I recently blogged about a horror DVD impulse buy I made simply because there was a killer Santa on the cover. Night Terrors is a horror anthology that pays homage to old school direct-to-video indies. I know. Everyone with an iPhone and some friends is making a horror movie with a “retro-feel” these days. But when you watch NIGHT TERRORS (which I blog about here), you can see director/writer team Alex Lukens and Jason Zink aren’t only fans of the genre; they’ve paid major attention to detail and injected that detail into their film. So I am psyched to have this chance to talk to them about the movie.
NIGHT TERRORS directors Alex Lukens and Jason Zink
Boys, Bears & Scares: Hey, guys. So this is the first film for both of you. How did you come together to make it?
Jason: Technically speaking, this isn’t our first feature together. However, the first one was more of an experimental home movie. It’s what we needed to make because we had no money and very little of an idea about how to make a feature. So while this is our first narrative horror flick under the company name Weird on Top Pictures, it isn’t our first rodeo.
Alex: We met in a film class at Purdue University. Jason seemed like one of the few people I would get along with in terms of what we liked to watch. He invited me over a few times, we made egg-sandwiches, and he hatched this idea he had for a movie about him killing himself. While Night Terrors is our first narrative feature that’s gotten any real distribution, we spent a few years before this working on a mock-u-mentary called When I Die, about Jason’s suicide, which we obviously faked. We interviewed his family and friends as if he had killed himself and we tried to create this portrait of a human being using half archival footage of Jason’s home movies and half new interviews. We dubbed it a “fuck-u-mentary.” People who are interested can watch the trailer here.
We’ve got a bunch of copies left that we’ll sell for cheap if you’re interested. We took it off the Internet because we were honestly a little embarrassed by it once we figured out exactly how to make a movie.
BB&S: Night Terrors just seemed to sneak out quietly on DVD. Did you do any film festivals at all or are you hoping social media gets the DVD some deserved attention?
Jason: Sadly, we did submit to several festivals and for whatever reason…no real bites. We were selected by the Indie Horror Film Festival but won nothing. That was all she wrote. At this point, we’re just rolling with the punches and happy that we got worldwide distribution. We’re not the best at self-promotion and were miserable distributing our first film on our own.
Alex: Programmers seemed reticent to put it in festivals. People liked it but it didn’t seem to fit with a lot of the other things they were programming. The anthology form has seemingly worked for a number of films in terms of getting play on the festival circuit but we couldn’t seem to land much of anywhere. I feel like it’s been difficult to find festivals geared specifically to micro-budget (and I mean truly micro-budget, like our $5000 film) horror films. It seems like it may be a niche within a niche, so we weren’t able to find the adequate place for it to play. With that said, our distributor Camp Pictures has been very kind to us—there should be an ad in December’s issue of Fangoria promoting the movie. We just had our release on November 25th, and neither Jason nor I are very good with social media and things like that. If anyone out there is interested in helping, we are both very interested in being helped…
BB&S: What horror flix are your favorites and which, if any, influenced the creation of Night Terrors?
Alex: I’m a huge fan of really smart, though silly horror comedies. Baby Killer takes a huge page out of films like Re-animator. In fact, Herbert Cain (the doctor in Baby Killer) is a combination of the names Herbert West and Dan Cain, the antagonist and protagonist of Re-Animator. And I wanted to create a hybrid of those two characters. In our film, Herbert Cain is certainly a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde kind of character in that his pursuit is incredibly altruistic, but his means are completely bankrupt, ethically. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t cite the Evil Dead movies, Peter Jackson’s early horror stuff (Dead Alive, Bad Taste), and really anything creepy-crawly from the 80s.
Jason: I just fell in love with this interview. Whereas Alex is the well-rounded cinephile, I’m the horror nerd with a dash of other knowledge. My love of horror is vast but it’s the 80’s camp that I’m drawn to. Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Sleepaway Camp, Troll 2, and The Slumber Party Massacre movies are some of my favorites. In this film, I was interested in playing around with some of that and making the film for true horror fans (rather than the kids who love Insidious). Specifically, I think that Night Terrors pays homage to Silent Night, Deadly Night, Creepshow, and Night of the Creeps.
