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For Craig Engler, the weeks leading up to Halloween are the best time of the year. “Super busy, but super fun,” is how he describes the period. His business is easy to understand. Engler, after all, is the General Manager of Shudder–the horror-only streaming service that reaches the height of its powers during spooky season. Super fun? Well, that depends on your perspective. The horror-disinclined may wince at the carousel of depraved thumbnails on Shudder’s home-screen, but for fans of the genre there can surely be no finer job than curating the streaming world’s foremost roster of horror content.
Since Shudder began as a tiny, invite-only US platform back in 2015, it has grown like some tentacular beast, sliding its slippery appendages into the UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Where once it hosted genre classics and tired B-movies, Shudder now spawns its own killer offspring, with a new "Shudder Original" hitting the service almost every week. But like all good monsters, it has grown in the shadows. Despite its success, Shudder still feels like a well-kept secret amongst horror aficionados. Each new, gruesome release is hashtagged and dissected on Twitter, but there remains something of the cult-movie-backroom-stash in this weird, wicked, and wildly diverse catalogue.
I would argue that this unique success owes a lot to Engler’s enthusiastic captaincy, though he modestly demurs to take credit. Speaking via Zoom, I found him be warm and expansive. When given the chance to talk at length about horror, he reverts to the kid who “lived for the Saturday afternoon creature-feature.” Horror has come a long way since a young Engler was terrified by the demonic tree in From Hell it Came (1954). Nonetheless, he remains happy to talk me through his career in the genre, his vision for the future of Shudder, and his tips for the scariest films to watch this Halloween.
ESQUIRE: You joined Shudder in 2018 when it was a fledgling streaming service. What’s the story behind you making that leap?
Craig Engler: I’d been at the Syfy channel for 17 years when a friend called about a job at Shudder. I almost didn’t respond because I was having some success at Syfy with my own show, Z Nation.
The only reason I finally took the call is that the production company behind Z Nation was famously not paying the writers their residuals. I thought maybe I should do something other than work on this show where I only get paid half of what I’m owed. So, I met with the folks from Shudder and was hugely impressed by them. They already had a great reputation, but the thing they needed was something I could bring to the table. Both my experience of TV production and of writing and production–because they were looking to expand into original content, and they weren’t fully sure on how to do it.
What’s it like to work at Shudder? Do you need to be a horror aficionado to work there, or is it just a business?
Most of us do love horror, to varying degrees. I’ve seen most of the big and medium-release horror movies, but I have gaps. Sam Zimmerman is our VP of programming and he has no gaps. He’s seen everything that has ever been made.
At the same time, you do need an understanding of the business. When I joined Shudder there was great content already on the service, but we weren’t the best at marketing and letting people know what we had. In the age of streaming, there is so much stuff that you can find horror pretty much everywhere. We had to let people know why they should find it on Shudder.
Did you have the confidence that there was an audience for a horror-only streaming service?
Because home rental became a thing in the '80s slasher heyday, a lot of people used to think that horror was just the slasher and Chucky and Freddie Krueger. Then they realize that The Exorcist and The Omen were huge international successes. Silence of the Lambs is a horror movie. So is Alien and Jaws and Psycho. You still have the cheap and cheerful slasher. That’s an incredibly broad spectrum, and the appetite for different kinds of horror is out there.
What you have to determine is: how much horror does somebody want? If you only want to watch a couple of horror movies a year, one of the big streamers might satisfy you. If you want more than that, or if you want to watch something different and wider and weirder, that’s where Shudder comes in. We do great with international horror. We have a way to give foreign horror the recognition it deserves.
When I was in discussion to join Shudder, they told me their viewing figures. They weren’t small, but my first response was, We can do waaay better than that.
Shudder has grown hugely in recent years. Are there any films or shows that felt like a tipping point toward success?
Launching Creepshow in 2019. We had been thinking about neglected horror properties that people would want to see more of. The original Creepshow is one of the most iconic anthology movies of all time. It was written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, two horror titans of the time. The sequels weren’t so well received, but we felt like we could get people really excited by harkening back to the original. We were able to license Creepshow. Our thought was not to reinvent it, but to continue the legacy, to create an extension of the movie as episodic TV.
We were lucky enough to get the director and special makeup effects expert Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) involved. Greg didn’t work on the original Creepshow, but it was the first set he ever visited. Then, both Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill, agreed to let us adapt a couple of their stories. Joe also visited the set of the original movie as a kid. He told us that he spent all his time hanging out with [horror effects maestro] Tom Savini. In fact, he credits Tom with inspiring his love of horror, which is funny considering Joe’s dad is the greatest horror author of all time. So, we really felt that we were creating a great continuation of Creepshow’s legacy. It was the biggest thing we had ever launched. Within three weeks, fifty percent of subscribers had sampled one of the episodes. In streaming services, that is huge penetration.
You also feature some documentary films, which is an aspect of the genre that is often overlooked. Your first original doc, Horror Noire, was a ground-breaking piece of work, casting a light on the history of Black horror cinema.
Yeah. When I got to Shudder, I took a look at the figures to see which shows people were watching. One thing that kept coming up near the top was this documentary called Crystal Lake Memories. That’s a SIX-hour documentary about the Friday the 13th franchise. Six hours! And people were watching it, sometimes in one sitting.
So, we started looking around for documentary ideas that wouldn’t just attract an audience, but which fit our point of view, which is not to think of movies necessarily as a horror movie, but as a Shudder movie.
Sam Zimmerman had the book Horror Noire on his desk. This was right after Get Out changed the face of horror. We thought, Oh, we have to do this. It was a timely story and it needed to be told well. We didn’t think it would get the viewership as it did, but it became the sixth-most-viewed movie on Shudder when it launched. It seemed to capture everyone’s imagination and started a conversation. Now, when we think about the documentary space, we think about what we could do that would be a different, important take on the genre. Things like Cursed Films and our new Queer for Fear docuseries.
Can you explain a little more about what you mean by a Shudder movie?
We’re looking for a movie that we want to tell people about. Usually, that means a movie with a very strong point of view. Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection was a big hit for us and it’s unlike anything else you’ve seen. We’ve just released Deadstream, which is about a disgraced YouTube influencer who locks himself in a haunted house for the night. In the wrong hands that is an unwatchable premise. Yet in reality, it’s a fantastically executed idea that is more than the sum of its parts. People have described it as Evil Dead done in the style of The Blair Witch Project, but only the husband-and-wife team who wrote and directed it could really have created that movie. We are really looking for movies that are very strongly the movie that they are.
Are there things that you won’t consider? Is there a limit or threshold for extremity?
No. The threshold is simply: “Is it good?” We have all kinds of movies for all kinds of viewers, but we wouldn’t do a crazy gory movie just for the sake of it. We draw the line on how far we will go by asking whether the filmmakers went there in a way that is earnest and credible and well-executed; it’s not about whether or not we can show X amounts of heads exploding. Sometimes we put a warning on films–like Cannibal Holocaust, which features real animals being killed on screen. We might do that in certain cases, but usually the only thing we’re thinking about is whether the film is good.
One of your biggest releases this year was The Sadness. It’s a notorious Taiwanese movie with countless scenes of extreme physical and sexual violence. What did you think when you first saw it?
[Laughs] I’ve never seen the entire movie. Some of our people watched it and were sure it was going to be great. My thought was, "I’ll probably sit this one out," but I’m still 100% supportive of The Sadness. It was a great movie for us. I think at the time it was the biggest premiere of the year and it fit that Shudder ethos. It was the greatest version of the movie it is. But we have bunch of movies that are not for everybody, like our new film, Speak No Evil. That movie builds to an ending that I think will be legitimately traumatic for some people. Viewers have said they watched it and they’ll never be the same. I call those Rough Watch movies and not everyone is a Rough Watch fan. But extreme horror can be deeply cathartic for certain people; they want to be pushed to the extremes.
Look, I’m not a rollercoaster guy. I’m taking my seven-year-old daughter to Disney World this year and I won’t be going on the rollercoasters. But if she wants to ride the coaster I’ll put her on and meet her at the end. That’s the way I think about some horror movies.
So, in your opinion Craig, what is the scariest movie on Shudder?
People ask me that all the time and the two that come to mind are The Dark and the Wicked and Host. I think Host has some of the most effective scares I’ve seen in a very long time. I saw the rough cut that they wrote, shot and delivered in under three months, during lockdown. I was scared and the effects weren’t even finished.
What’s does the future of Shudder look like? Where is this growth headed?
I can’t say too much here, but you will see us continue to make our own films, but in a bigger way. I don’t mean in terms of budget necessarily. It’s just that we have this confidence now and we know how to make a really interesting and unique horror film that is still accessible to everybody. We have confidence in knowing what we’re looking for and helping to create it as well. We’re ready to put a bigger mark in the world for genre films than we have to date.
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