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Released for free online streaming via Viva and the vegan White Lies website on Monday the 1st of February Melanie Light’s short film The Herd is a brutal allegory for the horrors of dairy production wherein adult women are transposed in to the place of dairy cattle. The film follows Paula (played by Victoria Broom) who along with many other women is imprisoned for her breast milk by a sinister shadowy corporation , represented in the film by the brutal harsh guards (played by Jon Campling-who played a Death Eater in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1 as well as having roles in many UK horror productions- and Billy White) and the terrifying icy nurse who is played by Pollyanna McIntosh (the star of Let Us Prey who rose to fame in an incredible performance as the feral titular character in The Woman). Other recognizable faces include Andrew Shim better known for playing Milky in This is England and Shane Meadows regular Seamus O’Neill.
The short is just under 20 minutes long so I think it’s particularly wise not to delve too deep in to the films plot. In fact I think it is best that before you read this interview you watch the film available at http://www.whitelies.org.uk/resources/video-footage/herd and then read what the creators have to say. Suffice to say however the captive women are subjected to the litany of abuses which are usually reserved for dairy cows. They are kept in cramped squalid pens, forcefully inseminated and then have their children taken at birth (the phrase “it’s a boy” will haunt you after viewing the short), all so they can be brutally milked.
The short is brutal but also compelling and emotional with a strong, original core concept. The production design and cinematography are fantastic, the equal of any recent extreme horror feature and it’s all sound tracked by a brilliant score by Laurent Bernard (or “Lags”) of popular hardcore band Gallows.
The film’s director Melanie Light began working in the art department of films The Devil’s Chair and Inbred before beginning to make her own shorts. The Herd however is sure to be the short of Melanie’s to get the most attention.
Horrorthon’s Patrick Thompson spoke to Melanie Light and screenwriter Ed Pope about the project.
Horrorthon: Firstly what was the genesis of the concept of The Herd?
Melanie Light: The original idea came from Ed, it’s a concept I had seen in various forms in the past, but it hadn’t been put to film with a narrative, which is why I felt it was a worthwhile project.
Ed Pope: I met a lot of people who considered veganism to be a bizarre concept. Many people thought drinking plant-based milk was strange, and could not see any merit in my response that drinking the breast milk of another species was perhaps at least as weird! There’s a mindset that views the consensus of the masses to be correct, and without question. I’ve never felt that way, so in this instance I wanted to frame the dairy issue in a manner that even the most disconnected people could empathise with. So the concept was largely born of frustration!
H: To both Melanie and Ed, what does “feminist vegan horror” mean to you? As much as the films violence and the treatment of the women is justified by the concept and the message of the film I do think that in the hands of a male director it could be harder to justify some of this content. Would you agree or do you think that’s irrelevant?
EP: Thematically The Herd was entirely conceived as a vegan allegory. However, veganism and feminism are intrinsically linked. For the production of dairy and eggs, it is the female reproductive system that is exploited for commercial gain, so you can’t separate the two without admitting speciesism. Horror and veganism are even more closely linked, and this was very important to me when writing the script, to express the horror experienced by dairy cows as precisely as possible. So to me “Feminist Vegan Horror” means that if you’re writing a film that is thematically about the vegan take on how animals are treated, you can’t avoid the other two.
Before I started writing I was very clear that I wanted to ensure that there was no risk of this film being titillating or sexual in any way. This was planned right down to what the captives wore, and how certain scenes were composed. I’ve known Mel since 2003, and very soon into the writing process I knew I wanted to give her the script when it was done. This had nothing to do with her gender, and everything to do with her filmmaking abilities and artistic style, and how I knew she’d handle the subject matter; but to some degree I do agree that it is best that this film was directed by a woman. Not that a male director with the same integrity couldn’t have done it justice, but there’s no doubt that Mel was the perfect person to helm this project, in many ways.
ML: I agree, to even begin to make this film was walking on dangerous ground, it straddles a lot of sensitive issues. Ed and I worked on the script together after the initial draft, it became a labour of love for us all. You are always liable to be misunderstood, but we are dealing with ideas that intersect- for me as a vegan and a feminist, understanding the fight against oppression of women from a very basic level, be that human or non-human, is about the right to control our own bodies. This film is trying to highlight suffering, regardless of species. We could have changed the women to men and had their semen collected, but it would betray the suffering inflicted on female cows, which was the overall point of this film. Others might not agree but I do not distinguish one suffering from another, we are not trying to belittle one suffering by highlighting another. The Herd is very blunt and deliberate yes, but everyone agreed, we had a point to make, and that point is that if you’re a vegan feminist, you care about all females.
I don’t think we need a man to direct a film about an issue that only effects women, and this film portrays a very real perspective. As a woman directing a female cast with this subject matter, there needs to be an inherent trust and affinity, which we had and I noticed subtle things like their shared body language and mannerisms as a result of this horrible setting,that I encouraged. They caressed their fake pregnant stomachs instinctively, their upset during the drowning scene was palpable, in fact the whole cast and crew found many of these scenes harrowing. Even though it was Ed’s story, we were portraying a reality, and in many ways what we filmed was not only a collaboration between director and writer, it was the horror of the situation that made it all the more disturbing. To that end, this was very much a vegan feminist horror.
H: To you are the concepts of feminism and veganism innately linked?
EP: As above, yes. But feminism is only a constituent part of veganism, and then only in my opinion. As we show in the film, male calves are useless to the dairy industry and are either killed at birth or sold into the veal trade. Male chicks are killed as they hatch in the egg industry too, for the same reason. Veganism and horror are much more closely linked.
ML: Yes. At a very basic level, they are both about drawing attention to the suffering and enslavement of females.
H: In my experience sometimes horror fans, upon hearing the term “vegan feminist horror” are expecting something very different from the end result. Why I love the film is that it has a point and a message, which I find is lacking in the majority of extreme horror. Was it important to you to make the film work beyond being a polemic allegory or to you is that (polemical aspect) so integral to the film?
EP: Absolutely. I had no interest in writing a pure propaganda piece. I’m a life-long horror fan and wanted to ensure that the story could exist on its own without the theme. This is another reason why I thought of Mel early on in the creative process, as we both share a love of the genre. Thanks to Mel’s realisation of the script and the excellent cast we had, I believe the film can stand on it’s own as an effective horror film if the viewer chooses to ignore the thematic elements. If you enact what society does to these animals on screen you cannot avoid making a piece of extreme cinema.
ML: It is a horror film because the subject matter is horrific. You cannot make a film about the dairy industry without that. It will always be torturous and violent and sad. That being said, those who watch horror films will identify with the horror aspect. Horror is about creating a monster and then destroying the monster. I think you can watch The Herd without understanding the allegory, the end result is the same, the monster gets his comeuppance. We were aware that when making a violent film with a political narrative that isn’t immediately obvious it runs the risk of offending those who see it as just another torture porn flick, or even worse, those who share our values but worry that the only thing that will register with people is the violent abuse of women. This is why we added the end credit sequence, so that no one is left in the dark about our message. Using tortured women, I can see this being a problem for a lot of people, and I was sensitive to this, but on the other hand, I am a woman, and I wanted to make this film specifically because this is an issue that only effects women.
It is true that there are people in the world who might see this film and dare I say, enjoy it for all the wrong reasons. It’s a disgusting thought to entertain, but we can only hope that the majority of people who watch it understand that the violence portrayed in the film is wrong on every level, which is the entire point we are trying to make.
H: Melanie what was your background in film prior to making this film?
ML: I’ve worked in the art department in Film and TV for over 10 years. I did a lot of Production Design but more recently work as a Stand-by Art Director. Prior to making ‘The Herd’ I had made three other short films and a couple of music videos.
H: Melanie at what point were you approached about the film and how did the script change over time?
ML: Ed sent me the first draft of the script about a year and a half before the actual shoot. I had to wait until I knew I had the right funding and time to really get it off the ground. We developed the script in those few months and the location we used influenced the final draft. As we got closer to a shooting script it became a very collaborative effort with input from my partner and our actor Pollyanna made some vital changes too.
H: The performances in the film are amazing. Pollyanna McIntosh in particular is terrifying as the nurse character in charge of inseminating the women and birthing their children. What was the casting process like for the film?
ML: Pollyanna is a brilliant actor, I was a huge fan of her work in ‘The Woman.’ We had met on set of the short film ‘Him in Doors’ which I was designing. We stayed in contact and she was always in my mind for the nurse character in the film. Pollyanna is disturbing as it appears she is working against her own sex, and is also caught in a system that allows her staff to belittle her, her own struggle to exercise power as a woman whilst desensitising herself to the horrors she inflicts. I personally find the male captor’s more terrifying, especially the character played by Dylan Barnes.
All the actors took the script and ran with it. Victoria and Charlotte are so powerful and a great duo. They shared a great energy and the scene in the cage is so strong it rips my heart out every time I see it. There were a few casting struggles and changes towards the start of the shoot but everything just fell into place. Most of the actors I knew through other projects that I had worked on before.
H: I know that Laurent from Gallows was involved from the point at which the film was being crowd funded but how did this come about? On a side note I loved the Momentum track “Realities of the dairy industry” that finishes the film- why did you make this choice?