BB&S: Was it always the plan to make the film look and feel like “The return of VHS horror”?
Jason: This is a tough question. The VHS effect was something that was discussed very early on in the project but it took us almost halfway through the production for me to convince the gang that it was the right move. It took our wonderful editor (Justin Lucas) running it through some tests to really get everybody on board. Originally, we had wanted to release the movie on VHS tapes and hoped to send the festival run in with the old yellow cardboard sleeves… never happened.
Alex: It was a big debate for everybody. The first point of business was to make a film that worked in hyper-widescreen, like something you would have seen in the theaters around the advent of VHS. Theaters would tout these extreme aspect ratios as a means to bolster attendance at the theater: “You can’t get the full picture unless you come out to the theater.” That was a big discussion many times over with our DP, Chris Purdy. We basically had a 16:9 frame that we would shoot 2.35:1 inside of. It was always a challenge to figure out what we could get in frame and what we couldn’t. We had a little wiggle room when we got to post in terms of slight re-frames if we needed to, but it made shooting interesting. The VHS aesthetic came out of Jason’s mind, though. An homage to childhood.
BB&S: What made you decide to go for a horror anthology rather than a full-length feature? Were any of the stories imagined as full-length first?
Alex: I don’t think we really had much stock in the anthology film as something bankable at the time we began shooting it (three years ago at this point). V/H/S hadn’t yet come out and there was really no bandwagon to jump on. We were more interested in something that was modular so that everyone involved had a chance to do any job they were legitimately interested in over the course of the film. I think that the Massacre on 34th Street segment could very easily become a feature and we talked about that during filming. We were thinking of movies like Creepshow and anthologies of yore that gave several different directors a chance to direct something. The tie-together was envisioned after we had written the different stories, not before. We wanted to feel free when we were writing each segment and then just have some fun in the tie-together story.
Jason: The whole feature was, for lack of a better word, an accident. It started with the short (Massacre on 34th Street) and we just wanted more. We were just stoked to be shooting and had a lot of fun with that production so we just sort of decided to power ahead and see what we could make of it.
BB&S: So who did the writing and directing on each segment?
Jason: Alex wrote both Baby Killer and Massacre on 34th Street and directed Baby Killer. I wrote and directed the rest. Originally, the intention was to have three different writers/directors and we would take turns. As per usual, shit happened and it just made it easier for Alex and I to take on the whole project.
BB&S: The first segment is MASSACRE ON 34th STREET. What made you decide to do a Santa slasher?
Jason: I went to an antique shop with Brandon Edging and we found an ultra-creepy Santa Claus costume from the 1940s. I passed on the purchase but spent the next week not being able to get it out of my head. I went back and bought the outfit (fucking terrifying mask included) and went about planning the short film 34th Street. Essentially, I told Alex that I wanted a short script about Santa Claus slaughtering a bunch of squatter punks and the rest, as they say, is history.
Alex: It also gave us a lot to work with in terms of our villain. Brandon Edging (who appears in all three segments of the film as different characters) acted as Santa for the bulk of the shoot but for a few reshoots and other things, a few of us wore the Santa suit. It gave us some latitude with schedules and things since we didn’t have any dedicated stand-ins.
BB&S: Where did you film it? It looks pretty damn cold. Was it done around Christmas time?
Jason: You betcha’. We filmed all of Massacre in the few weeks that we all had Christmas break from school. We did this for two reasons. First, more free time and second, I did not want to rely on digital snow. I wish that we had more behind-the-scenes footage from the entire shoot but the rooftop scene was especially difficult on all of us. Lots of numb toes and bitching on that rooftop but everybody was committed and we got through it together.
