The low-budget horror film has been the creative testing grounds for an extraordinary number of directors who have either graduated to A-list mega-stardom or have achieved a global cult following thanks to the sting of their B-Movies. The challenge is easy enough to recognize: creating a work of celluloid art in a genre happily denigrated by critics and audiences alike for its intellectual and financial poverty. Even some of the more outlandish shlockmeisters of the genre such as Edward D. Wood Jr. and Larry Buchanan have been toasted as champions of rib-tickling camp–honors which are conspicuously absent from the no-talent directors of other low-budget genres such as B-Westerns or B-Comedies.
While it is easy enough to trace the rise of a Francis Ford Coppola or John Carpenter or celebrate the oeuvres of Roger Corman or George Romero, it is perhaps more satisfying to locate the heirs to their cinematic heritage. One clear heir seems to be Eric Stanze, the 28-year-old filmmaker who has created an astonishing output of jolting, original low-budget horror flicks which provide an intellectual and artistic shock.
Based in St. Louis (“Five minutes from that big Arch thing,” he jokes), Stanze completed his first feature at the age of 18 with “The Scare Game,” in which a wizard’s apprentice is transformed into a demon who forces unsuspecting people into a deadly game which results in the forfeiture of their souls. This was followed with “The Fine Art” (1994), with a college student who engages in a lethal cat-and-mouse chase with a psychotic assailant; “Savage Harvest” (1995), where the spirit of a murdered Cherokee shaman is accidentally released from its resting place, with devastating results on the ancestors of its assassins; “Ice From the Sun” (1999), an astonishing work rich with experimental filmmaking techniques in which the angels and Satan find the balance between Heaven and Hell disrupted by a third force; and the upcoming “Scrapbook,” which follows a serial killer who kidnaps and tortures a woman and forces her to record the experience in a diary before she is executed.
Unlike many direct-to-video horror films which seem to glut the market, the films of Eric Stanze stand out for their audacity and imagination. Yes, the blood and gore of the genre are present–but the true horror here is the casual cerebral sadism which offers a disturbing parallel universe that truly makes the viewer uncomfortable in the right way. “Savage Harvest” frames its tale in the miserable historic treatment of the Native American people, offering a historic weight which questions whether the vengeance seeking spirit or its historically-indifferent victims are the true monsters. “Ice From the Sun” finds its hero in the unlikely state of a woman brought back from a fall into suicide into a role she never expected against a foe she could never have possibly imagined exists. “Scrapbook” takes the Catharsis 101 ploy of keeping a diary to record one’s progress and uses it cruelly to document an inevitable demise. While it is one thing to be scared by a bogeyman with a hatchet, it is far more terrifying to see the basic tenets of civilized life turned slightly to reveal a nastier existence which rested quietly around us.
Stanze recently took a pause from plotting new thrills and chills to discuss his unique cinematic output with Film Threat…
[ You finished your first feature film at the age of 18. Ten years and five feature films later, what were the most important positive and negative lessons you learned…both as a creative artist fashioning new productions and as film industry participant bringing your titles to market? ] ^ I wasn’t born into a family that had either money or film industry connections. If you have money or connections, you get a great head start–you don’t have to work as hard. But I had to figure it all out myself. I started from absolute ground zero. So, I’ve learned a list of lessons ten miles long over the last ten years. Also, starting out when I was so young, it wasn’t just the obstacles of movie-making that I had to overcome. I made a lot of mistakes just because I was a dumb kid. So the lessons I’ve learned partially come from making a few movies and learning from my mistakes as a director, but they also come from simply growing up.
Probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that movies are art…so you will never please everyone. Art is viewed differently by everyone, so one person’s tastes in movies may align with mine, but the next guy will think my movies really suck. My distributor, Sub Rosa Studios (www.b-movie.com), really supports what I do. But I’ve had other distributors ask me why I even bother to make these angry, nasty, upsetting films! So the point is, f**k trying to please other people. I try to make movies that please me while I’m shooting them and please me when I watch the finished product. If I ever get to make a decent living at this, perhaps this attitude will change slightly.