ML: Laurent and I had met via Twitter, he had private messaged me after I tweeted something irrelevant to him! He offered to compose music for anything I had coming up. I eventually employed his talents for The Herd. He is brilliant to work with. He’s a natural at film scoring. Momentum were a vegan hardcore band who I was familiar with and this song title speaks for itself, so was a fitting end to the film!
H: A friend of mine who watched the film commented that as shocking as the film was nothing affected him like the reality footage during the credits? Why did you choose to include this footage?
ML: Without it I felt that for many, the film would just be a sad tortuous story of women being used to make the anti-ageing cream. We had to make sure that people made the connection even if it is heavy handed. I personally still can’t watch this myself, it is so awful but it has to be on there, people need to see the reality behind this film.
H: Since it’s Women In Horror month and giving your connection to the movement (having curated a calendar for WIHM) what does WIH mean to you and do you think the situation for women in horror is changing?
WIHM has changed a lot for me over the years. I was fortunate enough to be involved from the beginning with the ‘Ghouls on Film’ festival where my first short film ‘Switch’ was shown. Being a strong believer in equal representation for women in not just the arts but all professions, when WIHM came about I was so excited, It felt like I’d finally found a community that shared all my interests and beliefs. I feel there is still more opportunity to use this as a platform for drawing attention to women’s skills and abilities within art, media and the film industry.
The calendar was a result of this, I wanted to highlight a mixture of creative talent, with each month depicting a different artist or director or writer. I was lucky enough to have a great photographer friend named Tina K. The women involved all came up with their own looks and styles for their images. For me this is what WIHM is all about.
H: How many of the cast and crew were vegan during production and did the film inspire a change in anyone?
ML: I’m not sure on the full numbers but I know for sure there were about six vegans and many vegetarians. We had vegan catering throughout the shoot with a generous donation of food from Fry’s, a popular vegan frozen food company based in the UK. We definitely educated a few crew to the delicious cruelty free diet. I know one person went vegan as a result.
H: Finally Melanie you have revealed teaser artwork for your first feature project Covetous. At this stage what can you tell us about this film?
ML: Right now it is still in its infancy, and I am trying to source the right Producer and to get some funding. I have a couple of actors attached. It is all very early days but the only way to get a film made is to start the ball rolling! I have worked on the script for over 5 years on and off and my partner Alex has been a great input too. The film is about a woman who, having spent her life in a secure unit is released into society for the first time and follows her fight for survival. I guess it’s a social horror thriller?
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Melanie and Ed!
The Herd facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheHerdMovie/?fref=ts
One of the Guests of Honour at Horrorthon 2015 was Richard Stanley, director of Hardware and Dust Devil and subject of the recent documentary Lost Souls about the tortured production of The Island of Dr. Moreau from which he was fired as director. Horrorthon’s Fiona Foskin sat down with him during the festival for a most enlightening conversation.
Horrorthon: We’re interested in your creative process, you have produced some very interesting work over they years, how do you ‘work’ ?
Richard Stanley: The worst thing about ideas is I have to write them. I’m not a writer by trade, I’m a film maker by trade, but I’ve learned that if you want to control the underlying rights you have to be a writer. If you get a project that is brilliant and everyone wants it they will break your fingers to get it away from you they will not let you keep it; I found that out on Dr. Moreau. Once you’ve got an idea that is worth 75 million dollars people will do anything to take it. I realised then that I had to write the idea from the top to be inseparable from it. Which forces me to be a writer. if there is a pre-existing script there is always a legal possibility that someone can take that project away from you.
Writing is a painful and annoying process. Films are back-loaded with money, not front-loaded so there’s never any money upfront so the writer always get paid terribly and post-production people get paid disproportionately well, e.g. animators, press production people, there’s lots of money at the end of the movie but in the beginning there’s never any so it’s a painful and lonely process, writing always is, it’s a little bit shameful. It feels somehow like masturbation or like extruding piles because you have to go into a room on your own. Generally I find the best creative time for writing is early on. I try to identify some music which evokes the theme of the movie to me. It’s good to find some music which doesn’t have any other associations except for the thing you’re writing, so don’t use theme music. For the Island of Dr. Moreau I always put on the Forest of the Amazon by Villa Lobos the Brazilian composer. Every time I hear that I think immediately of the island, I think of the Beast Folk and they all come back into my head. The music is essential because when you are interrupted you have to get back into the zone, get back into the flow. It can take days or hours to find the zone. There comes a time when you’re close to it when you can feel it running through you when you can’t get it down fast enough, when the characters find voices of their own and they start talking to each other, that’s when it starts moving. To get to that point is quite hard. Once it reaches that stage the characters will stay alive no matter what happens. I have numerous dead projects that never got made. I’m still haunted by those fictional characters, I still feel a great allegiance to my Beast People from Dr. Moreau, even though almost none of them made it into the movie, but I know them well, Azazello, etc. they’re all in my head even though they’re not in the movie. I know how they, the characters speak, I know what they want, but I haven’t been able to express them. Sometimes once the movies made, it’s over. Most of the characters from Dust Devil have shut up and stopped bothering me.
H: So would unmade projects be stuck in your head, would there be things that you feel that you have to do?
RS: Yes, usually the ones that get made are the ones that have to get made and they keep coming back, the dream that always returns, the thing that year after year still remains fresh and still wants to be expressed in some way and those are ususally the ones that survive; more lightweight ideas evaporate over the course of time, so they aren’t worth the trouble. The ones that want to be born are like the Golem, the Jewish idea of an unborn thing which needs to be manifest and drawn down to be brought into being. These ideas that cluster around your shoulders and start to advise you, they want their expression. Of course once you’ve made the damn thing it goes out into the world and makes it’s own friends and before you know it you have fan-fiction and people are producing their own stories about the same characters, they get out there. The characters from Hardware survived and they made their own friends on the far side of the world in places like Japan, you’ll find 20 years later people wearing t-shirts with your characters on it.
H: To talk more about writing , you obviously have a very strong vision, how do you find working collaboratively on a film project? What for you are the ups and downs of the collaborative process?
RS: Well film making is a collaborative process and it has to be because no one human being can make a movie on their own; part of the glory of film making is that it’s an expression of so many art forms all in one pot, it should be the greatest medium of expression we have because it brings together writing, art, acting, photography, music, costume design and makeup artistry, so many great mediums of artistic expression and plainly if we were smarter and were able to actually not be totally dependent on money the way that we are now, then the medium has the potential to be the greatest art form available to man. Obviously no one individual can do all those things. When you’re making a movie you try to find the best people, get the best team together, if you can harmoniously bring that together and then bring the final product into light, when you take all that stuff and turn it into something ephemeral. Once you’ve caught the light and you torture it and duplicate it again and again until it’s just a piece of captured light and tortured time which is then sold and resold, well it’s a funny old thing when you’ve actually created that bit of light. It’s an extraordinary medium and I’m still in love with it. Film has been horribly abused in the 21st century because America has convinced us all that film is entertainment, which isn’t quite true, if we believed that art and writing was entertainment then we would have nothing to read besides Mills & Boon and Barbara Cartland. Obviously films has the potential to communicate powerful messages and not just entertain. Right now we are buying into a paradigm where all movies have three acts and we all have to make the audience feel that they have been suitable entertained, rather than traumatised or enlightened. Whereas in the 70’s we still had Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky trying to either enlighten the audience or brutalise them, bringing us to a point where we would see life in a different way. I don’t think modern audiences could deal with Goddard or Truffaut in the same way which is a shame. It won’t always be that way, things will change in another twenty years or so.
H: Could you talk us through the work you have showing at Horrorthon this year, Dust Devil, Hardware and a collection of shorts.
RS: Well, Dust Devil, which is playing in a few hours, is a very difficult movie, one of the most difficult I’ve ever made. It’s a Namibian movie. I made it for Namibia and the people of South Africa, who are a missionary culture. They were ruled by the Dutch Reform Church and they hated the Devil. In South Africa when I was growing up The Exorcist was banned, any reference to the Devil was cut out of culture under the Apartheid regime, when the Hammer Horror movie ‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell‘ played in South Africa the censor went over the prints with a felt tip pen and cut out all reference to Hell, so the movie read ‘Frankenstein and the Monster and *blip*’. This censoring gave me the idea that I wanted to make a South African Devil movie,which was targeted at the people who refused to speak about the Devil in such an extreme way. ‘Dust Devil’ came out of that. It was also the easiest idea for a movie I could think of at the time, I thought whats the simplest and cheapest thing we could shoot. It was a story with a girl driving across the desert and she picks up the Devil. It’s just two actors and the car for the whole movie, the landscape felt like the simplest and the cheapest movie I could possibly write or come up with. It took a while to get made, it went through so many twists and turns.
