It’s a treat to find an underground filmmaker dedicated to genre and tradition for what they are. Not to trash hard-core revisionists, who keep things interesting, especially when a style goes stale; they work in spite of those who resist “typecasting,” which is, obviously, part of the game. And yet genres have remained strong through minor adjustment, to bolster revisionism that is cheered so much. (How often does a critic discuss how a film “transcends” genre?)
An expressionist tribute, Jim Towns’ 2009 Prometheus Triumphant is fine-tuned to depict its creator’s sensibility. His honest, natural approach removes the cold, academic feel common to such projects, while avoiding the temptation for parody. His latest film, House of Bad, fuses the heist film with supernatural horror (in spite of an unfortunately Tyler Perry-esqe title) with no taint of recent cross-promotion exploitation, too common in popular music.
I caught up with Towns over email to discuss his choice for a hybrid film, his love of film history, and his work in light of the current cinema.
Can you discuss how you came across the idea to fuse the crime genre with horror in House of Bad?
In 2009 my first film Prometheus had just been picked up, and I was working up some ideas for next projects. One of them was this idea about three sisters – one of them a junkie – on the run with a suitcase full of stolen drugs, who had to hide out in a motel room for weeks – it was set in a motel then. I wrote about thirty pages and realized that unless it went somewhere the audience didn’t expect, it was going to get boring very quickly. The girls can only take so many showers, after all. So I let it sit for a while and wrote a few other screenplays. When I revisited it in 2011, it was the most natural jump for me to go ‘what if this place they’re hiding in is haunted? What if something horrible happened there?’ And then it was on. I like idea of straddling the horror/heist genres, to keep the viewer not knowing where the danger was coming from next- outside the house, or inside it. Nowhere is safe. I figured that would keep people watching.
I know you have a taste for film history, based on your earlier film, Prometheus Triumphant. Would you discuss how earlier styles influenced this film, if at all?
Coming out of fine art, as well as what I guess you’d call ‘arthouse’ filmmaking, the main thing I took away was the idea of NOT making the medium invisible. I enjoy films that have an almost-tactile texture to them- watching Prometheus; you can tell I obviously appreciate the patina of dust and scratches many early films have acquired over almost a century. Some more recent films have really captured this idea of the screen as a filter more than a window-Inarritu’s 21 Grams and Tony Scott’s Man on Fire are great examples. I think that the actual appearance of the image can in some ways be sympathetic to what’s happening on screen at the moment, so I like to sometimes push the actual film/video elements to capture that emotion as well. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to see the brushstrokes. It’s hard to explain in words – the best example is, I saw a 70mm print of The Road Warrior a few years back that was totally effed up – light damaged, dirty, scratched. It looked like the physical film itself had gone through the apocalypse along with the characters and cars you were watching. It was awesome.
I’d like to hear you discuss current horror trends, what inspires you, if any, and perhaps, what you deliberately avoided.
I don’t watch horror movies that start with a group of kids heading up to a remote family cabin to party. Because come on, really? There’s a LOT of crap out there right now… like oceans of it in the small-budget world, and it’s hard to sift through to find the gems, but they are there.
I try to watch a healthy range of what’s coming out in horror, from large to no-budget, to stay current with what’s succeeding and what’s not – financially and artistically. Right now you’ve got most studios churning out a ton of supernatural stuff, because it’s cheap and you can be scary, but still have a PG-13 rating to get teens in the theater- as opposed to a slasher remake like Last House on the Left (which I didn’t hate). It’s the same as that whole Asian-inspired thing that happened a few years back where they remade every Japanese horror film from the last ten years, all the way down to that flick with Jennifer Connelly, Dark Water. ‘Look out! The water is evil!’… This trend will go for a while, then die down. Then the next no-budget film like Paranormal Activity will come out and make a splash, and they’ll do their inflated takes on it. It’s like the horror movie Circle of Life.
I do enjoy some of the studio entries – the production value is always gorgeous, after all, and they get a high degree of acting talent. But I think what really scares people is the unpredictability (sometimes downright irresponsibility) of films not made under the aegis of studio supervision, test audience input, marketing metrics, what have you. The new generation of Texas Chainsaw movies are good films. Well-conceived, beautifully shot, great performances… but they’re not that scary. Except for R. Lee Ermey… that performance is totally horrifying, haha.
