Every year, a horde of genre film lovers descend upon cinemas in George Street and in Newtown for Sydney Film Festival’s ‘Freak Me Out’ program. It’s a ritual of sorts. Go enough times, and you start to see the same faces, year in, year out; leather jacket-clad, patch and button-sporting, dyed hair horror cinema lovers, as passionate about the art form as some people out there presumably are about their jobs, and y’know, their families. And yeah, maybe it’s a cliché to suggest these lovers of extremity form a kind of family, but how else are you meant to describe the feeling of warmth that emanates from a crowd of horror nerds, all packed in together in a darkened room, ready to watch something new?

“That Freak Me Out family … that’s what I love,” explains Richard Kuipers, the programmer responsible for Freak Me Out. “It really feels like a community. And having built it up – this is the eighth year I’ve been doing it – it just feels great. I’ve made some really good friends as part of Freak Me Out. It’s really, really nice.”

Watch the trailer for What Keeps You Alive, playing at Freak Me Out:

Kuipers’ vision for Freak Me Out is that it should always be surprising. He’s not just looking just for fully-blooded horror films – although it’s true this year’s Freak Me Out program features its fair share of those, most notably Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade. Kuipers is just as drawn to slower, quieter films; chillers like this year’s Freak Me Out stand-out Good Manners. “I just love the diversity of [Freak Me Out],” he says.

“I always wanted to get people who were more into traditional slasher horror and fun horror along to the more arty films – and vice versa. And that seems to have happened over the years. You have people with green hair and a death metal t-shirt coming to see an arty horror flick … People can come and see that kind of stuff if they trust Freak Me Out enough. That’s great. They can come and see the kind of stuff they wouldn’t usually. “I’d never want to pick seven straight-out horror slasher type films, or seven extreme arthouse films. It’s always about finding that balance.”

I just love the diversity of Freak Me Out.

Freak Me Out devotees will know exactly the kind of surprises Kuipers is talking about – after all, it’s only been a few short years since Goodnight Mommy played the festival. That horrifying and wholly surprising new genre classic delighted and disturbed viewers in equal measure, and even those who couldn’t handle the unsettling work would have a hard time arguing that it didn’t leave an impression on them. “[Goodnight Mommy] was a bit out of the box,” Kuipers agrees. “But that’s what I love doing. It’s very slow-burn; it’s a mood piece. Something like Goodnight Mommy or The Eyes Of My Mother; these are moody art films that have a genre element to them. And I love that sense of discovery and surprise; when people go, ‘Oh wow, that’s really something else.’”

Watch the trailer for Freak Me Out classic Goodnight Mommy:

Excitingly, this year’s Freak Me Out program shall see the return of some of the festival’s favourite filmmakers – including Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala, the pair responsible for Goodnight Mommy. “They have made one of the shorts [in anthology-horror film A Field Guide To Evil,” Kuipers says. “So have about three or four other directors whose films have played in Freak Me Out in previous years. It’s great to get some of our favourites back.”

It’s an exacting task, programming Freak Me Out – as Kuipers tells it, he often finds he has to sift through 60 to 80 films, searching for the perfect mix of commercial, gore-stained horror, and subtler, stranger arthouse fare. “I always want … a couple of films that are instantly appealing to a broader audience, and then a couple of films that really hit the mark but will never get a commercial release in this country. No matter how good they are, they’ll never get a commercial release. This is the only chance to see them on the big screen.”

I’m a horror nerd as well, and have been all my life.

Hence the inclusion of films like Piercing. Despite starring our country’s own Mia Wasikowska, it’s hard to imagine that the grim and unrelenting sadomasochistic fantasy will get a widespread release in this country – there’s simply no room for a mid-budget horror film in Australia’s rushed and haphazard cinematic release schedule. “Piercing is a weird sexual psychodrama interior – it’s basically a two-hander,” Kuipers explains. “But it really puts you on edge. It’s that extreme arthouse film – it’s something I really like. And I know from previous years that if you can find a good extreme arthouse film, you’re doing well.”

Maybe all this makes it sound like organising Freak Me Out is a punishing job for Kuipers – an exercise in plate-spinning that requires hours and hours of energy and effort. Which, sure, maybe sometimes it is. But it is also the best kind of job in the world; something that Kuipers is genuinely great at, and something that he loves, unconditionally. Freak Me Out might be work, but it is work Kuipers has been leading up to his whole life. “I’m a horror nerd as well, and have been all my life,” he says. “That’s how I program the films. I’m always going to be that horror nerd. And I reckon that’s the best way to program.”

For the full Freak Me Out program, head here. For more Sydney Film Festival content, read our interview with the director of SFF highlight Holiday here.

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