Hollywood Reporter informs us that the revived Hammer Films is teaming up with Dark Horse comics to create a line based on the studios horror movies. The first entry will be based on LET ME IN, the remake of the Swedish vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Later comics will be based the studio’s back catalogue. In the 1950s and ’60s Hammer churned out a series of successful Gothic thrillers, such as CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA.
Last week, Bloody-Disgusting.com posted an interview with Simon Oakes, head of the recently resurrected Hammer Films, who suggested that three of the company’s old properties are under consideration for being revamped: THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT; CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER; and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. Or, more precisely, Oakes stated that there was no intention of remaking anything, simply of “reimagining” the characters for the 21st century.
The horror genre has been litered with remakes lately – some bad, some good – but the good ones are not enough to stop you from pulling out your hair in frustration wondering why filmmakers seem so averse to to originalty. So the question is whether remaking old Hammer films (or, ahem, “reimagining” them) is a good idea at all.
Before dismissing the idea in a knee-jerk fashion, it is worth noting is that the Hammer horror legacy is largely based on remakes, starting with 1957’s retooling of Mary Shelly, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the film that broke with the classic horror tradition of atmospheric black-and-white photography in favor of full-blooded (literally) Technicolor. The success of that film led to HORROR OF DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, and many subsequent sequels and spin-offs – all within a few short years.
What is interesting about the Hammer horror output is that, apart from THE MUMMY, few if any of their films are literal remakes of the Universal horror classics of the 1930s. Long before the term was coined, Hammer literally did “re-imagine” familiar monsters, crafting what were essentially original scenarios loosely inspired by the source material (novels by Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gaston Leroux, and Robert Louise Stevenson), rather than by previous film adaptations. Perhaps the best example of this approach is their 1961 nod to the lycanthropy sub-genre, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, which has nothing to do with Universal’s 1941 THE WOLF MAN, being instead an adaptation of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris.
Back in the 1990s, there was talk of several Hammer titles being remade, (including THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, which was to have been directed by Joe Dante, with Christopher Lee reprising his role as the Duc de Richleau – except of course the intervening decades would have removed the necessity of makeup to make Lee look old enough for the part). The idea of literal remakes struck me as a bad idea. Much of what gave Hammer horror its own unique flavor was the production design and performances, orchestrated by a stable of talented in-house directors. No disrespect to the screenwriters, who were equally clever, but most of the old scripts do not cry out to be remade with new actors and new millennium special effects. As Oakes says in the BD interview: They were “of their time.”
A far better way to capture the spirit of Hammer horror would be to use the old Hammer strategy: take the bare bones of yester-year’s monster and rebuild it with fresh flesh, blood, and brains, stitching together a creation that is new yet recognizable. It’s been nearly 20 years since the botched BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and MARY SHELLY’S FRANKENSTEIN, so why not go back and do them right this time? Better yet, as good as CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is, it uses only pieces of Endore’s story; there is plenty of room to go back and craft a more faithful adaptation.
With this in mind, it would be unfair to chide Oakes for ransacking the Hammer vaults for old ideas to resurrect for modern audiences. The term “reimagining” has become a tired euphemism for “remaking,” and Oakes use of it here is likely to ring a skeptical alarm bell. After all, it’s not as if Hammer Films is dead set against doing literal remakes: they have LET ME IN, an English-language version of the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, set for release in October; and a remake of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (a 1989 telefilm scripted by Nigel Neale) is in the works. Still, if Oakes makes good on his word, it’s not hard to imagine something special being created in the old mad scientist’s lab.
Of the properties that Oakes mentions, QUATERMASS and CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER seem to have the most potential, because they are character-based; if you have an compelling protagonist (be it Superman or James Bond), you can always fashion a new story to show off the characteristics that make him interesting.
The Professor Quatermass character appeared in three Hammer films, all based on BBC mini-series scripted by Nigel Neale. More science fiction than horror, Kneale’s storyline’s mixed fascinating concepts with exciting action, with Quatermass as the brilliant scientist who unraveled the situation (often involving alien intervention on Earth). With Neale now departed, the difficulty here would be coming up with a writer capable of writing a script worthy of the character.
CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER (known simply as KRONOS in its native England) has a bit less prestige than the QUATERMAS films. Written and directed by Brian Clemens (creator of THE AVENGERS television show), the 1974 film was a laudable, though not entirely successful, attempt to move the horror genre in a new directon, focusing on the hero instead of the monster, and spicing up the usual vampire elelements with some swashbuckling adventure.
Part of the problem seems to have been that budgetary restraints prevented Clemens from fully realizing his conception on screen. Interestingly, Oakes’s description of the character mention elements that are not part of the original film, suggesting that a new version will be more than a slavish remake:
The great thing about him, of course, is that he’s a vampire, but not a vampire. He has all the traits of a vampire, he never ages […] there are many things you can do with that.
I’m not sure whether Clemens intended Kronos to be part vampire, but in an interview contemporaneous with the film’s release, he mentioned that he wanted Kronos to sleep in a golden coffin, suggesting that he had some vampire-like attributes. To me, this is ideal fodder for a remake: a good idea that could be done better the second time around. The only potential pitfall is that the once-original idea of an action-hero vampire hunter is a vein that has since been tapped out by the likes of VAMPIRE HUNTER D and BLADE, not to mention BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
As for DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, I have little hope. The concept is basically a gimmick to infuse a semblance of life into an old idea, and the original film’s strength lies less in the script (a mish-mash that tosses in everything from Jack the Ripper to Burke and Hare) than in the titular performances by Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke. There may be a way to reimagine this one, but I rather doubt it, espeically after 1995’s lifeless spoof DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE.
Whether any of these projects will see the light of day remains to be seen, and it’s hard to say, based on the Oakes comments, whether they are likely to live up to their potential. The BD interview reads like an underwritten transcript of a conversation with someone who is only in the very early, hazy stage of developing an idea, suggesting that he plans on…
[d]oing a new Quatermass movie, doing a new Kronosmovie. You know, not remaking the same film…but saying, “what would the Kronos movie of 2011 look like, or Quatermass of 2012?”
What indeed? The horror genre’s recent success ratio at remaking old properities does not engender much optimism, but I am curious to find out what a new-millennium Quatermass or Kronos would be.
The FAB Fest horror and fantasy festival will run from 30th April to 2nd May inclusive. Screening more than 15 features at The Filmhouse Theatre in Edinburgh, the festival promises to be frighteningly entertaining. Announcing lost treasures and premieres, guest appearances, give-aways and Q & As, the organisers are promising three days of movie excess.
Premieres confirmed so far are as follows:
- KAIFECK MURDER – Terrifying supernatural chills in the Bavarian wilderness.
- THE END – Audacious and gripping. Without doubt one of the most original films of the last few years.
- THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE – Best director award winner, and a genre-defying cult classic in the making.
- 8TH WONDERLAND – Award-winning, ground-breaking fantasy epic. (PLUS GUESTS / Q&A)
- LIFE IS HOT IN CRACKTOWN – The latest gut-wrenching urban horror film from legendary New York director Buddy Giovinazzo, who will be attending the festival as our guest of honour and will also be screening his personal director’s cut print of his cult classic debut COMBAT SHOCK.
- A DAY OF VIOLENCE – Unrelentingly brutal new British sensation. (PLUS GUESTS / Q&A)
- YESTERDAY – This zombie apocalypse labour of love is one of the great DIY horror films.
- MUST LOVE DEATH – A brilliantly shocking, wickedly cruel and humorous outsider view of love gone mad.
- RESURRECTING THE STREET WALKER – Superb new British indie horror that heralds a major new talent. (PLUS GUESTS / Q&A)
- NEIGHBOR – An astonishing modern Grand Guignol masterpiece. (PLUS GUESTS / Q&A)
- REEL ZOMBIES – The most downright clever zombie movie of the last few years. (PLUS GUESTS / Q&A)
Tickets are available from www.filmhousecinema.com or by calling 0131 288 2688 . Tickets can also be purchased in person at the box office. Tickets are £65 for the full three days.
There’ll be more films announced shortly, and we’ll do our very best to keep you up to date.