The Shorts, they don’t get a lot of airtme. Among the shorts is one of my documentaries, White Darkness which is a film about Voodoo and about the American occupation of Haiti, which I think is probably my best work. I think the middle of White Darkness is the material I’m most proud of, that I have shot. It’s got a very good middle, it manages to be political, supernatural and completely jarring because we’re seeing stuff which the audience will never expect. In this case it’s the brutality of the American regime, the Baptist Marines, you see the evident evil of the Christian characters who were trying to forcibly convert the Voodooists to their Christian religion which is not something we expect to see when we get into the movie. As the movie goes on the treatment of the Voodooists gets worse and worse, very disturbing, we also managed to get the head of the Marines deposed, Colonel Walter Walker Junior , he was removed from power as a result of this documentary. You can see that they are so obviously out of fucking order, you can see that they clearly believe that you have to have a Christian consensus in a nation before you can have a democracy. His version of democracy is based on Christianity, he believes they have to crush the Voodooists before they can have a democracy. It also shows the Crusader mentality, weirdly enough the Conservative Baptists Missionaries use the Georges Cross as their symbol, they actually have it on their uniform. Most of the Marines you see in White Darkness were sent to Afghanistan afterwards, they are all very clear thst they’re Crusaders. The Taliban and ISIS aren’t wrong when they say that the Marines are Crusaders, it really was the Crusades through a filter.
The other shorts are all things that I shot because I was bored or on a dare. The Children of the Kingdom was shot because of a bet, whether I could shoot a short movie in one day in London for 99euros. So it’s a 99euro, one day in London, shot on the underground movie, but I wouldn’t have done it unless someone had bet me to do it. Sea of Perdition was a film about Martian Exploration, it’s set during the colonisation of Mars. It’s interesting because if it was made now you’d assume it was a rip off of the Ridley Scott movie The Martian, but I asked them to play it because it’s so soon after the discovery of water on Mars, which is a factor in The Sea of Perdition. We shot it in a Volcano in the Arctic, it was minus 7 above ground, below ground it was very hot. We found this warm water lake beneath the Arctic by going down a Volcanic vent in Mount Krafla, which I was doing because I was following some notes from the Nazis. In another film I spent much time tracking down all surviving members of the Ahnenerbe SS, the folklore department of the SS, which gathered information about folklore, witchcraft and mythology. They were purged in 1939 and most of them were killed by the Christian SS, who came to fear them. Goebbels was gathering material to incriminate Himmler and the SS, when they became an embarrassment, so they were gotten rid of. Their research was shoved into the mass grave of Nazi information, until we decided to start back engineering it in 1998. There was a huge amount of folkloric data and mythology there, which no one was reading because it was all tainted by Nazism. I started going to the different sites that they had been excavating.That’s how I found the underground lake, it’s also how I found out about Montsegur where I live now from reading that material. World War Two set back the occult lodges and the Pagan movement for decades, they were all on the wrong side. In the 1950’s & 60’s it almost died. There was a time when the European hidden tradition almost died. The Nazis had also banned all the secret societies, the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. It wasn’t until the hippies, when people started doing acid and reading Aleister Crowley and busting out their Madame Blavatsky that things came back.
H: Besides your own work what would you recommend at Horrorthon 2015?
RS: Out of the bunch Scherzo Diabolico, directed by Adrian Bogliano who made Late Phases and Here comes the Devil, a couple of years ago. I know Adrian quite well, he’s a talented lad and he knows what he’s doing. Personally I can’t resist The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the presence of Caroline Munro, it’s just one of my favourite movies of all time, I’ve adored it since I was around 10 years old, it’s totally inspired me, it still touches my hear. The Voyage of Sinbad & King Kong definitely opened up my mind to the possibilities of cinema.
H: We wondered what you thought of current movie monsters and animatronics, can you talk us through some of the best and worst examples you’ve seen.
RS: Recently we’ve been a bit challenged because of the existence of CG, thanks to the ability to have everything fixed in post live animatronics have suffered, people have abandoned stop motion animation entirely. There are almost no animators left who are capable of the level of work that we saw from Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien in the old days, which is a huge shame because it occurs to me that with computer animation we could perfect the process. What was wrong with Harryhausen’s work is that it strobes because every single frame is in focus as it’s photographed frame by frame, with computer techniques now we could overcome that problem. No ones got the talent to build the maquettes and the armatures, or the patience, which is a shame. I still think that the best monster movie ever made is The Thing by John Carpenter, I haven’t been grabbed by a monster movie as strongly ever since . It’s for a bunch of reasons; the Thing keeps evolving and changing, you never get a sense of what it actually looks like, whereas in Alien, we eventually realised it was a humanoid guy, it became less terrifying. Alien with Sigourney Weaver was terrifying for me up until the moment when she blasts it into space and you see it’s rubber tail! The game we all play with movie monsters is that you have to show it, you can’t not show the monster, you do have to show the monster, how long you show it for and how long you can keep the audience afraid is the most difficult part.
H: Richard would you have any advice for aspiring film makers?
RS: Whatever you do just keep shooting and don’t wait for permission, if you wait for somebody else to let you shoot you’ll be waiting forever. People are always waiting on the money, waiting for someone to agree to something, that stops you from being a film maker. You have to just get your goddamn camera and shoot anyway, shoot anything, keep shooting!
H: What should we look out for from you in the future, are you taking on Lovecraft?
RS: I am, I adore Lovecraft, my mother introduced me to Lovecraft, she was a big fan, luckily for me. I got into Lovecraft when I was about 6 or 7, my gateway drug was Dreamquest for Unknown Kadath, a Lovecraft story for children, my mother read it to me when I was five or six, that provided the gateway. Lovecraft is very dear to me, and it occurred to me that there were not many decent movies on Lovecraft. The screen adaptations were often very poor and ususally played for laughs which is weird. The Last Call of Cthulhu and Whisper in the Darkness are sort of campy, pastiches. I liked Stewart Gordon, I played a fish monster in Dagon, I’m there with a bunch of other fish monsters in the sacrifice scenes which was fun, but it’s still a silly movie. I’ve always wanted to see what would happen if a Stanley Kubrick or an Ingmar Bergman or an Andrei Tarkovsky had taken him on. Lovecraft defined his theme as Cosmicism, cosmic terror, man’s frightful position in the cosmos, the fact that we’re surrounded by black seas od infinity, with no control over our destiny whatsoever. It’s a world that I don’t think anyone has ever been into, I don’t think any of the Lovecraft adaptations convey any of that. it seems to me that the main purpose of his work has been left offscreen, it hasn’t been tackled. It’s a theme that someone like Kubrick would really have made something out of too. Of course we’re not going to have a Kubrick style budget, but given what we have we’re going to try to do a serious Lovecraft adaptation, which doesn’t mean there’ll be no humour in it, human beings are still entitled to make jokes, but the human characters won’t have any chance of understanding what’s happening to them, the thing itself will be irrevocable, unfathomable and beyond anyone’s ability to deal with, unnameable and indescribable, as it should be. We’re doing The Colour out of Space, which technically can’t even be seen because it’s outside the spectrum, but it lives at the bottom of this family’s garden and exerts its malign influence on the family and their farm and the various characters struggle with that!
Part two of the Frank Henenlotter Q&A at IFI Horrorthon 2014. Read part one here.
Frank Henenlotter: I had a film I wanted to make after I made Basket Case called Insect City, but nobody wanted to touch it, nobody liked it. So I learned that Jim Glickenhaus who’s probably best known as the director of films like Exterminator, Shakedown, The Soldier, a really good actor and director, he started his own company called Shapiro-Glickenhaus and I thought maybe he’d like to do it, so I sent him the script and we spoke on the phone and he said to me, “Well… come in and talk” and I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but anyway I went in and he said, “I really like the script Insect City, and I will never in my life put a penny into it.” I said why, and he goes, “No one would ever pay to see this.” Now I think he’s right, ok, but at the time I was like, oh ok so… and then he said to me, “What else do you have?” That was it, I had Insect City, I didn’t have anything else, but I realise I’m sitting across from a guy who wants to make a movie with me and can afford it so I said, “Oh well I got this story about, you know kind of like the movie The Brain That Wouldn’t Die only kind of an updated version where this guy’s girlfriend gets killed…” and Jim went, “How does she die?” and I said, “Oh, in a… lawnmower accident.” Before long, it felt like I was doing a stand-up comedy act, I was describing a script that never existed before, and telling it to him, and he knew I was making this up too, and I guess we did about forty minutes of the story and I couldn’t go any further and I said, “Well you know where it’ll go from there…” I didn’t, and he says to me, “Oh that’s great, what you going to call it?” “I…” So right away you know your brain goes fast, and I’m going… Frankenprostitute, no… Frankenslut… Franken this, Franken that… Frankenhooker… “Frankenhooker!” He went, “Oh, I love it!” And then he said, “Anything else?” And I said, “Well, we could always do a sequel to Basket Case.” Because I know that was one that people always ask me about. So he said, “Oh, I like it, which one do you want to do?” And I said, “Why don’t we do both? Shoot them back to back.” And that’s what we did, he gave me three million dollars, back then you could spend that kind of money and get it back from a film.
So I shot two films back to back in New York, and we did very serious pre-production planning, so we knew for instance that Jeffery’s lab would also be the attic used for the freaks because both had to be elevated so we could have the puppeteers underneath, and Gabe Bartolis who did the special effects, he was doing the makeup effects for both movies simultaneously. Anyway we shot Frankenhooker first because it needed time for the special effects to get printed and made, you know pre-CGI, although Basket Case 2 was released first. Frankenhooker, which was actually my third film, was released after that.
