How Genre Guru Joe Bob Briggs Defines Holiday Horror [Interview]

If there’s one thing fans can’t get enough of on the horror-centric streaming service Shudder, it’s horror movie critic and historian Joe Bob Briggs. After nearly seventeen years since MonsterVision took its final bow on TNT, Shudder brought the horror host back into the fold for a special one-time-only event; the 26-hour horror movie marathon The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs that kicked off on July 13, 2018. It was so immensely popular that it broke the streaming app, and fans demanded more. The Last Drive-In has since turned into a regular series, including three holiday mini-marathons. Joe Bob revisits Christmas again this year, delivering a holiday themed trio of horror films to celebrate the season. On Friday the 13th, of course.

Ahead of the Christmas special, “Joe Bob’s Red Christmas,” we chatted with the horror host about how he prepares for these events, what defines holiday horror, and more.  

What do you define as holiday horror?

Well, that’s a good question, because last year for the Christmas Special, we just showed Phantasm movies, and I said, “This is our version of Christmas horror.” And we had some disappointed viewers. No, we had some that were very excited that we did, and then we also had some people saying, “That’s not Christmas horror.” And so, I didn’t realize Christmas horror was such a thing. Back in the day, I wrote about Silent Night Deadly Night and all the ones that were controversial, because Santa Claus as an ax killer was controversial when they first did that. But surprisingly, there are probably 80 or 90 Christmas-themed horror movies, and Christmas-themed meaning they happen on Christmas, or there’s some tie-in to Christmas. And I’m sure as soon as you quote me as saying 80 or 90 then 500 people will say, “No. No, Joe Bob, as a matter of fact there’s 300.”

I mean, it’s kind of the second most popular horror holiday after Halloween, and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe possibly because people get depressed around Christmas, possibly because it’s in the winter so it’s great for gloomy stories. I don’t know.

So, would you count horror that only very loosely relates to the holiday? Maniac Cop 2 has some Christmas trees and Christmas lights, but the plot isn’t integral or related at all to the holiday. Would that still be classified as holiday horror?

Well, I think there are people who would classify it as holiday horror, but I mean, you could say anything that happens around Christmas is holiday horror. The original Black Christmas has nothing to do with Christmas. The fact that it was set during that season, and the fact that knowing that it’s called Black Christmas as you’re watching it, kind of makes it creepier that it’s the Christmas holidays at school when nobody’s there. But you could make an argument that Black Christmas is not Christmas horror; it’s a very fluid.

You’re quickly becoming the holiday staple of horror on Shudder; “Joe Bob’s Red Christmas” is now your second Christmas special, you’ve done “Halloween Hootenanny,” and “Dinners of Death.”  Are you working your way through them all?

Yeah, I’m not sure what their marketing strategy is. We didn’t really set out to be that, but I actually would enjoy that if we just decided, “Hey, we’re going to pick a holiday in every month of the year and do a marathon on that holiday.” I would actually enjoy that more as our structure for our show than what we’re doing now, because the holiday marathons are fun to do, and I think maybe “Dinners of Death” was our best one. You know? That one, everything hung together as a theme. It’s hard to keep the themes going in these things.  At the time, I thought Blood Rage and ThanksKilling, which I didn’t really count, but Blood Rage was the only Thanksgiving-themed horror movie.

What goes into the holiday specials? How are the films chosen and how do you prepare?

Well, it’s really complicated, because it involves, “Can we get the rights to the movie?” And so, we develop a dream list of, in the best possible world, here’s what we would want to show. We ask Shudder if they can get it. Usually, they can’t get it. Either because somebody else has it, or they can license it, but they can only license it for three months, or something like that. Occasionally, they get ones that we want, and then we just go down the list to find the best possible group of films. Also, we’re trying to mix it up with films that people have not necessarily heard of or fallen in love with already. We occasionally want to bring in obscurity to the people, and say, “Here’s one you should be watching, even though you’re probably not.”