A refreshingly lively, upbeat zombie-horror film, entertaining right to the final frame
I’d been looking forward to Jake West’s DOGHOUSE for some time, I’d been expecting something along the lines of LESBIAN VAMPIRE KILLERS, which had made me smile and kept me entertained. However, whilst the premise is similar to LVK, DOGHOUSE is far superior; it was a scream from beginning to end and definitely one I’d recommend.
When a group of everyday, football-loving, beer-swilling, blokes decide to take their mate Vince away to a quiet village to take his mind of his impending divorce, they are expecting to find a village full of hot, single women, and spend a few days drinking and partying. When they arrive in Moodley however, the over abundance of females is not such a boon after all!
The women of the town have all contracted a gender specific disease which has transformed them into Zombirds, they’ve devoured all the men and this group of unsuspecting fellas soon realise that a town full of man-hungry women, is far from a good thing.
The characters West has created are your archetypal British males, they love Match of the Day, beer, and women (apart from Graham, he’s gay). That’s not to say these are one dimensional characters, nor are they all the same, they share the same interests, but West has taken time to give them each some depth. Neil (Danny Dyer) is sexist and arrogant and played well by a somewhat typecast Dyer, and whilst not all of his friends agree with his chauvinistic views, it isn’t long before misogyny rules and the battle of the sexes commences, and it’s easy to understand why once you see the women of Moodley!
The Zombie women are formidable, and imposing; each one of them different – the scissor wielding hairdresser and the axe wielding bride are particularly sinister. This is what’s so original about this film, each of the Zombies has a very different look, almost like comic book characters, and this was a stroke of genius. I also like the way the Zombies move, particularly in phase one of the virus, jerky, erratic movements, which make them frightening even though they move slowly. However, this isn’t really a scary film because the screenplay keeps the mood light from start to end. The entire film is laced with a good balance of humour and tension, although it isn’t just a case of telling jokes and slipping in the odd one-liner, it’s more a case of the characters themselves being genuinely funny guys – and it’s great fun seeing the bizarre and inventive ways this group of men go about evading the women of Moodley.
The weapons of choice are also comical, when one man threatens another with a fireplace brush it’s hard to take it seriously, but that’s fine, Jake West clearly didn’t want to make a serious, scary film, instead settling for a rip-roaring, well-paced, action packed, funny, and thoroughly entertaining watch.
The acting across the board is brilliant, I can’t fault the casting: even the zombies were well cast. That usually wouldn’t matter, but in Doghouse the Zombies as individuals do matter.
Doghouse is a refreshing, lively, upbeat film, entertaining right to that oh-so-wonderful final frame.
DOGHOUSE (2009). Director/Writer: Jake West. Cast: Danny Dyer, Stephen Graham, Noel Clarke, Terry Stone, Christina Cole, Lee Ingleby, Keith Lee Castle, Emil Marwa, Neil Maskell.
Jon Wright’s 2009 British horror TORMENTED is not the scariest film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the funniest; however, there’s something about it that stopped me from switching off.
Preppy head girl Justine (Tuppence Middleton) speaks at the funeral of Darren Mullet. She doesn’t remember Mullet, of course; he was just the big fat kid whom all the ‘cool’ kids thought it was fun to bully. For Mullet of course, it wasn’t fun at all, and it ultimately led to his suicide.
Later that evening Justine dumps her usual nerdy friends to go and party with the ‘in’ crowd and, more specifically, Alex (Dimitri Leonidas). She is soon accepted by the cool kids, and things between her and Alex heat up. Before the night is over, a killjoy Mullet decides to come back from the grave and gatecrash.
The rest of the film sees Mullet reap his revenge on his hateful classmates in a whole host of weird and wonderful ways, and it was the inventive deaths that kept me watching.
Tormented is shot like modern glossy U.S. Horror; it even has a pool party, really – a pool party, in England – outdoors! Because that happens all the time over here, honest! The glamorous cast also help to add to the American feel, but in spite of these Americanisms, the screenplay itself is very English. Whilst there is humour involved, it’s a bit hit and miss – only occasionally making me smile and, for the most part, actually irritating me a little.
