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Chicago’s Best Scare Fest “Music Box of Horrors” Returns This Weekend

Monday, October 8, 2018 | Interviews

By ROCCO THOMPSON

Horror movie festivals are a time-honored tradition during the month of October, but few do them like Music Box Theatre. The historic, mini movie-palace (which first opened on August 22nd 1929, a mere two months before The Great Depression hit) has been a haven for lovers of arthouse and world cinema since it was restored in 1983, and is one of the rare theaters still outfitted to project physical film stock. The venue’s annual 24-hour scare fest, Music Box of Horrors (originally called Music Box Massacre) began in 2005, but in recent years has become a truly special event thanks to the efforts of general manager Ryan Oestreich, artist Andy Berlin, and four time guest programmer William Morris, a member of the team at Los Angeles’ American Cinematheque. Not content to simply screen the “classics” (your EXORCISTS, FRIDAY THE 13ths, what have you…) Morris has brought audiences stellar lineups full of unexpected offerings, underseen gems, and shameless crowd-pleasers, almost all projected on 35 millimeter film. Music Box of Horrors is a far cry from your run-of-the-mill cable TV Halloween marathon, and a true cinephile’s wet dream—a festival for horror fans who can laugh along with FREDDY VS JASON one minute, analyze THE MAFU CAGE the next, and appreciate both for their craftsmanship and artistry. We caught up with Morris to find out why he’s dedicated to physical film stock, what screenings he’s most excited about, and how he got Don Mancini to attend this year’s fest.  

How did your partnership with Music Box begin?

I worked for Ryan Oestreich, General Manager of the Music Box, when was running the Denver Film Society years ago. After going our separate ways, we kept in touch, and about two years later, my phone starts ringing and it’s Ryan, and he says, “Hey, you know that 24-hour marathon we do? Do you want to program it and host it?” I was like, “Dude, I have notebooks full of 24-hour horror marathon ideas I’ve been keeping since high school. Yes, of course I want to do that.” So, like a lot of my career, it was being very lucky and having friends.

Music Box of Horrors has been going on since 2005, how did you want to set yourself apart in taking over the reigns?

When I was first approached by Music Box, I talked to a lot of people I knew in Chicago, and one thing that kept coming up was “horror bros.” The main thing that I always want to do, no matter where I’m showing stuff, is to try to make everybody feel welcome. That’s big for me.  I hate nothing more than fucking snooty people who want to judge everyone for liking certain movies or make fun if you haven’t seen the “right” ones, whatever those may be. I like to try to remind people how huge of a thing the horror genre is and how it encompasses all emotions, all ideals, all trips…whatever! That’s why I love it so much, because there are no rules. You can do whatever you want, and it can cover all of the human experience. And then, [when programming], it’s important to me find and strike a balance between classic, canonical films that people already love and trying to sneak in new discoveries as much as I can.

 How important is screening physical film to you as a fan and programmer?

It’s very important to me! Not to be annoying about it, but I’m a strong subscriber to the belief that there’s an enormous difference between film and digital. And even when a film looks a little bit crunchy, I really like that. I always want to find the best prints I can, and it’s one of my favorite parts about programming–hunting all over and finding something that had been previously thought lost. For example, I always wanted to show TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995), but all the 35mm prints were supposedly dead since the Universal Studios fire. But, when I found out that one of my buddies had the only 16mm print in the world of it, I lost my mind. And I think, even though 16 isn’t as strong of a format as 35, and you definitely have a little bit of softness to it, I do think that it lends itself to a more interesting, more community experience than if you just show a Blu-ray or DCP of it, you know? If a print genuinely doesn’t exist, I’m always down with screening whatever you can. The movie [itself] is always the most important part of what I do, but I’ll always exhaust all options first.

What are you most excited about in this year’s program?

I’ve been hassling Ryan forever to do THE MAFU CAGE (1978), because it’s one of my favorites ever. I think it’s one of the most peculiar, unsettling, deep, dark, gets-under-your-skin horror films. I’m really excited for that one, for sure.

Is that the “can’t miss” film in the lineup?

