Monday, 29 November 2010

Wine of the Month

Another month, another recommendation of fine wine to guzzle whilst watching horror films. Whereas before, I'd always have a little 'wine of the month' piece on the sidebar of this here blog, that kind of fell by the wayside and I would generally forget to update it. OK, sometimes I’d over indulge and just forget to tell you about it, but rest assured I was always heavily ensconced in research… Hey, it’s important to know what wine will enhance your horror viewing pleasure. Certain wines go hand in hand with certain horror movies.

This month’s batch of film reviews were lovingly brought to you in association with a 2008 vintage Gato Negro Merlot – a delicious, medium bodied wine from Chile. With a bright red ruby colour and an aroma swirling with ripe, red berry fruits, this bottle goes down rather nicely with something directed by Mario Bava. Or chicken or pasta.

The flavour is quite juicy and reminiscent of jammy fruit in springtime.

Gato Negro is apparently one of the oldest brands from Chile and is produced in the San Pedro region. Enjoy responsibly. And if you insist on quaffing it whilst being pursued by a 16th Century Baron with a penchant for Sadism, you inadvertently resurrected (Baron Blood, I mean you), keep a cork handy in case of pesky spillages.

Random Creepy Moment #267,945 - Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers

After his hiatus from the criminally underrated (though still far from perfect) Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Michael Myers, at the behest of his fans – and greedy producers – returned to stalk the leafy streets of Haddonfield in Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers. See what they did there. With a whole new set of characters introduced, including Laurie Strode’s daughter and her adoptive family, it isn’t long before the blood begins to flow.

For a film bogged down in its own lack of imagination, originality or flair, Halloween IV actually begins with so much promise. The opening titles play out over a simple collection of shots which when viewed in succession evoke such a bleak, eerie and overwhelmingly creepy atmosphere. The lack of music adds to the unease – all that exists on the soundtrack is a low howling wind that reeks of desolation and despair. Before long, the faintest strains of Alan Howarth’s deliciously dark and brooding synth score can gradually be heard; though at this stage, it’s still just a throbbing echo under the noise of the desolate wind, rippling across the sparse, strangely empty locations and fading light of these opening moments.
With such a barren, hopeless mood conjured in these opening minutes, all seems well! So far so good. Then the film actually starts. Sadly, as soon as this happens and Myers makes his grand entrance, its back to pilfering and pillaging the memory of the original Halloween.

As the film progresses, the American Gothic mood pregnant with foreboding established during the credits, is lost under the weight of derivative cliché, lack of tension, cheap scares and utter lack of artistic merit. When such high hopes are dashed as soon as a film’s title sequence has ended and the film begins proper, you know you’re in for a rough ride. And not in a good way.

Still though, those opening credits are DAMN creepy.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Little Erin Merryweather

Dir. David Morwick

The grisly murders of several students at a quiet college campus tie in with recent sightings of a red-hooded figure creeping around the local woods. Student Peter Bloom decides to investigate, and before long realises that the killer, who has a connection to the school library, is also obsessed with fairytales. Peter must act quickly to figure out the bizarre modus operandi and stop the killer before she strikes again…

'A flash of red... Then you're dead.'

I bought Little Erin Merryweather for £1 in a local discount shop. I wasn’t really expecting much; so was pleasantly surprised when it actually turned out to be not half bad. It’s not a great film, but it has its fair share of interesting moments and startling imagery. And it was £1.

An intriguing opening sets the fairytale-image drenched scene, as a young college student is lured into the woods by a mysterious figure in a red cape, only to be set upon and gutted. Even though we don’t see the act, the utilisation of queasy sound effects leaves little to the imagination. The red-caped figure and snow-covered woods ensure the fairytale connotations practically drip off the screen…

"Licking his paws after his last sin,
He foolishly threw caution to the wind:
See how simple it is to creep,
When playing this game of hide and seek?

Slice the belly – what did she see?
Not a trace of father; completely empty.
She gave him his fill, though not so clever,
To make him a prisoner in his garden forever

The tale of Red Riding Hood has been adapted and reinterpreted for film before, in titles such as Freeway, the forthcoming Red Riding Hood and The Company of Wolves. It has often been interpreted as the documentation of the blossoming of female sexuality – the big bad wolf standing in for (aggressive) male desire; innocence encountering primal, guttural lust. Angela Carter ain’t got nothin’ on me. Little Erin Merryweather updates the tale to feature Red Riding Hood as a serial killer with severe psychological hang-ups originating from her molestation as a child. The 'big bad wolf' in her past, being her father. As fucked up as it sounds, the film is fairly subtle in its approach to these themes, with flashbacks depicting the girl’s abuse leaning on suggestiveness rather than crass explicitness. Indeed, the flashbacks have a strangely giallo-esque feel to them, with an emphasis on nursery rhymes and disturbing children’s drawings exhibiting an obsession with ‘dirty handed men.’