I was hoping this would be a 1980s style stalk ‘n’ slash flick, but it just doesn’t have that edginess about it. The imaginative deaths certainly hark back to my favourite era, but the fact that they are mostly shot in daylight, in a sunny classroom, rather than having the madman creeping around in the shadows, certainly means that the atmosphere of the film remains light and airy in spite of the increasing death toll.
Tormented does show the impact on the poor victims of constant bullying and harassment, portraying the bullies as the evil, thoughtless, bastards they are. However, it also goes some way to show that children often bully so that they themselves will stay in with the ‘in’ crowd and not become victims themselves.
Of course a film of this genre would not be complete without some sex and nudity, and Tormented delivers a little of both. What was surprising was that the semi-naked bods are all male for a change, whilst the female cast get keep their modesty. Something that will, I’m sure, be disappointing to the spotty adolescent boys who watch this kind of stuff in the hope of seeing the obligatory bare-breasted females.
The humour in this will no doubt appeal to many people, even though it isn’t to my taste. Tormented certainly isn’t worth buying, but a rental may be worthwhile in order to see the creative deaths; however, given that almost all of these are shown in the trailer, it’s a close call.
TORMENTED (2009). Director: Jon Wright. Writer: Cast: Alex Pettyfer, April Pearson, Dimitri Leonidas, Calvin Dean, Tuppence Middleton
With such a lot of great festivals to choose from this Halloween, it wasn’t an easy decision, but I had to choose – eventually I opted for the Mayhem Horror Festival in Nottingham, England, which ran from 29th October to 1st November. There was always a risk of regret, but I liked the look of their programme, and it was only a couple of hours drive away, so I was happy to take the chance. I’m so glad I did, the festival was everything I’d hoped it would be, and more……
I arrived in Nottingham on the 29th with my son Steve, and after throwing our things in the hotel, we hot-footed it down to the venue: The Broadway. My first impression was of an ordinary cinema. However, some time had been taken to ensure people knew they were in the right place – the Mayhem logos in the windows, for example.
I was quickly met by one of the festival directors Chris Cooke. The poor bloke had been suffering with a bad cold/flu which had decided to surface just when he needed it least. But in true Brit style he maintained a stiff upper lip, and soldiered on as if all was well with the world.
My notion that this was an ordinary cinema flew out the window as soon I sat down – man, those seats were so well upholstered, plump and spongy! Steve and I looked at each other, let out a happy sigh, and nestled in for the film.
The festival was certainly geared towards quality over quantity; in fact, I’m surprised to report that although some were worse than others, there was not one really bad film! In fact there were some damn good ones, and I quickly realised that their criteria for selection was ‘the more wrong it is, the more right it is’!
The schedule included old favorites like HELLRAISER, CARRIE, and THE HAUNTING, along with new fare like LA HORDE, a french “end of the world battle between gangsters, cops, and zombies” from Xavier Gens (exec producer of FRONTIERS) and HIERRO, a nightmarish film from debut director Gabe Ibanez, which features some of the team who worked on THE ORPHANAGE and PAN’S LABYRINTH. Other titles included MACABRE (a tongue-in-cheek splatter combo of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE ADDAMS FAMILY) and SOMEONE’S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR (in which bad drugs resurrect the spirits of crazed ’70s killers). The fest wound up with the off-beat GRACE, which portrays what happens when the titular mother brings her dead fetus to term, and it mysteriously ressurects…
I was very pleased to meet Steven Sheil and discussing the horrors his film MUM & DAD contained, including whether they were entirely necessary. We agreed they were (yes, even that ‘meat’ scene)!!
I was also lucky enough to meet Marc Price, the filmmaker behind the £45 Cannes sensation COLIN (whose gimmick is to tell the story from the POV of the titular zombie, from “being bitten to returning from the dead and wandering through a suburban zombie apocalypse”). Although I can’t believe his £45 claim, I found Price to be a very funny guy.
