Exclusive Interview: The Sex and Death Obsessions of Author David Kerekes

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On the cusp of his Miskatonic London lecture, SHOCK talks to author and Headpress co-founder David Kerekes

David Kerekes is an authority on death and sex on screen. A co-founder of Headpress, the British publishing house specializing in invaluable and essential texts on unpopular culture, Kerekes’ two books co-written with fellow Headpress architect David Slater are exhaustive and indispensible: SEE NO EVIL: BANNED FILMS AND VIDEO CONTROVERSY (2001) investigates Britain’s ‘video nasties’ moral panic, with an opening chapter offering the best thorough summary I’ve yet read on the rise, popularization and dominance of home video (from a UK perspective). Slater & Kerekes’ earlier co-authorship, the critically acclaimed KILLING FOR CULTURE: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF DEATH FILM FROM MONDO TO SNUFF (1994), has recently been revised and greatly expanded for a new 2016 edition, under the title KILLING FOR CULTURE: FROM EDISON TO ISIS – A NEW HISTORY OF DEATH ON FILM. The Hardback Edition is available direct from the Headpress website (EMBED LINK: http://www.headpress.com/ShowProduct.aspx?ID=117), with the paperback edition to follow in June 2016.

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies is a non-profit forum for established horror writers, directors, scholars, film programmers and curators to discourse with genre fans in a critical, curriculum-based, academic setting. Founded by Kier-La Janisse (author of HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL TOPOGRAPHY OF FEMALE NEUROSIS IN HORROR AND EXPLOITATION CINEMA and Festival Director & Head Programmer for Melbourne’s Monster Fest, the Miskatonic Institute – named after the Arkham University of H.P. Lovecraft mythos – has hosted pop-up courses, lectures and screenings all over the world, with regular curriculums operating yearly in Montreal, Canada and London, England.

In London, the next course on the block at The Horse Hospital is David Kerekes’ “It’s Not Real, But It’s Reality: The Story of Custom-Made Sex and Horror”, taking place this Thursday, May 12th, from 7:00PM-10:00PM. Pulling from Kerekes’ research for KILLING FOR CULTURE, this lecture traces the history of the custom film shoot, where customers script and pay for their own movies, usually with niche fetish specifications, including models being mock executed. Often enhanced by digital effects and sometimes featuring explicit sex, these short films closely mimic the motifs of the mythological ‘snuff’ film, in as much as the customer suggests a scenario, the preferred mode of death (gunshot, strangulation, hanging, etc.) and the victim (plucked from a studio’s own roster of performers).

SHOCK speaks with David Kerekes, one of the preeminent researchers of human horror and its tangled connection with cinema entertainment.

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SHOCK: You have been writing about and providing a serious, investigative forum into the wildest fringes of cinema, pop culture, and real life horrors and oddities for over two decades with Headpress. How did your interest veer from standard cinephilia, to focusing your eye on that crossover point of filmed entertainment and real life violence & sex?

KEREKES: It’s a case of complete peripheral vision! I’m interested in film and I’m also interested in all this other stuff, too. Sometimes there is a crossover point – as in the case of the mondo films. I suppose some of it has to do with having been ‘educated’ to some degree in the 1990s melting pot of end of the millennium, apocalypse culture. It was a decade with a general sense of ‘anything goes’ about it. When we – me and the other two Davids (David Slater and David Flint) – started to publish Headpress magazine in the early 1990s, we consciously wanted to avoid bringing another film zine into the world, even though that was how we had met in the first place – through an interest in film. Britain was at that time still panicked by the whole ‘video nasties’ debacle, which saw people being fined and even imprisoned for dealing in uncertified videocassettes. That undoubtedly had something to do with our mind-set and the mind-set in Britain at the time – a sense of paranoia, ill feelings, nanny state, and so on. Maybe that’s where the crossover comes from? In any case, we thought it necessary to explore what was around us, not just films.

SHOCK: The description of custom ‘snuff’ film shoots, as described in your course syllabus, reminds me of the final story from Alex Chandon’s anthology film CRADLE OF FEAR (2001), where the user pays, picks a weapon, and then watches violence perpetuated to a victim online in real time. Presumably the ‘snuff’/sex films of custom film producers are usually done as a commissioned production to be delivered in, say, a month, allowing for casting, shooting, editing. Are there any “live” performance reenactments, like a paid sex chat?

