HATCHET is a rare achievement: an homage that exceeds the originals. Inspired by ’80s slasher icons like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees., writer-director Adam Green has fashioned an atmospheric, fun-filled horror thrill-ride that delivers the gore, along with clever characterization and doses of humor that make the film funny and scary, not just an exercise in spilling entrails.
Anchor Bay Entertainment releases the film in limited engagements nationwide on Friday, September 7; unfortunately, unlike the HALLOWEEN remake (which is in over 3,000 theatres), HATCHET will screen in only a couple dozen cities around the country. (You can find a partial list here, but check your local listings to be sure.) Even this small exposure is quite an achievement when you consider that the film was a labor of love, produced independently because it did not fit the current Hollywood formula. Below the fold, you will find our interview with Green, who describes the long and winding road he took to get his “old school horror” film onto the big screen
HATCHET is a strange anomaly in today’s horror genre. At a time when “cutting edge” horror consists mostly of helpless victims being captured and tortured, Green has crafted a loving tribute to ‘80s slasher films that seems to hold masked murderers Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees in the same high regard that a previous generation bestowed upon Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. Underlining the connection to “old school horror” is the presence of several familiar names and faces. Robert Englund (Freddy Kruger) and Tony Todd (Candyman) provide cameos, and stuntman Kane Hodder (the man behind Jason’s mask in several FRIDAY THE 13TH movies) plays the crazed backwoods killer Victor Crowley. Eschewing contemporary computer-generated effects, Crowley’s appearance (a three-hour makeup job) and the various gruesome deaths were achieved with old fashioned foam rubber appliances and on-set special effects, supervised by John Carl Buechler, who performed similar chores on numerous ‘80s horror flicks and also directed Hodder in FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD.
The story takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Lamenting a recent breakup with his girlfriend, Ben (Joel David Moore) convinces his friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) to take a “haunted” boat tour through the swamp. Along for the ride are an upright, older couple (Richard Riehle and Patrika Darbo); a video cameraman (Joel Murray) and two “actresses” (Mercedes McNab and Joleigh Fioreavanti) making some kind of “girls gone wild” movie; and the taciturn Marybeth (Tamara Feldman). When the pilot (Parry Shen) runs the boat aground, Marybeth reveals that she is not just along for the ride; her father and brother recently went missing while poaching alligators, and she plans to rescue her kin and/or extract vengeance from the culprit: Victory Crowley, a legendary figure rumored to haunt the swamp since a Halloween prank burned his father to death and left the deformed Victor with an additional layer of scars on top of his birth defects.
A Massachusetts native, Adam Green graduated from Hofstra University and got his start in filmmaking by shooting commercials in Boston. His short subject “Columbus Day Weekend” (in which Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees meet and fall in love) got the attention of Hollywood, leading to the romantic comedy COFFEE AND DONUTS, which was produced as a pilot for UPN by Tom Shadyac (BRUCE ALMIGHTY). Green first conceived of Victor Crowley during summer camp: inspired by counselors who warned of someone called “Hatchetface” living in the woods, Green fleshed out the gory details that the counselors were unwilling or unable to divulge. This back-story lay dormant for decades until Green attended a bachelor party in New Orleans for a friend from high school named Ben, who was engaged to Marybeth (yes, the characters in the film are named after them). Green found he had little in common with Ben’s new college friends, who were focused on the fate of their Syracuse basketball team during Final Four Weekend.
