Thursday, May 28, 2009

FRAMELINE33—Michael Hawley Anticipates the Lineup

As Queers prepare to celebrate Stonewall's 40th anniversary next month, it's fitting that films spotlighting LGBT elders be at the center of this year's Frameline festival. That was the summational spin placed on this year's event by new Executive Director K.C. Price and longtime Festival Director Jennifer Morris, as they walked us through the 2009 line-up at last week's press conference. The festival turns 33 this year, and here's an acknowledged fact that always bears repeating—Frameline is the oldest and largest LGBT film exhibition event in the world. Appropriately, 2009's rousing theme—"The Power of Film"—is emblazoned upon a purple, fist-pumping Socialist-Realism inspired logo, and the festival's trailer features THE original Super-8 projector used at the very first festival in 1977.

At a time when many arts organizations are struggling to retain funding, Frameline has emerged relatively unscathed. Price explained that while many of the festival's corporate sponsors have slashed all arts bankrolling, when it came to Frameline, "they just couldn't do it." Happily, this enabled a hold on ticket prices which are already among the lowest of all Bay Area film festivals. There's more good news for the wallet. For those with weekday afternoons free (whether because of a job layoff or otherwise), the festival is introducing a $35.00 Weekday Matinee Pass good for all 15 Castro Theater screenings, Monday through Friday before 5:00PM. This breaks down to roughly $2.35 per show. Also new in 2009, audience members can eschew paper ballots in favor of voting for films by text-messaging. I'm mighty ambivalent about this one and hereby issue a warning: anyone seen texting their vote (and emitting that horribly distracting light) before a film is finished, will be smacked upside the head with a rolled-up Frameline catalogue by one very annoyed LGBT elder.

K.C. Price replaces 27-year vet Michael Lumpkin as Frameline's Executive Director, although he's hardly new to the organization. Price was Development Director from 1999 to 2003, at which point he became Managing Director of the Ninth Street Media Consortium (the SOMA edifice which houses Frameline and other film arts organizations). At the press conference he jokingly revealed his greatest fear—that his first year as director might also turn out to be an off-year in terms of quality programming. By the time Morris and Price finished running through the line-up, however, it was evident his fears were unfounded.

Ah yes, the line-up. The 2009 breakdown is as follows: 220 films (80 features and 140 shorts) from 32 countries presented in 96 separate programs spread over 11 days (June 18 to 28). As always, it's an almost mind-numbingly broad selection, representing every imaginable depiction of LGBT existence on Planet Earth. (To Price and Morris' great surprise, there were no films concerning Prop. 8 and the issue of marriage equality). What follows is a very subjective look at this year's roster, as filtered through the interests of a 55-year-old gay guy with a penchant for biographical documentaries and foreign narrative features.
US Features
This is where I tend to spend the least amount of time at Frameline. I've seen some great US features over the years here, but have found it can also be a minefield sprinkled with clunky issue-driven dramas, sappy romances and idiotic comedies. There is one American film I'm dying to see this year and it's Maggots and Men, Cary Cronenwett's homage to early Soviet cinema. This is a re-imagining of the historic 1921 Kronstadt Uprising of Russian sailors, and features a largely transgender cast. Maggots and Men [site] is a local production and is one of six films in the fest which received a grant from the Frameline Completion Fund.

The only film I've already seen (and one I heartily recommend) is Fruitfly, H.P. Mendoza's follow-up to Colma: The Musical, which got an uproarious reception when it world-premiered at this year's SF International Asian American Film Fest. After three decades I'm also anxious to have another look at Curt McDowell's 1975 screamingly outrageous, horror/porno hybrid Thundercrack! I took a boyfriend to see this in the late '70s and he fled the screening, vowing never to see me again. I think it was Marion Eaton yanking her vomit-covered wig out of the toilet and placing it back on her head that did him in. The Karen Black fetishist in me is curious about Watercolors, in which she plays art teacher to the high school nerd who's in love with the swim team champ (who's coached by Greg Louganis!). I might also have a look at Hollywood, je t'aime, where a young Frenchman comes to LA-LA-land to escape a failed romance back home.

US features also open and close this year's festival. In Opening Night-er An Englishman in New York, John Hurt reprises his role as queer icon Quentin Crisp, a part he first played in 1975's acclaimed The Naked Civil Servant (a film that's just been assigned one of the festival's TBA slots on Friday, June 19). As tradition dictates, the festival closes on Gay Pride Day—this year with Hannah Free, the tale of a decades-long love affair between a butch lesbian (Sharon Gless, who is expected to attend) and a married straight-laced housewife. This may be a perfectly fine film, but given that June 28 is also the exact 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I might have expected something more—I don't know—revolutionary to close the festival.
World Cinema
There are seven personal must-sees in this section, beginning with Argentine director Pablo Trapero's women's prison drama Lion's Den. I'm a big fan of the director (Crane World, Rolling Family, Born and Bred) and this one appeared in Cannes' main competition last year. (If you miss this, it'll pop up again in late July on the SF Film Society's Kabuki screen). I've heard great things about The Country Teacher, about a gay science teacher who moves to the country and befriends a single woman and her troubled 17-year-old son. The film is directed by Bohdan Sláma (Wild Bees, Something Like Happiness), considered by many to be the best Czech director working today. (The film opens at a Landmark Theater in early July). Admirers of Filipino director Aureus Solito's adorable The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros surely won't want to miss his latest, Boy. This one follows a romance between a teenager and the rent boy he brings home on New Year's Eve (whose affections he's purchased by selling his collection of comic books and action figures). Longtime Frameline attendees will be very familiar with the challenging works of acclaimed Canadian director John Greyson (Lilies, Urinal, Zero Patience, Proteus). His latest film Fig Trees is an "experimental documentary" described in Steve Jenkins's catalog capsule as a "complex and moving rumination on AIDS activism, St. Teresa of Avila and Gertrude Stein, all plaited into an avant-garde opera featuring a singing albino squirrel." A single, middle-aged farmer in Spain's Basque country finds his life changed after hiring a Peruvian immigrant in Roberto Castón's Ander.

Rounding out my seven international must-sees are two French films, Born in '68 and Give Me Your Hand. The former comes from partners-in-life and partners-in-filmmaking Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, who are no strangers to Frameline (they were here three times previous with The Adventures of Felix, My Life on Ice and Côte d'Azur). Born in '68 is a social drama following two decades and two generations of gay men, from the student riots of '68 to AIDS activism of the '80s. In Pascal-Alex Vincent's road movie Give Me Your Hand, real-life twins Alexandre and Victor Carril play twin brothers en route to their mother's funeral in Spain. The film screened in this year's prestigious New Directors/New Films series in NYC, where Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez wrote this typically snarky review. Let's say I'm discouraged, but fully expect to enjoy the "scenery" anyway.

Should time and stamina permit, there are several other foreign features I might check out. Patrik, Age 1.5 is a Swedish comedy about a gay couple who mistakenly adopt a homophobic 15-year-old. The films of German frequent-Frameliner Monika Treut (The Virgin Machine, Gendernauts) are usually worth a look and her latest is Ghosted, an exploration of gender and cultural identity set in Taiwan. A young woman with a horribly disfigured face and a lesbian nurse who passionately tends to her is the stuff of Maria Beatty's Bandaged, a twisted-sounding German film executive-produced by Abel Ferrara. Fabiomassimo Lozzi's Anotherworld is an experimental narrative exploring Italian gay male identity, and is composed entirely of actors performing monologues scripted from real-life interviews. 21-year-old first-time director Simon Pearce spins a gritty tale of young British gang culture in Shank, a film which promises explicit sex and graphic violence.

