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Alan Jones: Your Favourite Director’s Favourite Film Critic

12 min read
Filmhounds Magazine

The first time I saw in person was the closing of 2021 – I noticed him sitting off to the wayside, enjoying the calm of the 's close to himself. Just before, I'd watched him introduce the Closing Film with the same confident charisma he'd emanated throughout the entire festival. I wanted to introduce myself, but imagined this might be the first moment of tranquility he'd had since the festival opened – as I'd later discover, Alan is 70, making his efforts with the festival all the more incredible; I certainly couldn't imagine the stress and logistics of planning any event in 2021, let alone a major film festival.

When we finally met over Zoom, Alan emphasized that was likely his only moment of calm for the week: “I had to do an event a night since FrightFest stopped, and I'm going to Italy tomorrow to work on a film.”

Born in Portsmouth to a guesthouse-running family by the seaside, Alan was always longing for the city – “It's the Swinging ‘60s, c'mon, Carnaby Street! I wanted to go, I was that sort of person.” Alan's bold ambition led him to move the minute his exam results came back, to the booming scene of 1969 London. As luck would have it, he would end up working for a Carnaby Street company, and eventually transitioned to the Portobello Hotel, where everything begins. “I was 20, 21, mixing with really famous people – ABBA, The Eagles, Mick Jagger. I actually knew all of them, went to gigs with them.” Alan posits this as a key training ground for his journalistic career: “I never felt in awe of anybody. I always felt they were just normal. If I knew my stuff, that was the key. I knew more about their careers than they did!” It was here where Alan would meet Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford pre-Star Wars – so when he was invited onto the set for his first major set report, to him it was just meeting some friends on their new project, rather than film stars on this epic space opera.

Alan had always written reviews, keeping a diary from 1965; the FrightFest Guide to Grindhouse is essentially that writ large. He's always loved : “as soon as I was old enough, I went to see three horrors in a row: Blood and Black Lace, Circus of Horrors and Horrors at the Black Museum. I didn't know I'd be writing about Mario Bava 50 years later, but I still am.” The spark was there from the beginning, but it was through Michael Childs, Alan's best friend and producer for Capitol Radio, that kindled Alan's journalism career. The pair would often see previews together – “I said if I was ever going to do a biography, I'd call it ‘I Haven't Paid for a Film Since 1972.' (Alan's since decided on ‘Discomania' as the title instead.) It was this friendship that blossomed Alan's journalism career: “Michael was crucial for me to be working in magazines, he was offered a job on Cinefantastique, the lynchpin 70s American publication. We did it together, and when his workload meant he couldn't continue, I took over completely. That's where everything took off.”

From then on, Alan became Cinefantastique's London Correspondent, and his debut by-lines are incredible: a five-page interview spread with Brian De Palma and Sissy Spacek (alongside a dinner with her and her husband) on Carrie, an on-set report of Star Wars – “From the Star Wars Cinefantastique issue, we were away. We had covered the biggest film of the 70s.” However, initially the studios just couldn't comprehend what Alan could do for these films: “I'd tell them ‘Well, I'd like to come on set and interview people.' And they'd just go ‘Why?!' and I'd say ‘Publicity?' and they'd go ‘Oh…', like it was a whole new concept to them. They just didn't get it. I do feel like being a pioneer in this field. It was just dogged persistence, you know.”

It was a combination of determination – “I met all of my best friend Russell Mulcahy's director friends, so I didn't even need the publicists, I could just ring them up and say, ‘well you've got this coming out, I'm going to come over and talk to you”, and a trusting editor that led Alan to chase whatever film took his fancy: “I would never be in this position without Fred Clark [Editor of Cinefantastique.] I'd phone him up in Chicago, and go ‘I'm going to talk to Michael Winner on this film, some guy called Alfred Sole on a film called Communion.' And he'd go ‘Sure, do everything, just send it all off.' I learned through his editing skills how to actually be the writer I am today.”

I asked Alan if this unflappability was what so many respected about him, and he gave me a simple but succinct answer: “I knew my stuff, Sabastian. I built my whole knowledge from the ground up, read everything, saw everything.” Becoming an encyclopedic pioneer of genre journalism could've easily come with an ego, but there's little trace of that in Alan: “If I like something, then great, but if I don't like it, it doesn't matter. People can still go make up their own mind up.” What I respect most about Alan is the titanium bedrock of his honesty, as he recalled telling Nicolas Winding Refn at the Cannes premiere of The Neon Demon that he thought it was awful: “if I can do that, I can do it to anybody. Mark Kermode always says that I'll always tell people to their face what I think, good or bad. I think that honesty has made a lot of difference to my career.” No matter how close a friend you are to Alan, you can count on that unadulterated honesty, even if you're Dario Argento – “we came to blows very early on with Phenomena. I've always been very honest with him, that's one of the reasons why I think I've stayed in his universe, because he knows if he asks my opinion, I will give it. I think that's really important.”

