Creepy Christmas Film Festival’s Beck Underwood: The Horror News Network Interview

by Stephanie Shamblin Gray

The 2018 Creepy Christmas Film Festival is now in full-swing with a new film premiering every day until Christmas. Previously created back in 2008, the fest is back with many new and returning filmmakers to give horror fans something to look forward to in the form of an online Advent Calendar. The original 2008 stories were inspired by a diorama that Beck Underwood had built with an imagined view into each window. This time around, the artists were given a grab-bag word to base their story on. Words usually considered sweet, such as candy cane, have now been given a sinister edge in the hands of the filmmakers. We caught up with Underwood to ask her about finding the filmmakers, what inspired the new concepts, and, of course, her feelings about the creepiness of Christmas.

Horror News Network: The Creepy Christmas Film Festival information states that this was all started with you wanting to know what stories may lie behind the windows of a diorama you created. Because this is “Creepy Christmas” those imagined stories were clearly more eerie than sweet! Had you always felt a strong connection between Christmas and creepiness or did that connection start with the diorama? Had you previously made any creepy Christmas films?

Beck Underwood: I am a stop-motion animator working primarily with found objects especially toys and dolls. I have always been intrigued by the uncanny nature of toys and the sort of echo of their past lives. The diorama and the window photos were very much my vibe. Then, I thought the little scenarios seemed so ripe for making up the narrative say, between that sailor doll and the teddy with glass eyes. I mean, what did they get up to, how did they meet?

I always use creepy with a bit of tongue in cheek, I think some people think these things are creepier than I do. As for my own personal connection between Christmas and creepy, well, it is pretty ripe…the dark winter nights, the anticipations of wondering if one has been naughty or nice, the sound of bells in the distance, the idea of someone sneaking around in your house and maybe looking behind the curtain of all the nice traditions of Christmas and seeing something a bit darker. There are great traditions of cautionary tales, Dickens being one of the authors of the most well-known. A Christmas Carol, after all, is an incredible ghost story above all else. My husband and I have done an annual puppet show of this story for about 25 years! The Victorians had very macabre depictions of Christmas; European traditions of Krampus and other wicked accomplices to Christmas lore. I mean I could go on, but anyway, the literary tradition is very rich. I think almost all authors have done a Christmas tale of some sort and they usually are pretty dark and certainly there is a growing library of films that also mine creepy and Christmas

HNN: What prompted the return of the Creepy Christmas Film Festival on its 10-year anniversary?

Underwood: I was reminiscing with some young filmmakers who had been in their teens when the first fest came out, and they made me realize that the creepy Christmas universe had resonance. I think the wildly differing styles and approaches coupled with a devil-may-care attitude about perfection that the first fest offered was relatable and inspiring. I thought, well, the landscape for short content has changed a lot and maybe this won’t seem so unique, but what the hell, let’s go for it. I did hesitate and begged off at first thinking I should wait for a more auspicious anniversary then I checked my math again and realized it was in fact the 10th anniversary and that was auspicious enough!

HNN: The filmmakers are noting their “grab-bag” word(s) for the subject of their film in their film description. Can you tell us how you came up with that and if anything else was given to them?

Underwood: Well, the first Creepy Christmas fest was so linked with the calendar, I assigned each filmmaker a window, sent them the objects from the window and the date of the window was their due date and premiere. This time around, I didn’t really have a lot of those objects and thought we would go with a more traditional, almost art school, notion of giving the filmmakers a prompt to use as a jumping off point for their short. We came up with the gimmick of the old Santa hat and when a filmmaker accepted their initial invitation they either drew the name themselves if they were able to meet up or I drew it for them. One of the filmmakers, Devin Febbroriello, was in town from Portland and we met and decided it would be fun to draw each other’s word. So I drew TOYS for her and she drew CHRISTMAS TREE for me. I was annoyed because she seemed less than inspired by toys and I’m all about toys!!! We stuck to our guns and I think we both came up with a really cool approach to our prompt. I think that challenge of getting blind-sided by an obligation and having to rise to the occasion is another thing that makes the fest so great. I don’t know what it is, but something about creepy Christmas is the mother of invention.

HNN: How did you find the other filmmakers?

Underwood: My co-curator Ben Duff is an RISD [ed. – Rhode Island School of Design] alumni so he ended up inviting a wide array of filmmakers he knew through that school. I looked at the alumni and decided to invite about half of them back. The remainder were new to the fest. One of the filmmakers, Mickey Keating, very kindly responded to his invite noting that he had been hoping for this email invite ever since the first fest. For the original fest, I invited a lot of folks who were not filmmakers but who had, I thought, a very creative approach in whatever they did: poetry, sculpture, comics, etc. and the spirit to jump in with both feet. This time around I would say there are more professional filmmakers involved; known for their shorts and features. I did want to include the filmmaking teens from the LES [ed. – Lower East Side] girls club where I teach. Even though their main focus is on social activism, it was a fun challenge for them to tackle this genre. Many of them are fans of horror and getting to make one of their own was pretty cool.

HNN: Would you consider making this a competition with filmmakers submitting films for possible inclusion into the calendar?

Underwood: First off, I do think there are so many amazing films out there, and definitely ones that people have created specifically with a holiday horror bent. I would love to see a holiday festival of such films and perhaps the gaggle of shorts from the Creepy Christmas fests could be included. As for what’s next? I am more drawn to the sort of conceptual art angle of a film challenge, maybe something where people are trapped in a room and have to make a film to get out.

HNN: Should we expect a return of the film festival in 2019?

Underwood: I can’t speak to that entirely. If so, it may be something more affiliated with a fancier distributor so the filmmakers could be compensated, or maybe something as homegrown as it is now…is that vague enough?!

HNN: Anything else you would like to tell us about?

Underwood: The filmmakers this year seem to be drawing a lot from their own personal holiday nightmares, memories, and dreams. Horror is often born from anxiety and the holidays are definitely a time of anxiety. The stress of the holidays certainly turned my mom into a bit of a monster. All the pressure to achieve all that sugar-coated peace and goodwill. Doesn’t take much to mine it all for horror. What is in that box under the tree? Who is slithering down in my chimney? What freaky food will I be forced to eat at Grandma’s house?

And I want to relay that these filmmakers all agreed to make the films for the fest with no financial compensation. It resulted in people working with their families, friends, pets, and passersby; those who would more likely throw down for fun than for profit. I really hope viewers will check out the films and give the filmmakers a little love in the form of enthusiastic comments. I’m so excited and proud of what they’ve all made and delighted to be sharing their visions and talents, but I can only tell them how fabulous they are so many times I’m like the proud granny at this point!

HNN: Thank you, Beck, for talking to us!

Read more coverage of the Creepy Christmas Film Festival on Horror News Network here.

You can check out the Creepy Christmas Film Fest here.

Image of Beck Underwood from “The Art of Beck Underwood” for Glass Eye Pix.

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