Finally, I'd like to at least make mention of two films which, strangely enough, didn't make it into this year's festival. Frameline can always be depended upon to import all the important LGBT films from each year's Berlin Film Festival. So where, I'm wondering, is Raging Sun, Raging Sky, the latest from Mexican director Julián Hernández (A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Broken Sky) and The Fish Child, Argentine director Lucia Puenzo's follow-up to XXY (last year's Audience Award Winner for Best Feature Film)? Whatever the reason, I doubt it's from a lack of awareness or effort on Frameline's part.
Speaking of the Berlin Film Festival, the film I most hoped to find in this year's Frameline was Nicole Haeusser's Little Joe, which had its world premiere there in January. This is a bio-doc about Joe Dallesandro, the teenaged Athletic Guild model turned Warhol Superstar turned international sex icon, who is forever immortalized in the lyrics of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." As a high-school senior in 1971, I snuck into Andy Warhol's X-rated Trash. To say it made a staggering impression would be the understatement of the millennium. I actually got to meet Joe at a San Francisco book signing in 1998, where he graciously autographed the one-sheet poster for Heat I'd been dragging around for over 25 years. And now, thanks to Frameline, I look forward to seeing him again when he appears in-person at the Castro Theater for the screening of Little Joe.

The NYC underground filmmaking scene of which Dallesandro was an integral part is at least tangentially connected to three other programs at Frameline33. Jennifer M. Kroot's It Came From Kuchar is a long overdue tribute to legendary filmmaking twins George and Mike Kuchar, who began making weird little 8mm films on the rooftop of their parent's Bronx apartment in the 1950s. In the documentary, filmmakers as diverse as John Waters, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin and Wayne Wang testify on camera as to the Kuchars' influence on their work. The brothers have (mostly) been residents of San Francisco for close to four decades now, and it will be an honor to see them receive this year's Frameline Award at the Castro Theater screening of It Came From Kuchar. George Kuchar's 1977 I, An Actress is one of eight short films included in Canyon Cinema's Queer Underground, a curated program of queer experimental shorts from the foremost guardian of America's avant-garde film heritage. Other filmmakers include Curt McDowell, Kenneth Anger and James Broughton. Finally, Crayton Robey's Making the Boys documents the whole zeitgeist surrounding William Friedkin's loved and loathed 1969 movie version of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band. Among the film's revelations is that Friedkin was filming blocks from where Stonewall drag queens were rioting. And according to Mark Freeman's program capsule, "Worth the price of admission alone is footage of a Malibu beach party showing Mart Crowley cavorting on the sand at Roddy McDowell's house with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Judy Garland, Rock Hudson and a dozen more of Hollywood's gay glitterati and female admirers."

Each year at Frameline I like to check out those documentaries which examine the socio-political status of LGBT folks around the world. Yun Suh's City of Borders, which just screened at the SF International Film Festival, surveys the Arab and Jewish denizens of Shushan, the only gay bar in Jerusalem. I'm always shocked when I read news reports of Moscow gay rights marchers being beaten to a pulp and hauled off to jail. Jochen Hick's East/West—Sex & Politics examines why homosexuality, or at least its most visible variety, remains reviled in Russian society (hint: the Orthodox Church has a lot to do with it). For issues closer to home we have Pam Walton's Raging Grannies, which looks at the political street-theater antics of The Raging Grannies Action League of the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. These women aged 50 to 90 employ songs, skits and costumes to protest issues like gay rights and the environment—rejecting certain stereotypes of older women while playfully embodying them. A number of these Raging Grannies are expected at the screening, so watch out.

The remaining five documentaries I hope to see can be loosely filed under "people are not always what they seem." Yulene Olaizola reflects back on a former lodger at her grandmother's Mexico City boarding house—one who was an artistic genius and possibly a serial killer—in Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies. In the festival Centerpiece Film Prodigal Sons, transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed returns home to reconcile with an unstable adopted brother, only to discover that he's the only grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Two films are portraits of legendary drag artists. Michelle Lawler's Forever's Gonna Start Tonight profiles 74-year-old Vicki Marlene, who continues to perform regularly in San Francisco nightclubs. And Brazilian rock singer/activist/actress Claudia Wonder is the subject of Dacio Pinheiro's My Buddy Claudia. Last but not least, Andrew Haigh's Greek Pete follows a London rent-boy through one year on the job.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

Monday, May 25, 2009


As part of their annual Race & Hollywood series and this year's ongoing month-long exploration of Latino images in film, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) commissioned an interstitial on Latino stereotypes in film, featuring Rita Moreno, Héctor Elizondo, Edward James Olmos and John Saxon.

Elizondo initiated the commentary by stating that the stereotype most offensive to him was the Latin as outlaw, whether the Latin hood or the Latin drug dealer. He felt this stereotype to be a particularly dangerous one. Moreno confirmed there was always the bandido, though later on focus fell on gang members. Olmos likewise spotlighted the stereotype of the gangbangers, whose origins he traced to the late '30s.

Olmos added that female stereotypes included the feisty Latina sex bomb—still with us—as well as the fast-speaking maid who talks in a thick accent. Elizondo agreed that Latina actresses were asked to play either the maid or the prostitute. Further, when Latinos were presented as juvenile delinquents—such as Rafael Campos in The Blackboard Jungle—the subtext was that they were individuals disinterested in learning, only in acquiring.

"The most belittled culture in films has been Mexicans," Moreno attested. The Mexican sleeping against a cactus underscored their presumed laziness and—in terms of ubiquitous kitsch—is comparable to the Mammy for African Americans. In Giant, Mercedes McCambridge flat-out complained, "I know how to handle Mexicans. Been doin' it all my life. They'd sit on their honkers all day if I didn't keep after them." Olmos stated that in the '70s and '80s the Mexican American was bombarded with brutal stereotypes. Elizondo admitted it began to make him uneasy whenever he saw a Mexican character smiling and laughing a lot. "Why does that make my skin crawl?" he asked himself.

The other group most belittled, Moreno ventured, were the Caribbeans, the Puerto Ricans. She claimed Hollywood had not done too well by the Caribbean community. "If we go back to the '50s," Olmos concurred, "I think that the Puerto Rican culture had probably the most difficult time." Discounting that West Side Story was a true look at the Puerto Rican in New York—the nuyorican—he cautioned care evaluating that film because "it did get into some difficult moments of stereotyping."

John Saxon—an Italian actor whose ethnic masquerades frequently included Latinos—mentioned that back in the '20s-'30s, Hispanics "were fashionable creatures, suave."

Though Olmos asserted that the Latino stereotypes are still with us, alive and well, Moreno countered that she felt most of the stereotypes were gone; the problem being that with the loss of roles—"dare I say those roles"—opportunities have dried up for Latino actors.

Illustration of the bandido courtesy of
David Ryan Paul. Cross-published on Twitch.