This is a film that I never intended to be a horror comedy really, there’s no blood or gore. It irritated a lot of people back then, but it wouldn’t have worked like that, they wouldn’t have laughed. I wanted laughter for this film. I don’t watch my own movies but this has the one sequence I watch… if I’m going to be remembered, I want it on my tombstone to say ‘This is the man who exploded eight hookers with super crack in a hotel room.’ I just find that hilarious and I can watch it every minute of the day and I have tears coming from my eyes laughing.
Post Screening Q&A
Paul Duane: The music was by an Oscar winning composer…
FH: Yeah, Joe Renzetti, he won the Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story. How he got involved with this, I don’t know! No, he was a friend of Jim Glickenhaus. Jim Glickenhaus was responsible for the songs they played during the crack party, they were singing, ‘Never Say No’, in fact that’s Jim Glickenhaus’s voice saying ‘Russian rouletters never die.’ Everything we can do to irritate the MPAA, the ratings board.
PD: To talk about Frankenhooker we have to start by talking about The Brain That Wouldn’t Die which underlies this film and is one of my favourite exploitation movies of all time.
FH: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die was made in 1959 but not released until 1961, and even when it was released in the States, American International released it, they cut it, they removed some gore scenes that were pretty transgressive at the time. A guy gets his arm cut off and manages to smear his stomach across an entire wall, goes into another room then turns around and comes back down and resmears the wall before he falls down. They had a monster that’s a giant pinhead that comes out. Eddie Carmell who was a real life giant, he comes out of the closet, I mean literally in the film, the closet of the mad doctors mistakes, and he comes out and bites the back of the mad doctors head and holds up what looks like raw bacon and throws it, and it was enough that they got it cut. It was a film I grew up and loved and always thought it would be fun to do a kind of remake of it without doing a remake of it, you know. So I just borrowed the idea of a woman dying and the fiancée tries to bring her back. But years later, after Frankenhooker was out, the director of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Joseph Green, he thought I had done a direct remake and he was not happy with me. So we set up a screening and met and I said, “Hi Joe, I’m a big fan.” and he said, “Yeah, well I haven’t seen my check yet.” So he watched the film and he just laughed from beginning to end and the first thing he said to me was, “Oh my God, you had money!” And he had no problem with it, “Oh Frank, I love it, I love it.”
PD: The big element that you took from it was the idea of this guy trying to create a new body for the girl, but he’s also looking for the best looking body parts.
FH: Well that’s what he’s doing in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, he’s going to strip clubs, and that’s what I started doing. This was one of the few union films I made, it had to be because we were very visible filming in Manhattan at the time and filming out in the streets the way we were we would have gotten caught, so we went to the unions and it was a Screen Actors Guild production. So I tried to do it the way they wanted me to but when I was casting hookers the women that were sent to me were either, they were beautiful but “I won’t do nudity for you!” or… you didn’t want them to do nudity. So I did this for a couple of weeks and I called up SAG and said I did it your way, it’s not working, so fine me, punish me but I’m going out and finding the cast. So I didn’t really know what I was going to do but I thought I’ll go to strip clubs to find the cast for the film, figuring strippers would have the least problem, they look beautiful and they wouldn’t care about nudity. The first place I went to was a place called Billy’s Topless on 23rd St, it’s not there any more, but how blunt is the title – Billy’s Topless! I walked in there, I’d never been in the place before and I look up and see this long runway for the girls, and I look over at the bar and who do I see sitting at the bar but the guy who wrote Frankenhooker with me! Bob Martin, he used to be the editor of Fangoria, and Bob says, “Frank, what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m trying to get women for our movie.” I said, “What are you doing here?” he said, “Staring at the unobtainable…” So we hired the blonde girl with the Swedish accent, once we got her, she basically said, “I’ll get you some of my friends.” She got us everybody and it was great, this one’s in Penthouse, this one’s in Playboy. My favourite of course was Patty Mullen who played Elizabeth and she was a Penthouse Pet of the year, one of the sweetest, most charming people, I loved her because she didn’t look like a ‘Scream Queen’ per se, she looked like a girl next door and I thought she had that innocence that was just marvelous, delightful person and three days before I came here she just happened to call me, and whenever she calls me, I have an answering machine on all the time, she never gives a name, you know, leave a message, beep, and she goes, “Goin’ out? Wanna date? Lookin’ for some action? Want some company?“
PD: How did you direct her? Because she was so brilliant.
FH: I told her first of all, I showed her Boris Karloff and said I want that lumbering and then I said, “Can you do anything with your face?” and when she did that weird face I started laughing and I said, “Patty, as long as you can make me laugh, you’re doing a performance.” And she was a delight to work with, so was James Lorinz, I was so lucky that I had those two, unfortunately they had almost no screen time together but that was the fault of the script. James Lorinz made it look like he was making it up on the spot, and for a good chunk of the film he was. He never ad libbed on camera because that’s unprofessional, but as we were working out the scenes he would do additional lines, as long as I laughed, and if I didn’t laugh he didn’t want to do them. So he’d try out a line then go, “Alright, skip it.” he’ll do another one and I’ll start laughing, and he always made me laugh, and even when he’s doing dialog that’s exactly scripted, he made it sound like an ad lib. So I had a wonderful cast, it’s what the film needed.
I don’t know if anyone here saw Brain Damage the other night but the voice of Aylmer was the TV weatherman, horror host Zacherley. I couldn’t credit him in that one because it was non SAG, and he was SAG, but this was SAG. And Shirley Stoler, she showed up on set one day, literally, I’m in my office and hear a knock on the door, “Frank, Shirley Stoler’s here to see you.” I love The Honeymoon Killers, I love Seven Beauties, I love Shirley Stoler, I was intimidated meeting her and she said, “I heard about the film, I just popped by to see if there’s anything I can do” and I said, “Even if you’d been here the first day, there’s really not big parts to give you” she said, “Doesn’t matter, I’ll do anything” so I said, “You can be the bartender.” She said, “I’m happy to” and we had a great time. And what’s weirder, I never wanted my parents to see the films, when I was growing up my parents were Irish Catholic conservatives, I always had to be home early, so I didn’t think Brain Damage and Basket Case were films that they should see. With Frankenhooker, my mother informed me that they’re going to the premiere in New York. When the film was over, my mother stands up and she shouts, “Oh it’s nothing, it was just tits!” At the party about an hour later I look around and there’s my mom and Shirley Stoler sitting there shooting the shit.
PD: The film feels like the perfect grindhouse movie, something that was made for 42nd St.
FH: Absolutely, but it never played there. I thought, if this film had played in Times Square it would have run for ten years. It would have been the perfect Times Square film. By 1990 all of that was dead already, America lost three quarters of it’s movie theatres in a very short period, just went out of business, and most of those were smaller theatres that catered to the grindhouse and exploitation film market, so when they died so did all the companies that catered to them and made these kind of films and so did Shapiro-Glickenhaus, and most shocking of all, 42nd St disappeared, so it was the last gasp of something.
PD: It was also a period of cultural puritanism in America.
FH: Oh it always was, you can’t escape that, there’s always a right-wing, usually Christian element that is eager to tell you what you’re doing wrong, that’s just the way it is there. And I mean to irritate them. When I was growing up Catholic, they had the Legion of Decency, that was how Catholics controlled the ratings of films because if they condemned a film they would have the priests tell the parishioners not to go see it and films would lose money that way. You had to take the Legion of Decency pledge at mass once a year and all I would do is fantasise about what I was missing and I remember thinking if I ever got a chance to make movies I would have so much gratuitous nudity just to make up for this!
The MPAA attacked Frankenhooker with a vengence, even to get an R rating. Get this, even to get an R rating they made us cut the scene where Jeffrey is examining the hookers with a magnifying glass. What, are you kidding? It’s not even sex! He’s just looking at naked women for medical purposes! We had to cut that part for an R rating and etc etc. They made us cut the scene in the crack bar, that was based on a real bar that was right around the corner from 42nd St, and that’s what that place was like, I mean slightly exaggerated but not by much, ok. And when we were shooting it there was one shot which I thought, I remember joking on the set, this will be my anti-drug, shock film, this is my message film, and we had Ari Roussimoff in a tuxedo, big heavy guy who’s also a film maker, he’s smoking a crack pipe and I pan from him to this emaciated thin guy and we put heavy sweat on him and I thought, ‘before and after.’ That’s the one shot that the MPAA was specific about cutting because they said I was glorifying drugs! I mean, you cannot deal with them. We were in battle with them on this film, we thought this was an R rated film. We sent the film off to be rated and the head of the rating board calls up Shapiro-Glickenhaus and gets the secretary on the phone and goes, “Congratulations. You have the first film rated S.” “S, you mean S for Sex?” He goes, “No, S for Shit!” Well, you’re not supposed to review the films you assholes, you’re supposed to rate them. So Jim Glickenhaus went public with that quote and embarrassed the hell out of the MPAA. We had a long running feud, they gave us an X rating and we said we’re not taking it, we want an R and we fought and fought and fought till finally Shapiro-Glickenhaus said you know what, f*ck it, f*ck the R, we’re going to go out unrated. They eventually wanted an R rated version to sell on VHS to get it into crap places like Blockbuster which is another one of those things that, “Oh if it’s unrated we don’t want it in our store.” Well if it’s unrated I wouldn’t get it from your store, I wouldn’t be a member of your store if I couldn’t buy unrated films. They banned The Last Temptation of Christ, they said it was offensive. So those are the enemies you avoid. We made such a stink, we were always concerned when we did Basket Case 2 whether we could show Belial and the mutant monster screw. Why not? But you’re dealing with an irrational censor board, that’s what they are, they’re censors and they’re also funded by the majors so the majors can get away with anything, it’s the independents that get slammed so they can therefore say, “We gave X ratings to x amount of films.”