The highlight for me was meeting Mike Hodges, who was there for a Q & A session following a screening of his BLACK RAINBOW, his excellent but sadly overlooked supernatural thriller (the United States didn’t even bother to put it in theatres, shipping it off to Showtime – shame on them!). I enjoyed BLACK RAINBOW, and also his brilliant GET CARTER, but my main reason for being delighted to meet him was that he was also the man behind FLASH GORDON back in 1980. I’ve always had a soft spot for this film, as it was one of the first features my twin sister and I saw on the big screen back when we were kids. Over the years I’ve seen it countless times, as have my own kids. Yes, I know, the acting isn’t amazing, but it has some great action, fantastic direction, and some kick-ass funny lines – not to mention Brian Blessed’s perfect performance as Prince Vultan! Mike Hodges, I salute you.
I also volunteered to be the ‘victim’ in Mayhem’s first experiment in terror from The Thrill Laboratory. I was told I was meant to be the second person to take part, but the journalist who was due to go before me (who shall remain nameless) had a panic attack and did a runner! So I was first up, and I’m sure a great disappointment to the Thrill Lab guys, as I pretty much flat-lined at zero fear the whole time! It isn’t that the films weren’t scary; they were, and the people who did the test later, did get some more action on their stats. I’m so glad it worked out this way; it wouldn’t do for a die-hard horror fan like me to display fear. Fear is for mere mortals!! In any case, this was a fun addition to the festival.
Alas, I was unable to attend their Halloween party, and that’s a shame, because it looked to be a great shin-dig. Next year I’ll keep my diary clear.
I always like to give a special mention to my festival buddies, and sadly it was not until the last day that I met a great guy called ‘Bear’ and his friends Dee, and a girl who’s name I’ve shamefully forgotten; she was lovely too, so I’m so sorry for having a brain like a sieve – and maybe that goes some way to explaining why I was so diabolical at the quiz too! I’d also like to say a huge thanks to Chris Cooke for making Steve and me so welcome and for smiling through his illness with such good humour.
In summary, the Mayhem Horror Festival was a nice, steadily-paced festival, which whilst not brimming over with films, had a real high quality selection and certainly enough wrongness to gratify the most hardened of horror fans.
Oliver Parker’s 2009 film DORIAN GRAY, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s classic 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, has no scheduled U.S. release date, so are film fans in the U.S. missing a treat, or is this a blessing in disguise? Starring Ben Barnes as Dorian and Colin Firth as his friend and cohort Henry Wotton, the film tells the story of a young man, who inadvertently makes a pact with the devil. No matter what the devilishly handsome Dorian does, or what kind of life he leads, he will never age. Instead his portrait [which he hides in the attic] will show the true state of Dorian’s soul. I was not expecting much from this film, but curiosity got me to the cinema, and actually I’m glad it did.
The story starts with Dorian Gray inheriting the family mansion and being thrust into high society life. His friend Henry fancies himself as a real rebel, someone who drinks heavily from the cup of life without any regard for the consequences. Henry encourages Dorian to flout the rules and do as he pleases. Dorian is already balancing on the edge of temptation, when the pact is made. Realising that nothing can age him, Dorian plummets into the moral abyss, his behaviour completely out of control. He lets himself be swept into a life of debauchery, and while his outward appearance shows no sign of his secret, disgraceful life, the painting in the attic begins to decay…..
Dorian Gray is well directed, reminding me a little of the old Hammer Horror films [I should not have to tell you that this is a good thing]. The old sets and streets look really good, even though in places you can see the use of trompe l’oeil, I actually found this rather charming. The orchestral score is excellent, adding that high gloss, quality feel.
The acting is impressive. Barnes is excellent as Dorian, but the star of this film for me is Firth, who plays his character with such gusto and humour that I found him riveting.
However, Dorian Gray is not without its flaws. The main problem is that it fails to show the contrast between the good, kind man Dorian was and the selfish, arrogant, and violent man he becomes. Showing us a charity piano recital at the beginning is not really enough! Because of this lack of contrast, it makes Dorian’s mental anguish at losing himself less meaningful and made me care much less about the loss.
The scenes wherein he is spiralling into his demise, sleeping with countless women and taking an overabundance of drugs are well shot, but too plentiful. Whilst some of the audience no doubt enjoyed seeing bare breasts every two minutes, it was unnecessary, and it did come across as a little gratuitous after a while.
