When news of DEATH HOUSE first started blowing up online and in social media, I was immediately obsessed with the idea and desperate to learn more. I sent an email to the production company behind the film, Entertainment Factory, asking if there was anyone involved with the project who could give me some more insight into exactly what horror fans could expect from this highly anticipated film featuring the biggest names of the genre.
To my surprise, I received an email back right away from producer Rick Finkelstein, the CEO of Entertainment Factory. He seemed very enthusiastic to talk to me about a project he has been involved with from day one, when legendary horror icon Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface) was first trying to get this film made along with his friend and agent (and producer on DEATH HOUSE), Michael Eisenstadt.
Rick, along with his partner Steven Chase, have been key driving forces behind DEATH HOUSE. Speaking with him, I was deeply impressed by how kind, forthcoming, and generous with his time he was. More that that, I was moved by how truly passionate he is about this movie and what it means to him, as well as everyone else involved. Our conversation wasn’t as much an interview as it was a wonderful chat with someone who felt like an old friend.
A MATCH MADE IN HORROR HEAVEN
I asked him to start from the beginning and tell me about the origins of this movie and his involvement in it. He told me this great story about shooting a film (How Sweet It Is) with Joe Piscopo, who he ended up becoming very close personal friends with. Through Joe, he met Michael Eisenstadt (Joe’s agent). The two hit it off as well, and Michael told Rick he had a project he wanted him and Steve to look at. At first they didn’t think anything of it (this is Hollywood…everyone is working on a project!). But, when Michael persisted, they asked to take a look at the script.
Now very intrigued, Rick and Steve had a more detailed conversation with Michael and Gunnar about the film. A couple of days later, a package arrives from Gunnar containing a photo of him as Leatherface and signed, “Rick, let’s make a movie!” Rick explained that both Gunnar and Michael felt that he and his partner Steven were the only ones who could make their movie.
“Steven and I were involved in every aspect from the beginning,” Rick tells me. “Steven is also an actor. He starred in Bus Driver, the film we shot just before working on DEATH HOUSE. He’ll also be starring in our upcoming film Garlic and Gunpowder (a mob comedy) and will have a role in DEATH HOUSE.”
Rick tells me about meeting Harrison Smith on the set of Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard and knowing almost immediately he was the right man to take over the project as co-writer and director. He talked at length about Harrison’s work ethic, his integrity and passion for the project, and his amazing vision for the film that helped take the project to another level. Working closely with Gunnar during the script rewrite process, Harrison was able to take a truly great idea and make it something unforgettable.
“Harrison and I bonded so quickly,” explains Finkelstein. “He is extraordinary and, together, we have brought this film to the next level.”
Rick knows that horror fans and industry insiders have been salivating for this movie as soon as the initial casting news hit the press. He tells me that his email has been blowing up. Everyone wants to know about this movie, and many of the genre’s biggest names have been reaching out in an effort to be a part of this. What’s very clear is how big of a deal a movie like this is for the genre. But Rick makes a point to explain that, as excited as people are for this film, they don’t know the half of it when it comes to the plans for DEATH HOUSE.
PREPARING TO MAKE HORROR HISTORY
The first bombshell he drops is that production for the film is set to begin on April 4th, and the plan is to have DEATH HOUSE ready for distribution by October 2016. That means, if all goes well, we could see this film in theaters in time for Halloween…a horror lover’s dream come true.
He lets me know that the final cast cannot be announced for another couple of weeks but, from the hints he drops, it’s clear that this film is going to be even bigger than you’re imagining it will be. Regardless of who your favorite genre actor is, there’s a better than great chance he or she will make a meaningful appearance in this film.
“This film will star well over a dozen iconic horror actors and actresses. It’s the largest iconic horror cast of all time,” says Finkelstein. But he’s also quick to point out that this is much more than just a casting stunt. “Some people think we are simply taking a bunch of icons and throwing them in. It’s not that at all. This is a GREAT movie. We could have made this movie great without any big names. Now it will be even greater.”
The holy grail right now for mainstream commercial success in horror is The Conjuring, a film that managed to make a considerable amount of money while still appealing to hardcore horror fans. Rick is confident DEATH HOUSE will give The Conjuring a run for its money at the box office, while giving horror fans something they can really be excited about. The reason for his confidence?
“This is hands down the best script that horror has even seen. Ever, ever, ever, ever. Feel free to throw in a few more ‘evers’ in there!”
That’s incredibly high praise, and I can tell from his tone that he emphatically means it. He’s not just blowing smoke…I know he truly believes he’s involved in something that’s going to change the face of horror.
“This film will be a mind fuck. It turns ideas of good and evil on its head,” says Rick. “It’s definitely scary and has lots of bloodshed, but you also get to think…which is rare. The audience is in for such a treat.”
