Quantcast ICONS Interview with Aaron Christensen aka Dr. AC - HORROR 101

Aaron Christensen
Dr. AC - HORROR 101!

You may recognize Aaron Christensen from the many horror cons he attends across the mid-West His booth decorated with a skull wearing a graduation cap. That's "Dr. A.C." - Aaron's alter ego and professor of all things horror. This Chicago based writer & actor is the author of HORROR 101: AN A LIST GUIDE TO HORROR FILMS AND MONSTER MOVIES and heads up a horror themed theater company called WildClaw. Read on for our FRIGHT exclusive interview with Dr. A.C.! - By Beth - 4/08

IoF: So tell me, what is it that possessed you to write this book?

AC: Possessed, ha ha! I like that. I think probably the genesis for HORROR 101 came from several sources. First off, like a lot of fans, I was getting sick of telling people that I liked horror movies and getting “the look.” I think to most civilians, “horror” simply means gore and slashers – I wanted to remind them that the genre is so much more than that. Likewise, I imagine most of them think that the genre began in the 70s with THE EXORCIST, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, HALLOWEEN, etc., but that’s ignoring over 50 years of its rich heritage, ranging all the way back to the beginning of cinema’s history. Heck, one of Thomas Edison’s company’s first films was an adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN, back in 1910.
But more importantly, in this day of instant access, I wanted to help provide a common ground for horror fans of every walk. Nowadays, when pretty much any horror film ever made is available on Netflix or cable or Ebay, it’s difficult to know where to *start*. This list of 100+ films will hopefully provide a solid base in one’s study of horror, kind of a freshman class at “Horror U.” After seeing all these flicks, you’ll have a solid understanding of the genre as a whole, as well as having a pretty good idea of where your personal tastes lie. Oftentimes, I think today’s fans disappear so quickly into the fringe that they miss out on the fundamentals and I hoped to remind them of some of those.
However, as I started to put the book together, what irked me was that I could only bring my experiences to the table, my perceptions of what these films mean and what impact they had on me personally. It seemed to me that as diverse as the genre is, any examination of it deserved to have as wide a range of people weighing in on it. After all, horror fans come in all shapes and sizes, ages and nationalities, and thanks to the Internet, it is much easier to establish contact with them than it has ever been in history. I immediately realized that this was the project I wanted to pursue and so, I started putting out the word to various horror fans, inviting them to choose one of the films on my master list to write upon. Once the essays started coming in, I knew that we were onto something special.

IoF: I totally know what you mean by when you tell someone "I LOVE horror films" they give you that look. And being a female, I get an even worse reaction. I noticed that most of the films listed are "old school" films, many of them done in the 30s. What is it that you like about the old horror?

AC: Well, actually, if you look at the dates of the films included, we spread things out pretty evenly, with each decade equally represented. Yes, there are quite a few films from the 30s, but considering that this was the “Golden Age” of Universal horror, with DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, etc. all making their first appearances in a sound picture, they immediately become historically significant. However, we also included several silent films from the 20s and gave the 40s their due with Val Lewton’s efforts as well as one of the first horror anthologies, DEAD OF NIGHT. In the 50s, Sci-Fi and atomic power created an entirely new face of fear, so we included those, as well as the rise of Hammer Studios toward the end of the decade. The 60s kicked off with some amazing ghost stories like THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING, as well as Roger Corman’s AIPoe efforts and closed with modern horror landmarks like ROSEMARY’S BABY and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. So, what you’re calling “old school” I merely see as giving each respective horror decade its day in the sun…or the shadows, if you prefer.

However, to return to your initial question, I think what I personally enjoy about older fright films is that it seems like there was more imagination on display. Since much of classic horror was monster-centric, the filmmakers were constantly coming up with different looks and designs, as well as different reasons for the monsters having come into existence. Once we got into the 80s, all you had to do was slap a knife, machete or assorted sharp implement into an escaped psychopath’s hands and you had a horror movie. The imagination moved off the monsters themselves and more about the various ways that a human being could be eviscerated, a trend that continues today. I’m not saying that I have a problem with gore, I just don’t find it all that interesting. It doesn’t spark my imagination. Then there’s also the argument that monsters made horror more “fun” and accessible for younger audiences. Where is the horror for kids these days? HARRY POTTER? LORD OF THE RINGS? I know some fans grew up on Freddy and Jason, but that’s not where I would choose to start a youngster off.

