Horror Today—An Interview with Rue Morgue’s Rodrigo Gudiño
Peter GutiérrezA member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. He is also a contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez View all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
As if it needed further validation as the premiere publication on horror, Rue Morgue recently won the Rondo Hatton Award for Best Magazine of 2007. We sat down with its founder, filmmaker Rodrigo Gudiño, to learn why horror fans (surprise, surprise) are among the most creative, introspective fans out there. And he should know, because Rue Morgue is not just a print magazine—it’s an expanding celebration of horror across various media; it’s a Web radio station, the sponsor of Canada’s annual Festival of Fear, and a movie production company, too. Turning his editorial duties on the magazine over to others in recent years has freed Gudiño to pursue… well, it may sound pretentious to say his “artistic vision,” but in this case no other phrase will quite do. Put simply, in a relatively short period of time he has emerged as one of the most compelling new directors on the scene.
To date he’s made three short films, each more extraordinary than the last. The Eyes of Edward James (2006) takes the genre’s love affair with subjective camerawork and melds it to that old noir/horror staple, hypnosis, to create a supremely disquieting work. Yes, its ending sports a bit of a twist, but it’s largely unnecessary; as Donald Barthelme once wrote, “there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.” That sentiment is perhaps even more apt for Gudiño’s next film, The Demonology of Desire (2007). In some ways, this follow-up is more of an overt crowd-pleaser, if it can be called that with a straight face: Demonology features explicit psychosexual imagery, no “hero” in the traditional sense, and a cynical, skewering view of that most splendored of our cultural ideals, romantic love. Still, its off-kilter humor, bold tone, and matter-of-fact suspense render it dislocating on several levels—narratively, generically, and morally. Gudiño's latest film, The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow (2008) (which he co-directed with Vincent Marcone) is his most formally stunning and also his creepiest. The camera appears to swoop and swerve, zoom and evade, as it targets figures in a tableau composed of still images. It does so with both precision and lyricism, and we’re invited to piece together the diabolical story in a way that draws us into the mystery of “the movies” itself: Hollow is Chris Marker’s La Jeté (1962) re-imagined for the first-person shooter generation.
With this kind of from-the-inside-out understanding of horror, Gudiño represents perhaps the definitive interview subject for discussing the genre in all its dimensions, complexities, and contradictions.
The Demonology of Desire: taking aim at several cherished targets
Firefox News: What I admire most about Rue Morgue is the approach implied by the phrase “Horror in Culture & Entertainment.” That “in culture” separates it from the rest of the pack. So what are horror film fans missing if they're not aware of the broader genre's history and impact? Or more positively, what's to be gained by looking at horror through a more inclusive lens that takes in comics, literature, and music rather than just focusing on buzz-worthy new movies?
Rodrigo Gudiño: Back in 1998, shortly after starting Rue Morgue, I was approached about launching a similar “culture & entertainment” magazine focusing on science fiction. I was reluctant for a lot of reasons, but nevertheless did a little bit of research on it anyway. What I found, among other things, is that science fiction fans and horror fans seemed to deviate in one important respect: the former were primarily consumers, whereas the latter were more apt to respond to the genre creatively. Horror fans started bands, drew monsters, wrote stories, launched horror film nights, tattooed themselves, etc. I suspect that part of this means that a large [segment] of horror fans are primarily fans of horror imagery, and that they are drawn to film because it is currently the vehicle where that imagery is most powerfully represented. Anyway, looking at the genre in its greater cultural context is a way to appreciate this universal something about horror movies that attracts us to them in the first place. Also, because the horror genre is largely comprised of taboo subject matter, it is necessarily political, especially regarding ideas of morality and censorship. To lose oneself in the imagery of horror films without having a regard for this is to divest the genre of a large part of its power.
Let's stick with culture, in particular the wider artistic context of which horror is inevitably part. When I see your work, I think "Here’s an artist who's deeply interested in the possibilities of narrative film in its short form. Period." I don't think, "Here's a director whose only frame of reference is horror and he just happens to be making short films." So I'm curious about which filmmakers, either of shorts or features, you find inspiring who are either non-horror or tangential to the genre in some way. And under what conditions can someone like you get the cultural respect afforded to mainstream filmmakers?
Unfortunately, many horror filmmakers are either unaware or uninterested in the possibilities of their movies working outside the genre, and so they are content to make movies that are simply referential to other horror movies. Thanks for noticing that I am not one of those filmmakers! Some of the people who have really opened my eyes include Kubrick, Fellini, Jodorowsky, Bergman, Michael Mann, P.T. Anderson, Todd Solondz and Milos Forman. But really all cinema has been inspirational to me in some way or another—soap operas, porn, infomercials, televangelism—I can honestly say I have found them all to be valuable. I work from the philosophy that all cinema operates around certain fixed principles and this has allowed me to find almost every type of film relevant to my creative process. With respect to attention and cultural respect from the mainstream, I really don't think about that right now. Those factions will sit up and take notice in their own time, because I think my films will eventually demand their attention, irrespective of how they are marketed.
I agree. And it cuts both ways: horror fans probably ignore some of the filmmakers you mention at their own risk. If you take Juliet of the Spirits and, say, The Holy Mountain, those have moments of transporting , otherworldly horror that are rare in what's more conventionally termed “horror.” Which brings me back to your films. To me they seem designed to induce particular—and powerful—psychological states... or maybe that's just their effect on me. Do you have a specific experiential outcome in mind for your audience, as in "I want this film to be hypnotic/ dreamlike /disorienting/ etc."?
In Edward James, the spooky house looks normal enough, but exists wholly in the mind of the narrator... and is perhaps a metaphor for it as well.