PD: There’s nothing in there that Woddy Allen or Mel Brooks couldn’t have gotten away with if they chose to do it.
FH: When we were fighting the censors I said to them, “You’re talking about violence where there isn’t a drop of blood, yet you just gave an R to Die Hard 2 where he sticks an icicle in some one’s eyeball! That’s ok? What are you talking about?” “Well we are not here to discuss Die Hard.” So in some ways it’s a lost cause.
PD: Things have changed and you can do what you want now.
FH: I won’t submit anything to the ratings board, I never will again. If I have a film and the distributor wants it sold, let him pay for it, let him do it, I can’t be bothered with it.
Question from audience: <First part inaudible> Is there anywhere in the world where if you had to film it again, you would film it there?
FH: Well no, but even back then, you couldn’t film on those hooker streets, it would have been too much, we faked that, except for at the very beginning, when Jeffrey is in his car driving, those are real hookers that you see him looking at, those are real working girls. We knew where they were and we shot in that area because it was lit enough for us to record, but the second time the car passed they were already savvy and they ducked away, so we didn’t get much. But we ended up filming on really decent streets that we cluttered with garbage. You really can’t film in the locations you want to, trust me. When I did Basket Case I shot on 42nd St, so much of the footage I couldn’t use because it was interrupted. You know by people who, “I wanna be in your movie!” Well, “No you can’t, good bye!” I was just filming in New Orleans last year and we had the camera set up by the side of the street, it was in the street but any car could easily go by, and this car comes charging right at us, and I’m thinking, oh God, this is it, and the woman stops right in front of the camera and she goes, “Can I be in your movie?” And I said, “You already are!”
Question from audience: Were you ever approached to make a sequel to Frankenhooker?
FH: Well not by SGE [Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment]. To me I felt the story was complete. Even though I’m the guy who made three Basket Case movies, I don’t particularly like sequels. I like Basket Case 2 because it was a total rethinking of the first one, but I don’t like Basket Case 3 because it was just more of the same old shit. But we get asked about this all the time, I get e-mails a couple of times a year going, “I want to turn Frankenhooker into a musical, can I have the rights?” “Well, sure, what do you think… no!” I get that a lot. The woman who played the head hooker who gets her head blown off, she informed me that she already wrote the sequel and it’s about Jeffrey collecting body parts from a whorehouse and she’s the head whore there and I said that sounds horrible and she said, “I already got the money.” I said, “You don’t have the rights and you’re not getting them from me!” And she was not happy.
Even if I wanted to do a sequel to Frankenhooker, which I don’t, but even if I wanted to, there’s no market for it. I would have to shoot it for something so cheap and pathetic that it wouldn’t even resemble the first film. I always wanted to make a Frankenstein movie, I love Frankenstein, and to me it’s a good Frankenstein movie if it’s got a good lab scene. I love the Hammer films, and I was so pissed off that Frankenstein Created Woman didn’t have a lab scene. Otherwise it was a good film. So I love lab scenes and we were lucky, we got all that equipment from Con Edison, but that cost money, it just does, I needed money for a budget, I needed money for an art department and all that, I needed money to get those parts and the opticals, and you’re paying a pyrotechnic guy a lot of money to blow up hookers.
What’s funny about that, if I can go into that for a minute, we didn’t know how many explosives would blow up a hooker. We did something clever with that, this was pre-CGI, so how do you blow up a hooker? The idea we came up with is, we would have them come to a pose, a death-pose, like this or like that, and once we decided what that pose would be we’d take pictures of it, and then Gabe made these beautiful statues of them, took body casts of them, we brought them in, we filmed the scene, cut, and while they were still there we would trace them on a TV monitor and put the model in and hope we get it right and then cut right on the frame of light of the explosion. So some of it looked great like when the asian girl’s head was flying off, but I wanted them to all look like fireworks, I wanted this to be like some idiot fourth of July celebrations. So the pyrotechnic guy starts conservative, so with the first girl, we bring in the dummy, “Ok, action!” and it goes pffffft… and there’s this little splutter and a little bit of smoke and we realise that her lips are on fire, and that was about it. So I said, “Put in everything you have. Do two hundred times more.” That’s how we got these great explosions and it was wonderful, the flaming hooker parts were falling on us, actually flaming and falling on our heads as we were filming this, the crew were freaking out, I was loving the fact I was getting burned by this, it made it real, I dunno, I just thought it was wonderful. We had the fire department we had to have there and all this other nonsense because it was a union job, the guy from the fire department’s watching this and he was not amused, “People could get seriously hurt, you’re blowing up hookers.” I’m going, “Ha ha!”
Question from audience: At the time this was on VHS which is just a bit of plastic with some magnetic tape, and really cheap. Has the new technology made making films too expensive to do, compared to the three million that you made this on?
FH: No it’s all about distribution. Once upon a time you could make a film for a million five, like this one, and you’d get that money back. Now you’d have to make the same film for three hundred thousand, a significant drop. Even if I shot it on high def, I still wouldn’t have the budget to match the look, it’s not the film stock, it’s everything else. There isn’t a lot of money in distribution now, you really have to be Hollywood, you can’t be independent or you’re not going to make it, the margins for making money as an independent is not what it once was. But you talk about the VHS, the VHS on this film is what made it. The film was an enormous hit on VHS, and it had nothing to do with me or the movie, it had to do with Jim Glickenhaus coming up with the greatest promotional gimmick to sell VHS; he had talking boxes made. It was thicker than an average box, because it had a little battery and a little speaker inside and you press a button, and you hear the box go, “Wanna date?” I was in video stores in ’91 and all you’d hear in the store is, “Wanna date? Wanna date?” because everybody’s pressing those goddamn boxes. Sales went through the roof, it was like the greatest William Castle gimmick he ever came up with.
PD: I think you’re doing yourself down a bit because you did a great movie, with a great title.
FH: But it was his ad campaign that got it seen. People noticed the movie not because I directed it, but because the box talked.
PD: And there was a sexy girl on the cover!
FH: And she looked like a monster, and she was saying “Wanna date?” I do, I do!
Frank Henenlotter was the guest of honour at the IFI Horrorthon 2014. Frank presented four films at the festival – Basket Case, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker and his new documentary That’s Sexploitation. This is a transcript of Frank’s introductions and Q&A sessions. Thanks to Colin McCracken for putting the Q’s into the Q&A.
Frank Henenlotter: I’d intended to make kind of a more serious film, but when I saw we had nothing to work with I kind of encouraged everybody to give a broader performance and I threw the blood around a little too much, and I remember thinking to myself, well go ahead and finish it because no ones going to ever see it! And back then it was true, back then you could make a film, it would show on 42nd St. and similar skid row theaters and disappear and no one would ever know and I thought that’s fine with me, let me make it, we’ll let somebody show it, and I’ll walk away, and no one will ever… so you know, here we are, decades later and the curse still follows me.
One thing about this though is, this is from a HD master of the film, it finally looks the way it’s supposed to have looked. Somewhere along the line the film got the cheapest dupe negative ever made, and the film was too dark, and too much grain, and it didn’t look like the 16mm original, which at least had bright colours, it was at least… not a good looking film, that’s impossible, it’s Basket Case, but at least it had a more vibrant tone to it. And typically, we lost the negative, we lost the 16mm negative. How could we, me or the producer, lose the goddamn f*cking negative! And we did, and it was lost in plain sight, the whole time it was in a box labelled ‘Brain Damage Prints’. And I went in there one day, and I saw the 16mm cans and I went, oh my god, we’ve had it all this time. So I was able to make this HD from both the 16mm original and from, it wasn’t complete, it had some scenes missing, but from a beautiful 35 IP that we also started the same time. It’s why the film is in 1:33 (square) because when I made it, you know I hold up a camera, it was square, so I shot a square. I was appalled when I saw it theatrically and realised they cut off so much of the top and bottom to release it theatrically 1:85, so it’s a square but you’re actually seeing more rather than less.
Post screening Q&A
Colin McCracken: So Frank, I’d love to start off, if you could tell us a little bit about the environment and atmosphere of the place that led to Basket Case because it was such a fascinating time in history.
