Founded by Kier-La Janisse in 2010 and named after the fictional university in H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of terror, the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies is ‘a non-profit endeavour through which established horror writers, directors, scholars and programmers/curators celebrate horror history and culture with a unique blend of enthusiasm and critical perspective.’ Since its inception, guests have included some of the most respected names in genre, from Kim Newman to Jack Ketchum and more. With successful branches in Montreal and London already established, the Institute recently expanded to New York, launching its pilot season in September of this year at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. Now with the first semester set to wrap up, acclaimed film journalist, horror scholar, and screenwriter Michael Gingold will be giving a seminar on horror cinema and television set in the Big Apple to close this period.
New York is a city steeped in horror history, and the diverse genre output to emerge from its streets has been fascinating to say the least. It all began with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the city has hosted a diverse range of genre cinema ever since – from the most bombastic blockbusters to the cheapest of exploitation fare, and everything in between, the city has been a hub for a wide variety of horror storytelling throughout the years. Diabolique had a chance to chat to Michael prior to his seminar on 8 December 2016 to discuss the city’s legacy in genre entertainment.
Diabolique: Your talk is on New York in horror films and television – can you give us a brief overview of what your lecture will entail?
Michael Gingold: It’s basically going to be exploring the history horror filmmaking in New York, from the beginning all the way up to modern times. One of the things about New York horror is that there’s not a whole lot of it before 1968 when Rosemary’s Baby came out, and that was the first movie that really took advantage of New York as a location. The streets were not represented by a backlot and the scenes were actually shot on location, and it also explored the horror of being in New York and the feeling of being frightened and paranoid even in a city with however many million people were living there at the time.
Diabolique: Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror films. I feel it perfectly captures that feeling of being alone in a big city, which many people can relate to.
Michael Gingold: It’s interesting because, looking at the film again for the seminar, I noticed there aren’t a whole lot of exterior scenes in it; almost all of them are interior, which really conveys that feeling of being trapped in an apartment building and not being able to trust your neighbors. It was very different from the way horror movies had tried to scare you in the past.
Diabolique: When you strip back the horror elements, it also taps on that fear that can come with just starting out in a new place, and perhaps feeling like an outsider…
Michael Gingold: Rosemary’s Baby isn’t traditionally frightening for a good portion of the running time; it’s more about, as you said, feeling uneasy being in a new place. It does capture that feeling of being in a new city where you don’t really know a lot of people, and with so many people around the question is whether they’re all going to be friendly towards you. Just before the 1970s the city acquired its reputation as a dangerous place, and a lot of the horror films of the 1970s and early 1980s extenuated the danger of being in New York City.
Diabolique: The city has quite an unfortunate history of high crime rates, social unrest and tragedies like 9/11. How much would you say the city’s darker history has inspired some of the cinema set there?
Michael Gingold: The first part about the rising crime rates there were a lot of films like Maniac (1980) and Ms. 45 (1981); one is about a man victimizing women, and there was obviously a lot of that in New York at the time, and the other is about a woman striking back at males. They were different sides of the same coin as both films were talking about how women couldn’t walk down the street without being sexually harassed, which obviously does still go on sometimes but it was much more open back then, so a lot of films took advantage of that.
As far as 9/11, there weren’t a lot of horror films that responded directly to that – I think Cloverfield (2008) might be the best example, with terror striking New York. After 9/11, people said that no one would want to see horror films; after such a horrible tragedy where so many people lost their lives they thought people would have lost their taste for horror cinema, and that didn’t really happen. Horror cinema has always been a cathartic thing, something that allows people to process the horrors of real life and deal with on a fantastical level. There were obviously films like United 93 (2006) which directly dealt with it, but not many horror films dealt with the specific fears 9/11 brought up.
Diabolique: Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, there were obviously movies being made as direct responses to things happening in the city at the time. For instance, Maniac Cop (1988) was inspired by headlines being made regarding police brutality, whereas films like Vigilante (1983) could be viewed as commentaries on gang culture….
