By: Tobias Piwek
Black metal frontman, fanzine editor, movie manic, and most recently, book author Ustumallagam lives (and dies) for horror. Lately, he has not only released a new album with his band Denial of God, but also published a book titled The Reel Ghoul: The Diary of a Cinephile. In this exclusive interview, Ustumallagam discusses his first book-length project along with his other creative ventures.
Congratulations on the release of your first book. How does it feel to have the entry ‘published author’ on your resume?
It feels like quite an achievement, but also a bit strange to be honest. I think I still have to get used to it, but I like the sound of it and so far, it has been a rather interesting and positive experience for me.
The Reel Ghoul: The Diary of a Cinephile is a horror movie compendium with over 700 film reviews, plus a short introduction and glossary. When did you first get the idea to compile such a book and how did you put it into practice?
It started out very spontaneously actually with me simply uploading posters of what I was watching onto Facebook along with a short review. After a while I noticed I had quite a few reviews and then the idea came to mind as I had often before played with the idea of making a book. I kept on writing the reviews, but didn’t share everything online anymore and started updating some of the stuff I already had. I had old friends proof reading the material and doing the layout for me while I worked out how to publish it myself. I could have looked for someone to publish it for me, but I like to be in charge of stuff myself and also I didn’t know too many places to ask anyway.
The selection of flicks in The Reel Ghoul is pretty broad, spanning across many decades, genres and budgets. What would you say is the common denominator that unites them all and qualifies them as fit for your book?
The common denominator is that they are all in my collection at home. The book simply covers whatever I put in my player through the years. I did not think that I had to include this or that specific movie, even if it’s considered a classic. For example, there are no reviews of classics such as The Thing, The Beyond, etc. simply because I didn’t watch them in that time period. Next time they will most likely be there. Or maybe even not. Who knows? I will watch anything that ends up in my mail box and so I did, be it for good or for worse. I prefer more obscure movies over well-known Hollywood stuff, so there are plenty of those in the book. There’s also quite a few Asian titles in there, as I bought the Asian DVD collection of the old Mercyful Fate manager among other things while writing.
How does a typical review for The Reel Ghoul come to be? Do you have, for example, a fixed sequence of ‘work steps’ that you go through?
It’s all really simple actually, but I have a few steps I always try to use. For example, I try to write the review not too long after I have watched the movie in question. Usually, the morning after watching it. This keeps it fresh in your memory. But sometimes a movie also takes a little time to work on you, so this can be both good and bad. However, I am well aware of that and try to keep it in mind. As for the review itself I normally cut it into two parts starting with telling the story of the movie and then proceeding with the review itself. I will keep this up for the next book too. Yet, I will also pick out some movies that will get the deep treatment with long and in-depth reviews following some other work steps to break up the monotony a bit. More ideas may come too of course.
Your reviews are brutally honest and 100 per cent subjective. I got the impression that there’s no holy cow that you would not be willing to butcher, if need be. Have there been any situations in which you thought “Man, shall I really go on with this? The readers will roast me for it!”
I normally always speak my mind and try to be honest about what I think. I can’t say I have been doubting to publish any opinions, but I must admit I wondered a couple of times what the reaction to some certain review would be from people. For example, the 2016 Ghostbusters movie that I totally tore apart. Funnily enough, so far everyone who has commented has agreed with me. I’d rather pour acid in my eyes than watching that one again. But of course, you must also keep in mind that quite some reviews are a bit tongue-in-cheek and remember I like a good laugh too.
When I did an in-store appearance for the book in Copenhagen recently, this well-known movie geek showed up and started lecturing me about the mistakes in the book because I gave some movies the wrong scores according to him. I had to explain that he missed the point of the book as it’s not a rule book or anything, but merely a book written by a fan for fans and can serve as guide when looking for something to watch. Hence also the subtitle “Diary of a Cinephile” and not “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Horror Film Analysis and Philosophy” or something like that. Also, some people pointed out I was missing quite a few classics in it, but again, it is written like a diary and covers everything I watched in three years. Not necessarily what’s hot or not. I’d love to write more objectively, but I am terrible at that, I guess haha. The Reel Ghoul can be seen as a book written with the spirit of an underground fanzine.
On the other hand, I am also sure that there must have been certain reviews that were especially fun to write. Which ones come to your mind and why?
I think the most fun ones to write must be about movies that truly grabbed you. So you were glued to the screen throughout the whole movie and absorbed every frame. The reviews where you have a hard time stopping writing about it. It can also be interesting to write a rather negative review and point out what ruined the movie. But it also means you have to waste one and a half hours of your life to sit through it. I’d rather write positive reviews to be honest, but that’s not always how the world turns.
After having seen thousands of horror, terror and splatter flicks, is there anything that still sends shivers down your spine or even makes you turn your eyes away from the screen?
