“The Ashram”, starring Kal Penn, is one of the highlights of Cinequest Film Festival’s expanded “Thrills” section this year. Photo Credit: Cinequest

Michael Rabehl, Cinequest’s Director of Programming & Associate Director talks about the expansion of the “Thrills” portion of Cinequest Film Festival

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

This year’s Cinequest Film Festival has expanded its lineup of genre films, which include horror, sci-fi and thrillers. Now with a competition representing these genres, Director of Programming Michael Rabehl explains why the expansion happened, and just why it might be that people enjoy these types of films.

Hi Michael, thanks for the time. Could you tell me about what led to the decision to expand the “Thrills” features into a competition?

Well a lot of times these genre films get overlooked in for awards anywhere unless it’s specifically a genre festival. So, for us it just seemed appropriate because every year we keep on seeing more and more artistically done genre films from horror to sci-fi, all that stuff. This year we just expanded it and got a lot more submissions for that category, and it ended up being that we just kept on seeing these great, innovative, types of movies for the genres they’re in.

What was your role in cultivating the lineup for this expanded genre?

So essentially, I oversee it all so there’s a point where, with this particular section since it was the first time we were doing it, I made sure to see all the films that we were placing in it. Sometimes I don’t see every film, we get 3,000 submissions so I can’t see everything, but in this particular case I watched everything. I wanted to make it stand out. I wanted to take a lot of great care in putting this together. So, along those lines we expanded the awards for the shorts competitions as well, to have a fantasy horror sci-fi shorts awards also. For everything in this particular competition, I hand-picked from submissions and a few from sales companies that I had seen over the course of the year.

How did you go about picking which genre films would be included without being too heavy on one more than others?

With the genre films we wanted to have more of representation of different genres, not just horror or not just sci-fi, but we wanted to represent a wide variety in that section so we may have seen ten great horror films that didn’t make it to the festival because we’re not going program ten horror films and then leave out all these other ones that are other genres so we just wanted to make sure we get a nice representation of what’s being done out there on different budget levels too. Like “Berlin Falling” is a high budget but something like “Omphalos” is really low budget, even though it has a lot of effects in it. A lot of them just happen to resonate in such a way where I’d never seen that before.

Was the popularity of the “mind benders” shorts program something that led to the expansion of the thrills genre at all?

I think with the mind benders in particular it’s just an ongoing feature, one of the longest running shorts series we have. We do comedies too but not every year do we have the strongest comedies coming in through submissions. But mind benders always have a place. I don’t think mind benders was the reason though, for the expansion. [It’s] the idea that genre films are just getting better and better, I mean look at the two biggest films this year, “Shape of Water” and
“Get Out”. Those are both being nominated for Academy Awards. That’s unheard of. When it’s nominated for best picture it’s rare for any sort of genre film.

Is there any of these films in the “Thrills” category that you are personally your favorites?

I usually don’t pick favorites because they’re all like children. One of the films we have in the festival, “Omphalos”, [is] a science fiction movie but it’s also this strange mystery at the same time about a guy who time travels and basically has to solve his own murder.

I liked that a lot. I like “Berlin Falling”, it’s a road trip movie where some guy picks up a hitchhiker basically, and the guy ends up carrying a bomb to Berlin in a car. It becomes a cat and mouse game between them, you know, psychological. We have a film shot in India with Kal Penn and Melissa Leo that we’re doing a world premiere of called “The Ashram”, and the director, Ben Rekhi grew up in Mountain View.

This is his thriller, more like a magical-surrealist thriller because it deals with a possible cult in the mountains following a healer who has mystical powers. So that is something that is going to stand out a little bit more because of a director who came from this area, grew up here and he’s coming here with his feature. If I had to pick favorites, those would be up there.

Can you talk about the VR programming that may be related to the horror/sci-fi/thriller genres?  

There are several. The Nicholas Cage one, “Humanity Bureau”, also an Ultraman VR that we’re doing the US premiere of. And that’s from the old sci-fi. We also have one with Wesley Snipes, “The Recall”.

The horror genre in VR is one of the biggest ones and that’s one for me that I’m not quite sure about yet, because of the fact that you’re immersed in this environment by yourself with the goggles on. You can’t see anything around you except what you’re seeing in there, and they’re just trying to scare you. Your senses are totally thrown in that realm, but a lot of people love them, and it’s one of the biggest genres for VR.

Last question: People come to watch films for various reasons, in your opinion, why do you think people are attracted to these alternative genres like thrillers, sci-fi and horror?

I do think that a lot of times people just want to escape, and horror is sort of an escapist genre, it’s not too many things that you think about. But if I were to ask my older daughter, it’s because she likes to jump in a movie, she likes to be scared.

And why do people go on rollercoasters? For me it’s fun, I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody, but I think that it does kind of steer towards some of those baser instincts like escape and being released from something. Maybe it’s the way it also gets some of that anxiety out of your system too, by the screaming.

Also, especially with the genre films, it’s more of a social genre too. You go with somebody typically. A lot times [when] you go see a documentary, you don’t go with somebody unless you want to discuss it afterwards. But with genre films you go in couples or groups. There’s a whole group that we reached out to with Yahoo meetup groups, that [attend] weekly screenings of horror genre films and so on. They already plan to come.

There’s been so many papers done on why people go towards horror genre and I was sort of thinking about those because I’ve read them over the years, I took a horror genre class in college and so we read a lot about it, but it always comes back to [being] all just theories of why. People just like to be scared for some reason. Well not everybody. It’s interesting.

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