Sunday, 28 February 2010

Blood Feast

1963
Dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis

An Egyptian caterer (!) with ridiculously bushy eyebrows and a gimpy leg messily kills various blonde-bombshells in order to use their body parts to resurrect a bug-eyed Egyptian goddess. His bloody work is not at all hampered by ludicrously inept detectives not hot on his trail.

This ‘plot’ synopsis is basically a load of old nonsense thrown together in a feeble effort to resemble a story that is really only required in order to connect a series of unrelated and astoundingly
badgraphic murder scenes - usually involving bland actresses and buckets of corn syrup and red food dye. Produced by exploitation guru David F. Friedman, and
rudimentarilyeconomically directed by marketing genius extraordinaire Herschell Gordon Lewis, Blood Feast abounds with an irresistibly impish glee and carefree abandon. With not a shred of decency or taste in sight, hoary old conventions such as plot and story are flung aside in favour of countless close-ups and lingering shots of blood-soaked boobs and shoddily acted scenes of carnage and makeshift mayhem. Hurrah!

Blood Feast holds the dubious honour of being the first ever ‘gore movie’ or ‘splatter film’ – a craze that rippled out from this flick and continues to make waves today, as cineplexes are cluttered with all manner of films whose plotlines could be described as nothing more than a vague means to connect scenes of depravity and sadism. Back in the early Sixties all this was new and subversive and naturally audiences thirstily lapped it up as they clambered to catch a glimpse of what would become a milestone in horror cinema.

Anyone who has seen Blood Feast will know that it is a film specifically designed around a number of grisly special effects-heavy set pieces in which buxom-bosomed blonde lovelies are hacked, slashed, decapitated, de-tongued and generally slathered in their own gore – all in the name of entertainment! These moments are sprinkled sporadically throughout a vague and plodding story with an emphasis on gross out gore effects and titillating shots of lingerie clad ladies having their tongues pulled out/ limbs lopped off/eyes gouged out by a sweaty Egyptian caterer with a gammy leg, Bela-Lugosi-wannabe eyebrows and sporting a copy of ‘Ancient Weird Religious Rites’. Which incidentally is perfect bath-time reading.

Prowess and subtlety are not words in Lewis’ vocabulary, and we wouldn’t want them to be. The film’s very raison d’être is to provide audiences with an abundance of graphic and violent imagery and showcase the splattery effects. Everything plays second fiddle to this notion. The acting in Blood Feast is gobsmackingly awful and yet wholly amusing. Stare! as Connie Mason flicks her hair and knows stuff about history and Egyptian culture! Be aghast! as actors read their lines from auto-cues! Shocking scenes of bad acting and depraved performances litter Blood Feast. This exchange is just one example of the sort of staggeringly bad dialogue and woeful delivery one can expect whilst wallowing in the sordid experience of watching this film. Yay!

As dated as the special effects are, a couple of them still manage to retain a bizarre power – particularly those featured in the shot of the dead girl on the beach; her head a bloody mess, all kinds of red wet stuff is splattered out on the sand behind her… The scene in which a woman has her tongue slowly ripped out of her throat whilst flailing around a grotty motel room is also strangely disturbing.

This sublimely trashy film clearly falls into that favourite category of ‘so bad it’s oh so good’. Completely tensionless, the film more than compensates with its sheer entertainment value. With no redeeming qualities whatsoever – which is pretty much why it is so damn good – Blood Feast is cheap, nasty and bloody brilliant.

I watched this from the bottom of my wine glass at a recent screening in Belfast’s Safehouse Gallery as part of a new film night dubbed Texploitation. Organised by local comedians and fans of exploitation movies, Texploitation is set to take place at least once a month for the foreseeable future. For more info, simply follow the linkage…

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Interview with The Dead Outside director Kerry Anne Mullaney


The Dead Outside
is Scottish filmmaker Kerry Anne Mullaney’s feature directorial debut. Gripping, atmospheric and quietly unsettling, the film unfolds as a post-apocalyptic psychological horror tale of loneliness, loss and madness.

A mysterious neurological pandemic has ravaged Britain. Two survivors seek refuge in an isolated farmhouse in deepest, darkest Scotland. The pair forges a tenuous relationship until the arrival of a stranger throws their world into turmoil. As well as dealing with serious trust issues, the three must also fend off attacks from the infected population besieging the farmhouse on an increasingly frequent basis…

The Dead Outside screened at the first Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival in Belfast last year and scooped several awards at the 10th Annual Estepona International Horror & Fantasy Film Festival, as well as garnering nominations from the likes of Frightfest, Night of Horror and BAFTA Scotland. It was released to DVD this week and I was fortunate enough to catch up with its director Kerry Anne Mullaney and chat about mass media scaremongering, global pandemics, Alien and shooting low budget horror movies in Scotland.

Behind the Couch: How did the idea for The Dead Outside come about? What inspired it?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: I was very inspired by the stillness and peacefulness of rural life compared to the city. One day I was staying with relatives in the borders of Scotland. They live in a beautiful isolated area, and one night I looked out of the window at the fog rolling in over the hills and just thought what if there was no one else beyond those dark hills? How scary would it be, to be totally, totally alone. That's what really inspired the film and where the idea came from. The idea to use two main characters and the one location was purely because we had a low budget, but luckily it was implicit in creating the feeling of loneliness and disconnection we needed.

BTC: What was the writing process of the film?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: I wrote the film with Kris Bird. I'd had the idea for a while so most of the plot points where already down. It took us about four months every evening after work to complete the script. Much of the research was already done so it was just making sure it all worked. The dialogue was the hardest thing to pin down. We had a couple of days rehearsing it with the actors which helped a little, though you always need more time. We also rehearsed once in a studio and just before the shoot on the actual location.

BTC: Did it change much when you were transferring it from page to screen? Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: I think we dropped a couple of scenes which didn't really move the story on. When you shoot your first feature you look at your script and just hope you shoot enough and don't just end up with a feature which is way too short - which is not so saleable. We always had to bear the 'selling' aspect in mind. In the end we filmed more than enough thankfully, so it found its natural length in the edit. I only wish we had left more time to shoot people moving around, exploring, action, and of course more rehearsal and practise time. Dialogue scenes are fairly easy and quick to get on tape, whereas people moving over distances, like action and exploring, take a lot longer to shoot. It was all a learning experience.

BTC: Sandra Louise Douglas gives quite a compelling performance as the troubled April - How did you go about assembling the cast and crew for the film?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: We auditioned for the three major characters in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Sandra came into an open casting session in Dumfries, we weren't expecting to find a local girl there, but we did. Dumfries is a pretty small town so it made my day to find her.

BTC: The ideas of solitude and isolation and trust are rife throughout The Dead Outside? What ideas and stories capture your imagination most as a filmmaker?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: I really enjoy stories that explore people's states being put to the test under extreme or extraordinary conditions. I find that most interesting, for example I really liked the film 'Blindness' by Fernando Meirelles.

BTC: What was it about exploring ideas around national panic and pandemics that appealed to you most?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I feel like we, as a society, really 'live in the now', we don't see how our actions today will affect the future. Even when it's obvious that something will do long term harm; there's no will to do anything to avert disaster. It's a very difficult situation with no clear answer. The media really makes people panic as well. With swine flu for example, we got mass scaremongering, then it just dropped off the map when it turned out not to be so serious - where were the people asking, “Why did this happen and how do we stop this happening again?” Maybe we shouldn't really be keeping factory barns crammed with sick pigs coughing and wheezing but not dying because they are so pumped up to the eyeballs with antibiotics. Instead it's ‘quick get the vaccine out!’ It could have been much worse, we don't seem to learn! Nothing is being done to improve factory farming conditions to stop this happening again, there's no real public or political will. It's all about 'today'.

I think it is interesting that in society we see viruses and diseases as the enemy that we must quash at any cost. Like we have a moral responsibility to defeat all disease. But messing so much with nature that you end up with “extensively drug resistant” strains of infections in our hospitals, is terrifying. Just for an example, we have co-existed with Tuberculosis since before the Egyptians, yet it only became drug resistant in the 1980s. Now, every year, nearly half a million new cases of multi drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) are estimated to occur worldwide. When do we stop? I suppose I just feel like maybe we are out of touch with the natural progression of life, and there comes a time when the damage done outweighs the good. I don't know what the answer is, but the days are gone when we could just hope and pray that science will fix everything; the reality isn't so pretty.

BTC: Are there any ideas or themes you find yourself returning to explore throughout your work as a filmmaker?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: Themes I like to explore, I'm really drawn to how people behave, and what psychologically pushes us to that place we can’t get back from. Madness, loneliness and loss, but with a fantastical element. I like reality but with a little bit of the fantastic thrown in. I love exploring cult behaviour, alien orbs, telekinesis and things like the Milgram Experiment, it's all fascinating. And strange people, I love strange and wonderful people and characters.

BTC: The Dead Outside has quite a grim and moody tone – how did you go about achieving this? Was it difficult given the low budget and limited resources?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: Not really, it was Scotland in March so everything just looks like that. Cold and dull.

BTC: Obviously the locations were of the utmost importance to the story – how did you go about finding the locations in the film? Was it important to you to set the story in Scotland?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: I was born in Dumfries, Scotland, so I knew the area quite well which made it easier. I wanted to set the film in Scotland because of the ease of filming and I really felt there was a rawness and beauty in the accents of South West Scotland. The young girl was from the area and I feel we don't hear that kind of soft accent so often, it's usually Glaswegian or the Edinburgh accent. So I felt it was nice to represent my hometown accent, although, most Americans would probably not notice the difference, I'm not sure. But yes, budget and being close to our base at the time, Edinburgh, which is two hours drive, was important.

BTC: What are the subsequent rewards for shooting such a low budget film?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: Experience. To have the experience has been invaluable. Shooting it is only half the battle, sound design, making deliverables and continuity spotting lists are a whole other battle. Oh and money and time! That's been a battle too. But if it means I can do what I love then I'd do it again any day. The film took a whole year from writing the script to deliverables; a nightmare, but we learned so much. We learned that if you scrape just enough money to film it, then just set a date to film, there can be no going back - once you're in the edit suite you have a film in the making.

BTC: What kind of support can independent filmmakers obtain in Scotland?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: The main ones are Scottish Screen, which is now turning into Creative Scotland, the UK film council, for my area its South West Scotland Screen Commission. SWSSC gave us a little to help with transporting and housing crew.

BTC: You have been nominated and won several awards such as a BAFTA Scotland Award for New Talent/Director (congratulations, by the way!), the Golden Unicorn for Best Film and the Silver Unicorn for Best Director at the 10th Estepona International Horror and Fantasy Film Festival – How did it make you feel to have your work recognised in this way?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: It made me feel really overwhelmed that although we don't have a big budget, stars and lots of fancy special effects people recognised there was something special in our film, it has heart and emotion, and some would say buckets full of atmosphere. It makes me realise that trusting your own instinct and making what 'you, yourself' would like to see or feel on screen is important.

BTC: Who or what has inspired you most as a filmmaker?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: Early fantastical films like the Dark Crystal inspired me when I was very young. As I grew up I loved Animé and J-Horror. I remember the first Alien film deeply affecting me. I remember feeling this feels so real, I've never really felt like this before.

BTC: Are you a fan of horror films? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: I am a fan of 'intelligent horror' rather than gore - but I do enjoy a good creature feature like The Host. I'm a sucker for a good ghost story too, but I don't enjoy CGI ghosts like in some Hollywood remakes. 'Ghost cam' ruins films for sure.

BTC: What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?

Kerry Anne Mullaney: Yes, we have two on the go. A science fiction body horror - working title Arthropoda. We also have a higher budget affair, called Harrow's Gate. It is a ghost story with a pseudo-mythological twist…

The Dead Outside was produced through Mothcatcher Films and is available on DVD now.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Magic

1978
Dir. Richard Attenborough

Down on his luck magician Corky (Anthony Hopkins) finds success when he introduces a ventriloquist's dummy into his act. His doll Fats seems to have a mind of its own though and spookily exerts control over Corky. When Corky seeks solace in the countryside and begins a relationship with his high school sweetheart Peg (Ann-Margaret), Fats takes matters into his own murderous hands...

With a script by William Goldman and director Richard Attenborough at the helm, Magic is indeed a classy affair that exhibits a surprising amount of nuance, subtly and stellar performances - especially from a young Anthony Hopkins. This is after all a movie about a killer doll. Isn't it? The film successfully juxtaposes the bizarre with the mundane, and mixes elements of psychological horror with the blatantly supernatural. This is highlighted perfectly in the opening shots of a cluttered flat full of bizarre bric-a-brac that sit alongside everyday household objects.

Corky is a struggling entertainer who fails to even hold the attention of his audience, let alone convince them of his talents. He returns home downcast and defeated. We then cut to several months later and suddenly Corky seems to have emerged as a strange overnight success. His burgeoning reputation leads to him being offered his own TV show. Bizarrely though – and in the first indication that all is not what it seems with Corky and Fats – he refuses this opportunity because he will have to undergo a medical exam. He flies into an unhinged rage when his agent Ben (Burgess Meredith) tries to make him see sense. Fleeing to the countryside, Corky rents a secluded and rustic lakeside cabin from his high school sweetheart Peg, and at this point the narrative begins to chart the rekindling of their relationship. Adding to the uneasy tension however is the fact that Peg is now married.

Magic is positively peppered with bizarre and creepy moments. The quiet scenes, in which Corky converses with Fats when they are alone, are immensely creepy. While Corky appears to be a kooky eccentric, there is nonetheless a genuinely dark and worrying slant to his character due to the privileged vantage point we see him from. Something very sinister is obviously afoot. When Corky arrives at the cabin Fats begins to call out from the suitcase he’s been stuffed into. Everything remains ambiguous until the films final moments - is Corky insane? Or is Fats really alive and bumping off the cast?

An already tense atmosphere is gradually brought to boiling point when Ben tracks Corky to the cabin and, after he walks in on Corky and Fats having a full scale argument (Awkward much!), confronts him in an unbearably intense scene. After attacking and seemingly killing Ben, Corky must now dispose of the body in a protracted and taut sequence of events. A wonderfully macabre shot of Fats 'watching' from the window of the cabin, framed in darkness, is sufficiently chilling. When Peg realises that Corky is faking a phone call and that her husband has disappeared the tension becomes almost too much. The final shot of the film as Peg races to the cabin clutching the wooden heart Corky left for her is spine-chilling, nasty and will perhaps even induce a nervous chortle before the ramifications sink in. The last glimpse of Peg’s contorted face is totally shocking.

Magic boasts top notch performances from all involved. Hopkins seems gentle, charming and quite timid: even before Hannibal Lector came along, he was already convincing as a softly spoken, gentle mannered PSYCHO. As with other similar films such Dead of Night, Pin and Devil Doll, the uncanny appearance of the actual ventriloquist’s dummy is where much of the tension comes from – as we constantly wait for it to move - so lifelike and yet, not lifelike.

Interestingly the film touches on a number of aspects of ventriloquism no longer really associated with the art. Nowadays it is associated with entertainment and the subject of creepy old movies (ho-hum!) – however in pre-Christian times ventriloquism actually originated from the practice of necromancy. All along the audience are led to believe that what they are watching is a character study charting the mental disintegration of a man who is coming to terms with newfound fame and success and he is eventually driven mad by it. However when one views Magic from the perspective that Corky has perhaps been dabbling in black arts and occultism, it throws yet another fascinating layer into the mix and ensures the film retains an appeal that endures after multiple viewings. It is testament to those involved in the making of Magic that this revelation never feels like a cop out.

Check out Ventriloquism: A Disassociated Perspective by Angela Mabe – a paper that charts the origins of the act of ventriloquism from its roots in necromancy.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Pin

1988
Dir. Sandor Stern

As children, Leon and Ursula Linden (David Hewlett and Cynthia Preston) are given lessons by their father’s medical dummy ‘Pin’ – as in Pinocchio - voiced by their emotionally vacant ventriloquist father (Terry O’Quinn). When their parents are killed in car crash it seems as though the teenagers are now free of their oppressive upbringing. Things take a turn for the dark and twisted however when Leon’s obsession with Pin becomes increasingly disturbing; eventually the young man starts dressing the dummy in his dead father's clothes and insisting that visitors to the house meet him. Eventually, Pin begins telling Leon what to do. And who to kill…

A heart-warming and tender-footed tale of one man's love for his, erm, anatomy dummy... That ends in - A Plastic Nightmare!

Opening with a placid and vaguely spooky piano-led score and exhibiting a stately creepiness akin to a bland Made-for-TV thriller, Pin gradually unfolds as an intriguing and fascinating psychological study of a young man’s plummet into madness, brought about in part by his stifling childhood, frigid parents and his inability to relate to anyone. Equal parts tragic, unnerving and absurd, Pin will most likely not resemble anything you’ve ever seen before.

As the emotionally detached and obsessive-compulsive parents Terry O’Quinn and Bronwen Mantel provide convincing performances – never veering into melodramatic histrionics. They ensure their perpetually simmering emotions are always kept just beneath boiling point – so that we know they are there, ready to explode at any minute. The early scenes that introduce us to the Linden family exude a sterile, odd atmosphere that proves quite taut. To begin with, Pin resembles a rather dark Hallmark family drama, complete with teen pregnancy, domestic violence and child abuse. The focus of the script though, remains squarely on the psychological turmoil the youngsters undergo at the hands of their parents. The mother has covered all the furniture with plastic sheets (a plastic nightmare indeed!) and she and her husband handle the children as though they were brittle dolls – no affection or warmth is shared, the relationships are all cold, clinical and sterile.

The scene where a young Leon spies on his father’s nurse as she secretly pleasures herself with Pin is decidedly uneasy and boasts a really high ‘what-the-fuck!!??’-factor. It charts the beginning of Leon’s obsession with and eventual ventriloquism of Pin. As the quiet and confused Leon, Hewlett exudes just the right amount of restrained aggression and quiet menace. He lingers between gently protective older brother and unsteady psychopath. As the long-suffering and relatively normal sister, Cynthia Preston is likable and grounded.

Stern effortlessly exploits the Freudian notion of 'the uncanny' - where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, making it feel uncomfortably strange - for all its worth. Like all good ‘dummies’, Pin looks immensely creepy. The tension garnered from shots of him just sitting in a chair is highly effective. The scene in which the parents are killed in a car crash is also rife with a slow building tension, enhanced by the shots of the dummy 'sitting up' in the back seat. After the death of the parents, an aunt with ‘bad health’ comes to stay. She dies of a heart attack when startled by Pin and the scene in which this happens is tense, chilling and though mildly ridiculous, still creepy and alarming. In a moment reminiscent of a scene from Argento’s Tenebrae, Pin rises up from behind the bed where the dead aunt lies, only for Leon to then rise up from behind him; the image almost resembles someone shedding a skin.

While co-habiting siblings whose relationship is slowly deteriorating recalls Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Pin never traverses that far into parody or camp, though it is not without its moments of black comedy and outright ridiculousness. One moment that destroys the uneasy tension is a brief and incredibly cheesy montage of Leon and Pin ‘hanging out’ as their friendship blossoms. When Leon and Marsha (Helene Udy) get back to his house after an awkward date, the lights go off and Pin menaces her in the dark in a moment that proves just as ridiculous though curiously creepy as the aunt’s demise. Locked in the house, Marsha becomes increasingly panicked and is chased around in the dark from room to room by a wheelchair-bound Pin. Why she doesn’t just go upstairs is anyone’s guess. In a cheeky reference to Canadian genre cinema, the film they watched in the cinema was Scanners.

One of the standout scenes that illustrates the psychosis nestling in the dark and twisted heart of this dysfunctional family unit comes courtesy of an after dinner poetry reading. Gathered around the fire, Ursula and her beau Stan (John Pyper-Ferguson) listen with increasing concern and horror as Leon recites one of his recent poems – a revelatory meditation on rape and incest. This is one unconventional household!

The ending, as set up in the opening scene, is a tad ludicrous, but if you’ve invested yourself in the story it is bound to strike a cord. Pin is a disturbing, blood-dark funny and unconventional drama with lashings of psychological horror and populated by amiable characters who aren’t stock types.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Candyman

1992
Dir. Bernard Rose

Whilst researching her thesis on urban legends, student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) becomes intrigued by the legend of the ‘Candyman’ (Tony Todd) – the son of a slave who was brutally tortured and killed because he fell in love with the daughter of a white plantation owner. He is said to appear when his name is spoken five times into a mirror and he has a hook for a hand. Whilst carrying out her investigation, the sceptical Helen repeats his name and is subsequently plunged into a nightmare world where reality and fevered dreams become meshed together as she is stalked by the spectre of the Candyman and held responsible for a series of grisly murders. Could the legend be true or is Helen simply losing her mind? Can she clear her name before it’s too late and she becomes the latest victim of the formidable legend that is the Candyman?

Beginning with our protagonists discussing the power of legends and the subtext of folklore, Candyman opens with a familiar scenario. Babysitter waits until kids are asleep. She and her boyfriend make out. They play a variation of Bloody Mary in which they say the name Candyman into a mirror five times. They get fucked up. While we don’t see what happens to them, the dialogue spoken by the teller of this ‘urban legend’ paints a pretty vivid picture of death and insanity. And so begins a slow burning and gripping story, made all the more compelling because of believable characters, credible performances and a well written script, which focuses as much on real, natural threat and danger as much as it does on supernatural.

Adapting Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, writer/director Bernard Rose relocates the story from England to Chicago – specifically its rough ghetto Cabrini-Green. The location of the film is effectively utilised and exudes a menace all its own. As Helen and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) wander through the empty apartments in the upper floors of the housing projects, we are made all too aware of the very real threats that potentially lurk in the dank corners of this concrete hell – Cabrini-Green’s reputation precedes it and many of the derelict buildings are lairs occupied by gangs. We are able to perceive a very real and tangible threat to the women, which contrasts nicely to the fact that at the same time they are in search of what they believe is an imaginary threat.

Early on in the film we hear the distressing tale of a woman who calls the police claiming the Candyman is coming for her through her bathroom wall. Her story is not believed by the operator and not long after, she is found dead, her body savagely mutilated. It turns out that someone did come through a gap in the wall behind her medicine cabinet connecting her apartment to the empty one next door, but it wasn't the Candyman. This story creates a vivid and disturbing scenario which then becomes even more disturbing because its source turns out to be a true story that became entangled with the myth of the Candyman. It also adds an extra layer of ambiguity to the story. Director Rose opts for an almost dream logic as the story unfolds and Helen’s fate mirrors that of the woman in the story – as her situation goes from bad to worse no one believes her – she protests her innocence and sanity to deaf ears. Could her stories of the Candyman have a basis in reality - if only to highlight her fractured mind? Virginia Madsen delivers an impeccable performance. Her Helen is strong, determined, resourceful and intelligent. Yet despite all of these characteristics, she is still believably flawed and fully fleshed. She is sceptical, dismissive and snobby, and she is dominated by her philandering partner, the sleazy Trevor (Xander Berkeley). Unlike most female horror characters however, Rose does not run from the danger, she runs towards it – even embraces it in an attempt to save herself. Alas, by the end of the film, the lingering ambiguity leaves an element of doubt as to the Candyman’s actual existence. Was he real? Or just a figure of Rose’s warped psyche? Thankfully the afterthought of Helen returning from the grave as some kind of spectral avenger doesn't mar everything that came before it.