God, I’m going to end up saying every movie, but gun to my head…yes! It’s definitely a slow burn, but god damn, does it pay off. I’m really excited about THE CHILDREN as well. It came out in 2008, played a couple festivals, but it didn’t really go theatrical at all. It is one of the best killer children movies that I know of. And then, BODY MELT (1993) is fun because, of course, the “goop film,” is one of my favorite subgenres. It’s a lot like STREET TRASH (1987) and SLIME CITY (1988), you know, the kind of gross-out, effects-driven movies that pretty much died out in the 80’s…as they should have [laughs]. But then I found BODY MELT. It’s obviously by a person who was clearly obsessed with that kind of horror movie and was like, “No, there’s one more to be made still!” Prior to Vinegar Syndrome finally putting it out proper, it was really tough to see and people just didn’t talk about it that much. And I always want to include those gems. This year WICKED, WICKED (1973) is back, because it’s such a cool gimmick!  It’s in “duo-vision,” so we get the split-screen perspective of the killer and the victim throughout the movie. It’s really perverse in a very fun way, especially for this crowd. And it’s just fun to force the viewer to question, “Who am I rooting for? What am I watching here?” I also just found one I’ve been hunting for a long time! Ryan and I have secured an uncut, Italian language 35mm print of Dario Argento’s OPERA (1987)! I’m stoked, because it’s his own personal print, too. Always adds a nice air of speciality.

In light of the recent controversy surround the CHILD’S PLAY (1988) reboot, it’s a pretty big deal to have Don Mancini in attendance. How did that come about?

I’m so mad. I’m so mad they’re doing it without him or Brad Dourif, but whatever. I’ve heard some of the latest gossip, but I’m just going to ask him at the Q&A, so we’ll see. I warned him that this is the Q&A I was born to do! [laughs]

I don’t know if there’s a better pleasure than getting a huge audience in front of a work that hasn’t been seen or celebrated, but I think should be, you know? DARK WATERS (1994) last year was so great, because Mariano [Baino] is just the sweetest soul ever, and, watching him get overwhelmed by the love from everybody, that was really special. Because Ryan and I are both sadists, during the marathon, we started talking about this year, and we were both like, “Okay, we’ve finally got to get Don Mancini.” We went back and forth, because part of me–the mischievous part–really wanted to screen BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998) or SEED OF CHUCKY (2008), because I love them, and I think they’re unfairly hated. But, we ended up talking with Don, and we decided to just give the people what they want, take it back to the beginning, and screen the very first film in the series. I’ve been very, very obsessed with all things CHILD’S PLAY since I was a kid. I’m just so excited it’s finally happening, just to give him the fucking credit he deserves! We’re going to be talking the whole career. He started such a thing, and people just forget that he wrote the entire series. He’s been there all the way through! His whole career is CHILD’S PLAY and every entry is good!

What makes the Music Box different from other venues, and what makes it special for you personally?

Of course, there’s the historical side of it. Old movie palaces just always feel good to me, especially when it’s something like a 24-hour horror marathon. It’s really special when you get to take over this theater that’s been around so long, playing stuff like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), and get do something perverse like this.

But it really comes down to the crowd for me, through and through. It’s just the best fucking crowd that I know of, consistently, every year. One of the biggest reasons is that there is very little need for people to be ironic and showcase that they’re better than everyone. I love the Music Box audience because they respect the craft, but also, have fun with it. They’re so good at taking risks, and going with you and trusting that it’s worth it, even if they hate [a film] for the first half hour. Every time I intro and host around, I try to encourage people to tell me exactly what they think, good or bad. I want to hear what they hated, what they loved, and I’ve never had anybody be snarky about it at all. Even people who come up and are like, “These three fucking sucked, why’d you do that?” [laughter] But it’s not in a mean way, they’re not mad at me. That’s uplifting in today’s awful world that we can just talk about it! I mean, the dumbest decision I ever made since I’ve been doing this is showing GANJA AND HESS (1973) at four in the morning. I love that movie so much, but awful timing. And there’s still this couple, that comes up to me every year since, and they’ve been like, “When you showed that movie, we were furious, and we laughed and didn’t want to come back. We were so mad at you. And ever since then, we watch it once a year. It’s become one of our favorites.” I love that. We can all agree, I fucked up. It shouldn’t have played in a 24-hour horror marathon at all. But I just love that people still at some point were like, “Wow, there was something there!” That’s why I love the Music Box crowd.

Music Box of Horrors runs from Saturday, October 13th to Sunday, October 14th

Check out the full lineup and purchase tickets!

Rocco Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous.