My best Halloween: HorrorFest 2019

I love Halloween. It’s a great excuse to embrace the weirdness, scare yourself silly, and enjoy an enormous variety of spooky fun. One of my favourite ways to experience the macabre joys of the season is watching horror movies. Sometimes that means thought-provoking titles like Alien or Get Out, or classic monster movies like Frankenstein or The Wolf Man, or MST3K-ready atrocities like The Giant Spider Invasion. And one of my favourite places to do that is at the South African HorrorFest, which happens every year at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town.

I sent the organisers, Paul Blom and Sonja Ruppersberg, a set of questions about this year’s festivities and they were gracious enough to send me the following responses. Enjoy reading!

Congratulations on what looks to be another great installment of the South African HorrorFest. You’ve been running the festival for 15 years. What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed during that time?

Sonja Ruppersberg: Thanks, Jacques. We have seen the crowds grow over the years as there is more awareness of Halloween in SA. We have seen an increase in the diversity of crowds as well. The Labia Theatre has updated its technology and the face of the theatre has blossomed into a magical little corner in Cape Town.

Paul Blom: It has gone from the more die-hard horror fans to including a much wider range of people who enjoy entertainment in general (though the die-hards are still there) and who, I hope, want that cinema experience instead of sitting in a corner staring at their phone. That said, the increase in (illegal) downloading since we started in 2005 and advent of streaming in that time has made it harder to convince people to come out and partake in a communal cinema experience, at least one that doesn’t have Marvel or DC emblazoned across it.

Over the years, you’ve added a number of regular events, including the Bloody Parchment literary event/short fiction competition, the Short Film Collection/competition, the audience participation screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and what is undoubtedly one of the most popular events, the live music screening of a silent movie.

You’ve added even more special events to the line-up this time around, including a live commentary by professional comedians in the style of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 (MST3K). What else can people expect about this year’s festival?

Paul: While we focus on indie movies and short films you won’t get to see anywhere else in an SA cinema, every year we try our best to secure an advance screening of a brand new high-profile movie before it hits the commercial circuit. This year, five days before its official global release, we’ve got Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s anticipated sequel to his legendary book The Shining (brilliantly adapted by Stanley Kubrick). After 40 years, The Shining remains one of the best horror movies of all time. We’ll also be screening The Shining on Halloween night (31 October), a few days before Doctor Sleep, for those who haven’t seen it, and fans like us who’ve seen it countless times, but never in the cinema.

Sonja: This year will also see what will hopefully be the first edition of a live commentary screening. Comedian Rob van Vuuren and satirist Karen Jeynes will deliver live comedy commentary to the cheesy B-movie Curse of the Swamp Creature.

For the live silent film score, The Makabra Ensemble will be joined by special guests, including the exquisite Sara Eksteen (from Johannesburg-based Polar Dust) and the fabulous Keaton (from DJ Grimehouse and New Hero).

The free Bloody Parchment literature night features local authors and opens the festival (Tuesday, 29 October). This year it also features the launch of award-winning author, Nerine Dorman’s, book A Company of Birds.

Paul: Several years back, we did a proper Grindhouse double feature with Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Death Proof and Planet Terror when it released (complete with fake Machete trailer in the middle). This year we’re doing it again, with the controversial 1978 shocker I Spit On Your Grave, screened together with the brand new documentary by the director’s son: Growing Up with I Spit On Your Grave. Two movies for one ticket price! This is the first time ever these get screened together, as well as the new direct sequel I Spit On Your Grave Déjà Vu at the same event. (Déjà Vu also features SA-born actress Maria Olsen.) Always divisive, the original film has split audiences for four decades, some seeing it as a feminist statement, others as misogynist exploitation. The documentary sheds amazing light on this with all opinions and viewpoints considered, and the double feature makes for a great study to make up your own mind once and for all!

