As big-screen horror becomes increasingly focused on remakes and endless sequels, I find that the most interesting horror films on the small screen. Of course there’s a lot of the entrails of horror movie waste to wade through to get to the meaty specimens, but Dave Parker is one name that I’ve been on the lookout for ever since The Dead Hate the Living, a labor of love tribute to Italian giallo with an American sensibility released straight-to-video in 2000. It was the culmination of his love of horror films and his apprenticeship at Full Moon Entertainment under Charles Band, the king of direct-to-video horror and sci-fi in the nineties.
It took almost ten years for Parker’s second solo feature, but in the meantime he continued working within the business as an editor, writer and director of documentaries created as DVD supplements for genre films such as The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Spider-Man 2 and Superman Returns. It was like a second apprenticeship that paid off with The Hills Run Red, the first original title from the direct-to-DVD Warner Premiere line. Are they undiscovered horror masterpieces? Not exactly. Parker is less sure with actors than he is with a camera and even in The Hills Run Red, his unknown leads deliver rather generic performances in the face of sassy sexpot Sophie Monk and wily veteran character man William Sadler, one of the criminally unsung actors of the past couple of decades.
But Parker overcomes the weakness of the performances with an onscreen camaraderie between the characters that adds a touch of authenticity to their enterprises and an affection that makes us care. That affection extends to all levels of his direction: both films feel lovingly created, full of details that make the most of limited resources. In The Dead Hate the Living, a film about young filmmakers creating their own low budget horror, his limitations become the defining elements of their resources. The Hills Run Red makes two-for-two for Parker in films about horror movie buffs whose own moviemaking efforts get tangled with real horrors directly related to their film. Clever homages abound in both, but they’re more subtle and savvy in The Hills Run Red. Most importantly, it’s fun watching his films, and fun is exactly what’s missing from so many of the horror movies on screens big and small nowadays. [Read my review of The Hills Run Red here.]
I had an opportunity for a brief phone interview with Dave Parker, who broke away from a meeting and squeezed me into what turned out to be a very busy day for the director (he wouldn’t say what he was working on, just that he had something in development). “I grew up in the VHS boom but by twelve I was voraciously seeing everything that came out at the theater as well, as far as horror films go,” he explained when I asked about the origins of his horror-philia, and we went from there.
Before you made The Dead Hate The Living you worked with Charles Band at Full Moon Entertainment, working in all sorts of capacities for the company. Was this your version of a Roger Corman apprenticeship?
Exactly. I learned a lot working for Charlie Band and it was a really great time. I really enjoyed working there, it was a great group of people and I met a lot of very talented people behind the scenes on crews, and in front as well, who went on to do some pretty amazing things. It was fun earning as you were learning so it was kind of ideal, you just jumped in and did stuff. I’ve got no complaints. Charlie was really a supporter and a nurturer and gave people chances. He was making comic books for the nineties, is what he was always saying, living comic books, and I like that aesthetic. He, on no money, created these crazy little pictures that definitely had an identifiable brand and look and feel to them. It’s a shame, there should be more companies like that out there.
And after all those years you got to direct a film for him.
Exactly. It was a relatively easy thing and he left me pretty much alone to do what I wanted, which was pretty nice. He had faith. And he’s still making movies.
The Dead Hate The Living came out of nowhere for me and I found it to be an affectionate tribute to horror, and to giallo in particular, and at the same time you made your own thing out of it.
Well thank you. It’s a polarizing film. It’s weird, you always look at your first film with half affection and half, “Man, if I knew then what I knew now about filmmaking and editing and things goâ€¦” It would be the same but it would feel better paced.
The editing is tighter and more sophisticated in The Hills Run Red.
The important thing is I couldn’t edit the movie myself. I think as a director, at least for me, I’m too close to the material to be objective and make some of those painful cuts you sometimes have to do for pacing. We were fortunate that I had a really great editorial team.
Between the two you’ve been busy working in the industry writing, directing and editing making-of featurettes for the DVD releases of genre movies almost exclusively.
Not horror movies as much as superhero and fantasy and sci-fi films, which is kind of curious because we always got these big movie but we never got the big horror movies. I was always like, “When am I going to get to do a documentary on one of these big horror movies?” I guess the Masters of Horror documentary [for the DVD release of the TV series] filled in that gap there.
I saw the documentary on the making of The Hills Run Red and it communicates a sense of excitement from the entire crew of getting this film made.
Oh yeah, ten years between movies, you’re pretty stoked to actually do a movie. And just the whole adventure of going to Bulgaria and filming in wild country, it was a blast. I was on a natural high for the entire time I was there.
You had developed this film as an independent production before Warner Premiere stepped in, is that correct?
