“As never before, we are alert to any drumming which might announce the thunderous hooves of the apocalypse, and we hear it everywhere. The zombie is the perfect metaphor for 21st Century paranoia … Disease. Corruption. Immigration. Invasion. Revolution. Everywhere boundaries are dissolving or being challenged.”
– Peter Thorndike, Mensa Magazine, December 2019
Last year I had a strange and unsettling dream: I saw a storm-grey sky, filled with screaming ravens; below was an eviscerated earth, the ground pitted with huge craters, into which thousands of human dead were being tossed before being burned. The clouds turned red and purple from the reflected flames.
When I woke up, I knew I had experienced some kind of premonition. I knew events were about to happen which would change the world and mankind irrevocably. But what, exactly? After all, this is the 21st Century. Themes such as armageddon, apocalypse and plague are spectres from the past, right?
Artists are lucky. Instead of getting bogged down by our fears, we can sit down and write or paint them out of our system; or try to.
So I sat down and wrote Plaguepits. A screenplay about an undead plague from the past reaching out to curse the future.
And then … and then …
Reality imitated art in the most horrific and unwelcome way imaginable.
At a time when the entire world is living through a true-life horror story, it would be in very bad taste to sit and complain about the ups and downs of making a movie. But that’s not what I’m going to do: this little condensed history is essentially a celebration of creativity and serendipity, its minor-key horrors hopefully a distraction from bigger and more serious things.
At this juncture in the history of my debut feature, Plaguepits, I had hoped to be able to tell terrifying tales from the set, specifically regarding working with the great actor, consummate genre star and genuinely cool human being, Bill Hutchens (Human Centipede II, Human Centipede III amongst many others). The magnificent people at Horrorbuzz – specifically the one and only Norm – have been immensely kind to the evolving film, mentioning it in their blog and giving nice comments. Matter of fact, the last time we spoke, Norm said “send us something more in depth on this, and about working with Bill” and I said “absolutely”.
But of course, events have overtaken us all. Like so many other projects worldwide, Plaguepits has had to be postponed. Not canceled, people. Just postponed. Filming will begin next year. And so I can’t give you guys on-set news and pics just yet. But what I can still do is paint a brief, bloody palm-print sketch of what’s happened so far.
Although it was last year when I had the inspiration for Plaguepits, film making and me go back a long way.
I graduated from Southampton Solent Uni about a decade ago and straight away wrote my first feature screenplay, a violently bloody noir interpretation of Macbeth. Working with genius Brit producer John Downes (who produced Bloodbath At The House of Death, one of the last films of one of my great heroes, Vincent Price), we got quite far down the line with it and eventually, it was optioned by Paramount. Of course, that’s a big deal, but not, unfortunately, a conclusive one, and ultimately it was shelved, something which happens to about 97% of optioned properties.
Undaunted, I got right back in the saddle and wrote my second feature screenplay, once again working alongside John. Called Buzz, this was a warped black comedy horror thriller, and as is the trajectory of every movie, whether it gets made or not, it was a rocky ride. At one point John Hough (who directed Twins of Evil for Hammer and Return to Witch Mountain for Disney) was slated to direct, if his stateside company could raise the funds, but that didn’t happen. Winona Ryder read the script, liked it and wanted to take the lead role when the money was in the bag. The Scottish Film Board pledged half of the 1.5 mil budget if we could find the rest of the funds; but at that point in time the recession was just kicking in and so we faltered once again.
A variety of creative projects have taken up my time since then, but I’ve always held onto my dream of making a horror feature, something as true to my own vision as possible. In a small way, I have been making horror movies through the music videos for my horror rock band, Living Dead Island.
For example, the video for Buried Alive In A Voodoo Nightmare, starring the amazing Playboy model Monica Harris, is a funny-sexy spoof of scenes from The Wicker Man. Monica was a revelation: she was appearing completely naked, in a display of exhibitionism which would’ve daunted lesser performers (essentially Channelling Britt Ekland’s seduction of Edward Woodward in the 1973 classic movie). But she brought a lot of humor and style to her role, morphing from a sultry bimbette to a demonic succubus in the twinkling of a zombie contact lens-obscured eye.
Then there’s They’re Coming For You (Your Guts Are Their Gumbo, Your Soul Is Their Stew), starring Mike Collins (Cockneys Vs Zombies) and Chris George (Zombie Diaries 2), which has a Romeroesque vibe to it and features hordes of zombies emerging from rural graveyards.
Bad Girl on the other hand, with the lovely Marie-Louise Smith, is my tribute to Jess Franco’s Female Vampire.
