Every year, FrightFest gives us some great documentaries on top of the latest slashers, stalkers and monster movies. This year, one of them is The Horror Crowd: an affectionate documentary that gives an intimate glimpse into the minds behind some of the modern monsters. Put together by Ruben Pla, who you’ll recognise from numerous films, it’s a fun, informative and even moving look at our favourite genre. To celebrate its screening, HorrorCultFilms got to see it in advance and were invited to speak with Ruben. He’s a lovely chap, who had even shaved for us, and is as passionate a fan and filmmaker as any I’ve ever met. During our time with him, we talked about creating a narrative of snippets, the importance of a script, working with James Wan, why death is scary and how darn good Insidious is. Please note the following interview has been edited and rearranged in places for clarity.
How did this documentary come about?
I started hanging out with horror filmmakers in Los Angeles years ago. As I was travelling those circles, I got an idea of making a little documentary about them – about their lives, their families, their passions. So I met my buddy Hank Braxtan and told him I was thinking of doing this – maybe make a little short out of it. Then he starts saying “I got some camera, lights, sound equipment – we can shoot in the studio I work at” and it just started from there. I called people one by one, and they said they’d do it, so it grew and grew and grew until I ended up with 38 people. Across the interviews, I asked them about things like their first horror, women in horror, race relations – all these different segments.
How long a period did you shoot it over? Was it done over years or a particularly intense month?
The second. Once I called people I’d go round to their houses or meet them in the park – wherever it was – to interview them, and then I started assembling it. So I had the whole thing cut within a year.
How was the transition to constructing a narrative like this? I see you’d just done some shorts before this one.
I had to create the narrative – take all these disparate ideas, and comments, then put them together. I sculpted while I edited and that’s how I came up with the segments, to make bits about this and this. It’s very different from a narrative – I’ve written lots of scripts that are ready to go, but this was completely different. As far as why I went for a documentary, the idea came to me to shoot what I know and what I have. And I knew all these people, so I had that.
It shows. Something that makes this very different from other horror documentaries is things they talk about – being bullied, their biggest fears and so on. You clearly have their confidence.
That’s a good way of putting it – I had their confidence. They knew they could trust me, and I wasn’t going to give any gotcha questions. I just wanted the truth – whatever they revealed. And they revealed some pretty interesting things in the dark side bit. They also got to talk about their favourite horror movies. Mike Mendez says he saw The Hills Have Eyes at age three and I’m like ‘what?!’ That reaction we cut to of me – that was a real reaction. So a lot of shocks, and a lot of touching moments about family. Like Darren Lynn Bousman on how his life had changed now that he’s a dad.
It was a good reminder that all these horror makers are also horror fans. Have you always been one?
Since I was a kid, I was watching creature features in the cinemas where I grew up – they reran old Hollywood horror movies, so I saw the Universal classics like Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein. Those were the three that were emblazoned onto my mind. They were so good – they looked great, and the stories were so tight. Without a good story, I don’t care how many special effects you have, how big stars you have or much studio money is in it. You’ve got to have a solid script. And movies like that or The Exorcist or Alien that I touch upon managed to do this too. So those were my influences early on.
Have you got a favourite of all time?
Yeah, Alien. I know it’s sci-fi, but it’s also a haunted house in space – as I say in the documentary. There are others – Insidious scared the crap out of me. I’m not joking. I was in it, and the movie scared me as I watched it. Now I’m like ‘is Joseph Bishara, the Lipstick-Face Demon in my closet? It’s so moody.
I liked that from that Lin Shaye became the face of a franchise.
The character of Elsie is fantastic, and she does a wonderful job. She’s become an icon from it, and to me, she’s the don of horror – The Godmother. She’s so classy! She’s become big from the franchise, but she was already a successful comedic actress – like in There’s Something About Mary and Kingpin. Now she’s representing horror so well.
Something you touch upon, though there’s not a concrete answer, is the question of what draws people to horror films. Have you got an opinion?
To be scared. I got to say, that’s it – even if it sounds too simple. Because in everyday life you can have a little scare – like a truck almost hits you. But this lets you tune in and have consistent scares that aren’t going to kill you – you’re safe. And as Nietzsche says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And horror films make you stronger! (Laughs) Seriously, it’s the thrill. I don’t know if I want to bungee jump, but I can watch horror and have a ride.