Ironically, the movies that I’ve made where I’ve been most in the mode of “who cares what other people think?” have been the movies that become most successful! Fans say they like these movies more and the reviews are better. Look at “The Scare Game,” my first movie. That is one of the worst movies I have ever seen! But when we made it, I had no intention of pursuing home video distribution. And I had that “who cares what people think of this movie?” attitude. We didn’t try to do anything with that movie except have fun while we were shooting it. We weren’t thinking about marketing or genre or distribution then. But people liked that movie and it got picked up for distribution, hitting video stores all over the U.S. and in a bunch of foreign countries. To this day I have people tell me that “The Scare Game” is their favorite movie of everything I’ve made! That astounds me.
Any way, every director should make his or her movie for themselves first. And if other people like it and it gets good reviews, then that should just be viewed as a bonus.
[ Some of your films offer disturbing theological subplots and contexts (the
disruption of Heaven and Hell in “Ice from the Sun,” the revenge of the murdered Cherokee shaman in “Savage Harvest,” the wizard-turned-demon of “The Scare Game”). What inspires your integration of religious imagery and concepts into your horror films? And is there a line where the sacred should not be mixed into the profane? ] ^ I am agnostic, so I approach theological story points in a “what if” mode. Religion to me is just mythology, but certainly still fascinating. I just think there are so many interesting stories that can come out of religion. I think what attracts me to using religious images and concepts is that it is an opportunity to explore what I believe to be fantasy but many other people really believe in. People generally don’t believe in vampires or zombies, so the emotional impact of that kind of horror movie is not as great. But a story takes on more weight if you introduce devils or angels or God or hell. Because you may actually believe in those things, or someone else in the room may truly believe. It personalizes the drama.
I used to think that I should place limitations on where I take religious concepts. While I am not religious, I do not have a desire to offend religious persons. But a few of the guys who make these movies with me are Christians and they actually like the religious concepts in my movies for the same reasons I do. They aren’t offended. They like the fact that these concepts carry the emotional impact that they do. They like the fact that movies that carry these concepts make the religious viewer challenge their faith, which makes their faith stronger. They like that these concepts make intelligent people think about what they believe in.
[ “Ice From the Sun” provides the viewer with a wealth of experimental and hallucinogenic visual techniques and non-linear story-telling devices which have been absent from mainstream movies for a long time. At a time when so many filmmakers are playing it too safe, why did you decide on this course of action for creating “Ice From the Sun”? ] ^ It wasn’t so much a decision as it was instinct. Because of the story of “Ice from the Sun,” the more experimental visual design seemed appropriate. But beyond this, there was no debate over how this movie should look. It was what I felt like doing…so I did it. And I had an incredible cast and crew who trusted me. Everyone involved with that movie was more interested in supporting their director than they were with “playing it safe.” That makes me very lucky to have had these great people to work with.
[ Your upcoming “Scrapbook” offers a disturbing psychological plot twist with a serial killer forcing his victims to write about their torture before they are killed. What were your challenges in bringing the internal hell of the doomed characters’ emotional horrors out into a vivid open depiction? ] ^ The first challenge would have been to find actors who trusted me and believed in the movie. I already had that going into the project, so that challenge was nonexistent. In fact, I would have never pursued making “Scrapbook” if that level of trust and ambition from my actors was not evident at the onset. Tommy Biondo, who wrote the story, brought the project to me. He also already had Emily Haack selected as the leading actress. The project came looking for me instead of my creating it from scratch, so I already had two leading actors attached to this
very intimidating project. Which meant I didn’t have to go out and “convince” actors to trust the project. I just agreed to join on myself and we started making it.