If you are expecting a pure horror film, Dorian Gray is not for you. It’s dark yes, but never scary. Though I did appreciate the fact that in the most violent scene there is no sound at all, not even music, reminding me of The Shining.
I’ve never read the book and this probably helped, because almost always films cannot live up to their literay sources. To summarise: glossy, entertaining, and well acted, worth a watch, but certainly not perfect.
DORIAN GRAY (2009) Director: Oliver Parker. Writer: Toby Finlay (Screenplay), Oscar Wilde (Novel). Cast: Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Rebecca Hall, Emelia Fox, Caroline Goodall.
Declaring that “nothing before has been as big, as bold and as bloody” GRIMM UP NORTH is a brand new horror festival that takes place at The Odeon Printworks in Manchester, England from 30th October to 1st of November. This festival has me wishing more than ever that I could be two, three or even four places at once! Halloween weekend is a nightmare this year!
This festival will screen over 30 films and is advertising red carpet premieres with special guest appearances, and previews of the gaming industry’s hottest unreleased titles. There’ll also be a Zombie Ball where you can kill some time with the Halloween Horror Hunt and other bloodcurdling entertainment.
Films include The Descent 2; Mike Price’s micro budget shocker, Colin; the Australian stalk and slash, The Ferryman; and the U.K. premiere of Autumn. There are also U.S. premieres such as The Graves, and I Sell the Dead. Films are being added all the time, so keep checking their website.
On Sunday 1st November Zombie Aid 2 kicks off with what they expect to be a record breaking ‘walk of the dead’ through the streets of Manchester. I hope they’ve warned the residents, or they’ll be ripping up their floorboards and nailing them across the doors!
There’ll be a horror fair with plenty of unique merchandise, and also an exhibition of cool props and prosthetics from the movies.
The festival is new this year and the first of its kind in the area; I hope it’s here to stay! More information can be found at www.grimmfest.com
Recently released on Region 2 DVD, with no sign of a region 1 release, HUSH is a nerve-shredding journey of kidnapping and horror. In spite of the fact that the lead character makes some strange choices that will have you yelling at the screen in frustration, HUSH is a good, entertaining, and brutal journey.
Filmed in my home county of Yorkshire, England, Hush follows a young couple, Beth (Christine Bottomley) and Zakes (William Ash) on a motorway trip. Zakes has the job of changing the posters in the service stations, but more challenging than his boring job is his relationship with Beth, which appears to be hanging by a thread. They start bickering almost immediately and the argument gets more heated when Zakes sees a naked girl screaming in the back of a white van. Zakes calls the police, but then, declaring that there’s nothing more he can do, carries on with his work. Beth is angry that he doesn’t do more to help. Whe she asks, ‘What if it was me in there?’ – we know it’s only a matter of time! When Zake realises Beth is missing, he fears the worst and it is now we realise how much he really loves her as he sets off on a daring cat-and-mouse chase after the white van.
This all makes for some extreme excitement.The acting of the two lead characters starts off shaky, but either I got used to them, or they improved, but it bothered me less and less as the film went on. The direction isn’t bad for a first attempt by Mark Tonderai and he does manage to build suspense. So too do the scenes shot in a thunderstorm and driving rain – the last thing you want in a situation like this is obscured vision and treacherous roads.
There are some nice little surpriseplot twists, and when we throw in some very British football hooligans, and the fact Zakes ends up wanted by the police himself, I was left wondering how the hell he was going to get out of this, if indeed he was. Whilst it isn’t the best horror film to come out of Britain in recent years, Hush certainly isn’t boring and in parts it is very, very exciting.
HUSH (2009) Directed by Mark Tonderai. Screenplay by Mark Tonderai, Cast: William Ash, Christine Bottomley, Andreas Wisniewski.
Steven Sheil’s MUM & DAD was shot in seventeen days, on a micro-budget of only £100,000, yet the 2008 release manages to stands up as one of the best British horrors in recent years. How did Sheil pull off this amazing feat? Cinefantastique Online’s British correspondend Deborah Louse Robinson was lucky enough to collar the writer and director and ask him all about the movie-making experience…
CINEFANTASTIQUE ONLINE: You made this film on a low budget under huge time constraints. Did this make for a stressful shoot, or was it still an enjoyable experience?