My point is, all that money and resources can actually work against you and soften the raw visceral impact that horror films depend upon, and that’s something I’m careful about when making my own stuff. The original Hooper Chainsaw looks like a friggin’ snuff film- it makes you think you’re watching the scariest documentary ever made, haha. There’s this subconscious feeling that maybe you can’t actually trust the people that made the movie you’re watching- like riding a rickety roller coaster, and that’s truly scary because you can’t depend upon the movie to end in one of the four-or-five predictable tropes. So I’m always into films that exist in this outland area of filmmaking, but are really well made, films like Let the Right One In, Rare Exports and Stakeland.
Your use of one principal location is clever in both the budgetary and narrative sense. How important was the theme of claustrophobia to you?
Very. The single location for House of Bad was obviously a budgetary choice to start with, but it’s absolutely at the crux of the story. I’m not going to say the house was one of the characters, because everyone says stuff like that and it’s pretty boring by now. But it was all a very conscious effort between me, my DP Chad Courtney, and my art director Nikki Nemzer to create the same feeling in the viewer as the girl characters are going through – covering all the window with newspapers to block out the view outside, keeping the lighting dimmed both day and night, just these filtered shafts from outside, and every once in a while cutting to an exterior shot to show where the girls couldn’t go. Every trick we could manage to make your whole being just scream to be let out of that house.
I think horror only really works when it taps into our deep-seeded phobias. The two biggies, probably our most primal ones – claustrophobia and agoraphobia – come from when our ancestors lived in caves and were hunted by wolves. They’re universal. They come up in everything from Poe’s stories to I Spit on your Grave – this fear of either being trapped, or of being exposed and vulnerable in the open – they’re like twin pillars of terror for a modern society that, if you think about it, has no reasonable need to fear open or enclosed spaces anymore, and yet we do- that’s how ingrained they are in our ape brain.
Fun fact: I actually stayed at the location the entire time we were shooting there, sleeping there at night after we’d wrap. It was a house in Pasadena that belonged to a friend of my wife and I. She went out of town while we took her place over, so I stayed to keep an eye on things while we filmed. I was obviously very busy and focused on the job, and then one day I realized I hadn’t been off the premises in at least four days. I was probably going a little stir crazy. But I think that helped me, going through the same cabin fever the characters were struggling with.
As a low budget production, I’m curious about how this one went as compared to others.
I’ve had some tough shoots in the past. I’ve had films fall apart the weekend before filming, I’ve had to walk away from projects I l was really excited about doing, and I’ve written for others and been astounded at how dysfunctional a set can be- and it always ends up showing on screen. But Filming House of Bad was one of the best experiences of my life. Like, up there with my honeymoon. Okay, not quite. But it was a great time. We collected a fantastic and super-talented little crew, where everyone could do one-and-a-half jobs, so we needed less people. And they all were a blast to be around for those long hours. That’s another thing people always say, but usually they’re lying and I’m not. On any film it always seems you have at least one d******d in the mix- it’s like the law of averages. But we managed not to. The shoot was hard, of course. We saved money by shooting on a very compressed schedule, but of course that meant regularly doing 10-12 page days, which is unheard of in ‘legitimate’ filmmaking. But it’s achievable, and not really that hard. The secret, along with hiring the right people, is just knowing exactly what you need to shoot going in- being prepared, being over-prepared- with storyboards, breakdowns, uber-detailed shot lists, whatever you need so that almost everything you’re shooting is worth the time, and you’re not wasting valuable minutes trying to ‘find it’. A filmmaker who walks on set without an absolutely clear idea of what he or she wants, to me, is frankly being grossly irresponsible with the trust they’ve been given.
Our post-production, on the other hand, was pretty challenging. It took a long time- over a year, because we were pulling in favors from people who work in the studio world, on films like Public Enemies, etc. So we had to work around a lot of schedules to get our edit, sound, score, color and VFX done. But it was worth the wait, since we got studio-caliber talent to give the film that same high-quality for the modest budget we had.