Yes. The original script was brought to us by a company out of New York called Fever Dreams and they met with several filmmakers and producing/directing partnerships while they were out on the West Coast. So we got the script and I made a presentation with conceptual art and notes on the script and they liked what they heard and saw and so that’s how we got a hold of the project. And then with them, we developed the rewrite of the script where we brought in David Schow, who wrote The Crow, and he’d been a friend of Rob’s and mine for quite a number of years now, so that whole process happened, and then Fever Dreams wanted us to shoot a teaser trailer for them to help raise funds and make sales, and also for them to get a sense of what we could actually do with just a little money. So we did that and when that got completed, Bryan Singer opened the door for us over at Warner Premiere, he made a call to Diane Nelson, who was the head of Warner Premiere, and said, “Hey, these guys have got a project, you should really take a look at it.” I was like, “There’s no way Warner Bros. is going to do this movie, itâ€™s way too dark and nasty for them.” But we went in, gave them the script, showed them the teaser, gave them the pitch and showed them artwork and things like that, and they said they were doing this deal with Dark Castle to do these lower-budget direct-to-video movies. They had really good success with Return to House on Haunted Hill and were just getting ready to release Lost Boys 2, and they said, “This seems like a natural fit.” So that’s how it started.
What did Warner Premiere’s involvement give you that you might not have had access to otherwise?
Access to more money, for sure. That’s the thing: jumping from Fever Dreams, which was going to be a very small-budgeted film, to Warner Premiere, the budget probably tripled or quadrupled. More money, more time, better talent in front of the camera and behind the cameraâ€¦ It changed everything. It absolutely changed everything. And having Joel Silver’s company and his name attached to it certainly has opened doors to people that normally wouldn’t even have a change to meet with or work with.
Does that include William Sadler?
Absolutely. I don’t know if he would have taken to the project that much if it didn’t have that connection because he’s got history with Silver’s pictures and Joel personally, being the star of Demon Night and Tales From the Crypt episodes and Die Hard 2. I think that, if nothing else, it certainly made it easier and probably more appealing to get to him. And he was always our first choice. It was a no-brainer, they really liked the idea and I always pictured him in the role because I thought he had that kind of thing we were going for.
A certain kind of intensity?
He’s such a gifted actor and most of the time you do these, you throw in a horror name and was just kind of like, these guys are in all these movies and they’re very good but most of them didn’t fit the bill. One other person we also considered was Jeffrey Combs but because he was connected with The House on Haunted Hill series, they didn’t want to have him in another film as a different character. So yeah, I just thought Sadler was a different choice because he wasn’t the typical horror movie actor choice and I liked that. Again, we were trying to do things different.
In both of your features, you pay tribute to films that I assume are touchstones for you. In The Dead Hate the Living you have all those references to giallo and especially to Fulci, and scene after scene where the spill lighting across backgrounds is an Argento green, for no logical reason other than it looks really cool. And that it really puts you in the cinematic landscape of a giallo.
I like horror movies that look like horror movies. Mario Bava was really colorful with his lighting, too. It didn’t always make sense but it was stylistic. My sensibilities don’t really work in desaturating all the color out of a movie. I like rich looking films, it’s what I grew up one. And may be that’s a subliminal thing that was planted in my brain because the movies that really made a big impression on me as a kid, where I first noticed filmmaking and directing because it was so exaggerated, was Creepshow, so I think that’s in my head all the time. Sure, it’s exaggerated, but it’s clearly not reality anyway. I’m not trying to recreate reality, I’m making a movie. If you want to see reality, step outside your door. If you want to see a movie, come check out The Hills Run Red.
I find that sense of theater and theatrical exaggeration very refreshing.
Nothing would make me happier than to be able to someday have a palette like Tim Burton, where you can create an entire world on a soundstage. When I found out that the forest of Sleepy Hollow was all on a soundstage, I was incredibly jealous. I thought, God, that would be amazing. I’d love to just really design and create the world that they live in from top to bottom and really stylize it. It would be more interesting for me.
You’ve shown with The Dead Hate the Living that you don’t need a big budget to make something that is visually a treat for the eye.
Having a good DP and a good production designer goes a long way.
Do you ever worry that you have to dial back the references, that it might distract viewers from your story?
It seems to be the case. The majority of the feeling with most people is that I was referencing too many movies in The Dead Hate the Living. I was pointing to too many movies and the thing that I learned is that you want people to pay attention to your movie, you don’t want to remind them of movies that are better than your movie, which is why I didn’t reference other movies in Hills and remind people of other films. Some people really enjoy that but then it also becomes sort of a trivia game. To me, it was just what was coming out of me at the time and I thought it would be kind of cute and I thought that audiences would like that, but I think you have to do it in a very delicate way.
Your two features make a marvelous pairing because they are both steeped in movie love, in horrorphilia, and they are about guys who are really into that genre and go about making their own film, only to wind up in the film they’re looking for.