DEADGIRL / SOMEONE'S KNOCKING AT THE DOORThe Evening Class Interview With Noah Segan

Having already spoken with Gadi Harel when he accompanied Deadgirl to San Francisco's IndieFest earlier this Spring, I welcomed the opportunity to follow through with Noah Segan who was in town filming Peaches Christ's All About Evil. During down time on the set at San Francisco's Victoria Theatre, Noah and I sat down to talk.

* * *

Michael Guillén: It's a great pleasure to meet you, Noah. I've become a fan of your work by way of Deadgirl. Recently I interviewed Gadi for that film. Then I went back and caught Brick.

Noah Segan: Have you had a chance to see Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever?

Guillén: Not yet.

Segan: I'll tell ya, I've seen the current cut and it's fantastic! I was invited to a Fangoria panel at their last convention for the Cabin Fever film. Of course, there were a few people who had seen Deadgirl at the time; it hadn't really gotten out there yet. It started with a festival run. A lot of people had seen Brick. So there was some overlapping of people who thought they might be fans of the Cabin Fever film. I feel really good about it. I feel it will slot in nicely.

Guillén: You've done about nine films in the last year or two.

Segan: In the last couple of years I've done about 10 movies, yeah; I'm lucky. And I produced my first film last year. Are you familiar with
Chad Ferrin and his work? He did the Troma film Unspeakable, The Ghouls, Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!, and I produced his last film and starred in it as well: Someone's Knocking At the Door.

Guillén: Paul Sado—who wrote your mini-biography for IMdb—said that you were self-educated and too intelligent to graduate from high school. Is that true?

Segan: No. Sado was intelligent enough to write that. He's an old buddy of mine from New York and a very smart writer who imparted a love of Terry Southern, Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman, Warren Oates, and '60s counterculture upon me. He put that up on IMdb years ago before I had even done Brick. Over the last few years as I've worked more and become a little more well-known, and done press, and had proper biographies printed, I keep expecting that IMdb biography to be pulled down. It's hilarious; but, it's not professional. I keep expecting some business person to yank it down. I keep telling people I work with not to take it down. I want to see how long I can go with this absurd bio on IMdb. My favorite quote is: "Noah's favorite actor is Warren Oates, who died, as Noah expects to do one day as well."

Guillén: I truly admired your performance as JT in Deadgirl. I recognize it as a difficult performance. Do you tend to accept roles where the characters are barely likeable?

Segan: [Chuckles.] I think I'm the most likeable character in the world in Brick. I'm the sweetest guy in the universe. Dode is one of the most heartfelt people in the world.

Guillén: JT, however, is another story. Are unlikeable characters challenging for you? Is that why you choose them?

Segan: I don't know. I tend to not look at the roles in terms of likeability or even in terms of good and evil. I've been lucky in that the roles I've performed that I find the most fulfilling are ones that are conflicted; ones where the character or the circumstances are ambivalent. Deadgirl is a perfect example of that. The whole film is about ambivalence, and the conflict of youth, masculinity, friendship and power. There's a lot of that in Brick as well. It's easy for me to do those roles because I'm personally conflicted. I'd like to think most actors are. I'd like to think that most actors who immerse themselves in their work do so because they're trying to answer questions about themselves. There's some catharsis in that as well. I'm a pretty nice guy. [Laughs.] I'm not really a jerk; but, I think playing jerks helps me be a nice guy. It's definitely therapy, man.

I look at my character JT in Deadgirl and I see a guy who really does want to be liked and who wants to be strong, powerful and helpful to his friend. He wants to achieve a level of success in a way. His relationship with the dead girl, with Jenny Spain's character, is one where he's trying as hard as he can to get somewhere in life. He thinks he's found the girl of his dreams. He thinks he's going to have a future. He thinks he's hustling on his way somewhere. It's tragic. It's more apt to say I have a tendency to play tragic characters than evil ones.

Guillén: Can you speak to your attraction to genre films?

Segan: I'm a fan of Peter Jackson and these guys that push the envelope into different genres within the horror genre. That's the beauty of working within a genre. When you have these established rules and your audiences are aware of them, then they're also aware when you break the rules. It's obvious when you break the rules and make that joke or go too far or don't go far enough. That's a great challenge. There's a great delight in that. That's why I like genre fans and why I'm a genre fan and why I like working in those environments. If you really want to read a manifesto, you should read this piece I did for
Bloody Disgusting after Deadgirl played Toronto. They just fucking let me go off and I gave them this manifesto on genre films and westerns. They printed every fucking word, which is the beauty of writing online. It's the ultimate soapbox. If you want to look that up, it's my best piece on where it's all coming from for me.

Guillén: Were there challenges preparing for the role of JT?

Segan: Right before I was to start Deadgirl, I was off in a far faraway land shooting another movie. I was concerned about how to negotiate the role of JT and how to remain in the zone. Simply enough, remain in character or to be able to get back in touch with the character on a regular basis, right? I was also about to move. I had secured a new apartment on the other side of town. I lived on the beach and was moving towards the city. I was bitching and moaning, to be honest with you, at these other actors on this other set, concerned about how I was going to stay in character and have a handle on the character. It's fairly easy for me to figure out the arc of a character, especially in something as well-written as Deadgirl. You read the script and take your character out. You see where he goes and you try to figure out where he's been, maybe where he's going afterwards, what he's doing when you don't see him; it's a little crossword puzzle. But how do you keep that up? How do you maintain that?

I was talking about it to some other actors who I respected and one of them said, "Well, when I was working on a film that put me in a similar situation, I moved out of my house. I stayed in a hotel somewhere even though I was shooting in a location near where I lived. I lived in this hotel. I didn't own anything. I didn't have any belongings. I was quiet and alone." Knowing what I was going through at the time with moving, I decided that was my opportunity to do something similar. When I boxed everything up at the old apartment, I paid an extra month's rent, left everything there, went to the new place, put up blackout curtains and lived there alone without anything on the walls, no pictures of my mom or my sister, no clothing of my own. I had a blanket but it wasn't my blanket. It didn't smell like me, you know what I mean? That was the important transition: to make sure that I could be alone. The important part wasn't remaining in character, it was insuring that nothing came into the character that wasn't supposed to be there. When I was not working—which on a set like Deadgirl or All About Evil—you're only not working a few hours of the day; but, it was important to me that during those few hours I was shut down. It was almost like those hours didn't exist.

Guillén: And because of the controversial relationship with women in Deadgirl, it was important for you not to have contact with the women in your life?

Segan: Yes! It was very important for me not to have contact with the women in my life. There weren't many women on set other than Jenny Spain, who played the dead girl, who also understood what I was going through. She was sensitive and one of the most professional people on that set. At the very beginning of the process I also took Gadi and Marcel aside and I said, "Look. I'm not the kind of actor in general who feels like he needs to be patted on the head every time he does something well, as much as I appreciate it when someone pats me on the head or the back." I said, "In this particular case especially, whatever attention you would normally think to give to me, give it to Jenny instead and leave me alone. Just let me be in my weird, dark place and I promise you it will be worth it.

Guillén: Which it was.

Segan: You can keep yourself occupied on a set, especially if you had as much stuff to say as I did in that movie. I had a lot of homework; but—while we were shooting—it was important that when I was off that set, I was not in my own head. I wasn't Noah. I was no one. It wasn't that I needed to be JT 24 hours a day; it was just that I needed to get this gross, vitriolic, chauvinist, violent person to go away, and Noah needed to go away, so I could be in an empty place.

