Nightmares Film Festival Panel Tackles Social Progress Through Horror

I love a good festival panel.  Seriously, getting a group of filmmakers, actors, etc. together to discuss film is just the kind of thing my inner film geek loves.  Naturally, I was excited when I read that Nightmares Film Festival, for its second year in existence, had added a couple of panel discussions to their schedule.  I was even more excited when I read that one of those panels would focus on the idea of social progress through horror.

For most, social progress and the horror genre could not be more odd bedfellows, but there are those of us who have been discussing the topic for years so I couldn’t wait to hear what the talented panelists had to say on the topic.

Jason Tostevin, co-founder of Nightmares Film Festival, moderated the panel which consisted of Venita Ozols-Graham, Michael Escobedo, Sam Kolesnik, Rakefet Abergel, Lukas Hassel, James Christopher, and Omari Matlock, and he began by stating the panel’s agreed upon definition of social progress:  Equality in thinking, behavior, and opportunity.

With that, the filmmakers began to weigh in on how they see the genre embracing this idea.  (You can view the panel in its entirety at the bottom of this article! Video by VideoBusinessMedia)

“When we talked about doing this panel, it actually made me do some thinking because usually when you think about horror movies, you think about entertainment,” Ozols-Graham began.  “So I did a little research, looked a lot of the horror movies through the years that have affected me personally, and it is actually stunning.  Things like Get Out, socially relevant issues and racism, Rosemary’s Baby feminism, It Follows a metaphor for HIV, Night of the Living Dead racism, The Babadook mental health, Candyman racism, They Live consumerism, and Teeth feminism and rape culture.  The list goes on and on and on and I realized we’re so incredibly influenced by ‘horror movies’.”

From there, the discussion turned to the idea of the empowered, triumphant final girl vs. the gratuitous amount of female nudity in the genre.  One side of the coin looks like the very ideal example of feminism while the other seems indicative of entrenchment in exploitation.  As the panelists weighed in, they got to what is an essential core issue on the topic.

“I think you can make that (nudity) progressive,” Kolesnik pointed out.  “I don’t think that nudity or sex is the problem.  I think it’s the paintbrush, like the way it’s actually painted and the way that American culture receives that and the messages that they paint onto it.”

Kolesnik further stunned the audience when Tostevin, playing Devil’s advocate, pressed her as to why she thought adding naked breasts to a film for no reason other than the audience expects it was socially regressive.

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “have you ever heard anyone say, ‘We need more cock in this film’?”

It’s a valid point and one that was revisited several times throughout the panel.  Why is it that breasts are okay and titillating in a horror movie but a penis brings nothing but nervous laughter and a sense of discomfort?

There is no good answer there.  Lukas Hassel had pointed out earlier in the discussion, “I’m an actor.  I have no problem with being nude but there has to be a reason for my junk to be out there.”

“I think sometimes having boobs in the movie becomes the story as opposed to something to accent the story,” James Christopher added.

As the discussion turned to target demographics, an interesting question was posed by Sam Kolesnik that really stunned the audience.  I’m not sure what it says about us that we might never have considered it in these terms before, but with female nudity versus a target demographic of straight white males 18-25 we have a classic chicken and the egg situation.

Do we include female nudity because of our target audience or did our target audience become fans because of the female nudity?

In addressing the issue, the panelists also began to discuss the obstacle of confronting a system designed to make money that keeps churning out the same things over and over because they’ve made money before which causes, really, an endless loop.

“I think that’s a problem in filmmaking in general,” Rakefet Abergel interjected.  “I work in L.A. in all aspects of film production, and almost all of the time it’s about the money.  Is this going to make money?  Am I going to be able to distribute this?  Am I going to be able to sell this?  Are people going to want to watch it?  And it’s unfortunate because it’s an artform that’s turned into a business.  And that’s why we end up shitty movies!”

At this point, one might be wondering if the entirety of the discussion revolved around nudity, but there was so much more to come from this panel.

“Being a young, black man,” Omari Matlock explained, “I think I deal with issues that are not visited in horror at all.  You know when I watch horror films half the time, I’m like ‘We wouldn’t do that’.  So me, getting started everyone was like ‘Oh you’re going to do a gangster film”, and it was kind of offensive to me because my thought was ‘Is that all you think I am?’ so I decided to stay with horror.  Even when i go to a black film festival, we’re the only ones there with a horror film.”

As the panel ultimately concluded, I sat back for a while and thought about the topics that had been raised as I read through the schedule of films when it suddenly occurred to me that not only had the Nightmares Film Festival crew brought this amazing panel together, but they had put practice behind their words in the programming of their festival.  Here were films made by racially diverse filmmakers, films from straight and queer perspectives, films by women who turned the tropes expected of their gender on their heads, films that exposed mental illness for the true horrors that accompany them.

In fact, though not all of the films included were socially progressive in and of themselves, the entire weekend of programming ultimately was.  You can view the full panel below, and be sure to follow Nightmares Film Festival on Facebook for all the latest news about next year’s exciting festival!