The similarities are very close and a part of me was a little worried about that. The whole film aspect of The Hills Run Red and them doing a documentary about it was in the original script and the original producers wanted to retain that. I thought, God, people will think I’m doing the same movie over again. So I made a conscious choice of not having them reference any other movies or talk about any other movies. I just did not want to go down that road again. So yeah, it was a little bit of a concern.
There are some nice homages in The Hills Run Red that worked because they served the purposes of the scene. For instance, when Tyler finally sees the elusive missing film that he’s been pursuing, literally a captive audience to a private screening, at the very end you have Dollface whirling around with the same manic energy as Leatherface in the final shot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but to a different purpose.
Some of that is subliminal, where I wouldn’t consciously pick that up.
But my point is, it works as a tribute on one level while the image itself works completely on its own terms: it conveys an intensity and evokes a quality about the character that you are trying to express.
I hope so. It’s nice of you to say that. In that sense, you try these things, but a lot of it just comes from some back part of your brain. Some of it is conscious but a lot of it was really just trying to do the movie and focus on that, and a lot of that I think just comes out organically in the process. It’s not like I ever thought, I want a shot just like this. Here’s the frame from the other movie. The time that we really referenced other films was the look of the early eighties film for the movie within the movie.
Why did you pick the early eighties era for your lost film?
It just seemed to be when the slasher craze was its biggest. After Friday the 13th broke there was The Burning and The Prowler and Madman and all those types of films, and a lot of them were being made independently and getting released, and it was era of the painted movie poster. It just seemed to be the time. By 1985 or so, the slasher movie had waned and other things were moving in.
There’s a moment in the film where Concannon [the character played by Sadler] and his daughter are arguing aesthetics, and it’s funny because here they are torturing and killing people and they’re arguing about motivation. He’s is talking about aesthetics, about subtext and emotional realism, and she is saying “People don’t care about that shit, it’s all about upping the ante.” Is that your editorial on the state of modern horror cinema?
It’s certainly Schow’s editorial and his perception of things. It’s bigger, louder, bloodier, but it’s emotionless, there’s no connection to the characters, you’re just seeing people get chopped up. The things that got us interested in the genre, or at least me and I think most of the people involved in the film, was not just watching people being mercilessly tortured for twenty minutes. There was a story, there was something else behind it, and there was some emotion, you actually felt something for the characters. When I started watching these things, at least when I did as a kid, watching these slasher movies and things, I was always scared of the killer. And then there was this dramatic turn where the teenagers just became so stupid and dumb that all you wanted was to see them killed and then you began rooting for the killer and you stopped being afraid of him. Technically they’re horror movies but they aren’t scary anymore, they’re just effects shows. I missed being afraid of the killer and having a rollercoaster ride instead of, Wow, that guy just punched that guy right through his head. They’re fun moments, I like that stuff, but if that’s all there is to a horror movie, that’s not a lot to stand on.
And that’s consistent in your two features: you really like your characters. You make a point of making them likable people and you give them relationships and an affection between them so you do have an emotional connection to these people.
I think you want [the audience] to relate to your characters when you’re watching a movie, at least that seems to be more successful if you’re going for fear and suspense with them later on. I think you need to get to spend a little time and get to know them and relate to them. To me, that’s just trying to be and effective storyteller. The characters might be flawed, might be fucked up, but if you hate them right from the beginning, where is there to go?
It does seem obvious, but then so many horror films seems to make you dislike the characters so you can root for their deaths.
Yeah, and to me that’s, I don’t want to say lazy filmmaking because it’s a hard process to begin with, but it just seems likeâ€¦ a lack of trying to build tension or suspense and to me, that’s what really makes a horror movie exciting and thrilling and fun to watch. A gore effect lasts maybe ten seconds, something like that, but you’ve got you an entire movieâ€¦ So I think people just lost sight of that aspect of it. Hey, just make it scary, and to do that you have to like the people who are being terrorized.
If you want them to live, it gives you a greater stake in their story.
I thought that the way the film played with the idea with what we think is a movie effect, that is a fake killing in the film within the film, and what is really happening to the characters in the film, is well done. When you reframe out point of reference, it also changes our understanding and our reaction.
That’s the thing. How many time have people talked about snuff movies and did they exist or not? You look at something like Cannibal Holocaust where they, unfortunately, really killed animals. If you don’t know, you go, “Wow, that’s really good effects,” but if you find, it changes your response. It would change the entire meaning of a film like Friday the 13th if you found that they really killed everyone on camera. I think Schow is also trying to challenge, not to get too lofty about it, people’s moral compass of what is entertainment, what is entertaining to people, and if it was real, would they devour it with as much as hunger as the fans do?