“I was bored out of my mind, so much like the main character in the movie, Ben, I found myself wandering around through the voodoo shops just trying to find stuff I was interested in,” Green recalls. “At one of the shops they advertised a nighttime haunted swamp tour. I was all about that. I went in and said, ‘Do you still do the tour?’ The guy said, ‘I’m not allowed to do them anymore, after what happened.’” Excited by the thought of what kind of disaster could have befallen a haunted swamp tour, Green eagerly asked for details, only to be told, ‘Insurance got too high and that was it.’” (This anti-climactic story found its way into the film, where it earns a good laugh.) “Later that night, we went to see a band play, and the drummer for this band – I’m not sure what had happened to him, but he was extremely disfigured,” Green continues. “He had no hands, and his drum sticks were taped with electrical tape to his wrists. His face – it looked like it was probably a fire, I don’t know. This guy was amazing; I watched him play all night long. I was standing there in the French Quarter with my friend Ben, who was marrying Mary Beth, and thinking about the swamp tour and a guy that looked kind of like Victor Crowley. I flew home the next day and just started writing.”
Green turned his inspiration into a new millennium update on the traditional slasher formula, which appeals to him more than the current (waning) craze for “torture porn.”
“I think horror goes in cycles, and every time somebody says something’s out, eventually somebody figures out a fresh way to do it and bring it back again,” he says. “Over the past decade we’ve lost the Boogey Man, and we don’t really have villains anymore. That’s what horror was really based on, even way, way back with Dracula and Frankenstein. My generation had Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers. Now everything is a remake, or it’s this contest of depravity, where each movie is just trying to out-sick and out-gross the next one in how far they can step over the line. When I got into this stuff, it wasn’t to see women being realistically raped and people being tortured. I don’t get off on that; it’s really not fun for me. I respect those films; they’re obviously accomplishing what they set out to do, but I think […] audiences have had it at this point. So my idea with this was just to go back to what made it fun in the first place. As much as the formula is an ‘80s slasher, the tone of this is extremely different from those. I always try to describe it as if John Landis made a slasher film back then. It’s very AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and not a lot of people pick up on that. It’s so easy to gravitate to the FRIDAY THE 13TH thing because Kane’s in it and because Buechler’s doing the effects and it’s a monster in the woods killing people. Some of the reviews I’ve read say, ‘This movie is a rip-off of FRIDAY THE 13TH. It’s nothing but teens doing drugs, having sex, and getting killed one by one.’ There’s no teens in the movie. They don’t have sex. There’s no drugs. And they get killed in twos! But the whole beginning is so inspired by AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. If you watch the two back to back, it’s like the same shots. That was really my inspiration for this. To me, that was the first film that used comedy and still had a scary movie. A lot of times when you start putting comedy in a horror movie, the comedy leaks into the villain, and then the villain’s not scary anymore, and the violence isn’t scary any more, and you sort of lose your audience.”
By mixing some different elements along with the slasher clichés, Green reveals a clear understanding of what those ‘80s movies did right – and wrong.
“What they did right was they created villains with great mythologies behind them that were very simple stories that you could easily explain to your friend while you’re lying on the floor in sleeping bags at night, having a sleepover,” he states. “That was the real joy of these films for me. The villains were these anti-superheroes; they were just these total bad-asses. As much as you were afraid of them, you were kind of rooting for them because they were so cool. What those films did wrong was the originals were always great (the original HALLOWEEN to me is still – nothing will ever touch that one) but unfortunately, Hollywood got them and turned them into franchises… Hollywood has no respect for horror; they don’t get it, and even most of the executives will admit that to you: they don’t understand it. So they try to make it this mathematical equation: ‘Okay, what did this other movie do? They had this; they had that. We need to have a death every seven minutes.’ What they did wrong was they didn’t care about the script; they didn’t care about the actors, and they very much underestimated their audience and thought all they wanted to see was a body count. With HATCHET, I really took a lesson from Kevin Williamson and what he did with SCREAM, which was sort of the first slasher film to put out any sort of effort in the script and actually cast good actors. Unfortunately, after SCREAM’s success, we wound up with the PG-13 teen who-done-it Scooby-Doo movie. So I tried to take the spirit of a movie like SCREAM and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and put it in the formula of an old monster movie from the ‘80s.”
