WHEN JOE MAUCERI was young, his grandmother took him to a double feature.The first movie was a Yogi Bear cartoon, during which Mauceri quickly fell asleep.
The adults decided to let him snooze and take in the second feature: Robert Aldrich’s creep-tastic Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which Bette Davis plays an aging recluse living in the same house where her married lover (Bruce Dern) was mutilated decades earlier.When Mauceri finally opened his eyes, he was confronted with a rather startling image.
“I remember waking up just as Bruce Dern was getting meat-cleavered in the gazebo,” he recalls.
After that fateful trip to the movies, Mauceri returned Saturday after Saturday to take in a variety of films: classic horror movies released by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s; “giant monster” films; installments in the Tales from the Crypt series. He was hooked.
As director of programming for the New York City Horror Film Festival (running Nov. 18-22 at Tribeca Cinemas), Mauceri looks for films that remind him of why he fell in love with the genre in the first place; namely, its ability to connect with an audience on a profound and visceral level.
“I like horror films that are a little bit more substantial: that you come away with a good scare, but there’s a good story to it,” Mauceri says.
This understanding of horror filmmaking—haunting, addictive, more than a cheap scare—is shared by festival director and founder Michael Hein. A transformative double bill also cemented Hein’s love of the genre (Creepshow and Dawn of the Dead, both directed by horror auteur George A. Romero) and inspired him to begin studying special effects makeup. Now, as a director and producer of horror films, he seeks to represent the genre’s potential for inventive and diverse storytelling when choosing which films will screen at the festival.
“We are not looking for a film that just has a guy with a chainsaw running around and cutting heads off,” Hein says. “Not that we’re not looking for that film. But we are looking for solid scripts, solid acting, solid storytelling, solid filmmaking, right down the line.When you come to the festival and see a few of the films, you’re going to see a very broad spectrum.”
That sense of variety can be seen in this year’s selections. For the more seriousminded horror fan, there’s The Shadow Within, about a young man tormented by sinister family members both living and dead.Those looking for a little levity with their severed limbs will line up for Must Love Death, which chronicles a suicide pact gone hilariously, gruesomely awry. Even Steve Guttenberg fans can rejoice; the actor headlines Cornered, which follows a group of local convenience store employees who won’t let a deranged serial killer interrupt their weekly poker game.Then there are those shorts with titles that speak for themselves: “CannibAlien”; “X-Mess Detritus”; “Attackazoids, Deploy!”.
Now in its eighth year, the festival attracts a deluge of submissions. Hein and Mauceri receive anywhere from 300 to 500 films per year, usually with a 50/50 split between shorts and features.
Throughout the year, Hein and Mauceri call upon a stable of industry professionals to come and help them determine the festival line-up. At least six individuals view each film and give numerical ratings in nine separate categories.These numbers are averaged out, and the highest-scoring films gain entrance to the festival.
Though they will occasionally court a larger studio film to screen out of competition, both Hein and Mauceri pride themselves on this process, which seeks to reward artistic ingenuity over brand-name flash. Hein recalled in the festival’s first year that the best film prize went to Lucky, a scrappy horror comedy made for less than $50,000, over Revelation, a $3 million production with Terrence Stamp and other known actors.The point is not to blindly bolster the little guy, but to provide a space where fresh talent can compete on the same level as well-established figures.
“Someone who takes the time to understand the medium he is shooting in, who is creative, is inspired and has a passion that comes through: a film like that will be in the festival and can be in the festival next to somebody who went to NYU and had the facilities available, and is also just as creative,” Mauceri says.
Still, Hein and Mauceri’s affection for lower-budget filmmakers reveals itself constantly. Names and film titles from past festivals cropped up frequently throughout our conversation: this great director from the Midwest or that awesome, Lynchian short from a couple of years ago.
Director Frank Sabatella fits this model of odds-defying independent director. His film, Blood Night:The Legend of Mary Hatchet, represents the culmination of a two-year push to get the movie made. Budgeted at $1 million, the film re-tells the old Long Island myth of the murderous Mary Hatchet, who killed her whole family with just that.
Sabatella recalls the strain of filming night after night in the dead of winter, with particularly brutal shoots in the abandoned Essex County Hospital Center in Cedar Grove, NJ.The crew had to set up a “warm room,” with jets of hot air so the cast didn’t freeze during the shoot.
“I’d call ‘cut’ and people would run to the room to get warm,” Sabatella explains, though he himself chose to remain with those crew members who had to stay outside and run lights and other heavy equipment.
Hein and Mauceri understand the stress of juggling passions with responsibilities, a balancing act which marks many an independent filmmaker’s experience. In addition to organizing the festival annually, Hein runs his production company, Moodude Films, and is in post-production on his third feature, The Word. Mauceri works as an entertainment travel consultant for Linden Frosch Travel, co-runs horror website FEARSmag.com and co-hosts Niteshift, a weekly radio show on WBAI.
Both men hope that, in addition to providing a platform to showcase the best of horror filmmaking, the festival can be a place where directors connect with and support one another’s work. Hein himself began the festival partially in reaction to the impersonal experience of screening his first feature, Biohazardous, in 2001 at an unnamed L.A. film festival that offered little to the visiting filmmakers.
“It was always important to me that when filmmakers came in for the festival, they feel like it was a worthwhile experience, and not just a party,” Hein says.
> New York City Horror Film Festival
Nov. 18 through Nov. 22, Tribeca Cinema, 54 Varick St. (at Laight St.), www.nychorrorfest.com; times vary, $16 and up.