Guillén: I understand that Someone's Knocking At the Door will be playing Another Hole in the Head?

Segan: Yeah. I want to try to coordinate something with All About Evil and Hole in the Head to, perhaps, have Darren and/or Joshua come by on the day of, do a little introduction to my film and then, afterwards, maybe show a minute-long teaser of All About Evil. Or have Kris Boxell, our graphic designer, come by with some artwork. More than anything, it occurred to me that many of the people who helped out on All About Evil are not Hollywood movie people. It'd be nice to give audiences a taste of All About Evil because it may be six months to a year before the film is finished and able to be seen by a wide audience in theatres. It'd be nice to keep the San Francisco vibe going.

Guillén: How did you become involved in being the producer for Someone's Knocking At the Door?

Segan: I'd been introduced to Chad Ferrin through
Trent Haaga who wrote Deadgirl and who is a very close friend of mine. Trent and Chad have worked together a bunch. Chad and I had similar taste in film. We hit it off and became buddies. He sent me the script for Someone's Knocking At the Door. It had been presented to him. It was the first time anyone had ever asked him to direct something he hadn't written. He called me up and said, "Someone just sent me this script. I'm going to do some work on it. You've got really good taste in movies, do you have time to take a look at the script and let me know what you think? Maybe give me some notes on it? I don't know where to start." The next thing we knew it was a couple of months later and we had taken the script apart and put it back together again. It was very much a different kind of film. Our executive producer and investors liked the direction in which we were going. There was a role in it that, ostensibly, I could play that we had created that would be fun to come in and do. We started putting the movie together and the next thing I knew I stepped in as a producer, not only helping with the development of the script but the locations, hiring the crew, auditioning actors.

Guillén: Would you like to do more of that in the future?

Segan: I had a fun time doing it—I really did—and I'm still involved in the post-production process, the artwork. The festival premieres have been exciting.

Guillén: Can you provide a short synopsis of the film?

Segan: Someone's Knocking At the Door is a contemporary take on the classic '60s-'70s grindhouse grossout sex drugs rock and roll movie. It's a psychedelic story of murder, mayhem, rape and deviancy.

Guillén: Oooooooh! It sounds perfect for Hole in the Head.

Segan: It is. And the soundtrack is hip. It's by this band
The Mae Shi who I met playing The Screamers in the movie I did about The Germs. They're out of L.A. They're a really interesting band, lots of unique sounds, kind of punk rock meets synthesizer, very Devo kind of sound. I became buddies with them on the set of What We Do Is Secret and I thought they would be a cool addition and take Someone's Knocking At the Door into a different direction. Not only did the band provide some cool mixes of their songs for the movie that became part of the movie, but Brad Breeck—one of the leaders of the band—did our score. So it's a ground-up collaboration for the music and sound. We use a lot of his score as sound effects. Those were the cherries on the icing on the top of my producing cake.

A reminder that
Someone's Knocking At the Door will be screening twice at San Francisco's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival; on June 8 at 7:15PM and June 13 at 11:45PM. Chad Ferrin is expected to attend.

Cross-published on

Saturday, May 16, 2009

HOLEHEAD 2009—Twitch On Holehead

Whenever a genre festival lumbers into town, the first thing I do is evaluate its lineup by researching what my Twitch teammates have had to say about any of the programmed films. Here's a heads-up on how they weigh in for Holehead 2009.

Black Devil Doll—Dispatching from the very first DRIFFF (Deep Red International Festival of Fantastic Film)—which recently took place April 24-25, 2009 in Portland, Oregon—Sean "The Butcher" Smithson observed that Jonathan Lewis' Black Devil Doll [site] was "already highly controversial" and offered up producer/screenwriter Shawn Lewis' plot summary for IMdb. Holehead considers Black Devil Doll to be a "sleazy Blaxploitation film best described as Chucky meets Dolemite."

Blood River—Dispatching to Twitch from the November 2007 American Film Market, Todd Brown continued to champion the films of Adam Mason who he proclaims "is clearly a man growing into his prodigious talent." Having been fortunate enough to sample "good chunks" of Mason's two previous films—Broken and The Devil's Chair—early in their production cycles, Todd assessed: "Broken proved that [Mason] could do remarkable things visually on miniscule budgets and that he had a natural ability to build tension. The Devil's Chair was a major step forward in terms of character development and story telling while retaining that hard horror edge. And now Blood River looks to build on the strengths of his previous two pictures while adding a rich cinematic flourish to things." He followed through at AFM by interviewing Mason.

Todd caught a "work-in-progress" print of Blood River at an invitation-only screening at the February 2008 European Film Market and—based on that experience—wrote
his glowing review: "A simmering study of Old Testament style sin and retribution, Blood River plays like a slow burning Faulkner by way of Deliverance." Difficult to categorize, neither horror genre nor strict thriller, such complexity reveals the film's rich substance.

When Blood River had its March 24, 2009 world premiere at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater, Twitch offered up passes, along with the film's trailer and promo reel. Shortly before the premiere, Adam Mason contributed to the Twitch Video Salute with 12 of his favorite horror classics. Mason and writer Simon Boyes have likewise offered two seasons worth of podcasts (11 sessions) at Twitch. Current project notwithstanding, Todd has likewise reviewed Prey, one of Mason's earlier shorts, and is already on top of Mason's next film Luster. No wonder he received special thanks in the film's credits.

Naturally, when Todd elects to champion a filmmaker's work so consistently, I become intrigued so—on his recommendation alone—I caught Blood River. My trust in Todd's judgment was well-placed. Blood River, like The Hitcher, explores an existential perspective by having its narrative break down and unfold on an isolated desert highway. Top-notch camera work replete with aerial and crane shots emphasizes the immense isolation of the film's desert setting, strikingly counterpointed by interior shots in a dilapidated ghost town that Todd has rightfully described as claustrophobic. High production values lift this indie genre piece shoulders above most of the fare at Holehead and—if funds are limited—Blood River is definitely the ticket to buy.

Andrew Howard delivers a powerhouse performance as a hitchhiking agent (angel?) of vengeance who brings a young man and his pregnant wife to the torturous edge of accountability. Though completely different in temper and tone, I found myself thematically aligning Blood River with Adrian Sitaru's Hooked, another narrative where a couple struggle with the disruptive presence of their embodied conscience. The best compliment I can pay this film is that—having seen it on screener—I enjoyed it enough to want to see it on the big screen.

Crows: Episode Zero (Kurôzu zero)—I've already capsuled the U.S. premiere of Takashi Miike's Detective Story, which I appreciated for what it was; but, it nowhere near holds a candle to Holehead's Opening Night feature Crows: Episode Zero. And few have written as appreciative a review as Todd Brown has for Twitch. Not only does Todd do a good job of synopsizing the film's complicated narrative and its slew of characters, but he provides context for the film within Miike's prolific oeuvre: "Put Ichi the Killer, Audition, Gozu and the like out of your mind for a moment and think instead about the fistful of films Miike has done about growing up young and poor in Osaka, films he has repeatedly said are his most personal and the most important to him among his extensive filmography, particularly the Young Thugs pictures. Placed in that context it is immediately obvious why Miike was offered the chance to adapt this popular and hugely successful manga, just as it's immediately obvious why he jumped at the chance: Crows 0 is essentially a third Young Thugs film, albeit one played out on a larger scale and with higher production values than earlier efforts. The end result? You'll come for the fights, but you'll stay for the characters. Brash, playfully violent, full of an over riding love of life, and absolutely filled with little character flourishes that bring the world to life Crows 0 is an effective, engaging, touching and hugely entertaining reminder that Miike has plenty of substance to back up his style and that the man has absolutely never gotten the respect he deserves for his ability to work with young actors."