Alex: Both the interior and the exterior of the house were shot at Jason’s. He still lives there. We shot pretty much every single room in the house for Massacre and Baby Killer. Though we shot the bulk of the film there and out on Tinkler Street (for anyone interested in seeing where we shot or stalking Jason), the roof proved to be too steep for the rooftop choking scene. We actually shot that scene in Jason’s dad’s house, about an hour away in Lowell, IN. The chimney you see in the film didn’t actually exist up there and it took four people the better part of an hour to get it up there. We were battling the chimney, slippery surfaces and really old Christmas lights that kept shorting out. If you watch that scene in the movie, you can see a moment where the lights dim. That’s the lights shorting out and nearly catching my coat on fire.
BB&S: The second segment, BABY KILLER, is hard to watch and yet avoids being exploitative when you take what’s happening in the context of the story. Actually, I think because it’s not exaggerated or campy, it’s even more disturbing. What was it like filming the scene with the little boy?
Jason: Working with kids is always a challenge. It’s always funny for us to reflect on the actual shoot because it is so far from what you see on the screen. While the kid spent a total of maybe 2-3 minutes of screen time on that table, it was a good couple of hours shooting and covering the kid with blood. In fact, some of his tears were real. So much for avoiding exploitation…
Alex: I had met with Tyler, the actor playing the little boy, and his mother weeks before we were going to begin shooting. He had a lot of energy and I was really surprised at his ability to remember lines and hit cues. But when it came time to film this really terrifying scene, it was really difficult for him to be scared. We were filming in this basement with very low ceilings and everything felt claustrophobic. He kept laughing. And it was great because we just kept laughing and trying to get the shots we needed. Tyler was rigged in a sort of magician’s box so that we could see his head and he had a fake body that we could stab into. Luckily when we did the actual stabbing, Richard Hackel (playing Dr. Cain) covered Tyler’s mouth so we couldn’t see him smiling if he ended up doing that. It had very much the opposite effect—after we yelled “cut,” Tyler was totally overcome. He began crying and Jason and I had to tell Chris to “roll on that” without being seen, so that we could get some of his very real reaction to what was going on.
It was one of the more difficult roles to cast because he has a lot to carry in the film. It wasn’t really possible to give the baby in the film a lot of reaction so Tyler had to shoulder a lot of the response to being scared.
BB&S: The third story, ABSTINENCE, is a total party film. It’s got a buddy movie vibe, college humor, sexual situations, “zombie-esque” infected people, and gross out sequences. Yet you managed to keep all that from getting too out-of-hand…unless I’m just totally desensitized and it’s actually extremely obscene. Were you trying to show some restraint or would you have pushed it into more over-the-top grindhouse territory if the running time were longer?
Jason: I’m going to answer this question by explaining what we had originally intended. My first vision was that we would be able to trace the spread of the disease from patient zero up until Mouth contracted the “zombaids” (can’t believe I actually wrote that line). I wanted us to show a girl kiss a guy, guy goes down on girl, girl has sex with cop, cop has sex with man and so-on (not exactly in that order). What happened was that we couldn’t get the strip club that I had my heart set on to begin the spread and we were struggling to find guys and dolls into even showing partial nudity. In the end, we bagged it and shot what we had to in a way that we thought was something that we hadn’t seen before and worked well with the VHS FX. I hope that answered your question.
Alex: I think we also wanted to give pops of obscenity, rather than something that soaked through every scene. The movie theater bathroom scene is probably one of the grosser things in the whole film (and in general) but we don’t hang on much for very long so it might seem so egregious. We definitely want to shock but we’re not looking to do any gore-porn or even full-on porn. Unless it pays, I guess. I think what we do well is that really everyone in all of the films is a target. We were equal-opportunity in our exploitation.
BB&S: Now, just to be thorough, I want to ask about some situations that take place during the outtakes on the DVD. For starters, there’s a long, hard, man-on-man kiss…it’s so intense the surrounding crew cries out in horror. I think the aggressive top initiating the kiss is the cop from Baby Killer. Who’s the other guy and what was that about? A deleted scene perhaps?