Green sent the script around but there were no takers, so he ended up shooting the film independently, under the banner of ArieScope Pictures, which he co-founded with Will Barratt. “It’s so pathetic to say, but all I did was make the movie that I wanted to see and that my friends wanted to see,” Green claims. “That’s why the [behind the scenes] story of HATCHET is so great, because when my agent first sent the script out, it got rejected by everybody. One of the first rejections from a major studio said, ‘The writing is brilliant, but this film will never get made because it’s not a remake; it’s not a sequel; and it’s not based on a Japanese one.’ I actually turned that into the tagline for the poster on the festival tour, because that’s so funny. That is what they think right now. [… HATCHET is] not what they’re doing today. It’s not current, but it’s working because the audience is really responding to it. It’s winning awards; the reviews have been great. I’ve got to admit – I’m lucking out with the reviews, because if I had made this five years ago or five years later, it might not have been treated the same way, but a lot of the critics are my age, and they remember this stuff fondly and they’re happy to see it again. So I feel like I’m striking a chord with today’s generation of critics. Ten years from now, it’s going to be critics who like URBAN LEGEND and VALENTINE and stuff like that.”
Of course, these responses came from critics with a predilection for the genre. Green expects a different reaction from mainstream reviewers, along with a possible backlash because of the overwhelmingly positive response so far. “We haven’t heard from Roger Ebert yet or Rolling Stone, so I’m sure we’re going to get torn apart plenty – especially [by] people who don’t get it. They’re going to be like, ‘I thought we got rid of this shit twenty years ago – why is it coming back?’”
So far, Green’s only first-hand experience with a backlash occurred prior to a festival screening. “There’s got to be people who get online afterwards and say, ‘Worst Movie Ever!’” he admits, “but the only person who’s ever said something was a guy who came up before the film started and said, ‘Just so you know, I’m going to tear this apart.’ I said, ‘You haven’t seen it yet.’ He said, ‘I’m just so sick of everyone jerking you off. I can’t stand the fact that every review says they like it, and I’m going to take it down.’ I said, ‘What do you write for?’ He told me, and I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s cool – no one’s ever heard of that,’ and I just walked away. Unfortunately, because of all the positive reviews, we are going to get backlash… Somebody sent me a link to a message board where someone was complaining that our trailer had so many awards listed and reviews listed – that that’s pompous. What – are you supposed to make a commercial that’s modest: ‘I don’t know – it’s pretty good – try it!’ You gotta put what you have out there. Unfortunately, a lot of the online critics are also people that want to be doing this, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. I know it’s frustrating. I’ve been frustrated my whole life, getting to this point, but I never took a shot at somebody else to try to get here. I think karma is a bitch and part of the reason I’ve got here is karma.”
Green clarifies that the tagline for the festival poster (“It’s not a remake. It’s not a sequel. And it’s not based on a Japanese one”) does not indicate any personal contempt on his part for Japanese horror films or remakes.
“In fact, I like Japanese horror films, and some of my favorite films are remakes,” he says. “John Carpenter’s THE THING is not my Top Five of all time, and I love the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – as much as a lot of people would want to kill me for saying that. I wanted to hate that when I saw it, and I really liked it. Even the second time – because I thought, ‘Maybe it’s just Jessica Biel’s boobs,’ but it wasn’t; it was really that good. I don’t hate the remakes or anything, but what I do hate is that Hollywood is only making remakes. They’re not doing their job; they’re not developing original ideas anymore; they’re cashing in on pre-packaged titles. I’m sick of the fact that fans complain about it, but that’s all they pay to see. Where were they for GRINDHOUSE? Why didn’t they show up for BEHIND THE MASK? Instead, they go see the remake of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and cry about how much it sucks! THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 actually did fairly well, and BEHIND THE MASK made like $35,000 – I don’t think there’s a person alive who will try to say one good thing about THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2.”
