Words by Charlotte Heap / Original pics by Ed King
Walking through Southside to The Electric, I’m struck by how Birmingham behemoth Grand Central now looms over the Art Deco cinema.
Claiming to be the ‘UK’s oldest working cinema’ the building has hosted films since 1909 – originally known as Electric Theatre, then as numerous incarnations (including as a less than salubrious pornographic cinema in the seedy 1970s) until the business eventually died in the shadows of the then decrepit New Street station in 2003. Restored by local entrepreneur and filmmaker Tom Lawes, the Station Street cinema was re-opened as The Electric in 2004, seeking to entice film fans into its monochrome foyer with imaginative programming and broader range of genres than the mainstream theatres.
I’m interviewing David Baldwin, The Electric’s General Manager and the man behind the cinema’s annual Shock & Gore festival – a special programme of horror films, resurrected for the seventh year between 28th July to 10th August. As I arrive and peer into the gloom, squinting against the bright reflections of Grand Central, the doors suddenly swing open and I’m ushered into the faded grandeur of the foyer by a bow-tied barman. After being briefly mistaken for a job applicant, I’m taken down a dark and narrow staircase into the bowels of the building… a suitably spooky place to discuss Baldwin’s devilish brainchild.
David Baldwin joined Tom Lawes at The Electric in 2009, having been “made redundant” from a journalism career that he was glad to escape from. “I could see the way the (newspaper) industry was going”, explains Baldwin. “Tom (Lawes) takes less of a front seat now; he has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies with his films and stuff. Sam (the bow-tied barman) and I do the programming and managing now.”
Since 2009 people’s proclivity for streaming films at home has increased, not to mention the opening of the Everyman and The Mockingbird cinemas, so there is a constant challenge to encourage people into The Electric. One way to tackle this is ‘inventive’ programming. Sitting on a plush velvet sofa, David Baldwin acknowledges the need for a seven year old Shock & Gore to attract the hoards – stating that while it would be easy to show “just zombie films and the classics, we don’t want it to be films you can just watch at home.”
So the pressure is on, as Baldwin and his team “mix it up with special events, Q&As and previews, to create something that’s a bit more inventive. Horror gets a bad rep because you can make it cheaply. There’s a lot of shit out there but there’s great stuff coming out and we’ve found the good stuff and put it in the Shock & Gore programme.” He is also particularly excited about a possibly unappetising feature of the 2017 programme: “The Wickerman showing with themed food and drink is one we’ve been wanting to do for a while; we’re working with Conjurer’s Kitchen and it will be particularly odd. There’ll be edible foreskins…”
Having picked up on the penis-related snacks in the programme, I’m glad David Baldwin raised this. It’s unusual to see food and drink teamed with horror, given that many people (ok, me) can’t contemplate eating while watching a gruesome film. Baldwin emphasises that “Conjurer’s Kitchen are artists and we’re adding a live element that can’t be recreated at home. They design food that makes the experience interactive, even for the squeamish.” Laughing, he does admit to “reining in” Conjurer’s Kitchen for this viewing: “the foreskin is my limit.”
But for those with slightly more squeamish limits, Shock & Gore promises a programme with “something for everyone.” A self-confessed 90s horror nerd David Baldwin is looking forward to the 20th Anniversary Shindig for vampire slaying heroine, Buffy – an event that has, albeit unsurprisingly to Baldwin, sold out before the festival opens. “I know my Buffy fans,” he explains, “Buffy and I went to school and university at the same time so our lives have always been on the same track… although I’m not a vampire slayer. Not that I know about anyway. Sadly.”
Perhaps more surprisingly though, Buffy’s smart and slightly sanitised slaying is one of many features in the 2017 Shock & Gore programme with strong female leads. “People think it’s (horror films) just women getting chased by scary men. But there are so many great female roles like Buffy and Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Horror is progressive – it subverts and surprises. I mean, in the 1970s no one would have thought Ripley would have survived. There are also a lot more female directors now and more meaty roles for women.”
For example Hounds of Love – an Australian serial killer horror scheduled for Sat 29th, shows the female ‘victim’ as “resourceful, using her brains and fighting back. There’s something satisfying about seeing a female character outwitting men… and causing them to die in horrible ways.”
Everyone means everyone though, and for families looking at the Shock & Gore programme this year David Baldwin recommends the 1954 original of Godzilla, “a silly monster movie”. There’s also Nicolas Roeg’s interpretation of the Roald Dahl classic, The Witches, which is still pitched at a family friendly audience despite my protestations that Angelica Huston as the Grand High Witch gave me nightmares as a child. “It’s a PG,” retorts Baldwin, “and there are some pretty tough kids out there”.