STEVEN SHEIL: The shoot was really good fun. We decided early on that the only way to deal with all the constraints was to try and work with them rather than against them – we didn’t want to be moaning all the time about not having enough money, because we knew the budget going in, so by the time we got onto set we were just determined to get a film made – whichever way we could. Also, because people were working for low wages, we wanted to try and make the experience more of an adventure than a chore, so that people wouldn’t end up resenting what they were doing. Another thing, at least as far as the cast were concerned, was that the subject matter of the film is pretty grim, so we wanted to try and make sure that there was some relief from all the killing, maiming and wrongness.
CFQ: How long did it take you to write?
STEVEN SHEIL: I wrote the initial 20 page outline in about 3 weeks, because it had to be submitted for a deadline. Then I had about a month to turn that into a script. We ended up with something about 70 pages long, which is how it stood at the time we got told we’d get the money. Then I did another couple of drafts – maybe a week each – to extend the film to full feature length. All in all, it was really quick, with minimal changes from the initial outline.
CFQ: When you’re writing a film do you generally know how it’s going to end before you start writing, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?
STEVEN SHEIL: I outline everything first, and test that out on a few people before I take it to script. I like writing fast because it means that it’s easier to keep the core ideas of the film in your head. Some other scripts that I’ve written have taken a long time to develop and it’s really hard to keep them going once they’ve been in your head for a couple of years. In a way, I think it would be good to be less precious about scripts as such, and to concentrate more on the central ideas of a film – really boil it down to the essence and work off that. I think that the script development process is a relatively recent addition to the whole idea of filmmaking, and I’m a quite ambivalent about how it works.
CFQ: MUM & DAD is pretty shocking in places; did you have any problems getting it past the BBFC?
STEVEN SHEIL: From what I’ve heard the BBFC watched the film three times before deciding to pass it uncut. I didn’t think that we’d have any problems – there was one shot that we changed in the edit at the last minute because I thought it might cause problems (it featured a hardcore pornographic image), but that was more to do with the fact that we’d run out of money and wouldn’t have had the funds to recut and resubmit the film if it hadn’t been passed…
CFQ: MUM & DAD is perfectly cast: Did you have the actors in mind when you wrote it or did chance bring you together?
STEVEN SHEIL: No, I don’t ever write with actors in mind; I like to keep my options open. We used a casting director for the film, Anna Kennedy, who brought a lot of people to us, and we found all of them through that process. Perry had already been recommended to me by a couple of friends who are directors (including Chris Cooke, co-director of the ‘Mayhem’ festival), so I knew I wanted to have a look at him. We were just looking for people who wouldn’t be scared off by the script (we had a lot of actors who refused to turn up for auditions because of the nature of the roles) and who would play it straight – that is, they wouldn’t do too much of a ‘horror film’ performance.
CFQ: The lack of any real musical score only serves to heighten the tension in the film. Was this a conscious decision or was it down to budget?
STEVEN SHEIL: It was a conscious decision that grew out of both an awareness of the limitations of the budget, but also out of a desire not to make the film too much of a straight horror. I didn’t want to have to rely on stabs of music to make the audience jump; I wanted the film to have more of a creeping, insidious effect. The idea of using the planes came from the setting at Heathrow airport, obviously, but it’s also the sound of my childhood – I grew up next to the airport so that noise is really evocative for me. That said, I initially promised my producer, Lisa Trnovski, that I wouldn’t have any music apart from the song over the closing titles (‘900 miles’, an old American folk song, which I knew we wouldn’t have to pay publishing rights for, recorded by the brilliant Gemma Ray), then threw loads of music into the Christmas scene, which we then had to scrabble about to try and afford. I don’t think she’s forgiven me yet.
CFQ: Although we’ve seen sick families in films before, MUM & DAD comes across as a very original film, and I think a lot of that is down to the direction. You directed it as if this was a normal, real-life family, in an ordinary British soap opera, and this makes it even more shocking. How surreal was it to be shooting such extraordinary scenes in such an ordinary way?