All grown up now, Erin Merryweather is a timid university librarian by day, and a frenzied, red-hooded and be-caped slasher villain by night. She begins offing the male populace on campus when memories of her childhood are triggered – mainly when she encounters men with dirty hands. And as bad luck would have it, the guys on this campus obviously need to brush up on basic hygiene… Leading the tender-footed investigation, as the cops seem as inept as most horror movie cops, are student Peter Bloom (writer/director David Morwick) and student reporters Sean and Teddy (Marcus Bonnée and Brandon Johnson). When they realise the killer’s calling card is filling the stomachs of her victims with stones, they begin to uncover an unhealthy obsession with fairytales that may help them solve the case. Luckily they have their gravel-voiced lecturer Dr Paula Sheffield (Elizabeth Callahan) on hand to prompt debate and tell them to fuck off to the library and do some research. Turns out she’s a former criminal psychologist. Natch. Being students and prone to intellectual debate, various scenes feature conversations about trauma, deviant behaviour, childhood and debates about when victims become victimisers… This all of course ties in with the murder mystery at the heart of the film.

The fairytale images that pepper the narrative are as striking as you’d expect – a discarded broken doll here, a shock of blood or a red cape on white snow there. Despite the low budget the film looks rather beautiful, and it often feels much older than it actually is. And then there are the sketches drawn by the titular character – Grimm-like illustrations that give us a further peek into her warped mindset. Murderous Erin is portrayed sympathetically by stage actress Vigdis Anholt. At times she seems to be a little girl trapped in a woman’s body; at other times she is revealed to be manipulative and obviously unhinged. The script often calls for her to be the ‘weird girl’ on campus, and she can usually be seen skulking about in a red cloak and acting all ‘mysterious,’ i.e. wide-eyed and distant. Anholt’s big expressive eyes, conviction to the role and steadfastness in avoiding obvious histrionics ensure the audience feel sympathy for the disturbed and pathetic Erin.

What sets Little Erin Merryweather apart from many recent horrors is the lack of female protagonists (aside from our villainess and the gravel-voiced lecturer). Also unexpected is the unveiling of the killer at the beginning of the film, stripping many of the later events of any tension or mystery. We know who the killer is, why she kills; but we have to wait until the characters figure out what we know, in order for the action to move forward. Maybe this is tension. Maybe not. Morwick makes a number of strange choices – not all of which are successful – though he seems to be making them in an attempt to subvert convention, and his flashes of creativity aren’t restricted by the often workmanlike story or plot developments. While events verge on the ludicrous, his competent direction keeps things ticking over just enough to retain your attention – even if you do see what’s coming from a mile off. This isn’t your average straight to DVD slasher movie though.

A strikingly shot, if somewhat by-the-numbers thriller that is elevated from the doldrums by a dedicated cast and intriguing premise.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

RIP Ingrid Pitt 1937 – 2010

Actress Ingrid Pitt, best known for her roles in various Hammer Horror productions such as The Vampire Lovers and Countess Dracula, has passed away at the age of 73. The Polish-born star died from heart failure at a hospital in south London where she was admitted after collapsing a few days ago. Pitt’s death comes just several weeks after that of Roy Ward Baker, who directed her in The Vampire Lovers. He was 93.

Of all the glamorous, beguiling beauties whose presence graced various Hammer Horror productions throughout the years, Pitt is often regarded as the most prominent – and even though she only appeared in two titles, was still certainly one of the most memorably compelling leading Hammer ladies. Indeed, according to Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, Pitt was a "talented actress and fine writer" who was also "partly responsible for ushering in a bold and brazen era of sexually explicitly horror films in the 1970s; but that should not denigrate her abilities as an actress." Hearn went on to say that "All fans of Hammer and of British horror are going to miss her terribly."

Pitt began her career with minor roles in various Spanish movies and as an extra in films such as Doctor Zhivago. Other notable roles included parts in the likes of The Wicker Man, The House that Dripped Blood and Where Eagles Dare. More recently she had her own column in British horror magazine, Shivers and she was seen briefly in Hammer’s web series Beyond the Rave. She will be sadly missed.


Monday, 22 November 2010

The Funhouse

Dir. Tobe Hooper

Disobeying her parent's orders, teenager Amy sneaks out to visit a sleazy travelling carnival with her friends Liz, Buzz and Richie. They decide to spend the night in the carnival funhouse and after witnessing a gruesome murder, are stalked by the deformed offspring of the carnival barker.

Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre needs no introduction. One of the most highly regarded, visceral, provocative and controversial horror films of all time, few films have matched it for its raw intensity: least of all, any of Hooper’s own subsequent offerings. Since then the director has wallowed in a mire of increasingly dire output. Few directors have experienced as much critical backlash or seen their career take such a downward spiral as Hooper. His earlier still work retains an edgy grittiness to it though; the intense and unrelenting ferocity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the sweaty bijou snuff-production values of Eaten Alive and the nasty underbelly of Spielberg produced Poltergeist, all display intensity seemingly only Hooper could muster. Even in the creepy Prime-Time vampires-invading-a-small-town Stephen King TV adaptation, Salem’s Lot, Hooper managed to remain true to his horror roots and provide several spine-chilling moments; not least the little undead boy floating outside his bedroom window beckoning to his older brother to open it.

