Scenes from "Body at Brighton Rock," "Darlin'" and "Dead Center"

Interview: Maria Reinup on Keeping Audiences on Their Toes at New York’s What the Fest!? Festival

It’s unlikely that when Maria Reinup began a career in film programming, she’s know exactly how many pathologists there are in the United States, but after she started programming the What the Fest!? Festival at the IFC Center in New York, which begins tonight with the world premiere of Larry Fessenden’s “Depraved,” such knowledge has come with the territory.

“There are very few of them in the whole United States of America. You can count these people on you and your friends’ hand,” Reinup says almost giddily, having located one who would be willing to show up to talk about his work just before a screening of the like-minded “The Dead Center.” “It was something like a thousand people in hot spots around the U.S. [with] different cases or crime scenes [depending on] whatever their particular speciality [was and] you have to actually approach them [physically], so it’s actually special to [have one] come around.”

As difficult as it may have been to find an active pathologist, it’s the kind of challenge Reinup was looking for after she got the gig in December of 2017 as the creative director of the genre festival that looks beyond films to make a truly memorable night out at the movies. Making use of the IFC Center’s seasoned staff to handle the practicalities of presentation, Reinup, a longtime programmer at Haapsalu Horror and Fantasy Film Festival in Estonia and the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn as well as a filmmaker in her own right, has been freed up to plot events that have as much of a “little ‘What the fuck?’ element in them’” as much as the films that she and her fellow programmer Matthew Kiernan keep an eye out for throughout the year. It is why the New York premiere of the apocalyptic drama “The Unthinkable” will be introduced with a Q & A with Professor Anna Maria Bounds on doomsday preparation and there will be a tribute before “Darlin’”, Pollyanna McIntosh’s sequel to Lucky McKee’s “The Woman,” put on by the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies to the author Jack Ketchum, who wrote the source material.

While putting together a festival of genre films has been intrinsically narrow by definition, Reinup has found that the edge can reveal the bigger picture, setting a tone in its inaugural year with a festival that could honor its hometown with the regional premiere of Jenn Wexler’s locally-made “The Ranger” while bringing other horror flicks such as the Scandinavian “Valley of Shadows” and the Indonesian “Satan’s Slaves” to New York and run the gamut from horrific tales of nonfiction such as “Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana” to narrative tour de forces such as Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge,” all within a tightly constructed four days. An expansion to five days isn’t the only way Reinup is broadening the horizons of What the Fest!? in its sophomore year, seizing upon Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?” and a new restoration of the 1970 cult film “Satanis: The Devil’s Mass” to create an entire sidebar about Satanism that will include “We Sold Our Souls,” a talk given by Grady Hendrix on the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, and devoting Saturday afternoon to the panel “Female Trouble: Fearless Women Leading the Way in Horror, Fantasy, and Suspense,” which will feature producer/directors Wexler, Roxanne Benjamin (“Body at Brighton Rock”), Emma Tammi (“The Wind”) and Meredith Alloway (“Deep Tissue”), who also have films to present at the festival.

On the eve of this year’s edition of What the Fest!?, Reinup spoke about having the luxury of being more ambitious after the success of a festival that was planned in less than four months the first time around while keeping things small to make what worked even stronger this year, as well as following the lead of great filmmakers who have used genre to speak to larger societal issues in unique and distinctive ways and making the most of the IFC Center’s location in New York.

Photo Credit: Renee Altrov

This being the second year, was there anything you learned from the first?

Programming-wise, I didn’t want to grow too big too fast. and we felt quite confident after the last year that people are ready for a new festival in New York that is a very saturated market. But we really wanted to build into something that has a sense of community, [where] the filmmakers and audience can come and feel this is a home, so from that perspective, the events we create for most of the films, small or big, definitely tie into how to make the festival an experience that everybody shares [beyond] an amazing movie and you can’t get too big in the first go because people [have to] get used to that there’s a talk or a little event or a giveaway or different kind of Q & A that goes with every film. If everything turns out well, this is going to be a strength and the [audience] and the filmmakers feel [like],” Okay, these guys are really pushing to make this screening a spectacle, so it’s almost like celebrating cinema even larger than on the big screen,” bringing something smart or witty or just fun from the film literally to life. And I learned from the first year that you should keep a steadier pace. When you have a good first run — and we had an amazing response both from press and the filmgoers — [you figure out you should] just keep to the concept and not grow too fast or too big, but make sure that people see and feel that we had something a little bit different going on and that we put really a lot of heart and time into making this an experience to come to.

You’ve got some pretty wild events happening around the screenings – like inviting a pathologist to introduce “The Dead Center” or a doomsday expert for “The Unithinkable” – what are those brainstorming sessions like?

Ultimately, I think the film gives it to you, but let’s go one step back. I run a festival in Estonia, which is the biggest genre festival in the Baltics for seven years, and I programmed the midnight movies for the Black Nights Film Festival, [as well as] a lot of arthouse films for the main competition, so when I was offered to do something in New York, I really felt, “Okay, we need to up the game, and personally [I wanted to] try something new.” Once you’ve done one festival in a small place with quite a big slate for many years, you come to this point of [thinking], “Okay, there’s these old paths that you’re taking there that work and function, so what would be exciting for me, not just as an organizer or a creative person, but also from the audience perspective? To me, a good festival isn’t really a series of screenings. It’s more than that. It’s something that can build a community and [can] pick at your brain even a bit further than the films do. And when I started to realize that there’s so much that the movies can offer from how much filmmakers have put into the world-building or science, just to bring a little bit of that back to the cinema, I thought it would be fun to give context with crash courses on cool topics that remind us that there’s so much to learn out there.

