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Tuesday
Feb192013

BLOOD TYPE: THE TODD FARMER INTERVIEW

One of Hollywood’s most respected genre writers, Todd Farmer will soon revisit Australian shores to present his two-day industry and writing seminar at The Gold Coast Film Festival. As to be expected of the man behind such gruelling splatter classics as Jason X, My Bloody Valentine 3D and Drive Angry, the event won’t be your average ‘three-act template’ screen-writing gabfest.

“I guarantee Robert McKee does not have blood as part of his seminar, but I will,” Farmer says with a laugh, chatting with SCREEN-SPACE from his Los Angeles base. The 45-year-old Kentucky native has found constant work since landing in Hollywood in 1996, his commitment and natural talent catching the eye of screenwriter Dean Reisner (Play Misty for Me; Charley Varrick; The Enforcer). One of old Hollywood's finest craftsmen of thrillers, Riesner (pictured, right) mentored Farmer before passing away in 2002.

“He taught me how to deal with the gatekeepers, how to deal with the guys who can’t do what we do.” says Farmer, recalling the industry knowledge the veteran imparted about the new regimes, who bombard young writers with often inane ‘script notes’. “He taught me to argue those kinds of notes three times and if you can’t convince them, let it go and cash the cheque. We are here to tell the best story we can tell but at the end of the day, somebody is paying for that story. And I listened, because he wrote Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter and Starman, all great stuff.”

Farmer got his appetite for the horror/fantasy genre from many of the same sources as the rest of his generation (“I grew up reading Stephen King, so that’s a big part of it, as well as Jaws, Alien, Aliens, Halloween and the Star Wars trilogy.”) and has parlayed his talent into a career highlighted by new spins on old franchises.

“I wrote a draft of Freddy vs Jason, which was fun, so I’d like to actually work with ‘Freddy’. We also did a draft for a new Hellraiser, which was a thrill and I would’ve like to have seen come to life,” he says. “I grew up with those movies and I like re-telling their stories.” Also doing the rounds are unproduced treatments for the Halloween and Ghost Rider properties; these works are highly favoured amongst genre-friendly industry insiders, but are unlikely to see the light of day.

His most successful films to-date have been the spectral thriller The Messengers, on which he recieved a 'Story by' credit (featuring a pre-stardom Kristen Stewart; pictured, above left), and the three-dimensional remake of the seminal 1981 slasher, My Bloody Valentine, helmed by his professional partner, director Patrick Lussier. The $100million global take of his 2009 reworking of the legend of ‘The Miner’ still eases the sting of failure the pair felt on their 2011 follow-up project, Drive Angry, starring Nicholas Cage and Amber Heard.

“That was a tough one because, apart from some constraints that were imposed because of the budget, Drive Angry was exactly the movie we wanted to make,” Farmer recalls of the experience. The critical drubbing and meagre box-office still rankle the writer, though his outlook has become pragmatic over time. “The fact that people just didn’t go and see it, that hurt. Those that saw it seemed to have really liked it. Those that didn’t (like it), I’m fine with that, too. We knew we were making a film that was either a love-or-hate prospect. What I don’t ever want to do is make movies that people go to see and forget after a while.”

The vicissitudes of fanboy response was also experienced after the release of Jason X (pictured, right), his 2001 relaunching of the iconic hockey-mask killer of the Friday the 13th franchise, directed by the late James Isaac. “With Jason Vorhees, there had been nine other movies and it was time to do something different. Because of Freddy vs Jason, there was no way we could tell a story that took place in the present,” recalls Farmer of the narrative logic that took the machete wielding villain into orbit. “I suggested we set it in the future, the original idea being to have it in sort of a Blade Runner-type world. But early on we knew we couldn’t afford to create cities of neon and stuff that like that, so I said ‘Alright, fine, let’s make it Alien and put it on a spaceship.’”  

Todd Farmer is enthused about the future of big-screen horror, an optimism he hopes to share with young Australian screenwriters at the event in April. When asked if the glory days of horror films were a thing of the past, he riles up. “No, man, they’re still around!” he bellows, the Kentucky accent peeking through for the first time in our chat. “Back when I started, there were only a couple of outfits making horror movies, Dimension and New Line. Everybody looked down their noses at it, thought that horror was beneath them,” he recalls. “Then Scream came out and changed the landscape. Then The Ring was a hit, and there were a whole lot of films taken from Asian horror. Then, torture porn ran its course. Now, every studio has a genre department, though admittedly some are doing it not so good and others are clearly better than others. But horror is here to stay.”