The real challenge was getting good performances. “Scrapbook” is a character-based drama. I would not be able to rely on special effects or stylish visuals. The acting had to be good or the project would be a failure. Tom and Emily were challenged to be as real as possible. And I was challenged to direct actors better than I ever have before. I’m happy with what we did. The acting in “Scrapbook” is really good.
To get believable performances, we only scripted a couple of the scenes in “Scrapbook.” The rest of the movie was ad-libbed. Tom and Emily would just act on their instincts sometimes. During most takes I would talk to the actors, giving them instructions that they would have to react to immediately, which gave us great reactions and believable, real, off-the-top-of-their-head dialogue. We never discussed how the movie would end. We waited until the day we shot the final confrontation between Emily’s character and Tom’s character. By that time, Emily had gone through a lot, acting a character who had survived relentless abuse. So we sent Tom away and Emily and I sat down and planned out the final scene. I just asked her, after everything that her character had been through, what would she be feeling and what would she do here at the end of the movie? Emily’s answers to this became the final scene. Also, we did NOT inform Tom as to what would happen. We made him act out the scene having no idea what was going to transpire. I gave him minimal instructions, told him to just react to Emily’s lead, and we rolled camera as Tom learned the ending of the movie while he experienced it!
[ Some viewers may find the level of horror and bloodshed in your films to be a bit too much. Do you have boundaries where you say: “No, that’s going too far!”? ] ^ “Too far” depends on the project. Things we did in “Ice From the Sun” would have been going too far for “Savage Harvest.” Things we did in “Scrapbook” would have been going too far for “Ice From the Sun.” So nothing is out of bounds if it is appropriate to the individual movie. I have my own personal tastes as to where I’d like to not see things go, but sometimes this isn’t what is best for the movie. I don’t watch “Scrapbook” very much. As an individual movie watcher, the level of violence in “Scrapbook” is beyond what I want to see. But it is extremely appropriate for that movie, so I wouldn’t change a bit of it.
[ St. Louis is far removed from the major centers of filmmaking. What is the state of independent filmmaking in your region, and what were the joys and headaches of creating a feature film in St. Louis? ] ^ St. Louis is not a city that attracts or supports filmmaking. In a few ways, this is a hindrance. But in most ways, it is a blessing. You can stand out more here because everyone else in town isn’t walking around with a script under their arm like they are on the West Coast. So, when you need help, the city won’t help you but private citizens will. People aren’t exposed to filmmaking much here so they just think it’s cool and want to be involved in some way. Most people who help you out won’t even ask for money. So in that way, it’s great making movies here.
Because the industry is so feeble here, most film and video guys who attain any level of success leave town and head out to LA or New York. So if I do meet any other movie guys here, they are usually losers twice my age who have never actually finished a movie because they don’t have the drive and don’t want to make the sacrifices. This makes them bitter and jealous towards me, which results in them yapping my ear off about how great they are, trying to compensate for their lack of accomplishments. I hate that. They get bitter towards me because they don’t have the balls to go out and make their own movie. However, there are some young guys still here doing really creative stuff. You may not have heard of them yet, directors like Jason Christ, Doveed Linder, and Chad Eivins–they’re really good filmmakers and they aren’t afraid to take risks. They just haven’t done enough yet to generate any kind of a fan base. But I predict that they have great careers ahead of them.
[ What range of feedback have you received from your films? And how do you use this feedback in creating new films? ] ^ I’ve gotten a lot of great reviews and words of praise for my work. I also have heard that my movies suck. I am very critical of my own work, so I tend to start ripping apart a movie of mine as soon as I finish it. I get mad at all the things I did wrong. This fuels me to make the next movie because it will give me a chance to prove to myself that I can do better. So, in a way, I tend to not believe the good reviews and words of praise. And I do tend to agree with people who think my movies suck! In my way of thinking, each movie is a learning experience. It has to be bad in some way so that I can learn from the mistakes and make a better movie the next time around.