IoF: How do you feel about the horror being made today? 

AC: I think there are several solid movies coming out every year, as well as a lot of crap. But believe me, I have no false illusions: This has been the way of the world for as long as the cinema has been around. I, like many fans, am pretty tired of the remake trend, but again, it speaks to the lack of imagination of the studio folks who are greenlighting the projects. They are less willing to take a chance on a new vision than on a recognizable “brand name” that they know that fans will come out for. Again, it requires a really strong artistic vision to rise above the muck, folks like Guillermo del Toro who are willing to explode conventions and bring something new to the table. Do we need another SAW film at this point? Another HOSTEL? Another zombie flick? Let’s get back to the drawing board, folks…

IoF: Do you think more young horror fans today need to see the classics in order to really appreciate the genre? 

AC: To appreciate the genre as a whole? Absolutely. To ignore the classics is akin to calling yourself a fan of theatre and drama and refusing to read Shakespeare. Nearly everything that has come on the scene since is either a derivation of (or a reaction against) these fundamental building blocks. Now, I’m not such a purist that I’m going to stand on a soapbox and say that someone is not a “real” horror fan unless they’ve seen the entire Universal Frankenstein cycle – we’re all on our own path and if you are truly interested in the genre, you’ll find your way backwards eventually. But I think, as I said earlier, that watching these early films with a modern eye can be an excellent source of inspiration for something new. Aspiring horrormeisters can spot the concepts of these old chestnuts and start cogitating as to how they could tell a similar story, but with a completely fresh take. After all, what was THE WOLF MAN but a different spin on the JEKYLL/HYDE mythos? NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD took the creaky zombie plotline and changed the face of horror forever. 28 DAYS LATER re-imagined THE CRAZIES… All it takes is the spark of imagination, and I think the classics are a perfect place to find that. What’s the point of trying to recreate a film that just came out last week, other than the fact that it made money?
IoF: The title of the book is Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies. Do you feel that Monster Movies are not Horror Films?

AC: Ha ha! Nope, it’s not me that feels that way, but the rest of the world seems to! I’ve looked through a number of recent horror reference books and there’s no sign of KING KONG or GODZILLA or any of Ray Harryhausen’s wonderful stop-motion epics. People tell me they don’t like horror films, but when I say, “Well, what about JURASSIC PARK or JAWS?”, their response is, “Oh, those aren’t real horror movies…” Really? When did that happen? When did the rules get changed? (I can tell you for a fact that JP scared the heck out of me when I saw it in the cinema, and not because of some deep-seeded fear that some T-Rex was going to sneak up on me on my way home from work.) So, in an effort to get people to reassess their ideas of horror, I wanted to make sure that we restored those giant creature features back to their proper place within the canon. But, just to satisfy the naysayers, I elected to tack on those three little words, “and Monster Movies.” Hey, I don’t care what people call them, as long as they watch ‘em!

IoF: Are there any films that you have since writing this book that will definitely be included in a Volume 2?

AC: That does seem to be the question on everyone’s lips, and yes, there are absolutely some that I would like to see included in the next installment. CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, early films like VAMPYR, THE CAT AND THE CANARY and James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE. There are also some great low-budget 70s and 80s exploitation efforts such as ITS ALIVE and BASKET CASE that deserve a serious look. I’d also like to see more of Hammer’s work examined, not just the Gothic efforts. Believe me, there’s more than enough good stuff out there to fill Volumes 2, 3, 4…

IoF: Now, you’re not just approaching horror from the page, but also from the stage. I just took a peek at WildClaw Theatre’s website, of which you are a founding member. Tell me, how did you get started with WildClaw?

