Fright Nights

If you’ve ever felt frustrated and utterly alone in trying to describe to your increasingly concerned friends the irresistible giddiness you feel when Ash Williams reaches for that chainsaw in “Evil Dead,” or the pangs of joy that run down your spine at every utterance of the words “red rum,” fear not; Miguel Rodriguez has dedicated his career to constructing your dark sanctuary.

“In the years I have spent studying the history of storytelling both here and abroad, there is one thing I have learned: we can learn as much from what is considered ‘low brow’ art as we can from what is considered ‘high brow’ art,” Rodriguez, founder of San Diego’s Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, told the Guardian in an interview last week. “Since its inception, horror has been branded as base at best and pernicious at worst. I think it is important to remember that art reflects elements of the human condition — not the other way around. We all have within us a dark side that horror of all types can explore in a variety of ways.”

In addition to Horrible Imaginings, a horror film festival that has traveled across Southern California, Rodriguez’s passion for excavating forgotten haunts and presenting them to like-minded audiences has manifested itself professionally in a weekly podcast entitled Monster Island Resort and a monthly film night at the Whistlestop Bar in South Park called Shot By Shot. This is no passing hobby for Rodriguez. His dissent into cinema’s dark side began when he was a child.

“It definitely has its roots in the film nights my family would have when I was a kid growing up in South Texas,” Rodriguez said. “My mother, aunts, uncles, and even my grandmother all loved horror movies, and I was exposed to the genre at a very young age. They did, of course, scare me quite a bit, but viewing them was always accompanied by a considerable amount of discourse over what was viewed. In a strange kind of way, I learned a lot of lessons about good and evil, fantasy and fiction, and human nature through these experiences.”

But it wasn’t until Rodriguez moved to San Diego from Baltimore in 2009 that he decided to make horror a full-time commitment.

“I found great events like the FilmOut Film Festival, the San Diego Asian Film Festival and the San Diego Latino Film Festival,” Rodriguez said.  “What I was astounded at, however, was the lack of such a celebration for genre. There are many such events just a couple of hours north of here in Los Angeles, so why was San Diego so lacking?”

Now, Rodriguez’s biggest challenge is sifting through all that blood-spattered gold in order to fill a unique roster for all three of his outlets. He’s done enough sifting to find more than a few favorites of his own.

“Off the top of my head, a filmmaker who truly elevates the genre is the Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo, who passed away earlier this year,” Rodriguez said. “His horror films ‘Oni Baba’ and ‘Kuroneko’ are truly stunning works of art that depict darkness in a way that is completely original and relevant. Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ and Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ were both great films that sadly hurt the directors’ careers. Alfred Hitchcock is another favorite who revolutionized what could be on screen with ‘Psycho,’ and who could give weight and terror to something ridiculous in ‘The Birds.’”

The list goes on to include classics like “Frankenstein” and “Gojira,” as well as some modern favorites like Jaume Balagueró’s “Sleep Tight,” which Rodriguez had the pleasure of seeing at London’s FrightFest Horror Festival last month. But for Rodriguez, choosing a favorite horror film is like choosing a favorite of his mutant, homicidal children. Not to mention, the genre is far too complex, says Rodriguez, to judge each film by the same standards.

“People tend to compartmentalize it far more than I like,” Rodriguez said. “[There are] different subgenres with different purposes. Ultimately, it depends on what the filmmaker is trying to elicit in the audience. One thing I have found to be true is that the more psychological horror films like those made by David Lynch or the film ‘Sleep Tight’ that I mentioned earlier tend to stick in the memory more. I think this is because they focus on terrors that are embedded more deeply in the psyches or personalities of their characters, and those terrors require a little more involvement from the audience. Movies with a high gore factor usually aim for a more visceral experience. Because of that, it is more like a rollercoaster ride, which gives in-the-moment thrills.”

The two-day film festival at Price Center Theater marks Horrible Imaginings’ first visit to UCSD, and Rodriguez is hopeful that guests will arrive ready to reflect in between screams.

“All films are exploitation,” Rodriguez said. “They exploit our feelings in order to get us involved in a story. A romantic comedy exploits our ideals of romantic relationships, a documentary exploits our fascination with the people around us, and horror exploits our fears. I hope to see a packed house!”

The Horrible Imaginings Film Festival will Take place October 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. in UCSD’s Price Center Theater. $5 for students, $10 for public.

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