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More on Genre, Pt 2: Steven Sheil

Steven Sheil, writer and director of the horror film Mum and Dad, drops in to share his thoughts on genre!Why do you think genre has mass appeal, when drama films don’t necessarily provide a draw for audiences when they’re so celebrated by critics?

I think audiences like being told stories – and the more ‘story-like’ something is, the more they like it. With realist films, obviously you are still being told a story, but it’s one that is probably a little closer to the audience’s own experience – and therefore it’s more likely to produce feelings of empathy (“that’s happened to me”) than something more visceral (“I don’t know what’s happening and it scares/excites/thrills me”).

It always feels fake when you’re making a film, because it is – it’s based on creating an illusion, no matter whether you’re making a film set on a council estate about barefoot teenage mothers or whether you’re making something set on a spaceship, there’s an artifice about what you’re creating. I think with horror, because it often deals with unhuman or insane characters or entities, you get to fashion points of view (in terms of camera) which are often unnatural, allowing a degree of imagination in the style of what you’re telling which you might not employ in something more naturalistic. The audience going into a horror film knows that it is being told a story, something which happens in another world, parallel to our own, there’s no conceit that this is ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (or if there is, it is formally acknowledged that it is – the opening blurb of ‘The following events are based on a true story’, a device used to amplify the frisson that the audience feels in entering this parallel world).

When the audience knows that what they are watching is ‘a story’, they unconsciously allow the themes and images contained within what they are watching to seep in and affect them – this is why horror films often have a very visceral affect, they work in ways that are fundamental to how stories work, kind of like how fairy tales work on children – (not the bowdlerised ‘moral’ versions, but the original, folk-tale versions which are more complex in what they mean and how they work).

This isn’t to say that horror films are the only films which work in this way, or the only genre where you might employ the same techniques of telling, but it seems to be an arena where, because of the subject matter, you can be quite direct in talking about style and effect and how they tie into and spring from the subject. People know what horror films are supposed to do, so maybe there’s less discussion about ‘what do you want the audience to feel?’ People like to be scared and horrified, unsettled and shocked.

Maybe critics like drama films more because they consider it to be more difficult a skill to present a ‘real’ world on a cinema screen, rather than something that is more a ‘story’ world, but I think audiences like stories more because they use more of the imagination.

When writing/making your film, why did you choose the genre you did, what appealed about it or made you think it would appeal to others?

I’ve been a horror fan for a long time, and I like what watching horror films does to you – it challenges, disturbs, unsettles you (I know that’s not everyone’s idea of what film should do, but I think it’s part of what films are for). I think that there’s often a misapprehension that people who like to watch horror films like to get off on violence (and I’m sure there probably are) – they see the horror on screen, the reaction it elicits in a horror audience (maybe a kind of squirming delight) and they conflate that into a supposition that it is the wish to commit those acts, however deeply hidden, which is at the root of the enjoyment.

In fact, for a lot of horror fans, the delight comes not from an identification with the aggresssor, but with the victim – and the things that make horror enjoyably disquieting are the ideas that the violence throws up – look how mutable the body is, see how fragile and yet resilient it is, look at how senseless, evil or insane people can be – it throws up possibilities, fears, dangers that we might not otherwise appreciate. 

A lot of films which might be touted as horror, often make an attempt to add another layer of meaning or importance or relevance to what they are doing. Rather than being ‘just’ a horror film, it might be described as being a metaphor about illness, or a satire on consumerism, or a psychological portrait. Obviously, there are horror classics which are each of these things – I’m not saying that horror films can’t do these things, just that a lot of times it seems that people are a little embarassed of making ‘just’ a horror film and try and develop it into something with more ‘meaning’. But the best horror films are often successful because they don’t try too overtly to tack on other meanings – the meanings and themes come out of the horror rather than being layered over the top of it. Horror films can be emotionally resonant, socially critical, psychologically perceptive, but they don’t need to stop being horror films to do this

We knew, going into making ‘Mum & Dad’ that there would be an audience for it. It might be a small, niche audience, but there will be people who will want to see the film because it’s a horror film, and because they want to see a new version of one of the old stories.

What place does convention have in genre film? What have you paid homage to?

I think convention has a massive place in genre film, but it is also something to butt up against. There are classic horror film stories – young people getting lost in the woods and meeting something evil, a monstrous being coming back from the grave for vengeance – which have a lineage that stretches back as far as the earliest stories that were told, and which tie in to the fears and fetishes of all cultures on the planet, and which are almost ingrained as story archetypes. So there is a certain expectation, even comfort (weirdly) is seeing those stories being re-told. But equally with a genre film I think you have a duty as a filmmaker to try and explore new landscapes or introduce new elements so that the film doesn’t just become predictable. (I also think that sometimes, even if the story is predictable, the place where the horror is situated need not be.)

With ‘Mum & Dad’ there were obvious influences – a couple of British horror films from the Seventies, Freddie Francis’ ‘Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girlie’ and Pete Walker’s ‘Frightmare’ – but no real homages to them (apart from Birdie being a kind of modern-day Girlie). Tobe Hooper’s ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is also there – as it can’t help but be in a story about a fucked-up family of killers – but again, I tried not to homage anything too directly – it was more about tapping into a lineage of films. It was a big consideration for me – how much do you play within genre conventions and how much do you try and break out of them. You want the audience to perceive the film as a horror film, but you also want them to see something new, and not to be able to predict everything that’s going to happen. That said, because of the archetypal nature of the stories, the outcome isn’t necessarily as important in horror as what’s explored on the way. Again, I think it’s about where you suggest the horror is coming from – with ‘Mum & Dad’ I really wanted to work on the perversion of the family set-up – to make the horror be part of something we all share – the family – and to root it in the domestic, so that familiar things – knitting needles, chocolate biscuits, Christmas trees – become ‘horror-fied’.
Thanks Steven!

You can see Mum and Dad at Frightfest this August!

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