The Funhouse stands as one of his last films of any genuine interest or originality. Released in 1981, it was one of the more memorable in a glut of Halloween-inspired slasher flicks – in fact it was actually released in a double bill alongside Canadian slasher My Bloody Valentine. Like many of Hooper’s flicks, The Funhouse exhibits an abundance of grimy, queasy and downright lurid production design (courtesy of Mort Rabinowitz) and a moody atmosphere that becomes more sweat-inducing and off-kilter as events become more delirious and violent. Opening with a double homage to Psycho and Halloween in which one of the characters is menaced in the shower and seemingly murdered by a knife wielding, masked intruder (only for it to be revealed as a practical joke), is telling for The Funhouse; a film that constantly reveals all is not as it seems.

The bulk of the movie is made up of our rent-a-Scooby-gang, Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), Ritchie (Miles Chapin), Liz (Largo Woodruff) and beefcake Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), exploring the carnival, hanging out, going on rides, eating candy floss, smoking pot, drinking beer and sneaking peeks into the strip show – a dank and sleazy sight boasting a plethora of flabby older women with swirling titty-tassles and dour expressions. Characterisation, aside from Amy – who is the final girl, natch – could be written on a pinhead. The characters are stock types simply there to be chased throughout the lividly lit funhouse and murdered in various nasty ways.

Hooper sets about building an uneasy atmosphere of dread that is bolstered by the film’s undeniably effective production design – freakish carnies, deformed animals, luridly lit sets. The carnival is depicted as a sleazy, seedy and creepy place; everything about it is just ‘off.’ The folks who work there are all depicted as sinister, marginalised lugs that couldn’t be further from ‘normalcy’ if they tried.

Eventually the teens decide to spend the night in the funhouse. This is when the film should really kick into gear, but alas, Hooper never seems to be able to up the ante quite enough. The Funhouse does boast one or two memorably suspenseful moments – like when Amy sees her parents outside the funhouse after they are summoned to collect her brother – whose fearful loyalty to her ensures they remain unaware she’s inside – and her desperate cries for help are blown back in her face by the giant blades of an air-conditioning fan. By the time we’ve made it to the end though, Hooper can’t sustain the tension carefully created at the beginning of the film and it just sort of fizzles out with the inevitable, though less than protracted, confrontation between Amy and the monster. She is reduced to a pathetic, whiney wimp while the monster gropes, grasps and flails about in her general direction as she backs further towards sparking machinery…

As with many of the director’s films, the notion of a ‘monstrous family’ nestles at the dank heart of The Funhouse – the carnival barker and his hideously deformed son recall the grotesque family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Our heroine Amy’s family is also far from perfect either and depicted in a less than flattering light; with her alcoholic mother, distant, ineffectual father and strange little brother Joey who delights in menacing her when she’s in the shower (Erm, paging Doctor Freud!). These elements also lend the film an unsettling edge – there is something oddly unfeeling about it all. Another deeply discomforting moment comes when Joey is ‘cleaned up’ by a carnival worker who watches, a little too fondly over him while he sleeps. Again with Hooper we have this ‘urban’ versus ‘rural’ dichotomy – the rich city kids coming to gawp at the carnie crazies and getting way more than they bargained for.

What is also one of the most disturbing aspects of this increasingly claustrophobic film is the depiction of the monstrous son. He is an unfortunate creature to be pitied as well as feared. His days are spent covered up in a mask and gloves, traipsing around tending to the titular funhouse; his nights spent trying to obtain sex – either by paying for it from seedy old carnival lushes, or, as implied when several characters discuss the ‘missing girls’ from the last town the carnival passed through – by abducting, molesting and murdering young girls. After the gruesome scene in which the son throttles the life out of the wretched fortune teller (Sylvia Miles) when she ridicules him, his father reacts violently, beating and goading his deformed offspring who cowers in the corner before flying into an inarticulate rage, too. The fact that he hides his hideous visage beneath a Frankenstein’s Monster mask is also telling. Both were created and shunned by unloving ‘fathers’ and both are misunderstood, but ultimately tragic, hulking lugs.

A by the numbers slasher that is redeemed by its creepy setting, vivid production design, eerie atmosphere and utterly deranged killer. Could have been so much better though, had Hooper bothered to ratchet up the tension as much as he does the grim atmospherics.

Interview with Artist/Designer Matt Gondek

Artist Matt Gondek has been designing neon googly-eyed monsters for bands, companies and clothing brands for five years now, and at 28, he is already co-owner of his own clothing brand (Wonderful Life). The artist’s striking designs recently caught the eye of horror mag Fangoria, who immediately commissioned him to design a brand-spanking-new line of T-shirts. I interviewed him about his work and love for googly-eyed monsters - check it out over at Fangoria.

Friday, 19 November 2010

More Argento titles announced on Arrow Video

Those generous folks over at Arrow Video/Cult Labs are at it again. Having already released Inferno, The Card Player, Opera, The Stendhal Syndrome and Two Evil Eyes, they’ve just announced several more forthcoming Argento titles. Hot on the heels of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Phenomena and Deep Red will be Cat O’Nine Tails and Tenebrae, both to be released next year on DVD and Blu-Ray complete with a bloody geyser of extra features and newly commissioned art work by Rick Melton.

His second feature (and his own least favourite of his films), Cat O’Nine Tails was Argento’s follow up to the dazzling The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The film stars James Franciscus as a reporter who teams up with a blind ex-cop (Karl Malden) to track down a killer seemingly obsessed with mysterious genetic research. A slick and stylish giallo, Cat O’Nine Tails was the second film in Argento’s renowned ‘Animal Trilogy' and has its fair share of memorable moments and suspenseful set pieces.

Argento’s reflexive masterpiece and rumination on giallo and murder-mystery movies, Tenebrae is the twisted tale of horror writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), whose trip to Rome to promote his new bestseller coincides with a spate of grisly murders. The writer becomes increasingly linked to events and begins to lose his grip on reality. A highly reflexive film, Tenebrae sees Argento actively explore and comment on themes that reappear throughout his work. Everything from Freudian psychological transfer, sexual deviancy, repressed trauma and the attraction of brutal and stylised violence to movie audiences, to the alleged sinister effects of art (in particular cinema) on society; is all lovingly dissected. And all, of course, filmed with the usual style and aplomb that you’d expect from Argento; Tenebrae also contains some of the maestro’s most iconic imagery.

Stay tuned to Arrow Video for more info, and sign up to Cult Labs to meet kindred spirits and chat about cult cinema in friendly forums.

To find out more about Arrow Video and what makes them tick, pick up issue 2 of Shock Horror magazine - it features an in-depth article on the company. Great read!

A Serbian Film Exclusive

A Serbian Film is set to hit UK cinemas, after an incredible storm of controversy, on 10th December, and is unleashed on DVD and Blu-ray on 3rd January 2011. Thanks to the lovely folks over at Cult Labs, Behind the Couch has an exclusive trailer of the movie...

Scripted by Serbian horror film critic Aleksandar Radivojevic (screenwriter of the award winning Tears For Sale), the debut feature from director Srdjan Spasojevic is an allegorical, taboo shattering film that “follows French cinema pioneers Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) and Virginie Despentes (Baise-moi) in destroying the status quo regarding on-screen violence and sexuality” (Tim Anderson, A twisted tale of an adult film star’s horrifying descent into an almost unimaginable hell, Radivojevic himself describes the film as “a diary of our molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do.”

Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a retired porn star leading a normal family life with his wife Maria (Jelena Gavrilovic) and six-year old son Petar in tumultuous Serbia, trying to make ends meet. 
Aware of his problems, Layla (Katarina Zutic), a former co-star, introduces Milos to Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), a 
mysterious, menacing and politically powerful figure in the porn business who wants Milos to star in his latest project and is willing to pay him a fee that will provide financial 
support to Milos and his family for the rest of their lives. The only condition is that Milos signs a contract insisting on his absolute unawareness of the scripted scenes they are about to shoot.

Encouraged by his wife to accept the job, Milos turns up for the first day of shooting and is immediately drawn into a maelstrom of unbelievable cruelty and mayhem devised by his employer, the ‘director’ of his destiny. 
It soon becomes apparent that Vukmir and his crew will stop at nothing to complete his insane vision. The only way for Milos to escape the living cinematic hell he’s entered and to save his family life is to sacrifice everything to Vukmir’s art – his pride, his morality, his sanity, and maybe even his own life.

Confrontational, shocking, uncompromising, with hints of dark humour and absolutely unforgettable, A Serbian Film is “a well crafted, immensely indecent smut-slasher” (Variety) featuring a “remarkable performance by [Srdjan] Todorovic” (Fangoria) and is an affecting and thought provoking work of cinema that ranks alongside the likes of Requiem For A Dream, Videodrome, Irreversible and Antichrist as one of the most provocative films of its time.

Pick up the latest issue of Rue Morgue for an in-depth look at not only A Serbian Film, but also a guide to the history of Serbian horror movies. I kid thee not! Great read.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dr Dale’s Zombie Dictionary: The A-Z Guide to Staying Alive

Those who attended Augusts’ Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival in Belfast’s Stormont Hotel – or indeed any of the sell out Edinburgh Fringe shows – will be aware of Zombology self-help guru Dr Dale Seslick’s Zombie Apocalypse Survival Seminars.

Expert – and caring humanitarian – that he is, it was only a matter of time before Dr Seslick condensed all his knowledge about the living dead into one convenient source: Ladies and gentlemens I give you the lovingly crafted, downright indispensable Dr Dale’s Zombie Dictionary: The A-Z Guide to Staying Alive - your one stop shop in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

As yet, the undead have not risen from their graves and stared to devour the living – but there was a time when we said man would never walk on the moon and look what happened there! We must prepare for the inevitable, and Dr Seslick’s Dictionary of the Dead is the ultimate alphabetical reference guide on how to survive when the zombies finally arrive and attempt to eat us all. The information in this book has been gathered using rigorous and reliable sources of zombie information such as Wikipedia, lots of films and it may just save your life.

Pick up a copy here. Full money back guarantee offered should you die in a zombie apocalypse within 30 days of purchase.

And click here to head over to The Blood Sprayer to check out my interview with Dr Dale's alias, the delectable Mr Ben Muir...


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Forthcoming Argento titles on Arrow Video

Those too-cool-for-school folks over at Cult Labs and Arrow Video have raised the bar yet again with the announcement of several forthcoming Argento titles next year.

Kicking things off will be a beautifully designed and jam-packed two disc special edition of Argento’s undisputed giallo masterpiece, Deep Red, on Blu-ray and DVD in late November/early Dec 2010.

As well as the exquisitely lurid new artwork that champions each release from Arrow Video, this special edition of Deep Red also contains a 2 sided fold-out poster, an exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on Deep Red by Alan Jones, author of ‘Profondo Argento', a brand new transfer of the Director’s Cut in High Definition with an introduction by composer Claudio Simonetti.

There are a number of brand spanking new featurettes too, such as Rosso Recollections – Dario’s Deep Genius, Lady in Red: Daria Nicolodi remembers Profondo Rosso and Music to Murder For! Claudio Simonetti on Deep Red. Other special features include several trailers and a tour of the Profondo Rosso shop in Rome with long time Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi.

Also due out early next year with the now unmistakable Arrow Video treatment, is Argento’s directorial debut, the chic and shocking The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Here’s a peek at the new commissioned artwork courtesy of Rick Melton. The imagery and design are obviously inspired by the creepy covers of the same pulp novels that inspired Argento’s genre defining movie.

Nailing the giallo blueprint in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento’s groundbreaking shocker combines eye-popping visuals with a seamy vein of sadomasochism and a lust for violence to create an undeniable genre classic.

And just announced today over at Cult Labs forums – Argento’s critically maligned, much misunderstood Phenomena will also be released in a special 2 disc edition on DVD and blu-ray next year. A veritable melting pot of Argento-esque themes and imagery, Phenomena unfurls as a dark and gorily violent paranormal fantasy meshed with typical traits of the giallo to create a heady, at times uneven – though never anything short of entertaining - thriller. With flies. Lots of flies. And a straight-razor wielding chimp for good measure. If there is one film that can really split opinion and fire heated debate amongst Argento’s fan base, then this is surely it.

Keep an eye on Arrow Video and Cult Labs for further details of special features to be included with these two titles. Rest assured, if the previously released Arrow Video Giallo titles are anything to go by, we're in for a real treat!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Sex, Smoke And Mirrors: An Interview With 'Seeing Heaven' Director Ian Powell

British director Ian Powell’s atmospheric and provocative gay art-house shocker Seeing Heaven unfolds as an increasingly nightmarish mystery filtered through the candy-coloured aesthetics of classic Italian horror movies by the likes of Bava, Argento and Freda. The film revolves around young escort Paul (Alexander Bracq), who embarks on a dark and dangerous odyssey through the lurid netherworld of male prostitution and the porn movie industry, desperately searching for his long lost twin brother. All the while he experiences bizarre nightmares and orgasmic visions – shared by his clients when they have sex with him – of his twin and a mysterious masked stranger who holds a morbid interest in him… Weaving together a striking mystery and a startling rumination on the dangers of unprotected sex within the porn industry, with concepts such as mortality, identity, beauty, tragedy, morality and society’s obsession with ‘the visual’, Powell has concocted a heady brew of sensual chills and provocative ideas.

Titillating subject matter aside, this is no David DeCoteau fluff, Powell is a serious filmmaker concerned with serious issues. Making the transition from adult movies into horror has been a formidable challenge for Powell, but one that marks him as a determined director with something worth saying and a real flair for creating striking images and compelling stories.

The forthcoming DVD release of Seeing Heaven, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures/QC Cinema provided me with the perfect opportunity to catch up with Powell to chat about the forthcoming release of his film, the enduring influence of Italian horror and the real horror of exploitative producers that currently haunt the adult movie industry…

Ian Powell and 'friend'

What was the genesis of Seeing Heaven? How did you come up with the idea?

It sounds strange to say this but I have wanted to make a feature film my whole life, so when you finally get a chance, elements from your whole film watching and book reading experience create a kind of soup of influences; everything from Ken Russell and Nic Roeg movies, to the stories of Poe and the wonderful Hammer movies that I illicitly watched as an 11 year old kid. I love movies where people are searching for something and driven, also where they are drawn into their own dreams. That was the primary genesis of the idea for Seeing Heaven. I had always loved movies that dwelt on the dream state, everything from Altered States to A Nightmare on Elm Street, via Bava and Argento’s work, which is often almost just a complete evocation of a dream state and a world of the subconscious.
The original idea for Seeing Heaven started way back in 1988 when my first horror screenplay Changer was in preproduction with the effects guy from Hellraiser, Bob Keen. It was before I came out and the original treatment was called The World Within the Flame. Over the years the script ended up containing many different elements and ideas. I went through a lot coming out, and I think the script changed as that happened. For instance I had been shooting gay porn films in the mid 2000’s when condom use began to disappear and we had the fetishization of bare-backing (unprotected sex) in the community, and even in some extreme cases ‘bug chasing’ (slang term for the practice of pursuing sex with HIV infected individuals in order to contract HIV). So this element got worked into the main plot. Seeing Heaven was always intended as a horror movie of sorts, but all my pre-occupations kind of became fuzzed together. The idea of the twins in Seeing Heaven is kind of an autobiographical exploration of my own past.

What was the writing process for you? How did the idea change as it made the transition from page to screen?

The writing process was a long one. I had a full working script around 2001 but put that on hold while I developed my porn company. Then in 2009 I went back to the script and completely re-wrote it to include the discussion of safer sex.
The film is basically a fusion of several different ideas. In searching for his brother Paul is partly searching for his self in these dark dreams and in the reckless life he pursues. There is a lot of playing with reflections in the film, both in mirrors and in puddles, and of course in the film within the film; its all about image. I tried to play a little with the themes of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ The idea that an image on video preserves you forever. The figure in the mask is both pursuing his twin and a comment on the darkness and danger in Paul’s own life, hooking up with violent clients and pursuing anonymous sex in clubs. The nightmare world he strays into in his dreams and the world he actually inhabits begin to merge.
With the exploration of sex and spirituality in the film I was hugely inspired by Clive Barker and David Cronenberg, and the intension was to have a little of Cronenberg’s debate about the body and the mind in the film. The idea that goes back to the heart of religion – that the mind is pure but the body is corrupt and dirty. For Paul sex is a pure way of having the visions and has a kind of spiritual purity; hence the faintly blasphemous title Seeing Heaven. What if you could experience a high like religion through your senses and sex? But that spiritual purity kind of gets perverted by the bad porn director DeLeon. In the original script I had intended to shoot heavenly visions to contrast with the nightmares. But budget and time restraints meant we had to restrict ourselves to shooting the nightmares. I felt though that they had a kind of Bavaesque beauty that partly suggested they were beautiful as well as bad.

How did you go about casting the film?

Gathering the cast took a good six months. It was chiefly difficult to find a young guy who would have the vulnerability to play Paul and would be someone all the other characters would be obsessive about, which is part of the plot. Plus he had to be able to give a sensitive nuanced performance. We knew Alex was the one as soon as we saw him, but it was a leap of faith. The image that sums up the film for me is the one of Paul green lit, with a bloodied lip, looking haunted and vulnerable, almost like a vampire. Romero’s Martin is a favourite of mine. It has real underbelly and depth. I wanted Paul to have a little of the qualities of Martin, even though his needs and motivation are very different. Like Martin, Dorian Gray and Poe’s hypersensitive heroes, it is all about being “The Other”, being outside society, and in Paul’s case being desired by everyone for something within yourself you don’t actually understand.

The film has quite a striking look – what were your reasons for shooting it this way?

I always wanted to make a film that would create a very intense visual style. Growing up I was obsessed with the films of Sergio Leone, who I still regard as having the best eye for composition of any director. I also tried to use the framing very consciously, for example the early bar scene, which is backlit in blue and which mainly has the two characters on the very edge of frame conversing in profile. It wasn’t about being showy, but it is often the visual look of a film – especially something like Argento’s Inferno – which seduces me above all else and makes me connect with the story. I think horror works best when the darkness and the horror is matched by an intense, hallucinatory beauty. For me, that’s why Suspiria and Inferno, and the gothic’s of Mario Bava work so well. I really wanted to tell the story visually, through colour and shape and texture. Another huge influence on the film is Don’t Look Now. The thing about that film and Nic Roeg’s visual style that I most admire is how he creates a story that is like a broken mirror or mosaic. The film makes sense through the connection of its main images, a splash of blood, spilled wine on a slide, the shape of an ornament. But these elements only really come together at the end. It a technique that the giallo also use a lot. We tried to do something similar. I like films that work on a poetic level and create and immersive dream world. Our dream world needed to be striking.