But a horror film festival will no doubt have certain expectations to live up to, no pun intended, and for those at the other end of the tough spectrum to me, “we’re showing a short film showcase,” tells Baldwin, “which is great because they’re punchy and inventive. Martyrs is from the New French Extremity genre and it’s pretty full on: flayings and extreme torture. But it’s a good film and the gore is part of the story; I’m not a fan of gore for gore’s sake.”
Pushed about a hardened horror fan’s gore limits, David Baldwin explains that a visceral, sweaty palmed, dry mouthed feeling is more what he loves about the genre, “when I was younger, The Ring remake, which I think is better than the original, screwed me up for a while. Nightmares and I actually felt my heart pumping, which is rare for me.”
Not often you hear of a remake surpassing the original; how are contemporary horror films holding their own against the classics? “Everyone always thinks it was better in their day,” tells Baldwin, “the 90s was my genre with the self-aware (horror) films, and then the torture porn era came along. It disappeared quite quickly apart from Saw”.
And what about the modern perception that, as a society, we are becoming desensitised to certain horrors and violence on film? Has the genre become more shocking to challenge our numbness. “It feels as though we’re going back to a more classical, subtle style,” explains the horror festival curator, “like It Comes At Night, which is definitely a psychological style horror. But as make up and special effects get better, and young directors want to make their name, there are shocking things happening.” Although a lot of films still rely on the fear of the unseen, like The Conjouring films. “They’re based largely around shadows and creaky floorboards. There’ll always be that, it’ll never change.”
But if anything, David Baldwin see the horror genre leaning more towards exploiting society’s biggest issues to shock its audiences: “We’re showing Genocidal Organ (a Japanese Anime production) and whilst Japanese films are known for being quite extreme it’s an interesting and intelligent film as well – it’s about genocide and how we have become disconnected from it. Like we hear about people being murdered in media and then just go, ok and go and get a Starbucks.”
How about the more mainstream studios; are there any ‘big releases’ in the genre pitching social commentary as horror? “Get Out, which was really low budget but made a huge profit because it appealed to such a wide audience, made a comment on race-relations and modern day America. Saw 5 was about the failings of the US healthcare system. You don’t expect that in horror.”
Also on the programme for Shock & Gore 2017 is The Ghoul – the latest sinister story from Ben Weatley, a contemporary filmmaker with a subtle fair for frightening his audiences. Plus one who’s no stranger to The Electric’s wider programme. “Ben Wheatley likes this place, our audience and thinks it’s a great thing for Birmingham,” tells David Baldwin. “It’s nice to hear that from people working in the industry.” A solid endorsement, something that no doubt helps in attracting audiences and industry alike to the Birmingham based cinema; Richard E Grant also took part in a recent Q&A at The Electric as part of the 30th anniversary of Withnail & I.
But this creative approach to programming is what’s needed on the front lines of an increasingly competitive Birmingham film scene: “we thought Everyman might steal our audience,” admits David Baldwin, “but our audience is different. People who go to the Everyman are not necessarily film fans – they’re going for a night out. Whereas people love the history of the place here (The Electric) and want to know what we’re showing, what special events we’ve got coming up.”
Competition can also encourage growth, with Birmingham’s reputation in the wider film industry on a promisingly upward keel in recent years. And like most ‘in the know’, David Baldwin alludes to Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders) quest to build a film studio in the second city: “He is still really trying,” tells Baldwin, “and if he does that, it’d be huge. There’s a lot of talented crew here (in Birmingham) but they have to go to London and elsewhere because there’s not much happening.”
“We need a cheerleader and a champion for film in Birmingham and Steven’s in a perfect position. There’s much more going on. We’ve had Spielberg, Kings from the Golden Circles, Girl with the Gift filming here. Enticing film crews here is a great way to change the perception of the city and Birmingham City Council have finally seen the light.” But what are the chances of an actual studio being built, is it ambition or pipe dream? “He’s (Steven Knight) had people over from Paramount looking at the site; he’s doing it.”
As I’m leaving The Electric, talk turns to the recent death of George Romero – one of the masters of modern horrors. And despite his respect for modern offerings from the genre, David Baldwin will be watching zombie-classic Dawn of the Dead rather than cult comedy Shawn of the Dead at Shock & Gore’s traditional late-night film screening party.
“It’s a great film,” explains Baldwin, “and a commentary on capitalism and shopping; it’s stood the test of time. The best stuff does, and the rest just disappears in to the ether. George Romero, the director, died the other day and he effectively created the zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead. So it’ll be a bit sad.” But Baldwin jokes, “he always said as a big zombie fan he won’t stay dead.”
As I step back outside, once more into the bright reflection of Grand Central – our city’s own trance-like stomping ground, I can only hope Birmingham’s film industry has better odds at its own resurrection.
For more on the Shock & Gore film festival, visit www.shockandgore.co.uk
For more from The Electric, including a full film/event programme and online ticket sales, visit www.theelectric.co.uk