By Wil Forbis
One of the more entertaining B-grade horror flicks to recently hit the shelves of your local Blockbuster is entitled Stuart Gordon's DEATHBED. It's the first in a series of films executive produced by the director of such independent horror classics as THE RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND and is penned by a veteran of the horror biz - John Strysik. John's professional career began writing and directing for George Romero's classic Tales From the Darkside TV show and years later, he's still in the game, directing television and writing screenplays. He recently took the time to pass on his thoughts on the art of scaring the bejeezus out of schmucks like you!
Wil: I'd like to start in the present and move backwards. Tell us a bit the first film in the "Stuart Gordon Presents" series. DEATHBED!
John: Well, it's a script that's been floating around in the unmade ether since my TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE days. Over the years it found agents and it's been optioned, but it took Stuart to get it made. It kind of follows the old DARKSIDE formula of limited locations and actors. I always saw it as a pulpy low budget feature - something that could be shot quick and not too dirty. The inspiration of it is from the Alfred Hitchcock model of making something common - like a shower or a flock of birds - into something frightening. In DEATHBED'S case it was, of course, a bed. When I pitched it to Stuart I told it him it was about everything you can do in a bed. That got his Gordonian interest.
Wil: How did you end up working with Stuart Gordon? Was there a Chicago connection?
John: I knew of Stuart in Chicago - I was big fan of his Organic Theater. But I never worked with him back then. The worlds of film and theater didn't intersect. We wound up working together because of a book I co-wrote with Andrew Migliore called THE LURKER IN THE LOBBY - still available at Amazon.com by the way - which is a collection of all the film and television adaptations of the works of HP Lovecraft. We interviewed Stuart for the book, he's probably the most prolific of commercial Lovecraft adapters - with screenwriter Dennis Paoli - and after the interview I gave him my DEATHBED script. Six or seven rewrites and a few false starts later, the result is at BLOCKBUSTER.
Wil: You also directed some episodes of the revived TV series, "Land of the Lost." I'm not sure who the intended audience for that show was, but I recall it being a hit with stoned out teenagers that I knew.
John: I did. But remember it's not the original show from the 1970s - it's the ABC remake from 1991. They were trying to "class up" the show - better effects and actors - and it was probably a mistake. The original 70s show was cool 'cause it was so cheesy, but this version tried to make it serious. Timothy Bottoms was the dad and the producers were also the writers. They had come out of cartoons and in that world it's real easy to write something like "the volcano explodes and lava washes away the treehouse." Well, when you try to do that in a low budget live action series it gets a bit dicey. I think the series suffered for it - it never had the gonzo energy of the original - we were trying for too much. Plus it was a few years before great CGI effects could be done on your friendly laptop, so the dinosaurs were all stop animation. They were good, but ate up the budget.
Wil: Going back even further we arrive at the George Romero series, "Tales From the Darkside." What did you do on this show?
John: DARKSIDE was great. It was my first paying Hollywood job and I wrote two and directed six of them, over all four seasons of the show. It was an introduction to the the real world of filmmaking where you meet the actors on the first day of the shoot, and you have to film 8 or 9 pages a day. The best thing about DARKSIDE was its pulpy feel - the low budgets meant you had to improvise. Each episode was like a short film, and that's the world I came out of and was most comfortable with. I got the gig after showing the producers an adaptation of a Franz Kafka story I did called "A Hunger Artist," a strange little film that's still being screened. DARKSIDE was shot on the east side of LA in a decaying mattress factory and we used the mattresses to sound proof the place. Only trouble was, when somebody flushed the toilet filming had to stop - the sound of the putrid water flowing through the pipes would ruin the take. But it was a lot fun and the series still has a fan base. I'm working on a secret project right now to recapture the DARKSIDE feel. Hopefully, I can talk about it in the near future.
Wil: What makes a good horror flick? And why are they're so many bad ones?
John: Realism. No matter how outrageous the subject matter, you have to believe it's really happening. It's the essence of drama - conflict - and human reactions trying to solve or deal with that conflict. To me the oldies are still the creepiest. My all time favorite is Karloff's THE MUMMY - he's very frightening yet you really feel for him, just like he did in FRANKENSTIEN.
