Joe Lynch on nostalgia, Surf II, and boutique filmmaking

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Joe Lynch. // Courtesy Joe Lynch

[Panic Fest is KC’s premiere horror and science fiction film festival. Celebrating its 10th year, here is our full coverage of films making an appearance.]

Anyone steeped in the world of genre movies knows the name Joe Lynch.

Whether from movies like Mayhem or Wrong Turn 2, cult tv shows like Holliston and Shudder’s Creepshow, or his podcast The Movie Crypt—Lynch is one of those figures you don’t soon forget. 

As busy as Lynch keeps, he’s carved out time over the past five years to hang out at KC’s Panic Fest in many forms, including discussing his own films, hosting his podcast, and even guesting on someone else’s show. This year he’s hosting what’s likely to be a raucous screening of the 1984 cult film Surf II.

Ahead of his appearance, Lynch chatted with The Pitch on a wide range of topics, including what he’s currently working on, boutique blu-ray labels, indie films, nostalgia, and the never-ending cycle of the film industry eating its own tail.

The Pitch: A little birdie said you are a tad bit busy these days. Anything you’re able to share with us?

Joe Lynch: That birdie sure knows how to squawk! Well not to give too much away, but I’m actually prepping my new film.

It’s a Lovecraft tale and has some alumni from previous Lovecraft adaptations, which were seminal in my genre upbringing, yet it’s also a bit of a subversion of what you’d expect from this author and his work, and new tonal territory for me too.

It’s really exciting to get back to the genre I love, and pre-production has been going great.

Out of the infinite possible movies you could choose to show to a crowd at a film festival, why’d you pick Surf II?

When I spoke to the programmers at Panic Fest earlier this year, we were originally going to show a compilation of my work on the Shudder show Creepshow, for which I did four episodes over the span of Season 2 and 3.

I’m a huge fan not just of the show but of the original two feature films, as they were also pretty formidable in my love of horror even to this day. I love strange genre-blending in movies, and showing four of those would have been a hoot, but we couldn’t make it work, sadly.

So, Panic Fest programmer Adam Roberts asked, “Well, if you still wanted to come out would you want to show a movie you didn’t do?” What I love about Panic Fest is the wide array of programming—films new and old—and having been to the fest twice now, I admire how the audience embraces both new voices and the enjoyment of older films like the repertory theaters I frequent, including the New Beverly or NuArt in Los Angeles.

Last time I was here (in 2020) we had a screening of Richard Stanley’s Hardware to coincide with the screening of his new film Color Out of Space, and it was such a blast watching that with an excited crowd, many of whom hadn’t seen it before, and that feeling of one big Saturday night with friends, exposing them to a movie I love, always stuck with me.

I keep a list of movies that I discover along the way (thank you Letterboxd), and in the past year, one film I had never seen before really knocked my socks off in that way…a movie that also didn’t give a flying fart in Freemont what genre it was (whether or not the filmmakers were aware of that), and that was Surf II.

It was the same feeling I had when another title Vinegar Syndrome pulled from the annals of obscurity, Tammy and the T-Rex, which is now a bonafide cult hit that no one was talking about five years ago.

So, when I saw Surf II,  which had a very limited release in the ’80s and kinda fell through the cracks when it was being prepped for its new Blu Ray release, I was really knocked out about how it hadn’t been in constant midnight movie rotation.

It’s time to at least give an audience the chance to see it with a bunch of like-minded genre weirdos like myself, and the perfect venue for that is Panic Fest. Thankfully the programmers agreed, and here we are! 

Speaking of the Vinegar Syndrome release of Surf II, it’s insanely stacked beyond anyone’s dreams, which is a VS staple at this point. Beyond that, it’s been restored in 2K! Even the original director’s cut! Does that seem somewhat unreal?

Not if you know how Vinegar Syndrome and other companies like Shout/Scream, Severin, Blue Underground, Imprint, and others work. The care and love put into these restorations is insane.

As a fan of the kind of movies they uncover and dust off with beautiful new transfers and lots of supplements is, its the kind of deep-dive consideration they put towards the products that make it worth investing in physical media at a time when everything is digital and streaming.

As a filmmaker, I would hope someone would do the same someday for one of my titles. I hope the filmmakers of Surf II are proud of the work their film got on the new release, and I’m sure there are many more films these companies are releasing that will expose audiences to some obscure films and new favorites. 

I guess that wouldn’t take you by surprise too much, seeing as how you’ve developed a working relationship with the company over the past handful of years. How did all that initially come about?

It was actually a burgeoning twitter relationship with one of the heads of VS, Brad Henderson, who has as varied and eclectic a taste in odd and obscure cinema as I do.

We would talk a lot about weird flicks, usually the films on the more extreme side, and because I had done commentary tracks before —notably some Friday the 13th films and A Serbian Film through my filmmaking podcast with fellow Panic Fest alum Adam Green (Hatchet, Frozen etc)—he knew I enjoyed doing them.

And then it was one of my heroes, Phantasm auteur Don Coscarelli, who recommended me to be part of VS’s Huge Beastmaster documentary and commentary, so Brad reached out to ask if I’d be part of it. How could I say no?

From that title, I’ve been kinda helping them with stuff here and there ever since. Anything I can do to help cultivate these kinds of movies is a joy for me. If this whole making movies thing doesn’t work out, it was a dream job to have a company that did that. 

Anyone who follows your involvement in projects certainly got a thrill last month when VS announced the Cloak & Dagger disc featuring yet another commentary track by you. Out of Vinegar Syndrome’s hifalutin VSU line, you have been involved in two of the three releases. Could this be a trend we see continuing down the road?

I think there’s plenty of room, and an audience who is excited for these kinds of “cult” movies, that could use a little re-introduction to fans or reappraisal by cineasts.

Movies like Cloak and Dagger or Beastmaster may have been considered schlocky programming filler for HBO back in the ’80s, but for kids like me who watched cable all the time, those movies were just staples, and I had a lot of fondness for them.

I think VS and other companies like them have tapped into that fondness and given us the kind of treatment we’d want from a film that you’d want to know the stories about the making of, their reception, and legacies now. I hope it’s a trend that continues.

This may seem like a “kill your darlings” type question, so feel free to plead the 5th if you must. Out of all the commentary tracks you’ve been a part of, regardless of what company has put it out, which is your favorite?

If I can’t pick one of my films I did a commentary track for—which to me may have been the slightly intoxicated commentary I did with Steven Yeun for Mayhem that’s a Shudder exclusive—I would have to say it’s a tie between Friday the 13th Part 4 or A Serbian Film.

The former because it was the first one I had done for a film I wasn’t involved in—and one of the first collaborations with Adam Green—which led to many projects together since, from the show Holliston to the Movie Crypt podcast.

I still get people who ask me about that commentary, and for some reason, it still pops up on subsequent F13 P4 releases, which is such a thrill. The track I did for A Serbian Film is just madness, to be fair, and I’m shocked they asked to use it.

I have a long, weird history with that movie. From being at the UK premiere when it was banned, to seeing it and being massively affected by it on so many levels, to shooting two films in Serbia with much of the same crew from that film, leading to me holding “the baby” (If you know, you know).

It’s weird how I’ve been strangely tied to that film. So, on Movie Crypt, we did a somewhat jokey track where I spouted real admiration and trivia about the film while Adam spewed vomit into a bucket continuously throughout. It was available just for our podcast patrons, but the company releasing the new Blu thought it was funny and asked us to let them use it. It was a proud moment for me. 

Circling back to the Surf II of it all, was there a similar weird or off-beat film that you found yourself inexplicably drawn to growing up? A film that maybe you or only a few of your friends clung to so that it somehow became like a secret handshake when you met people who liked it too, years later? 

Oh there’s a bunch. From The Wraith and Brainstorm to Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie and Return of the Living Dead (which is now more mainstream, but back then many didn’t seem to know it other than a small circle of Fangoria readers I knew before the internet).

Funny enough, the one that comes to mind is one that Paul Rudd has been using as a punchline on talk shows for years and even had its own Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode: Mac & Me.

It came out the same weekend as Die Hard, so my Dad—who was advised by the theater owner that it was too violent for my brothers and me—thought he was being a good parent by instead taking us to see M&M instead to be a responsible parent.

