Archive for the Film Category

The Craft of Don Sharp: Witchcraft (1964)

witchcraft_1964_posterShot in less than two weeks, Witchcraft stands as testament to the skill of its director, Don Sharp, who died in 2011.

With the American Lon Chaney, Jr, as star, and a tight shoot of only 13 days, the results were hardly guaranteed. After a fairly good 1940s as the successor to Karloff and Lugosi at Universal, Chaney’s career had plummeted. By 1964, he was a notorious alcoholic, known for telling directors to get what they could out of him before noon. Sharp remembered a very friendly but lonely man on set, a gentle soul who would be “almost grateful when someone would spend ten minutes talking to him.” He also remembered the difficulty working with him as the day went on and the drink gradually took its toll. “But by the next morning, he would be so eager, so keen to do right. He was a very sad man, indeed,” Sharp recalled. Continue reading The Craft of Don Sharp: Witchcraft (1964)

Interview: Dom Brunt Before Dawn

Before Dawn is a zombie film with a heart. A heart and a brain. Instead of focusing solely on the genre staple of consuming hearts and brains, the husband and wife filmmaking team of Dominic Brunt and Joanne Mitchell entwine their end of the world scenario with that of the end of a relationship. The result is a film which blends human drama with the brutal and shocking violence of the undead, a rare and refreshing feat in an over-saturated genre. Sarah Crowther sat down with the film’s director, producer and actor, Dominic Brunt, to discuss zombie allegories, relationship dramas and the journey from Emmerdale to apocalypse. (Be prepared for a spoiler or two…)

 

Dominic Brunt - director of Before Dawn

Dominic Brunt – director of Before Dawn

Sarah Crowther: Before Dawn is unusual for a zombie film in that it is a cross between a relationship drama and a horror film. How did you come up with this concept & is it true that it was born of an argument between you and your wife, actress Joanne Mitchell (who plays your onscreen wife Meg)?

Dominic Brunt: Yes. Jo has developed other short films and stories and she’s a huge fan of European cinema, which I am too to some degree, but really I’m a big fan of horror. Because we run Leeds Zombie Film Festival I watch tonnes and tonnes of zombie films…more than any human being should, and I think out of every five zombie films you might catch a good one. You have to watch a lot of awful stuff. And Jo just kept walking past tutting, or she’d watch a little bit and walk away. She said ‘you’re watching the same film over and over again’. And in the end she just got on my nerves, so I said ‘well what would you do then?’ She said that in the zombie films you watch ‘why is there no character development?’ It’s all about the effect. You don’t feel anything for these people. So what if this happened to a real couple like we are, with our differences? What if you set that up? And I said I couldn’t see horror audiences sitting through that set-up. But when you look into it I think especially horror audiences are the most open, and I think they’re the most patient people in the world. I think the reason they like horror is not just about liking horror, but they like all films that push boundaries.

I think that’s very true.

So we decided that we had that 25 minutes grace that you get in any film where you sit and you will be given information, but we didn’t want to leave it too far after that to give the audience what they’re asking for and what they’re waiting for. Especially if you’re selling yourself as a zombie film. So we decided that in that 25 minutes we weren’t going to let it go too long without a reminder to people. So we’ve got screaming in the background, blood on the front of a car, we’ve got something flashing past the camera. Every five minutes there’s something that comes along to remind the horror person that it’s OK, it’s coming. But then we wanted the story and the twist within the story to be nothing to do with the zombies that come in the second act. We wanted that story to stand on its own, so if the zombies never arrived it would be a pretty decent (in our opinion) European-style relationship film. It was all to be an allegory of the disintegration of a relationship set against the disintegration of society. And also we wanted it to be as British as we possibly could be. You can have your British story and have the police or the army showing up halfway through, but the fact is I live in Hebden Bridge and I’ve never seen a gun here. We didn’t want guns and actors showing up halfway through in badly-fitting uniforms, we wanted whatever was to hand. We’ve got sheds full of farm stuff round here. We wanted to see what would happen if a relatively unfit person was to fight a zombie that was never going to stop until you destroyed the head. So hence the introduction to the second half where we’ve asked people to wait that long then we go there you are, there’s your zombies!

And you certainly give them intense zombies. When Meg’s out running and she meets the first zombie that’s a really intense scene, and then the fight in the garage is brutal.

Yeah, we wanted that five or ten minutes to be a set piece that wouldn’t stop. We spent two days doing that locked up in a garage. Such good fun I can’t tell you!

And you had a fight expert didn’t you?

Yeah, because we were so low budget we had a stuntman and rather than him tell the actors what they’re doing and how they fight, he knew how to fight, so we said you dress up as a zombie. And he did all the movement classes, so he was there throughout. He knew what he was doing.

The way he moves in that scene is frightening. It’s just relentless.

We didn’t want to get mates in to be zombies because you can see the smirks, you can see the eyes flitting, there’s no concentration. And we didn’t want arms stretched out, you know. We had the whole thing that it was a virus that had got into the body pushed from the middle out. So there’s blood coming from the ears, mouth, down below and everything, so when you see the bed and it’s just covered, the virus has pushed everything out leaving a husk for it for it to grow its own innards and that’s what flies at everybody.

So everything that was that person is out. There’s nothing left of them.

Absolutely. There’s no brain at all. It’s just a furious husk that needs to keep going and replicate by filling in blood and carrying on. Which is what we do as a species, we’re either parasites or we reproduce. So everybody that was a zombie had to spend a day at the gym going through the background of the pathogens that they were being filled with and get the movement classes. There’s a little bit of Parkinson’s Disease, and a little bit of the disease from the film Awakenings so they could stand there for five days in a coma-like state. Some of them would stand there for 100 days until they collapse and rot into the ground, but as soon as there’s an impetus or some sort of stimulus that walks past, then that’s it and they won’t stop until they’ve passed their gene on and it’s spread.

So you had a zombie school. That’s very popular on zombie films.

Well we had to because we just didn’t want crap zombies. It only takes one bad zombie to walk past the camera and it ruins it. It was supposed to be very po-faced and serious and we took ourselves very seriously, even though there’s a couple of funny lines in between to do with the relationship. In the cellar when she’s turned we had a bit where he cleans her and gives her a kiss but once we’d got the make-up on we just thought there’s no way. We’d get the biggest laugh in the world. If you tried to kiss that…you just wouldn’t. So things changed when we saw the harshness of the make-up as well.

I thought your zombies worked well. Very harsh. Again it’s goes back to it being very drama-driven.

Well whether the zombies were there or not, (it didn’t matter whether it was going to be werewolves, or vampires, or zombies), it’s what effects that relationship and what launches him forward to redeem himself within that relationship. He thinks he’s lost her and then there’s a chink of hope with the arrival of the zombies that he could actually get her back. It was nice to explore that little scenario. But it couldn’t have not been zombies as I’m a zombie fan!

Absolutely! you’ve run Leeds Zombie Film Festival since 2007, but I know that Jo is significantly less of a fan. You must have come at the story from very different angles?

It just drove me mad that she looked down on zombie films for whatever reason and I think zombie films are chase films. This was what I’m happy with them being. Initially it was all hypothetical and it was never going to happen, so Jo had the first half of the film and I had the second half. And we said what if this was the set-up? So I said ‘alright but it’s got to follow this formula at the end’. You’ve got to fulfill this criteria if it’s a zombie film. Because it was hypothetical we happily kept messing with it and playing with it over the months. Then we started writing it down and we got the outline of 36 scenes done in order. We’d never written a screenplay before so that’s why we got our friend Mark Illis to write a screenplay to our structure. We knew exactly what we wanted but we just didn’t know how to put one together.

You know him from Emmerdale [popular UK television soap opera]? He’s a scriptwriter.

He’s a scriptwriter but he’s never done a screenplay before. He’s done plays and novels and all sorts.

And he’d never done horror before. So that’s another interesting challenge.

It was two people out of the three that had never done horror before!

That’s what made it the film that it is. It’s rare to see anyone trying to match up the horror and relationship drama genres as you have.

Hopefully yeah.

Although as we’ve talked about before there was Colin and Harold’s Going Stiff. I think they’ve got a symmetry with your film.

They’re fantastic.

How have the festival audiences responded and how have they engaged with that juxtaposition?