AC: Well, when I’m not sitting in front of the TV, dashing off to the cinema or slouching back to the computer to write or chat about horror flicks, I’m an actor by trade. I’ve been working here in Chicago off and on for almost 20 years now, with the majority of my work being on the stage. As is the way with any profession, I suppose, you end up talking about your passions during the coffee breaks, and during a staged reading of a Shakespeare play, I happened to mention that I was into horror films to Charley Sherman, a fellow actor and director. I told him I was working on a horror book and he mentioned that he had written his college thesis on DAWN OF THE DEAD. I knew right then that I wanted to get to know this guy better. I asked him to write a couple essays for H101 and he turned in a couple of real winners for THE BLACK CAT and HORROR OF DRACULA.

Then, last summer, just when HORROR 101 was in its final stages, Charley approached me with the idea of forming a horror-centric theatre company, one that would focus on bringing serious horror back to the stage. There are plenty of campy, splattery productions that go on in town, but we wanted to do something that was more than that, and for “Theatre of the Fantastique” to be our focus. He had already assembled other like-minded theatre folks within the community – a really strong core of actors and designers. I’m very proud to have been included in the mix.

IoF: What are you guys trying to bring to Chicago horror fans with theatre, and vice versa?

AC: I think we want to create an opportunity for fans to have a *live* horror-themed experience, outside of a haunted house in October. Horror and Theatre have a grand history together, dating back to the Greeks (Oedipus tearing his eyes out, Medea slaughtering her children) and a lot of Shakespeare is gory as hell! Then there’s France’s Grand Guignol on through to Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD… The possibilities are there. Theatre relies upon the viewer’s imagination, thus making them an active participant, as opposed the more passive experience of watching a movie. In the end, it’s a completely different medium than film, which I think will appeal to folks who are burnt out on the glut of straight-to-DVD crap. We’re offering audiences an intelligent, visceral experience, one that will appeal to the mind, the gut, the groin and maybe even the gag reflex. We wanted to create a form of entertainment that will give the performers something juicy to sink their teeth into and the audiences something different than they’re used to seeing on Chicago stages.
IoF: Can you tell me about some of the company’s projects and what people are saying about them?

AC: We just opened WildClaw’s first production, an adaptation of Arthur Machen’s THE GREAT GOD PAN, toward the end of February. The story revolves around a mystical experiment performed upon an innocent young woman, resulting in a trail of sex and bloodletting that spans generations. Our cast and crew are amazing, and the feedback has been incredible. The reviews have been quite enthusiastic – feels like we really struck a nerve. One called the show “a major achievement” and another compared us to “the classic Hammer films of the 50s and 60s.” People seem genuinely excited about the prospect of Chicago having its own “horror theatre.” Even folks who don’t usually come to see plays have been thoroughly intrigued and entertained. By the end of the night, no one has had anything but positive things to say. It’s really been a satisfying and exciting experience.

Of course, the biggest problem with live theatre (which is also its greatest asset), is that it is temporary; it is of the moment. It’s not like a movie that you know you can catch up with after it leaves the cinema on DVD. PAN only runs for three more weeks, then the curtain falls and it will become a memory for those who saw it and a regret for those who missed it. Some shows are already selling out, so I absolutely urge all fright fans that happen to live or visit the Chicago area to come check us out without delay. However, for fans who are geographically-hindered (or better yet, for folks who saw the show and want more), we’ve also launched a blog and a podcast on the WildClaw website, so even if you can’t see the show, you can still participate in the WildClaw experience year-round. Come check us out at http://www.wildclawtheatre.com

IoF: Thanks so much for chatting with us, AC!

AC: No, no, thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks to Icons for flying the horror flag high! We need more passionate folks like you, shouting the gospel of the genre loud and proud…

Interview By: Beth Puttkammer

Click the book cover on the right to read ICONS staffer Scott Lefebvre's book review of DR. AC PRESENTS HORROR 101: THE A-LIST OF HORROR FILMS AND MONSTER MOVIES VOL. 1!

Visit: http://www.wildclawtheatre.com and

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