The imposing figure of the Candyman himself is one of the most unique and striking in horror cinema. Tony Todd’s baritone voice strikes nothing but dread and morbid intrigue into the hearts of the audience. He is desirable yet repellent, enigmatic and charming yet utterly dangerous – an interesting combination that is lent credence by Todd’s subtle performance and hollow-voiced sincerity. At times the character comes across as something akin to saint or a martyr. Some of his dialogue is utterly evocative too – ‘I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood. Come with me. Be my victim.’

His backstory sets him up as a tragic and vengeful anti-hero – something that sets him apart from most horror villains. He was a slave who fell in love with the ‘wrong’ woman – the daughter of a white plantation owner. Something about Helen draws him to her and Rose frequently films Madsen’s eyes in ethereally lit close up shots to mirror a depiction of the Candyman’s lost love as represented in a striking mural that is revealed at the end of the film.

Interestingly, the Candyman is one of those figures from urban legends with a hook for a hand. This, as Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer so elegantly points out is a ‘phallic’ symbol (‘like, oh my god - total castration, you guys!’) embroiled in an old wives’ tale to deter young women from engaging in premarital sexual relations. The fact that the Candyman is also black isn’t lost on Rose either, and he deftly weaves wry social commentary into an already potent mix ensuring Candyman remains one of the most thoughtful and provocative horror flicks since its release way back in 1992. It unfolds as a meditation on race, racism, class, economic poverty and the power of storytelling. The hold the gangs have over Cabrini-Green is equalled only by the hold that the area’s legends and local stories have over it. At its heart, Candyman also features one of the ‘last great taboos’ of Hollywood cinema – an interracial relationship. The perceived stigma of interracial relationships in cinema is traceable to the Hays Code of the 30s. It out-rightly forbade any on-screen portrayal of ‘miscegenation’ (interracial sexual relationships). In fact, in some States in the US ‘miscegenation’ was actually illegal until the late Sixties. Obviously since then it has become quite common to see actors of all colour play characters involved in relationships of all kinds portrayed in film. However, for a low budget horror film in the early Nineties to attempt the same was actually quite daring. Big ideas aren’t supposed to be bandied about in horror cinema after all…

The film is full of arresting images including the shot of Helen climbing through a hole in the wall of a derelict apartment as the camera floats serenely back to reveal a huge mural of the Candyman; the hole in the wall, his screaming mouth.
A strange atmosphere presides over proceedings and entwines the gritty and destitute urban ghetto setting with a gorgeously dark and opulently gothic foreboding. This is elegantly enhanced by Philip Glass’s swirlingly hypnotic and hauntingly melancholy score that becomes slightly more frenzied during scenes of suspense - it is never anything short of dramatic, and always teeters on the right side of overwrought melodrama. Glass has ‘constructed’ one of his most underrated scores for Candyman, and one that captures and sustains the sumptuously morbid romance unfolding within the story.

Candyman remains as provocative, visceral, intellectual and darkly romantic a horror film as it did upon its initial release. It seems to improve with time. Its power can be accredited not only to Barker’s vivid source material, but to Bernard Rose’s thoughtful script and ability to conjure and sustain an air of menace and gloom throughout and his penchant for creating a slew of memorable imagery - something he also did to nightmarish effect in his prior film Paperhouse.

What’s more - I’ll bet you still wouldn’t stand in front of a mirror and say Candyman five times… I know I sure as hell wouldn’t!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Wolfman

2010
Dir. Joe Johnston

Upon returning to his ancestral home to help search for his missing brother, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is viciously attacked by the same mysterious beast that is revealed to have torn his brother to shreds. Quickly recovering from the ordeal, Talbot soon realises that the beast was a werewolf and he is now marked by the same curse – doomed to transform into a slathering beast under the light of the full moon. Can his father (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s aesthetically pleasing widow (Emily Blunt) help him find a cure before he tears them limb from limb?

It’s an amazing feat that The Wolfman made it to cinemas at all given its troubled production history. The project was originally set to be helmed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo and various Nine Inch Nails music videos), however he was dissatisfied with the level of studio interference and was soon replaced by director for hire Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III). Countless reshoots, re-cuts and test audience screenings later and The Wolfman has finally been allowed to see the light of day. The film was written by Andrew Kevin Walker – the man who penned the darker than dark Se7en and 8MM – and even though it has the potential to, it never really reaches the dark depths explored in those films. It is obvious that Universal has tried to make The Wolfman appeal to the lowest common denominator. While not a bad film, it certainly could have been a much better film. Sticking fairly closely to the original material its true potential shines through momentarily in a number of brilliantly realised scenes. Unfortunately these scenes are sprinkled sparsely throughout an otherwise fairly average - even a pretty mediocre film.

At the heart of the story is a vague exploration of the darker side of human nature. Hopkins’ Talbot Senior pontificates on this concept quite a lot throughout proceedings and eventually drives home the point, just in case we didn’t get it. To be a werewolf is to be stripped of civility and reconnected with dormant primal instincts. Talbot embodies the conflict between human intellect and base instinct.

The film manages to evoke a deliciously dark gothic atmosphere – particularly during the scenes set in the asylum and the Talbot mansion. Danny Elfman’s score, which frequently rekindles memories of Wojciech Kilar's score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is also an effective aspect. Curt Siodmak’s poem – especially written for the original – even makes an appearance here and stirs up a potent sense of established folklore:
Even a man who is pure in heart And says his prayers by night May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms And the autumn moon is bright.’

The cast is top notch and while Hopkins and Blunt aren’t really given much to do, they still manage to flesh out their slight characters. The romantic angle between Del Toro and Blunt is too rushed and basically it appears out of nowhere and only seems included out of some sort of unspoken obligation to the conventions of this 'type' of film - ie the clichéd romance sub-plot. Here it is woefully under-explored and feels tacked on. Some nonsense to justify it is gurgled by a gypsy woman about the werewolf’s only hope for survival lying with a woman who loves him. As the token love interest Blunt is strong willed and determined without seeming anachronistic and the scene where she pleads for the monster to recognise her as he bears down on her is strangely intense – all the more so because of Blunt’s performance. Del Toro is his usual charismatic self and he endows Talbot with the same heavyset sadness and quiet doom that Lon Chaney Jnr evoked in the character in the original film – a gentle soul trapped in a body raging out of control. Elsewhere they are ably supported by a very suave Hugo Weaving as Scotland Yard Inspector Francis Aberline who isn’t so much a character than a plot device to set up a potential sequel.

The look of the monster itself is genuinely striking. Building on the look of the original wolfman and actually improving and enhancing it with contemporary makeup effects - he still retains the form of a man, but he is not quite a man. The sight of Del Toro skulking through the fog shrouded woods is the stuff of iconic and nightmarish fairytale imagery. A slight detraction from this is the sight of the werewolf legging it on all fours – like so much in the film, it is too obviously computer generated. Not a lot is made of the transformation sequences – they were actually quite underwhelming. The sound effects of bones cracking and snapping into new and bizarre positions was more effective than the visual aspect – Del Toro’s limbs become elongated and he sprouts hair and fangs while his computer generated face contorts in pain. The end. Whilst not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, these sequences still rely too heavily on CGI that will no doubt look dated in a few years.