Todd Farmer will be hosting The Gold Coast Film Festival’s 2013 Screenwriting Seminar, a two-day event to be held April 22-23. Bookings are essential and available at The Gold Coast Film Festival website.   

Tuesday
Oct302012

NECRO-NOVACASTRIANS: NEWCASTLE'S DAY OF THE DEAD

Now in it's fourth terrifyingly fun year, the brrrrrain-child of a fun-loving group of zombie nuts is producing some short film shockers in Steel City.

The nomadic nature of the great shuffling undead will be celebrated in the port city of Newcastle on Australia’s eastern seaboard this weekend with the annual Zombie March (pictured, above, in 2011) taking place through its streets and parklands. In conjunction with the cosplay extravaganza will be the short film event Scream Screen, featuring next-to-no-budget efforts from local filmmakers who will get to watch their blood-drenched efforts on the big-screen at Tower Cinemas in the dead centre of town.

“Zombies hit such a nerve for people, especially in Newcastle. My sponsors all came on board because they are zombie fans,” says Ella Reed (pictured, right), one of the founding members of the Newcastle Undead Society, the ever-growing band of living, breathing aficionados who drive the event forward. “Two friends and I were encouraged to apply for some funding from a youth arts body,” she recalls. “We thought of the most ridiculous idea we could and they gave us a ridiculous amount of money.”

From humble beginnings, the Zombie March has taken on an epic sense of the absurd and is enjoying the kind of year-to-year growth in popularity that would be the envy of many event organisers. “It started small with around 100 zombies marching through huge amounts of rain and the footy grand final to now having around 400 zombies march,” says Reed, a born-and-bred Novacastrian. “The hope is to continue to expand and grow the event to turn it into a large scale festival with zombie art, zombie zines, comics and stories. We keep infecting so we’ll get there one day.”

Reed is particularly enthused with the film festival component. “There is a theme of black comedy for this year. I like people using their sense of humor for this topic, it makes it more morbid. Each year the films get better and better, I’m excited to see what people come up with every year.” The nine finalists, which feature such pun-tastic titles as ‘Board and Gored’, ‘The Undead and the Unsuitable’ and ‘A Break in the Monotony’, will be judged by ABC Radio’s Rod Quinn, Screen-Space’s own Simon Foster and evergreen Newcastle celebrity, Maynard. The 2011 winner, Paul A Verhoef's thrilling splatterfest Unconsumed, can be viewed below.

The festering-ivities (alright, enough puns) start shuffling at Newcastle Museum from 2.00pm and will finish in King Street for the Scream Screen showings.

Saturday
Sep082012

THE NATURE OF THINGS: THE LEE GAMBIN INTERVIEW

Between penning acclaimed plays (the Stephen King opus, King of Bangor) and contributing features to Fangoria magazine, Melbourne-based author Lee Gambin (pictured, below, with Molly) writes books on the subject that most inspires him - the horror film. The 33 year-old sat with SCREEN-SPACE at a bustling Melbourne eatery to talk about his soon-to-be-published work, Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, an in-depth analysis of the sub-genre known as eco-horror.


Why this book, why now?

It is a favourite sub-genre of mine, one of many, and it is very much under-discussed. It sometimes manages to creep into some film theory books but no one has really tackled it in depth. I grew up loving these sorts of films, watching them all the time. Most of them did come out of the 1970s, to cash in on the environmental movement, which was really taking shape, on the back of the hippy culture. The anti-war anger was subsiding and the new cause was the climate. By the time the 80s came about, Greenpeace and Wilderness Society and PETA were huge and the message was that we better look after the environment or it will turn on us.

By what characteristics did eco-horror define itself?

These films brought us the ‘new monster’; rather than having some supernatural creature, it was just rats or dogs or rabbits or some such thing. Mother Nature turning on mankind. And going through it, I realised it actually has spawned a whole lot of subgenres within itself, such as the mutated monster films, or the ‘human help’ films, like Willard or Jennifer, where outcast people enlist the help of animals to do their bidding. It is not as massively popular as the slasher genre or demonic-themed films, but eco-horror was still huge, particularly through the 70s and 80s. And it still survives today, in those films by Asylum, things like Dino-croc.

What were the films that have emerged as the most influential in the eco-horror genre?

The two that really stand out as pivotal moments in the field, that provided credibility for the genre, are The Birds and Jaws. But for me, I loved all the films that were made as Jaws rip-offs. Things like Tentacles, which was awful but wonderful, or Orca, which was a genuinely beautiful film. Films like Piranha and Night of the Lepus. I am a huge fan of all the Bert I. Gordon movies, like Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants. All the killer insect movies, like The Swarm. And many of these films are so seldom seen.

And I discovered that many films are not specifically credited as eco-horror works but...

...right! Films like The Corpse Grinders, which was about these cat food entrepreneurs who aren’t getting any business so they start to grind corpses into their cat food and the cats that are eating it start to develop a taste for humans.

How are the sub-genres inherent to eco-horror represented in the book (pictured, left)?

The book discusses these in the different chapters, which was hard to (categorize) because there are heaps of different, say, killer dog films, so I had to have a whole chapter about dogs, or insects. There are heaps of those giant creature, ‘atomic age’ films, like Tarantula, and lots of those cold war fear and anxiety films, like It Came From Beneath The Sea. Then we have chapters on such things as stock characters in eco-horror. Just like slasher films have ‘the final girl’ and ‘the masked killer’, eco-horror has the ‘wise native character’ who already knows about the monster or the ‘specialist’ who sympathises with the animal or, and this is very different from other horror genres, the ‘male protagonist’.

As well-versed as you are on the subject, were there aspects of the genre that you discovered for the first time in your research?

Oh, absolutely! Most of it was to do with the production side of the films. For example, I had no idea that Joan McCall, who was in Grizzly, actually wrote a screenplay for a sequel that never got made. And that it would have had George Clooney and Laura Dern in the cast. There were some amazing things, like that Sylveser Stallone was supposed to Squirm. So many amazing elements that added to the fun of writing it. The book is a combination of analytical and info but very much written in my voice, so it’s not an academic piece but it also kind of is (laughs). And it is all about animals. I have been asked if it covers stuff like Day of the Triffids, but no. I could have done that but then you get into a territory that would have to include natural disaster movies and I’m not going to sit and write about stuff like Twister. I don’t really care about them. I mean I do love a lot of those films, but...y’know.

Are there Australian eco-horror films?

The eco-horror message is perfectly condensed in The Long Weekend (pictured, right), one of the greatest Aussie films.

And were eco-horror films always the by-product of the B-movie producers?

Well, there was Jaws and The Swarm and Cujo, films that were backed by the major studios. Every now and then, the majors would surprise with an eco-horror film like Warner Bros did with The Pack (pictured, top). But most of them were B-pictures from studios like American International Pictures, starting with Frogs (video, below). Which I think has helped to grow the genre’s cult status.

I guess, finally, are eco-horror films a thing of the past? Are the fears that drive them no longer the fears of the larger society?

Oh God, no! There is a Korean film called Pig Hunt. Major studio films like Liam Neeson’s one, The Grey, which is all about wolves. All those wonderful Asylum films, like Sharktopus and what not. There will always be those surprise ones, like The Grey, that sell themselves as ‘action-thrillers’ but which are really just the latest variation on the great B-movie eco-horror traditions.

Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film is available via mail order through Midnight Marquee Press and at selected specialist book stores.

Friday
Sep072012

WHITEOUT: A RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW

After an auspicious start in films like Much Ado About Nothing and The Last Days of Disco, British actress Kate Beckinsale has struggled to be taken seriously. She's talented and beautiful, but her choices have been questionable. I submit her barely-seen 2009 thriller Whiteout as Exhibit A....

Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Machet, Alex O'Loughlin, Tom Skerritt and Columbus Short.
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey W Hayes, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber; based upon the graphic novel by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber.
Director: Dominic Sena.

Rating: 1.5/5

Gallons of the titular correction fluid may have helped Dominic Sena’s abysmal thriller if it had been applied at just about any juncture during the graphic novel-to-feature film script stage. Despite the occasional upside (some cool special effects – no pun intended – and the always reliable Tom Skerritt), Whiteout is an icky, snowbound murder-mystery of absolutely no consequence at all.

The only people who get off lightly are the fanboys who will watch for their latest, sweaty glimpse of English beauty Kate Beckinsale. The star of Underworld and, more recently, the much-maligned Total Recall reboot, gives her fans a lingering glimpse of her pristine tighty-whiteys, mooning the camera during the opening credits; if that’s all you’re after, you’re free to go at the 8 minute mark.

Kate's undie-flash aside, the most thrilling scene in the film is a pre-credit flashback that puts the viewer in the midst of a shoot-out on board a huge Russian aircraft, circa 1987. The plane crashes into the brutally inhospitable nether-regions of Antarctica and is lost to the elements until 20 years later, when some personnel from the Amundsen-Scott Research Station stumble upon her and her valuable booty.