Throughout the 70s and 80s, Alan became a journalistic powerhouse, writing for Cinefantastique, Starburst, and two French magazines called Starfix and L'ecran Fantastique: “L'ecran Fantastique was important because it got me on the festival circuit very quickly like Paris and Avoriaz, which was very important at the time. Starfix was edited by Christophe Gans (Director of Brotherhood of the Wolf), which is how I met him.” It's around the end of the 1980s where Alan makes his first foray into film festival directing, with Scala Cinema's Shock Around the Clock with Stefan Jaworzyn, conceived as an offshoot from Shock Express. This was a 24-hour all-nighter of horror, akin to a prototypical FrightFest All-Nighter. Jane Giles, the Scala Programmer during that time, remembers Shock Around the Clock for having “sweat literally running down the walls, people passed out on the floor … I think it was a sense of people being so happy just to be there.” When I tell Alan about Jane's memory, he gushes about her: “Jane's a great friend, she did the forward for the Grindhouse guide. I always say if Jane hadn't done as much promotion as she did, I doubt whether [Shock Around the Clock] would have ever been a footnote in history, and I doubt whether I would have actually gone on to do FrightFest.”

Eventually, both Alan and Stefan completed their experiment with Shock Around the Clock, and sought for new desires – for Alan, this transformed into Fantasm at the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank.) A celebration of horror and genre, running from 1990 – 1997, Fantasm showcased the work of individuals like Dario Argento, with guest appearances from the likes of Cronenberg and more. Working with an organization like the NFT has its ups and downs: “I could just say, ‘Get this film, get that one, get this director over here.' But it was the levels of bureaucracy and procedure that drove me crazy. I've never been one to subscribe to that. When you've got to go through layers and layers and layers of offices, just to get denials like ‘No, you can't have stalls in the cinema. We can't be seen to be selling stuff.' That's what it's all about! So that didn't last too long.” Trying to fit a genre-loving punk pioneer like Alan Jones into a bureaucratic square hole was never going to work.

As a new century dawns, and the internet grips the world, Alan remarks the explosion of horror fandom that occurred: “They didn't have to go to the cinemas, they could just see everything anytime.” With that comes a new generation of filmmakers who grew up devouring whatever of Alan's writing they could find, with Alan finding himself in the unique position of some of the biggest names in horror, and Hollywood fanboying over him: “I've had so many directors like Eli Roth, even Quentin Tarantino! The first time I met him, he quoted my review for Body Double at me, word for word! I just couldn't believe it. You can't get much better than that, can you really?” Alan's also working on a volume of his Starburst reviews for release next year – “you can actually chart how my writing has gone through being quite bitchy and nasty, because of my punk years. It still is, to a point! But I could never say some of the things I used to say now.” Alan regales me with one of the worst comments he can remember writing, and we both laugh in disbelief. “How did I get away with that?!” Directors are fortunate Alan has tempered himself is all I can say. I'm sure it'll be in the Starburst book.

I begin to ask about FrightFest's formative years, which has a stacked portfolio: Ringu 2, Audition, Pitch Black, Battle Royale, Donnie Darko, Dark Water, Insomnia with Christopher Nolan in attendance! With such an incredible spread, I wonder if Alan knew FrightFest would be a success, but his answer surprises me: “I never knew for a minute. I could never understand why London never had a proper horror festival like Avoriaz or Strasbourg. Possibly because of the council support since every other festival in the world gets given public money. We had no idea it was going to take off. I honestly do think it was a case of more horror fans getting hip to the programme, and there were also more women entering the fandom. That was the greatest thing for me because it hasn't just been sweaty old blokes! [Laughs.] It's been a really good mix.”

As FrightFest sprinted ahead over the years, with the UK premiere of Pan's Labyrinth with GDT in attendance, features like Old Boy and Pitch Black, I had to ask Alan if he could list any of his favourite FrightFest films. “Martyrs would have to be there – for me, that is the greatest film released in the last 20 years. I think that was a major masterpiece. Pan's Labyrinth was an important moment for me, so that would certainly be in there.” I see Alan begin to struggle, as I realize I've asked him to choose his favourite children, and there's just so many of them. To Alan, the best part of FrightFest aren't the major contenders that come to play, but the little filmmakers making a name for themselves: “When someone asks me, ‘what's the most important aspect of FrightFest?', I tell them that you get to meet tomorrow's stars before they're even that, and I think that's really true.”