HE DROPPED A BOMB ON ME
He lets me know, much to my excitement, that the movie will not be filled with CGI. The stunts and effects are all practical. I can hear my fellow horror nerds breathing a collective sigh of relief.
He then goes on to tell me this amazing story about one of the lead members of the FX team. He knocked on Gunnar’s door when he was just 14…found his address and just showed up. He explained to Gunnar that he was a hero of his and tells him his dream was to get into FX and make horror movies. He asked Hansen if he could offer any advice to help him make his dream a reality. Without hesitation, Gunnar invited him into his house, made him hot chocolate, introduced him to his family, and spent a great deal of time telling the young boy everything he could about the industry and making horror movies.
“That’s why he’s involved in this project. That’s why we’re all involved. This was Gunnar’s baby. Gunnar will be looking down with such pride. My only regret is that he won’t be there in the theater on opening night to watch it with all the fans. But it makes me so proud knowing what this film meant to him and being able to be a part of it. This movie is in memory of a gentle giant.”
I’m speechless at this point, even before Rick drops another bomb on me. He explains that the vision for this film is much more than just making one really great movie. In fact, the ultimate goal is to brand this and make it the biggest franchise in the history of the horror genre. My mouth drops.
“We’re planning a six-movie franchise, including video game tie-ins.” Similar to films like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, the idea is to create six movies that stand on their own and tell a great story individually, but are also part of a larger overarching storyline. “You’ll be satisfied with each film in the series, but you’ll always be left wanting more.”
At this point, I feel like he just dropped the mic. I can’t imagine a single horror fan not being sick with anticipation over something as big and potentially game-changing as the movie promises to be. And I’m elated to have had this amazing conversation and learn how much passion and commitment is behind this movie.
HONORING A TRUE HORROR LEGEND
Rick is far from just a “money man.” He truly cares about this movie, cares about delivering something amazing for genre fans, and cares about the genre itself (he’s a genuine horror fan, too, who counts A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist and The Devil’s Rejects among his absolute favorites). Most importantly, he cares deeply about truly honoring Gunnar Hansen’s legacy and tells me, “I know that with Harrison in our corner, Steve and I will do what we promised Gunnar and Mike a long time ago…make history and set the bar.”
His unwavering commitment to making a film Gunnar would be truly proud of is about to become even more evident than it already was.
I thank Rick for his time and for graciously giving me such incredible insight into this movie. Shortly after saying goodbye, I get a phone call. It’s Rick calling back because he forgot to tell me one very important story. And it was this last story that solidified my understanding of how special and meaningful this movie really was on so many levels.
He’s emotional when he begins to tell the story, and I quickly become choked up as well. He tells me about a phone call he received late on a Friday night in November. It’s Michael Eisenstadt. He doesn’t sound good, and it’s not like him to call so late. Rick immediately asks him if something is wrong. He says yes.
As a business man, Rick’s head is immediately filled with a whirlwind of possible scenarios involving problems with the deal. Turns out Gunnar had been sick, He found out, but he hadn’t told anybody, convinced he had more time. However, he had recently learned that he had, at best, a couple of weeks left.
At this point, Gunnar was unable to talk, so he wrote a note to his girlfriend asking her to relay a message to Michael who would, in turn, pass on a message to Rick.
“He wanted me to know he was going to pass. When he died, he knew that I was going to be put in a very precarious situation…made to look like a vulture trying to capitalize on his death to promote the movie. I would never do that because he was such a wonderful man. But he wanted me to know that this project was his baby. And, if his death helped promote the movie, then to use it…and not to feel bad about it, but to embrace it. Because it was his life and his life’s work that this was about, and I shouldn’t feel bad about it.”
He goes on to say that it was less than 24 hours later that he received another call from Michael letting him know that Gunnar had taken his last breath. He deeply regrets not having the opportunity to write Gunnar back and let him know how much his words meant to him, but he takes comfort in knowing that Gunnar knew his message had been received and that Rick, along with Steven, Harrison and Michael, would stop at nothing to make sure Gunnar’s final wishes were honored.
“It’s such an amazing thing…he’s such a giving man that, in his final days, he was more concerned with me being uncomfortable than with his own pain and facing death. That just says so much about the kind of man he was and what he was about.”
I regret, more than anything, never having the chance to meet Gunnar Hansen and tell him what his legacy meant to me (and millions of horror fans everywhere). But I’m so grateful to Rick for sharing some insight into the incredible man behind the legend and showing me just how much heart and humanity is behind this movie.
I’m truly humbled and honored to have gotten this important, behind-the-scenes look at a movie that may easily end up being THE horror movie of our generation. And be sure to stay tuned to this site for more details, including an exclusive interview with DEATH HOUSE co-writer and director Harrison Smith and even more exciting casting news, as soon as they become available.