Perhaps most elaborate and outrageous was the video for Delivery of The Beast – about, unsurprisingly, the birth of the Devil’s child. It was way over the top, musically and lyrically; a deliberate heavy metal spoof but it still had some macabre imagery: “Delivery of the dead/blazing eye in brittle head/Delivery of the damned/tiny claws on tiny hands/Delivery of the beast/suckle ye at Satan’s teat”. So I was determined to mirror that on-screen.
“I think the video should feature an exorcism” I said.
This was met largely with enthusiasm by the others involved.
“In an old gothic mansion”
“Lashing rain outside. Thunder and lightning.”
“And I think we absolutely need to see the devil’s child.”
“…And for the purposes of this video I see him having one eye in the middle of his forehead, yellow fangs and three claws on each hand …”
“And the exorcist himself. I see him as an edgy character. Definitely defrocked. Probably unhinged. A wide-brim hat with little crucifixes dangling from it. And his chosen instrument of exorcism is a steampunk vacuum cleaner, a sort of cross between an old radio set and a time machine …”
“Uh … could you say that again …?”
But ultimately I got my way. I cast the lovely Chloe Williams, who’d appeared as one of the grid girls in Ron Howard’s Rush, as my “Rosemary”, and she was fantastic: she was admirably able to suspend her disbelief, and temporarily forget the fact she is an expert classically-trained actress in order to appear in an over the top Monty-Pythonesque feast of ghoulish silliness.
I designed the exorcist’s costume – complete with the dangling crucifixes – myself. I designed the monster baby – complete with cyclopean single eye, fangs and claws – myself. I even designed the insane exorcism device myself, complete with valves, wires, electrodes, plus Virgin Marys and crucifixes on wobbling springs and billowing smoke effects.
We set it up, shot the hell out of it – and it worked. A bizarre, OTT video for a bizarre, OTT horror metal song.
I wanted Plaguepits to be as far away from my music videos as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of them. And I love horror-comedy. But I wanted to get back to basics, to try to thoroughly creep out audiences in the way I fondly remember being creeped out when I started digging the genre of horror as a kid.
I wanted it to be a zombie movie. But I wanted them to be MY zombies, no one else’s. So many movie zombies are Romero Zombies. Or Walking Dead Zombies. Or Evil Dead Zombies. No disrespect to George, Greg or Sam. And I love their visions. But I wanted to leave a personal touch on this production.
When I was a kid watching the first CGI movie dinosaurs, those things annoyed me intensely. And I have no doubt that they annoyed other kids too, secretly. Because – every kid knows what a dinosaur looks like: after all, every kid creates the dinosaurs afresh, in the murky gene pool-cum-movie theatre of their own imaginations. They don’t need anyone to interpret it for them.
So that’s kinda my position here. With Plaguepits I became a child again, trying to create the kind of zombie which would make my skin crawl if I encountered it at the top of the stairs. My own private phantoms.
After all, like Mary Shelley before me, the inspiration had sprung from my very own nightmare …
Of course, it’s impossible for any artist to escape their influences; and they shouldn’t try to. They help us, they guide the way. The earliest movie zombies I saw were Italian ones and Spanish ones: for my money the scariest of all, since they weren’t trying to be parodic or socially-relevant; they came from that ancient Catholic culture where the threat of eternal damnation was a genuinely feared concept.
So, Lucio Fulci’s undead and Amando de Ossorio’s undead were not only capable of horrendous violence – they truly looked like Hell on earth too.
And it’s that kind of hellbound medieval vibe I wanted to evoke for Plaguepits. To emphasize these middle-ages values, I started to do sketches of ritual masks and torture devices. When my zombies returned from the grave, I was determined that they didn’t just want to eat guts and chew flesh – they wanted to ritualistically strip and flay flesh. They would want to make it suffer!
So I designed ritual sacrificial crowns and headdresses; and elegantly cruel implements of death and mutilation which would pluck tongues, gouge eyes, peel off faces like the skin of an apple …
It was literally two days after we posted Plaguepits on IMDb that I got an email from Bill Hutchens. I glanced at the name. Then did a double – triple – take. My eyes popped like a Lucio Fulci murder victim. When I opened the email my curiosity was confirmed: yes, this message was indeed from THE Bill Hutchens, star of Human Centipede II, Human Centipede III, Your Flesh Your Curse, Saint Dracula 3D, and Curse of The Blind Dead (the latest installment in the famous “Blind Dead” zombie series: a franchise dear to my heart and no small influence on PLAGUEPITS, as I’ve already inferred).
The message was brief, sincere, and as humble and down-to-earth as (I was soon to discover) the man himself. He simply said that he’d seen Plaguepits announced on IMDb, my synopsis of the film on there was intriguing and that he’d like to know more.