We’ve really enjoyed the festivals. We wanted to get it into a festival or a festival or two. Frightfest took it on, and then I think because Frightfest screened us a lot of other places took us seriously. So we kind of got a choice of festivals and we just chose the ones we wanted really, which was brilliant. The audiences have been great. We’ve got people that have really got it. And some people have read into it things that aren’t even there. People have said the fact that she’s an exercise fanatic and that you’re an alcoholic you’re obviously loosing yourselves, you’re becoming zombies in your own terms. And you’re already dead and you’re already addicted to this or that…and you think right I’m having that for the next interview…So people have seen it as a far more intelligent piece than it actually is you know. We always intended it to have many layers but not as many as people have seen.

I think it has. I was interested in the ending where both characters have turned and you look at each other and just scream. I read it as a comment on the futility of relationships where couples are just at each other constantly. They’ve turned into zombies and they’re still arguing…

There is that and there’s also another side. During the film we tried to keep it so that when they were talking they never looked at each other, they never actually made contact at all. They’d make fleeting eye contact and that was it and they couldn’t meet in the middle. They did love each other, and he’s not such a wanker… The fact that he takes her there isn’t to score points. The fact is that he only knows this one house. We tried to make it work that you were quite for him and that she was this quite efficacious  driven person, Then you realise he’s done something that he shouldn’t have, so then you’re on her side. We wanted your allegiances to swap. You have to remember that human beings are bad some times. You can’t have the angel and the baddie, life just doesn’t work like that. So that was the thing, that in the end they actually have eye contact and they’re glaring at each other.

So that ending was the first real contact that they’d had and they were zombies.

And they had to scream at each other because they’d been bickering the whole way through. It’s like Jo said if they hadn’t have turned into zombies you’d have had to end the film with this massive sex session – just to get it over with.

That would be a whole different film – and you’d be showing it at some very different festivals I think.

Yeah! So there was that release of tension for both of them to just flash up like that. And the fact that it came from a kiss as well, which wasn’t reciprocated. She comes back from the run and he’s looking after her and he gives her a hug but then he steals a kiss, which we flash back to. That’s how he catches it.

So, did making the film resolve your initial argument?

I saw her point and I think she saw mine. She watches a lot more horror now but I have to recommend certain ones. She wouldn’t have gone to Frightfest before, so she watched loads of films that she wouldn’t normally see and she really got into them. I think she’s much more comfortable now. But I’m glad she wasn’t then as she wrote the story of the film from the point of view of a non-horror fan which you wouldn’t normally see, which was great.

If you’d both been coming at it from the same angle you wouldn’t have achieved the same balance.

And also there’s the kind of cottage in the woods angle and all the stereotypes that come with it. She didn’t write any of that. I’d have ended up sticking them in!

How long did the development process take?

From our initial conversation to having the script written was about six months. Mark wrote the script and then six months after that we managed to get backing. I knew Marc Price and he had an idea about a short film which we’ve since done. And he said ‘don’t do a short film, make your film a feature’. And we said ‘we can’t because we don’t have backing’. And he asked how much backing we’d got, and so from Left Films and somewhere else they said we can get you this much. And I said ‘that’s enough to make a short film’. But he said ‘no, from a short film that’ll take you five or six days you need people for seven days more. Just a few days more and you’ve got feature.’ His view is that a short film is a waste of a feature. When you’ve got all your cameras and people there just get everybody to stay a bit longer.

How long did you shoot for?

Fifteen days. I finished Emmerdale on the Friday and then we started on the Saturday morning. We finished shooting on the Sunday night at 10’clock and I was back at work on Emmerdale on the Monday morning, so I was exhausted. But a change is as good as a rest.

When did you shoot?

It was Summer last year– the end of May, beginning of June [2011].

You filmed here in Hebden Bridge (West Yorkshire) where we both live.

We were down in the town, but we were mainly up on the tops, in Midgley and the Craggs. The cottage is up in the Craggs on its own off the road to Burnley. We were looking around for a place that was right for ages and I just said ‘what about that house on the way to Burnley?’

And did you go and knock on?!BeforeDawn04

I did yeah. I knocked on the door one Sunday. I drove up and this guy flew out of the door saying ‘what do you want?’ So I went ‘Oh, hiya, we spotted your house a while ago…’ and I was trying to explain to him and he’s a big chap. Adrian he’s called. And he went ‘Paddy from Emmerdale!’ So I kind of relaxed then – I knew I wasn’t going to get battered or shot or anything. They were absolutely brilliant. They couldn’t have been better. We used their house as dressing rooms and hung around there. There were cranes around left right and centre. The cellar is somewhere else and for the barn we filmed the inside of a garage in Halifax. We just matched it all together.

So it was a tight shoot?

A really tight shoot. We had one day off which was the Saturday. But then the day we were meant to do the crane shot it was 45 mile an hour winds on the moors so we couldn’t do it, so we ended up shooting on the Saturday instead. We had no days off in the end. They were harsh days. It was very late at night some nights and then we were starting again at eight in the morning. We just thought, we’ll get going and keep going. As long as everybody was fed and watered and everybody got the credit then that was it. It’s having that socialist model of the workers owning the means of production. I can direct and I can edit, the cameraman can do the cameras and he can clean really well, the stuntman knows how to cook… So we all did different things and we were all doing two or three different things.

How many of you were there?

Ten altogether. Maybe less some days.

Do you think it’s important with a low budget film to keep a really tight cast and crew?

I do yeah. I think the more people there are the more organising there is. But we scheduled it really well. We got the scheduler from Emmerdale to schedule it, so we knew that if we didn’t go too far from the schedule we would be OK.

Do you think that your background on Emmerdale opened a lot of doors for you on the production?

Yes, and also because I’m on the set of Emmerdale every day and it’s quite quick, there’s no indulgence. It’s very much ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, so getting the shot is crucial. It worked out knowing that we’ve got an hour for that and maybe three hours for a complicated bit. I see it every day.

So you’ve absorbed a lot and taken it in, and then been able to use it in your film.

Yeah. You see people getting behind schedule and then trying to shoot emotional scenes at the end of the day when actors are exhausted, and I just thought I’m not going to do it.

Is it true that you asked two other people to direct before you decided to do it yourself as they were charging too much money?

Yeah. I won’t tell you who they are. But Marc Price would have done it for free because he just wants to join in and make films. But he said ‘you can do it yourself’. We’d sit and watch films and talk about shots and camera angles and things like that. He said ‘I’ve spoken to you so I know you know how to do it’.

To have the faith of someone that’s made a film that’s done well must have given you a good boost.

I wanted to watch him direct it and then learn from him for the next film which maybe then I could direct. But he said ‘no, no, do it’. It was great.

Did you have any ambitions to direct before?

I did. But I didn’t really have the…I knew ideas. I knew what I wanted for certain scenes, I knew how I wanted to use the crane and some of the handheld shots. But even now watching it I’d shoot everything differently. It’d be a stiller, more considered film, but then it wouldn’t be what it is. But I like Romero’s editing where he uses twice as many chops as everybody else. I think it keeps still scenes busy and action scenes choppy and I liked it, so I kind of copied from his editing style. I like the technical side because I like to learn from it as an actor. Usually when the director’s telling you something it’s because they’ve got something specific in mind.

Would you do it again?

I wouldn’t do acting and directing at the same time. I want to carry on with Emmerdale for now. I still love it after 15 years and I still feel challenged by it.

But you can do your side projects as well?

I’d really like to carry on doing that. Maybe one every two or three years because it takes three years I think, from conception to finishing it off. And also I was editing it myself. I wouldn’t produce, act and direct again. It’s too much for one person. It’s left me exhausted. Even in post production it’s your responsibility. Even now I’m still getting the sound right. You kind of feel I really want people to see it and I’m really proud of it, but you kind of feel like handing it over…there you are…

Just to go back to Hebden Bridge, a lot of the cast and crew are Hebden Bridge based and I imagine that that was budget-driven, but were there other benefits in working locally?

Yes, because you could walk into the local shop and ask to film, and because they knew you they’d say if you can come in at 7 o’clock on Sunday and come in when we’re closed then they’d open up early for you to do it. We were using people’s side roads and farms, and you could just ask. People seemed really behind it. We do get quite a lot of film crews round here.

We do, but we’ve never had a zombie film as far as I know.

That’s right. There are angles everywhere round Hebden Bridge. It’s all built on top of each other in the town. And once you get above that you can point the camera anywhere and it just looks amazing. We were struggling to use up all our cutaway shots. Because it’s a piece mainly between two people, you can’t cut from people to the same two people and show the passage of time, so we had to have cutaways and be clever about them. You couldn’t repeat drama scene, countryside, drama scene, countryside. So we had to vary how we did it.

