Harrison Smith (Camp Dread, 6 Degrees of Hell, The Fields) was working on the set of Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard when he was first made aware of Death House, a horror film originally written by the late Gunnar Hansen. At the time, another writer/director was attached to the project and had been working with Gunnar, but the chemistry wasn’t there.
Producer Michael Eisenstadt recommended Harrison as the best man to take over the project and help get it back on track. Harrison met with Michael, along with producers Rick Finkelstein and partner Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory. The mutual professional admiration was strong, and everyone involved knew Harrison was exactly the right person for the job.
Speaking to Harrison, it’s clear to see why. His passion for this film and for horror was immediately evident after just a few minutes of talking, along with his great respect for the horror fans and the iconic actors who have made their name in the genre. What was most evident was how much he clearly believed in this film and what it has the potential to be. He knows he is a part of something truly special…a film that is poised to turn the genre on its head.
CRAFTING A HORROR MASTERPIECE
When Harrison came aboard, he immediately began working with Gunnar to rewrite the script, eventually landing on a new vision for the film that both men could be incredibly proud of and excited about. When talking with Harrison, something he said about the process of reworking the script really stood out and struck a very personal chord with me.
“There were four evils in Gunnar’s original script, and I made them five because there was no woman…If you look at all my horror films, they all feature very strong female characters. I don’t focus on the dumb blonde running half naked through the woods…all my women in my films are very intelligent, strong, and quick witted. And that’s what I wanted for this film. What most people seem to forget about is that women love horror. And it seems like the horror industry just forgets about them.”
As a female who is passionate about horror, it was great to hear Harrison recognize the importance of respecting the female fans and his commitment to featuring strong female leads in his film.
In addition the five evils, Harrison gave me some insight into the nature of the other key players he added to the original script, the two FBI agents who find themselves trapped in the Death House when all hell breaks loose. Expect to see a male agent and a strong female agent (think Jody Foster in Silence of the Lambs) —similar to a Sculley and Mulder on The X-Files, but geared more towards action.
Harrison talked about how much fun it was to write this movie and be able to bring Gunnar a script he could be really excited about. I asked him what it was like working with the horror legend, and he reiterated what I’ve heard from so many others…how kind, gentle and caring of a man he was. “In an alternate universe, Gunnar Hansen could have been Santa Clause,” he tells me.
This was a film Gunnar was incredibly passionate about. He wanted it to be more than just another slasher film…he wanted it to be something special that would give back to the genre that had given him so much. And everyone involved in this film seems focused on a very singular goal — to make a movie Gunnar would have been proud of and to honor his remarkable legacy.
“Gunnar really wanted this movie to be his legacy,” explains Smith.” In fact, some of his last words to Rick, Steven and Mike (the producers of the film) were to please, use whatever you have to, even my death, to get this done.”
BEYOND THE BUZZ
Harrison is aware of the buzz building up around the film and knows that almost everyone is solely focused on the casting at this point, with the industry calling it “The Expendables of Horror.” While he understands the excitement over so many of the genre’s biggest names, he stresses that this is not a gimmick movie. This movie is about bringing in a large cast of very talented actors and perfectly integrating them into a really solid screenplay and story.
“I think a better description would be that this is the IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD of Horror. That movie took all the big names of comedy at the time and put them in one film. That’s a timepiece, a time capsule. Imagine 20 to 30 years from now being able to look back on this…it’s pretty important and very culturally relevant.”
Fans can expect a very layered and complex film, an intelligent horror film that promises to be both entertaining and thought provoking.
“In some way, it’s kind of like Die Hard in a haunted house,” says Smith. “There’s a lot of action in it. But when the horror is there, it’s really there.”
We talked about how subjective horror can be and how different people have different ideas of what’s scary based on their own personal experiences and perspectives. Harrison explains that the horror in this film will center around the evil that men do to one another. While there is a supernatural element, the real horror is grounded in reality.
A COMPLEX AND CONTROVERSIAL FILM
He explains that DEATH HOUSE will make a commentary on what the real definitions of good and evil are and how those lines get blurred, and he also recognizes that this movie is going to be controversial because of the issues it plans to tackle.
“The opening line of the film is ‘Who weeps for Satan?’ No one ever thinks about the logic that Satan presents against dogma. Evil can exist like a Trojan inside of good through blind dogma. More evil has been committed in the name of God than in the name of Satan. We’re going to tackle that.”
