It was early afternoon the day after Thanksgiving when Death House writer and director Harrison Smith answered HorrorGeekLife’s call to chat about the highly-anticipated, star-studded effort that was, by all accounts, a dedication to the late, great Gunnar Hansen.
Smith was quick to stress that while a cast that includes Kane Hodder, Sid Haig, Tony Todd, Bill Moseley, Dee Wallace and Barbara Crampton was exciting, Death House was anything but The Expendables of horror. Smith and the entire crew were dedicated to creating a film that would leave fans wide-eyed and amazed, just as Hansen had wanted.
Smith spoke about the project’s dedication to Hansen’s vision, fan moments that will go from hoped for to realized, a practical effect that rivals the chest-burster scene from Alien and some surprises, including a mid-credits sequence that will make audiences “flip.”
To that end, one needn’t look any further than Wallace noting that Death House was one of the best scripts she’d ever read. Any cinephile worth their salt immediately comprehends the gravity of that statement, and after speaking to Mr. Smith, this writer can offer unequivocal assurance that if readers had been excited about Death House before, this interview will leave them champing at the bit for its release.
HorrorGeekLife: I’m sure you’re sick of this question by now, but if by some chance there are horror fans out there who don’t know much about Death House, walk us through the story of the film, which began with Gunnar Hansen and that you brought to fruition.
Harrison Smith: I was approached by Michael Eisenstadt, the agent for Gunnar Hansen. Michael brought two men to me, producers from Entertainment Factory, Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase. They came to a screening of Zombie Killers out in Los Angeles a little less than a year ago. They said they had this film, it’s kind of The Expendables of horror, there’s a script in place but it needs some work and would you be interested in coming on board to re-write the script and direct? So the next day I met with Michael for lunch in Los Angeles and they pitched this Expendables thing and I was real honest with them, I said “Mike, I have no interest in making a movie like that. The Expendables of horror just translates to me as a gimmick. It’s not a genuine film, it’s just a piece of product and quite frankly, it’s just going to be stupid.” I know I probably sound like a film snob with that but I don’t believe in that sort of mash-up stuff. Freddy vs Jason is not a movie, it’s just a product mash-up and quite frankly I think it appeals to the lowest common denominator. It’s stupid and I think it’s for stupid people (laughing). That’s how I feel. There’s no appeal to it other than to take your favorite characters and put them together, and quite frankly the reason I think it’s stupid is because the worlds don’t go together. The world of Freddy Krueger does not go with Jason Voorhees, it just doesn’t.
Then people go, “No, I think we should do that.” And I’m like, alright, well how ’bout we take Jack Torrance from The Shining and mash him up with Michael Myers, does that work? It doesn’t work. They’re two different styles, they’re two different everything, so I know what I sound like but I really don’t care because I’m not sticking my name on something like that, and I think most people would agree with me. Freddy vs Jason was just dumbed down, popcorn junk, it’s not a movie. Look, there’s a reason why there isn’t a Freddy vs Jason 2 or 3 or 4, okay? Obviously a lot of people felt the same way. If it was such a big, smash hit, then why aren’t there more of them?
Anyway, so he said that’s really not what it is. It’s not a mash-up of the characters, it’s really getting all the old horror stars and putting them in a movie together. And I said, “Okay, but I still don’t want to do that. The Expendables of horror, again, connotes a gimmick. Oh, look, there’s Sid Haig and he’s going to kill someone. I don’t want to do that.” He said that’s not what Gunnar wants, either. So I ended up getting in touch with Gunnar and we talked this out and he said “Well look, this is what I have. I want to keep certain elements of my original script intact, but I need help with the dialogue and most of all, I don’t think I have a really fresh story.” And he said that himself. It’s not me knocking Gunnar, that’s what he had said. And he said “I’m not really a writer of screenplays, so we want to work on it.” So we did. We sat down and we hacked out some things and the one thing that he said was we have to keep an element of The Four Horsemen, he wanted those in there, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I kept that concept, but I ended up changing them to The Five Evils, I added a woman to the mix. And then he wanted to keep the basic idea of good versus evil and the nature of good and evil, and so I kept that. What I didn’t know this whole time was that Gunnar was dying, and Gunnar knew it. He had already been given his time limit by the doctors, he had pancreatic cancer, and he never let on once. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, you look back and you go well now I see why this was so urgent to him. He really, really wanted this movie made. His last words basically, in the last week he was alive, he gave my script his blessing and most of all he said “When I die, make the most of it. If you have to go out and film a promotion on my grave,” that’s what he told Rick and Michael, “just go do it. I want this movie made.”