When you’re making horror, is there a different feel on set?
Every set is so different – whether it horror, adventure or a cop drama. Some directors want everything to be quiet on the set. And fine, if that’s what it is. Others are cracking jokes, like Mike Mendez on Big Ass Spider every other minute. You see the interview with me and Lombardo Boyar on the sofa, and we’re just cracking each other up and high-fiving. So every set is different.
How was working with James Wan?
James is a big kid. When I worked with him on Insidious, a pilot and Malignant that’s coming out soon. He’s always just like ‘let’s go for it’. He’s fantastic technically – the camera’s setup perfectly so he can have you walk here, turn here – he’s very capable. But he’s also so excited like a kid – I just love that.
He’s been one of the biggest names of this century. I reckon this last decade has maybe been the best for horror I’ve ever seen – with so much from the indie scenes coming out. Have any jumped out at you?
I agree 100% that the last decade it’s been happening, and I have to say it started with Insidious. And it’s not because I’m in it. The script was so good, by Leigh Whannell, the music by Joseph Bishara and the directing by James. The acting: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, me (laughs). Just kidding. It was put together so well – sculpted so well. Then it just crossed over and became a mainstream hit. Then little by little after that, we get films like The Conjuring. Later we have Get Out nominated for an Academy award – are you kidding me? That never happened in the 80s or 90s! So horror’s gone into the mainstream, and I think it’s about it being topical, with great acting and great scripts. The ones that have it cross over.
I think something this film will do is give people a lot of other ones to watch. Like when I saw you had Adam Robitel talking about his first film I’d never even heard of.
Adam Robitel – he’s a great guy! You’re referring to Deborah Logan. It’s a found footage, but it’s such a strong narrative throughout – so I’d definitely follow him. He’s now gotten to do Insidious four, plus Escape Room one and two. There’s a lot of guys like him: up and comers. Mike Mendez is another – he’s done a lot of films, but needs that breakthrough to reach the mainstream, so I hope he gets that. Then you got the classic people like Russell Mulcahy: great director.
I had no idea he’d done a Duran Duran video before I saw this.
He directed the first music video on MTV [Video Killed The Radio Star by The Buggles – for pub quiz enthusiasts]. He talked about it, but it didn’t make the cut so it’ll be in The Music Crowd, my next documentary (laughs). But he directed it, Elton John’s video for I’m Still Standing – tonnes of videos. Then Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf got him Razorback – his first feature. He says he got a calling saying ‘I just saw this song, and it’s so cinematic with the jungle – want to come to shoot for me in Australia?’ He just says, yeah! So that’s his break.
Something that can help nowadays is festivals. Of course, this is showing at homes all around the country with FrightFest. Are you someone who goes to a lot of these festivals?
Oh yeah – I went to South by South West with Big Ass Spider. I would have sure flown into England to see The Horror Crowd and all the other films – but that’s not happening. However, this way has its benefits. I think it can reach a wide audience of people that won’t be able to go down to London for a festival. So if the right people see it, and distribute it, it’ll be great – I hope I can get on to the next movie.
Do you know what it’s going to be?
I’ve written several scripts – horror, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery. I like all genres, just as long as the writing is good. That’s all I care about. So I’m ready to go with these if someone sees The Horror Crowd and goes ‘he can handle a camera and a cast of 38’. Meanwhile, during quarantine, I shot a horror short as I was sitting it home twiddling my thumbs doing nothing. So I shot a short and loved the footage – I’ll put it together as soon as FrightFest is over. Plus acting: as soon as LA and New York open up for auditions and so forth I’ll be going out there and move on to the next project.
Finally, to treat you like someone you interviewed yourself, what sort of things scare you?
I guess what scares me is death – like Chelsea Stardust says for her. Death scares me because you don’t know what’s beyond. I’m not afraid of everyday things, like being run over by a car. It’s the beyond that gets me – not knowing. If we found out what’d happen tomorrow, like if it just ends or there are angels, then I’d say now I know so I’m not scared any more.
Buy The Horror Crowd digital screening tickets: https://bit.ly/3k2MHNw
FrightFest Digital Edition presents the World Premiere of The Horror Crowd on 29 August on the Arrow Video Screen