But we shot so much we kept saying we’ve got to get that in. We had a shot of the valley and as the crane came up a big shadow went across the valley and somebody said ‘how did you CGI that’ because it looked like a big hand came in and pulled them in. And then we had another looking at the clouds and the hillside and the clouds suddenly shifted and that’s the shot we used from day to night because it just cut out the green and went to black. It was all low resolution anyway, but it looked like we treated it, but we didn’t. We could point the camera anywhere and it made it look big and expansive. It was just beautiful.

One cast member who’s not as local, is Nicky Evans from Shameless and Emmerdale. He’s fantastic as Stephen.

Oh yeah. Well three quarters of the way through the film the characters have to get the information of what’s gone on. There has to be an explanation for them move to on for the last act where Alex redeems himself. But he doesn’t know how to redeem himself because he doesn’t know what’s been going on. The tellies and radios are down (which meant that we didn’t have to have that awful thing of TV reporters saying ‘in the background you can see people having their faces eaten off’). We just thought right – radios, phones, telly, off. You have to get rid of them. Nowadays people would just go on their phones and they’d hear everything from there. You’ve got to deal with it and it’s got to be part of the drama, so that’s how we worked out that he’d taken her phone. Rather than ignore it you have to embrace it. He took the phone because he’s annoyed with her being in touch with people from work all the time.

So Nicky’s character is the device to move the plot forward?

Yes, he was the device. There were pages of plot, not about what’s happening, but what’s happening to him. But you couldn’t have just somebody coming in going ‘now I’ve just come in from here and what’s happened is this an this and this…’ So we had to work it out cleverly. At the same time because Nicky is such a great actor and knows what he’s doing, instead of it dipping for that information, it just really lifted it. It’s just at the point where most films have a little dip to get the information across as it comes up to the end. It came up and then it came up again for the finale. So we were really lucky with the casting of Nicky.

I imagine one of the hardest parts was getting gaps in all of your schedules?

That was the hardest thing. It delayed it twice until we could get it all done. Nicky was still doing Shameless when he came to this but we got him for the Saturday and Sunday and that was it.

And he’s got FX/makeup scenes. That must have been difficult.

It was. We did the scene where he gets stabbed and dragged into the cellar in one day, and the rest the next day. It was in a really cold cellar and we covered him in goo and he was lying there shaking. But it was good for the character – keep him cold! We were really lucky with the cast.

Director Marc Price is Executive Producer of Before Dawn. Certainly Colin had a massive impact on British horror filmmaking – was the film a big influence on Before Dawn?

Very much so.

How did you meet Marc?

I met him through Leeds Zombie Film Festival. I really liked Colin and when I met Marc for the first time I said there just seemed to be more imagination in the first 10 minutes than there was in anything like John Carter which cost millions and millions of pounds. And this cost very little, but it was the heart and the idea. If you haven’t got that then you might as well not bother.

That seems to be very common with a lot of the low budget British genre films like Harold’s Going Stiff and Colin.

Colin wasn’t even on a HD camera it was on a normal standard definition camera. It was brilliant. You’ve got to get across the conviction of the actors and of the director. That’s Marc Price – if you talk to him about a subject or a film that he likes that’s what you get, you get this battering ram of enthusiasm and passion.

It’s amazing what he did with Colin. It really did become a phenomena.

That’s it. Even Martin Scorcese quoted something about it last year which was just amazing. So we’re all really proud of him. And we became good friends just because we’re two nerds as well. We recognised each other for what we were and that was it. So I told him about this project and that we had an idea for a film and he said that he’d executive produce it and he’d get his gang involved, his crew and his knowledge of how he did Colin, and apply it to what we were doing as well.

Was he a driving force for you?

Yes he was. He was great. He was in London and in Wales so I had to do pre and post production, but while he was here he brought all these people up, cameras, sound. He got a sales agent involved very very early on. The same sales agent as Colin. Helen Grace from Left Films backed it from very early on. So we couldn’t have done it without them. It would have been a short, and I know so many people that make a short and don’t then go on to make a feature and just talk about it for 10 years. You get dragged on with Marc’s wave of enthusiasm to make what you want to do.

 

BeforeDawn01

I suppose when it’s you and your wife writing it, you need an external influence to push it forward or it can become too self-contained.

Definitely. You just get institutionalised in your own settings. It would have been something we’d have talked about forever and not actually done. And there was a tipping point with the funding, and then we had Marc saying that whatever we thought was a problem ‘just ignore it, deal with that later’. I’m used to Emmerdale where you’ve got banks of people and the funding to move everything forward. If there’s a problem there’s a department to sort it. Well we had no departments and nothing like that to back us up. If we were going to fail we were going to fail hugely but not enough to lose our shirts, so we were OK.

A lot of filmamkers are talking about affordable technology-you don’t have to loose your shirt anymore.

That’s it. I was looking at the way punk came about in the 70s and you had these musicians that had been to music school and you had prog rock. Now I like some of it, but it was like music had become bigger and bigger and more bloated. But then underneath it all people were scrabbling around going what have you got left in the scraps and they were pulling guitars and amps from everywhere. Like the Canon camera has kind of worked like that. We haven’t been to film school, we’re just massive film nerds. We wanted the chance to make the sort of films these people are making and all of a sudden we’ve got the chance to go, sod it, I’ll make it, because I’ve got this camera and I can make it look exactly like a film if I want.

Did you take inspiration from any other films–whether zombie horrors or relationship dramas?

Just masses and masses of zombie films and comics. But not really. I’ve got my favourite films but they’re nothing like that. I really like Withnail & I and Whistle Down the Wind. That’s my favourite film.

Really?

That’s my number one. My top films chop and change, but that stays at the top. I think it’s the innocence, the story, the fact that it’s in Burnley. I’m from Accrington so I know those hills. Just the themes of being innocent and believing in anything. It’s just an amazing film.

Well, it’s certainly quite different to some of the horrors that I know you like to watch.

Yeah. We got European drama and put it with the zombie genre. Maybe you should get Whistle Down the Wind and put it with something like Martyrs.

From Emmerdale to apocalypse – has this film been a labour of love?

I was knackered, but I always said that I wanted to do it right. I’m a professional actor and I work with professionals. I could have made it as a sort of ‘mates’ film but I wanted to make it absolutely right, so we didn’t want any deadlines that were too tight. So I had nine months to edit it and get the dub right, and I was at it most nights, so we ended up throwing maybe 25 minutes of raw material out to keep it tight and to make the story flow better.

Was it heartbreaking to make those choices?

Yes, because there were bits where there magical little moments, but in the end you had to say ‘no this is the story’. You’ve got three acts to get it all out. It’s got to be entertaining’ it’s got to be gory, it’s got to be tight. So we learned a lot in the edit. When we had the full script we thought we’ll film everything and then we’ll try and get it to what we want, so it was quite malleable as a story as well. I couldn’t have given it to another editor anyway because we knew exactly what we wanted and were exactly in control. So I suppose it was a labour of love but I was very well supported as well. It was good as well that as a couple Jo and I weren’t arguing about things, so even if we disagreed it didn’t end up in a huge row. It was quite comfortable. And also I didn’t feel silly trying things out with the acting. You could push it and be supportive of each other.

Is it good advice to budding filmmakers to ensure that they have a good group of people around them – people who know what they’re doing?

You have to use people who are very capable in what they doing. On Emmerdale we get 10 million viewers so you can’t skim your work because they’d just walk away. You’ve got to remember that there will be an audience watching this so you’ve got to make some tough decisions. You’ve got to be confident. Keep your best bits. Chuck your chaff out.

Your first screening was at Frightfest in August and you’ve since screened at numerous festival across the world.

We’ve just sold it to Japan, New Zealand, Canada, it’s getting out all over. And we were really pleased about the Bram Stoker Festival Best Screenplay award. Fantastic.

Are you pleased with the response that it’s had so far?

Yes we are, because we were worried that we could fall between two stalls where we would loose the drama audience because it’s a horror film and we would loose the horror audience because we set it up as a drama. It could have just fallen between the two and never happened and just been an experiment to see what could happen creatively between me and Jo. And that would have been a disaster. But it didn’t. We’ve had great responses.

Metrodome have picked up distribution of the film. Will Before Dawn have a theatrical release and what’s the release date for the DVD?