I can’t say anything has ever made me look away from the screen, but there are definitely some things that can still make my skin crawl. For example, the ending scene in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the crying baby sounds from the shed in Something Evil or the disembodied voice and ghost in The Haunted still do the job every single time I watch them. I get the goosebumps even now just talking about it. Modern jump scares and crappy CGI will never be able to do this for me.
From all the movies you reviewed, what is the ultimate insider’s tip that many readers will most likely not have heard of before, but should know?
That’s really hard to answer, as there are 700 reviews in the book and tons of great stuff. But if I have to dig in and recommend some lesser known titles, it would definitely be films such as Cat Sick Blues (a mentally ill person starts killing people to bring his beloved cat back to life), Mutilations (a high school class on a field trip get attacked by aliens), Timecrimes (a man ends up having access to a time machine and creates a mess), and Leptirica (a vampire is haunting a small Yugoslavian village). I could go on for ages with this and still not be done. I like the obscure side of cinema and don’t mind if it is done cheap as long as it has a soul and can keep you glued to the screen. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the works of upcoming hopes such as Scott Schirmer, Wesley Remory, Brian Paulin, Rob Ceus, Marcus Koch, Doug Gerber, etc.
The Reel Ghoul contains reviews for movies you have seen over the course of three years, from early 2016 to late 2018. Of course, you didn’t stop watching horror films after that. So there must already be quite a bit of content for “The Reel Ghoul, pt. 2.” Right?
There is indeed. As we speak I have about 45 pages down already. The next time there will probably not be the same crazy amount of reviews as I plan to keep the texts a bit longer but more interesting to read instead. I don’t think anyone will mind. It all really comes down to time available as I have a very busy year ahead of me with the band. Somehow I always end up finding time for everything anyway and I won’t stop watching movies no matter what of course. That’s how I disconnect from the world for a bit and relax.
Writing is not the only thing you do that is heavily inspired by horror. For almost 30 years you have been singing in Denial of God, a black horror metal band you formed with your brother Azter way back in 1991. For those who are not yet familiar with the band, what’s the first song you’d recommend them to check out? And what will befall them when they do?
It’s really hard to find just one particular song to get into. I’d rather just say get a hold of the new album The Hallow Mass and give it a listen. In these days of YouTube, Bandcamp, etc., that’s really easy. Describing the music and doing it justice would probably be a bit harder though. We play black horror metal and I guess you can call it a mix of black metal and heavy metal. Lots of different influences from doom, speed, prog, etc. So it is varied, but also very catchy and often goes from one extremity to the next.
Your third full-length The Hallow Mass got released in late 2019, seven years after its predecessor Death and the Beyond. Can you give a brief outline of how the album came to be?
We were busy promoting the previous album, so the writing of this one took quite a while. The fact that we live far apart from each other and don’t rehearse every week plays a factor too – along with a lot of personal problems that occurred to all of us. For example, the studio had to be moved, so we had to wait for that to happen as we did not want to use another one. We also had to get rid of our bass player during the writing process, which of course created some disturbance. And then there were a lot of illnesses involved too and even during the recording we were sick. It was a really hard one to pull off, but the result turned out great. So luckily it was all worth it.
This time when we entered the studio, we were even more determined to make a perfect album than ever before. And ironically a lot of odds were against just that. I mean, when we showed up at the studio the first day it wasn’t even built yet! The next day we came back and there it was. It was amazing how that was even possible. The recording process was a bit chaotic though as everything had just been put in and stuff was all over the place, so a lot of time was spent searching for things and the fact that the producer was seriously ill did not speed up things. Hence also why it took quite a while before we could return to the studio and actually mix it.
Usually, Azter writes the songs and you provide the lyrics. Apart from horror movies, which are an obvious pick, what inspires you to write dark and dreary tracks like “Undead Hunger” or “The Lake In The Woods”?
I get inspired by a lot of things and it’s certainly not only movies. It’s often also books, nightmares, myths and stuff like that. Most of it just pops up in my head from out of nowhere. Often in the middle of the night when I’m supposed to sleep. I’m a terrible sleeper really. But the strange thing is that often the lack of sleep affects my mood and this bad mood makes me create. It should really always be working against me, but sometimes it’s at least good for this.
Other times, it’s the idea itself that keeps me awake and I can’t get any rest before I work on it. “Undead Hunger” came from out of nowhere and I just felt like writing something really perverse and sick, yet also tragic as I was going through a shit time myself. “The Lake In The Woods” was something I started writing after I watched Superstition once again. The idea with the witch in the lake kind of came from there and then I just added another story to it. Only when we were putting music to the song I realized it actually has a lot in common with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This was pure coincidence though.
Is there a question that you always wanted to answer in an interview, but never got asked?
Do I have plans to act in a movie or maybe even make one myself one day? Well, I have done a little cameo as a bad guy in Brian Paulin’s upcoming splatterfest Septic, but I don’t know when it will be out yet. I have actually written a handful of scripts here too, but if more ever becomes of them remains to be seen. Would be cool though as I feel the urge and actually just bought a new camera. If only I could buy time too.