02nd Mar2018

‘Death House’ Interview: Director Harrison Smith (Part 1)

by Philip Rogers

With the highly-anticipated horror Death House being released in cinemas on March 2nd, I got a chance to ask director Harrison Smith about how he became involved in the film, working with such an ensemble cast of horror icons, his filmmaking influences and what REALLY frightens him… In PART ONE of a two-part, extra juicy, extra-long chat! Check it out:


How did you first get involved with Death House?

It was brought to me by Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase at Entertainment Factory, they had been working with Michael Eisenstadt, who was Gunnar Hansen’s agent, they came to a screening of Zombie Killers at UCLA and afterwards they said “Oh we have this movie we’d like to pitch to you to see if you might want to direct and possibly write it” and I said “Yeah sure, I like to work. It’s a good thing to eat and get bills paid…” So I met with them afterwards, they gave me the pitch and Michael said he would meet with me the next day for lunch and there Michael pitched me the whole thing and basically he explained they had been trying to get this thing off the ground for some time. Gunnar, by his own admission, had said that he wasn’t happy with his own script and his biggest problem was with dialogue.

So [at that meeting] Michael gave me two scripts: Gunnar original script and one that some other people, who had come on board, had done a rewrite on. I read both of them on the flight back home. Gunnar’s script was a little bit Lovecraftian and very artistic. It was very slow, he admitted that, and the dialogue was not on point, again which he readily admitted.

It was about a group of documentary filmmakers who are going to go into the bowels of an asylum they want to investigate – they heard it was haunted – and then it turns out the asylum is not really empty. That “patients” had been living there for years and then… hilarity ensues (laughs). The rewrite was… horrendous. It was so bad that Gunnar basically disowned it and that’s what gave rise to the internet rumour that Gunnar had walked away from his own project. That is not true. Some clown commented on Facebook, claiming to be in the know: “Don’t listen to Smith, Gunnar walked away from this whole project.” Well no, he disavowed the second script and I can understand why, it was nothing by torture porn. That’s all it was, just one torture scene after another. It was frankly a bad script and that one promptly got thrown in the trash. I used nothing of that script whatsoever.

With Gunnar’s script, when we finally met – I got to meet him a couple of times, and talked to him on the phone – I said, and I hate this phrase, but with all due respect … and I really do respect him, he was an icon in the horror genre and a really intelligent, soft spoken, gentle, nice man and, I’ve said this in other interviews, in an alternate universe he could’ve been Santa Claus. It’s funny that he was Leatherface but he should’ve been Santa… I said to him with all due respect Gunnar, this script isn’t offering us anything new, we’ve seen this movie before. We’ve seen the “is the asylum empty or isn’t it?” Then there’s people being killed in it, there’s crazies… we’ve seen it. And he said “You’re right, that’s why you’re here.”

So I started working on some ideas. At first I stuck with the asylum idea but it wasn’t working, it was just dull. So I was sitting in a bar working, I often like to work socially – though I’m not one to sit in a Starbucks and write so everybody sees I’m writing… I find the hubbub around you gets the creativity flowing. And it worked. It was around Superbowl time and they were showing the preview for the new Jurassic World and it hit me. I was like “There it is!” Instead of a park we have a prison, one that holds the worst criminals in the world, two young cadets are on a tour and the riot breaks down and the monsters get out. There it is.

It’s a pretty simple story, one that actually lends itself far more to Escape From New York than it does a horror movie. I was really looking for the Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape From New York feel; and thats why Adrienne Barbeau is the voice of the Death House computer and in the opening she says the famous Escape From New York quote: “Follow the yellow line.” It’s a deliberate tip of the hat. I think we took a risk… Death House is not the supernatural and the trend right now is films like The Conjuring, Annabelle, all this supernatural ghost stuff and that’s not Death House.

Death House has supernatural stuff in it for sure but it’s not a ghost movie, it’s not a haunted house movie, it’s not Lights Out, it’s not anything like that. It’s nothing like those. We have a cast primarily known for their 80s work… Sitting down with Gunnar and discussing this it was “what kind of flavour and tone do we give this movie?” If we tried to make it a modern film it wouldn’t work.