Michael Gingold: It’s interesting because Maniac Cop came around at a time when New York was starting to get cleaned up. The first one came out in 1988, and I was going to college in the city at the time; it was still a dangerous place where you could walk around in broad daylight in some parts and feel threatened. Maniac Cop came out right about that time, where you had to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals. Then, in the 1990s, New York began to get cleaned up under Rudy Giuliani, and there was a bit of a shift in how horror films were portrayed in the city at the time as well.
Diabolique: How do you feel horror responded in the 1990s when New York started to clean up?
Michael Gingold: I guess the best example of that would be The Devil’s Advocate (1997), which is basically about distrusting the rich and the wealthy and lawyers, but obviously with a supernatural side to it. This was the type of upscale horror that really came into vogue in the 1990s.
Diabolique: The city has such a rich history in genre cinema. The biggest Hollywood blockbusters to even the grimiest of exploitation fare have made great use of it as a setting. What is it about the city that makes it such an effective setting?
Michael Gingold: I think the fact that New York is an iconic city in of itself. One of the things I’ll be talking about is the landmarks and how stuff like monster movies have focused on their destruction. I also think that because New York has such a diverse mix of cultures; it’s always been a melting pot which has allowed a different mix of horror stories. It’s also been a haven for independent filmmaking with independent auteurs Frank Hennenlotter in the 1980s and Larry Fessenden in the 1990s. I think the fact the city is so diverse meant that it was a diverse time for filmmaking, and I think the diversity of New York city itself lends itself to a variety of different heroes.
Diabolique: What are some of your favourite films set in New York?
Michael Gingold: There’s so many. Another filmmaker who took advantage of the city with a lot of guerrilla filmmaking was Larry Cohen, and I’m a huge fan of Q – The Winged Serpent from 1982. I’ve always been a fan of stop motion monster movies – which were usually pretty fantastical but this brought the stop motion right into the heart of New York City, so that’s always been a favorite. I like Cloverfield very much; I think it takes the monster movie and looks at it from a unique point of view. Most monster movies tend to look at the situation from the perspective of the military, but with the found footage approach it shows how the people of New York City would deal with that type of threat. I’m a big fan of Frank Hennenlotter’s movies; I love Brain Damage (1988) and think that’s my favorite of his films. I have several favorites as it’s so diverse, but those ones are certainly among them.
Diabolique: Speaking of monster movies, I understand that you’re a big fan of Godzilla…
Michael Gingold: Godzilla was my first love as a kid, I grew up on Godzilla movies. The unfortunate thing is that the one time they brought Godzilla to New York was through the Roland Emmerich film. I love Godzilla movies; I’ve grown up with the kaiju films being made in Japan. Then they did Legendary’s Godzilla (2014) where they brought him to the West Coast and I know they’re continuing the franchise, so I’m hoping they bring him back to New York and do it right this time, after the Emmerich film failed in that regard.
Diabolique: You’re also a screenwriter. I absolutely love Shadow: Dead Riot (2006) as it’s such a fun mix of genres. How did that come about?
Michael Gingold: It originally started out as a women-in-prison zombie movie but when Derek Wan came on board to direct it they decided to include the martial arts element as well. It was interesting to mix those three genres together, and Tony Todd had been cast at that point so writing for him was great; writing down the words and just imagining them spoken in that wonderful voice of his.
Diabolique: You’re also involved with an upcoming Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) remake. What can you tell us about that?
Michael Gingold: Yeah, that’s something Dante Tomaselli and I have been working on for a while. We have a couple of interested parties so we’re really hoping that’ll get going in 2017. The original is more like a murder mystery than a slasher film and we want to retain that; it’s a film that really gets a lot from its setting so we’re setting it in the same era and same place [as the original], and even if we don’t end up shooting there we want to retain that setting in terms of the storytelling.
Further information about the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in New York can be found at: http://www.miskatonic-nyc.com/.Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies