By Beth McConnell – I recently got the chance to speak to Harrison Smith, director of Death House, or as many fans have come to dub it “The Expendables of Horror”. The movie takes place during a power breakdown inside a secret prison known as the Death House, following two agents fighting through a labyrinth of horrors while being pursued by a ruthless army of roaming inmates. The movie stars horror legends Sid Haig (Devils Rejects), Tony Todd (Candyman), Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th) amongst many others.
Smith opened up on the project, as well as what we can expect in the future and how he portrays women in his movies.
Jump Scare – As a huge horror fan, how did it feel when asked to take on Gunnar Hansen’s original project for the movie?
Harrison Smith – The project was brought to me by Mike Eisenstadt, Dee Wallace’s agent and Gunnar’s agent. I worked with Dee on Zombie Killers and Mike liked the way I did things. So he had me in mind to bring Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory to a screening of “Zombie Killers” to meet me. They had this project by Gunnar called Death House. I met rick and Steve that night and met Mike the next day in LA for lunch to discuss the project. I felt honored to be in association with Gunnar. He wrote the original script but knew it wasn’t hitting the mark. Another writer took a pass a rewrite which Gunnar did not care for. That’s when Rick and Steve came to the project. They brought it to me.
The big thing was it being pitched as “The Expendables of Horror.” I told Mike at that lunch, “I have no interest in making that kind of movie. It’s a gimmick.” I didn’t want an R-rated “Scooby Doo” episode featuring cameos just thrown in. It needed to be a good story. So when it was time to talk to Gunnar, I felt in awe. I felt lucky. I felt like this was a new moment in my career. Gunnar admitted he couldn’t write dialogue. He had stipulations that certain elements of his script had to stay. One of them was the concept of Good and Evil and what defines both sides. The other was a group of evil men called The Four Horsemen. I altered this by adding a fifth person, a woman. I changed them to The Five Evils and Gunnar approved.
To be clear, there is a total BS story that Gunnar “left his own project” because he was unhappy with the revise. It is true he was not happy with the immediate revised draft of his original script by another writer. However, that was not MY draft and he certainly did not leave his own project.
Rather, Gunnar, in his last week alive told Mike and Rick that my script had his blessing and to promise this was going to get made. He wanted the word of its production to break to the convention circuit where his fans got to see him. We honored that wish and the film is also dedicated to his memory. Gunnar also appears in the film in a quick and cool cameo.
Jump Scare – Death House is a very ambitious project, that being action-packed, haunted house with supernatural undertones, are you wanting to branch out to all movie-goers as well as horror fans?
Harrison Smith – Ambitious is the right word. Why? Because for a film like this, the bar could be set very low. Let’s face it, all we have to do is find a way to throw all these names in, give some blood and gore, a few boobs and presto! You got a horror movie and call it day. The opportunity for cynical filmmaking, what I call “Cynema” is huge for a project like this.
No, instead we aimed the bar high. The film EVOLVES…it starts as one thing and ends up as another with great character arcs and a smart story. On top of it all you have creatures, supernatural events, and what culminates into a wild “roller coaster ride through the fun house” last act.
Yes, we want to reach a wide base, and I did make this for horror fans. It is made in RESPECT FOR THEM, not just a dumbed down story. There is so much horror history and Easter Eggs in this film. However if you’re new to horror, or you’re too young to remember these stars and their impact on the genre, this is the PERFECT starting point to find out all about them and their previous films that made them be a part of “Death House.” In essence, there is something for everyone in this.
Jump Scare – Do you think this is a game-changer for horror?
Harrison Smith – You know, the biggest enemy of indie films is excessive hype. Game changer? “Alien” was a game changer. “Halloween” was a game changer. “Jaws” was a game changer as was “Psycho.” No, it’s not a game changer, but it is a damned great movie filled with surprises, fun, great practical effects and a cultural Who’s Who Of Horror list as well. We have made a film with high production values, a solid script and great effects. We are the first film to have the largest cast of horror genre stars in a single film. That does not qualify “Death House” as a game changer by any means. However, is it great? Yes. Is it fun? You bet. Is it a wet dream for horror fans…without a doubt. That’s the real assessment, not “Most terrifying film of the year” hype. This is a film you’ll wanna watch a few more times to catch everything you missed.
Jump Scare – What was your main inspiration for making horror movies and where does this passion come from?
Harrison Smith – “Jaws” is the movie that made want to make movies. However I grew up on the old Universal monster movies. I loved Saturday afternoon creature double feature TV shows. It was fun. If you see my first film, “The Fields” with Tara Reid and Cloris Leachman, you get a good assessment of where my love for the genre came from. The film is the true story of what happened to me as a boy on my grandparent’s farm in 1973.
Jump Scare – You have previously mentioned how you like to portray strong female roles in your movies, do you think this is an important movement for the horror genre?
Harrison Smith – Absolutely. The two main administrators inside Death House are female: Dee Wallace and Barbara Crampton. Cortney Palm shines as Agent Toria Boon. She is strong, nuanced and in control of her sexuality. She is smart, clever and can teach her male agent counterpart, Jae Novak (Cody Longo) a thing or two. You will find no running, topless screaming blondes in this film. Nor in any of my films. All of my women are smart and strong. Just see any of them and you’ll get it.
Jump Scare – With horror now becoming more respected in the ‘arthouse’ scene i.e The Babadook and The Witch, there’s a mixed reception amongst horror fans, what’s your feeling towards the new art-bread horror and is this a positive side-step?
Harrison Smith – Hard to say. What works, is what works. And things come in and out style. For awhole “found footage” was all the rage, now that is going away. I think the big concern is the attempt to make horror more “family friendly.” To neuter it. Claiming something is offensive stems from an agenda and by people who want to censor. They dress it up as “protecting children” or “safe for the family.” We have ratings on films for a reason. “R” means not for the family. You want family entertainment then go watch Disney where they are more subtle in packaging sex for pre teens disguised as family entertainment. The biggest threat to horror today is censorship disguised as “non offensive” filmmaking.
There is nothing wrong with PG or PG 13 horror. That’s not what I am saying. I am talking about cow towing to this PC, everyone is afraid of everything culture. Horror is supposed to be scary. Don’t like it? Don’t watch it. But leave it alone for those who do. Agendas are the real horror and they’re very real.
Jump Scare – Are there any other horror icons you’d like to work with?
Harrison Smith – I am happy to work with whomever I can. I wish I could have worked with Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Lugosi…the greats.
Jump Scare – In a world of remakes and reboots, how would you feel about having your work given a reimagination in the future?
Harrison Smith – Let’s hope I become so popular one day that my films warrant a remake or reboot.
Jump Scare – With TV shows such as The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Exorcist being big hits for horror would you consider dabbling in the small screen?
Harrison Smith – Of course. All of those shows have a strong dramatic element because TV is drama’s fall back zone. You’re not finding good dramas on the big screen these days. It’s dominated by tent pole gas guzzlers. Just watch the trailer on a film: one CGI crapfest super hero movie after another coming to a theater near you. Good horror is what happens to us in the every day real life. Reality drives good horror. The original “Poltergeist” isn’t scary just because of its FX, it hits on the worst fear every parent has: the loss of a child. “Jaws” is the fear of the water. “The Exorcist” is again the loss of a child and the fear of the unknown: what’s there when we die? “The Exorcist” is terrifying if you believe in those kind of things. For those who don’t, I have heard it called one of the funniest movies ever. For me, I side with the former and I think William Friedkin delivered “The Godfather” of horror films.
So yeah, I would love to bring some projects to the streaming TV world. I think we are seeing the death days of old school TV and networks. A streaming, original series is where I would like to go for sure.
Death House is set for a 2017 release