Joe Neff of Shock Around the Clock! gears up for 24 hours of movie mayhem

Melissa Starker, Columbus Alive

For the better part of three decades, the lead-up to Halloween in Columbus has included a big-screen endurance test for local horror movie lovers. They've lined up early for fright-filled all-night movie marathons, beginning at the late, great Drexel North Theater in 1988, and followed zombie-like as the concept morphed and moved over the years to other theaters, including Studio 35 and the Grandview Theatre.

Joe Neff first made an appearance in that throng as a teenager in 1993. He eventually clawed his way to a role as marathon co-organizer alongside Bruce Bartoo, the longtime Wexner Center projectionist who first brought the movie marathon concept to Columbus. The 2015 edition of their 24-hour horror marathon, Shock Around the Clock!, kicks off at noon Saturday and includes the local premieres of the head-banging gore fest "Deathgasm" and the shocker anthology "German Angst," along with old favorites like the original "Dawn of the Dead" and oddities like the Udo Kier-starring "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne."

In the days leading up to the cinematic onslaught, Neff discussed some of his own horror history, and the unique experience of spending a full day in the dark with a bunch of bloodthirsty companions.

What was your first memorable horror movie experience?

Seeing "Dawn of the Dead"for the first time at the Drexel marathon. It changed so much of my life and my definition of what a horror film is. I had read about that one for years in those big picture books you could get – The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual Horror Movies was the one for me. I just thought it was a "Night of the Living Dead" ripoff, not realizing it's the same guy.

It's weird thinking about this, because I had such strong training in classic horror growing up. I was never allowed to watch any R-rated stuff as a kid. It was kind of cool, because I was forced to watch the classic Universal stuff, the Hammer stuff, Amicus Films – the building blocks. When I finally made it to my first horror marathon, that was like my grad-level course because they showed "The Shining," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Evil Dead 2," "Army of Darkness," "The Exorcist." First time I'd seen any of those, and the impact was great. Even with all that grounding, seeing "Dawn of the Dead" made me realize in my 17-year-old brain that horror films can be funny and gory, and have a strong vein of social commentary, and work on all those levels simultaneously.

Is there a formula for a successful festival?

I think the formula that has worked the best for us is variety, the breadth of what we show. The audience is so diverse and it's always been that way.

I like to think there's always something in the lineup for which people could say, I've never seen that or heard of that, or I haven't seen that one in years. An overriding concern for us is to not get too safe, but not get too out there. More and more, we see if we can get a couple of titles that are pretty rare or that no one's seen, like "Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne" this year.

Are there any particularly memorable moments or reactions from theaudience over the years?

Last year, when we played "You're Next," that was great! We did an informal poll of the audience before, asking how many hadn't seen it. Eighty percent of the audience put up its hands. I was stunned because [the marathon audience] is the market for this film. We had so many people come up afterwards and say, "Wow, I skipped that because I thought it was a 'Strangers' ripoff, and it was awesome."

I really love experiences like that of having a movie appreciated with an audience, in that setting, with the marathon crowd. Because it's allowing people to re-evaluate either a movie they saw and didn't like or they passed over because they thought it's nothing.

Premiere-wise, when we showed "A Serbian Film" in 2011, there was the scene where the main character was skullf---ing a guy to death and this one guy in the audience goes, "YEEESSS!" In the moment, I imagined what was going through his head: I've been waiting for this moment my whole life. It was the most enthusiastic response to a money shot gore scene I've seen in years.

Have any suggestions or recommendations for someone experiencing a horror marathon for the first time?

It's all about pacing yourself. Eat well, drink water and don't burn yourself out too early because that affects how you appreciate everything.

No matter what, seeing some of these things with this audience, in a theater, on a screen, after three movies and before three or four more, there is nothing like it. I saw "It Follows"online the first time, but I'm sure seeing it with this crowd will affect how I react, because you can react.

Horror's such a visceral experience. The whole concept of horror is dealing with your fears in a somewhat safe, somewhat challenging way, and if you do it with other people, that's way better than anything else.

Shock Around the Clock! Ohio 24-Hour Horror Marathon

Drexel Theatre

Noon, Saturday, Oct. 17

2254 E. Main St., Bexley