At this point, I feel like a character in Weird Science, sitting down to build my dream woman by including aspects of everything I love and desire. Only I’ve built my dream horror movie with, not only my dream cast, but also the most interesting concept and storyline and a writer/director who seems poised to deliver everything I’ve ever wanted in a genre film.
Every minute I talk to Harrison, I become more and more in love with the idea of this film and the vision this talented filmmaker seems to have for not only this movie but also for what happens next. I learned there is already a plan in the works for five sequels to DEATH HOUSE, for a total of six motion pictures.
The sequels will be a continuation of the story, featuring some characters in returning roles, with each sequel designed to focus on one of the five Evils. So, if you’re like me and are overwhelmed with anticipation for this movie, you’ll be happy to know this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
WHY HORROR MATTERS
I end the conversation on a personal note, asking Harrison about his experience with horror and what the genre has meant to him. He tells me the movie that made him want to make movies was the original Jaws.
“My mother took me to see Jaws when I was eight years old, that was 1975. To watch an audience cheer and scream and stand up and applaud…I knew even at eight years old this was what I want to do. There must have been 100 people in that audience, and they were all united. For those two hours, everybody was on the same page. That’s the power of film.”
He’s speaking my language. We go on to talk at length about Harrison’s love for horror and how he was introduced to so many classics at such an early age, developing a lifelong appreciation for horror and the iconic actors who have spent most of their life working primarily in the genre…which goes a very long way to explain why he was so clearly the perfect person for writing and directing this film. He explains, “I think horror is an experience. And it touches people on different levels.”
He recounts a story of a recent conversation he had over lunch with Adrienne Barbeau, one of the legendary stars of DEATH HOUSE. He tells me something that blows my mind… “Adrienne Barbeau hates horror movies!” She tells him that she doesn’t understand why he’s so passionate about them. He explains that the horror films he loves represent an era in his life. They are more than just films, they are experiences that helped shaped him.
He then echoed something I’ve always believed, that great films should be experienced in the theater. Watching really epic movies, especially horror films, is such a communal experience and becomes so much more impactful and meaningful when it’s shared with an audience on a giant screen. And I was thrilled to learn DEATH HOUSE will receive a wide theatrical release.
Smith explains, “I’m grateful for technology, but I’m not sure that’s how films are meant to be seen. The Godfather is not meant to be seen on the iPhone. Raiders of the Lost Ark is not meant to be viewed on a tablet. You shouldn’t be watching Jaws while riding the train.”
SMART HORROR FOR TRUE HORROR FANS
I’m tempted to stop the interview and ask Harrison, “Did we just become best friends?” He’s so intelligent and insightful, and he’s clearly passionate about making movies that matter…not the kind of movies made purely for profit at the complete disregard and disrespect for the fans. He stresses, “When films become product, we have a problem.”
I couldn’t agree more, and we spend some time talking about the state of the industry and the way Hollywood has lowered expectations and dumbed down audiences. This trend has led to the unfortunate side effect of supposed horror fans hating on smart films that try to do something different or offer a deeper level to the viewing experience.
“Look at the crap The Witch is getting,” laments Harrison. “God forbid you make something intelligent. If The Shining were released today, horror fans would hate it. They’d say it was boring and slow.”
I don’t want this interview to end. But I know Harrison is getting ready to hop on a flight. So I ask him one last question, giving him the opportunity to end the conversation with the one most important thing he wants horror fans to know about DEATH HOUSE. He sums this entire interview up beautifully and leaves me speechless.
“The message to horror fans is that we expect something from them. This is an entirely originally film, featuring some of the genre’s most iconic actors. It’s not a meta film, not a satire, not spoof, and certainly not a gimmick.”
Smith hopes fans will be brushed up on their horror and ready to come out and pay respect to all the greatest names in horror. He hopes they will support this film by heading out to the theaters, and by being willing and ready to be challenged and open to an entirely new vision of horror.
“Horror fans expect us to deliver, rightfully so, and we expect them to deliver as well. We expect something from them…because nobody else is.”
Before we say goodbye, Smith reiterates how passionate he and the film’s producers, Finkelstein and Chase, are about making a movie that matter, and I am once again struck by the amount of heart and talent attached to this film. He ends on the following note. “Teaming up with Rick and Steve has turned into something more than just the makings of a great team. We’ve created a movie making family that really cares.”