While searching for a distributor, Green took his independent horror film on a worldwide tour of film festivals (e.g. Tribeca in New York, Screamfest in Hollywood), where it earned enthusiastic responses from audiences and accolades from online critics. Monsters and Critics called HATCHET “amazing, magnificent, and immensely stupefying. Girls and Corpses Magazine dubbed it “a truly original masterpiece.” And Horrorview proclaimed, “If you put HATCHET head-to-head with pretty much any post-HALLOWEEN slasher, it is the new film that will emerge as the winner.”
As much as the film echoes with traces of FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN, it works on a quite different level from most slasher movies, which often seemed to offer little more than a shooting gallery of victims that the audience enjoyed seeing gutted, knifed, and bludgeoned to a bloody pulp. HATCHET provides a cast of characters who inspire gasps of fear and regret – not cheers of approval – when they die. In fact, there are one or two cases when – despite the humor and the all-in-good-fun attitude toward the scares – the film comes perilously close to crossing the line, with deaths that are genuinely horrifying.
“I used comedy to win over the audience, because if a character can make an audience laugh, then you have ‘em,” Green explains. “Typically, these movies have the most shallow characters: the slut, the bitch, the jock. With this, even the cast – there’s like three or four people on that boat who are over fifty years old. You don’t normally see that in these movies. And there’s no teenagers – it’s all people in their late twenties. I was just writing what I knew – every character on that boat is based on a friend of mine, to some degree. The comedy made you like them, and then you were actually sad to see them go – Marcus especially. We changed the music [for that scene], and it gets so dramatic and sad when he dies. But you don’t want to see him go because you like him. I think that makes it a good movie, and that makes it scary, because if you don’t like the people and you’re just waiting to see the effects, it becomes one of those ‘80s movies again. With this – I don’t know – maybe people will be like, ‘Why did they have to kill all those people?’”
Despite this strategy, on some occasions HATCHET does subtly invite the audience to anticipate the deaths of certain characters. “People are usually happy to see the older couple go,” says Green. “In an early cut of the film, they were actually racist, but we decided it wasn’t working for them. It just made you hate them so much. Patrika played it so well: she was giving this whole list of churches that they’ve been to, and then she looks at the pornographer guy and goes, ‘Oh, and we saw a synagogue, too, so there must be some Jews around.’ We all thought it was funny, but the first time we showed it to a crowd – dead – nobody laughed. So we took it out, but if you watch closely, she keeps giving Deon Richmond concerned looks, like ‘Oh my god, there’s a black guy on the bus!’ So some of it’s really in there but it doesn’t really make sense, because we cut that part out of her character. But as soon as she says, ‘The Good Lord is with us and he’ll protect us,’ audiences start cheering, because they know.”
As much as Green tries to re-think the formula, he does not avoid the all clichés. True to tradition, HATCHET features beautiful women who disrobe and die in gruesome ways, and the white hero’s best friend is a black man who – inevitably – does not survive till the closing credits.
“What I tried to do with Marcus – and a few people have picked up on it, but I don’t know if I did it effectively enough – he was really supposed to be the audience in the movie,” explains Green. “Everything he says is what we say as an audience when we watch these movies, like, ‘This is fucked up. Why are you going that way? This is stupid. Climb up a fucking tree and stay.’ He’s the only smart one, because everyone else keeps going through the slasher movie [routine], and he keeps pointing out how stupid this is. When he dies, what I was trying to do there is, for the last ten minutes of the film, leave everybody with this ‘all bets are off’ thing – like anything is possible from this point on, because the audience just basically got killed. A few people picked up on that. I don’t know if it was effective or not. But I know people do hate the fact that he dies because they like him so much.”