Sena, who peaked early in his career with the terrific Brad Pitt/David Duchovny thriller Kalifornia (1993) before thriving with Hollywood hokum like Swordfish (2001) and Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) before bottoming out with the Nicholas Cage travesty Season of the Witch (2011), borrows some cues from great snowbound thrillers such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – in fact, any tension that floats to the surface in the film’s first half comes from not knowing what all the fuss is about (is it alien?) and why men are dying because of it (SPOILER ALERT – it’s diamonds...yawn).  Beckinsale plays the outpost’s Federal marshal, Carrie Stetko, serving out a period of self-banishment after a drug bust in Miami ended with her partner dead. (Miami to Antarctica?? That’s a lot of guilt she’s dealing with!)  

Things go particularly bad with the introduction of UN investigative officer Robert Pryce, played by Gabriel Macht. Not just because he is a totally irrelevant character whose presence is never more than a plot red herring, despite extended dialogue and some lacklustre romantic chemistry with Beckinsale. The real downside of the character’s introduction is Macht who, as evidenced here and as the title character in that other dire graphic novel adaptation The Spirit, is one of the worst actors in Hollywood today.

A well-staged battle with the killer in a driving snow storm holds attention momentarily, but there’s no saving Whiteout from the brown heap of really bad American movies of the last few years. It’s doubly confounding that it should be such a misfire, coming as it does from the Dark Castle Entertainment, the horror genre arm of mega-producer Joel Silver’s Warner Bros-based production company that is overseen by Robert Zemeckis.

And Kate Beckinsale needs to pry herself free of the influence that her husband and Underworld director Len Wiseman has over her career choices – there is a fine actress behind all this macho-genre crap that his resume suggests he favours and in which she keeps appearing. Anymore stinkers like Whiteout and she’ll find herself TV-bound to topline another mediocre cop show (‘CSI: Anchorage’, perhaps – she’s already got an audition reel....)

Sunday
Jul292012

THE BURROWERS: A RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW

First glimpsed by Australian audiences at the 2009 Melbourne Film Festival, J.T. Petty's The Burrowers all but vanished from the public's eye. SCREEN-SPACE's second Retrospective Review aims to bring this undervalued creature feature the prominence it deserves.

Stars: Clancy Brown, William Mapother, Karl Geary, Doug Hutchison, Laura Leighton and Jocelin Donahue.
Writer/Director: J.T. Petty

Rating: 3.5/5

An atmospheric, slightly loopy mix of western lore and monster movie shocks – best described as The Searchers meets The Thing – The Burrowers is a very cool movie. Director J.T Petty's nasty romp followed up Alex Turner's Dead Birds (2004) and preceeded John Geddes Exit Humanity (2011) in Old West/monster movie mash-up genre; it may well be the best of them.

In 1879, the earliest white settlers are barely surviving in homesteads far removed from civilisation. When a young family goes missing, a band of misfit idealists and gruff men of the land set out on a journey into the Dakota wilderness to find them. For Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), the mission is personal - he was to marry the beautiful Maryanne (Jocelin Donahue); Will Parcher (William Mapother) and John Clay (Clancy Brown) are experienced Indian fighters, convinced the local natives have abducted and murdered the family.

At first relying on the sociopathic leader of the local army battalion, Henry Victor (Doug Hutchison, a veteran of similar monster-movie madness, having starred as ‘Eugene Tooms’ in The X-Files), the group soon break away to travel the open plains alone. But it is when night falls, and the long grasses near their campfire hum with the drooling evilness of the creatures from beneath the earth, that the film takes flight as a monster movie of shuddering effectiveness.

Petty adapts his own episodic internet series with many of the same cast, including Brown and Mapother (cousin of Thomas Cruise Mapother III). He knows these characters very well and fleshes them out to terrific comic and dramatic effect. But best of all, he knows what scares us. His sinewy monsters, stalking the unaware on all fours, their boney elbows and knees protruding like those of bats scurrying across open ground, are very effective. He keeps them and the mystery of their existence hidden for much of the film, finally unleashing their physicality and true horror in a final reel shocker.

Though shot on a measly US$7million budget, The Burrowers recreates the early West and envisions pure evil with an A-grade attention to detail. As a throwback to the great B-movies of years gone by, it echoes the middle America-vs-monster movie Tremors (1990), the astronauts-vs-monster movie Alien (1979) and the lost campers-vs-monster movie Prophecy (1979). Like those films, The Burrowers is a choice example of this paranoid, claustrophobic, tummy-tightening genre.