Jason: This was actually just a blocking shot. Our DP (Chris Purdy) and I were trying to run through the shot and just make sure that I liked his movement and the focus. Something that you probably picked up on in some of the behind-the-scenes footage is that we’re all a bunch of rowdy little shits and who like to goof off. Brandon was indeed the aggressive top and Alex was the one receiving.
Alex: I like to think of myself as a feminine top, a “blouse” if you will. I think that’s also us as people trying to combine making people laugh and making people shocked. I think that no one in the room was prepared when that happened, but I think Brandon and I knew without even telling each other that we’d be doing that.
BB&S: So, in Abstinence, as we see the infection spreading around campus, there’s a brief flash of a chick getting a facial. In the outtakes, it’s a dude who I assume is rehearsing the technical aspects of the shot to make sure it will look authentic. That’s dedication. Just curious. Did he say what the money shot tasted like? And what exactly was the substance used? Because it looked damn real…I mean… based on what I’ve seen in porn….
Jason: We try (Alex and I) to treat our actors as we would like to be treated. As we see it, we’re in the trenches right along with them. In another outtake, I take the vomit to the face and Alex takes the cumshot like a champ. If anything needs to be tested or an actor is nervous about it, we don’t mind being the Guinea pigs. I think that the actual substance was condensed milk? That’s what I’d suggested that we use but our FX guy (Matt Stahura) ultimately made the concoction. I never asked what I was shooting on Alex… whoops.
Alex: I will say, Matt was a dear and had it at room temperature. Not too hot or cold. To be honest, it was something I thought was funny and had forgotten went out on the DVD. We really do want people that we’re working with to know that we won’t put them in harm’s way and we’re always willing to put our vomit, cum, blood, guts, etc., where our mouths are. I think Matt combined condensed milk with a little bit of face wash to get the effect. The bigger thing I remembered was how he did the launching with a series of tubes and air to launch whatever he needed at us. It came out incredibly violently.
BB&S: Since Abstinence does involve sexual activity on a college campus, you could have just used the footage of the guy getting creamed. Did you consider it? And you could have thrown in a little lesbian action as well. It definitely would have fit the tone of the segment. In fact, there wasn’t even much in the way of nudity now that I think of it. Was that a conscious decision?
Jason: I got to a certain frustrated point in asking people that I knew to get naked on camera where I just said, “fuck it.” It was becoming a chore and I wasn’t having fun with it like I thought I would so we just did what we could. I would have loved to throw in a whole John Waters inspired fuckfest, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
Alex: We tried to be judicious with how many nude folks we had in the movie, not out of a moral obligation, but because we literally only had a handful of people who felt comfortable with that. And it wasn’t the biggest thing we wanted to push (we were really focused on big moments of shock). It became a smaller portion of the film as we went on and we simply shot and used what we were able to get and still feel good about ourselves.
BB&S: So in the extras on the DVD there’s a montage of clapboard boy (that’s what I’ve named him) playing with his clapper. Each time he waves it in front of the camera, there’s a different message written on it. What was that about?
Jason: That was me. Actually, the idea behind this came directly from the Inglourious Basterds BTS. Their clappergirl was having a gas making up funny shit on the spot and I just thought it brought a certain sense of ease and humor to even the most serious of nights on set. Working with volunteers, friends, and family in an environment like that can be taxing and any bad mojo can seriously fuck your shoot up. I decided to make something seemingly mundane into something that we could chuckle about.
Alex: That’s a pretty common thing for a lot of what we shoot. The goal is to get the actors and everyone in a good mood and if you can, to throw them off and ruin a take.
BB&S: Here’s hoping horror fans find NIGHT TERRORS, because I can see it getting a cult following. Do you guys have plans or ideas for a follow-up horror film?
Jason: We’re in pre-production on our next feature right now. The speculative title that I’m hoping to keep is Kill the Children. We’re definitely far from being done and have a stack of screenplays and ideas just waiting to be tapped.
Alex: Always moving, always working.
BB&S: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions about the movie and the fine art of facials.
Alex and Jason: Thanks so much for talking with us. Facials for everyone!