“Mephistopheles’s Got Nothing on This”:
Paul and Sonja (Photo: Dr-Benway)

You’ve mentioned the so-bad-it’s-good monster movie, Curse of the Swamp Creature, which is a special closing event to this year’s line-up. How did you get Rob & Karen involved?

Paul: We’ve been contemplating incorporating something like this for years (we’ve been doing it ourselves way back, even before MST3K surfaced). But this year satirist Karen Jeynes approached us with a plan to do one with Curse of the Swamp Creature along with Rob, and we decided it would be perfect to close the festival with a laugh, seeing as some of the movies in the line-up are quite serious and contentious. But we always try to add fun, tongue-in-cheek titles like Clownado and The Velocipastor!

You’ve also announced the two special guests for the Makabra Ensemble soundtrack performance. How did you get Sara and Keaton (aka Grimehouse) to join the line-up?

Sonja: We have done performances and collaborations with both Grimehouse and Polar Dust, and it was just a natural next step for them to join the Makabra Ensemble for an exclusive guest performance. All the musicians that have been invited as guests to the Makabra events have all mentioned that it’s an honour to be part of it. We would love to collaborate more with special friends and notable musicians going forward. Doing a Makabra Ensemble live performance event has become a sort of a ‘rite of passage’, as it is a daunting affair.

Any plans to release an official collection of songs from the Makabra Ensemble at some point? Say, a Greatest Hits package. I still enjoy the Nosferatu soundtrack a great deal.

Paul: We talk about it every year! We’ve done over a dozen full silent film scores since we started and actually want to release all the movies with our new soundtracks. But we want to record them properly, not a straight live recording like we did for the Nosferatu DVD (which was fine, but not optimal).

Makabra member Simon Ratcliffe is a sound engineer of note and runs Sound & Motion Studios, and he’s willing to make his facilities available to record. It’s just a matter of finding space in his crazy schedule, as well as all of the members of the group who are active with a wide range of things. (The group includes Sonja and I, Sean Ou Tim, Matthijs van Dijk and Ronnie Belcher.) I’ve also pondered a ‘Best of’ audio anthology and a limited edition vinyl LP… Some day – hopefully sooner rather than later!

(You can watch a video clip from a previous year’s performance at this YouTube link:

In terms of the regular feature films that you’re screening, what are some of your personal highlights that you’re looking forward to?

Sonja: The standouts are The Shining, for sure, and the special pre-release screening of its sequel Doctor Sleep.

Paul: There are so many. We always try to include interesting genre documentaries, and this year we have a record four docs on three fascinating directors – Lucio Fulci, Al Adamson and Michael Reeves – and the aforementioned doc about I Spit On Your Grave.

The short films are always great because they encapsulate such a variety of creativity from around the world. The movie Deathcember technically joins the short film contingent as it has 24 Christmas theme horror chapters by as many directors, some whose work has screened at the HorrorFest in the past.

While most movies are having their African premieres at the HorrorFest, we’re excited to host the World Premiere of local chiller The Last Sacrament (Sunday, 3 November) and the filmmakers will be attending for an intro and post audience chat.

We’re also awaiting word on whether US actress Jamie Bernadette (from NCIS New Orleans) will make it to SA in time to attend the African premiere of her movie I Spit on Your Grave Déjà Vu (Wednesday, 6 November).

This year’s poster image is inspired by The Shining, which you are screening at this year’s festival. How on earth did you manage that?

Paul: Recreating the pattern or getting the movie? 😉 After we secured an advance screening of Doctor Sleep with Empire, we simply had to include The Shining (being one of our favourites and being too young to see it in cinema on its original release). Most of the movies we screen we have direct permission from the producers, but then others you need to go via sales agents or license companies, as in this case.

For those in the know that carpet pattern from the Overlook Hotel is an instant homage, and in this case, hint at its inclusion.

Fun fact, The Phantom Carriage also has a connection in that Kubrick was inspired by a certain axe and door incident that happens in the 1921 movie. So come check out the live soundtrack! You may even hear some familiar notes.