Green adds that, because viewers expects the black character to die (usually first), he toyed with their expectations. “There’s so many times when we put him right in the face of danger, and you totally think he’s going to get it, and then he doesn’t. Like the raccoon in the bush scene – everybody’s like, ‘Oh, the black guy’s dead.’ And then he’s not. I wish I hadn’t killed him, too, because if there’s sequels, I don’t know what I’m going to do without Deon. I write him into everything I do at this point. I just did a series of MTV called IT’S A MALL WORLD, which I wrote, and Deon’s in that. I have romantic-comedy starting soon, and Deon’s in that. He’s just so good.”
The version of HATCHET seen on the festival circuit was gleefully gory. Inevitably, the Motion Picture Academy of America demanded cuts before awarding an R-rating (for “strong bloody horror violence, sexual content, nudity, and language”).
“Ultimately, it came down to frames and a couple shots,” says Green of the re-editing. “There’s a few deaths that don’t go the distance anymore. For instance, Joleigh still gets the belt sander put in her face.* That was okay, but you can’t impale her on a shovel handle. Explain that one to me! And Patrika can still get her face ripped in half, but Richard can only get hit with a hatchet a certain number of times. It was thirteen times that he got chopped before; now it’s like three.
“They’re complete idiots at the MPAA,” Green adds. “I know there’s other director’s out there – maybe they’re smarter than I am, and I’m an idiot – who kiss their asses after the fact and say they’re great and they like working with them. But they don’t like working with them, and they’re Nazis. I would rather get shot in the face than say “Heil Hitler” just to stay alive. Fuck the MPAA! What they did to me was so wrong. Compared to the shit that’s out there right now, this is nothing. There’s nothing realistic in the film. Nobody does drugs; nobody even smokes a cigarette in the movie. There’s very little swearing. And the gore is so ridiculous that the audience is cheering and laughing and clapping. But it’s okay to torture somebody or rape somebody in these other movies. They basically proved that, if you’re a studio film and you can pay them off, you can do whatever you want. But if you’re me, and you’re walking in there for your trial by yourself, and you don’t have any money, they’ll come down on you. There were several points, too, where they just said […] ‘Keep the NC-17 and stay out of the main theatres.’ Obviously, they don’t like it when an independent movie makes it all the way. The MPAA, as much as they’re the righteous moral majority, they’re really just pawns for the studios; they’re paid by the studios. I don’t want to make an enemy with them, because I’m going to make other films, and the do hold a grudge and keep screwing with your whole career if you try to fight back. But I did go and appeal them, even though everybody said not to. I went and stood before them and said, ‘If you give this an NC-17, your message to American parents is that it’s okay to rape somebody or torture somebody or shoot guns at people or do drugs or have sex or have homophobic remarks, but god forbid a swamp monster with a gas-powered belt sander chases a bunch of comedians through a swamp and kills them in cartoonish ways. That’s where you draw the line.’ Not one person in that theatre would even look me in the eye. They knew I was right. I still took the fall, and I still had to make changes to the film. But I know that I did actually win in the theatre that day, because they knew I was right.”
Fortunately, the unrated version of HATCHET will be available when the film debuts on DVD. “Yes, people can see the little things that got chopped out. But the best thing about the DVD is the special features. It’s ninety minutes; it’s the most comprehensive documentaries on how we did this. It even shows us making the mock trailer. It shows how we got the money. It shows everything. So if you’re somebody who wants to be a filmmaker, it’s really, really interesting to watch.”
For the moment, Green is focused on promoting his film’s limited theatrical release this weekend. Despite the positive response, HATCHET wound up being picked up by Anchor Bay Entertainment, more known for DVDs than theatrical distribution. “We did have offers from the usual suspects, but the problem with the usual suspects is, unless they’re paying millions of dollars for it, there’s never a guarantee that they’re actually going to do what they say they’re going to do, and they wind up shelving movies all the time,” explains Green, adding by way of example: “ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE…an amazing film – the script, what it looks like – it’s such a good movie. The Weinsteins bought it for $4-million at Toronto [Film Festival], and everyone was like, ‘Oh , this is going to be the next SAW’ as far as marketing goes, and they ended up dumping it. So I couldn’t trust those places, because the offers they were making were not big enough to insure that they would definitely put that kind of marketing behind it. So as much as it’s sad to drive down the street and every billboard has HALLOWEEN on it – and there’s nothing for HATCHET – I’m still grateful for what we do have.