But with a cast like this you’re always going to run into trouble, Some people will call it stunt casting… But talking to Gunnar we had to work out how to make everything and everyone germane to all of this. So we don’t have just a stupid cameo “watch list,” I didn’t want this to be stunt casting, to be a gimmick. To do so would be a rip off. And I said that to Michael Eisenstadt back in our first meeting – I don’t want to make a William Castle gimmick film. And everyone agreed, that’s why we decide to give it that 80s feel because thats where these people are from. Why fight that? And why try to reinvent [the cast] into something they’re not?

People are going to come to this film because they still go to these conventions, they follow these actors from convention to convention like Dead-Heads. I mean how many photos or autographs of Kane Hodder can you have? But people do travel around to all these events, much like Star Trek fans… So it’s like why would you reinvent all of that and give audiences something they’re not expecting or want? What fans want to see are these 80s icons in an film thats 80s flavour – you’ll see very heavy shades of Jason Vorhees from Kane Hodder but he’s not playing Jason, Tony Todd is not playing Candyman. Fans will say “Oh I hope this is [horror icon] versus [horror icon]” but its not that would be gimmicky.

So… yeah… that’s how I got involved in Death House (laughs).

I know you’ve touched on it already but what can audiences expect from Death House?

Expect a lot of action and expect a real 80s vibe! Here’s what you can expect: if you remember the days of going to the video store, grabbing a VHS tape, going home and watching it at 11.30 at night, or flicking through the channels at 2 o’clock in the morning and you stop on a film and go “oh shit I gotta finish watching this!” That’s the kind of movie we made.

I wanted this to be the kind of film you’d stop on if you were flipping through the channels 2 o’clock in the morning and you keep watching because you just have to see the rest of the film – even if you didn’t see the opening. It’s like “I gotta see what happens, I have to finish this.”

It is a total tip of the hat to the 80s era and 80s filmmaking, 80s style, with the icons who come from this era. That’s what we wanted. And most of all it’s kind of a valentine to John Carpenter – but not for Halloween and not for The Thing or any of his horror but really for his science fiction and his action, like Escape From New York… That film is one of Carpenter’s best – it was incredibly ambitious for the budget they had and the film had a lot of things to say and in some ways what Carpenter said in that film has come to pass!

And like Carpenter’s films Death House is smart. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but the film is not just a blood and guts gore film. Yes we have a lot of blood and gore, we have a lot of blood and gore… to the point where Barbara Crampton said the film disturbed her. Now that says a lot. It’s a mean spirited movie, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s what I call the rollercoaster ride through the funhouse; and that’s what we wanted.

But we a really cool conclusion and one that will make people think. Throughout the movie we have the five evils, and they have to find the five evils… and when we finally get to the five evils the audience is going to be expecting someone like Pinhead or the Cenobites and they’re not because the whole commentary is not the banality of evil. And if you took the five evils and took them out of their restraints and let them out of the prison to walk the streets you’d never know who they are! Bill Moseley’s character could easily just be a college professor or an engineer. You’d never know…

The real architects of evil – and movies often make out they’re these hulking monsters and brutes – the real monsters are the academics: the doctors, the accountants, the executives. The people that turned the population into just figures, numbers, units to be moved and disposed of. That’s true evil. And then we make a commentary on the idea we can get rid of evil. Evil is dependant on good and vice versa. Without one there isn’t the other. And that is what Bill Moseley’s characters makes an argument for. So I’m hoping by the end of Death House that people go “ the five evils aren’t all that wrong.” (Laughs).