Anyone who has seen M&M will attest that it likely messed us up for years. It was bad, but so bad in a way that we couldn’t stop watching, and kept watching because it’s a hoot with a bunch of friends. Now everyone knows about it, but I was there on the ground floor, man. 

Living in the digital age that we are now, with dozens and dozens of streaming services, and not to mention a plethora of boutique labels restoring and putting out movies that most people thought were long lost—does it seem like that era of “secret handshake” movies is under threat of going away? Furthermore, is that necessarily a bad thing? Since more eyes on something special mean that more people potentially get to enjoy it?

Nah. I think even with streaming, some movies slip through the cracks that only a handful of people may know at first, but through word of mouth eventually get discovered. It’s just that these films seem to organically garner an audience.

We grew up in an age where mainstream films live or die based on their opening weekends—not the days where films would be released slowly and regionally in drive-ins or smaller theaters. Now, in many ways, films released through streaming or VOD are subjected to so much competition, that as a content consumer, it’s hard to keep up.

So, of course, some movies will be forgotten. Word of mouth has become even stronger these days thanks to social media, and it seems everyone has a “pocket” or “secret handshake” movie as you put it, and it’s a better time than ever to have a network of friends who are ready to whip that out to start a discussion or hopefully influence a new fan. 

Along with that greater access to forgotten films or the best cleaned-up versions of timeless classics, we’ve also spent the better part of a decade where nostalgia has ruled on high, for better or worse. With countless legacy sequels, revivals, and even original works that have nostalgia built into the core, it can sometimes feel like the waters are more than a bit saturated. Does it feel at all like we’ve hit that peak and the wave is starting to roll back, or is it likely just here to stay?

It’s like the discussion of “horror is dead!” Until a new horror film becomes a sleeper hit and the studios and production companies ride that current wave into over-saturation and start the cycle again.

I think we’ve been nostalgic for decades. Because of companies big and small restoring older films and keeping them relevant, it leaves it open for new generations (and the ones that were originally exposed to them) to admire and fall in love with films enough to warrant a market to exploit and capitalize on them with future installments to capitalize on the IP, sell more copies of previous installments, etc.

It’s a double-edged sword too. Films that are time capsules of the day with subject matter, language, or even talent that were accepted back then and are now considered problematic or “cancelable” are being restored to cash in on that retro nostalgic love. But because the transfers are so good, people sometimes hold them under today’s purview and scrutiny which is a little unfair.

You’re right though, nostalgia can be a fickle bitch, and in many ways, it seems like cinema is eating its tail with nothing new being produced, but that’s been a trend for a long time, and it’s the nature of the beast. Now its their (current generations) more cult-y favorites being exploited and repackaged for 4-quadrant consumption, so its a little weird. 

How does this affect or influence indie cinema? Specifically, as it concerns emerging artists. A realm that not only are you familiar with, but a big advocate and supporter of, be it by just championing smaller films or things that you all cover on The Movie Crypt podcast. Is there a danger in budding filmmakers feeling that tapping into whatever nostalgia itch is the “flavor of the year?” In the hopes that it gets them more immediate attention?

Well, look at Grindhouse, which was trying to tap into that ’70s, and 80’s love of B-movie exploitation films we’d see marquees for in old Times Square pictures back in the day. They tried so hard to make scratchy prints and sketchy plots mainstream fare thanks to two filmmakers who were known for their genre love—Rodriquez and Tarantino.

And whether or not the film was a hit or a bomb (it was the latter when it first came out and is now considered more of a cult classic on its own, which I suspect was the filmmaker’s plan all along), that “damaged” look became “cool” for almost a decade. From weathered, poorly folded posters being the look for certain genre films, to embracing more B-movie tropes in bigger films.

Hell, I did it in Chillerama, the anthology film I did a few years back with a few other filmmakers where we deliberately made our segments look and feel like the type of film for a certain decade, from the 40’s to the ’80s, but again, it was deliberate and it’s not something I like to revel in on every film I do.

I love nostalgia, but as a passionate lover of the art of Cinema, I also want to push it forward too. I think that’s just a responsibility we, as artists in a commercial field, need to balance. 

Joe Lynch will be in Kansas City at Screenland Armour on April 30 to screen SURF II. Tickets and more information about the event can be found on Panic Fest’s website

Categories: Movies