Todd continues: "As is often the cast with manga adaptations—particularly ones based on long running series with a number of popular characters—the cast here is enormous and sprawling, the politics between varying factions complex, which necessitates a longish run time [130 minutes] but Miike gives each character a distinctive personality, drawing each into unique life, and fills the picture with so much energy that the second act lag that plagues so many of his films is entirely absent here. Crows 0 is boisterous and energetic throughout, lacking in the transgressiveness that many of Miike's fans look for in his films but still loaded with the kinds of quirky touches—watch for the bowling sequence—and bursts of oddball comedy that make him so unique. The entire cast is dead solid, particularly the core triangle of Genji, Serizawa and Tokio, with Miike once again treating the violence as a sign of the energy of youth and love of life rather than as something necessarily destructive while, again, making pointed comments about the value of loyalty and perseverance. In a strange way Miike's violent youth films actually tend to be his most morally centered and this is again the case here."

Astute as ever, Todd likewise compliments
The Birthday's "pretty freaking awesome" contribution to the film's energetic score.

The Horseman—To Rodney Perkins falls the honor of reporting on Australian filmmaker Steven Kastrissios' feature debut The Horseman [site], winner of the "Best Australian Film" and "Best Australian Director" at the 2008 Melbourne Underground Film Festival. Acquired in a six-figure deal by Media 8 Entertainment after its March 2009 North American premiere at Fantastic Fest/SXSW, The Horseman is currently screening three times at the Cannes Film Market. Kaleidescope has already purchased U.K. rights.

Pig Hunt—Finally, Sean "The Butcher" Smithson once again guest dispatches to Twitch with his wholehearted endorsement of James Isaac's Pig Hunt [site] on the occasion of its May 5, 2009 one-off screening at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre. "If the idea of crazed bible thumping rednecks, dope growing cult women, and a 3,000 lb. swine with a taste for human flesh sounds like a good time at the movies to you then you ain't gonna be disappointed neighbor!" Sean writes, synopsizing Pig Hunt as: "A true blue midnight movie worthy slab of goodness, dripping in popcorn butter and blood." And you thought you had it bad with the swine flu?

05/24/09 UPDATE: Sean "The Butcher" Smithson amplifies his earlier comments on Pig Hunt with a full review.

Cross-published at

HOLEHEAD 2009—Premiere Quartet

Presented by the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, the line-up for the 6th annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival ("Holehead 2009")—running June 5-18, 2009 at the Roxie Film Center—has been officially announced. Among its 18 films from seven countries are four U.S. premieres (Coming Soon, The Dead Outside and Detective Story, and Someone's Knocking At the Door). Let's tackle that quartet first.

Someone's Knocking At the Door—When Noah Segan was recently in SF filming All About Evil, we chatted on the set and he talked up the work of Chad Ferrin, particularly Ferrin's Someone's Knocking At the Door, which boasts its U.S. premiere at Holehead (not it's world premiere, as listed in the program). Noah generously forwarded me a screener and I have to admit I've rarely been so delighted by a movie so depraved. This movie will fuck you to death and have you squealing first in pleasure, then in paniced protest. An admirable addition to the subgenre of drug horror that include's Simon Rumley's The Living and the Dead, Sean Abley's Socket, and Adam Wingard's Pop Skull, Someone's Knocking At the Door constructs a hallucinatory scenario from the drug experimentation of a group of medical students led by Segan. Do taking drugs make you feel sexy? Think again. Someone's Knocking At the Door is one of the must-see highlights of this year's Holehead. Plans are to interview both Segan and Ferrin when they accompany the film to San Francisco, so I'll reserve further commentary until then.

Coming Soon—The U.S. premiere of Sodon Sukdapisit's Thai ghost story has the added distinction of being the only entry in Holehead's hardscrabble slate that will be projected on 35mm. Along with documentaries, it's becoming de rigueur for independent horror genre films to be projected digitally at Holehead and this year marks the trend's near apex. That being the case, it's unfortunate that the only celluloid entry in this year's line-up is a less-than-ideal cautionary tale about the hazards of film piracy. Anyone who has recently attended a word-of-mouth screening of a studio film will by now be well familiar with security's introductory warning that night vision technology will be in use to capture anyone attempting to pirate the film on their cellular phones. If caught, said culprits will be escorted out of the theatre and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That procedural protocol is skirted altogether in Coming Soon where spectral retribution proves much more efficient. As its tagline attests: "The horror movie that you just saw is about to happen to you in real life." Alternately: "The most frightening movies are the ones that follow you home." Pirates, beware.

Despite his co-writing pedigree on two popular horror films out of Thailand (Alone and Shutter), Sodon Sukdapisit's directorial debut lacks punch for being overtly formulaic. As
Stefan Shih states it, Sukdapisit digs into "the usual bag of frightening bits." Dialogue editor Boom Suvaghonda's efforts amount to female protagonist Som (Vorakam Rojjanavatchra) continually groping into dark rooms and annoyingly calling out, "Shane, Shane…." until you want to off her with equal ferocity as Chaba, the film's vengeful spirit. Shane (Chantavit Dhanasevi) is admittedly easy on the eyes, even as he maintains the same facial expression throughout the film. Advance graphics for Coming Soon have been quite attractive; but—truth is—the film itself suffers by comparison. The hype is better than the product.

The Dead Outside—The U.S. premiere of Kerry Anne Mullaney's portrait of rural Scotland after a neurological pandemic has infected most of the population, turning them into—what else?—enraged monsters, talks a whole lot about what it scarcely shows. And that's the problem. Daniel (Alton Milne) and April (Sandra Louise Douglas) argue a lot, even though at first they appear to be the last two uninfected people left in Scotland and you'd think they'd want to get along. Things get a little more interesting when a third survivor Kate (Sharon Osdin) appears on the scene to triangulate the already problematic erotics, but not much. The Dead Outside left this reviewer cold and dead inside. For more appreciative reviews, check out Mathew Riley's for Quiet Earth and Johnny Butane's for Dread Central. And, of course, Holehead's Mike Skurko sells the bill.

Detective Story (Tantei monogatari)—There are two Takashi Miike films in this year's Holehead line-up, which speaks to Miike's signature prolificacy. Opening night is the justly-lauded Crows: Episode Zero but Holehead's program also includes the U.S. premiere of Miike's 2007 Detective Story. If I had to choose between the two, I'd say Crows; but, why should I have to choose? Even though it's not quite as entertaining and accomplished as Crows, Detective Story's ensemble of eccentric and mentally unhinged personalities provides periodic amusement (amazement?) here and there even if it feels like one big sprawling assemble edit with resolution issues. Both films envision alternate universes of violence. Crows renders violence as tasty as an afterschool milk shake and Detective Story renders violence as regenerative finger food: the Miike double-whopper at Holehead.