KEREKES: The custom shoots are very much like that – a customer comes up with the idea, choice of model(s), theme, and the hard cash. The turnaround may be a month, but I suspect a lot sooner, because once the customer has their film, the film is then put on general sale (to the public). As for “live” performance, as in a webcam-type situation? Yes, I think that does happen. I have heard of at least one case. 

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SHOCK: Your book KILLING FOR CULTURE stands as the bible of sorts on the ‘snuff’ film. Can you tell us about the recently released updated version of KILLING FOR CULTURE? Twenty-plus years is a long time – can you describe what changed in the narrative and what’s included in the vast amount of additional content?

KEREKES: The earlier editions of KILLING FOR CULTURE make no reference to the Internet, so that gives you a basic idea of the scope and scale of this new edition. The Internet and digital media has not only given us a new platform for watching and distributing material, but it has also changed the way in which we interact with media and the way in which we look at it and process it. Imagine your old copy of KILLING FOR CULTURE, but with a new book tagged onto it! I’m not even joking when I say that. There are three new chapters, while almost all the existing text has been updated or revamped in some way. The new book goes into some very interesting, not always obvious places.

SHOCK: Considering all the negative attention and criminal accusations that have been thrown at horror/extreme filmmakers, particularly during the ‘video nasties’ era, are made-to-order facsimile ‘snuff’ producers not under a constant threat of police investigation, ISP shut downs, or other issues that would make staying afloat an extremely complicated burden? How are these issues circumvented?

(Close to home for me, a Canadian SFX artist named Remy Couture was recently brought to trail (but acquitted) on obscenity charges for realistic sexual horror.)

KEREKES: There are several instances in which websites containing such material have been closed down, either by hosting companies or law enforcement. There are also instances where the producers of such material have landed in court. In Britain in 2008, a law was passed that directly addressed the issue of fake ‘snuff’ material. A test case came to trial in 2011 involving a man who had paid for and downloaded such images. The issue of ‘realism’ is key in trying to determine whether fake ‘snuff’ pictures can be classed as obscene or not. Other factors are also involved, of course, but this new law – referred to colloquially as “The Dangerous Pictures Act” – hinges on the rather nebulous concept of what is real. In the test case, the defendant was found not guilty.

As to how producers themselves circumvent the law – they don’t always manage to do so. However, these studios are operating globally, and I suspect the local obscenity laws under which some of them are working may be more lax than in, say, the UK, the US, and Canada. 

SHOCK: In your course description, you say that custom video makers are “patronized by individuals with a hankering to see a favorite model hiccup in white socks, or else, more likely, be executed and play dead.” Do you really think that the extreme end of sex/murder/violence is the most often requested material from these on-demand film production companies? And how do these custom shoots connect with the ‘snuff’ narrative and panic of the 1970s?

KEREKES: Custom shoots extend beyond just fake ‘snuff’, of course – or “death fetish” as they are also known. It seems to me that there’s a rise in the number of non-“death fetish” clips being produced to order, especially of a niche and idiosyncratic type. But generally I would say they are not nearly as widespread, and they certainly don’t have the network in place that the death fetish community has. This is based on our research putting together KILLING FOR CULTURE, and my subsequent research undertaken for this particular lecture.

If you look back to the ‘snuff’ film panic of the mid 1970s, the rumors followed a very specific model: ‘snuff’ films were said to be films that featured a genuine murder, and that these films were created and sold for the sexual gratification of a very select and wealthy client base. The rumors by and large went unchallenged – well, they certainly didn’t go away once they had taken hold in the media, and the Hollywood imagination and that of society as a whole, despite no evidence of a ‘snuff’ film being found. What impact do these rumors have on society? I don’t mean in the sense of a moral panic, but what long-term impact? How do we answer those rumors? Well, one answer it seems to me is to create ‘snuff’ films of our own – albeit fake ones – as per the custom shoot.

For London SHOCK readers, ticket links for David Kerekes’ “It’s Not Real, But It’s Reality: The Story of Custom-Made Sex and Horror” as well as past & future courses from the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies can be found HERE.

HEADPRESS and their extensive collection of film & culture publications and related ephemera and curiosities can be found HERE.