Had it always been your intention to pay homage, visually, to classic Italian horror movies with the shooting style of Seeing Heaven?

Yes absolutely, and I was hugely fortunate to find Alessio Valori as cinematographer for the project. We discussed Suspiria and the work of Mario Bava. I wanted the dream world, glimpsed in mirrors and puddles, to be a homage to Bava especially. But Alessio imbued all the scenes with a distinctive style and we were careful to echo the main colour palette of the dreams (red and green) in small elements in the reality scenes in the film.

What is it about the style of movies by the likes of Bava, Argento and Martino that you find so compelling?

They are true film makers, poetic film makers. Its their ability to totally pull you into a dream world, which is patently un-real but utterly convincing. There is just something in Argento and Bava’s best work which connects deeply with your subconscious, an element of the fairy tale. This element of dark fairy tale works in Argento’s films in a way that, for me, doesn’t in Tim Burton’s films for instance. Argento seems to incorporate this fantasy element into him films in an effortless, unconscious way, it is just part of his universe. I also wanted my film to work on that visual level, even if bits of the story may not be understood by some of the audience. I love the way Argento plays games with you, hiding the identity of a killer in a painting – or what you think is a painting in Deep Red – for instance. In these films the dialogue often doesn’t matter as you are dealing with stories told directly through visual poetry. A key element of Seeing Heaven is the identity of the figure in the painting Griffin has left in the studio where Paul sleeps. An indistinct figure which suggests the man in the white mask, who is himself very Argentoesque, but who was always a natural part of our story.
I have always loved stories where a character is trying to understand an event in his past, but it is only half glimpsed. He or she saw something that was out of place in an otherwise ordinary landscape but can’t quite place what it is. This is a big part of Argento’s work from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, onwards but also of course of Blow Up. And it is a trope that carried on through numerous gialli.
It is such a central theme in horror, that quest to understand the events around you and through them yourself. Poe says at one point “It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge, some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment Is destruction”. To me that is the key sentence that sums up all horror and most art
Also I loved that the gialli are about archetypes. I love the idea in Blood and Black Lace, for instance that the faceless killer is essentially standing in for the viewer, or an embodiment of all our psyche’s. In Seeing Heaven the man in the mask, could be one of several people Paul encounters, and the end of the film also posits an entirely different explanation for both him and the figure in the painting. He is chiefly a figure from the subconscious who as well as many other things, represents my fear of being tempted into unsafe sex and the risk of catching HIV, which is kind of anonymous and faceless if you think about it.

Certain aspects of the script are taken from your own experiences as a director of adult movies. How challenging was it for you to move outside of this sphere of filmmaking and attempt to direct something such as Seeing Heaven?

I had directed a horror short, Lonely Hearts – also about a masked man – before directing this and that was well reviewed in Time Out and played with Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil for its first London run at the Scala cinema. And in my twenties I had written a lot of spec horror scripts. Moving into adult films was really just a way of expressing my gay sexuality when I came out and is something that happened after the short films and scripts. I wanted to make a film that was around something I knew. Making porn can very quickly become a slightly soul-less production line. It can also be exploitative, but there is a part of it that is about capturing someone’s youth and beauty before it gets spoilt. The character of Baxter (Lee Chapman), the porn director, is essentially me, trying to rationalize why he is doing what he is doing and trying to make something that is a serious exploration of beauty and sex. But the studios want him to shoot bare-back.

How difficult was it for you to write and immerse yourself in the production of the film given the more personal events that lay in its origins?

Its personal nature wasn’t the difficult thing, but because the script went through various drafts over about ten years, you have to take care to ensure that you are giving the audience enough clues and that you aren’t assuming they know things that have been excised from the current draft. When the story is so personal there is a tendency for it to seep into the directors subconscious. It is important to ask yourself what the audience actually know at the various parts of the story and to check this with people who aren’t familiar with the script.

What was it about the horror genre that you felt equipped you best to tell this particular story?

Horror has always been my favourite genre. I love gothic’s and films that explore the mind in an overblown, expressionistic way, like the Robert Wise film The Haunting. I love Poe’s idea of a heightened level of sensitivity that makes the sensations of the senses almost too much to bear, as in ‘Fall of the House of Usher.’ Seeing Heaven references Poe and some of his pre-occupations. When I was writing the script I also read and re-read Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ which remains as fresh, powerful and relevant as when it was first written. The idea of Narcissus in my film, of the beautiful rent boy who is desired by everyone but lost to himself, comes from this. And we have two characters almost competing for Paul’s soul; one encouraging him to create something beautiful, the other to take dangerous risks in order to see into another world. And I believed I could meld these ideas into a story where the main character saw into a Bavaesque inner world, another world where his long lost twin lived.

Given some of the more ‘explicit’ scenes depicted in Seeing Heaven (the drug use and rape scenes in particular) – Was there anywhere that you were quite hesitant to bring the story? Anything that might have made you think, ‘is this too much?’