Johnston’s direction is competent if a little rudimentary. Like Raimi with Drag Me To Hell, Johnson relies too heavily on orchestrated jump moments. Whilst not particularly scary The Wolfman is still specifically designed to keep audiences on their toes and they are jolted into submission at regular intervals. This becomes very tired very quickly. Only occasionally does Johnston flex his ability to create tension and suspense. This is realised very well in the scene when Talbot returns to his home after realising his father’s dark secret and searches the house for him. The culmination is a ridiculous, though admittedly crowd pleasing battle between father and son in front of a roaring fire – made all the more ridiculous by the gesticulations of Hopkins who even tears off his shirt in the most macho-dramatic manner. Its all a bit Ken Russelly circa Women in Love. But with werewolves.

A number of pulse-pounding moments come courtesy of the scene in which the wolfman stalks and violently slays most of the inhabitants of a gypsy campsite and the scene in which Talbot gets all hairy and toothy while trussed up in a lecture theatre full of psychiatrists as they jostle to escape. Homage is also paid to The Werewolf of London in a prolonged rooftop chase scene through the city. The film is incredibly violent – limbs are torn off, heads are knocked off, stomachs are gashed open and entrails ripped out and flung about with wild abandon. Of course it’s all too outlandish to be really disturbing, but it is capably realised nonetheless.

Ferocious and often quite intense, The Wolfman is an entertaining romp, but it only ever shows glimpses of the classic it could have been and will probably not hold up after multiple viewings.

My good buddy Aaron over at The Death Rattle held a poll recently to see what Universal Horror icon was most popular... Click on the linkage to check it out. And while you're there, why not have a little nosy around, its quite the cool place to hang out.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Legacy of Robin Wood

Whilst pouring over the latest issue of Sight & Sound I came across an article commemorating the life and work of film critic Robin Wood, who sadly passed away in December, 2009. Wood had a profound influence over critical readings of films - particularly horror movies, (and in particular again - slasher films), with his groundbreaking work focusing on the concept of the ‘Return of the Repressed.’
Wood stated ‘The release of sexuality in the horror film is always presented as perverted, monstrous and excessive; both the perversion and the excess being the logical outcome of repression.’

These ideas were fleshed out in the three part essay ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’ (Part I: Repression, The Other, The Monster; Part II: Return of the Repressed; Part III; The Reactionary Wing). This essay was published in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, which was edited by Wood and his partner Richard Lippe. Wood was one of the first critics to note the overtly conservative nature lurking within the subtext of slasher movies. As a student of film studies, Wood’s enthusiastic writings really captured my imagination, bolstered my love for the critical analysis of horror cinema and fed my passion for film - particularly with the essay mentioned above. For me, An Introduction to the American Horror Film opened up a whole new way in which to view horror films.

After graduating from Cambridge in the early Sixties, Wood became a teacher and began writing articles on film. When he contributed an essay on Hitchcock's Psycho to the highly reputable Cahiers du cinema, Wood began to contribute to film journal Movie. In 1965, after a spell of teaching in England, France and Sweden, Wood published his first book, Hitchcock's Films. This was actually the first book to be published about the filmmaker in English. In the early Seventies he lectured in film in Canada. In 1973, he returned to England and lectured at Warwick University as part of a groundbreaking project set up with the British Film Institute to introduce the concept of film studies to the UK university curriculum. During this time Wood and his wife, teacher Aline Macdonald, with whom he had three children, separated and he came out as homosexual. Returning to Canada in 1977 he became professor of film studies at York University, Toronto where he taught until his retirement in the early 1990s. During his time here, Wood helped form a critical collective involving students and colleagues and published their work in CineACTION!.

Wood would often draw on the critical theories of Freud and Marx and he was particularly interested in exploring the psychology behind the motivation of various film characters – especially those in Hitchcock’s films. As an openly gay man, Wood’s writings were also frequently quite political, and much of this stemmed from his essay The Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic. His other works focused on filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Claude Chabrol, Michael Antonioni and Arthur Penn. Various other titles include Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond and Rio Bravo (BFI Publishing).

Wood died of leukaemia at the age of 78 and leaves behind his partner Richard Lippe, ex-wife Aline MacDonald and their three children Carin, Fiona and Simon, and five grandchildren.

He had a profound influence on the study of cinema.

'Why should we take Hitchcock seriously? It is a pity the question has to be raised. If the cinema were truly regarded as an autonomous art, not as a mere adjunct of the novel or the drama – if we were able yet to see films instead of mentally reducing them to literature – it would be unnecessary.' Robin Wood. 23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Interview with Wyatt Weed: Part 3

BTC: Caitlin McIntosh commands much of the film with a performance of great conviction – and basically no dialogue. What made you decide to cast her in the role of Laura? How did you go about assembling the rest of the cast and crew?

WW: When casting began, we talked to all of the local talent agencies, and there are two or three here in St. Louis. We also staged independent calls throughout the city and at the local universities, just to see as many people as we could. We ended up getting an even number of people from all of these methods. Basically, we were our own casting directors. We also discussed attaching a "name" to the production, but basically couldn't get to one, so we let that go. We've since learned how to get in touch with these people.

Caitlin - what a find she was. She came from the main agency here, Talent Plus, and she actually came in to read for the part of a 17 year old girl, but when she walked in, she CLEARLY wasn't 17!! She was very healthy and buxom and in her 20's. What had happened was that she had a very old headshot that hadn't been updated, so she came in dressed like a kid, her hair all poofy. We immediately gave her the pages for the Laura audition and had her read for that part instead.

Full disclosure - her audition didn't blow my doors off, but we really liked her, as a person. She had been a former beauty queen, literally, and she had done a lot of dance and stage performing, some of it in big Sesame Street costumes. She was also into fitness competition, so she was, in a visual sense, one of the most striking people I'd ever seen.

After auditioning all of the actresses, I reviewed the tapes over and over and just kept coming back to Caitlin. I met with her again at a coffee shop to talk, and this time she knew what she was going for - she showed up with her hair down, and when she took off her jacket she had a black tank top on and her muscles were very visible. She was serious and prepared and ready to go, really ready to ditch her beauty queen status and rough it.

Some actresses we had talked to balked at the idea of being, gasp, unattractive for part of the film, covered in mud and bruises. Caitlin couldn't care less. She was actually looking forward to the idea of not having to be pretty and poised every second of the day. We arranged a second, lengthy audition that included doing several full scenes, and that clinched it right there. She never let me down once, and she's still just a great girl who, despite her looks, is really down to earth and kind of a nut, just a little bit off to the left.

Most of the rest of the cast was either people I knew and trusted that I had worked with before, or people we found through our casting process. One thing we tried to do was not cast all of the beautiful, shiny people. We tried to cast actors who looked real and were age appropriate. I didn't want this to look like an episode of "Dawson's Creek".

It should be noted that our male lead, Jason Contini, was found through the internet! We found his Myspace page and after looking at his pictures and reading his likes and preferences, I had a feeling he was the one to play Julian, and he was. Carlos Leon, who had the perfect "handsome leading man" headshot, turned out to be Venezuelan, which I hadn't planned for, but once we read him, I thought, what the heck, let the vampire who bites Laura be a Venezuelan vampire! David Martyn Conley is such a good actor I feel compelled to put him in anything I can, and he always does a great job. He's a filmmaker himself, and as I mentioned earlier, did the fight choreography in the alley.

Also, there was only one actor who ever read for the part of the Pastor in 1897, and that was Dale Moore. He nailed it, gave everyone the creeps, and when I asked our producer Gayle what she thought of him, she just shivered. I said, "Perfect! Cast him!!"


BTC: Are there any ideas and themes you find yourself returning to explore throughout your work as a writer and a filmmaker?

WW
: I am always fascinated with the normal day that goes askew, with the seemingly average situation that turns out to be anything but. I like supernatural and sci-fi elements for that reason, because they allow you to show that there is a creepy, darker underbelly to an otherwise sunny and beautiful day.