Gunnar’s original story was about a documentary film crew in college and they descend into the bowels of this asylum and there are still patients in the asylum and they’re killing people. So it was like “Ten Little Indians” with probably a final girl at the end, that kind of thing, but it just wasn’t lifting off and he knew that. He did shop the script out to another writer and I was given that screenplay and I read that on the flight home from Los Angeles and it was one of the worst scripts I ever read. It went the opposite of what Gunnar wanted. It was like torutre porn, and Gunnar hated that script. That gives rise to the rumor that Gunnar left the project. He never left his own project. There was somebody out there, one celebrity said Gunnar left his own project. No, that’s incorrect. Gunnar hated that script, but he never left his own project, he just said we’re not making this script.
And I told Gunnar that I read it, and literally took the script and I threw it in the garbage, like nothing in that script is coming out of it. It was just terrible.
I was sitting in a bar, working out the treatment and it was just before Super Bowl L and they threw a preview on for Jurassic World. I looked at it and I said I think I have my idea. Instead of an asylum, what if it was like the Area 51 of prisons? This high tech, yet at the same time run down kind of prison, off the radar. Congress probably doesn’t even know much about it because it’s like a black budget kind of project where awful, despicable things go on and it houses the world’s worst monsters, these criminals. Basically, like Jurassic Park, what if the ride breaks down and the monsters get out? So instead of The Expendables of horror, I consider it Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.
If it helps people with The Expendables of horror and it gets the name out, fine, but it really isn’t because it creates so much confusion. It’s misleading, it sounds like all these horror stars are going to put their makeup back on. And my editor said that, “When I first heard I was going to be editing this project, I thought it was going to be like Pinhead versus Michael Myers.” And I was like, no. I said “Why would you expect that? No. Did Rambo appear in The Expendables? Was Sylvester Stallone Rambo? Was Bruce Willis John McClane? Then why would these horror starts put their makeup on? Think. Stop being spoon-fed stuff and freaking think. Apply some critical thinking skills and just try to understand instead of just going for the dumbest answer.”
So that’s what we came up with and that’s really the inception of the project and I’m thrilled with it. I was thrilled with the way things came out, I was thrilled with the way Gunnar accepted the script. He was very magnanimous and very generous and he said, “Well, this is what it needed. It needed to go in a different direction and I just didn’t quite know how to get it there.” But it was Gunnar and Mike’s concept of putting all these horror stars together.
HGL: Adding what you just said to the synopsis and trailer, I can’t help but notice the idea of “You can’t stop what’s coming.” Kane Hodder offers the idea that escape is not up, “It’s down. To them.” Does Death House have a From Dusk Till Dawn element, where the first half of the film sets things up and has viewers going in one direction, only to completely shift and get nuts as it sprints toward the finish line?
HS: I would agree with that, yes. I think what we wanted to do was not just provide one straight, linear answer. They’ve got to go down, they’ve got to go the opposite way instead of the basic way. The film shifts, it changes. It starts out as one thing, then in the middle it becomes another and it ends up as something entirely else at the end, which I like to equte, and people who have seen the finished film have also said, that’s it like a roller coaster through the fun house. And that’s exactly what I wanted. To be clear, we never set out to make, because it’s so over-hyped, we didn’t set out to make the scariest movie of the year. I don’t know what that means anymore. I’ve heard that label thrown on so many things, all it really means is we’re going to try to throw out as much hype as possible to suck you in to see the movie. We don’t need to sucker anyone in. We made a good film. We made a good film that has a distinct eighties vibe, has a lot more to owe, I think to Escape from New York than it does a slasher movie. We have plenty of blood and gore, we have all the elements there and we also happen to have a good story with really great performances, and most of all, it’s pretty fresh. Even though it has an eighties vibe, and I think that’s the big thing to come out of this interview, the bar was already set very low (laughs). It was already set so low we could have just hit that low mark, but we aimed higher and we expect our audience to expect more, as well.