FH: Well New York at that time was really going downhill very fast. It was the era when the city was broke, and parts of the city were extremely dangerous to live in. The producer of the film had his office at St. Marks, right between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, across the street was Tompkins Square Park and you did not go into the park, and Alphabet City was further down, and it was really that dangerous, there were parts of the city you had to stay out of. And most people considered the Times Square area that way too, except for me, because that was where all the best movies were, and I would go from Long Island, from High School when I was 15 and get the train to Manhattan just to go to 42nd St. movies all day long and see as much as I could… women in prison movies – fine I love it, blaxploitation -fine I love it, martial arts – fine I love it, badass comedy, action films… as long as it’s a low budget action film, fine I love it. I love action films but I couldn’t afford to do action. So that was the element I grew up with. The audiences were crazy, the stories about the place being infested with such crime, that’s bullshit. And the audiences loved the films and were very… as long as you delivered… and delivered means you had to have blood, violence and tits, you know, and if there was a good dirty joke, they’ll go for that.
And that’s what it was, that was the atmosphere, and I loved it, I lived it and I never thought it would go away, and when I was writing Basket Case I thought, you’re supposed to write what you know and I thought, well it would be marvelous if it were set in some phoney baloney fleabag hotel on Times Square. No such place like that existed, they were mostly hooker hotels, there were some really crappy places where I guess you could… we were originally going to do it in a real hotel that wasn’t around the Times Square area, it was on 33rd, it was called The Star Hotel, doesn’t that sound beautiful, and we had spoken to the guy who ran it and we said we need privacy to do this we can’t have people know that we’re making the movie or you know, equipment’s going to go missing. As soon as we pulled up with the van, these guys were outside going “Oh, the movie people are here!”, and that was the end, we never even went into the building. I know how that works, pretty soon they’ll be charging you for watching your equipment that it doesn’t get stolen.
So anyway, that’s what the area was like then, it was a very comfortable city to live in, I hate New York now. New York is now a city for the rich.
CMcC: But you’re still living in the 42nd st. area?
FH: No, I live in Greenwich Village. I’ll give you an example, that area has been so cleaned up, it’s all been Disnified, Disney came in, that f*cking mouse, here’s what his deal was, and it’s not me making this up, he made a deal with the… whoever the stupid mayor was at the time, he would buy the New Amsterdam Theatre, which was probably the most ornate theatre on 42nd st, home of the Ziegfield Follies, beautiful history, and they would refurbish it and that would be their landmark theatre and that’s where they would open The Lion King, but what the Disney people said was, they can’t have a family coming in if there is anywhere within eyesight a porno place. So they couldn’t just throw them out, they had to slowly zone them out, so they had to wait till every single place that had leased a building, those leases had to run out, so it was a long horrible decaying process to watch it all die. But they won, and now Times Square is like a playground for German tourists, its horrible, it’s disheartening, and it’s all family fare. And it’s worse than any time I was… I can’t walk through it now, and the city itself has become a city of the rich. When I first moved into Greenwich Village, there were still the remains of the beatniks for Christ’s sake, there was bohemians, it was like gay central, now all gone, it’s all just rich people drinking in my world.
CMcC: So when you were seeing these films, I assume you started going when you were a teenager, so you were fairly susceptible to influence, how long was it before you decided you wanted to contribute to that, in a cinematic sense?
FH: Well I was always making films on my own, but they were like backyard movies with my friends. I started in 8mm, not Super8, regular 8mm, then I started doing 16mm shorts. But the important thing was, I was making them just to make them I wasn’t making them to show them, I had no interest in showing them, I never had any interest in being a commercial filmmaker, I still don’t think I’m a commercial filmmaker. I think I’m a guy who loves movies who happens to have made a few. This is not a career, it’s just something that’s happened, know what I mean? So I was always making these films and mostly what I was making was comedy, but with a lot of blood and gore in them that was so extreme that no one ever found them funny but I did, I thought it was hilarious. And Basket Case was the closest thing to those earliest movies I made.
But I’ll tell you a story about filming on 42nd st, because the footage of walking down the street, there were alternate takes, there was more footage, most of those alternate takes were not used because we couldn’t control the people there. But there’s one scene where you first see him walking down the street and we’re in a van with the door open and I was filming from the side of the van going along, and he walks past a porno store, and it’s such a great shot because you can see all the way in the store. On the first take, we went around, sometimes… when you have your eye on the viewfinder and you’re worried about keeping it in the box, something happens that you don’t even see right away, and there was something in the shot that was wrong and all of a sudden, by the time I realised it it was too late, there was a guy from the porno store who saw us, who charged from the back of the store and dove into our van threatening to kill us all! And I didn’t know what to say and it was Kevin Van Hentenryck who calmed him down. The guy thought we were CBS News, a local news channel, and we kept saying, “No, no, no” and Kevin was saying, “We’re just making a monster movie, look there’s a monster in here” and the guy’s like, “Oh, you’re not… you’re making a…”, and then he got so “Oh, I’m sorry guys, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to…” and we said that’s fine, we’ll go around the block again, and he’s, “That’s fine, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Wow.
CMcC: You described Belial as a malignant jack-in-the-box, so how did you develop it from this initial idea into the feature that we’ve just watched?
FH: I had the work of a very skilled make-up artist who was just starting out in the business, Kevin Haney who had just come from Ohio to meet Dykstra, and before long he was working on Saturday Night Live. In fact Belial was cooked in… we had two Belials; one was the animated Belial which I have at my home and one is the puppet, and one was cooked in Dykstra’s oven and one was cooked in the Saturday Night Live oven. But he did it and you know, I wasn’t sure what Belial should look like, I had some vague ideas, I said I wanted Kevin’s face for half of it, but it was one of those things where you’re working on it and I’d stop by and I remember one time we were running out of plasticine, so we just stuck this coke bottle on the top, and I look and I go, “That’s great! That’s the bone out of his back”, and he looks at me, he goes “Fine, you want a bone, you got a bone. ” And that’s that, and then Kevin put in some wires to make it work. At the time, Kevin, this is Kevin Haney I’m talking about, the makeup artist, at the time he had terrible contempt for the project, we just had no money.
CMcC: It was a long process shooting it as well…
FH: Yeah but he wasn’t involved in that. He delivered Belial and he said to me, “Ok, let me show you how the wires work.” He says, “Alright, you want to make his mouth, you take the…” and he pulls on them and rips them out, “The hell with it.” So now I had to take it home and figure out how to make it work, I took a gardening glove, painted it red and you know, that’s it’s mouth. I was operating Belial in almost all the shots. Back in those days, I was as thin then as I am fat now, and all the scenes where you see that wooden dresser, I’m inside the dresser. I mean, today I could play the dresser. But I’m in there and I have a mirror set up on the other side of the room, trying to practice doing it, you know, so I was playing Belial the whole time, so talk about the glamour of film making, I’m stuck in the dresser looking out through the thing, grabbing the TV set, breaking it off, that’s what you do with a low budget film. We had two gloves to make Belial move, sometime in the film if you look carefully you can see that there’s somebody in behind the Irish guy [Joe Clark], he was a character too, he owns a… oh my God, I didn’t know who he was, I was introduced to him from somebody else, he owned all these gay bars and bathhouses, and he didn’t really own them, the actual owner was in prison and had signed Joe’s’ name on it. He wasn’t aware of this, but remember that film Cruising, well we shot in there, and there were protests all over the city when they were shooting Cruising , the gay community was I think justifiably up in arms about it, and we shot in there the weekend they had just finished. That was one of the bar scenes where he’s sitting down with Beverly in the bar, and there were these giant handcuffs that we couldn’t… we had to shoot around the handcuffs, we had to shoot around… there was a sling, so we just shot around it, and that’s also the basement where the father falls down, and that I had, when the father’s walking there there’s all these objects behind him, I was hiding glory holes, that’s where we were filming, it worked, it looked great on film so why not. But anyway, Joe is a lovely man, he fled back here to Ireland when the Aids epidemic hit Manhattan. The mayor saw this as the perfect opportunity to clean up all the sex clubs in the city, gay or straight he didn’t care, so they were going after all these, and that’s how Joe learned, “Oh my God, they think I own all these?” And he fled back here and then he came back to the states maybe twenty years later and I ran into him again in the club where we filmed, he was back there again. Six months after I was back in touch with him he was crossing the street and hit and run, boom, splattered him all over the goddamn street.
Question from audience: I just wanted to ask you about the subtext behind the wicker basket, was it something that you…
FH: What subtext? There is no subtext my friend.
Q: Was it a way of looking at the dystopian nature of New York at the time, or was it…
FH: You know why? Because the film was called Basket Case!
FH: Nothing like a sex documentary to begin a Sunday afternoon. This is a very American film because the clips you’re about to see are all a reaction to Hollywood being unable to show sexuality in films. That all stared in 1934 when they had a production code that was heavily influenced by the Catholic church. We don’t go into it that much, but basically the Catholics had their Legion of Decency and if they condemned a film they would denounce it from the pulpits, so as a result the studios were terrified of having a condemned film, so they would bend over backwards. And the Legion of Decency wrote the actual production code, so that’s why married couples cannot sleep in the same bed, that’s why you can’t even show nudity in silhouette, and on and on and on. So what happened was, while Hollywood films were kind of neutered, a sub-industry developed of really rancid, trashy, gutter level films. Nudity was still… you know you could still get busted for that, so the early sexploitation films dealt with content, like God forbid, the a story is about a pregnant woman who’s not married! Dear god! And that’s what you had, or a film dealing with abortion and that stuff. And eventually by the time the fifties came around you started getting some lunacy like nudist camp films. What the hell is a nudist camp film? And then you started getting ‘Nudie Cuties’, and it just started getting crazier and crazier until by the sixties it was non-stop T&A, and it was a whole separate ghetto. I know when I was seventeen and I snuck into the first theatre to see sexploitation films I was thrilled. I was thrilled because it was the only time you could see a bare breasted woman on a giant screen, I didn’t need much else. I didn’t need plot, I just was like, “Woah!”, and that’s what they were about.