What have been some of your biggest challenges? Is it difficult to keep things fresh, or to find movies to screen, or to figure out what will appeal to your audience?

Sonja: It is something that develops in an organic way. It is like the festival decides for itself where it wants to venture next 🙂 Spooky, hey…

Paul: The biggest challenge is pulling it off without dedicated support staff. We don’t have budget to employ a dozen people to handle all aspects from movie selection, creative, design and admin, to promo, on-line, press, etc. Each year movie submissions grow, so it is in fact a case of having too many to choose from and having to turn loads down, even if they are good. We only have that week to 10 days to fit it all in. We always feel terrible if we can’t include a cool movie. That’s also partially why we started our other festivals like The X Fest, Celludroid, Sound On Screen and Daring Doccies, to often move a title to those if it fits the themes.

How long does it take you to choose movies for the Shadow Realm short film collections?

Paul: Weeks! There are so many and we need to narrow the final batch down to fit the three feature length chapters (6+ hours in total).

What’s your process for selecting short films for the competition? Has it changed a lot since the first time?

Paul: Instinct mostly. But to keep it fair, we have 10 score categories (with a value of 10 each), including Production Value, Direction, Acting, Originality, Cinematography, Adhering to the Horror Theme, etc. We also have a calibrated Excel sheet calculating the totals and average scores (as well as running times to keep an eye on that essential aspect – many hours of movies don’t make it).

But then, some movies are so good they leap out at you.

Sonja: Then for the final decider for winners of the offcicial selection in various categories, we are joined by the jury which includes Joe Vaz, Ryan Kruger and Marnus Tredoux.

What are some of the giveaways that people can look forward to?

Sonja: This year we have a great variety of give-aways and prizes, which happen before screenings and as part of the larger prize hampers for the Halloween dress-up on the night of the live soundtrack show (on Saturday 02 November, 9 pm).

There are several Doctor Sleep hampers with ‘redruM’ branded T-shirts, sweat-shirts, blankets, mugs, chalk boards, chalk writable mug, Overlook Hotel room 237 keyrings and tote bags. Bathory Cosmetic Co. has joined us with their amazing gothic-flavoured beauty products (which I’ve tried and love!) – several smaller individual give-aways and a big coffin-shaped hamper.

Paul: Mr Lucky’s Cape Town Tattoo is on board again with tattoo vouchers and custom HorrorFest & Mr Lucky mugs. Love In Vein also joins us for the first time with special blood vial kits (where soul mates can wear their other half’s life force around their neck!). There will be a chilling range of Penguin/Random House Books up for grabs.

We have posters and Blu-ray copies of I Spit On Your Grave Déjà Vu signed by the director – and if star Jamie Bernadette makes it to SA in time, we’ll add hers as well.

Local custom shirt printers Sad Shirts will also have some cool goodies. Then there are also some horror DVDs as usual, and movie merch from UIP.

What’s one thing that you think people don’t understand about the festival that you wish they knew?

Sonja: It really is a labour of love and we pull this off every year with sheer willpower and minimal resources. More investment in the festival will be great, and hopefully, one day, sponsors will not be so hesitant to support the alternative arts.

Paul: It’s fun entertainment with a darker edge, nothing more, nothing less. Some still think Horror is not a legitimate genre (although it is one of the most financially viable genres out there), and that it is just a lot of the same rehashed recipes – Sure, it often is, but that’s why we try to find a wide variety of horror entertainment to cover a wide range of tastes within the Halloween spirit, and make the event as fun as possible.

Then a few dumb-asses obviously believe it’s evil… Oh well!

The 15th annual South African HorrorFest takes place from 29 October – 7 November at the Labia Theatre. You can find information about all the movies at, and you can watch trailers and book for all the events at And you can watch the promo trailer for the festival at the link below.

You can also find them online:

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