At a recent conference I said “When we keep accepting junk then you get junk.” Maybe if we expected more out of our politicians, we wouldn’t have been in the mess we were this election year. But we always expect garbage, we expect nothing from our people, we expect nothing of our entertainment. Well, then you’re going to get nothing. You want another remake of Friday the 13th? Fine, that’s easy to do. You want another Dawn of the Dead remake? Or hey, let’s remake Evil Dead for the fiftieth time. Let’s do that. Let’s just keep going. Let’s pull out every major eighties horror film and just remake it. We could have done that, and quite frankly, it would have been easier to write. It would have just been, I’m going to write a part for Tony Todd for five, ten minutes and he’s going to kill these people. It’s like you almost divide your characters up, you’ve created enough protagonists so to speak, or really victims, to match up to your celebrities and just have them each kill one or two of them and there you go, you’ve got a movie.
Quite frankly, I could have sat back and said look, the people who really want to see this just because of the mash-up of actors, they’ll come anyway, it doesn’t have to be good. And that’s cynical, that’s cynical filmmaking and I write a series of articles on that online called Cynema, about cynicism in filmmaking. I think that’s the worst thing that we could be doing with our entertainment. It’s cynical entertainment. There’s a difference between so bad it’s good and just bad. When a filmmaker sets out to go “I don’t give a shit. I’m going to make this movie and it’s just going to be bad and we don’t fucking care because we know you’re going to come see it.”
Say whatever you will about Ed Wood, I know that Tim Burton made his romanticized version of him, no matter what, Ed Wood, God bless him, really thought he was a filmmaker. He never sat in his apartment going “How can I fuck people out of their money?” Even though his U.F.Os were hub caps and pie tins, he really wanted to make art. But when you make Jaws: The Revenge, that’s a different story, because those people, who all knew better, and knew “Shit man, we could actually make a good movie. We’re just choosing not to because we know it’s Jaws.” And they knew, they probably went to their actuaries, they came up probably with projections and said no matter what, we’re still going to make “X. So we don’t have to make anything good, we’re just going to make garbage and they’re going to come and eat it.”
And look, I was one of them who came and ate it. I paid six bucks to go see Jaws: The Revenge and I feel ashamed that I did. It was one of those, even if I’d seen it for free I’d ask for my money back. I really thnk, in my opinion, that Jaws: The Revenge is the worst motion picture of all time. And the reason why is because it didn’t have to be. But they didn’t care, they just made this garbage and people accepted it. And it did financially well. It didn’t do what the first film did or even the second film, but it mades its money back and it broke a profit. And that’s what they planned on. Everybody got a vacation out of the deal, they all went to the Bahamas and Michael Caine summed it up best when a reporter asked him “How do you feel about winning an Oscar in the same year as making Jaws: The Revenge?” He replied, “Well, I haven’t seen the film, and by all accounts it’s terrible, but the house it built is terrific.” There you go (chuckles). There’s your answer. And who can fault the guy?
HGL: Mayhem and carnage are what make horror fun, but what separates fun from fantastic is story, and Death House certainly appears to have plot and writing to match its formidable cast. I mean, this is a once in a lifetime cast that required a once in a lifetime story, so what makes Death House unique?
HS: I think what makes Death House unique is that it’s very layered. We have a lot going on inside of it. There are so many mentions of actual history, the MKUltra experiment and the Holocaust that you usually don’t find in a low budget horror film. Usually it’s vengeful ghosts, it’s a revenant type creature like Jason Voorhees in human form that just comes back and kills people. We don’t have that. We have such a layered story you really have to follow it. Dee Wallace said, and Dee Wallace will confirm it, she said it’s one of the best scripts she ever read. This is a woman who did The Howling and E.T. and Cujo, but for her to say that, that’s what makes Death House unique — we actually cared. We didn’t just remake something, and even though there’s a tip of the hat to a lot of eighties stuff in there, it’s not a rip off. We didn’t retread anything, we tried to come up with an original story, a fresh story. Yes, there will be some things that will seem familiar, certain blood and gore effects. We hearkened right back to the heyday of the practical gore effect, and that’s one thing the audience cannot complain about, there’s plenty of blood (laughs). There is plenty. And most of all, there’s a lot of action, the film moves. It comes in at a solid 88 minutes.
HGL: To take that a step further, for the horror homage that Death House is, I refuse to believe that you don’t have a surprise or two up your sleeve where a player or two may pop up on screen that will blow the audiences’ collective mind. Tell me I’m lyin’.
