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Home | Interviews | Interview: Harrison Smith – Director (Death House)

Interview: Harrison Smith – Director (Death House)

You directed and you are listed as a writer on DEATH HOUSE. Please tell us about the concept of what is looking to be the most epic Horror film of 2017?

Well, I think the word “epic” is overused. One of the major issues with horror lately is the over hyping of a film. The Babadook was well made, inventive and beautiful even, but it was hardly “the most terrifying movie of the year.” Same goes for Lights Out and definitely for Don’t Breathe which really failed to live up to the hype. However, when you are inundated with super hero films and big budget tent pole pictures, these small films seem like a breath of fresh air. So for me, the word “epic” means little.

It’s a term that’s as overused as “awesome” and it seems every horror/thriller touts itself as the most terrifying movie of the year. That gets asses in seats but in the end it’s really a slick carnival barker trick to get you inside the tent to look at the freak show.

The real deal on Death House is this: we made a film that aimed higher than the bar set for it. It leans more toward the science fiction action with the 80s vibe of Escape From NY. It has a layered plot and script that requires you really paying attention and even seeing it again. We had the audacity to make a film that wants our audience leaving asking questions and actually drawing their own inferences and conclusions. This is not a run of the mill slasher.

It is not “the most terrifying movie of the year.” It does have plenty of blood and gore, some great effects and excellent performances from a legendary cast. Death House is a roller coaster ride through the fun house. It has something to say and treats the horror genre and its cast with great respect.

THAT is the non-hype assessment of our film.

We also want our audience to expect more from the genre. This is why we have such mediocre product out there. Expectations are so low that the genre doesn’t need to rise to anything. Horror is more than blood and gore and nudity. It’s more than R-rated violence. Nothing wrong with having any of those things, but in the end it comes down to a good story. Period.

Horror has been so dumbed down. When Death House was pitched to me as “The Expendables of Horror” I said I had no interest in making a gimmick movie. Some fans wanted this to be a monster mashup movie like Freddy vs. Jason or Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein/Dracula. I’ve said it before and I stand by it…it’s a gimmick and a dumb one at that. Candyman vs. Pinhead? It’s dumb. The worlds don’t belong together and this was proven in Freddy vs. Jason. That wasn’t a movie, it was a product to rake in easy cash from people who don’t know any better but should expect more.

None of the old action heroes in The Expendables played their famous characters. Why would any of these horror names reprise their characters for Death House? Again, it panders to the lowest common denominator. Death House does not do this. We have a fresh story that is infused with an 80s feel because that’s where many of these actors hail.

The sets and the visual effects have that 80s feel as well. This is about styling a film not just making a product. The musical score reflects this and all of the major violence scenes are practical effects by SOTA FX.

So “epic?” No. Let fanboys continue to use that word. Great? Entertaining? Fun? 80s vintage, Violent? Yep…we will take those words.

How did you decide to pick the cast and is there anyone you could not include in the film?

I did not pick the cast. Entertainment Factory producers Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase worked with Gunnar Hansen and his agent, Michael Eisenstadt, to help secure the cast. So that was pretty much in place before I came to the project. There were a few stars that wanted to do it but their schedules would not permit because when the money fell into place things had to move fast. A few “fanboys” totally unaffiliated with this film and know nothing about how it was made tried to make some online scuttlebutt by saying certain stars weren’t asked, etc. but that is not true. Chances are you pitch the name, that person was asked. If their schedules allowed they were in. Simple as that.

Who has inspired you professionally?

The obvious answer is Spielberg. Jaws was the movie that made me want to make movies. However filmmakers like John Carpenter, Tom Holland, Roger Corman, Stephen King, Peter Straub, George Romero, Wes Craven, Tommy Lee Wallace, William Castle, Larry Cohen, Lloyd Kaufman, Samuel. Z. Arkoff…they were huge influences.

On a more personal notes I had great writing and English teachers in school: Mr. Michael Steen, Ms. Donna Haddon, Mr. Edward Burnett, Mrs. Patricia Schneider all from Stroudsburg High School…some of the best teachers a student could ever ask for.

What would you like the audience/fans to take away after seeing the film?

Fun. A good time. Most of all an UNDERSTANDING of the genre they are watching. This is a nastier Stranger Things with much more subtle 80s atmosphere. I want audiences to rediscover the classic actors in this film and know WHY they are in it. If you don’t know who Kane Holder is, you need to. There are so many visual and audio Easter Eggs in this movie that a second viewing is almost mandatory to just catch them all.

Don’t take it so seriously. This is fun horror. This is fun action with some totally over the top moments and we KNOW they’re over the top. The elevator drop is a great example of this. The scene is total, impossible bullshit, and it was written that way. We did these kind of things because film is art, film is fun and film should engage.

What was it like for you working with this cast and what did you take away from this film knowledge-wise?

This was such a fun and easy cast to work with. However the real answer is that it was an educational cast. I learned so much from these stars because they have seen it all. They saw the industry change and how it continues to change. They know the distribution process and they have seen the effects of the digital revolution both good and bad. And most of all, they’re generous, sharing people who gladly relay their adventures and experiences. I’d work with any of them again in a heartbeat and I hope they feel the same.

What do you think is missing in the Horror genre?

Fun. And fun comes with a knowledge and respect for film itself. There is way too much product out there now and it’s not all good. Some of it is just plain inept and bad but tries to pass itself off as good or “so bad it’s good.” But it’s just plain bad. I believe certain movies were not meant to be seen on anything but a big screen. When you reduce film down to fast food product to be consumed on cell phones and tablets, you have lost the magic and intent for the medium.

People also need to know how to look at film. It’s not just about having perfect special effects. There is no such thing and today lame YouTube videos try to nit pick every single thing so their hosts can sound smart, when in actuality they have contributed nothing to the art and made zero product but their video with 135 views. Anyone can be a critic, it takes risk to make something. Critics like other social media commentators sit in the safety of their cocoons and pontificate. Go out and make something and then get back to me.

What challenges did you face making a film of this magnitude?

Tailoring the ideas and concepts to the budget. You always wanna do more but you’re limited. Audiences expect everything to have a hundred million dollar look and effects because the term “indie film” no longer really means that. Today an “indie film” could be 20 million. It used to apply to truly low budget fare but not any longer.

What was one of the favorite scenes you got to shoot?

I had a lot of fun shooting pretty much everything. I enjoy the “3 Satans” scene because of the drama with it. The “central casting” scene with Richard Speight is unique and cool. Working with Tony Todd in the desert was also awe inspiring. So I don’t want to take away from anyone I worked with because the entire experience was just a joy. I hope the fun we had making this film shows on screen and the audience feels it as well.

What do you want to say to the fans?

Expect more from your entertainment. Don’t accept mediocrity. Understand film and know your horror history. Most of all try to have fun when watching this film and any others. So many now have such a negative, cynical appeal. A good story should give a good time. Expect more…from your art and from your lives. You’ll find yourself all the better for it.

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