Metrodome have been great. We have limited theatrical release from 22nd February. That’ll go over the DVD release which is 25th February. It was made for cinema – it’s in cinemascope, but we’ve seen it on our TV and we’re perfectly happy with it as a small drama in itself, but it was filmed for the big screen.

Your production company with Jo, Mitchell-Brunt Films executive produced Christmas Slay which comes out next year. Can you tell us more about it?

We’ve got very little say in Christmas Slay at the moment. That’s Steve Davis who’s a mate who’s getting that up and running, but we’ve said that we’ll help him. But since then we’ve done Magpie which is Marc Price’s second film. That’s Nowhere Fast and Mitchell-Brunt Films. It was great to be involved in. And then we’ve done Whoops which is a York film about an accidental serial killer. She just keeps killing people by accident. And then we’ve done Gracie’s Story which is a short film for Mind. And then we went the other way from Before Dawn, as an answer to Before Dawn, and threw all the guns and uniforms we could at a short film which is called After Three. It’s a Second World War zombie drama set down a mineshaft. It’s about two Germans and an English chap and they’re stuck down there. There’s a stand-off. It’s guns and uniforms which is exactly what we said we wouldn’t do with Before Dawn, so we’re covered with zombies now! We’ve done the whole thing. We did the answer to Jo’s question, and then I could make my zombie film!

Jo also associate produced Alex Chandon’s Inbred – are you both keen to focus on production?

She was Executive Producer and I was Associate Producer. We helped with the backing of it and there was some pick-up that needed sorting.

Is this for you both now? Will you keep up with production?

I’d love to yes. The next film is a bit more ambitious. It’s about a debt collector set in either Halifax or Hedben Bridge. We want to bring drama into horror and bring horror into drama. No supernatural elements, no zombies. It’s just about a human being and how far he will take human beings into horror and how far he will go with people and what he can make them do if they owe him money. It’ll be naturalistic and the horror will come from the violence. It’ll be more of a thriller. I’m going to direct it and Jo’s acting. We’ve got a writer who’s doing it now. We want to chase proper backing for this one. We don’t want to keep chasing favours, we want to do it properly. We love Before Dawn but we know how we could have made it better so the next project will look better. We’d like to have a bit better special effects.

I thought your FX and make-up on Before Dawn were very good. This is often one of the major pitfalls on low budget films where bad FX and make-up can give the budget away.

I love the special effects and that’s what gave me the confidence to go forward with Before Dawn. But that’s where the budget went. On the eyes and the teeth and the rest was just a case of chucking a load of blood everywhere! If the eyes and the teeth are alright then you’ve done alright.

Just going back to Magpie. What’s the plan for the film?

Marc’s only just finished it. He’s just doing pre-screenings and he’ll try to get it into the festivals next year. I think it’ll do well. He’s already had a good review, but it’s really early days.

It’s not a horror is it? But a coffin plays a big part.

No, it’s like a road movie. It’s about a father who gatecrashes his son’s funeral to reclaim his son and steal him. It’s great. It’s really funny.

What’s next for you and can you give us any sneak previews for the zombie festival this year?

I’m going to stay at Emmerdale as long as they’ll have me and I’m going to do this film about the debt collector. That’s priority number one. We just really want to see what we can do with that. And I’m really looking forward to the Zombie Festival. We’ll have Before Dawn, Harold’s Going Stiff, Night of the Chicken Dead, Cockneys vs Zombies. We’ve shown Dawn of the Dead before but we want to show the Dario Argento cut. It’s going to be great.

 

Sarah Crowther

 

Before Dawn is available on DVD from Metrodome Distribution now. Click here to order.

Dickensian Gothic: A Christmas Carol

David L Rattigan opens a creaking door on Charles Dickens’s Gothic tale

Charles DickensThe year was 1843, and English literature had witnessed the zenith of early Gothic horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allen Poe was reimagining the genre in such tales as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843). And in Britain, Charles Dickens was appropriating the Gothic tradition for his own stories; the conventions of the Gothic were to loom particularly large in late works such as Bleak House (1852) and Great Expectations (1860), but it was in a series of Christmas stories that he first explored the genre fully. The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848) are now forgotten by popular culture, but the first, A Christmas Carol (1843), continues to be read by millions and has been the subject of dozens of film adaptations.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol primarily to expose the horrors of real-world injustice, but he chose to hang his social commentary on a literary framework owing much to Gothic horror. It is easy to forget that in genre terms, the tale of Scrooge is primarily a ghost story; it was originally subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas. Its role in enshrining the traditional Victorian Christmas – trees, holly, candles and carols – has meant many who know the story only through other media forget that it is, at least partly, horror.

Certainly Dickens narrates A Christmas Carol with tongue firmly in cheek at times. He prefaced the 1843 edition of the book quite whimsically:

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it [from the saying “to lay the ghost to rest”].

The story itself begins with death, but the author treats it with a large dose of gallows humour. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” he writes, before a humorous diversion as he muses on why the simile is “dead as a doornail” rather than “dead as a coffin-nail.” But after this almost-silly – if macabre – opening, Dickens sets the scene outside Scrooge’s London offices some seven years after Marley’s death. Far from being a picture of cheery, greetings-card festivity, the scene is gloomy and haunting. No snow, no children playing, no Christmas carols. It is dark, and the fog – in fact a mostly industrial London smog – is so thick, the houses across the narrow street have become “mere phantoms.”

Arthur Rackham illustration of Scrooge & MarleyEbenezer Scrooge is described in almost non-human terms: He exists in his own atmosphere, carrying “his own low temperature always about with him”; blind men’s dogs recognize him and try to warn their masters; Scrooge has the “evil eye” of ancient folklore. Nature itself is described in decidedly preternatural terms: “To see the dingy cloud come drooping down … one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.”

Dickens’s prose is littered with Gothic elements. There are shadows, flickering candles and dingy streets; there are Scrooge’s gloomy chambers, echoey and empty of humanity. One particularly curious Gothic reference is when the miser declares that everyone who wishes another a merry Christmas should be “boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” a curse that evokes both cannibalism and vampirism. Dracula was not yet written, but vampires were already firmly in the public imagination through works such as John Polidori’s The Vampyre. The imagery is certainly intended to be dryly humorous, but the modern reader easily overlooks how grisly it was. (Much too close-to-the-bone for Dickens’s audience at some points. For example, when Scrooge tells his nephew words to the effect of “I’ll see you in hell first,” Dickens can’t even bring himself to mention hell, referring to it euphemistically as “that other extremity.”)

With his dark, shadowy images of a fogbound London, Dickens has established a Gothic atmosphere long before we arrive on the doorstep of his house, where he first sees the image of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, in place of his doorknocker. The author describes the vision in terms that are as bizarre as they are wonderfully ethereal. Marley had a “dismal light” around him, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” It was a face of “horror” and “livid colour,” and the wide-eyed ghost’s “hair was curiously stirred as if by breath or hot air.”

Once inside, Scrooge speaks face-to-face with the ghost, who has come to warn him of an impending visitation by three spirits. The narrative of this encounter is terrifying indeed:

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley in Scrooge (1951)Film adaptations have not always succeeded in translating these details to the screen. In 1938, a Hollywood version that suffers from far too much whimsy and a disappointingly cartoonish portrayal of Scrooge (Reginald Owen), the chance for something genuinely frightening or haunting is squandered by uninspired direction and a banal performance by Leo G Carroll, an otherwise-fine character actor whose skeletal features might have seemed ideal for the role of a ghost. Even the 1935 version managed a more effective atmosphere in these scenes, despite not showing Jacob Marley at all. Three portrayals that really work, however, are those of Michael Hordern (1951), delightfully camp but accompanied by truly chilling shrieks; Frank Finlay (1984), who manages a literal jaw-dropping in comic but macabre fashion, and without the help of special effects; and Gary Oldman (voice only) in 2009. In this decidedly scary latter version, CGI-animated and produced by Disney, Marley’s jaw literally hangs from its hinges as if on a decaying corpse.

Horrors of Injustice

Dickens masterfully blends the twin horrors of the story’s Gothic, ghost-story elements and the injustices of Victorian society. As Marley’s visit comes to an end, for example, the sky is filled with moaning phantoms in chains, but an equal horror is one spectre’s piteous wailing at “being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.” The phantoms’ misery, writes Dickens, was in wanting to help others, which they had never done in life, but realizing they had forfeited such power forever.

