film festival - I'm still not quite sure how that happened. We showed 25 feature films in 2009. Then, so I keep getting told, at about 6am the next morning when I'd been saying never again, it's too stressful, I apparently sent an email saying let's talk about next year's. It's a bit of an addiction."

Alongside directing films and running the festival, he's also involved with a new production company which is just in the process of releasing its first feature, Some Guy Who Kills People. "I'm really glad it's our first release. For small, independent films it's increasingly hard to get cinema distribution. We really like the film and the guy who made it, Ryan [Levin, writer and producer]. Although it's horror it's also a pretty sweet comedy drama so a lot of people like it who're just not into horror."

Reaching people like this is important to Simeon. As well as providing something for the fans, he's keen to attract new audiences to the genre. "We're all pretty open minded about film and we love movies across the board but we're all drawn to horror. We like to put on stuff that cover the whole spectrum. Horror is a pretty broad genre. There are a lot of bad horror movies, I have to admit, but there are also a lot of brilliant, fascinating horror movies. I'm keen to try to get people who wouldn't necessarily go to see horror."

Some of the films at this year's Grimmfest definitely cross genre boundaries. Simeon talks enthusiastically about Before Dawn, which features Emmerdale Farm alumnus Dominic Brunt and his real life wife Joanne Mitchell as an estranged couple who retreat to a remote farmhouse to try and patch up their marriage, only to be confronted by a zombie apocalypse. "It's got zombies in it but it's also about a claustrophobic relationship; it's quite emotional and moving. They shot some of it in their own home. They invited us to come and see it so we went to their house and it was quite strange, sitting with them watching a movie that was shot in their house - we kept expecting a zombie to walk through the door."

The Grimmfest line-up is impressive for its size and that's partly due to Simon and Rachel's wider activities within the industry, which take them to festivals and events around the world and gives them the chance to check out the most talked-about work in different countries. "Throughout the year we go to film markets. This year we've been to Cannes and Hong Kong. Between that and listening to rumours and people approaching us with new films, we see a fairly broad spectrum of what's being made. We try to find stuff we find challenging and interesting cinematically. This year at the festival it's a real mixture. Cockneys Vs Zombies is a lot of fun, then there's Comedown, which is a really gritty, British hoodie horror world, like Kidulthood in the horror genre. It gives a North meets South feel to the opening night. Lots of the actors are coming, like Adam Deacon and Alan Ford. We have a preview night on Wednesday with Sinister, which is going to be a big release and is getting lots of press coverage but also critical acclaim, then alongside that American Mary. This film is going to be quite big. I saw it in Cannes. It's very interesting and little bi different, quite bizarre and strange in places. Then there's the new cut of Nightbreed. We have a whole load of the cast coming and also some of the guys who did the special effects. And there's Grabbers, which is a new Irish monster movie. One of the guys who did special effects on Nightbreed, as it happens, also worked on Grabbers, and on Star Wars and quite a few other things. Shaune Harrison. He's going to be bringing some of his prosthetic work. We try to put on exhibitions and things alongside the films."

It's a lot to keep track of. Simeon struggles when asked which is his favourite of this year's films, but Rachel, hovering nearby, steps in to rescue him: "Below Zero".

"That's a fascinating film," he agrees. "With Edward Furlong. It's a bit like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in terms of it being a genre piece but like Adaptation or Being John Malkovich in terms of its structure. It's about a writer who wants to focus on his work so he has himself locked in a meat locker away from distractions."

Rachel also suggests Crawlspace, and again he agrees. "But then there's the Wesley Snipes film, Gallowwalkers, which is a sort of zombie western. I do like American Mary a lot. And I like Attack Of The Werewolves. We were at a small festival in Barcelona and it was a really big release over there at the time, there were posters for it everywhere. It's a comedy horror film, really funny, very entertaining."

There's also a strong line-up of short films. How were these selected?

"Primarily they get submitted to us," he says. "Sometimes we find something absolutely wonderful. This year we have Devoured, which is a really interesting US indie movie, a psychological twisty turny thriller with a Rosemary's Baby vibe. Him Indoors is really fun little film, beautifully produced. Some we go out actively to find. The problem we have is we end up trying to squeeze as much into the festival as we can. It's hard to manage sometimes when we've got so many films to screen and so little time to screen them. This year we've got two venues again as we couldn't fit all the things we really wanted to screen into the one theatre. I'm always pushing to try and put more movies on, basically because I find it really hard to turn away a film that I love. Steve tends to pick a lot of the shorts. He's got a good eye for that sort of stuff."

Tickets for the festival are selling well and soon it will be all action. In the meantime, has he given any thought to 2013?

"No," he says firmly, laughing. "No. Definitely not." But he's got a good excuse. "We want to get back into filmmaking. We've been thinking about a couple of movies we want to make, a home invasion movie and a new angle on a vampire movie, that we're keen to move into production."

Is this really the last Grimmfest? Maybe, maybe not, but this week it's certainly going to brighten up the North.

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