Cross-published on

Thursday, May 14, 2009

PLAGUE TOWNThe Evening Class Interview With David Gregory

Bruce Fletcher introduced me to David Gregory's feature directorial debut Plague Town when it had its world premiere at Dead Channels 2008 and encouraged me to interview Gregory, which I accomplished during the festival. I now offer up that transcript in conjunction with Plague Town's May 12, 2009 DVD/Blu-Ray release from Dark Sky Films.

David Gregory is one of the international DVD industry's most in-demand Bonus Features providers. He has produced and directed more than 130 "making of" documentaries on films as diverse as Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Wicker Man, The Deer Hunter, Faster Pussycat, Don't Look Now, Heathers and Repulsion. As co-founder of the UK/US DVD labels Blue Underground and Severin, he has produced many of the industry's most widely acclaimed discs and collections, including The Final Countdown, The Alan Clarke Collection and The Mondo Cane Collection, which includes his feature-length documentary The Godfathers of Mondo. Gregory also produced the award-winning 2004 feature film The Manson Family and wrote, produced and directed the IFC original production The Spaghetti West.

Regarding Plague Town, Gregory has stated: "When we originally wrote Plague Town, killer children hadn't been used nearly enough in modern horror cinema. We wanted to make something that had the edge of a twisted fairy tale, filled with imagery of threatening woods, enchanted cottages, sinister old ladies and eerie foreboding, but with some truly unique and beautiful violence. And we chose to up the ante by making the children hideously deformed and mercilessly homicidal."

Plague Town is a scary, gory, freaky old-school horror movie about a family that gets lost in Ireland's rural countryside. In his preview for
Fangoria, Michael Gingold stated: "Even as it has become a cliché of the new horror wave for filmmakers to say that their projects aim for the spirit of '70s chillers, movies that genuinely evoke that veneer are few and far between. There's a certain vibe about the decade's drive-in fare that's hard to define and harder to capture... One new production that gets it, and gets it right, is Plague Town." Fangoria has gone on to champion Gregory's film with a follow-up profile of the girls of Plague Town and Chris Alexander's interview with Gregory. My own interview with Gregory took place over pozole at Mi Lindo Yucatan. This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!

* * *

Michael Guillén: Congratulations on the world premiere of your first narrative feature Plague Town, which—as I understand it—is also the first in-house production for Dark Sky?

David Gregory: Thank you. That's right.

Guillén: I was quite frankly stunned when I was researching your IMdb profile to discover that—within an eight-year period—you've made close to 100 "making of" documentaries! Before we get into Plague Town, can you speak to that "making of" documentary process? How did you get started with that?

Gregory: The "making of" documentary for Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre was my first, which I wasn't hired to do; I made it because I met Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface. He happened to still be in touch with a lot of the people who worked on the film, many of who had fallen out of the industry. Other than Tobe Hooper, most of them were obscure personalities. I had already done a couple of local-interest documentaries in Nottingham (where I was born and raised) about Nottingham during the War and old movie theatres in Nottingham, that sort of thing. I made the "making of" documentary on Texas Chainsaw Massacre and—because it was feature length—it came out as a release on its own. That attracted other people, particularly Bill Lustig, the director of Maniac and Maniac Cop. He was also the DVD producer for Anchor Bay at that point. This was before Blue Underground. Lustig asked me to do a "making of" documentary on The Wicker Man, which they had just acquired for Anchor Bay. I went out to L.A. to edit it. They were really happy with it. They said, "We have this roster of films coming up. Which ones do you think it's worth making a making of?" I started diving into them and doing several of them at the same time because you're working around other people's schedules. Nobody gets paid to do interviews for these things.

Guillén: To be clear, your "making of" documentaries are retrospective? Archival? Not so much a making of during the shooting of the film?

Gregory: Absolutely. I don't think I've ever done a contemporary one; they've always been retrospective. So it's a matter of tracking people down and finding out if they want to talk about that film.

Guillén: So how did a young boy from Nottingham get into American grindhouse genre?

Gregory: Interestingly—because we have stricter censorship in England—I wasn't able to have the grindhouse experience that everyone had in America. In England, you had to be over 18 to go see any kind of horror movie in a theatre. What was fortunate for me was that this was during the dawn of video. I was eight or nine years old and my family was one of the first to own a Betamax video, which allowed us to go to the video store. I already had books on horror that covered the Universal films, the Hammer films, films like that, but there was nothing on Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci or "Jess" Franco. So when I went to the video store and saw these garish, lurid titles—Bloody Moon or Thriller Killer—with equally lurid cover artwork, I had never heard of these films but I wanted to see them.

Guillén: Interesting. So you are of the generation that gained cinema literacy through video? In contrast to my experience as a child of actually seeing the Hammer films in the moviehouse?

Gregory: I watched them on TV and I loved them. I loved all the Universal ones as well. It wasn't just sleazy movies that I was into. I was into all kinds of horror movies, even black and white and back to the silents. Whenever a horror movie was on TV, I would make a point to watch it.

Guillén: So how many "making of" documentaries have you actually done? 90? 100?

Gregory: It's probably more than that. More like 140; 150, maybe?

Guillén: Why all of a sudden the need to write and direct your own feature?

Gregory: It wasn't "all of a sudden" at all. It was an opportunity I had been waiting for. I went to film school in Boston, where I made a 45-minute thesis film called Scathed. It featured Holly Woodlawn, was sort of horrorish, more like an Almadovar film. Then I wrote two feature scripts within the next year. I just assumed I'd be jumping into features because I'd done this 45-minute film. I thought it would be that easy. Of course, it's not that easy. I ended up having to move back to England when my visa expired and there was certainly no opportunity there to get financing for the kinds of films I wanted to make. I worked for a video production company and that was how I got into making documentaries.

Guillén: Was that Severin Films?

Gregory: No. It was a company named Viewpoint Television.

Guillén: When did you become involved with Severin Films?

Gregory: Severin happened after Blue Underground. I started Blue Underground in London with my friend Carl.

Guillén: Does Blue Underground specialize in adult genre fare?

Gregory: No. We formed it to distribute horror movies in England. We had many run-ins with the censors. It was not a fun experience really.

Guillén: Were you triumphant in those run-ins with the censors?

Gregory: No. But we took it as far as we could. We took them to court over Last House on the Left because they wanted to cut it. We had this big trial. Unfortunately, it's not a real court; it's basically a court of people appointed by the censorship board. So it was basically a bunch of censors listening to our arguments and then saying, "No." At that time it was a fight that was lost. It's gotten better since. Anyway, I moved to the U.S. after I started working with Bill. He formed Blue Undergound-U.S. He liked the name. When he broke off from Anchor Bay and started his own label, he named it Blue Underground.

Guillén: So Blue Underground was originally your production umbrella for the "making of" documentaries you were filming?

Gregory: Exactly. But the reason Blue Underground is a known name is because of what Bill did with the DVD label restoring all these weird and wonderful films from around the world. I worked with him for six years, including the first few years of Blue Underground, and then I broke off and started Severin Films with
John Cregan, an editor who I was also working with at Blue Underground and who was also the co-writer and co-editor of Plague Town. We started Severin Films to do a similar sort of thing as Blue Underground. We started with Euro-erotic titles simply because there were a lot of them and there were a lot of other labels doing horror movies. Most of the horror movies were pretty much taken by that point; but, there were still quite a few films like Black Emmanuelle that were equally fascinating exploitation movies. Now we've branched out into war movies and horror movies.