More than that, though, I'm drawn to the larger than life, mythic characters with back stories that have implied detail beyond what they are on the surface. I don't mean Ulysses, but characters like Rick in Casablanca, Cary Grant's characters from any of his films, James Stewart's from any of his, and so on. These characters were reflecting the average person's daily concerns or struggles, but doing it on a bigger, more dramatic canvas. They were mythic and flawed. That's a character you can get behind. I like my cinema just a bit larger than real life.

I realize that I also am drawn to strong female characters. I've been attracted to strong women my whole life, which hasn't always worked out personally, but in terms of films, strong women are very entertaining. I'm comfortable with strong women, and I'm not threatened by them. I think Laura would be a great girlfriend, if it weren't for that whole bloodsucking thing...


BTC: Are you a fan of horror films? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema?

WW: I love horror films, but I tend toward the classics more - "The Haunting", "Psycho", and "Jaws", films that work on your imagination as much as what you actually saw. In more modern films, the effects are getting in the way, and they are just too hip for their own good, trying to scare you or shock you with more and more graphic images. No one THINKS about these things anymore, or conversely, operates from their gut instinct. It's all become too calculated, and that doesn't work when it comes to horror. You can plan it out, but it still has to come from a place in your gut that says, "Oooo, that's scary...".

There have been a few bright spots in recent cinema. The first "Saw" film was quite creepy and well done, but the sequels just kept re-hashing the wrong things. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" is genius, but none of the sequels captured the tone of that first one. "Poltergeist" was pretty in-your-face, but it was just so damn well done. I loved, loved, LOVED "The Ring", and think it really understood what creepy and tension were all about. "Seven" and "Silence of the Lambs" are fantastic, fantastic films, but I'm not sure if they are horror, strictly speaking.

On the vampire front, I love all things Hammer Horror, especially the films that starred Chris Lee and Peter Cushing. Those films were formative for me, and that inspiration is evident in Shadowland. Despite that, I think the finest vampire film ever made is "Interview", in 1994. that film had it all - acting, production value, style, script. It was the total package. "Fright Night" is a great reinvention of the genre, with a dark sense of humor and quirkiness that elevated it. "Blade" was another great modern reinvention, one with a larger than life, mythic character at the center.

Other modern vampire films have failed because they are too harsh, films like "30 Days of Night". Great idea, but too much in-your-face gore and not enough creepy. I liked "Underworld", and it made me a fan of Kate Beckinsale, but I'm still not sure what some of the story was about. It also bordered on being too artsy, and that can be distracting, artsy camera work for camera works' sake. Number 2 and 3 in that series WERE too artsy.


BTC: Who or what has inspired you most as a filmmaker?

WW: I was born in 1964, and grew up in great old movie palaces during a really amazing golden age of cinema, before the multiplexes. I saw "2001" and "Planet of the Apes" in a theatre when they were released. I saw "The Green Slime" and "The Cowboys" at The Route 66 Drive In. I saw all of the great studio maverick films of the 70's - "The French Connection", "The Godfather", "The Exorcist", "Taxi Driver", and "The Deer Hunter". All of those films were gritty, exciting, inexpensive by today's standards, and yet they were all ABOUT something. They literally could satisfy on all levels.

This brought about an early love of film history - how did they make King Kong? How was that shark able to swim around and ram a real boat in Jaws? I went to book stores, libraries, anywhere I could to get the answers. This was also a good time for American television - the late nights were filled with old classic films, and the ABC Sunday Night Movie, a huge phenomena here, was showing the greats that I had missed - The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Great Escape, and every other Cinemascope studio classic.

But really, the critical moment, the punch that just knocked me out came in 1977, the year that "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters" hit within about 6 months of each other. By spring of 1978 I had borrowed an old Super 8 camera, started shooting movies, and really haven't looked back since. To say that Spielberg and Lucas were my inspirations is partially true, but more than anything I would say it was an overall feeling that films had and generated at that time. They had a sense of wonder, and my day was better every time I came out of a theatre.

"Star Wars" and "Close Encounters" ignited something that set me on a path to researching and discovering films of all types, and so my film language was really formed by studying films that were made, primarily, from the 50's through the 80's.

This all relates to what I was saying earlier about "mythic" elements, especially when it comes to "Star Wars" and the broad strokes that film used, even as it lavished detail into every little corner of the frame. Also, if you look at "Close Encounters", it is the epitome of what I was saying about the creepy things that lurk beneath an average day: you can be a lineman working in rural Indiana or a single mother raising you child in the country, but without warning you could come face to face with aliens who disrupt everything you ever knew and trusted.


BTC: You received an award from the Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival in Belfast last year for Best Director. How did it feel to have your work recognized like this?

WW: This whole Shadowland experience has been as good as I possibly could have hoped for. To be honoured, for the second time, with a directing award, plus the fact that it came from an overseas festival, was the greatest vindication. Not only did my peers like it, the WORLD liked it! I felt like Sally Fields. They like me, they really like me.


BTC: What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?

WW: Honestly, so much of it depends on how Shadowland does right out the gate on DVD and Pay-Per-View. It has done well at festivals and at a few theatres, but if it doesn't make bank when it's released, we won't have a lot of choices going into our next project. We'll practically have to start over from scratch.

On the other hand, I believe Shadowland will do pretty well. I don't expect it to re-invent the wheel or cure cancer, but I think genre fans will get it and like it. Based on that, I would love to do another couple of low-budget films in a very retro style. We recently did a promo for The St. Louis International Film Festival, and we did it in the style of a 1950's science fiction film, and it was a blast. To mimic that style seriously and not do it as a parody was really satisfying, very freeing creatively. This has lead me to the idea of doing a Sinbad-type film in the style of the Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen films, very much like "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad". I would also like to do an intimate horror-thriller in the style of a 1970's film, kind of like "Carrie" or "Jaws".

I have piles of scripts and even more ideas, of all types and genres, but I think I need to get these two projects out of my system. If that changes, I'll let you know. It could just as easily end up being a John Hughes-type comedy set in the 80's. Seriously!


Part I of interview

Part II of interview

Shadowland is released on the Yellow Fever DVD Label in May...

Read the review of Shadowland here...

Interview with Wyatt Weed: Part 2


BTC: Why do you think the vampire is such an enduring figure throughout cinema?

WW: People have a really romantic notion of being a vampire. Men think it would be an awesome power to have, and women find them sexy and seductive, a lover who would take command of their senses. In actuality, it's a pretty morbid concept, to be undead and staying functional by drinking blood, but people seem to look right past that part of it!

The vampire is also one of those cinematic images that has done well with updates and re-makes. The basic story and character are solid, so every time there is an advance in sound or colour or technology, an update works very well. Vampires have gone from being talky melodramas to Technicolor blood fests and then more recently, action vehicles and teen romances, and we've even seen minority vampires.

Vampires aren't "Citizen Kane" or "Casablanca" - they can be re-worked again and again without offense to classic cinema, constantly updating with the times and changing. "Interview with the Vampire" is a brilliant practical example of this theory, a story of how a vampire changed and adapted over time, with the inclusion of many different architectural and fashion styles, languages, and influences. Vampires are creatures that have relevance over and over again, reflecting whatever social parallels you can project on them.

Just like the mythological creatures they are based on, the fictional vampires we create are very adaptable.


BTC: Obviously the locations were of the utmost importance to the story – how did you go about finding the locations in the film? Why was it important to you to set and film the story in your home town of St Louis?

WW: I lived and worked in LA for 18 years, and even though the town is designed around production and used to it, it is expensive and doesn't always favour the independent filmmaker. When I moved back to St. Louis in 2006, it was for the express purpose of making features, because there is a great untapped pool of talent and unseen locations here. It is also cheaper and easier to get around.