Each of my films has its own aspirations and sometimes this also applies to specific scenes. I had never made a film prior to The Eyes of Edward James, so I decided to set my sights on very tangible goals, in this case to intrigue and frighten the audience for the span of fifteen minutes. Really every shot and piece of dialogue in that film is meant to emphasize one or the other or both of those goals. The Demonology of Desire, however, was very different.
I think it does, but let’s connect your work back to the observation you made about the creativity of horror fans. Why do you think those who are into the genre soon take on a generative role themselves? I'm wondering if something primal or universal is going on. Does everyone have something visionary to express about humankind or the universe, as in science fiction, or have faith in the redemptive power of “true love,” the notion behind much of the romance genre? Maybe. But it seems more likely that everyone has deeply experienced fear or dread—and feels the needs to deal with it somehow. Any thoughts?
That’s a very good question. I think it would be unfair for me to suggest that horror stimulates people’s imaginations more than science fiction but fans seem to indicate that very thing. And yet I don’t think it’s because science fiction is any less imaginative (hardly!). Maybe it has to do with the idea that horror is regressive—its subject matter is primal and therefore it naturally speaks deeply even to those who are only interested in its superficialities. Science fiction, on the other hand, is progressive and naturally bound to ideas of the technological achievements of the human race along with its scientific aspirations. So with horror there is a turning inward into the primal self, and with science fiction there is a turning outward to the human race and its futures. Perhaps it is because of this inward turning that horror stimulates a more artistic reaction, whereas science fiction naturally stimulates interest in the sciences, which might very well be where its fans explore the inspirations they receive from the genre. But this is all a guess.
Your distinction between turning inward versus outward and the comparison with SF brings politics to mind again. In science fiction, political content is often overt while in horror, as you pointed out, the simple act of creating or consuming is itself political. Yet sometimes I'm concerned about this turning inward and the genre's insularity from the "real world." Should I be? Recently we've seen horror in the news with the UK banning Murder Set-Pieces, China banning all horror, and U.S. Senator Obama commenting on "slasher-horror" trailers on TV. Should horror fans and creators somehow make more inroads with society as a whole… or would that be selling out and denying the genre the outsider status that can make it so powerful?
No, you shouldn’t be concerned. After all, the best horror happens internally. Frightening or traumatizing people artificially (i.e., in a movie) is not easy to do; to achieve it a filmmaker must first and foremost tap into what he or she finds frightening, and that information is always buried deep within them. Unfortunately, what happens with creators who are steeped in horror is that they begin expressing themselves in the language of the genre and this can be limiting, especially since many of them understand horror as being primarily excessive. But really, all this lies in the arena of experimentation and I am all for filmmakers trying new things out. Yes, that’s going to mean that a lot of them are going to fail and alienate mainstream audiences, but it’s the few who are going to translate well that will make up for all the misfires. And when horror translates, it has the power to make a culture move.
Demonology's curiously passive monster in the basement... wait a second, which figure am I referring to?
I used to think that the mainstream's negativity toward horror was spurred by an overly simplistic equating of visual violence with real violence. That is, pundits saying, “Only the sick could enjoy people being killed and traumatized”—forgetting that this never actually happens in horror films, that it's actors pretending to be victimized. But now you've got me thinking it has to do more with suppressing the cultural elements that are unafraid of the taboo. After all, far more people die—and there are about as many body parts—in Saving Private Ryan as in, say, Hostel. Any thoughts?
I think I agree that, on the whole, the mainstream’s negativity toward the genre has to do with equating visual violence with real violence, not only in the manner in which you suggest, but also in the belief that visual violence stimulates people—and especially young people—to act it out. But for a variety of reasons I don’t think there is much validity to those claims. Your suggestion that the mainstream would like to repress the genre’s interest in taboo subject matter is probably more true for the “moral majority,” but their influence is diminishing, I think. The mainstream has a tendency to see the genre in purely surface terms: they see the violence, the excess and the thrill-seeking audiences, less so the subtleties, the artistry or the themes, political or otherwise. The end result is that the horror genre is ghettoized and those who watch it, love it, and those who don’t, don’t. But that’s okay: horror is a specialized taste and most people—no matter where—are just never going to cultivate a taste for it. It resides in the dark and only occasionally leaps out to frighten the wider culture indoors. It kind of makes sense that it should be that way, doesn’t it?
You're right—I want to have it both ways. I want horror to be elevated somehow, more "accepted," but of course its very value as art lies in its exploration of that which is intentionally not discussed much. So what's next for you as one of the more creative and thoughtful people working in the genre? Cans fans expect anything new in terms of Rue Morgue's various ventures and outlets, or catch up with your films at festivals this year?
Yes, absolutely there is lots going on. I personally will be moving forward with my first feature film project, which will be a remake of a film nobody has ever seen! Sorry, I am just clearing the rights so I can’t give you the title just yet but it will be a movie that will take people by complete surprise. My short films will continue to tour and I am ecstatic that both The Demonology of Desire and The Eyes of Edward James have premiere dates in Germany, Australia, Scotland, South Africa, Finland and Mexico, along with more screenings in Canada and the U.S. The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow is just waiting word of its world premiere, which I expect to announce soon. Alas, Rue Morgue is not limited to me; the magazine’s Managing Editor, Dave Alexander, will be releasing his short horror film called Fallow sometime soon, as will Rue Morgue’s office manager Audra Jacombs, who just produced her first film (again a horror short) called The Laundromat. So there’s lots of activity here at Rue Morgue and I imagine it will only get busier as people start noticing that we’re also a production company along with everything else. What can I say—the future of darkness never looked brighter...!
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