Guillén: And you call yourselves the Severin Brothers?

Gregory: [Chuckling.] Yes, it's basically John Severin, David Severin and Carl Severin.

Guillén: And what's the meaning behind Severin?

Gregory: Blue Underground was named after Blue Velvet and The Velvet Underground, with the "velvet" taken out. Being a big fan of The Velvet Underground, the song "Venus In Furs" features lyrics which mention Severin, the main character in the book
Venus in Furs.

Guillén: You've created a library of cult films and exploitation titles. Is it difficult to acquire them? Do you have an audience for them?

Gregory: We do have a very dedicated audience for them. I wouldn't say it's a huge audience, but it's enough of an audience for it to be worthwhile. It's not difficult to acquire them once you've found who owns them; but, often that's the real legwork: figuring out who still owns these obscure movies.

Guillén: Do you offset their limited appeal through limited printings?

Gregory: We can only spend so much on restoring and transferring the films. We'll print as many as there's demand for. It doesn't cost that much to print an individual DVD; the cost is in licensing the movie, transferring it from the negative, and then restoring it, which we have to do on all of those because the audience expects better quality on these kinds of movies than the average MGM or Warner movie.

Guillén: Blue Underground gained their reputation—didn't they?—precisely for working with original elements in their restorations?

Gregory: Yes, Bill was a pioneer in that. At some points he spent way more on the restoration than he would ever stand a chance of making back. But he refused to put something out that could get a review saying, "This was not restored" or "the sound's rubbish."

Guillén: Where did Dark Sky Films come in?

Gregory: Dark Sky came in because they own Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I contacted them about my documentaries and mentioned that—if they were going to be releasing another DVD in the future—I did "making of" documentaries. In 2001, I went out to Illinois where they're based and met
Greg Newman—who became one of the executive producers of Plague Town—and we got along quite well straightaway. We started talking about doing a documentary on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which was a production of MPI from the eighties that they owned. Then I started doing a lot of extras for them as well. I did Magic, the Richard Attenborough movie. I've just finished a feature-length documentary on Baraka. Over time, I've done a lot of special features for them.

Guillén: Now that you've done both, what differentiates making a "making of" feature from making a feature? What challenges did you face in that transition?

Gregory: The step wasn't huge. It's still basically a lot of coordination between people and getting what you want on screen in the time and budget that you have. The main difference, of course, is the fact that I'm actually working as the director working with actors to get a performance, as opposed to working with actors to get them to sit down to tell me a story about a film they've made. That was the one area where I was a little bit concerned that I might be green—since it had been a while since I'd done that—but, it turned out to be one of the more pleasurable sides of the experience. The key cast were all first-time or second-time actors because it was a non-SAG film. They didn't treat it like it was a rubbish horror film; they treated it as a proper movie and roles they could really get into. The rehearsal process and working with the actors was one of the great joys of the whole process.

Guillén: How influenced were you by the films you have created "making of" features for? As I was watching Plague Town, I detected traces of The Wicker Man. Early reviews of Plague Town have noted your familiarity with these earlier films.

Gregory: That's right. Interestingly, people are picking up on the fact that Plague Town is a throwback to American films from the seventies; but, just as much, it was influenced by European films I was seeing in the video age, particularly the Fulci and Argento films where they took great care to set up violent set pieces that were actually quite beautiful. For me, it wasn't about representing violence in an ugly way. It was about doing it in a cinematic way. Something I've always found exciting about Argento's work is how he talks about the beauty of blood spray. Of course, he's not talking about it as if somebody's actually in pain.

The fact that Plague Town features children, and that there's a lot of fairy tale imagery—the gingerbread house and enchanted woods—these are not necessarily associated with seventies American horror movies, which are more about dirt, rust, and intense suffering. I'm not saying that's bad; it's just a slightly different approach. Plague Town is more stylized.

Guillén: At your screening the other night you were differentiating between a desert milieu and a dark forest, which is a good handle on this film. When I was watching Plague Town again last night in preparation for our interview, I was struck this time by the scene where Jessica (Erica Rhodes) is tied to the tree and the children stuff her mouth full of leaves. That made me acutely aware of the forest floor and of the bodies being dragged through leaves, and the torturous usage of twigs.

Gregory: And how the forest is an environment for children to play in with so many different things they can use as toys or to create and build things, which is what they do, albeit in a bizarre way.

Guillén: So let's get into Plague Town. Do you have children? Where did this story come from?

Gregory: I don't have children, no. I don't dislike children in any way. I've had my babysitting years. I like my friends' children. I get along with them. But there is something unruly, obviously, about children, particularly a pack of children. I was in a friend's elementary school class room and the children were absolutely uncontrollable. There was something a little bit disquieting about that, knowing there was nothing you could do. Even if you started shouting, it would probably be funny to the kids. But back to the film's idea, it was originally written as a short film called Come Out and Play, which served as the middle section of the movie from where Robin (James Wake) gets shot through to his getting hanged in the tree. Children have basically been underused as a threat in horror movies. We have plenty of zombie movies and vampire movies but a group of marauding children has only been used maybe 10 times in the history of horror that I'm aware of. And they've always been used effectively in the films that I've seen: Children of the Damned, The Brood, Who Could Kill A Child?, among others. You're not supposed to kill children. You're not supposed to turn around and fight back against children. Children aren't supposed to be a lethal threat.

Guillén: One of the main elements that has long intrigued me about the films of Guillermo del Toro is his willingness to depict the hurting of children. When I first saw Mimic, I was shocked when the kids were killed.

Gregory: Because people don't do it, do they? It's like killing a dog.

Guillén: I suspect it's a peculiarly American liability in their nearly obscene glorification of the child.

Gregory: I once read an article by the English horror writer
Ramsey Campbell wherein he stated it was "cheating" to use the kid as an embodiment of evil. I can't remember his specific argument, but he had a definite contempt and dislike for any story where a kid was The Bad Seed or The Omen. He wrote it was not the right thing to do. I don't see why not; it's horrifying.

Guillén: Having now completed your first feature, what have you learned? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Gregory: I would have definitely shortened the first act.

Guillén: Which some reviewers have criticized.

Gregory: A lot of people have criticized. As I said, even people who liked the film still criticize that the first act goes on too long. The worst side of that is that some people aren't getting through that first section to the rest of the movie. I wanted it to be a film where you're sitting there thinking, "Is anything going to happen? Is this going to be a horror film?" So when things begin happening—specifically when the eye gets cut in half—it's that much more shocking when it happens because you've been wondering if the film is going to get violent or scary. A certain amount of atmosphere is built up until then but, certainly, no actual attack. So, yes, I would probably shorten that section. I wouldn't change it altogether. I like the idea of a slow build-up in a horror movie. It's not done nearly enough anymore, even though it used to be the way it was always done; the first act established the characters and the situation before the horror starts. Now that's not done so much.

Guillén: Has that criticism been brought on because the film's prologue was so forceful and direct?