One particularly effective moment of Victorian social horror will come later, when the Spirit of Christmas Present opens his robes to reveal two children, Ignorance and Want. In their “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” state, they have become so animal-like, Scrooge mistakes their hands for claws. Dickens describes it vividly thus:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Disney’s 2009 version of the story stands out for making much of this scene. In a nightmarish sequence that takes place in the shadow of a chiming clock, Ignorance is transformed into a knife-wielding, caged lunatic – Dickens’s book referred earlier to Bedlam, London’s infamous insane asylum – while Want becomes a prostitute who is strait-jacketed and dragged away by invisible hands.

Scrooge and the Numinous

Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly encounters exhibit another common element of Gothic fiction, namely an experience of what philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) later called “the numinous.” In his seminal work The Idea of the Holy (1917), he described the numinous as an experience of fear and fascination, dread and awe, such as that of encountering a deity. The effects of this mysterium tremendum include trembling, or shuddering (“grauens” in the original German). In discussing the manifestation of the numinous in culture, Otto linked it explicitly to ghost stories:

But even when [the numinous emotion] has reached its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part of it to break out in the soul in all their original naïveté and so to be experienced afresh. That this is so shown by the potent attraction exercised again and again exercised by the element of horror and ‘shudder’ in ghost stories, even in persons of high all-round education. It is a remarkable fact that the physical reaction to which this unique ‘dread’ of the uncanny gives rise is also unique, and is not found in the case of any ‘natural’ fear or terror.

Scrooge’s three visitations increasingly display aspects of the numinous. When visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge finds its light so overwhelming, he eventually causes its departure by seizing on its extinguisher-cone (a feature not often seen in film versions) and literally snuffing out its flame-like existence. Dickens’s description of this spirit feels almost Lovecraftian:

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. … [The] figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

Scrooge’s response to meeting the Spirit of Christmas Present is to hang his head and look upon him “reverently.” But it is the third encounter, with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, that is accompanied by a classic experience of the numinous. By its mere presence, the ghost seems to “scatter gloom and mystery” in the air around it, causing Scrooge to bend down on his knee. He cannot see the spirit more than vaguely in the darkness, but he senses it is “tall and stately” beside him:

Its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved. … Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

A Christmas Carol: The Films 

Has any film come close to recreating the Gothic atmosphere of Dickens’s novella? The first sound version of the film, in 1935 (starring Seymour Hicks, who had already played the role in a 1913 silent, Old Scrooge), boasts perhaps the most effective opening, with an atmosphere perfectly capturing the dingy, almost-depressing air imagined by the author. The street outside Scrooge’s office, with snow on the ground, and fog, but no cheery, pretty snowflakes to create a picture-postcard scene, is bleak and claustrophobic. A small band of musicians plays the The First Nowell – badly. It sounds more like a funeral dirge than a Christmas carol, but the groaning notes perfectly suit the sombre setting.

Alastair Sim in Scrooge (1951)

The 1951 film – by far the most popular version, due mainly to a very memorable starring turn by Alastair Sim – achieves a sublime Gothic feel, thanks largely to the black-and-white cinematography of C Pennington-Richards. Never is this better-seen than in the image of Scrooge kneeling before the “spectral hand” of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come; the many layers of light, creating stark shadows and contrasts, give the image an astonishing depth. . (A hideously colourized version from 1989 robs the film of virtually all its visual power.) The film’s grimness may well explain why it flopped on its original American release, but it is testament to its faithfulness to the Gothic tradition.

The 1984 TV version, directed by Clive Donner, is also of note for an earnest attempt to accentuate darker elements of the tale. It’s also one of the few versions to be shot largely on location. The Shropshire town of Shrewsbury stands in for Victorian London, lending the film a pleasing authenticity; visitors can still see Scrooge’s gravestone, specially created for the film, in the churchyard of St Chad’s today.

Disney's A Christmas Carol Jacob MarleyFinally, Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) deserves a mention for being one of the few versions to go for actual scares – including decidedly modern “jump scares” – rather than purely atmosphere. The early scenes, such as that of Marley’s visitation, are executed fairly effectively, but they’re surely too scary for the film’s juvenile target audience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers later try to accommodate all ages by adding some very out-of-place slapstick action, including an arbitrary extended chase sequence featuring a shrunken Scrooge. By the time the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come arrives, the film is a bit of a mess.

Perhaps no cinematic version has truly matched Dickens’s original, but that’s unsurprising, for the author’s prose has a chilling and equally wry way of articulating the Gothic. How can an any celluloid image hope to rival such literary descriptions as “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” and a spirit that is “now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body”? A Christmas Carol is a work of singular humour and atmosphere, and, as Dickens himself wished, may no one wish to lay its ghost to rest.

Razor-Sharp Suburbia: Excision

Excision (2012)Michele Galgana interviews Richard Bates, Jr, & AnnaLynne McCord

Excision (USA, 81 min.)
Director: Richard Bates, Jr.
Cast: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Ariel Winter

Mix part black comedy, part teen angst drama, and part shocking art house cinema, throw them in a blender with assorted viscera, and you have Excision, the first feature directed by NYU Tisch School alum Richard Bates, Jr. His hopeful yet hapless protagonist, Pauline, is played by a most-undecidedly 90210 AnnaLynne McCord in full, serious actress mode: awkward gait, no makeup but for fake zits, and what looks to be unwashed hair. Her daytime character contrasts starkly with her blood-soaked dreams and fantasies, in which she envisions herself as a dominatrix of the crimson kind, nearly to a Bathorian extreme. These fetishistic scenes feature McCord writhing around in elaborate hair, makeup and costumes, and are highly reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle series.

MG: I used to assist with programming at the Boston Underground Film Festival. In 2009, we showed your award-winning short Excision, and the film’s dark nature resonated with us. Your new feature of the same name won the Director’s Choice Award at the festival this year. So now that you’ve made the feature version, can you tell us how you fleshed out the story from short to feature?I recently caught up with the up-and-coming director of Excision and auteur of the strange, Richard Bates, Jr. and the star of his film, the talented AnnaLynne McCord, at Fantasia inMontreal, where the Canadian premiere of the film was held, to discuss evil, social taboos, and teenage hormones.

Richard Bateman, Jr, and AnnaLynne McCord

RB: There’s a lot more room for developing. With the basics of the short, I had to hit my marks, develop my characters, and it’s an eighteen-minute short, which is sort of a long short. I’m proud of it, but if I had to do it again, I’d make it ten minutes. The wonderful thing about a feature is you can actually develop your characters and develop a style. I was slowly developing my filmmaking style with that short; it walked a fine line between a dark, dark comedy and a horror film. My favorite review said that this film is what would happen if John Waters and David Cronenberg fucked.

MG: Indeed. I imagine that making the short helped you get funding for the feature. How easy or difficult was it to get your film green lit?

RB: It was not easy at all! You don’t know my misery. I was quite confident at a certain point because of the success of the short; we won a bunch of awards and played a lot of festivals in 2008 – 2009. I moved out toL.A. and I thought, ‘Goodness, someone thinks I’m good at something! I’m gonna to get to do this, I’m gonna get to make a feature version!’ I got a bunch of meetings, and everyone said, ‘This is crazy. There’s no way we’ll make this, it’s terrible.’ Whatever. I stuck by it for four or five years, and that’s how long it took to get this movie made. Any financing, any interest, it was all funded by my friends. Thirty of my friends from growing up inVirginia and a friend of mine from college inNew York. No one else would touch it.

MG: Those are some great friends!

RB: I was the movie geek in high school. I went to movie camp every summer, since middle school, and I would walk around high school with a video camera. So everyone knew where I grew up in my hometown, that this was my dream forever.

ALM: At the premiere at Sundance, Ricky’s mother actually told me a story that is so amazing and it kinda sums it up. She and Ricky were flying and he was about five, and the plane was going through serious turbulence. She was like, ‘It’s okay, it’s going to be fine.’ And he said, ‘I’m just really scared that I’m not going to be able to make my movie!’ He didn’t want to die because he wanted to make his movie!

MG: And that’s at five years old?

ALM: He knew for a long time.

RB: I think that I was ten. She might have said five.

MG: How in the hell did you come up with a story like this, and is there any basis in truth behind it? Did it come from nightmares or was it inspired by a particularly gruesome headline? What’s the genesis of it?