I hardly needed to be asked twice! Here was a guy who was not only an accomplished international actor, but a star of one of the most genuinely disturbing and ground-breaking horror franchises ever – and he was interested in my movie!
You must remember that Bill is not only an actor but also a writer and filmmaker in his own right. Therefore, the script of a movie is always highly important to him before he can commit to any project. He read my screenplay for Plaguepits and found it intriguing. Indeed, so inspired was he by the script that he was prompted to formulate ideas and concepts of his own regarding certain scenes, and also concerning his character in Plaguepits – the leader of a pagan resurrection cult.
My old tutor and mentor while I was a student at Southampton Solent University, the great Ken Russell (The Devils, Gothic, Altered States, Lair of The White Worm) had a saying he was fond of: “The process of casting is like walking through a minefield – if you get it wrong, you get your balls blown off”. And I’ve learned this is all too true. The wrong actors can completely capsize a project, no matter how good other aspects of the production are.
On the other hand, the right actor can completely transform whatever material they touch. And
with Bill, I knew I had struck gold.
Here was an actor who was not content to just play a part. He and I thought and theorized, visualized and conceptualized, all the while I, as writer, listening intently to what he, as performer, was telling me about how he felt the part should be portrayed. In no way did he use his star power to try to impose his views. He merely paid attention to what his muse was telling him. And, after several drafts, we were both happy with the finished result.
I should point out at this stage that writer/directors are quite strange human beings. Now, writers are strange. So are directors. Writer/directors are doubly strange. We are talking about a God complex second to none: it’s King Kong and Godzilla neurotically zippered up inside one roaring, fire-breathing monster suit. The writer creates a world; the director populates and animates it. He views the whole caboodle as his own private universe, and generally speaking, doesn’t enjoy any interference with this, no matter how well-intentioned.
I’m a very typical writer/director! And it’s a testament to Bill’s kindly human touch – as well as his astute way of seeing beneath the skin of a screenplay – that the prima donna in me was able to view another perspective on my baby and not resent it.
I have a theory that the more paradoxical a person is, the more interesting they are. One of my boyhood heroes was that Gentleman of Horror, that King of Monsters, Mr. Boris Karloff, star of classic horror movies from the golden age. Karloff was a perfect paradox. On the screen, he bestrode the full sinister spectrum from an understated sepulchral whisper to full-blown demonic leer. Yet offscreen he was adored by all who met him for his genuinely sweet nature and generous spirit.
Bill reminds me a lot of Karloff. Although his range is wide and impressive (witness his light comedic touch in Fuck You, Immortality, and his portrayal of frustrated angst in Frank and Alina ), horror fans know him best for a handful of roles in which he seethes with sulfurous malevolence. The most celebrated of these is the monstrous Dr. Sebring in Human Centipede II, a twisted predatory pedophile whose noxious soul-sucking cynicism makes Richard Nixon seem like Amelie by comparison.
In real life, Bill is as far removed from that as you can get. Behind the regal bearded exterior, he is gentle of manner and soft of speech. He and I share a love of art, literature, and culture in general and have a mutual dislike for the trying superficialities of showbusiness such as the need to network and ballyhoo. Like me, he idealizes a simple uncluttered life; like me he has a love for rural Italy and its soothing pace and fine food.
So. Here we were in March 2020. There was a new year getting underway and I had a cherished movie dream gathering speed. My initial disconcerting dream was a long way away, but it still haunted and tantalized me. I knew I had to make its ghost into cinematic flesh.
Proud as I am of the music videos I’ve directed for Living Dead Island, they are just brief flashes, impressionistic sketches of bigger visions. Plaguepits was all set to be my foundation stone: my debut feature. The script was finalized. The budget was in place. The locations were secured. The aforementioned SFX, costumes, and production design had been designed, by myself – and were being made resplendent three-dimensional gothic reality by geniuses such as Matt Bradley, Izzi Cooper, Julianna Maznevski, Jack Kirkby, Jim Huelin and Adam Miller. The casting was done. And now we had the bloody crimson cherry atop our cadaverous cake, in the form of a talented and charismatic star actor.
What could go wrong?
Well, as it turns out … Everything. Fate and circumstance have shrugged their shoulders, coughed into a tissue and with it have discarded many an artistic dream and aspiration.
I correct myself. Postponed. Not discarded.
So this is where fate has brought us in fall 2020. By fall 2021 the world will have turned some more, and other changes will have taken place, and I’m determined they’ll be positive ones.
A week may be a long time in politics. But a year in film? The mere twinkling of an undead eye …