I guess I was a little worried that the concept of Paul glimpsing what was happening to his brother, and his pursuit by the Man In the Mask through sex, was pretty strange, but it really is about him experiencing through all the senses and not just sex. I didn’t want people to think it was a film about incest. Although it is only when he can be re-united with his brother again, that he can feel whole again.
To be honest, the rape scenes are, if anything, a little too soft. I found myself giving them an edge through the flashes into the dream sequences. As I shot the film I felt a responsibility towards Alex in particular and to Chris (Grezo) who plays Griffin, to shoot the sex scenes with sensitivity. I didn’t want them to feel that I was exploiting them or that there was material in the film they would later regret.
The film does take a very negative, almost melodramatic attitude towards bare-backing, in the way that it kind of parallels Paul’s being tempted towards unsafe sex with Saul’s pursuit by a faceless serial killer. I am kind of out of kilter with the general attitudes that now seem to exist in the gay community, where although unsafe sex is to some extent discouraged, it is becoming frighteningly prevalent. Young people who didn’t grow up in the Eighties and didn’t experience the deaths can now see the drug cocktails as a mere inconvenience. For a small group of people contracting HIV is now seen as a lifestyle choice and once it is out of the way you don’t need to worry about it any more. So I was conscious that making the statement I do in the film risked turning off my core audience. But bare-backing in porn is a kind of elephant in the room, that hasn’t really been discussed or debated properly by the community.

Seeing Heaven was obviously a labour of love for all involved – not least yourself. What challenges did you face whilst working on such a low budget film? Any scenes or shots that proved quite difficult to realise?

The first week of the two week shoot was spent in a Nightclub/warehouse location in Islington which we used for about 5 different locations, the bar and club but also the porn studio and the locations for the dream sequences. That helped a lot. It was a slightly unnerving place, as there was no natural light and it was a real maze of passageways and rooms filled with old props and junk. I want to go back there in fact to shoot my Jack the Ripper movie. That location really helped to speed things up. We had a great crew, too. But it was tough. I hardly had time to think, I just had to remember all the scenes we needed and go for it. Working at that speed you just go with your instincts and it is bang, bang, bang. But it was a challenge to get it right and not miss anything out. That together with all the scenes we shot on the candlelit stairs was then the totality of our dream sequences. So my overall memory of the film is that some complex sequences we took too long over, but many others came together very simply and effectively.

What were the subsequent rewards for shooting such a low budget, independent film?

My real hope with Seeing Heaven is that people will see what we were able to achieve on such a tiny budget and with so little time and give us the chance to make bigger more complex movies. It is not the linier of films, so I hope the audience is able to just go with the flow and immerse themselves in the dream images, and take something from it on that level. The thing I am most proud of, is the look we achieved, together with the really beautiful score from Ken Watanabe. I wanted to make a film that succeeded on the level of dreams, to have a little of Argentos’s Inferno about it – although on a very low budget level – and I hope we succeeded. I fear making a full blown giallo is probably not commercial anymore, but the pre-occupations and style of this film are something I want to take forwards. I don’t see myself making a kitchen sink drama or a rom-com.

Glad to hear it! What ideas capture your imagination most as a filmmaker? And ultimately, what were you trying to say with Seeing Heaven?

I really like dark subjects. I like horror films that have a level of social comment about them and have a real underbelly, like George Romero’s work. But I also like movies that are operatic and tell their stories through the visuals. I go back to the quote from Poe (“It is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge, some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction”). I think as film makers we are trying to understand ourselves and our own dark obsessions and through that the world around us. The dream and the ambition is to be able to find the funding to do that.

What filmmakers, if any, have inspired you most and why?

George Romero, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Nic Roeg, Ken Russell, because they are filmic poets who care more about the sensual effect their films have on you than just a three act structure.

What is next for you?

We may do another gay themed project, but I also want to move more directly into producing pure horror films. I have a particular project in mind about a bunch of screenwriters that has a unique take on the Jack the Ripper legend. I have to admit of recent horror movies I most admire films like The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone and The Others, and that’s definitely the kind of direction I want to movie in. But I also want to explore further the Cronenbergian idea of how the mind effects the body and vice versa, the spiritual and the physical and the sensual. It was the subject of my first co-written attempt at horror, Changer, and those pre-occupations are still with me. More than anything I would like to movie into Suspiria territory, to do some sort of Old Dark House movie that really pushed the boat out and scared the audience on a primal level, but that could also be baroque and stylish. However, I am likely to be working again on a low budget, and talking to a company recently who specialize in horror movies it seems to be chiefly about keeping it simple, but also doing something that is truly and darkly terrifying. The audience has to be truly scared!

Seeing Heaven is released on DVD on 7th Dec, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures/QC Cinema. You can pick up a copy here.

Exquisite nightmares…

[All photos by Anton Z Risan and Michele Martinoli]