I think that touches on the importance of curators and horror hosts like yourself, especially in this digital age of streaming, because you’re bringing these forgotten or obscure movies back to the surface. Would you agree?

I’m often asked about the forgotten gem. And often, the forgotten gem will be a movie that was not released at all. It was on a shelf for 30 years. And so, it’s not really forgotten, it’s was never considered in the first place. And so, yeah, we are preserving film history, because there’s just such an insatiable demand for content, especially by the horror audience. The horror audience is the only audience that wants to watch everything. They want to watch every horror movie ever made. And so, they’re just as interested in an obscure film from the ’40s as they are an obscure film from the ’80s and an obscure film that came out two years ago but nobody remembers. And so, we just help them find the ones that are truly worth rediscovering.

How do you research or dig in to the history of the films that you’ll be presenting to an audience?

Oh, my God, there’s too much research. There’s too much information on all these movies. Yeah, it takes you three days just to read IMDb on some of these movies. There’s a whole body of academic works on many of the better-known movies. There’s a whole group of academic film critics, who specialize in horror, that didn’t exist even 20 years ago, much less 30 years ago, when I first started writing about these movies. The amount of information is gargantuan, and I try to be familiar with all of it, but to take it very lightly. I don’t go into the deep psychological analysis that some of these guys do.

Is it easier, or harder now that you have so much more information available to wade through?

It’s harder. It’s actually harder, because you have to be as accurate as possible, because everybody’s watching. As soon as you make a mistake, 30 guys will jump on you five seconds after you make the mistake. And that’s fun too, though, because it always starts a conversation, starts a dialogue. But you kind of have to know what you’re doing.

Do you have a team that helps, or is this all you?

It’s pretty much all me. I mean, I have my director. Austin Jennings is a huge horror fan and has a very, very deep knowledge. He went to film school, and he has very deep knowledge of horror history, and he will point things out to me that I wouldn’t otherwise find. But for the most part, I just have to dig down and find the good stuff.

Circling back to holiday horror, I noticed on Twitter that you’d mentioned that Night of the Comet didn’t get a fair shake upon its initial theatrical release, and that there was a story behind it that was too long to share. What was it?

Well, the story involves Atlantic Releasing, and Atlantic Releasing had a big success the previous year, with Valley Girl. They looked at Night of the Comet as the next Valley Girl, and they made all their marketing decisions accordingly. They made the director’s life a living hell. They were constantly pressuring him to put things in the movie that shouldn’t be in the movie, emphasize things in the marketing campaign that shouldn’t be in the marketing campaign, and it just became a big mess in terms of how it was presented to the public. Even the title, I don’t think most people made the connection with Halley’s Comet, which is what they were trying to capitalize on at the time. Anyway, I think it was one of the worst managed marketing campaigns ever, for a very good film, a very beloved film for people who know it. A film that rewards repeat viewings, and a film that has some very fine actors and a young director who had no power, who delivered a good film anyway.

What is your favorite holiday horror movie? It doesn’t even have to be Christmas.

Well, I guess it would have to be Halloween. I can’t think of anything that would top it. I mean, I like My Bloody Valentine, but I wouldn’t put it on my top-10 list. There’s a lot of holiday horror films that I like, but Halloween is a classic slasher film.

So, if you did get to do a Valentine’s Day Joe Bob special, you would be aiming to show My Bloody Valentine?

We would definitely have that one. Is there a lot of Valentine’s Day horror, do you know?

I don’t think very many. There should be, right? What’s scarier than love?

Yeah, what’s scarier than two people in love, right? So yeah, you would think it would be ripe for exploitation.

One final question for you; what kind of whiskey or libation do you recommend viewers pair with “Joe Bob’s Red Christmas?”

Well, I always recommend the same thing, which is Russell’s Reserve, which is Jimmy Russell, who’s been the master distiller at Wild Turkey for 65 years, has a special batch that he makes, called Russell’s Reserve, and that would be my recommendation for any holiday, but especially for Christmas.

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