“It’s funny because a year ago I would have been excited just to get one theatre – just to get that theatrical release,” he continues. “Now we have one, and it’s scattered throughout the country. Not only that – they’re being really smart because they’re putting it in only the best theatres. So if a city’s best theatre said, ‘We’re not going to take this,’ they didn’t just say, ‘Fine, we’ll put it in the second run theatre or the art house theatre.’ They said, ‘Well, then you’re not getting it.’ So in New York we’re at the Empire; in L.A. we’re at the Arclight; in Baltimore we’re at the Egyptian. They’re being very smart about it; they’re forcing everyone to go to one theatre to see it, to drive the per screen average up. Which is how they did it way back in the day with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13TH. Even their release date is smart because over the next couple weeks there is not that much coming out, so there is a chance that we could stay in theatres, and if word of mouth is good we will expand. But, you know, when you have a million-dollar independent slasher movie and a fledgling distributor who’s never really done this before, it’s the most you can ask for.”
Green understandably worries that Anchor Bay’s low-profile release will not put HATCHET on a level playing field with the heavily hyped HALLOWEEN remake. “If you look online, the buzz on HATCHET is so strong, and the fans are talking such a big game, but until I actually see them in the seats, I’m not going to buy it because they’re the most fickle audience, and they really can be persuaded by a multi-million dollars worth of billboards and TV commercials. HALLOWEEN’s already made [$30-million]; now they’re going to make 50 more remakes of everything. The fans get online afterwards and say how much it sucked and ‘Why do they keep making remakes?’ But the fans keep paying to see it – that’s the problem.”
Green hopes that buzz from conventions and festivals will draw an audience. “We’ve sold out every show that we’ve ever done. The conventions – there’s more people in line for HATCHET than HALLOWEEN or any of the other things, so maybe they really are going to show up, but I think the problem is they’re not going to know where it’s playing or how to find it.”
Whatever his doubts about the film’s future financial fortunes, Green ranks “the fact that we made it to theatres” as his proudest moment – the triumphant conclusion of a series of steps in which he proved the naysayers wrong. Throughout the “whole process, everyone had said no,” he explains. “The beginning, sending the script out: it won’t get made. When we found out that we had some money, our schedule was so suicidal that everyone said, ‘You’re never going to finish; you’ll go over budget; you can’t do it.’ Then we did it. When we showed it to my agents, who were repping the film, they said it would never get into a film festival, so they didn’t want to rep it, so I took it out myself. A few weeks later, the biggest hit at Tribeca is HATCHET. Even the offers we got then were insulting; it was straight-to-video. A lot of the distributors said, ‘It just didn’t go there; it wasn’t brutal enough.’ What the fuck is wrong with you people! We kept overcoming. It’s been such a long road, but we made it and we’re here now. The movie’s already made money because it cost so little to make. Just being acquired worldwide, it’s already made so much money. So we’re in a good position going into this theatrical [release] where basically whatever happens is good. If we sell one ticket, that’s profit. We’re just thrilled, and we’re happy that we made it. Whatever happens now is what happens. I just hope that the fans show up, because Hollywood’s not making remakes because they like them or think that they’re good; they’re making them because the fans pay to see them. If the fans would just go support something original, Hollywood would start making original films again. Right now, the word on the street – every meeting I go in – they just say, ‘Original, R-rated horror is dead; the fans don’t want it anymore.’ I know that’s not true.”
*NOTE: For those of you wondering how Victor Crowley could be wielding an electric belt sander in the middle of a swamp (a very long extension cord perhaps?), Green anticipated your objection, asking the prop man to design a gas-powered belt version, which they did.