By the time I hear any good reviews or receive any negative criticism about a movie that I’ve finished, I have made up my own mind as to what I like and don’t like in that movie. I don’t listen to the good reviews because I’ve already figured out the mistakes I made and I’m pissed about them. And I don’t listen to all the negative criticism because it is usually telling me something I already know.
Also, you have to learn to differentiate between real problems in a movie and things that are just a matter of taste. When someone criticizes the acting in a movie of mine, I view that as a problem I created. I think “I should have done a better job of directing that cast; next movie I make I will improve my directing of actors.” But when someone complains about the strange narrative structure in “Ice From the Sun,” for example, or the jump cuts or the scratched up film or other things I did intentionally, you have to ignore the criticism. It goes back to making a movie that you are happy with as a director. You shouldn’t be trying to please as many people as possible. So, if you do something intentionally and you hear that people didn’t like it, I say f**k ’em. Let them go make their own movie.
[ A hypothetical situation: I walk into a video store and I see a copy of “Scream” or “The Sixth Sense” or some Hollywood fright-stuff…and next to it I see a copy of one of your films. What argument could you offer so I would choose the Eric Stanze film instead of the studio offering? ] ^ There will be more “Scream” sequels or rip-offs. Studio movies have multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that get a lot of people to rent these movies. These people may not have had the desire to seek these movies out on their own. They were influenced by the ad campaign. So all that money from the rentals goes into making the next sequel or rip-off, as well as paying for their accompanying ad campaigns.
You probably have never heard of the Eric Stanze movie on the shelf. That is why it needs your support. You may like “Ice From the Sun” or “Scrapbook” better than “Scream.” Or you may like “Scream” better. Either way, just because “Scream” has the expensive ad campaign does not mean it will better suit your individual tastes.
[ What’s next on your agenda? And where do you see yourself 10 years from now? ] ^ “Scrapbook” should be coming out on video next month. Once that is out, we will be releasing “The Severed Head Network,” a compilation of short experimental films and music videos. I produced this compilation with Jeremy Wallace, who was my producer on “Scrapbook” and “Ice From the Sun.” I directed a few of the music videos on this compilation. Jason Christ, who played a leading role in “Ice From the Sun,” directed a music video on this compilation called “Curveball: Pile of Junk.” This video stars me in the leading role, which was a blast. “Curveball: Pile of Junk” is making some major waves, winning a bunch of film and broadcasting awards, including a Cine Eagle Award, a Telly Award, and an Emmy. Jason deserves it. He did a fantastic job on this video.
As far as my next feature film, I am still not sure what I want to do next. I have several projects in various stages of development, including an odd, energetic, sci-fi road movie tentatively titled “American Pavement.” I am just finishing the first draft script of this, but I’m not completely sure that I want this to be my next film. I’m also developing an apocalyptic demon-possession movie, which right now feels like the right movie to make next.
As far as ten years from now, I have no clue where I’ll be. I assume I’ll be making more movies and making more money and have a decent career going. Or, I simply won’t have what it takes to be successful in this arena and I’ll end up working a shitty job in the corporate video industry. But I would sure feel screwed over if that happened, because I’ve already made a ton of sacrifices and worked my a*s off to have done what I’ve done up to now. And I’m prepared to continue working hard. If I never see any reward for all my blood, sweat, and tears, I’m going to be very pissed. I guess it all depends on how many people choose the Eric Stanze movie over the latest “Scream” movie in the video store.
But in a way, I’ve already received some reward. I’m very lucky to be working with the great people I have around me. And I’m very lucky to have been able to make the movies I’ve already made. Life is short and most people simply don’t get to do what they really want to do. When I just sit back and look at what I’ve done in the last ten years, I count myself extremely lucky. I’ve been making movies. For me, that’s been the most important goal in life.
All of Eric Stanze’s films are currently available on video from Sub Rosa Studios. Eric Stanze can be visited online at Wicked Pixel.
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