So, Mike Vraney of Something Wierd, he and I spent about a year just finding these clips and going through every film that Something Weird owned, and also all these loops and stuff and finding these little nuggets of gold, stuff that you wonder, who made this, I mean you’ll see a clip of a very plump young lady naked and covered with plastic cowboys and indians… what? You’ll see another naked lady indoors wearing a scuba mask and fins… am I missing something? And that’s what the joy of this film is about. Fortunately we got the legendary David F. Friedman, who was the producer of films like Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, and then started his own sexploitation company and cranked out tons and tons of stuff, in fact he was head of the Adult Film Association of America, and he died a few months after we filmed him but he was in rare form in this, he’s very frail physically but his mind was so sharp, he knew dates, times, people involved and everything, he was a great asset to this film.
But one thing I want to warn you about is it runs two hours sixteen minutes, and that’s because we figured the life of the film is really going to be on home video, it’s not really for sitting in the theatre for two hours and sixteen minutes and watching it, but once we figured, I’d rather give people more filth than less.
FH: We’re not going to do a Q&A at the end of this one, so I’ll answer your questions if you have any and try to tell you what this was about. This was my second film, and I had a couple of dollars to spend this time, which is why it doesn’t looks as… you know, ratty as Basket Case. This was shot on 35mm and I had a dolly, oh my God! And I just thought I’d be fun to do a film about, well two things, one is, it’s the legend of Faust, and you can tell that story a thousand different ways and it still works, it doesn’t matter, the moment you sell your soul it just works beautifully. I thought mixing that with a subject which is seldom done in film which is addiction, you know, this was drug addiction but almost any kind of addiction . I’m not interested in, god forbid, I’m not afraid of vampires, or zombies or werewolves or anything, but addiction yeah, and I had a serious… I went through some serious addiction problems, which is why I understood what I was doing in the film. Some of it is a little more real than I care to admit ok, although I’m admitting it.
One of the things is the voice of Aylmer. In the United States his voice was a little more recognised, it was a man named Zacherle, John Zacherle, and when horror movies were first sold to television in the late fifties, they had TV horror hosts and Zacherle was the best of them, he was brilliant and I grew up watching horror movies with Zacherle on TV. He eventually became a DJ for over twenty years, beautiful, beautiful voice. The man turned ninety-six two weeks ago, just incredible, he’s still around, he’s always in a good mood, he’s always perpetually happy and he has the greatest voice ever. I know that when we were making it there was a moment where, when Alymer’s in the sink in the fleabag hotel, we needed to change the… to match the synch… he’s in the “sink” but we’re matching the “synch”. So anyway, we needed to redo it so I actually did it, I did a pretty good imitation of him and he loved it, and to this day I can’t, I don’t remember where that line is but you know it’s like, any time I meet him he goes, (in an Aylmer/Zacherle voice) “All right Frank, do one for me – hey Frank how are ya, how are ya, hahahahahahaha – oh you sound just like me it’s wonderful, wonderful!”
Question from audience: Did you write Aylmer’s tune?
FH: No, no, that’s a famous song, that’s an old song, apparently it was written by an undertaker.
Question from audience: Have you ever been asked can it be remade?
FH: I don’t want the remakes, I wrote these characters for a specific time and purpose. I get asked about Basket Case all the time but mostly Frankenhooker, ‘Oh, I want to do a musical about Frankenhooker’… go away! There was a remake of Basket Case that sounded like it could be worth doing, it sounded like I would get a lot of money till I saw what the terms were, then ‘Oh, I get twenty-five dollars, and a banana… wow it’s irresistible!’
Question from audience: Did you always know what Aylmer was going to look like?
FH: No, and I didn’t know what Belial was going to look like, I sort of saw Aylmer like maybe an eel, and it wasn’t until we started sketching it, we did an early sketch, and this is the first film I worked on with Gabe Bartolis who became my go-to guy for all the effects since then, and he started doing a large maquette of it and that’s when we started seeing the potential for it… give him suckers! I actually have the big Aylmer head and unfortunately he’s severely rotted, so am I in many ways.
Making Brain Damage led to me making Frankenhooker in the sense that, we filmed this in a button factory or a belt factory, I forget now, it was an abandoned floor below whatever factory it was. We rented two floors, one for the effects, one to shoot the movie, it was in a terrible location but what the hell. It was on 33rd St and… well, you don’t know Manhattan, but it was right across the street from the railroad tracks and this was hooker central at night, and this was particularly because the traffic would be guys in cars who’d come up and the gals would run out, and the cars would be lined up around the block. It was pretty fascinating. This was right around the time of the crack explosion in New York. I would come to work, come to the set, early in the morning, and all that was on the sidewalk were used condoms and crack vials. So you’d go (mimes stepping on used condoms and crack vials) ‘crunch! squelch! crunch! squelch!’ I mean there was no way around it. And then I’d go in many days I’d open it up and there’d be a gal in there with a pipe, “You know the sun’s already up?” “No, really…” “Yeah, better run…” So that led to crack on the brain when it came to Frankenhooker.
Question from audience: Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
FH: Exciting? No… But I have a film that we’re finishing this December, it’s not a horror film though, it’s not even exploitation, none of my fans are going to like it, but it’s a true story about three Williamsburg, Brooklyn hipsters who are so enamoured of street art that they go to New Orleans to steal a piece of Banksy art right off the side of a building. I knew these kids and the story just fell into my lap so why not make it.
I’m also doing a documentary about comic book artist Mike Diana who was the first and only comic book… What?
Comment from audience: I’m a big Mike Diana fan.
FH: You should tell him that, he’s here.
Comment from audience: What?
Frank points out Mike Diana to general surprise.
FH: He’s the first comic book artist, maybe the first and only, ever to be arrested for obscenity in the United States in 1994. When he told me about it I thought this was so unbelievable so we’re doing a documentary on that and it’s pretty good. I went down to Austin, Texas to meet with the prosecutor who wanted to put him away for three years in prison for drawing what he thought were dirty pictures. Un-fucking-believable. I mean America, the land of the free, you know what I’m saying? You have to fight for your rights and that’s what this film is reminding everybody.
Frank will discuss Frankenhooker in part two, coming soon!
Jessica Cameron was a special guest at the IFI Horrorthon 2014 and won our hearts with her love and enthusiasm for the genre, her humour and her style. Horrorthon’s Fiona Foskin watched her latest movie Truth or Dare and sat down with her for a natter…
Horrorthon: Your first foray into directing garnered you over 30 awards and nominations, along with a lot of respect from the industry. Do you think your extensive range of experience helped in your success?
Jessica Cameron: I definitely think it did because I learned what not to do, which in my opinion arguably is as important as knowing what to do. I’ve been on over 70 sets altogether and I really just sit back and watch when I’m not actually working on my acting or producing. I’m paying attention to things like, is the art direction being done well, is the director communicating with the actors, is he getting the results that he wants. and I think what you learn when you pay attention on a myriad of sets is that not any one thing or any one way is right for every film or every person, you sort of have to tailor it to the people and that what doesn’t work will never work.
I try to pay careful attention to that and I think it shows in the movie and also when we were shooting the film how smooth it was. I also know the importance of having two or three backup plans for every situation and everyone involved. You know being involved with films for years, I’ve learned that you simply have to, for every actor, even if they’re a loyal actor they could break their leg and not be able to do the role. There are so many determining factors that are out of your control that you just have to cover your bases and make a mental note, ‘ok, if anything were to happen here is what I would do’. So that ethic really guided us throughout the whole film process and led to the end product.
H: You have described yourself as an actors director, how does that influence Truth or Dare, how does it influence you when you are pushing your actors to achieve a horrific scene?
JC: I think being an actors director enabled me to really communicate clearly what I wanted and to really speak in a lingo that the actors understood and appreciated. As an actor I hate it when I get given a line reading and I don’t do that to my own actors. I really want them to find the voice inside of them for the character that they’re playing and to make it part of them, and really work with them. I think when you hire talented actors they can bring so much to the role if you let them explore and play with it. So I’m definitely a fan of … if the actor feels that the wording might not be ideal, real or accurate or if something could be better or stronger , then tell me, lets play with it. Worst case scenario, we’ll shoot it my way, then we’ll shoot it your way, then we’ll see what works in post. So I really try to work with them because the reason why I cast the actors that I cast is because they’re phenomenal, they do great work and their right for the role and great for the movie so I don’t want to neuter them or their performance so to speak.
H: How did you find pushing the actors in Truth or Dare in particular, because it is quite gory?