STEVEN SHEIL: It did feel quite odd sometimes – I had a couple of moments where I kind of stepped out of myself and saw what was happening from outside – Perry Benson wearing a dress and covered in blood, staggering between the washing lines of a suburban garden, for example – and it just made me laugh. It felt weird that we’d somehow managed to convince so many people to be a part of it all. I guess one of the things I wanted to do with Mum & Dad was to play up the normality and not be afraid to make the film feel a bit sit-commy, a bit soapy. Those are the places where you’re most likely to see realistic portrayals of British families – it doesn’t happen so much in British film – it’s either super-grimy kitchen sink council estate realism, or tourist board rom-com London. Mum & Dad has got its share of grimy realism, but it’s more inspired by EastEnders than Ken Loach.
CFQ: Is there anything you would change about the film now it’s all done and dusted, or are you 100% happy with the finished product?
STEVEN SHEIL: If I had the chance I’d go back and make sure that we got an extreme close-up of the toe-kissing. We couldn’t do it at the time because we didn’t have the right lens, and it’s always bugged me. Apart from that, obviously there are things I think I could have done better, but I don’t really dwell on them. I think given the time and the budget and all the constraints we did a great job.
CFQ: How did you feel the first time you watched the end product? It must have been a strange and exciting experience finally seeing how it had all come together.
STEVEN SHEIL: We cut the film on an edit suite where all the footage had been digitised at really low-resolution, so I got really used to seeing it as flat, ugly and video-y, so when we actually got close to finishing the film – conforming it and grading it – it was like a revelation – it just got better and better looking. The first screening we had was a cast and crew which went really well, but I find it hard to watch anything I’ve made – I feel really self-conscious about it.
CFQ: We all know that getting your first film made can be very difficult. Tell us how it happened?
STEVEN SHEIL: Sol Gatti-Pascual, who was running a scheme called Microwave for Film London, had seen a horror short that I made a few years ago called ‘Cry’ and she invited me to come and meet her so that she could tell me about Microwave and see if I was interested in applying. The scheme is designed to make 10 microbudget features, each costing £100,000, with half of that coming from Film London. On the way to the meeting, I was toying with ideas to pitch and what would become Mum & Dad wormed its way to the front of my brain. I pitched Sol the idea of making ‘The Heathrow Airport Chain Saw Massacre’ and she told me to go away and write it. I applied, found a producer and then just kept going. We were selected from among 70 or so applicants and then had to go and find the rest of the money. I went to Em-media, who had financed a couple of my shorts and asked them for the rest. They said yes and then we were set to go. It was a ridiculously quick process really.
CFQ: Do you think, now you have this one under your belt, that the next one will be easier?
STEVEN SHEIL: I don’t know. Easier to make? Probably not, in some ways. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the freedom that I had on Mum & Dad, and despite all the constraints, it was a pretty straightforward shoot. The other scripts that I’m writing are more complicated – bigger casts, more locations, a lot more production design. As for funding – I think Mum & Dad has been seen by enough people that it should be easier to get to have meetings with people who might be able to fund my next film. But I’m taking nothing for granted – I know how hard it is to actually make yourself a career making films in this country.
CFQ: What do your own Mum & Dad think of the film? [I lent my parents the DVD, and when they handed it back, their faces spoke volumes!!]
STEVEN SHEIL: I was a bit worried about my parents watching it, especially as they used to work at the airport, so some things might have struck them as being a bit close to home. I pre-warned them about the nature of it – I know they don’t like horror films – but then they told me they liked it. They liked the humour of it, and the Christmas scene. Don’t read anything into that about our past family Christmases, though…
CFQ: Who would you say was your greatest inspiration from this genre?
STEVEN SHEIL: In some ways it’s obvious, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre was big inspiration, more for the feel of the film than for the plot – although there are similarities. I just love the way that TCM makes an audience feel.
CFQ: What can we expect next?
STEVEN SHEIL: I’ve got a few projects I’m working on – another horror, again with a family theme, and a couple of twisted science-fiction films.
CFQ: Finally, and I have to ask – you do know that it’s very, very, very wrong, don’t you!?
STEVEN SHEIL: Yes. Yes, I do.