RB: It’s funny, because I keep saying that it’s autobiographical, and everyone’s like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ The movie is about growing up in a conservative family and environment, and wanting to do something odd with your life — for me, filmmaking — and wanting the love and acceptance of your parents. That’s what the hug is about at the end. That’s what all of that is. And I remember feeling this way growing up — it’s also an indictment on entitlement. You know, everyone thinks they can do anything without taking the time to learn how to be good at it. That was something that always frustrated me. Even at 27, I just want to make movies, I love ‘em.

ALM: To add on to that and answer your question from a different standpoint, the film in itself — in its literal form — is a film. In its metaphoric state, I would say that it represents the mind of the repressed. What is that cliché? The more you tighten your grip, the more it slips through your fingers. I grew up in a similar childhood to Ricky, where the tighter my parents held onto me, the more I wanted to escape. My dream of going toHollywood was as evil to them as this movie might be to most people. My dream in my mind was accepted inNew York andL.A., but it wasn’t accepted where I grew up. So for Pauline, this is the same exact situation, but it’s a film. It’s art. It’s expanded upon. I feel like if you reflect it in that regard, it’s the perspective of what in fact IS evil and who the beholder is, because it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. The reason I connect with Pauline is — and I got in trouble so often — my mother told me that I could not go toHollywood because it was evil. And my response was, ’But aren’t we supposed to be the light to a dark world?’ I got in more trouble for that back-talking, but the truth is, I was representing logic. Pauline in her mind, is representing logic too, and it was completely allowed and intolerable by her parents. So I think there’s not so much to be taken literally, but taken metaphorically.

MG: There are some particularly strong performances here — by Traci Lords, especially in the finale — and by you, AnnaLynne. Your character Pauline is a pretty dark individual and perpetual outsider. How did you prepare for a role like this?

ALM: Well, I had a couple of days of ‘Oh my God, I can’t act! Why did I ever think I could do this?!’ Which preceded me finding exactly what Pauline needed to be. But a lot of it came from just choosing as a human being — I’m a very private person — and it was in making the choice to open myself up to be honest. Really, really honest. In my career, I’ve played a lot of characters who are completely opposite to who I am, and they reflect the sexual and the confident, on-top-of-the-world fantasy roles. To play Pauline was to play a little girl close to who I felt I was growing up, this little odd man out, who had a sense of confidence that wasn’t really justifiable. I was a total math nerd, and I will go to town on you with any kind of math equation if you wanna talk math with me, I love that stuff. But I did not fit in. I had two sisters who were all about dresses and that girly girl stuff. I was just weird and in my own world. I knew that my world would expand, and anyone who doubted me, I thought was a very odd individual. It was an interesting world to grow up in, inside my head, and Pauline with her belief that she can be a doctor without studying is kind of reflective of this trailer park girl who I was, dreaming of being an actress. That was never gonna happen! There’s something to the attraction of the ALM:ost naïve narcissism of believing you can. But I think that really, the toughest challenge was just choosing to be open and raw all day, every day. The idiosyncrasies that I enjoy as an actress to indulge myself that Ricky allowed for — obviously, the way Pauline speaks, her mannerisms, her way of walking — those are all things I had with fun as an actress, adding to the element of who Pauline is.

MG: Tell me how you got involved with the film, and what were your thoughts when you first read the script.

ALM: I didn’t get all the way through the script before I decided that I needed to do the movie. I was halfway through it, and my agent had send me the short film you and Ricky were speaking of, and I was like, ‘I have to do this movie! I have to do this film!’ My initial reason was very shallow. I just wanted an opportunity to prove myself. So many people, Ricky included, weren’t so certain that I could pull this off. And I was really, really looking — most of my career on 90210 definitely — for a role like this where I could have a chance to really challenge myself and prove myself. That was initially it. But once I fell in love with Pauline, it was over. I didn’t want anyone else to play her and possibly screw her up. I knew her, I knew how she had to be played, I knew the kind of humanity you have to bring to a character like this, where she’s written on paper like a raving bitch. And I really wanted to make her three dimensional, and I hope I’ve accomplished this. That’s what my hope was for her.

MG: How many people advised you not to take this role?

ALM: I definitely had some negativity initially. My agent, who is also my best friend, she said, ‘Hey, you gotta do this, you gotta make this happen—‘

RB: She also dated Marilyn Manson, so this lady is absolutely crazy.

ALM: She’s badass. Ricky loves that part of me. But there were agents in the office who said, ‘This is going to be very controversial.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, when has controversial ever been an issue for me?’ I got my opening kind of break on Nip/Tuck where I was an eighteen-year-old being controversial in a different way. So controversy excited me, and ultimately, my passion for the project won out with a bit of negativity towards it.

MG: One of the themes that sets this film apart is its risky and bizarre take on a teenage girl’s sexuality, combining fetishistic costumes and sets mixed with an amazing amount of blood. Were those scenes that Pauline imagines as her hormones race wildly out of control filmed on a closed set?

RB: No. In fact, I invited the public to witness all of this. AnnaLynne was furious — I actually shipped in a middle school to watch it, and it qualified as their sexual education — no, I’m lying — but I wish. A lot of kids inLos Angeles would be up to some crazy shit right now.

ALM: It should have been a more closed set than it was. Fortunately for Ricky, and his how do I say this — maybe slightly amateurish crew, I’m not that inhibited, so it was all right.

RB: We couldn’t really pay for anyone, so I had freshmen as crew, showing them how to set up C-stands. But the sexuality stuff, yeah that’s taboo, but a girl on her period, that’s natural. It’s strange that a period is still a social taboo, that’s very bizarre to me.

MG: And as a male filmmaker, you’re in the minority. It’s refreshing to have that attitude come from a male filmmaker.

RB: Well, I didn’t even think this movie was that weird until people started telling me it was. The period thing — when I was a freshman in high school, I was going out with this girl and I ended up going down on her… I had the exact same scene when Jeremy is in the mirror. I looked in the mirror and I had this fuckin’ blood all over my face — I was shocked and I wanted to cry. I was like, ‘I’m gonna die tomorrow, what the fuck!’ So, I mean, literally all my shit’s in there. So I use this for therapy. You have to.

MG: How did you get such high profile actors like Malcom McDowell, Traci Lords, Marlee Matlin, and Ray Wise?

RB: Lord knows. I begged them all, really. It ended up being so hard to get this movie made, I thought, ‘If this is all I ever make, my entire life, I want my childhood heroes in it. I want to look back on it when I’m fifty, and know I gave it my all. I got John Waters, one of my favorite directors, Malcom McDowell from Clockwork Orange, Ray Wise from my favorite tv show ever, Twin Peaks. It was important to me that if I was going down, I was going down swinging.

MG: Were there any alternate endings or scenes you had to cut out that you can speak about?

RB: It’s funny you say that, because everyone who saw the short says that they can’t wait to see the feature to see what happens. Well, you are gonna be sorely fucking disappointed, because the entire film is about that hug, that’s all there is to it. The film is about getting that acceptance, and in the most obscure moment, she gets it.

MG: What’s next for both of you? Is there any chance of an Excision prequel or sequel?

RB: Oh yeah, she’s pregnant, actually! Let’s bang out six of seven Excisions. No, there won’t be a second Excision. If it makes a shitload of money, maybe Anchor Bay will ask me to do it. I’m making a movie called The South Will Rise Again and I’ll be asking AnnaLynne to do something in it, but yeah, I’m making another movie, hopefully in January. It’s a hipster Ghostbusters kind of thing.

ALM: I just wrapped filming on a project called Scorned, which is —

RB: The director directed Leprechaun, I’m so fuckin’ psyched! Can you get me an autograph?

ALM: He wants to give you a poster.

RB: Dude, this movie’s going to be fucking sweet, you need to see this movie.

MG: Any chance that either of these films will play the festival circuit?

ALM: Scorned is actually Anchor Bay, which is really cool, and I feel like Excision laid the ground for me to play this role. It’s a modern take on Misery. The Kathy Bates role is the role that I play, very sadistic, the anti-heroine, yet ‘Do I love her, do I hate her?’ I play with Billy Zane and Viva Bianca, an actress from Spartacus, my new best friend. Billy plays my boyfriend, Viva plays my best friend, and they cheat on me. I find out and torture them to death. So, it might go along with Fantasia’s ideal film and I might be back to the festival in the coming years.

RB: I would be psyched to be back at fests.

Photo:  AnnaLynn McCord  & Richard Bateman, Jr
(by  Isabelle Stephen)

Excision was released Anchor Bay on Blu-Ray and DVD earlier this month, just in time for Halloween. For more information, visit www.excisionmovie.com.