Once we realized we were going to be doing a vampire film, it became clear that we needed older and moodier, and St. Louis has history - a lot of the older sections of town are still functional and maintained. Beginning with some of my social visits before moving back, I just began keeping a list of interesting places I would see around town: a home here, an old office building or street corner there, a diner, etc.

Once I had a coherent script, we went in search of the places I had written about. I didn't write for the city, I wrote what I wanted first, then went out and tried to find it. Of course there were a few compromises, but for the most part, we were able to find what we needed. Some big cathedrals we wanted wouldn't give us permission, but other smaller ones would, things like that.

The biggest compromise we made was in the church where the final showdown takes place. That was written as a crumbling structure, with the ceiling collapsing and debris everywhere. Well, there are several churches like that in St. Louis, but we couldn't get the permission to shoot there because of the dangers involved. The owners just wouldn't sign off. The compromise was to get a church and dress it to look like it was under construction.

The church in the opening, the one that is being renovated, was a very happy accident. About three or four days before we needed this location, the scaffold went up in front of this particular church and they began tuckpointing. We had thought that we would do our own set, bring in some work tables and tools, but the scaffolds they were using were huge, and these guys had a lot of gear, so when they said yes, we gained a lot of production value. All of the stuff around the church is theirs, and the guys up on the scaffold are the real workers.

Basically, our technique with all of these places was to just go up and ask. The worst they could do was say no, but more often they said yes. We were always prepared though, with insurance, permits, and local municipal notification. That's very important, ESPECIALLY if you're low-budget.


BTC: Did you receive much support from the residents?

WW: Well...yes and no. Mostly yes, and mostly an enthusiastic yes. For the most part, people were just so thrilled and excited to see a film get made, to be a part of it, that they opened their doors. They would sit and watch, fascinated, glued to our every move, willing to help at every step. They realized that if the film was a success, it would only help their businesses, and that other films would come and shoot there.

On the flip side of this, St. Louis isn't really a big production town yet, so some residents aren't used to the idea that their daily routine might be interrupted. For example, if we had a street blocked off, that REALLY messed some people up. They couldn't deal with having to take a different route to get to where they needed to go, even if it was just a block out of the way. They would get out of their cars and argue with the production people, unable to comprehend why they couldn't go that way today when they just went that way yesterday! In one case a person swerved wildly around the barricade, came very close to some crew members, and ran over the lowered lift gate of a production truck!

Other people would loose their minds if you asked them to do a little something for the movie, like move a car out of a shot, and I mean get screaming angry! It was as if you were asking them to donate a kidney! It was really crazy how mad some people got when you messed with their world just a little bit, if you moved a trash can two feet or set a light stand on the edge of their property.

What it made me realize was how protective people are of their little piece of the world, and with all due respect to these people, it's something I can't identify with. I don't own a house, I haven't fought to protect it, so I don't know what it's like when someone threatens my hard earned space like that.

On the other hand, if these same people start coming out of the woodwork once Shadowland gets out there and we've become successful, claiming how we shot the movie on their property and how cool it was, I'm going to personally tell them to piss off!


BTC: There are many fight scenes and transformation scenes throughout the story. How difficult was it to realize such impressive effects given the film’s low budget?

WW: Once again, thank god for my background - I have learned to have a plan, storyboards, and all of the bases covered with options, because when it comes to filmmaking, if it can go wrong, it will.

First, we found a talented make up artist we could afford, Rachel Rieckenberg, a young woman just out of school who really needed the work and the experience. With a little guidance, she was able to do amazing things. I planned the shots very carefully in advance, so we knew how to transform in layers, shot by shot, step by step. We wanted subtle, but we wanted quality. Because we knew what we needed, we were able to make it in advance and then move forward with it fairly quickly once we got on set. We knew what the shots would be, we lit it to look good for the make up, and we didn't push any of the effects to do more than they were designed to do.

For the fights and all of the action, once again, I storyboarded everything and rehearsed it with all of the actors. If we couldn't do it on the actual location, we did it in a space that was similar. We made sure we were safe, and had crash pads available.

With the fight scene in the alley, David Martyn Conley choreographed that and worked with the actors for several days. I test shot that sequence with a smaller camera, just to make sure it worked. Another trick with all of this stuff is to make sure you allot enough time to shoot it properly.

For the car stunts, a lot of that was the producer, Gayle Gallagher, because it was her car! We talked about what I wanted the car to do, and the main thing was the reverse spin out. We started rehearsing that one about 6 weeks out, until finally Gayle could reverse spin that thing and land it right on a mark.

Preparation and planning, man, that is the key to everything. If you've rehearsed it and done it, you know what it will take, and you can do it on set the day of with confidence.


BTC: How did you go about recreating early 19th century St Louis?

WW: Thankfully, there is a small town just outside of St. Louis called St. Charles, and the Main street there is a historically preserved area that is virtually unchanged from the late 1800's. All we had to do was remove or cover up a few modern touches - a speed limit sign, a modern fire hydrant, a drinking fountain, and some lighting fixtures. Boom, instant 1897!

Also, there are several carriage companies in St. Louis, old horse drawn carriages with original rigging. They offer scenic rides around town, so we hired a company to bring out a horse and carriage for those scenes. That really added production value.

One other huge help was our friend Nick Strupp at the Tintypery, a studio that specializes in old style photographs. They had a supply of old costumes and wardrobe, so we were able to dress all of our background players from their stock.

For the interior of Laura's house, we used an established bed and breakfast called Victorian Memories, and once again, it was dressed and set up already, with very little extra dressing to do.

Our biggest problem was that once or twice we had to digitally take a modern "Visa" logo out of the windows of some of the businesses.

One note - we don't say that it was St. Louis in the film. We avoided that altogether, and purposely didn't show one of our greatest landmarks, the Gateway Arch. That was so that anyone in any major Midwestern US city could identify with the film. Once you say where it is specifically, you lock it in to a geography and a culture, and I wanted to leave it more open than that. That was why our police badges and cars said "Metro" on them instead of something more specific.


Part I of interview

Part III of interview

Shadowland is released on the Yellow Fever DVD Label in May...

Read the review of Shadowland here...

Interview with Shadowland writer/director Wyatt Weed: Part 1

Shadowland is director Wyatt Weed’s low-budget and provocative feature debut. The story follows the plight of Laura, a young woman who emerges from a makeshift burial ground during a raging storm, with no idea of who she is or how she got there. Is she reincarnated? Resurrected and risen from the grave? As she makes her way across the city – seemingly drawn to a particular part of it – Laura begins to slowly piece together her story; all the while hiding from someone who seems intent on killing her at all costs. Shadowland provides a strikingly original twist on the vampire film, combining gothic grandeur and tragic romance with post-Buffy feistiness and action. The film played at Belfast’s first annual Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival last August and went on to win the award for Best Director. I was very privileged recently to catch up with the writer and director of Shadowland, Mr Wyatt Weed and to have a chat with him about filmmaking, the eternal allure of the vampire, shooting on a shoestring and the desire to create something genuinely original on one’s own terms and against all the odds…


Behind the Couch: How did the idea/story for Shadowland come about? What inspired it?

Wyatt Weed: I was walking through LA one night - yes, WALKING in LA - and I passed by a construction site. There was this enormous dark hole in the ground. At that time in LA there had been a civic arts project where angel statues had been given to various artists and businesses to decorate as they saw fit, and then the angels were displayed around town. Well, there happened to be about 3 or 4 of those statues on nearby buildings and steps, and they all seemed to be watching over this deep pit. My mind goes racing off, and I thought, "What are those angels keeping watch for? What on Earth is down in that pit?!?"

This inspired the image of a woman, dark and mysterious, crawling from the pit. Know one knows who she is, no one sees her come out. Is she evil? Is she a monster? That was pretty much how it started.