Many gangster films thrived on various locations, with all the grandeur the scope suggests, except for invasion flicks like The Petrified Forest and Key Largo. I’m curious if this tradition inspires you at all, while recent home invasions, like Funny Games, veer towards extremism.
Key Largo’s one of my all-time favorite films. I once spent the better part of a year- I think it was 1998- watching only films that were made before 1950. I spent a month alone watching only Bogart films like Key Largo, High Sierra and To Have and Have Not. I still read more early-20th century pulp than I do anything else- Raymond Chandler, Sax Rohmer, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith. I often listen to The Shadow or Inner Sanctum radio shows at night before bed to relax my brain. While I enjoy the hell out of a lot of modern films, I think my tastes have always run towards an older style of drama. Smarter instead of just clever, character-based rather than dependent upon random plot twists, purposely leaving room in the narrative for the viewer to fill in the gaps, rather than pandering to them by explaining every single element and event. Just a classier way of storytelling. I think you can do that, and still be compelling to an audience in the 21st century. Everyone doesn’t have to understand everything about the film the first time they watch it. If they like it, they’ll watch it again and get more and more each time.
You used Funny Games as an example. I thought it was good (both the European & American versions), but it was like torture to watch. Which is the point, of course, I realize. But I mention it because that’s something else I’m a firm believer in- the idea that films have to be at least in some small way enjoyable to watch. That seems like an idiotic statement, right? Of course they have to. But if you think for a second about serious movies, super-serious films like Schindler’s List. It’s a film about heroism in the face of atrocity. It shows awful things happening to innocent people. At the same time, it still manages to be an enjoyable viewing experience. Sad, but incredibly compelling. There are little moments of brevity. It’s not a mordant three-hour trek through human misery. If it were, the thing would be unwatchable. So in some small way, even if the film you’re making is about horrendous stuff… ESPECIALLY if it is, as a filmmaker I think you have to find a way to make it fun for people to watch. Otherwise I think you’re kinda just punishing your viewers, or worse, giving them a kind-of cathartic release in watching people be tortured and/or killed. And making money off that, which is kind of gross to me as well. It’s not about the content; it’s about the way you choose to deliver the content. We hear about that kind of inhumane s**t every day, this senseless hurt and violence, I don’t really see the point in just regurgitating it on screen, unless there’s a larger point to be made? I just think as filmmakers we can be more inventive with our storytelling. I’m not down on violence or gore or anything in films, I love all that stuff. Seriously. Just make it worth 90 minutes of my life. Don’t make me sorry I didn’t just re-watch Dog Soldiers for the thirtieth time.
With a cast of mostly women, can you discuss what you looked for in your performers? Is there a certain role on which you think this film relies?
I think Sadie Katz’s character Sirah is the key. She’s the audience’s heart, that middle child who just wants everything to be okay. Sirah doesn’t start out as a hero in any way. Really, she’s the most timid of all three. But when circumstances force her into action she does it, and reveals a depth and strength she (and the viewers) didn’t think she had, and we naturally root for her.
When it came to casting, I was after different qualities for the three different roles in the film. The contrast between the three was the critical element. All three characters had to be very clearly demarcated so there was no room for confusion as to motivations, etc. when things started getting crazy in the film. Sadie had originally auditioned for the Teig character, and she brought this edgy, almost out-of-control rage to it that was amazing to see, but would have been hard to sustain for 90 minutes. Heather Tyler came to me through my producers, who had seen her in a one-woman play. She was probably the most different from the character she played. Cheryl Sands is one of those effortless actors who you say action and she just does it, and is great. It’s like some kind of alchemy.
Do you ever consider the place for women in traditional slasher films, the sexual victims and the virginal “final girls,” when making your films?
Seriously, no, I don’t think I think about it consciously… I think that whole sexual Darwinism survival cliché grew out of the fact that the main actresses in slasher films were more established and wouldn’t do nudity. So the sex scenes were left to the more minor actresses, who naturally die earlier on than the main girl. That’s why I made all the actresses in House of Bad get naked, so there’s no predicting who will survive.