 

Vincent Price & Theatre of Blood

Let’s be quite candid about Vincent Price’s acting style (and I say style, not ability) – he was an out-and-out ham. Under a particularly gifted director, he could produce a more serious, subdued performance, of course. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) is the most notable example. For the most part, however, Price was a larger-than-life presence on the screen, fond of exaggerated gesticulation and over-the-top delivery of lines. In his most celebrated films, the overacting served him well.

Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood

In the seventies, Price began to parody this camp tendency, and never more than in the trio of films he made in Britain between 1971 and 1973: The Abominable Dr Phibes, Dr Phibes Rises Again and Theatre of Blood. In the first Phibes film, he played a disfigured organist who takes revenge on the surgeons who failed to save his wife by subjecting them to his ingenious recreations of the biblical plagues on Egypt. (The deliberately absurd tone seemed lost on Time Out critic David Pirie, who rather humourlessly denounced it at the time as “perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945.”) In the sequel, Phibes picked off his enemies one by one with a similarly dramatic series of tortures. Then, in Theatre of Blood, he was Edward Lionheart, a stage actor, presumed dead, who borrows death scenes from Shakespeare to exact his revenge on the critics he blames for killing his career. It’s a Grand Guignol-style variation on the Phibes idea, but it stands out for its unique intertwining of Price’s persona with that of the central character.

Lionheart is a relic, an old-fashioned thespian once popular for a highly theatrical style of acting by now outmoded and damned by critics. Film and literary scholar Peter Hutchings describes Theatre of Blood as

an elegy for a lost style of Shakespearean drama, a style that involves approaching the films as barnstorming melodramas and one which is characterized by a reliance on non-naturalistic forms of acting within extreme situations, on scenes that emphasize pathos, cruelty and suffering, and on the presentation of wrongs done and of wrongs righted.

Lionheart’s own murderous actions are ironically self-reflexive, turning his theatrical craft to malevolent purposes to butcher his enemies. But there’s a self-reflexive element to the film itself, too, for Price represents an old style of horror movie that, by 1973, was well on its way out. It was the year of The Exorcist, a serious and scary drama that treated the supernatural like the stuff of documentary, not melodrama. The old school Gothic horror film had been declining for years, and traditional horror producers like Britain’s Hammer Films were fighting against the trends, finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the new universe brought to birth, arguably, in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Hutchings notes that even director Douglas Hickox’s approach is decidedly old-fashioned, “eschewing the subjective camerawork and fragmented narrative structures” common in genre films of the time. Nor is there evidence of “youth in revolt,” a popular horror theme of the time, with Lionheart’s daughter (Diana Rigg) presented as a “model of filial devotion” likened to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

So the movie is effectively a double joke – Lionheart defiantly turns his beloved but waning style of theatre into a weapon with which to destroy his critics, while Price gives a tongue-in-cheek FU to a genre that is quickly making his own style obsolete. It might very well be seen as his swansong, for after Theatre of Blood, the actor’s horror features consisted mostly of far inferior attempts at this kind of self-parody, such as Madhouse (1974), The Monster Club (1980) and House of the Long Shadows (1983).

In 2005, London theatre company Improbable recognized the genius of Theatre of Blood and co-produced a stage adaptation with the National Theatre. Jim Broadbent was cast as Lionheart – one need only watch him as the showman Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! (2001) to see how adept he is at the kind of the overblown theatricality needed for the part – and, in yet another self-reflexive twist, Rachael Stirling was Lionheart’s daughter, a role played in the original film by her mother, Diana Rigg.

Improbable and the National Theatre retained the seventies setting, for this was the decade in which the concrete National Theatre complex itself was erected on the South Bank of the Thames. The oft-criticized building and its context in the history of British theatre were the butt of jokes throughout the play, which is set as the NT is preparing to open. The critics in the supporting cast represented real British rags of the period, such as The Times, The Guardian and The Evening Standard. Ironically, however, the production itself received a mixed response, with some reviewers complaining that the play was apparently so self-reflexive, the industry in-jokes went over the heads of audience members unfamiliar with the context.

Undoubtedly, Price knew he symbolized a generation in horror that was becoming a quaint relic. But let’s not assume there was any bitterness behind Theatre of Blood’s tongue-in-cheek lament for the passing of an era. Price was not afraid to laugh at himself; his unique status as a pop culture icon in commercials, music videos and kids’ cartoons is testament to that. “The last thing my father was was a snob,” Price’s daughter Victoria told the Riverfront Times in 2011. “He understood that popular culture was an incredibly powerful force. He had fun.”

And fun was certainly what he had treading the boards as Edward Lionheart in the film that, arguably, contained more of the real Vincent Price than any other in the inimitable ham’s screen career.

________________

Sources Cited

Hutchings, Peter “Theatres of blood: Shakespeare and the horror film” in Gothic Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis & Dale Townshend, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)
Levitt, Aimee, “Back from the Undead: Happy 100th to homegrown horror icon Vincent Price” in Riverfront Times, May 19 2011
Pirie, David A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1945-1972, (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973)

The Charm of Evil

“And it was at that age that poetry arrived in search of me”
—Pablo Neruda

I was seven when horror came in search of me. I’d seen it from afar: garish comic-strip representations of Dracula on Valentine picture postcards, glimpses of men standing around in misty graveyards in late-night films I wasn’t allowed to watch. But when I was seven, my father gave me a book, the Ladybird Horror Classic abridgment of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I devoured its words and handsome illustrations eagerly, and from that moment forward, horror had me firmly in its clutch. Those pocket-sized hardbacks of FrankensteinDracula and The Mummy were my initiation into the realms of the genre.

Not long afterwards, I spotted a film of the same name while scouring the TV Times. I’d read a horror book and now had one foot in a dimension hitherto open only to older children and grown-ups, but would my dad let me watch a horror movie? To my astonishment and delight, he did. That the film was over 40 years old, in black and white, and mild by eighties’ standards did not bother this horror-hungry young mind: The characters I had seen only in ink on a page were alive on the screen in my own living room.

It might sound impressive if I said it were Stevenson’s exposé of the duality in man and the darkness in all of us that resonated with me, but in truth the film’s allure was as plain as this: images of horror. It was Spencer Tracy’s eyes darting left and right as he rose from a park bench bent on a spree of terror; it was the chilling nonchalance of Tracy’s Hyde as he played the piano and spat grape seeds on the floor while Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy cowered behind him; it was the uncontrolled glee on Hyde’s face as he battered his victim to death with his cane; it was his shadowy figure disappearing into the London fog, his cloak flapping behind him.

This introduction to horror was the beginning of an obsession. I scoured the TV guides weekly to discover what new horror films awaited me, and I made a ritual of waking in the early hours, before school, to watch a video recording of the previous night’s ghoulish offering. My dedication soon paid off in the most sacred experience of them all: my first Hammer film.

It was roughly 1986, and the film was Dracula, back in the day when the title card actually read “Dracula,” in that beautifully ornate typeface, instead of the US title “Horror of Dracula.” I can visualize how its listing appeared in the pages of the Radio Times – I even remember there was a science documentary on the same night, and a photograph of outer space dominated the page. Seemingly minor details linger in the mind after such hallowed occasions as a Hammer devotee’s first Hammer horror. But the major details linger even stronger: Seeing for the first time Dracula’s disintegration as Van Helsing forces him into the sunlight; I experienced it several times over, thanks to the wonders of rewind.

The following year was the 30th anniversary of Hammer’s first Gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, and the BBC commemorated it with a documentary, Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood, and a season of Hammer weekend double-bills. Dracula, Prince of Darkness was paired with The Evil of FrankensteinThe Nanny with Rasputin, the Mad Monk. If Dracula was my conversion to Hammer, by this time I was a committed disciple. As I grew older, I would familiarize myself with the entire canon of Hammer horror films, acquainting myself intimately with Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies, werewolves, mummies and all manner of reptilian monster. Later, I read David Pirie’s seminal A Heritage of Horror and approached the films on another, more adult, level.