This may surprise some, but FrightFest's films go through the Westminster City Council rather than the BBFC, due to the large number that lack British distribution: “I learned early on they'd read my synopses for the programmes and base their viewing on that. So now I don't write things like ‘this is the most shocking, gory thing you've ever seen!'” To me, this sounds like a dream job, but apparently the office has a high turnover – “Every two years, we have to re-form our relationship with whoever is in the office, since they seem to run screaming eventually! [Laughs].” I imagine you're thinking they judge it based on its sexual content, or its violence, but Alan clarifies that's not actually the case these days: “It's actually religious motives. Any diversity problems or homophobia, that sort of thing.”

As we all know, the last year has been a serious teething period for film festivals, and Alan gets candid about FrightFest's place in that: “It was a difficult one to put on this year. If we hadn't done it, I don't think we would've survived again – we had to do it big and make or break. Otherwise, I'm not sure we would have been back next year.” It's evident that unfortunately, FrightFest's connection to the horror genre means it doesn't have the same support network as some of the more ‘classical' film festivals, like the London Film Festival. When I bring it up, Alan makes it very clear where he stands: “I'm not a fan of the London Film Festival. They've tried to steal films from us in the past, which has caused friction. To me, if you give a film to the LFF, it's lost. If you give it to FrightFest, we will support it all the way.” From the sounds of it, there's quite the past between Alan and the LFF: “I'm just at the point where I will not take it anymore. It's frankly a case of how their actions reflect their attitude, and I merely give that attitude back to them.”

I bring up the LFF's ‘Cult' Strand, sometimes regarded as the graveyard for festival horror, as I wonder why it's often such a small pool compared to the other strands: “They've never looked at horror films properly. Calling it the ‘Cult Strand' just makes it sound as though they're embarrassed by them. They never promote them properly. There's sometimes three men and a dog for some of the films they've hosted.” As anyone on the festival circuit knows, this isn't a problem exclusive to LFF – many film festivals across the world neglect horror, despite as Alan cleverly remarks that “it makes the most money, and yet it's the poor relation.” Titles like ‘elevated horror' and ‘post horror' have been bandied around for the last few years for titles like Midsommar, Get Out, It Follows, and Alan has one thing to say about that: “A horror film is a horror film! Critics just use these labels when they don't want to admit they like a horror film.”

Alan's such a trailblazer of genre journalism, having worked through so many different eras from the 1970s to the hyper-connected 2020s, I wondered what his thoughts on today's journalism compared to his heyday, and much of what he says resonates with me: “When I look at back at any in-depth stuff I've done, I feel I asked all the questions that if you were a historian now, you'd want to know back then. But now, for example, I was in Venice with Jim Carrey, who told me ‘I can only give you two minutes.' I said, ‘what can you say in two minutes apart from what attracted you to the film and how are you?' And that was it. I understand why they do it, but it's lost that critical aspect. You can't ask the questions you really want to ask.”

There's so many different faucets of Alan's life, I've barely scratched the surface in our hour-long conversation, considering his musical history and fashion connections – when Discomania releases next year, I'll be surprised if it's anything less than 600 pages of ‘oh-my-god' moments in his life. I pin my most difficult question on Alan: What is the Alan Jones legacy to Alan Jones?

“Legacy is a hard one to pin down. I didn't know I was doing anything unique, that's the thing! I've had a great time. People can say what they like about what I've written. People say, ‘Oh you're very lucky, you knew a lot of people.' But that's not the case – it's because they knew what I could do. No one else had really had a career like this before. I wouldn't change anything about what I did. I went to the far corners of the world – people would phone me and ask, ‘Do you want to go to Russia?' and I'd never, ever say no. As long as people thought I've always told the truth and I've actually guided people to admire the genre, I've helped them to appreciate it, that's all I care about.

When I look back on what I've done, it was hard work, but I was so used to hiding away for weeks on end getting a cover feature done, that the work never felt like work – it felt like I was doing something I love. I've just continued that way ever since; I've even written three books in the last lockdown. I don't know if I'll ever retire, because why would you retire from a job that you love?”

The FrightFest Guide to Grindhouse Movies is available now from FAB Press, and Alan's semi-autobiography ‘Discomania' as well as his collection of Starburst film reviews will be released in 2022.

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