What [the five evils] do talk about is the real evil of what’s going on inside this prison. As Dee Wallace’s character says in the movie: “Our goal is to eradicate evil.” You can’t eradicate evil but we now live in a society where we think we can – where we can condition, we can change, we can wipe peoples minds with technology – a lot of this stuff is happening and a lot of it is based on the MK Ultra experiments of the 1960s – I researched all of that. So hopefully Death House is more than just a one-shot deal, maybe some people try to analyse it and have some fun with it. And on top of all that is IS fun: monsters, creepy stuff, hot girls… we got it all! We have great performances… the horror actors, all the horror actors have said “this is Kane’s movie” and Kane Hodder has told me – and you can confirm this with him for yourself – this is the movie he’s most proud of. That says a lot If you ever talk to Kane Hodder you’ll know he never pulls any punches, if he doesn’t like something Kane is going to tell you. After he saw the finished film he called me and I was “this is going to be one of the best conversations or one of the worst I’ve ever had” and luckily he just raved about it.

What were your filmmaking influences on Death House?

John Carpenter is a big influence – his style, lighting, the tone of the film. We wanted to evoke a bit of the look of The Thing – some rich colours but it’s all very dark… And… a little bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A little Philip Kaufman in there. I still, to this day, think the scariest movie ever made is the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.because we’re living it today – just look at social media. If you step out of line and disagree with the majority people will all scream and point and single you out, just like Kaufman’s movie. Just like Donald Sutherland at the end of the film. Even Network, which I consider a great social horror – they got it right, not all right because of the internet but the idea of conformity and “programming”… So John Carpenter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Network.

Even Get Out, the themes of Get Out are also evoked in Death House. It’s all about trying to change someone. That’s the true evil of Death House. The monsters in the prisons are secondary to the administrators running it. Dee Wallace’s character, Doctor Fletcher is even named after Louise Fletcher because I think her character Nurse Ratched [in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] is one of the most despicable, evil characters put on screen. The reason [the character] was so evil is because she believed what she was doing was right! I can’t even watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo\’s Nest anyone because it upsets me – there are Nurse Ratched’s out there: they’re teachers, they’re doctors, they’re politicians and they’re people that are calling the shots today. And that’s terrifying.

What was your favourite scene to film in Death House?

Well the prison break was fun to shoot. It was pandemonium. Actually I’m gonna say the ending. But I do like the opening in the desert, I was happy to finally shoot in the desert. I got to shoot Tony Todd one on one, that was a lot of fun. But there were a number of scenes… I think the best way to answer [the question] is to say, and I don’t want to alienate anyone, but the scenes with our icons, shooting those actors and then getting to spaced time with them afterwards, hearing their stories of how the industry has changed… One of those was specifically Sid Haig. Sid has been in this industry for 50 years and to hear him talk about everyone he’s worked with, from Roger Corman on. To hear him discuss distribution, filmmaking, production, release… he gave me some great advice. Let me share this with you:

When we did the screening for Death House at Scare-a-Con, which we did specifically as per Gunnar’s wishes – he wished that when we were finished and finally ready to show it, we debuted it at a con for a sneak preview audience and that’s what we did. We picked Scare-A-Con because most of the cast were going to be at the con anyway. Sid asked if I had my audience critique cards, and I said I did. I let him look at them and he said “Look, here’s what you’re going to want. You’re gonna get a lot of zeros for worst, you don’t want a lot of tens, you want a mix of eights and nines, you want people to not like it, that is good. Want you don’t want is a stack of fives – that means your movie made no impression on the audience whatsoever.”

Another thing I really enjoyed shooting was the elevator drop scene and here’s why: the elevator drop scene is total bullsh*t; and I did it deliberately because we have a movie where Kane Hodder rising from the dead a number of times, we have absolutely wild experiments going on, absolutely improbable monsters and creatures and everything else… and in that scene, the elevator scene, Cortney Palm and Cody Longo wrap some cloth around their hands and drop – Mission Impossible style – down the elevator shaft and everyone says, despite everything else in the film, that this scene is bullsh*t, that would never happen, it would rip their hands up! [Audiences] are gonna call science on that but everything else they totally accepted…

Check out the Death House trailer below, and look our for part two of this interview on Monday where we’ll be talking to Harrison Smith about the plans for not only a prequel, but FIVE sequels to Death House – including some snippets of what the story to those films will entail… plus much more!

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