BTC: What was the writing process of the film for you?

WW: I write in various ways, sometimes just sitting down and knocking it out from page 1 to page 90, and other times I put the story together stroke by stroke, figure out where the three acts are, and work from that outline. I've had success and failure with both techniques.

In the case of Shadowland, the concept had been swimming around in my head for years, and when an earlier project that I wanted to direct became unavailable, I was suddenly left standing with a budget and a green light, but no script! I had other scripts and stories, but they were either too big or too esoteric to do as a low-budget first feature, so in a rush I turned to the idea about the woman coming out of the hole.

I roughed the outline together, and believe it or not, the vampire element was the last thing added. I really didn't want to do another schlocky low-budget vampire film, so I tried everything else first - is she an angel? Is she a demon? Is she some other creature with a new mythology? Some of that worked OK, but every time I injected "vampire" into the script equation, it answered all of the questions in a much more satisfying way.

The decision then became, OK, if we're going to do a low-budget vampire film, it has to be different, it has to be character driven, and it has to take itself seriously. Once we arrived at that, I began writing and got the first draft done in about 2 months, and then kept refining it up until we shot, so it was about 8 months of writing, off and on.


BTC: How did the film change, if at all, when you were transferring it from page to screen?

WW: There's the Hollywood joke that at the end of the script for Star Wars there was a line that said, "And then there was a great battle", and what followed was the result of the interpretation of that vague line. I don't believe that's true, but I get the idea, and I've seen that type of thing before. A vague concept or a specific concept can get transformed or lost when going from script to screen.

In an earlier project I worked on, Guardian of the Realm (which is called "Virago" in the UK) there was a line in the script that read, "Josh pulls up in front of the warehouse and is confronted by an army of demons." An ARMY!! This was a low-budget feature, and needless to say, the army became 6 guys in slip rubber demon masks.

With Shadowland, the scenes remained almost completely intact, but certain stylistic aspects were lost. For example, I had this idea that the main character, Laura, would never stand in direct sunlight. She isn't a vampire YET, but she's sensitive to light, so she stays in the shadows, hence part of the meaning of the title.

Unfortunately that's a difficult thing to do even on a big budget, so she just reacted to the light. She doesn't like it, but she can handle it for short periods of time. It made things like chase sequences a lot easier to shoot. Along those lines, there were times when I wrote "10 police cars", and got 2. I wanted 50 police officers, and I got 10, which I could double digitally, so that wasn't bad, but you get the idea - a lot of stuff just got scaled down. Overall, I was really lucky and got most of what I wrote, and translated most of the scenes straight into the film.

The biggest change to the script came in the editing room. Shadowland had been written and shot as a mystery - you didn't know Laura was a vampire until she found out at the end of the film. That version READ great as a script, but filmed and edited that version was long, slow, and didn't play as well as it read. Plus, most people who saw that early cut already knew she was a vampire before we got to the big reveal. That version also meant that we had to keep the vampire element a secret, and that was going to kill us in terms of promoting the film. It's one thing if you have Bruce Willis in your film and the final reveal becomes something the whole world is talking about, but for our little vampire film that wasn't going to happen, so we needed to promote the fact that it WAS a vampire film, and get that image of Caitlin with teeth out there front and centre.

In the end, several early sequences were cut, and we repeated a scene that shows Laura as a vampire getting a stake in her chest right in the beginning of the movie, so that the audience knows what is going on and we could dispense with a lot of exposition. That made the film move faster, and it turned the "what is she?" question into "When is she going to snap?" question.


BTC: This was your feature directorial debut. How was the experience for you? Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?

WW: I was lucky in that I had been very involved in so many low-budget features before this one. I had worked in one capacity or another on all of Steve Wang's features, including being a producer and second unit director on "Guyver: Dark Hero", and as a second unit director and miniature supervisor on "Drive", both of which were brutal shoots by comparison to my little film. I had also been co-writer, 1st AD, editor, and effects supervisor on Ted Smith's "Guardian" (Virago), and that film was pretty brutal as well. I got to take note of all the problems and mistakes on all of these other low-budget, extremely ambitious productions, so when it finally became time to do my own feature, I was probably the most well prepared first-time director I knew.

As for the film and the experience, I'm very happy. I learned a lot, and there are things I would do differently, but I'm happy with the film. I stand by it.

The thing that helped the most was that coming from big Hollywood films and these crazy-ambitious low budget ones, I knew how stuff was SUPPOSED to be done, so I could usually find a modified way to accomplish what I wanted, or could at least apply the theory of how it should be done. In other cases, it was a matter of knowing what could be done and just convincing the crew that we could do it, that it would work. After the first few days, they saw that our ambitious ideas were working, and that it was looking good, instead of falling flat. They got behind it, and got on board.

Other than the funds being tight, as they usually are, the biggest problem overall was that the shoot was just physically gruelling. It was 30 days, it was hot, and because of the budget, most people were doing more than one job. I couldn't just direct and come home and go to sleep, I was directing all day, helping produce, then coming home and rigging effects or figuring out how to solve a new problem for the following day. I'm in my 40's now, and I just don't bounce back like I used to!

Part of the difficulty was due to the fact that I had a standard and I wanted it met, so that meant being vigilant and insisting everything come up to a level, to meet a quality point. It means a lot of extra work, but in the end, the film will go on forever, and the pain was only temporary.


BTC: What are the subsequent rewards for shooting such a low budget film?

WW: Control, control, control. I would do a studio film at this point, of course, but having spent so much time in the indie world now, the control is amazing. It was me, producer Gayle Gallagher, executive producer Robert Clark, and that was it. If we agreed, the decision was made, and we moved on. The executive producer works with me because he trusts me and likes my work, so he pretty much knows what I'm going to do. He pretty much stands by in case I get lost in the tall grass and need a nudge. If it was a creative decision, most of the time it was left up to me.

The bad part there is that if something sucks, it's my fault. The good part is that this is now my demo - it's pretty much my baby and I can show this to the world and say, "Here's what I did with very little. Imagine what I can do with more!"

This level of control will also carry over into the distribution. We are maintaining a LOT of control, so we know what the product will look like, how it will get marketed, and how much it really costs and where the money is. Distribution is a major hassle, but you gotta do it, and this is the first time I've gone down this road and not felt completely lost.


BTC: Vampires are very in vogue at the moment. What do you feel Shadowland can offer audiences that other vampire flicks can’t?

WW: I first began writing Shadowland in late 2006, so vampires weren't really back on the map just then. The first two Stephanie Meyer books had been published at that time, but they hadn't become such a phenomenon yet. "True Blood" wasn't even a blip on the radar.

As we moved into production in summer 2007, we began to really hear the fuss about "Twilight", and the fuss became a roar. Our first reaction was, "Great, we can get in on all of the hype." But we didn't have a whole lot of money or a big company behind us, so now that it has taken so long for us to get the film out there, it seems more like we are following the trend than leading it. But I have the script registration paper and the receipts from the shoot - we were ahead of the curve at one point! Our finished film had even played several major festivals before the Twilight movie premiered in '08.

But in all seriousness, the continued hype just makes people all that much more interested. It's very timely to be 'vampire'. The thing that I think will appeal to people now is that Shadowland isn't your typical low-budget flick, as I stated earlier, and it skews toward a slightly older audience than "Twilight" does. The 13 year old girls AND their moms and dads will like it. The film is serious, not cheesy. It is quality.

Plus, and I think this is our single biggest factor; we have a great sympathetic female lead character who is interesting and unusual. There aren't a lot of characters like her out there. She has more in common with La Femme Nikita than with traditional Gothic heroines.


Part II of interview

Part III of interview

Shadowland is released on the Yellow Fever DVD Label in May...

Read the review of Shadowland here...