Slasher films are all about cheating death. If you can just run fast enough, think quick enough, duck at the right moment, you can survive. In real life people get cancer, innocent bystanders get shot, kids get killed by drunk drivers. It’s a thousand times more horrifying than some dude running around with a machete, if you think about it. The sheer randomness- there’s no reason to death at all. It often comes out of nowhere, and we’re powerless to stop it in the end. Slasher films let us pretend that we have a say in our own fate, they give us the vicarious feeling that we have some power over death. It’s like therapy, except you usually don’t spill Diet Coke in your lap during therapy.
You upcoming feature, 13 Girls, also obviously relies on women. It seems as if you have a more sympathetic stance toward then gender, than the objectifying female presence in Prometheus. Can you discuss why the change since then?
That’s an interesting comparison. Prometheus’ story was really built around a variety of themes and motifs appropriated from films we were emulating style-wise as well – Nosferatu, Caligari, Phantom of the Opera – and others. So that’s why you have the Esmeralda character treated as both a piece of flesh, and also this paragon of womanhood. Thinking back, that was maybe a carry-over from our source material, rather than a conscious decision.
You’re always looking for things that you do better than your competitors in filmmaking. One of those things for me, as I’ve grown as a writer over the last ten years, is this ability to write rounded, believable female characters. Maybe its because I was raised by a single mother, maybe it’s a past-life thing, who knows – but it’s been a gift in that I was able to attract very talented actresses like Sadie, Heather & Cheryl to HoB. Sadie is the lead in 13 Girls, which will feature other great actresses like Jamie Bernadette, Stef Dawson, and hopefully some legendary female horror icons like PJ Soles, because they like the way I write women. I’m a firm believer that to be really pulled into a film, you have to care about the characters, and for you to care about the characters they have to feel real, like someone you know. It’s all about the verisimilitude.
How do you feel about remake-crazy studio films, especially horror? If you had the chance to remake one classic horror film – assuming you’d be delighted to take on a legacy – which would it be and why?
Studios remake things, because then whatever they’re making is already a proven property- it’s been market-tested. That’s why they reboot hits like Total Recall, and don’t remake The Golden Child. They’ve been doing this ever since the 30’s when they remade all the silents into talkies. They remade Ben Hur and Robin Hood in the 30’s and they remade Mystery of the Wax Museum in the 50’s and The Thing in the 80’s and Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street in the last few years, and they’ll keep doing it. Some of those remakes blow, some are great. Carpenter’s TheThing is fantastic. I think the Steven Sommers Mummy films are fun, and I really like Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Doesn’t mean I don’t like the original versions, too.
Film is a bizarre art form. It has this communal thing, where viewers feel like they have a certain ownership in your work. That’s what’s great about the medium, but it comes with its share of grief, too. I got full-on laughed at during my first short film screening in 2003. Like out loud. If you’re going to sustain a career making movies, you very quickly resign yourself to the fact that some people are going to love whatever you do, some are going to hate it. Some are going to decide they hate it before they’ve even seen it, and they’re not budging. You can’t please everyone. The trick is to just make a rocking movie, I guess, something that you would love to go see if someone else had made it.
I’d love to do a steampunk-inspired version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of all the classic horror icons, that’s the one that, if we’re honest, has NEVER really been done exceptionally well. The book itself is a brilliant concept but falls way short on drama, and films have more-or-less followed its lead. Jekyll’s ‘evil’ alter ego is far-too often just, well, kinda rude, rather than actually evil. A few films have touched on the pool of savagery that could be exploited, but I think there’s still an unrealized opportunity there to infuse the Victorian vibe of the story with some real kinetic elements, not dissimilar to Guy Ritchie’s Holmes films- maybe a little less cheeky, though. Okay, maybe a lot less.
There’s a few bizarre little films I think deserve a new incarnation, like Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar, which stars Lon Chaney Sr., about a crippled stage magician who goes to Africa and becomes a witch doctor. Browning’s biographer and all-around classic horror guru David J. Skal called Zanzibar the most ‘Emotionally corrosive’ film of Browning’s career. That’d be worth a shot, right?
Ever see the Shaw Brothers’ Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires? That totally needs a fresh take. Come on, it’s got Van Helsing’s daughter fighting samurai vampires. It’d be awesome. Someday, maybe.