Topic: horror festival

OTTAWA — The Mayfair Theatre bills itself as “Ottawa’s place for things you won’t see anywhere else.†

That’s certainly the case this month, when the theatre will screen silent horror films from the 1920s, accompanied by original live music. Four Ottawa bands have composed scores and will play along to the classic films Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Faust and Nosferatu.

“The bands are redefining the way to watch these movies,† says the Mayfair’s programmer, Lee Demarbre.

The Silent Horror Film Festival, which starts Friday and runs through Oct. 23, is a nod to the early era of film, when silent movies were often accompanied by live music.

But don’t expect an organist playing classical music at the Mayfair. “It’s pretty modern, hip stuff,† says Demarbre. “No other cinema that we could find is doing it quite like we’re doing it.â€

Ottawa band Kingdom Shore, for example, mixed modern string arrangements with triggered sound loops and instruments filtered through electronics to compose a score for Phantom of the Opera.

It’s the first music the band has composed collectively.

“We’ll be using a lot of environmental recordings of animals and insects, and a lot of recordings that we’ve done of crowds (to capture) what it’s like to be outside in Ottawa,† says Mark Molnar, the cellist and principal songwriter for the experimental ensemble. “The little details that you see after watching the film 15 times, we’re hoping we can amplify those things and maybe reveal some of the more subtle aspects that the director put together.

“Everybody seems really overwhelmed by a need to respect the films and to try not to get in the way too much. I think that’s a healthy trepidation. I’m hoping that people are watching the film more than they’re watching us. It’s just a beautiful feeling when you’re watching a movie and you get transported.â€

The Mayfair has screened several silent movies with live bands in the past year, and the events have received standing ovations, says Demarbre. “You sit there and you feel like you’re in the movie. You feel the music in your bones. Being there with the band, it just feels like you’re living the movie.â€

The silent movie nights help set the old theatre on Bank Street in Ottawa South apart, says Demarbre.

“The Mayfair can’t really compete with the likes of Silver City, Cineplex, Empire, or even the Bytowne. So we had to come up with our own gimmick. Our biggest successes have been these silent films, so we thought we’d go big in October and do four horror films. Definitely the biggest risk we’ve taken.â€

The other bands to perform are the HILOTRONS, with a score to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Flaps, scoring Faust, and a repeat of the Mayfair Theatre Orchestra and Semara Winangun’s performing music for Nosferatu.

The festival’s organizer, Mike Dubue, is doing double duty: he’s the Mayfair’s general manager and music director, and is also involved in scoring and performing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with his band, HILOTRONS, and Nosferatu with the Mayfair Theatre Orchestra and the Ottawa Indonesian musical ensemble, Semara Winangun.

“It’s a very satisfying thing to work with that era of cinema,† says Dubue. “I don’t think it really had time to thrive and be explored. It’s a lot more satisfying than making songs for people’s cellphones, which is what people seem to do with pop music.â€

Scoring films is a precise science, he says. “It’s quite literally sitting down and watching the film with a metronome. I try to work on (musical) themes for different characters. We take elements of the original score and we use them in our improvisation in different ways.â€

When silent films were introduced, it was common to have a live instrumentalist, usually an organist. By the 1920s, larger theatres had their own musical directors who decided what music would play during a film, says Carleton University music professor James Deaville.

“There was not a standard score. It was expected that the musical director of the theatre would select music that was appropriate from anthologies of music. So that meant that you could go to see the same film in a different theatre and hear different music to it.â€

Deaville says old silent-film scores don’t always resonate with modern audiences. Younger fans often don’t recognize the songs. The Ottawa bands composing scores also have the challenge of re-interpreting classic films without distracting from them.

Members of Ottawa instrumental band The Flaps, for instance, watched the film Faust with its original score to help them prepare, says band member Patrick Lawlor. “Often the (classic scores) get in the way, so we’re hoping we can bring in music that won’t distract from the film. It almost seemed that a lot of the scores were superfluous — they don’t really do anything to help the mood.â€

The Flaps are already influenced by ’60s B-movie film scores and experimental jazz. The band will play a mix of appropriated Flaps songs and original compositions to accompany Faust at the screening Oct. 23.

In rehearsal, the band set up laptops and played along to the film.

“We fit some of our songs into places that makes sense and then cutting parts out to make it fit,† says Lawlor. “Matching scenes and matching moods with pieces of music and then finding transitions between them.â€

The success of the Mayfair silent films has Dubue thinking big. He dreams of organizing silent-movie tours, with seven to eight bands performing a repertoire of more than a dozen original scores.

The Silent Horror Film Festival

Where: Mayfair Theatre, 1074 Bank St. near Sunnyside Ave.

Tickets: Festival admission is $15 for members, seniors, and students, and $20 for non-members, or $50 for a festival pass.

Information: or 613-730-3403


Phantom of the Opera, performed by Kingdom Shore: Oct. 16, 7 p.m.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, performed by the HILOTRONS: Oct. 16, 9 p.m.

Faust, performed by The Flaps: Oct. 23, 7 p.m.

Nosferatu, performed by the Mayfair Theatre Orchestra and Semara Winangun: Oct. 23, 9:30 p.m.

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Re: horror festival

I wish I lived in Ottawa.  I don't think Seattle has ever done anything like that.