Gregory: The idea of the prologue was to provide a sense that there would be shocking violence to come. If that prologue weren't there, the first act would be a lot longer for the audience to sit through. The prologue is over-the-top enough that it suggests the film will go back into dark territory. Originally, the prologue was even more extreme. Inbetween the priest getting hit in the head and getting an axe in his face, we poured Drano down his throat because he was praying and they were trying to shut him up. That was something we hadn't seen done before, which was also something we wanted to do: to make the killings original and something audiences hadn't seen before. We found out later that it had been used in a movie called Mother's Day. The other problem was that the production designer's only mistake on the film was that he made the Drano bottle a light blue, and everyone kept calling it Maalox. I got four comments from early screenings asking why they were pouring Maalox down the priest's throat? That was definitely not the desired effect so I took that scene out altogether.

Guillén: Though Dead Channels audiences have the luxury of a world premiere screening on a big screen, my understanding is that Plague Town will go direct to DVD?

Gregory: It will have a week's run in New York. We'll have special screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, in Los Angeles, in various festivals around the world, so in that way it will be seen theatrically. My doubts about putting a film direct to DVD that doesn't have any names attached is that you are falling in with an enormous amount of other horror movies who, likewise, have no names attached. What we've found is that—when we have screened in front of an audience—the audience has responded quite well to it and have been positive about it, talking about it afterward. My advice to Dark Sky was that they really should show it more and get some word-of-mouth going before they distribute it on DVD. They agreed. They want to do that. They want to make Rosemary (Kate Aspinwall) into the key figure of the movie.

Guillén: Let's talk about Rosemary and how you've created her through costuming and make-up. She's blind, right? And her eyes are doll eyes, right? At first I wasn't quite sure if her eyes had been drawn onto the fabric. She is truly the iconic figure of the movie. Where did she come from?

Gregory: When we were writing Plague Town, Rosemary was always the character among the children who we wanted to be attractive, even though she has the deformities all the kids have. That's what makes it a little bit perverse for Robin in the situation he's in where she's being offered up to him and he's wondering what to do in that situation. That meant she couldn't look like a beast. She needed to be somewhat elegant, like a female vampire in Dracula's Daughter, something like that.

The idea of the doll eyes came up in the third draft of the script. Originally, she didn't have a mask at all. I was in a restaurant with the co-writer and they put a napkin down and I looked at the napkin and thought, "Wouldn't it be better if we had somebody who had wrapped something around her eyes with eyes on it?" It's an effort to make her look normal, but—by doing that—they make her even more bizarre. The idea evolved into actual doll eyes stuck onto the mask.

Guillén: That idea of masking not only Rosemary's particular appearance, but also of the masks several of the children were wearing, emphasizes the presiding need to appear normal. Being that they're relatively isolated creatures, where is that impulse to appear normal coming from? Is it from seeing their parents' normalcy?

Gregory: I think it's a parental thing for the outsiders because they're guarding their secret. They don't want other people messing in their business. It's quite a British thing. If someone has a problem, you don't want the neighbors knowing your business. They prefer to sort it out amongst themselves and their family. They create these masks or appendages so that they can, fleetingly, look normal if they happen to encounter someone from the outside. Specifically what it was, I saw a documentary on the BBC about World War I and how—when soldiers had come back from the front lines with half of their faces blown off—they would create these bits of face to try to make them look normal and they were actually quite well-made. The way they looked on camera, for a second it looked like their face was intact; but—as soon as they moved—it was shocking because you could tell it was not a human face.

Guillén: And, of course, there's clearly the reference to The Phantom of the Opera.

Gregory: That's right.

Guillén: Where did the idea of genetics gone wrong—the plague in the film's title—come into play? "It's in the blood." The horror of blood gone wrong.

Gregory: That idea started with The Night of the Living Dead where Romero didn't explain what the problem was; the problem was just happening. Those characters were faced with the problem and had to figure out how to deal with it. The idea of something wrong in the blood line, whether caused by the water or something else, underscores that something is happening in the town that has obviously messed things up with the children both physically and mentally.

Guillén: The parents may not be deformed but they're a little unhinged as well.

Gregory: [Laughs.] I often see this: when you're a restaurant and there's a kid running around unchecked and you're thinking, "Why isn't that parent taking care of that kid and telling him to sit down and be quiet?" But, moreoften than not, they don't do anything. They allow it to run around and take food off of other people's plates, things like that. Parents frequently ignore that kind of problem. They rationalize, "They're just kids. They'd just doing what kids do. You can't blame a kid for being a kid." They do that rather than disciplining the child or teaching the child correct behavior. And if you bring this up to such parents, they will be offended that you've brought it up.

Guillén: That's telling that you would call a child "it." [Laughs.] Another narrative element I found intriguing was the gender reversal of the victim; having it be Robin, a male, who's tortured. Not that the girls don't also encounter problems of their own; but, somehow Robin's story is forefront.

Gregory: Right. Both men are emasculated. The father is completely emasculated. He's completely useless and has no control over his daughter. He makes all the wrong decisions. Robin, of course, will go on to be completely beaten and tortured and has the longest suffering throughout the entire film. That was intentional in the same way having Rosemary as the lead bad person instead of a big hulking man with a knife or a chainsaw. It was something I deliberately wanted to flip around. It was an easy thing to do. It wasn't particularly clever. I just thought it would add that little bit of difference. Girls do like horror movies—even though they're often considered porn and a boy domain only—but, that's not the case at all. I like the idea of placing a feminist—if that's the right word—intervention into the proceedings.

Guillén: Carol Clover—in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film—proposed that when men are viewing these horror movies, they're not really thinking of the women as women; they're projecting an odd gender reversal and identifying themselves with the victimized women, thinking, "What if I were a woman and this were happening to me?" And that's what genuinely scares them.

Gregory: That's right. Though I think Plague Town's story revolves around children and pregnancy and its ending may resonate more frighteningly and shockingly to a female audience than a male one. That seems to be the case from the feedback I've been getting at the early screenings, which makes me happy because that was the idea. I wanted to play with the gender roles.

Guillén: So where to from here? Plague Town 2?

Gregory: [Laughs.] Plague Town 2! We've written a story for Plague Town 2. But, no, I'm working on two different projects right now, both horror movies, but it will depend on which one reaches the finish line first. I intended to have a script finished by the time I completed Plague Town, which is probably the right thing to do when you're going around places and passing yourself off as a filmmaker. You should probably have your next project ready; but—due to budgetary reasons and whatnot—me and John ended up having to edit Plague Town as well and so I haven't had any time to write. I need to find time.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask, do you go under a pseudonym when you serve as a film's editor?

Gregory: Tod Corman, yes.

Guillén: Why is that?

Gregory: The name comes from Tod Browning and Roger Corman. I initially did that from the early days when I was doing everything. I wanted it to seem like there was somebody else involved in the production. [Laughs.]

Guillén: It's more horrifying to be a single agent?

Gregory: Exactly! But I kept my own name on this film for the editing credit.

Guillén: What do you hope audiences will take from your first feature?

Gregory: Honestly, I have enough faith in the horror audience to not be offended by the fact that Plague Town has a slow build-up; but, the problem I'm having is with festivals where programming committees have to watch 600 movies and usually give a film 15 minutes before rejecting it. Plague Town is not a good movie to do that with. Once the horror starts happening, it comes thick and fast, though it does take a little while to get there. I would really like to show Plague Town around to festivals like Dead Channels or at special screenings in front of audiences because I do think audiences will respond to it. It's a little esoteric but it's got plenty of staples of the genre.

Cross-published on
Twitch. Photo of David Gregory courtesy of Fangoria Magazine.