HS: You are on to something very solid there, yes. There are so many surprises in this in that way that you’re talking about and then, in addition, if you watch the credits at the end, there is a mid-credit sequence, not a post-credit, a mid-credit sequence that, all I can tell you is the cameo of the performer, since you’re a Friday the 13th fan and what he brings into the scene, you will flip because you’re going to know exactly what it is.
HGL: Ahhh. We’re a day after Thanksgiving and we should all be harmonious, and that’s just going to torture me now until I get to see the damn movie.
HS: (Laughs) Well, Death House is all about torture, Landon (laughs).
HGL: Of course. This is something I’m very curious about. You had mentioned Gunnar Hansen, who is no longer with us, but legends are never forgotten. With that in mind, who would have been a dream casting for you? Someone who has passed on, but you would have relished appearing in Death House?
HS: Ohhh hell yeah! Hell yeah, I would have given anything to have Vincent Price in it. I would have loved Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, any of those guys. I mean, my God, Boris Karloff! Wouldn’t hat have been awesome? Any of those people, I would have loved to have had them in this. To have just had the pleasure of standing next to them. Yes, absolutely. I would have loved, especially the old guard, the old original guard. It’s a shame they’re all gone. We just missed Christopher Lee (laughs), but it’s just one of those things, there are so many people of the iconic level that we would have loved in it, but it didn’t happen.
HGL: I had a couple of geek moments glancing up and down the significant cast list. The first came when I saw Tony Moran and Larry Zerner on roll call. It’s as though the entire film is populated with cameos that will leave the audience giddy for 90 minutes.
HS: Yes! Yes! And for horror fans, like real horror fans, not the wannabe horror fans who saw Lights Out and think they’re horror fans, but that have invested time. For example you just said Larry Zerner and Tony Moran. If you go up to someone who says “Oh, I love Halloween. I love Halloween.” Alright, do you like Tony Moran? “Who?” Then you’re not a Halloween fan (laughs). There you go, you’re not. And Larry Zerner, I mean holy cow, if you’re a true Friday the 13th fan you have to know who he is.
HGL: Oh, everybody loves Shelly. Everybody loves Shelly.
HS: Yep. Well, that’s what I mean. Those kind of moments that you’re hoping for, I can promise you are granted in this movie.
HGL: The second came with name selection for characters. I mean, we have a Leatherlace and Officer Dante, which are amazing enough, but the one that towered above all, for me anyway, was Dr. Chalice. Different spelling, but a nod to Tom Atkins and the criminally underrated Halloween III is just fantastic.
HS: Yep! Well, the thing is that Tommy Atkins was supposed to play that role of Dr. Chalice, but he had cataracts surgery. But I kept it, Lloyd Kaufman plays the role, but I even said to Tom “Even though I know there’s a copyright thing you’re really, maybe not Dr. Dan Challis, buuut, I mean we’re just going to call you Dr. Chalice. If I have to, I’ll even change the spelling of it, but you’re Dr. Challis.
There are a lot of those. For example, Dr. Fletcher played by Dee Wallace. Dr. Fletcher is named after Louise Fletcher, and (Wallace’s) character is very much like Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I think Nurse Ratched just might be one of the greatest, if not the top three on-screen villains ever. I never trusted Louise Fletcher again after seeing her in that role.
HGL: We all know that Kane Hodder likes to clown around, pulling pranks when he’s on set. Usually he picks out one person, but who knows, maybe that changed this time around with so many stars. What can you tell us about Kane’s shenanigans for the Death House shoot?
HS: There were a lot of shenanigans, yes. First of all, Kane loves to quote Blazing Saddles on set. And some of the stuff, I can’t repeat it in an interview because people are going to read it and go “He’s so awful, he’s so inappropriate.” No, he’s just really funny and he’s of that Blazing Saddles mindset that it’s either all funny or none of it is. But he is the prankster on set, he always loved to pull a good practical joke, he’d hide stuff on people or sometimes he’d pretend to forget his line and then he’s just like “Nah, I’m just fuckin’ with ya. I know.” He was just such a pleasure to work with, and I know usually when you have these interviews people always say the same thing, “Oh, everyone was a pleasure to work with.” No, I really mean it (chuckles). They were all a pleasure to work with. There were no divas, there was nobody that was difficult, they were all there for Gunnar. And they were all happy to be there and they were the nicest people, they really were (chuckles).