Wil: Who do you point to as your favorite horror directors?
John: Well, James Whale, of course. Stuart Gordon is right up there. But I would say my favorite directors aren't horror per se, but they do delve into some very dark worlds. My filmmaking god is Luis Bunuel, followed by David Lynch. Both Bunuel and Lynch deal with dreams, which are naturals for films. Bunuel even worked on a Hollywood horror film, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS. He came up with the image of the crawling, severed hand, and you can see horror influences through out his work. Oh, and not let's forget Roman Polanski - REPLUSION and ROSEMARY'S BABY are twin foundation stones for all horror cinema.
Wil: I've always thought REPULSION was a big influence on the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films. There's a scene with her running though a hallway and the walls start to take on the shape of attacking figures - that's something you saw a lot on the Freddy films.
John: True. And what are the Freddy films really about? Dreams and nightmares. And dreams and nightmares go back to the films of Bunuel who used them to disorient his audience and make them feel uneasy - the way a good horror film should.
Wil: The straight to video market was a boon for horror in the 1980's. Is it still a viable market? Do you think the Internet may open up some new distribution channels?
John: It's a very viable market. A single sale to BLOCKBUSTER can put a low budget film in the black. It's keeping producers like FULL MOON, who did DEATHBED, in business. I'm not sure about the Internet. Seems to be more of an outlet for porno, but having said that, our old friend David Lynch is doing some really cool original productions on his Web site. I'm not sure if they're horror, but they are very dark and designed for the limitations of the Net.
Wil: How conscious of the intended budget are you when writing for a project?
John: Very conscious. It was one reason DEATHBED got made. On the other hand, you should also try to write without thinking about the budget - just let the story take you where it wants to go. But you have to keep the ultimate market in mind. FULL MOON isn't going to option you 100 million dollar masterpiece - very few producers will. I know you dug a script I just finished called BLOOD ROMANCE, a black comedy about a vampire who has two problems: an overbearing mother and the inability to keep his food down. Budget was very much in my mind while writing that. On the other hand I just started a script called ARKHAM - it's an inside out re-telling of Lovecraft's THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD. That one I'm just letting it take me where it will.
Wil: Is the writer still the low man on the totem pole in the movie biz? We hear a lot about the actors or directors or even the producers, but you seldom hear about the people who actually come up with the stories.
John: Well, that's like that old joke: how can you spot the dumbest actress on a set? She's the one talking to the writer. I think it really depends on who you're working with. Some producers and directors think the script is holy writ, and follow it to the letter. Others think a script is an obstacle to be overcome. But, in general, feature films are still a director's thing - or a star trip.
Wil: Is the horror genre running out of ideas? It seems that manyof its big sucesses like the SCREAM series are more deconstruction of the genre, as opposed to being classic stories. And let's not forget SCARY MOVIE....
John: Good ideas are rare in any genre. That's why films that can spawn sequels, like the ones you mentioned, are the Hollywood version of the Holy Grail. I don't think horror or anything else will every run out of good ideas, it's all a matter of what actually gets made. As to what gets made -- well, that's a whole different kettle of Cthulhus, isn't it?
Wil: A lot of the 50's sci-fi/horror stories were playing of the fears of the Cold War - nuclear monsters, atomic ants etc. Do you see the events of September 11th affecting the horror genre in any way?
John: Well, one of the most basic themes of good horror is how fragile and vulnerable we all are - DON'T GO IN THE BASEMENT - DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE - who knows what horror may be lurking there? But the essence of those films, and horror in general, is that we are ultimately in control.
9/11 was one of those terrible events where fantasy and reality merge - and the merging is totally out of our control. Watching it on television it looked just like a movie, and a bad one at that. But it was all real - real innocent people meeting horrible, senseless deaths right before our eyes - terrible horror no writer or filmmaker could ever create. I don't think 9/11 will affect the horror genre. In fact, in very basic ways - the senselessness, the suddenness, the violence, the helplessness - the reality of 9/11 is the dark place all horror comes from.
Check out John's website of H.P. Lovecraft cinema: TheLurker.com
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