For example, a coroner is often portrayed as a loner working in a cellar, probably eating while they’re cutting up a corpse to make it through something nasty and you realize these people are scientists. Our speaker is really passionate about this field and he will give this talk about how do you learn to receive information and find details in things, not only in a body, but in your life about things around you that start telling you a story, [which] I think is really amazing and can break a little bit of the myth of what they do. And that ties into genre [more generally], like the focus that we have in our programming on contemporary Satanism. I come from a country where it’s really something I didn’t know much about and I classify as one of these people who think a lot about Satanism like in a stereotypical way, I’m sorry to say. I think of heavy metal, leather jackets and church burnings. But that actually has nothing to do with Satanism, particularly the contemporary Satanism movement, which is about equality in the broadest sense. In the Church of Satan, everybody’s their own God, and you decide about your pleasures and whims whereas the Satanic Temple is a bit more political, using political trolling to remind the people that America is not a predominantly Christian nation and they use loopholes in laws to remind that freedom of speech is a right for everyone.

So I was thinking maybe it’s not only me, but maybe there’s more people who’d love to know that there are actually Satanists, and I like the aspect of thinking [about] something you haven’t really thought about and you’re influenced from the outside by some general nominators that create your stereotypical understanding and you have it without really understanding why. But then you learn about the actual topic and you suddenly realize you were completely wrong about it. I’m sure there’s a lot of other things on this planet that we could approach from the other side and learn a whole new angle about it, and I think genre films have an advantage of being so much more than a great thrill or a great scare. The ones that are smart when it comes to making good scares also talk about something serious in between. There are whole dramas about school bullying movie, but the greatest school bullying movie is “Carrie.” One of the great movies about dealing with loss is “The Babadook” [where] on the surface, it’s a great, stylized boogeyman movie, but it’s a story of a movie and a child who can’t deal with pain and pain forms into something and makes you deal with it. That’s the great capacity that genre movies have.

In terms of broadening thinking, it also seems that playing a documentary like “Hail Satan?” is leading by example in terms of programming since I’m not sure how many other genre fests would see a documentary like that fitting into that context.

I always say real life is the most horrifying. That’s why we escape to the cinema. But having one documentary or two in the context of the genre films actually reminds us of something very serious in a way that doesn’t get in your face too much. And we have the background – IFC Center also hosts Split Screens and DOC NYC, so it’s also giving a nod to the people working there and the vision that we have. Last year, we had a TV screening [of the AMC series] “The Terror” to pay tribute to the whole concept that IFC actually hosts a whole lot of cool events because like my team partially is the team of DOC NYC, particularly the executive director Raphaela Neihausen, who’s amazing, so [with “Hail Satan?”] it was like, “Come on guys, we should definitely have a documentary in there.”

How did the Female Trouble panel come together? Was it simply because there were a lot of great female filmmakers with films coming out right now or was it something you had been thinking about regardless?

Actually, we already started to think of it last year because yes, organically you will have amazing filmmakers who will be present, there’s a lot of things we can learn from and if we put these minds together, we could get something amazing come out of it, but last year was hard because we had quite a short time to produce something completely new and make sure that people know it’s out there, so a lot of the steam went into getting the movies and establishing the concept. But it’s not really this year’s thing since we started already [thinking about it] last year and our partner Shudder was the frontman for it. They’re very keen on partnering to do something industry-driven, and we thought that with this kind of femme-centric angle that we have, starting from 85% of the [festival] team is women, but also that there is so many great filmmakers out there and just to support that, we thought let’s narrow it down to actually putting our fearless women in the spotlight and give them an opportunity to just speak their mind in [terms of] where have we come from in genre cinema and where can we go, more from the fun rebel aspect of their own experience, and how their voices are literally changing the cinema landscape in the way we really need right now.

If we haven’t covered it already, is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

Honestly, it was great having “The Ranger” for the closing night last year. There is something special about having New York filmmakers in New York with a big screening, going in and making a splash. We had the punk band from the film crash the Q & A and we smashed a piñata. The crowd was colorful as it gets and the fact that [“The Ranger” producer and Glass Eye Pix founder] Larry Fessenden decided we’ll do the world premiere of “Depraved” here, I think, has something to do with the fact that he sensed we want to be the place that doesn’t want to exclude anyone and strives for making a home for the local filmmaker. Putting aside [it’s a new entry into] Frankenstein history and his version of “Frankenstein” is great is just a cherry on top, I’m really looking forward to opening night. It’s going to be a bit crazy and we’re having a New Orleans style jazz band play and there’s a cool Frankenstein origins presentation and then we’re going to hit Jekyll and Hyde, the one cool bar around in Greenwich Village for the eccentric and mad travelers and scientists.

Then of course, a lot of the screenings are the movies you’ve been chasing and you’re excited to see how they play with the audience. “Greener Grass” is a What the Fest!? movie — I was laughing so much I was [thinking] if that movie had come out last year, that could’ve been the reason that What the Fest!? even came to life. “Dead Center” is such an amazing movie, [with] such real great filmmaking, and it’s really, really hard for me to pinpoint one thing over the other. There’s going to be a lot of amazing talent present, which is always nice, and I think I brought up the opening night for the fact that you can feel it where there’s a special atmosphere and it doesn’t ultimately matter how big is the [theater] or how many people came. There’s just a kindling in the air, where there’s excitement and you know it’s a hard journey for the filmmaker and [the film is] fragile and it’s out there and you can feel it when you sit down with the audience. It’s showing something very human also, being present there and [seeing the filmmakers] coming out with their babies to the world and showing them to people for the first time. There’s something very special about that.

What the Fest!? runs from March 20th-24th at the IFC Center in New York. A full schedule of films and events is here.