Michael Berryman, I’ll tell you man, what an eloquent man and just someone with such sensitivity and heart. He said “It just breaks my heart that Gunnar’s not in this movie,” and he said “I’m here for Gunnar. I made Gunnar a promise and I’m honoring that promise.” They all would say that. Before we said “Action,” they would all huddle together and they would just be like “Alright, this is for you, Gunnar,” and then they would look at me — “Action” — and then we’d go.
HGL: The Season 2 finale of Ash vs Evil Dead is right around the corner, but something Dana DeLorenzo says over and over is that being doused in that show’s fake, sticky blood is worth every drop because they do it for the fans. Death House clearly comes from the same school of thought – this is for every horror geek who has ever dreamed of a monstrous cast and epic flick. While casting, filming or in post, did you ever have a moment where you just took a step back and were overwhelmed at the realization of what you’d done for the genre and its fans?
HS: That’s a great question. The answer is overwhelmed in this respect, we knew that Gunnar really wanted this for his fans, so it was an awesome responsibility. I made sure in writing this that we were going to give the fans what they’re looking for. Yes, we have an intelligent story, but it’s not a talky story, it moves along, there’s action, there’s so much blood and most of all, good blood, not just a knife to the throat.
We have one effect in this film, one practical effect that I am going on record, and I’ve gone on record to say rivals the chest-burster scene in Alien. I will go on record. And when you see it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. And to show you how much we give it to the fans, we give it a special effect within thirty seconds after that one, maybe forty-five seconds after that first effect that might even top that one. So it’s like this duel “Whoa! WHOOOA!” double one. Imagine the chest-burster in Alien and then less than a minute later, something rivals that one, they do another effect that just puts that one over the top.
It was overwhelming in that respect because I knew we had to deliver what the fans want, and that’s what Gunnar wanted too, so that was overwhelming in its responsibility. Not working with all these names, but making sure that we give something the fans are going to go “Son of a BITCH!”
We pushed the limit. There’s a scene in the film of an elevator shaft drop. Cortney Palm and Cody Longo are hanging on this elevator cable and they go dropping down this elevator shaft. Now Landon, there’s no fucking way in hell they would ever do this in real life, it would shred their hands within five seconds going down that cable, but WE DON’T CARE! Look, nobody ever sat back and went “Wait, how does Jason Voorhees come back? I don’t know if I can watch this series because he was dead in the first one and now he comes back in the second one. And then they blow him up and he still comes back, they chop his head off and he still comes back, they drown him and they…” Come on! Look, if you’re going to get hung up on the fact that there’s no way Cortney and Cody would be able to do an elevator drop like that, you’re not a horror fan (laughs). We’re well aware of that. We’re throwing it in like “How ’bout this one, folks? Now we’re gonna top this bullshit. How ’bout this?”
HGL: Yes, there has to be a suspension of disbelief.
HS: ABSOLUTELY! I mean Friday the 13th, other than the first one, other than Mrs. Voorhees going around and killing those kids, the rest is all bullshit. First of all, Jason drowned and he was this frail, hydrocephalic child who probably wasn’t very mentally bright, either. Then all of a sudden, in the second one he’s this giant, hulking beast that’s walkin’ around killing people. And Tom Savini was the one who, as makeup artist said “I don’t know if I can return for the second one because I don’t buy this story line.” But the rest of the country did, right? Here we are now how many films later, “Alright, I’ll buy it. He’s walking around, he’s killing people. Oh, they chopped his head off? Oh, he came back? Lightning struck him in Part VI? I guess he’s alive again.”Alright (chuckles), sure.
HGL: Death House is slated for a 2017 release, but how are things looking for a specific date?
HS: It’s going to depend on the buyer, but I’m hoping somewhere between January and April of 2017, that’s just my own personal hope. It’ll depend on who buys it and when they have the proper opening. It will get a theatrical, that’s what we’re demanding and we feel it deserves it. That’ll depend, then on the window. I don’t know what’s coming out this next spring or summer, but basically, when’s the next superhero movie opening? We don’t want to go up against something like that, I don’t want to go up against Deadpool 2, so we’ll see. It’s all up to the distributor.