JC: Yeah, it’s extremely gory, it was definitely a challenge. I tried to make myself clear early on, I explained to them when I sent them the script how we were going to do each and every one of the stunts so that they all felt comfortable and confident in it and sort of explain to them here’s how it’s going to be shot, here’s what we can do to make you the most comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Obviously I think its crucial to be really honest with your talent, to say we’re going to be working really long hours, it’s a low budget shoot, it’s going to be 12/ 13 hour days. typically, on a good day, it’s going to be uncomfortable there’s not going to be as many breaks as you possibly might like etc. At one point my actress Heather Dorff, really had to use the bathroom and we were doing a camera set up, and shes a smoker, she said to me ‘ I really need to have a cigarette’ because it was a really intense scene, she said “I really need to go to the bathroom too.” The problem was that she was covered head to toe in blood . So in order for us to get her outside she couldn’t cross through the house without getting blood all over the place, we could clear a safe pathway to the bathroom for her but that would take about the same amount of time as a camera set up and we wouldn’t have time to get her out for the cigarette, we could get her out the garage door, un-barricade it and get her out that way and it would take about 15 minutes so I said, well, we really only have time for one of those things. She said, “Can I pee outside while I’m smoking?” So we’re in the middle of salt and sea in a family neighbourhood, it’s desolate, there’s not a lot going on there so I was like, “Sure I’ll come out and I’ll hold a towel, I’ll cover for you.” So she went outside covered in blood in her underwear had a cigarette and peed in the corner of the yard, in full view of everyone. I just held up a towel. Was it ideal? No, but she still got to do the two things that she needed to do.
H: How do you find the term ‘scream queen’? What would be the pro’s and con’s of this title for you?
JC: I think it’s an honour, I think to be known or labelled as anything in an industry that is so hard to get recognition or accolades in is a blessing. I think that the term scream queen for me means somebody who really loves the horror genre and focuses on that for their career, and really tries to be an advocate for everything related to that genre. Which I certainly am, and I do. I do believe it’s a term that should not be self imposed. I don’t believe that just because you’ve done one low budget horror film that you should be able to say on your Facebook and social media that you’re a scream queen. It should be something that the press and the fans give you. It’s like this, it’s one thing for other people to say you’re beautiful, it’s another thing for you to talk about how gorgeous you are. Let somebody else give you the title. You have to earn it and it takes more than one independent film to do that. It requires a certain dedication and affinity for the genre itself.
H: You’re involved in so many things from comedy, sci fi, producing, what’s your favourite ‘job’?
JC: I like acting the most, acting is certainly where my heart is, followed closely by producing. I do really love producing the films that I’m acting in so that I can have a hand in their production, their quality, when they’re coming out, where, promotion and really interacting with the fans. So that’s my ideal scenario, directing would fall third, followed by writing.
H: Did any directors that you’ve worked with before influence you when you were working on Truth or Dare?
JC: So many, I really took what I learned working for so many people that I know and tried to make the best film possible That was my M.O. So certainly the Soska sisters, who did Dead Hooker in a Trunk. I haven’t worked with them directly yet but just they’re being friends of mine and being women that I’ve followed for many years within the genre. I actually said to my producer when he approached me to direct Truth or Dare, you know if the Soska’s can do Dead Hooker in a Trunk I can do Truth or Dare. Because I knew we had more money than they had and I had been working in the industry with more contacts than they had and they’d done such a phenomenal job that it was just an inspiration to me when making my own movie.
H:You studied fashion and would have natural visual and artistic talents, how much of this did you bring to directing?
JC: My fashion design background informs everything I do in the industry. It’s how I carry myself, it’s how I prepare for characters and roles. I’m a very firm believer that wardrobe impacts your feeling, your mood. If you look at women specifically, they walk very differently in different types of shoes. If you give a woman a pair of 7 inch stilettos with a 2 inch platform she’s going to carry herself very differently to when she’s in a pair of running shoes. I really think that’s very important to character development as an actor and as a director I see the need for it in relation to making sure that the actors are doing their job well but also interacting with the other actors in the scene and how the audience is going to respond to them.
H: You’ve produced some amazing gore scenes, that can really cause discomfort and horror, how do you work to achieve maximum effect on your audience with these?
JC: My co-writer and I, Johnathan Scott Higgins, researched as much as possible. We called up friends who are doctors and nurses to make sure that we were writing the graphic vicious torture elements accurately and truthfully. We really tried to base it in reality. What I find personally frightening is when it looks real, when it could pass for actually physically happening. If it looks like it’s a movie prop or a stunt it takes me out of the film’s reality and I’m no longer scared. So we tried to do that and I think it worked really well. When we got our script blocked we worked with our special effects genius Carrie Mecardo to make sure that the visuals were in tone with reality, which was pretty horrifying. You can Google most things in life now, so if you ever really want to find out what a liver looks like you can, you can see full be-headings, there are some really dark places on the Internet. We went there to make sure that we were being truthful and to shoot it right, to do a wonderful job of making it very, very real. From there in post production we edited it well and clearly, to make it very fast paced. We then focused on sound design to make it as impactful as the visuals. That’s one of the things we get credited with, people look away from the movie because it’s too much for them to handle and then they’re taken aback by the sound. They close their eyes and it doesn’t stop.
JC: We do we have 75 vomit bags. If you vomit please use the bag, so many times people vomit and they don’t want to use the bag. I will give you a new one, I will give you a free t-shirt, but nobody has. We’ve had 14 people vomit but nobody has used the actual bags yet . One person has blacked out, many have walked out. I’ve been condemned, told I’m going to burn in hell. I say well if I am burning in hell for this I’m going to be in great company.
H: What makes a horror film stay with the viewer in your opinion?
JC: I think a really original and interesting concept and then I think trying to do it as well as you possibly can. Really making sure that your visuals are strong, the sound is strong and the performances. If anything stops being believable or real then it takes the viewer into the zone of, ‘oh I’m watching a movie.’ I think movies should be similar to a roller-coaster, once you’re on a ride you’re on this ride and when it’s over you’re like Holy Crap that was fun.’
H: In the horror film industry, who would you say has influenced/inspired you the most?
JC: The Soska sisters hands down. They’re such an inspiration, both as women in the industry who are strong, passionate, intelligent, beautiful dedicated and driven. As creative artists their ability to tell a story form a new brilliant perspective is never ending inspiration for me. American Mary is so brilliant in so many ways. Dead Hooker in a Trunk is fantastic, to make a movie with nothing and to make it so well is just so refreshing. I just saw their See no Evil 2, and what they did with what should be a dead franchise is mind blowing it’s a phenomenal sequel and in my opinion one of the best slasher films of the past decade.
H: As a guest of Horrorthon this year, what have been your favourite films so far/ looking forward to?
JC: So far I’ve loved The Editor and Housebound. The Editor is very different, very unique, Astron 6 made a movie that only Astron 6 could make. It’s hard to quantify. If Truth or Dare is a roller-coaster, the The Editor is Mr. Toads Wild Adventure, you’re not quite sure what it is. Housebound was exceptional, such a great film. Lost after Dark was a great film, a wonderful 80’s style slasher. The Babadook, went so many places that I did not expect it to go. It featured some of the most dynamic performances I’ve seen in a long time, also directed by a great female director, new on the scene, Jennifer Kent.
JC: It is my first time in Ireland. Oh I loved Stitches I thought it was so much fun, it was hilarious.
H: What advice would you give to any aspiring film makers out there?
JC: I would tell any aspiring film maker to get off their ass and go do it. Go make a movie, go make a feature. If you have a feature film that you want to make, go make it. Figure out a story you can make with whatever you have access to, what kind of equipment and funding you have. If you don’t have equipment and funding then figure out what you can do with that. We have never been in a better time for independent film makers. There are film makers making movies on their iphones, there are no more excuses.
H: You’re a constant worker, you have various projects in post production at the moment, what should we look out for?
JC: Utero is one that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s one that I have produced with my Truth or Dare partner Johnathan Scott Higgins, directed by Bryan Coyne. It’s about an agoraphobic woman who realises that she’s pregnant and throughout the later stages of her pregnancy she begins to believe that her baby could in fact be a spider monster. I’ts probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever shot. Save Yourself is a really sexy grindhouse film coming out of Canada that I did, it’s the first time I’ve worked with Ryan M. Andrews, and it certainly won’t be the last. We’re getting ready to do our film slates for the next movie that I’m directing called mania, and it’s a f*cked up lesbian love story. We’re going to make it while travelling cross country back to back with a female hitch hiker film called Desolation, which I’ll star in. There’s going to be a documentary around the making of those three films called Kill the Production Assistant. The reason I wanted to make a documentary around making these independent films is because so many people when I get to talk to them, want to know how I did Truth or Dare. They are struggling film makers themselves and they want to know, how did you do it? I love sitting down and talking for hours, telling them everything I learned and telling them how I did what i did, and how they can do exactly what I did, but unfortunately there are not enough hours in the day to talk to everyone. I wish there was. So the next best thing is that I’m going to show you how we do everything we do, how we make our movies with very little money, very little resources and still make films that can garner such wonderful acclaim and accolades and tell the stories that we want to tell. I’m pretty excited because I’m hoping it will inspire people. I’m a firm believer that knowledge is meant to be shared, that knowledge is power and that the best thing we can do is to enlighten others.