That’s not to say I wasn’t for turning. There was a period in my late teens when, as an evangelical in the religious sense, I became convinced I could not reconcile my love of Hammer films with my Christian faith. Full of zeal for Christ, I scrubbed my Hammer titles and vowed not to return to them – but I did. The lure of Hammer was too strong. When I had eventually left behind my naïve fundamentalist enthusiasm, Hammer was there waiting for me. Horror found me again

An obsession with horror, like any obsession, especially those that seized us while we were young, takes on evangelical overtones for those it holds. It becomes the source of visions, by day and by night (I have visited Bray Studios, the home of Hammer Films from 1951 to 1966, at least a dozen times in my dreams). It becomes the chief element of rituals, like my dawn ritual of watching Hammer, wearing the ceremonial robe of my bed sheet or duvet. Other followers become brothers and sisters, fellow devotees who understand the magic lost on outsiders.

As I think about my devotion, I realize it brings a kind of comfort to me. My preferred manner of settling down to a Hammer horror is still laying down, shrouded in blankets. To revisit a cherished Hammer movie is to cosy up with something familiar, something safe that belongs to a tradition I have valued since childhood.

 

The director Terence Fisher, the Hammer pioneer who made DraculaThe Curse of Frankenstein and well over a dozen other films for the company, envisaged evil not as ugly and repulsive, but as attractive. Biographer Winston Wheeler-Dixon termed this theme “the charm of evil.” It was this charm, working its powers through Dracula’s hypnotic glare and Baron Frankenstein’s cold and reckless pursuit of power over life and death, that seduced me almost three decades ago – and of which I remain its willing captive.

Dark Chocolate: Wonka at 40

In David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en, an obese man pays for the sin of gluttony by being force-fed to death. The results are shown in gruesome detail. But the concept isn’t totally original. We already saw a slew of young gluttons being punished in ironic ways particularly befitting their vices in 1971.

The film was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which, over the course of an hour and a half, an overweight Bavarian is washed away down a chocolate river, an obnoxious gum-chewer is inflated to four or five times her normal size, a vicious young madam is sent to her fate down a garbage chute, and a wannabe cowboy gets shrunk down to the size of his TV-saturated brain. Unlike in Se7en, we never see the decaying corpses – we’re assured they’ll be de-juiced or, with any luck, rescued before they reach the incineration stage – but we take the same crude pleasure in watching sinners get their comeuppance.

Every good fairy tale, on analysis, boils down to horror. Creepy old wolves pretend to be grandmas to prey on little girls, witches plot to cook and cannibalize young children, and evil queens hire hitmen to assassinate beautiful princesses. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka is full of equally and delightfully vile details.

The decidedly sadistic nature of Gene Wilder’s candy-maker has not been lost on observers over the forty years since the film was released. He’s mesmerized by the sight of greedy Augustus Gloop caught in the pipe as he muses, with a glint in his eye: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.”

But his delirious pleasure in seeing people suffer is only just beginning. With Augustus on his way to be turned into marshmallows, Wonka takes his remaining guests on the boat ride from hell. In a nightmarish scene that could only be inspired by a heady concoction of hard drugs, the factory tourists are whizzed through a tunnel of psychedelic colours and past a montage of lizards, worms, fanged insects and decapitated farmyard animals. Meanwhile, Wonka appears to zone out as he groans in increasingly loud and frenzied tones: “Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?”

Critics have occasionally noted these dark and, admittedly, bizarre aspects of the film and speculated that children are bewildered by it. But no. Children love it. Adults who didn’t grow up with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may well find it bewildering, but just as kids get the often-sinister, eccentric world of the entire Roald Dahl canon, they get this film. I was hooked as a youngster, and I am still attached today.

Part of the attraction, perhaps, is the satisfaction of seeing the obnoxious, the selfish, the bullies brought to justice. But a large part of it – as Dahl knew very well – is the charm of evil.

Dracula’s Daughter: A Queer Classic Turns 75

The clunky execution of Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula is the elephant in the room as far as classic horror is concerned. Bela Lugosi impresses in the title role, certainly, and the movie has a handful of truly memorable moments, but most of it falls very flat. Viewed 80 years later, it is not so much a great film as a curiosity, notable for its seminal place in cinema history.

Dracula’s Daughter, on the other hand, the direct sequel that celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, boasts a superior pace and a central performance at least equal to that of Lugosi in the first film. It achieves this despite being directed by Lambert Hillyer, a little-known studio hack whose main fare was B-grade westerns. Universal chief Carl Laemmle hired him after plans to use James Whale then Edward Sutherland fell through. (It was to be the Laemmle family’s last film at Universal. Having run the studio into debt with increasingly lavish productions, the Laemmles lost the studio to their creditors as Dracula’s Daughter wrapped.)

The 1936 film carries on exactly from where the 1931 original left off. Van Helsing, played by the only returning cast member, Edward Van Sloan, has staked Count Dracula, and two policemen escort him to the station on suspicion of murder. Lugosi received a handsome fee for participating in publicity, incidentally, although he doesn’t appear in the film itself, even in this opening sequence – an obvious dummy stands in for his corpse.

Van Helsing tries to convince the police he had good reason for the staking, but without success, until Dracula’s body mysteriously disappears from a locked prison cell. The thief is Countess Marya Zaleska (Holden), who, in one of the film’s most mesmerizing scenes, performs a ritual over the body in order to end the “curse of the Draculas.”

Zaleska is a reluctant vampire, trapped by her plight. From her first words, when she begins to pray for release from the spirit of her father, she is a tortured, pitiable and sympathetic creature. Holden portrays this forlornness exquisitely; hers is a beautiful, perfectly formed face, but her eyes betray emptiness and longing for freedom.

“You think this night will be like all the others, don’t you?” she asks her servant, Sandor (the actor and director Irving Pichel, pictured), as she struggles to resist the urge to claim another victim. “Well, you’re wrong. Dracula’s destroyed, his body’s in ashes. The spell is broken. I can live a normal life, think normal things, even play normal music again.” (This last phrase evokes the memory of the perverse music of Lugosi’s “children of the night.”)

Sandor, apparently one of her kind – “You think this night will be like all the others, don’t you?” she asks her servant, Sandor (the actor and director Irving Pichel), as she struggles to resist the urge to claim another victim. “Well, you’re wrong. Dracula’s destroyed, his body’s in ashes. The spell is broken. I can live a normearlier, he recoils from the sight of a cross – won’t let her contemplate freedom and insists she remain what she always has been. He tears ruthlessly through his mistress’s hopefulness and breaks her down.

It later becomes clear their kind is more than vampire. They are gay. In a scene of such startling candour one wonders how its lesbian implications were lost on the Hayes-era censors, Sandor commandeers a pretty young girl on the streets of Chelsea and takes her to an apartment, where Zaleska orders her to strip, ostensibly to pose for a portrait.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Won’t I do?” asks the girl.

Gazing intensely at the girl’s face and bare shoulders, the smitten countess replies, “Yes, you’ll do very well indeed.”

A smile of enchantment, not of malevolence, breaks across Zaleska’s face as she walks towards her screaming prey.

Sandor, too, appears to be homosexual. He’s an ageing, androgynous bachelor, living in a queer relationship with his mistress, over whom he exerts an unhealthy control as he determines to keep her unhappy and locked in her fate. Sandor is, frankly, a bitter and bitchy old queen.

Her ritual clearly having failed to rid her of her inclination to evil, Zaleska attempts to find help through a psychiatrist, Dr Garth (Otto Kruger). She relates to him the “overpowering command … I had to obey” and asks him to go away with her in the hope that she can escape her situation and he can cure her. When he refuses, she succumbs to her overwhelming desire for evil. In a remarkable transformation, she resigns herself to her own nature, abducts Garth’s secretary, whom he loves, and schemes to force him into joining her in eternal vampirism.

This change is testament to the power of Holden’s performance in the title role. She hated the film, yet her move from pitiable to brazenly manipulative is so convincingly executed; even when she finally gives in to her vampirism, she never stops being sympathetic. Holden gives the part more depth than Lugosi gave the role of Dracula, and her performance may well be one of the finest pieces of horror acting in film. (Mark Clark devotes five pages to the performance in his 2004 book Smirk, Sneer and Scream: Great Acting in Horror Cinema).

Dracula’s Daughter failed to repeat the box office success of the inferior Dracula and has never enjoyed the same popularity fans and critics over the years. Nor has it received the same attention as another queer horror classic, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), or even Whale’s equally gay The Old Dark House (1932). Its 75th birthday seems the right time for horror aficionados to revisit the film, but beware: Countess Zaleska’s dangerous predilection runs in the family, and sometimes she just can’t help herself. Heed the warning – especially if you’re young, beautiful and female – that came with Dracula’s Daughter’s arrival in 1936: “Look out! She’ll get you!”